Is nationalism ever a force for good?

Dalia Gebrial and Thomas Jeffrey Miley go head to head on this complex and topical issue

Nationalism: can it be a force for good?
Nationalism: can it be a force for good? Illustrations: Kate Copeland

DALIA: Nationalism is one hell of a drug. No matter how many times it’s been declared dead, the idea of the nation finds a way of rearing its head and grabbing the political landscape by the throat. Particularly in times of crisis, nationalist language that otherwise seemed old-fashioned and gauche suddenly feels like the only way you can speak without being heckled off the political stage.

Fundamentally, the power of nationalism lies in its ability to appeal to a sense of common good. It’s a way of tying (some) people together in pursuit of an imagined positive future. As a socialist, I have sympathy with this. However, the problem is that nationhood is based on identity, rather than material principles.

‘The idea that nationalism is a neutral tool, used for good as well as bad, is a fantasy ’ – Dalia Gebrial

To construct the nation, you have to construct those outside of it. Historically, this has been migrants, the downwardly racialized, queers, women and the disabled – who have experienced unimaginable violence on the basis that they fall outside the nation’s ideal form. This history cannot be decoupled from nationalism’s current form – the idea that nationalism can be a neutral tool, used for good as well as bad, is a fantasy that has been tried and tested throughout history – and almost always ended catastrophically.

Why? Because it ties people together on the basis of arbitrary, identity-based categories, and devalues the lives of those situated outside those categories.

The argument against nationalism is both political and strategic: we don’t believe in valuing life on the basis of nationality, and so we cannot use that idea to achieve our end goals. Ultimately, we have to come up with other ways of attaching people to a common good and generating solidarity in a way that isn’t hostile to difference. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly not as hard as trying to shoehorn our principles of universality and equality into a concept built on the precise and exact opposite of those things.

JEFF: We live in a time of resurgent national chauvinism and creeping neo-fascism – in Trumplandia, in Brexit Britain, across much of Europe, in Modi’s India, in Erdoğan’s Turkey – to name a few of the most menacing examples. So I certainly respect where you seem to be coming from, assuming that these are the kinds of developments you have in mind. But let me make two points.

First, call me a stubborn historical materialist, but I think sweeping, abstract generalizations about ‘nationalism’ per se are not very helpful for the purpose of making political judgements about which particular projects of peoplehood deserve support and solidarity, and which ones should be repudiated and opposed by the internationalist, anti-capitalist Left.  In a word, the effective exercise of such political judgement requires sensitivity to context. More specifically, it requires awareness of how particular struggles for self-determination are embedded in concrete constellations of local and global material and social power relations, as well as awareness of how given movements have been historically aligned with or against other emancipatory struggles.

Second, the binary contrast between ‘identity’ and ‘material principles’ upon which your argument largely relies is misleading. Awareness of context also requires sensitivity to the insidious ways in which hierarchies of ethnicity, nation and race, of gender, of social class intersect and tend to reinforce one another. National oppression, like all forms of oppression, may not only be material, but it certainly has material roots and material consequences. If we fail to recognize this, we will end up being unable to distinguish between nationalist movements that aim to reinforce intersecting systems of status hierarchy and material domination; and nationalist movements that aim to resist and subvert such oppressive hierarchies. After all, anti-colonial struggles were fuelled by nationalism, too.

DALIA: Yes, not all nationalisms were created equal, and movements (in the ‘post-colonial’ world) shouldn’t be wholesale rejected should they invoke nationalism – solidarity involves working through differences. However, nationalism is ultimately a dead end for liberation struggle. Why? Because despite contextual differences, the form of nationhood entails constructing who belongs and how they belong on the basis of arbitrary, historical constructions – which are inescapably racialized, classed and gendered.

The example of anti-colonial nationalism is important. Along­side forced neo­liberal restructuring, there is a connection between the nationalist form of many anti-colonial struggles and the reactionary seizing of those struggles in the post-colonial era. Anti-colonialism was the most inspiring movement of the 20th century, and the most justifiable context of nationalism. However, reliance on a nation framework – while galvanizing in the moment – often created a weak link in the long term. What was the aftermath of these movements for women? Queers? The working class? Migrants? For all those historically oppressed in the name of nationhood? When the rhetorical framework of a movement centres around nationhood, rather than people and power, the contradictions within the nation are concealed, leaving the struggle vulnerable to co-option from the Right – for whom nationalism is a much easier fit.

JEFF: Your concern about exclusions is powerful, and eloquently articulated. However, let me make three observations. First, movements that mobilize around nationhood are far from unique in being exclusionary. You propose ‘people and power’ as a preferable, less exclusionary alternative. But which people? Whose power?

For those of us committed to liberation from tyranny in all its forms, solidarity with or opposition to a given movement should not be determined by whether or not that movement is ‘exclusionary’ per se, but rather by which exclusions that movement is committed to and why. Excluding oppressors is not the same as excluding the oppressed.

Nor should we forget that movements dismissively branded as ‘nationalist’ quite often emerge in response to exclusions by big-nation chauvinists whose nationalism is state-sponsored and so ubiquitous, so hegemonic, that it goes unquestioned and unseen (for example, in Turkey or Britain or Spain). 

Finally, with respect to the post-colonial context, if generalize we must, the plight of the oppressed and the marginalized in most of these states has at least as much to do with the concrete material conditions and political logics imposed by continuing structural dependency – ie neo-colonialism – as it does with exclusions inherent to nationalism.

DALIA: The precise issue with nationalism is it does not exclude oppressors. It allows native (often state) oppressors to hide behind the idea that all those within a nation have the same interests – that there is such a thing as a ‘national interest’. The concealment of these power relations makes it much harder to organize against the real culprits – native bourgeoisies and the colonial powers with which they co-operate. Energy becomes easily diverted to fictitious ‘national enemies’. Nationalism is not even the most effective answer to (neo-)colonialism. Anti-colonial movements are at their strongest when based on transnational solidarity – take the Cuban-Angolan-South African movement against Apartheid, for instance.

Essentially, it seems counterproductive to invest resources in a framework that was never meant to achieve leftist goals of equality and universality. We must focus on building new institutions, communities and imaginations fit for inclusive, lasting liberatory purposes.

‘Movements dismissively branded as “nationalist” are often a response to exclusions by big-nation chauvinists’ – Thomas Jeffrey Miley

JEFF: Those of us committed to social justice must oppose oppression in all its forms – including national oppression, which so seamlessly bleeds into fascism, racism and imperialism, not to mention patriarchy. There are ‘pitfalls to national consciousness’ no doubt. But the struggle for liberation from national oppression is a constituent part of the struggle for human emancipation from all systems of domination. This should never be denied. To do so only serves to add fuel to the fire of resurgent national chauvinisms among members of powerful nations, and thereby to facilitate the manufacturing of consent to neo-imperial plunder as well as to the ever-escalating, Orwellian ‘war on terror’.

Dalia Gebrial is a student at the London School of Economics and an editor and contributor to Novara Media. She sits on the board of the Historical Materialism journal and makes regular TV and radio appearances to discuss issues of race, gender and labour. With Gurminder Bhambra and Keren Nisciangolu, she co-edited Decolonizing the University.

Thomas Jeffrey Miley is a political sociology lecturer at Cambridge University. His current research interests include comparative nationalisms and democratic theory. With Federico Venturini he co-edited Your Freedom and Mine: Abdullah Öcalan and the Kurdish Question in Erdoğan’s Turkey.

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Social media and thumbnail image: Andreas Klinke Johannsen, CC-BY-2.0