The Flaws of Liberal Nationalism
This article was originally published in The Mallard on 2nd July 2020.
The word “nationalism” has been misused to oblivion this past half century. I attribute this to George Orwell, who in his 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism by his own admission “for lack of a better [term]” conflates it with the radical and authoritarian movements of the mid-20th century, including Nazism, Fascism, “Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism”. What’s more, he defines “patriotism” as what would more sensibly be called non-expansionist nationalism, as opposed to his eccentric definition of “nationalism”, which according to him is always expansionistic.
Despite the incoherence of this redefinition it has become popular, especially in left-wing and liberal circles. No doubt it was helped along by self-identification as nationalists among people who should really be called fascists, like the members of the British National Party. You may even say there is no need to describe oneself as a nationalist in the modern world of nation-states. But I would disagree there.
Nationalism, as it was universally defined before Orwell’s influential essay, means simply support for the existence of nation-states. A nation is any people with enough perceived similarity between them – cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious, geographic, ideological or otherwise, depending on your chosen variety of nationalism – to form a stable political construct. That stable political construct is the nation-state, bound together by the imagined or abstract community of the nation; the feeling of national patriotism or pride.
Such national identity is useful. Human beings are naturally tribalistic – if they will not identify with the nation, they will identify with minority, local and regional groups instead. Such division is not desirable within a sovereign state, erupting as it has a propensity to do into violence. Countries which are not nation-states either fall into civil strife, like the countries of Africa rent by tribal war, or else suppress such strife with consociational autocracy under a cosmopolitan polyglot elite, such as the case of Austria-Hungary or the Ottoman Empire (or the modern EU).
This is the traditional definition of nationalism, far more useful in today’s world than Orwell’s eccentric invention. To describe what Orwell sought to describe we can simply use the terms “fascist” or “authoritarian”. For in today’s world the nation-state really is under threat, from oikophobes, globalists, supranationalists, and multiculturalists. Therefore identifying as a nationalist is now more important than it has been since the last supranational empires were toppled at the end of the First World War.
But which form of nationalism are we to rally behind? How are we to define what should constitute the nation-state? There are a few contenders. Racial nationalism, for example, seeks to create a nation-state defined primarily by shared skin pigmentation. We don’t need to pay these idiots much regard. Hereafter I will focus primarily on liberal nationalism, and my preferred alternative, ethnocultural nationalism.
Liberal or civic nationalism attempts to define the nation not by shared ancestry, culture or necessarily even language, but shared values and a sense of shared civic duty. This is the multi-ethnic “Rainbow nationalism” of South Africa, or the nationalism of France steeped in the values of the Revolution. In the United Kingdom it has taken the form of various politicians’ attempts to define pathetic, watery, inoffensive notions of “British values” that could equally be applied to any modern liberal democratic country from America to Japan.
It was the Peace of Westphalia which decreed, more or less, that shared religion would no longer be necessary for men to hold social bonds. Liberal nationalism unwittingly undoes this, by demanding of its citizens shared values – shared ideology. Thereby it is ironically more opposed to liberalism – to the liberal principle of freedom of thought – than ethnocultural nationalism is.
Unless the state has an incredibly firm, authoritarian ideological basis, like Stalin’s socialism in one country or the multi-ethnic Islamism of ISIS, it’s doubtful whether minority, local and regional groups will identify with the national ideology over their more immediate local identities. In South Africa for example, while the “Rainbow Nation” is certainly a romantic concept, when push comes to shove, especially amidst great poverty and deprivation, South African national identity will always come second to the local tribe, with devastating, violent results. And one must speculate, what is the point of a nation whose inhabitants bear almost no resemblance to one another? Why must the Republic of South Africa be a united nation – why identify as South African at all when the Rainbow Nation could easily be cut in two or merged with neighbouring Southern African countries to “add to its colours”? There’s something rather arbitrary about it.
The fundamental trouble with liberal nationalism is that it denies the twin realities of ancestry and culture. The American “Melting Pot” is probably the most renowned liberal nationalist experiment. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” from every nation in Europe, and soon enough, the world. So long as they agree with the American values enshrined in the Bill of Rights and Constitution then no matter where they come from, they can become American! Another romantic concept. But we cannot forget that culture exists. Before the great waves of immigration that America embraced over the course of the 20th century the US was still very much a Britannic nation, rooted in a culture and colonial history descended from the British Isles. There was even talk among anglophilic Americans of someday reuniting with the then-dominant British Empire. When you hear Americans of those times speak in ancient audio recordings, their accents sound more Irish or West Country, than modern General American.
America had accepted immigrants from across Europe before, but the massive migrant influx of the late 19th and 20th century – the great Melting Pot – changed America culturally. The incoming Poles, Italians, Russians, Jews, Armenians, etc., etc. all accepted “American values”, but nevertheless they radically transformed America and its very conception of itself. America ceased to be an Anglo-Saxon nation; it ceased to identify with the British Motherland. American culture became a bizarre melange of German & Italian cuisine, hybrid accents and jazz music. What remains of that older colonial Anglo-Saxon culture is relegated to out-of-the-way places – to Middle America and the Deep South. H.P. Lovecraft, who was deeply in tune with America’s traditional folkish culture, much maligned the cultural changes he saw about him in his lifetime. He yearned,
Whilst nameless multitudes upon our shore
From the dim corners of creation pour,
Whilst mongrel slaves crawl hither to partake
Of Saxon liberty they could not make,
From such an alien crew in grief I turn,
And for the mother’s voice of Britain burn.
The Land that English prowess made,
A horde of mongrel breed display’d;
The scourings of mankind.
The pauper and the weakling swarm’d
O’er realms our English fathers form’d:
O nation proudly blind!
Our dear ancestral glories wane
From teeming town, from grove and plain,
And well-remember’d leas.
‘Mid changing scenes we sadly plod
As strangers on our native sod,
And live in memories.
Of course, Lovecraft was a xenophobe, but it’s impossible not to understand his yearnings – the ancient America he describes in such vivid detail in his stories has all but ceased to exist. Did he get any say over the massive transformation of his entire nation?
I’m not necessarily claiming these cultural changes were negative – merely, that they happened, and that culture should be taken into account as far as national identity and immigration policy is concerned. Perhaps, while changing a culture can absolutely be a good thing – when it is desired of the populace – preserving it might be a good thing also. Another example: due to 20th century migration to London, the Cockney, once an icon of Englishness, is being driven to extinction. When eel pie, rhyming slang, and Pearly Kings are totally absent from the streets of the East End, I can’t help but think we would have lost something. I absolutely don’t want to associate myself with the racialist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theorists. There is no conspiracy at work here, and I have no interest in preserving a particular skin colour. But we must ask ourselves, why is it that we seek to preserve indigenous groups the world over, from the tribes of the Amazon to the Rohingya of Burma, but not our own? I think the fact we do not is an example of oikophobia – hatred of our own countrymen – which I regard as equally repulsive as xenophobia.
Cultural nationalists, therefore, accept the reality of culture. This does not mean they will strive for cultural purity – merely, they accept that culture is a relevant factor in determining national identity. This is obviously more efficient. It is much easier, and much more valuable, to build a sense of nationhood on visible similarities rather than abstract notions of shared ideology, and much more in tune with the Peace of Westphalia. An Englishman does not care what is in his neighbour’s heart – so long as they can share a pint at the local, they’ll get along just fine. How you live is more important, when it comes to social harmony, than how you think, and this is why multiculturalism has failed everywhere it has been tried.
Some cultural nationalists are happy to accept everyone into their nation so long as they conform culturally. Personally, I’m not so quick to abandon the necessity of ancestry – jus sanguinis – entirely. Don’t get me wrong, culture is infinitely more important. But ancestry does shape our perception of ourselves. My grandmother is German, and a quarter Danish, making me approximately a quarter German and one sixteenth Danish. That’s very little foreign blood, nevertheless it was enough to imbue in me an interest in the lands of my ancestors growing up. It has, to a little extent, shaped my perception of myself and affected my relationship with England and the rest of Europe. Left-wingers profess not to care about their ancestry (a deeply unnatural, cosmopolitan, unconservative attitude, in my view), yet recently we have seen left-wingers of African descent in the United Kingdom protest against their white English countrymen because of the death of one of their distant, distant kinsmen in America. Obviously ancestry has an effect even on those who profess it doesn’t.
Say, over the course of a few centuries, England experienced large-scale migration from the country of Peru. Because cultural nationalism was the dominant strain of English nationalism in this hypothetical era, the Peruvian immigrants were embraced, so long as they assimilated into English culture, which they all successfully did. But the immigration continued, until, centuries later, the ancestry of the English people was primarily Peruvian. The very word English implies descent from the Angles of old – but in this scenario, the English would end up primarily being the descendants of Peruvians instead. That, surely, would change our self-perception and subsequently our culture, even if our Peruvian ancestors were all originally assimilated very well.
I believe anyone from any part of the world can come to England, join our tribe, and become English. Ancestry isn’t as important as culture by a long shot, but it has an effect on identity, and therefore must be taken into account. Therefore, I believe any self-respecting nation must not only be cultural, but ethnic. So, I identify as an ethno-cultural nationalist.
Those are my thoughts on nationalism. I have been inspired to write this article after growing increasingly disillusioned with the English conservative movement. English conservatism is and always has been inherently classist. Tories look down on crude working class expressions of patriotism and national loyalty, defaming them as “populist” and “far-right”. It’s the reason Conservatives are permitted to look up to figures like Jacob Rees-Mogg but not Nigel Farage. Though the former is arguably more radical than the latter, and in fact both are upper-middle class, the former at least appears of higher class stature, while Mr Farage (shock! horror!) tries to appeal to the common man. This classism, I believe, is the ultimate source of all the hollow corruption and careerism of the Tory Party. It’s nothing but an elite hierarchy that will do anything to cling to power, even if it means adopting liberal and left-wing ideas and rebranding them in blue finish. Additionally, the very word “conservative” implies only a negative, passive, reactive force, nothing but a mild “check and balance” on the long and all too successful march of the left.
Basically, I’ve been pondering the need for a new label to describe those of us in the conservative movement who seek change – who seek to bring the fight to the left, who prefer class cooperation to class hatred or equality, and who wish to see the national restoration which is long overdue. Perhaps, I speculate, the term I am looking for is “nationalist”.