Nationalism is... essentially sub-human and primitive in character, a deformity which no rational or civilised person would have anything to do . Discuss.
‘Nationalism is... essentially sub-human and primitive in character, a deformity which no rational or civilised person would have anything to do” (Miller p. 5)
Great controversy surrounds the subject of nationalism. Nationalism has for over two hundred years helped to shape and re-shape history in all parts of the world, but have also many times been the grounds of conflict, revolution and genocide. For some, the ideology can be seen as an irrational and reactionary creed that allows politicians to pursue war in the name of the nation. Paradoxically, it can also be a progressive and liberating force, offering the prospect of national unity or independence (Heywood 2007 pp. 115). The term nationalism has its origin in the French Revolution where it was first used to denote the energy and power of the everyday people that was used to overthrow the monarchy. This essay will look at different examples of nationalism, through both theory and evidence, in order to investigate whether nationalism is deemed to be primitive or civilised, thus considering the statement in Miller’s work.
According to Oxford English dictionary, nationalism can be defined as a patriotic feeling, often to an excessive degree or an advocacy of political independence for a particular country. It has been contested whether nationalism is an ideology, doctrine or movement (White 2008). The ideology is based on the principle that the individual’s loyalty and devotion to the nation-state outdo other personal or group interests, which can be seen when individuals go to war in order to fight for their country knowing it might be their last battle. As a doctrine, Heywood (2000 pp. 254) defines nationalism as “the belief that all nations are entitled to independent statehood, suggesting that the world should consist of a collection of nation-states”. However, as an ideology, which Heywood describes as “a set of ideas that provide the basis for some kind of organised political action”, nationalism is portrayed as “the belief that the nation is the central principle of political organisation”. Nationalism can be divided into three categories; political, cultural and ethnical nationalism. Political nationalism take many forms, where Liberal nationalism assigns to the nation a moral status giving the nation the right to self-determination and claiming that all nations are equal, therefore the nation-state ideal is universally applicable. Conservative nationalism is more concerned with the promise of social cohesion and public order embodied in the sentiment of national patriotism. Furthermore, expansionist nationalism is an aggressive and militaristic form sometimes associated with chauvinistic beliefs (Heywood 2000). Nazism is a good example of how nationalism has fulfilled Heywood’s definition; Hitler’s rapid rise and popularity among the German population, his ideas of expanding Germany and the extermination of Jews from the world were both the basis for political action and provided, amongst supporters, a desired future. Supporters of nationalism view the ideology as a means of enlarging freedom and defending democracy, since it is grounded in the idea of self-government. However, opponents of nationalism argue that it is implicit and sometimes explicitly oppressive, linked to intolerance, suspicion and conflict. We can see evidence of both claims, where nationalism has been rational or irrational, which will be explained later on (Heywood 2000 pp. 254-256). There are also those who argue that nationalism is not an ideology, for example Goodwin (1997), who claims that “nationalism appears to lack the encompassing quality which distinguishes an ideology from other, partial beliefs... it does not, for example, inform us about what kind of political system should be set up”. However, it must be acknowledged that nationalism, and all its effects, cannot be considered just a belief.
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The statement used in Miller’s work of nationalism being sub-human and primitive, leading to irrational actions seem to be led by a fear of the right of the self-determination nationalistic movements strive for, and the willingness for nationalism to be seduced and used as a political tool of power. However, Miller overvalue this fear, looking only at some results of nationalism and overlooking nationalism as a tool for political independence and thought, that have formed the states, or nation-states, that we live in today. Nationalism can be seen as a driving force that takes its power from the sense of belonging to a community of a certain nation. This has sometimes lead to xenophobia or racism, so called irrational or illiberal nationalism. Is it, then, something inevitable that nationalism always leads to, or is it just a branch of nationalism that shows its ugly face from time to time?
In order to evaluate this claim, we need to understand the concept of state and nation, since they are vital in the understanding of nationalism. The state can be defined as a “political association that establishes sovereign jurisdiction within defined territorial borders, and exercise authority through a set of permanent institutions” (Heywood 2007 pp. 91). According to Max Weber, the core of the state is its monopoly on the use of legitimate violence. The state in turn uses this monopoly to enforce order, thus the use of legitimate power creates order in the society and forms the state (Weber 1968). Within the territory of the state, there might not be unified political, cultural and psychological forces. Each of these factors can by itself lead to the creation of a nation. Nation is a complex phenomenon shaped by different factors, and Smith (1991) defines it as a “named human population sharing a historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public, culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties”. Heywood (2007 pp. 110) explains three main groups. Firstly, a nation can be seen from a cultural perspective where a group of people is bound together by a common language, religion, history and traditions, although nations exhibit various levels of cultural heterogeneity. Secondly, politically, a nation is a group of people who regard themselves as a natural political community. Finally, psychologically, a nation is a group of people distinguished by a shared loyalty or affection in the form of patriotism. Understanding and imagining the difference between state and nation has proved to be difficult, where we are all Swedish, English, Scottish, Italian and so on. For example, British people who live in Scotland, are more likely to describe themselves as Scottish even though they live in Great Britain. Thus, even nations lacking a state of their own, e.g. Palestinians who are stateless, define themselves in terms of their cultural and psychological belonging or heritage and not in terms of what territory they live within, thus in terms of their nation.
When assessing Miller’s statement according to the above mentioned definitions, it seems like Miller’s idea is irrational, since the right of all people to self-determination has been acknowledge by the UN, thus the nation should have the same right (The Right to Self-determination of peoples UN 1984). If this is true, how come Miller mentions nationalism to be sub-human and primitive? Looking closer at self-determination, we can recognize several nations without a state, for instance the Kurds, who are internationally recognized as nation without a state, but are a minority within other states (Hannum 1996). It is difficult to determine whether all minorities within states have grounds for self-determination, since it is hard to know where to draw the line for what is acceptable so that a reasonable order can be kept. If all nations and cultural groups would demand a state of their own, this would cause, as Miller fears, chaos of nations claiming self-determination possibly leading to war, as seen in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, not all cultural groups demand a nation, or state, of their own, and it can be concluded that at any given time, not all nationalistic tendencies can be fulfilled.
In order to investigate further whether the statement in Miller’s work is correct, or just an explanation of a harmful branch of nationalism, we need to look into the theories concerning nationalism. One can distinguish between liberal and illiberal nationalism defined by Spencer and Wollman (1998), where they describe the liberal form as “nationalism [which] recognises the rights of other nations to exist… it sees national commitments as understandable and legitimate”, which, again, follows the lines of the right to self-determination. One of the most classical authors on liberal nationalism, John.Stuart Mill, agrees with this notion claiming nationalism to be “the essential condition of stability in a political society” when it consists of the “feeling of common interest of among those who live under the same government and are contained within the same natural or historical boundaries” (J.S Mills cited by Eatwell and Wright ed. 2003 pp. 151). All citizens of the modern world are carriers of some form of national consciousness, which suggests that we are all nationalists to some degree.
In the north of the Nordic countries indigenous people, known as the Saamis, live. When the Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Russians established centralized state structures and ever since then, the ethnic minority of the Saamis have been more or less respected and left to pursue their means of living and beliefs which can sometimes be very dissimilar to the customs of the countries they live within, without any greater conflicts. In all of the Nordic countries, there seem to be a sincerer commitment to peaceful resolutions in order to preserve the traditions and the life of the Saamis, implying there can be a liberal, rational and rightful nationalism (Hannum 1996). As Hannum mentions, one of the most striking features of the Saami situation, except from their quiet moderate demands, is the absence of violence and the presence of continuing attempts to resolve the Saamis demands peacefully, underlining their right to self-determination. This, with no doubt, can be attributed to the democratic nature of the states concerned and their relatively sympathetic responses to Saami claims of their own dignity and identity. As Hannum mentions, “The joint commitment of Finland, Norway and Sweden to responding to Saami demands rather than repressing them stands in particular contrast to the attitude of Iran, Iraq and Turkey to the not dissimilar position of the Kurds” (Hannum 1996 pp. 763).
Furthermore, illiberal nationalism is described as “actively hostile to other nations, suspicious of the claim to (new) rights, jealous of its own, keen to pursue ancient (or rediscovered) claims ”, which is more in line with the claims in Miller’s book (Spencer and Wollman 1998). There are many characteristics of nationalism that indicate of these irrational dynamics. One is, as Eatwell and Wright mentions; “the pathological behaviour it inspires once it becomes the motor of national conflict, racial persecution or ecological terrorism”. The last hundred years have seen countless of millions of lives being lost in the name of, for instance, “God and the Country” and “the leader”, creating a view of “us” and “them” leading to “them” being “the enemy”, ultimately leading to highly inhuman actions (Eatwell and Wright ed. pp. 168). The Falkland war saw the rise of Argentinean illiberal nationalism. Argentinean action in the name of nationhood supports the notion of Spencer and Wollman’s illiberal nationalism. Not only was the assault on the islands irrational on behalf the Argentinean government, who partly saw this as a way of redirecting public attention from other problems, but it also seemed primitive. Here, modern day democracy had no involvement; the people of the island had no chance to vote and Argentina did not act in their interest, rather Argentina had its own agenda. Argentina was not only hostile, but also suspicious of Britain’s claim to the islands and intended to pursue its ancient claim of sovereignty of the islands (Billig 1995). However, Britain also claimed to be protecting themselves, and Michael Foot, leader of the Labour Party at that time, proclaimed “foul and brutal aggression does not succeed in the world… if it did, there will be a danger not merely to the Falkland Islands, but to people all over this dangerous planet” (cited by Billing 1995 pp. 3). The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher agreed, claiming the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands were “British in stock and tradition and they wish to remain British allegiance” (cited by Billing 1995 pp. 3) suggesting that Britain too was acting in the name of nationhood, however from their point of view protecting the inhabitants of the Falklands. This event supports the notion that nationalism is primitive and sub-human.
In the US, patriotism is incorporated in the everyday life, with the endless display of the national flag and pupils in schools singing the national anthem at the start of the school day, something that might be necessary in order to unite a country so immense in size and population. As Billig (1995) claims, there is no direct psychological evidence to distinguish harmless and liberal patriotism from a more illiberal nationalism. The US has many times stepped over the fine line from liberal to illiberal nationalism, for instance their bombings in Vietnam and the invasion of Iraq, where they in the name of the world’s superpower tried to influence the world around them.
One of the best examples of irrational and aggressive nationalism could be seen in the Second World war where Hitler in Germany used a combination of myth, ethnic nationalism and national pride as grounds of bringing Germany back as a world power, leading to anti-Semitism and genocide. The inhuman methods used in the concentration camps, for example the use of gas chambers to kill its prisoners and exposure of disabled and homosexuals to medical experiments, showed one of the ugliest faces of nationalism ever seen. A more recent example of this aggressive nationalism could be seen in the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 where around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in only 100 days (BBC Rwanda: How the genocide happened 18 Dec 2008). Genocide in the name of nationalism is sub-human and irrational and goes strongly against the notion that nationalism can be civilised.
We have now seen evidence that nationalism can often escalate into sub-human and irrational actions, agreeing with Miller’s statement. This primitive form of nationalism still exists, which often can be seen in not only in Africa’s former colonies, but also in the western world. In this respect nationalism is primitive, and in cases such as the Rwandan genocide, sub-human. However, Miller overstates the corruptness of nationalism and does not place enough significance upon virtue of self-determination that nationalism strives for. He clearly ignores the positive aspects of nationalism and only considers the end results of his selective choice of nationalism. It must be mentioned that media often places greater emphasis on bad news, than on good news; therefore the bad nature of nationalism has been more exposed than the good nature of it. We have seen evidence of both rational and irrational nationalism, where we cannot exclude one or the other, but agree that there is always a degree of nationalism in everyone, since we are all, for instance, Spanish or Swedish and have a heritage. It is therefore the form that nationalism takes in different events that determine whether it is justified or irrational, suggesting that irrational nationalism is only a branch of nationalism that sometimes shows its ugly face.
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