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Three years ago this weekend, British citizens voted to leave the European Union, and a lot has changed in the world since then. Though the United Kingdom has yet to officially exit the EU — and, after failing to come to an agreement by the initial exit date in March, it’s still unclear when or even if it will — the nationalist revival that it represented has spread far beyond the English Channel. The American election of Donald Trump that followed a few months later simply confirmed that the political logic driving Brexit was a global phenomenon, and numerous other right-wing nationalists have since gained or solidified their power in countries like India, Brazil, Italy and Hungary.
Last month, this resurgence of nationalism continued with the European parliamentary elections. Though they were not the overwhelming nationalist triumph that some had predicted, far-right parties were still dominant in countries like Italy, where Matteo Salvini’s League went from winning a mere 6 percent of the vote in 2014 to 34 percent this year, and France, where Marine Le Pen’s National Rally received more votes than President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-European party. At the same time that the Europeaon elections were being held, the far-right prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, won re-election in a landslide, strengthening his grip on the country. With the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil last October, all of the so-called “BRIC” countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) — which make up about a quarter of the planet’s land mass and 40 percentof the world’s population — are now controlled by authoritarian nationalists.
Three years after Brexit, then, we live in a world increasingly dominated by nationalist demagogues like Trump, Bolsonaro, Salvini, Modi, Putin, and others who vehemently reject liberalism and the international order that has existed since the end of the second World War. The general response to this trend, at least from the liberal center, has been a kind of confused hysteria, which makes understanding nationalism and its current incarnation all the more urgent.
To do this it is first important to recognize that, historically, nationalism is not inherently right-wing, nor is it necessarily nativist or xenophobic. Nationalism has a long and complex history, and like other contemporary political ideologies it is a product of political modernity and industrial society. As Ernest Gellner pointed out in his classic study of the topic, nationalism “is not the awakening of an old, latent, dormant force,” but “the consequence of a new form of social organization, based on deeply internalized, education-dependent high cultures, each protected by its own state.”
Over the course of the past two and a half centuries there have been many nationalist movements that were progressive and emancipatory. The anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century were nationalistic, as were 19th-century movements in Europe that fought for liberation and independence through national unification. The nation is what Benedict Anderson famously called an “imagined community,” and at the dawn of modernity this powerful idea brought people together and made various liberation struggles possible.
In his recent book, The Nationalist Revival, veteran journalist John Judis emphasized this positive aspect of nationalism, which is often neglected by liberal and leftist critics today. “Nationalist sentiment,” he writes, “is an essential ingredient of a democracy, which is based on the assumptions of a common identity, and of a welfare state, which is based on the acceptance by citizens of their financial responsibility for people whom they may not know at all, and who may have widely different backgrounds from theirs.” According to Judis, then, nationalism can be “the basis of social generosity or of bigoted exclusion.”
When considering the current nationalist explosion and the rejection of globalization, Judis makes a useful distinction between “globalism” and “internationalism.” The former, he says, “subordinates nations and national governments to market forces or to the priorities of multinational corporations,” while the latter describes a process where nations “cede part of their sovereignty to international and regional bodies to address problems they could not adequately address on their own.” Globalism, in other words, is a product of global capitalism, denoting a “race to the bottom” that primarily benefits the economic elite. Internationalism, on the other hand, stands for international cooperation and peaceful coexistence in a globalized world.
This distinction is important, and if the left wants to push back against right-wing nationalism it will have to offer an alternative to globalism and the neoliberal economic policies that have been pursued for the past several decades by institutions like the EU and the IMF (that is to say, an alternative to corporate capitalism and technocratic liberalism). Embracing a kind of “progressive nationalism,” however, doesn’t seem like much of a solution. Though historically there have been liberal and left-wing nationalist movements, these movements formed in fledgling countries that were just starting to go through the process of modernization and were often victims of colonialism. Today’s nationalist movements don’t fit this description, and are neither liberal nor leftist or emancipatory, but reactionary, nativist and authoritarian.
We live in a far more interconnected world today than we did 100 or even 50 years ago, and though the “nation” is far from obsolete, nationalism is an ideology that looks to the past rather than the future. Reversing globalization in the 21st century is about as likely as reversing industrialization and restoring an agrarian way of life. Thus, progressives will have to respond to the growing threat of nationalism with their own internationalist project. This project cannot be a simple defense of the status quo, or it is destined to fail. Progressives have to acknowledge the undemocratic and elitist nature of organizations like the EU and push for democratic reforms, otherwise nationalists will continue to win. Internationalism can only succeed when the global order and its institutions are fair and responsive to the people they represent. This seems to be the only real option apart from a complete reversion to the status quo ante, which is what nationalists ultimately aim for.
Judis’s contrast between “globalism” and “internationalism” is a valuable distinction for the left, and rejecting the former is necessary for the survival of the latter. Progressives will have to offer an “alternative globalism” that can address the extreme inequities of the current system while defending its very real achievements. Nationalism will be the reactionary route of the 21st century, and in the United Kingdom we are already seeing just how chaotic and disastrous this path can be.