Thursday 14 October 2010

Notes on cohesive (secular) nationalism


Secular nationalism was a big force in the world from the mid 19th century to the mid twentieth, because it led to larger and more powerful nations, like Germany (especially Germany).

In other words, this was the era whan secular nationalism was a strong cohesive and strengthening force. 

(Indeed, all-but-secular nationalism arguably led to the USA differentiating itself from Great Britain even before this.)


But in more recent decades, secular nationalism has not been able to make big units cohere, but has instead been (merely) a force for fragmentation and weakening.

So there are two kinds of secular nationalism, in terms of effects: cohesive nationalism (which is strong and creates power) and fragmenting nationalism (which may be weaker and diminishes power).


Effective cohesive secular nationism requires that the ruling elite of a potential or actual nation (or a significant proportion of them) are seriously concerned with differentiating themselves (their culture) from another specific country.

So that Germany nationalism defined itself in terms of differences from the French, the USA was defined in terms of differences from the British.

And the pattern can be seen almost everywhere: nationalism differentiates-against.

Fragmenting nationalism has done the same: Irish and Scots and Welsh nationalists are almost exclusively concerned with differentiating themselves from England.


Sometimes nationalism tries to work in more than one direction: e.g. Canada tries to define itself against both the USA and the UK (and in the case of Quebec, against Anglophone Canada) - but this bi-directionality merely makes 'Canadian nationalism' very weak. 


My reading of history is that nationalism does not keep its strength for more than about a generation, at most two. After this, some other factor is needed to maintain coherence. 

In other words, nationalism is a phase in the life of a nation - not a permanent basis for organization.


But when the ruling elites do not have this concern to differentiate themselves, then nationalism is insignificant.

Nationalism is currently insignificant in England and in the USA - because they do not have this concern to differentiate their culture from another nation. Whether this is a good or bad thing, they just don't.

And if the ruling elites do not have this concern, then nationalism has no purchase, no strength, no power to cohere or re-shape.


So there is near-zero chance of a politically and culturally strong nationalism arising in either England or the USA.

People who are worried about resurgent English or US nationalism therefore need not worry; people who hope for resurgent English or US nationalism are going to find their hopes disappointed. 



dearieme said...

An interesting question is what President Wilson was up to. He was keen on aggressive war - his invasions in Latin America and the Caribbean were numerous - and so his declaring war on Germany was in character. He presumably wanted the power that would result from being the only non-exhausted victor. But what was the purpose of his encouraging lots of small-country nationalism in Europe? Was it to weaken the Europe Powers and therefore strengthen the US?

Jonathan said...

I would be curious to know your reaction to Generational Dynamics (, which posits that societies pass through a cycle of predictable changes with the period of a long man's life. Each cycle is anchored by a "Crisis Era", usually involving a total war. The last Crisis Era for the US and western Europe was the Great Depression and World War II. The survivors of a Crisis Era resolve never to let such a thing happen again. When they all die or retire from public leadership, the next Crisis Era occurs, and that is what we are entering now.

Although the Crisis Era is typically very cruel and harsh, it brings with it a Regeneration Event that restores civic unity to a fragmented culture, and the post-Crisis Era is a generation-long time of cultural cohesiveness (and conformity) called a "High", like the post-war years in America. During a High, collective concerns are placed over individual concerns. In the following generation, the pendulum starts to swing back toward individual concerns (as with the Baby Boomers and their counterculture).

If I understand correctly, Generational Dynamics predicts that we will soon pass through a Greater Depression and World War III (probably against China). If we don't nuke ourselves entirely off the planet, these events and the intense hardship they bring with them will trigger a return to the nationalism and coherence that you say have a "near-zero" chance of happening.

There's a book on the topic that traces the swings of the pendulums in America through five cycles. I find the theory plausible, and I think there are already signs of rising nationalism (and xenophobia) throughout the west and east.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearieme - the short answer is that I have no idea. But I have had lots of ideas even dafter than this, and if, by mischance, I had been president, then no doubt I would have tried to implement some of them.

(Most) intellectuals are strange, crazy people - never crazier than when they are trying to be 'hard-nosed'.

@Jonathan - I haven't come across this specific description of cycles, although I have looked at the works of Spengler, Toynbee and one or two others - with interest, but never really being persuaded because I don't see how humans could *know* this kind of thing.

My current (no doubt doomed) strategy is to try and use normal commonsensical causal criteria about what is likely to happen - but then who could have predicted societies dominated by political correctness? - by head in clouds pacifism, shallow irrational multi-culturalism; who could ever have imagined that Western rulers would want to encourage with incentives replacement of their indigenous populations with whoever wants to come?

When Western elites are as crazed as they are now, then it is rather like trying to predict a world ruled by interacting Caligulas.