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Supplementary Post on Nationalism

September 15, 2015

Recently I posted the following article on The Human Writes blog:

https://thehumanwritesblog.wordpress.com/2015/09/12/nationalism-discrimination-and-human-rights/

The purpose of this post is to address some questions which people have asked me about what I said in that article.

Although I continue to maintain that the argument in the Human Writes post is sound and the conclusion (that we should reject nationalism) is correct, its subject matter is very tricky. For the sake of brevity, I had to bypass some difficult debates in that post. But I am keen to explore the issues further, and if any reader has other questions or criticisms on this subject, I will be happy to address them at length.

The question which I have been asked is: what about cases where nationalism functions or could function as a means of liberating oppressed people, e.g. victims of colonization, the Palestinians, etc. ?

This amounts to an objection to the argument I made in my original post, I think, for the following reasons. Although my argument against nationalism is philosophical, and hence theoretical in character, it is intended to have practical applications and political significance. If anti-nationalist principles have repugnant consequences, such as denying subjugated groups the means to fight, then they are morally faulty. This is not to assume consequentialism. I merely assume that consequences are important when it comes to evaluating moral principles and arguments.

Michael Walzer has made a similar argument against my position. Anti-nationalism is all well and good for those lucky few who live in peaceful regions with mature nation-states, such as Europe, but what about those such as the Kurds, self-conceived “national” groups who face persecution from many sides and whose security could be drastically enhanced by the creation of a national state?

Here is my response to the objection. An anti-nationalist necessarily advocates the end of the nation-state system at some stage, but not necessarily immediately. Just as a Marxist can consistently accept that for pragmatic reasons, capitalist policies are necessary for a temporary period before the revolution, likewise the anti-nationalist can accept that, occasionally, decisions that look very much like outright (principled) nationalist ones can be best in certain situations.

We live in a nationalist world and so on occasion there will not be much choice but to fight fire with fire, and answer nationalist aggression with moves such as creating new nation-states for oppressed nations and asserting the importance of respecting a nation-state’s sovereignty (e.g. during the diplomatic response to Nazism). In some situations doing this will actually be good for the welfare of humanity generally (which is the priority for the anti-nationalist). But anti-nationalism remains distinct from nationalism when it comes to the foreign policy advice it counsels, because for the anti-nationalist such measures are mere means, and temporary ones at that, rather than ends in themselves.

The difference between nationalists and anti-nationalists becomes clear in cases where foreign policy makers have room for manoevre. In times of war, aggression or oppression the range of strategies which have acceptable consequences is likely to be small, and it will be hard to deviate much from the status quo. But in times of peace and prosperity, there is much more freedom to move away from nation-state institutions (e.g. Europe post-1945).

On top of that, if as anti-nationalists we agree that the moral priority is the welfare of all and that certain groups are not more valuable than others, then there may be cases where certain practical solutions in extreme cases which will look palatable to us which do not look palatable to the nationalist. There are cases where one group is so oppressed that it needs priority from others so that it will be safe, but this will partly be because if that group’s suffering is left unaddressed then that will constitute serious harm not just to that group but to the rest of humanity too – from the anti-nationalist perspective, everybody’s interests are strongly connected.

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