Maya Tudor: Nationalism can be a force for good as well as evil

Members of the Tartan Army would define themselves partly by the fact they are not English. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Members of the Tartan Army would define themselves partly by the fact they are not English. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Across the globe, we are witnessing a rising tide of nationalism that marginalises minorities. From Xi to Modi to Trump, the world’s most populous countries have embraced leaders that purport to represent the interests of their ethnic or religious majorities first and foremost.

Observers rightly worry this rising fervour of nationalism has the potential to undermine checks on executive power and minority rights, both essential features of a healthy democracy.

A healthy scepticism of such ‘majoritarian’ nationalism may be warranted, but this should not lead us to reject all forms of nationalism as undesirable.

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In Europe particularly, mistrust of nationalism runs deep, tainted by its association with two bloody world wars. Historically, nationalism has been used to motivate withdrawal from international cooperation, aggression, war and genocide.

But so too has it underpinned vibrant movements for colonial independence, the construction of generous welfare states that provide for their citizens and a feeling of solidarity that is crucial to individual identity in the modern world. As countries and regions diversify, the sense of community that nationalism can foster may be more important than ever.

It is for this reason that we should seek to emphasise and celebrate inclusive forms of nationalism.

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A brief detour into definitions of nationalism is in order: all nations are ‘imagined communities’.

Imagined because even among the world’s smallest nations, nationals will never meet all their conationals face to face. 

Though most nations have some objective markers such as a common language or clear geographic border, many nations miss one or some of these attributes. At its founding, the United States could be argued to have had none.

Yet nations are still communities because they engender common feelings of identity. Irrespective of whether a national identity is ultimately fictive in origin, nationalism is a political force that has proven powerful enough to cohere millions of individuals together and generate bonds of obligation such as paying taxes or giving national service.

It is because nationalism is powerful and deployable towards good or ill that we ought to make clearer distinctions between its beneficial and baleful forms.

Some would argue that inclusive nationalism is an oxymoron because all nations are exclusive projects with respect to who they are not.

The Scots and Welsh define themselves partly by the fact they are not English; the Canadians define themselves partly by the fact they are not Americans, Pakistanis partly by the fact they are not Indians. This is widely accepted as legitimate.

Moreover, there is good evidence that communities with strong bonds of solidarity are better able to provide public goods such as education and health.

But nations can be hierarchical with respect to their citizens.

Such citizenship hierarchies are established when fixed features of identity are adopted as a defining feature of the nation.

Once relatively fixed features of identity – typically race, ethnicity or religion – are adopted as central to the definition of the nation, citizens without those fixed features are by definition relegated to second-class citizenship.

In both 19th century Germany and 20th century Malaysia, for example, a combination of religion and ethnicity was central to defining the nation. Consequently, in both of these nations in times of profound economic or political crisis, citizens without those ethnic features were more readily denied political rights than in countries characterised by more inclusive forms of identity.

Inclusive forms of nationalism eschew fixed identities and use shared aspirations – often civic or economic ideals – as the basis of their national imagining. Examples of this type of nationalism are rarer and emerged more recently in history.

The United States at its founding largely embraced a shared set of ideals such as inviolate individual freedoms and the ‘American dream’ – a creed that social and economic background would form no barrier to social and economic success. Nonetheless, America’s founding moment specifically codified that Americans of African descent would be less-than-full citizens (three-fifths of other citizens), a codification which legitimated centuries of discrimination. It took a civil war and decades of court legislation to move America towards a more inclusive form of nationalism.

A nationalism with a hierarchical foundation will provide resources to ever-present political entrepreneurs seeking to arrogate the rights of second-class citizens to bolster the interests of the majorities.

John Stuart Mill and Alexander Hamilton argued this tyranny of the majority was a major threat to liberty under democratic forms of government.

For an illustration of how new states with different nationalisms have fared, it is worth contrasting India and Pakistan, nations founded 70 years ago and characterised by largely similar levels of economic development, social and ethnic diversity. Though three-quarters of the citizens of both countries at their founding shared a single religion, Pakistan imagined itself as a homeland for Muslims while India imagined itself as a homeland for all those who opposed colonial rule and who committed to certain ideals of economic self-sufficiency and socialist-inspired development.

Today, 70 years after their founding, the incidence and intensity of communal violence in India is significantly lower than in Pakistan, especially on a population-proportionate basis.

India’s relative success in stemming communal violence is partially due to the inclusive national identity articulated at its founding, one that has denied powerful narrative resources to current attempts to re-interpret the Indian nation as a Hindu one.

Pakistan’s embrace of religion as the core of the nation’s definition has by contrast encouraged a legal and widely accepted normative basis for discrimination against religious minorities and, increasingly, intrareligious minorities such as Shias.

If the contrast between India and Pakistan highlights the importance of celebrating inclusive nationalism, it also underscores how national identities are continually open to re-negotiation. Moments of crisis – wars, economic crashes or profound national struggles – are especially critical moments, for they offer new debates about who constitutes the ‘we’.

Some definition of the ‘we’ is certainly needed, for without a shared understanding of the ‘we’, there can be no understanding of what constitutes common public good.

Because nationalism is an inescapable and potentially desirable fact of modern political life, an inclusive form of it should be embraced.

Maya Tudor is Associate Professor of Government and Public Policy, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. This article is taken from the newly published Oxford Government Review: Bridging the Gap