Nationalism and Cultures of Democracy
If nationalism is over, we shall miss it. Revolution may be the project of a vanguard party acting on behalf of its masses. Resistance to capitalist globalization may be pursued by a multifarious and inchoate multitude. But imagining democracy requires thinking of “the people” as active and coherent and oneself as both a member and an agent. Liberalism informs the notion of individual agency but provides weak purchase at best on membership and on the collective cohesion and capacity of the demos. In the modern era, the discursive formation that has most influentially underwritten these dimensions of democracy is nationalism.1
Nationalists have exaggerated and naturalized the historical and never-morethan- partial unity of the nation. The hyphen in nation-state tied the modern polity — with enormously more intense and effective internal administration than any large-scale precursors — to the notion of a historically or naturally unified people who intrinsically belong together. The idea that nations give states clearly identifiable and meaningfully integrated populations, which in turn are the bases of their legitimacy, is as problematic as it is influential.2 It is of course an empirically tendentious claim. But it is part of a discursive formation that structures the world, not simply an external description of it.
To be sure, nationalism has also been mobilized in sharply antidemocratic projects; it has often organized disturbingly intolerant attitudes and it has led to distorted views of the world and excesses of both pride and imagined insults. It has also been a recipe for conflicts both internal and external. Populations straddle borders or move long distances to new states while retaining allegiances to old nations. Dominant groups demand that governments enforce cultural conformity, challenging both the individual freedom and the vitality that comes from cultural creativity. These faults have made it easier for liberals to dismiss nationalism from their theories of democracy. But this has not made it less important in the real world.
There are of course also many problems that affect everyone on earth — environmental degradation, for example, or small-arms trade. Nationalist rhetoric is commonly employed in excuses for governmental failures to address these problems. Transnational movements press for action. But for the most part the action comes, if it does, from national states.
Likewise, there is no nonnational and cosmopolitan solution available to complex humanitarian emergencies like that in Darfur. International humanitarian action is vitally important, but more as compensation for state failures and evils than as a substitute for better states. More generally, lacking a capable state may be as much a source of disaster as state violence. National integration and identity are also basic to many efforts at economic development and to contesting the imposition of a neoliberal model of global economic growth that ignores or undermines local quality of life and inhibits projects of self-government. Nations also remain basic units of international cooperation.
In fact, nationalism and nation-states retain considerable power. Rather than their general decline, what we see today is loss of faith in progress through secular and civic nationalism and state-building projects. This makes it harder to appreciate the positive work that nationalism has done and still does (alongside its evil uses). Nations provide for structures of belonging that build bridges between local communities and mediate between these and globalization. Nations organize the primary arenas for democratic political participation. Nationalism helps mobilize collective commitment to public institutions, projects, and debates. Nationalism encourages mutual responsibility across divisions of class and region. We may doubt both the capacities of nation-states and the morality of many versions of nationalism, but we lack realistic alternatives. Regional integration and other transnational projects are important, but so far they have been either complements to nation-states or efforts at state building with a more or less similar model but on a larger scale.
We are poorly prepared to theorize democracy if we cannot theorize the social solidarity of democratic peoples. Substituting ethical attention to the obligations all human beings share does not fill the void. It lacks an understanding of politics as the active creation of ways of living together, not only distributing power, but developing institutions. And accordingly, it lacks a sense of democracy as a human creation necessarily situated in culture and history, always imperfect and open to improvement, and therefore also always variable.
Moreover, we need to see the mutual relationship that has tied nationalism to democracy throughout the modern era. Nationalism was crucial to collective democratic subjectivity, providing a basis for the capacity to speak as “we the people,” the conceptualization of constitution making as collective self-empowerment, and the commitment to accept the judgment of citizens in general on contentious questions. As important, democracy encouraged the formation of national solidarity. When states were legitimated on the basis of serving the commonwealth, when collective struggles won improved institutions, when a democratic public sphere spanned class, regional, religious, and other divisions, this strengthened national solidarity. It is a pernicious illusion to think of national identity as the prepolitical basis for a modern state — an illusion certainly encouraged by some nationalists. It is equally true that national identity is (like all collective identity) inherently political — created in speech, action, and recognition. A democratic public is not merely contingent on political solidarity; it can be productive of it.
Of course political community can be and is constructed on bases other than nations. And of course nations can be transformed; they need not be treated as prepolitically given but can be recognized as always politically as well as culturally made and therefore remarkable. But the idea of democracy requires some structures of integration, some cultural capacity for internal communication, some social solidarity of the people.
Liberalism within or beyond Nations
Political liberalism developed largely in the effort to theorize the transition from prenational empires, monarchies, and aristocracies to nations. Nations were the primary political structures in which liberal individuals would be equals and have more or less universal rights.
The same liberalism was well attuned, of course, to recognizing the failures of actually existing nations, including especially failures to extend equal rights to all citizens. Liberals generally respond to these failings of nations and nationalism by abandoning reliance on historically achieved solidarities and subjectivities. This tendency has been reinforced by recognition of the ways in which globalization limits states. Seeking greater justice and liberty than actual nations have offered, they apply liberal ideas about the equality of and relations among individuals at the scale of humanity as a whole. But it is not clear that ratcheting up universalism makes it any more readily achievable.
In addition, this attempt to pursue liberal equality and justice at a more global level reveals a tension previously beneath the surface of liberalism. So long as liberalism could rely (explicitly or implicitly) on the idea of nation to supply a prepolitical constitution of the people, it could be a theory both of democracy and universal rights. But the pursuit of greater universalism commonly comes at the expense of solidarity, for solidarity is typically achieved in more particularistic formations. Since there is no democracy without social solidarity, as liberalism is transposed to the global level it becomes more a theory of universal rights or justice and less a theory of democratic politics.
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- Nationalism is a “discursive formation” in Foucault’s sense. See Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon, 1969) and Power/Knowledge, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1977). Nationalism is a way of talking that inescapably exceeds the bounds of any single usage, that endlessly generates more talk, and that embodies tensions and contradictions. It is not simply a settled position but a cluster of rhetoric and reference that enables people to articulate positions which are not settled and to take stands in opposition to each other on basic issues in society and culture. Nationalist rhetoric provides the modern era with a constitutive framework for the identification of collective subjects, both the protagonists of historical struggles and those who experience history and by whose experience it can be judged good or bad, progress or regress or stagnation. In this, nationalism most resembles another great discursive formation, also constitutive for modernity — individualism. See Craig Calhoun, Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
- The status of this hyphen is subject to considerable controversy. It is common to speak of nations without distinguishing the state from the ostensibly integrated population associated with it. This is in fact hard to avoid without pedantry, and while I shall at certain points make clear that I mean one or the other, like most writers I shall not consistently make clear that the relationship between national identity or integration and state authority or structure is not stable or consistent. As a discursive formation, nationalism continually reproduces the idea that there should be a link between nation and state as well as various forms and dimensions of national identity, integration, distinction, and conflict.