National communities are real, but John Lennon’s ‘brotherhood of man’ is a pipe-dream. To avoid both tyranny and anarchy, the nation-state must be upheld.
There is perhaps no -ism so maligned in the 21st century as nationalism. Those who wish to defend it face being labelled as bigots, reactionaries or worse. A large swathe of the managerial class despise the very thought that it may be a rational principle for the ordering of a political community. It is asserted that the nation-state is an illusion, a mere construct of the mind, a recent invention and an inefficient way of ordering political institutions. But these arguments are flawed: the nation state is of enduring vital importance.
It’s true that the nation has not always existed, but the same charge could be levelled at every government, set of beliefs or identity. It has in fact existed for far longer than most people think. As early as the 12th Century the Capetians kings switched from calling themselves ‘Kings of the French’ to ‘Kings of France’, symbolising a change in understanding from ruling a linguistic group to ruling a physical national community composed of those people.
Similarly, in these islands God was being described as an Englishman in 16th Century, and while there may not have been fully-fledged nationalism, there was without a doubt an emerging national identity.
Although ‘nationalism’ as an ideology was indeed new in the C19th, in the states of Europe there was significant institutional and cultural continuity with pre-nationalist times. The English Parliament, for instance, developed from its medieval predecessor and the language that came to shape our consciousness was constructed by Chaucer and Shakespeare. The antecedents of national consciousness highlight its organic, as opposed to constructed, roots.
National identities do not have a biological basis but that does not mean that they are not real. The ways we relate to other human beings, interpret the world and view ourselves are dependent upon inherited patterns of thought. Historical causation is experienced at a group level, when united in a polity, and this results in different cultural characteristics. These characteristics can be as trivial as different queuing practices, or as profound and important as different political cultures and ways of thought. To deny that there are such differences, for instance, between England and France, is to deny both the historical evidence and present political science – not to mention the experience of simply travelling from one of those countries to the other.
As Herder argued, language is an organic reality that ineffably defines a way of and way of experiencing the world. Our actions in everyday life depend upon the traditions peculiar to the national community – what Burke defined as the ‘general bank and capital of nations and ages.’ As such, the political discourse of a nation resembles Wittgenstein’s concept of a ‘language game’, which only those brought up within the rules and spirit of the game can understand. Similarly, national communities are founded on a shared memory and collective imagination, as Vico identified. One might think of the American reverence for the Founding Fathers and the US Constitution, the French mantras of liberté, egalité and fraternité that defined the Revolution, or the British sense that that Crown is what binds the home nations together.
The nation-state, rather than being a placeholder before the inevitable rise of international government, is of indispensable and intrinsic worth. If human nature and experience varies according to culture and place, then the principles of good government vary with it. Only institutions and elites adapted to the context of their own nations can make good laws that make sense within their respective communities. One might think, for example, of how the more statist regulations of the EU are baffling to the free-market British, or how the French burkha ban makes little sense given our negative approach to liberty, but is perfectly logical to a Frenchman brought up to believe in laicite.
Britain was the first country to develop the modern state because it had a national body (Parliament) that could claim to supersede and have authority over interests. It was because of this greater legitimacy that Britain could develop bureaucratic systems, the heaviest taxes in Europe and handle enormous debts with lower interest rates than any other state. The French Revolution occurred, as Tocqueville argued, because the monarchy did not have the legitimacy to overcome corporate interests and create a bureaucratic state necessary to cope with the challenges of modernity; it was only through a revolution based upon the greater legitimacy of the nation that centralisation could be completed. Thus, for most of the Nineteenth Century, liberalism was inexorably intertwined with nationalism, as democracy cannot exist without a pre-existent demos.
The institutions of the nation-state are obeyed because they represent the interests of the community: we grant them sovereignty and legitimacy. International institutions have no such legitimacy, as they represent an intrusion into national democratic life.
The best demonstration of the principle that institutions adapted for the national level fail at the international level is the Euro. To solve the problems of currency rigidity it is necessary for a nation to have monetary transfers, such as Berlin transfers taxes to East Germany. But, this transfer is dependent upon an identity powerful enough to compel one to make sacrifices for the common good. Germany did not feel this attachment to Greece and so the transfers that would have been normal at a national level were instead viewed as foreign intrusions upon their rights.
The nation is a community of enduring worth and the reality upon which modern state institutions are based. As Roger Scruton argues:
“National loyalty is founded in the love of place, of the customs and traditions that have been inscribed in the landscape and of the desire to protect these good things through a common law and a common loyalty.’’
Nations are the product of a common historical experience, resulting in a common culture that defines how we experience and interpret the world.
This reality means that the institutions best adapted to make laws for groups are national ones adapted to the historical circumstances of those groups. What we currently understand by the state (i.e. government) is adapted to the concept of the nation as a species is adapted to its environment, and it relies on the nation that precedes it for its legitimacy.
Modern elites, by trying to reproduce these institutions at an international level, are engaged in a futile project; they are building ‘castles in the air’. Their ideology, by abstracting man from his natural, particular affections and loyalties, will remove the deep springs of action that created the edifice of the civilisation we see around us. To conclude by returning to Herder:
‘’A truer being than that shadow of a man, the refined citizen of the world, who, enraptured with the love of all his fellow shadows, loves but a chimera.”
Jacob Chatterjee reads History at the University of Oxford. Read his last article here.
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