Temporary Columns: Nationalism and Democracy

I was invited by Dr. Luis Rodriguez-Pineiro to give a lecture at his class on the History of Law at the Universidad de Sevilla. Dr. Pineiro works on indigenous rights and has just published a book, “Indigenous Peoples, Postcolonialism and International Law”. He asked me to speak on issues related to national identity and political democracy. I have, like many of us, struggled with these issues, intellectually and politically. Why is it hard to avoid discussions of ethnonational identity when we talk about political democracy? Why do those who advocate nationalism, particularly a nationalism of the ethnic variety, tend to politically persist, if not out-maneuver, those who advocate a more neutral form of political community when it comes to defining the state? Or more simply, why is it that it is hard for us to avoid some allusion to national culture in our discussions of political community.

Democracy is a theory about how we ought to treat each other if we live in the same political community. It describes the rules through which we may engage with each other, i.e., the powers our rulers may have over us, and the rights we may have against them. These are well developed and argued in democratic theory. These powers are very familiar to most of us – the basic rights of expression, association and conscience. The right to vote and elect representatives of our choice who may form a government. Political thinkers have given these issues much thought. They have described and argued in great detail how we ought to regulate ourselves politically and what claims we may make against each other or the state. We may indeed differ about the nature of these powers – libertarians might think all that is required is to protect some basic liberties. Social democrats may argue that what we need is a state that taxes the rich and transfers money to the poor. Whatever their disagreements – which are indeed plenty – libertarians and social democrats do not disagree that what they are talking about is the political regulation of the relationship among citizens within a political community.

While they have well developed theories and debates about internal regulation of a political community, neither social democrats nor libertarians have anything close to a theory about the boundaries of a political community. Their theories developed over hundreds of years fail to tell us what the limits of a political community are. For example, if Sri Lanka and India are indeed democracies, why shouldn’t they be one country ruled from Colombo? This is where nationalism comes in.

Nationalism is a theory about the boundaries of the political community, i.e., who is in and who is out. Nationalism argues that the political community, if it is not to be simply an accident of history or an agglomeration of unconnected social groups, needs to be based on something more. That something more is the way of life of a group of people, defined by language, religion, region or culture. This is a way of life or culture of a political community that precedes the political community on which it is based. Of course nationalist theories differ on what ought to form the basis of the political community. The Zionists, the Wahhabis, and the Hindutvas, believe that it should be religion. The Catalans, the Tamils, and the French believe it should be language, and so on. Whatever the problems with these efforts at constructing a political community, they do have some theory about the boundaries of such a community. But nationalism has no theory about the rules and regulations that govern the interaction among members of a political community. These members could live in a dictatorship, a democracy or even a monarchy.

As social democrats who believe in combining social equality and political freedom, we have an inadequate answer to the question of whom we should share this freedom and equality with. One answer, the world, is insufficient. It is too vague and abstruse, because it allows to us to get away from the actual concrete commitments – such as taxing and redistributing – that is required by such sharing. The other answer – we should share with those who are either like or close to us seems both too concrete and too narrow. Should it be with those who speak like us, live near us and look like us? We are uncomfortable with this response because the instinct animating it seems to foster intolerance and inequality.

So whether we like it or not, nationalism finds a way to creep into our theories of political democracy because of the silence of political theory about the boundaries of a political community. As a political theorist, I am troubled by this silence intellectually and may look for answers to it. As a political activist I am sympathetic to this silence, wish to nurture it, and maybe even require it of my fellow citizens. I am wary that probing it too much may lead to the kind of answers that make it harder for me to make the case for sharing power, wealth, and space with those who happen to live together with me in the same political community as citizens, even if they do not look like me, speak the same language, and pray to the same gods.