Coping with Resurgent Nationalism

by Pranab Bardhan

Einstein had called nationalism ‘an infantile disease, the measles of mankind’. Many contemporary cosmopolitan liberals are similarly skeptical, contemptuous or dismissive, as its current epidemic rages all around the world particularly in the form of right-wing extremist or populist movements. While I understand the liberal attitude, I think it’ll be irresponsible of us to let the illiberals meanwhile hijack the idea of nationalism for their nefarious purpose. Nationalism is too passionate and historically explosive an issue to be left to their tender mercies. It is important to fight the virulent forms of the disease with an appropriate antidote and try to vaccinate as many as possible particularly in the younger generations.

Populists advocate a culturally narrow, narcissistic, nostalgic, xenophobic form of ethnic nationalism—from the Christian nationalism of evangelicals in the US or the Catholics in Poland or the Slavic Orthodox-church followers in Russia to the Islamic nationalism in Turkey or Indonesia to the Hindu nationalism in India. The alternative, more inclusive, form of nationalism often counterposed to this is some variant of what is called ‘civic’ nationalism.

But first a brief historical note. As a form of community bonding on the basis of some tribal or ethnic-territorial roots proto-nationalisms of different kinds have been quite old and durable in different societies. But as Ernest Gellner, one of the foremost theorists of nationalism, pointed out, nationalism in the form as we know it is of relatively recent origin. Of course, historical memories and myths (mythology is often blurred into historical facts and legends), symbols and traditions are constantly invoked in the name of ethnic nationalism, even though, as the distinguished historian, Eric Hobsbawm famously pointed out, many of the so-called traditions are actually of recent ‘invention’. The influential 19th-century French scholar, Ernest Renan had pointed out how ‘historical error’ is used in the creation of a nation. Gellner even points to cases of nationalism based on not a great deal of history: “The Estonians created nationalism out of thin air in the course of the 19th century”.

But it is often overlooked that there is a clear distinction between nationalism based on some social bonding principle and the nation-state that became a predominant political unit, at least in Europe since the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). The former refers to a sociological community based on some homogeneous binding element like religion, language, ethnicity or culture, whereas the latter is a political community which need not contain a singular sociological nationality.

Yet the European idea of the nation-state where the sociological and the political communities are congruent has become the basis of the predominant idea on nationalism, and both Gellner and Hobsbawm essentially adhere to this idea. But what about multi-national societies? Even in western Europe Switzerland, Spain or Belgium are examples of nation-states with diverse linguistic-sociological communities, where the singular principle of national binding does not work.

Let us now take possibly the largest such multi-national society in the world, India. Here Indian social thinkers had made contributions more than a hundred years back which have been under-appreciated in the western theories of nationalism. I have particularly in mind the thoughts of Gandhi and Tagore on nationalism expressed in various forms (essays and lectures by both, and in the case of Tagore, also in literature with several poems and at least three novels—one of which later was the basis of a widely-known Satyajit Ray movie, ‘The Home and the World’) in the first three decades of the 20th century. They were, of course, both anti-imperialists, thus sharing in the popular movements of nationalism against colonial rulers, but they wanted to go beyond this to think about a more positive basis of nationalism when the colonial rulers were to leave. Both of them found the nation-state of European history, with a singular social homogenizing principle and militarized borders and jingoistic mobilization against supposed enemy states, unacceptable and unsuitable for India’s diverse heterogeneous society. Instead they both drew upon the long folk-syncretic tradition of Indian society (which grew out of the layers of sediments formed by the successive waves of social reform and rebellion, called the Bhakti movements, against the dominance of the rigid Hindu Brahminical system, over many centuries in different parts of India, as well as the Sufi sects of Islam) extolling inter-faith tolerance and pluralism, and wanted to make that the constructive basis of Indian nationalism.

Gandhi, who had described himself as an ‘enlightened anarchist’ was not favorably disposed to the modern state. Tagore was less averse to modernity, but he was trenchant in his criticism of the western idea of the nation-state, “with all its paraphernalia of power and prosperity, its flags and pious hymns, …its mock thunders of patriotic bragging”, and of how it stokes a national conceit that makes society lose its moral balance. Nehru, who was personally close to Gandhi but ideologically closer to Tagore, saw that the modern state is essential, for providing a unifying structure in a divided society and for unleashing the forces of planned economic development, in a world of economic and military competition.

By the time the Indian constitution was framed both Gandhi and Tagore were dead. Nehru (along with Ambedkar) in leading the way drew upon the society-centric pluralistic idea of nationalism of Gandhi and Tagore and gave it legal-juridical form in the Indian constitution. The Nehru-Ambedkar idea of nationalism, forged and refined through the elaborate deliberations of the Constituent Assembly, gave India the basis of its civic nationalism that prevailed for many decades. It is this inclusive idea of civic nationalism that is now being attempted to be dismantled by the Hindu nationalists. Even at the time of the framing of the constitution RSS, their main ideological base organization, had opposed the constitution as ‘western’, even though in their earlier history many of their leaders used to admire the ethnic basis of nationalism in Germany (their revered leaders like Savarkar and Golwalkar had expressed open admiration for the efficient Nazi system of mobilizing and organizing the German nation). Earlier the Japanese nation-state had also been inspired by German history. It is not surprising that Tagore’s lectures in Japan as early as 1916 against the aggrandizing nation-state did not make him popular with the Japanese.

Tolerance for diversity and for minority rights had characterized some autocratic empire states in history (like Mughal or Ottoman), but among democratic states one of the earliest cases of making pluralism and liberal constitutional values the basis of nationalism is that of the United States, where after the decimation of the indigenous population, a country without much historical memory essentially became a nation of immigrants. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address starts with referring to the “nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. In a 2009 speech Barack Obama said, “One of the great strengths of the United States is…we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation,  (but) a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values”, presumably as enshrined in the Constitution.  In spite of its many historical (and often racially motivated) lapses, this is a major example in history of what the German philosopher Habermas calls ‘constitutional patriotism’, as opposed to patriotism based on ‘blood and soil’ which had popular appeal in Germany and which appeals to today’s populists, and which in history has been associated with a great deal of persecution, violence and devastation.

Our identities are necessarily multi-layered, but ethnic nationalism privileges one of these layers, usually based on the narrow particularities of religion, language or culture, that makes it easy to mobilize certain groups. Liberal or folk-syncretic traditions are sometimes too fragile to resist our primordial or visceral evolutionary defensive-aggressive urge to fight against ‘enemy’ groups which the ethnic nationalist leaders are adept at whipping up. The branded enemy groups are both external and internal. In India, China, Russia, Indonesia, Poland, Hungary and so on the internal minority groups are often victims of suspicion by the majoritarian ethnic nationalists to be the proverbial fifth column aiding an enemy state. Even without the enemy state, the inevitable divisions of a heterogeneous society worry the leaders of the homogenizing mission of those nationalists—hence such nationalism is almost always associated with riding roughshod over the ‘little people’ and their localized cultures for the larger cause of national integration (‘peasants into Frenchmen’, the marginal groups like Dalits and Adivasis in India crammed into the Procrustean fold of the larger Hindu society, Han-Sinification of Tibetans and Uighurs in China, etc.).

In the name of national integration and fighting enemies both outside and within they undermine minority rights and procedures of democracy (‘due process’), they accuse liberals of appeasing the minorities (blacks and Hispanics in the US, immigrants in Europe, Kurds in Turkey, Muslims in India, etc.), and try to suppress dissent as ‘anti-national’. Civic nationalism, on the other hand, emphasizes the procedural aspects of democracy, and through its stress on liberal constitutional values tries to use the pre-commitment of a foundational document to bind the hands of subsequent generations if they display majoritarian tendencies curbing basic civil rights. (During the Civil Rights movement Martin Luther King was referring to the Constitution, when he appealed to Americans “to be true to what you said on paper”).

One reason why ethnic-nationalist populists are opposed to globalization is that they are against global rules restraining national sovereignty and that they want to ‘take back control’. But in so doing they over-centralize the powers of the national leader, and dissipate the forces of decentralization and autonomy of local communities within the country. Civic nationalism in contrast often emphasizes local autonomy; that is why, for example, political parties like the Scottish National Party favor civic over ethnic nationalism.

Let me now turn to the economic aspects of globalization where also there can be differences between the two types of nationalism. Ethnic nationalist populists look at the global economy as a zero-sum game, gains for ‘them’ is necessarily a loss for ‘us’, harking back to a defunct mercantilist doctrine. By now it is obvious except to the economic illiterates that a Trumpian trade war and dismantling of multilateral trade rules do not quite advance the national agenda. In today’s world economy of integrated global value chains and continuous swapping of parts, components, and tasks across borders, a retreat from relatively free trade will be extremely harmful for the national interests of most countries. Trade makes for cheaper producer inputs on which our production base is heavily dependent (apart from the cheaper mass consumer goods available in Walmart or Amazon, and larger markets for goods demanded by the rising middle classes in developing countries). Economic nationalism has, of course, been associated with vigorous industrial policies in East Asia with the state guiding and supporting some key domestic manufacturing industries (particularly in sectors where coordination failures of the market are important), but even in these cases market discipline mostly coming from the open export markets, heightening cost- and quality-consciousness, made the all-important difference between cases where industrial policy tends to succeed compared to cases where it fails.

Liberal nationalists should, of course, call for a substantial strengthening of the “adjustment assistance” (currently in paltry amounts in the United States and nonexistent in many developing countries) and retraining programs lasting for a long enough period to significantly improve the adjustment capability of workers in coping with trade shocks, and making benefits (like health care) portable, not linked to particular jobs. In Europe, better safety nets and active labor market policies than in the US, especially for workers who lose their jobs, have made import penetration less of a burning issue in the political sphere.

Liberals are divided on the issue of unrestricted international capital flows and that of immigration. Given the adverse effects of free capital flows on periodic macro-economic shocks and the weakening of the bargaining power of domestic labor institutions, many otherwise free-traders agree with the liberal nationalists on some regulations on global capital flows. Some compromises are also possible on the need for adjusting global rules giving nations more autonomy on labor standards. Given the cultural anxiety that large-scale immigration generates in many societies, there is also scope for compromise on various schemes on limiting the flows of immigration to selected areas of specific skill shortages in rich countries and to some special humanitarian cases. Civic nationalists accept some restrictions on national sovereignty to agree on multilateral rules on global public goods, as in the case of global environmental damage or international spread of crime, and restrictions on cross-border tax-dodging, which ultimately help the national interest.

Populists invidiously distinguish between nationalists and ‘globalists’. This is highly misleading: not merely there are other, more liberal, forms of nationalism, not all liberals are for untrammeled hyper-globalization. It is thus possible and necessary to build healthy alternatives to the kinds of rabid ethnic nationalism that we see all around, without giving up on the nationalist cultural pride or the bonding of local communities consistent with larger humanitarian principles. As Tagore said in his lectures in Japan in 1916: “Neither the colorless vagueness of cosmopolitanism, nor the fierce self-idolatry of nation-worship, is the goal of human history”.