Monday, October 11, 2004

Liberalism & the nation

Ayn Rand, the founder of a philosophy called objectivism, once commented that "What matters is what you accept by choice, not what you are connected with through the accident of your ancestry."

This neatly sums up a basic part of the dispute between liberals and conservatives. For conservatives, the connection felt to ancestry is an important and positive feature of human life; it is something of value to be conserved.

But to liberals like Ayn Rand, the connection to ancestry is "accidental" and therefore to be condemned since it isn't a product of individual will and reason. From the liberal perspective, it is quite logically regarded as an impediment to be overcome.

When we look at the issue of nationalism this distinction between liberals and conservatives becomes very clear, and colours the terms of the debate.

On the one side, a genuine conservative is likely to favour a traditional model of nationalism, which is sometimes called cultural nationalism but which is better termed ethnic nationalism.

In this traditional model the people of a particular nation feel a close sense of identity with each other because they share a common ethnicity. In other words, they share some combination of a common ancestry, language, culture, religion and history.

The Australian writer David Malouf drew on a conservative sense of national identity when explaining why so many Anglo-Australians wish to retain political links with Great Britain. He wrote:

it has to do with family .. identity in that sense ...It is a link of language, too, and of culture in the sense of shared associations and understanding, of shared objects of affection, and a history of which we are a branch - a growth quite separate and itself, but drawing its strength from an ancient root ...

The fact is that the part of ourselves in which we live most deeply, most fully, goes further back than one or two generations and takes in more than we ourselves have known.

Someone who is attached to this conservative sense of national identity will most probably wish to protect it through a selective immigration policy. He will logically prefer to admit those who share a similar ethnicity to the existing population.

Liberals though find it difficult to accept the traditional version of nationalism. They want to be self-created by their individual will and reason and so could not possibly accept David Malouf's idea that the deepest part of ourselves "goes further back than one or two generations and takes in more than we ourselves have known." Accepting this would mean accepting real limitations to individual will and reason.

So what do liberals do? The most radical liberals take the dramatic step of rejecting nationalism altogether in favour of internationalism.

The poet Shelley took this step as long ago as 1820 in his poem Prometheus Unbound. Shelley wrote the poem in homage to the new man who would "make the world one brotherhood" and who would be,

Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
over himself ...

Shelley wants the new man to be "tribeless" and "nationless" because he thinks that each individual should be uncircumscribed, in other words, free to create himself in any direction according to his individual will. He doesn't want the individual to be created, in part, by something external and unchosen, like an inherited national identity.

There are, of course, more modern expressions of internationalism. For instance, Strobe Talbott, who went on to become Deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration, wrote an essay for Time magazine in 1992 in which he declared,

Here is one optimist's reason for believing unity will prevail ... within the next hundred years ... nationhood as we know it will be obsolete; all states will recognize a single global authority ... A phrase briefly fashionable in the mid-20th century - "citizen of the world" - will have assumed real meaning by the end of the 21st ... All countries are basically social arrangements, accommodations to changing circumstances ...

The Melbourne academic Mary Kalantzis prefers to call herself a "postnationalist" rather than an internationalist. She has written that,

the essence of a postnationalist common purpose is creative and productive life of boundary crossing, multiple identities, difficult dialogues, and the continuous hybrid reconstruction of ourselves.

Note the degree to which Kalantzis opposes a common, longstanding, inherited national identity. She emphasises instead the ideas of "boundary crossing", "multiple identities" and even a "continuous hybrid reconstruction of ourselves."

It's important to remember, though, that most liberals do not reject traditional nationalism in favour of an explicit internationalism. Instead, they redefine nationalism to make it fit in better with liberal first principles.

One common way for liberals to do this is to emphasise the idea of citizenship. According to this kind of nationalism, anyone who agrees to uphold the laws of society can become a citizen of the nation.

This understanding of nationalism is obviously appealing to liberals because it means that we no longer simply inherit our national identity but can choose for ourselves which nation to belong to. If all countries adopted this notion of nationalism, then I could theoretically one year choose to be Canadian, the next year an Afghani, and the year following a Nigerian.

Similarly, the idea of multiculturalism is likely to appeal to many liberals, as it means that there is no longer any authoritative, mainstream culture to claim their loyalty and to define their identity. Instead, they can "pick and choose" almost like spectators which ethnic culture in their midst to enjoy.

Many liberals, in other words, continue to see themselves as good patriots, even while they are deconstructing the traditional nation to which they belong. They do so by substituting a liberal version of nationalism for the traditional conservative one.

The important thing for conservatives is to understand that the liberal attitude to nationalism is logical, if you accept liberal first principles. We need therefore to encourage people to consciously reject these first principles if we want attitudes to nationalism and immigration, especially amongst the intellectual and political classes, to change.

(First published at Conservative Central 10/08/2003)

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