Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Why have a nation?

Giuseppe Mazzini was a nationalist who devoted his life to uniting the separate states of Italy into a single country. Yet it would be wrong to assume that he was a conservative. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, he advised Italian workers that:

Your first duties - first as regards importance - are ... towards Humanity. You are men before you are either citizens or fathers. If you do not embrace the whole human family in your affections; if you do not bear witness to your belief in the Unity of that family, ... if, wheresoever a fellow-creature suffers, or the dignity of human nature is violated by falsehood or tyranny - you are not ready, if able, to aid the unhappy, and do not feel called on to combat, if able, for the redemption of the betrayed and oppressed - you violate your law of life, you comrehend not that Religion which will be the guide and blessing of the future.

But what can each of you, singly, do for the moral improvement and progress of Humanity? ... The individual is too insignificant, and Humanity too vast. The mariner of Brittany prays to God as he puts to sea; "Help me, my God! my boat is so small and Thy ocean so wide!" And this prayer is the true expression of the condition of each one of you, until you find the means of infinitely multiplying your forces and powers of action. This means was provided for you by God when He gave you a country."

Why have a nation? For Mazzini the nation is not an end in itself. Instead, it is an instrument to better enact a universal political morality.

Mazzini uses the image of a lever to describe this instrumental understanding of nations:

In labouring for our own country on the right principle, we labour for Humanity. Our country is the fulcrum of the lever we have to wield for the common good.

So was Mazzini onto something? Can this particular type of liberal or humanistic nationalism justify the existence of countries?

I think not. It seems to me to be too unstable a justification. After all, if a nation is a lever for achieving universal political aims, then it will only be held onto until a more powerful lever emerges, such as a League of Nations or a UN or a European Union or a regional power bloc.

It then becomes logical to transfer allegiance from the "lesser" instrument to the greater.

As an example of this, consider the following recent opinion piece from an Australian website, The Dead Roo. Titled "Get rid of Australia", the piece argues that the UN would be a more effective institution than the existing nation state for securing desired political outcomes:

The long-term goal of constitutional reform is obviously the dissolution of Australia.

The Westphalian system is failing. The legality and morality of meddling with the internal affairs of nation states is demonstrated by actions in the Balkans and East Timor, or the inaction in Darfur or Zimbabwe. The necessity of co-ordinated management of global issues, including forced compliance of recalcitrant states, becomes more obvious every year. Climate change is merely the most pressing issue, universal human and para-human rights the deepest.

In the modern world, nation states are as irrelevant and indeed counterproductive as the city-states of old.

There's another problem with the instrumental view of nations. There's no reason for the end goal to remain the same. Politicians might decide to change economic partnerships, or political alignments or moral causes. If the nation exists as an instrument to achieve such aims, then it must change in character as the aims change. The tool must fit the task.

Politicians therefore think it reasonable to make the most radical changes to national existence to serve what appear to be historically transient aims of trade or diplomacy.

A genuinely conservative view of nations differs considerably from this. The nation isn't assumed to be an instrument for the getting of some other aim or the spreading of some other value. It is justified, in itself, as an aspect of being, as constituting a part of who we are, of our self-identity.

A conservative is likely to value the national tradition he belongs to as providing him with a particularly close connection to his own culture, to the places he inhabits, and to generations past and future. He is likely to value it too as providing a larger, stable setting in which to make his commitments to family and to maintaining the standards of public life.

It makes little sense, in terms of this conservative view, to voluntary discontinue an existing national tradition. Even if a greater lever of state power became available, or if there were new claims of trade and diplomacy, this wouldn't be thought to justify overturning an ongoing tradition which is so significant in forming our identity and our deeper attachments.


  1. I think there is a logical flaw in your argument. You are arguing that a state cannot have a liberal raison d'etre, because then that liberal raison d'etre could be used to do anything. Well all rationally human constructed institutions (like nations) have to have a reason behind them. So there is nothing wrong with a state having a raison d'etre. The only thing you don't like is the liberal outcome it might lead to, which is not much of an objective criticism.

    Please check out my political forum :)

  2. Independent voter, the problem with a nation having the liberal raison d'etre I described is that it ultimately destroys the nation. The reason for being becomes the reason for not being. So a nation ought really to find another reason for its existence.

    I'd also take issue with your claim that nations are "rationally constructed institutions". I don't think this describes very well the more organic process by which a national tradition develops over a long period of time.

  3. Indeed,

    Many petty-nationalists in the mother continent often claim that the nation building process of their neighbors is quite irrational and illegitimate, LOL!

    The idea that the nation is purely 'rational' also ignores the spiritual/esoteric aspects of early nationalism.

  4. Another cracking post, Mark. I could just add that the traditions and social institutions that liberal politicians are so eager to tear down exist to tame the worse instincts of human nature, which our liberal friends still tell us that they can eliminate, after more then two centuries of evidence otherwise.

  5. Ah, the all-important "desired political outcomes." Desired by whom? And at whose expense in blood, treasure, and personal freedom? John Fonte of the Hudson Institute has already staked this monster in his magnificent monograph on transnational progressivism.

    They who desire to reshape all of Mankind into a New Soviet Man or some periphrasis thereof are ardent to destroy any institutions or traditions that might shield the individual from the Omnipotent State. Which is all the explanation one needs for progressives' hostility to religion, as well.

  6. You referenced a crosspost of my article here.

    I'm glad to see cross-pollination between lefties like me and conservatives (apart from Edmund Burke), something I've argued for in Unrecognized Allies.

    To f.w.poretto, I'd remind him that this is not an idea for a "New Soviet Man", but a reflection of the old Alexandrian philosophers who refused to call themselves Egyptian by geography, Roman by citizenship or Greek by heredity, but "citizens of the kosmos". (See my other article Do the Classics create people with progressive politics?)

  7. BTW: (1) I've no problem sticking to traditions : I'm a partisan when it comes to the Cats being born n bred in Geelong and South West Vic.
    (2) I don't think that getting rid of a nation state need get rid of traditional ties: I'm quite parochial about my family's stomping grounds (anywhere south of the Hamilton Highway).
    (3) In your post, you forgot to mention that Australia was CREATED by independent colonies surrendering sovereignty. This was a very important part of my argument - that ceding power to a new federation is the Australian tradition - one we should stick to.

  8. Hello Mark, how are you?

    I wonder if it possible to answer your question about Mazzini by reference to your countryman, Frank Salter.

    In his opus magnum, On Genetic Interests, he characterised Universal Nationalism thus:-

    "The idea that ethnic self-rule is advantageous for optimising the general good. The universal nationalist puts his or her own ethny first, but also respects the autonomy of peoples. It contrasts with chauvinistic nationalism which is thoroughly ethnocentric."

    Now, ethnocentricity is not a single quality among all peoples. It varies a great deal. Jewish ethnocentricity is unsleeping and virulently strong; European ethnocentricity demonstrably weak, and probably weaker the further north you go. This is an outcome of sociobiology, not enculturalisation, and should be seen as setting the natural parameters within which non-coercive choices, including peer pressure conformity, may operate.

    Mazzini, therefore, was right in his claim that an element of choice exists in the ethnocentric focus. But ... it is perhaps only really present among Europeans. It won't be returned, Jens Orback style, by "humanity", and if you give humanity your country, it will not care or thank you.

    One has a nation, of course, precisely to protect oneself from such a fate. But in Mazzini's time people didn't have to think about that - and I don't believe that Mazzini would have charmed by the racial defencelessness of modern Italians.

    In the same vane, the purpose Salter's Universal Nationalism is defend you and me from the coming dispossession.

    By the way, why isn't among your links. I find that inexplicable and troubling.

  9. Guessedworker, thanks for the comment.

    I disagree with parts of your argument. I think you overstate the extent to which Europeans lack a capacity for ethnic loyalty.

    Such loyalty was strong in Australia to the middle of the twentieth century. It remained strong in the working-class afterwards.

    If biology were the key determinant, then why should it only kick in at a particular moment in history? And why should it affect one social class and not another?

    I haven't read Salter, but it strikes me that there is another problem with his approach.

    If Salter is arguing that Europeans have, as a matter of genetics, less ethnic cohesiveness, then it becomes difficult to imagine them establishing a "universal nationalism" in which they put their own ethny first.

    If, though, he is arguing that they do have ethnic cohesiveness, but that they apply it more altruistically as a universal good than others, then the question arises of why they haven't followed their genetic impulses and established such a kind of "universal nationalism".

    So I don't see that, either way, the focus on biology gets us far.

    Then there's the issue of links. I see Majority Rights as primarily a white nationalist rather than a traditionalist conservative site. There are a lot of sites I read with interest (even liberal sites) but which I don't include as links because my main focus is to foster and encourage the fledgling traditionalist conservative movement. Hence the relatively small number of links. It's a decision I took early on and have stuck with.

  10. Mark,

    If true Conservatism was practised in the mainstream it would be as revolutionary as Nazism. Indeed, I was recently reminded that Spengler considered that racial politics of the latter genre would mature into Conservative forms in due course, given the chance.

    Between liberalism and true Conservatism there is no gentle incline, no peripatation from left to right. The reason is that true Conservatism includes the preservation of ethny. Your politic are ethnic, Mark. As, of course, are mine.

    Put another way, the demarcation between liberalism and Conservatism is the right of European-descended peoples to exist sovereign in their own homelands. That you think this ceasura separates "White Nationalism" from Conservatism is revealing, and demonstrates your intellectual conformity.

    The boundary was moved, in my opinion, from around 1944 by the combined influence of neoliberalism on the Conservative political tradition, Jewish hostility to Euro-nationalism and the leftward migration of politics generally.

    We have a couple of decades left in which to imbue our people and their Conservative leaders with ethnic particularism. MR exists to help with that. Hiving it off to WN, as you seem want to do, is helping the forces of death.

    Wake up. Read MR again, if you do not yet understand the priorities of our struggle.