“What is a nation?” Ernest Renan famously asked in 1882 and concluded that it was a group of people who had decided to live together. The definition has stuck because it encapsulates the most cherished belief of all liberals, which is that human life is essentially about individual choice ...
Even Renan’s definition, however, contained a fudge – a fudge which was essential to prevent his idea from descending into obvious absurdity. He said that a nation was a group of people which had done great things in the past and which wanted to do more in the future. The use of “wanted” was essential to preserve his key notion of choice, but his reference to the past made a nonsense of it.
The people who have done great things in the history of the nation are not the same people (not the same individuals) who are alive now. It is therefore wrong to elide the two uses of the word “people” into one. A people cannot be defined by choice: if members of a nation find or believe that their country has a glorious past, then that past is precisely something inherited and not chosen, like one’s parents. One’s parents determine an individual in a way the individual has not chosen and cannot control.
Laughland has put this well. Liberal autonomy theory is based on the idea that to be fully human we must be self-creating, self-determining individuals. This means that we must be "liberated" from whatever impedes individual choice. This sounds nice, but has drastic consequences. As Laughland points out, it undermines a traditional national identity, as this is "something inherited, not chosen".
But does liberal autonomy theory describe reality? Are we really uninfluenced by inherited forms of identity? Do we really make choices as autonomously as the liberal theory hopes and claims we do?
Laughland observes the situation in England today and concludes not. He writes of the young white people who marched against the violence currently sweeping England that:
their unspoken choice – their instinct – to rally together reveals a good deal about the nature of human action. It reveals, in particular, that choice and forms of behaviour are, in fact, partly determined by ethnicity – very often without people being aware of it.
The Renanian attempt to carve out a sphere for the liberal ideal of free individual choice is therefore doomed to failure. Just as Joseph de Maistre said that he had never met “a man” but only Frenchmen, Englishmen and so on, so our free individual choices are in fact influenced by factors we have not chosen. These include our parents, our nationhood and our ethnic background. They form part of what we are as individuals – we are all members of various human groups – and the human condition is unthinkable without them.
A nation, in other words, is not a “community of values” or an impersonal social construct governed by certain laws. A nation – as the word suggests, derived as it is from the verb ‘to be born’ – is a family.
But what of the opposition? What about those who strongly support the liberal view? There's a forum called Debate and relate which recently debated a statement by the former Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, namely that:
An Australian is someone who chooses to live here, obey the law and pays taxes.
Hawke is following autonomy theory logically by stating that to be an Australian all you have to do is choose to live in Australia. It seems, though, to empty the concept of an Australian identity of meaning. A commenter at the forum made the obvious objection that:
According to Hawke, Australians have no distinct ethnic or cultural identity. In fact, they have absolutely nothing to define them as a people - no history, traditions, ancestors, customs or heroes. To be an 'Australian' is not to belong to a distinct national community; it simply means you live here and pay tax.
In short, it seems that Hawke is saying that 'Australians' don't really exist in any meaningful sense.
Hawke, though, found a defender. One commenter thought that Hawke's position on a national identity was the morally right one:
To say it is just 'to live here, obey the law and pay taxes' is opening up the door for the individual to create his own identity. To say we have 'distinct identity' is to indoctrinate people into a 'social/cultural straightjacket'. But because you're a right-wing redneck retard, you'll maintain that everyone ought to act just as you say; because you have psychological fascist tendencies. Who knows, maybe one day you'll grow up and respect other's decisions to live a life they choose.
Autonomy theory has led this person to see any kind of meaningful communal identity in negative terms as a restriction on individual choice (a "straitjacket"). He takes a defence of a distinct identity to be an act of disrespect toward others; he explains it as an assertion of power over others by those who are psychologically authoritarian.
There are a few things to say in response to this. First, it's obviously hopeless to try to uphold an existing national tradition when people follow autonomy theory in this way. That's why John Laughland is right to take the argument back to first principles and to explain why autonomy theory is misconceived.
Second, the above quote is a good example of how liberalism in practice is anything but neutral on important issues. To even assert the existence of a distinct identity is damned as illegitimate in the quote. So even though we are supposed to be granted free choice by liberal autonomy theory, in practice much is put entirely out of bounds (including much that is most significant in our lives).
Third, the quote suggests the insincerity of the ideal of multiculturalism. The liberal commenter hates the very thought of identity; don't tell me then that he is motivated by an appreciation of ethnic culture. Presumably, if he does support diversity it's because he doesn't want any particular culture to predominate and to form an obvious source of identity for individuals.