Friday, September 26, 2008

Nationalism & the liberal mind

There are many conservatives who don't understand the liberal attitude to nationalism. Why, ask such conservatives, would liberals want to destroy their own national traditions? Are they being manipulated by hostile outsiders? Are they unprincipled, or ridden by guilt?

Fortunately, liberal intellectuals like to record their views, so what we conservatives need to do is to look into the debates liberals have amongst themselves. By doing so we can begin to understand what is going on in the liberal mind.

Traditional nationalism

To make sense of things, what we have to do first is to define the kind of traditional nationalism supported by conservatives.

Traditional nationalism was nearly always some form of ethnic nationalism. In other words, it was a nationalism in which people felt connected to each other by ties of ethnicity: by some admixture of a common ancestry, language, religion, culture and history.

Over time ethnic nationalism came to have a negative connotation for liberals. This is because it is in conflict with the first principle of liberalism.

Liberals believe that our humanity is defined by our ability to shape ourselves according to our own will and reason. Our ethnicity, though, is not something we get to choose through individual will and reason: it is something we simply inherit.

Therefore, liberals have come to oppose ethnic nationalism as an unchosen "destiny" rather than a "rational attachment". In their usual style, liberals like to undercut traditional nationalism by arguing that such forms of national identity aren't real, but are merely imagined or constructed.


So, liberals generally reject the idea of traditional ethnic nationalism. What though do they suggest should replace it?

One of the most influential of liberal theorists of nationalism is Professor Michael Ignatieff. As you might expect of a liberal, he rejects ethnic nationalism because it suggests "that an individual's deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen."

What he proposes instead is a "civic nationalism" which he describes as follows:

According to the civic nationalist creed, what holds a society together is not common roots but law. By subscribing to a set of democratic procedures and values, individuals can reconcile their right to shape their own lives with their need to belong to a community.

This is basically the "official" nationalism we have today in most Western countries. The idea is that we are united by a common commitment to liberal political values and practices.

The advantage of this civic form of nationalism for liberals is that it is something, in theory at least, that we can rationally and voluntarily consent to. It's a form of community that we choose for ourselves. It seems to fit in well, therefore, with liberal first principles.

In theory, nobody is excluded from the civic nation by inherited factors, such as their ethnicity. As long as you agree to uphold liberal political practices and values you can choose to belong.

Radical criticism

From the conservative point of view, civic nationalism is a very radical imposition on society. Its adoption means that the political class no longer seeks to preserve the traditional nation. In the civic nationalist view, anyone can be a member of the nation, so there can be no principled objections to ethnically diverse mass immigration.

Conservatives are therefore inclined to look upon civic nationalist politicians as being at the radical end of the political debate. We don't understand why the more moderate liberal politicians don't stand up and oppose the civic nationalists.
But we've misunderstood things. The civic nationalists are actually, in terms of liberalism, not at the radical end of the spectrum. They are, in fact, strongly criticised by more radical liberals for not going far enough.

In a 1996 edition of Critical Review, the editor, Jeffrey Friedman, surveyed the arguments of the more purist and radical liberals. He summarises their basic objections to civic nationalism as follows.

For liberals what is important are the universal qualities which define our humanity such as our "ability to choose and will freely".

Therefore, our moral obligations can't be limited to some subset of humans, but must apply to humanity in general. Civic nationalism violates this principle of liberalism, however, by claiming that we have a special obligation to fellow citizens.

Civic nationalism is therefore inegalitarian. In contrast,

A truly liberal society would encompass all human beings. It would extend any welfare benefits to all humankind, not just to those born within arbitrary borders; and far from prohibiting the importing of "foreign" workers or goods they have produced, or the exporting of jobs to them across national boundaries, it would encourage the free flow of labor, the goods, and capital ...

To put this simply, the more radical liberal attitude is that it is not only wrong to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, it is also wrong to discriminate on the basis of citizenship.

Such liberals believe that we are morally compelled to accept open borders, and that we should even encourage the export of jobs and the the import of foreign workers.

How influential is this more radical version of liberalism? On the left, it now seems close to being an orthodoxy. For instance, the former Labor Party Prime Minister of Australia, Paul Keating, is strongly against the idea of civic nationalism. He has sharply criticised those whose "exclusiveness" relies on,

constructing arbitrary and parochial distinctions between the civic and the human community ... if you ask what is the common policy of the Le Pens, the Terreblanches, Hansons and Howards of this world, in a word, it is "citizenship". Who is in and who is out.

In fact, it's possible to understand Australian politics in terms of this division between "conservative" civic nationalist liberals on the right and radical open borders liberals on the left.

The right-wing Liberal Party are civic nationalists because they still accept the legitimacy of the citizenship distinction. This means that although they support multiculturalism and high levels of foreign immigration, they still take seriously the task of enforcing the boundaries of citizenship, for instance, by acting against illegal immigration.

In contrast, left liberals in Australia typically portray these efforts to maintain citizenship distinctions as being grossly immoral. It is nearly always assumed in a middle-class liberal paper like the Melbourne Age that the "moral" position is the one which undercuts citizenship distinctions in favour of open borders.

Special consideration

Friedman himself seems sympathetic to the radical view that we don't have a particular obligation to fellow citizens. His argument for this, though, actually betrays a weakness in the liberal position as a whole. He writes,

We would be miserable if we could not treat our friends, spouses, and siblings with special consideration; but is this necessarily true of our conationals?

This argument betrays what liberals are really committing themselves to. For if it's morally wrong to feel a special connection and a special obligation to a particular "subset" of humans, then it's wrong as a matter of principle to favour our own immediate family.

Few people, though, could really put this principle into practice (Professor Peter Singer famously tried and failed). So Jeffrey Friedman applies an unprincipled exception. He simply asserts that what we can do to our conationals we could never do to our family and friends.

Conservatives would turn this argument around and apply it consistently. The fact is that we do treat our own family with special consideration because we are more closely connected and related to it than to others.

Similarly we are more closely connected to fellow members of our ethnic group than to others, an ethnic group being like a very large extended family, related not only by culture, language and history, but also by "biology", better expressed as "kinship".

Therefore, traditional ethnic nationalism reflects the "special consideration" we apply even today in our daily lives. Liberal nationalism, though, leads to the idea that logically we shouldn't have particular attachments at all: a principle which seems unpalatable and unworkable even to the most radical liberals.

As I have tried to explain in this article, though, the difficulty for conservatives is not so much asserting the greater consistency of our beliefs. The difficulty is that we don't fully grasp just how far the political class has moved away from traditional nationalism.

What we see as a radical civic nationalism is actually the more right-wing or "conservative" position on the spectrum of liberal belief. We need, therefore, to stop looking to right-wing liberals for a solution, and instead begin to reassert our own conservative principles within the political debate.

(First published at Conservative Central, 14/05/2005)

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