Sunday, June 01, 2008

Civic nationalism has no future

On what basis do nations exist? It was once thought that a nation was a people sharing a common ethnicity living together in the same country and governed by their own state.

This kind of nationalism fell out of favour in the modern West because it was held to discriminate on the basis of an unchosen quality, namely ethnicity. It was replaced by a civic nationalism, in which membership of a nation was determined by citizenship, and in which national identity was based on liberal political values, such as non-discrimination.

But can a civic nationalism do the job? Can it maintain the existing nations of the West? The answer seems to be clearly no.

One problem is that a civic nationalism blurs the boundaries of what is or isn't part of a nation. For instance, if it is a belief in liberal poltical values which makes me an Australian, then why can't people everywhere who believe in the same values also be considered a part of my nation?

And if it is a belief in liberal political values that defines a nation, then why shouldn't nations be merged together if there is an economic or diplomatic advantage in doing so? Why not abandon the traditional nations of Europe in order to build a European Union? Why not abandon Australia to build a Pacific Union?

There's one further problem with a civic nationalism. The older type of nationalism was rejected on the grounds that it discriminated against people. But so too does civic nationalism: it discriminates between citizens and non-citizens. Therefore, it will increasingly be seen by the more rigorously intellectual types as being immoral and illegitimate.

Enter Professor Peter Spiro, author of Beyond Citizenship: American Identity After Globalization. He has done what intellectuals will inevitably do, and taken the ideas of civic nationalism to their logical conclusion.

His argument is that a territorial citizenship is becoming increasingly more difficult to justify. If being an American is based on liberal political ideals, then membership of the nation should include those living outside America who agree with these ideals:

But here's something that really is new: the underinclusion of members-in-fact outside the territory of the United States.

One of the commenters on my first post pressed the proposition that America is an idea. That's completely consistent with strong civic notions of American citizenship and identity.

At one time, that idea was distinct. No longer. The American idea of constitutional democracy has gone global. That's American's triumph, but it may also be its downfall.

As I ask in the book, if that person in Bangalore wants to take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, on what grounds can we deny him membership? ... And what of the child born in Juarez, whose interests and identity will be connected to El Paso, Austin and Washington ... but who has the bad luck to have been born a mile on the wrong side of the line? ...

So: whatever it means to be American, it's everywhere. But that makes it all the harder to draw the membership line in a meaningful way.

Another person to have followed through with the logic of civic nationalism is the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. He has called for the European Union to be extended to include non-European countries. Specifically he wants the countries of the Mahgreb (North Africa) and the Middle East to join a European Union free trade association "not as an alternative to membership, but potentially as a step towards it". Miliband believes that such an enlarged EU would develop shared values and overcome an east/west divide, whilst providing trade and investment opportunities. This is where civic nationalism leads: to membership of a state with no definable borders.

Finally, there's the issue of citizenship and discrimination. Our former PM, Paul Keating, was in the vanguard on this issue, railing against the "exclusiveness" of civic nationalism which involves:

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.

For Keating, it was "parochial" to establish any kind of community other than an international "human" community. Keating thought that a civic nationalism was a radical, extremist form of discrimination.

Lawrence Auster wrote a good post recently on this theme, in which he observed that:

To a consistent liberal, and thus to a consistent libertarian, there can be no justification for any kind of unequal or exclusionary treatment. If a country comes into existence by the use of force (as all countries throughout history have done), well, the use of force is a form of inequality and oppression, meaning that the country is illegitimate. If a country simply exists as a country with borders, its very existence distinguishes between members and non-members and thus it violates the equal freedom of all humans and is illegitimate. If a country has a state, that represents a further inequality in which some people exercise power over others. If a country elects its government through democratic elections, that means that the majority has more power than the minority, which is also a violation of equality.

As I've said many times, liberalism, consistently applied, is incompatible with the existence of any organic, self-governing institution or society, since all such societies and institutions violate the liberal principle of the equal freedom of all human persons.

The nations of the West will not be held together by civic nationalism. The logic of a civic nationalism is toward its own dissolution.


  1. Excellent post, Mark.

    Far from being less discriminatory, civic nationalism has merely created an egregious set of ethnic/racial double standards.

    For example, the European and European-descended peoples of the West are incessantly told by their elites that they must accept all immigrants, irrespective on their ethnicity or race, into their national communities. Yet, this unilateral rejection of ethnic nationalism by Western elites has meant that although Western countries are expected to open their doors to every ethnic, racial, cultural and religious group under the sun, non-Western nations are still free to exclude dissimilar peoples from their national communities on the basis of ethnicity/race.

    Clearly, there is nothing equitable about extirpating the historic ethnic character of Western nations while the rest of the world's nations are permitted to preserve their ethnic identities.

  2. Nations are built from blood and soil; not paper and government. “Western” or better called European Civilization is the product people of European blood.

    I recall the paleoconservative syndicated columnist Samuel Francis said "The civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people, nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted to a different people."