Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Changing nations

What forms the basis of a national identity? Conservatives would answer that ethnicity does. Real historical ties of ancestry, language, culture and religion are what give people a deeper feeling of a common identity.

Liberals, though, reject ethnic identity. They believe, as a first principle, that we should be self-created by our own reason and will. Since ethnicity is not created out of our own reason and will, but is inherited, it takes on negative connotations in a liberal society.

Liberals prefer the alternative of a civic nationalism, in which we form a communal identity through a common commitment to liberal political practices and values. This is the form of nationalism which is now dominant in Western societies.


Can civic nationalism provide a viable form of national identity? There are reasons to think not.

As I detailed previously (here and here), even the leading exponents of civic nationalism have conceded that it's a shallow form of identity compared to ethnic nationalism.

Even worse, civic nationalism is unable to provide stable or meaningful definitions of national identity. If your national identity is defined by liberal politics, then anyone is potentially part of your nation. It becomes difficult to see any logical limitations on what constitutes a nation, either in terms of populace or boundaries.

We are already beginning to see the ramifications of this aspect of civic nationalism. For instance, liberals in Europe believe that people are European by virtue of their commitment to liberal politics.

This means that Turkey is now being considered for membership of the European Union, despite the fact that it's an Asian country. Some commentators are also looking forward to the day when an African country like Morocco joins the EU.

Suddenly, the historical concept of Europe has shifted to the point at which the word "European" would seem to lack any stable or useful meaning.


Nor is the EU the only example of an identity made radically unstable by civic nationalism.

In August 2003, an Australian Senate committee proposed the formation of a Pacific Economic and Political Community (PEPC). In their report, the Committee stated that:

The discussion concerning the feasibility of a Pacific economic and political community is set out in Chapter Three. In essence, it proposes a Pacific community which will eventually have one currency, one labour market, common strong budgetary and fiscal discipline, democratic and ethical governance, shared defence and security arrangements, common laws and resolve in fighting crime, and, health, welfare, education and environmental goals.

This is, to all intents and purposes, a federal union. Australia would become a state within a larger national entity.

The proposal would join Australia together with New Zealand, PNG and 14 smaller countries. Obviously this would dramatically shift the national identity of those of us now living in Australia. And what is to prevent further changes in the future? Would this new Pacific Union one day join together with a South-East Asian Union?

Note how blithely this committee, representing all the political parties, is willing to contemplate such a radical overthrow of the existing national identity (there were three Labor senators, one National Party, one Liberal Party and one Australian Democrat on the committee).

There is nothing within civic nationalism to anchor a national identity to a particular people or a particular place. That's why it's hard to take a civic identity seriously, as what it frames as "the nation" now may not be so tomorrow.

(First published at Conservative Central, 11/10/2004)

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