11 April 2008

Ethnic nationalism and the 'normal' state

Given my family's painful experiences in the divided island of Cyprus, I have a continuing interest in the impact of the various forms of ethnic nationalism on politics. It is thus with considerable ambivalence that I read Jerry Z. Muller's Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. Here is the summary of the article:

Americans generally belittle the role of ethnic nationalism in politics. But in fact, it corresponds to some enduring propensities of the human spirit, it is galvanized by modernization, and in one form or another, it will drive global politics for generations to come. Once ethnic nationalism has captured the imagination of groups in a multiethnic society, ethnic disaggregation or partition is often the least bad answer.

I can readily agree with the first two statements, but the last one makes me uneasy. It's not so much that I think he's wrong empirically but that he is straining to find a good side to the massive uprooting of millions of people who lived on the "wrong" side of arbitrary borders. Is partition and what he euphemistically calls the disaggregation of peoples really the least bad option in many cases?

I can understand why Muller comes to this conclusion, but there are flaws in his argument. To begin with, his history is sometimes a little shaky. For example:

The conventional narrative of European history asserts that nationalism was primarily liberal in the western part of the continent and that it became more ethnically oriented as one moved east. There is some truth to this, but it disguises a good deal as well. It is more accurate to say that when modern states began to form, political boundaries and ethnolinguistic boundaries largely coincided in the areas along Europe's Atlantic coast. Liberal nationalism, that is, was most apt to emerge in states that already possessed a high degree of ethnic homogeneity. Long before the nineteenth century, countries such as England, France, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden emerged as nation-states in polities where ethnic divisions had been softened by a long history of cultural and social homogenization (emphasis mine).

The phrases I've italicized are problematic at best. France, for example, has always been linguistically diverse, including Basques, Bretons, Corsicans and vast numbers of speakers of Occitan or what has often been labelled the Langue d'oc in the south of the country. Homogenization was deliberately cultivated by the Bourbon monarchs over the course of more than two centuries and was continued by the post-revolution régimes. Much the same can be said of Spain, with its Castilian Spaniards, Catalan-speakers, Basques and Galicians. In this respect, José Ortega y Gasset is closer to the mark in recognizing that, historically speaking, the state has created the nation — at least in the west.

Yet the upshot of Muller's argument seems to be that the modern democratic welfare state depends on an internal homogeneity of the sort sought for and achieved by the ethnic nationalists of the 19th and 20th centuries:

These ethnically homogeneous polities have displayed a great deal of internal solidarity, moreover, facilitating government programs, including domestic transfer payments, of various kinds. When the Swedish Social Democrats were developing plans for Europe's most extensive welfare state during the interwar period, the political scientist Sheri Berman has noted, they conceived of and sold them as the construction of a folkhemmet, or "people's home."

The establishment of welfare states, with their pretence of implementing domestic social justice, seems to have come at the expense of creating millions of refugees — ethnic minorities, such as Greeks, Jews and Armenians, who were either more educated and entrepreneurially skilled than the majority population or became scapegoats simply because they were perceived to be "foreign." This seems a rather high price to be paid for "social justice" and it would appear to differ from Soviet-style communism only by degree rather than in kind.

I have a visceral distaste for Muller's argument, due primarily to the events of 1974 in Cyprus. Yet there may be something to it all the same. I quote Muller again: "Once ethnic nationalism has captured the imagination of groups in a multiethnic society, ethnic disaggregation or partition is often the least bad answer."

What if we were to understand this statement empirically instead of normatively? In my own Political Visions and Illusions I argue that accepting the idolatrous worldviews undergirding the ideologies will inevitably have social and political consequences. This is what I attempt to demonstrate in discussing the five stages in the development of liberalism in chapter two of this book. When people come to believe the false gospel of nationalism, they will inevitably incur the negative results of so doing. This may include the partition of one's own country and the loss of one's home, as cruel and painful as that may be to the ordinary people caught up in this. I do not believe it can ever be a just option in the normative political sense. Yet I have to wonder whether it might effectively constitute a kind of divine judgement on those who persist in investing the nation with redemptive hopes.

This is all the more reason to confront nationalistic claims when they occur, recognizing the legitimacy of communal solidarity while challenging those who would subordinate the diverse loyalties properly characterizing ordinary human life to the jealous demands of the god of nation.

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