The Relevance of Nationalism Today

Some might argue that the wave of scholarship on nationalism stimulated by decolonisation and subsequently the collapse of the USSR has run its course.  Many leading scholars of this era have departed this world—Gellner, Smith, Hobsbawm, Anderson, and Connor.   On the other hand, it is easy to point to current developments—Trump, Brexit, Windrush, Syria, North Korea, China—and argue that nationalism is implicated and still highly relevant, perhaps even resurgent.  But there are deeper reasons for believing this.  Nationalism isn’t just persistently topical, it’s deeply structural.  Let me suggest several reasons why nationalism and the need to study it are not going away anytime soon.

First, far from globalisation being a new force that is eroding the nation state and nationalism, processes of globalisation and nation formation have been entwined throughout history.  Modern nation states have been drivers of globalisation through imperialism and capitalism, as well as taking shape in reaction to those forces.  Instead, states are constitutive elements in globalisation, providing infrastructures through which globalising political, economic and cultural institutions are built.  Where we find globalisation, we should expect to find nationalism.

Second, the basic two-sided dynamic of nationalism is still with us.  On the one hand states face outward towards a world of other states with which they compete and cooperate in search of geopolitical and economic position.  This encounter generates nationalist discourses and frames of reference.  At the same time states and their political leaderships face inward in search of domestic legitimacy, articulating senses of identity, shared values, moral purpose, and so on.  States have done this to a degree throughout the ages, but in the modern era of mass politics and democracy, this dialectic between the inner and outer faces of the modern nation state is ramped up.  The Trump presidency and Brexit are current examples of this long-standing internal/external dynamic of nationalism.

Third, there is sometimes confusion about the nature of nation states, an idea that they are very fixed forms that arose the late 19th century and are now outmoded.  But a defining feature of the modern nation-state is precisely its malleability.  They can undergo substantial demographic change, swing from left to right along a political spectrum, weather profound changes in economic composition, and undergo deep shifts in dominant value orientations, all the while claiming a continuous identity, and maintaining territorial government.  Indeed internal nationalist discourses and debates are often driven by contending opinions about these changes, some seeing threat, others progress.  But the modern nation state is precisely a flexible vehicle for this rapidly evolving social composition.  It has helped make this kind of change possible.

To elaborate this point, we should think of ‘nation-building’ not as something that happened in the 19th century, but as the permanent condition of the modern nation state, particularly in its liberal democratic from.  Nation-building in such societies is never finished.  Instead it is routinised, harnessed to the political process, learning to speak a language that celebrates both a continuous identity and a restless path of development.  And the continuing spread of capitalism and democracy means that this dynamic is ever more the norm among modern states.

Fourth, it is sometimes suggested that states are giving way to a new era of the ‘global city’, but such cities have been core elements of nation states since their beginnings.   Again, this is more of the same.   The imperial nation states of Europe housed imperial cities in their heydays, and as is often noted, have been transformed by the in-migration of peoples from those empires in recent decades. For all their tendencies in the 19th and early 20th centuries to dress themselves symbolically in the rural garb of their peasant populations, it was cities that drove, and continue to drive, the development of nation states.   City people tend to be on the cutting edge of social developments.  For those distressed by the recent events of the Trump Presidency and Brexit, some consolation may be found in the fact that while people based in cities were predominantly on the losing side of these political events, it is the people in the cities who, since the beginning, have pioneered the future trends of nation states.  Time, as well as the urban dynamics of nation states, may be on your side.

Finally, it is noticeable that ‘elites’, as object of attention, have reappeared on the historical stage.  Whether as object of analysis in Thomas Picketty’s account of the direction of capitalism, or leftist Washington ‘bogeys’ in the rants of Trump, we are talking again about ‘who rules’.  This is an interesting and uncomfortable question for the nation state, which likes to blandly tell itself, ‘the people rule’.  But despite notions of democracy, popular rule, and self-government, in complex, highly stratified societies, some rule more than others.  And the question of who these rulers are becomes more acute when the ‘pie’ has stopped expanding, and indeed appears to be contracting.  While there may be global elites, there are undoubtedly national elites, which need to make, or at least support, claims about who the people ‘really’ are and how they ‘really want to govern themselves.  The nation state is still relevant because it is a key arena in which arguments will be fought out about the perennial question—who are the people, and how should they rule themselves?

Published by jshearn

Professor of Political and Historical Sociology, University of Edinburgh.

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