Most people are nationalists, including you, most likely. We tend to think that we have a pretty good handle on what nationalist politics looks and sounds like. It’s people waving flags and banging on about national destiny, the greatness of the people and the justness of its status as a self-determining, sovereign political entity, the perfidy and inevitable doom of its enemies. This is usually mixed with healthy doses of chauvinistic disdain for other nations and attacks on internal outsiders corrupting the otherwise pure national character. The recent upsurge in nationalist politics has largely fitted this description, although of course all nationalisms are different.
This ‘nasty nationalism’ is widely abhorred by both liberals and socialists due to its reactionary repudiation of the kind of universal values these groups share. Prioritizing a particular nation above all is in tension with both liberal rights and class solidarity. But it is far from the only form of nationalism and perhaps not even the most pernicious, as its character is at least fairly obvious, bedecked as it often is in a literal flag.
Nationalism is a ripe target for a kind of principled disdain, because it inevitably relies on false claims about the historical, cultural, and political unity of peoples in territories. The received wisdom is, roughly, that national narratives are all bullshit and we can all be a bit smug about how dumb and backwards those nasty nationalists are. It is maybe OK to indulge the occasional secessionist movement, like in Scotland and Catalonia, out of a slightly patronising pragmatism. Such movements are seen as misguided in their cultural fantasies and sub-optimal in prioritising secession over socialism, but insofar as they could usefully disrupt some deeply atrophied, structurally corrupt states and represent an invigoratingly optimistic rebelliousness, they are kind of charming. Beyond these debatable exceptions, nationalism is just bunk.
It is tempting to conclude that nationalism is the preserve of the bigoted and unenlightened and is mainly an obfuscatory ideological tool with which the capitalist class keeps the masses weak and divided.
Nationalism and nationhood are ‘social constructs’ they are not fixed, natural features of the world but historically contingent and produced only in and by human actions. So, just like other social constructions like property, gender and language, nations and nationalisms can be made and unmade, criticised, reformed and abolished. It is vital to recognise, however, that social constructs are not ‘mere illusions’ - they are more than real enough to have a huge impact on our lives.
Social constructions are made and remade every day by the innumerable actions of their many author-participants. When we want to critique or change them, therefore, we should first understand and identify the contexts in which such actions occur. We must ask ourselves: when do we, as individuals and groups, contribute to the continual remaking of national(ist) distinctions?
The ‘construction’ of nationalism occurs not just when we wave our flags and insult foreigners - rather, nationalism is a structural feature of our political world, meaning that it is deeply embedded in our everyday political practices. This means that it is virtually impossible to participate effectively in politics without being nationalistic, often in ways that are so basic and so obvious as to seem both invisible and irrelevant.
It is not always so easy to notice such structural features of our experiences and activities. Foundational social constructions, like the nation - or language, gender, property etc. - are like lenses through which we see the world. I wear conventional spectacles and so can very easily pull my gaze back and literally see the frames and the edges of my glasses, with blurred reality outside the boundary. It is rather harder to do this with social ‘lenses’ in order to understand the ways in which they shape our reality and thus the potential to shape it differently. Nationalism is therefore harder to avoid than its critics imagine.
I became viscerally aware of this during the Scottish Independence Referendum campaign in 2014, when it was pointed out that the pro-Union, anti-independence campaign was thoroughly hypocritical in critiquing of the pro-independence campaign simply for being nationalistic. This is hypocritical because defending the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is itself an essentially nationalist project. The critique amounted to little more than ‘nationalism is a backwards ideology, except ours’. Except this last clause was never made explicit and it had quite plausibly never occurred to those critiquing Scottish independence as ‘nasty nationalism’ that they were actually just announcing their preference for the rival British nation as the relevant bearer of sovereign authority, no more or less arbitrary than the Scottish nation, just with the conservative advantage of incumbency. Rather than a high-minded rejection of all nationalism, this was really a case of competing nationalisms.
This is what I call ‘implicit nationalism’. We are implicitly nationalist when we disavow nationalism but otherwise operate as usual within the established nationalist framework. This nationalist framework is made up of the fundamental units of organised political power in the world, namely (nation-) states. We still live in a world where the basic principles of Westphalianism and 19th century nationalism are of paramount importance: states are sovereign within their territories; nations are bounded social units, each distinct from the others; and each nation ought to have control of its own state.
Even though both sovereignty and nationhood involve highly dubious claims about how societies work, they nevertheless play foundational roles in our political practices, especially the current organisation of formal political power. It is important that we highlight the distorting effect these concepts have on our politics - the bad histories and irrational divisions they create. But we should not simply pretend that they can be wholly repudiated just by rejecting explicitly nationalist rhetoric.
It is very difficult to avoid implicit nationalism when engaging in competition for state power. The arguments made in national politics must, by definition, appeal to voters defined in nationalistic terms - only citizens have the vote, not all residents. And the public sphere, cultural context and media environment in which political competition takes place is also to a large extent delimited nationalistically - most fundamentally because of the different national languages in which political debates take place. The public sphere is not usually hermetically sealed, of course, but it is definitely insulated by linguistic differences and nationally demarcated media.
The nationalistic structure of our politics means that this kind of nationalism is the default assumption, the standard framework for political activity. Like other problematic default assumptions, such as those of masculinity and whiteness, just heedlessly doing conventional politics involves implicitly embracing and thus perpetuating the structural facts of nationalism. Implicit nationalism thus need not involve any of the flag waving vulgarity associated with nasty nationalism. Implicit nationalism is thus the default framing of all politics, left and right, flags or no flags.
The left is often guilty of implicit nationalism. On the left, implicit nationalism often involves rhetorically endorsing the need to build international class solidarity and an effective movement that straddles national boundaries, in order to effectively take on global capital. Very often, however, the call for international solidarity remains just that - a call - while the vast majority of actual political work happens at the national level. There is, of course, some cooperation between leftists of different countries, but this mostly focuses on sharing policy ideas and strategies for national politics, not a coordinated international campaign aiming, say, to win elections in multiple countries on a common platform.
An international socialist movement is surely a desirable goal. But the left must be honest with itself about how far aware we still are from achieving it. And it should beware of the risk that, rather than engaging seriously with building such a movement from our current, nationalistic starting point, it is instead mostly just offering largely ritualistic condemnations of nationalism and endorsements of internationalism. Such relatively vacuous pronouncements do little to counteract the implicit nationalism of most actual left strategy.
So what should the left (in the global North, specifically) do about implicit nationalism? We can start by trying to make explicit that which is implicit - namely that politics is constrained by nationalist facts. This means confronting difficult realities, such as that having nice things in one country, like generous welfare states, currently relies to some extent on depriving people in other countries. This is obviously not at all easy to grapple with while trying to win national elections.
Leftists often contend that a focus on material issues and economic power is the best political strategy. Whether or not a more affective or cultural dimension would help as a general matter, we should be open about the nationalistic assumptions that underlie such material offers to workers of more pay or better services - that these will be paid for by ‘national’ wealth accumulated through the exploitation of other peoples and made available to only citizens of the nation. Of course, this won’t be necessary if we can identify policies that materially benefit rich and poor nations simultaneously…so good luck with that!
Something similar applies if we wish to advance a more boldly internationalist agenda, such as advocating for hugely liberalised immigration regimes (all the way up to ’open borders’) or reparative transformations of our relations to poorer countries. These radical policies are most easily defended in terms of universal principles of solidarity and historical critiques of the origins of global injustice. I agree with these arguments, but I worry that they are utopian in a bad way - divorced from the material realities of power and thus liable to bring a feeling of righteousness rather than actual success.
To make such arguments, we should acknowledge their relationship to the nationalist status quo. This could involve including an explicit critique of the nation in general and our nation in particular, trying to persuade voters to jettison their own ingrained nationalistic biases. Or perhaps it could involve an attempt to radically re-define nationhood in internationalist, solidaristic terms - to argue that what it does or should really mean to be British or American involves pursuing justice globally, that even if this is costly to us in a material sense, the gains in national pride would be more than worth it. This might qualify as a genuinely progressive form of nationalism.
Both of these options are very difficult. The first involves running against the very nation you seek to govern while the second requires re-constructing national identities with narratives and values that are historically anathema to national projects. But the alternatives are not promising either. One option is to stick with materialism and principled internationalism and continue to wait for the long-promised collapse of the capitalist order, nation-states included, when such true socialist arguments will finally win the day, as material conditions demand. Another option - or an element of the first - is to eschew national politics entirely, thus sidestepping some of the challenges of implicit nationalism, and instead focus on building the world-revolution outside of existing democratic institutions. Neither of these has much chance of succeeding.
We can and should still aspire to eliminate national distinctions - or, at least, their enormous political significance. But while we may aspire and aim at a decentralised global federation of non-sovereign entities (or is that just me?), we should not kid ourselves that we live in a non-nationalist world or that just by putting down our flags we somehow thereby become full-fledged internationalists. We should not be implicit nationalists.