Notes on Nationalism as an Affective Death Spiral

Some lightly edited thoughts from Twitter.

Nationalism shares many traits with religion. For example, at most only one species of each can be true: If the members of my national group enjoy an elevated ethical value, then the members of your group cannot be their equal. Nationalisms are mutually exclusive.

It is strange, then, that intense nationalism – again like religion – seems to come in waves. It’s hard to measure this with any precision, but the 1840s, the 1930s, and today all seem to have had an outsized amount of nationalism to them. The fact that nationalism happens in waves suggests that the cause of nationalism is exogenous to the nation itself: Something is happening worldwide that coordinates the rise, and maybe the fall, of nationalist sentiment.

If the causes of nationalism are not well explained with reference to the in-group, then perhaps they are better explained at least in part with reference to the out-group: Perhaps nationalism is not best characterized as an elevated feeling of love for one’s co-nationalists, but as a mistrust of outsiders.

And if that is the case, then we have a clear mechanism for worldwide waves of nationalism: Mistrust in one group begets mistrust in another. This secondary mistrust is not entirely unfounded; after all, the primary mistruster has just signaled that they mistrust you.

But a rising mistrust that is founded on a rising mistrust is like a speculative bubble. It’s not sustainable, because eventually the mistrust begins to strain credulity. Or (much worse) it begins to cause the affected individuals to lash out, and the speculative bubble ends in a war.

There is more than coincidence here, because both our nationalist bubble and that of the 1930s had a financial crisis just before. Can it be that financial bubbles teach people to mistrust, and that the habit gets easily channeled into nationalist mistrust?

Look around: Is it not the case that this is an age of fear of Latinos, fear of Muslims, fear of almost any outsider? (No: Don’t tell me that the fear is justified. You’ll only supply an example for my point.) I remember other times. I remember patriotic times. We were patriotic as all hell at the fall of the Soviet Union. Something’s different now, is it not?

The existence of a tendency to mistrust outsiders likely had an evolutionary origin; outsiders could be dangerous, after all. But now we exist in a huge and complex web of commerce, one that extends far beyond the small bands in which we first evolved. We have developed various methods of extending trust beyond our evolved comfort zones; the nation itself can be understood as one of them. The market of course is another, and a much more important one for delivering high standards of living. But these mechanisms are a layer that sits uneasily atop some very dangerous instincts. Politics exploits the instinct to mistrust, and the result is a nationalism that feeds on itself, from one nation to the next.

A Perennial Politics

As a historian, I am sometimes asked why communism grew so popular in the 19th century. I always say that communism promised stability. Not only that, but it promised stability soon, and it did so in a contemporary idiom. Marx did the best of any of the communists at tapping into the conservative disposition, and in channeling that disposition into a form that spoke to both workers’ and intellectuals’ fears about the sudden, violent disruptions taking place around them.

My take tends not to go over too well.

Weren’t Marxists revolutionaries, and not conservatives? Indeed they were. But read their founder again. Read him with an eye to stability. Consider how badly he wants to restore it:

The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.

The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe.

Marx did not promise to arrest this process of change just where it stood, of course. Rather he predicted that there was a light at the end of the tunnel: following one last great revolution, the stability we craved would finally return.

The nineteenth century welcomed his prediction for reasons that were entirely understandable. Marx was not wrong when he wrote that the bourgeoisie was upending everything. They were.

In a sense they still are, because we have never truly left the era of the Industrial Revolution. That’s one reason why in the modern era nearly all political promises are promises of stability. You rarely get far in politics without making such a promise.

Programmatic politics just about always promises a general stability. A modest politics will arrest our development. A radical politics will return us to a time when things were better. Politics at its very most radical – like Marxism – will neither arrest our development, nor return us to a bygone era, but will – such radicalism! – bring us a new stability, a still more stable stability. A millennium, as Christian critics of Marx correctly noted.

Thus a perennial political theory is that politics brings, or should bring, stability. The only question is how. The desire for stasis is not new, of course. It’s Platonic. As Plato wrote in the Laws:

Any change whatever, except the change of an evil thing, is the gravest of all the treacherous dangers that can befall a thing – whether it is now a change of season, or of wind, or of the diet of the body, or of the character of the soul. This statement applies to everything.

Even today’s radical right-wing politics can hardly think itself past this perennial desire for stability, at least in some senses. Modern radical right-wing voices have always denounced our current instability – the instability of liberalism, of capitalism, and of Jewishness interfering with the ancient Aryan order.

On the one hand, I can’t quite believe that I’m typing a sentence like that. And on the other: Dang it, people, if you’re gonna end our decadent bourgeois civilization, can’t you at least come up with something new to think about while you’re at it?

The radicals of the right see the worst excesses of the French Revolution et cetera and declare that eventually all of this will pass away. Which of course is true. All things pass away.

Then comes the perennial fantasy: a kind of order will reassert itself, because that’s what orders do. The endgame is stasis. The 1,000-Year Reich, or the imagined timelessness of dynastic monarchy (which was never timeless in practice, actually, but always timeless in its own propaganda), or perhaps they just imagine a return to the evolutionary primitive, which constitutes a kind of stasis when compared to the rapid change inherent in capitalist orders.

I don’t think they consider that even if Cthulhu always swims to the left, the retro-future is unlikely to take the forms that they envision. The reason why we always dream of stability in politics is not because we used to have it, but because we have never had it, least of all in the capitalist order.

Against this perennial politics, a liberal dynamism is a much harder sell. If you go by Plato, to be a dynamist is to embrace and accept a role for evil itself. I might say rather that dynamism is realistic. Rather than raging, implausibly, against the fact that all things pass away, it incorporates this fact into its picture of the world. And thus at every step it admits that the order we know is flawed and provisional. In this a liberal dynamism is more like ordinary life than it is like high political theory.