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.

One thought on “Notes on Nationalism as an Affective Death Spiral

  1. I’m still confident that this is a blip. The world is largely interconnected by trade. The price of going to war is too high. People are going to regain their senses eventually. People may not feel the pinch of reduced trade until they stop being able to afford their basic necessities.


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