Why Nationalism Persists

I, like many left leaning liberals, attempt to persuade my centre-right counterparts against nationalist apology and constantly warn against its allure. Nationalism encapsulates an implicit belief of superiority above all other existing nations and their associated citizens. This belief, when transformed into its toxic form, is often accompanied with the more tangible xenophobia or racism i.e. nationalism is welded with a racial group, becoming dissociated with the more benign civic nationalism that sees the nation as a holistic entity. In other words, the nationalists become more tightly bound with the help of an unfortunate target, that is gradually taken aim at and used as something to deplore. This facet of nationalism has been the chosen ideological banner flown by the men that have committed horrendous genocide, which has included, but is not limited to, the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the slaughters in Rwanda and Japanese barbarism against the Chinese. The horrors of nationalism have left many in the past tending toward the wounded, and under the guise of Steve Bannon’s “economic nationalism,” Le Pen’s National Front or the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – which has incidentally osmosed into the conservative party – nationalism appears to be once again ceasing the populist tone in the West. This ideological brand does more than just persist, it seems to evidentially thrive in the mind of the human and multiply in response to a perceived oppressor – whether that be the immigrant, Jew, globalist or Muslim. Given all the horrors of the past and partitions it imparts to otherwise friendly people, it’s hard to fathom why the idea of nationalism is repeatedly selected for as an idea worth survival by swathes of the western population.

Over the years, people have erected an incredible network of imagined stories that’ve given rise to religions, private limited companies and the nation state. These imagined realities aren’t lies as such, but rather something that everyone has agreed to believe in, and as long as a collective narrative persists, it’ll be free to gain power in the world. This is exactly how the Catholic Church has survived over the centuries, despite the priests being obliged to swear off sex: by using imagination to pass on the stories of the New Testament and the laws it entails, rather than through any kind of objective biological mechanism. The idea of a nation state, in addition, is not an objective fact but rather a cabal of stories that’ve captured the imaginations of billions. The concept of some land being England, or some coins being of the currency Sterling, for instance, only exists in a shared but imagined reality of the people who live there, and the people from other countries who also believe that those people living on an island somewhere in the North Sea are English; the notion of England, consequently, is not a materialistic fact of the universe, but an agreed upon fiction.

In order to have survived in the collective conscious for so long, the idea of the nation state and the nationalism that’s born of it, must’ve provided some adaptive value that benefited those who believed in the idea in comparison to those who didn’t. Thus, nationalism must have an adaptive use for the idea to persist, instead of being automatically overwritten by a story that lends itself more readily to survival in the world.

One stanza of reasoning given for how nationalism survives postulates that this idea instils cooperation and social cohesion within a population. For instance, nationalism has enabled us to create a passion for the idealised soil of which we were born, as well as our compatriots who are often strangers of whom we will never meet. Nationalism, then, creates a blueprint for the sharing resources with those outside our narrow family, tribe or community. We pay taxes to a national government for that money to then be redistributed to people situated around the country. The nationalist, therefore, will sacrifice their own resources for the good of the nation and its people – expecting the same in return. Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labour, shares this sentiment and opines that the sense of a shared identity makes welfare, social security and nationally funded medical programmes much more likely to occur and become sustainable. Nationalism, in other words, is reciprocal altruism on a mass scale; I scratch the nations back and the nation scratches mine.

Nationalists often speak of “our” country as though they have shares in the prosperousness of the nation. This is what nationalism gives: an automatic share in the spoils of the land and the right to an identity. Classic cognitive developmental theories, like those of Juan Piaget, suggest that infants’ transition from an egocentric perception to a sociocentric perception of the world, as they construct group memberships to fulfil a basic human need. According to an essay by Daniel Druckman, “At the level of the nation, the group fulfils economic, sociocultural, and political needs, giving individuals a sense of security, a feeling of belonging, and prestige.” An important segment of human development is the formation of one’s identity, and a sense of national attachment can provide a kind of shortcut to the construction of a needed identity and group companionship, which gives individuals a strong incentive to keep the idea of nationalism floating around in our imagined reality. Nationalism, thus, offers easy access to an identity as well as the protection of a group once that identity is adopted.

The idea of nationalism perhaps persists more strongly in the shared psyche of our collectively formed imagined realities because of how we have evolved. For instance, it has been posited that altruistic behaviour directed toward kin and similar others has evolved to help the propagation of closely shared genes. Since the people within an ethnic group, in general, more closely resemble one another genetically, it has been thought that it makes sense to then form a mass group conglomerate around the shared story of nationalism. This would then provide a wider base for gene propagation and an increase in success for any genetic offspring, due to – and as aforementioned—the greater pool of resources a national framework provides. Over the span of a nation, however, the genetic diversity is likely to be sparse, which undermines such an evolutionary reason for the existence of such a shared imagined reality of nationhood. But, the collectively shared story of nationalism, in comparison to the old reality of warring tribes, offers a greater chance of gene propagation and health, despite an increase in overall genetic diversity. This thinking may also provide a provisional reason for why nationalism is so easily combined with xenophobia and plain racism. As a nationalist, you can be altruistic to those who look similar, and are therefore more likely to share your genetic code, but outright damning to those you heuristically propose do not share your genetic material. In fact, this behaviour would’ve been adaptive to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. As people, back then, who looked different were more likely to be competition, rather than an ally. The likes of Trump, Bannon, Farage and Marine Le pen are often culpable of adjusting the nationalist idea to include an oppressor that does not share the average ethnicity or social customs of a nation – creating an enemy tribe to the treasured story of the pure nation.

It can be said, then, that the imagined reality of nationalism has provided an expanded network of cooperation and reciprocal altruism. This shared idea has given us a platform to move on from our more simplistic tendencies of tribalism, into a more unified whole that constitutes a nation. It is more comfortable for us to share an identity with a group and more bountiful: as an extended group, bought together by a shared idea, can gather and offer more resources as well protection. Nationalism has been directly responsible for sowing the seeds of social cohesion, which has made national goods, such as the welfare state and health care, more sustainable. However, the imagined reality of a nation state appears to be inextricably linked to the evolutionarily adaptive heuristic of gene and, therefore, tribe similarity. This makes the idea susceptible to politically operatives who would like to disseminate fear and hatred of the ethnic “other,” or those who do not share all of a nation’s customs. Nationalism has shown humans can come together to form massive groups based on nothing but a shared, yet fictional, reality. Liberals just have to curtail its excesses.


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