Nationalism, in Passing

Early in my career, I went to a presentation by a well-known anthropologist whose work I liked a lot. It was a good presentation, but the last quarter of it or so was devoted to a very loose, speculative argument that current structures of globalization had already effectively made nations obsolete in a great many ways. This wasn’t the conservative version of this argument, about the supranational authority of a “new world order”, but instead an argument that the movement of goods, people, media, money and so on across borders had already undercut the underlying pretenses of Westphalian sovereignty, just like the existence of borderlands, refugees, cosmopolitan enclaves, shadow states, NGOs, MNCs, and other non-national constructs with considerable social power in the contemporary world. The presenter argued that it would take some time before that reality became explicit and visible at the conceptual level, however. In a way, his presentation reminded me of the picture Neal Stephenson draws in Snow Crash, in which the vestigal apparatus of the nation-state has been reduced to something to nothing more than a flag of convenience, a commodified service used when needed.

My response at the time was that this was a bit like concluding that because the social and intellectual authority of Christianity over temporal life had been seriously eroded by the end of the 19th Century, religion itself would soon follow. “God is dead”, ran the argument, “so religion will soon die”. “Sovereignty is dead”, so too the nation? The first supposition was wrong, and I expect that the second is as well.

On the other hand, it has never been more clear than right now that many social mobilizations carried out in the name of the nation do not cut deeply into the identities or consciousness of those social actors. Official elites in many postcolonial African nations speak on behalf of the nation, but very little of what they concretely do when they invoke the nation has anything to do with the classic conception of sovereign national interest. Many social and political movements across the world which now compete with national governments for authority or influence scarcely even bother to invoke national interest any longer. They do not try to formulate themselves as a loyally national alternative to the party or group presently in power. And just as the presentation I heard some years ago suggested, more and more people live in places or communities where the nation holds little sway, or where it is openly understood to be a paper tiger, a farce.

I’m thinking about this terrain partly because I’m still struggling with the concluding chapter of a manuscript in which I want to talk about sovereignty and nation-making in post-1960 Africanist scholarship as well as on the ground in Zimbabwe.

However, I’m also thinking about it the past few weeks in the context of reportage about the presidential race in the United States. One of the narratives that has really come together in the past month from reporters is about undercurrents of racism, xenophobia, and exclusivist ideas about “real America” swirling around inside the McCain campaign.

Keeping in mind that it is very hard to know just how typical or widespread these kinds of views actually are, it’s still interesting to think about the way many of these views basically kick over the traces of anything remotely resembling conventional loyalty to the nation as an abstract institution. In this view, the American nation is only “real America” if it is governed by people who closely correspond to the religious, ethnic, political, social and moral character of one group of Americans. The institutions of the United States hold no residual legitimacy in this view, so if the wrong kind of person with the wrong kinds of views or identity is elected to national office, there isn’t any need to acknowledge that person’s authority as an expression of national will or imbued with national power, as acting on behalf of a nationally-defined “people”.

What we end up with is social actors whose primary point of commitment is to local community, to civic organization, to religious congregation, to a highly particular belief system, who paper over that commitment with a thin veneer of rhetoric about Americanness but with no particular loyalty to national institutions if they are not narrowly aligned to some sectarian project. For example, the kind of fringe sentiment on the religious right that Obama is the anti-Christ, which may speak about loyalty to the United States of America in passing, but which is really about a commitment to some post-national or non-national form of social identity.

It may be that contemporary nations do not need strongly felt loyalties that cut deep into the selfhood of national citizens in order to mobilize power on behalf of the nation. Maybe in fact they never needed that kind of subjectivity on a constant or regular basis, just as religion as an institution turns out to have had far less need for constant temporal enforcement of theological doctrine than secular European thinkers at the end of the 19th Century sometimes assumed.

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8 Responses to Nationalism, in Passing

  1. nord says:

    “For example, the kind of fringe sentiment on the religious right that Obama is the anti-Christ, which may speak about loyalty to the United States of America in passing, but which is really about a commitment to some post-national or non-national form of social identity.”

    I love it. As someone who supports neither, but is far, far, far closer to McCain than Obama, I look at this statement and think, “what does Bill Ayers think?” What do most people who live in Cambridge, Ann Arbor, Ithaca, State College, and Berkeley feel about loyalty to the United States of America? The Weather Underground planted their bombs because dissent is the highest form of patriotism, no doubt.

    Call it a cheap shot, but really, the vitrol against Obama is about the same as it was against Kerry. And for all the whining from the Obama campaign, I don’t want to think what would have been said if Clinton had been the nominee. We’d be shown vincent foster and monica look-a-likes at rethuglican rallies, with strong undercurrents of anti-lesbian, plural marriages…

    In a crisis, communities come together. After 9/11, it was only the move-on crowd that was on the outside. Bush may have squandered that atmosphere, but crank issues, be it creationism, pro/con abortion, death penalty, redistributive economics (not those between $150-$200k!), will not bring the country together.

  2. hestal says:

    There are two Golden Rules in our divided America:

    The Liberto-Golden Rule of Reciprocity

    You are to love your neighbors as yourself, and to do this you must protect their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    The Tyranno-Golden Rule of Reciprocity

    You are to love your neighbors as yourself, and to do this you must convert them to your religion, or political party, or skin color, or gender, or sexual orientation.

    There are two political parties: Liberto and Tyranno.

    The Tyranno Party feels an almost divine right to rule. They have a deep sense of certainty about the world and how it should be, and they alone have access to this certitude. And they are exclusionary or, in certain circumstances, separatist. They have been around for a very long time. For nearly two centuries they were called Democrats and dominated the South. One of their leaders, R. Albert Mohler, published “Culture Shift” earlier this year and in it he calls for the removal of this group???? children from the public schools as a first step toward creating a new nation.

    These two Americas have always been here because they are a function of the two basic human natures. So the argument is old, uncomfortable, but far less dangerous than it was two centuries ago.

  3. AndrewSshi says:


    I wonder, though, if the whole “real America” business is an aggressive regionalism or if it’s not more of a strong believe in a unitary, sea-to-sea America, but one that their opponents absolutely should not govern under any circumstances. Kind of like, say, a Ba’ath insurgent from sometime before 2007 who loved his country as a whole too much to see it governed by a clutch of clerics in Najaf.

  4. moldbug says:

    What’s especially funny is the Whig technique of exploiting nationalism as a stalking horse for liberal imperialism, then discarding it like a used tampon once it’s served its nefarious purpose.

    A fine example is Ireland. In the 19th century, if you were a liberal or a radical or an American, by which I repeat myself, you believed that the fiery, poetic temper of the soulful Celt could never be subdued, there would be bloodshed as long as Dublin was under London’s iron yoke, and the only solution was Home Rule or better yet independence. After a satisfactory level of carnage, this great feat was accomplished. Glory, Columbia! And now, of course, all good liberals believe that Dublin should be under Brussels’s infinitely good and caring yoke. Conclusion: consistency is for the weak.

    Similarly, Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe both proclaimed that Washington and London wanted to tell them how to run their countries. Can you really say they were lying? Of course, Washington and London wanted Smith to put in Mugabe. Now they want Mugabe to put in Tsvangirai. The former eventually had to knuckle under, courtesy of the appeaser Vorster. The latter will do no such thing. That’s soft power for you: the ratchet works in one direction. And the tree shall be known by its fruit.

  5. moldbug says:


    Your fanaticism lends itself well to an inadvertently comical description of your own party. Where do you think “public policy” comes from, anyway? The Wasilla Assemblies of God? What is power if not the practice of making policy? You are pretty much right – you just have the labels reversed.

    Read about, say, this, and then tell us who wears the pants in this country. “Tyranno” indeed. How, exactly, did California get from Racist Central to Obama Country? If you were a young person in California in 1963 and you wanted to be a big shot when you grew up, which side of this issue would you have been on? For quite some time in this country, the future has belonged to the left. Which means that the left has been the party of amoral, cynical, Machiavellian power seekers.

    For example: Billy Ayers. Do you want to talk about Billy Ayers? Because we can talk about Billy Ayers. I am definitely ready to have that conversation.

    For example: 40 years ago, the major university in the city in which I live was taken over by racist armed gangs. They refused to back down. The university was admirably steadfast for a while, but the state government refused to challenge them. Eventually the system backed down, and the thugs’ complete agenda was acceded to. Now they are the establishment. And the event is celebrated in the local newspaper – by a friendly reporter, of course.

    What would you say if Cornell and Yale and Harvard and every other university in the country was captured by an equivalent conservative force – the Campus Crusade for Christ, perhaps, displaying a new Matthew Arnold muscularity? In association with the Mongol biker gang, the Aryan Brotherhood, and Sarah’s Army, a camo-wearing, paintball-trained brigade of coed Christian virgins? Perhaps your “Tyranno” party would have to be renamed – could any name other than “Nazi” be sufficiently evocative?

    The principal problem with American attempts to resist progressive government over the last century is that conservatives have never once considered the possibility that, in order to survive or even succeed, they have to be as ruthless, amoral, and hypocritical as their enemies. Of course, since American conservatives are hardly angels or philosophers, perhaps this is a good thing.

    Moreover, you do have truth on your side in one important regard: the basically Puritan doctrines of New England, a modern version of which you espouse (you are a Puritan through the Unitarians and Transcendentalists), have been the politically dominant tradition of the United States since its founding. It is the conservative national myth which is the forgery.

    Conservatism is mostly a post-1945 invention, although it inherits some mythic tropes from the jingoistic, quasi-fascist post-Reconstruction creed of American national unity. (Bronzes from this period, sporting rifles and flags galore, can be seen in every urban park in the US, so do we know it existed.) In general, the progressive critique of conservatism is perfectly accurate, except for the little fact that progressives run Washington and have since the ’30s. Yes, even when there is a Republican in the White House. The conservative monster is a harmless scare puppet. There isn’t really a Sarah’s Army.

    Every thirty or forty years, New England reaches out and tries to turn everyone in the country into a Boston Puritan. When it doesn’t get its way, it can be quite rough. But when anyone gets rough back, the Puritans are mightily offended. Consider history’s treatment of the Southern church bombers, and compare it to the terrorism of Billy Ayers, Nelson Mandela, John Brown, etc. Some of us are opposed to pipe bombs no matter who’s setting them.

  6. peter55 says:

    You utter some fine-sounding rhetorical phrases, Moldbug, but factually accurate they sure aren’t. There is a world of difference between being the subject of an imperialist agressor, with an economically-rapacious colonial rule imposed with extreme violence on an unwilling and resisting population, as Ireland was over the three centuries before partition, and voluntarily choosing to join a customs union, as Eire did in joining the European Economic Community (as it was at the time) 35 years ago. I can’t see how it is possible to have a meaningful discussion with someone apparently unable to tell the difference between these two situations.

  7. moldbug says:


    So the difference is that the old Irish population was unwilling to be governed from London, and the new Irish population is willing to be governed from Brussels? Gee, what do you think brought that about? And what do you think would happen to a present-day Irish movement that tried to oppose the EU with bombs? How much love would it get, for example, from the Grauniad?

    And isn’t it funny how “Eire” (spare us, please, the Gaelic kitsch) agreed to join a “customs union” and now finds itself a province of a superstate, with its own constitution and (almost) national anthem? If you care, which I suspect you don’t, you can read all about it here. (Richard North is one of the few people in the world who writes about government as it actually is. Sadly, there is no American equivalent.)

  8. Cobb says:

    I can’t help but notice something unique about the very impulse towards cognizing a possible transitory nature of nationalism or of religion. So I’ll throw this out there. Isn’t some basis of what we conservatives lament as moral relativism in multiculturalism in fact a liberal stipulation that native populations and cultures have a right to their own conservatism?

    When we subordinate the national narratives of America to those of other tribes, cultures, nations are we not saying in essence that ‘Urdu Only’ is OK?

    If with culture than why not with language, why not with religion, why not with whatever organic form of government arises? Why not a ‘real Zimbabwe’? Why not a ‘real America’ for the same reasons?

    It is our fetish, we educated literate sophisticates, to suggest that at our level of Maslowe’s pyramid eventually all will grow to see the same vistas in the same way – some accord with reality must eventually accompany personal, social, national self-realization. But maybe in the very inability to determine the ‘real America’ we must concede that perhaps there are nothing but tribes everywhere. In which case all our speculation is just projections and navel-gazing.

    Unless we intervene.

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