Critiquing the Critique of Nationalism: A sociological defence of Rousseau and Kant

It’s easy to criticize any form of nationalism on the basis that it promotes exclusion of the interests of people outside your state. But this criticism supposes that nationalism is actually a barrier, not a hypothetic one, but a real one, to greater cross-national solidarity, to greater recognition of the rights and moral value of people outside the country.

But this is an illusion, because most of us live highly selfish narcissistic lives, where we care only for our family and friends. The proof of this is all around us. For example, look how difficult it is to organize a union, especially a union where different people inside it feel they have different specific interests. The tendency we have is to look after ourselves even when our interest is at odds with the interest of society. Hegel called this a kind of sickness that communities could catch, and while I’m uncomfortable with the organic metaphor, we have this contagion very bad. 

There are certain sets of social emotions, social motivations, that can help overcome our selfish or small-group-first mentality. One is “community”, one is “nation”, one is “class”, or “worker”, one is “person”, or “global citizen”. The possible height of co-existence that these motivations increase as the list goes on, but the strength of the motivations they produce decreases. More universal forms of identification are more and more disconnected from our everyday lives as experienced. Special forms of communication and culture are required to make the Nation function (and it usually functions only poorly) as a source of shared motivation, a source which only potentially can be directed towards the general interest (the same emotions can be manipulated by an elite against the general will).

The problem with how in-group distinctions and socially mobilizing emotions are usually talked with is that we discuss only their outmost limitations, we see them when they block us from co-operating. But this is a false goal, to expect perfection from a motivation, when the base level of sharing and co-operation is far, far belong the level of universality that “nation” can achieve. We say “down with the nation” long before the nation has achieved its maximal form of universality.

But there are reasons for this, the reticence towards nationalism is understandable – it is after all highly associated with the crimes committed by ethnic states (do I need to mention Germany? Although Israel makes a more contemporary, although less gory example), or the crimes committed by the universal class in socialist or revolutionary states, i.e. Revolutionary France, or Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. The crimes we see, the limits we see Nationalism impose on ethical conduct between human beings, the enmity between “nations”, this disguises the miracle of any co-operation at all.

We must of course limit the destructive power of nationalisms. And the best way to do that is to point nationalism in the civic and socialist rather than romantic and ethnocentric conception of nation. If the nation is a contract, something to be worked out rationally, something that we share in on the basis of common membership more than common ideas, then anyone can be included and there are no essential reasons to think of someone in another nation as an enemy (after all, if your nation is truly open, the neighbor in the nation next door should be able to join yours). Not to say there will not be tensions between civic nations, but if the states do not have the power of hate to whip up antagonism between them it seems unlikely they would go to war.

It’s essential not to mistake my thesis for “civic states” with Democracy, at least in the American sense. America is perfectly happy for democracies to be xenophobically nationalistic. It is perfectly happy whipping up social hate to achieve the policy goals of a tiny elite against the interests of the masses.

I recently heard that the “realist” school of international relations believes that every state acts according to its “national interest”, and that domestic affairs do not heavily affect the decisions made by states. This is clearly a joke, no one in their right mind would believe something like this. You’d have to be completely blind to the reality of capitalism, or, more historically, be blind to the traditional feud between the executive and the aristocracy. There is no national interest because the aristocracy is always vying for selfish power at the expense of the kingdom, and great rulers are those who put aristos, the elite, in their place.

Except, according to Rousseau, there is a national interest – a general interest. But this won’t be obvious to most people, at the best of times difficult to discern and to know if you’ve got it right. And, despite Rousseau’s conviction, I’m not sure that such a thing exists at every point in time. But it exists sometimes, and it is the exception rather than the rule that states act according to it. But there is something normative to this thought, states should act on their national interest, because the only way to justify state structures and the limitations on human freedom is if they act out the legitimate general interests of the population who’s freedom is limited such that it can be given back to them in a truer and more empowered form.

But this is not the national interest of “realism”, because it is the exception rather than the rule that states act on it. Which leaves open the possibility that, if states acted on it, we would be much farther from war. Perhaps this is what Kant was going on about in his “League of Nations” idea. Perhaps we should try that. Of course, we already are, but the difference is – what countries live up to the basic standards of a Republic? What countries belong to their citizens, and what countries act in the general interest of its people, i.e. the national interest? Certainly none that I’m intimately familiar with. But it might remain a worthwhile goal.

2 thoughts on “Critiquing the Critique of Nationalism: A sociological defence of Rousseau and Kant

  1. Isn’t it arguable that some kind of “national interest” exists, separate from oligarchs, but not necessarily geared towards cooperation with other states? For example, since nations compete with one another for resources and competitive products to sell on world markets, isn’t it inevitable that some form of “empire” (even if soft) arises? This would be because dominant nations would not like to see their power and influence become eclipsed by others. This is because they might fear that, taken to an extreme, failures in economic management could cause ruin to their economy if they fall behind in creating innovative and competitive products that will win market share, or if their productivity and level of education for workers stagnates.
    Of course this makes some assumptions about how states function but I think this is the current status quo. More democratic and socialist countries of europe for example have no choice but to carefully manage their economies according to the priorities in the current global economic system (with America a dominant agenda-setter supporting neo-liberalism), which won’t change any time soon. Enhancing nationhood at the expense of selfish aristocrats would still leave us with institutional constraints that limit international goodwill.

    1. “Isn’t it arguable that some kind of “national interest” exists, separate from oligarchs, but not necessarily geared towards cooperation with other states?”

      It’s possible, but since co-operation hasn’t reached the level of the national, I don’t think we can say much about it.

      ” Enhancing nationhood at the expense of selfish aristocrats would still leave us with institutional constraints that limit international goodwill”

      In order to limit “international goodwill”, there would need to be some international goodwill, which could come up against the state as a limit. When does this ever happen? Can you think of a single example where sentiments of international solidarity came into conflict with sentiments of civic nationalism?

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