Alternatives to the Nationalism of the Conspicuously Ignorant


Brothers Abdullah (L) and Umut Tagi, winners of the national Best Herring award. Leiden, Netherlands, 2012

by Markha Valenta

The accounts, symbols and feelings that we have about national identity were largely imagined, created and popularized in the nineteenth century. The word ‘nationalism’ itself dates from the early nineteenth century and marked the increasing use of national identity in order to make political claims. So to argue that national identity is pre-political is itself a political statement.

It is becoming chic among some of Europe’s young elites to call for a return to nationalism. This is the case not only with the current crop of xenophobic populists muddying our political waters from west to east, but also of a growing cadre of flashy academics and pundits. In some European countries, of course, nationalism never truly went out of fashion. But here in the Netherlands explicit nationalism has since the war been something considered embarrassingly distasteful in polite company, rather like an ideological fart: an indiscrete confession of hidden fascist longings. It is all the more striking then – rather like a canary in a coal mine – when young Dutch neoconservatives seeking to make a name for themselves begin to make chirping noises on behalf of nationalism. The fact that one of Britain’s sharper conservative philosophers has subsequently added his own encouraging grunts to the performance, in a maladroit attempt at fatherly support, only makes it worse.

So last month, the legal philosopher Thierry Baudet, a growing presence in the Dutch media, published an opinion piece in our premier quality daily in which he argued that ‘nationalism does not lead to war,’ but that rather it is ‘the European project [that] will lead to war.’ In a march through modern European history, at once heavy-footed and superficial, Baudet argues that all the important wars for the last two centuries were caused by people and countries that crossed national boundaries in order to unite Europe in some fashion: Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, Austro-Hungary, the German empire and the Soviet Union. Then, in an attempt to make some concrete link between these and the European Union, Baudet describes one of its founders, Robert Schuman, as a Vichy collaborator who, among other things, had encouraged closer collaboration between Hitler and Mussolini.

Baudet here seeks to suggest that the founding fathers of the European Union were sympathetic to fascist totalitarianism. Unfortunately, Baudet utterly neglects to mention that during the war Schuman was arrested for resistance and protest against the Nazis, only narrowly avoided being sent to Dachau, then escaped and joined the French resistance. Though Baudet likes to describe himself as a historian, this highly selective presentation of the past makes him more akin to a writer of fiction.

Nor is he much better at the analytic level: our history simply fails to sustain the simplistic opposition between nationalism and imperialism that Baudet would like there to be. If we look at western history and its modern empires – the Dutch, the French, the British, the American – then we see that nationalism has been used as often as not to enable and support imperialism as it has been used to criticize it. On the European continent, this tension was there from the moment the French Revolution was launched in the name of universal ideals that the revolutionaries would subsequently seek to ‘give’ with force to other European nations and peoples. Indeed, the entanglement between nationalism and imperialism is one of the most complex and fascinating aspects of modern history. All this Baudet ignores and distorts, which requires him to erase so much history that little if any is left at all. For a man who calls himself conservative, that’s a problem.

What is even more striking is that this should be published not in some obscure college rag or internet site, but in one of the most important newspapers for the Dutch cultural and political elite. Not only that, but Baudet’s article was soon taken up by the European news collator – “the best of the European press” – which featured the article prominently. Apparently, the conceit that ‘Europe’ may yet again descend into war and that we must turn to nationalism to preserve all that is good and noble has struck a nerve. It was given further support in a follow-up editorial by Baudet’s mentor Roger Scruton. Unlike Baudet, Scruton is rather open to empires, as long as they are good ones. Good empires are the ones that ‘protect loyalties and customs under a canopy of civilization and law’ while bad empires ‘extinguish local customs and rival loyalties’ in order ‘to replace them by a lawless and centralized power.’ Such local loyalties and customs, for Scruton, are pre-political, unconditional and ordinary. They are simply given and are the most natural form of identity in which everyday people will express themselves. And yet, Scruton fiercely argues that this identity must be actively protected and safeguarded ‘from the predations of those who do not belong to it, and who are attempting to pillage an inheritance to which they are not entitled’. It is unclear here if Scruton is still talking about the European Union: does he mean Brussels is rapaciously pillaging London and attempting to lay claim to English identity? Or has he here slipped into an anti-immigrant rhetoric? And if so, how can this be: is not national identity simply given, natural and eternal through time? If English identity is ordinary, pre-political and unconditional, then any kind of social and political transformations should pose no threat to it.

As in the case of Baudet, Roger Scruton’s argument rests on a wilful ignorance of history. As masses of the most innovative and interesting research in the last decades have shown, there is nothing natural or pre-political about national identity. The accounts, symbols and feelings that we have about national identity were largely imagined, created and popularized in the nineteenth century. The word ‘nationalism’ itself dates from the early nineteenth century and marked the increasing use of national identity in order to make political claims. So to argue that national identity is pre-political is itself a political statement.

This assertion by Scruton masks the extent to which the success of national identity as a socio-political tool derives precisely from its flexibility: the extraordinary ability nationalism has had at moments in persuading people who are highly diverse that they are members of a shared community. The United States is one of the most obvious examples of this, but in fact all European countries created national communities out of groups of highly disparate peoples divided along lines of religion, language, region, ethnicity, sex and so forth. The fight for democracy since the nineteenth century has been, among other things, precisely this fight for the inclusion of minorities as full members of the nation.

The reason that Scruton ignores this is because he wants to assert that the national identities we have now are the only national identities that are possible. This is more irrational conviction than rational assertion. At the same time, it is an utter dead end: the kind of purist national community that Scruton would like to protect could only be achieved in today’s multicultural societies through forms of exclusion that are violent, undemocratic and deeply undermine our commitments to human equality and justice. At the same time, his argument that national identities are the most natural form through which people commit themselves to sacrificing for a common cause ignores the great pressure that European states in the past have brought to bear in order to ensure that their citizens would sacrifice themselves for their nation-states. There is nothing natural about conscription, education, taxes and so forth. The nation-state as an organic and spontaneous community of like-minded people, sweetly committed to each other, naturally sharing values and traditions, and willing to sacrifice for the collective good has never existed. Scruton, in other words, can be located as part of the current crop of cultural and political nostalgists.

What Scruton perhaps most cares about is the question of how people can be mobilized to sacrifice in the interest of a common cause and how it is that they can have a sense of belonging today. This is a crucial question that so many of us are asking. It is a shame, then, that Scruton gives such a useless answer to the question. The failure of Scruton, as with Baudet is two-fold: on the one hand, imagining that the source of our sense of dislocation is ‘Europe’ and on the other hand, imagining that the solution to this dislocation can only be found in retreating from Europe. Both of these assumptions are wrong. The sense of dislocation to which Baudet and Scruton respond is one that can be found far beyond Europe, in America, Asia, and Africa. It has everything to do with this brave new world that we are creating without knowing where we are going or what will happen. Our societies are changing tremendously fast in ways that we had not anticipated or imagined: all this we have in common across the globe. At the same time, ‘Europe’ offers us possibilities that our old nation-states do not and cannot offer.

In order to take advantage of these possibilities, we have to consider creatively – rather than nostalgically or irrationally – where they might lie. So in closing, I would like to do just that by suggesting five concrete areas where we might transform that which is weakest in Europe – its democracy gap and the revival of escapist nationalism – into something productive and worthy of all our efforts.

1. The creation of European citizenship as a formal, legal category of identity and associated rights.  

Currently European citizenship goes via national citizenship. Correspondingly, despite the fact that the bulk of laws now are made in Brussels rather than in our national capitals, our first and primary frame of reference, set of legal resources, and means to politics as citizens remains national. In the first instance, European citizenship, even when formalized, will be largely symbolic: for example, the possibility of claiming a ‘European’ identity and having a ‘European’ passport in addition to a national one. With time, increasing institutional, social and political rights could be coupled explicitly to such European identity: this could include direct voting for European decision-making bodies and European political parties; a ‘European’ tax, pension and inheritance system that is the same wherever in Europe one lives; ‘European’ schools that one’s children can attend in any major city; ‘European’ courts that one can access directly as a citizen; the choice to work under ‘European’ labour laws rather than local ones, and so forth.

What all of this entails is that at the level of citizenship, political organization, education, labour and culture we catch up with what has been happening at the level of governance and business. One of the most distinguishing features of the ‘European experiment’ is the wide variety of governance structures that it has enabled across the continent, some of them supra-national, others sub-national, and others creating new collaborations between government, semi-public and private entities. In combination with new media technologies, thismeans that European governance is being invented on the ground even as we speak. (A striking recent example of this was the conflict over control of SWIFT data, leading to a complex, innovative collaboration between European agencies and private business.) So far, much of this invention of governance on the hoof has bypassed citizens. Instead, the ones making the decision have been politicians, lawyers, diplomats, bureaucrats, and businessmen. The argument here, then, is to begin creating institutionalized forms of ‘European citizenship’, to match this transformative stage in the invention of European forms of governance, especially those that increasingly cross the line between public (government) and private (business). As this divide becomes increasingly fuzzy, citizens must find ways to make the private answerable for its influence and effect on the public domain.

2. Related to this: the shift from citizenship as blood-inheritance to citizenship as pure institution

As the legal philosopher, Ayelet Shachar has argued, our treatment of citizenship is a deeply ‘medieval’ one in which the accident of birth significantly determines the possibilities of and constraints on our future life chances. Born in a ‘citizenship lottery’ as it were, to parents with the‘wrong’ citizenship, we will have shorter life expectations and face increased risk of war, poverty and disease. All these are today largely determined not according to egalitarian criteria, but according to our bloodline. This maintains the deep global inequalities whose tensions, among other things, are disrupting European multicultural societies. At the same time, the persistence of sharp differences between ‘native’ Europeans and ‘non-European’ threatens to slowly tear our societies apart. Correspondingly, European citizenship should be offered to all residents within the European Union after a set period of time, for example five years. The qualifications for citizenship must be purely formal and in all ways ‘colour-blind’: they must be the same for all applicants whether they were born in Europe or have travelled here from elsewhere. In this way, European citizenship can offer an identity, cultural and socio-political domain which transcends national differences and inequalities, even as it leaves room for the persistence and perhaps even strengthening of national identities. More generally, there is a deep need to develop new forms of multiple citizenship that respond to the fact that our post-Copernican world has recently become more mobile and diverse. Citizenship should less and less constitute a test and proof of one’s national loyalty to a bounded bit of earth, Instead, more and more, the primary task of citizenship should become that of enabling the world’s peoples to create flexible and responsive political communities wherever they come together.

3. A democratization of the election of European leaders.

In a united Europe, the results of national elections have continental consequences. Consider, for example, the role of Merkel and Sarkozy in addressing the financial crisis. Correspondingly, we need to adapt our election systems to reflect this fact. One intriguing possibility could involve making room for the input of voters in other European countries on national elections. If, for example, Merkel and other German politicians knew that the austerity measures that they impose on other countries could shape how Europeans vote in the next German election, might they have gone to work more democratically and less technocratically? The proposal here is not that all Europeans vote equally in all national European elections. This would both be a recipe for chaos and mean that the smallest countries would be swamped by the votes of other countries. Rather, the suggestion is that we find a carefully thought-through way of incorporating into our national elections the input of all those who will be impacted by that election, including those living outside our countries, while recognizing and preserving the dominance of the national community. This would be both highly controversial and a daunting legal, technical and technological challenge to achieve; but it is a project that has vital possibilities for addressing the democracy gap in Europe in a concrete and direct fashion.

4. A democratization of economic knowledge, skills and decision-making.

One of the most striking and troubling aspects of the current European financial crisis is the utter lack of democratic debate and participation in the solutions that are being found. In part, this has to do with the existing democracy gap and the tradition of technocratic and elite problem-solving that has been typical of Europe. It also has to do with the fact that, by and large, we lack the economic understanding, as citizens, to participate in the debates and decision-making. Last but not least, it reflects the current poverty of our economic thinking more generally, in which, as Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, it is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Not being able to imagine alternatives structurally weakens any decisions we might make about how to shape the place, form and nature of economic relations in our societies. This is particularly critical given the central role that has been given to economics in creating ‘Europe.’ There is a clear need to address one of our defining structures of European relation in a manner that does not reproduce but reduces the democracy gap. This we can do by organizing the knowledge, institutions, social organizations and ideologies that will stimulate a deep understanding of the economic processes shaping our world and allow us to imagine alternatives to them.

5. A recommitment to human rights as the fundamental normative framework for European cultural, social and political relations

Since the 1990s, we’ve seen a growing ambivalence towards human rights in western Europe. This is particularly the case since it has become clear that the European human rights regime could play a crucial role in by-passing national traditions, prejudices and injustices in the interest of protecting the rights of minorities and immigrants and also workers. Increasingly, there are politicians and pundits who argue that this is a violation of national and cultural sovereignty. European human rights then, threaten to become a victim of introvert nationalism. This is dangerous not only for the position of minorities, but also for Europe as a whole. While multiple critiques of this regime can be developed, the normative structure of human rights have offered the closest thing that we have to a collective supra-national norm and a reference point for developing the European public domain.


Nationalism cannot solve the problems Scruton and Baudet would like it to. For the last 200 years at least, with the growth of the nation-state, people have disagreed intensely and continuously over how to define and give shape to nationality and nationalism within each country. Which traditions are retained and which are changed? Which values are paramount? Who has authority? Who decides? And who can claim to being ‘one of us’ and who cannot? So, for example, Thierry Baudet has a name whose origin is clearly not Dutch and yet he seeks to speak in the name of Dutch nationalism. Similarly, many others in the Netherlands today who can lay claim to being Dutch have ancestors who were German, Scandinavian, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Indonesian, Chinese, and west African. Are all these people less Dutch than those who can trace their Dutch lineage in some pure form back to the Middle Ages? And how might we distinguish between the Dutch, German, Scandinavian, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Indonesian, Chinese and African cultures, values and forms of sociality that we have inherited?

A majority of countries in the world today either is already multicultural or is becoming increasingly so. Under these conditions, a politics of (purist) nationalism is utterly unrealistic and untenable. At the same time, the values and traditions we are used to thinking of as ‘national’ and ‘traditional’ have origins that are diverse, multi-national and global. Just consider some of Europe’s most distinctive national culinary traditions: where would Italy be without tomatoes, Northern Europe without potatoes and the Belgians without chocolate (all foods that came from the Americas)? It would be utterly unrealistic, as well as boring, to deprive Europe of these today in the name of European tradition and cultural continuity. Just as unrealistic and boring would be the effect of following the call by public nostalgists to return to imaginary national cultures and communities of the past. The fact that the vast majority of these public nostalgists do not themselves live in traditional communities, leading lives governed by traditional authorities, mores and values while producing and consuming only traditional national products, speaks volumes. Theirs is an ideological position that has little to do with how they themselves actually wish to live.

At the same time, those politicians who today speak most fiercely in the name of nationalism are precisely those who most divide rather than unify us. Nor do they have any interest in encouraging their constituents to sacrifice in the interest of the common good, as Scruton would like them to. They have a politics of polarization, highly aggressive styles, and are much more interested in what they can lay claim to for themselves than in giving back to society. In the worst case (Breivik), they kill their fellow-nationals for their purported lack of nationalism.

In place of such a dated and divisive politics, we need to develop new ways of organizing political communities, institutions and processes. Some of this is already happening on the basis of transnational identities, supranational organizations, consumer activism, crowd-funding, social media mobilization, and so forth. Other forms of politics are much more small-scale and local: neighbourhood initiatives to transform urban space, resources and services; community gardens; projects linking schools, parents and local businesses, and so forth. These new methods are being developed in all political directions (in Bavaria, for example, neo-right groups have become involved in ‘green’ farming in order gain legitimacy and constituents, just as Breivik was crucially nurtured by an international internet community, and the nationalist Geert Wilders is financed by American conservatives with global interests). In and of themselves, in short, these new political methods are not the privileged domain of either progressives or conservatives.

Most important of all, however, is to look and see how effectively so many people are living with each other in our most diverse neighborhoods and cities. While our news is full of conflicts, our streets, our shops, our schools, and our sports teams are full of collaborations, exchanges, and negotiated compromises, if only we are willing to see them. This is not a matter of politics per se, but of ordinary people making use of everyday ingenuity to build lives that are liveable and worthwhile. This pragmatic ingenuity is the most valuable resource we have. Though Scruton and Baudet argue for nationalism and closed borders in the name of everyday people, around us as we speak everyday people are making enriching multiculturalism work. This is not to say that multiculturalism is easy: but it is both our only realistic option and already deeply and effectively embedded in our cities and societies.

Just last week, two brothers in Leiden won the national competition for this year’s best haring. Raw haring, as you may know, is one of our most luscious treats, deeply rooted in Dutch history and tradition. One of the brothers, Abdullah, was born in Turkey and came to Holland when he was nine. The other, Umut, was born here. But what they talked about when interviewed was not tradition or inherited cultures of taste, but simply the importance of knowing your trade and producing a good product. Meanwhile, some weeks earlier, the Moroccan-Swedish Lorine Talhaoui won the Euro Song Festival, even as Najat Vallaud-Belkacem was being named the spokeswoman and public face of François Hollande’s new French government.

As with haring and music, so with politics: it’s not a matter of borders and bloodlines, but of quality. Europe has a long tradition of migration and cultural exchange that has benefited us all. What a shame it would be to break with that tradition now.

Piece originally published at Open Democracy | Creative Commons License

About the Author:

Markha Valenta holds appointments in the departments of History at the University of Amsterdam and of Culture Studies at the University of Tilburg. Her current work concerns the politics of religion and culture in global cities, international relations and secular democracies. Her work is interdisciplinary and comparative, with a focus on Western Europe, North America and India. A corresponding concern of the last decade has been the accommodation and discrimination of Muslim minorities in secular democracies since 9/11. She has also worked for the Scientific Council for Government Policy and is a regular participant in Dutch debates on these issues.