ukrainian-nationalism-1920

A symbolic depiction of Ukrainian nationalism, c. 1920

While the world probably doesn’t need any more commentary on the recent American election, I’d like to offer some anyway, though in a way that looks at happenings beyond the US to the rest of the world, where we see related patterns unfolding according to local particularities and conditions. While the US is its own case, it is also part of an interconnected world, the ties of global capitalism, human movement, globalized classes, elites, and political structures, and other things working to move American realities in directions broadly congruent with other, often quite different, parts of the world. My thoughts here—which are reflective of the halting directions my political thought have been taking as of late, but should not be interpreted as final or fully coherent—are springing off an article by Jonathan Haidt from back in the summer, but which is rather prescient and worth reading in its own right. What follows here, then, are three interlinking thoughts precipitated by, but in some cases sharply diverging from, Haidt’s article.

One, while right now the dominant options are either liberal ‘cosmopolitan’ globalism or some form of nationalism, within the framework of nation-states (whether more autonomous or more directed from supra-national entities being at question) and of some form of globalized (if not globalist) capitalism, those are not in fact the only options. To give but one example, the recent resurgence of indigenous American assertion and resistance, symbolized and embodied in the Standing Rock movement, presents a form of anti-globalism that is not ‘nationalist’ (or ‘rightist’) in the conventional sense, but embraces and draws upon particularity, a form of ethnic solidarity, respect for and continued use of tradition, and respect for place and collective past, without aspiring to possession of a nation-state, the rituals of nationalism, or the temptation of xenophobia. We could point to any number of indigenous movements around the world, or inter-related struggles for peasants’ rights, food sovereignty, and the like, most of which are grouped under a ‘left’ rubric but are in fact more complicated than that. While they may ‘speak’ some of the language of liberalism and of universalisms, they also speak in indigenous registers and traditions, out of an attachment to place, ‘tribe,’ and ‘particularity,’ against the forces of both nationalism and globalism. Dismissing these movements and peoples as ‘reactionary’ or ‘backwards’ not only betrays a lack of empathy but, more importantly I think, a lack of imagination for what is possible once we begin thinking past the confines of existing political philosophies and cultural configurations.

Second, one of the reasons for the enduring, indeed seemingly irrepressible nature of nationalism over the past hundred and fifty plus years, is that it is in general explicitly closer to human reality than are internationalist and globalist ideologies (something Haidt suggests in his article). That is not to say that nationalisms do not depend upon abstractions, constructions, and all manner of schemes to create, regularize, and defend the abstractions within them. They do, and scholars have spent a great deal of time dissecting and detailing the ways nation-states do this work. The nation-state is a construct of power and a construct of imagination. But—and this is the crucial point—while a given nationalism might have mythical abstractions, and even universalist pretensions in its ideological genetic material, those abstractions and pretensions do tend to recognize certain fundamental truths about human beings, truths that globalists also embody (in different ways) but do not, or cannot, so explicitly recognize, often seeing them as obstacles to ‘progress.’ Humans are embodied, contingent creatures. Humans build social relationships through face-to-face interactions, and are predisposed to care more for other, often related (whether through blood ties or fictive kin formations) human beings than for abstracted groups or ‘humanity’ at large. Humans inhabit particular places and form their psychic landscapes through those places. For most of humanity, including in the present, ‘home’ is a concrete, spatially fixed location in the world, with its own cultural dynamics, ecological systems, and sets of human relationships, regulated by unspoken custom. Human relationships are strongest within a certain numerical limit, and humans find it easiest to relate to people similar to them. While industrialization and the rise of the nation-state have introduced immense changes and disruptions to how humans experience the world and their home, or homes, in it, much of that basic reality remains, even as it has become transmuted into new and different and often decomposing forms.

Now, it should go without saying that nationalism maps but imperfectly onto those human realities. In fact, it must often struggle against many of those facts of human nature, but it does so with a close and open eye to them, to integrating the psychic drives and bodily formations into the needs of the nation-state. Nationalism must always strike a balance between preserving, and appropriating, attachments to real particulars—home, family, locale, landscape, linguistic practices—and subsuming or even destroying those particulars in the national project, particularly when localized identities refuse to congeal into the ‘nationality’ under construction. The construction of ‘race’ is one such construction, ultimately abstract and indeed empty, but lining up with deeply embedded and embodied human ways of being and doing, even if its potency requires reinforcement and locating within a nation-state project. Unlike, for the most part, globalism, nationalism ‘knows’ to speak human languages and to at least project the appearance of human scale. It must maintain its ties to the human and particular, it must always draw upon the concrete, the personal, the customary, even if in the process all of those things are reduced to so much rubble. Globalism, on the other hand, while it has its own particular language and customs, either tends to reduce cultures outside the metropole to romantic artefacts or cooks them down into legible and regulated ‘identities’ that may exist under globalism through the rubric of ‘diversity.’ But it cannot appeal to particularities and local ties and ‘parochial’ concerns in the way nationalism can, and this makes it weak outside of those spheres economically and culturally representative of globalism and cosmopolitanism. A liberal globalist might confront ‘Islamophobia,’ but he is unlikely to actually defend Muslim gender constructions or valorize Islamic forms of devotion.

Finally, it is important to recognize that globalism and the ‘cosmopolitanism’ that underwrites it are not in fact truly ‘global’ or ‘cosmopolitan,’ but expressive of, and expressed in, particular situations and places, supported by economic and political force—something that has been true since colonial times and continues to be true today (and there is a vast literature on the paradoxes and resources to violence that earlier forms of liberal ‘cosmopolitanism required and expressed).  In fact it would be better to speak, as with nationalism, of plural globalisms, unified analytically by shared traits and tendencies—mutually intelligible registers and dialects of one language, perhaps. The cultural-social ‘homes’ of these globalism(s) are almost overwhelmingly in major cities and their ‘satellites,’ particularly universities, but also, and increasingly, online—a ‘place’ of a different sort, but still a place with many of the same functions and contours as literal socially-conditioned and created spaces. While liberal globalists might find contingent allies in many places—particularly among migrant members of ethnic minorities—the core inhabitants of the liberal globalist ‘world’ tend to be middle-class and up, often of European descent but not necessarily so, ‘secular,’ and spatially mobile within limits. While they may move from London to New York, or from Princeton to Portland (and may have their natal origins almost anywhere), there are clear ‘tracks’ of localities along which the ‘global citizen’ moves and recognizes herself. Just as there are geographic routes, there are also clear and recognizable ideological and cultural routes, overlapped with practices and beliefs that are shared among all permutations of liberal globalists. As with any broad analytical grouping, globalists are heterogeneous, even as they aspire to universalism and abstraction (a unifying characteristic, even if they vary greatly otherwise). They can afford not to feel threatened by immigration for two reasons beyond ethical or ideological considerations: one, by its nature ‘global’ citizenship assimilates people from every background (like many imperial or quasi-imperial systems in the past), provided they accept the dominant tenets and cultural practices of the particular subgrouping into which they assimilate. Two, globalists occupy the upper echelons of economic life, which translates into cultural and socio-geographic stability. While their political power might fluctuate, since America and Western Europe remain committed to albeit weak forms of democratic governance, their economic and cultural situation has so far evaded any serious assaults, even if the penetrative power of globalist hegemony is unlikely to extend much beyond its economic-geographical enclaves.

In conclusion, both ‘nationalism’ and ‘globalism’ are in their own ways quite strong and quite entrenched. Right now nationalisms are pretty clearly ascendant politically, though things could change from one place to another. Globalisms are not going away, of course, and as long as global capitalism—the economic envelope that makes all forms of globalism possible—continues to be the strongest and most viable form of economic organization, globalisms will also thrive in their native habitats. But the liberal universalisms espoused by globalists, and the political forms enacting them, are probably going to continue to run into interference, particularly as globalists find themselves locked in battle with nationalists—a situation that is not actually a necessary one, as Haidt suggests in his article. Globalists must have recourse, if they are to win political fights, to at least some of the languages of nation, particularity, and so on, mixed with the appeals to abstract and universal values that are more native territory (nationalists, too, it should be noted frequently have appeal to universal values and beliefs—the difference being more one of emphasis and centering than of mere matters of inclusion or exclusion). But such appeals, even if they reflect the social reality of globalist life, tend to undermine the stated ideological foundations, and anyway mostly work best on insiders (just like nationalist language). A better solution, though, I have to admit, for now a less likely one, is to explore possibilities outside of this dualism, outside of the givens of nation-state, global capital, liberal hegemony, and centralized power.

Political ideologies are deeply toxic, psychologically destructive things. Their function is fairly simple: they allow people to navigate the contours of states and industrial economies, and they offer the surest routes into the ‘core’ of such entities. They map the terrain. But in so doing, they also preclude all other terrain. Modern ideologies, even when they incorporate ‘extraneous’ elements, reduce all other forms of identity and meaning and value into a homogenized, internally bound whole. When these ideologies encounter insurmountable incongruity, or outright collapse, the damage to individual psyches and emotional well being is enormous, as all the erasures of identity and personality come to light in the gaping wound left by epistemic collapse. The subject is left confused and troubled, anxious to rediscover the surety that was there before.

In the American context, liberalism—here understood in the American vernacular rendering, though the broader sense should be kept in mind—is the primary, or perhaps, strongest vehicle of this totalizing effect, of this subsumption of all else into one overriding, all-structuring political and ideological identity and generator of meaning and social value. Conservatism by its very nature lacks systematization, and requires the existence of other values, other traditions, other forms of life, to give it meaning—even if all those other things are themselves deeply deformed and distorted by the effects of modernity (and in the American case this is especially true). Over time, it is true, many of the identities and traditions and forms of life which flow into conservatism have themselves become artefacts of ideology, integrated into the logics of the state and its political, value, and linguistic systems, albeit in often erratic and unpredictable ways (the current political disruption being one such effect). But the multiplicity of identity and meaning among conservatives remains, if only in tatters—not necessarily healthier or less damaging psychologically, but perhaps with slightly more openings out. Perhaps.

For liberals, however, everything tends to be reduced to political identity, and hence to the fortunes of political power and influence, and the coherence of the ideology as a historical, ‘progressive’ force.  The gaps in the liberal mythos, the epistemic problems, are usually safely obscured by effective propaganda, which becomes internalized and reflexive. But sometimes it all breaks down. These last few days in America have seen such a break-down—even if, rationally speaking, there is really very little threat to the liberal order of things (which depends far more on deeply embedded structures of state and economy than on electoral epiphenomena), at least for now, with the recent revolts against the liberal episteme and order being more on the level of peasants’ uprisings or early attempts at dislodging European colonialism—reactive and often disorganized, ultimately subsiding back into the status quo, or devolving into scattershot violence. But that is another tale. If in fact the ‘real’ threat to the ‘concrete’ liberal order is rather tenuous, that is not to say that the threat to the identity generated by the liberal order has not been very real and very deeply felt—because clearly it has. The shock of the unexpected, of an event that simply was not possible according to the liberal episteme and rendering of history, has had immense physiological, and even physical, effect upon people. While it will adjust in time, the therapeutic propaganda and forms of socially generated meaning that usually ’solve’ incongruities and threats have all failed and have not yet found the grounds for re-adjustment. They will, of course, eventually re-congeal, though perhaps in a weaker, less self-assured form, or, equally possible, in a retrenched, more closed and more assertive form. But in the meantime this particular toxicity of modernity has risen to the surface, and has caused very real harm to people, compounding the harm that the entire ugly dialectic of combating identities has caused overall. This is not, it should be said, to deny that a given political event or disruption will not have very real effects, including the current disruption in American life. Rather, it is to point out what more such disruptions do beyond the level of calculation and analysis, what they do to identities and structures of meaning, apart from any ‘concrete’ effects in the ‘real world.’

It almost goes without saying that such ideological renderings of identity have a socially corrosive effect—one which can, ironically, threaten to undermine the stability of the very states that help to generate them. Totalizing political identities preclude grounds for dialogue with others, because they take potential common grounds—cultural activities, academic pursuits, religion, shared spaces, economic struggles—and enfold them within the totalizing political narrative, and in so doing tend to generate reactions across the divide. One is no longer a ‘Christian’—one becomes a ‘liberal Christian,’ which generates ‘conservative Christian’ opposite it. And so on, with different permutations depending on the dominant ideological structures, which of course vary from one nation to another. On a further ironic, and indeed tragic, note, this social corrosion often works against some of the very stated goals and moral positions that a given ideology embraces, be it a desire for social justice or national unity and cohesion.

None of these identities are invulnerable, and no ideology, political identity, or indeed any artefact of human society is static and totally enclosed. Everyone contains healthy tensions and heterogenieties to some degree, and there is always hope for even the most thoroughly propagandized and integrated person. That said, there is no simple route to liberation or reconstruction. It is not enough to undermine a given ideology, because in so doing the very identities and meaning of individuals are also being undermined, down to the very foundations. Besides the possibility of devolution into mere cruelty for cruelty’s sake, simply undermining an identity or ideology often has the reverse effect of leading to its regeneration, often in a worse and more entrenched form. Rather, I think that it is kinder, and more practical, to work at opening up cultural and personal spaces that purposely evade or work against totalizing ideologies. Such spaces—which can be manifold—can have the effect of introducing heterogeneity, of other possibilities, other renderings of the world and of meaning, to people whose lives are otherwise heavily structured by dominant, dominating ideologies and political identities. Making genuine encounter among differently politically structured people is absolutely necessary, if also very difficult. Simple refusal to see people within different ideological blocs and structures as enemies or as ‘incurable’ is absolutely necessary, if also difficult. And above all, we must work within given realms—religious, cultural, academic, economic, and, yes the political—to liberate them from the totalizing structuring effect of state and capital, in ways that do not simply reproduce new forms of totalizing domination and pyschological captivity. And we must be realistic. So long as structures of state and capital exist in their current forms, all that I have described here will exist in some form, and the toxicity and alienation and impoverishment will also continue. No one is to ‘blame’ for all this, because what I am describing operates at levels far above any given political struggle or even ideological rendering. Rather, we should see it as part of the panoply of unintended effects of the modern, industrialized world we inhabit, effects we might not be able to supersede, but which we can, at the very least, seek to ameliorate through thoughtful strategy and the hard work of patience, empathy, and kindness.