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Nationalism: Persistence and Political Upkeep


The world is out of joint. With the resurgence of nationalisms on an international scale, we can re-phrase Shakespeare’s comment to relate to any thought of the “world” from an internationalist perspective. There are resurgences of nationalisms across the globe and in my European context. Countries such as Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Greece, have resurgences of extremist nationalism. Some of these movements are unapologetically neo-Nazi—such as the Jobbik party in Hungary or the Golden Dawn party in Greece. At the same time, there is a more mainstream, populist nationalism emerging in Western Europe exemplified by the recent European Union elections. Some of these populist groups are more centrist and some are more right wing—from the Progress Party (FRP) in Norway, to the National Front in France, to the UK Independence Party (UKIP). But all are gaining prominence by riding on nationalist narratives, anti-immigrant politics, and rampant xenophobia. This forms a dramatic political situation in a Europe that is grappling with political and economic change. From my perspective, though, nationalisms have formed ghost narratives that have followed the political everyday throughout my life. Partly that is due to growing up in a world strongly formed socially and politically by the fall-out of fascist Europe on both sides of the Atlantic —like the cold war dynamics and the invoked horrors of the third Reich or Stalin’s Russia, and partly it is due to the persistence, of the narratives of the “national” from the mid eighteen hundreds onwards. However, while nationalism was seen as shameful and kept in the shadows when I was a child, it has crept gradually back into the main political narrative over the past thirty years.

There are two important aspects to the growth of nationalism in Europe that I think are decisive: one is the role of populism, which invokes a narrative of nationalism acceptable to the middle class by blurring the borders between centrist politics and more extreme forms of nationalism. Some have seen the centrist nationalist parties as a firewall against the formation of more extreme parties. But one can also argue that they form a bridge for the normalization within the main stream of xenophobic nationalist opinion from the far right wing. Another important aspect of the political development is the restructuring of extremist nationalist movements into a network of extended participation and communication using social media (as was clearly the case in Anders Breivik’s attacks in 2011.)

Nationalist extremists are usually presented as the other to society’s mainstream. Because of these groups’ professed antidemocratic values, outspoken xenophobia, racism, and use of violence, they are seen by the mainstream population and the press as having an ideology that is incompatible with society at large. However, the ideology of these extremist groups shares certain traits with the more mainstream “soft” nationalism. This populist brand of nationalism circulates within the democratic political field. For right-wing extremists, the national narrative gives the political field its meaning; the nation-state is the anchor of their culture, which is seen as ancient and rooted in the land. Similarly, for populist nationalists, the national narrative gives the democratic political field its meaning and purpose, and provides a historical anchor for mainstream national culture. In Norway, for example, there is a widespread belief in an “innocent,” soft nationalism that celebrates the “good” aspects of Norwegian society. This “innocent” nationalism is directly connected to a narrative of the Norwegian nation—which is of course a political narrative. In both the extremist and populist nationalisms, the national narrative is seen as the central productive logic of society. These forms of nationalisms have structural and ideological differences (totalitarian vs. democratic), but both forms give the nation a primary political and ethical status in relation to the state. At the same time, both ignore the obvious historical fact that the idea of the nation-state is political and not the source of culture in and of itself. I will come back to this.

Viewed historically, the claim of cultural origin to a national identity seems irrational since national identity is seen as being rooted trans-historically, beyond many configurations and political ownerships of the regions at stake. It is incredible to witness the historical coup of the nationalist narratives that became dominant in Europe in the mid-1800s. But this is exactly the point: the emotional, foggy idea of a cultural meaning or origin, which itself only exists within that narrative and only temporarily within social history, enables the nationalists to use an emotional power in their political performance that is unsettling because it is unclear. With nationalists, you are presented with an authority without clear borders or a clear foundation in the material social world. If you look at Europe, an “oldish political continent,” most nation-states are actually young—less than 200 years old. And what preceded them looks like a disintegrating fabric of states, political regions, city-states, and empires, all of them claiming some authority outside of themselves: through royal lineage (often fabricated) or historical fantasies. But all of the political narratives and claims were also marked by realpolitik and real effects upon their populations in the form of political and religious decisions, wars, and famines. So, as much as the national narratives were based on silly myth, the histories derived from these claims of authority grow into a stark reality. Such realities developed forms of culture and exchange, as folk culture and changes in language incorporated and changed from the experiences that people lived through. These experiences were of course influenced by political decisions and definitions. The nation-state only promotes culture that it sees as relevant to its self-representation, it is not the source of the culture itself, even though it will influence it. What is apparent for anyone who looks at history is that the old cultures of Europe are not bound to the idea of the nation-state and also not based on a singular people in any one single parcel of land. Rather, the history of European cultures is a history of movements of people, goods, genes, and cultures. The borders, names, and configuration of states at play continue to change and change again every century. The cross-fertilization or conflicts from migratory reality is nothing new. This is of course what has created the food, music, habits, and many of the political changes of our collective history. The same also happened here in Scandinavia.

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