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The Nationalist Thing Which Thinks: Notes on a Genealogy of Ultranationalism

Much has been written about nationalism, probably too much, and each day seems to bring more headlines and tragic stories about nationalist causes and ultranationalist atrocities. Everyone else’s nationalism is a problem, while one’s own intimate nationalist tendencies go unchecked.

The following is my self-understanding of the theoretical origins of ultranationalism—a topic that I have contemplated and researched for many years now. I have attempted to draft a speculative blueprint, which can be applied to any or at least most species of nationalism in the West and in the East. My leading assumption, which I don’t consider controversial, is that what we now call “nationalism” has its imaginary origins in the West (Enlightenment thinking). From these Western roots, only some of which are outlined below, nationalism has, to me at least, grown into something not only dangerous but also politically indispensable.

The end of the Cold War failed to bring about the end of history as the liberal world order, and liberal democracies have failed to reign in the excesses and instabilities of global capitalist markets and to rid the new world order of primitive ideologies and political enmities. The threats to “forms of life,” to the will to life, continue to exist. Stateless people and groups are exceptionally vulnerable to “disappearing.” There can be no effective movement for collective self-preservation without the proper political determination.

It is easy to doubt the existence of Atlantis or Uranus, or strange creatures such as the penis-head fish. But in his 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes goes so far as to doubt the existence of his own body and any material objects around him. After entertaining the idea that some evil demon is tricking him with sensations of a false world, Descartes arrives at the bedrock of his famous thought experiment: his doubt itself, or “I think.”

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