A RESURGENCE OF NATIONALISM?
Has there been a resurgence of nationalism as seems to be the case judging by results of the Brexit referendum, the opposition to the flood of asylum seekers in Europe or the rise of identitarian movements in Western countries? A recent issue of Foreign Affairs deals with the matter. (1)
Andreus Wimmer, a professor at America’s Columbia University, sees two basic tenets behind nationalism. The first is that members of the nation, understood as a group of equal citizens with a shared history and future political destiny should rule the state. The second is that they should do so in the interests of the state. He sees patriotism as a form of nationalism and obviously nationalists are opposed to foreign rule by members of other nations. (2)
Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology from Stanford University, looks at the biology of “us and them” and the neurological, hormonal and developmental underpinnings of tribalism in humans and our ape relatives. Tribes of chimpanzees have been observed to invade the territory of other chimps, killing all the males and taking over the females. Studies of humans indicate that humans have a similar tribal “us-versus-them” mentality although he claims loyalty can change. Studies have shown that seeing a picture of someone of the same skin colour arouses a more positive response than does a picture of someone with a different skin colour. Similarly if we see someone of the same race suffer pain we are more empathetic than if we see someone of a different race suffer. (3)
As for ethnic conflicts, scholar Ted Robert Gurr claims that, despite the conflicts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, ethnic conflict has decreased since the mid-1990s. But as Lars-Erik Cederman, a professor at ETH Zurich, writes there is still a propensity for ethnic conflict within nations where there is a big disparity in political power or economic inequality. Chechens, on average, have only a sixth of the income of the average Russian, and he claims that this makes for a tenfold increase in the likelihood of rebellion. He sees some of the causes of the conflict in Syria stemming from the fact that their president, Bashar al-Ashad is a member of the Alawite sect which comprises only 12% of the country’s population. Cederman believes that nationalism will not go away anytime yet, it should not be abolished but it should be contained. (4)
While Cederman worries about ethnic nationalism it’s noticeable that India under Prime Minister Narenda Modi and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is not exactly falling apart and its economy is growing at a pace that leaves Australia for dead. (5) For that matter the much more homogenous population of Australia just in 1950 had a higher living standard relative to the rest of the world than we do now. (6)
Australia’s federal election held in May this year did not give a great solace to nationalists in this country. Although some small patriotic groups did put up candidates they generally polled poorly, unless you include Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, sometimes referred to as “Liberal Lite”. (7)
Both the Liberal-National Coalition and Labor are quite happy for Australia to be tied up by numerous United Nations treaties and free trade agreements that lessen our national sovereignty and the independence to manage our own affairs. (8) The mess our refugee program is in, largely resulted from when our government signed the UN Refugee Convention and various amendments which meant we largely lost control over who could come into this country. (9)
If we look at the numerous wars Australia was involved in during the last century, in only one of them were we in any danger of being invaded, but we lost a total of about 100,000 men in these wars. (10) In every war we followed our “allies” rather than assert our independence.
Why then if nature gives us an inborn bias to favour our own kind do we see so much reverse racism and xenophilia rather than xenophobia? Admittedly if we had a popular vote on many international treaties they would probably be rejected. The trouble is that the average person had no say in whether our country signed up to any of these treaties and most people probably could not name most of them. Our country’s sovereignty has been whittled away by politicians, top level bureaucrats and well-heeled elites.
It’s noticeable that many countries, to some extent Australia in recent years and the USA for some time now have seen a widening gap in the incomes of the average person and those at the high end of the socio-economic scale. Any benefits of globalisation are going to the wealthy. (11)
Nationalists seem to be fighting a rear guard action. We, and most countries for that matter are not likely to see another nation’s army come charging over the border. (Admittedly Europe and to some extent the US have seen masses of illegals, so-called refugees, flood in, but a big part of the problem has been governments’ concern to look good on the international stage rather than give priority to the interests and safety of their own citizens). What we have seen is a loss of power of national governments to international organisations like the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. (12)
All this adds up to a growing gap between the governed and the governing. Societies in Western nations are going back to how they were in the Medieval Period, porous national borders but more rigid social structures, and despite the farce of democratic elections, the top end of societies are getting more power and wealth while the majority are getting shafted. (13)
Will this at least mean an end to wars, at least those fought on a large scale? The troubles in the Middle East look bad but in fact so far this century humans have been killing each other at a lower rate than any time in history. The massive numbers that died in the wars of the 20th century are bad but they actually reflect the large populations of the nations involved. According to those who have researched human conflict the average person last century was considerably less likely to die in a violent encounter than the average person in the Medieval Period, especially during the “age of migrations”, and even less likely to be killed by another human than in the Stone Age. The growth of the nation state has largely been a phenomenon of recent centuries and may be one of the reasons so many people live to old age nowadays. (14) A modern nation state with a relatively homogenous population and a democratic system of government may be the ideal. Unfortunately nations and their independence have been under pressure for some time and despite the recent rise in nationalist sentiment and some successes this pressure is likely to continue. The peace and prosperity that the nation state brought may not last much longer.
(1) Gideon Rose, “The New Nationalism”, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2019
(2) Andreas Wimmer, “Why Nationalism Works”, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2019
(3) Robert Sapolsky, “This is Your Brain on Nationalism”, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2019
(4) Lars-Erik Cederman, “Blood for Soil”, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2019
(5) “India’s GDP Expected to Grow at 7.3% in 2018-19”, The Economic Times, 9 January 2019
(6) Ian McLean, “Australian Economic Growth in Historical Perspective”, University of Adelaide, 2004; Stephen Letts, “Households’ Living Standards are Still Falling as GDP per Capita Heads for a Recession”, www.abc.net.au/news 3 March 2019
(8) Anna Patty, “TPP Deal May Expose Legal Risks”, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March 2018
(9) Klaus Neumann, “Across the Seas: Australia’s Response to Refugees: A History”, Black Inc., Collingwood, 2015
(10) “Deaths as a Result of Service with Australian Units”, Australian War Memorial, awm.gov.au Downloaded 23 July 2019
(11) Matt Wade, “Cost of Nation’s Growing Wealth Gap Rises by $8b”, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July 2019
(12) James Cotton & David Lee, Eds, “Australia and the United Nations”, Longueville Books/Australian Government, 2012
(13) Debora MacKenzie, “Imagine There’s No Countries..”, Civilisation, New Scientist: The Collection, 2018, pp 120-127
(14) Ian Morris, “War, What is it Good For? Just Look Around You”, Civilisation, New Scientist: The Collection, 2018, pp 90-93