Why I Am Not A Nationalist

E. Glen Weyl

February 18, 2019

This post is the third and, for the moment, final in a series articulating how my views and perhaps the views of many in the RadicalxChange movement differ from those of other easily identifiable ideological camps. In this post I consider an ideology I will call “nationalism”. The resurgence of nationalism as guiding ideological principle is perhaps the most salient trend in global politics in the last decade or so. This trend is most closely associated with the rise of populist nationalist political leaders such as Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orbán, as well as media and political strategists such as Steve Bannon.

Yet, as with many populist leaders, these figures largely channel popular sentiments often in an emotionally charged way that is challenging to argue with in a dispassionate manner. They therefore are poor targets for a critique of the sort I am offering here, which aims to be more intellectual and dispassionate. Furthermore, much of what I have to say is relevant to intellectual leaders who focus on identities based on race or gender in addition to or instead of nationhood (some of whom are quite intellectually coherent, such as Steve Sailer). However, I will generally shy away from directly addressing such positions given how inflammatory they are.

I will thus, instead, aim my critique at a school of thought that developed largely in reaction to these political movements on the ground and has coalesced into one of my favorite journals to read, the American Affairs Journal (AAJ), led by Julius Krein. While this journal is quite diverse in its offerings and has published work by, among others, Eric Posner and myself, there is a clear ideological center of gravity that is particularly clearly expressed by Krein. I will briefly summarize this to make clear what I am critiquing; I focus on the American context but many of these arguments can be applied in other national contexts.

The core argument of nationalists is eloquently and thoughtfully presented in Krein’s recent piece “The Three Fusions”. In this view, the nation-state is the only plausible basis for efficacious collective action in the near-to-medium term. Thus, the only real alternative to strengthening the prestige and power of the nation-state is extreme individualism, division and exploitation by other nation-states that have a clearer sense of national identity and interest. This division has led to an extremely unproductive financialized capitalism that has slowed the economy and dramatically increased inequality. This has been reinforced by attempts to forge alternative political identities to the nation-state that have mostly divided and weakened it, reinforcing corrosive capitalist individualism that ultimately strengthens selfish and exploitative managerial elites. By restoring to the nation-state simultaneously the ideological prestige and the power necessary for public investment and redistribution domestically, a reasonable resolution of international conflicts with other nation-states aware of their national interests will become possible. Thus, the highest politico-social priority is the strengthening of national identity and power.

Nationalists are right to despair of the extreme individualism and decay of collective action in contemporary wealthy countries. The private monopoly, stagnation and extreme inequality such individualism has generated is a leading concern of mine. And it seems very plausible that the fragmentation of identity and focus on the individual, largely divorced from efficacious and democratically accountable political or economic power, has been an important contributor to the decline of necessary collective action. It is also true that the nation-state has, at present, the greatest prestige and plausibility as a site for efficacious, democratic collective action of any major social institution. I even agree with Krein that the idea of a global- or species-based identity as the primary social commitment is implausible and probably undesirable. Furthermore, there are many actions that nationalists like Krein are interested in taking to break up the power of capital to which I am deeply sympathetic. These include a variety of changes to tax policy, financial regulation, antitrust enforcement, and the technology industry that would dismember much of the faceless maximization of return on capital that is undermining both entrepreneurship and public good provision.

Yet nationalism and other ideologies based on the supremacy of rigid particularist identities (such as those based on religion, ethnicity, language, etc.) are those to which I am least attracted. The fundamental problem is that there is nothing natural or even particularly old about the nation-state. It was an invention of the nineteenth and early twentieth century to address collective action problems of those times. It took great effort to consolidate, and largely succeeded when it bolstered a range of other forms of collective action, and failed when national collective action was the primary focus. It has fractured into destructive individualism because it is poorly suited to the collective action problems of today. Attempts to reinforce an exclusive focus on this fading form of collective action will only increase polarization and division. On the other hand, the nation-state can, as it has in the past, be used as a powerful vehicle for balancing capitalism to empower emergent forms of civil society better suited to today’s problems. Such an approach is not only more feasible and productive, but also likely to end better especially for most nation-states in the developed world which themselves have smaller population than their developing nation rivals.

My argument proceeds in five steps:

  1. Historically, identity and power structures that enable collective action have been highly plastic and that, in particular, the nation-state is of recent and often fragile origin.
  2. Historically, except at exceptional times such as during wars, identity and collective action have been highly diverse and plural, rarely exclusively focusing on the nation-state. This was especially true during the “golden periods” American nationalists look back to fondly. Such plural identities are much more capable of sustaining a sense of agency than are either extreme individualism or singular identities.
  3. There are many policies nation-states can adopt to foster the agency of these diverse range of loci of collective action. The current weakness and capture by capital of civil society that nationalists bemoan is to a significant extent a result of abuse and neglect by nation-states. Many of the policies to which nationalists are sympathetic would be effective precisely by creating a richer and more diverse civil society, less dominated by hegemonic capital.
  4. On the other hand, an overriding focus on national identity is likely to further decimate civil society, polarize and divide national politics, and undermine critical areas of international collective action. Such a trajectory is likely to end poorly, especially for the nation-states of currently wealthy countries.
  5. Thus, nation-states have (along with many other existing institutions) a critical role to play in breaking current capitalist exploitation and building up a more efficacious and autonomous civil society.
    However, nationalism itself, like other forms of narrow particularism, is a dangerous and ultimately self-destructive ideology.

First, a large literature in anthropology and history documents the plasticity of human imagination about collective organization. A wide range of tribes, gods, kings, empires, guilds, corporations, ethno-linguistic identities, nation-states, races, unions, environmental features (such as mountains and rivers) etc., have at various times in human history, and often in rapid succession, formed the basis for sustained and often large scale human collective action. These various conceptions have commanded such respect that wars have been fought in their names and people have died to defend them. Nonetheless they have to a large extent later faded from memory; who would now die, as millions of Germans did, to defend the honor of the Kaiser or the sanctity of the Aryan race? The nation-state itself, as a way of imagining collective action, was not widely held at least until the French Revolution little more than two hundred years ago, did not really spread to most of the world’s population until a hundred years ago, and still has little purchase in many parts of the world.

Nor is this plasticity all in the past. Many today take other loyalties (global, sexual, affinity-based, etc.) as primary. In Lebanon and Northern Ireland, for example, in recent memory people were willing to kill and be killed in the name of religious differences that many in, say, Sweden would have difficulty even parsing. Racial differences that inspire such hate and collective organization in the United States, on the other hand, are obscure to the Lebanese. The nationalism this article critiques is hard to even make sense of in much of the world, especially Africa and the Middle East, where national borders bear little relation to historical self-identification for much of the population. A reasonably large group of those who are sympathetic to some nationalist ideas, such as ethno-nationalists or leftist-statists, see other levels of organization (racial, regional, international, religious, etc.) as appropriate or inevitable lines for collective organization in lieu of the nation-state. The very fact of the wide diversity of competing visions of collective organization suggests such loci of collective organization are far from fixed or rigid.

Second, collective loyalties and identities are diverse and variable and have especially been so at the times nationalists most celebrate. I will focus on two periods in the history of the United States: the 1815-1835 and during the 1945-1965 periods. I will entirely ignore the many oppressive features of these periods and focus on the dimensions that nationalists usually celebrate: life for white men at these times. This is not because I consider this the only important dimension to consider, but because it is the place on which nationalists have their strongest footing. Yet, even among white men, identity was tremendously diverse and complex, and even the most sympathetic students of these periods precisely viewed this diversity and complexity as the source of the strength even of national feeling.

The first period is famously the setting of Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The central theme of that work is the importance of subnational identities to maintaining the coherence of American national democracy. Among the organizations De Tocqueville highlights are: local direct democracies, the heterogeneity of religious groups, ethno-linguistic groups, state governments, civic organizations like the freemasons, small businesses, political parties and agricultural mutual assistance organizations. In De Tocqueville’s view, these organizations played the central role in maintaining the stability and resilience of what Americans called “democracy” and, in contrast, the supposedly unifying force of national democracy in fact tended towards polarization, feelings of lack of agency and repeated tyrannies by temporary majorities over the rest of society.

The key feature of De Tocqueville’s admiration for civil society was the way such loyalties and connections cut across rather than lining up tightly with the divisions of national politics, an important feature in James Madison’s argument in Federalist No. 10. The increasing nationalization of politics around the issue of slavery, while arguably ultimately necessary to remove that stain (though important historians disagree), and the closely related breakdown of many of these cross-cutting civil organizations under the force of new transportation and communications technologies ultimately played a crucial role in provoking the Civil War. This experience was so striking that the role of breakdowns of cross-cutting civil institutions in sustaining social peace and democracy was the central theme of Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the rise of totalitarianism in Europe under the pressures of radio and other technologies of the 1920’s and 30’s.

De Tocqueville also highlighted the role of such cross-cutting and fragmented identities to giving individuals the chance to define themselves and to exert agency. This was especially crucial in a society where it was becoming increasingly impractical for citizens to have a meaningful sense of agency, even collectively, over an increasingly distant national government. Because few individuals in such a society have precisely the same pattern of collective identifications, every individual has a sense of uniqueness and autonomy. Yet, at the same time, many of the organizations any individual participates in are small enough that she may choose to have significant agency within them, without them becoming so fragmented that as a collective these agencies themselves have little broader agency. This vision of individual identity was further developed by Georg Simmel and has become central to many of the classic figures of sociology.

Perhaps the most vibrant period for this vision of diverse, overlapping identities that knit together a resilient social fabric was the decades following the Second World War in the United States (for white men in Europe and the United States). Many nationalists wax lyrical about this period. Yet what is most striking is that its more astute students such as Robert Putnam (often admired by nationalists, paradoxically) is the powerful role of civil society, broadly construed, during this period.

Again, focusing exclusively on white men, universities in the wake of the Second World War were an especially democratic institution, responding to the demands of a dramatic influx of returning GIs. Political parties cut clear across regions and even ideologies. Cities and their sports teams united across class lines. Labor unions were at their apogee. New and relatively small businesses boomed, while professional associations gained national prominence. The ethnic groups that largely arrived prior to the mid-1920s remained strong enough to define identity for a large fraction of Americans, but enough integration had taken place that these did not override other identities. Even beyond white men, effectual civil and women’s rights organizations began to form and impact national politics. In short, the defining feature of American society was not national identity, though this certainly had its place, but the wide range of different forms of collective action that were feasible for most Americans outside of overbearing financialized corporations and the distant national state.
Third, this richness and diversity of collective organizations was not then and, if achieved in the future, would not be independent of the policies of the nation-state. It did not then and would not in the future flourish either if nation-states adopted a supine attitude of subservience to capital, nor if they attempted to align every form of identity with an essentially national axis. Instead, the mid-century flourishing of civil society required a deliberate balance in which the nation-state fostered the emergence and independent political power of these civic organizations, thereby preventing them from simply becoming clients of capital, without turning them on the other hand into clients of the nation-state.

Examples of such policies abound and were arguably the central characteristic of mid-century US social policy. The labor regime mostly avoided dictating wages and prices, instead fostering the growth of labor unions and a series of regulations that aimed to create symmetry of power between these unions and corporations, as well as to ensure internal democracy within thus-protected unions. High levels of research and development, especially for defense, that was allocated largely according to the standards of increasingly professionalized academic fields, paired with increasing accountability of universities created by an influx of students from the GI Bill, created another set of independent and respected but internally democratically accountable research-and-teaching institutions. Vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws created ample space for new industry entrants and largely kept monopoly power contained, fostering a range of competitive and responsive businesses. Media outlets were subsidized and supported by the state (via postage subsidies and grants of free spectrum) in exchange for respecting standards of equal access. Local, quasi-democratically governed utility boards were set up around the country to contain the power of utilities. A system of transportation and communication links, as well as housing, were constructed with heavy subsidies from the Federal Government but with strong local democratic input at many levels, largely stimulating the creation of suburbia.

Note that, while subnational, these institutions had several features that contrast sharply with the nationalist narrative. First, while all had important historical roots, the prominence and especially political power of these institutions was so transformed during this period that they were largely novel sites of effectual collective action. Prior to this period, labor unions were of little political significance, universities and academic disciplines were marginal in national life, professional associations were almost entirely new, and television broadcasting had not yet emerged. Furthermore, there was good reason for these to be new institutions: they were adapted to the problems and technologies of their day and would not have been meaningful or relevant in a previous historical period. They are testaments to the plasticity of identity and loci of collective action.

Second, while partly growing within capitalism and partly subsidized by the nation-state, these institutions came to have true independent political power as a result of: a) their ability to play capital and the state off each other, b) the high degree of public trust and confidence in them, c) their internal democratic structures of legitimacy and d) their responsiveness to new problems of the day created by new technological, social and political configurations. The federal government thus played a role in stimulating and creating forces that were to be critical in shaping its future course and constraining its power.

Third, while they were mostly intranational, these organizations were definitively not fully national in character; they were profoundly local and not just in the sense of geography, but also functionally. Some were local to forms of knowledge, to industries, to interests and to geographies, but in new configurations (like highway paths or suburbs).

Thus, a vigorous, truly independent, internally democratic and responsive, and politically powerful civil society was not only central to but arguably the center of the mid-century political economy many nationalists celebrate. Now this does not mean that there is nothing to the nationalist critique of civil society as an ineffectual basis for collective action, either today or in the past. Without a careful regime, in which the nation-state has historically played a critical role, the above properties of civil society can easily be lost and what labels itself as civil society becomes simply a client of concentrated capital on the one hand, or of the omnipotent nation-state on the other. Krein alludes to the argument that civil society has largely become irrelevant and a client of capital in much of his work, and there is an emerging body of scholarship, popular writing, and even documentaries highlighting this recently. Civic organizations without real political power or power over political organizations, and with a lack of internal democratic organization, can easily be co-opted as clients of national power, as documented by Sheri Berman in the transition from Weimar to Nazi Germany.

Yet concluding on this basis that civil society is an impossible, inherently ineffectual, or irrelevant locus for collective action, and thus should be dismissed and run down, seems almost precisely the wrong conclusion. We have arrived at the present state of captured and undemocratic civil society through a combination of two factors: abuse and neglect.

On the one hand, many still-relevant civil societies were systematically rundown by destructive national and state policies aimed at breaking unions, reducing funding of fundamental research, discrediting and defunding media, neglecting infrastructure, disempowering accountable regulatory authorities, and neglecting antitrust enforcement. On the other hand, many existing civil society institutions became increasingly irrelevant and sclerotic as technological, economic, and social conditions changed. Unions had largely been designed to serve men, and struggled as women entered the labor force. Antitrust standards were based on an industrial capitalism that began to decline. Similar analogs apply in other areas of civil society. Yet while these ideas were continuously used as arguments for further undermining existing institutions and liberating capital, it never created political will to build up a new, relevant, updated set of vigorous, independent, accountable and politically powerful civil society institutions.

This is not for lack of buds to be tended. The open source software movement, for example, offered a vibrant, international civil society approach to providing many of the most critical public goods of the digital age, yet has been systematically neglected by nation-states, allowing for capture by corporate interests. Despite a wide range of fascinating attempts to harness digital technology to innovate in the creation of news, nation-states have mostly neglected new media or stuck to support for outlets that are more directly under their control even as the funding model of much media has collapsed. Labor laws have stayed static or decayed rather than responding to the new challenges of a more diverse and international workforce. Increasingly regional and global trade patterns have not been matched with global and regional supports for the civil society required to democratize international capital. Antitrust policy has largely ignored the growing threats of institutional investors, corporate power over workers, technology platforms, and the increasingly global nature of market power, leading to the decline of entrepreneurship and competition.

Both this abuse and neglect could be overcome by a concerted set of policies aimed at establishing a new golden age of civil society, and nationalists are even sympathetic to some of these. Even more could be accomplished by more radical reimagining of liberal institutions. Yet in our increasingly interconnected world, creating such institutions requires helping stimulate loci of collective action that span borders, from international collectives of data suppliers that combat the power of international data platforms to international strategies for cooperation between the victims of the drugs and the cartels that supply them. Some of these emerging loci of collective action will naturally be subnational, such as regional groupings around cities or groups representing traditionally marginalized but not geographically concentrated groups within wealthy countries (e.g. African Americans in the United States). Others will be transnational at the regional (e.g. trans-European trade unions), linguistic (e.g. English language media consortia) or global (e.g. institutions to address climate change) levels. Others will serve relatively small subsets of people spread over many countries, such as international scientific organizations, open source collaborations, and groups aimed at defending international waterways, for example.

Given their current power and role in the public imagination, nation-states and cooperation among them will clearly have to play a role in building such institutions. Yet the overwhelming focus on national interests, as opposed to seeing these interests as one of many collective identities to which individuals should be willing to sacrifice their selfish interest to different degrees, will almost certainly harm the cause of building the new civil society we need for new technological, social and economic conditions. The reasoning couldn’t follow more directly from the logic nationalists employ. They insist that, because of free rider problems, only by individuals sacrificing selfish private property interests to the national whole can public goods be effectively provided. They also firmly resist assuming automatic harmony of interests and argue that explicit work must be done to establish institutions protecting collective interest.

Thus far, they will find no disagreement with me. But why then should national interests be the ones we seek to build up? If we do, we will find every nation a free rider on global public goods, an oppressor of subnational minority community goods, and potentially in both positions regarding goods that affect a range of minorities across countries. Thus, we should not seek an overriding role for national identity because it is not the most fitted and effectual level for collective action today.

Should we seek the preeminence of national power and identity because this is the only possible identity humans can form collective action around? Clearly not, given the plasticity of identity we discussed above. Should we seek the preeminence of national power and identity because there are no other plausible prospects for collective action on the horizon? Clearly not, given that nationalists often propose to explicitly mock and run down budding forms of democratic, non-nation-state-based forms of collective action and would not need to if these were as irrelevant as they suggest.

It is not even clear that an overriding emphasis on national identity and collective action will be helpful in achieving comity among American citizens. The fundamental difficulty is that the American project is an extremely divisive topic, given its long history of promising one set of ideals as universal and yet in fact only fulfilling these for a small part of the population. Conversations over this fraught history are almost inevitably divisive and, given the changing demographics of the country, seem almost impossible as the basis for national majority coalition with much coherence. On the other hand, a variety of non-national ties, of religion, interest, labor position, etc. seem capable of recreating a fabric of cooperation if they achieve enough vigor, independence, accountability and political power.

As noted above, a primary reason they have thus far failed to do so has been systematic abuse and neglect, a neglect that nationalists in their disdain for civil society, would likely only enhance. Yet there is subtler way in which nationalism is even more corrosive of the connective quality of civil society than through any individual policy of support or neglect. By identifying “The Political” with “The National”, nationalist attitudes tend to force every civil society organization seeking to wield political power to line up with a single majoritarian national democratic coalition. If everything is about National Politics, every politically powerful and engaged civic association must choose a side in the struggle for national political power rather than cutting across these sides. We have seen the devastating effects of this nationalization of politics take off most dramatically beginning with the explicit strategy of especially the congressional Republican party during the 1990s. It is increasingly becoming impossible in the United States to have a conversation about any matter of collective importance (religion, work, culture, art, etc.) without it becoming about a single, central national divide. Ironically, the divide in question is becoming less and less aligned with the actual substantive differences of opinion among the public.

The consequences of rising nationalism are particularly unattractive for nations like the United States at this moment in history. India and especially China have far larger populations and, in the case of China, a far more coherent national identity and pattern of economic and cultural development suited to primarily national collective action (as opposed to other forms of collective action). In a world where nation-states are the primary locus of collective action, China and India are far more likely in the medium term both to match collective action to the problems it addresses and to have the scale to exercise power than will a country like the United States, which has always and increasingly gains its strength from international connections driven mostly by non-nation-state actors. Similar things could obviously be said for the nation-states of Europe, who almost certainly will be left behind in a world ruled by nationalism. The best hope for such nations (insofar as they see China and India as “competition”), it seems to me, is to use the far greater potential of a powerful international civil society to overwhelm the power of all nation-states, including China and India.

Further focus on the nation-state as the central political identity and actor is thus likely to undermine the crucial provision of the public goods we most need today, polarize national populations internally, and further the relative decline of “the West” as compared to rising China and India. Instead, devoting the power of the nation-states to building up the legitimacy of other loci of collective action and identity, within and across nations, ensuring that these can be an independent, democratically governed, vigorous and politically powerful check on capital and nation-states seems a far more plausible course for broad and sustainable cooperation. Nationalists are excellent allies in the fight to break the power of individualistic monopoly capitalism holds over our collective lives, but we must just as vigorously ensure they do not replace it with a monopoly of the nation-state over our individual identities.