Nationalism in the 21st Century
| 12 December 2016

If we associate the eighteenth century with the Enlightenment, the nineteenth century with the expansion of imperialism, the twentieth century with the growth of communism and fascism then what, if any, ideological movement will we come to associate with our own century? Back in November 2014, the Economist published an article declaring that ‘nationalism is back’ - an analysis with which I find hard to disagree. Since 1946 the number of sovereign states has skyrocketed from 76 to 197. Scotland’s rejection of independence last September was an anomalous result in an otherwise conclusive trend. Nationalism is indeed back. Over the past few decades, political units have drastically shrunk and the prevailing winds of change indicate that they will continue to shrink over the coming years. The Catalans’ groans for independence grow louder each day; recent flashes of separatist violence in Eastern Ukraine (or should I say Novorossiya?) have left world leaders impotent for fear of sparking war; even the exponential rise in support for Scottish independence is symptomatic of a new wave of nationalism. This is not just a European phenomenon either. Nationalism has recently entrenched itself in the hearts and minds of the Chinese, Indians, Japanese and many more.


But what exactly is nationalism? Put simply, it is the desire to achieve self-determination for a particular cultural group. It should be noted that nationalism is not necessarily bad. George Orwell said on the subject, clearly with the fascist movements of the 1930’s in mind, that nationalism is ‘inseparable from the desire for power’ - a comment which is true, but should be sanitised of negative implications. The Scottish independence campaign was clearly about power, but I don’t think that anyone would argue- regardless of their personal position on the referendum- that the ‘Yes’ campaign was inherently sinister in any way. The racism and xenophobia which we often associate with nationalism is an unfortunate product of nationalist extremism - rather than simply to promote the self-determination of a cultural group, ultranationalists attempt to preserve a preconceived ‘national identity’, which is often based on ethnicity. It is this sort of nationalism that has been fermenting underneath the surface of European politics for some time and has only just come to international attention.


In April 2014, Jobbik - a ‘radically patriotic’, neo-fascist political party in Hungary - secured 20.54% of the vote, making it the third largest party in the Hungarian National Assembly. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front, has seen her party’s share of the vote soar to 24.86% of the vote in the 2014 European Elections. Even in the UK, the ultranationalist party -Britain First- has filled the vacuum which the BNP and EDL had left behind. Their Facebook page boasts over 620,000 likes, exceeding the Conservative and Labour party put together. Recent months have seen the birth of a new force in German politics, PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West), a Dresden based organisation which coordinates anti-immigrant rallies. Since its foundation in October 2014, the number of participants at these demonstrations has swelled from just 350 to over 25,000.


The explanation for the rise of the far-right is not clear cut. Many see it as a response to globalisation. The erosion of local cultures, languages and, ultranationalists would argue, civic values has created the conditions in which insular bigotry can thrive. This detestation of globalisation is reflected in the policies of these new far-right political movements; all of them seem to reject free market economics and, of course, multiculturalism. Undoubtedly the recession of 2008 has also fed the growth of political extremism. It is an almost natural reaction to look to radical alternatives when the system has failed you; fascism, after all, rose to power on the back of the tumult of the Great Depression. As more and more across Europe become disillusioned with conventional politics and globalisation becomes more and more pervasive, the far-right will only continue to grow.


Not all nationalisms, however, can be explained in the same way. The secessionist movements in Catalonia and Xinjiang, for example, have little to do with the electoral successes of Eastern European extremists, although it is no coincidence that independence has suddenly become more attractive since the economic downturn. While the Scottish ‘Yes’ campaign and the Greek neo-nazi Golden Dawn party have few shared values, nationalism, in whatever context, has everything to do with culture.


It is important to understand that nations are a function of social identity, so to understand the growth of secessionism, be it in Britain or China, one must ask why it is that nationalists no longer wish to identify with the larger cultural and political polity of which they are technically citizens. Britain’s rapid deindustrialisation over the past few decades might explain the rise of Scottish nationalism - we all simply have less in common. I am sure many of those who voted ‘yes’ in the referendum in September were asking themselves why they should recognise a political authority which is located in a city hundreds of miles away in a country with which they no longer identify. I have no doubt that there are those in Catalonia right now asking the same question. Separatism in China largely stems from opposition to the authoritarianism of the Chinese government in Beijing. The Uighurs in Xinjiang, where the the majority of China’s Muslim population is located, are essentially under military occupation. Han Chinese displace jobs in local government and peaceful protests are dispersed with often lethal force. Ultimately nationalism comes down to drawing a distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’.


What then of the sort of nationalism that is frequently used as a blunt instrument by states to achieve political goals? Again, China is perhaps the most topical example. Lacking the democratic mandate accorded to conventionally elected governments, the Chinese Communist Party has increasingly used nationalism to assert its right to rule. For the Chinese government, anti-Japanese rhetoric has proved to be the most adhesive of legitimating glues. Recent disputes over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands has provoked volleys of nationalist rhetoric from both sides of the East China Sea - China claims that the islands constitute a part of their ‘inherent territory in all historical, geographical and legal terms’, whilst the Japanese government state that ‘there exists no issue of territorial sovereignty to be resolved’ regarding their own claims to the islands. Such rhetoric again comes down to drawing a distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’. By positioning themselves in opposition to Japan, the Chinese politburo galvanises the support of the entire country, helped, of course, by the state-controlled broadcasting agencies. Nationalism is one of the most useful tools available to politicians. It is free, non-partisan and can turn electoral fortunes in an instant. It is how the Chinese Communist Party has sustained itself so far, it is how General Galtieri justified the invasion of the Falkland Islands and, equally, how Margaret Thatcher won the 1983 General Election. In a world in which the media carries unprecedented influence over political discourse, nationalism will only become more prevalent in global politics.


The ultimate goal of any nationalist, whether they are neo-Nazis in Hungary, separatists in Eastern Ukraine or bureaucrats in Beijing, is to defend their cultural group from what they perceive to be threatening or corrupting influences. The rise of nationalism in the 21st century can be attributed to several factors. For the far right, the cultural impact of globalisation, particularly in terms of immigration, has elicited an often violent reaction. For secessionists, their cries for independence can be seen as a protest against a central government which no longer appears to work for them; in Scotland, support for independence shot up as the Tory-led government was elected in 2010, while the Uighurs’ plight for self-determination can be seen as an expression of discontent directed towards the authoritarian Communist Party. On the other hand, the sort of nationalism which is invoked by central governments can usually be interpreted as an attempt to cement political power. Exploiting the populist sentiments of the electorate will become increasingly necessary for politicians as the media becomes more and more pervasive. It is impossible to speculate what the world will look like in fifty years time, but inevitably it will be shaped by the forces of nationalism.

James Routledge 2016