Not all nationalism is an unconditional evil

From a lecture to the Forum for European Philosophy by David Archard, the Reader in Moral Philosophy at St Andrews University

Share

Philosophers writing in the shadow of the French and American revolutions saw a clear relationship between democracy and nationalism. For they recognised that the very possibility of a democratic expression of collective will, the self-government of a "people", was indissolubly tied to the sovereign independence of a nation with a right to self-determination.

Philosophers writing in the shadow of the French and American revolutions saw a clear relationship between democracy and nationalism. For they recognised that the very possibility of a democratic expression of collective will, the self-government of a "people", was indissolubly tied to the sovereign independence of a nation with a right to self-determination.

The attitude of philosophers to nationalism since 1900 has been markedly unsympathetic. Yet there have been signs over the last few years of a more sympathetic philosophical reappraisal of nationalism.

There is a recognition that nationalism is here to stay. Not all nationalism is an unconditional evil. Moreover there is a warranted scepticism about the alternatives. The cosmopolitanism which animated the 18th century philosophes has not yet found a convincing form of institutional realisation. It is also a matter of real concern that the political constructions above and between nation states have displayed a marked democratic deficit, characterised, in consequence, by popular indifference, official corruption, and executive arrogance.

There has also been a general revisionist reassessment of nationalism by historians, social scientists, and cultural theorists which has challenged the critical orthodoxies of the past. So, for instance, nations do have a degree of historical legitimacy; they are not simply the empty inventions of modernity.

All of this is relevant to the question of the boundaries of the jurisdiction over which there is democratic control. If democracy is self-government, who or what fixes the identities of the self or selves that govern?

The democratic principle does not of itself provide an answer to this question. Why not then simply take as an answer what is already supplied by a salient fact - namely that the world of humanity is divided into relatively stable, enduring communities bound together, and reciprocally perceived as tied together, by significant ties of mutual affect which derive from commonalities of historical and contemporary experience.

Democracy provides an account of how the people should govern themselves; nationality provides a criterion for what shall count as a people. But nationality also supplies the self which is self-governing with a sense of itself as a self. What might motivate a people to participation if not a sense of themselves as united in a common project, in pursuit of a common good, and in defence of a common inheritance?

However, national self-determination and democratic self-government do not, in fact, neatly coincide. The existence of many groups pursuing secessionist and irredentist aims bears testimony to the non-congruence throughout the world of the national and political unit.

The fact is that not every state can be a nation and not every nation can be a state. The Balkans, especially, stand as a potent reminder of two tendencies. The first, Balkanisation proper, is the centrifugal tendency for nations within an initially unified territorial jurisdiction to assert their identities in ways that splinter the original federation or state. The second is the centripetal tendency for a nation-state to assert its identity through the suppression of any differences internal to the jurisdiction.

There may be ways to avoid or to mitigate these tendencies. But there is a further, and unnoticed, tension between the democratic and the national principle. The democratic principle assures a society control over the terms of its coexistence. However, the terms of national identity are not themselves subject to control.

As I pointed out earlier, democracy provides an account of how the people should govern themselves; nationality provides a criterion for what shall count as a people. But what shall count as a people is not within the scope of the democratic principle. The apparently felicitous conjoining of democratic self-government with national self-determination has had, and continues to have, its moments. But we should beware of simply assuming that the conjunction always works to the advantage of democracy.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk / Trainee Application Support Analyst - Hampshire

£25000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A relative of dead Bangladeshi blogger Washiqur Rahman reacts after seeing his body at Dhaka Medical College in Dhaka on March 30,  

Atheists are being hacked to death in Bangladesh, and soon there will be none left

Rory Fenton
9.4 million people watched the first of the three-way debates at the last election. The audience for the one on Thursday is likely to be far lower.  

David Cameron needs to learn some new tricks – and fast

Steve Richards
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor