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

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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.

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