A Nationalism Untethered to History

A Nationalism Untethered to History

With a breezy preface that approvingly references recent political developments in America and Britain, Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism offers a defense of the nation state. Now, there is a case to be made; indeed, there is a liberal and cosmopolitan case to be made. The nation state has been the most successful vehicle of liberalism yet achieved and there are good, liberal reasons to be suspicious of the rise of supra-national institutions such as the European Union. A book making that case could have been a very important contribution to our current impoverished debates on the matter.

The Virtue of Nationalism does not set out to be that book. The book’s self-declared aim is state the case for nationalism and for a distinct kind of national state. It defends nationalism in opposition to liberalism, globalism, imperialism, or cosmopolitanism. The nation state Hazony champions is the nationalist’s state and, as we shall see, inevitably the ethno-nationalist’s state. Troubling as this might be on its face, the main weaknesses of The Virtue of Nationalism are less in its aim and more in its incoherent methodology, the brazenness with which ill-fitting examples are forced into too-clean categories, and its utter lack of familiarity with the scholarship associated with its subject matter.

What, then, is the case for nationalism?  And what are the virtues of nationalism?  There are several points that Hazony makes which are fairly standard, and with which one can concur. The competitive European state system did play an important role in the economic and political successes of the West in the last half-millennium. Attempts to build states in the Middle East that ignore ethnic, linguistic or religious difference do seem doomed to fail. And there is a strong Burkean and Hayekian case for relying on a form of political organization that has served us well historically. These arguments are well and good but are not novel, nor are they central to Hazony’s case.

The novelty of The Virtue of Nationalism is twofold. First, Hazony’s positive vision of a national state is based on the biblical account for the early Israelite kingdom. He elevates ancient Israel into a model for how to think about nation states. He sees this Old Testament model as informing the rise of Protestant states in the early modern period. And, on this basis, attempts to delineate a virtuous Protestant trajectory of national development and a sharp distinction between national and imperialist states.

A second novel feature of this book, is that the nationalism Hazony defends is essentially an ethnic nationalism, though he doesn’t use that term. He bases his claims for the virtues of nationalism on an argument that human sociability, trust, and sympathy is closest among family members and then extends out to members of one’s “tribe” or even nation but cannot be sustained among human beings as a species. Hazony’s national state is based around a core set of tribes who share common culture, language and religion; outsiders can be adopted into it; but it hard to see how their culture, traditions or language can have anything but a secondary role in such a society.

In the current political environment, these views should not be ignored.

A narrow categorization

Hazony begins by describing a dichotomy between two types of political order: the tribe and the imperial state. In a tribal order, authority is personal, familial and reciprocal. The most serious downside of the tribal order is that there is frequent conflict. The polar opposite to the tribal order is an empire. Empires promise to unify all peoples; hence they can bring peace and prosperity. But authority under imperial rule is distant and abstract. According to Hazony, cosmopolitan empires cannot command genuine loyalty, for “in the absence of a common threat to provide a genuine basis for unified action, the call to unite all mankind appears worse than vacuous” (p. 79).

Having laid out these two extremes, Hazony argues that the national state provides a happy median, avoiding both the chaos of tribal anarchy and the despotism inherent in an imperial state:

When the tribes of a nation unite to establish a national state”, he writes, “they bring to this state the familiar and distinctive character of the nation, its language, laws, and religious traditions, its past history of anguish and triumph” (p. 101).

Note that here, what Hazony calls a national state emerges where there already is a “nation.” We can set aside, for now, the fact that in this argument, the problem of “nation-building” or creating national identity is conveniently skirted.[1]

Hazony notes that a national state can overcome the endemic violence of the tribal order while harnessing shared loyalties and cultural values. Here Hazony waxes lyrically about the collective endeavors made possible by an independent national state. But, as the argument progresses, one realizes that Hazony has no stable criterion for designating which characteristics adhere to a national state and which belong to either the imperial state or the tribal order. The ideal types Hazony establishes in order to build his argument collapse upon examination.

Consider one of the key virtues Hazony attributes to a national state: that it renounces the bellicose ambitions of the imperial state. National states, we are told, fight limited wars to obtain limited ends. By contrast, imperial states are committed to an ideology of continual conquest. How does this argument fare empirically? By Hazony’s own account, the Athenians, English, and Dutch — all exemplars of the national state model — hardly refrained from creating empires.[2]  Historically the only factor limiting the ambitions of most of the national states he cites has been weakness or lack of opportunity.

The lack of any coherent methodology for assessing his own claims leads to incoherence. National states frequently develop imperial ambitions. Moreover, actual imperial states, we are told, tend to be based on core ruling nations which “[form] a tightly bonded core of individuals who will defend one another at all costs against peoples whom they have conquered” (p 98). In a single chapter Hazony simultaneously claims that a virtue of nation states is that they recognize “the boundaries of the nation and its defensive needs as placing natural limits upon its extension” (p 111) while also denouncing “the imperialism that had come to dominate the policies of Britain, France, Russia, and Germany” and claiming that World War 1 was “the fruit of European national states’ infatuation with imperialism” (118). If by Hazony’s own account, this key virtue of the national state is frequently violated by actual national states, why should we place much faith on it?[3]

This problem is pervasive throughout The Virtue of Nationalism. In the parlance of my native discipline, economics, the author continuously selects on the dependent variable. Take any historical state or event. If something turns out to be good, attribute it to nationalism. If something is bad attribute it to the opposite of nationalism. Thus, we are told that Nazism and Japanese imperialism had little to do with nationalism. According to Hazony, these states were “imperialist.”

What is just and what just is

Another fundamental problem is that what is just and what just is are frequently conflated. Hazony’s vision is of nation state that emerges indigenously from a group of tribes that share a common culture, language, and religion. He argues that this ethno-nationalism is good because it is realistic, it builds on the sympathy that we naturally feel from those who are similar to us and which we don’t feel towards foreigners. For Hazony, this empirical observation somehow implies an ought. The fact that we sympathize more with victims of, say, natural disasters in our own country than in others is not just true, but somehow good.

He contrasts this to the liberal political order which he views as synonymous with the contract theories of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and John Rawls. For Hazony this liberal order is a “dream world” (p 34). He supposes that Hobbes and Locke and indeed modern liberals view the social contract as a relevant historical account of the origins of societies, states, and government. This of course would be fantastical. But, of course, I’ve never encountered anyone who holds this position. For liberals who built on the writings Locke, such as Rawls, the state of nature is a theoretical construct to probe our intuitions concerning justice and political authority.

The fact that successful nation states have harnessed the sympathy we feel for members of our family and extended kinship group and transplanted them to the nation is indeed valid. But this tells us little about what type of political order is just.

Even if we judge a theory purely on its realism, Hazony’s argument falls short. His account is inspired by the Biblical account of the origins of the Kingdom of Israel. Setting aside issues of the biblical literalism, Hazony’s account of other instances of state formation carries with it the air of a fairytale and are almost entirely divorced from historical reality. There is no recognition that, in the examples he cites, the formation of states required the erosion or outright destruction of tribal authority.

The Athenian state, we are told, was created based on the “unification of tribes” (p 80). The Greek cities “were tribal states that failed to unite under a single national state” (p 257). But what Hazony does not tell the reader is that Athenian democracy was based on the abolition of the original tribes of Athens. Cleisthenes and the founders of Athenian democracy understood that tribal loyalty undercut and undermined loyalty to the city. Hence the electoral “tribes” that formed the basis of Athenian democracy were artificial, with no connection to extended family groups. The claim that Athens functioned as free state because of loyalty to “nation and tribe, which contributed the necessary cohesion to the state” is a fantasy.

From Hazony’s account one would not learn that tribal identity and familial loyalty are usually a major barrier to the formation of effective nation states. In his study of Arab society, The Closed Circle, David Pryce-Jones discussed how tribalism does not just mean frequent recourse to violence, as Hazony acknowledges, but deep cleavages and distrust which impeded any attempts to organize at the societal level.[4] Pryce-Jones quotes Pierre Bourdieu to the effect that among traditional Arab society:

The family is the alpha and omega of the whole system: the primary group and structural model for any possible grouping, it is the indissoluble atom of society which assigns and assures to each of its members his place, his function, his very reason for existence” (Pryce-Jones Loc. 410).

Having provided a stylized model of how a nation might emerge out of separate tribes, Hazony applies the ancient Israelite template to early modern Europe. References like “the coming together of the Netherlandish tribes as a national state under the Dutch Republic” (p 80) are ahistorical. A careful reviewer would have noted that clans, tribes, or powerful extended family networks ceased to be important centuries prior to the establishment of the Dutch Republic.

Hazony appears unaware of the fact that scholars attribute the success of European nation states precisely to the weakness or absence of clans and tribes.[5] An extensive literature documents how the Catholic Church eroded tribal and clan based loyalties by prohibiting cousin marriage, encouraging widows to remain unmarried, and advocating for marriage as institution for consenting adults. These developments, the practice of deferring marriage into one’s mid-20s (known as the European Marriage Pattern), and precocious urbanization meant that Dutch society consisted of small nuclear families, not tribes.[6]

Though he notes that families and tribes can adopt genetically unrelated individuals, his notion of a national state is unmistakably rooted in a sense of shared tribal identity. But what is the nature of this identity? How is it formed? How did individuals extend notions of local or tribal identity to the level of the modern nation?

These are questions that historians of nationalism have wrestled with for decades. Rather than addressing these concerns, we are offered breezy statements such as “Thus the English adopted the Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish into a broader British Nation” (p 128). This statement simply elides centuries of conflict, negotiation and investment in a constructed, fragile, recent identity and entirely ignores the imperial character of English (and Scottish) intrusions into Ireland.

Ignoring the literature

A charitable reading of The Virtue of Nationalism is that the author has extrapolated a political theory from the biblical accounts of his own homeland. Thus, his preferred story is one in which different tribes, unified by language, religion and a shared culture (and perhaps ethnicity) strike an alliance to meet outside threats and form a national state. This theme is repeated throughout the book[8]. But very few national states conform to this creation myth. As a result, Hazony is forced into a series of ahistorical assessments about which past societies embodied the virtues of nationalism (or the sins of imperialism).

Non-specialist readers might miss the fact that there is an extensive literature on the origins of nationalism. A common theme in it is that nationalism is a recent, 19th century invention. Hazony mentions this in an endnote but he does not actually engage these arguments at any point in the text. This is a revealing omission. You can believe, as I do, that the claims of the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and others about the invention of nationalism are overblown while still acknowledging the basic point that national identity is often the product of a national state rather than its precursor.

Curiously, Hazony also does not touch on the distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism emphasized by historian Liah Greenfield.[9] “Civic nationalism” does not appear in the index. And, for the most part, he writes in terms of a shared religion and culture. But how should we think about “tribes” except in ethnic terms? It is troubling that, rather than confronting this topic directly, Hazony’s cites Johann Herder as follows:

The most natural state is, therefore, one nation, an extended family with one national character . . . Nothing, therefore, is more manifestly contrary to the purposes of political government than the unnatural enlargement of states, the wild mixing of various races and nationalities under one scepter. A human scepter is far too weak and slender for such incongruous parts to be engrafted upon it. Such states are but patched up contraptions, fragile machines . . . (p 112)

Rather than wrestling with the exclusionary implications of Herder’s nationalism, Hazony simply approves of Herder’s assessment, leaving the reader to wonder whether the modern, multi-racial, United States is one of Herder’s “lifeless monstrosities.”

A frank conversation about national loyalty, and especially the history of the nation state and its role in the advances of the modern world, are needed now more than ever. Unfortunately, The Virtue of Nationalism has very little to offer to such a conversation. The topic of the book has a natural appeal to those who feel defensive when national sentiments are attacked by liberals and progressives, and indeed it has been taken up in the conservative media and elsewhere on that basis. But these outlets would be better suited to careful scholars such as Greenfield, Azar Gat, or Michael Ignatieff. What Harzony offers readers is a far cry from these authors in both scholarship and in the logic of his arguments.

[1] Indeed, the definition of a nation for Hazony is “a number of tribes with a shared heritage, usually including a common language or religious traditions, and a past history of joining together against common enemies” (p 100).

[2] Hazony acknowledges this on page 120 but doesn’t seem to realize the damage this does to his argument earlier.

[3] The claim that there is a stark dichotomy between limited wars between national states and “ideological wars” does not survive scrutiny.  One ruler’s legitimate national interest is another’s overwhelming hubris.  Louis XIV claimed that he was securing the natural boundaries of France; his opponents that he aimed at dominion over all of Europe.  Similarly, it should be recalled that the French Revolutionary armies were defending their own borders in 1792 at the onset of what history has labelled the Napoleonic Wars.

[4] David Pryce-Jones (1989). The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs. Harper & Row. London.

[5] Alan MacFarlane, (1978). The Origins of English Individualism. Wiley Blackwell. Larry Siedentrop, (2014). Inventing the Individual. Belnap Press. Cambridge, MA.  Francis Fukuyama, (2011) The Origins of Political Order. Profile Books.  Jack Goody (1983). The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe. Cambridge University Press.

[6] Note also that the Dutch Republic was not a national state but a fairly loose federation of city-states.

[7] He cites Herder positively that “Nothing, therefore, is more manifestly contrary to the purposes of political government than the unnatural enlargement of states, the wild mixing of various races and nationalities under one scepter” (p 112).

[8] Thus on page 123: “The national state takes advantage of the basis for a genuine mutual loyalty that already exists among these warring tribes — a common language or religion, in addition to a past history of defending one another as allies in the face of common enemies — to establish a unified national government”.

[9] For instance in, Liah Greenfeld (1992) Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, Havard University Press, Cambridge MA

Featured image is The Black Stain, by Albert Bettannier