Nation/alism (415)

Both of the novels we’ve read thus far dramatize the issue of nationalism, though it seems to me our approach to that concept remains under-theorized. The most influential writing on the nation and nationalism includes the work of Benedict Anderson, Ernst Gellner, and Eric Hobsbawm. (In a US context, we could also consider the thinking of Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton, whose political commitments led him to reject even broadly anti-establishment ethnic and cultural nationalisms as a species of fetishizing chauvinism which he disparaged rather cuttingly as “porkchop nationalism.” Angela Davis notes this distrust of Afrocentric cultural nationalism was based, in part, on these ease with which it was commodified.)

Anderson’s anthropological contribution emphasizes the constructed character of the nation as an “imagined community,” one that in the absence of “face-to-face contact” depends on notions of limitedness (ex. France is not Belgium); sovereignty (nations seek to achieve or defend the political form of the state) and “a deep, horizontal comradeship” obviating status distinctions. 

This last characteristic has been perplexing for communists and capitalists alike in the sense that both of those ideologies– in their more doctrinal form– seek to establish a universal polity transcending local particularisms. For some Marxists, nationalism impedes internationalism– i.e., the practical expression of class consciousness among the proletariat, whose only chance at victory lies in banding together in order to fight an owner class structurally intent on division and exploitation. One of the tragedies of the 20th century, they say, came when European workers joined the armies that fought WWI. In terms of objective conditions– i.e., their place in the social structure– conscripts had more in common with one another than the rich of their own nations. Yet millions of working class soldiers and sailors died fighting each other as the taxes they paid further enriched the industrial bourgeoisie.

Capitalists, on the other hand, particularly those adopting a sunny “globalist” stance along the lines of Thomas Friedman’s boosterism, heralded the emerging Golden Age of TNCs and permeable borders as an era promising to abolish national identities and cultural localisms. Even Marx and Engels considered the relative decay of nations and nationalisms to be the ultimate outcome of global capitalism. “In the place of old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency,” they write in the Communist Manifesto, “we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.” One of the consequences of this trend, they argue further, would be the rise of “a world literature”– a phrase we could read as cultural globalization.

Yet as Hall, Massey, and Rustin warned, the neoliberal phase of capitalism has apparently sharpened nationalist sentiments. Where do we go from here?