Why Nationalism Is Dangerous

Updated on August 29, 2016
Virginia Matteo profile image

Virginia has a Bachelor's degree in Spanish and English Literature.


In theory we all should know what pursuing extreme national interests and a xenophobic agenda can lead to, after all the horrors of the two world wars are not buried in that distant past. But do we really? Isn’t it rather that those wars have become fossilized stories we can’t really relate to anymore? An increase in the support of nationalist parties across Europe and the phenomenon of Donald Trump in the U.S. seem to indicate just that; how quickly we can forget. The refugee crisis and the fear of terrorism all too easily revive nationalist sentiments, which are deliberately played upon by populist politicians. In this nationalist rhetoric the refugee or the migrant becomes the figure in which all our fears can materialize; the scapegoat. So if we could get rid of them the society would be purged and all problems resolved. Terrorism would fade into oblivion, the working class would live in bliss, the prices of houses would fall down.

Except none of it would really happen. Picking a victim and blaming them for all that’s wrong, as understandable from a psychological point of view as it may be, will lead to nothing but violence and creating even more problems. Nationalists think they have a simple cure for all social ailments, but in fact they terribly misdiagnosed the patient. Theirs is the kind of thinking that led people to believe that if they sacrifice enough victims, the gods will show mercy and send them the long-awaited rain.

Of course nationalism doesn’t boil down to blaming migrants for every evil, it’s a complex phenomenon with many faces across the world and throughout history. But it is still possible to identify some common features that may be dangerous.


Defining the Nation Against an Other

In post imperial Britain the notions of “nation” and “race” were played upon by the Conservative party in an attempt to revive political language at a time when the UK had lost their sway over a significant portion of the world. The scheme of restoring past glory and a sense of value to the nation was carried out by defining the British nation against a surge of immigrants that were coming to the country, especially black settlers. The proper British way of life was seen in opposition to alien, threatening, dangerous ways of life. In short, the creation of a white homogenous British nation that overlooked differences such as class, gender, regional identities, was only possible by saying what this nation wasn’t (it wasn’t black, it wasn’t criminal, it wasn’t dangerous).

Scholars of nationalism agree that achieving a consensus about national identity requires identifying an Other inside or outside the national borders, that is somehow inferior to the nation itself. The exclusion and derogation of other cultures inside a state can lead to a series of social problem such as legitimization of abuse, alienation, in extreme cases violence. It is also problematic because it is only natural that the abused and alienated victim will look for an alternative identity, finding consolation in their own version of nationalism. Two hostile communities (parts of them, at least) that despise each other’s cultures and are unable to communicate is no good news. Especially if one community significantly outnumbers the other.

National Will – Where Does It Reside?

In nationalist rhetoric whatever the people do, or wish, or rather what politicians say that the people wish, is inherently good by virtue of it being the “will of the people”. The consequence of the nation being held the highest good is a dangerous lack of self-criticism and a very dubious sense of morality. The national interest can be used to justify just about anything.

Another problem is that the national will is highly malleable to different political agendas. It should not be understood as a pure expression of the nation, as some nationalists seem to understand it, but rather as a political tool for pursuing particular political goals. Many politicians claim the right to speak on behalf of the nation, but how do they identify the national will? Where does it reside? How is it created? How is it measured? Does a politician just “feel” it? Is it unanimous?

A politician brandishing the national will is giving themselves essentially carte blanche to do anything they claim is in the national interest and shows that they are unwilling to compromise on anything that could in their opinion harm the nation. Putting ideology over pragmatism certainly is not the best entry into dialogue on an international level; it can cause misunderstanding and the nation’s isolation.


Nation-Building Is Repressive

According to some models, nation-building requires in agrarian societies a landed elite to subjugate the peasantry. The emergence of a nation is frequently preceded by gory peasant revolts, especially in colonial and post-colonial contexts in the Middle East and South Asia, where the predominant economic model is agrarian capitalism. Nationalist violence isn’t always directed outward; it is also used against the same people it supposedly cherishes. This is one of the many paradoxes of nationalism; it glorifies the nation, the people, but at the same time it crashes those of its own people that dare to disagree. Nationalism’s dream of unity is impossible to achieve without a degree of violence and coercion (conscripting armies is one example of state repression). Nationalism pretends to represent the totality of the nation, but on close inspection it is obvious that it constantly struggles to hold the nation together and there are other identities that challenge it.

Internal Struggles

In multi-ethnic and multi-religious states (many of such states were erected by colonial powers in the Middle East) there always exists the danger of civil war if different groups disagree about what should be the basis of national consciousness. History provides but too many sad examples of struggles over hegemony that resulted in utter human tragedy. Genocides on Iraqi Shi’is and Kurds by the Ba’thist regime in Iraq, the massacres of Shi’is and Tajiks by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Bosnian civil war, the civil war in Tajikistan and the Ayodhya and Bombay massacres of Muslims in India. As Juan R. I. Cole and Deniz Kandiyoti sum it up these events should: “stand as reminders of how the post-colonial national imagination can turn, just as had some European nationalisms, toward dark fantasies of ethnic hegemony and even homogenization.”


Paul Gilroy, ‘There ain’t no Black in the Union Jack’

Juan R. I. Cole and Deniz Kandiyoti ‘Nationalism and the Colonial Legacy in the Middle East and Central Asia: Introduction’

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2016 Virginia Matteo


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