States should be judged on prosperity, being peaceful | The Triangle

States should be judged on prosperity, being peaceful

Scotland has voted to remain part of Great Britain. That’s good, in my opinion. Yes, I have some Scottish heritage — but my ancestors were Hebridean, from the Kingdom of the Isles, and Edinburgh has been no more a friend to the Hebrides than London has. But that’s beside the point.

It’s not that I am opposed to Scottish nationalism. I am opposed to nationalism — anybody’s nationalism. It is time to realize that nationalism is a failed experiment and to reject nationalism wherever we see it.

Nationalism is a political framework based on three ideas. First, that the world can be divided into non-overlapping territories within which most people share a common “national” or ethnic identity. Second, that each of these territories is entitled to a separate state if they choose. Third, that the interests of the nation take precedence over the interests of major regions, classes, organizations or other subgroups within the nation.

This is a rather new idea. It only arose in the 19th century, drawing on the experience of the consolidation of Western European states such as Spain, Britain and France; the American and French revolutions; and on the Romantic rediscovery of European country people and their speech and traditions.

In the early period, nationalism was a unifying movement in Germany and Italy. These countries were divided into microstates that were the residues of feudalism, and nationalism called for the unification of those microstates into national states in imitation of France, Britain and Spain.

In part this was supported by the claim that these nations-to-be would share a common language. I say “claim” because the common language is, in some important instances, a matter of interpretation.

To say that the speeches of people of Sicily and of Venice are different dialects of a common Italian language is a political statement, not a statement about linguistics. As a friend of my wife remarked, quoting Max Weinreich, “A language is a dialect with an army.”
Nevertheless, stories about common or distinct languages have played a role in many nationalisms.

But many nationalisms (like that of Scotland) have been separatist, calling for division of existing states. Irish nationalism was a response to the very real oppression of the great majority of Irish by England, but while that oppression followed religious and class lines, the resistance to it increasingly took the form of nationalism.

By the beginning of the 20th century, multinational empires such as Austria-Hungary and Russia, themselves residues of feudalism, were threatened by the nationalism of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Rumanians, Ruthenians, Ukrainians and — most crucially, as it turns out — Serbs.

Even where nationalism called for unification, as in pan-Germanism and pan-Slavism, it threatened the dismemberment of established states with German-speaking or Slavic-speaking minorities, and the oppression of Germanic- and Slavic-speaking groups that upheld their own nationalisms.

It was the Serbian threat to Austria-Hungary that triggered the First World War and led to the establishment of Yugoslavia. Yugoslav nationalism is a good illustration. It was based in part on the idea that Serbian and Croatian were dialects of a common south-Slavic language (written in different alphabets based on different Christian traditions).

But this conflicted with Croatian nationalism that asserted just the opposite. In all its history, this struggle was never resolved — though it was suppressed during the rule of Tito, a Croat — and ended in the great civil war of the late 20th century. (If, indeed, it has ended even now!)

Perhaps the unification of Germany and Italy were positive steps in the 19th century. Perhaps not. In any case, it seems clear that nationalism has produced more bloodshed and hate, in the 20th century, than any other influence. Nationalism fails because its first assumption is wrong. In many parts of the world there is no shared national identity.

Most people everywhere speak what, in Ukraine, is called “Surzhyk” — figuratively, wheat adulterated with cheaper grains, but figuratively, speech that mixes elements of some “national” language with borrowings from other speech traditions.

If not nationalism, then what? States and governments should be judged first on their ability to remain at peace. Separatist nationalisms do not have a strong record on that score. States and governments should be judged secondarily on their ability to create the conditions for prosperity. Plenty of beans and bacon is a good thing, not to be scorned.

Some states that have been very successful on both these counts do not make much “nationalist” sense. Switzerland, another residue of feudalism (or rather, of early resistance to feudalism) is the classical instance.

Separatist “nationalisms” should not be allowed to trouble a political order that keeps the peace and creates the conditions for prosperity. The only “nation” we should give our loyalty to is the human species.

Roger McCain is a professor of economics at Drexel University He can be contacted at
[email protected].