Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fear and foreigners: ethnic nationalism hasn't gone away

Britain was shocked in February by a survey finding that almost half of respondents would vote for a non-violent far right party if it abandoned fascist imagery. Far right groups in other European countries have been mobilising around populist anger at Muslim immigrants’ failure to abandon illiberal traditions and to assimilate, but I wonder if the key to understanding Europe’s modern integration failures may have little to do with Islam, and more to do with disease.

In the early centuries of European colonial expansion into the Americas, Eurasian diseases like smallpox and typhus helped to decimate native populations, speeding the demographic replacement of natives with European settlers and African slaves. The collapse of the natives meant that colonists were building countries almost from scratch, able to define them any way they liked.

In North America the colonists took advantage of these possibilities for new nationhood with the strong civic language of the Declaration of Independence, which emphasised individual liberties and acknowledged their common ancestry with the British enemy:
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren…. We have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence.
Nowhere does the Declaration make any ethnic claim to the land of the colonies and with the emergence of the Melting Pot narrative, migrants from all over Europe would eventually assimilate into an American national identity. Catholics, Protestants and Jews, bitter enemies on the old continent, were gradually absorbed into the American whole.

The United States based its independence from Britain on British governmental tyranny, not on some ethnic right to self-determination; the liberty the Americans spoke of was individual liberty from government, not ethnic liberty from foreign domination. While non-whites faced discrimination until well into the 20th century, the rhetoric of civic nationalism had created a template for the eventual integration of these groups too. Back in Europe, however, national identity was taking a rather different course.
By 1848 most Europeans were still living under oppressive monarchs, many of them in the large multiethnic empires of Russia, Habsburg Austria and Ottoman Turkey. That year a wave of popular revolutions led by idealistic liberals overthrew or marginalised many of these monarchs, briefly winning political and religious freedoms.

Many of the new liberal regimes quickly floundered, partly because their new sense of nationhood was overwhelmingly based on ethnicity and that sucked them into conflict with their neighbours. German liberals initially talked of Völkerfrühling – a Springtime of Peoples – dreaming that Europe’s ethnic groups would divide the continent into separate ethno-national states that would coexist in harmony. When ethnic Danes and Poles threatened Prussian national interests, though, the inherent contradictions of ethno-nationalist idealism exploded and the Germans quickly reverted to violence. I asked Dr Mike Rapport, author of 1848: Year of Revolution, to comment:
The split between ethnic and civil nationalism predates 1848, at least in intellectual terms, since the French revolutionaries of 1789 and, as you say, the Americans in 1776, posited ideas of the nation which were not based on ‘blood’, ‘race’ or culture, but on the rights and duties of citizenship.

Meanwhile, in Germany, [philosopher Johann Gottfried von] Herder emphasised language and history, in particular, as an essential part of a people’s identity, laying one of the ideological foundations of German völkisch nationalism – the kind which was later espoused by the Nazis. Both forms of nationalism have historically had the potential to exclude and repress. As you say, ethnic nationalism has been the cause of a lot of grief and suffering in Europe – far more so, than the civic kind, in my view.
Unlike the US, where the ‘merciless Indian Savages’ (as the Declaration of Independence calls them) were to be devastated by disease and replaced by European colonists, in Europe the indigenous people were sticking around, buying into the new intellectual talk of ethno-national destiny and applying it with demands for independence. There were aspects of civic nationalism to this, like the Hungarian offer of individual liberties to Romanian minorities within a Hungarian-dominated nation, but these were threatened by the popular identification of individuals with ethnic groups instead of governments.

In Ireland an early wave of nationalists dabbled in a civic interpretation of nationalism close to the ideals of the young United States. In 1791 the liberal United Irishmen organisation was founded to seek an extension of the Catholic and Presbyterian franchise in the Protestant-dominated politics of Ireland. Though Protestants and Presbyterians were generally descended from English and Scottish colonists, and the Catholics from indigenous Irish, the United Irishmen were multi-denominational and their demands were initially concerned mainly with individual and political liberty, as represented in the resolutions of their first meeting:
That the weight of English influence on the Government of this country is so great as to require a cordial union among all the people of Ireland, to maintain that balance which is essential to the preservation of our liberties and the extension of our commerce... That no reform is practicable, efficacious, or just, which shall not include Irishmen of every religious persuasion.
This was an idealistic civic interpretation of nationalism, with their opposition to English rule coming on economic and liberal grounds, not ethnic. One of the founders, Theobald Wolfe Tone, declared his intention to ‘to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.’ This would end centuries of ethnic struggle between Irish and British colonists, replacing it with a united Irish democracy respectful of all beliefs.

In 1798 the United Irishmen staged a revolution, aided by a French invasion. It was calamitous, quickly and ruthlessly defeated by the British who then ended the Irish parliament and shifted all rule of Ireland to London. Despite its civic idealism the rebellion quickly broke down into savage sectarian butchery. This terror helped cement Protestant support for British rule (and Catholic support for Irish rule), hampering later efforts at civic nationalism. The late 19th century Home Rule campaign, lobbying for the return of limited parliament to Dublin, was violently opposed by many Northern Irish Protestants, who remarked that ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule.’
When a new wave of Irish nationalists staged another failed rebellion in 1916, they prematurely declared independence using much more ethnic language than before.
We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people.
The document does promise religious liberty and equal rights, and implicitly blames British rule for dividing Protestant and Catholic communities in the past, but there are two hints that its authors were more concerned with collective ethno-nationalist liberty from Britain than individual liberty from tyranny. First is the reference to Ireland’s ‘exiled children in America’, suggesting that Irishness is defined by ethnicity, even after several generations living in foreign lands. The other is its strong collectivist language:
The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts…. In this supreme hour the Irish Nation must, by its valour and discipline, and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.
Unlike the US, where rebels hailed the British as brethren and made no ethnic claim to the colonies, the Irish recognised in the Saxon English ‘a foreign people’.

This collectivist, ethnic Irish nationalism allowed early governments to harshly censor free speech and to intervene decisively in the economy. As Ireland moved towards total independence in the 1920s and 1930s, fascists were seizing governments on mainland Europe, and elements of that popular authoritarianism seeped through to the new democracy. Thousands of movies were cut or banned over the first few decades, often on religious grounds, along with many more books. Poet Patrick Kavanagh was raided by police after the publication of his epic poem The Great Hunger, with its lonely and obscure reference to masturbation: ‘he sinned over the warm ashes again’.

Despite their claims of religious equality the Constitution, enacted in 1937, officially recognised the ‘special position’ of the Catholic Church, a point only removed by amendment in 1973. Ireland was defined by its ethnic and religious identity, and Irish welfare defined by the strength and prosperity of the state as a whole. The early state was sometimes repressive but it had fairly high levels of support because it challenged British rule. In Ireland, talk of freedom meant collective ethnic liberty from Britain, not individual liberty from tyranny.

In the long run liberty came to Ireland through pragmatism rather than principle. Liberal economic policies were embraced after decades of protectionism led to stagnation, and gradually the culture changed and people began chafing at Catholic conservatism. Even today Irish debates about the economy rarely focus on the intrinsic morality of free trade or socialism, but rather about pragmatism and a utilitarian desire for the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The kind of right-wing American concern with economic liberty is generally missing: the people want whatever works.

(Could this difference help to explain why so many Americans and Europeans clash over economics? If Hungarians and Danes and Italians saw liberty as a collective ethnic liberty from alien occupiers rather than individual liberty from tyranny, might it make them more susceptible to collectivist ideologies like socialism? Perhaps not, since some European countries like Switzerland and Ireland developed much smaller welfare states than others. But it seems plausible that a concept of citizenship based on collective ethnic wellbeing instead of individual liberty from tyranny might make people willing to compromise that liberty for the wellbeing of the group.)

There was another, darker legacy to this ethnic nationalism, one slowly manifesting itself in the growing anti-immigrant movements of France, Netherlands, Switzerland and elsewhere. A curious piece of rhetoric from the anti-immigration British National Party sheds some light on it:
Given current demographic trends, we, the indigenous British people, will become an ethnic minority in our own country well within sixty years – and most likely sooner.
Indigenous American populations collapsed long ago so now Americanism is up for grabs, anyone can be a part of it, but in Europe the natives are still strong and a lot of them don’t like the idea of being replaced. If nationality is determined by one’s ethnic ancestry then an immigrant may find it difficult to ever be accepted as an insider.

Other Old World countries have learned to deal with varying levels of ethnic diversity, from the highly heterogeneous India or Malaysia to the highly homogenous Japan. The latter has tended to side-step European difficulties with integrating immigrants by strictly limiting their entry in the first place, and by acknowledging its ethnic nationalism with an honesty that would be uncomfortable in the West.
Tokyo’s Governor Shintaro Ishihara warned in 2001 that Japanese society would soon be altered by the spread of Chinese criminal activity, blaming particular kinds of violent crime on the ‘ethnic DNA’ of the Chinese. Two years later when the Chinese sent a man into space he mocked the ‘outdated’ spacecraft.
The Chinese are ignorant, so they are overjoyed.
Insensitivity to politically correct ideas about race and ethnicity went as high as former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who in 1986 openly admitted that Japan’s ‘monoracial’ society had advantages over the diverse US:
So high is the level of education in our country that Japan’s is an intelligent society. Our average score is much higher than those of countries like the U.S. There are many blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in America. In consequence the average score over there is exceedingly low.
So Old World countries sometimes struggle to define their national identities without reference to ethnicity, and maybe this makes the integration of immigrants more difficult. Of course this is a generalisation and there are with exceptions. Ireland’s history of mass-emigration led to a modern trend of immigrant-friendly language in public debates. France, too, had its history of revolutionary civic nationalism, while Britain has already assimilated many millions of Europeans into its greater population.

Professor Jerry Z. Muller of the Catholic University of America wote a controversial article for Foreign Affairs magazine in 2008, arguing that ethnic nationalism was still a potent force in Europe. I contacted Prof Muller for his thoughts:
The degree of ethno-national consciousness and culture differs among European societies. It tends to be relatively weak in England (which in fact has a long tradition of successful integrating foreigners), and strongest as one moves eastward. It also varies over time. And the nature of the immigrant groups matters a good deal as well. The French, for example, had little trouble integrating immigrants from Vietnam, but a good deal of trouble with those from North Africa.
However Muller warns that ethnic nationalism lingers and that post-war European peace came partly from the division of Europe’s ethnic groups into discrete states, almost all of them dominated by a single ethnic group. The terrible nationalist wars actually succeeded in separating the ethnic groups into stable, fairly homogenous states.

Mass-immigration is reversing that ethnic homogenisation of Europe’s states, but they still carry the legacy of ethnic nationalism. The modern mass-migrations between continents also mean that migrants often bring such physical differences in appearance so that their descendants will appear foreign for generations; the modern integration of dark-skinned Jamaicans or Indians into Britain may be harder than the historical assimilation of white Irish.

Some educated Americans, long comfortable with the idea of a post-ethnic nationhood, might be baffled to see the enduring clashes in Europe. Ethnic riots in Bradford and Paris, radicalised second and third generation Muslims drifting into terrorist organisations, and continued hatred in old sore spots like Kosovo and Northern Ireland: this wasn’t how peaceful post-war Europe was supposed to be.

But what works in North America may not work in Europe or Asia. We cannot take for granted that native populations will peacefully move over and welcome large minorities. The challenge ahead is to define nationality in the Old World and use this definition to inform decisions about border control. For many European countries it is already too late to peacefully reverse the modern mass-migrations so they have no option but to develop a means to functionally absorb their minorities. This may somehow require the abandonment of historical ethnic nationalism.

I am given hope by the US, which still went through centuries of anti-Catholic and anti-Asian xenophobic movements as well as strife with blacks and Native American Indians. As Taras Kuzio writes in Ethnic and Racial Studies:
Western civic states from the 1960s are very different from the Western ethnic states that existed from the late-eighteenth until the midtwentieth centuries. Western civic states that pride themselves on their liberal present ‘had illiberal pasts’.
This shift from exclusionary ethnic nationalism to inclusionary civic nationalism might neither be obvious nor easy, however; there may be trouble ahead.


  1. I don't know if you got a lot of comments on this article of if you have published this somewhere else, but this is an impressive piece of historic writing Shane.

    I wonder whether the nationalism we see today in many European countries can properly be called 'ethnic' nationalism, as the narrative seems to be heavily focused on 'the traditions of the West' (versus islam of course).

    In any case. This was a very interesting read.


  2. Ah thanks very much Matthijs! Well I'm not sure if I generalise too much, I understand that there are big multiethnic Old World countries like India too, so I might be making too much of the Old/New World division.

    But it is strange for me to see the survival of Irish nationalism into the 21st century even as it gets ever less clear what it stands for. For example, the President Mary McAleese said last year:

    "Our history has given us resilience in the face of adversity and maybe it's time to remind ourselves that we do indeed have many strengths to help us on the journey ahead.... We are a people rich in imagination, creativity, innovation and problem-solving skills."

    So who is she talking about? This reference to the past might suggest she means the ethnic Irish, the people whose ancestors experienced that adversity. The idea that the Irish national group has a list of specific character traits also seems odd. Does a Nigerian-born citizen of Ireland also have these traits of imagination and creativity? Do Poles and Chinese who get citizenship?

    My own guess is that it just hasn't really been worked out yet what Irish nationalism means in a multiethnic country. I HOPE that integration will be fairly smooth; to date we don't have any major anti-immigrant party.

    But I fear that anti-racism is so prevalent in public discourse that people may be hiding their deeper feelings of unease around foreigners, and around the rewriting of the national identity they grew up with. Fingers crossed!

  3. As an Asian, I feel that European countries have the right to practice ethnic nationalism and restrict immigration into their countries. These countries have indigenous peoples and cultures spanning back thousands of years that would be undermined by mass immigration. I value the uniqueness of each European country and would hate to see them become like another United States. May the unique heritage of each European country be protected!

  4. Thanks for your comment, and sorry for my slow reply here.

    One anecdotal observation to add. When I was in Japan I noticed that some of my North American friends were particularly annoyed by Japan's fairly strict immigration process, some muttering about racism. I, on the other hand, had simply assumed that I was a visitor to someone else's country and had to follow their rules. I didn't think that I had a RIGHT to immigration or citizenship. Perhaps there, too, was an indication that the North Americans had moved past ethnic nationalism and thought the rest of the world should too, while Asia and Europe maybe remained with the older way.

    Really not sure, though, that was just one small observation.

  5. Ultimately its about personal state of individuals. In good times, when jobs are plenty and governance is just, everyone is more than happy mingle across ethnic lines. However, when governance is unjust or confusing, economic conditions worse, everyone starts to form click, groups, borders, etc.. And what's worse others start to use that tension for nefarious agendas and dominance. These cycles have happened in history all over the world with various frequency. To think that US has escaped this base trait of humanity is lacking perspective. I know this was written in 2011, and 2016 is here, what does 2020 look like? Not good.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.