The Pro-National Suicide argument

The contemporary Right bemoans the suicide of the nation state while either overlooking or not being bothered by the many reasons why persons are both sick of the nation state and have good reasons for wanting it to die. I have no opinions on the matter other than that it is confusing, but since everyone reading this already has a few heartfelt reasons to love the nation state I’ll here give some of the reasons for wanting it to die.

1.) 1914-1945, our Thirty-Years’ War. Just as the Thirty Years’ War was a critique of Christendom the two World Wars were a critique of the nation state that replaced it. The World Wars start with a nationalist assassination, though this was really just pretense for the exercise of a general sense that the nations must fight, and the whole affair culminates in a genocide done for the sake of national purity that was only halted by other nations that (a) were willing to let 20 million of their citizens die and (b) now proved themselves willing to use technology that could kill even more. Whatever good a nation state could provide, it had to be worth accepting the very live possibility that everyone on earth might die in a nuclear fire that could be precipitated by causes that were as unintelligible and chancy as the one that was supposed to have started all this killing (a Serbian national kills an Aristocrat and/or we try to kick some Germans out of Poland and for this we end up killing 98 million persons?)

2.) Our preference for the cosmopolitan. The large cities in nations have two conflicting elements: they are at once expressions of the national strength and character and are internationalist patchworks of ethnic neighborhoods and places to experience, in effect, alternatives to one’s own nation. Because everyone is more impressed by the different than by the familiar, this second element became dominant among the city natives. Add to this the usual contempt that all city dwellers have for those outside the city, and you get a growing sense that nationalism is a provincial, small-minded, redneck idea.

3.) Nationalism outgrew its founding mythology. “Nation” is just the noun-form of natus, meaning “born”. The sense is that Nations are made by natives, i.e. by a people sharing a common blood and birth who were tied together by the cultus of art, language, cuisine and religion. It may be possible to have this in a population of a few thousand, but as the population increases national unity requires more an more abstractions and categories that, while they may reflect something really biological or cultural, come with a large dollop of arbitrary construction, e.g. “white” or “Christian”.  How much reality is there in a category including both the Irish and Romanians, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the SSPX? This applies just as much to any of the elements just mentioned if they get too large: if any group you call “Irish” has a million persons in it chances are it will have just as much arbitrary construction. Nations thus demanded a source of unity that their increasing population could not provide.

4.)  Nationalism is protestant.  The charter of the nation state and the more successful protestant political philosophy are the same, even though it certainly was adopted by some Catholic* countries. The catastrophic decline of confessional, high church and nationalist protestant churches could not help but make the nation state unintelligible and anachronistic. We don’t have enough data to decide if a secular nation will be able to provide the sort of cohesion that the nation once got from a common cult, but in one sense this is impossible since anything that replaces religion will have to be relatively more superficial than it.** One simply cannot appeal to anything deeper and more significant than the gods and the eternal destiny of the person. You might debunk it, but there is a logical impossibility in transcending it.

5.) Disgust at racism. Every regime demands its citizens prefer it to all others, and nation states are inter alia racial. Whatever else it is, Nationalism just is a sort of racial preference. Our crusade against racism is therefore both a cause and an effect of our disgust at nationalism.

—-

*That said, whatever one says about the practice of Catholic nationalism there is a contradiction at its heart. “Catholic” means “international” or “worldwide”, and the Church has insisted on this from St. Peter till Pope Francis.

**If we can’t have unity by cult, the only deep unity we can have is from biological or genetic affinities and urges. which runs afoul of objections (3) and (5). This was implicit in Nation all along, as (3) argues. But the whole program is now tarred with the brush of National Socialism.

 

24 Comments

  1. dpmonahan said,

    March 29, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    The government of the contemporary Western nation state is, at least in theory, answerable to its citizens and exists to serve their interests. In other systems there is no such theoretical accountability – the state is answerable to God or the church or to the myth of progress.
    The system we have is not perfect, there can be other ways of arranging human interactions, but those in leadership positions who are pushing the demise of the nation state simply do not want to be accountable to their citizens, and lie about their intentions.

    • March 29, 2016 at 12:37 pm

      Your defense of the nation state is that it is

      a.) answerable to its citizens and
      b.) exists to serve their interests.

      Now we know that A and B can conflict, in which case B is the preferable good. But B is a feature of any form of government, or even any kind of leadership. This is one of the main conclusions of the Socrates/Thrasymachus debate.

      You say you are limiting yourself to power “in theory”, but I’m unimpressed by theoretical power or rights in practical systems. Totalitarian systems are famous for their theoretical human rights, and a monarch might be the theoretical absolute ruler while his power is in actuality checked, hemmed in, and answerable to a maximally-diffused group of persons. When I look at the ways in which the various governments I am beholden to are answerable to me, I see nested patchworks of gerrymandered districts which allow me every now and again to cast my all-but-anonymous vote into a million man pot, in the hope of picking between candidates that are pre-chosen by some unaccountable party machine. I guess I should be grateful that I’m not in a gulag or something, but it’s hard to see how anyone would feel they have to answer to such an politically insignificant act.

      • Zippy said,

        March 29, 2016 at 1:21 pm

        When I look at the ways in which the various governments I am beholden to are answerable to me, I see nested patchworks of gerrymandered districts which allow me every now and again to cast my all-but-anonymous vote into a million man pot, in the hope of picking between candidates that are pre-chosen by some unaccountable party machine. I guess I should be grateful that I’m not in a gulag or something, but it’s hard to see how anyone would feel they have to answer to such an politically insignificant act.

        Right.

        The actual objective function of your vote – whatever subjective meaning various people may assign to voting – is not to assert your influence on liberal politics. It is a ritual means by which liberal politics asserts its influence on you. It is the modern equivalent of bowing before the king, of lighting a pinch of incense to Caesar.

        Voting is not how you influence politics. Voting is one way – the main liturgical way – in which politics influences you.

      • dpmonahan said,

        March 30, 2016 at 12:36 pm

        Oh but the theory is very important. Let me reframe: the modern nation state’s legitimacy is derived from two perceptions: first that it is accountable to the popular will, second that it is somewhat effective. Whether or not it actually those things are always compatible is not relevant to the perception, just as it did not matter if a King was really anointed by God in the Middle Ages, but that he was perceived as such.
        If the govt is not seen as being accountable to the people it loses legitimacy in their eyes because of the dominant theory. Accountability to the people is the ideal. You yourself point out that the current political system falls short of the ideal and is therefore illegitimate. In other words you judge it by the ideals of the modern nation state. In a different age, you simply would not care about gerrymandering or political parties.
        Now, we see a phenomena of leaders trying to avoid accountability. In fact, accountability is probably seen by them as an evil that progress will overcome with time, to be replaced by a technocracy that obeys only reason as they define it. If that is what they want, fine, but the project will fail and they are quite dishonest about it.

      • March 30, 2016 at 1:26 pm

        You yourself point out that the current political system falls short of the ideal and is therefore illegitimate. In other words you judge it by the ideals of the modern nation state.

        This is a clever response, but why can’t I just be annoyed by the hypocrisy of the system?

        At any rate, the no one wants the people to have power except so far as they are being rational or just, and since this isn’t necessarily the case the power of the people can’t be. Our own system of government rests on a pretty extensive critique and partitioning of public power, and I haven’t formed any opinions on how right it is to do so. But I do recognize some merit in Marx’s critique that free market societies are forever praising equality while producing hierarchy. Maybe this noble lie is necessary, but I’m not ready to start loving it.

        As far as I can tell, actual political life can only exist in much smaller societies, but I prefer the benefits of mega-society Administrative State and am willing to sacrifice a political life for it. I give up popular power as just a cost of the benefits of the complex state.

      • dpmonahan said,

        March 30, 2016 at 2:22 pm

        Of course it is clever, I said it.
        This is how I see it, we have a system that works well enough in some countries such as our own. Others are critiquing it and undermining it because they do not like the ideal of a state defending the interests and well-being of its citizens above the ideals of progress, and they do not like the ideal of a state being accountable to its citizens who have the unfortunate tendency to care about themselves and their own communities.
        You can have Israel, a state that does not apologize about defending its interests and citizens, or you can have Germany, a state which intentionally displaces its own citizens with mobs of rapey Arabs. The former is behaving as a modern state, the latter is behaving as something very different. Israel only cares about Israelis, Germany does not give a crap about Germans.
        I can’t think the new model is better than the old. It is probably much more dangerous in the long run because it is not moored to anything other than elite opinion.

  2. theofloinn said,

    March 29, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    The nation is primarily a people speaking the same language. Europe fought hundreds of years of bloody wars to make the boundaries of her States correspond to the boundaries of her Nations — with fair success as such things may be measured. There were Bretons and Basques left over and the Catalans were none to sure things had worked out properly. (Why is there a Spain, not an Aragon?) But even so there were anomalies: there is no such Nation as Belgium. It is a State inhabited by both Dutch (Flemings) and French (Walloons). Similarly, the Swiss is a State with French, German, and Italian people in it. At the same time, there were Germans in multiple countries — the Elsass, Austria, South Tyrol, the Ukraine, and elsewhere — which depending on whether the wind was nor-noreast might be German-held or in the hands of Other Nations.

    What made the USA somewhat different was that it was, as Chesterton noted, founded on a creed not a nation. You could study to be an American and pass a test. But no matter how hard he studies, an Algerian cannot pass a test and become a Frenchman. At best, he may become a citizen of the French State; but he is unlikely to get a tear in his eye when contemplating the victory of Charles the Hammer at Tours, or at least not the same kind of tears as a descendant of the Franks might have. A German who becomes an American may feel patriotic over Lexington and Concord precisely because they fought for a principle, and not for some notion of Americanism.

    This is where patriotism differs from nationalism. One may love one’s patria no matter what Nation one’s descent.

    • March 29, 2016 at 3:01 pm

      Re becoming a Frenchman: the choice of an Algerian may be simply one suited for the thesis. Would Alain Finkielkraut count as a good counter-example?

      • theofloinn said,

        March 29, 2016 at 4:56 pm

        Antisemitism was a problem with the nationalist program throughout most of the modern history of Europe. That’s why assimilation of immigrants and refugees is so much harder for States like France or Hungary than for the United States or Canada. If “France is for the Frenchmen” or “Vietnam is for the Vietnamese” where is there a place for people like Dreyfus?

        Hence, the American solution. It doesn’t matter what Nation you are from as long as you subscribe to the American contract. My neighbor on the south is Arab; on the north, Hispanic. Up the corner, of African descent; across the street, Italian.

      • March 29, 2016 at 7:41 pm

        I’m not sure you got my point. A philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut is a real Frenchman, if being something of a xenophobic Frenchman is being a real Frenchman, the son of Polish-Jewish refugees. France has long been proud of being a terre d’accueil, though the degree to which Arabs and Muslims are now welcome is easily exaggerated.

      • theofloinn said,

        March 29, 2016 at 10:26 pm

        “Long” is a relative term. Since WW2, a sense of profound guilt has overlain the ruins of the Modern Age. The same applies to Germany, which had once struggled the most to round up all Germans into the Greater Germany. Still, to become “French” is more difficult, despite the Americanization of Europe.

      • theofloinn said,

        March 29, 2016 at 10:30 pm

        Afterthought: It may also depend on retail vs wholesale and/or whether they are come eager to fit in or come with a ‘tude rejecting the very society that had welcomed them.

    • Lucretius said,

      March 30, 2016 at 8:35 pm

      Where does Chesterton say this?

    • vishmehr24 said,

      March 31, 2016 at 1:28 am

      Nation is a mystical entity defying a concise definition. A nation is just a people asserting their nationhood. No other definition fits, neither descent, nor language (the Hindus form a nation, though having a great multiciplity of languages and descents).

      By the standard of self-assertion of a people, America is nothing exceptional. I could believe in American creed while living in a Indian slum–how could this make me an American?

  3. vishmehr24 said,

    March 31, 2016 at 1:52 am

    The suicide is just the modern denial of the political nature of man whereby mankind is organized into particular, self-ruling morally authoritative communities we variously call nations, tribes or polities.

    The political nature of man results in the crucial distinction between neighbors and strangers. (Contra the friend-enemy distinction of Carl Schmitt). The word “stranger” to be understood in the sense of Kipling’s poem with the same name.

    Now the Progressive Left denies the particularity aspect and wants the World Govt. He would have all humanity as neighbors to each other.

    The Libertarian denies the moral authority He would have all humanity as strangers to each other

  4. Lucretius said,

    March 31, 2016 at 11:14 am

    Mr. Chastek:

    For what reasons should an American citizen vote in contemporary elections, especially those of the Federal Level?

    Christi pax,

    Lucretius

    • March 31, 2016 at 11:44 am

      Well, my wife forces me to, so domestic tranquility works into it…

      Other than that, I haven’t thought much about it so my reasons are probably the same vague truisms you’d get from anybody: civic responsibility, the value of collective ritual, the entertainment value of participating in a significant contest, etc. So you get all the fun of a baseball game with a dash of patriotic feeling. Why do anything entertaining with a dash of significance? I suppose the question answers itself. I doubt that abstaining could ever be as entertaining as, I dunno, voting third party or something. So that’s a reason.

      At any rate, we value all sorts of acts that of themselves are of little significance: giving spare change to the cause at the cash register, saying please and thank you as pure formalities, etc. So I can’t object to my voting just because of its vanishing insignificance within its general scheme.

      In fact, because any one vote is insignificant, voting is a particularly good example of the First Categorical imperative, or of wanting your action to be a general law. An answer along these lines might be the most interesting.

      • Zippy said,

        March 31, 2016 at 3:18 pm

        In my experience as a notorious non-voter, vocally abstaining can be a quite significant source of entertainment; FWIW. Though I suppose it depends on what you consider entertaining.

        Also – taking what may have been tongue-in-cheek seriously for a moment – the first principle of domestic tranquility is respect for the king of the castle and his authority. And it is no flattery to the queen to suggest that she is a nagging source of dissension.

        Finally, it seems fairly obvious that a categorical argument could be made that everyone ought to do and think as a non-voter does and thinks, depending upon the non-voter. At best the Kantian argument cuts both ways, unless we beg the question in favor of democracy as some sort of ideal.

      • Lucretius said,

        March 31, 2016 at 10:04 pm

        Thank you for your response.

        Do you think it is more productive for someone looking to cultivate sanctity to just avoid politics all together? It doesn’t seem like we are convincing to people anymore, and I am appalled by what the Church looked like when She had political power in earlier times.

        Christi pax,

        Lucretius

  5. E. R. Bourne said,

    March 31, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    James,

    I absolutely concur with your post, but I think that there is an ambiguity within the term nationalism that needs to be teased out in order to have a proper understanding of what, exactly, the alternative right is bemoaning when it speaks of national suicide.

    The nationalism which you critique is the nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries, an ideology that caused an untold number of deaths in our country during the Civil War and, as you rightly point out, caused irreparable carnage in Europe during the two world wars. It demanded absolute loyalty to an abstraction and was ultimately destructive of the real patriotism that men naturally feel for their homelands.

    Today, however, we are being asked (forced) to subsume our already abstract and unhealthy notions of nationalism under a wider concept of internationalism which demands that western culture in all its particular forms be dissolved in order to allow a corporate global order to emerge wherein the nation of the 20th century will seem a quaint idea. Almost every contemporary discussion of politics basically reduces to how our rulers can best implement this project; any actual deviation from this ideal is denounced with the usual bromides of racism, sexism, etc.

    The term ‘nationalism’ is being used as a catch-all to describe the general impulses of resistance to the international, cultureless, consumerist ideal. If you think ideological nationalism destroys local identity and the authentic political dimension of man’s life, an opinion I share, then the globalist project can only make things even worse. The end of the nation-state can mean two things: the integration of the west into an international order where all sovereignty permanently dies, or the reassertion of particular identities that reinvigorate the political life of man. One is a nightmare and the other is a return to sanity, but both involve the end of the modern nation state. I do not think many on the alternative right would lament the death of nations if it meant choosing the second option.

    • March 31, 2016 at 7:37 pm

      I absolutely concur with your post

      Be careful with this – I tried to be very clear that I have no opinion on the matter but am just presenting an argument. I rather like nation states, and at any rate I’ve lived in them so long I’m ruined for anything else.

      I’m puzzled by the transition from your second to third paragraph. It seems you want to divide the modern rejection of nationalism from the Postwar rejection of it but they strike me as the same effort. The immediate response to 1914-45 was a League of Nations, an international court, the UN, the rise of Communism, and a raft of other international conventions. The EU or our chaotic immigration non-policies are developments of that, not an attempt to take it beyond its limits.

      You’re right that the Leviathan destroys political involvement. We’re probably closer to what Aristotle called politics by organizing a fundraiser than going to a caucus. But Leviathan comes with perks that I’m unwilling to give up (mass media networks, networks of donors for my school, a healthy tolerance for freedom of thought if you’re willing to keep yourself out of elite circles, etc.)

  6. Josh said,

    April 7, 2016 at 10:10 am

    Your renditions of arguments 3, 4, and 5 are nice. 4 is particularly thought-provoking.

    I have some problems with #1, though. Clearly, nationalism plays a part, but the World Wars are only partly nationalistic. WWI was sparked by a nationalist assassination, but most of the major players were more empires than nation-states. This is particularly relevant when you think about the role worldwide imperial jostling played in the decades before. Yes, many empires are built around a core nationality, but it’s not that simple. Not to mention that many of the polities in question were dismantled in favor of creating new nation-states!

    With WWII we’re on firmer ground, but now with the addition of some powerful ideological content. German nationalism is the driver of the war in a much less ambiguous way than nationalisms were in WWI. But with one of the biggest combatants being the USSR, particularly in light of how the war ended and the subsequent Cold War, nationalism isn’t the whole story.


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