May 5th 2014

The Post-National Mirage

MADRID – The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas once defined our times as “the age of post-national identity.” Try convincing Russian President Vladimir Putin of that.

Indeed, the great paradox of the current era of globalization is that the quest for homogeneity has been accompanied by a longing for ethnic and religious roots. What Albert Einstein considered a “malignant fantasy” remains a potent force even in united Europe, where regional nationalism and xenophobic nativism have not come close to disappearing.

In the Balkan wars of the 1990’s, communities that had shared the same landscapes for centuries, and individuals who grew up together and went to the same schools, fought one another ferociously. Identity, to use a Freudian expression, was reduced to the narcissism of minor differences.

Nationalism is essentially a modern political creation wrapped in the mantle of a common history and shared memories. But a nation has frequently been a group of people who lie collectively about their distant past, a past that is often – too often – rewritten to suit the needs of the present. If Samson was a Hebrew hero, his nemesis Delilah must have been a Palestinian.

Nor have ethnic loyalties always matched political boundaries. Even after the violent dismemberment of multiethnic Yugoslavia, none of the successor states can claim to be wholly homogeneous. Ethnic minorities in Slovenia and Serbia (even with the exclusion of Albanian Kosovo) account for between 20-30% of the total population.

Dictatorships, unlike democracies, are ill-equipped to accommodate ethnic and religious diversity. As we saw in Yugoslavia and are now seeing in the Arab Spring revolts, a multiethnic or multi-religious society and an authoritarian regime can be a recipe for state implosion. The dissolution of the Soviet Union, too, had much to do with the collapse of its multinational structure. Dozens of ethnic minorities live in China, where Muslim Uighurs, in particular, face official repression.

India is a case apart. The vastness of Indian nationality, with its plethora of cultures, ethnicities, and religions, has not immunized it against ethnic tensions, but it has made India more a seat for a major world civilization than a mere nation-state.

Conversely, ethnocentric nationalism is bound to distort a people’s relations with the rest of the world. Zionism is a case in point. The enlightened ideology of a nation rising from the ashes of history has become a dark force in the hands of a new social and political elite that have perverted the idea. Zionism has lost its way as a defining paradigm for a nation willing to find a bridge with the surrounding Arab world.

The European Union, a political community built on democratic consensus, was not established in order to bring about the end of the nation-state; its purpose has been to turn nationalism into a benign force of transnational cooperation. More generally, democracies have shown that they can reconcile multiethnic and multilingual diversity with overall political unity. So long as particular groups are willing to abandon the politics of secession and embrace what Habermas calls “constitutional patriotism,” political decision-making can be decentralized.

The recent electoral defeat of the secessionists in Quebec should serve as a lesson for separatists throughout Europe. Decades of constitutional uncertainty caused companies to leave Quebec in droves, which ruined Montreal as a corporate hub. Ultimately, the Québécois rebelled against the separatists’ delusion that the state from which they wanted to secede would cheerfully serve their interests.

Likewise, the longstanding hemorrhage of talent and capital from Scotland might accelerate should nationalists succeed in persuading a majority of Scots to vote for secession this autumn. A similar risk can be found in Catalonia’s bid for independence from Spain.

The central state always has its own nation-building responsibilities. Putin can manipulate Ukraine not because there is a shred of credibility to his claim that the Russian minority there faces persecution, but because Ukraine’s corrupt democracy failed to build a truly self-sustaining nation.

Consider, by contrast, Italy’s annexation of South Tyrol, a predominantly German-speaking region. The move was decided at the Versailles Peace Conference after World War I without consulting the population, which was 90% German-speaking. Yet today, South Tyrol enjoys extensive constitutional autonomy, including full cultural freedom and a fiscal regime that leaves 90% of tax revenues in the region. The bilingual, peaceful coexistence of the province’s inhabitants can serve as a lesson to both rigid central governments and unrealistic secessionist movements elsewhere.

For example, an unofficial poll recently showed that 89% of residents in Italy’s northern “Repubblica Veneta” back independence. But, though the Venetians’ desire to secede from the poorer South might sound familiar to other regions in Europe where taxpayers feel aggrieved at subsidizing other, allegedly feckless, regions, the politics of secession can be taken to absurd extremes.

Scotland could reach those extremes. The residents of Shetland, Orkney, and the Western Isles are already demanding the right to decide whether to remain part of an independent Scotland. One can easily imagine the government in Edinburgh opposing the new secessionists, just as Westminster opposes Scottish independence today.

When the historian Ernest Renan dreamed of a European Confederation that would supersede the nation-state, he could not yet envisage the challenge posed by micro-states and para-states. He believed that “man is a slave neither of his race nor his language, nor of his religion, nor of the course of rivers nor of the direction taken by mountain chains.” Maybe so. But we have yet to prove it.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
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