Why civic nationalism must trump rabid ethnic nationalism

Tolerance for diversity and for minority rights had characterised some autocratic empire states in history (like Mughal or Ottoman), but among democratic states one of the earliest cases of making pluralism and liberal constitutional values the basis of nationalism is that of the United States (US), where after the decimation of the indigenous population, a country without much historical memory essentially became a nation of immigrants. 

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address starts with referring to the “nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. In a 2009 speech Barack Obama said, “One of the great strengths of the United States is…we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation, (but) a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values”, presumably as enshrined in the Constitution. Despite its many historical (and often racially motivated) lapses, this is a major example in history of what the German philosopher Habermas calls “constitutional patriotism”, as opposed to patriotism based on “blood and soil” which had popular appeal in Germany and which appeals to today’s populists, and which in history has been associated with a great deal of persecution, violence and devastation.

Our identities are necessarily multi-layered, but ethnic nationalism privileges one of these layers, usually based on the narrow particularities of religion, language or culture, that makes it easy to mobilise certain groups. Liberal or folk-syncretic traditions are sometimes too fragile to resist our primordial or visceral evolutionary defensive-aggressive urge to fight against “enemy” groups which the ethnic nationalist leaders are adept at whipping up. The branded enemy groups are both external and internal. In India, China, Russia, Indonesia, Poland, Hungary and so on, the internal minority groups are often victims of suspicion by the majoritarian ethnic nationalists to be the proverbial fifth column aiding an enemy state. Even without the enemy state, the inevitable divisions of a heterogeneous society worry the leaders of the homogenising mission of those nationalists — hence such nationalism is almost always associated with riding roughshod over the “little people” and their localised cultures for the larger cause of national integration (“peasants into Frenchmen”, the marginal groups like Dalits and Adivasis in India crammed into the Procrustean fold of the larger Hindu society, Han-Sinification of Tibetans and Uighurs in China, etc.).

In the name of national integration and fighting enemies both outside and within, they undermine minority rights and procedures of democracy (“due process”), they accuse liberals of appeasing the minorities (blacks and Hispanics in the US, immigrants in Europe, Kurds in Turkey, Muslims in India, etc), and try to suppress dissent as “anti-national”. Civic nationalism, on the other hand, emphasises the procedural aspects of democracy, and through its stress on liberal constitutional values tries to use the pre-commitment of a foundational document to bind the hands of subsequent generations if they display majoritarian tendencies curbing basic civil rights. (During the Civil Rights movement Martin Luther King was referring to the Constitution, when he appealed to Americans “to be true to what you said on paper”).

One reason why ethnic-nationalist populists are opposed to globalisation is that they are against global rules restraining national sovereignty and that they want to “take back control”. But in so doing they over-centralise the powers of the national leader, and dissipate the forces of decentralisation and autonomy of local communities within the country. Civic nationalism in contrast often emphasises local autonomy; that is why, for example, political parties like the Scottish National Party favour civic over ethnic nationalism.

Let me now turn to the economic aspects of globalisation where also there can be differences between the two types of nationalism. Ethnic nationalist populists look at the global economy as a zero-sum game, gains for “them” is necessarily a loss for “us”, harking back to a defunct mercantilist doctrine. By now it is obvious except to the economic illiterates that a Trumpian trade war and dismantling of multilateral trade rules do not quite advance the national agenda. 

Our identities are necessarily multi-layered, but ethnic nationalism privileges one of these layers, usually based on the narrow particularities of religion, language or culture, that makes it easy to mobilise certain groups
In today’s world economy of integrated global value chains and continuous swapping of parts, components, and tasks across borders, a retreat from relatively free trade will be extremely harmful for the national interests of most countries. Trade makes for cheaper producer inputs on which our production base is heavily dependent (apart from the cheaper mass consumer goods available in Walmart or Amazon, and larger markets for goods demanded by the rising middle classes in developing countries). Economic nationalism has, of course, been associated with vigorous industrial policies in East Asia with the state guiding and supporting some key domestic manufacturing industries (particularly in sectors where coordination failures of the market are important), but even in these cases market discipline mostly coming from the open export markets, heightening cost- and quality-consciousness, made the all-important difference between cases where industrial policy tends to succeed compared to cases where it fails.

Liberal nationalists should, of course, call for a substantial strengthening of the “adjustment assistance” (currently in paltry amounts in the US and non-existent in many developing countries) and retraining programmes lasting for a long enough period to significantly improve the adjustment capability of workers in coping with trade shocks, and making benefits (like health care) portable, not linked to particular jobs. In Europe, better safety nets and active labour market policies than in the US, especially for workers who lose their jobs, have made import penetration less of a burning issue in the political sphere.

Liberals are divided on the issue of unrestricted international capital flows and that of immigration. Given the adverse effects of free capital flows on periodic macro-economic shocks and the weakening of the bargaining power of domestic labour institutions, many otherwise free-traders agree with the liberal nationalists on some regulations on global capital flows. Some compromises are also possible on the need for adjusting global rules giving nations more autonomy on labour standards. Given the cultural anxiety that large-scale immigration generates in many societies, there is also scope for compromise on various schemes on limiting the flows of immigration to selected areas of specific skill shortages in rich countries and to some special humanitarian cases. Civic nationalists accept some restrictions on national sovereignty to agree on multilateral rules on global public goods, as in the case of global environmental damage or international spread of crime, and restrictions on cross-border tax-dodging, which ultimately help the national interest.

Populists invidiously distinguish between nationalists and “globalists”. This is highly misleading: Not merely there are other, more liberal, forms of nationalism, not all liberals are for untrammelled hyper-globalisation. It is thus possible and necessary to build healthy alternatives to the kinds of rabid ethnic nationalism that we see all around, without giving up on the nationalist cultural pride or the bonding of local communities consistent with larger humanitarian principles. As Tagore said in his lectures in Japan in 1916: “Neither the colourless vagueness of cosmopolitanism, nor the fierce self-idolatry of nation-worship, is the goal of human history”.
The article was first published on 3 Quarks Daily. The writer is professor of Graduate School at University of California, Berkeley.

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