Nationalism

by Mark English

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Gottlob Frege’s organicism and his (surprisingly strong) patriotic commitments were mentioned in a previous episode of Culture and Value. In this episode, Mark English offers a culture-based perspective on the topics of nationalism and political myth, highlighting the tensions between political and more organic cultural elements, and recommending a pragmatic and strictly utilitarian approach to foreign policy.

18 comments

  1. Mark: Here’s my take on the current war. It is a conflict between one kind of nationalism, ethnic nationalism, and another, civic nationalism. Putin’s ethnic nationalists have mistakenly supposed that deep down Ukrainians share their ethnic ethos. They thought they could liberate this ethnic spirit; all they had to do was march in and set it free. But in Ukraine that sort of nationalism has been replaced long ago by civic nationalism. And it is a pretty fierce nationalism, which they will fight and die for. Meanwhile the poor Russian soldiers, lacking ethnic fanaticism, have no idea what they are fighting for.

    This story explains both the gigantic mistake made by Putin and the remarkable resistance his forces have met. Ethno-nationalists are blind to the reality and force of civic nationalism. Civic nationalists, by contrast, can recognise other civic nationalists and can unite internationally — and they are doing so.

    Alan

    1. Thanks, Alan, for your thoughts.

      “Putin’s ethnic nationalists have mistakenly supposed that deep down Ukrainians share their ethnic ethos. They thought they could liberate this ethnic spirit; all they had to do was march in and set it free.”

      I would prefer not to speculate here about Putin’s goals, motivations or expectations.

      “But in Ukraine that sort of nationalism has been replaced long ago by civic nationalism. And it is a pretty fierce nationalism, which they will fight and die for. Meanwhile the poor Russian soldiers, lacking ethnic fanaticism, have no idea what they are fighting for.”

      I think we should be wary of these sorts of dichotomies (specifically between civic and ethnic nationalism). But I agree that the Ukrainian fighters want their country to be allied with Western Europe rather than Russia, and so their nationalism could be seen to have a different character from more ethnically-focused and inward-looking forms.

      “Ethno-nationalists are blind to the reality and force of civic nationalism. Civic nationalists, by contrast, can recognise other civic nationalists and can unite internationally — and they are doing so.”

      You are alluding, I take it, to a sense of solidarity with others around the world who are perceived and perceive themselves to be in a similar situation, and also with their supporters in Western Europe, North America, etc.. But how, in fact, is this going to play out? In my view, sanctions will not work. (All sorts of unintended consequences.) Nor will the provision of arms. (It will only drag things out, leading to more death and destruction.)

      And what of overt military intervention by NATO forces?

      I would not be surprised if many Ukrainian fighters have been encouraged by a long series of covert Western interventions in Ukraine and support with arms etc. to believe that NATO powers might ultimately intervene more actively on their behalf. Whereas NATO commanders and their political masters presumably wish to avoid precipitating World War 3.

      You may think the cause is clear and just — and worth risking a world war for. But, as I said in the podcast, such a war would constitute the worst of all possible outcomes.

      1. Your claim about sanctions is false and demonstrably so. Some of the best reporting on what’s going on over there.

        https://twitter.com/kamilkazani/status/1501676859741904898

        Your stance is essentially a carte blanche to every nuclear country to do what it likes at will. Your stance also incentivizes countries to become nuclear powers, as well as incentivizing countries to increase their investments in conventional armaments and forces. Yours is the stance most likely to result in world war, not the least.

  2. Dan

    Our respective positions on foreign affairs are far apart. We disagree on basic facts and interpretations (e.g. on the interpretation of past and current policies of the United States, on the global role of the US, on economics, etc.). This is not to say, of course, that I am endorsing Russian actions. My focus is on US and Western policy — past and present.

    With regard to sanctions, there are limits to what they can achieve and, as I pointed out, they often have unintended consequences (including their impact on vulnerable populations). In the present case, sanctions and the weaponization of the US dollar-based financial system are leading to a speeding up of the de-dollarization process and the setting up of alternatives to SWIFT etc..

    American policies over the last couple of decades have also had the (presumably) unintended consequence of strengthening the Russia–China alliance and interdependence.

    With respect to which policies are most likely to lead to a devastating world war, all I can say is that we came pretty close to disaster during the Cold War and I regret that we seem to be rapidly heading back to a Cold War-like situation once again. It didn’t have to be this way.

    1. That’s right, we do disagree on the basic facts. Very strongly. I suspect we also disagree on basic matters of value.

      If we cannot respond to naked aggression and invasion within the developed world with military action, and we cannot respond economically, then we are very straightforwardly offering a carte blanche to dictators and kleptocrats to do whatever they like.

    2. Mark — I’m actually struggling to see what your basic values are in all of this. If they revolve around something like “protect vulnerable populations”, for example, isn’t the Ukrainian population the most vulnerable and most in need of protection in this case?

      Or maybe you might say specifically what kind of action or policy you are in favor of? (We know that things “didn’t have to be this way”, but now that they are, what would you do?) Which sanctions don’t cross your line, for example?

      I realize this is putting you on the spot somewhat cheaply, but I think it might give us a fuller sense of your thinking here in terms of the practical and not just abstract.

      1. Jesse Tatum

        “[M]aybe you might say specifically what kind of action or policy you are in favor of? (We know that things “didn’t have to be this way”, but now that they are, what would you do?)”

        For one thing, I would recommend breaking out of the mentality which got us here. US leaders and policy makers need to realize that the “regime change” policies pursued over the last couple of decades have not been successful. They have had a negative and destabilizing effect on the world at large.

        I would like to see a reset of relations on the basis of a recognition that the geopolitical balance has shifted and that we are in a new, multipolar world. The US and its allies have to come to terms with this situation. Only then will productive dialogue and arms control talks be possible in my opinion.

        “Which sanctions don’t cross your line, for example?”

        I can’t give you a detailed plan. Some sort of sanctions seem appropriate but, as I said, they will be limited in what they can achieve. I am not alone in pointing out that the current approach is having unintended global economic and financial consequences.

  3. Mark: You say “But I agree that the Ukrainian fighters want their country to be allied with Western Europe rather than Russia”. It’s not like there are “Ukrainian fighters” who wish to impose themselves on the rest of Ukraine. It’s a war being fought by the whole country, as far as I can see.

    “But how, in fact, is this going to play out?” Let’s hold off on that question for now.

    My main point was to see whether we can use the civic/ethnic distinction to make sense of Putin’s astonishing mistake. It boggles the mind that he should start a war for which he was utterly unprepared. Likewise that he should see Ukraine as not a real country. But if he is blind to the possibility of Ukrainian civic nationalism then it does start to make sense. But it means that his reputation as a master strategist is nonsense.

    To my mind we have seen Russia’s status as a “Great Power” smashed to pieces in the space of a month. And it was Putin who did the smashing. Amazing.

    1. Alan

      “[Quoting me…] “I agree that the Ukrainian fighters want their country to be allied with Western Europe rather than Russia”. It’s not like there are “Ukrainian fighters” who wish to impose themselves on the rest of Ukraine. It’s a war being fought by the whole country, as far as I can see.”

      Are you including Donbas? I’m sure you recognize that the territory which the country currently embraces has a confusing and tragic history, with armies coming and going, famine, shifting borders and alliances and instances of ethnic cleansing. In the post-Soviet era it has been, on the whole, fairly dysfunctional politically and very divided. (At least that is the impression I have got by following news reports over the years.)

      However, I wasn’t meaning to imply that the Ukrainian fighters did not/do not have the support of a large section of the civilian population. For clarity, I should have said: “Ukrainian fighters and the Ukrainians who support them …”. I have no way of knowing the exact level of their support. Many, of course, just want to escape the violence.

    2. Supposedly, the “master strategist” has in fact been – planning – for such an eventuality for years. As has been apparent since the Soviet era, Russia, in almost all endeavors, has proven to be crude and incompetent in its ability to project competency compared to the West. They have all the potential to be a great world power but are caught in a self imposed relative time warp of “backwardness” by the nature of its political structure.

  4. To some extent Mark is assuming a 19th century theory of power-politics that allows for aggression by stronger states and weak alliances standing in the way of “history.” This is slanted somewhat by (as implicit in all his writings and comments on politics that I can remember) his bias against the United States and a possible distrust of the world order that has developed in the wake of the two World Wars, which saw the collapse of the British Empire globally and the reconstruction of Europe as a collection of liberal states no longer committed to the cultural values of the 19th Century.

    Mark says he won’t judge Putin (implying that others shouldn’t) but suggests that Ukrainian motivations must be held suspect. I don’t know what he has against the Ukrainians, but Putin’s motives are plain as day – in his speeches, his essays, his interviews…. What does Mark want us to do, ignore all that because, in power-political terms, Putin as sovereign simply “is” Russia? Whatever else Putin wants, he wants the conquest of Ukraine and the imprisonment or death of members of its legitimate government. He wants his army to kill thousands of Ukrainians, which they are doing, if rather incompetently. But Mark is worried about expansion of NATO and it’s “political masters.”

    All of this would be somewhat tolerable if we were talking about possibilities in the abstract. But this is a real war with real casualties involved. And frankly, I think that what Ukraine citizens and freedom fighters most want is to live in their own country without a Russian boot in the face.

    I feel sorry for the Russian soldiers and their families. But this is war. It would be in their own interest to desert and perhaps find some way to overthrow Putin, the worst thug in Europe since WWII.

    Mark is rightly critical of “Nationalism” as an ideology, but he can’t distinguish that from “national identity” which is value neutral, although it can certainly be directed toward good or ill; it is simply a fact. National identities as phenomena have historical origins, and historical trajectories, but at any given moment they are as real as the laws embedded in statute, and must be politically negotiated accordingly. This confusion apparently leads Mark to prefer the evident nationalist ideology of Putin, while dismissing Ukraine national identity as though it too were but ideology. That is not the case. The vast majority of the people of Ukraine do not, have never, and will never see themselves as “Little Russians.” Because of this, Putin may conquer Ukraine, but he will never hold it. All that follows from his aggression is more bloodshed, destruction, and the very threats of wider wars in the future that Mark feels so free to ignore because he views the situation in archaic abstractions.

    But I admit that what really bothers me about Mark’s attitude here, which we find in Putin apologists on the web and in the media, is the callousness regarding the lives of the Ukrainians Putin has committed his army to kill.

    At any rate, to Mark or others who may be worried about a possible “new Cold War,” I say: stop worrying – it’s already here. Putin has collapsed the “multipolar” global order Mark assured us we live in, at least as far as Europe is concerned. A renewed threat of Mutually Assured Destruction may be our only path to a tolerable stalemate.

    This couldn’t have come at a worse time in recent history. Just as a reminder (and I do know something about the complexities of the current world order), there are 8 billion humans on this planet, and about half of these can be found in Communist China; Hindu India; and various Islamic states, Sunni and Shia. And these three populations are not Christian, and not capitalist, and not particularly liberal, and only borrow values from the West opportunistically; they are heavily armed, including with nuclear weapons; and they don’t like each other. One benefit of Pax Americana was that it involved struggles to develop various international forums for grievances to be resolved short of war. That appears to have failed; but to call it a mistake, one has to suggest a replacement for it that could do better. I see none on the horizon.

    1. Yeah, Mark’s talk about the “multipolar” world was probably the most clueless part of the whole thing. Putin just killed that. Any chance of the US scaling back or reducing its military capacity is now permanently gone. Finished. The US will be even more powerful and dominant as a result. As will NATO, as Russia’s behavior incentivizes all of the NATO countries to arm and rearm. Everything Mark dislikes the most will become much more likely if what he has suggested becomes the norm.

      Fecklessness is not a strategy or a virtue. It simply indicates to tyrants and kelptocrats that they have carte blanche to do what they like.

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