The G-File

Politics & Policy

The Dangers of Unchecked Nationalism

Outside the New York Stock Exchange in 2015. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Left un-tempered and unconstrained, nationalism will express itself as statism.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (Including those of you under sealed indictment in Chicago),

I have to write this quickly because I have to head down to the National Review Institute Ideas Summit and Basket Weaving Expo to debate — or “engage” — my friend and boss Rich Lowry on the question of how conservatives should think about nationalism. So in order to organize my thinking, I’m going to lay out my basic view here.

But before that, I have to get on my one millionth conference call in the last 72 hours (someone check my math on that). I have a lot on my plate these days, figuratively speaking (“And quite often literally speaking, too” — The Couch). Indeed, my days are a blur. (My nights, a blood-soaked terror.)

Speaking of having a lot on your plate, I made a bit of a confession last night on Twitter:

I was no pro. Joey Chestnut or Matt Stonie could eat circles around me, particularly if the circles were made out of hot dog links. I was more like the guy at the bar who was only too eager to make a friendly wager on a game of pool, or an android happy to play stabberscotch with the Colonial Marines.

True story: In high school, some friends and I ran a booth at a Make-A-Wish Foundation fair with a hand-drawn sign that said “We’ll Eat Anything You Want If You Pay Us Enough.” No, you couldn’t scoop a Paul Krugman column off the sidewalk and get us to eat it. But we loaded a table with all manner of foodstuffs and opened the bidding. Among the highlights of my own endeavors that day: I ate a whole brick of uncooked Ramen noodles and, later, a stick of unsalted butter. I peeled the wax paper like a banana and just chewed away (though I took the second half of the stick and put it in a hot dog bun with some horseradish — that didn’t make it a sandwich by the way). It was awful. In college and my twenties, my reprobate friends and I would often issue challenges to eat very large quantities of food in short periods of time.

The last time I did the bareknuckle boxing version of competitive eating was while I was still dating the Fair Jessica.

I came back late from a night out with my friends looking sweaty and guilty. Jessica asked me, “What’s going on?”

I told her I had something to confess.

“What did you do, Jonah?” she asked, suspecting something awful.

“I don’t want to keep any secrets from you, Jessica. I consumed an entire tray of baked chicken and a beer in ten minutes. If it makes you feel better, I won like fifty bucks.”

She looked at me with that “My God, what have I gotten myself into” face that helps men want to be better men.

But enough bragging.

Back to Nationalism

For this nationalism conversation thing, it would be best if I said he’s for it, and I’m against it. But that’s misleading. I haven’t read Rich’s book yet, but we’ve chewed this over like a younger me in a chicken-eating contest enough for me to know that Rich’s position is more nuanced than that. In his big essay with Ramesh, he championed “benign nationalism.” As I noted at the time, the “benign” does a lot of work. And as Rich would concede, there are many kinds of unbenign nationalism. You could look it up.

My position is nuanced, too. While I can live with the formulation that there are good kinds of nationalism and bad kinds, I think more in terms of degrees of nationalism. A little nationalism is necessary for holding together a nation-state or a people. If there isn’t some conception of “us,” then there is no investment in the success of the collective enterprise. Countries without a sense of being a nation do not last and cannot get much done.

I don’t want to overly wallow in nuance, but sometimes even a lot of nationalism can be a good, or certainly necessary, thing. Nothing arouses the nationalist spirit more than war (and few things can arouse the spirit of war more than nationalism). That’s because from the earliest humans onward, we have evolved an instinct to unify in the face of an external threat. Our success on the food chain derives only secondarily from our intelligence. Our primary advantage was our ability to cooperate.

As Darwin noted in The Descent of Man, our capacity for altruism and cooperation was the key to the survival of our genes. “If the one tribe included . . . courageous, sympathetic and faithful members who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other.”

A tribe of prehistoric disciples of Ayn Rand — “this tuber is mine and you can’t have any of it!” — would not last long against a band of small-browed ruffians that worked well as a team. The John Galts of the Savannah would scream, “You’re violating my property right!” as the brutes smashed their faces in with a rock.

As G. K. Chesterton put it, “Nationalism is the consciousness of nationality; and the consciousness of nationality comes from the constant consciousness of danger.”

This goes a long way toward explaining why nationalist movements inevitably find themselves using the language of war. As I recently wrote in National Review, it’s no coincidence that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez constantly invokes World War II as a rationale for the Green New Deal.

The language of war flips a switch in our brains that causes us to drop other concerns and considerations. It’s like the episode of Little House on the Prairie when Carrie falls down a mine shaft. Everyone drops what they’re doing, forgets about property rights, commerce, or other personal priorities and rallies to save the girl. Nels Oleson, the owner Oleson’s Mercantile, doesn’t charge anyone for the lanterns, kerosene, or ropes he lends to the effort. Nobody says, “You can use my horses, but it’ll cost you five bucks.”

In times of emergency, we’re all in it together. And that’s a good thing.

But there are two caveats. The first is that emergencies do not last, and when the emergency is over, the old rules need to come back. If they don’t, then capitalism, democracy, and liberty are done for. Emergencies must be the exception to the rule, because if we make the spirit of emergency the rule, then we no longer live under the rule of law, but the rule of tyrants or mobs.

The second problem is that real emergencies must be obvious to all — or at least nearly all. There are moral equivalents to war. A girl down a mine shaft is one. A meteor heading to earth is another, as are various forms of natural disasters, zombie, vampire, and C.H.U.D apocalypses, etc.

The Allure of Power

The problem is that there are people who are very attracted to the power that comes with emergencies. Power is seductive in whatever form it takes: Emergency powers, money, Infinity Stones, the One Ring, or, as we’ve seen in the case of Jussie Smollet, the cultural power that comes with being able to claim you are a victim.

This leads people to declare emergencies when they do not exist or to exaggerate real challenges so they can do an end run around the conventional rules of democracy. There’s been a lot of the latter over the last decade or so.

My problem with nationalism is that, left unchecked, it devolves into the spirit of emergency. By placing the logic of “us” above all, it must create thems that must be defeated. It casts about for threats to justify a cult of unity. As Orwell observed, “As nearly as possible, no nationalist ever thinks, talks, or writes about anything except the superiority of his own power unit.”

It is fine to talk of “benign nationalism” being a good thing, but this is a kind of tautology. Benign simply means good. So of course, good nationalism is good in the same way that good violence is good. A policeman who uses violence to thwart a rapist is using good violence. A nation that uses nationalism to defeat Nazism is deploying good nationalism.

The hitch is that the concept of “good” lies outside the four corners of the concept of nationalism. Rich and Ramesh write that “Nationalism is a lot like self-interest. A political philosophy that denies its claims is utopian at best and tyrannical at worst, but it has to be enlightened. The first step to conservatives’ advancing such an enlightened nationalism is to acknowledge how important it is to our worldview to begin with.”

I have no quarrel with this. But think about that. Self-interest is not necessarily a personal, social, or abstract good. Serial killers act on their self-interest, as they define it. Not to go all Thomist, but my understanding of Christianity (and Judaism and conservatism and the liberal arts) is that we must use reason to inform and form the conscience to define self-interest in moral and productive ways. Nationalism is only good when it is informed, tempered, and constrained by ideas outside of nationalism.

Or as Rich and Ramesh write, nationalism “should be tempered by a modesty about the power of government, lest an aggrandizing state wedded to a swollen nationalism run out of control; by religion, which keeps the nation from becoming the first allegiance; and by a respect for other nations that undergirds a cooperative international order.”

In other words, for nationalism to be good it must be countered and constrained by the concept of the good. If nationalism were an unalloyed good — like, say, love — it wouldn’t need the adjective “benign.”

In its raw form, the only concept of the good contained within nationalism itself is the good for us. This is why nationalism is, like violence, at best an amoral concept. And like any amoral thing — violence, tools, fire, whatever — good or bad comes from what you do with it. The Iranians are nationalists; the Nazis were nationalist; Maduro, Chavez, Stalin, Castro, Mussolini, the Kims: They’re all nationalists. So were Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, and de Gaulle. What differentiated the heroes from the villains was how they deployed nationalist sentiments.

Nationalism and Socialism, Again.

My objection to the new nationalist fad is that many of its practitioners do not do what Rich and Ramesh do; they skip the part about nationalism needing to be tempered and constrained by things outside of nationalism. Championing nationalism qua nationalism is simply championing power. “Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception,” Orwell writes. “Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakably certain of being in the right.”

This is why, historically, nationalism and socialism are kindred phenomena. I’ve written dozens of times that, as an economic matter, nationalism and socialism essentially mean the same thing. When we nationalize an industry, we socialize it. And vice versa. Some doctrinaire Marxists think nationalism and socialism are opposites, because they subscribe to the straw-man concept of global Communism, or they unwittingly still subscribe to the Stalinist propaganda known as the “theory of social fascism.” Stalin came up with this notion as a way to excommunicate any socialist or progressive movement that wasn’t loyal to Moscow. He felt it necessary to promulgate his totalitarian encyclical because it turned out that lots of people liked the idea of socialism, they just also liked the idea of nationalism — hence national-socialist movements that were stealing Bolshevik market share.

From the Bolshevik/Trotskyite perspective, any nation-state that puts its interests above others is betraying the global cause. But in the real world, this is nonsense. Because once socialists take power, national interest and the self-interest of the ruling classes force the rulers to talk and govern in nationalistic ways. That’s what happened with Stalin, Castro, and every other Communist regime.

Looking Backward

Rather than rehash all of that, let’s look at Edward Bellamy.

Edward Bellamy was, by any fair accounting, a socialist. His utopian novel Looking Backward did more to popularize socialist collectivism in America than anything Karl Marx ever put to paper. When he died in 1898, The American Fabian eulogized:

It is doubtful if any man, in his own lifetime, ever exerted so great an influence upon the social beliefs of his fellow-beings as did Edward Bellamy. Marx, at the time of his death, had won but slight recognition from the mass; and though his influence in the progressive struggle has become paramount, it is through his interpreters, and not in his own voice, that he speaks to the multitude. But Bellamy spoke simply and directly; his imagination conceived, and his art pictured, the framework of the future in such clear and bold outlines that the commonest mind could understand and appreciate.

Looking Backward inspired a mass “nationalist” movement, dedicated to “the nationalization of industry and the promotion of the brotherhood of humanity.” The first Nationalist Club appeared in Boston in the summer of 1888, founded by a labor reporter for the Boston Globe. The following year it started publishing the Nationalist magazine. It didn’t take long for clubs to sprout up across the country. Two years after the publication of the book, there were clubs in 27 states and the District of Columbia. In Chicago, the Collectivist League, which had been founded in April of 1888, changed its name to the Nationalist Club of Illinois ten months later on February 12, 1889. Soon there were hundreds of such clubs. One estimate held that were some four thousand “Bellamy societies” in the United States and hundreds more in Holland, Denmark, and Sweden.

Looking Backward offers an insight into how nationalism and socialism occupy the same part of our brains, even if some ideologies try to keep them separated. Bellamy was at first reluctant to call himself or his work “socialist,” even though it was instantly recognized as such by his avowedly socialist contemporaries. “Bellamy was anxious that his plan of social and economic organization be called Nationalism because he wished to distinguish it from other and more vague forms of socialism and because it was to proceed by the nationalization of industries,” writes John Hope Franklin. Socialism for Bellamy seemed too divisive a term. Nationalism was more inclusive.

The nationalist movement died in labor while giving birth to the populist party. But the populist party gave way too much of the progressive movement which was very nationalistic. But contained within progressivism is a greater loyalty to power and the most important tool for exercising power: The state.

Nationalism isn’t statism, but left un-tempered and unconstrained, it always expresses itself as statism, and statism is the enemy of all the ideas that make America’s form of nationalism valuable and unique.

Various & Sundry

So I am writing this part after I did the panel with Rich. It went fine. You can probably find it on C-SPAN. We didn’t change each other’s minds about anything, but it was fun nonetheless.

Canine Update: The beasts are doing great. When I was writing this this morning, the girls were having a grand time, which was quite distracting. I understand that Pippa is more of an internet sensation than Zoë, but it’s important to remember that in the Goldberg household, Zoë is still the alpha dog (and Gracie is the alpha cat), even if she throws Pippa a bone from time to time and every now and then Pippa forgets. (Also, Zoë takes a nice picture, too). The important thing is they really do love each other.

Anyway, I really gotta go. So here’s the rest of the other stuff.

I’ll be on Face the Nation this Sunday (and Rich will be on Meet The Press).

ICYMI . . .

Last week’s G-File

On Mueller vindication

On Captain Marvel

The latest Remnant

On the never-ending collusion story

The latest Ricochet GLoP Culture podcast

On Democrats and climate change

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