Nelson Mandela and liberal nationalism
By this point I think that everyone will have heard the tragic news of the passing of Nelson Mandela. With no exaggeration, I think the world is a little darker today.
Now, I would like to take a moment to discuss something in Mandela’s legacy that does not get discussed anywhere near enough, that his triumph is the triumph of liberal nationalism. Nationalism get’s something of a bad rap these days, and it is usually assumed that nationalism and chauvenism are one and the same, and that the alternative to nationalism is fluffy, kumbaya, one-worldism. This is believed by certain educated nitwits like Martha Nussbaum and A.C. Grayling.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the case even slightly. The alternative to nationalism is tribalism. Simply put, human beings are fundamentally fixed to think in “in-group/out-group” ways. Our process of civilization has been to gradually extend that “in-group” thinking to larger and larger groups. But like a bunch of rich kids who think being a well-off gentleman is the natural state of things, many have come to think that being a cosmopolitan gentleman is the natural state of affairs. It’s not. It’s the result of millennia of work.
The basic way of getting people to escape from the fundamental tribal associations is to get them to vest their identity in a larger identity that is capable of subsuming the previous tribal identity. This is one of the reasons that I think that certain religions, Christianity in particular, was vital in laying the groundwork for an ethical universalism. However, that sort of spiritual identification isn’t sufficient, as human associations are fundamentally about mutual protection. They have to be in a world at war – which is exactly what it always has been (remember, human history is a minimum of a hundred thousand years long and most of that has been bloody tribal war).
The philosophes of the Enlightenment understood this, as they understood the inherent problem that liberalism in the classical sense was more or less impossible for most of history. By way of analogy, consider the subjection of women. For the overwhelming majority of human history, this was simply a necessity of survival. The equation is simple: any tribe or state that emancipated its women would see its birthrates collapse, and would then be overrun by their neighbours and the noble ideal would meet its end on the battlefield. The full emancipation of women was just not an option before modern medicine, contraception, and the repeating rifle. Exactly the same thing was the case with liberal values more generally. Trying simply to dissolve the tribal bonds ab initio meant social suicide, as it is always the tribe fanatically willing to believe in itself that would succeed. This is why all tribes have complicated rituals to instill courage and devotion into their young men.
The development of the nation-state allowed there to be a non-biological entity in which people could invest their identity, and which they could defend. Crucially, it opened up the first steps towards liberty, since if you’re not all bonded by blood (the complex hierarchy of family relationships), the thing you have to be able to rely on is that you are all subject to the same rules. The beginning of law, as a kind of an abstract. And this idea starts with Rome.
No one is exactly sure how Rome began, but part of the myths surrounding it was that it was a place where numerous human flotsam assembled and abandoned their previous tribal allegiances in favour of their allegiance to the Roman patria. If you see the analogy to modern day America, well done, but US patriotism has nothing on the kind of reverence for the republic and its institutions that was required from the early roman citizens – and, for that matter, from the philosophes later. For example, both admired Lucius Junius Brutus for ordering the execution of his two sons for their crime of trying to destroy the republic.
This is a bit rambling, but I’m trying to emphasize how hard nationalism had to be in order to break down the tribal bonds that had been the only means of social organisation, pretty much forever. This is the Janus-faced nature of nationalism. Devotion like that can clearly be used for terrible evil, but it is the only effective way of establishing such a thing as common law – of creating actual liberty.
Which brings me back to Nelson Mandela. You notice up at the top of this blog that I have placed Mandela’s face next to that of Frederick the Great? That is not an accident. Both men were trying to establish liberalism in reality, rather than just in the philosophy books. Here’s a famous trailer that makes the point:
Note the line about “uniting a nation”. That is admirably exact. People think that South Africa’s troubles are just black and white, but that’s a Euro-American way of thinking about things. Throughout Apartheid there were many Zulus who supported the National Party because they would rather be ruled by a Boer than by a Xhosa. The shrewdness of Mandela’s ploy was to get people to see themselves as South African’s first, and other identifiers second.
Throughout the struggle of German nationalism, a very similar problem was faced. If you want to get some idea of the rifts within the precursor to Germany, here is a crest that just says it all:
You get the idea.
The nature of liberal nationalism is something I fear Anglo-Americans often don’t understand – Americans especially. It is one thing to build a liberal revolution when you are on an island with natural defences that conveniently keep predators away, that’s reasonably easy. It is even easier to build such a society when you are facing an empty land where the natives have been conveniently killed off by smallpox.
It is quite another thing to have to build a liberal society when you are trying to overthrow entrenched ancien regimes and fend off cultural predators at the same time. That is an entire order of magnitude more difficult. It is, however, what we continental Europeans have had to face, time out of mind. It is also what the nations of Africa face, as they struggle upward.
It is this aspect, as a triumphant liberal nationalist, that I would like to remember Mandela today. As an exemplar of a path that many of us have a long way to still struggle along.