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Posted by on Dec 10, 2013 | 10 comments

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:

Quaterionenadler_David_de_Negker

 

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.

 

 

  • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

    I object to characterizing Nussbaum and Grayling as “nitwits” both because I do not find it accurate and because it seems needlessly personal. I am also not familiar Grayling espousing such; have you a citation?

    I appreciate your insights on tribalism and nationalism. Tribalism is a part of our psychology (one that nationalism tries to play on), and is a cause of many of the world’s darkest problems.

    But perhaps we’re all dichotomizing falsely. Nationalism did not directly replace tribalism. Feudal “chiefdomism” came between the two. From a statist perspective it may seem like tribalism, but chiefdoms are sometimes vast, larger than any one extended family could be with multiple social classes and rule by a distinct lineage. The state supplanted chiefdoms which supplanted tribes (this progression is not clean or necessarily followed in the histories of peoples, but it is a tendency). Supra-states now work to trump nationalism in some places, such as the EU. Nationalism still exists, but then nobody thinks Texans aren’t also Americans. Except some Texans. Anyway the “fluffy” one-worldism isn’t so strange a concept as we watch history unfold, borders become an endangered species, and the “us” part of the us-them division become increasingly massive and inclusive.

    • ThePrussian

      I agree that we are able to push toward internationalism, but that is in terms of civilizations now. I do hope to see a inter-civilizational form of thinking and relation, but that will be a long time coming and likely restricted to a specific minority for our lifetimes. The point is that the nation state remains an essential building block for the foreseeable future.

      I called Grayling a nitwit because of his comments on nationalism in “The Meaning of Things”. The line he takes is that nationalism got started because a bunch of guys sat down and decided to be mean. I promise you, his thinking doesn’t get more sophisticated than that. And I linked an essay taking on Nussbaum on that.

      • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

        I agree the state is important for non- or failed states such as Afghanistan or Somalia that aren’t able to progress politically due to the entrenched tribal loyalties. You can’t skip that rung on the ladder. I suppose we then also agree it’s not a matter of what is an alternative to nationalism, but what alternatives are relevant to a particular point of discussion or place/time.

        I have not read “The Meaning of Things”, thanks for the reference. I doubt, though, any of it will persuade me to question Grayling’s intelligence no matter my agreement or lack thereof.

  • Peter

    Unfortunately, given Zuma, et al and the modern ANC it’s turned to a classic case where the liberators turn on and suppress the liberated.

    • ThePrussian

      Sadly, there’s something to that. There are several old comrades of the ANC who have quit in protest.

  • http://www.synapses.co.za/ Jacques Rousseau

    “Throughout Apartheid there were many Zulus who supported the National Party because they would rather be ruled by a Boer than by a Xhosa”.

    You know this how, seeing as they could never vote to indicate this support? They didn’t even have the choice you describe, never mind an opportunity to express a preference with regard to that choice. I certainly never saw any evidence of it, living in South Africa during apartheid.

    • ThePrussian

      You are quite right that they certainly wanted to see the system abolished. However, the ANC/IFP conflict was seen, certainly by the IFP, as a matter of Xhosa/Zulu conflict. I recall hearing a fair share of criticism launched at the Zulus, esp. Buthelezi, that took that tone. Vide Operation Marion.

      Of course, I’m too young to have encountered it first hand – I simply read and heard a number of reports like this and it made a great deal of sense given what I’d seen and the general patterns of colonial rule.

      • http://www.synapses.co.za/ Jacques Rousseau

        Erm, no. The IFP were lapdogs of the NP – it’s not that the Zulus “supported” the National Party, it’s that they were treated marginally better (given homelands, for example) by the NP in exchange for being acquiescent. To suggest that this means they would “rather be ruled by a Boer than by a Xhosa” has things completely wrong, in that (to a lesser extent than the Boers, obviously), the Zulu leaders were colonial rulers themselves.

        • ThePrussian

          Well, to be honest this seems to be arguing over very minor points here while agreeing on the essentials – and certainly on the basic facts (the role of the IFP, for example). I should have been more clear and used the term “some” rather than “many”, but again, that’s a definitional thing.

          The great irony is of course that the Zulus are colonial rulers historically speaking. In Lesotho memories of Shaka still persist with no small amount of bitterness. That is why I interpreted the IFP’s stance the way I did.

  • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

    This article reminds me of this point: http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/2013/07/04/philosophy-nationalism-in-group-our-group-and-the-british-lions-rugby-team/
    about the nature of in-group/out-group psychology and nationalism.