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The danger of nationalisms today: a four-part essay on the lethal logic of the Monocultural National Us

Nationalisms of one kind or another have been with modern human society for centuries. Why write now to urge new attention to the current upsurge in nationalisms?

lead Rally in Trafalgar Square to celebrate what would have been the 42nd birthday of the MP Jo Cox, June, 2016. Daniel Leal-Olivas/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Why this essay in four parts? What I want to expose is the current crisis in the ability of élites to ensure consent in democracies and the particular form that this takes.

This question arises from two highly topical debates that are unfolding on openDemocracy. The first is a discussion about ways in which flaws in liberal democracy are directly responsible for the rapid rise of the hard right in the European Union and the United States, mirroring developments in many less liberal and less democratic societies worldwide. There was a time when civic nationalism represented satisfactory progress away from the dark days of ethnic nationalism, marking a clear differentiation between democracies and the rest. But today when a spiralling authoritarianism has emerged at the very apogee of market ‘liberalism’ – that self-congratulatory contrast between ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ is foundering. I want to argue that the dangerous political formation which we now have in common is the Monocultural National Us. We need to become alert to its chief characteristics, and the many different forms, preparatory and fully-fledged, that it takes in very different societies today, precisely because of its inherent potential for political violence.

Part One therefore sends an alert to liberal and progressive complacency in an openDemocracy debate which is already impressively full of self-criticism, because I feel we have not yet grappled with the depth of the crisis of civility in our societies caused, for example, by exacerbated and aggrieved majoritarianism. Secondly, I want to make an early contribution to openDemocracy’s latest debate on populism, where with the help of researchers in the field from different disciplines, we finally concentrate on getting to grips with this confusing phenomenon. In particular, I want to suggest that attempts to create a progressive or left populism to counter that of the right and far-right, must acknowledge the latent dangers of the Monocultural National Us, since in some important regards, the form that is sought is close to the structuring involved in that ideological formation.

Part Two turns away from these debates to look at the apparently innocent versions of the Monocultural National Us which educate citizens in advanced democracies like the UK into a particular configuration of hopes and fears, and how these relate to the very basic building blocks of identity. Neoliberal individualisation of praise and blame, celebrity culture, the rise of identity politics, and the extraordinary power for change, good and bad, of access to the internet and social media in particular have all contributed to this education. Citing Anthony Barnett’s profound contention in The Lure of Greatness; England’s Brexit and America’s Trump, that ‘England’s loss of faith in the once-glorious British project’ has played a central role in the Brexit ‘civil war’, we look briefly at how this might play out in World Cup football, where Englishness is at stake, and then move on to look at Britishness, the NHS and the BBC. These are everyday narratives about the meaning of our lives, but ones that arouse strong passions and loyalties for millions of people. How do we identify and assess these nationalist identifications today?

I argue that it is no easy matter to differentiate between the good and bad varieties, partly because the same formation can mutate pretty quickly from one that is confident and outward-looking to one that is hostile and fearful. But also because, from the financial crisis onwards, it has not been possible for liberal democracies to deliver on its promises to our societies. The most benign fantasies of the Monocultural National Us to which we increasingly turn as a result, simply no longer have plausible happy endings. I further argue that disappointment and loss in this identity formation has a cumulative impact, and that, in short, whole societies are running out of patience with the old nostrums and old élites, and casting around for new solutions that could break this cycle with gathering desperation.

But my central concern in this section is to explore how we citizens take this decline personally in the most intimate and individually alienating ways.

In Part Three, I look at two ‘case studies’ of the Monocultural National Us, beginning with the importance of this concept for the contentious debate about Zionism as a state ideology. My argument is that the trajectory of Zionism is a clear example of the lethal logic of this ideological formation, and that its later stages backed by a strong consensus in Israeli society can only lead to ever-increasing levels of violence. At the same time, I hope to show how central it is for the wellbeing of citizens everywhere who live in increasingly authoritarian democracies, that we open up a civil debate on the significance of this logic for all of us. Only if we continue to explore this phenomenon together, and begin to see the similar ways in which our fears and hopes are encouraged to play out across the democratic world today, will we be able to find the solidarity we need to move beyond these toxic divisions.

Turning to Brexit, I argue that we can see two versions of the Monocultural National Us ‘facing off ’ in ways which can only lead to further toxic polarisation and disappointment.  

In Part Four, Brexit again provides the lead-in to concluding remarks on what kind of democratisation process might avert this fate. I hope the accumulated examples of how these ever-more dominant ideologies work have pointed to two conclusions: firstly, the need to replace these managerial designs on our emotions with real devolved power, information, and decision-making. Those who currently represent ‘ordinary people’ could usefully facilitate this process as their primary responsibility. Secondly, much is to be achieved by democrats seeking out forums that are literate in conflict resolution, capable of tackling proliferating enemy images and enabling people to change each others’ minds. The relief, joy and release of creative energy with which ‘adults in the room’ greet this process, is the energy that will save democracy, I believe, but a deeper democracy that has moved onto the next stage which the world so urgently requires.


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