“Where is nationalism?” Resilience and pervasiveness of nationalism in the 21st century globalized world


 At the end of the 20th century, the rapid pace of globalization, the end of the cold war, and new technologies suggested that the world was changing for good and a new political, economic, and social order was about to come. Vis-à-vis these changes, a number of scholars focused on the nation-state, the dominant polity of our time, and made predictions about its nearest future. The bravest among them wrote about the end of nationalism and the nation-state (Ohmae 1996), others, more cautious, dusted off theories that – like Wallerstein’s world-system theory – predicted a world where nations played a secondary role, replaced by the globalised capitalist economy. Political scientists saw the birth of macro conglomerates of nations, like the European Union, as evidence that proved these theories right.

Even more certain were scholars of information technology, like Nicholas Negroponte (Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab), who in 1997 stated that the Internet was about to break down all national borders and bring peace. He was certain that interacting globally on issues of mutual interest would bring people together and transform geographical barriers into a heritage of the past. In a conference broadcasted by the CNN on November 25, 1997, Negroponte stated ‘I have never seen people miss the scale of what’s going on as badly as they are doing it now’ (CNN 1997). At the time, few scholars of nationalism took his words seriously. Some of them discussed Negroponte’s claims, mainly trying to scale down his enthusiasm (Kluver 2001), but most simply sat back and watched.

It turned out that nationalism was all but dead. On the contrary, it outlived the end of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and it played a prominent role in the reconstruction of its ex-territories. Those who believed that the liberal and global economy would have wiped out nationalism have been systematically contradicted by present developments. One example is China. The booming economy of China is creating a new middle class hungry for capitalist products, but rather than declining, Chinese nationalism is on the rise (Chang 2018; Unger 2016; Johnston 2017). Also, in the Middle East, political and societal developments suggest that nationalism is still at the centre of important events. Among many, the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, a conflict in which nationalism plays a key role (Saatci 2002; Kirisci 2013; Yeğen 2007). In the United States, Trumpism gave birth to what scholars call neo-nationalism, a political ideology that followed the rise of President Trump at the

White House and calls for a new world order driven by more patriotism and less finance (De Matas 2017; Gusterson 2017). Republican senator Marco Rubio put new nationalism in the following terms: to “oppose economic elitism that has replaced a commitment to the dignity of work with a blind faith in financial markets and that views America simply as an economy instead of a nation” (The Weekly 2018).” Finally, Europe – the cradle of two world wars fuelled by extreme nationalisms – became the European Union less than twenty years ago but already witnesses several signs of strain. Brexit in the UK, Lepenism in France, Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Austrian Liberal Party (FPÖ), the National Conservative Party in Hungary, Lega in Italy, etc. all share one thing: nationalism in its populist, antiestablishment, and Euro-sceptic forms.

Regarding the recent nationalist developments, Yascha Mounk, political scientist at Harvard, reported that ‘the broader trend towards nationalism caught political scientists off-guard […] Academics must redouble their efforts to understand the nationalist wave and help policymakers to address it’

(Tollefson 2016). Mounk is probably right, although as Greenfeld (2012) writes, it’s not the first time that nationalism demolishes the dream of a globalised society. It happened before in 16th century Europe, when the process of cultural, economic, and political globalization initiated by Catholic Spain was interrupted by nationalist insurgences: according to Greenfeld, the first sign of an emerging world of nation-states. All in all, it seems that nationalism has the capacity to contrast potentially disruptive assaults and spring back into shape, as the case of Europe proves, even stronger than before.

The question is: what made nationalism so resilient in the 16th century, and what makes it so resilient in the present? Is 16th century nationalism the same in the 21st century? Questions regarding the advent of nationalism and analyses involving paradigms of longue durée in nationalism studies have been the focus of generations of scholars of nations and nationalism. When is a nation? asked Walker Connor (1990) almost thirty years ago. The question led, unsurprisingly, to another question: when is nationalism? To solve these puzzles, much ink has been spilled. It will suffice quoting here the Warwick Debate on Nations and their Pasts between two pillars of nationalism studies: Anthony Smith and Ernest Gellner. However, all attempts to crack the chronological order of nations and nationalism were unsuccessful. Gellner’s question “do nations have navels or not?” remains unanswered. It was Özkırımlı (2010) who suggested that perhaps the answer to this long-standing question would not contribute any importance to the understanding of nationalism. Perhaps, knowing “when” may lead to “what”, or it may not. Gellner and Smith thought it would but Pierre Bourdieu wrote that trying to answer a false problem could take forever (Bourdieu and Chartier 1995). Perhaps this is what convinced Özkırımlı to abandon all questions related to “when”, and instead focus on “what”: what is nationalism?

The vast number of studies that have been carried out seems to suggest that, rather than one thing, nationalism is probably many things (Özkırımlı 2010). Anderson (1991) saw it in ‘language and discursive practices of print technology and print capitalism, allied to changes in our conceptions of time’ (Smith 2010); Gellner (1983) saw it in the modern political and economic structures that have given birth to nations; Malešević and Hall (2013) have focused on the connections between war and nationalism; Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) saw nationalism in invented traditions, museums, monuments, and nationalist intellectuals; Bourdieu (2014), Breuilly (1982), Mann (1995), Brubaker (1992) and Tilly (1996) saw it in the modern bureaucratic State. Michael Billig (1995) saw it in the daily – almost unnoticed – reproduction of identity discourses made of “us” and “them”. Evolutionary psychologists saw it in the DNA, thus in genes that incline people to prefer others who are genetically similar to themselves (Rushton 2005). Craig Calhoun identified nationalism in discursive formation, ergo in language that shapes consciousness (Calhoun 1997). Some have found nationalism in myths and ancient legends (Smith 2010; Von Scheve and Salmela 2014; Hutchison 2016). Others have seen it in the internet, shaping communities in cyberspace (Eriksen 2007; Chen 2005). These works only scratch the surface of a larger body of studies that reveal the great interest in understanding the dynamics of nationalism.

Although scholars of nationalism can count on a rich array of literature, the many things that nationalism seems to be haven’t found a place in a unifying theory that could explain nationalism everywhere and at any time. With regard to a grand theory of nationalism, Özkırımlı stated – almost twenty years ago now – that perhaps we don’t need a unifying theory. For him, partial theories shedding light on different aspects of nationalism might well do. Is it true or not? Perhaps also the question “what is nationalism” is doomed to remain unanswered, lost in academic entanglement. Or, perhaps a change of paradigm is needed, new questions that may open the way to a new mindset and new paths towards the understanding of nations and nationalism.

Driven by this hiatus, the symposium “Where is nationalism?” aims to bring together scholars who have distinguished themselves through their contribution to the study of nationalism. The title of this conference will serve them as a guideline through which presenting their research. Rather than “what”, the “where” could help us to look at nationalism in a different, perhaps heuristic, way. If nationalism is embodied in DNA, emotions, and language, but it exists also in cyberspace and myths and tradition as well as in State, perhaps the question “where is nationalism” implies a theoretical reconsideration of the categories through which nationalism is thinkable. Is nationalism a matter of subject or object, or both? Is nationalism reducible to visible interactions or is it above flesh and bones, elsewhere in the abstract – and yet tangible through its effects – space of social structure? Perhaps the ubiquity of nationalism, its diachronic, cross-subjective and cross-objective characteristics lie at the basis of its incredible resilience and pervasiveness in a 21st century globalized world. Considering this and other elements, this symposium aims to tackle pressing questions regarding the places, nature and effects of nationalism.


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