The Cul-de-sac of Nationalism

By Dale T. McKinley · 5 May 2010

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Picture credit: arboresce
Picture credit: arboresce

Beneath all the recent debates, polemics and general noise around the state of the South African nation, the character and content of nationalisation and issues of national identity and pride centred on the upcoming Soccer World Cup lays a fundamental problem which is rarely discussed or even acknowledged -- the acceptance and embracing of the ideology of nationalism. 

Why is this a problem though when such acceptance appears as both ‘natural’ and ‘realistic’ given the fact that we all live in a clearly defined nation state, largely identify ourselves through a nationalist lens of one sort or another and generally recognise the legitimacy of the state that governs and manages national affairs?  Simply put, it’s because nationalism is anything but ‘natural’; it is an ideology of capitalism, which serves to reproduce the conditions for capitalist accumulation and systemic legitimacy through the aegis of the nation state (notwithstanding past and ongoing attempts to use nationalism and the nation state in the service of a ‘non-capitalist’ developmental path).  

In conceptual terms nationalism is predicated on the assumption that the most fundamental divisions of humankind are the vertical ‘cleavages’ that divide people into ethno-national groups/compartments. In other words, it is not some kind of natural human phenomena or attribute et al., it is a social, political and ideational construction. Once the nation state has itself been physically constructed (as ‘political sovereign’), nationalism provides the glue by which it rationalises, maintains and reproduces itself. It thus becomes a political ideology, which takes on the role of a supposedly ‘natural’ basis for societal ordering, identity, struggle and ‘business’. It is an ideology, which requires an identity with, and loyalty to, the nation, which, in turn, gives rise to the centrality of the ‘national interest’ and political duty towards the polity of the given nation state.

In practical, historical terms, the march to ‘modernity’ (from previous societal forms of feudalism etc.) was possible because of the synthesis of the modern nation state and capital. The foundational content of that synchronicity was, and remains, capitalist development. Placed within the context of the subsequent development of the ‘modern’ nation state - i.e., within the development of the capitalist system - nationalism is symbiotic with that development. As such, the (national) state cannot be separated from the capitalist mode of production and thus must assume a fundamental role in capital accumulation. 

However, in order to ensure broad societal acceptance (and thus also secure national social cohesion) of such conscious historical constructions, the various ruling classes must, in parallel, also constantly construct a national-popular hegemony. As state theorist Bob Jessop has argued, such a hegemony “involves political, intellectual and moral leadership of the dominant classes … where such leadership is exercised through the development of a national-popular project which specifies a set of goals as being in the ‘national interest.” This hegemony is further sustained by the state’s offering/delivering of material concessions to various sectors of the populace, which, in turn, means that, “states cannot afford to disrupt the accumulation process in the capitalist economy in the long-term without loosing the resources to win political support.”  

All of this can be clearly evidenced in the case of South African nationalism. While there were times, throughout the 20th century struggle against the apartheid system (and state), when the movements of African nationalism imbibed certain progressive elements and ideas (e.g. common struggles of all oppressed peoples against colonialism/imperialism), it remained what it was (nationalism) and within what gave it any meaning (the nation state). Given also that such (black) ‘African nationalism’ was in constant ideational and practical ‘competition’ with (white) ‘Afrikaner nationalism’ (in control of the state), South African nationalism was further constructed by the realities of that competition/struggle. This created an even deeper sense of national ‘uniqueness’ and thrust towards a reclaiming of a differentially applied, ‘true’ nationalism.

When the dominant African nationalist force, the ANC, won the 1994 elections, it took political control of an existent national state that had been built to secure the dominant interests of a (white) national bourgeoisie. There was a changing of the nationalist ‘guard’. The only difference was that now, the state was in the hands of a movement whose main aim was to build, and secure, the interests of a black nationalist (as opposed to white nationalist) bourgeoisie, notwithstanding the ANC’s constant claims of the leading role of the working class. In this sense then, the democratic victory of 1994 represented, above all else, the triumph of a majority (black) nationalism over a minority (white) nationalism. 

This politically, state-centred ‘changing of the nationalist guard’ was overlaid by the ANC’s acceptance (indeed, embracement) of South Africa’s capitalist political economy, within the context of a dominant, global capitalist neo-liberalism. The two went hand-in-hand. What was thus demanded was the creation of a dominant discourse of ‘nation-building’ as a means to politically legitimise the role and character of the ‘new’ state and the ‘place’ of those under its command. The majority black population who had, historically, been denied any meaningful national or international ‘belonging’, were told that they could achieve both because they were now the ‘real’ owners of a nation state dedicated to securing their national identity, interests as well as their (nationally-located) international status and position. 

Over the last several years, what has been consciously, politically constructed then is a ‘new’ kind of nationalist popular hegemony (ideology), congruent with a ‘new’ national identity and politics but within the same historical framework of capitalist development. This macro-design creates the illusion (and the accompanying politics) that the struggle for political and socio-economic liberation by the black majority was, and remains, defined by the active and loyal participation of an ‘authentic national subject’ bounded by the ‘new’ nation state and a ‘new’ nationalism.  

To a large extent, this South Africa specific example of the ‘naturalising’ of nationalism, alongside its capitalist twin, has worked.  Despite regular and even increasing shows of dissatisfaction with the performance of the state and the maldistribution of socio-economic benefit, there is no sign that the majority has jettisoned the ‘national popular project’. Nor is there any sustained sign of the same at the global level.

 The reality is that the capitalist system, at a global political and institutional level, fundamentally remains a constellation of various nationalisms. While such nationalisms might be differentially ‘practiced’ in tandem with the changing nature of the capitalist system of production, accumulation and distribution, they are fundamentally grounded in a common ideology, which, over time, always ‘returns’ to the source. Even the presence of socialists/ communists in the management and leadership of the nation state and/or the nationalist movement has proven time and again to make little difference in this regard, although it might make a difference in relation to how the national cake is cut. 

As can be so plainly seen as a result of the latest capitalist crisis, the role of the nation and nationalism has done anything but engage in a disappearing act. Indeed, that role has taken on greater importance/centrality. This is the case not only in reproducing the conceptual/spiritual power of the ‘nation’ and the politics of nationalism which allows varying degrees of popular support/impetus (whether as applied to ‘opposition’ and/or acquiescence) but in resurrecting the specific role of the national state in ‘rescuing’ and/or managing the key component parts of the capitalist system itself – and thus temporarily ‘addressing’ the crisis. 

Not surprisingly, it is the billions of poor and working class people that have borne, and will continue to bear, the dominant burden of these acts of systemic reproduction. It is when this majority of humanity, of whatever national ‘identity’ or place, no longer accepts and embraces the janus-faced ideology of nationalism that there will emerge the real possibility for breaking the back of a capitalist system whose trump card always has been, and always will be, the cul-de-sac of nationalism.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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