Nationalism & Relativism

Daniele Conversi wrote in 2002 (about Walker Connor’s classic work Ethnonationalism: The Quest For Understanding:

Nationalist movements are often thought to manifest a solipsist attitude.Connor rightly points out the ‘general insensitivity that one national group and its leadership customarily exemplify towards the rights of other groups’(1973:15–16).This clearly points to the deep non-rational character of even the most rationally-looking nationalist movement: ‘irrationality’ resides precisely in the incapacity to coordinate one’s efforts with those of potential allies, simply because the latter do not belong to the same ethno-biological pool.32 His anti-universalist bent is incompatible with rational thought. On the one hand there may be a sensible motive in many people’s historical aversion against universalism and cosmopolitanism. On the other hand the incapacity to coordinate efforts with other groups is often selfdefeating,as most twentieth-century wars have demonstrated.However,there have been instances in which ‘inter-nationalist’cooperation has worked well,at least for some time.33 But Connor’s crucial point on the unreasonable,illogical,unsound character of most nationalisms must be underscored:
“The peculiar emotional depth of the ‘us’-‘them’syndrome which is an intrinsic part of national consciousness, by bifurcating as it does all mankind into ‘members of the nation’ versus ‘all others’ appears thereby to pose a particularly severe impediment to coordinated action with any of the ‘others’.”34
It seems that one group,as soon as it has grasped the levers of state power,is unable to recognize any legitimacy or validity in the anti-state sentiments of other groups. This has indeed happened in post-Soviet Eastern Europe:Azeri versus Armenians in Nagorno-Karabagh, pan-Romanian nationalists fighting Russian separatists in Moldova, Georgians suppressing Ossetian autonomy immediately after achieving independence.It has occurred during the early stages of de-colonization (as in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Israel and many other states). The phenomenon dates back to the very inception of nationalism as the legitimizing political principle (whenever one wishes to identify its birth). In his London exile, Giuseppe Mazzini had discovered how the supra- or inter-national project of a Young Europe had ineluctably foundered in the face of the instinctive solipsism of all the various ‘Young’ movements (Young Italy, Young Ireland and the like), eventually leading several decades later to its most xenophobic and bloodthirsty avatar, the Young Turks.This irrationality leads ultimately to a widespread sense of sacro egoismoand an all-pervasive moral relativism:‘Though very sensitive to real or imagined threats to the survival and aspirations of one’s own group, appreciation of this same sensitivity among other groups is apparently very difficult to project’.35 As Zygmunt Bauman rightly reminds us:
“few known nations enthusiastically endorsed the right of the others to the same treatment they claimed for themselves . . . The national game has been a zero-sum game: sovereignty of the other has been an assault against one’s own. One nation’s rights were another nation’s aggression, intransigence or arrogance.” (1989: 54)
In this extreme form of Hobbesian individualism, nationalism reveals its nonrational, often self-defeating, character. The abdication of universal reason is, however,shared by nationalism with many other forms of group behaviour.But,as Connor puts it, it is the particular link between groupness (and hence exclusion) and ethnicity (hence, putative descent and kinship) which makes it particularly impermeable to rational reasoning. The European Community is supposed to provide one of the first contemporary historical alternatives to the irrationality and mutual exclusiveness of nation-states. But, shortly after the time of the Maastricht Treaty signing (7 February 1992), when ‘European Union’ was the incontrovertible shibboleth, Connor (1994b) anticipated that the project was failing to achieve a popular mandate, while ethnic sentiments were stirring below the surface in the form of both state and stateless nationalism.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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