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Nationalism has often been thought of as a love of one’s own country, typically in a way that is exclusivist and based on ethnicity or, previously, ‘race’. Although this definition still has its adherents – both amongst academics and racists – nationalism is less and less reliant on the colloquial confusion of the nation with the institutions of the state. Sometimes the two are not only quite discrete but also in opposition – key examples include Scotland, Quebec, and Palestine – and a more apposite question might be, why is the confusion between nation and state encouraged in certain situations?

At certain times and in certain places, the national has been seen as demanding a redefinition of the relationship between the personal and social institutions – and indeed, nationalists as those who encourage this redefinition. This is sometimes known as civic nationalism or liberal nationalism (as opposed to ethnic nationalism). This can also be understood in terms of the opposition between a belief in the superiority of a certain people or Volk and its right or duty to dominate other peoples (ethnic or racial nationalism) – a form much less common in the twenty-first century than much of the mainstream media would have us believe – and a more Enlightenment or neo-Enlightenment or deep-liberal belief in creating citizens in an ongoing process of recreating a national community. Nationalism becomes particularly fraught in those areas – the UK is a key example but similar effects are to be found in Israel/ Palestine, China/ Taiwan/ Tibet, and post-Soviet regions. States, unlike nations, tend to block the secession of particular areas, while civic nations tend to be more inclusive – albeit often driven by a negative animus towards the state.

In cases where the state is linked to strong vested capital interests, the term ‘nationalism’ tends to be demonised since it suits the state to have people thinking that diversity is best protected by state power (a good example is the obsessive airtime given to the British National Party by the BBC and The Guardian). However much nationalism is sceptical about the powers of the state altogether, even that which is attempting to secede from a larger state; such nationalism splits broadly into two kinds – ‘fundamentalist’ thinking – that is, the idea that the primary purpose of nationalism is to create a state – and ‘negotiated sovereignty’ thinking, which is much more concerned with sites of overlap with other nations and possible negotiations than with creating exclusive institutions.

Historically, civic nationalism has strong links to social liberalism (though rarely with economic neoliberalism) and to conceptions of equality which can be related, at varying removes and with varying degrees of scepticism, to the Enlightenment (thus, for example, the relatively advanced debate on civic nationalism in Scotland). Despite scare stories over all kinds of ‘fundamentalism’, civic nationalism is probably rising over fundamentalist nationalism worldwide. This is different again from cosmopolitanism, since civic nationalism tends also to be interested in how the relationship of the person and the state has come about in class terms.

Helpful reading on nationalism:

Faces of Nationalism: Janus Revisited, Tom Nairn, Verso, 1997

Nations and Nationalism, Ernest Gellner, Blackwell Publishing, 2006

Author: Michael Gardiner