“Before they start telling us what to do, they jolly well ought to sort their own house out.” This was Theresa May on Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016, during a question time at Westminster. No, she was not referring to the honorable gentleman of the opposition, as she often does. Neither to the European Union, from which she soon hopes to “successfully” withdraw. The matter of discussion was a more mundane subject: the poppies that British people wear around October-November to commemorate those who lost their lives in war. FIFA, the international football association, prohibits political, religious, or commercial messages on shirts; and yet, both the English and Scottish football associations said that they would have defied this ban, by letting their players wear poppies when England played Scotland on Armistice Day.
The point here is not so much to discuss whether poppies are a political symbol or not, but to focus on the language used during the parliamentary debate by both Theresa May and the opposition (“in this country we decide when to wear poppies”—Steve McCabe, Labour MP). The message is adamant: nations decide for themselves and if international ruling is not what the nation likes, then…. “jolly well fxxx off.” So goes the world today. And to be clear, it is a very different world from the one many scholars envisioned only a couple of decades ago.
In the early 1990s, the atmosphere was indeed a completely different one. The fall of the Berlin Wall brought about a new internationalist spirit. The triumph of the West was read by Francis Fukuyama (1989) as the triumph of democracy, liberalism, and endless peace: The End of History indeed. Giving a more economic twist to the same tune, Kenichi Ohmae (1993) was talking of the end of the nation-state and, about a decade later, Thomas Friedman (2005) was further spreading the image of a borderless world. More philosophical scholars were praising the virtues of cosmopolitanism, dismissing as archaic and out of time the argument of a psychologist from Loughborough University, who was instead showing the banality of nationalism (Dodds, 2016). Twenty years later, it seems fair to say that maybe we should re-read Billig’s (1995) Banal Nationalism, rather than Beck’s (2006) Cosmopolitan Vision.
We are back to a world of nations. True, we never left this world, if not in the normative speculations of some (actually, many) progressive intellectuals. And yet, the world of nations we are witnessing today is somewhat more entrenched than what it looked like only a few decades ago. Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen are only the most visible signs of this world. The West which had triumphed in the early 1990s has now become more inward-looking amidst a series of crisis: financial, economic, terrorist, migratory, and European. Rather than pulling forces together, nations have preferred to raise their borders. Since 2001, the number of walls built along these borders has multiplied by four, as mapped by Reece Jones. The kind of xenophobic language which in the past was confined within the most extremist fringes of the nation now has become legitimate in the mainstream. Trump’s blatantly racist, sexist, and Islamophobic comments have surprisingly not discredited his campaign, as one would have expected. The reason is that they are now treated as matters of political debate and as such condemned by one part of the society, not rejected as ethically and morally unacceptable positions by the whole society. The context is not different in Europe. Thilo Sarrazin’s book Germany Is Doing Away with Itself (2010) has sold more than one million copies in Germany, where 57% of non-Muslim Germans think that Islam is a national threat. In France, Marine Le Pen is ahead in the opinion polls for next year’s presidential election. And across the Channel, Brexit has already sent a clear message to the other European nations. Neo-nationalism is no longer on the fringes of the political spectrum. It is right at the center. It pervades the majority society all across the Western world, from the USA to Australia, spreading contagiously into their bordering regions too (see the rise of the BJP in India, Erdogan’s Turkey, or Myanmar’s violent clampdown on the Rohingya people, just to name a few).
More importantly, the neo-nationalist does not look any more like a skinhead. In the case of Brexit, they more likely resemble the white, middle-class, in their sixties person sitting comfortably in front of the TV who simply says “enough is enough, we want our country back!” after having witnessed wars ravaging countries, refugees fleeing their homes, cities becoming increasingly multicultural, and gays getting legally married. As various studies have demonstrated, the supporter of the kind of populist, nativist, or defensive nationalism embodied by Farage, Trump, or Le Pen is a white man feeling uncomfortable with a changing world (see this Vox article for a review of academic studies pointing in this direction). Nostalgia and resentment for a world which no longer reflects what used to be are statistically more powerful explanations than economic predictors. The strongest support for this neo-nationalism does not come from low-waged, unskilled, manual workers (the so called “left-behind”), but from the petty bourgeoisie (e.g., self-employed plumbers, owners of family small businesses, shopkeepers) (Inglehart and Norris, 2016). The populist voters are not those being directly affected by and living in contact with migrants, but those living in predominantly white communities who feel threatened in their privileged socio-economic status by economic decline or immigration (Saunders, 2016).
True, nations have indeed changed demographically over the last decades. In Britain the percentage of foreign born people is now about 13%, in France 11.9%, in Germany 12.6% (Eurostat data 2015). According to a demographic projection (Lanzieri, 2010), by 2060 persons of all nationalities with at least one foreign-born parent are expected to account for about 33% of the EU-27 population. Thus, the immediate risk, as already experienced in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, is a new polarization, in which the very idea of nation gets monopolized by one section of the society and played against those deemed “out of place” in that nation.
So, what is the way out here? Difficult to say, but I would be wary of those solutions which simply wish the nation away, longing for some forms of post-national or cosmopolitan formations. As Calhoun (2007) rightly suggests, nations continue to be a main source of social solidarity and cultural identification, as well as being a background condition for the functioning of modern democracy (see, however, Abizadeh, 2002, for an opposite view on this latter point). While forms of cosmopolitan conviviality clearly characterize some of the major cities around the world, these should not necessarily be caste in a zero-sum logic against the nation. Putting it differently, nation and diversity can and should coexist (Antonsich and Matejskova, 2015a). To think that they can only be juxtaposed in terms of an unsolvable conundrum means to leave the nation, as aptly observed by Moran (2011), in the hands of xenophobic and right-wing nationalists. This would then generate a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: yes, the nation in “un-rescuable,” so let’s move beyond the nation (Antonsich and Matejskova, 2015b). More profitable, both in normative and empirical terms, is to instead map instances in which a plural, diverse nation manifests itself (Kaufmann, 2017). Normatively, multicultural nationalism has maybe emerged as the most plausible theory in this sense (Parekh, 2000; Modood, 2007; Uberoi, 2007). From this perspective, a plural and inclusive national identity is possible and should be seen as the product of a composite culture constituted through intercultural dialogue. The new national “we” so created includes the historical trajectories of immigration communities, which equally enter the narration and self-representation of that national “we.” Empirically, though, more work is needed to see when, where, and how this inclusive, plural nation becomes a salient dimension in people’s lives. In my project on New Italians I exactly aim to explore these instances. To believe that migrants and their children always eschew the nation for its exclusionary thrust risks overlooking a variety of practices, discourses, and emotions which fill this symbolic and material register with a plurality of meanings. There is more nation beyond neo-nationalism. It is the duty of scholars to make it appear.
By the way, for those who do not know, England and Scotland football players wore a poppy armband on Armistice Day.
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