It’s hard to remember that, a generation ago, pundits, bankers and scholars formed a loud chorus declaring the nation obsolete. Flows of capital, ideas and goods ushered in a global age with new metaphors and a new narrative of globalisation, movement and circulation. Now, the global promise and plotline look shopworn. The nation is back.
Lurid, ethnocentric varieties of nationalism are not the only revivals; the patria is also waxing among liberals and progressives as the community that most needs healing in order to reclaim it from the nativists. There’s a new chorus to give it the narrative uplift that the nation needs after decades of globalist neglect and recent nativist abuse. Nations need an imagined past to connect their citizens to a shared experience; nation-builders create narrative foundations upon which to raise walls and roofs. In a drive to heal – some would say, to paper over – the fractures, a new breed of chronicler has scrambled to rebuild those foundations.
Progressives might think that this reclamation is a heroic counteroffensive against nativism. In truth, it’s an admission of defeat. Not just one, but two defeats. First, as the Cold War ended, many liberals threw in their lot with the promise of a market-unified world and shed the baggage of social welfare and social democracy. Then, as globalisation began to shake after 2008, nativist backlashers seized the flag in a fight against ‘globalist’ elites and ‘menacing’ migrants. Now progressives are leaping into a mosh pit over the national storyline.
At each step, progressives went on the defensive; at each step, they gave up something. By now, there’s not much left. After 1989, they cashed in the remains of their socialist endowment. Since 2008, many are giving up their internationalist heritage. As climate change bears down on us, a global migrant crisis grows, and a nuclear arms race heats up, the chroniclers of the redeemed nation are backing away from the search for global perspectives and narratives just when we need them.
For two centuries, the nation has been the organising principle for our concept of sovereignty and tethered, from the start, to a wider order. In the 18th century, Jeremy Bentham coined the term ‘international’ to envision an entanglement of nation states to replace the disorder of predatory empires. Declarations of national independence were announcements of interdependence, of a hope to be recognised and welcomed by other nations – and thereby to secure one’s freedom – and to pledge one’s willingness to be restrained to maintain the wider order. It was so foundational to international law that it’s been taken for granted, except by colonial societies that were, by definition, excluded from recognition and freedom. When they worked, international laws and norms ensured that nations didn’t become predators. When they failed, Nation-First zealotry took over, interdependence got weaponised, and the needs of the nation authorised conquest and extermination. This is what happened in the 1930s.