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Nationalism as a Degenerate Form of National Identity

Monday 15 October 2007, by Zagorka Golubovic

Today I am going to talk about nationalism as one form of fundamentalism. I will try to explain why I think that it is not only one forms of fundamentalism, but, I deeply believe, one of the most dangerous forms of fundamentalism. Namely, nationalism permeates the minds much deeper, invading not only the souls, as is the case with religion, but also the practical lives of people. In this way, it leads to such a form of fundamentalism (that is why it is called fundamentalism, actually) that requires the individuals to completely identify with their nation – where the concept of nation is understood in the traditional sense, as their ethnic community.
Let me remind you that the concept of nation can be understood in the traditional and in the modern sense of the word. In modern countries, this is a concept that can be, but is not necessarily identified with ethnicity, but rather with citizenship. For example, when a Muslim from Morocco immigrates to France, he says, “I am French.” That is his nationality, in the sense of citizenship. There are similar examples in America when a Puerto Rican does not say, “I am Puerto Rican,” but says, “I am American,” instead. Naturally, this Puerto Rican will try to maintain some of his ethnic identity, but what defines him is that he is American, which means that he accepts the basic values of that country.

However, the traditional concept of nation requires the individual to completely identify with the nation as his ethnic community. In practice, this means that when asked “Who are you?”, the individual feels bound to first say, “I am a Serb, a Croat…I am German, etc.” In my opinion, it would be much more natural to answer this question with – I am a woman, a man, or a child. Then, on a higher level, individuals can identify themselves according to other criteria, i.e. as a teacher, a worker, or as part of a generation…
Only when the question refers precisely to what nationality I am, does it make sense to say “Yes, I am Serb by birth.” This means that I do not have to identify myself as a Serb in the first place.

Therefore, I would like to draw a distinction that is not usually made between two terms, due to which confusion arises regarding the term nationalism. These two terms are national feelings and nationalism. They are not synonyms at all, although they are often represented that way.

National Feelings and Nationalism

National feelings are, in a way, natural feelings, because everyone is born into a family with some national tradition. If you have a Serb mother and father, then the national feeling that you acquire is that you are Serb by origin; you maintain customs related to this nation. However, problems can arise in a mixed marriage. Why is it that in Bosnia, immediately before the disintegration of Yugoslavia (according to research that was conducted throughout the former Yugoslavia in the 1980s), there was the least nationalist friction and ethnic distance? When your father is Bosnian and your mother is a Serb, you feel like a Yugoslav. That is a modern identification – you identify with the state (Yugoslavia), and the modern concept of nation.

Therefore, everyone can have national feelings, although they are not of the same intensity with all people. Sometimes, they are not necessarily present at all. Those are natural feelings, just like the struggle for national liberation of an oppressed nation against a dominant power, which is also natural and has positive connotations.

But when you say, “I am a nationalist,” this has a completely different meaning than the statement “I have national feelings.” It has a negative connotation. We can often hear people say “I am a moderate nationalist,” “I am a democratic nationalist,” or, “I am a civic nationalist” because they think that they will soften the negative connotation that way. However, let me remind you that the idea of a citizen is completely opposed to the concept of nationalism. Those two identifications cannot be held simultaneously. What is a citizen? A citizen is an individual who is free to choose his allegiance, whereas nationalism imposes ethnic identification and does not allow any freedom of choice.

When I said that nationalist fundamentalism is the most dangerous, I emphasized that it is because the need for belonging is a basic human need. It is precisely this need that fundamentalism takes advantage of. Because, the question everybody asks is not only “Who am I?,” but also “Where do I belong?” Everyone traces their roots, but when that search is restricted to ethnicity and you look for a single human quality in that ethnic origin, you inevitably deny everything else. All members of other ethnic groups are seen as something strange and alien.

This is a typical feature of nationalism. Because of this complete identification with the ethnic group, the ethnicity is glorified, which implies that the others are inferior. Others, and otherness in general, are treated with intolerance.

Even when nationalism is not extreme, in the sense of not being ultra-nationalism or chauvinism, it still denies Otherness. Namely, research conducted by Rudi Supek, a reputable Yugoslav anthropologist and sociologist, revealed that even in cases of ethnic identification that does not automatically deny the Other, one’s nation is, nevertheless, being glorified. The moment you glorify yourself and see yourself as superior, you consider others to be inferior.

When you believe that others are inferior, this unavoidably generates a feeling of animosity and fear, although it is not necessarily openly expressed. We think that we are being threatened, just like right before the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

This feeling of being threatened is often put forward as an explanation for the disintegration of The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, but I think that this explanation is wrong. We often hear that “Yugoslavia fell apart because all the people felt threatened by other people, because they hated one another.” I again refer to this research conducted in the 1980s, which shows that ethnic distance in all Yugoslav republics was relatively low, even much lower than in multinational countries. Therefore, nationalism is not an inborn quality that we have.

Let me remind you once again – national feelings can be inborn, although we can distance ourselves from them, if we consider something else to be more important. When it comes to nationalism, when you identify with your ethnic group, you are unable to see others impartially, you are unable to be tolerant toward others, and you cannot establish normal cooperation or communication with others. This is why I do not accept the term democratic nationalism.

This is why I wanted to draw the distinction between these two things. This is not often done. I have read a great number of books, some by eminent theoreticians, both from this country and abroad, in which they say, “We are for democratic nationalism.” This is, in my opinion, contradictio in adjecto. It is contradictory, because democracy by definition means that individuals are free people and have the right to choose their views and national identification.

The Nation and the State

Those who identify themselves with nationalism think that the only genuinely legitimate state is the nation-state. They argue—this is not true anywhere—that the ethnically pure countries have made the greatest democratic progress. However, there are very few pure nation-states. The vast majority of modern states are of mixed ethnic structure.

The case of Serbia with regards to the adoption of the new Constitution is a striking example of a lack of understanding of the concepts of nation and state. On one hand, the creators of the Constitution argue that they are not nationalists—that they are moderate nationalists—but in The Constitution, they have defined Serbia as a country of Serbs and other citizens. This draws a line. Those who are not Serbs are second-rate citizens. Therefore, the dominant group in Serbia is the Serb ethnic group, whose citizens are first-rate. As soon as there are pretensions to treat one ethnically defined nation as dominant while others are treated as national minorities, we are confronting nationalism. That is why I think that it is disastrous that Serbia was not constitutionally defined as a state of all its citizens. Those who argue that they are moderate nationalists, whose views prevailed in the draft and adoption of the Constitution, proved that they are actually nationalist who are trying to preserve the ethnic nation and the nation-state.

I am also strongly opposed to the use of the term national minorities, because this term usually contains the notion of inferiority. Instead, we should refer to different nations, which would convey the idea of equality.
Talking about the national interest can be rather confusing because it is unclear what that means in a multinational community. Several times, I have posed the question of what national interest is. Is it exclusively the Serb interest? If so, what are the consequences for the non-Serb population, which makes up one third of the population of Serbia, of promulgating these interests?

Why is the term social interest not used instead? Social interest, unlike national interest, refers to all the nations being involved. This means that we have to consider the interest of the Hungarians, Slovaks, and Ruthenians, and the extent to which these interests coincide with Serb interests. We should also examine whether there are nationalist tendencies among these nations. If so, we must fight them, both among the majority and minority populations.

Let me also remind you of the first condition of the liberal theory of successful democracy - all people are equal before the law. If all the people are equal before the law, then all the nations and all the peoples have to be recognized by the Constitution as equal citizens of the state.

Forgotten Solidarity

The ethnocentrism that is implied by nationalism is close to eurocentrism. Both concepts are the same type of conviction, prejudices against others that emphasize the superiority of Western civilization (Europe), forgetting that Western civilization is several thousand years younger than other, ancient civilizations. The Chinese culture has a continuity of 5,000 years, and so does the Indian. It is interesting to read the analyses by Max Weber about the Chinese and the civilization of India, which show that even now, there are things to be learned from Confucius and from others, from the ancient manuscripts of India and China. For example, Western Europe has been increasingly overlooking one of the most important principles – the principle of solidarity, which those two ancient civilizations nurtured. In modern Western culture, solidarity is being forgotten. This moves us in the direction of yet another kind of fundamentalism – individualism. The kind of individualism promoted by the Western civilization, which considers exclusively individual values, forgets that human beings are not isolated entities, but that they always live in social and cultural circumstances. This means that we also have to consider collective values, and then examine to what extent the individual (individual rights and freedoms) is in harmony with social needs and interests.

Finally, how do we evaluate democracy? Can democracy be evaluated by how unlimited individual freedom is? What do we get then? The final outcome of such an attitude is that the nationalist thinks that he has the freedom to oppress those who do not comply with his definition of national interest. Also, if we define democracy exclusively as unrestricted freedom, we can find ourselves in a situation where neo-fascists – who have left a horrible legacy of human victims and genocidal ideas – can freely display their views today, because this is, allegedly, democracy.

Actually, this type of individualism is also fundamentalism because it forgets that we must also consider others with whom we live. It overlooks the categorical imperative of Emanuel Kant – “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” This is a fundamental imperative. It tells me how I have to behave towards others and it implies solidarity. John Stuart Mill, one of the 19th century English liberals, also emphasizes solidarity, which contemporary neo-liberals are completely forgetting. Unfortunately, today’s liberals think that someone can get rich by theft, in illegal ways, because, as they put it, wealth in itself brings progress to society. But they turn a blind eye to the fact that wealth generated social differences that have upset not only Serbia, but also the whole world. The neo-liberals do not want to see that. America is also being destabilized by this horrendous social differentiation. When there is such a huge gap between the rich and the poor, there are no conditions for the development of democracy.

Nationalism and Fundamentalism as the Abolishment of Plural Identities

When religious fundamentalism is in question, it can be very dangerous, especially because it creates a basis for terrorism. If we treat some religions as inferior, in a contemptuous way, then terrorism can be provoked in reaction to that. I believe that this is exactly the case with the phenomenon of terrorism within Islam. The Muslim religion is increasingly recruiting people with an inclination towards terrorism, not because the Qur’an says that a basic part of the Muslim religion is Jihad (violent struggle), but because this religion had been treated with derision. The Qur’an does contain the sentence that conversion is possible by means of war, but it also contains many other things that are very useful and that would be worth introducing into the modern system of values. You can learn from the Qur’an how to respect human dignity. I will not use the term human rights, because it would be inappropriate.

The basis for development not based on any fundamentalist ideology is the respect of human dignity. The moment complete identification is required with the religion, nation, or political party, it is fundamentalism. Let me repeat once again, I am certain that nationalist fundamentalism is even more dangerous than the religious variant and especially more dangerous than political fundamentalism because political affiliation in modern countries implies pluralism. Religious fundamentalism restricts the pluralism of identities, but when it is said, “Christianity is ecumenical,” this in itself is some pluralism. However, nationalism does not imply any pluralism – you are labeled with your ethnicity and you have to follow whatever your ethnic group deems to be its interest. If you feel that the other ethnic group (nation) who lives next door threatens you, you have the right to cleanse them. Unfortunately, this was manifested in the ethnic wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Immaturity as a Breeding Ground for Nationalism

Currently, no difference is drawn between identity and identification. It is often forgotten that a baby does not come into this world as a developed individual, not as a formed personality – but that it carries some potential. Although no one has been able to define this potential so far, it has been described as “historically accumulated heritage,” a combination of characteristics that the parents transmit onto their children, but more through socialization, than genetically. We inherit our temperaments genetically. Whether we are going to be exclusive or tolerant or more or less impulsive depends quite a lot on temperament.

However, it is forgotten that socialization leads the baby into social life and culture; the parents are the first actors in this process. That is why we use the terms of primary and secondary socialization because this process is not completed at the age of five (as Freud thought). Human beings can change throughout their life. In traditional society, the family carried out almost all of these functions in closed societies. In modern societies, schools continue the process of socialization, as do work groups, political organizations, etc. Therefore, there is a plurality of identification. When we use the phrase “a plurality of possibilities for identification,” it is understood that the individual chooses the focal point of his identity.
Identity implies plurality and choice. It means that I can, as an individual, choose the focal point of my identity, on the grounds of my knowledge about my own potentials, inclinations, and possibilities.

Identification implies a primary focal point. In the first years of life, this is the family, family identification. Unless the child overcomes this period, which the parents do not like, because the child begins to oppose them with, “No, no, I don’t want that” and begins making choices, unless he or she overcomes this parental identification, he or she will remain infantile for life.

Therefore, there are two phases in the development of the individual - identification that is indispensable, as parents cannot leave their baby in the street to find its own way. A baby must have support in the family, or foster family, but during the process of development it is necessary to develop a distance from the identifiers. This distancing will be faster or slower, more or less abrupt, the more gradual – the better, in the sense of better understanding of oneself. It is wrongly presumed that we all know who we are. We spend our entire lives wondering, “Who am I?” Are we what we chose to be or what our parent imposed on us?” So, identity and identification have to be separated because they are not synonyms, although they are interconnected and have to be harmonized. If the second phase fails to occur, the individuals’ possibility to find their own identity is very small; they can remain infantile until the end of their lives. An infantile individual provides prolific soil for nationalism; it can dominate his life.

An adult with a normally developing personality is referred to as a free personality. This is a pleonasm though, because there is no personality unless it is free. A free personality is manifested in the process of individuation, this being precisely the second phase in the development of the individual, when the identity of “self” is acquired.

Therefore, this means that the individuals get to know themselves, develop their talents and skills and, depending on them, choose what they will do and how they will behave, and what kind of social relations they will establish. Those individuals who do not attain this become very susceptible to nationalist and ideological manipulation.

In my opinion, nationalism is an ideology, or fundamentalism, which operates by means of manipulation. The unaccomplished individual, who has not achieved the identity of his or her own choice—has no self, no personal attitude—is prone to nationalism. He or she finds refuge in nationalism exactly because they feel insecure. They cannot find personal fulfillment or their own solutions. Nationalism or the “mother nation” compensates for all that. When I glorify my “mother nation,” I also acquire some grandeur (the slogan “a celestial people” best explains it); because, if my nation is a celestial people, then I am also a member of that nation. Thus, I escape into nationalism when I am unsure as a personality, as an individual without a defined self. That is why I argue that personal identity is the basis for the creation of normal relations among people and normal communication. This is an individual who will be aspiring to become a free personality, who will be assertive and aware of his or her social surroundings. That is why we have to accept the plurality of identities. On the other hand, any allegiance that requires complete identification is ideological, not a free choice.

Nationalism and Myth

Now I would like to explain a bit further why nationalism has a negative connotation, why there is no such thing as moderate nationalism, which is merely a disguise for a real nationalist attitude. Let me simply enumerate several points:

Firstly, nationalism drags man into the past. Historical myths are a basis for nationalism. Why can’t we let go of the Kosovo myth? Some political parties and some circles find it more important to discuss what happened in 1389, than in 1999. An explanation for this can only be found through a critical analysis of the 1990s. We will see that those years led us to disintegration, which is a pity, not only in my opinion, but also in the opinion of many people from the former Yugoslavia and broad because the SFRY was country that had considerable potential. Exactly because it was a multicultural and multinational country, not in spite of that, Yugoslavia had the potential for development, for an open society.

However, if we decide that the 14th century is more important than the 20th, then of course, war criminals are proclaimed to be heroes. Allegedly, just as it happened at the Battle of Kosovo, Serbia opted for a celestial kingdom and not for a kingdom on earth; we will not worry about the conditions the people live in and their daily problems, but go on talking about the past and our mythology.

To live in the past today means to have no future. Today we are at the end of the world. The comparative advantages that we used to have in the former Yugoslavia were lost when we reverted to 1389. Now, we are starting from scratch. It is uncertain when we will catch up with Poland, a country that used to perceive us as the West. The West is now thousands of miles away from us. The case of contemporary Serbia shows that nationalism is incompatible with democracy, which ought to lead us into the future.
Secondly, nationalism gives an advantage to interethnic communication (relations between ethnic groups), when nationalism is not very accentuated, but prefers ethnic distance when nationalism is emphasized. In any case, nationalism will never give way to interpersonal communication. It is only by means of interpersonal communication that a new, normal basis for intercultural, democratic communication in a multinational society can be achieved. But, if individuals are infantile, they cannot build normal interpersonal relations, without which as normal society cannot be formed.

Nationalism and the Production of Enemies

Nationalism, precisely because it glorifies its ethnic group (nation) while considering others to be inferior, implies that the other is also an enemy. In the nineties, this gave rise to the contention that we all pose a threat to one another, because others are enemies.

Therefore, nationalism produces enemies, and, in that process, traitors as well. If, for example, you do not think that Kosovo should be retained at all costs, (I am sure that the politicians would not know what to do with Kosovo, poor and underdeveloped as it is, unfortunately, if it remained within Serbia.), you are a traitor. You are somebody who ought to be pointed at, and a stone should be hurled into your living room, and a bomb should be planted into your apartment.

Thus, nationalism creates false patriotism that presupposes love for one’s ethnic group only. However, patriotism is love for your homeland, for the country we live in, a country consisting of different ethnic groups. This would mean that now we have to write off Vojvodina as a disruptive factor, because it contains the largest number of ethnic groups and nations.
The next phenomenon that implies a negative connotation is attaching exclusive importance to national liberation. Serbian history cannot boast that any struggle was ever mounted for the liberation of the individual. However, there can be no national liberation without personal liberation. Now, when derogatory remarks are made about Marxism as the alleged political project of totalitarianism, it remains unsaid that the CP Manifest, a highly political work, contains the phrase “The freedom of the individual is the precondition of social freedom.” If we, as individuals, do not have an essential sense of freedom, then we will remain subjects of the state eternally. Or, at least, we will have nothing to say.

Authoritarianism, Collectivism, and Conformism as Features of Nationalism

Authoritarianism and collectivism are primary qualities of nationalism. First, this is because the nation is understood as the basic authority, and so is the leader of the nation. If the leader of my nation says, white is black, I will confirm it. Yes, white is black. This is a submissive mentality; it was not accidental that the Serbs were ascribed the epithet “the herd people.” Not only did we remain under Turkish occupation for 500 years, but our entire history is one of subjugation and servitude. I dare to say that is what it has been to this day. Just look at who speaks in public! They say, we are not allowed to speak and write, but those who say so ought to be asked, “Have you tried to raise your voices? Have you tried to do something in a civil society organization?” They invariably reply, “We know that they will not let us,” but no one can teach you how to swim unless you step into the water.

Thus, authoritarianism is the basis of nationalism. Collectivism goes hand in hand with it. I am not against collective feelings of accountability and solidarity, but collectivism is a concept that implies sacrificing the individual. This is absurd. If the individual has to be sacrificed, we remain subjects. We remain units that can be manipulated at someone’s whim.

I would like to recommend a book on this topic for you to read. It is Mature Personality (Zrela li_nost) by Sulejman Hrnjica. You will see how an individual cannot emerge from subjugation before attaining a certain level of maturity. Without maturity, we will remain eternal subjects. Along with subjugation, there is also conformity.

During my stay in America, I had a chance to observe how people there behave in a crowd. I said that the Americans resembled the Russians a great deal. “What do you mean?” They asked me. Americans take pride in their individualism, but, judging by the behavior of the masses, in a crowd, I could see that they are conformists. The simplest example of this form of behavior was in a museum. They never visit museums alone, but rather in a group. Currently, the most authentic example of conformism is the high level of consent among the Americans around the Iraq issue. Also, George Bush’s Patriotic Act, which was adopted by Congress (both Democratic and Republican representatives) further illustrates this. The Act says, “You have the right to report your neighbor if you think he is a terrorist. We will arrest him.” This means spying, denouncing, arrests without trial, and detaining people in dungeons where they are being tortured and harassed.

Collectivism is coupled with conformism because it does not acknowledge individuality in the real sense of the word. Collectivism is also accompanied by prejudices and stereotypes. If I have the prejudice that all Muslims support Jihad, then I will feel insecurity regarding Muslims and my behavior will inevitably be intolerant. If I find myself in a position of power, I will definitely do everything to expel those suspicious intruders from my civilized country.

My intention here was simply to explain the differences between some concepts and to explain why they are being used as synonyms, in order to avoid negative connotations.

Seminar, 26th –27th April 2007