Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Sundry banalities

 "It might seem odd to begin a book on nationalism with the Gulf War. The term 'nationalism' invites us to look elsewhere for exemplars. In both popular and academic writing, nationalism is associated with those who struggle to create new states or with extreme right-wing politics. According to customary usage, George Bush is not a nationalist; but separatists in Quebec or Brittany are; so are the leaders of extreme right-wing parties such as the Front National in France; and so, too, are the Serbian guerrillas, killing in the cause of extending the homeland's borders. A book about nationalism is expected to deal with such figures. It should be discussing dangerous and powerful passions, outlining a psychology of extraordinary emotions.

Yet, there is something misleading about this accepted use of the word 'nationalism'. It always seems to locate nationalism on the periphery. Separatists are often to be found in the outer regions of states; the extremists lurk on the margins of political life in established democracies, usually shunned by the sensible politicians of the centre. The guerrilla figures, seeking to establish their new homelands, operate in conditions where existing structures of state have collapsed, typically at a distance from the established centres of the West. From the perspective of Paris, London or Washington, places such as Moldova, Bosnia and Ukraine are peripherally placed on the edge of Europe. All these factors combine to make nationalism not merely an exotic force, but a peripheral one. In consequence, those in established nations - at the centre of things - are led to see nationalism as the property of others, not of 'us'. This is where the accepted view becomes misleading: it overlooks the nationalism of the West's nation-states. In a world of nation-states, nationalism cannot be confined to the peripheries. That might be con-ceded, but still it might be objected that nationalism only strikes the established  nation-states on special occasions. Crises, such as the  Falklands or Gulf Wars, infect a sore spot, causing bodily fevers: the symptoms are an inflamed rhetoric and an outbreak of ensigns. But the irruption soon dies down; the temperature passes; the flags are rolled up; and, then, it is business as usual.

If that were the extent of nationalism in established nations, then nationalism, when it moves in from the periphery, only comes as a temporary mood. But, there is more. The intermittent crises depend upon existing ideological foundations. Bush, in his eve of battle speech, did not invent his dismal rhetoric: he was drawing upon familiar images and cliches. The flags displayed by the Western public during the Gulf War were familiar: Americans did not have to remind themselves what this arrangement of stars and stripes was. The national anthem, which topped the US music chart, was recorded at a football final. Each year, whether in peace or war, it is sung before the game.

In short, the crises do not create nation-states as nation-states. In between times, the United States of America, France, the United Kingdom and so on continue to exist. Daily, they are reproduced as nations and their citizenry as nationals. And these nations are reproduced within a wider world of nations. For such daily reproduction to occur, one might hypothesize that a whole complex of beliefs, assumptions, habits, representations and practices must also be reproduced. Moreover, this complex must be reproduced in a banally mundane way, for the world of nations is the everyday world, the familiar terrain of contemporary times" 

Michael Billig - Banal Nationalism


William said...

Do you know that quote from Alasdair MacIntyre:

“The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf… it is like being asked to die for the telephone company.”

Paul Hebron said...

I've not though - very smart way of putting it, although putting your life down for Bell Pottinger might be closer to it

There's sort of a fog of dreamwork that can be solidified into a will for action when needs be, although present at a low level all the time - some nightmarish intersection of marketing, fantasy, nostalgia, militarism, and common sense that ties up into 'patriotism.'