In his short story, The Bust of the Emperor, the Austrian literary journalist and novelist Joseph Roth commented on the rise of nationalism in the last years of the Habsburg Empire:
“Everyone aligned themselves — whether they wanted to, or merely pretended to want to — with one or other of the many peoples there used to be in the old monarchy. For it had been discovered in the course of the nineteenth century that every individual had to belong to a particular race or nation, if he wanted to be a fully rounded bourgeois individual… All those people who had never been other than Austrians … now began to call themselves part of the Polish, the Czech, the Ukrainian, the Slovenian, the Croatian ‘nation’ — and so on.”
Born in 1894 into a Galician Jewish family and growing up to be a Left-leaning liberal journalist, Roth came to regard the empire of Franz Joseph as the embodiment of a civilised order. Its replacement by self-determining nation-states would not enable individuals to live more freely. Instead, there would be anarchy, a struggle for power and an era of barbaric dictatorship. Writing to Stefan Zweig in 1933, he warned: “We are drifting to great catastrophes … I won’t bet a penny on our lives.”
Roth understood the dangers of identity politics long before the term was invented. What he grasped is not only that societies that secure personal freedom are easily broken. There is an inherent instability in the liberal project that promotes the freedom to shape your own identity as you please.
With all of its faults — including a virulently anti-Semitic mayor in fin-de-siècle Vienna — the Austro-Hungarian Empire allowed its subjects to live with one another without having to define themselves as belonging in any particular group. It was not the Great War alone that killed off the Habsburg realm. Its collapse illustrated a self-defeating logic in liberalism. The pursuit of national self-determination in the disintegrating empire — aided and abetted by the US President, Woodrow Wilson — revealed a fatal contradiction in the liberal understanding of human identity.
For liberals, human beings fashion their identities according to how they choose to think of themselves. Any attempt to obstruct this choice is an assault on freedom. But as Roth knew all too well, human identity is not a unilateral act of self-assertion. It requires recognition by others, and this is a process fraught with difficulties. Not only is recognition sometimes denied — as when demands for nationhood are rejected by existing states. Worse, people find projected onto them identities they do not themselves recognise.
Defining yourself as part of the Polish, Czech or Ukrainian “nation” doesn’t only exclude being a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It means you don’t belong in any of the other nations either. Electing to have an identity for yourself inescapably entails attributing a different identity from other people. Having one’s identity defined by others is rarely auspicious, and during the 20th century was often lethal. What is choice for some, is fate for others.
As a person of Jewish origins, Roth was acutely sensitive to these dangers. Unlike others in the Habsburg realm, Jews had no territory they could claim as their own. They were a minority in every aspirant nation, and their future was uncertain. Did being Polish or Ukrainian include or exclude being Jewish? Could Jews assimilate in the new nations, or would they be at best second-class citizens? In interwar Europe, these were existential questions for millions of people. Not only Jews but also other minorities found themselves straddling newly created states. Where non-ethnic, civic conceptions of national identity existed they proved unsustainable in the conflicts that followed.
The contradictions of liberal autonomy have returned a hundred years later in the EU. Liberals regard the rise of nationalism in the EU as a reversion to what they see as the tribalism of the interwar period. But this is at best a half-truth. As Roth observed, European national identities originated as expressions of bourgeois individualism — the self-assertion of those who believe they have fashioned a self that transcends local communities and archaic allegiances to monarchs and emperors. The end-result of the attempt to actualise this imagined self was violent conflict on a large scale.
The European project is an attempt to construct a polity that transcends the national identities of the last century. The trouble is, this is in effect another kind of nationalism, one that cannot be reconciled with democracy. For all their human costs, the nation-states forged in Europe in the 20th century did eventually become vehicles of democratic government. A few multi-national states — the UK and Spain, for example — are functioning democracies, but they are relics of empire and monarchy. Cosmopolitanism has survived better in these archaic, mini-Habsburg realms than in many modern nation-states. Nothing like democracy has been achieved in the EU, or anywhere else, at a transnational level.
The EU is an attempt to create a state for a nation that does not exist. Like nationalism it is an expression of bourgeois values, but its political base is smaller. Aside from the Brussels elite, it consists of employees of highly mobile corporates, the woke intelligentsia and sections of the middle classes. In David Goodhart’s typology, these are all Anywheres. The rise of national populism in Europe is largely a reaction against the attempt by these groups to create a European identity that majorities in existing nations do not recognise.
If the project of nationhood in the late Habsburg Empire eventuated in the ethnic conflicts of the interwar period, the European project of a transnational polity has created the identitarian movement today. Most clearly articulated in Italy, where it occupies a political space opened up by Matteo Salvini’s Liga, identitarianism claims to represent groups that are being marginalised by the EU. Some identitarians deny being nationalists, arguing that the nation-states constructed in the 19th and 20th centuries repressed local and regional cultures.
Actually, identitarian movements have close links with far-Right national governments and parties. Their ideas are echoed by Victor Orban in Hungary, the Austrian Freedom Party, AfD in Germany and Vox in Spain. Identitarianism is a pan-European movement, with outreach in many countries (including Australia and New Zealand) facilitated through the internet. It has succeeded in attracting significant support among young people — “Generation Identity”, as they call themselves.
In practice, identitarianism is principally a movement hostile to Muslim immigrants. Beguiled by the French sociologist Renaud Camus’s fantasy of a “great replacement” in which native Europeans are being “colonised” by a new population of non-Europeans, identitarian groups aim to reassert Europe’s Christian heritage, including traditional forms of marriage. All have undercurrents of anti-Semitism.
Movements like this are not unfamiliar in post-war Europe. The far Right did not disappear along with Nazism and fascism, but carried on in a variety of guises in Italy, France, Germany and other countries. What needs to be explained is why these forces have extended their political reach over the past decade, and now find expression in identitarianism.
Part of the explanation is the rise within liberalism of a parallel current of identitarian thinking. Both in Europe and the US, the liberal project has shifted from aiming to enable peaceful coexistence among individuals and groups with divergent identities to one that seeks hegemony for a single kind of identity—that of the autonomous, self-fashioning individual. One may think, as I do, that autonomy is an illusion that can never be embodied in human flesh. But illusions may have great power, and one of the consequences of pursuing them is to intensify opposition to the unrealisable goals you are trying to achieve. What is commonly called populism is in large measure a reaction against an attempt to impose a liberal identity on people who demand respect for the identities they already possess.
A mark of the identitarian liberal is the belief that the autonomous individual is what all human beings truly want to be. Anyone who wants to be anything else is irrational or otherwise deplorable. Liberals who define themselves as autonomous beings cannot help defining others as lacking in what they believe to be the most important attribute of humankind. Liberalism then becomes the project of enabling the mass of semi-humans to catch up with those in whom the quintessence of humanity has been revealed. Obviously, this kind of liberalism offers no escape from the toxic politics of identity.
The abuse heaped on more than 17 million Brexit supporters in the UK and 60-odd million Trump voters in America by liberal exemplars of universal humanity is telling. Liberals who insult their fellow citizens in this way see themselves as promoting universal human solidarity, but liberalism of this kind is necessarily a pose struck by a few. The American writer Adam Gopnik’s book A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism illustrates this point. Much of it consists of a eulogy of life in Manhattan. “Self-organising liberals” have created communities that reflect their values in the affluent East Side neighbourhood where Gopnik lives, in Greenwich Village and Cape Cod. Without enclaves like these, he tells us, American liberalism would be inconceivable. If those who subsist in the intercoastal badlands appear at all in this story, it is as examples of underdevelopment.
Rightly, Gopnik identifies John Stuart Mill’s as one of the inspirations for this sort of liberalism. But he seems not to see how it has contributed to the current condition of American politics. Mill’s conception of individuality is a prototype for the intolerant missionary zeal that drives woke warriors in universities, the media and the social justice movement. Polarised between censorious elites and insurgent populism, the US is more ravaged by identity politics than any other advanced country. American liberalism is rapidly unravelling.
The autonomous individual is a fragile construction. In metaphysical terms, it is a pale shadow of the soul as imagined in monotheism — a spectral entity, possessed of a mysterious freedom of will that cannot be empirically explained. In historical terms, the autonomous self is a by-product of a liberal form of life that is passing away. Though liberals continue to tell themselves a Mill-like story in which the rest of the species is slowly catching up with them, their hysterical response to their recent political defeats suggests they secretly suspect their day is over.
Liberalism began in wars of religion as an attempt to achieve peaceful coexistence among communities that defined themselves by reference to rival systems of belief. A 21st-century successor to liberalism would enable devotees of individual autonomy to inhabit the same society as people who define themselves by other values — inherited codes of conduct of settled communities, revealed religions or noncommittal pragmatism, for example. Basic freedoms would allow people to move from one identity to another, but there would be no attempt to convert everyone to a life of self-fashioning autonomy.
Even if it were possible, a universal Greenwich Village is not self-evidently the most desirable political ideal. A world that contained and protected many different identities would be more interesting and more worth living in. Of course, achieving anything like this is an almost impossibly daunting task. But it is unavoidable if we are not to share Roth’s despairing conclusion that murderous collisions between identities will shape the human future.