What is nationalism? And what on earth is “national conservatism”? A conference in Rome on Monday and Tuesday of this week set out to address the question and to do more than that. It sought, quite clearly, to further a cause.
The intellectual fuel for this movement comes from Yoram Hazony, an Israeli academic and Orthodox Jew who came to the fore two years ago thanks to his book The Virtue of Nationalism.
As is often the case with much-discussed non-fiction books, the work ended up having two functions: the first was to provide a scholarly and well-thought-through counter-blast to a prevailing orthodoxy. In recent decades there has been something like a consensus around the idea that nationalism is a problem — indeed that for states in Europe it is perhaps the problem. Hazony’s book carefully and persuasively sought to blow apart this consensus. Nationalism is a force for good, he argues, and rather than being the cause of instability is, in fact, the best prerequisite for stability.
Which brings us to the second function: to be used by those who have not read it as a weapon to beat back a prevailing wisdom.
Hazony turns out to have been at the head of a distinct intellectual wind. His book has been succeeded by a number of equally thoughtful works around the same theme, all of which help to bolster the argument. Last September, Rich Lowry, the editor of the American conservative magazine National Review, published The Case for Nationalism: How it Made Us Powerful, United and Free. And this was followed, a month later, by Return of the Strong Gods: nationalism, populism and the future of the West by RR Reno, the editor of the conservative religious journal First Things.
So why is nationalism be causing so much intellectual excitement now? The obvious explanation is that it comes after a period of liberal — indeed globalist — overreach.
During recent decades, the presumption among those in positions of power in western Europe, in particular, leant in a clear direction. This was often summed-up as the Davos worldview: the presumption that the future was inevitably one of greater integration, where states would be giving up ever-more sovereignty, borders would be less and less important, and the world presided over by a benign, internationalist, NGO-like political class. If this view has taken a battering, it is less because of the success of any intellectual counter-punch but, rather, because of events.
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The Eurozone crisis made visible what some economists had warned about for decades: it is difficult, if not impossible, to ever fully meld Greek and German fiscal habits (or in other ways to impose the behaviours of northern Europe on the continent’s south). And then there was the migration crisis of 2015, when even some of those who advocated most volubly for a borderless world began to balk at the reality of hundreds of thousands of people moving at speed into countries that could not accommodate them — and which in most cases did not want them.
These two events — among others — demonstrated that perhaps the internationalists did not quite know what they were doing. And it restored the idea that states needed to stand up for themselves and perhaps even go their own way on major issues of the day. The sentiment was in place, and had been acted on by a number of European governments, before the intellectual groundwork was laid, or re-laid.
And yet a certain odour remains around the term — an odour whose origins ought to be honestly acknowledged.
Last year, Hazony hosted a National Conservatism conference in Washington DC and the difference between the speaker line-up and content in that event, versus the one in Rome presents a demonstration of the problem which “nationalism” will always have when it moves. For while there are certainly figures in America who would wish to take nationalism to its worst possible ends, in general, American nationalism remains a reasonable and odourless political force.
America has asserted its nationalistic — and one might point out, unilateralist — tendencies under Democrat and Republican administrations. Under both parties, it has remained suspicious of those international institutions which require a giving up of sovereignty — such as the International Criminal Court. This is not to say that American nationalism could not go bad, only that it hasn’t done so in anything like a European manner.
In Europe, of course, the story is different. Contra at least one of the speakers at the conference in Rome, it is undeniable that for European countries in the previous centuries, there were at least two world-engulfing conflicts in which nationalism played a part, even if not the defining one.
It is entirely uncontroversial and true to state that nationalism led Europe to war in 1914. And while there is a get-out that the war that began in 1939 was — like its predecessor — caused not by nationalism but by German expansionism, nevertheless it is an intellectual overstretch to claim that nationalism played no role in either conflict.
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As I told the conference, in my remarks made at a sceptical distance on Tuesday, there is an answer to this. For to claim that nationalism causes conflict is to make an assertion that is far too simplistic. Nationalism can cause conflict and it can keep the peace. To that extent, it is like every other force in nature: it is able to be used for good and for ill, can lead to triumph and disaster. There is nothing unique about this.
Contra the sort of people who like to think that we can wage war for “peace” or wage campaigns against “hate” (what other human emotion will they come for next one wonders?), even love can cause wars. The Trojan Wars were caused by love; countless acts of violence are still committed each year in the name of love. To date, nobody has called for the eradication of that instinct.
But with nationalism, there is a residual sense that if only it could be eradicated, the world would not experience wars. It is a sentiment that is additionally simplistic because before Europe was wracked by the wars of nation-states, it was wracked by centuries of wars of religions — a fact the current generation might do well to remember.
In any case, the difference in the manner in which “nationalism” is heard in Europe and America is a problem worth contending with. The proximate distance in Europe between what one might regard as healthy nationalism and unhealthy nationalism is undeniably closer than it is in America. And the fall-off from a reasonable attitude towards nationalism to its ugliest elements is a cliff which European history has unarguably made vertiginous.
To me, at any rate, this is the aspect of the National Conservatism Conference which was most interesting. There have been efforts in parts of the press to pretend that the entire conference was filled with unacceptable far-Right elements and the like. Certainly some of those who were present are from parties which have far-Right pasts and other new parties who may well be a cause for concern in the present.
But to dismiss all of these — let alone figures like Chris de Muth, John O’Sullivan and Hazony himself — as somehow engaged in far-Right politicking is so ignorant as to be embarrassingly revealing of the person asserting them. The idea that a conference organised by an orthodox Jew should have been in any way anti-Semitic is ridiculous. The idea that a conference addressed by several well-known gays was homophobic is equally lazy.
But there is a reason why such anathematising occurs. Not every complainant is directed by ignorance or short-term political point-scoring. For the fact remains that across the continent of Europe there are dragons; there are movements like Casa Pound in Italy which would seem to want to replay the fascist past.
There are groups such as Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece whose members have indulged themselves in the ugliest attempts to simultaneously deny and replay the brutalities of the mid-twentieth century. Anyone concerned to keep such things in history would be motivated by the most legitimate imaginable fears.
And yet there is an over-reach happening — an over-reach caused by the cordon-sanitaire having been subtly but seriously wrongly placed. There are papers and politicians across Europe and America who look at swathes of Europe and claim them to be — and claim their governments to be – “far-Right” or otherwise unacceptable. Is everything “far-Right” once anyone says so? If there is a reason why such claims are rarely interrogated it is because there is so little reward – and some considerable risk – in carefully interrogating them.
Calling people “fascists” is easy and bestows on the accuser the instant breastplate of “anti-fascist”. But European politics is more complex than that. The simplistic analysis that believes that we are condemned perpetually to replay the 1930s and ‘40s is past usefulness and is indeed hampering any attempt to understand who to deal with across Europe. Not least because governments and parties are being called ‘far-Right’ when they are not, and whole countries and movements are being anathematised when they will — must, in fact — be partners in the years ahead.
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The principle reason why I attended the National Conservatism conference in Rome was to listen, and to work out a little further for myself the complex question of who one is comfortable with and who one is not. It is part of an ongoing research effort on my part — one in which I have been engaged for some years. All in the knowledge of one irrefutable fact.
The UK has now left the European Union. Outside of it — as inside — we will have to deal with the parties and governments who run Europe. It is simply not sustainable to expect that the only parties we can deal with are a small number of leftist and centrist parties, beyond which we should be ignorant and insulting. That isn’t to say we need to be moral relativists. Very far from it. The point of paying close attention will be to make fine but crucial judgement calls.
Which is why in the coming months I plan to use this space to write at greater length and in greater depth about this subject. A subject which is one of the most fascinating and — for the writer — perilous jobs of political analysis in town.
That is to try to sketch out what the realities on the continent of Europe actually are. Not as we are told they are by people, publications and pressure groups who have a dated and prejudiced view of the present, but what they actually are in the round. I can think of no more interesting or perilous writing role. I look forward to bringing you along with me.