The national flag is flying around the world

Can nationalism be harnessed for good? – THE ECONOMIST Review

A book excerpt and interview with Yael Tamir, president of Shenkar College in Israel and a former politician.


BY THE end of the 20th century nationalism seemed like an anachronism. Today it is back with a fury. Yael Tamir, an Israeli political scientist and former politician and activist, believes the left should reclaim it—and use it.

In the 1970s Ms Tamir helped found the “Peace Now” movement in Israel, which advocates for peace talks between Israel and its neighbours. She later studied political philosophy under Isaiah Berlin at Oxford University. A Labour legislator in the Knesset from 2003 to 2010, she also served as a minister of education and immigration.

In her first book, “Liberal Nationalism”, published in 1993, she argued—against a rising tide of globalisation—that nationalism still had a role to play and that it can complement liberalism. In her most recent book, “Why Nationalism”, Ms Tamir develops this idea in a very different world. She believes that nationalism should be redirected towards progressive ends, like producing cross-class coalitions and sharing the benefits of growth more equitably.

As part of our Open Future initiative, we pressed Ms Tamir on whether it was possible to adopt nationalism without fomenting its more toxic expressions, such as racism. We also questioned whether strengthening national sovereignty meant forfeiting the economic and political benefits of the international order. Her replies are followed by an excerpt from the book. 

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The Economist: Your book makes a case for re-embracing nationalism. How do you define nationalism and what set of ideas do you associate with it?

Yael Tamir: Nationalism is closely related to the idea of the sovereignty of the people and, consequently, with the emergence of modern democratic states. Its starting point is that respect for one’s national identity is an important aspect of human dignity, and that the role of political institutions is to protect and nurture this identity. Cherishing the national culture and values, nationalism need not hold them superior. As with other relationships grounded in belonging, caring about the wellbeing of a particular person or a group is a reflection of an attachment rather than of an objective ranking. Unlike fanatic forms of nationalism that place the nation above all, liberal forms of nationalism celebrate authenticity rather than superiority. 

The Economist: A central part of your argument turns on the historical role that the nation-state played as a cornerstone of modernisation, democratisation and the development of public goods, such as universal public education. How did globalism disrupt these developments, and why do you think nationalism still has a constructive role to play?

Ms Tamir: As Thomas Piketty argues, the nation-state allowed for the development of the “social state” that provided universal services which are free and public. It educated its citizens, opened up new professional opportunities, eased social mobility and strengthened bonds of solidarity. The new wave of neo-liberal globalism changed the order of priorities. National assets—such as the national language, cultural know-how, local attachments and social cohesion—turned into a burden. Success became dependent on adaptability and mobility, on being less attached and committed to one’s compatriots and more focused on one’s personal well-being. No wonder public services are undergoing a continuous crisis. A revival of the cross-class coalition characteristic of the nation-state is necessary if we are to promote a more just social order, undoing some of the injustices that globalism has caused.

The Economist: Nationalism is closely associated with some of the worst atrocities in the 20th century. Can one really contain nationalism’s violent furies, in the attempt to harness the benefits that you attribute to it? If not, is the trade-off worth it?

Ms Tamir: Nazism, Fascism and Marxism taught us that ideologies can cause harm when taken to their logical conclusions. Compromises and middle of the road solutions are less common and not very popular these days. The emergence of extreme forms of nationalism, affiliated with xenophobia, racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism, shows how easy it is to cross moral lines. Brutal neoliberalism and xenophobic nationalism are an expression of valuable ideas gone astray. In order to overcome the present crisis both nationalism and liberalism must be restrained and balanced against each other in order to produce a kinder type of liberalism, a liberalism for the people, that may mellow some of the fears that breed extreme types of nationalism and help rewrite a new deal that nurtures concern for the common good. As The Economist manifesto righty declared (see article), the present state of affairs demands that liberals “stop sneering at nationalism but claim it for themselves.”

The Economist: Is it possible to have a nationalism that allows for deep multilateral co-operation (like NATO) or supranational institutions (like the EU) without fostering resentments, like those which gave rise to Brexit?

Ms Tamir: Historically and theoretically, international institutions as well as regional organisations were erected to ease collaboration between nation-states. The League of Nations, the United Nations, the European Community, like many other international organisations from FIFA to Eurovision were all established to set the rules of partnership and competition. When, like in the case of Brexit, the collaboration is taken to be more of a burden than an asset, a desire to redraw the rules of association emerges. As the present negotiations demonstrate, Brexit supporters do not challenge the need for cross-national co-operation but would like to restructure them in ways that prioritise self-rule. “Isolationist nationalism”—the kind of nationalism that turns its back to the world—is the exception, not the rule.

The Economist: You write: “With the spread of globalism and neoliberalism, the powers newly acquired by citizens were becoming more and more vacuous and less applicable in everyday life.” This is a common talking point among hardline nationalists, in Europe and elsewhere. But can you cite examples of specific decisions that have been taken away from citizens? Which of these would you restore (avoiding somewhat vague terms like “sovereignty”)? Is this possible to do without harming free trade, or international collaboration on issues like climate change?

Ms Tamir: Citizens are losing power to international corporations (like Facebook and Amazon), international organisations (like the World Bank and OECD) and regional treaties and agreements (like the EU and NAFTA), which, in different ways, make individuals much less able to exert control over their lives. Recent protests demonstrate the popular desire to be able to say “no”. Such was the Greek rebellion against austerity policies dictated by the European Central Bank or immigration policies defined by the European Union. 

On a different note, the struggle to prevent Amazon from getting $3bn in incentives from New York City is also an attempt to restrict the power of mega-companies that master communication tools, set the rules of privacy and take away the economic and political power of local businesses and organisations. We are then entering a new era in which the interests of “the people down the road” are tipping the scale, prioritising the local over the global. What is needed, argues the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik, is to employ the economic tools necessary (including trade restrictions) in order to maintain the domestic social contract and ensure “inclusive prosperity”.

On ecological issues, individual nation-states cannot, by themselves, face challenges like global warming or clean air. Yet it would be wrong to conclude that this attests to their redundancy. Global crises cannot be dealt with without an ongoing collaboration between stable and successful states. “Peaceful, prosperous and liberal countries such as Sweden, Germany and Switzerland all enjoy a strong sense of nationalism,” notes the historian Yuval Noah Harari. “The list of countries lacking robust national bonds includes Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo and most other failed states.”

According to this description, a strong sense of nationality is a necessary component of international collaboration. This does not mean that states will not try to bargain, to maximise their benefits and minimise the costs. Existing international or regional organisations (like the World Bank, the OECD or the EU) are often blamed for serving the interests of powerful nations while ignoring the needs of weaker ones. Giving smaller nations the power to voice their preferences may create a world that is better governed.

The Economist: You’re from Israel, a country that is in some ways a global outlier: small, basically cohesive (within its Jewish population) and comparably rich. Does that colour your positive view of nationalism? How do your ideas apply to nations with different characteristics, like China, America, Congo or Myanmar?

Ms Tamir: Undoubtedly, my background influences my thinking. People used to assume that the whole world was moving to a post-national era and Israeli nationalism was an exception: the present wave of national revival shows that this is not the case. Global neoliberalism could not offer a viable political alternative. It left unanswered the most basic human ambitions: to be autonomous and self-governing, to belong, to live a meaningful life, to be part of a creative community, to be proud, to enjoy a feeling (or an illusion) of stability and cross-generational continuity. By ignoring these needs, globalism missed the human point. It is not surprising that out of the present crisis, nationalism emerges as a winner.  

The situation in non-Western parts of the world varies. In these parts of the world, globalism helped build a new, educated middle class that is now reshaping the political landscape. Nationalism interacts with traditional political practices, reflecting the local cultural and traditional and political structures. In tribal societies (like many African states) nationalism is likely to follow tribal lines; in authoritarian societies (like China) it is likely to reflect the centrist political tradition. Consequently, in countries that have no liberal or democratic tradition the emergence of liberal nationalism or other forms of liberalism is unlikely.

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Liberal Nationalism
Excerpt from “Why Nationalism?” (Princeton University Press, 2019) by Yael Tamir:

Globalism failed to replace nationalism because it couldn’t offer a political agenda that meets the most basic needs of modern individuals: the desire to be autonomous and self-governing agents, the will to live a meaningful life that stretches beyond the self, the need to belong, the desire to be part of a creative community, to feel special, find a place in the chain of being, and to enjoy a sense (or the illusion) of stability and cross-generational continuity.

Those who believed that post-industrial, postmodern societies would promote the development of new political structures grounded in a division of labour between different spheres of human life—economic globalism, local culturalism, and regional democracies—have a reason to be disappointed. […] These kinds of solutions are too open and discontinuous to allow a welfare democracy to work. Two decades of hyperglobalism taught us four important lessons:

a. A divorce between markets and political systems works against the worst off, leaving them exposed to higher risks and fewer opportunities. It leads to growing social and economic gaps and allows the 1 percent to drift further and further away from the 99 percent. The middle classes, losing their social holding and social status, join the lower classes in nurturing a deep sense of social and economic pessimism. Society disintegrates, spreading a sense of alienation and anomie.

b. The distance between local, regional, and global decision- making processes deepens the democratic deficit. The growing power of mega global corporations and international institutions ridicules the democratic aspiration of individuals to be “the authors of their lives.” Helplessness, pessimism, and social passivity spread.

c. Feelings of frustration and despair intensify political distrust and deepen social schisms. Society turns from a locus of cooperation into a battlefield.

d. The separation of culture and politics leaves cultures open to economic exploitation and states void of a creative mission. 

In his book “If Venice Dies?”, Salvatore Settis argues that cities die in different ways: they could be destroyed or captured by a powerful enemy or they could be taken captive by capitalism. The commercialization and globalization of cities means they are losing their souls, tempted to produce cheap replicas rather than original cultural products. Their inhabitants become foreigners in their own land, often choosing to go elsewhere. The city is emptied of permanent residences and falls prey to the momentary passions of passers-by. Similar processes happen to states that turn into faint replicas of what they used to be; no wonder there is a growing desire to bring back some of the normative, economic, political, and cultural values lost in the age of hyperglobalism.

Nationalism is called back as a content provider, but its return is far from innocent, it opens up a Pandora’s box that hosts fears from the past as well as present-day anxieties. There are then no easy choices. Meaningful communities are, by their very nature, appealing to some and exclusionary for others. One the most important lessons of the present crisis is that inclusion, not exclusion, has its costs.

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle teaches us that we must sacrifice either the accuracy of measuring the momentum of a particle or its position. Similarly, we must acknowledge that either the meaningfulness and internal cohesiveness of community or its openness must be sacrificed as we cannot have them both. A cultural version of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle may suggest the following:

One cannot create communities that are both meaningful and entirely open: the more meaningful a community is to its members the more exclusive it would be to all others.

Acknowledging that some sacrifices must be made in order to allow democratic states the ability to be politically and culturally engaging is an important political lesson. Ignoring it seems self-serving. As Ivan Krastev argues, the inability and the unwillingness of liberal elites to acknowledge and discuss the destabilizing force of diversity and migration and contend with their consequences, “and the insistence that existing policies are always positive sum (win-win), are what make liberalism for so much synonymous with hypocrisy.” The revolt against liberal idealism is fundamentally reshaping Europe’s (as well as America’s) political landscape.

Or maybe it’s not hypocrisy but part of the liberal illusion, well grounded in the Enlightenment, that all good things go hand in hand. It is natural to wish that all valuable social processes will support each other, that pluralism and democracy will be reinforcing, openness and commitment will go hand in hand, while fairness and care will lead to the same social solutions. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Quite often they lead in conflicting directions. As a result we are forced to make difficult choices.

A common means of avoiding the moral conflicts raised by a clash of ideologies, of making nationalism more palatable and less threatening to liberals and democrats, is painting nationalism in a civic light, offering a nationalism that is free of all exclusionary aspects, grounded in citizenship and void of all exclusionary features. Is this kind of nationalism viable?

The longing for a civic nationalism that annuls the role of culture, language, religion, ethnicity, or race—and therefore never leads to exclusion or xenophobia—is understandable, but it has little to rely on. It takes us back to the early days of identity politics (the late 1980s) and forces us to revisit the complex interplay among politics, culture, and identity. In the first round, identity politics voiced the complaint of members of minority groups against the liberal vision of the neutral state. It forced the majority to acknowledge that cultural, national, and linguistic affiliations determine not only who we are but also what we get. Progressives became sympathetic to these arguments, and identity politics turned into a major ideological pillar of twenty-first-century liberalism. In order to remedy identity biases, minorities demanded the reshaping of the public sphere, making space for their own particular identities. Diversification became the liberal war cry.

Today, protests regarding the identity of the public sphere are raised again—this time by the less well-off members of the majority, claiming diversity went too far, ripping from them their social, cultural, and political status. The liberal response is dismissive. The dismissal of identity demands raised by members of the majority has more to it than just a refusal to allow the privileged to retain power—it reflects the disinterest of the elites in their own national identity.

An inclusive image of the public sphere paints it in an ideal light that wishes to make conflicts go away. Idealistic descriptions are dangerous as they can easily lead to misguided expectations and harmful policies. Worse still, presenting an ideal as a reflection of reality creates the impression that the desired change has already happened (or is happening) and fosters the illusion that nothing much needs to be done, or at least that things are under control, going the right way.