Nationalism ain’t disappearing that easy, it will stay.

By Godfofai Tgiorgis
Feb. 12 2010

Whatever people have, whether small or large, do not find it enough. They have a shortage always. Such shortage does not have limit in scope. It is everything and all over. Whether it is social, political, ideal, material, etc. issues people always have “the other” to blame. When it comes to nationalism, this practice too is common. There is always the other, whether in theory or practice, which is the source of discomfort, a cause of disagreement, or a prime target for all that the other party thinks evil. Therefore, it is no wonder that G.E.Gorfu after we, in Ethiopia alone, have said so many about nationalism and did so many for or against it, brought the issue to light again.

His main argument focuses on the need to eliminate nationalism and build internationalism in its place. And the need for that arises because nationalism, first, advances chauvinism, and second, encourages separation. It does break up a union or vanquish freedom or autonomy all of which are disadvantages. Because division as opposed to unity, conflict as opposed to harmony, self grandeur as opposed to equality are its attributes, nationalism, regardless of the advantages it may have down the road, should be eliminated for good and for the betterment of the people. Doing so guarantees not only the peace and harmony of the people but also a unity on an international level.

Before I comment on whether nationalism is bad or not and whether we have to replace it with internationalism or not and how, I want to remark on the innate characteristic of nationalism. I agree with G.E. Gorfu that nationalism has innate characteristics. By that I mean, I hope he means the same also, a phenomenon that one cannot purge the thought or the acts that arise from it as one likes it because the acts are rooted in that thought which is naturally given. By naturally given, I mean not nationalism but the innate orientation that people have towards it.

There are four venues nationalism manifests. One of them is birthplace as G.E. Gorfu put it. Birthplace is not something one can choose. It is what one finds at birth. Not only that, but also the deep love and intimate attachment that people develop for that place is not, most of the time, their choice but a dictate. The unique affection that people show to their birthplace that later becomes their source of nationalism is rooted in their instinct and not the product of their after-thoughts. The mechanism of indifference is not there no matter how hard one tries not to remember and love the place of origin. The spatial attachment one develops is simply a blueprint that will stay forever in the minds and thoughts of people.

However, there are times where people subscribe to nationalism for causes other than the place they are born. For example, one would assume that, and for good, one who is born in Europe from an Ethiopian family should have the national feeling for Europe, his birthplace. As opposed to birthplace, however, blood becomes thicker on the contrary and embraces Ethiopian nationalism. This proves, therefore, factors other than birthplace are also in play.

These factors, as we will see below, have similar characteristics. All of them. They do not have defined formula. Sometimes they are material and other times, spiritual. They do not have order either; sometimes, they manifest alone and other times, in union. In short, they are circumstance dependent and arbitrary. What factor comes to play no one knows.  No one knows which issue occurs when. It just happens arbitrary.

One of these factors that gives rise to or serves as means to promote nationalism is ideology. This can be in the form of economic, language, political or social issues and applied to promote direct or indirect, local or regional autonomy, or inter or intra-state unions. It is used to implement both concepts, that is, autonomy such as regionalism and nationalism in the form of self determination or unity in the form of internationalism respectively. However different the purpose is, ideology provides the ground for nationalism to thrive and is therefore one of its best device.

Power is another. This is purely material need and does not have to be loaded with principles. A desire for more rank, land, treasure, etc., is enough to be a reason and is a dictate of human nature. Nevertheless, since bare desires such as these do not sell to the emotions of the public, the power seekers or maintainers embrace a nationalist slogan to promote or defend their private cause through the participation of the public. For people to fight stronger and by their side, they, therefore, subscribe to the group psychology of hate or love of others. The power of the group takes the form of the power of the people of a certain tribe or clan and becomes nationalism thereafter the people identify with.

Religion is also a useful instrument of nationalism. Any religious conflict can occur for this or that reason within a tribe, a region, or a nation. But there are times when this religious fight instead of staying religious soon becomes a fight between the clans, tribes, regions, or nations. The religious line turns into a sovereignty issue, a geographical line and takes the form of nationalism. It does not matter whether this conflict is within the same or different religion, whether local or across border, its fires spread within a very short period all over. All religion needs to become a nationalism issue is, therefore, some kind of, whether actual or potential, line of division that sets apart each one from the other at the local or national level.

There are times where all of the above combined also give rise to or become a source of concern and make up a nationalist addenda of a certain magnitude. The cause, instead of one, becomes many. The magnitude can be broader that promote internationalism or narrower that promote regionalism. People cannot have exact prediction for that, as said before, because it does not have order, and it does not have procedure and people do not have control over it whatsoever. Based on this we can conclude that nationalism does not and cannot always relate to or defined by a birthplace, ideology, religion, or power, etc, including time and place. What is certain is that it is always there ready to explode when it gets the momentum.

Why we do not need nationalism I have mentioned earlier. Now I will explain why we need internationalism instead which is G.E Gorfu’s main point. We need internationalism because it paves the venue to a universal peace and harmony of all people. As opposed to nationalism that stands for autonomy, internationalism stands for what people have in common, for union. It guarantees the world as one instead of the one as the world. It guarantees humanity as one instead of the one as humanity. It provides a borderless and free world with all kind of joy instead of a demarcated world with all kinds of restrictions. It is the antithesis of nationalism in principle to make the story short. The problem then is whether we need it or not but how to make it a reality.

There are two ways to build internationalism. The first is by destroying the physical boundaries. By that, I mean the total elimination of geographical and psychological boundaries. This seems what G.E. Gorfu is up to. The second, by leaving the geographical boundaries intact but eliminating the psychological boundaries. The first is a direct consequence of eliminating nationalism associated with boundaries and the second, maintaining it. I am for the second.

Physical boundaries no doubt have a great impact on the psychology of the people in developing nationalism because their impact comes naturally without the knowledge of the inhabitants. Not only that these boundaries are also responsible for nationalist movements or divisions that come later after the people established attachments to them. Therefore, to destroy the divisions that emerge as a result presupposes elimination of the physical boundaries. The assumption is that the disappearance of physical borders entails the disappearance of ethnic, racial, geographical, etc., divisions whether it is psychological or physical.

This argument, however, is not only difficult to implement but also dangerous to practice. There are two reasons as to why. First, the movement fosters hate and violence that people blame nationalism for. It attempts to build itself on and through the hatred and denunciation of nationalism of the lower (regional and national) orders. It targets concepts that are its opposites and different, often with violence, to make its victory certain. It thrives through force and on the demise of national and regional autonomy. In essence this approach practices the very idea it attempts to destroy.

Moreover and the second reason is that nationalism is irreplaceable no matter how hard one tries. There are three reasons as to why.

The problem of identity is one. People cannot live everywhere at the same time. Almost all of them cannot float here and there. Unlike the nomads, conditions dictate them to settle in one place. Whatever unity people forge or enmity they breed, although not always, therefore, becomes dependent on the identity they have gotten or taken from that place. This identity in turn calls for further identification by territory, which in turn becomes their nationalism. Following the question what is your name? follows the question where are you from?. And this identification by place in turn becomes a nationality and therefore nationalism is born.

The existence of family value and with it the identification of one by the family is the second. As far as family and family value is there, the factors that give rise to nationalism will still be there. This is because family lineage transcends to tribal, regional, and national identity over time. As far as family remains in effect, and will remain so because it is given, nationalism will have a good chance to exist. Because family is the nucleus that a clan, tribe, and nation thrive from, it will remain a hatching ground for nationalism both at local, regional, and national level.

The last but not the least factor that contributes to the continuous existence of nationalism is anger. Anger is a natural characteristic of humans and conflict too is part of that. As far as anger is in there, therefore, there is always a chance for conflicts either of location, (east/west), race (black/white), faith (Muslim/Christian), ideology (conservative/liberal), to mention few, to be there. These conflicts in turn have a potential to develop to or give birth to nationalist movements. As far as people remain prone to provocation, anger is there, and as far as anger is there, there is always a chance for conflicts to be born according to party, political, or religious lines. Nationalism too will remain a possibility by virtue of that.

We can agree in principle to the argument that the disappearance of border will lead to the disappearance of nationalism. The problem with that is however marking borders will become the immediate task of the international organ without borders. This it has to do for administrative purposes. A division of labor entails division of territory as well. What starts as administrative boundary, therefore, gradually ends up a country or a nation with its own and distinct psychological and social values including border. The seeds of nationalism are there except this time they might take a new form.

For the reasons mentioned above and others, nationalism ain't disappearing that easy, it will stay; it will avail itself, and always, even in the absence of conflict and war because the trait that hatches conflict and sectarianism stays as an attribute of humans. Destroying nationalism to substitute internationalism therefore is not an option unless one wants to travel in a vicious circle.

The question then becomes, how can we build internationalism if the traits for nationalism stay there and these traits are considered its detractors? The traits definitely are its detractors. One cannot eliminate those possibilities. And the chances are the same for both options. What favors the second method is that the danger is less compared to the first one because the second is about broadening the thinking more than the borders. This method does not call for the kind of nationalism that was and is used to break a union. Although there are some justifications for separation, this one does not subscribe to it as its end. Instead what it does is use the autonomy to maintain unity.

The internationalism I have in mind is union based. Under a union one stays autonomous but with the freedom to exercise every right in that union. The regions, nations etc run their affairs with no restriction but the union will preside over them with authority. The international authority becomes a supervising entity or a supreme guardian of the affairs of its member nations and nationalities. The people get the respect and right they deserve everywhere and whenever. A borderless right in a bordered world becomes the underlying principle. A broader mind only becomes the precondition.

The immediate picture one gets from this assertion is the similarity it has with the United Nations, the European Union, the African union, etc. which never seems working. The structure is very much the same no doubt. It is the union of the people through the union of the nations. The difference will be only in the way that union, the international body, operates. By that I mean, the way the supreme body governs the nations and the way these nations govern the affairs of the people, world citizens. It also matters how the participants are dedicated to the union and its laws.

The idea of the union is by no means opposed to the existence of nations with their defined name and border. It strengthens internationalism by maintaining the autonomy of nations than by eliminating it. It does not treat nationalism as a threat to implement internationalism because nationalism is not bad by itself and in itself. Asking for one’s right and share through nationalism is not a problem by itself. Asking recognition of what one is and who one is by means of autonomy is not bad either. The bad is always in the excess and therefore the badness of nationalism lies nowhere else than in the excess. What people need to fight then is this excess.

Nationalism is, in its true sense, more of asking what one deserves. It is of implementation of common values, justice, equality, etc, than of creating conflicts, and promoting isolations, etc. Nationalism is not about shattering confidence and unity that people value high and feel secured in but asserting it in full text. It is about sharing values that everyone holds dear. Therefore, it is pivotal and the best tool to implement internationalism because it enables create a borderless border where everyone belongs to the one as much as the one belongs to everyone with full guarantee of rights.

As to how we could build internationalism through the use of nationalism there is no specific method available. However, off the counter prescription I can imagine is education. Ignorance is a fodder to bad nationalism because it dances with and to the tunes of hatred immensely and easily. With education, however, it is possible to change the attitude of people and make them realize the hazards of isolation. Education of course is neither a guarantee nor an exclusive cure. We have seen the educated who profess to lead, themselves, in many instances, igniting the fires. All one can hope with education is, therefore, that it coincides with necessity and be able to change the course of nationalism to internationalism by changing people’s views to that which respects differences, values and dignity.

Whether with or without education one thing is evident. A unitary approach to Internationalism as implied in G.E Gorfu’s article is not going to work because it is impossible to erase the traits that call for individualism and identity once and for all.  Not only that, people will still cling to their security, which is individualism, and will not give up that privilege easily. They can compromise for what is beyond but not their yard. Yes the union is prone to serve the interest of the narrow regionalists and separatists but people can prevent that using education as a tool and erecting an effective administration.

Related article, check What is Nationalism? by G.E.Gorfu