Misconceptions never die. Case in point, the nationalism and Marxism that ravaged the 19th and 20th centuries have, like vampires, arisen to terrorize us once again. The fall of the Soviet regime seemed to drive a stake through the heart of Marxism, but it has remained the Chinese government’s official doctrine, spruced up by Xi Jinping, the president most committed to this ideology since Mao Zedong. Without having any anchor in reality, and despite being refuted every time it is applied, Marxism continues to haunt universities and economic thought, as proven by the success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. As long as it remains confined to mysterious tomes and firmly within campus boundaries, this Marxism will not affect Western societies. The same cannot be said for nationalism, which, as history reminds us, is ideologically symmetrical to Marxism. Nationalism is founded on the pseudo-science of ethnicity, the supposed community of common destiny, the negation of personal responsibility and the boorish refusal of how the economy truly functions.
And among all the misconceptions currently doing the rounds on the political market, nationalism is in the lead. We only have to count its triumphs: the Front National’s position as the most popular French party following regional elections on December 6, 2015, the electoral victory of the ultranationalist, delirious Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland, the xenophobia-guided, quasi-totalitarian populism of Viktor Orban in Hungary, the resurrection of nationalism in Catalonia and Scotland, the rise of nationalist parties in Switzerland (Swiss People’s Party), Norway (Progress Party), Italy (North League), and the Netherlands (Party for Freedom). As for Russia, Vladimir Putin increasingly stokes populist frenzy as the economy declines. And Donald Trump, although seen as a clown by rational critics, refuses to leave quietly. Exalting a non-existent American race, the more he spouts his xenophobic rhetoric, the more popular he becomes. These leaders, or perhaps Duce–so as not to say Führer–are alike and united, all identifying with one another. Marine Le Pen likes Putin, Kaczynski sees a model in Orban, and Trump sees Putin as a pal and someone to do business with.
They all use democracy as a stepping stone to power, but not as a form of respect for the opposition, for political changeovers or for difference. They all believe that earth, blood and the dead forge a nation; those who think a nation should be a willing, contractual agreement are denounced as traitors. All populist leaders share a hatred for the Other, whether those supposedly about to cross the borders or the enemy within. In the past it was the Jews, and today it is the Muslims or any other foreigners who can serve as a scapegoat for national woes. They also all have strangely similar yet incoherent economic policies under the banner of economic nationalism, which in its refusal to allow any exchange between peoples would take us back to the Middle Ages.
Should we panic? As we have seen, these parties are incoherent, and in fact our populations are diverse and the economy globalized. But we should be concerned by the damage this nationalistic rhetoric inflicts upon common sense. We know that when a Duce comes to power, they do not necessarily become reasonable. They implement their policies and, based on the damage caused, blame the Other for their failure. While it is unlikely that Marine Le Pen or Donald Trump will ever become Head of State, Orban and Putin already have, and they are destroying their respective societies.
We should ask ourselves why the nationalistic vampire has arisen at the very moment we thought it was dead, vanquished by Europe, economic globalization, tolerance and the melting pot of ethnicities and ideas. There is no one explanation, nor one key to open every door, but rather a convergence of phenomena which together have revived the monster.
At the risk of surprising readers, I would put forward the disappearance of the Christian religion as a first reason. Christianity imposed rituals for collective existence, charitable morals and occupied the mind. I see nationalism as a substitute for religion. It has created another community, not one of believers, but the more archaic concept of a tribe. Nationalistic leaders are tribal chiefs, but mythical ones, of course. As Edgar Morin says, “Myths are real objects created by the human mind, but which then take hold of it.” Other more economically-minded critics believe nationalism everywhere is brought on by economic stagnation, during which the real or supposed fear of poverty, redundancy and the inability to find employment leads people to seek out a savior offering simpler ideas than those suggested by market economy theorists, and to target a scapegoat as the source of all their personal and collective ills.
How should we reply to nationalists? The worst response by far is refusal: “They shall not pass!” In some countries it is already too late. Others such as France, the United States, Norway, Catalonia and the Netherlands are currently seeing this refusal feed the tribal leaders’ positions. It also seems ridiculous to use myths to battle other myths, such as pitting the French government’s religion of secularism against populism.
We should instead launch a self-critical debate on the weaknesses of the non-populist agenda, both in the left-wing and right-wing parties. The insanity of European politics preached by mediocre politicians is one of the core reasons for the resurrection of national tribalism in Europe. The economic foolishness of the ruling political class in France–both left and right–is a major cause of French national decline. The elitist leaders of both the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States have paved the way for an idiotic discourse which is nevertheless accessible to all–enter Donald Trump. Nationalism rises from the ashes because it is immortal (and perhaps genetic), but its prosperity is directly linked to the mediocrity of its opponents. Condemning nationalism is futile; only serious self-criticism can succeed in sending the vampire back to its coffin.
Article published in the January 2016 issue of France-Amérique.