Interview #35 — Notes from the third nationalist wave

In this interview, Sivamohan Valluvan explores the current wave of nationalism. Valluvan argues that Trump, Bolsonaro and Orban capitalized on the mainstreaming of nationalist ideas that started with moderate predecessors declaring the ‘death of multiculturalism’ such as Sarkozy, Merkel and Cameron. We then explore many topics and examine a variety of examples, including Brexit, authoritarian populism, Denmark, Thatcherism, and common misunderstandings about the links between working-class and nationalism.

His new book, “The Clamour of Nationalism” is an excellent read, and lately it has been mentioned in a very interesting article concerning the debate on how Europe intends  to “protect the European way of life”.

Enjoy the read.

POP) You claim that Europe is in the midst of a third nationalist movement. Which were the other two, and what are the common elements of these nationalist waves?

the clamour of nationalismSivamohan Valluvan) The two instances I mentioned in the book were: first, the era of Romantic expressionism as tied to the nation-making projects of the early 19th century, culminating perhaps in the Spring of Nations of 1848; and second, the early 20th century era of protectionist mercantilism as suffused by capitalist instability and fading imperial authority that yielded economic havoc, fascism, two world wars, and the not entirely unrelated crafting of the welfare-state contract.

I confess that it is likely a fool’s errand to attempt any such definitive historical thesis. These two examples are however useful to present a kind of historical generalization that illustrates what I mean by nationalism. It is important to disentangle the daily practices by which notions of nation are invoked from the more distinctly political remit of what is meant by nationalism. In other words, nationalism is not simply the broader prevalence of the nation idea as it ticks along in the crafting of political belonging. It is instead, as a baseline political logic, about those noteworthy historical instances by which the polity that imagines itself as a nation becomes overwrought with anxiety by the various threats ascribed to those significant communities and entities who are construed at that moment as being outside of the nation. In short, contrary to what some would have us believe, nationalism is hardly a benign political calling restricted to the show of solidarity and fellow feeling.  But instead, it is a matter of becoming chronically convulsed by the dangers allegedly posed by the nation’s ‘constitutive outsides’ – being convulsed by the pathologies ascribed to those racial Others and/or external forces/entities (e.g. the EU) against whom the nation finds meaningful definition.

In this sense, I think first of the European nation-making projects of the Romantic era which sealed the individual-community schema central to modernity. Remember that, ideationally, Romanticism is equally constitutive of modernity as the more frequently cited Enlightenment. Indeed, Romanticism marks a certain kind of counter-Enlightenment drive, railing against the cold and aloof appeal of so called reason and the abstract sanctity of the individual.  Against this, via the idea of nation, Romanticism recuperates an emphasis on historical spirit, collective belonging, cultural essences, and even a ‘restaging of the sacred’. As was noted cuttingly by Arendt, via Edmund Burke, the eminently conservative debunker of French Revolutionary hubris, ‘the world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human’. This is herein the historical moment where the ‘freedoms of man’ being putatively championed by Enlightenment modernity became, in practice, the freedom of the nation and its normative subject/majority.


The battle for the Sampo (also known as the battle for the soul of Finland). By Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1896).

The second period frequently cited in the literature is the early 20th century and its period of intense domestic protectionism and complementary aggrandizing scramble for colonial resources. This period’s nationalism, riven by frenzied imperial competition and intensifying antisemitism in particular, is typically accounted for as constituting a response to capitalist crisis – understood in some perhaps dated analytic models as the crisis borne out of the monopoly tendency of capital and the respective national bourgeoisies’ attempts to safeguard their own interests (both domestic and colonial). There is of course much more at play, but the underlying premise is perhaps of an economistic bent regarding capitalist imperatives whilst the earlier Romanticist rendition is of a more cultural and ideational thrust.

It is herein an integrated reading of the two periods that allows me to develop a workable definition of nationalism as pertinent to today’s politics. Insofar as, our prevailing conceptions of political community, when still wedded to Romanticist workings of nation and outsider – which are necessarily construed along ethnic and racial terms – and when operating concurrently against a backdrop of intense capitalist crisis, can yield particularly over-determined nationalist moments. In other words, the moment we inhabit today.

I also want to restate that my bracketing of these historical periods is only meant to concern nationalisms as developed within Europe in its distinctly provincial sense (and even then, only western/central Europe in any real substantive manner). As someone who teaches postcolonial theory and also as someone from Sri Lanka, it would be so gallingly erroneous, not to say arrogant, to put forth the above two moments as somehow conceptually exhaustive of all nationalist intensities elsewhere.  We can think, for instance, of the different national liberation decolonization movements as they appear in different geographic clusters or we can think of the nation-state projects that took such notorious shape in the aftermath of the Soviet’s dissolution. As many have requested, it is vital that such distinctive nationalist histories are afforded the (still critical) analytic autonomy that they warrant.

POP) Today, when we think about nationalism, we look at countries such as Hungary, Brazil, and the US, where nationalism is extreme and aggressive. But what was the impact of moderate centre-right figures such as Cameron, Merkel, and Sarkozy? Is it possible to claim that they paved the way for the current nationalist trend through a normalization of anti-multiculturalism?

SV) I am heartened that you say this. These figures, and their equivalents elsewhere, were indeed pivotal and it is vital that their role is properly acknowledged, lest we misunderstand the wider forces underpinning today’s nationalist capture. There is a danger that today’s rather hollow centrist agonizing about the consolidation of nationalism outsources the malaise, conveniently and wrongly, to formally far-right/new right parties. Such a subterfuge absolves the much more significant political players, and attendant media and think-tank cultures, that incubated the nationalist closure. Such naiveté also renders us overly fixated on only a very extreme expression of nationalist violence; when, in fact, the broader demagogueries, border violence, and recourse towards more exclusive conceptions of national identity are all much more efficiently embedded within seemingly more civil and ‘commonsensical’ political discourse.

For instance, as you say, the broader rhetorical turn during the 2000s against multiculturalism (not unproblematic itself, but for other anti-racist reasons) acted as a proxy stage upon which to circulate a number of alarms about racialised minorities and migrant outsiders. This included the toxic scaremongering around Muslims as tied to a ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis sponsored initially by neoconservatives and intensified by the securitizing logics of the ‘war-on-terror’ turn. It included the formalization of a consensus on immigration as constituting an unmitigated ill. And it included an emergent premise that a ‘white working class’ had been neglected amidst the ‘political correct’ favor given to minorities. It included, in sum, the normalization of a series of tropes central to nationalism’s now immanent status.


It seems so long ago. See article here.

In this context, it is eminently right that you mention Cameron, Merkel and Sarkozy. The synchronized ‘death of multiculturalism’ pronouncements by these leading politicians of the time tell us much about the political expediency of adopting such a position. (The positions staked by Merkel later on during the ongoing ‘refugee crisis’ would likely require a different, more measured reading). It was during this period that such a ‘crisis of multiculturalism’ conceit, alongside opportunist gambles with an anti-EU politics, had become wholly decisive to the electoral advantage of many centre-right parties. I think the neoliberal agendas championed by such parties never quite enjoyed the popular hegemonic status that they would have us believe. Instead, it was their parallel ability to harness such a politics to emergent nationalist spirits, as animated by various racial demons, that better explained the ability of centre-right governments to storm Western European parliaments across the 2000s/2010s.

I also want to say that the distinction between centre-right and centre-left is in this context often redundant. To take one such laughably dispiriting moment, it is telling that the nostrum offered by Hillary Clinton for stemming the tide of far-right gains is to simply puppet their anti-immigration stance! Closer to home, it is often forgotten that all the sham hectoring around integration of the Blair governments, aided by sycophantic organs such as the Trevor Phillips-led EHRC and the David Goodhart edited Prospect, was actually normalizing a crude nationalist premise. This being the premise that minority communities (not least Muslims) in the nation’s midst carry with them an alien culture harmful to the body politic and unless reconstituted, through coercive ‘integration’, they then threaten to undo the nation’s coherence. Also implicit here is the contention that a superseding national identity, where the white British denizen is the default subject, must be given primacy. The play to integration/anti-multiculturalism was, in other words, the seemingly polite edge of a broader assumption that is vital to nationalist politics – i.e. the Other constitutes a unique problem in urgent need of ameliorative redress, expunging and/or fortification against.

they will drown etcIt would be remiss of me, given my own background in Scandinavia, not to mention here recent events in Denmark – which remains an ever-reliable vanguard of sorts in giving such integrationist compulsions its most avowedly violent institutional expression. Their recent pro-integration measures, seconded happily by the current centre-left Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, is a harrowing marker of this trend – where so called ‘ghetto laws’ formally authorize a two-tiered racially framed code of justice. For a disturbingly dark projection of such dystopian trends into the near future, I encourage people to read Johannes Anyuru’s recent award winning Swedish novel, They will Drown in their Mothers’ Tears.

POP) Many commentators link nationalism to the economic crises, but this link is based on the fake assumption that the working class is exclusively white. If Trump and Brexit are not a ‘working class’ phenomenon, how can they be better described and understood?

SV) This is an important corrective vis-à-vis the prevailing punditry that I think can be cleaved into two parts. The first concerns the place of economic explanations in accounting for nationalist seductions. And second, the rehabilitation today of class as a feature of our political language, but a rehabilitation that strips class of any actual materialist, socioeconomic content and instead supplants it wholesale with an apologist treatise as befits white entitlement.

Beginning with economics, we are of course obliged to revisit here the best of the Marxist canon. Nation and nationalism is classically read within Marxism as shoring up the class contradictions terminal to capitalism, particularly during periods of acute crisis or transformation. It is said that nationalism’s muscular emphasis on coherent unity throws the otherwise insuperable class divisions into a manageable abeyance. If class struggle is the fundamental fracture definitive of modernity, then nation is the fundamental reconciliation of that fracture.

However, this no doubt important Marxist intuition has been less good at mapping how nationalism also operates beyond the terms of a proverbial ‘false consciousness’. As put by Rabinbach, via the ever-giving Bloch, ‘For Marxism the problem is that fascist ideology is not simply an instrument of deception but [for instance], “a fragment of an old and romantic antagonism to capitalism”, derived form deprivations in contemporary life.’ And Marxism’s inability to properly understand this does, I fear, often lead to a misidentification with nationalism. Namely, some ‘leftists’, when encountering a nationalism that manages to press a populist anti-elite, anti-establishment and even seemingly anti-capitalist class frisson, they are then quick to exult such putative working-class authenticity.


What remains of Marxism once you put nations above workers.

And it is this failing that I think has allowed for a certain kind of left vocabulary to be caricatured to such great effect: we see today a legion of commentators who might be best described as post-Marxist happily channelling the language of working-class discontentment in order to do the bidding of nationalist nativism. And not only is class being described from outside by often elite custodians of populist appeal, but it is employed only as a premise to decry the purported cultural and demographic threats said to be faced by white people. This not only has nothing to do with materialist politics, but it also writes non-white people and immigrants entirely out of the class question – which is frankly absurd, as they constitute the disproportionate share of what we would ordinarily understand to be the working class. This narrative also fails to recognize that the vast share of the nationalist vote is in fact provided by the lower middle-classes, allied in turn to a fairly affluent expanse of provincial conservatives. We should accordingly ask these left apologists why they think a politics so decisively anchored in a petite-bourgeois ‘Little Englander’ sensibility could somehow be translated as constituting a working-class rebellion?

In sum, I can think of nothing less helpful to left politics than this lazy deference to white majoritarian entitlement, and yet the left continues to be routinely drawn by these seductions. Of course, others have documented the long historical arc informing these trends in ways far more formidable than I am capable of – but the recent writing BhattacharyyaShilliam and Virdee would strike me as particularly salutary for your readers.

POP) The impression is that whether nationalist parties take power or not, nationalist discourses have become mainstream, becoming the ‘new normal’, pushing the boundaries of what a ‘respectable’ mainstream party can say (e.g. the Conservative Party has absorbed many tropes of UKIP’s discourse). What kind of process allowed this transformation to take place?

SV) This is an interesting theme that I am surprised hasn’t received more media attention, till of course the spectacular sundering of the Conservative Party over the last couple weeks. Much had certainly been said about the alleged rupturing of the Labour Party as presided over by Corbyn and company. But when disregarding the often shameless media cycles and centrist grandees that have tried to press this reading, it has in fact long been apparent that the much more chronic party-political crisis concerns the Conservatives.

thatcherismBut to understand this broader remaking of the Conservatives requires us to revisit more fundamental shifts that took place in the 1980s under the guise of what was theorized by the late Stuart Hall as ‘Thatcherism’. What is commonly understood in Britain as Thatcherism, but with analogues across Europe, was the audacious programme of pro-market reforms lionized by those we now call neoliberals. But Hall also observed that this play to the market was authorized by a dramatic shift towards a more concerted invocation of race and nation, its normative petite-bourgeois and provincial subject, and the threats posed to it – by the EU, by Black youth, by immigrants swamping the realm, by Muslims enacting parallel cultures, and by foreign despots imperiling British interests. These were of course tendencies always prominent to the political right, but the important analysis that Hall and colleagues offered was that this was quickly becoming the right’s obverse drive (hence his coinage of now landmark phrasings such as ‘authoritarian populism’ and ‘parliamentary dictatorship’).

And to cut a long story short, it is apparent that the long-term effect was that the nationalist right would in time become the party’s principal métier. We even see today those who previously styled themselves as evangelical neoliberals suddenly wielding strident ‘fuck business’ rhetoric to great populist effect. Put differently, the right no longer formally represents itself as a reliable custodian of what remains of British capitalism (be it in its petite-bourgeois or corporate form). Instead, as an ostensible political pivot, it is a Brexit-shaped nationalism (in its defensive, authoritarian and disaster forms) that organizes the right.

So, returning to your question, this seems to me less a matter of nationalism being ‘mainstreamed’ as such, but rather, it is about how a new political map has been formalized. What we understood to be the establishment party political consensus of the post-war era lives now only in residual form – as far as the right and the centre are concerned. And this seems to me simply a culmination of how right politics had oriented itself over a longer period.

POP) Is new nationalism exclusively a right-wing phenomenon? Or does it rather cross the whole political spectrum?

SV) Whilst the right has ostensible ownership over

stuart hall thatcherism

today’s nationalism, the underpinning ideological formations it draws upon cuts across the political spectrum – ranging from left and liberal to conservative and neoliberal. To repeat, nationalism is for me the basis by which a wide array of perceived economic, cultural and security ills can be accounted for through a ‘sense-making’ register that overdetermines the purported culpability of ‘outsiders’ and putatively ‘foreign’ entities. And it is accordingly multiple ideological strands that span the ‘left-liberal-right’ spectrum that helps organize this multiplying cacophony of nationalist rationales, symbols and affects.

And there are perhaps two angles worth stressing here. Firstly, these different ideological traditions do very different things for nationalism and that is why I think it is generative to track them separately. So, to take one interesting instance, something that I hope people enjoy in the book is my attempt to disentangle neoliberalism from conservatism. As I read it, nationalism, in its neoliberal register, is muscular, confident, shiny and economistic; whilst in its conservative sense, nationalism draws a distinctly cultural emphasis that is mournful, resigned and maudlin.

Secondly, it is of course the increasingly loud calls for a left nationalism that I take most personal issue with in the book. Not only does this constitute a fundamental betrayal of any anti-racist and cosmopolitan commitment, but I also argue in the book that the opportunist left cannot even hope to gain on these terms – as it is the political right that retains the more credible and well-trained authority to always triumph if offered these terms.

POP) You write that following Hannah Arendt, fascism is not surprising, but the result of a process in which the state exists for the nation. Nationalism hence becomes modernity’s primary and most tenacious logic. What is the role of nation-states in shaping contemporary nationalism?

SV) If you don’t mind, I would like to invert this question somewhat. I do argue extensively in the book about the wider terms by which the territorial state precedes the nation, but thereupon, it is the nation that ‘conquers’ the state. It would however be impossibly tedious for your readers to have to suffer a lengthy historical exegesis on such circumstances (but I would highly recommend Balibar’s ‘The Nation Form: History and Ideology’ as a standout text on the matter). However, as Arendt also argues, nationalism is not simply a discursive bundle that at best ‘distracts’ us from pressing socioeconomic issues (which is what many on the left often intimate). It is instead an active call upon the state to do certain things vis-à-vis the Others and frontiers it deems problematic.

Particularly important here is the hard ‘bordering’ work that nationalism desires, demands and enacts. As many have said, the very ‘refugee crisis’ that we speak of today is actually a human crisis produced by nation-state borders. Similarly, consider here the call for the end to European free movement. The call for ‘everyday bordering’ (notoriously enshrined in the ‘hostile environment’ policies pursued by the British Home Office). The call for a more punitive integrationist programme. The call for more protectionist tariffs. The call for a degradation of some of the legal gains, however inadequate, as regards the rights the rights of women and minorities. The call to bring fire to those traitorous factions that ‘sabotage’ the will of the nation. And also the call to circumvent constitutional procedure whenever it frustrates the above aims.

It is important to remember this. As otherwise, nationalism is only seen as a ruse that enables the right’s popularity, but without us recognizing the very tangible state programme that it is obliged therein to unleash and/or intensify.

POP) In conclusion, there is much confusion about two debated concepts: populism and nationalism. Indeed, contemporary nationalism is often called nationalist-populism, and you write that when nationalist politics garner sway in contemporary times, it is in fact necessarily populist. However, populism is a concept that only partially overlaps with nationalism and exceeds it greatly, given the existence of left-wing populism both in Europe and the Americas. Isn’t there the risk of creating unnecessary confusion by linking two different concepts such as populism and nationalism?

SV) You are right to spy here an unworked tension in my book’s argument. Let me clarify that I am not entirely averse to the possibility of left populisms. Many very learned acquaintances of mine have impressed upon me the merits of thinking through the populist possibility when grappling with what the left is best at.

But, I would still ask for some caution here. What I find frustrating, as I think you yourself are intimating, is that today’s xenoracist nationalisms are being badged by many a thinker as simply populism. This isn’t helpful, as it denies the active and very substantive exclusionary assertions typical of today’s nationalism; and instead, it sees contemporary politics as simply some kind of anti-elite energy as sourced in a vague but diffuse discontent.

What I would also stress is that much of what is often ascribed to populism seems to me, by default, nationalism – given the family resemblances between populism’s rousing appeal to ‘the people’ on the one hand, and, on the other, the long legacy of nationalism’s ability to already mediate how we intuitively understand any such appeal to ‘the people’. Put differently, the appeal to the people that seems central to populism is I believe already so heavily circumscribed by nationalism’s parochial chauvinism. And this creates problems for any attempt at a populist politics that isn’t reflective about this intertwining.

I also think that the imaginative work required for rethinking our intuitive conceptions of  ‘political community’, which currently retreats towards communitarian frameworks as tied to nation (and analogues of race and ethnicity), will likely require a degree of complexity and dreaming that is not easily reconciled with populism’s tendency towards simplification.

Having said all this, I remain open to what populism might mean when done on left and internationalist, cosmopolitan, environmentalist terms. Moreover, it is vital to recognize that there are always competing currents in our popular culture and everyday sociabilities – and that it is a stronger political stake and attachment to the alternative currents that already course through the popular and everyday that is desperately needed when crafting a different political vision. Whether this constitutes the basis for an affirmative post-capitalist, planetary populism is not for me to determine, but I am of course interested in those arguments that might constructively characterize this as populism.

sivamohan-valluvan_pic.jpgSivamohan Valluvan is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. His Clamour of Nationalism was published earlier this year with Manchester University Press.


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