Reflections on Nationalism: Part I

Reflections on Nationalism: Part I

Over the last decade, the West has seen a series of tumultuous events. Of course, ten years ago the world was trying to cope with the Great Financial Crisis which raised fears of a repeat of the Great Depression. Although that outcome was avoided, deep underlying problems remain. Southern Europe faced a series of debt crises, which were followed by a refugee crisis. Global economic growth has stagnated. A steady drumbeat of civil unrest continues in the U.S. Terrorist acts have been occurring in Europe.

As these problems festered, unrest has been expressed through a series of electoral surprises, including Donald Trump in the U.S., Brexit in Europe, Macron in France and nationalist parties in Hungary and Poland. Meanwhile, Russia has become more aggressive, using hybrid tactics to expand its influence.

In the face of widespread turmoil, it appears appropriate to offer some reflections on one of the key elements of the modern era—the rise of the nation state and how it has evolved to the present day. This evolution is part of how humans organize themselves. Human beings are both social creatures and individuals, and how we manage both sides of our nature is a constant tension expressed throughout history.

In Part I of this report, we will begin with a discussion of social contract theory prior to the Enlightenment period, focusing on Thomas Hobbes. From there, we will examine the two key thinkers of social contract theory during the Enlightenment, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Part II will recount Western history from the American and French Revolutions into WWII. We will analyze America’s exercise of hegemony and the key lessons learned from the interwar period. Part III will begin with a historical analysis of the end of the Cold War and the difficulties that have developed in terms of the post-WWII consensus and current problems. We will discuss the tensions between the U.S. superpower role and the domestic problems we face, followed by an analysis of populism, including its rise and the dangers inherent in it. As always, we will conclude with market ramifications.

Before Nationalism

The first key social contract theorist was Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes considered men in the state of nature at war with all other men. Left to their own devices, they will be constantly fighting each other. Hobbes suggested that men in the state of nature faced a terrible state.

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.[1]

To avoid this awful fate, mankind engages in a trade; it gives up some of its freedom to the state and the state protects men from each other. This allows for peace and industry. The state becomes all-powerful (explaining the title of his book on the topic, Leviathan) because opposing the state means one is prepared to return to the state of nature. The ruler depicted by Hobbes didn’t necessarily need a divine right to claim legitimacy. On the other hand, in a Hobbesian world, the ruler did have to keep the peace. If he did not, men were not freed from the state of nature and his rule would be illegitimate. It’s rather obvious that Hobbes would generally not support democracy. Kings and emperors could argue that if the “people” are left to rule themselves, chaos and war would be the result. Authoritarian regimes today tend to use this argument; removing the ruler opens up the potential for anarchy.