Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

Nationalism: The New Wave

By Spencer Pearson

Part 1:  Ideology:  Nationalism 2.0 (b)

Nationalism was the most successful radical ideology of the modern age insomuch as it is more or less universally accepted today that nations have the right to self determination, which is to say that they rule themselves in their own interest as they see fit.  Most of the world’s population today enjoy their self-determination as part of a nation state.  In order for that situation to be achieved generations of nationalists have fought bloody wars and revolutions against imperial domination and in favour of popular sovereignty casting down vast empires and bloodthirsty tyrants all over the planet in a process which continues even to this day.   Yet nationalism has utterly failed in that it has been powerless to resist the rise of a new sort of empire.  One which been created by the subversion of nation states by an international political class who reject completely even the very idea of nations in favour of a extremist progressive ideology.  This class has been able to inflict more damage of the nations of Europe and the West than any man-made or natural catastrophe in recorded history.

The Failure of Nation State Nationalism

Nationalism’s failure in the post-war period is largely the result of two factors.  The first derives from a peculiarity of the ideology as compared to other radical systems of political thought.  Nationalism was not conceived from a general philosophic value system but rather developed as a pragmatic response to certain conditions of the political environment.  It presupposed the existence of nations and states and then looked to apply solutions based on simple moral value system which drew its justification largely from what was expedient and possible. Whilst this peculiarity has in many ways been a great strength in that its demands and objectives have always been attainable and realistic, as compared to most other Western political ideologies which presuppose the modification of human behaviour (for example, communism), it has also created a fundamental weakness in the lack of a coherent intellectual basis.   It is this deficiency which has left nationalism unable to identify or react to the kind of assaults taking place on nations today.

The second problem nationalism has faced in the post-war period itself derives from that first weakness.   Because nationalism has had little or no commonly agreed intellectual “anchors” it has been extremely easy for it to be “modified” to serve other ends than its own.  Not only is it relatively simple to argue that this or that programme serves the interests of the nation and is therefore nationalism but it has been extremely profitable for people to do this exactly because of the powerful appeal of nationalist sentiment.   Most obviously this plasticity allowed Adolf Hitler’s NSDAP to claim they represented the German nation and that they acted on the basis of nationalist doctrine, this despite the fact that they rejected national self-determination in favour of imperialism and were contemptuous of the concept of popular sovereignty.   However it has not just been the authoritarian “right” which has sought to co-opt nationalism, in extremis even Stalin’s communist regime was not above summoning the immense power of nationalist sentiment when necessary as demonstrated in the “Great Patriotic War”.   Even the “progressive” elite of today, who reject any meaningful conception of the nation as an entity in any other sense than how it is defined by the state, have attempted to use nationalism to attract popular support.  An extreme example being the Scottish National Party (SNP) which, unusually for nationalists, advocates the subsumption of their nation into a multinational federal state (Empire); the European Union as well as subscribing to the progressive conception of the nation as defined by the state.

SNP wins in yellow 2011 election

SNP victories in yellow – 2011 Scottish Parliamentary Election

As the industrial age has unfolded nationalism has become ever more corrupted by the constant accretion of demands added to its core principles and has become ever more tainted by the crimes committed in its name.  This process has resulted in it being considered by the majority of Westerners to be at the very least unwholesome if not outright evil.  In many societies nationalism has not merely failed to defend nations but has actually advanced their destruction in that it has been considered the threat which justified the program advanced by progressivism which in part is aimed at the permanent destruction of nations.

The result of this toxification process is that nationalism and the radical right today is dominated by authoritarian tendencies which frequently base their political analysis on, to a greater or lesser extent, paranoid conspiracy theories rather than any sort of historic, philosophic or moral basis.  Because these tendencies are regarded as abhorrent by just about everyone and particularly the intellectual class the effect of this dominance has been to prevent nationalism being able to generate the intellectual “critical mass” required to reconstruct itself.   Thus the radical right has prevented from being able to develop a rational analysis of either the problems of modern societies or its own failings which in turn allows for the further degradation of the tradition as a whole.  In that vacuum madcap conspiracy is sucked in to take the place of the absent rational analysis which begins another cycle of the process.

This matters because nationalism has proven to be the only radical doctrine which has the power to routinely mobilise populations against corrupt, unjust and harmful governments.  If the progressive class succeed in destroying nations as entities and meaningful concepts then there will be no realistic future basis for popular resistance to elite rule.  Already Western states are rapidly moving away from even paying lip service to the idea of popular sovereignty, and its most common manifestation democracy, in favour of instituting an oligarchic system of governance by a permanently installed political class.   This holds out the prospect of a politically sterile society at best and at worst, since it appears that this class is fundamentally sociopathic, a hideous dystopian future straight out of George Orwell’s worst nightmares.  Nationalism must be retrieved because it is the only hope the world has for a future where men are considered anything other than economic units to be commanded by a state which believes it has the right to “remake” society in any way it sees fit.

New Wave Nationalism

Yet just as nationalism arose in its modern form in response to a societal crisis occasioned by the onset of the industrialisation process a new “incarnation” today is developing in response to another societal crisis provoked by the collapse of that industrialisation process.  This reconception of traditional nationalism seeks tear away all the superfluous authoritarian elements which have been bolted on to the basic value system to reveal the original elegant and formidable doctrine beneath.   Moreover it seeks to correct the intellectual flaws which ultimately rendered nationalism impotent and adapt the concept for the global environment of today.

At the heart of this rebuild of nationalism is a reconsideration of the most foundational idea within nationalist thought, that of self-determination. Traditional nationalism is largely based on moral and pragmatic justifications for self determination.  The moral case is simple enough; it would be manifestly unjust for a nation to have imposed upon it something which would be detrimental to its interests.   Of course the ability of that nation to make it own decisions does not guarantee that it will make good ones but at least should it do so it will have been the architect of its own misery and natural justice is thus served.  Married to this moral argument is the pragmatic assertion that a nation which can choose its own destiny is more likely to choose one in its own interests whereas an external power is more likely to rule the subject nation in their interest rather than the subject’s own.   Thus if all nations were self-determining the outcome would be the optimal one in terms of securing the best possible outcomes for all.

Traditional nationalism further advocates national self-determination on the pragmatic basis that this will lead to the most efficient and stable form of society.  As evidence for this is it cites the fact that nations are more stable than empires which are inevitably subject to powerful destructive internal dynamics created by disparities between component nations of that empire.  For this reason the average life expectancy of an empire is considerably less than that of a nation and over that life time they are more susceptible in outbreaks of internal disorder as a result of those dynamics.   Since “outbreaks of disorder” manifest as armed conflicts entailing the destruction of life and property and general misery for all involved avoiding such events is no small consideration.  The same coherence based on ethnic, linguistic, cultural, geographic and traditional ties which allow nations to be relatively resilient towards political breakdowns also allow them to maximise their cooperative potential.  For example, social provision systems seem to be less contentious when they are organised on a national basis than on an international basis.   There is considerable resentment generated in Europe when resources are redistributed from Western European states to Southern and Eastern ones where as there is relatively little when similar redistribution takes place within nation states.  The Germans were happy to fund the reconstruction of the former GDR after unification, they are not so enthusiastic about bailing out Greece.

Berlin Wall heralding unification

The day the wall came day heralding German re-unification

New wave nationalism critiques the conventional version  of nationalism as inconsistent in the application of the values of self-determination.   Whilst traditional nationalism championed the concept of self-determination at a national level its failure to take this demand further created intellectual inconsistencies and contradictions.  Obviously it is inconsistent to argue that nations have the right to determine their own fate, but individuals do not.   The same underlying values must apply in both cases.   Moreover, even in theory, a nation cannot be said to be self-determining if large sections of its population are being compelled against their will into conforming with social, political and economic arrangements they would otherwise reject.   Under traditional nation-state model advocated by nationalism it is inevitable that at least significant minorities have arrangements imposed upon them and thus are not self-determining anymore than they would be if they were being ruled by a foreign state (in which case nationalists would object on the basis of irredentist considerations).   In practice, nation states have proved intensely vulnerable to co-option by elites who tend to govern those nations in their own interests which is usually at the expense of those of the majority of its people as well against their will.

Similarly if conventional nationalism argues that self-determination creates stable societies and that this is a considerable advantage then further extending self-determination only increases those advantages.  Extending self-determination to groups within the nation allows the nation to avoid conflict between groups which otherwise must compete to impose their desires on the entire nation through control of the state.

The  extension of the concept of self-determination to a sub-national level has profound consequences for traditional nationalist doctrine as the implication is unavoidably a rejection of the nation state itself.  The nation state has been the central demand of nationalism since it arose in its modern form in the late 18th century; in most minds the two concepts are inextricably interlinked.   However the nation state itself is not the objective of nationalism but rather a strategy designed to deliver the objective of nationalism, national self-determination which in turn was demanded in order to produce the benefits described earlier in this essay.

Nationalism was formulated as a response to the situation in which it developed.  In that situation the problems it sought to address was the injustice and incompetence of the system of Empires ruled by aristocracies which dominated Europe and the rest of the world.  It proposed to modify the existing systems of government by placing them in a context of nations not because that was an ideal but because it was viable proposition.   As described above the strategy of nation states developed by nationalism has proved to be fatally flawed since the nation state has become a mechanism by which nations are subjugated rather than liberated and has become the principle weapon used against nations by those hostile to the idea and reality of national communities.

This has been possible exactly because of the vulnerability of the nation state model to subversion.  Control of the state allows for total control of the nation and gives the controlling group almost insurmountable power with which to entrench themselves.  Once an elite has gained control of a state it is almost impossible under any but the most dire conditions to take control from them.   Moreover there is a tendency for whichever group controls the state to regard the nation associated with it as a threat since it usually represents the only alternative locus of identity to the state itself and thus is the most likely concept for resistance to that elite to cohere around.   Over time this need to protect the state from the nation tends to corrupt any elite, even if it originally set out with the intention of protecting and serving the nation.

Nationalism has been unable to formulate any kind of meaningful opposition to this process in general, and in particular to the rise of the progressive elite which has displaced the older purely capitalist elite from within, exactly because they have done this via the nation state concept advocated by nationalism.   Indeed the degraded remnants of the nationalist movement have attempted to resist this by taking the place of that elite instead of rejecting the system which allowed it to happen.   In doing so they have effectively endorsed the mechanism by which the nations of the West are being attacked.  Even if this had been achieved then the problem would not have been solved since the nation state would continue to present a potential threat in the event those who believed themselves to be acting in the interests of the nation lost control of it.  Such is extent of this threat that it is intolerable to the interests of the nation and therefore, with the benefit of hindsight, nationalism must now oppose it.

Incidentally, the subjective nature of what is in the interests of the nation is exactly why the alternate “good of the nation”/benevolent dictatorship conception of nationalism is fatally flawed.  The current progressive elite and the previous ruling class both considered themselves to be acting for the good of the nation, in both cases that they placed the prosperity of members of the nation, particularly those of their own class, above the continued existence of that nation was merely a consequence of their priorities when considering that good rather than malevolence.    Likewise, thanks to humanity’s talent for self justification, every regime and government there has ever been has considered what it was doing to be for the general good no matter how obviously not the case this might appear to impartial rational observers (if such a thing exists).  Nationalism therefore does not advocate the kind of authoritarian paternalistic governments associated with it by conventional wisdom since there is no guarantee that such a government knows what is best for the nation.

David Cameron

Cameron’s coalition regime – destroying “old” Britain for the general good

Moreover the “benevolent dictatorship” model of nationalism is even flawed on its own terms since in that the more successful it becomes at “protecting” the nation the more reliant on it becomes the nation, which rather than make that nation “strong” makes it vulnerable.   The more a state could insulate the nation from external and internal threats the weaker that nation would becomes thanks to its lack of contact with those threats.   This paradox is the root cause of the effect by which powerful nations corrode from the inside and why even the greatest empires fall.

(To return to the subject in hand!) New wave nationalism addresses these problems with the same pragmatic attitude as conventional nationalism took when it developed the nation state model.  The solution must be viable, and in order to obtain the best chance of executing it, no more radical than it needs to be.


The extension of the principle of self-determination from the nation to the individual produces an outcome whereby each individual member of a nation may chose the political, economic and social arrangements under which they live.  In practice this does not mean that people can simply make up their own rules because they can only do that with the consent of the community around them.  To take a more militant position leads to the paradox which besets conventional anarchism in that in order to ensure the liberty of the individual some sort of force is required to constrain other individuals from enforcing their will on the minority position individual.   The effect of self-determination for all in practice means that communities, rather than individuals, must agree their collective rules.  However this rather philosophically unsatisfactory outcome is mitigated by the fact that individuals are free to chose which community they would like to be a member of and thus which rules they are required to follow.  Subject to the proviso that membership of communities is of course at the digression of those communities.

A society which operated under the new wave conception of nationalism then would most likely be made up of a patchwork of communities each governing themselves.  For the most part the inherent conservatism of people would probably mean that most of these communities would operate systems of governance very like those which are currently in effect.  However among these conservative communities could also exist others operating far more radical systems drawing on all sorts of political traditions such as forms of theocracy, socialism, anarchism and fascism.   Anyone inclined towards these radical arrangements would be able to exercise their own self determination by moving into such a community.  By these means self-determination would be achieved for almost everyone, even those whose political preferences are so outlandish as to find no community satisfactory would be entirely free to attempt to persuade an existing community to adopt those views or establish a new one of their own.

In most cases it would be expected that “organic” districts, suburbs and towns would be the usual basis of these self-determining communities since geographic integrity is necessary for this system to be made to work and because the most obvious basis for association is common economic and other neighbourhood considerations.  As a starting point the existing boundaries of electoral and administrative districts would form the geographic basis of the extent of self-governing communities.

This is of course a radical conception for a society which has come to regard the nation state as inviolable.  However in fact what is proposed by new wave nationalism is basically very similar to the situation most nations existed in until the industrial age.  Even as that process took hold the reality of even relatively centralised states such as France was that provinces and towns were virtually self-governing operating their own systems of  justice, social provision, military forces, education and so on.  Where there existed no local alternatives to these arrangements they were as likely to be provided by the church as the state.   Nations such as Germany continued to operate on a totally decentralised basis well into the modern age (1871) existing as a collection of more than 300 largely autonomous communities ranging from relatively large states such as Austria and Prussia through to city states such as Hamburg and Frankfurt to tiny sovereign communities such as Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt and Waldeck.

Waldeck Schloss

Grand Castle (Schloss) of Waldeck

In the Medieval and Early Modern periods nations such as Italy and Germany and the Netherlands, all of which were decentralised, were pre-eminent in various fields.  Renaissance Italy was easily the most sophisticated society in Europe for three hundred years in terms of technological, economic and artistic achievement.  The United Provinces’ (Dutch) achievement in simply surviving was considerable given the long standing ambition of the far larger neighbouring French state to annex it.   However it achieved far more than mere survival developing the most sophisticated economic system and extensive trading network on Earth at the time.  So decentralised was the Netherlands in the Early modern period that its individual provinces fielded their own navies in a loose alliance against their great rival, Britain, in the struggle for control of global trade.  A struggle which was only lost after decades of conflict waged on a global battlefield and after inflicting a string of humiliating defeats on Britain (including a raid in which Britain’s finest battleships were sunk at their berths in a river 30 miles inland of the coast and considered the Royal Navy’s worst ever defeat).   In Medieval Germany (mostly) the federation of trading communities known as the Hanseatic League not only resisted the supposedly centralized states of Europe but in one instance fought a war against one of them, defeating Denmark in 1370.

Probably the most famous example of decentralised nationalism is that of the Ancient Greeks.  This society, which laid the foundations of Western civilization, contained autonomous communities with, according to Aristotle, more than 170 unique constitutions.  Despite this decentralised arrangement and in the absence of any tradition at all of a centralised state the Greeks were among the first cultures to develop a consciousness of themselves as a nation and people.   Moreover the Ancient Greeks became the most successful culture in Europe and defended themselves against powerful imperialist neighbours for at least 500 years.

So far from new wave decentralised nationalism being a novel and unrealistic idealist proposal it actually reflects what has been the historic norm for nations and which if it had not been for a couple of accidents of history might have always been the norm.

Addressing the Flaws of Nation State Nationalism

Decentralisation solves many of the moral and practical problems of nationalism.  Not only does it offer a solution to the problem of achieving meaningful self-determination but it also offers an arrangement by which the fatal flaw of the nation state model, in its susceptibility to cooption, can be addressed.  Under a decentralised system it would be incredibly difficult for single elite to dominate the entire life of the nation and monopolise its power.   Rather than simply taking control of one state they would need to take control of hundreds or perhaps thousands.  The sheer requirement for people to actually fill all of those offices in itself would be a challenge.  Even more of an obstacle would be the difficulty in persuading communities which had explicitly adopted other political systems to conform.  Moreover one of the advantages of decentralisation is that it would be highly probable that people would become politicised by the fact that they now had control of their political arrangements.   A more politicised population is far less likely to simply conform to the diktats of an elite or be passive consumers of propaganda and thus far harder to control.

Incidentally, this politicising effect would be a considerable advantage for nationalists since it would counteract the trend towards passivity and apathy created by modern culture creating a vitality which can only be a positive for the nation as a whole.

Decentralisation also fits rather neatly with the principle of “natural justice” which was offered as a justification for self-determination earlier.  If it is argued that it is only just that nations should be the architects of their own fate and reap the rewards of wisdom and suffer the consequences of foolishness then the same principle justifies decentralisation.  Under traditional nation state nationalism elements within a nation can demand foolish things and because they don’t get them they are protected from their own idiocy.   Conversely foolish measures can be imposed on people who opposed them and yet they suffer the consequences as much as those who imposed those measures.  In a decentralised system everyone would get exactly what they deserved.  Moreover by this process the entire nation would become a political laboratory where various social, economic and political proposals were tested rather than advocated as theories.  We would get to find out whether Anarcho-syndicalism works or not and the people who advocated it would either be rewarded or punished for the experiment depending on the results.  We would learn whether “Steam Punk” really is workable as a community ethos.  This culture of political experimentation would almost certainly result in a rapid advance in the efficiency and effectiveness of our political, social and economic arrangements.

Decentralisation would also solve the “hard edges” problem that was generated by traditional nation state nationalism.  Since nations would be comprised of small political units then it would hardly matter if those on the borders of nations considered themselves part of one or the other, demographic or cultural shifts in the populations of these border communities would allow them to organically shift towards or away from national groupings without provoking wars encompassing entire nations.   For example, the status of Alsace and Lorraine would not have been a major driving force of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 or the Great War of 1914 -18 had nations been organised on a decentralist basis.  Decentralisation also solves the problem of geo-political factors determining the viability of nations.  Smaller, or unlucky, nations have failed to achieve their self-determination via the creation of their own nation states in dozens of instances in the modern era because they are simply not big or powerful enough to prevent aggressive neighbours subsuming them.   The Basques, Walloons, Cornish, Kurds, Silesians, Frisians, Romani, etc, have all failed to achieve national self-determination on this basis.  Under a decentralised model they would effectively achieve self-determination in any area they constituted a majority and it is highly unlikely that a coalition of their former nation state’s members could be persuaded to go to the trouble of forcing them to reacknowledge their subservience to a nation state which no longer exists.


The principle objection advanced by traditional nation state nationalism to the proposals of new wave decentralist nationalism is that a decentralised nation would be unable to defend itself against aggressive imperialistic states.  However this is to assume the nation state is more than the sum of the nation, that simply by being centralised the nation state gains some sort of additional capability.   There is no reason why decentralised autonomous communities would not form alliances, most likely based on national affinities, which would be at least as able to conduct the kind of research and development required to build the expensive machinery currently deployed in the national defence.

However since the kind of military currently operated by nation states in the West is more geared towards offense than defence perhaps an alternative sort of defensive capability might be developed by decentralised nations.  It is hard to imagine a decentralised nation being persuaded to engage in any hostile act since, unlike centralised states, they would have nothing to gain by doing so.   Whilst it might be in the interests of, for example, the French state to seize control of Belgium in order that its resource base is increased the same advantage would not accrue to the Hoxhaist autonomous community of 18th Arrondissement of Paris.  So the military capacity of decentralised nations would logically be largely tasked with defence.   The only nations in the world capable of offensive wars in Europe (or pretty much anywhere) are the giant states of the USA, EU and Russia.   None of these states could be resisted via the use of conventional weaponry since they have such an overwhelming superiority in quality and quantity of these weapon systems.  There is no way Sweden can build enough Gripen fighter planes to fight off the Russian air force or an American carrier battle group’s air wing.  Therefore as a defensive strategy contesting the superpowers with conventional militaries is doomed to failure should they decide to attack.   On the other hand both Russia and the USA have been repeatedly defeated by low technology resistance movements.  Decentralised communities would be better able to organise these kinds of resistance forces.  Indeed a system of defence based on decentralised community militias who have been trained in “4th Generation Warfare” would not only be a better and more viable defence against the only conceivable threat which exists today but would be the first time Western nations had a viable defence against that threat.

New types of warfare and defence

Small nations could thrive in days of changing ways of warfare

In the same way as autonomous communities would most likely cooperate and federate to achieve military security a decentralised nation would be able to conduct all of the same national level projects, if it so wished, currently undertaken by nation states.  In fact shorn of the burden of maintaining the expensive apparatus of a nation state it could well have even more resources to deploy on such projects.   Railway systems and infrastructure of all kinds could be cooperatively constructed or constructed by private enterprise on the same basis much of it was in the first place anyway.

Finally, as we have seen the rise of the centralised nation state was largely the result of the process of industrialisation.  Before that process made available communication technologies capable of allowing centralisation and before it delivered the resources required to run an industrial nation state such a state was an impossibility.  Today every indication suggests that the industrialisation process has run its course in the West leaving a society so weakened by it that it can not much longer sustain the resources required to operate a centralised state or to contain the rapidly increasing internal political tensions generated by that decline.   If it is the case, as appears fairly certain, that the “energy crisis” and the economic crisis currently playing out are simple aspects of a more general crisis occasioned by the collapse of industrialisation in the West then the traditional model of a nation state is no longer a viable model.  That decentralised nationalism would be is a testament to the strength of the proposed system.  More to the point if the increasingly prevalent analysis which suggests the West is in terminal decline then decentralised nationalism is the only option not only for nationalists, but everyone whether they like it or not.


New Wave decentralist nationalism solves all of traditional nation states philosophic and practical limitations.  In the best traditions of the ideology it seeks practical and viable solutions based on what is possible rather than what is simply desirable from one perspective or another.  In many respects it can be seen as a logical evolution from nation state nationalism in response to the changing environment and to the painful lessons learned over the modern age.   By the simple measure of extending the concept of self determination to a sub national level new wave nationalism produces a coherent intellectual paradigm as well as viable political program.  The elegance of that coherence and the enormous potential of that programme are hard to ignore.  However the implications of new wave nationalism go beyond ideological considerations, from its principles emerges an entirely new strategic and tactical model made possible by the rejection of the concept of the nation state.

These will be discussed in the next essay in this series.

With thanks to Kevin Scott for his encouragement.


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