Why Catholics Should Sympathize with Nationalism

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President Trump’s criticism of globalism and praise of nationalism have drawn scathing criticism. For many, “globalism” suggests universal human solidarity, “nationalism” aggression, self-seeking, and idolizing a particular state and people. Others say that “nationalism” is right-wing code for white supremacy, “globalism” for rule by shadowy Jewish financial interests.


Such responses obscure real issues that need to be discussed. Political, social, and economic organization are becoming ever more global. The results are complex, from the widespread reduction of poverty as formerly isolated peoples become part of the world economy, to increased inequality within countries as some join the global rich and others the global poor. Devastating wars and extreme tyrannies are rarer than they were, but the much-decried system of European colonialism has been replaced by a far more comprehensive system of foreign influence and control.

Are these results an unmixed good, or would more local, national, or regional ways of organizing things be better? The issue deserves our attention, and “nationalism” and “globalism” have long been used for that purpose. It’s not clear what words can substitute, so the effect of the accusations and outrage is to suppress discussion of basic issues.

I touched on some of these issues a year ago in a column I wrote on identity politics and Church teaching. The basic point of the column was that the Catholic vision of politics is complex, like human life itself. It’s radically at odds with global technocracy, and a one-sided demand for bridges instead of walls rejects basic parts of it. One result is talk about the “Benedict Option,” an attempt to create islands of Christian order in an increasingly inhuman social world.
The issues are not going away. Technical and economic changes are putting us more and more in a borderless world. The Internet puts us equally close electronically to every person and place in the world. Air travel and container shipping radically reduce the importance of physical distance.

Who is for that and who isn’t? It’s evidently not “the working men”—as Marx and Engels thought—but the ruling classes who have no country. Power, money, and deals can be pursued everywhere, so people at the top—kings, aristocrats, imperialists, colonialists, top bureaucrats, wealthy businessmen—have always tended to be cosmopolitan. Educational, scholarly, and media organizations also tend in that direction, and in any case mostly align themselves with money and power.

So a centralized, hierarchical, technological, and career-driven age is going to favor globalization. Marx’s claim about working people was evidently motivated by his vision of them as the future ruling class. That vision has always been hopeless, certainly on any very large scale. Ordinary working people will always be infinitely distant from any global ruling class, unless aspiring professionals in New York and London count as “ordinary working people,” and it has been the lower and lower middle classes, along with rural people, who tend to be nationalists.

That’s why nationalism is seen as populist and felt as an irrational and implicitly violent threat to social and political order. It threatens our rulers, who don’t really understand it, and arouses the same feelings in them as communism did in the nineteenth century.

But people without money, position, or formal education sometimes get things right. Not everything can be run centrally or from the top. Nor can everything be scaled up to global size. The networks of family, friendship, kinship, religion, and face-to-face community by which ordinary people live, and in which they find dignity as participants, can’t be managed from outside or integrated into a global system.

These networks preceded global enterprises and transnational bureaucracies, and they’ll outlast them, because they’re fundamental to a decent human life. But the shape of the world to come depends on what form these networks take.

They will either be local, as they mostly have in Europe, or based on non-local and somewhat separatist communities like clans, castes, religious communities, and scattered national groups, as has been common in places, like the Middle East and Central and South Asia, that have long been subject to disruptive invasions.

The difference is symbolized by the contrast between the traditional European city, with its cathedral, town council, and charter of local privileges, and the traditional Levantine city, with its governor appointed by the sultan and backed by soldiers, and its walled quarters inhabited by separate national and religious groups.

In America, we were historically able to continue the European approach in spite of sporadic large-scale immigration. We did so with the aid of an emphasis on local government, independent families, and local church communities that was inherited from the original settlers and furthered by an emphasis on assimilation of immigrants.

The European and American approach is now in decline. The horrified reaction to Brexit and support for continuous mass immigration from everywhere makes the point obvious. Among well-placed people, attachment to local ties and connections is now considered alarmingly retrogressive. Instead, we’re all supposed to live by our connections to people all over the world, and by our ability to navigate transnational institutions and use them to our advantage.

The point is important because states and governments govern particular territories. If the social networks by which people live are mostly local and territorial, then government can be closely tied to society. The people of every village, town, and region, and of the country as a whole, can see themselves as a people with interests, understandings, and ways that are sufficiently coherent and distinct to guide their government and make it their own. Government of, by, and for the people can be more than an empty name.

That’s something people often aspire to, and when they have it they want to hang on to it. For that reason nationalism today is basically defensive. It’s an attempt to limit the globalization of social and economic life, so that local networks of solidarity can retain their strength and activity.

That’s why French and German nationalists today don’t oppose each other. Nor do they oppose localism or traditional forms of international cooperation that accept a system of sovereign states. Instead, they oppose Eurocrats, transnational bureaucrats, and big business.

It’s also why Catholics should show some sympathy for present-day nationalism. It wants to protect subsidiarity, which is necessary for actual day-to-day solidarity. We don’t feel strongly tied to each other without some connection that is more specific than common humanity and common eligibility for the protection (or burden) of international human rights conventions. And those who are attached to the Church but not paid to be Catholic generally do have sympathy for nationalism.

Even billionaires and bureaucrats, if they put aside for a moment the conviction that their way is always best, should realize that radical globalization is ultimately bad for them as well. If local networks of common loyalties and understandings dissolve, people don’t trust each other. Under such conditions public cooperation disappears and with it rational public thought. What will their global order look like then?

There are, of course, difficulties. A home requires a wall, and borders backed by state sovereignty are needed for that, so some sort of nationalism is needed for societies in which people can feel at home. But how will any of this work in a technologically globalized world? And what can nationalism mean in an ever-more-diverse country of 330 million? People complain that conservatism hasn’t conserved anything, and no longer knows what it should conserve. The same may turn out to be true for nationalism.

But the issues are at least worth discussing, and people who raise them should not be abused. The practical alternative to localism guarded by borders backed by sovereignty—to some sort of nationalism—looks like a cosmopolitan order that lacks moral community and leads to radical social fragmentation. Anything that promises to spare us from that is worth looking at.

Originally Published at: Crisis Magazine

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