Book Review: Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism

New York, Basic Books, 2018; 285 pages, paper, US$30

The Virtue of Nationalism, by the Israeli theologian and political philosopher Yoram Hazony, is being hailed by some as an important statement of the underpinning political ideology in the age of Brexit, Trump, Modi, Xi, Abe, Erdogan, Putin and of independence proclamations around the world, from Scotland to Catalonia, that is the rise of populist nationalism.

Hazony’s book, as the first major philosophical synthesis of these trends, might be considered the third of a trilogy of important books and political statements marking the post-cold war period, the first being Fukuyama’s End of History and the second Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Whilst Fukuyama was the advocate of the advent of a global culture of liberal democracy and Huntington of the nature of history as unending struggle and shifting alliances between historically determined civilisations built upon shared cultural (mostly religion-based) identities, Hazony, by contrast, champions the nation state as the fundamental unit of political and social organization.

Hazony begins his exposition by expressing his surprise that the movements towards national liberation, which a generation ago was lauded as progressive, are today considered, by the liberal ‘progressive’ establishment as regressive and dangerous. Interestingly, he does not offer a succinct reason for this. He sees nationalism and imperialism in some sense as two poles in an eternal struggle of ideas. However, an explanation can be teased out of the narrative. The first and most obvious reason is the experience with Nazism, which in the eyes of many has tainted the idea of nationalism forever, along with the identification (and a degree of self-identification) of many on the nationalist right with xenophobic and racist views. A second reason that Hazony puts forward is that contemporary political discussions centre almost entirely on economics and security, issues which lend support to globalist visions; they ignore, though, the equally important political concerns of people, such as freedom and a sense of belonging.

The book is divided into three parts: Part One – Nationalism and Western Freedom; Part Two – The Case for the National State; and Part Three – Anti-Nationalism and Hate. In part one Hazony lays out the case for a biblical origin for nationalism in ancient Israel. In an age of empires that aspired to universality – Babylon, Persia, Egypt, Rome – Israel was alone as a nation that was expressly forbidden by God to take the lands of other peoples, but to remain within its own borders. This biblical nationalism sat uneasily with Roman Christianity but revived with Protestantism in the Westphalian settlement.

Part two advances two interesting arguments. One is that the nation-state is a plausible historical compromise between tribal society, characterised by anarchic freedom but high degrees of inter-clan rivalry and violence, and the global imperium, characterised by peace realized by enforced conformity. That is to say, the nation is the territory and political organization which, while not perfect or in any sense a utopia, best meets the competing human desires for belonging and freedom, and peace within a rule-based order. Hazony is not even arguing that the nations should necessarily be democracies modelled on the Western liberal model, but rather free to choose their own political settlement, based on their own cultural imperatives.

The second argument he puts forward is that variety among the social systems established in different nations acts as a global experiment enabling us to assess the virtues and weaknesses inherent in them. This mirrors research in evolutionary theory and chaos theory that states that optimum outcomes are best delivered when there are competing alternatives. It is a forceful argument for the preservation and acceptance of the exotic and against uniformity within which rebellion simmers beneath the surface.

There is definitely nuance to Hazony’s argument for nationalism. There is no tub-thumping demand for acquiescence to every desire for secession. Rather the genesis of new nations should be negotiated internally and between existing nations over time. Hazony does not rule out war between nations, but notes that the world wars of the twentieth century were a product of empires rather than free and independent nations. War between such minimal entities is likely to be limited, local and mediated by neighbouring countries.

There are clear weaknesses in the argument. One lies in the tripartite motif of empire, nation and clan. This forces Hazony to over-extend in particular the concept of empire, to include such entities as the EU, the Unites States, Russia and China, despite them being differently constituted and motivated. This leads to another, and more fundamental, flaw in the argument, which is that Hazony has to argue, against the evidence of history, that nations are defined by non-imperial ambitions, an assertion akin to the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy in philosophy.

There are also troubling ethical dimensions of the idea of non-interference in the affairs of other nations, in the case of explicit violations of fundamental human rights, sometimes embedded in other cultures’ traditions, or in the horrors inflicted on innocent populations even in limited wars. As this is a work of political philosophy more than a forensic examination of the world as it is, in all its complexity and resistance to categorisation, one would imagine it would conclude with recommendations for how the new political order is to be realised and policed. Is there really no place for a global infrastructure? This, it seems, would be a contradiction of Hazony’s principle that this political order should be a spontaneous emergent feature of the historical process. Living in a culture in which universal standards of reason have emerged as normative, this is quite a leap of faith.

In summary, The Virtue of Nationalism is a very readable book, with a laudable premise and an attractive proposition – at least to anti-globalists and believers in the nation-state. It is fertile with ideas and is rightly considered an important contribution to the debate on the good life and the just order, one that people of all political perspective would benefit by reading. Whether it is finally persuasive, though, is another matter. If there is anything we know of history, it is that it has a habit of unfolding in its own manner confounding even the most promising predictions.

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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