Nation, State, Nation-State

The European Nation-State Between the Scylla of Populism and the Charybdis of Postmodern Identity Politics

Professor Janne Matlary

The Nation-State between the Scylla of Populism and the Charybdis of Identity Politics

“When I use a word”, Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”.
“The question is”, said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things”.
“The question is”, said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all”.
                              Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll


Introduction: Deep Political Polarization in European States

European politics is in an unstable state. External shocks make an impact on the continent – Russian revisionism, uncontrolled mass migration, and terrorism.[1] At a time when Europe is facing a distinct need to defend and control its borders and its liberal-democratic system of government it seems unable to agree on anything, let alone on how to counter the Realpolitik of the near abroad. Instead of acting strategically, Europe undergoes all manner of self-inflicted conflict these days.

My study of how European governments and the EU tackled the three crises mentioned above shows that Russian revisionism in Crimea and elsewhere was acted on by the US as the prime actor, European states following. The US initiated sanctions against Russia and designed the ‘trip-wire’ deterrence force in the Baltics. When European national security was affected, it was the US that led. This is not good, 74 years after WWII – why can’t the European continent lead itself in defending itself?

With regard to the migration shock in 2015 where more than 1.5 million migrants entered Europe illegally, there was of course no role for the US in this matter, but the Europeans did not know what to do. Neither could or would they control their outer Schengen border, but as they simply had to stop the mass influx when too many had arrived, the EU led by Germany ended up outsourcing border control to undemocratic, autocratic Turkey and to the much worse regime(s) in Libya where migrants cannot count on civilized conditions. This move was one of desperation, incurring vital dependency on regimes and thugs that one would not normally deal with. The experience of being powerless at controlling one’s state’s borders led to permanent distrust between ordinary voters and their governments, especially boosting support for populist parties. Kirchik writes that “the rise of right-wing populism, at least in Europe, is in large part attributable to the nearly two million mostly Muslim, mostly male migrants and refugees who entered the continent over the course of 2015-2016 and to the perceived inability of European governments to handle the influx”.[2] He adds that this fuels populist parties and that mainstream parties only belatedly start to tackle this issue, creating dangerous political space for populism.

Thus, illegal migration has become the key political issue for voters across the European continent by now, much like it is in the US.[3] Whatever the realities about migration, it triggers conflict along all lines: national identity, jobs, welfare state expenses, the preeminent role of Christianity in European states, and security. It is the most divisive issue in Europe today, and there is recognition that there is need for major policy reform of the refugee system, which Betts and Collier term “broken”, and also controlling migration.[4]

Terrorism, the third external shock, is external insofar as its actors are being trained somewhere in the MENA[5] region, therefore involving border crossings. Terrorism is right-wing extremist, as in New Zealand and in Norway; but by far the most attacks are carried out by Islamists, in casu the recent attacks in Sri Lanka on Catholics and tourists on Easter Day. Terrorism of this kind leads to securitization of normal politics and even to the declaration of a state of emergency, as was the case in France for more than two years after the Bataclan attacks. So far terrorist attacks have not led to major destabilization of any European state, but we must expect more attacks like the ones in Sri Lanka now that Daesch has been eradicated in terms of its territorial headquarters. The response will be highly organized with professional attacks against the West and against Jews and Christians in particular in an attempt to foment religious ‘wars’. This means that European open, liberal democracies must be vigilant in ways hitherto unnecessary and that security measures will play a greater role in everyday life. A successful, massive attack can destabilize democracy.

In sum, Europe today faces old-fashioned power revisionism from Russia (and possibly China), probably new waves of mass migration from Africa – a well-organised and very lucrative business – as well as continued terrorist attacks. All these challenges demand that European nation-states are strong, well-organised, can control their borders and defend themselves. In other words, this is a time for the virtue of patriotism – willingness to defence one’s homeland and its people.

Nation-States Needed. Apply Within

In light of this Realpolitik world[6] in which we rapidly find ourselves, is Europe able to rise to the occasion? Does it defend itself, rally around the flag, exhibit patriotic virtue? Patriotism means love of Vaterland/mother country, and is as old as political community itself. Horace coined the famous phrase dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

The answer is not given; some states have a strong national identity and strategic culture, others are more postmodern. In defence, Europe does not do its share; the US carries the burden even more than before. In this matter president Trump is right: Europe shies away from its own promises of 2% of GDP for defence, despite this pledge being made solemnly at the Nato summit in 2014 in Cardiff. Defence is not taken very seriously in most European states, with the exception of France, the UK, Denmark, Poland, the Baltics, Norway, and the Netherlands – the states that do war-fighting. The US is still expected to do the heavy lifting when the going gets rough.

Defence only makes sense as a serious issue if there is a clear love of country – patriotism – and patriotism is only possible if there is a national community, a clear national identity. Dying for King and country is the traditional conception, and one that cannot make sense to a postmodern person. Thus, defence spending is in many ways an empirical indicator of what kind of state and nation we deal with. If the nation-state is seen as an anachronism, a political form of a by-gone era, defending it is not on the agenda.

Yet today Europe faces the need to deter Russia militarily and in all other ways, and of controlling and possibly closing its own borders, as well as knowing who enters the country in the interest of combatting terrorism. Borders, territory, nation and security are again high on the political agenda. The political agenda of borderless globalization and ‘win-win’ solutions in international organisations has been replaced by a traditional agenda where the state matters much more than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

At this time we should expect Europe to put priority on common problems and challenges, setting aside differences. Yet the opposite happens: there are deep divisions in almost all European states today. So-called populists stand up against the so-called elites, as if in a dialectical relationship where both live off each other – the elites scorn voters who are called populist, in some cases even ‘deplorables’ as Hillary Clinton put it. Migration fuels populist parties and Brexit has led to three years of emotional reactions across the Channel and even less to the ‘win-win’ solution both sides need. The Visegrad states along with Italy and Austria gear up for a ‘coup’ at the European parliament elections this month, a protest vote against the EU. In France, the county is so divided that president Macron must hold ‘national dialogue’ session across the country and even promise to abolish the elite school ENA, something that sounds like a desperate move, to put it mildly. Macron, whose election had a mere 43% turnout and whose movement En marche! was populist in the sense that the traditional party structure was obliterated by it, now faces a country so divided that the political system has stopped working altogether. The streets demand change, and the streets get it. Where are representative structures in this mess? The rules are gone, if not a bygone.

Andrew Michta describes the problem thus:

“The real trouble for the West…is what has been happening within our societies…the real problem is...the progressive civilizational fracturing and decomposition, fed by the growing disconnect between political and cultural elites and the publics. Alongside this is an even more insidious trend of fragmenting national cultures and the concomitant debasement of the idea of citizenship, the latter being defined almost exclusively in terms of rights…the larger national identity, which was historically tied to the overarching Western heritage, has been subsumed under ethnic and religious group identities”.[7] (my emphasis).

But not only are traditional party systems fracturing, also citizenship is ‘deconstructed’ into tribal groups that claims rights for themselves. The anthropological basis for the very notion of citizenship is challenged by subjectivism and group identities, thereby further eroding democracy.

Most often the current polarization is talked about as ‘elites vs populism’, but this is superficial. As we shall see, the issues on which populist parties mobilise are real issues for the voters – such as controlling migration and getting jobs under globalization, and importantly, keeping democracy so that supranational power can be recalled and controlled. Brexit represents a demand for national control of political power, despite its often populist political ‘wrapping’. Referenda are by definition the people’s own choice, a rare occurrence, and one that should be rare – but democratic nonetheless.

Migration into Europe is what most voters across Europe name as the most important issue, even now that migration is largely controlled. There can be no doubt that voters do not want uncontrolled migration, or for that matter much migration at all. Research shows very clearly that ordinary voters are very concerned about keeping national identity and the national political community, whereas so-called elites do not care much about national identity and typically talk about global citizenship and a multicultural model where national identity is something of the past.

It is very true that populism is a real democratic problem, but elitism, or elites that no longer see themselves as part of the national political community but as somehow removed from the nation-state, also constitute a major democratic problem. This is because we are citizens of a specific nation-state and its specific democracy, and only at the state level and below can democracy exist. There is not supranational democracy anywhere, and typically democracy thrives in small societies where citizens can have public debate and a close-knit society.

Globalisation has benefitted well-educated urban people. In the knowledge economy traditional working-class production jobs are lost to low-cost countries like China, to the internal labour market of the EU, or to technological innovation like robotics and AI. In their study of income inequality, Hope and Martelli found that income inequality has risen sharply in all Western countries, most of all in the US and the UK.[8] J. Stiglitz has documented how US working class buying power stagnated already from the 70s onwards. In addition to the transition from manufacturing to the knowledge economy comes the integration of the EU with its internal labour market which benefits all consumers and leads to economic growth, but where national plumbers and carpenters are out-competed by their counterparts from East-Central Europe.

The protests by les giles jaunes started as a general protest against the loss of status and income by the French working class, especially those living in what the French name le périphérique. Also, voting for Brexit was motivated by working class dissatisfaction with job loss and competition, as analyses of voting patterns shows: “the divide between winners and losers of globalization was a key driver of the vote”, concludes Hobolt’s empirical study.[9] She finds that “both the EU’s effect on the economy and migration are highly correlated with the vote choice” (p. 7), and she also cautions against believing that Britain is an outlier: “the sentiments that led a majority of voters to opt for Brexit are gaining strength across the continent” (p. 9), concluding that Britain is now a “a deeply divided country, not only along class, education and generational lines, but also in terms of geography” (ibid).

This is also the case in France and in several other European states – there is no doubt that there is widespread dissatisfaction with governments and the EU, and the reasons for this are both economic (relative poverty and income inequality) as well as suspicion that the EU tries to maintain a right to migration and to make a supranational migration policy. Thus, control with political power and re-nationalisation of such power become key.

What are the political dynamics in Europe? How are we to analyse them? To what extent is democracy threatened by them?

Let’s start by sorting out some key terms like populism, nation, nation-state, and democracy for the purposes of clarity of analysis.

Populism: real people vs corrupt elites

Populism is one of those terms – like elitism – that functions as labelling. It is today a completely negative term, although populism only means ‘by the people’, people’s rule, and as such, sounds like democracy itself. Some scholars use the term synonymously with rule by the people.[10] But today the term is defined more akin to demagogy: a simplification of the complexity of politics, a politician or party that claims to speak for the people against an elite that is arrogant, corrupt, or uninterested in ordinary folk, and a direct form of politics that shuns traditional parties and indirect democracy. Cas Mudde, perhaps the foremost expert on populism, writes that “Most scholars use populism as a set of ideas focused on an opposition between the people (good) and the elite (bad)”.[11] Apart from this it is difficult to define populism – it is not an ideology, rather a ‘method’, one that uses demagogic tools of the political trade. Müller makes the point that populists are hardly a majority, but a ‘very loud minority’ in many European states where such parties have been growing in importance.[12] His advice is that mainstream parties must deal with the issues that voters are concerned about and that are seized only by populist parties, such as migration and border control supra-nationality in the EU, and working class job loss. This point is also strongly underlined in David Frum’s essay with the clear title “If liberals won’t enforce borders, fascists will”.[13] The resurgence of populism in Europe is above all tied to the issue of migration and border control, and mainstream parties have more often than not shied away from addressing this difficult problem. Yet populist parties’ success forces them to do so; and even Social-democratic parties, like the Danish one, now ‘compete’ with right-wing parties at home in having ‘strict’ immigration policies. In the fall of 2015 the issue was defined by those that wanted open borders; now it is defined by the opposite. There has been a U-turn politically in Europe on this issue.

It is important to note that populist politicians and parties are found on both left and right of the political spectrum – from Hugo Chavez to Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. Populist leaders will typically take to the street, make direct campaigns and ask the people directly about their view. This is both democratic, such as using referenda, but over-reliance on such methods is unwise: one cannot expect voters to know about every issue and they are not well informed about many issues. However, it is not possible to label use of referenda as populist; most states use this direct method in important matters, so when e.g. PM Orban of Hungary asks the people to vote on whether to have immigration, it is not a populist move, but a deeply democratic one, for it is up to the individual state to decide on how its nation is to develop, and migration has always been a key national prerogative. Thus, the widespread denunciation of asking voters on this matter is not fair. Migration is, as said, the key issue for most voters across all of Europe, and migration policy is a national prerogative.

But when the issue is misrepresented in the recent poster-campaign where Commission President Juncker is portrayed, along with Gyorgy Soros, as two who conspire to bring in mass migration to Europe, this is demagogic, and therefore populist. There is no concerted policy to do so, although the EU does not control the Schengen border and therefore outsources border control to Maghreb states and Turkey (thereby having reduced migration into Europe by 90% since the peak in 2015). It is factually wrong to paint a picture of open border policy on the part of the EU, yet factually right to accuse the Commission of forging a supranational migration and refugee policy by majority voting. But the poster campaign is still grossly misrepresenting the facts, and even if Soros favours migration and spends money on this cause, he alone clearly does not effect mass migration into Europe.

Thus, oversimplification and often conspiracy accompany the populist. President Trump comes to mind as a very good example of a populist politician, communicating directly with the people through social media, shunning the established media and parties, catching on the theme of the ‘forgotten’ working class and launching simple solutions to job loss, such as protectionism. The voters who chose him were concerned about the economy and job loss, migration and American society, and he addresses these themes, but in very demagogic ways. All complexity and nuance is lost, there is no political debate, only slogans. But the issues that moved the voters were real enough.

In Europe we see this ‘style’ in parties in almost every country, but it is important to be careful about what we try to analyse: is it the policy ‘style’ of populist politicians, or it is the political issues that they benefit from and which are of real concern to voters, such as control of migration, keeping national identity, and controlling supranational political power?

As said, populism is a very negative label, and it is therefore very difficult to use the term meaningfully as an analytical term. It is frequently used to dismiss and marginalize voters that the educated, global voter dislikes. The Economist makes this mistake in describing the Tory party, which it claims “has transformed into a party of populist nationalism”.[14] The Brexit ‘debate’ abounds in examples of such labelling, originating in Brussels as well as in London. The lack of respect for the outcome of the Brexit referendum is one of the most surprising and disconcerting aspects of this event. Hilary Clinton’s derogatory remark about ‘the deplorables’ that voted for Trump is also a very good example of this type of labelling. No voters in a democracy are deplorable, because the suffrage belongs to every citizen. Were we to demand a certain IQ or education level in order to vote, we would be back to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty from 1859 where he frets over this issue: can those without property have the vote? Those without education? Women? All three groups were in doubt at the time – were they rational and independent enough? If we need to qualify for the vote and have private property, we speak for aristocracy. In my hometown in Norway a local writer wanted the vote so much back in 1846 that he bought some skerries that were covered by water at high tide in order to possess property – as was demanded to get the suffrage. These small islands were what he could afford, useless as they were to anyone. The locals said of him that “Åsmund Olavsson Vinje has the vote at low tide”.

Better to classify parties and politicians according to their methods if populism is to make sense – do they replace parties by movements, often personalized as expressions of their own leadership? Here we may include En marche and president Macron whose electoral process wiped out the traditional French party structure – do they speak for ‘the people’ against ‘elites’? Here Macron does not fit in, but most others that we usually call populist do. Are they against the EU? This is not an indicator, of course, as it is fully legitimate to be for or against the EU. All the parties in Europe today that are often called populist accept the democratic method and do not want violent upheaval, like Communists or Nazis. They are not extremist. And it is not racist to be against migration, as some seem to think.

We have a problem of populist methods in Europe today, but the issues which fuel populism are real ones for voters – primarily fear of job loss, of uncontrolled migration and of being ruled by international regimes and beyond the nation-state. There is a democratically sound demand for re-patriation of political power, or at least for democratic control of such power. The EU can hold another treaty conference to discuss reform along these lines, as it has done several times before. It is fully rational to discuss whether to amend the internal market’s freedom of movement or whether to abolish the EP. It is also fully rational to demand border controls and no immigration in times of terrorism and job loss in Europe. Knowing who enters one’s territory is essential to security policy, now as before.

The democratic challenge of populism rather lies in its method, its demagogy. In Norwegian we talk about a ‘folkeforfører’, a ‘seducer of the people’, which is a politician who abhors reasoned and nuanced debate and lives by simple slogans. Tweets are a perfect medium for such statements, perhaps containing a grain of truth, but awful simplifications. In this time of social media and ‘echo chambers’ the democratic citizen ideal is really under threat from conspiracy theories, ‘alternative facts’, etc. Again using Trump as the best example of a successful populist politician, he retains his following and addresses it directly, and that is what counts. All else – the common good of the res publica – is secondary to this direct leader-people link, and his people believe his demagogy.

Democracy presupposes state and nation

A key theme of European politics today is the nation-state and the nation. The problem is not related to traditional nationalism which advocates that one’s own nation is superior, however. This is not like the run-up to WWI. Current concern about one’s own nation is rather about the lack of it, not the excess of it.

Nation refers to where one was born, one’s mother country or Vaterland, one’s Heimat.[15] The term is derived from the Latin natio. Nations are found in all human societies, but have been developed in relation to the state and to democratic political theory in the West, in Europe in particular. As such, the nation is a political community, as the basis for citizenship and democracy, but in and of itself the nation is a cultural community, bound together by language, history, and habitat – a natural community, like the family. As we have seen in various papers at this plenary, Catholic social teaching reaffirms the naturalness of the nation, like that of the family, and nations have a right to exist. From St Augustine to St John Paul II, the nation is a natural community that one owes allegiance to and which one loves. It is also the basis for patriotism, as the latter emphasized.

The nation is not made by the state and should not be, although many states have tried to instrumentalize nations for their own purposes. Communists have always tried to abolish nation and family and many rulers have tried to forge the nation as belligerent in order to serve their purposes. Nation-building of the kind that we see in Russia and China today are examples of the latter, and in the Cold War Central Europeans were very constricted in their cultural expressions – everything was political. In China we currently witness shockingly aggressive nation-building – an app called “Study the Great Nation” has been developed by the party which controls that subjects use it as much as possible – there are points given for reading propagandistic material, for seeing films, for answering questions. Employers are tasked with controlling how many points workers get. The internet age had indeed improved the totalitarian regimes’ controlling ability. Chines military build-up happens alongside this aggressive nation-building – an old recipe for dangerous nationalism.[16]

There are many thousand nations on the planet and less than 200 states. This means that most states are multi-national, as they are multi-lingual and multi-religious. However, there is usually one predominant language, religion, and culture in a state, making other nations in it minorities. The Habsburg monarchy is a very good example of this multi-national polity, and it was the first regime to introduce freedom of religion in 1645 in Transylvania. Yet this is far from modern identity politics, to be discussed below. The ontology of traditional nations is that members of the nation can be identified by objective criteria, such as language and common culture, as nations have evolved over centuries and more. This is natural community, not one chosen subjectively. Unlike postmodern ideas of shifting, chosen identities, the concept usually refers to something as permanent as to be seen as just that, natural. The constructivist critique[17] that nations are ‘imagined communities’ is not important, for nations are necessarily ‘imagined’ in the sense that they are not tangible, but part of one’s identity from childhood years. They are constructed in the sense of not being material and empirically tangible, but they are so strong that people die for them. I prefer to speak about naturalness in the sense of spontaneous evolution – nations develop and change in many small and greater ways, but this is a bottom-up process, and not a political one if it is to count as natural.

National identity is thus natural and cultural, not imposed by the state if it is real. This is a very important point. Communists and other totalitarians have always tried to misuse national identity to their own control purposes – new Soviet man was never a success, nor was the imposed ‘Yugoslav’ identity there.

East-Central Europe is full of examples of attempts to use nationality politically. Even today one can experience large numbers of Rumanian flags planted in all-Hungarian villages in Transylvania – contrasting sharply with the natural Hungarian culture and community in this part of old Hungary. The evolution of 700 years of Hungarian nationality is visible in the way people there have lived for centuries, it is their way of life, their folklore; a natural way of living. When political agents plant flags in these villages in order to underline that they belong to Rumania, it is a shocking imposition because one sees the contrast between natural life and artificial, political manipulation so clearly.

History abounds in examples of such political uses of the nation. This is nationalism; when nations are used by political rulers: “when defensiveness becomes fanatical, dividing mankind into two warring camps…we have the ideology of nationalism”.[18] Nationalism is always negative, a political (mis)use of national identity and patriotism, which is the natural love of one’s home country and nation.

Thus, nations are prior to states, which in their modern form develop after the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. There are city-states in ancient Greece, and, in the 13th century, small units in the north of Italy, called by the same name.

Siedentorp makes the important point that the ‘idea of the West’ is the claim that the individual and not the family, the group, tribe or clan is the fundamental unit of politics.[19] He points out that Christianity played a decisive role in this: “Christian belief in the equality of souls in the eyes of God challenged the inherited meaning of society, introducing a universality which undercut traditional inequalities of status”.[20] In ancient Greece there was no such equality; on the contrary, citizenship was reserved for the patres, the elite. Slaves and women were excluded. The assumption of natural inequality was the rule. The pater familias had all power, including political power. With Christianity, however, there is a revolution in anthropology – one that ends in democracy in modern times.

This idea of natural equality slowly makes its way into political thought as well as civil law: women and men are equal in marriage under Christianity and emperors like Charlemagne asks subjects to swear loyalty to his empire, not to local lords only. What Walter Ullmann calls the ‘ascending theory of government’ gains traction.[21] In the new religious orders of the 12th century, the Franciscans and Dominicans, we find democratic constitutions and elections. In the conciliar movement during the time of the Avignon popes there is a movement to make papal ‘monarchy’ impossible. Canon law represented an entirely novel legal conception of equality: “canon law and the system of law administering it were creating a new world. The assumption of moral equality underlying canon law was generating the idea of basic or individual rights”.[22] Something as important as marriage could now be entered into validly only by a man and woman who both consented to it – without mutual consent it was not valid, but it did not require the father of the bride’s consent.

This conception of the individual makes the state possible, for it has authority over all citizens on an equal basis, and all citizens are of equal importance through the suffrage. There is equal submission to the rule of the state, which in turn is based on a social contract. The state is not the rule of a feudal prince who has authority over subjects, but state sovereignty “introduces an authority which can limit the claims of family, tribe or caste if it so chooses”.[23] The very concept of the state based on a social contract is therefore presuming equality of citizens, i.e. equality of human dignity for all persons.

Democracy therefore not only presupposes the state, but also a community of citizens. The nation is not based on clan, tribe or family, but on equality among its members, and it is a community that goes beyond abstract rights. There is equality among all human beings in their having the same human rights, but they are citizens of the same state. The nation is based on rights, but it is a community of history, language and above all, culture, tied to its homeland. It is this close-knit character that enables it to extract taxes and impose conscription.

Is there nationalism in Europe today? Hardly – there is no danger of war between European states today, and little if any evidence of political uses of the nation in order to create animosity between states. The fear that nationalism is on the rise in Europe today is unfounded. What is on the rise is the yearning for national identity and the fear that globalization erodes the nation, that migration undermines it, and perhaps that the EU intends the same. This is a natural democratic reaction, because the nation-state is the very basis of all democracy.

Identity Politics undermines Citizenship

The natural nation has evolved, bottom-up, and changes only slowly. Multi-nationality is not based on subjectivism or ‘a la carte’ nationality. One may be Polish-American, one is Polish and American, and the two are different and can be delineated – and not least, inter-subjectively communicated. Likewise, one is a Christian, precluding being Jewish or Muslim, atheist or agnostic. One cannot be a little of each – or can one? The latter position is held by those for whom reality is socially constructed and whose identities are mere subjective preferences. I introduce this section of the paper thus in order to underline the abyss that exists between a traditional understanding of nation and religion – two major groups of life – and the current phenomenon called ‘identity politics’. The two are not similar in any ways whatsoever, for they differ completely in terms of ontology and epistemology, something which has major implications for democracy.

As a university professor I cannot fail to notice that the tyranny of the perpetually insulted and discriminated against has also reached our own institution. I have no personal experience of this, perhaps because I do most of my academic work in the “hard” field of defence and strategic studies, explicitly relating to accountable facts and clear actor imperatives. Here we also rely on rational theories of interest-based action and strategic interaction, and most students and practitioners in this area share a mindset characterised by mental robustness and a keen interest in national security issues and realism.

However, claims of subjective feelings of discrimination abound, and group identity politics as a basis for quotas in all sorts of societal and professional settings is now commonly seen. Typically, some group will claim historical discrimination and “under-representation”, and thereby assert its right to be equitably represented by means of a quota. These claims are seldom if ever established factually but simply invoked, and, even if justified, it does not follow from historical injustice that this can be rectified through granting jobs, study places or the like to members of these self-established groups. Moreover, this logic becomes even more problematic when school and university curricula are changed and rewritten to reflect the interests of these groups. This form of manipulation and politicisation is reminiscent of how totalitarian regimes seek to rewrite the past and thereby change it.

Here I wish to examine the premises of the group identity phenomenon and especially the major problem of the extreme subjectivism that forms its basis. First, I present some cases of this new politisation, arguing that the dynamics are the same in these various examples: there is no tolerance of opposing viewpoints; those that refuse the group identity logic are even vilified. The group in question will invoke discrimination, self-defined, but also claim that quota representation is a force for good, bringing diversity to a societal field. Since those that oppose this are discriminatory on this logic, they are not to be tolerated.

The New Intolerance: examples

We have all noticed an increasing number of cases of ‘non-platforming’ and ‘dis-invitations’ – these inelegant new words have alas entered common parlance. The Canadian professor of psychology Jordan Peterson who argues for traditional virtues and character formation in what seems extremely commonsensical ways was recently ‘dis-invited’ to the School of Divinity at Cambridge University because of student protests that he did not “represent” their views. This is really troubling, because a scholar is not at all going to be “representative” of his or her students, but is of interest to others because of his or her scholarship. “Representativeness” is a political concept relevant in political bodies, not in the university.  

A similar case is that of Sir Roger Scruton, one of Britain’s most renowned political philosophers, who was presented as an Islamophobe in an interview in the New Statesman[24] and therefore lost his job with the British government. His point was that when a person claims discrimination based on anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, this can be used to stop all critical discussion. If I as a Christian were to claim that I am offended or discriminated against if someone criticizes Christianity, I have a powerful weapon that can effectively stop all democratic, open debate.

This brings me to the core of the argument about group rights and epistemology: we must not accept that a claim is valid just because it is made – we must be able to discern whether it is true and reasonable. Making a claim does of course not make it true, such claims can be used ad infinitem in order to destroy an opponent or advance one’s own interest. The point is that the group cannot validate its own claims by itself. But today this is very often the case: just making a claim or an accusation is enough. This undermines both rule of law and the presumption of innocence, as well as the very basis for democracy – the equality among human beings as the basis for citizenship and therefore, for law.

Let me illustrate this dangerous and destructive logic of subjectivism: in Norwegian schools there is a curious debate about krenkning, or being insulted, when corrected by a teacher. One such teacher, Simon Malkenes, gained national attention when airing his frustrations and concerns on a radio programme, in which he quoted from his notes – “K walks about, L talks aloud, S leaves the classroom” – to illustrate the everyday reality for a Norwegian schoolteacher. This caused an uproar among his pupils – they were insulted and produced a formal complaint, citing the school’s rules that no student must be insulted (krenket) by a teacher. Malkenes received a formal reprimand from his superiors and all hell broke loose in a very public debate. Under Norwegian school regulations, a teacher can be removed from his post simply by being charged with insulting or offending a student, on purely subjective grounds. This has turned things completely on their head and cleared the way for the practice of witch-hunts: who would dare give a poor grade to a student deserving of such, given these rules? The student may take it personally, feel insulted and launch a formal complaint.

The problem here is the issue of subjectivism, with students failing to distinguish between their own feelings of anger, disappointment, and low self-esteem because of poor results or bad behaviour, and the objective facts of poor performance and/or bad behaviour. They are guilty of taking correction and criticism personally. Instead of recognising how poor their exam performances were or how unacceptable their behaviour was, they confuse and conflate the professional and the personal. This shows us not only that they lack self-awareness and the capacity for self-criticism, but also that they lack an ability to separate facts from feelings and emotions. If it is a fact that the student made noise in class, it is a fact; and the one with authority to declare it a fact is the teacher. Likewise, if the student insists that two and two make five, it is not a fact, it is simply incorrect – in this case an error that is easy to point out. But in many academic disciplines, facts are of course not so clear-cut. Epistemological theories are often called constructivist, arguing that there are no other facts than the ones I have constructed – or others have constructed. If reality is socially constructed, how can it be studied scientifically? Isn’t a fact and my view of the former one and the same? Can there be any facts beyond subjectivism?

The Malkenes example concerns two major issues for any school, university and democracy: authority and knowledge. The two are related – the teacher has authority because he has expert knowledge in a particular field. The professor professes because he has superior knowledge, to be taught to students. If there is nothing objectively important called knowledge, then there is no need for a teacher or a professor, nor for pupils or students. This is extremely elementary, yet it needs to be stressed at this time of confusion about whether a teacher has any authority in the classroom and whether knowledge exists apart from subjective views of it.

The more subjectivist knowledge is argued to be, the more politicised it can be rendered. If only the proletariat can know how capitalism really works because they belong to the working class, no professor of economics can do so. Moreover, this knowledge about capitalism is not value-free or disinterested, but a tool of revolution. Knowledge, on Marxist analysis, is always political. Likewise, if I share reality with other women because we construct or understand the world qua women, we should study the world through women’s eyes. If only women can understand how women see the world we need gender studies departments and “gendered” history classes. History cannot then be studied in a disinterested, scholarly manner, because it is always political: when old, white men study it, it is through their perspective only, no more correct than a feminist or anti-colonial perspective, in fact intolerable because old, white men are deemed to “represent” colonialism or imperialism.

It soon follows from this that there must be syllabi where female authors are the subject of a quota, such as the 40 per cent female component on the International Relations course at the London School of Economics. The difference between a disinterested, scholarly approach to the study of history and the perspective described above is an abyss. If all knowledge is viewed as interpretation from a group perspective, aimed at social and political change, then knowledge is political and subjective because every human being is assumed to represent his or her group.

Representation is of course what politics is about – we have political parties and elected representatives who are political actors on our behalf. But representation is a foreign concept in scholarship.

It follows logically from this that groups must be represented in the university in the form of quotas for, say, female or black students, professorships, and in syllabi. If the point of knowledge is to represent various groups’ views of it, then a representative structure follows, and the objective of the whole exercise is to promote the views of the various groups. If the case for discrimination can be made – e.g. that female composers are seldom played in concert halls, then female composers must have their due compensation, even if the paucity of such has to do with the fact that, (1) few women choose to become composers, and (2) their work, like that of most male composers, may have been of insufficient quality to be performed. If such objections are heard, they are dismissed, certainly if they come from white middle-aged men (who make up the majority of both composers and musicians…).

This kind of ‘representation’ may sound utterly silly, devoid of substance, but the fact is that this idea – that there must be some kind of representation of black people, women, native Americans etc., in each and every sphere of societal activity – is now real policy, creating a “diversity dictatorship” as it has been called. The BBC’s shortlist for top jobs now has to contain diversity in the form of ethnic minorities and women, and the writer Lionel Shriver lost her column in a newspaper when she criticised diversity policy of this kind. The feeble intellectual foundation for diversity has not stopped it from becoming a key criterion for almost every type of activity that was hitherto based on merit.

Moreover, this is a highly selective diversity – why not demand that every job, government, or board has 10 per cent aged over 80, another 10 per cent aged over 70, 25 per cent handicapped, 25 per cent poor, etc.? These groups are rarely much catered for, and the elderly are truly discriminated against in both the workplace and in politics. If discrimination is to be compensated for through quotas, those groups who are truly affected by it should surely be included.

The argument in favour of quotas is, of course, nothing new, and the logic is the same as in the old Marxist argument that there is no objective study or interpretation of society, only what a class sees. With regard to race, black people or Afro-Americans have been active in their attacks not only on Civil War monuments in the United States, but, further afield, for instance, on the statue of Sir Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, demanding that it be pulled down. History, especially Western European history, is taught from the angle of colonial oppression and imperialism can hardly be talked about in a disinterested, apolitical, and scholarly manner. Perhaps colonialism brought some benefits in terms of schooling, administrative organisation, and social institutions? Perish not only the thought, but anyone suggesting it.

Similar examples abound, also in academia and business – criticism of an employee becomes a “reputation loss” for the employer who distances himself from the employee instead of defending him. Such a case is often based on someone’s subjective feelings or accusations of racism, homophobia, discrimination of women, or the like. This naturally creates a culture of fear – everyone must avoid triggering such reactions and therefore conform to whatever new dogma is launched. As in the Malkenes case, the employer – the Oslo School Board – defended the pupils rather than the teacher. Fortunately, this case led to major debate and uproar, and therefore to a full examination of the facts of the case in public debate. But this is far from always the norm.

The danger lies in the subjective element: being accused of something and having a campaign conducted against oneself on social media amounts to extremely heavy pressure, and many employers are cowards, not daring to stand up for the basic justice criterion of objective scrutiny of the facts of the case. In addition to cowardice, the strong inducement to protect the reputation of the employer is at work, especially in business. In a university it should be natural that criticism is welcome and praiseworthy, but that does not always hold true, especially when one depends on tuition-paying students.

If power then is what defines scholarship or knowledge, we have this dynamic: a group defines a dogma about some subject, claiming that collective historical injustice or discrimination should lead to changes in the teaching of the subject, even that group representatives only can teach the subject. This is exactly like the situation in a communist society where curricula in schools and universities were changed to conform to Marxist ideology. Contemporary dogma has to do with identity politics and ‘group think’, but the power dynamics are exactly the same as in Marxist ideology – (1) the group interprets what should count as knowledge, (2) everyone must accept this lest they be punished, (3) knowledge is not separable from politics, fact from value, the subjective from the objective.

Ontology: tribalism

The present climate of public debate and ideas is marked by group identity politics – the premise that what Aristotle calls “accidentals” (such as sex, race, etc.) are of such importance that they constitute the definition of human nature and therefore give rise to collective or group rights. On this logic, women are profoundly different from men, so different that they are entitled to specific rights qua women – not the right to be equal, as that presupposes a universal, common human nature for both sexes against which one measures equality, but the right to be different, possessing unique qualifications in professional, political, and scholarly life. Thus, being a woman in and of itself may entail a qualification to be a professor, to be included in university curricula, to be employed on boards and in professional jobs (there are usually no calls for quotas in the service sector, e.g. female quotas for garbage collectors or road construction workers).

The justification for quotas is two-fold: it is a right claimed in order to ameliorate alleged historical and contemporary discrimination of the group, and it is held as a general good for professions and for society at large. The latter is often invoked as an argument against male predominance in company boardrooms, business, the military, etc. – women provide diversity. Diversity is a positive term, who can be against it? Perhaps only in the military can one argue meaningfully for uniformity, hence the uniform and drills.

The premise of this kind of group think is that men and women are essentially different, and this difference is argued to be so profoundly important that it entitles women to a 50-50 gender balance in all sorts of professions, politics, and other areas of life. Professional qualifications are sometimes reduced in importance in order to achieve this balance.

But not only does this argument lack substance, no real attempt is made to substantiate it. Are women so very different from men that they can be lumped together into a distinct category of human beings? Isn’t there profound variation among women, as there is also among men? Do women really have much more in common with each other across age, nationality, educational level and so on, than do young people with other youngsters, doctors with other doctors, Norwegians with other Norwegians etc.?

Those who advance sex-based quotas as the provider of diversity carry the burden of the proof, but have hitherto failed to provide it. The fact that group interaction in a milieu of only men is different from situations with mixed sex components does not constitute proof of such profound difference. The flaws in the argument that women represent diversity qua women are obvious, but nonetheless this argument is the very basis for quota policy. The general underlying premise seems to be that a group consisting of both sexes, many races, many nationalities, young and old, is a diverse group, but such diversity is superficial. Real diversity exists among people of different religions, cultures, philosophies, and social classes. If people in a group have very little in common, it is truly a diverse group. If I sit on a business board with Taliban members we really are a diverse group. But such a group would probably not function at all – the more real the diversity, the less synergy is likely to be generated, leading to the very opposite of the argument that diversity is good for business. True diversity may be very beneficial, but this requires that the members of, say, a company board have professional knowledge of the business field in addition to different perspectives and experiences. This does not result from being black or female. White middle-aged men may naturally make for a very diverse group if their knowledge and experience vary.

Also, sex-based diversity is trumped by professional identity; when the two sexes are mixed in army dormitories in Norway, the soldiers cease to see each other as men and women and start to identify as teams, focused on the job at hand. This suggests that sex is greatly overrated in general importance and that professional identity is much more important. Modern society is, as Max Weber wrote, based on meritocracy, i.e. on professionalism, not on tribal identity. Yet the modern campaign for group identity constitutes a return to pre-modern tribalism.

The old feminism of the 1970s was logical and just, insofar as it argued for equality with men in terms of equal opportunity: women should rightly have access to the same jobs and education as men do. There should be no discrimination based on sex. Note that this is logical because it is premised on one common human nature and therefore that “accidents” like sex should not matter to human freedom and self-realisation. Here the ontological premise is correct: there is one human nature for both sexes, irrespective of race, ethnicity and whatever else that may differ among human beings.

“Old” or “equality” feminism simply argued for equal treatment for all human beings because they share in the same human nature, they are equal before the law, as citizens, professionals, etc. Group identity feminism, on the contrary, demands quotas for women because they are argued to be ontologically different from men, to such an extent that this warrants up to 50 per cent female representation in all sorts of professional jobs, student programs, company boards etc., regardless of formal qualifications.

Group identity politics works on the same logic as Marxism: if you disagree, you are entfremdet (alienated) and in need of consciousness-raising. Men can never have any say in group identity feminism because they are men; the bourgeoisie can never have any say in class struggle because they are unable to, given their class. By this logic, there is no common human nature that is the basis for equality among humans, only the group or the class, defined by the group or the class. If this logic is allowed to permeate the university there will no longer be the ability to speak truth unto power in the academy, but the opposite.

In light of this it is frightening that politics today aims at an almost mathematical 50-50% ‘representation’ of men and women in government – at least this is now a strong norm in the Nordic states – and other groups, like various national and religious groups, increasingly argue for ‘representation’. But political representation is not tribal, religious, or sex-based, but based on equality of citizenship, regardless of ethnicity, religion, and sex – that was the whole point of revolutions that fought to achieve equality! And representation is about ideology, one represents a party one has chosen because of its ideology, and one represents a geographical place and all its citizens of that ideological orientation. One is not elected to represent groups in society, that was the old anti-democratic society of estates that democracy replaced.

As states above, Western civilization is the only one where human beings are equal; and this remarkable equality is largely due to its Christian ideas. This equality is and remains the precondition for democracy, and democracy is completely alien to ‘group representation’. The latter is a corporation society where permanent groups have representation in the state.

Epistemology: extreme subjectivism

I have so far but alluded to the importance of epistemology in passing. I have argued that “old” feminism (and by logical implication, the fight for racial anti-discrimination and other types of discrimination) is ontologically sound, being based on the idea of a common human nature.

Now, this ontological position is no longer shared by group feminism/identity politics. The ontological premise here is the group or tribe: women make up a group that has nothing much in common with men, black people have nothing much in common with whites, and the attributes that form the group or the tribe make up an endless list. The tribe becomes the basis for claiming group rights, often in retribution for alleged discrimination. The individual no longer counts, only the group – as is typical of any tribe. Moreover, the attribute that defines the group is so fundamental that one must be born in the tribe to be part of it.

If it is only the group that can define what it is and what its rights are, there is no longer any measure of what is true or false, just or unjust. There is no longer any inter-subjective understanding of facts simply because there is no common standard of humanity to refer to. Anthropology – what a human being is, what human nature is – is therefore of central importance to academic and political debate and inquiry. Here the grave problem of constructivism as an extreme form of subjectivism enters. Popular in academia but probably too obscure to catch attention in the political debate, constructivism postulates, like Marxism, that there can be no inter-subjective, objective knowledge. What exists, exists for me, from my vantage-point, in my interpretation of the world. In my own field of political science, extreme constructivism would imply that war can be abolished if we start to think about peace. There is an element of subjective construction of reality that can be deconstructed by information, discussion, and persuasion, but there is also an objective reality that consists of hard power and weapon systems. The point here is not that subjective views of things are not real, but that they must ultimately be checked against reality, and that this is what a university is tasked to do. If I think that the world is flat because all that I can observe indicates this to be so, such a thesis must be exposed to inter-subjective testing. It is never enough to claim something to be true. Facts and reasoning must be presented and scrutinised.

In sum, knowledge can only be had according to certain rules of logic and by an attitude of courtesy and open-mindedness in debate. All knowledge must pass the test of inter-subjectivity, especially in the university. Arguments must be presented in an apolitical, disinterested manner where personal interest should play no role. When students take academic criticism personally, they show that they are unable to distinguish between these fundamental elements. If I say that I am uninterested in the student’s pigmentation, sex, race, weight and political preferences, I exhibit the correct attitude as a scholar: it is not the student per se that matters, but his academic arguments and writings.

The same logic should apply in politics. Democracy should be open to debate and tolerant of views that oppose the mainstream. The problem of majority tyranny is well-known. Minority tyranny is no less dangerous.

Francis Fukuyama’s recent book Identity: the demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment[25]provides a profound analysis of the political implications of group rights and subjectivism. He points to the rise of democracy as a system whereby elites were replaced by inherently equal people. He also recounts how feminism and the civil rights movement were struggles for equality, not for difference. The turn came when “the left began to embrace multiculturalism” because it was hard to fight changes to the liberal market-economic paradigm.[26] He finds that this new ‘tribalism’ has now pervaded democratic politics and threatens it: “the left’s identity politics poses a threat free speech and to the kind of rational discourse needed to sustain a democracy…the fact that an assertion is offensive to someone’s sense of self-worth is often seen as grounds for silencing…the individual who made it”.[27] This he calls ‘political correctness’, and attributes the left with promoting it.[28] The absurdity of this is seen in one example he mentions – when using ‘she’ and ‘he’ offends the ones that identify as transgender.

Fukuyama also discusses the need to integrate people in a dominant national identity. He even uses the term ‘assimilation’ about this process, and calls on European states to become much stricter in this regard: “European states should impose stringent requirements on the naturalisation of new citizens, something the US has done for many years. In the US,…new citizens are expected to be able to read, write, and speak basic English, have an understanding of US history and government, be of good moral character (i.e. have no criminal record), and demonstrate an attachment to the principles and ideals of the US Constitution by swearing an oath of allegiance to the United States. European countries should expect the same from their new citizens”.[29]


This analysis has shown how the European nation-state, and by implication, European democracy, is threatened by polarization through populism and identity politics alike. The former simplifies politics by reducing it to a struggle between the ‘real people’ and the bad ‘elites’, and uses demagogy as its preferred method. The latter undermines rational public debate by denying the common human nature on which citizenship is based and silences discussion by repressive marginalization.


[1] J.H. Matlary, Hard Power in Hard Times: Can Europe Act Strategically? Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
[2] Kirchick, “The Future of Liberalism”, The American Interest, 6 March 2019, p. 2.
[3] See various statistics cited by James Kirchick, op. cit., such as the 2018 Eurobarometer poll that shows that immigration and terrorism are the two items cited on top as problems in Europe, the 2017 Chatham House survey which shows that in 8 of 10 European states majorities oppose further Muslim immigration, including 53% of Germans, and British data that shows that between 2000 and 2016 the percentage that views immigration as a major problem rose from 7 to 49%.
[4] Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Refuge. Transforming a Broken Refugee System, Allen Lane, UK, and Penguin, US, 2017.
[5] Middle East North Africa.
[6] See e.g. John J. Mearsheimer’s analysis in The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, Yale University Press, 2018, for a discussion of the dynamics of current international politics. Although one may take issue with his conclusions about the possibilities of liberal order, his delineation of realism and liberalism as empirical realities in international affairs is very good.
[7] Michta, Andrew, “The Sources of the West’s Decline”, The American Interest, 22 February 2019, p. 2-3.
[8] D. Hope and A. Martelli, “The Transition to the Knowledge Economy, labour market institutions, and income inequality in advanced democracies”, World Politics, 1, 53, downloaded from King’s College, 16 March 2019.
[9] Sara Hobolt, “The Brexit Vote: a divided nation, a divided continent”, Journal of European Public Policy, vol 23, issue 9, 2016.
[10] See Walter Ullmann, A History of Political Thought: The Middle Ages, Penguin Books, 1978, UK.
[11] Cas Mudde, “How populism became the concept that defines our age”, The Guardian, 22 Nov. 2018. He has authored many scholarly works on the theme, among them Populism: A very short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2017.
[12] Müller, Jan-Werner, “False Flags: the Myth of Nationalist Resurgence”, Foreign Affairs, 12 February 2019.
[13] David Frum, same title, The Atlantic, 18 March 2019.
[14] Bagehot, “Metamorphosis”, The Economist, 6 April 2019, p. 30.
[15] See e.g. Steven Crosby, “Nationality”, Nation, State, and Empire, ed. By Kurt Almquist, Ax:son Johnson Foundation, Stockholm, 2018, pp. 33-40.
[16] New York Times, front page, “The Hottest App in China Teaches Citizens About Their Leader — and, Yes, There’s a Test”, 7 April 2019.
[17] See Benedict Anderson, (1991). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism London: Verso.
[18] Grosby, op. cit., p. 35.
[19] Siedentorp, Larry, “The Idea of the State”, in Almquist, op. cit. pp. 65-73.
[20] Ibid., p. 68.
[21] Ullmann, op. cit.
[22] Siedentop, op. cit., p. 71.
[23] Ibid., p. 72.
[24] The New Statesman Interview was published on 7 April, and the publication also published the transcript of the conversation on which it was based. The controversial part was this:
Georg Eaton: One of the things which people jumped on was your description of Islamophobia as a propaganda word. Would you defend that now?
Roger Scruton: Absolutely. It was invented by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop discussion of a major issue (which he explains is the role of Islam and peaceful resolution of conflicts in liberal democracy).
[25] Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, NY, 2018.
[26] Foreign Affairs, 14 August 2018, “The new Tribalism and the Crisis of Democracy”, F. Fukuyama, p. 5.
[27] Ibid.
[28] See also Ronald Dworkin, “America’s Permanent Mobs: identity politics tactics echo those of both Lenin and Torquemada”, The American Interest, 24 Oct. 2019 and M. Bröning, “Karl Marx war auch nu rein alter weisser mann”, Zeit Online, 25 March 2019.
[29] Fukyuama, p. 9.


Nazione, Stato, Stato Nazione

Sessione Plenaria 1-3 maggio 2019 | Nota concettuale – Oggi il mondo si trova ad... Continua

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