Nationalists and Patriots: Revisiting Orwell’s Worst Essay

[Nationalism] “does not necessarily mean loyalty to a government or a country, still less to one’s own country, and it is not even strictly necessary that the units in which it deals should actually exist.” —George Orwell, Note on Nationalism (1945)

“Remember this, take it to heart, live by it, die for it if necessary: that our patriotism is medieval, outworn, obsolete; that the modern patriotism, the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the Nation all the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it.” —Mark Twain, The Czar’s Soliloquy (1905)

The Happy Patriot, the Unhappy Nationalist, in The Atlantic, by Arthur C. Brooks, a professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School, is a bit dishonest, albeit not in a straightforward way. In fairness, Brooks is not alone in pulling quotes from George Orwell’s 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism and using them in the way he does. I do not think that he or others who use the essay in this way are being sloppy. Orwell announces his hedges throughout, clearly uncomfortable with his own argument.

I am a massive fan of Orwell’s work, but Notes on Nationalism is arguably his worst piece of writing. To wit: “Nationalism, in the extended sense in which I am using the word, includes such movements and tendencies as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism.” His attempt to explain pacifism as nationalism is lazy at best. And this: “Jewry, Islam, Christendom, the Proletariat and the White Race are all of them objects of passionate nationalistic feeling: but their existence can be seriously questioned, and there is no definition of any one of them that would be universally accepted.” Odd for a socialist to suppose that the proletariat may rest upon a subjective basis, no? (Yes, Orwell was a socialist.)

Orwell makes clear in his essay that he is not using nationalism in the ordinary sense. Indeed. It would be helpful if those using his argument would be as honest as Orwell is about this. Rather, he explains that what he is after is an emotion that sometimes attaches to “what is called a nation—that is, a single race or a geographic area.” Since words are so important to Orwell, and since he has, however bad the essay, opened an important avenue of discussion, it is important as well that we get right the meaning of words. Clarification: I am not here to deconstruct Orwell’s essay. I am really after Brooks’ argument and the project he represents. However, getting the terminology right is key to understanding what’s wrong with Brook’s Atlantic piece, so please bear with me. As it will turn out, I won’t have much to say about Brooks’s piece, since correcting and updating Orwell makes the problem with Brooks rather plain.

By “race,” Orwell means what modern sociologists call ethnicity. Long before Orwell sat down to write his essay, race had become a biological construct referring to one’s genetic lineage and organized by a typology used to differentiate human populations. Obviously groups differ in other ways, such as culturally and linguistically. The construct of ethnic was developed only shortly before Orwell penned his piece and was soon being used to differentiate human populations without reference to race. Prior to this, cultural, linguistic, and even religious differences often came under the label “nation” or “nationality.” Long ago the concept of nation came to stand for a defined territory with a common state and system of law containing a body of people of one or more races. One’s nationality is determined by one’s birth in this territory and to its inhabitants (jus sanguinis) or, in some countries with the English common law tradition, one’s birth in this territory (jus soli). Given this, it is important to differentiate these words, with race referring to a biological entity, ethnicity to culture and language, nation to a juridical-political system with geographical boundaries, and nationality to one’s place of citizenship, either by birth or through naturalization.

With these distinctions in mind, there are two types of nationalism determined by the relationships between race, ethnicity, and nation. One type is found in a state that may be multiethnic or multiracial but where one or more ethnic or racial group is privileged in law, with other ethnic or racial groups existing in a lower status under that same law. Such a state is founded upon ethnonationalism or racial nationalism. Modern-day Israel, with its law reflecting the ideology of Zionism, officially recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, is an example of formal ethnonationalism. Arabs living in Israel have rights, but they are second-class citizens with respect to law and property. The other type of nationalism is civic or liberal nationalism, where different ethnicities and races stand equal before the law without respect to their ethnic or racial identities. This is accomplished by regarding citizens and residents as individuals first and as groups second (if at all and ideally only when group identity bears on individual liberty and rights). The United States is an example of a liberal nationalist country. In fact, it is the paradigm (which is why it is so great).

Orwell stresses throughout his essay that he is using the term because he cannot find another that expresses his point. We must therefore recognize that Orwell’s argument is already limited by his qualified use of a term that means in the ordinary sense the desire by a group of people who share a common sense of purpose, culture, and language to form an independent country. Moreover, nationalism is ordinarily understood as a feeling of pride in one’s country, an expression of patriotism, which can include a feeling that one’s country or region is better than others—what we might call chauvinism but for the popular understanding that chauvinism is characterized by aggressive and unreasonable belief in national superiority. (Some countries are better than others, so what may appear as chauvinism to those who regard one’s reasons as unreasonable may be warranted. For example, my bragging about the United States.)

Orwell was writing about nationalism of a particular sort in the wake of WWII—the experience of National Socialism and the attitude of putting nation, in this case explicitly associated with race, beyond decency. Orwell’s extraordinary use of nationalism was to attempt to describe a blind loyalty to a party appealing to such indecencies, especially ethnonationalism or racial nationalism.

Orwell distinguishes nationalism from patriotism, the latter defined as “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.” Orwell defines nationalism in contrast: “Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception.” Patriotism is defensive. “Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.” They appear as opposites, but Orwell’s definition of patriotism is nationalism in the ordinary sense. He twists into knots sentences to escape ordinary meaning. This essay was apparently written by the anti-Orwell.

I can understand Orwell’s claim that nationalism is power hungry given what Great Britain had just been through with Nazi Germany. But why would a term explicitly hedged from an emotional and time-trapped essay be the basis of a contemporary argument against nationalism? The Happy Patriot and the Unhappy Nationalist is propaganda work in the service of the globalism project. The give away is when Brooks writes, “Populism and demographic tribalism are on the rise worldwide.” This is true, but insinuating the two together means to taint the one with the other.

Populism is a political approach appealing to and organizing those ordinary people whose concerns and interests established power disregards. Only to the elite is organizing ordinary people to challenge the status quo in a truly democratic way seen as manipulating the rabble with demagoguery. We can understand this when we see that populism stands in contrast to progressivism and other elite approaches to shaping and steering popular desire and sentiment. Demographic tribalism occurs when a population is divided or divides into ethnic, gender, racial, and religious groups that operate as (apparently) politically-interested parties. That is certainly dangerous and it describes rather precisely what is presently threatening national integrity throughout the West.

I have read a fair bit of Brooks’ writing. He is a libertarian who served for many years as the president of the American Enterprise Institute before joining the faculty at Harvard. My interpretation of Brooks’ attitude, especially his understanding that populism is not a marginal movement but a major player in the culture war, is that he fears nationalism for its potentially constraining effects on free enterprise. In his mind, nationalism is closely aligned with statism.

What he is attempting to convey with this essay is that one should be patriotic about free market capitalism while opposing nationalism since it threatens his favored mode of production. He is a patriot for capitalism. At the same time, he is plugged into the sentiment that America should be fairer and more equitable. He strives to provide conservatives with moral arguments with which to defend capitalist foundations and encourages focus on neoliberal solutions to poverty. These arguments necessarily accept certain premises of corporatist ideology found in progressivism. Brooks is thus well situation in the Democratic-Republican Party establishment. And, today, that is globalist.

Brooks does not appear to grasp that the real threat to free market capitalism is not populist-nationalism but progressive corporatism (I will soon publish a lengthy blog on this subject, so stay tuned). Brooks’ essay is thus part of a campaign to delegitimize populist-nationalism by arguing that it is an expression of tribalism (racism, in particular), even while he is part of the established order that promotes demographic tribalism. In fact, populist-nationalism is the antidote to the demographic tribalism those managing the decline of the West organize and wield against the individual.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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