The Double Edged Sword of Nationalism

Nationalism creates an inherent quagmire by trying to convert other cultures to that of the state and sanctioning hostilities between various groups.

In a world of increasing globalization—and increasing resistance to it via populism—nationalism is on the rise. In many ways, nationalism is seen as the antidote to globalization, so to speak. Populism has recently started to sweep across Europe and the United States as a reaction to the “global elites,” as they are called. While nationalism is a powerful tool in combating attacks from global hegemony on national sovereignty, it is ultimately a double-edged sword. In certain forms, nationalism turns a given state into a hegemon of its own.

Turkey provides a good historical and contemporary case study of this “double-edged sword” phenomenon. Since the founding of the republic in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey has embodied a strong spirit of nationalism, which has guided the country. Nationalism is one of the planks of the so-called doctrine of “Kemalism.” This new party embodied a different spirit of nationalism, one that was built around preserving Turkish ethnicity within the Turkish State.Unlike other Turkish nationalists, Atatürk promoted a form of “civic nationalism.” His brand of nationalism was inclusive: one did not have to be a Turk by ethnicity to be considered part of the nation.

In 1969, as the multi-party system began to distill in Turkey, a new party, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), was founded by former army colonel Alparslan Türkeş. Türkeş, who believed that the party of Atatürk, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), had drifted away from true Turkish nationalism, founded the MHP in response and became a prominent Turkish nationalist. This new party embodied a different spirit of nationalism, one that was built around preserving Turkish ethnicity within the Turkish State.

The Kurdish Problem

The question of what will happen with the Kurdish population has long been a hindrance to the Turkish state. In 1993, while debating Kurdish political activist Orhan Doğan, then-MHP leader Alparslan Türkeş brought up an interesting point when discussing the issue of Kurdish independence.

Türkeş said that allowing institutions to introduce and aid in the spread of Kurdish cultural identity and education was a self-destructive path.

Türkeş compared the Kurdish situation to the United States, pointing out that in New York, there were millions of Italian-speaking Americans. But these Italians could not, if they wanted, break off of the United States and form a separate state comprised chiefly of Italians. They still had to adhere to the American national identity, and their official language was still English, Türkeş proclaimed.

Türkeş even went further to say that allowing institutions to introduce and aid in the spread of Kurdish cultural identity and education was a self-destructive path. He boldly proclaimed that embracing such protocols would be equivalent to endorsing the splintering and destruction of the Turkish state and that he was willing to spill blood if need be to preserve that state. The current MHP leader, Devlet Bahçeli, holds these same radical pro-Turkish national identity ideals.

Mises and the Right of Self-Determination

In 1927, the great Austrian philosopher and economist Ludwig von Mises addressed the issue of the right to self-determination in his political treatise Liberalismus. Mises watched as authoritarianism and fascism began to grow in the 1920s, underscoring the importance of spreading the ideas of freedom and self-determination to counter this nefarious trend in politics.

To Mises, it was contra freedom and democracy to not “guarantee that the adjustment of the government to the will of the citizens can take place without friction.” It is important to note that Mises was often dealing with the discussion of European polyglot states in his treatise, hence his analysis remains relevant to the current and historical treatment of the Kurds in Turkey.

“Liberal Nationalism”

A key insight that Mises took in was that in polyglot nations, people of like-minded cultural backgrounds tended to group together. At the same time, a malicious state could counter this and sanction hostilities between various groups. Mises fused these two insights to create a better understanding of his form of “liberal nationalism.” Mises viewed nationalism as a “liberation movement” of sorts, forging “wars of liberation” against monarchical despots. It allowed groups to determine their future prospects with regard to political organization.

Mises’s liberal nationalism allows for the peaceful organization and reorganization of peoples based on the principle of popular democracy.

Mises’s view can be summed up here: Liberal nationalism adheres to the preservation of the people’s interests, while authoritarian nationalism, as seen in Turkey, adheres to preserving the interests of the state. The former seeks to give the people the right to self-determination, whereas the latter seeks to give the state the right to self-determination. It is a classic contrast of Lockeanism and Hobbesianism.

Mises’s liberal nationalism is irrespective of culture or ethnicity. It allows for the peaceful and smoothly functioning organization and reorganization of peoples based on the principle of popular democracy. It is grounded in the idea of respecting the free movement of people while also recognizing the importance of the individual and property rights.

Self-Determination

The Kurdish phenomenon in Turkey is perhaps complicated by the Turkish state rather than simply being a messy problem in of itself. Though the two phenomena have intrinsically different dynamics, at their hearts, the Kurdish problem and the polyglot problem in Europe in the early 20th century are one and the same. Both underscore the importance of allowing the people to guide themselves—not the state.

Nationalism gives an individual state the right of self-determination but does not grant it to individuals.Yes, it’s true that nationalism challenges globalization. Conversely, however, it is rooted in the survival of the state and the needs of the state above all other things. Thus, the goal of keeping the state as one strong entity trumps the goal of meeting the demands of the people. Democracy is no threat to nationalism until the people’s demands begin to threaten the stability and unity of the state. This is the problem with nationalism and why it is, in essence, a double-edged sword.

Nationalism gives an individual state the right of self-determination but does not grant it to individuals. Nationalism creates an inherent quagmire by trying to convert other cultures to that of the state and sanctioning hostilities between various groups. If nationalism is to succeed, it will only be in its liberal form, as Mises advocated. Nationalism as it is in its form today, however, only adds to the list of problems created by globalization.

Further Reading

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