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Globalization's assault on nationalism

Despite the rapid mobility of peoples, mass migrations, the proliferation of diaspora cultures, and a transnational sense of community provided by internet relationships, national identities persist. In fact they seem to flourish in a global world. And therein lies a paradox. Religious affiliation, while providing a connection to transnational networks, also offers resources for shoring up local identities. Why have limited loyalties and parochial new forms of ethno-religious nationalism surfaced in todays' sea of post-nationality?

History seems poised on the brink of an era of globalization, hardly the time for new national aspirations to emerge. In fact, some observers have cited the appearance of ethnic and religious nationalism in such areas as the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, Algeria and the Middle East, South Asia, Japan, and among right-wing movements in Europe and the United States as evidence that globalization has not reached all quarters of the globe. But is this really the case? Is it possible to see these quests for local identities and new nationalisms not as anomalies in the homogeneity of globalization, but as further examples of its impact?

This is what I would like to explore in this essay. It seems to me that the paradox of new nationalisms in a global world can be explained, in part, by seeing them as products of one or more of several globalizing forces. In many cases, the new ethnic and religious movements are reactions to globalization. They are responses to the insufficiencies of what is often touted as the world's global political standard: the secular constructs of nationalism that are found not only in Europe and the United States but remain in many parts of the former Third World as vestiges of European colonialism.

In this essay I will look at the responses to old secular nationalisms, which are under siege precisely at a time when they have themselves been weakened by globalization. Their vulnerability has been the occasion for new ethno-religious politics to step into the breach and shore up national identities and purposes in their own distinctive ways. Some forms of ethno-religious politics are global, some are virulently anti-global, and yet others are content with the attempt to create ethno-religious nation-states. Thus these new forms of ethnic and religious politics will remain paradoxical: sometimes aligned with nationalism, sometimes with transnational ideologies, and in both cases standing in uneasy relationship with the globalizing economic and cultural forces of the post-Cold War world.

It should not be surprising that new sociopolitical forms are emerging at this moment of history since globalization is redefining virtually everything on the planet. This includes especially those social and political conventions associated with the nation-state. Among other things, global forces are undermining many of the traditional pillars on which the secular nation-state have been based, such as national sovereignty, economic autonomy, and social identity. As it turns out, however, these aspects of the nation-state have been vulnerable to change for some time.

Born as a stepchild of the European Enlightenment, the idea of the modern nation-state is profound and simple: the state is created by the people within a given national territory. Secular nationalism — the ideology that originally gave the nation-state its legitimacy — contends that a nation's authority is based on the secular idea of a social compact of equals rather than on ethnic ties or sacred mandates. It is a compelling idea, one with pretensions of universal applicability. It reached its widest extent of world-wide acceptance in the mid-twentieth century.

But the latter half of the century was a different story. The secular nation-state proved to be a fragile artifice, especially in those areas of the world where nations had been created by retreating colonial powers — in Africa by Britain, Portugal, Belgium, and France; in Latin America by Spain and Portugal; in South and Southeast Asia by Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the United States; and in Eurasia by the Soviet Union. In some cases boundary disputes led to squabbles among neighboring nations. In others the very idea of the nation was a cause for suspicion.

Many of these imagined nations — some with invented names such as Yugoslavia, Pakistan, and Indonesia — were not accepted by everyone within their territories. In yet other cases, the tasks of administration became too difficult to perform in honest and efficient ways. The newly-created nations had only brief histories of prior colonial control to unite them, and after independence they had only the most modest of economic, administrative, and cultural infrastructures to hold their disparate regions together.

By the 1990s these ties had begun to fray. The global economic market undercut national economies, and the awesome military technology of the US and NATO reduced national armies to border patrols. More significantly the rationale for the nation-state came into question. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the post-colonial, post-Vietnam critique of Western democracy, the secular basis for the nation-state seemed increasingly open to criticism. In some instances, such as in Yugoslavia, when the ideological glue of secular nationalism began to dissolve, the state fell apart.

The effect of what I have elsewhere called "the loss of faith in secular nationalism" was devastating (Juergensmeyer 1993). Throughout the world, it seemed, nationalism was subject to question, and the scholarly community joined in the task of trying to understand the concept in a post-Cold War and transnational era (Anderson 1983, Gottlieb 1993, Kotkin 1994, Smith 1995, Tamir 1993, Young 1993).[1] Part of the reason for nationalism's shaky status was that it was transported to many parts of the world in the cultural baggage of what Jurgen Habermas has called "the project of modernity" (Habermas 1987, 148) — an ascription to reason and a progressive view of history that many thought to be obsolete. In a multicultural world where a variety of views of modernity are in competition, the very concept of a universal model of secular nationalism became a matter of lively debate.

Globalization challenges the modern idea of nationalism in a variety of ways. These challenges are varied because globalization is multifaceted: the term, after all, refers not to any one thing but to a series of processes. The term embraces not only the global reach of transnational businesses but also their labor supply, currency, and financial instruments. In a broader sense it also refers to the planetary expansion of media and communications technology, popular culture, and environmental concerns. Ultimately it also includes a sense of global citizenship and a commitment to world order.

When one speaks of "globalization," therefore, it is useful to specify which aspect of it one has in mind. It is possible that people in a particular region of the world will experience one kind of globalization but not others. For instance, countries that are brought into contact with economic globalization — by supplying labor for the commodity chains of globalized production — may not experience the globalization of culture and citizenship. In fact, the advent of economic globalization may threaten local identities in such a way as to encourage the protection of local cultures and social identities, sometimes in hostile and defensive ways.

My own studies have demonstrated that some of the most intense movements for ethnic and religious nationalism arise in nations where local leaders have felt exploited by the global economy or believe that somehow the benefits of economic globalization have passed them by (Juergensmeyer 1993, 2000). The global shifts in economic and political power that occurred following the break-up of the Soviet Union and the sudden rise and subsequent fall of Japanese and other Asian economies in the past fifteen years have had significant social repercussions. The public sense of insecurity that has come in the wake of these changes has been felt especially in areas economically devastated by the changes, including those nations and regions that had been under the dominance of the Soviet Union.

These shifts led to a crisis of national purpose in less developed nations as well. A new, postcolonial generation no longer believed in the Westernized vision of India’s Nehru or Egypt’s Nasser. Rather, it wanted to complete the process of decolonialization by asserting the legitimacy of their countries' own traditional values in the public sphere and constructing a national identity based on indigenous culture (Chatterjee 1993). This eagerness was made all the more keen when they observed the global media assault of Western music, videos and films that satellite television beam around the world, and which threaten to obliterate local and traditional forms of cultural expression.

In other cases it has been a different kind of globalization — the emergence of multicultural societies through global diasporas of peoples and cultures, and the suggestion of global military and political control in a "new world order" — that has elicited fear. Perhaps surprisingly, this response has been most intense in the most developed countries of the West which in other ways seem to be the very paradigm of globalization. In the United States, for example, the Christian Identity movement and militia organizations have been fueled by fears of a massive global conspiracy involving liberal American politicians and the United Nations. In Europe this fear of the loss of national identity and control has led to the rise of right wing parties and stridently xenophobic ideologies.

As far-fetched as the idea of a "new world order" of global control may be, there is some truth to the notion that the integration of societies, communication among disparate peoples, and the globalization of culture have brought the world closer together. Although it is unlikely that a cartel of malicious schemers has designed this global trend, its effect on local societies and national identities has nonetheless been profound. It has undermined the modern idea of the nation-state by providing nonnational and transnational forms of economic, social, and cultural interaction. The global economic and social ties of the inhabitants of contemporary global cities are linked together in a way that supercedes the Enlightenment notion that peoples in particular regions are naturally linked together in a social contract. In a global world, it is hard to say where particular regions begin and end. For that matter, it is hard to say how one should define the "people" of a particular nation.

This is where religion and ethnicity step in to redefine public communities. The fading of the nation-state and old forms of secular nationalism have produced both the opportunity for new nationalisms and the need for them. The opportunity has arisen because the old orders seem so weak; and the need for national identity persists because no single alternative form of social cohesion and affiliation has yet appeared to dominate public life the way the nation-state did in the twentieth century. In a curious way, traditional forms of social identity have helped to rescue the idea of national societies. In the increasing absence of any other demarcation of national loyalty and commitment, these old staples — religion, ethnicity and traditional culture — have become resources for national identification.

1. The renewed academic interest in nationalism has spawned two new journals, Nations and Nationalism, and Nationalism and Ethnic Politics. Other journals have devoted special issues to the topic: "Reconstructing Nations and States," Daedalus 122:3, Summer 1993; "Ethnicity and Nationalism," International Journal of Comparative Sociology 33:1-2, January-April 1992 (Anthony D. Smith, Guest Editor); and "Global Culture," Theory, Culture, and Society 7:2-3, June 1990.