Some Thoughts on Nationalism

I posted this on a forum I use and figured I would put it here as well. Sorry if it’s not as concise as it could be but I had a stinking hangover. 😀 It’s just some thoughts on nationalism and why it’s always a negative thing in politics.


A lot of what people refer to as ‘shortbread’ nationalism is, from what I can tell, an attempt to preserve a perceived historical Scottish culture. This is no bad thing as it is a positive thing for people to be able to connect with the past in order to learn from it and to understand how we came to live in the society we live in today. I, for one, like the thought that a hundred years from now people will be able to experience the music and culture of two hundred years ago. This sort of cultural preservation has a place that should be separate from the political landscape as the culture being preserved has little relevance to the problems we actually face in the modern world. It can help us understand the origins of society but it rarely, if ever, leads us directly to the solutions. This ‘shortbread’ nationalism has a place alongside museums and historical societies. They frame the questions that we are faced with, and often allow an understanding of the questions, but they do not answer them. That is our job in the here and now.

Human cultures can be troublesome for those who seek to fix in stone ‘national identity’, something which people have been trying to do for at least 2,500 years(1). Unfortunately for those who seek to do so human cultures are not fixed by boundaries and mutate and evolve over time and distance.
The culture of the Scots of Dal Riatta(2), for example, is no more having been subsumed by the culture of the incoming Norse in the last centuries of the first millennium c.e. Whose culture in turn was changed almost beyond recognition by their adoption of certain cultural elements, most notably religion, of the people of Dal Riatta. Even before the Norse invasion the culture of the people of Dal Riatta was significantly different to that of the Britons who lived in the area that is now Glasgow and Lanarkshire. They again were culturally distinct to the Picts of the north. So just by looking at a very small area, from Argyll to Lanarkshire we see two distinct cultures both altered massively by an incoming culture which was in turn altered by the cultures it subsumed. We can clearly see that any notion of a fixed culture as being patently false. Scottish culture as it is now is completely different to the culture of the days when William Wallace wandered(sorry I couldn’t help the alliteration). This is why so-called ‘shortbread’ nationalism has a place in helping us contextualise the origins of our society and that is really all.


Now I know that some will hold that this cultural history helps define our identity, and no doubt it does to some extent. Identity however is, like culture, a fluid thing that alters and changes over time. The things that a person takes from their culture today to define them are going to be immensely different to what someone merely a century ago would have taken to define themselves.

“ […] identity, as we understand it, is inextricably linked to the sense of belonging. Through identity we perceive ourselves, and others see us, as belonging to certain groups and not others. Being part of this group entails active engagement. Identity, therefore, is not a static thing, but a continual process (literally, that of identification, cf. Hall 1996). Identities are constructed through interaction between people, and the process by which we acquire and maintain our identities requires choice and agency. Through agency we define who we are. […] The active role of the individual leads to identities being historical, fluid, subject to persisting change. They are also socially mediated, linked to the broader cultural discourse and are performed through embodiment and action. The concept of identity […] is not an essentialist, but a strategic and positional one.”(3)

So ‘Scottish’ identity, or any other identity for that matter, in the modern world bears little resemblance to identity of days gone by.

I would go further and argue that defining ones identity in an overly historical way can lead to focussing on the differences between people as a way of defining a cultural identity. This can lead to antagonism between peoples over perceived differences. This is nothing new and, like I said above, has been going on for over 2,500 years.


I think it’s important to separate culture and identity from the nation state. The nation as it exists now has not been with us long, since only the French revolution in the 1700’s, and at one time referred to a group of people rather than to a territory or political structure. It is not used in such a way any more and it can be confusing as the rhetoric of nationalism implies otherwise. The rapid globalisation of culture over the last century has led to a globalisation too of identity. An individual is as likely to adopt characteristics from the cultures the other side of the world as they are the region in which they are born. We see this in the language people use, the way we dress, music we listen to and in the values we hold. All these things are informed by a wider range of influences than at any point in human history. As such clinging to the cultural mores of yesteryear, in anything other than an historical context, can serve no real purpose in defining the modern identity.

The modern nation state, with its fixed borders, serves only the purpose of the management of labour. It is the tool used by the regional ruling class to maintain control over those that produce their wealth, us. The borders of these nation states rarely have any real bearing on the culture of the people that live within them. One does not simply cross a line on a map and all of a sudden the people are clearly and distinctly different from those the other side of the line. Cultures, and by extension identification, transcend national boundaries and flow into one another. This is best seen with the languages people speak and the way neighbouring languages are related to one another, with only a few notable exception like Basque. Physical boundaries can, of course, have an effect on this but people are notorious for finding ways around these boundaries.

Added to this we have the changing nature of capitalism and its moving away from reliance upon the nation state as a means of managing labour. Where once the ruling class would dominate within the borders of its state, and in the days of imperialism those states it controlled, now we see an international ruling class whose labour force is often on the other side of the world from its own nation.

This brings us away from the cultural sphere and into the political one. It is here that nationalism comes into its own. With its rhetoric that conflates a culture with a modern nation it implies a shared interest between people within this nation with the nation state itself serving as a unifying factor. As such all nationalisms, whether right or ostensibly left wing, lend themselves towards forging alliances across economic classes.

These cross class alliances assume a perceived common interest born of culture and identity. Whilst it may appear that people of the same region will share the same culture this is not so. The nature of class based societies means that those of different classes have a separate culture and their identity is forged from a different set of experiences and values. Their interests are, because of their class, different to those of other classes, despite sharing some cultural elements across the class divide.

It is when we look at the nature of class societies around the world that we start to see cultural similarities that pervade all cultures. If we look at the experiences of workers and of the ruling class around the world we see there are unifying factors that, just like cultures transcend national boundaries, these factors transcend cultural differences. The education of a ruling class child, for example, will be superior in all regions to that of a working class child. The working class adult will have had a similar set of experiences to other working class adults around the world in that they have to sell their labour to the ruling class in order to survive.

It is these common experiences of economic exploitation that unite all people along class lines. It is this shared economic position that completely transcends all cultural and national borders and unites all humans as workers or as exploiters. Sorry for the Marx 101. Because of this it is vital for the working class to recognise that its shared identity is not bound by lines on maps or cultural differences. Without this awakening then there is no hope for the communist/anarchist/socialist project. As the old adage goes workers of the world unite!

It is because of the importance of this that nationalism serves as a threat, whether from left or right wing, to the interests of the working class. The nation only serves as a vehicle for maintaining class society and one of the most powerful weapons in its arsenal is its appropriation of culture and identity. By associating itself with the shared cultural experience of the people within its borders it allows for cross class alliances to seem natural and for there to be a perceived shared interest between these classes. The nationalist struggle is one that can, at best, only hope to deliver the workers into the hands of a boss closer to home. With the changing nature of capitalism however the boss will still be the same it’s just the managers will be in Holyrood rather than Westminster.

Sorry if this was a bit rambling, I’ve got a killer hangover :o , and I hope I’ve outlined well enough some of my criticism of nationalisms.

1- Herodotus, the first Historian, uses the foreignness of Persian culture to try and define an overall Greek culture in his work The Histories.

2- Dal Riatta was a kingdom in the region that is now Argyll. It was occupied for centuries by Scots from Ireland who were eventually conquered by the Norse. The centre of power at the time was Dumbarton rock as well as at Dunadd near Kilmartin.

3-Diaz-Andreu, M and Lucy, S. The Archaeology of Identity: Approaches to Gender, Age, Status, Ethnicity and Religion. (Routledge, 2005)


Posted on January 16, 2010, in Politics, Scotland and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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