Sunday, 16 April 2017

Nationalism: that meme that preys on every country's weakness

Thinking about the ugly fate which might genuinely soon befall Europe, should Marine Le Pen win the French presidency - lately made more possible by the recent surge for Jean-Luc Melenchon, raising the spectre of a far-left/far-right runoff from next week's vote - I set to thinking about what makes the current renaissance of populism/nationalism so potent.

Richard Dawkins invented the neologism "meme" to mean the cultural equivalent of a gene, an idea that embeds and propagates itself in a society, which could be either positive or pathological. Religion (if you are atheist, like Dawkins) is one. Nationalism, I would argue, is also one and usually pathological.

Whither nationalism? Yes, a recent economic depression over much of the world has helped, as it did in the early 1930s. Easy answers from charlatans are always attractive. But ultimately, what is it all about? 

Why, about looking for the historic weakness in each country's psyche, which is gently stroked by the nationalist. Just as party-populist Jeremy Corbyn has tickled his party's sensitive tummy about being a "real" socialist (not a "pretend" socialist like those nasty new Labour figures who, you know, actually won elections and did stuff), each grouping or country has a weakness, preyed on by the unscrupulous.

For the English, of course, the fantasy that they can recreate their glory days. No longer, of course, their imperialist past - only the neo-Nazis can lack self-awareness to that degree. No, now it is simply that it, a medium-sized world economy, can cut the same figure outside the EU as it formerly did inside. For the Scots, it is that a nation of nine million souls can do something similar, outside Britain while inside the EU (good luck with that). The Catalans, that they can really count for something in the world outside of Spain. And so on.

But it is a general phenomenon: Americans, seeing that they no longer have a global economic hegemony thanks to China, are panic-stricken and fall back on the snake-oil answers of "making America great again" peddled by Trump. The French's weakness is that they have never really managed to integrate their North African neighbours or actually face up to the fact that their statist scleroticism is hopelessly out of date. The Germans that they feel they have been just going round being too nice to everyone during the postwar period. The central Europeans who have never quite got used to foreigners (and Jews in particular, in some countries such as Hungary). And the Russians, whose leader's harking back to the good old days of being a true superpower and identifying convenient bogeymen, for him to protect them against, has gone down a storm. In each case, the nationalist leader feeds the weakness, the particular self-indulgence of the nation. 

There is only one way out of this descending spiral: the nous, and the balls, to stand up and call this irrational self-indulgence out for what it is. We shall see, in each country separately, whether this can be done. The signs are currently not good.

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