March 11, 2008

Is ethno-nationalism a modern disease? Is it an inevitable product of human nature subjected to modern conditions, and therefore something we have to accommodate, despite the ugly costs it imposes?  A necessary evil? The most reliable foundation for an enduring polity in a post-dynastic age? The plague of the 20th century?

Sadly, yes.

To all of the above.

I read Jerry Muller’s perceptive article in Foreign Affairs, and Daniel Larison’s thoughtful response, just as I was finishing Niall Ferguson’s elegantly written and wrenchingly sad The War of the World“€”which documents the human cost in the 20th century of class struggle and ethno-nationalism. (I think Muller is right to add “€œethno,”€ since there are forms of nationalism which focus on something other than perceived biological kinship”€”see the African colonials who fought so heroically for France in both World Wars, not to mention black Americans in those conflicts.) In his long, scrupulously researched book, Ferguson lays out the astonishing ethnic patchwork which made up central and eastern Europe in 1914″€”a loosely knit tapestry of Germans, Poles, Jews, Croats, Turks, Serbs, Ukrainians, Ruthenians, Gypsies, Magyars… and list goes on and on. The internal loyalties of each group”€”which I’ll call, without prejudice, “€œtribalism”€”€” existed in tension with some degree of allegiance to the dynastic states in which these various folk resided. Of course, such loyalties varied according to how well each minority thought it was being treated by the monarchy and dominant ethnic group; Russian Jews were rightly disaffected from the Tsar, while German Jews were rather devoted to the German and Austrian Kaisers.  Croatians were called “€œblack and yellows”€ for our famous loyalty to the Habsburgs, while the Poles were rightly disaffected from each of the monarchies that had subjected them. The tension was fragile, but it seemed likely to hold”€”and perhaps to lead in the long run to greater decentralism, and the gradual enfranchisement of the most important minorities. That was, at any rate, the plan of Archduke Franz Ferdinand….

Who knows? It might have worked”€”had the decentralization been undertaken seriously. The only hope of long-term ethnic peace in central Europe would have combined large-scale land reform (land to the tiller, taken from aristocratic domains) and a radical push towards local sovereignty. The model of the Swiss (today the only example of a thriving “€œmulticultural”€ state), might have offered a little hope, had anyone heeded it. (It’s too often forgotten that Wilhelm Röpke championed such decentralism for postwar Germany, with real results; his arguments in The Solution of the German Problem [1944] helped persuade the Western liberators to make West Germany far more federalist than either France or England.)

Instead, the First World War destroyed two liberal monarchies and one creaky autocracy, and unleashed two forces which quickly proved themselves demonic”€”in action, if not in theory: fanatical class-consciousness shaped by a shallow if drearily consistent ideology, and hypertrophied, intolerant tribalism.

Marxism in arms, which claimed the mantle of the whole Western tradition (as the final development of the last great synthetic philosophy of Europe, namely Hegel’s) and the trappings of “€œscience”€ and economics, repeated the butchery and tyranny practiced by the Jacobins. And not just in Russia, a backward land almost inured to pogroms and political intolerance. “€œRed”€ regimes would prove themselves equally bloody-minded in Hungary and in Spain before World War II”€”and across Eastern Europe afterward.

In response, many on the Right adopted a neo-primitive ideology of the Volk, as a counterforce to the magnetism of class, and pulled from the 19th century hodgepodge that was liberal nationalism the elements needed to form mass movements of equal or greater appeal than Marxism internationalism. Instead of capitalists and kulaks, their scapegoats of choice were Armenians, Gypsies, Serbs, the handicapped, and most famously Jews.

These movements’ victims”€”counting only civilians murdered or starved in peacetime from China to Gibraltar”€”numbered in so many millions that historians simply cannot count them. And it’s impossible for us to imagine their scale, the starvation camps and crematoria, the killing fields and starving Chinese villages. But we ought at least to try. The most vivid images most of us have of mass murder in peacetime are still those of September 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 people died. A conservative estimate of the civilians killed outside of direct combat in the 20th century by government is 60 million. So to visualize the human cost of these two ideological movements, you need to imagine the attacks of 9/11 happening once a day, every day, for 54.79 years. That was the 20th century.

Ferguson’s catalog of the crimes committed along the way to constructing the “€œideal communities”€ favored by each ideology, and appalling intellectual degradation which many brilliant men cheerfully embraced as they jumped on various bandwagons, makes for a stomach-churning read. By the end, one is strongly inclined to reject in toto both ethnicity and social class, treat both of them as evil fetishes which must thrown on history’s scrap heap”€”in favor of liberalism, whose bloodiest outrage is legal abortion, and state capitalism, whose worst historic outcome was the Great Depression.

And yet, as anyone who follows even campus politics knows, socialism and Marxism have not been wholly discredited by the crimes committed in their name. (I’ve written satirically on this subject here .) Democratic politicians such as John Edwards feel perfectly free to engage in the rhetoric of class warfare with little fear of being associated with the crimes of Lenin (much less Stalin). Thinkers who took up the cudgels for murderers like Trotsky, Stalin, and even Mao, are routinely assigned to English graduate students for their insights into lyric poetry. (I used to argue for including Pol Pot in our course syllabi, with no success.)

The converse is not the case. In Western Europe and America, politicians and even conservative polemicists must tread carefully indeed if they wish to make even the slightest claim on behalf of defending the interests and integrity of ethnic majorities. If the memories of the Gulag have faded, those of Nazi depredations have not. Reading Ferguson’s account of the elaborate pseudo-science of race invented in Germany (with eugenics laws imported from America), of the moral and intellectual degradation of Europe’s most advanced nation, is stomach-wrenching”€”and enough to give me a little more imaginative sympathy with neoconservative paranoia on these subjects. I can see why words like “€œalien”€ and “€œdeportation”€ provoke outsized, irrational fear among commentators whose not-so-distant relatives were victims.

But this will not do. As we see from the rise of Islamist communities in Europe, and fiercely tribalist movements among Mexican immigrants to the U.S., liberalism is not enough. While some might hope that the acid of consumerism and secularism will break down these incoming cultures—as they have destroyed our own—time is not on our side. The breakneck birthrate of European Moslems, and the almost unbounded desire of Mexicans to move to the U.S., promise radical transformations with political implications. If Europeans rightly fear sharia, Americans who treasure some measure of economic liberty ought to worry as well; to libertarians who blithely reject the notion of national borders, one ought to point out that the people moving in across the border are used to kleptocratic socialism, and likely for generations to vote for more of the same. How sacred are property rights today in Mexico? Where will they stand in Texas in 20 years?

Some respectability has survived for socialism because our economic system produces such radically disparate outcomes for different people”€”often apparently unconnected to personal virtue, hard work, or even talent. A market system is messy, modern individualism undermines the former supports of community and family, and poor people can vote. The combination of the three will always amount to some degree of socialism”€”as Röpke, a great champion of market economics, understood. (To counter socialism, he favored a gently induced form of distributism, which promoted small businesses, small farms, and decentralized government. It’s the one great idea of the 20th century which has virtually never been tried. It could hardly do worse than its rivals.)

And tribalism survives. It does so because it’s inherent to human nature (partly fallen). We naturally feel more empathy with our kin than with strangers who look very different, especially if we haven’t yet gotten around to intermarrying with “€œthose people.” This is not intrinsically evil. (If it were, then everyone would rightly condemn it in Mexicans and Moroccans, Jews and Gypsies alike.) But it’s also incomplete. Abstract notions of justice (leave aside for now the Gospel) cut across such extensions of “€œhealthy narcissism”€ and demand that we act against our instincts. Sometimes you really have to side with that odd-looking Sikh down the block against your brother”€”for instance, when your brother is in the wrong. 

And this is very difficult. Which is why multicultural states are tricky balancing acts, which lately tend to collapse. They especially tend to fall apart when modernity has broken down basic units such as the family, transformed people in communities into individuals facing the State. Cosmopolitanism gets less tenable with the rise of democracy, with its fiction of popular sovereignty, and unlimited claims to dispose of private property as the majority sees fit. Once property is politicized”€”as always happens in centralized democracies”€”it only makes sense to fight for your share of the loot. And who is going to fight on your side? The people who look like you. Skin color and language then serve as markers of loyalty”€”like team jerseys in a soccer riot.

All of which is to say that Americans ought to be very skeptical of importing more diversity”€”not because there’s anything wrong per se with the people who want to move here. Rather, it’s because mass diversity is perilous, runs against the grain of human nature, and typically ends in tears. In the absence of durable, shared loyalties, large numbers of “ethnics” can tempt men to try “cleansing” them.  That is one unlearned lesson of the Holocaust.


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