Nationalism is back. Be it Brexit, Trump’s election, the establishment of a national-populist government in Italy or the surprising result of Sweden Democrats - just to name a few - the trend is now clear. Parties and movements built on the promise of putting “(insert nation) first” are gaining support pretty much everywhere.
Arriving at a time when globalisation and ever-tighter integration between countries seemed unstoppable, this comeback has caught many by surprise. Reactions have gone from indifference to derision to indignation. Nationalism is seen by many as reactionary sentiment, and those who support it are often labelled as culturally backward, close-minded or, more directly, racist.
This is also the prevalent attitude within the tech community. It is easy to understand why. The tech sector embodies in many aspects the “world-wide” ethos of the web. Most tech companies are international by design, they concentrate in large urban areas where the mingling of cultures and nationalities is the norm, and they promote - and to a large extent embrace - the value of diversity. With few and noisy exceptions, tech people are squarely anti-Trump, anti-Brexit, pro-Macron. It’s not surprising that most see the resurgence of nationalism as a (ugly) bump on the road towards an inevitable post-national future.
I wouldn’t call myself a nationalist. In fact, this post is born out of the attempt to play devil’s advocate with my own instinctive anti-nationalistic reaction to what is going on. But in the process, I came to believe that stopping at this superficial judgement misses the point. There are two layers of nationalism today. An outer one, with its ugly slogans and self-damaging policies, and an inner one, which is putting forward questions and claims that are genuine and legitimate. Dealing with the latter is a necessary step if we want to fend off the former.
Nationalism in the 21st century
Speaking on the 100th anniversary of WWI armistice day, France’s President Macron attempted a distinction between bad nationalism and good patriotism. It didn’t work well. Arbitrarily defining something so that it supports your point is not a useful way to understand what’s going on. Sure, we can take all the negative faces through which nationalism manifests itself - the xenophobic agenda, the (luckily still rare) episodes of violence, the inflammatory rhetoric - and say that this is nationalism. But doing that won’t make us any smarter and won’t help us take any useful action.
A better approach is to look at this phenomenon from a more objective point of view. Nationalism is first and foremost an ideology. Or more precisely, as historian Elie Kedourie put it, a doctrine. The doctrine, born in Europe in the 19th century claims that “humanity is naturally divided into nations, that nations are known by certain characteristics which can be ascertained, and that the only legitimate type of government is national self-government. In other words, nationalism supplies a criteria - the nation - for how humanity should be organised and for the legitimate exercise of political power.”
Frederic Sorrieu’s La République Universelle, Démocratique et Sociale (Le Pact) illustrates the national dimension of People’s Spring of 1848.
In the 19th century, nationalism spread like wildfire. Independence movements everywhere started demanding the break-up of larger empires, reclaiming territories and cleaning-up minorities as part of the the nation-building process.
Nationalism’s ascent continued in the 20th century. Contrary to what seem now common knowledge, neither the First nor the Second World War were nationalistic in their motives - although chauvinistic rhetoric and local independence movements did a lot of the groundwork. More accurately, the Allied victory in WW2, and the post-war order which emerged from it, certified the final success of the nationalist doctrine - at least in the West.
Since then, nationalism has followed two paths. Where it had not yet established- under colonial rule- or where it was suppressed- under Soviet rule - it kept proving, for better or worse, its contagiousness and resilience1. While where it had won - in the West - it started a slow but constant retreat, eroded by the increasing interdependence between countries and a general transfer of power to non-national actors or institutions.
Nationalism today - at its core - is a push-back against that retreat. Its goal is to reassert both the practical and symbolic role of the nation.
Nationalism as agency
But why is the nation so appealing for so many people? Here, I believe, the symbolic part plays a larger role than any ancestral affiliation with a specific ethnic or cultural group. If nationalism has been so successful and so resilient, it is not because of what nations are, but because of what they came to mean.
The first meaning we associate with nations is self-determination. The struggle for independence and for the ability of a community to decide its own destiny is a recurrent theme in most national narratives.
In the 19th and 20th century, independence and self-determination were political concepts. National liberation movements wanted to free a subjugated people from the domination of either a larger political structure (an empire) or a foreign occupant. This is still true today where the autonomy of a national or ethnic group is at stake. But in most cases, modern nationalism exists within nations that have gained their independence a long time ago.
In these cases, the focus has now shifted to the economic sphere. The term “sovereignty” has replaced the older sounding self-determination, while supra-national institutions like the EU, the UN or more nebulous concepts like “the global financial order” have taken the place of foreign rulers and armies as the nation’s main enemies.
The nationalist movements of the past promised to liberate people from political oppressors. The new ones, instead, promise to protect them from what are seen as externally-imposed choices like globalisation and immigration. In times of unprecedented change and uncertainty, nationalism offers people the hope - some would say the illusion - of regaining control over their destiny.
Regardless of what we may think about the nation-state’s ability to influence global economic and technological trends, what counts is the perception of agency. Brexit is as much about the EU as it is about the feeling invoked by its powerful slogan: “Take Back Control”. In a similar way, Steve Bannon’s “Economic Nationalism” speaks directly to the people who have seen their jobs moving abroad and their communities becoming poorer. In their views, self-determination means the ability to prevent that from happening. This is what nations, and nationalism, are for.
Nationalism as solidarity
Nations also play a central role in regards to people’s identity. These days, the term itself has acquired an almost implicit negative connotation. When we talk about identity, we only see its divisive side. In this view, nationalism is mainly about playing an in-group against an out-group, cementing in-group solidarity and leveraging our innate need for a scapegoat. Enemies have undeniably played a significant role in national myths, but focusing only on this aspect omits half of the story.
On the inside, a shared identity provides the ability to overcome family and tribal affiliations and to establish a bond with people outside these narrow groups. Yuval Harari, by now a household name for many tech people, speaks of the “miraculous” power of the national narrative and defines nationalism as “one of the most beneficial ideas in history because it makes strangers care about one another and cooperate.”
Harari’s argument echoes that of many conservative thinkers who see the weakening of national ties as strongly negative trend. Nationalism, they argue, is an antidote against the regression into a society of tribes fighting against each other.
An additional and important by-product of a shared identity is a high degree of solidarity among members of a community. This solidarity may well be confined within the boundaries of an ethnic or linguistic group, but it typically spans across social groups and social classes. During the 20th century, the nation-state and its traditional symbols - the army, national television, newspaper, sports events - have provided the glue keeping together people of different social extractions and, in doing so, have enabled unprecedented levels of economic inclusion. Taking this reasoning even further, the Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka, argues that a similar form of national solidarity is a prerequisite for the implementation of progressive redistributive policies and the modern welfare state.
It’s no surprise then that national elites are receiving most of the blame for the weakening of these ties. Following this narrative, common in many of the modern nationalistic movement, it is primarily the elites who have broken apart from the national community and realigned their allegiances with a new class of global professionals. Elites globalism - or anti-nationalism - is perceived as a form of segregation and abandonment.
The secession of the tech community
Taken literally and self-critically, the description of a transnational professional class whose members are increasingly more at ease among themselves than with many of their fellow citizens fits the tech community quite well. The same characteristics that make this community special - the strength of the network, the willingness to help each other, the ability to form bonds across countries - also make it more and more detached from the rest of the population in each nation.
The trend goes beyond and precedes the current tech boom but is definitely being accelerated by it. Writing in 1991 about what he called “the secession of the successful”, Robert Reich - who would then become secretary of Labour in the Clinton administration - described the replacement of traditional geographic or ethnic communities with new ones based on professional and cultural homogeneity. More recently, Balaji Srinivasan observed how the internet allows the formation of “cloud communities” purely based on shared interests, and how these, in turn, could take physical shape with the creation of new neighbourhoods, new cities, and - who knows - even new countries.
Inevitably, the transition from communities of birth to communities of choice takes the shape of a secession. Also inevitably, the choice to secede is available only to those with higher means - although not necessarily larger wealth - than the rest. In addition, and somehow ironically, the remaining accent on “community” strengthen this separation even more. As Reich noticed, once a new “we” and “them” has been defined “it is possible to maintain a self-image of generosity toward, and solidarity with, one’s ‘community’ without bearing any responsibility to ‘them’ - the other ‘community’.” The outcome is a dystopia of groups living side by side without any common identity nor reciprocal obligation. The prototype is today’s San Francisco - the first cloud community turned physical - where the tech crowd, with its warm introductions and its informal safety net, lives alongside - but not together - a “community” of destitute and new servants.
The separation between the tech community and those who cling to the “old” nation-state also extends to the interpretation of the concepts of agency and solidarity. This, I believe, is one of the main reasons why it is difficult for many to understand what motivates supporters of nationalist movements today.
When it comes to agency, the objectivity of results prevails over the symbolic value of participation. Tech companies, even more than traditional business organisations, tend to be led by strong personalities and often resemble more benevolent dictatorships than democracies. Founders and founding myths play a key role in attracting capital, setting a vision for something ambitious, as much as initially non-obvious, and convince talented people to forgo more attractive short-term opportunities for potential long-term gains. Results are meant to speak for themselves. If a founder is successful in all these tasks, the team will be happy, more people, capital and customers will come on board while those that are unsatisfied are always welcome to leave.
This fundamentally utilitarian approach to governance reflects the technocratic culture of software development. In any dispute, the best solution, objectively assessed, should win, and as long as results are delivered and goals are met there should be no reason to complain. It shouldn’t surprise that some entrepreneurs and investors look at the Chinese experiment with curiosity mixed with a pinch of envy. Seen from a purely technical perspective, democracy is wholly inefficient.
This is not to say that agency is not respected nor recognised. On the contrary, personal autonomy and independence are two of the tech community’s founding values. The difference with the type of agency that nationalist movements say to be reclaiming is that the tech version of it is purely individual and purely objective. The fact that any person is able to suggest solutions and that the best solution always wins is seen as a better form of democracy than the one based on messy discussions and consensus building. If more democracy is needed, the way to provide that is to make it easier for people who are unsatisfied by how things are run to walk away (to fork). While the self-determination of nationalist, and traditional politics, is based on the symbolic value of participation and voice, the self-determination of tech is based on meritocracy and exit 2.
The accent on meritocracy is also the root of the tech community’s conception of solidarity. When it comes to social inclusion, the answer points always to access achieved through meritocracy and upward mobility. At face value, these two concepts are at the core of a good and open society, one that focuses on giving everybody a fair chance. The tech community is, in this sense, extremely open and equal and while there are still (large) pockets of discrimination, it is an industry known to be highly meritocratic.
Openness alone, however, doesn’t resolve the differences between groups. On the contrary, it might even exacerbate them. In “The Revolt of the Elites” Christopher Lasch goes as far as defining meritocracy “a parody of democracy”. Making it possible for anybody to become part of a higher group is not the same as respecting and caring for everybody regardless of their group. According to Lasch “social mobility does not undermine the influence of elites; if anything, it helps to solidify their influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit.” A high degree of social mobility can become mere justifications for not taking more fundamental action towards the bottom of society.
Think national, act post-national
Many in the tech community consider nations a relic of the past: an outdated infrastructure or some technical debt we have to clean up. In doing so, they make two mistakes. The first one is an error of perspective: the fact that nations are becoming irrelevant for a restricted minority of people doesn’t mean they will be irrelevant for everybody any time soon. Social and political developments don’t behave necessarily like technological progress, what “hackers do in the weekend” doesn’t always become “what everybody else will do in 10 years.”
The practical implications should be evident for everybody: nation states are where political power resides and where political battles need to be fought. If nothing else, sheer selfishness should motivate us to do what we can to prevent individual countries to fall into the idea trap. Exit can only work for so many people, and only as a last resort.
The second mistake consists in ending up throwing away the positive side of nationalism while - surely in good faith - trying to overcome its negative one. As of today, there are no signs of post-national arrangements that can replace the broad feeling of agency or the solidarity across classes that nations provide - or at least used to provide. This is certainly not the case for a world made of self-selected communities or one of all powerful cosmopolitan city states.
In the 70’s, the environmental movement adopted the slogan “think globally, act locally” to mark the need to conjugate a holistic mindset with a tangible and accessible action plan. In today’s political context, a slogan the tech community - and with it many others internationally minded communities - could adopt is instead “think national, act post-national.” If we really want to prevent the dark side of nationalism to take over we all need to take care of the challenges each national community is facing, remembering that there is more than big city life and promising new careers. Thinking at the national level doesn’t mean that we need to abandon international ambitions or that we need to assume a confrontational posture towards other countries. On the contrary, the day-to-day behaviour of the community should remain the same, fostering international exchange, the free movement of talent and nurturing a tolerant mindset. Over time, the combination of these two approaches - attention to national problems and renewed commitment to a mindset that looks beyond national differences - has a better chance to succeed that any post-national utopia.
Today, the supposed clash between people and elites has become one of the main theme of nationalist propaganda. Whether we agree with it or not, the general perception is that the tech community belongs to the second group.
We can either push that perception back or decide not to care about it and go on with our lives. There is also a third option, which is to take that label as a badge of honour and assume full responsibility for it.
Elites have always played an important role in moving societies forward. That was even the case with early nationalism which, not without a little irony for the rhetoric of its supporters of today, was born very much as an elite project. But elites make sense only in relation to the community they belong to and aspire to guide.