How Neoliberalism has Sowed the Seeds of a Nationalist Revival

Prior to COVID-19 political nationalism had enjoyed growing support. Its popularity is likely to remain into the aftermath of this pandemic as democracies decide who should pay for the vast amounts of money that have been spent to keep economies from completely collapsing. understanding the consequences and causes of nationalism remain as important as ever.

Rising nationalist support is the result of neo-liberal policies implemented in the 1980s and 90s which created the conditions for its eventual revival. Neoliberalism, with its faith in markets as the source of efficiency and progress, imposed the logic of the market into all areas of life. As a result, education, Healthcare and Housing have all been commercialized in recent decades and operate under the same practices that a business would. Consequently, the aspects of life that are most important to us have become commodified; they have been reduced to items that are bought and sold. Nationalism is the natural reaction to the commodification of place, culture and identity. This commodification is fictitious because these areas of life did not originated as commodities as such, their existence in this form is unnatural. 

People desire a place to call home. A place that is familiar and where they feel comfortable. This familiarity offers a sense of security which enables one to feel grounded in the world around them and form relationships with others. Human connection is something that provides a lot of joy in life.

The forces of the market, however, undermines this. Capitalism only values things if they are profitable. Human interaction does not produce profit unless it is used as a reason to consume. Through privatisation, areas of public space have been reduced. Today it is harder to meet with others without participating in consumption. This puts an economic constraint on the amount one can interact with others.

Furthermore, because of liberal ideas such as barriers to trade and increasing technological advancement, capital has become increasingly mobile. This has meant that the location of employment constantly fluctuates. This necessitates a more mobile workforce, continually uprooting themselves and moving to where they can find employment. This undermines our sense of place and community. We do not get as attached to a place that we know we may eventually have to leave. With the residents of an area forever changing, the security and comfort that comes from familiarity with the people around you disappears, leaving us increasingly isolated individuals.

Nationalism is motivated by the desire to rekindle a sense of community. It seeks to create a bond with members of a nation by stressing the unifying connections of its members – ethnicity, language, custom. It creates a common, romanticised history that emphasizes its glories and traditions. Partaking in national ceremonies and traditions provides the isolated individual to feel some form of attachment with others. For example, wearing a poppy, clapping for the NHS or supporting the national team, gives people a fake sense of belonging to others who similarly partake in the same rituals. 

Culture is, also, important to individuals. It allows us to experience things independent from our biased experiences. It provides us with a sense of solidarity as well as a richer understanding of the world we inhabit. 

The issue is that culture in capitalist society is characterised by its lack thereof. As a result of the commodification, what would have previously been culture is today merely entertainment. Culture should be like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona: A sublime edifice inherited from the past, maintained, but ultimately in ceaseless transformation and modification. In contrast to this is, commodified culture, characterized by homogeneity and repetition. Today, television is formulaic and littered with cliches enabling the viewer to know the ending within the first few minutes. An episode of Scooby-doo is the perfect representation of commodified culture: particular aspects of it may alterate – the location it is set, the monster, the event that occurs – but still follows its repetitive format.

The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

This phenomenon is the result of capitalism, which produces products solely according to its profitability rather than whether it has any use. The way to achieve maximum profitability is by appealing to the greatest number of people. This results in engagement with only the broadest and most common experiences – falling in love, growing up, falling out with family – that an overwhelming majority of people can relate to, resulting in a shallow and narrow understanding of the human condition.

In addition, CEOs in their pursuit of profit, are less willing to take risks with something new as its popularity is unknown. Consequently, they reuse the same tried and tested formulas of products that have already been successful. This explains why the layout of chicken shops; the interface of phones and the interior of cars are indistinguishable. The same holds true for cultural products. Superhero films, FIFA games or music rhythms are practically identical. 

The logic of the market infecting areas of culture has resulted in its stasis and stagnation. Nationalism seeks to rejuvenate the revolutionary essence of culture. Culture, as opposed to commodified culture, is not conservative; it continuously wishes to alter the way we perceive reality, through new artistic and literary movements. The eras that nationalists are most nostalgic for are not typified by conformity but are times in which their nation was experiencing a metamorphosis and had a profound impact in the world. For Britain, it is its empire, America: its founding, for France: Napoleon and its revolution and for Italy: the renaissance. Nationalism is motivated out of a yearning to escape the monotony of commodified culture and revive the culture of times when it had sizable influence in history.

The final human necessity that capitalism exterminates is identity. One’s identity provides individuals with recognition; that they have an important impact in the lives of others and that they will be remembered for being something. It is through communication and action with contrasting others, that our unique perspectives and characteristics, that form our identity, reveal themselves. 

However, neoliberalism has also commodified our identity. Our ability to communicate and act with others has been reduced by the privatization of public space. Communication and interaction, today, is increasingly forced to occur through a corporation, who’s rules are not determined democratically or for the common good rather the interests of shareholders. This imposes restrictions on expressing speech and action.

Increasingly, individuals attempt to formulate their identities from the two states that capitalism has reduced them to – work and consumption – both of which are inadequate to replace our lost ability to express ourselves. Work is an inadequate source of identity because it does not allow us to freely express ourselves. Your value is determined by the amount you produce and how efficiently you do so. Labour conditions force people to operate like machines, efficient but expressionless, for managers to utilize and control. The fact that automation is threatening people’s jobs highlights that workers have been functioning as machines. Expression produces nothing of material value to the firm and is, therefore, restricted.

Similarly, individuals may also seek to express their identity through consumption; buying products that fit with their self-image. This attempt is futile because the signs that attach brands to certain identities are the result of marketing and have no basis in reality. One does not have to skateboard to buy a Vans T-shirt. This shows that consumption-created identities are fictitious; they cannot represent who one really is. 

This inability to express one’s identity through consumption and production fuels nationalist sentiments because nationalism aspires to assert the traditions and customs that make it unique. This is why guns are a source of national pride in the U.S, why Japan clings to whaling and why the monarchy is still popular in Britain. The inability of people to adequately express their identity under capitalism reverberates into individuals using  unique customs and symbols of nationhood to fill this void, resulting in excessive pride and jingoism. 

Buckingham Palace residence of the Monarch of the UK

Commodification under capitalism, reducing the value of things purely to the extent it can be exchanged, has sowed the seed for the growth of nationalism. By undermining what people truly desire (community, culture and identity), because it does not create wealth, has led to dissatisfaction within society. This is not to say that nationalism offers the correct solutions but that the sentiments that have led to its growth are very understandable.

Photo-credits from top to bottom Bgag and Diliff. Under CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

By biel Schreuder Obiols

Politics and International relations student at the University of Nottingham.
Follow be on twitter @bielschruder

One reply on “How Neoliberalism has Sowed the Seeds of a Nationalist Revival”

Having read most of this article it’s up to new young minds to discover a new direction and pursue it.


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