Transcript for Yoram Hazony, ‘The Virtue of Nationalism’

This transcription of my summary and review of Yoram Hazony’s book The Virtue of Nationalism was transcribed by Lorraine O’Neal. If you would be interested in her transcription services—for sermons, lectures, talks, or something else—you can contact her here.

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Some of the quotations from this book, as they are transcribed from speech, may have minor inaccuracies in punctuation.

Welcome back. Today I am going to be discussing The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony, recently released, causing a lot of conversation and controversy, and well worth reading. There is a lot that he says within it that people may find thought-provoking, even if frustrating and unpersuasive at times. I have had a lot of different thoughts when reading it, and I wanted to share some of these with you. But I will give, first of all, an outline of the book. It is well worth buying, and there is much to discuss.

A book called The Virtue of Nationalism is bound to be controversial. Hazony defines nationalism as: “The nationalism I grew up with is a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference. This is opposed to imperialism, which seeks to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime.” Later on, Hazony goes on to say, “For centuries, the politics of Western nations have been characterized by a struggle between two antithetical visions of world order: an order of free and independent nations, each pursuing their political good in accordance with its own traditions and understanding, and an order of people united under a single regime of law, promulgated and maintained by a single supranational authority.” That is what he defines as imperialism.

These two ideal types are explored throughout the book as they compete and oppose each other. It is a very stimulating, and again, as I suggested earlier, a frustrating thesis at points. He sees both the European Union and the American world order as aspects of this imperialism, as manifestations of this attempt to bring humanity under a single sort of government. And globalism is a new version of the old imperialism that we have had for quite some time.

Now, the rise of this sort of globalized order, and an attendant resistance to or pathologization of nationalism arises, he believes, from a certain reading of World War II—that World War II was caused by nationalism. He will go on to argue against this, but it is important to see the sort of theory that he is presenting and where it finds its historical basis.

Hazony argues that Scripture presents us with the ideal of the independent nation. Israel is seen very much as an ideal of a nation that is charting its own course that is defined by a certain people that share a common culture and shared history. Now, he distinguishes this from a certain sort of state that is founded upon race:

It is important to notice that the Israelites’ conception of the nation has nothing to do with biology or what we call race. For biblical nations, everything depends on a shared understanding of history, language, and religion that is passed from parents to religion, but which outsiders can join as well. Thus, the Book of Exodus teaches that there were many Egyptians who attached themselves to the Hebrew slaves in fleeing Egypt, and that they received the Ten Commandments at Sinai with the rest of Israel. Similarly, Moses invites the Midianite sheikh Jethro to join the Jewish people. And Ruth the Moabite becomes part of Israel when she is ready to tell Naomi, ‘Your people is my people, and your God is my God,’ her son being the forefather of King David himself. But the ability of Israel to bring these foreign-born individuals into its ranks depends on their willingness to accept Israel’s god, laws, and understanding of history. Without embracing these central aspects of Israel tradition, they will not become a part of the Israelite nation.

Now, I think he is overstating things a bit here. That it may not be reduced to a certain people or ethnicity—that is clear enough. But it is very clearly grounded in a shared ancestry, and that does make the concept of nation a bit more complicated. The whole idea of nation comes from the idea of “to be born in a certain place”—a place of birth. And he even talks within that context of passing things on from parents to children. There is a legacy. There is an inheritance, which means that certain people are insiders to that history, to that culture, to that legacy in a way that others are not within a traditional nation state. There are people who can be welcomed as outsiders and gradually integrated into the state, but that process can take generations to occur. It is not something that happens just overnight. And so, I think this is something that adds a bit of complexity to his particular claims, and it is one of the areas where I think he dodges some of the tough questions.

He argues that the Peace of Westphalia, after the Thirty Years’ War, led to the triumph of the Protestant vision of independent nations over the Catholic vision of some sort of universal Christian empire and some universal order that is imposed upon Europe and elsewhere. So, this vision, which is a Protestant vision, is founded upon, he believes, two scriptural principles, which he believes are moral principles as well. There is a ‘moral minimum’ that needs to be maintained, some principle of justice and right—an appropriate, just order. That is something that we see in a king or a ruler upholding standards of justice and righteousness, and proper courts—these sorts of things—within their realm, and showing that each person is treated appropriately within that realm.

Then the second principle is the right of national self-determination. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. So, whereas there are principles of justice that can apply across different realms, those principles are applied in a very specific way within this particular national context. And it is shaped by the customs, by the traditions, by the conventions, and by the various institutions of that people—their shared history, their shared locality, and these things that give them their identity as a distinct people.

So, there is some degree of tension between these principles. The plurality of polities allows for creative experimentation as well. On the one hand, then, you have these principles that push in arguably a more universal direction—this ‘moral minimum’. And this moral minimum is not just a generic thing. He sees it as founded upon the law of the Old Testament. So, there is expectation of some sort of religious foundation as well. There is religious order. There is an upholding of the basic morality of not killing, not committing adultery, not bearing false witness—these sorts of things—but also some sort of expectation of some upholding of religious commitments implied. There is also the practice of Sabbath and things like that. And so, clearly, these things are not just a generic set of commandments.

The plurality of nations encourages exploration of different types of life, different ways of living, while preventing dangerous ideas and practices from spreading too quickly. So, if one country experiments with some dangerous ideas, those do not instantly spread to the next country. National self-determination allows for cross-pollination of ideas, but those ideas are held in some degree of check by boundaries. And it means that we can take on good ideas from other nations. As different nations experiment with different sorts of polities, people can learn from their neighboring nations. And nations can change, and evolve, and take on new ideas, but they do not have to just succumb to this universal order—some one-size-fits-all.

Liberal construction, by contrast, presumes that only the principle of individual freedom lies at the basis of legitimate political order. And this is a failure to take into account the basic character of human society. Human society is characterized by certain fundamental human bonds that are easily ignored in these sorts of approaches. Hazony writes,

It is painfully lacking as description of the empirical political world, in which mutual loyalties bind human beings into families, tribes, and nations, and each of us receives a certain religious and cultural inheritance as a consequence of being born into such collectives. It ignores such responsibilities that are intrinsic to both inherited and adopted membership in collectives of this kind, establishing demands on individuals that do not arise as a result of consent and do not disappear if consent is withheld. And it is oblivious to the effects of a common adversity, which brings inevitable challenges and hardships to families, tribes, and nations, reinforcing the responsibilities to the collective and turning them into the most acutely-felt and often immovable features of the moral and political landscape.

He observes, “In real life, nations or communities bound together by bonds of mutual loyalty, carrying forward particular traditions from one generation to the next.” And this also requires a recognition of the significance of boundaries between nations. Boundaries between nations are not just arbitrary lines on the map. They are boundaries that are deeply felt. They represent the movement from one body of people to another, and that ‘body’ language is important. A body is connected with the self—that this is one national self-hood rather than another.

And so, replacing the nationalist Protestant order by a rationalist liberal order that seeks to overturn those boundaries, and seeks to bring all human beings into this collective—under one principle of government—is something that he is firmly opposed to in this book. He argues, along those lines, that Nazi Germany was an imperialist state. It was seeking to dominate the entire earth and to overthrow the freedom of nations. It was not, as some people would suggest, a fundamentally nationalist order, but it was an imperialist order.

What we have within the Second and the First World Wars are attempts to resist and stand against German imperialism in its various forms. German imperialism sought to dismantle the system of independent nations and bring all of Europe under some sort of German rule or German dominance. And this is related, again, to Immanuel Kant’s vision of dismantling nation-states and uniting all of the world under a universal government, to bring perpetual peace.

And now an expression of this is the Pax Americana—the order that is established worldwide by American political dominance as the world power, the world’s superpower—we have a single world superpower for a number of decades. This offers peace in exchange for a loss of independence or a limiting of a country’s independence—that they give up a measure of their sovereignty. Because they become protectorates of the US order, they can have security and peace.

There are analogies between this liberal imperial order and that of the Medieval period. Hazony makes some interesting remarks on this front.

These disagreements over how the international liberal empires are to be governed are often described as if they are historically novel. But this is hardly so. For the most part, they are simply the reincarnation of thread-worn medieval debates between the emperor and the Pope over how the international Catholic empire should be governed, with the role of the emperor being reprised by those—mostly Americans—who insist that authority must be concentrated into Washington, the political and military center, and the role of the papacy being played by those mostly European but also many American academics, who see ultimate authority as residing with the highest interpreters of the universal law, namely the judicial institutions of the United Nations and the European Union.

And so, within this sort of liberal universal order, there is this notion that the unification of Europe, for instance, is the only reasonable position. Any movement in the direction of nationalism is regarded as ignorant or pathological, a reversion to a more primitive stage of government. And there are various forms of resistance to this sort of liberal imperialism that he describes that have different characters to them.

First of all, there is the neo-Catholic opposition to the liberal imperial order. And that is based upon upholding the first principle of Protestant government, which is the moral minimum. And in that case, it is Roman Catholics arguing on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, arguing for a fundamental principle of law that is not just a neutral system of law, but is founded upon a tradition that is handed down, of scriptural law and of natural law, that is seen from that particular perspective. Now, this sort of neo-Catholic approach is, on the other hand, quite favorable to international bodies, whether that is the European Union—it is quite friendly towards that—or the United Nations, and other such systems.

On the other hand, there is a neo-nationalist or statist approach, which holds loyalty to the state as the highest end, and on the other hand, can overturn, or undermine, or not really take seriously this moral minimum, this importance of the state upholding an impartial justice. As a result, these movements can often go in a fairly troubling direction, towards an ugly species of nationalism.

Conservatives, he argues, however, should bring both principles together: both this fundamental deposit of biblical and natural law, and also a recognition of a need for nations to govern their own destiny, to be independent and self-determining. He argues, then, that we need to understand the significance of the nation. We need both a philosophy of government and a philosophy of political order. He discusses this within the book in a helpful way when he writes,

I have in mind questions such as the following: what allows a community to be sufficiently cohesive to be ordered as a state? Is the state formed when independent individuals consent to living under government or through the unification of previously-existing cohesive communities? Is the state really the best institution for ordering human life, or are there other forms of political order, such as a clan or a feudal order, that are better? And if the state is the best form of political order, should authority be in the hands of one universal state, or dispersed among many competing states? When these questions are taken into account, we see that political philosophy is naturally divided into two subjects, one more fundamental than the other. One subject is the philosophy of government, which seeks to determine the best form of government, given the existence of a state with a high degree of internal unity and independence. Prior to this is the philosophy of political order, which seeks to understand the causes of political order—and on the basis of this understanding, to determine what are the different forms of the political order available to us, and which of them are best. Individuals who are confident with the cohesion and independence of the state in which they live are naturally attracted to the philosophy of government.

On the other hand, if we are talking about the philosophy of political order, that is something that goes down to the very foundations, the depths of what it means to live in a political society. He writes, “Philosophy of government is useful in its proper, limited sphere. But to be competent, it must be built upon an understanding of the underlying causes of the formation, cohesion, and independence of the state, as well as of its destruction.” Political order, he argues, is founded upon institutions. It is not just something that randomly arises as people consent or agree to live together. Rather, there are these fundamental institutions which are the foundation of the order that we exist in: family, clan, and tribe first and foremost; and things built up out of these orders. The institutions can be held together by various things. They can be held together by coercion—if you step outside of their bounds or go up against them, you can be met by force—or they can be held together by financial incentives and interest; or they can be held together by a deep, common interest.

And this is associated with the idea that our self is an expansive thing. The self expands in loyalty, and others are implicated and included in our identities. And this creates an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’. So, for instance, as I am related to my family, there is an inside to my family. I am loyal to my family members. I have a deep affection for them and a concern for their well-being, and their well-being is not something that is hermetically sealed from my well-being. These things are related together. As they do well, I do well. We are bound together in our well-being. And so, for a nation, as people are brought together in a common interest, it brings a certain sort of cohesion.

When he talks about the nation, he talks about this movement from tribes or from family, to clan, to tribe. These are different levels of loyalty.

Like ties of loyalty to the clan, the bond of loyalty to one’s tribe or nation grows out of loyalty to one’s parents. The child experiences the suffering and triumphs of his tribe or nation as his own because he experiences the suffering and triumphs of his parents as his own. And the parents feel and give expression to the suffering and triumphs of the tribal nation as these unfold.

And so, these things are very much transmitted through family ties. The strength of the nation and the strength of the tribe are very much associated with the bond between parent and child.

The order of tribes and clans is the proto-political order. The state developed out of the weakness of this order, because this order of tribes and clans is held together in a way that makes it difficult to achieve peace, because you have these warring tribes and warring interests. It is also difficult to achieve justice because you have capricious leaders and you have a system where it is very hard to achieve justice where people are fundamentally at war—because justice becomes weaponized and justice cannot really arbitrate when there is no fundamental peace at the root of society. And so, there is a need to move beyond this tribal order. This proto-political order then leads to the development of the state, whether that is a free state as different tribes join together willingly, or a despotic state as certain tribes dominate over others and establish rule through military might.

Now, these different sorts of institutions can be distinguished from each other. So, a family is not like a business. A business is held together by financial interest. Within them individuals are fairly dispensable. You can hire and fire, and little loyalty exists. People are not going to work for their business at great personal sacrifice themselves, not usually. Except in certain extreme cases, people do not have a deep sense of loyalty to their company or to the boss that they work for. Families, however, are different. They pass on a legacy from generation to generation, and there is a sense of deep loyalty and mutual connection within these contexts.

The empire is a state that is, in principle, boundless. It is an amorphous collective. And so, it does not have the same structures of loyalty at its heart. There is a difference between tribal order and the order of the empire that is not just one of scale. So, it is not just that we relate on a very local scale in the tribe, or the clan, or the family, and then that is just scaled up and up until you get the nation, and then the empire. Rather, the empire is a fundamental shift in the notion of order. It is the difference between loyalty to familiar individuals, to one’s neighbors, and loyalty to the abstract imperial project, its ideology, and to a generic humanity—a humanity that is not particular, that is not the humanity of one’s neighbor but is just a humanity in general, an abstract humanity. It is often an ideologized humanity, a humanity that appears as such within an ideology that can often exclude certain people as falling short of the true reality of that humanity.

The tribal person who places loyalty to their family and their clan over loyalty to empire will be seen by an imperialist as pathological. Tribal order is vulnerable, as I have already noted, to war, to capricious rule, and to injustice, and to the inability to obtain justice. Imperial order, by contrast, establishes an expanding realm of peace at the cost of independence and self-determination. The principle of the unity of humanity encourages violation of the boundaries of other people in order to expand rational government order over all of them. And so, the empire works in terms of abstract and universal categories of humanity. It works in terms of concepts of justice that are universalized and detached from any sort of distributive sense of justice. It is universal human rights, that sort of thing.

And an empire will usually have a particular ruling nation at its heart. Even as they champion the universal interests of humanity, the domination of one particular group or the hierarchical superiority of that group tends to be advanced. The nation is a third type of political order, and this is at the crux of Hazony’s argument.

By a nation, I mean a number of tribes with a shared heritage, usually including a common language or religious traditions, and a past history of joining together against common enemies—characteristics that permit tribes, so united, to understand themselves as a community distinct from other distinct communities that are their neighbors. By a national state, I mean a nation whose disparate tribes have come together under a single, standing government, independent of all other governments. These definitions mean, in the first place, that nation is a form of community, a human collective recognizing itself as distinct from other human collectives. Such a community can exist independently of the state and does not have to include every individual living within the state. Second, these definitions mean that the unity thus created is always a composite, because the tribes united in this way continue to exist after national independence. [So, this is not an abstraction.] The nation is not comprised of familiar individuals, but is an impersonal abstraction in the same way that humanity is an abstraction. Yet, at the same time, the nation is also distinguished from all humanity in that it possesses a quite distinctive character, having its own language, laws, and religious traditions, its own history of past failure and achievement. This means that each nation is different from all other nations, and that to the individual who is a member of a certain nation, it is known as a concrete and familiar being, much like a person, family, or clan.

And the life of a nation is also transmitted through families, and through this very familial order, which is not the imposition of a universal order from above, but the transmission of something through these familial ties, as those draw you out into a greater order, but also are part of these most familial of bonds: the family, the clan, the tribe, and the people.

And so, the nation comes at the inflection point between anarchy and empire. He writes:

A new ordering principle rooted in the moral order, the principle of national freedom. From the principle of empire, it takes the idea of an allegiance that is directed towards the abstraction of the state, rather than to familiar men, the practical effect of which is the creation of a large space of domestic peace, and the possibility of an impartial judicial system that is no longer tied to the politics of familiar collectives. From the principle of anarchy, it retains the ideal of a ruler devoted to the unique needs and interests, traditions and aspirations of a particular community that is different from all others. This finds expression in the aim of government over a single nation, an aim that devalues foreign conquest, and for the first time permits a conception of the freedom of nations other than one’s own as a potential good in itself.

So, nations establish a sense of collective agency itself. The independence of the nation is experienced by the nationalist as his own independence. When your nation has freedom, that is something that you experience at a gut level: that your nation has some self-determination, that it is charting its own course, and you are part of that. You are invested in its destiny, and you are part of something that is far bigger than yourself—something that is a transmission of a heritage that goes back to your ancestors, your distant ancestors, and is the experience of participating in things that have been laid out for you by past generations, and giving those to generations still to come.

It is very much an order based upon the generative order of humanity. This is not just individuals in a single snapshot in time. This is something that transcends generations, that passes on from one generation to the next. Nations can push violence to their periphery, and they also discourage imperial expansionism.

It recognizes the weakness of empires in their unnatural agglomeration of people. So, an empire is weak when it brings together a lot of people that do not naturally fit together. They have no coherent peoplehood, and so, they easily fracture and end up dividing from each other. When that central power loses its power, then all the people start to divide and go their different ways. And we see familiar lines appearing again on the maps. This sort of attempt to alloy these different people seldom works very effectively. It does not have the strength of independent peoples who are bound together by a shared spirit.

Now, this is not a denial that nations can be violent. Nations can most definitely be violent! But the ends of national violence are limited. This is a very important passage, where he makes that point:

Even if the national state does not necessarily tend towards peace, there is another claim to be made on its behalf, which is hardly less significant. Because the national state inherits a political tradition that disdains the conquest of foreign nations, wars between national states tend to be relatively limited in their aims, and the resources invested in them, and the scale of the destruction of the misery they cause. This has been frequently emphasized with respect to the national states of Western Europe after the Westphalia treaties, which for centuries continued to fight limited wars among themselves with an eye to gaining political or economic advantage, but refrained from engaging in unlimited warfare with the purpose of eliminating other nation-states entirely. Europe has, of course, known general wars of virtually unlimited destruction, devastation in the past 400 years. The wars that now haunt Europe—and with it, the world—were not, however, wars among national states seeking to gain advantage over their rivals. Rather, they were ideological wars fought in the name of some universal doctrine that was supposed to bring salvation to all of humanity. For the sake of this universal doctrine, armies were sent out in the world to swallow one nation after another, with the aim of overturning the established order of life in every nation conquered. This was the case of the Thirty Years’ War, which was fought in order to assert a German Catholic empire over Europe. It was true as well of the Napoleonic Wars, which sought to overthrow the old political order and establish a French liberal empire across an entire continent and beyond it. And it was no less true of the Second World War, in which the German Nazi empire aimed at establishing a new order according to its own perverse universal theory of how mankind’s salvation was to be brought about.

So, nations can pursue a collective freedom in mutual loyalty and concern, but they can also champion a sort of non-monopolistic order, with multiple competing centers of power. And this balance of power between nations, this national order with many different nations in a certain location, is not primarily about securing safety, security, and peace, as we tend to speak of ‘balance of power’, but about securing independence. It is to ensure that people are not dominated over by one particular state, but rather, that there are different states present to ensure that one state does not rule over all, even if that state might bring peace.

Competitive political order—rather than one based upon universal rational order—is what is at stake here. National independence is based not upon universal reason, but upon empiricism, a sort of epistemic modesty—what Rowan Williams terms “contemplative pragmatism” in describing Hooker’s philosophy. This vision is one that takes into account these ideals and thinks about deeper principles, but is also very pragmatic, rooted in the soil of reality.

He writes again,

The choice between an imperialist and a nationalist politics thus corresponds to a choice between two theories of knowledge. In Western history, at least, imperialism has tended to be associated with a rationalist theory of knowledge. Having an unbounded trust in human reason, such a theory is bold in its assertion that the great universal truths are always at hand and that this knowledge needs now only to be brought to bear on humanity. Nationalism, on the other hand, has tended to be based on an empirical standpoint—exercising a moderate skepticism with regard to the products of human reason, and mindful of the calamities that men have brought upon us in the political realm, time and again, by their over-confidence in their own reason.

And so, he compares this to the difference between socialist order and capitalist order. Socialist order is very much a universal theory of government, and political rule, and economic rule; by contrast, capitalism recognizes the need for competition between different agencies and their need for something other than centralized order.

For instance, if you want to distribute resources well, socialist order and central planning can often fail desperately in that. It just does not have the requisite knowledge of the particulars; whereas capitalist order, with its supply and demand, and its market structures, can achieve that. [It is important to recognize here that capitalism is not the same as the free market. There can be socialist free markets. Anyway, Hazony’s point stands as a more general point about free markets as opposed to central, planned economies.]

Hazony is talking about a more empirical and competitive order and the benefits of that. And the nation tends to produce a certain sort of creative fruitfulness in its citizens. As they have a sense of an expanding self, a self that is rich and enlarged, a self that has a deep agency and investment in a national project—that is not merely protected by a government that it is not part of, but is part of an inter-generational project of forming a particular peoplehood. Such a national selfhood that is produced in individual persons can foster a deep creativity, an imagination, and a rich culture of creation and art, and these sorts of things. And it is one of the reasons why he suggests that there has been particular flourishing of art, and creation, and invention within the context of the nation-state: it allows for the enlargement of the human spirit in a way that empires do not.

It also allows for greater individual liberties. Within the imperial order, we do not have the same investment in the well-being of our neighbors, whereas, in the national order, we do have that sort of investment. And when an imperial state experiences triumph or failure, the subject nations and their subjects more generally—the individuals within them—do not necessarily experience this as happening to them. It happens on this vast scale far above them, but it is not their identity that is at stake in the same way. So, when individual liberties are given, they are often used against the empire. They are often used in a way that breaks down the central authority. And so, the empires can often restrict individual liberties and close down these things or limit freedom of expression, because there is not the same sense of a common good, a common investment in a shared project. And when that is lost, individual freedom becomes a threat rather than a boon.

Hazony argues, controversially, that federalism does not provide a viable alternative to imperialism. There is a difference, of course, here, he argues, between voluntarily and compulsory adjudication in the federal realm. So, you could have a number of states getting together voluntarily to adjudicate some of their disputes. But as soon as you have some sort of force that backs up that adjudication, then it becomes a problem. When an international federation has coercive power, it will tend to overwhelm and undermine national freedom to impose peace. And it will maintain something of the original order, perhaps, but in an increasingly-weakened form. He gives the example of the US—originally intended to be a fairly federal order with very distinct states within it. Increasingly, state self-determination was revoked by central government. And this was for various reasons; some of them are quite understandable and justified. But that federal order will not sustain the autonomy of different groups. This is similar to the tribal order when the nation was established. There will still exist a residual tribal orientation and identity, but that will increasingly diminish in its strength. And the center of gravity of power will shift towards the nation. And so, when you have a federal order, that will tend to lead to the internationalist order becoming the center of gravity of power.

The EU is another example for him where national self-determination is slowly ebbing away. In this context, a certain theory of subsidiarity has become a euphemism for empire. There is no strong central executive, as there is in the case of the US. But he argues that, in the case of the EU, the lack of a strong central executive is largely because the EU is itself a protectorate of the US.

Now, is it possible to establish a neutral or civic state? A civic state is one which divides nation from state—that says it does not matter what culture, what religion you have, what background you have, all these sorts of things. For the civic state, people would be fairly interchangeable and there is no need for things such as shared culture, religion, or background to form a working state. Divorcing a state from family, tribal, and national traditions—where we learn to honour and revere particular things—is this a possibility? Can we establish a neutral state? Hazony argues that we cannot really do so. What happens in this sort of situation is the motives that lead to loyalty, that give the state its strength, are lacking when we no longer have these structures, when it is no longer tied into familial, tribal, and national traditions, and into the strength of a particular culture and peoplehood. We can see this in various ways, for instance in the degree to which people are willing to fight for their country. And in many countries in the West, their willingness to fight for the country has rapidly diminished as they have ceased to function as nations and have sought to act as neutral states.

Hazony talks about the problem of transmitting this sort of thing. If it is going to work, it has to be transmitted. Even this sort of neutral state ideal has to be transmitted in a familial structure. And within that familial structure, what you tend to see is that it gains its strength from familial loyalties, and it will become associated with those familial loyalties. And so, there is no neutral state. Every state is, to some extent, a national state. And the US, he argues,

is held together by the bonds of mutual loyalty that unite the American nation. An English-speaking nation, whose constitutional and religious traditions were originally rooted in the Bible, Protestantism, republicanism, and the common law of England. The passage of centuries and the incorporation of a large Catholic community and other smaller communities means, in effect, that new tribes have been adopted into the same American nation, but this has not in any way changed the fact that Americans remain a single, highly distinctive nation.

Again, this is something worth returning to in the future. It is a very strong statement, and, I think, wrong—particularly in the current situation. I am not sure that America qualifies as a nation, in the sense that Hazony is talking about it, anymore.

The feasibility or appropriateness of national identity depends upon various contingent factors. So, it could be geography. The fact that there is the Atlantic Ocean between the US and Europe gives it some sort of natural tendency to become an independent nation—same with the fact of the English Channel and the identity of the British Isles as distinct entities. And the way that government works within, for instance, England, Scotland, Wales has a natural connection to just the geography of being all on the same island or defensible territory. If there is not defensible territory, it is hard to have a nation. There needs to be military might, sufficient military might to maintain that territory. There has to be some sort of internal cohesion, a capacity to exercise robust government that ensures a monopoly of power, a monopoly of force. There has to be a positive relation to the broader order of nations, etc.

And so, for all of these things, it is prudential. There is no common principle by which every single people must be an independent nation. Rather, the viability of national independence and the desirability of national independence must be determined prudentially. Not all people are in a position to have national independence. Many people could not defend a territory, for instance. And there is a principle, he argues, of parsimony, as well—that we do not just want to multiply national entities beyond reason. We need to cut with the grain of reality. We need to recognize the shape of peoples. But we also need to recognize that there are some natural affinities between people. Rather than, in many cases, forming a distinct nation, why not just connect it with an existing nation in the neighborhood and bring the two together? And so we need to be empiricists, recognizing the shape of peoplehoods, the shape of peoples who are in a particular region, and how a nation will correspond to those people groups.

Now, he defends nationalism against the charge of hatred. Nationalism has often been accused of stirring up hatred and sectarian passions. But then he argues that universal imperialist governments actually can be even more driven by hatred. They cannot tolerate opposition to their values. When they meet people who will not accept their values, there is a deep hostility. And he connects that with the practice of Christianity as well: Christianity, with its universal values, finds it very hard to deal with the fact that there are people who resist and represent sites of opposition to those values. And there is a degree of truth there that needs to be considered. Now, I think that there are problems with this approach. And some of these things, again, go back to his treatment of these issues of universalism and particularism within his treatment of Hebrew scripture and Jewish values as opposed to Christian values, and his philosophy of Hebrew Scripture.

But there is something here to consider. What is it about a certain form of Christian universalism that has led to a deep hostility and an imperial impulse to override other cultures where they do not submit to that universal principle? Is there something about Christian universal values that can be protected against some of these criticisms, that can guard against some of these dangers when applied properly? I think there are ways to protect them against this misuse, but this is a discussion for another time. It is an important criticism to consider, though.

Hazony also connects this resistance to the particular—this resistance to something that holds out against the universal principle—as something related to the hatred of the state of Israel. Hatred for the state of Israel arises from a fierce opposition to nationalism. The Jewish desire for self-determination and for nationhood was to establish agency, national agency; to protect them from another Holocaust; to give them some sense of a firm, secure peoplehood, being able to secure their identity, their destiny; and to determine their own selves, rather than depending upon the fickle and proven unreliable protection of other states; that they would have a state of their own, corresponding to their national identity. They have a distinct national identity, so they should have a distinct state identity as well, to correspond with that.

The Jews, however, are hated for this reason, he argues, because—and he is writing from a Jewish context, in Israel—they are judged as Europeans who have apostatized from the ideal of universal government, government according to universal reason, which limits the significance of national boundaries, national identities, peoplehoods, and treats people as interchangeable. As Jews are judged as Europeans, they are seen—particularly harshly—to have fallen away from the ideal of post-nationalism, of this international rational order. And as they have pursued their own nation-state, they are seen to have apostatized. Zionism is perceived to be a rejection of the European ideal. And we see this in other cases as well, whether it is in Hungary—its failure to go along with the European expectation to open its border to lots of immigrants—or in the case of the UK and Brexit; or whether it is something like America’s determination to set its own course on certain matters—on environmental policy and other things like that—and not to submit to the universal order of international law; or whether it is seen in more problematic cases, like South Africa and apartheid.

In these sorts of cases, people of European origin are held to a particularly high standard. And while other countries of Africa or the Middle East—Muslim or African countries—may be regarded as backward and not expected to have moved beyond the stage of nationalism, any people of European identity that seeks self-determination or that push against this internationalist order are treated as people who are resisting something that they should have risen to. They are people who are backwards, in some way or another. And that hatred by the universal order of these dissidents is very clearly seen in the way that people who support Brexit, for instance, are regarded as ignorant, or pathological—not just wrong, but in some sense, to have fallen short of what they should be as human beings.

This resistance to Israel and Jewish identity is also something that has some history. If we go to Esther 3, we see the description of Haman, of the Jews within the nation. “Haman said to King Ahasuerus, ‘There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from all other peoples, and they do not keep the king’s laws. Therefore, it is not fitting for the king to let them remain.’” What happened here is you have a nation without a land, a nation without a place to call their own. They are scattered all among the different peoples of the provinces. But yet they have a distinct way of life. They have distinct customs. And it just is not fitting to leave them like that. It is as if they are a creature in a cartoon that has run off the edge of the precipice, and just is refusing to fall; it is time that they did fall, that they recognized that their nationhood has gone and any nationhood they could possess is in resistance to the rationality of the enlightened imperial order, which they are supposed to succumb to. They are supposed to give themselves into that and then they will enjoy peace, and prosperity, and security within that empire. But to maintain national identity and that sense of independence is to go against everything that the empire stands for.

And so, the empire comes with hatred for the individual, distinct people group that will maintain its identity against the empire. And it promises peace in exchange for independence. Whereas the state—the national state—has a certain sort of epistemic modesty. It weakens tribalism and it brings skepticism and empiricism to temper tribal loyalties. But it still does root us in a particular context, in a particular shared identity.

Imperialism, he argues, at the very conclusion of his book, is, in the final analysis, a shrinking back to a sort of childhood. He writes,

There is no moral maturity in the yearning for a benevolent empire to rule the earth and take care of us, judging for us and enforcing its judgments upon us. It is in fact nothing but a plea to return to the dependency of childhood, when our parents took care of us, and judged for us in all important matters. True moral maturity is attained only when we stand on our own feet, learning to govern ourselves and to defend ourselves without needlessly harming those around us, and where possible, also extending assistance to our neighbors and friends. And the same is true of nations, which reach a genuine moral maturity when they can live in freedom and determine their own course, benefiting others where this is feasible—yet with no aspiration to impose their rule and their laws on other nations by force.

So, what should we say about this book? There are a lot of thoughts that I have from Hazony’s arguments. Some very basic things to note is that this should be read in dialogue with his The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, as the grounding of a lot of Hazony’s thinking can be found in that book, where he goes into a lot more depth.

Other things to note include the fact that the theological and philosophical roots within Old Testament Scripture are important to consider, especially where he presents those as standing in contrast to Christianity—as he does very strongly within the treatment of this subject in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. Nonetheless, he sees this nationalist order as a Protestant order, an order that arose around Protestant thought within Europe, and that it should be celebrated on that particular front and developed as a Protestant order.

Perhaps ironically, his approach is not empirical enough. This is rectified, to some extent, within the endnotes, where he does get into some detailed discussion of various issues. But there is a lot that needs to be said about the particular way in which certain nations qualify as nations. What it means for Japan to be a nation is very different from what it means for the US to be a nation, or what it means for England to be a nation. England is a nation as part of the United Kingdom. And what does the United Kingdom mean, relative to nationhood? These sorts of questions raise a lot of complexities that unsettle something of the ideal types that he has going on. These ideal types, more concerningly, tend to falter precisely where they need to bear the most weight.

For instance, in his discussion of Nazi Germany, I think he fails to grasp something of the strength of an emphasis upon the particularism of a specific people, and the problems there—that this is not just imperialism. And imperialism, again, needs to be spoken of in different ways. What the British empire means is very different from the sort of empire that the Napoleonic empire would represent, or the Pax Americana, or the Roman Empire. These are very different principles that govern these different sorts of empires. And it seems to me that often, collapsing these into just these single ideal types of “empire” or “nation”, obscures as much as it reveals—at the points where they are most needed to reveal key distinctions. Particularly in the case of Nazi Germany, I think there are real problems there, and he would need far more careful categories if he is going to truly be illuminating in his discussion of those issues.

Other comments to make: I think that his discussion of the Jews needs to be tempered by recognition that the Jews have not just represented nationalism as a resistance to universal law, these sorts of things, but they have also been seen as resistant to national particularity, as unpatriotic, rootless cosmopolitans, in a notion of ‘international Jewry’. This position presents a Jewish international conspiracy that is involved in radical movements, that is involved in secret organizations, the upper echelons of government and finance, and the economy and money-lending, all these sorts of things, seeking to undermine national independence, and to establish an order that is run in a way that is advantageous for a dispersed people. This supposed conspiracy breaks down the power of people that are located and rooted in a specific context, and makes Jewish interests less dependent upon their protection, and enables that sort of breaking down, the dissolving of peoplehoods in the name of an international order.

His approach focuses a lot upon the threat of Zionism. But often the hatred of the Jews has depended far more upon the way that they represent a certain sort of cosmopolitanism that is far more closely associated with his imperialism. And that, I think, he needs to take into account. He has not done justice to that particular issue.

And beyond this, there were certain key issues he barely touched upon in the book, certain issues that are absolutely at the heart of the current debates. The first one is immigration. It is all very well to talk about nationhood, but what does this mean in societies that are increasingly formed of immigrants? What do we do at the point—and when is the point—when the foundation of peoplehood has become so corroded that it cannot sustain a nation anymore? I think we are seeing some of this within the UK, where any attempt to assert nationhood or peoplehood, and a majority people that is hospitable to other groups—but really maintains its majority and really maintains its peoplehood, and the nation-state is attached to that majority peoplehood—that would be met with considerable opposition, and understandably so, because increasingly, it does not seem to be feasible.

And there is the danger of nationalism arising in such contexts, precisely because there has been such considerable immigration that a rising nationalism is a push to return to an order that is now inaccessible to us, apart from great violence—or it certainly seems to be that way. So, how do you make the current situation workable? I am not sure Hazony helps much on that front. He points towards a better order, a more humane order, an order that is related far more closely to the natural, organic structure of human society. But when you have broken up and dissolved human society with mass immigration, what then? I do not think there is a humane return to such an order to be found. I think it is going to be difficult. We can mitigate the order that we find ourselves in to some extent, and we can maintain a certain degree of nationalism. But the very fact that our nations are seeking to astroturf a sort of peoplehood, with notions like ‘British values,’ is a sign that they do not believe that there is a peoplehood to be found much anymore. Rather, what we must do is work with these poor ingredients that we have: a people that are not really connected together, lots of detached individuals that are seeking those interests, but which do not coalesce to form something greater than themselves.

What you have, then, is a government trying to create peoplehood out of detached individuals, rather than recognizing that there is a peoplehood that preexists the government, and that the government stands for the nation. And so, nationalism really is a danger in such a context, because nationalism is no longer rooted in an actual peoplehood that can be empirically located and identified, that is a tradition that is moving throughout history; but it becomes this construction of the state that is imposed upon reality that does not fit very neatly. And it has to cut off or excise certain elements that cannot be removed without some sort of violence or oppression and that really is a problem. At what point have we gone too far?

I think there is a need to return to a certain sort of nationalism, but it can only be ever be a half-turn because we need to invent something that enables us to assimilate a great number of people that have disparate backgrounds. The old order of the UK, for instance, with English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh identities coming together with a broadly shared Protestant order in a system of common law, with common customs and tribal identities, and these sorts of things: that’s not sustainable in the long term. Something else has to be invented and so there needs to be a work of imagination in our current context and Hazony doesn’t really help with that.

His work does however help to show why things like immigration and the EU are such flashpoint symbolic issues. It helps us to see why nationhood is the agency of a people. We talk about ‘our’ government not just as the government that is over us but a government that represents us, that stands for our distinct identity as a nation that’s distinct from other peoples, as a people that has a particular legacy that continues. Other people may be knit into that legacy over time, but that legacy is a particular one: it’s a legacy bound up with the English language, with its culture, with its literature, with its institutions—even its political institutions and its governmental institutions like the Monarchy or the House of Commons and the House of Lords—and around sports that we play, like cricket and football, around a certain location, a certain sort of countryside, a certain tradition of architecture—all these sorts of things. That’s part of what it means to be within the UK. Now, it’s hard to see how that tradition is going to continue on its current or historical form.

And there’s a real danger in losing that. What do we have when that loss occurs? Increasingly we will have something that is not truly ‘our’ government, no longer something that is expressing, standing for, and representing our peoplehood, but the imposition of a universal order that uproots us. That comes to be imposed upon our peoplehood in a way that is oppressive.

I think this is one of the reasons why mass immigration is so strongly opposed: because it is one of the means by which a peoplehood is broken down and the government ceases to be ‘our’ government, representing our peoplehood and standing for our nation, and increasingly becomes the imposition of an internationalist technocratic order upon the population. This is seen to be something that undermines our sovereignty—and our dominion as well: that this is our land, our land that we have grown up in, that we have roots in that go back centuries or even millennia. So there’s a shift in power from people to abstract government.

Now, I mentioned earlier Hazony’s description of the US. He quotes from John Jay in the Federalist Papers:

Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.

Now, that is a very romantic view of the US, even back when it was written in the 18th century! It is even less realistic now after mass and fairly indiscriminate immigration from different countries. America does not represent a majority nationhood in the same way that it once did. There are ways in which that still hangs on to some degree, but it does not seem to me that that national vision is realistic in the modern context in the US. Indeed, even historically it has been a vision that has marginalized certain large communities and continues to do so.

So how does this work in the current context? I don’t believe that Hazony helps on that and his failure to get into these nitty-gritty questions is a real issue. For instance, how do you deal with racial tensions within the US when the US is supposedly a nation formed upon Anglo—or perhaps Anglo-Germanic—dominance in society? How do you deal with that when there is a rapid change in the demographics of the nation, when that formerly dominant community may no longer be the dominant community or may no longer represent a majority in 40 years’ time? How do you deal with that sort of situation? Again, I don’t think he helps there. I think he is presenting a number of visions here that are unrealistic, overly romantic, and not sufficiently grounded in the historical and current realities.

And this brings to me to a second issue, which is probably at the nub of so many of the problems here. I’m very sympathetic to Hazony’s vision of the good but I’m far less convinced by his idea that is prudent or realistic within the current context to move to that sort of order in the way that his approach would seem to suggest. Within a piece from the National Review a couple of days ago, the author quoted the same quotation from John Jay, but presented him as the opponent of Alexander Hamilton’s position, which it regarded as the true alternative. In the words of the author of the article: ‘As a nation, we are united by a desire to make money off one another.’ This is a pretty apt description of what national identity increasingly becomes in a capitalist age! Hazony mentions capitalism positively as an alternative to the universalism and ideological tendencies of socialism, but modern capitalism is arguably far more insidious in its inherent drive to universalize things and to move towards a universal and deracinated world order. I don’t think he gets into this. Capitalism dissolves social ties, uproots people, moves them around all the time, mixing them up, it overthrows customs and traditions, it celebrates individualism over the common good, choice over loyalty, and it renders people interchangeable within the managerial structure, which is increasingly determinative of our existence. We are established as consumers and as indiscriminate labour. The structures of our life and our work are not the organic structures of human societies, but scalable, replicable, and transplantable systems. Our governments increasingly take that approach too. For nations that exist within the current globalized economy it is very hard to maintain that sort of identity, when all the force of the globalized economy is pushing in the other direction. The global economy is one that is encouraging all this movement of people, that is encouraging a formation of selfhood that no longer has a sense of agency in a collective national agency or something like that. It no longer has a sense of selfhood achieved through having a realm of dominion of one’s own. One’s own land, sovereignty—these things don’t register in the same way in an individualistic capitalist order. No longer does the movement from generation to generation and the transmission of a legacy matter in the same way. Rather what matters is money here and now.

And so that whole order that the nationalist structure is built upon is broken down. Increasingly, as we function as detached individuals, the nation-state is hollowed out—losing its principles and its values—and it no longer is feasible in the same way. Empires have been built around economies for a long time. Peoples are held together by their economies. Hamilton’s vision is not entirely unrealistic, in the sense that we are united by our dealings with one another. But an economy and the dealings that we have with one another should be so much richer and broader within the vision of the nation. It is a vision where people intermarry; it is a vision where people live together and worship together; it is a vision of reality where people live and develop strong communities over many generations in a single location. And yet when that is all reduced we just have this residual desire to make money off each other. For the nation that is built around the economy, genuine independence of agency and dominion, the strength of community, and other such things are sacrificed for economic wealth and security. I think increasingly the sort of imperial order that we have today is not primarily defined by the EU or by the United Nations or by American power in its world order. Rather it is defined by the economy; it is defined by globalism; it is defined by big business—by Apple, Google, Facebook, and such big companies of the new economy and the big businesses of the old economy too. That is the reality he just fails to deal with.

All the values that he puts forward are, I believe, really good values and things that are ideals to be pursued and recognized. However, I think that he does not engage with the actual problem as it exists on the ground, which is that our society is determined by its economy and the economy has broken down all these structures. It has scattered us, moved us around, assimilated us. It has acted as a universal acid upon society. And what is left is a structure where the deeper forms of identification—those things which allowed for the expansion of the self—has been replaced for security and prosperity, in a very narrow sense of that term. We have lost the sovereignty of the self; we have become alienated from our labour; we have become people that no longer have a sense of dominion and sovereignty in a land; we have lost a sense of a peoplehood that extends over history. But we have got TVs; we have got lots of good consumer goods; we have got fast cars; we have got all these other things, and that is what we have exchanged for it. This is essentially an imperial order of a different type and Hazony’s failure to deal with that, or even I think fully or largely appreciate the problem, is one of the greatest weaknesses of this book.

Furthermore, I think that this highlights one of the dangers that we face in the coming years: what happens when there is so little that binds us to our neighbours and we no longer need to engage in economic dealings with them? There has been a certain form of economic order, of peace that has been maintained through trade across states. The danger of war is an economic danger and so there is a greater incentive to maintain peace and so trade and merchants have been a real force for good in certain respects, in maintaining peace. But what happens when we lose an economic interest in our neighbour? What then? What happens when parts of the population become an economic liability, as they are increasingly becoming? What about the situation that we have at the moment, when big companies routinely make statements that are directly against the values of vast numbers of the US population? Here I think there needs to be a return to some sense of national identity, some recovery of something along those lines, or some discovery or imaginative creation of a shared identity in the current context. Now, it is great if you live in a country that has these things maintained to some degree, but very few do and even those countries that would seem to maintain a national identity have so dissolved and broken down internal structures of identity—the structures of the family, the clan, the tribe, the connections between the generations, the connections between the sexes, in marriage but also of the sexes in their own groups. Those groups have all been dissolved in various ways, and as a result even things that would look like nations are fairly sickly. I think an example in certain ways might be somewhere like Japan: it retains a very strong national identity in some respects, but in many other areas society is ailing.

So what do we do? I think we need to present something a bit more realistic than Hazony gives here. A lot of what he has to say is positive and thoughtful, but ultimately I think it falls short.

2 thoughts on “Transcript for Yoram Hazony, ‘The Virtue of Nationalism’

  1. I was disappointed that you conflate capitalism with globalist libertarianism.

    I would consider myself a nationalist capitalist, as I’m sure would Hamilton.


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