Brexit has turned the floodlights on it, exposing, so that all can readily see, the deepest fault line in the politics of Western nations today. It is along this line that the bitterest and most fateful political battles in our time are likely to be fought....What we are seeing is the beginning of a struggle over the character of the international political order itself.
For 350 years, Western peoples have lived in a world in which national independence and self-determination were seen as foundational principles. Indeed, these things were held to be among the most precious human possessions, and the basis of all of our freedoms. Since World War II, however, these intuitions have been gradually attenuated and finally even discredited, especially among academics and intellectuals, media opinion-makers, and business and political elites. Today, many in the West have come to regard an intense personal loyalty to the national state and its right to chart an independent course as something not only unnecessary but morally suspect. They no longer see national loyalties and traditions as necessarily providing a sound basis for determining the laws we live by, for regulating the economy or making decisions about defense and security, for establishing public norms concerning religion or education, or for deciding who gets to live in what part of the world.
But those who have made this transition in fundamental political orientation have done so without making sure that everyone else was on board. Millions of people, especially outside the centers of elite opinion, still hold fast to the old understanding that the independence and self-determination of one’s nation hold the key to a life of honor and freedom. These are people who believe that no one ever consulted them about giving up on the freedom of their nation to protect its people, their interests, and their traditions. And when people think they weren’t consulted about giving up such precious commodities, they are apt to respond in dramatic, harsh, and often violent ways.
This means that the clash of fundamental political assumptions we are watching unfold is already much more extreme than has been fully understood. As what is at stake comes better into focus, political parties will realign. Entire countries will realign. The Brexit vote is only the first shot fired in a protracted conflict that will play itself out throughout the West and elsewhere. Yoram Hazony, 6 september 2016 Nationalism and the Future of Western Freedom @Mosaic.
Hazony's words were written in between Brexit and before Trump's (first?) Presidential victory. The piece advances numerous theses worth reflecting on, but the core idea is this: roughly between 1600-1950, Europe (and eventually the world) came to be dominated by a certain Old-Testament inspired, "Protestant construction" of nationalism (implicitly recognized at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648). This construction rejected universal claims of empire (promoted as much by the Catholic church and the heirs to the Holy Roman Empire as the Caliphate) in favor of the nation-state. Around 1950 the construction was displaced by a Pax Americana which produced an elite project of liberal cosmopolitanism that effaced the moral and political foundations of the nation state, both on a global scale and in various regional projects (especially the Europe Union).
The Protestant construction was founded on two (not entirely coherent) principles: "First, the king or ruler, if he is to rule a nation by right, must devote himself to the protection of his people in their life, family, and property, to justice in the courts and the maintenance of the sabbath, and to the public recognition of the one God;" and "second, nations that were cohesive and strong enough to secure their political independence would henceforth be regarded as possessing what later came to be called the right of self-determination, by which was meant the right to govern themselves under their own national constitutions and churches, without interference from foreign powers." On Hazony's reading of the subsequent history, the tension between these two principles proved to be creative, as it promoted creative friction within and among states and (echoing Hume without acknowledgment) competitive emulation. Hazony is fond of the Protestant construction, but he does not ignore its moral blemishes.* It's crucial to his larger argument that these blemishes are bugs not features of the Protestant construction (which he revives, in part, also to re-articulate a fresh vision for Zionism).
Yoram Hazony spends quite a bit of time discussing the significance of the first principle, reading it as embracing "the minimum requirements for a life of personal freedom and dignity for all." One may say, in the language of the eighteenth century, that the Protestant construction embraces a commitment to common humanity, even if this commitment is both differently expressed locally and can sustain very different political orders. Hazony spends less time on the second principle, which is shame because it is Spinozistic in character: it is a variant of might makes right. All nations have a right to self-determination if they can secure it either on the battle-field or through restraint by others. I call it a "variant" because it does not legitimize wars of conquest; Hazony emphasizes (by drawing on his interpretation of the Hebrew Bible) that the second principle also demands a certain amount of restraint--one cannot use one's power to dominate other nations.
By contrast, "the liberal construction of the West is premised on the idea that there is ultimately only one principle at the base of legitimate political order: namely, individual freedom." Hazony traces this ideas to Locke, and he has some fun criticizing Locke's impoverished anthropology which results in a "shocking depreciation of even the most basic bonds that had been thought to hold society together." While Hazony recognizes that Locke is a child of the Protestant construction, he argues that he inspired in others to "tirelessly elaborate this dream-world, working and reworking the liberal vision of human beings freely pursuing property on the basis of consent and without borders."+ This is, in fact, Hazony's main philosophical charge against cosmopolitan liberalism: that it is based on impoverished and unrealistic understanding of human nature. (Here Hazony makes it a bit easy on himself because while he takes Kant's cosmopolitanism to be one of his main targets, he does not recognize that Kant's liberalism is rooted not in Locke's anthropology, but in a very different, thoroughly pessimistic view of human nature.)
Hazony makes a few other charges against the liberal construction (which includes what passes for conservatism, too): it is in contrast to its self-understanding, monist in character. (So, liberals do not understand themselves.) It produces conformity in education, it is "the virtually unquestioned framework for what an educated person needs to know about the political world," which produces jobs and projects for folk so educated,** and it produces a kind of moral ideology that makes modern folk unaware "that there might be intelligent and decent people whose estimation of the worth of such enterprises is drastically different from their own." One side effect is that all particularist or nationalist alternatives to the liberal order and up being "considered akin to racism or fascism." (I have expressed some sympathy for this charge.)
As an aside, sometimes Hazony recognizes that his historical narrative is at times tenuous. After all, the great age of nationalist independence -- decolonization -- occurred during the first few decades of Pax Americana and was at least for a long time not very liberal (nor very Protestant). In addition, while it may be true that there "are people who believe that no one ever consulted them about giving up on the freedom of their nation to protect its people, their interests, and their traditions" it is notable that a good chunk of the electorate that voted leave (the aged) in the Brexit referendum, had in 1975 "expressed significant support for EC membership," given that it was decided "67% in favour on a national turnout of 64%." That is, while Brexit has become framed in terms of a populist revolt against Elites (and Hazony promotes this meme), reality is closer to this being an instance of buyer's regret. Crucially, Hazony implicitly recognizes but does not reflect on the significance of this, that the consent of the governed (a Lockean liberal principle not a Protestant construction principle) is central to legitimacy.
This is not to deny that joining the EU wasn't also an elite project for the UK. But, as Kenneth Clarke pointed out in his speech to the Commons (which closes with Burke), it was a means to maintain the UK's political stature and influence in a world dominated by others after the loss of its empire. For the truth is, for much of the Protestant construction the European powers that accepted a European concert were also imperialists (even Scotland's parliamentary union with England was itself the product of a failed imperial project). So, while it is possible to see in the Protestant construction a progressive unfolding of moral insight such that many of the immoralities produced by it come to be seen for what they are (such a conception of history is certainly available to the historical agents Hazony considers), there is no reason to think that the nation states which participated in the Protestant construction truly recognized the self-limitations that Hazony ascribes to it in his articulation of the second principle. A Europe of nations is a Gaullist principle enunciated once France was within the EU (and had come to terms to the loss of its imperial project).
The conceptual-historical point of the previous paragraph is this: Hazony thinks that under Pax Americana nationalism went into retreat because of a kind of misinterpretation of the Nazi-Germany. On Hazony's reading, it's national-socialism which gave nationalism a bad name. (And, so, Hazony makes an effort to show that Hitler was really an imperialist not a nationalist.) But, of course, among progressive intellectuals it was WWI which revealed the strength and immorality of nationalism (in which the workers turned out to be more loyal to their warlike nation states than amiable, international brotherhood). Rather, the post WWII, cosmopolitan liberal order was founded on the recognition that the age of liberal empires, except the American one, was finished.
None of this is to deny that Hazony may well be right that we're in a age of massive realignment along the lines he suggests.+ One attractive feature of Hazony's attempt to re-aminate and renew the Protestant construction is that it can avoid a clash of civilizations, which (paradoxically enough) is more likely if the West remains wedded to a cosmopolitan, liberal order. (But it is also notable that many of the political ascendant nationalists see the world not as win-win, but fundamentally as zero-sum in which mutual interference is regarded as quite normal.) The question I'll pursue in a follow up post, is if a revitalized version of the Protestant construction is really worth having politically and morally and if Hazony's fundamental claims survive scrutiny.
Another attractive feature of Hazony's attempt is that it does not cede nationalism to those that embrace racism and fascism. In another, follow up post I explore to what degree one can fashion a liberalism out of the best features of the Protestant construction without giving up on liberalism altogether.++