Sunetra Gupta became my whisperer early in the pandemic due to her comprehensive understanding of the relationship between society and infectious disease. When I met her in October 2020, and in several interviews since, she highlighted an overlooked feature of the pandemic response: its nationalism.
Every government pretended as if its pandemic response would be juridically efficacious based on borders. Since when have viruses paid any attention to lines on a map? The whole thing is ridiculous but it had to be this way the minute that states decided that they were going to set out to control the pathogen by means of political force. Governments only have juridical control within their borders, while viruses don’t care.
The entire enterprise became gamified early on, with OurWorldInData publishing charts so you could find out which nations were flattening the curve. Was Spain doing better than Germany and how does that compare with France and Portugal? Was Sweden doing better or worse than its neighbors? It was a big competition to see which state was better at crushing its citizens rights.
To complicate matters, the World Health Organization was pushing states to intensify its response even while fueling a kind of virus fear of other states that were not cracking down enough. In addition, we observed the way in which multinational corporations and nonprofit foundations were fully on board with the great effort to mitigate via coercion.
The whole border struggle tapped into a primal fear of the other to the point that even within large juridical areas, sections started turning on each. In the Northeast of the US, people were encouraged to believe that they were staying safe while rubes in Georgia and Florida were infecting everything in sight. And even in the Northeast, individual states set up quarantine rules against each other, as if New Yorkers were dirty people whereas Connecticut residents were more compliant and thus healthier.
At some point in Massachusetts, the fear of dirty people reached absurd lengths, such that Western Massachusetts came to believe that they were clean whereas the virus was circulating uncontrolled in nasty Boston. The same happened in Texas, when people in Austin feared residents coming from Dallas. I myself experienced this early on when traveling from New York: everyone just presumed I was infected.
Nationalism takes many forms and geography is only one of them. The tendency to divide people by any identifiable trait works suitably well to foment divisiveness. When the Biden administration promoted the view that the unvaccinated were spreading the disease, it was not lost on popular opinion that black Americans were vaccinated at far lower rates than white Americans. The result was obvious as it was odious.
The connection between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as the growing protectionist trade barriers between the US and China, and the division of the world into warring blocs of interest, received encouragement from nationalistic trends of the virus response. If every other nation is in competition and states have unlimited power over their citizens, the tendency toward intensification of nationalist conflict in general is a result. Just as reduced trade cooperation between nations can drive war tensions, so too extreme nationalist responses to a global pathogenic problem fueled parochialism and inward-looking political movements.
Meanwhile, a political upheaval around the world seems to be favoring political parties and candidates that explicitly rejected lockdowns as a means of virus control and the resulting economic destruction that came with it. That is true in England and Italy and seems to be happening in the US.
The victories of these non-leftist candidates and parties are routinely described as right-wing nationalist but we need to be careful with such claims. The 20th century gave us two kinds of nationalism, one compatible with liberalism classically understood, and another that is inimical to it. The former is chosen, a reflection of the wishes of the community, whereas the latter is forced. It’s impossible to make sober judgments of world affairs today without understanding the difference.
The form of nationalism rooted in organic human choices is best illustrated by the situation in Europe following the Great War. Multinational, multilingual monarchies had fallen apart and war victors were in a position to draw new borders based on some criteria that included history but also language and culture. We ended up with the strange situation in which whole peoples had to lobby foreign leaders in the new carving up of the map.
This is the period in which nationalism by choice became compatible with the aspirations of human liberty. Self determination was the slogan. Ludwig von Mises, a great liberal voice of the period laid out the right principle in 1919: “No people and no part of a people shall be held against its will in a political association that it does not want.” The resulting border divisions were far from perfect. In some cases such as Yugoslavia they were egregious. Language divisions would have been better but even those are imperfect because dialects can differ dramatically even within the same language group: Spain is a perfect example.
We can fast forward to the interwar period in which nationalism became a beast. It became imperialist and based on race, language, geography, religion, and hereditary entitlement – the five criteria of nationalist attachment laid out in Ernst Renan’s 1882 essay “What Is a Nation?” The map of Europe turned black due to a bloodlust to purify the nation and expand it based on claims of historical justice.
Renan implicitly accepts the distinction between nations by choice and nation by force. A nation of choice is a
“possession in common of a rich legacy of memories… the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form….The nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavours, sacrifices, and devotions. Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate, for the ancestors have made us what we are. A heroic past, great men, glory (by which I understand genuine glory), this is the social capital upon which one bases a national idea.”
On the other hand, writes Renan, a nation by force is a moral outrage.
“A nation has no more right than a king does to say to a province: ‘You belong to me, I am seizing you.’ A province, as far as I am concerned, is its inhabitants; if anyone has the right to be consulted in such an affair, it is the inhabitant. A nation never has any real interest in annexing or holding on to a country against its will. The wish of nations is, all in all, the sole legitimate criterion, the one to which one must always return.
With regard to race, Renan was particularly virulent that race cannot and should never be the basis of nationalism.
Human history is essentially different from zoology, and race is not everything, as it is among the rodents or the felines, and one does not have the right to go through the world fingering people’s skulls, and taking them by the throat saying: ‘You are of our blood; you belong to us!’ Aside from anthropological characteristics, there are such things as reason, justice, the true, and the beautiful, which are the same for all. Be on your guard, for this ethnographic politics is in no way a stable thing and, if today you use it against others, tomorrow you may see it turned against yourselves. Can you be sure that the Germans, who have raised the banner of ethnography so high, will not see the Slavs in their turn analyse the names of villages in Saxony and Lusatia, search for any traces of the Wiltzes or of the Obotrites, and demand recompense for the massacres and the wholesale enslavements that the Ottomans inflicted upon their ancestors? It is good for everyone to know how to forget.
Thus is the spirit of Renan: affection for one’s country, language, or religion is meritorious and peaceful; the use of compulsion in service of identity is not. These days, these two forms of nationalism – one by choice and one by force – are constantly conflated in the news and commentary on world affairs today.
The new prime minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, for example, has been trashed as a modern-day Mussolini but a close look at the situation on the ground reveals someone who speaks for a people who share a language and history and resents attempts by global organizations such as the European Commission and World Health Organization to take those away. Her nationalism might be of the benign sort and likely is. In any case, the support behind her seems like a justifiable reaction against egregious harms.
While the mainstream media warns of her dangers, no one can deny that a beast of a different sort poses a more immediate threat to the freedoms of all peoples in the world today. The pandemic response was the most conspicuous revelation of it.
For nearly three years, most people in the world have been treated like lab rats in an experiment in bio-technocratic central management by state power, at the urging of once-respected global institutions, and this has resulted in economic crisis, demographic upheaval, and utter political panic. It will be many years before this is sorted out.
The transition will certainly involve the rise of nationalism simply because rallying people around their shared ideals can be an effective tool for beating back a machinery that otherwise seems beyond the capacity of human beings to control. Here again the aspiration is for self determination. There is nothing sinister in that.
People will deploy the remnants of democracy that still exist in order to effect change. If some elites are worried about that, they should have thought twice before locking people in their homes and destroying the means to make a living in the name of compliance with science and at the behest of large-scale industrial interests.
That is not to say there are no dangers associated with all types of nationalism, which is precisely why the pandemic response should never have dabbled in such forms in the first place. The use of force in the conduct of human life will always prompt a blowback simply because rational creatures are not inclined to live permanently in cages. If we can find our way out, humans will do our best to do so, using any tool at our disposal.