Can the Modern Nation-State Survive? An Interview with Alain Dieckhoff

Movements for sovereignty and independence have gathered momentum over the past few years, seen most recently with the advent of Brexit. Disputing theories which predicted the demise of nationalism, director of CERI Sciences Po, Alain Dieckhoff dissects the future of the modern nation-state.

Alain Dieckhoff, CNRS research fellow and director of CERI Sciences Po, is interviewed by Miriam Perier.

 MP: Let’s start with a brief reminder of how and when the concept of nationalism emerged. You situate it at the heart of modernity. Can you tell us more about what you mean by this?

AD: Nationalism is both an ideology and a political movement that aims to make the nation the focus of collective expression. The word ‘nation’ signifies a human community which shares common characteristics, be they cultural (language, religion, shared history) and/or political (belonging to the same territorialized political community). The term ‘nation’ was first cautiously adopted in the preeminent European languages of the 18th century, and then firmly took hold elsewhere in the following century. This means that nationalism is a modern phenomenon embedded in a major transformation: when political sovereignty became vested in the people, rather than in monarchs.


MP: How do you explain that nationalism has switched from a ‘positive’ connotation, synonymous with freedom and emancipation, to a ‘negative’ connotation, synonymous with exclusion and withdrawing into oneself?

AD: Because the idea of nation was at odds with the unequal society of the Ancien Regime, it was inseparable from the rise of democracy as government by the people. Nationalism originally had a truly revolutionary and emancipatory dimension. From the Peoples’ Spring in 1848 through to the 1950-60s great wave of decolonization and up to the ‘decommunisation’ of peoples under Soviet rule in the 1990s, it was this emancipatory aspect of nationalism that was clearly at the forefront.

From the late nineteenth century, however, first in France and Germany, then in many other European countries, nationalism gradually took on another meaning: some conservative political movements decided to assume it as their own doctrine, based on the absolute primacy of the values and interests of their nations alone.

This nationalism of withdrawal, of reaction, of rooting, goes together with what I term a ‘double exclusion.’ The first element of this exclusion targets other nations, considered inferior and which are at best ignored and at worst enslaved or eliminated. The second part targets the same political body, which must be purged of all ‘non-national’ elements, in other words, those which do not share the same ‘organic identity.’

Clearly, nationalism is Janus-faced in nature. It is an instrument in emancipation because it enables people to attain collective emancipation, through mutual respect. Conversely, it can also nurture dreadful practices of xenophobic and racist exclusion.

In what conditions could nationalism disappear?

Liberals and Marxists differ on many issues, but they share a common conviction: that increased interaction will bring about a reduction in differences between peoples and gradually lead to the unification of the world. Yet the supposed end of nationalism is an illusion, for two reasons. First, neither doctrine realizes that globalisation also provides new resources for nationalism, as is clear with the insolent force of what I have called ‘nationalism of affluence.’ By promoting direct access to the world market, globalisation enables Catalan or Quebec nationalists to bypass the central government and assert their own national project. Second, as long as the state remains the dominant figure in the political sphere, nationalism will continue to exist because the state works to match political society and cultural identity. That is the very principle of the nation-state.


Yet your book deals with the multinational state. What is that?

It is a mode of state organisation based on the dissociation of civic community and national community, in other words between the political realm and the realm of identity. It is a reality, at least partly in Canada, Spain, and Belgium but also in Russia and Bolivia. It is also something we need to work toward, because, clearly, the principle of self-determination which is at the heart of nationalism will continue to project itself. There are only two options. Either we accept the proliferation of nation-states with strong identity foundations—as was the case after the dissolution of Yugoslavia— or we try to preserve or create bi- or multinational states. This would allow the coexistence of different national groups within a single democratic state but would also engender the likely implementation of federalism.

What does not seem a credible interpretation, on the other hand, is the post-national perspective, as proposed by its most prominent advocate, Jürgen Habermas. It seeks to base participation in the political community on the sole principles of democracy and rule of law. The recurrent crisis of the European project lies precisely in the lack of attention paid to the crucial question of a European identity. In fact, Europe cannot create a strong sense of belonging and this leaves the door open either to various forms of sovereignty (Brexit being the most recent example) or to “dissociative” nationalism of the like at work in Catalonia and Scotland.

Alain Dieckhoff is a senior research fellow at CNRS and director of CERI Sciences Po. His research focuses on politics, contemporary society and transformation of the state in Israel, as well as contemporary nationalism. He is a member of the advisory council of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies and the author of the forthcoming Nationalism and the Multination State, as well as The Invention of a Nation and Revisiting Nationalism.

Miriam Perier is an English Language Publications Manager at CERI Sciences Po.

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