It’s striking, when curating an event about future possibilities, just how persistent old forms of life are. Take the idea of the “new nationalism”. Just before the financial crash of 2008, the consensus was that globalisation was mutating, if not dissolving, the nation.

The best that nation-states could do was adapt to planet-scale forces of capital, technology and migration. And part of that adaptation meant national identities would become more worldly and cosmopolitan. It would be a functional necessity to tolerate, even embrace, difference.

Jump-cut to now. Where some in a 60,000-strong crowd for a national anniversary in Budapest freely hold up posters titled “White Europe” and “Clean Blood”. Where ex-Trump advisor Steve Bannon, a self-proclaimed “economic nationalist”, addresses a French National Front rally with the words, “Let them call you racist… wear it as a badge of honour”. Where elements of the UK commercial press (and other pint-wielding provocateurs) describe domestic judges and MPs as “traitors” and “saboteurs”.

All of this underpinned by proclamations of national glory and tradition — more often than not deemed as under threat from a host of named and nameless “others”.

Understanding nationalism

Bewilderment is understandable. As are laments that this is a veritable retreat from the future. Yet at FutureFest, we try to set current developments in deep and wide contexts. As it extends outwards from now, the “cone of uncertainty” that futurologists talk about contains many thorny issues — and that means power, passions and asymmetries, as well as tidy and gleaming solutions.

If the call to nationhood is irresistibly on the rise, the future-minded should be thinking about how to turn its dynamics to the good.

What that might imply, to begin with, is an understanding of nationalism that is less phobic and alarmist than is (understandably) generated by the headlines.

In much political science, the assumption behind the term “nationalism” is that the qualities of the nation are the driving force of its ideology — just as the dynamism of capital propels “capitalism” or the primacy of social relations fuels “socialism”.

The anthropologist Ernest Gellner understood nationalism as a functional phenomenon. It was a means whereby industrialising territories established a common language, clock-time and other useful standards. It justified investing in education and welfare systems, in order to strengthen the capacities and character of the “folk”.

Now, 19th and 20th century nationalism could fall into preposterous myths of racial superiority, and provide a logic for imperial exploitation and the subjugation of others. But it could also — in, say, the Nordic countries — become a transformative spur for societal development in economy, culture, education and land ownership (as outlined in Tomas Bjorkman and Lene Rachel Anderson’s recent book The Nordic Secret).

Altruistic and narcissistic nationalism

What form of nationalism — with its “Janus” face, as Tom Nairn once called it, facing both forwards and backwards — is prevailing in the present moment? As reported in the Economist a few months ago, the Polish social psychologist Michal Bilewicz has made a useful distinction between “altruistic” and “narcissistic” forms of contemporary nationalism:

Altruists acknowledge a chequered past, give thanks for today’s blessings and look forward to a better future — a straight line sloping up across time. Narcissists exalt in a glorious past, denigrate a miserable present and promise a magnificent future — a rollercoaster U-curve with today in its pit… If you need a rule of thumb for assessing a nationalist movement, ascending ramp versus switchback U is as good as you are likely to get.

One might recognise the altruistic version in the small-nationalisms of Scotland and Wales, or the Catalonian independence movement, or even Macron’s forward motion for the French nation. These nationalisms are liberal and progressive. They are pro-EU or other transnational regimes, shouting ‘stop the world, we want to get on’.

Yet it would be fair to say the narcissistic form is currently dominant in Europe. The administrations of Hungary, Poland, Russia and Turkey — and the anti-immigration contenders in many other countries — do indeed combine these elements. That is: a glorious reading of their own history; a vision of a present society overrun by malign, polluting and external forces; and a future which restores national “Greatness”.

A post-Brexit UK looks like it’s trying to be both kinds of nationalism at the same time. Meaning a “Global Britain” that’s about to be freed from the exactions of European bureaucracy, in order to extend its national genius for democracy and industry around the world… so we are told. And as for Trump’s America? Well, as presidential tweet tumbles after presidential tweet, it’s difficult to tell.

“New nationalism” at Futurefest

In this year’s FutureFest, we’ve been trying to grapple with the full spectrum of creative (and destructive) forces shuddering through our lives at the moment. Our aim is to open up alternatives than can occupy the future in a confident way. The enduring appetite for collective identity has to be one path we explore. Which means taking nationalism seriously.

We’ve invited Professor Manuel Castells to dwell again on his remarkably prescient comments about the power of identity, made in his mid-90s trilogy The Information Age. Castells saw the interdependence of what he called “the Net and the Self”. Our networked, mobile and global existence is so demanding that it produces a need for a collective anchor in the storm; a more slow-moving resource of culture and history.

The narcissistic nationalisms previously mentioned indicate how this relationship can go badly wrong. Castells, himself Catalonian, will give us clues as to how it can be set right for the future. He will also be exploring these ideas in a conversation with Sir Nick Clegg.

Our panel on the “new nationalism” has a range of leading experts who will take “these islands” of Britain as their starting point. British Future’s Sunder Katwala has been conducting research on attitudes to Britishness since 2011 and Cambridge’s Michael Kenny is as interested in the nations that comprise the “United” Kingdom. As a leading scholar on cosmopolitan identity, the LSE’s Ayça Çubukçu will hold open a wider space in which a post-Brexit British identity can be explored.

A few decades ago, Benedict Anderson once described nationalism as an “imagined community” — a sense of connection with those who we will never actually, physically meet. How much of our virtualised, networked life does that concept also describe? How much of our future depends on how well we imagine our communities? What can the nations we craft teach us about how to invoke and locate the collective in our lives?

As ever, in one single FutureFest, many possible worlds.

Originally published by NESTA

Photo by alda chou

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