Civic nationalism is an effort to define a nation ideologically, rather than biologically and geographically. Up until the French Revolution, a nation was primarily a related group of people with a common language, culture and history. The French were not defined by geography or ideology, but by blood. The lands they occupied were French lands, because they were occupied by French people. The people were loyal to themselves and, by extension, a king, whose duty it was to defend the interests of his people.
The French Revolution changed that as a nation came to be defined by geography and ideology. The challenge with replacing private government, where a king defends his lands and the land of his people, is in finding something to replace the basis of loyalty. That’s where the civic religion comes into the mix. Instead of people giving their soul to God and their sword to the king, both are pledged to the new civic religion, where the state is the object of worship and veneration. Citizenship becomes a sacred duty.
The Enlightenment ideas about public government were, of course, a reaction to the defects of the aristocratic regime. A good king makes for the best form of government, but a terrible king, who is greedy or stupid, makes for the worst for of government. The former advances the peace and prosperity of his people, while the latter damages it. Placing the fate of the people on luck, hoping the next king turns out to have the right mix of qualities for the age, seems like a rather silly way to run a society, when you think about it.
Public government addresses that by giving the people an organized way to get rid of bad rulers and change public policy. The trouble with public government is the same trouble we see with public property. When no one owns something, no one has an incentive to sacrifice for it or invest in it. The tragedy of the commons applies to all public goods, including government. The solution is the civic religion, where the identity of the citizen is tied to the success of the state. The state becomes the altar of the people.
This is why, in our current age, the ruling class drones on endlessly about democracy and the alleged threats to democracy. They don’t use the word democracy to mean people voting on public policy. They mean it as a synonym for the neo-liberal order and the cosmopolitan ideology that animates it. It’s why the wrong person winning an election is a threat to democracy, while the right person winning is a celebration of democracy. It’s also why the coup plotters in the FBI still feel smugly justified in their actions.
Ideological nations have two problems. One is they must endlessly whip the citizens into a fervor in order to keep them loyal to the state. Religions have the same challenge, which is why the preacher is always warning about some imminent threat to your soul or reminding everyone about God’s wrath. Piety is a full-time commitment and that applies to civic piety, as well. It’s why communist countries are drenched in patriotic symbols, songs and public performances, designed to keep everyone in a heightened state of ideological frenzy.
The other problem, a consequence of the demands of piety, is they become ruthlessly intolerant of dissent. “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” becomes the mantra of every nation built on ideology. If people are allowed to question the ideology that organizes the state, they are doubting the project itself and this must be viewed as a threat to the state. Therefore, civic religions must always become increasingly intolerant and narrow, in order to defend the state against challenges.
This is why the two great industrial wars of the 20th century were blood baths. When one tribe fights another for access to the river, they just want access to the river. They see each other has competitors for a resource. Compromise and mercy are possible, because their conflict is not personal. They may work up a good hatred for the other people in order to screw up their courage, but that’s a fanaticism of temporary necessity. Once the material dispute is resolved, the people have no reason to hate one another.
When two people make war over religion, because they see one another as an abomination or a direct threat to what defines them as a people, the conflict must be a fight to the death. There can be no mercy toward that which threatens your existence. This also means no limits. The total wars of the 20th made perfect sense to the combatants, because they saw the other side as devoted to evil. Incinerating a city is perfectly reasonable if you think the people in it are evil, because they support an evil ideology.
Again, this is something we see in our own time. Social media is full of post by Progressive fanatics, celebrating violence against people they call Nazis. It’s not that these victims are actual Nazis, of course. It’s just that the word now means “evil people” who the pious see as a threat to their existence. By definition, the pious must never show mercy to evil, as to do so means accepting that there is some virtue in the evil people that is worth preserving. Piety demands no mercy be given to the impious.
Now, the American ruling elite, for the last 75 years or so, has claimed that rather than being a nation defined by blood and soil, America is a nation defined by allegiance to a set of ideals, the American creed. That way, anyone who wanders in can be a citizen, as long as he pledges allegiance to those ideals. This was a post hoc justification for mass immigration in the early 20th century and a way to include the sons of recent immigrants into the national mythology. It sacralized the immigrant as the ultimate American.
In fact, Americans are now more loyal to foreigners than to one another. It seems that a third defect of the ideological state is that the ideology evolves a hatred of itself. Something similar has happened in Europe. The EU is, after all, an effort to apply the lessons of America to the European continent. Instead of defining the people biologically and geographically, a European will be an idea. In Europe and America, the idea of citizenship has curdled into self-loathing. What defines the people is their hatred of themselves.
This is not correctable. People join a cause or a movement in order to swap their individual identity for that of the group. In other words, people are driven to ideology out of self-loathing. A society based on ideology must therefore reward those most riddled with doubt and celebrate self-loathing as the highest virtue. The ideological state, regardless of design, must always become a suicide cult. It simultaneously boils off the skeptical and rewards the most fanatical. A society run by fanatics always ends in a blood bath.
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