A synthesis between cosmopolitanism and nationalism

As many of you know my reading habits are quite catholic. Many years ago I read a quite idiosyncratic book, Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church. The author, H. W. Crocker III, does not try and present an even-handed narrative. If you want to read nasty snide barbs toward Martin Luther, this book for is for you!

That being said, Triumph opens up a window on a different vision of the world and how it should be organized than you would usually see. One of the Crocker’s contentions is that the Reformation destroyed the cosmopolitan commonwealth of late medieval Western Christianity. The author of Triumph is an arch-reactionary, but he is also a skeptic of the Protestant-inflected Westphalian system that emerged in the 17th-century. Nationalism. Crocker bemoans the transformation of Christendom, a set of interlocking polities and principalities united by the superstructure of the Church and the broad ethos of Western Christianity, into the West, a more rationalized system which stitched together Western Christian nation-states separated by confessional conflict.

Diarmad McCullough’s The Reformation still records that the shadow of the old unitary Christendom actually persisted pretty deep into the post-Reformation period. Some of this was due to the prestige of Latin, which was widely understood and used as a lingua franca. So Protestant Hungarians from Transylvania were known to travel to England, and study at Oxford, and lack all knowledge of English. But they could communicate in Latin.

There are vigorous debates as to the role of religion in the emergence of national identity in the wake of Reformation. I think it is hard to deny that widespread distribution of Bibles in a local dialect, which might set the standard for the national language as a whole, aided the association between nationality and language that came to be normative in later centuries. Luther and his fellow travelers occasionally made appeals to the honor of the “German nation,” as opposed to the cosmopolitan forces which marched under the Habsburg banners. In contrast, Roman Catholic preachers exhorted Catholic German peasants to show more solidarity with the Spanish soldiers of the Emperor than the Protestant German knights. Religion before nation.

These arguments persisted deep into the modern period. The institutional Roman Catholic Church was suspicious of the ideology of nationalism and the creation of nations from small polities, even if Catholicism became instrumental in the formation of the French, Polish, or Spanish, national identities. This was most strongly illustrated in Italy, whose unifiers had an ultimately hostile relationship with the Pope in Rome.

So all this has to be understood in the context of the fact that Senator Joshua Hawley has been accused of being anti-Semitic because of his reference to “cosmopolitans” in a recent speech on nationalism. To be frank, I think he has a different experience in the use of words than his critics and doesn’t understand that some of them are fraught with meaning. Or at least that his critics would take them in that manner (the conference was organized by an American Israeli Jew, and many Jewish people attended).

The association between the usage of the word cosmopolitan and Jews has a strong resonance due to our history with the two major totalitarian ideologies of the 20th-century. But, one of my major points on this weblog that I repeat over and over is that the long 20th-century is coming to an end. In the early 21st-century, 45% of the world’s Jews live in Israel, a very nationalistic, and rooted (sorry Arabs), people. Because of Israel’s high total fertility rate, the proportion of Jews in the world who live in Israel will likely go above 50% in the next few decades.

Historically the image of the cosmopolitan Jew is strong, but in the present day, that is becoming far and far less accurate. Additionally, even that stereotype is historically ephemeral. The Jews who were so threatening to the Nazis and Communists were the Jews who took advantage of the Enlightenment and the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) to become full-fledged members of Western civilization and society without assimilating (necessarily) into Christian culture in totality. They shed their shtetl garments, but they did not quite become just like their neighbors.

Armie Hammer
Armie Hammer

That is not the case today. Though places like England have huge numbers of haredi Jews due to their high fertility rates, the traditional Jewish community of Britain is in demographic decline. Part of this is due to low fertility rates, but a great part of it is due to full assimilation through intermarriage. They are becoming just like their neighbors. The fixation of the modern Left with Israel and Zionism is at least future-oriented. That is the future of the Jewry, along with people of some Jewish heritage. Like Armie Hammer, who identifies as half-Jewish (his great-grandfather was Armand Hammer).

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s world, for good or ill, is fading even in places like New York City. A world at a dynamic interface between the haredi and the gentile. Secular in religion, but unmistakably Jewish in ethnicity, and outward-facing and integrating with non-Jews.

But the emergence of a cosmopolitan class is not purely a feature of Jewish assimilation into European societies in the 19th-century. The great families of Europe which came to dominate the polities of the continent after the fall of the Roman Empire were not tied to one particular national identity or ethnicity. The Anglo-Norman kings famously spoke French, and many of them lacked facility with English. Meanwhile, the mother of the king of France was from Kiev. And half Russian and half Swedish to boot. Queen Elizabeth’s family consciously shed their German affinities in the early 20th-century, while her husband’s family had the throne of Greece for several decades, though apparently, he considers himself “more Danish” than anything else.

In the Islamic world for centuries Egypt was ruled by a separate caste of Turks and Circassians, the Mamelukes, even after the Ottoman conquest. The famous Safavid dynasty, which converted Iran to Shia Islam in the 16th-century, was Azeri Turk in language, but their ancestry seems to have been a recent mix of Kurd, Turk, and Pontic Greek. And let’s not forget India, where Turkic and Afghan Muslims ruled vast swaths of the subcontinent for centuries.

The period between 1815 and the present is unique in the supremacy of a particular national idea. It also coincides with the high tide of European dominance in the world. The world is going through economic and cultural rebalancing, but we don’t have the language or the expectations to understand this. The current age is one of globalization, though not necessarily any greater than the decades around 1900. But that was a more limited, European world, with the emergence of a trans-Atlantic elite (remember Winston Churchill’s mother was American).  Today we have an international class of people with passports from specific nations, but global affinities. I do have friends who express more fellow-feeling and comfort with upper-middle-class elements in Dubai, London, and Singapore, than with their own fellow citizens in the hinterlands.  This is partly a function of the importance of travel to the new sub-elite. And yet in the United States, 64 percent of people do not have a valid passport.

The reality is that people with passports are not going away. And the people without passports are not going away. Both of these groups have to accommodate the contingent historical reality that Westphalian nation-states exist, and we aren’t going to instantaneously create a new political arrangement which can conveniently integrate both groups. The problem with the nature of elite media, academia, and cultural and economic productivity producers is that passport holders dominate these sectors. In the 1990s this led to a delusion that the nation-state would dissolve in substance, if not de jure, just like the state boundaries in the USA are basically administrative realities.

That’s not happening. And the non-passport holding class has been negatively affected in various ways by the efficiencies of globalization, in some ways in absolute terms, but definitely in positional terms. Mainstream parties of the Left and Right, being of the passport holding class, hoped that these consequences would not be extreme. But they have been extreme. And the late 2000s financial crisis undermined what credibility the elite among the passport holding class did have.

At some point, the passport holders need to put neoclassical economic textbooks to the side and accept that there are non-economic variables which generate social cohesion and positive externalities, which allow for prosperity. And the acidic impact of globalization is eroding those factors across the developed world, resulting in the rise of populism. Culture exists atop homo economicus.

But just as the medieval Catholic commonwealth is not coming back, the national systems of 1950 are not coming back. The current wave of populists is in denial, and refuses to engage with the global oligarchy’s existence, along with the much larger sub-elite of the new class global upper-middle-class. At some point, a reckoning will occur because the passport holders pay a disproportionate amount of the taxes.

What we need to see in the next few decades is a dialogue, and synthesis, between global cosmopolitanism and regional nationalism. The very forces of global efficiency have now shown us that the gains to trade and integration are not equally distributed, and the non-passport holding class, the populist voter, will never join the universal global class. But neither is the second era of globalization going to end as the first did. We are simply too integrated, and travel and communication are too easy.

We need to come to a new equilibrium. But first, we need to move beyond being haunted by the shadows of the 20th-century.

60 thoughts on “A synthesis between cosmopolitanism and nationalism

  1. Walter,

    I thought the original point was that you disputed my description of the Ostjuden as refugees – a term I was applying anachronistically so as to best describe, in an up-to-date way, both the reasons for, and the disruptive local impact of, their migration.

    So I’m not sure what was the purpose of your very good historical briefs about Berlin and Vienna. Did the Ostjuden stand out in those two late 19th-century and early 20th-century cities? Yes, they did. We know they stood out. Even the German Jews thought they stood out.

    Were the Ostjuden poor and often forced out of their homelands in the East? Yes, they were. Again, I don’t think this is seriously disputed. Most even used Germany and Austria as way stations to Palestine or the U.S. They had intention of settling in Berlin or Vienna.

    So your descriptions of Berlin and Vienna as the center of multiethnic empires with evolving national cultures is beside the point. The Ostjuden were still perceived as outsiders in those places. Even German Jews at the time thought of them as outsiders and often encouraged them not to settle locally.

  2. Razib. I should have remembered that. But, the basic points stands. Berlin was protestant, Vienna Catholic. And, there was no love lost between them. It sort of puts the question to the idea that there is a German Culture as an entity.

  3. It sort of puts the question to the idea that there is a German Culture as an entity.

    Well, if there wasn’t, I guess we dodged a bigger bullet in WWII than is commonly thought.

  4. It’s a good overview, but I don’t see any concrete articulation of a synthesis. There’s a basic social contract to nationalism that cosmopolitanism violates.

    It is of note that basically all significant advances of humanity correlate with empire building or modern nationalism. Thus cosmopolitanism lives off social capital generated by prior entities.

    I agree with Walter that the prevailing cosmopolitan contempt for the very people who fill out the police and military is germane.

    Finally I’ll note that without Anglo-American nationalisms providing a will to fight, the Nazis would have won WWII in Europe. American support for Israel is also ultimately a product of nationalism. Thus destroying nationalism may have unforeseen consequences, but that gets to the essential hubris of liberal-left thought.

  5. Razib: At some point, a reckoning will occur because the passport holders pay a disproportionate amount of the taxes.

    On the one hand, probably yes because travel and mobility is probably correlated with labor arbitrage and use of disposal income to travel (both of which correlated with higher incomes).

    One the other, possibly not because the more mobile can jurisdiction shop for lower personal income taxes, use overseas contacts to overshore their investments etc.

    I would bet the former is more significant than the latter at the moment, but if the internet makes the latter tax-avoidance tendencies easier (the uberification or Amazonification of their income and wealth), then the balance may turn away from passport holders to the higher income set of non-passport holders, and any reckoning may not financially hash out as the passport holders would prefer.

    (With the understanding that, as noted upthread, “passport holder” is shorthand for highly mobile persons that taken more literally wouldn’t generalize so well outside the huge USA).

  6. @Pincher Martin

    I give up. I am clearly not getting through to you. Eastern Europe in the last half of the 19th Century did not resemble Eastern Europe after WWI or WWII. There were only 4 state level entities there. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire. Most of the urbanization and industrialization in that era was movements of peoples inside those Empires to the metropoles of those empires. Those urban centers were boiling. There was lots of ethnic conflict. Anti-semetic political parties were very common and very successful. But, it was not like the aftermath of the World Wars.

  7. Walter,

    You’re having a conversation with yourself. I hope it’s a good discussion. But you haven’t responded directly to a single point I made.

    Rather than rebut the specific arguments I bring up about the Ostjuden, including the telling fact that their settlement in Germany was often not welcomed by German Jews, you attempt to shift the discussion to some general overview of the geopolitical and economic nature of pre-WW1 Eastern Europe as if it’s a sufficient explanation for every point I’ve made in this thread.

    Here is something I found online which I hope will break through your inability to focus on my argument: The Ghetto Comes to Germany: Ostjuden as Welfare Cause

    The response of German Jews to the immigrant question — or Ostjudenfrage — was mixed. At the organizational level, German Jews acted charitably toward the refugees, establishing aid agencies to fight for their basic rights and economic improvement. But most regarded the Ostjuden as a hindrance to German-Jewish integration, and many aid organizations therefore encouraged their settlement abroad. Theodor Herzl defined political Zionism along these lines as “a kind of new Jewish care for the sick.” According to Herzl, the goal of political Zionism was to eradicate the poverty-stricken ghetto by facilitating migration to Palestine. Whether contemptuous or compassionate, responses to the plight of East European Jewry demonstrate the extent to which German Jews had dissolved Jewish national moorings.

    This quote even uses the word “refugees” to describe the Ostjuden – the same word I used which seemed to trigger you.

    Note the difference in attitudes among the two groups of Jews, too. Just because Germany had a multiethnic empire didn’t mean nationalism was not strong among Germans, including among German Jews.

  8. Look, Razib. I am pretty sure that during the 100 years war the nobles of the opposing side felt more affinity for each other than for their peasants. After all the English ones were also Normann-French and many French ones fought on the English side. But on the other hand, it was in the common interest of French nobles and French peasants that the English nobles don’t go https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chevauchée on their lands. Common interest, common danger created a form of national loyalty between then, despite the opposing affinities.

    Our trouble now is not the jet-setter elites not having affinity for outback rural conservatives. Our problem is that they are not seeing a commonly shared danger, common interests in this sense.

    Part of the issue is the usual liberal optimism about human nature and its perfectibility. They believe Man behaves better than he actually does. Part of the issue is that today everything is mobile, themselves, their assets and wealth, they can do work form anywhere with an Internet connection. They can escape danger. But the biggest part of the issue is that liberalism is a religion. And people are willing to face big dangers for their religion.

  9. A provocative article, to be sure. It would be interesting to read your take on what the synthesis might look like. It may be that it is already happening by default. The urban-rural divide is a global phenomenon. Any country you go to, and especially any wealthy country, possesses cosmopolitan cities dominated by rootless anywheres, and conservative rural hinterlands where the actual people and culture of the local nation survive. This situation could develop into one in which cities are part of a global ecumenopolis, while rural areas preserve the world’s cultural and racial diversity.

    For such an arrangement to be stable, however, there would need to be a broad agreement to avoid political and cultural interference. As it is, urbanites and ruralites hate and fear one another, largely because urbanites continually attempt to foist their policy preferences upon rural communities. In consequence ruralites perceive cities as tyrannical and parasitic. In the US, this divide has become so acrimonious that speculation regarding civil war is now part of every day conversation. Clearly, this is not sustainable.

    Another point, which was made at the American Sun, is that the taxes paid by the affluent cosmopolitans are paid into an economy that is fundamentally fake and gay. Step back from the financial numbers, and look at the fundamentals, and it becomes clear that the cities really have become parasitic: most of what is of actual, tangible value is produced in rural areas. At least in North America. A stable synthesis also requires the cosmopolitans to be in symbiosis with the rooted. As it is they are for the most part obligate parasites, extracting resources via usurious financial schemes, with approximately the same relationship to the rooted as pirates to merchant vessels. This is a far cry from the Catholic ecumenism of Christendom.


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