Arendt: State and Nation

I think one of the things I’m really enjoying about The Origins of Totalitarianism is the long list of what we might almost refer to as political theory vignettes. They’re these neat little moments of maybe a paragraph or so, where Arendt chucks around what seems to me like some really cool political ideas. It’s often just briefly setting the ground for the bigger argument of the section, but to someone who’s had zero political education, they’re like intellectual grenades being batted into my path. Today, we’re going to talk about one of those little grenades: the distinction between nation and state. 

It’s pretty common knowledge that nationalist sentiments are a relatively recent phenomenon. ‘The nation’ as we know it only really arose in the late 18th century, revolving around the idea of the identity shared by co-habitors of geographical space. It’s easy to understand with an island nation like New Zealand – there’s one physical block of space, and a whole bunch of folk live in it together and speak the same language (more or less), and our ancestors lived here and did basically the same thing that we do. There’s a sense of a shared heritage, a shared identity that revolves around this particular geographical space.

By contrast, the state is about the system of government, and it existed long before nationalism. If you reach back to feudal society, for example, there’s a state there that ruled over the people. Arendt writes that the state “was derived from centuries of monarchy and enlightened despotism”, and therefore was focused on protecting all of the people within its borders. If you’re the king of France, say, you don’t want some idiot running around killing Jews – not unless you say so. It doesn’t matter that you’re French and the idiot’s French – you’re in charge, and they’re your Jews, and he doesn’t get to kill them unless you say so. In that regard, nationality doesn’t really matter that much to the pre-nationalist state. There’s the king, and the people who live in his house.

So if the state is a supreme authority that rules over the people (think the monarch), the nation is the consciously held collective identity of those people. When the monarchy gets kicked out, and democracy takes over, the state gets changed. Under a monarchy, the collective interest of the people is safeguarded by the monarch. How do you know your country’s going to be safe? Well, the king is looking out for it. But when the king gets deposed, and there’s a democratic process, you have to ask the same question: who’s going to look after the collective interest of the people (read: my interest)? How do you know that it’s not just going to be the most powerful group in society oppressing everybody else for their own gain? That’s when we point to nationalism: everybody here has a common origin, a shared identity, we say, and it’s that national identity that means we’re all going to look out for each other. That nationalist feeling is required to stop the country devolving into what Arendt describes as perpetual civil war. If there’s no feeling of relationship between the classes, then they’re just going to turn to infighting and vying for political power to guarantee their own safety. The idea of a shared identity soothes that concern.

At the same time, however, a shared identity changes the nature of the state. Suddenly the state’s not about a monarch ruling everybody who lives in their house – it’s the people ruling themselves under the banner of a shared cultural identity. Problem: if you don’t share that cultural identity, then the state’s not really interested in you. By drawing on a shared heritage as the method of stabilizing a state, the nation-state inherently excludes people who don’t share that heritage. As Arendt says, “[t]his meant that the state was partly transformed from an instrument of the law into an instrument of the nation.” 

In practical terms, this means your human rights are really national rights – they’re your rights as a citizen, enforced by the nation-state. You can see where this is going, right: if you’re not a citizen, supported by a nation (like the Jews, or, more topically, Syrian refugees), then there’s no political body to look out for you. The nation-state is focused on the nation, not foreigners – and we see that in a lot of the rhetoric around the Syrian crisis. Why should we allow these people to come here and leech off our resources? What common bond of humanity is there that requires the nation-state to look out for people who don’t share that national identity? By the by, it might interest you to know that in Germany in 1935, Hitler enacted the Reich Citizenship Law, stripping German Jews (and Romanis and Afro-Germans) of citizenship. They lost a whole bunch of citizen-based rights, and were considered mere ‘state-subjects’, rather than genuine citizens. It’s one of the steps on the road towards the Holocaust.

Of course, all the usual caveats apply. Nationalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing per se – after all, it keeps democracy from falling apart. It’s also not true to say that nationalism causes anti-semitism. People have been hating Jews since well before nationalism came about – well, I’m being glib, but the fact is that anti-semitism doesn’t start with nationalism. This is merely an example of how nationalism can develop into that sort of thing. I think it’s also worth noting that Nazism is specifically not extreme nationalism. This is one of the points that Arendt keeps coming back to – the Nazis (like the Communists) exploited nationalist sentiments, but primarily had an international focus. This is probably too big to get into at the tail-end of a post, but Arendt argues that if the Nazis were really nationalists, they would have got on great with the army, which is a major symbol of the authority of the nation-state. As it happened, the Nazis “destroyed the spirit of the army by subordinating it to the political commissars or totalitarian elite formations”, in direct contrast to Fascist (nationalist) Italy, where the army got all cozy with Mussolini. More about that next week…

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