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What makes ethno-nationalisms non-rational?

Ethno-nationalism is the strand of nationalism that is most often characterised as ‘non-rational’ by various authors. W. Connor (1992; 1994) attributes this mainly to the nature of the bond that constitutes the basis of ethno-nationalism, a bond which allegedly lacks logical coherence and empirical basis. It therefore seeks to appeal to emotion, rather than to reason. To analyse and elaborate on Connor’s argument, this essay will firstly outline the definition and philosophical basis of ethno-nationalism, to see what renders it ‘non-rational’, and will then explore how such a ‘non-rational’ concept can gain so much popular appeal. A form of nationalism that can arise out of rationalism will also briefly be examined in order to compare and further emphasize the non-rational nature that characterises ethno-nationalism.

To understand the concept of ‘non-rational’, it would be necessary to look at what the word ‘rational’ refers to. Rational thought was developed during the Enlightenment (often referred to as the ‘age of reason’), when people tried to explain the world using reason, abandoning ignorance and prejudice. Concepts such as the ‘divine right’ of kings could therefore be questioned on the grounds that they lacked both rational coherence and empirical evidence, i.e. they could not be proven. Kings did not try to convince their subjects using reason, by explaining to them or giving them real evidence for example of how god had given them the right to rule. Rationalism gives ‘emphasis on principle and reason-governed behaviour, as opposed to a reliance on custom or tradition, or on non-rational drives and impulses’ (Heywood, 2007: 31-2). If ethno-nationalism is to be considered ‘non-rational’, this means that its philosophical basis should lack reasonable explanation on the one hand, and on the other hand it should foster behaviour driven by instinct or emotion.

According to Connor (1992: 374), nationalism is ‘an emotional attachment to one’s people – one’s ethnonational group’. ‘Ethno-nationalism’ refers to a kind of nationalism which claims that membership to this group of people is mostly ‘genealogical rather than territorial’, i.e. based on blood and common ancestry (Smith, 1999: 26). It creates a ‘sense of ethnic distinctiveness’, or an ‘ethnic’ conception of the nation, rather than a ‘civic’ one, which will be explained later along with the rational form of nationalism. A fairly precise description of ethno-nationalism relevant to Connor’s argument is given by Billig (1995: 195), who describes it as ‘the hot, surplus variety, being based on sentiments of “blood loyalty”.’ This points out to the fact that this kind of nationalism does not appeal to reason or logical thought, but rather to non-rational human (or perhaps ‘animal’) instincts.

It is important to note that the very concept of the ‘nation’ is itself a rather vague one. It is easy to think of the nation as a group of people speaking the same language, adhering to the same religion and living in the same territory, but as Heywood (2007: 148-50) correctly asserts, ‘nations can only be defined “subjectively”, by their members, not by any set of external factors.’ A list of specific objective criteria that define nations would be redundant and irrelevant. Connor (1992) describes the national bond as a ‘psychological’ one, and Heywood (2007) goes further to infer that the nation is indeed a ‘psycho-political entity’. Most importantly, a nation cannot exist unless there is an ‘outsider, the other against which the nation is itself defined and constructed’ (Spencer & Wollman, 2002: 198). An ‘ethnic’ nation in particular is one based mainly upon ‘the conviction that members of the nation are all ancestrally related’ (Connor 1992: 382). The ‘non-rational’ overtones of this statement are obvious. As Connor explains, scholars find it hard to explain the nature of the bond that connects the members of an ethnic nation using reason, because of its emotional and psychological nature. People feel that they are emotionally connected to other members of the nation, e.g. because they descended from the same ancestors; whether this is actually true or not is insignificant to them. The continuity and preservation of this ‘ethnonational’ bond is due to ‘imagination, to tradition, to history and to nature’ (Spencer & Wollman, 2002: 202). Nationalism based on this ‘ethnic’ concept of the nation inevitably lacks logical explanation.

Why is it ‘beyond reason’ to assert that a group of people should feel such strong connection to their ethnic group, based on the notions of a common ancestry and history? Connor (1992: 382) simply states that their claims ‘need not, and in nearly all cases will not, accord with factual history.’ Had there been sufficient historical or even biological proof to support their claims, then they could be considered reasonable. But since such proof does not exist, they use emotion to entrench their bond. In Connor’s words, ‘it is not chronological or factual history… but sentient or felt history’ that lies behind ethno-nationalism (1992: 382). It often resorts to contemplating past glories that render the nation unique and important, but as Billig (1995: 185) explicitly states, ‘the nation, which celebrates its antiquity, forgets its historical recency.’ He is basically saying that the ‘history’ that ethno-nationalism likes to exhibit is often made-up history, or, in Brown’s words, ‘myths of the past’ (2000: 52). These myths are subsequently considered to be historical truths by the adherents of ethno-nationalism, as illogical as that may appear. Furthermore, attachment based on common ancestry is referred to as ‘irrational primordial attachments’ [1] by Brown (2000: 57). If such primordial attachments were true and each nation was in fact so highly unique and distinct from others, Connor (1992: 382) asserts that the logical inference would be that ‘somewhere in a hazy, pre-recorded era there existed a Japanese, German, or Thai Adam and Eve.’ In Hastings’ words, primordialism assumes that nations ‘all existed in embryo a thousand or fifteen hundred years ago’ (1997: 37). Such claims that have insufficient scientific backing would sound incongruous to the rational mind, and this only emphasizes the ‘non-rational’ nature of ethno-nationalism.

Political leaders who employed ethno-nationalism to appeal to the masses were apparently very aware of its ‘non-rational nature’ and therefore didn’t make any attempts to rationally convince the masses of the logical coherence of their words. Instead, they realised the strength of the emotions that a sense of shared blood could cultivate. Heywood (2007: 207) traces this to the concept of ‘vitalism’, a theory that stresses the importance of ‘instinct and impulse rather than intellect and reason.’ He explains Nietzsche’s claims that powerful emotions can more easily sway human behaviour in comparison to rational explanations. The examples of Mussolini and Hitler are given, who, according to Heywood (2007: 208), borrowed phraseology from extreme ethno-nationalism ‘because of their power to elicit an emotional response and spur the masses into action.’ Connor (1992: 378) gives the example of Hitler and how he put his faith in the strength of the blood-bond, which, albeit being ‘non-rational’, nevertheless won him the support of ‘the best educated, the most literate nation in Europe.’ Billig (1995: 190-1) deducts that this is perhaps because of the psychology of ethno-nationalism, which ‘is that of an extraordinary, emotional mood striking at extraordinary times’ particularly when people feel insecure and want to feel that they have a unique identity, which could give them a sense of belonging. At such times, people tend to think in ‘non-rational’ ways, which is what renders them vulnerable to ethno-nationalism.

The example of Mussolini is no less striking. According to historical evidence, at the time of the Italian Unification, ‘almost 98 percent of the population of Italy’ didn’t speak Italian, and ‘schoolteachers sent to Sicily from the north were taken for Englishmen’ (Merriman, 2010: 658). Connor (1992: 378) describes how Mussolini managed to make the inhabitants of Italy (‘the Lombards, Venetians, Florentines, Neapolitans…’) believe that they actually belonged to a ‘pure “Italian race”,’ based on shared ancestral blood. He effectively created a single ‘ethnic’ nation by convincing a vast variety of peoples that they had common ancestors and were connected by blood. This also points to the racialist overtones that ethno-nationalism often adopts, which make it even more ‘non-rational’. Heywood (2007: 222-3) calls racialist ideas ‘pseudo-scientific’ because they bear no sufficient correlation with modern scientific analysis and reasoned explanations. A claim given by French ethno-nationalists against the Jews is a good example to illustrate why this is so. They advocated that the Jews [2] were ‘inherently alien, rootless, incapable of becoming French’, without validly backing why that was so (Spencer & Wollman, 2002: 205).Such void claims cannot be supported using actual scientific justifications. If they were asked to support it, ethno-nationalists would probably use strong emotional language void of any concise factual explanations. Racialism provides a rather ‘non-rational’ way to understand the world, and since it is often endorsed by ethno-nationalism, it merely emphasizes how void of reason it is.

Connor (1992: 384) next focuses on how emotions are triggered by ethno-nationalism. He particularly talks about national symbols, such as flags, which ‘can speak messages without words to members of the nation.’ These symbols awaken the sense of the ethno-national bond in people when they see them. They do not really appeal to people’s minds, but rather to instinct. Billig (1995: 186) argues that national symbols focus on sentiment while carrying ‘no informational message’ that would appeal to the rational mind. Brown (2000: 53) asserts that ethno-nationalism has an emotional response because of the use of ‘mythology and symbolism, the language of the family’. The latter is addressed by Connor (1992: 385) as ‘familial metaphors, which can magically transform the mundanely tangible into emotion-laden phantasma’. Ethno-nationalism basically through the use of emotive phraseology gives emotional meaning to concepts that would otherwise lack it. It can turn a mere territory into a ‘motherland… the ancestral land… sacred soil… the homeland of our particular people.’ It therefore often leads to populism. As these words sound so grand in the hearts (not in the minds) of common people, albeit being void of rational content, they create strong loyalties to this ‘non-rational’ ethnic nation. Connor (1992) continuously stresses the potency of this form of nationalism to elicit popular support, but for the reasons discussed above, he does not attribute this to some sort of rational structure that it might appear to possess. In simple words, its appeal does not mean it is ‘rational’.

To further elucidate the ‘non-rational’ nature of ethno-nationalism, some consideration should be given to the more rational ‘civic’ nationalism. Instead of being based on loyalty to one’s ‘ethno-national’ group, civic nationalism is based on loyalty to a political community, which arises out of respect for laws and institutions that govern it. Whereas an ‘ethnic’ nation does not require a territory to exist, a civic one arises out of the existence of a sovereign state within a defined territory, the members of which have ‘shared civil rights rather than shared cultural roots’ (Eriksen, 2002: 143-4). Heywood (2007: 157) thus characterises civic nationalism as being based on inclusiveness, universalism (members of the nation are not defined by fixed biological or ethnic traits), rationalism, voluntarism (one can attain membership by choosing to be loyal to it and its institutions), civil loyalty and cultural diversity. In contrast to this, ethno-nationalism is described as exclusive, particularistic, ‘mystical/emotional’ (as opposed to rational), organic (because one either belongs, or doesn’t belong – there is no choice to be made) and based on descent. Eriksen (2002: 147) regards that for nationalism to be rational, it should be based on ‘bureaucratic principles of justice’ (equality before the law, civil rights etc.); concepts such as ethnicity which are the basis of ethno-nationalism are in this sense ‘threats against national cohesion, justice and the state’, possibly because they lead people to act based on wild instinct and emotion, putting the interests of a perceived ethnic group in front of those of the whole community. Smith (1991: 179) explains that the ‘non-rational’ ethno-nationalism emphasizes criteria such as ‘community of birth and native culture’ and forgets the more rational criteria of ‘legal-political community’, ‘legal-political equality’, ‘common understandings and aspirations, sentiments and ideas that bind the population together’, which may actually make rational sense. [3]

While it has been made relatively clear why ethno-nationalisms are considered ‘non-rational’, Connor (1994: 75) believes that the reason why a theory lacking rational explanation has so much appeal is because ‘it is not what is, but what people believe is that has behavioural consequences.’ It requires thought to appreciate the importance of rational concepts, but it is rather easy to be swayed by emotive language which simply sounds appealing and thus attracts people. Connor (1992: 377) does not fail to appreciate the impact of Bismarck’s words ‘Germans, think with your blood’, but what he argues is that even if ethno-nationalism does elicit huge popular support, by the time that its foundations lie in malleable and hollow concepts, it can safely be regarded as ‘non-rational’.



[1] Primordialism, according to Heywood (2007:150), refers to “the belief that nations are ancient and deep rooted.” Ethno-nationalism can therefore closely be related to a primordialist conception of the nation, in that it emphasizes common ancestry and shared blood, concepts which create a sense of connection with an ancient past.

[2] How the Jews came to be considered as a race may also point to the ‘non rational’ nature of ethno-nationalism. Anti-Semitists often like to consider Jews as a race, albeit them being a community connected mainly by religious and cultural ties. Heywood (2007: 223) explains how anti-Semitism was “elaborated into a racial theory, which assigned to the Jews a pernicious and degrading racial stereotype.”

[3] Gellner (1964: 56) gives a very interesting view on why people adhere to nationalism. He argues that it is not “from sentiment or sentimentality, atavistic or not, well-based or myth-founded: they become nationalists through genuine, objective, practical necessity, however obscurely recognised”. The ‘necessity’ that Gellner mentions probably refers to the human need of belonging to a group that can guarantee them material protection (and thus their survival) and give them a sense of common purpose, i.e. that they are not fighting alone. Whether one talks about rational or ‘non-rational’ criteria is therefore irrelevant, if seen from this view. What is important is that people should feel that they belong somewhere, perhaps to satisfy their insecurities.

Billig, Michael (1995) ‘Banal nationalism’, in Spencer, Philip and Wollman, Howard (eds.) (2005) Nations and nationalism: a reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

Brown, David (2000) Contemporary nationalism: civic, ethnocultural & multicultural politics (London: Routledge).

Connor, Walker (1992) ‘Beyond Reason: The Nature of the Ethnonational Bond’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 16/3 (1993): 373-389

Connor, Walker (1994) Ethnonationalism: the quest for understanding (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Eriksen, Thomas (2002) ‘Ethnicity and Nationalism’, in Spencer, Philip and Wollman, Howard (eds.) (2005) Nations and nationalism: a reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

Gellner, Ernest (1964) ‘Nationalism and modernisation’ in Hutchinson, John and Smith D. Anthony (eds.) (1994) Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Hastings, Adrian (1997) ‘The construction of nationhood’, in Spencer, Philip and Wollman, Howard (eds.) (2005) Nations and nationalism: a reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

Heywood, Andrew (2007) Political Ideologies: An Introduction (Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan).

Merriman, John (2010) A history of modern Europe: from the French Revolution to the present (New York: W. W. Norton)

Smith, Anthony (1991) ‘Civic and ethnic nationalism’, in Spencer, Philip and Wollman, Howard (eds.) (2005) Nations and nationalism: a reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

Smith, Anthony (1999) ‘Ethno-symbolism and the study of nationalism’, in Spencer, Philip and Wollman, Howard (eds.) (2005) Nations and nationalism: a reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

Spencer, Philip and Wollman, Howard (2002) ‘Good and bad nationalisms’ in Spencer, Philip and Wollman, Howard (eds.) (2005) Nations and nationalism: a reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

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