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No sooner has the West celebrated 'the death of communism', than it discovers that there is another spectre haunting Europe. From Italy and Spain to Belgium and even Britain, the legitimacy of established nation states is now being called into question. Adam Eastman explores the causes of this crisis of national identities

Europe's national identity crisis

Europe is suffering a national identity crisis. While nobody is quite sure what is causing this disorder, the symptoms are there for all to see.

The most striking manifestation of this crisis is the proliferation of separatist movements across the continent. In Belgium, the integrity of the nation state is threatened by the demands of the self-governing regions of Flemish-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. In Italy, where the nation state has always stood on shaky foundations (see page 30), the northern regional leagues are becoming a force in the land. In Spain, the assertiveness of the regional nationalist parties in Catalonia and the Basque country is helping to undermine the authority of Madrid. Even in Britain, the most stable of nation states, the mood of Scottish nationalism reflects the waning legitimacy of Westminster.

Political fringe

Another symptom of Europe's identity crisis is the spectacular collapse of the old political order. The parties which ruled Europe in the postwar years are in turmoil. In Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, the electorate has rejected both government and opposition parties and embraced minor parties from the political fringe. The far right - from the Freedom Party in Austria to the Front National in France - has benefited most from this rejection of the mainstream parties. Parties championing regional autonomy or independence have also picked up support.

The fact that these difficulties are afflicting all countries at the same time suggests that there is some problem common to all the states of Europe. Furthermore, it seems clear that these are not temporary difficulties: the ruling elites of Europe are suffering a fundamental crisis of purpose and direction. Europe's national identity crisis suggests that the established political order is close to exhaustion. But why?

Past and present

It has already become something of a platitude to say that the root cause of all these problems is the rebirth of a strong sense of national pride. 'What we are witnessing', declared the leading British foreign policy journal, International Affairs, 'is no more than the latest of the periodic waves of ethnic nationalism that have swept different parts of the world since the early nineteenth century' (HD Smith, 'National identity and the idea of European unity', January 1992).

The dominant motif in this discussion is the return of the past to haunt the present. Commentators in the West are casting worried looks over their shoulders, at the ethnic conflicts which are now fragmenting the states of Eastern Europe. They claim that these are the result of age-old nationalisms which have been unleashed by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and warn that similar tensions are re-emerging from history in the nations of Western Europe.

What nationalism?

This view may now have acquired the status of common sense, but it is simply not true that traditional nationalism is on the increase, or that the patterns of the past are being repeated. Many of the new parties of the European right are at least as chauvinist, exclusivist and anti-foreign as the old nationalist parties­p;but unlike them they are characterised by a rejection of the nation states created in the past and their representatives.

The Northern League is a model in this respect. There is a good reason why it is not called the 'Italian League'. Its defining feature is its hostility towards other Italians, specifically southern Italians. In similar fashion, the Flemish Bloc is not so much a group of Belgian nationalists as a coalition of people united by their dislike of the French-speaking Walloons.

Rather than a resurgence of nationalism, Europe is witnessing a reaction against the particular nation states and national identities which were once seen as viable. The old nation states no longer command the same authority or legitimacy, and many people no longer feel that they owe them the same allegiance.

Italian, me?

Contemporary developments suggest that traditional national identities were never very strong in the first place. The ease with which people in the Tyrol have stopped thinking of themselves as Italian, and started thinking of themselves as Austrian, shows that the old national identities never meant all that much. Increasingly, they are being replaced by a new identification with a particular region or locality.

The trend towards regionalism across Europe represents a search for a new identity that means something to people. It contains no positive dynamic in any direction: it expresses neither a love of one's neighbours nor a hatred of one's nation. On the contrary, it is a negative reaction against a status quo which seems to have little to offer.

These developments are something new, not simply a repetition of what happened in the past. After all, people don't usually get on with their neighbours, let alone form a party with them. Living next door to somebody or speaking the same dialect as them have not been the traditional criteria for determining people's political allegiances. Yet today this is how more and more people in Europe are expressing their identities.

In the recent past, the strength of nationalism has been sufficient to check more parochial tendencies. Now, however, an identification with the nation state does not appear to have much going for it. What has changed? It is not people themselves who have changed. It is not the case that nation states across the continent have suddenly had to cope with the unleashing of an inclination towards petty parochialism among their populations. What has changed is that the old nation states are less capable of commanding the allegiance of their peoples.

The whole of Europe seems to be asking itself the question, 'what do we really represent?'. And an increasingly common answer seems to be 'not a lot'. For some, such national identities as 'Britishness', 'Frenchness' or 'Italianness' no longer mean very much, in circumstances where the economies, institutions and cultures of these societies have less appeal than they once did.

Not natural

National identities are supposed to be natural, or so we have always been told. Yet now it is clear that there is nothing natural or permanent about an identification with a particular nationalism or nation state. Fundamental questions are being asked about whether there is any meaning to the idea of being British rather than Scottish, or an Italian rather than a Lombard.

The fact is that traditional national identities can be called into question in this way because they are artificial constructions, created by capitalism as a way of binding people together under the authority of a national elite. The problem facing the rulers of Europe today is the absence of any systematic means through which a wider coherence can be imposed upon society.

The question is why has this happened now? More particularly, why has it happened just when the West is meant to be celebrating its triumph over communism?

Pyrrhic victory

Ironically, winning the Cold War has turned out to be something of a Pyrrhic victory. During the Cold War era, all of the difficult questions about European societies and what they stood for were suspended. The Western authorities were able to insist that the battle against communism came before all other issues. With the end of the Cold War, and the removal of the Soviet bogey as a focus for Western politics, the capitalist societies of Europe have been forced to look in on themselves. Many have concluded that it is not a pretty sight.

The Cold War served as an antidote to the discrediting of capitalist nation states at the end of the Second World War. After the bitter experience of depression, fascism and war, many had concluded that there was nothing noble or positive about nation states and nationalism, which they identified with the chaos and destruction which engulfed the continent and culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust.

In effect, through the anti-communist crusade of the Cold War years, capitalism created a new identity for itself. Western societies had little to commend them, but the elites were able to cohere a sense of purpose using the cement of anti-communism. As long as the Soviet Union stood as the epitome of all that was bad, the West could look good by comparison.

Out in the open

It was inevitable that the end of the Cold War would cause major problems for the European elites. Because of the removal of the Soviet threat, problems which could once be hidden are now exposed for all to see. Now, instead of pointing the finger at the negative example of the Soviet Union, capitalist society is having to stand on its own merits - at a moment when it is experiencing the worst economic slump since the thirties.

Recent elections in the nations of Europe have not focused on the old issues of the Cold War and the 'red menace', but have been much more a self-examination of the system itself. Hence devolution not defence became the big issue in the British general election in April.

The trouble is that Western 'democracy' no longer looks so democratic without Soviet 'totalitarianism'. This is illustrated by the crisis now facing the Christian Democrats in Italy, the leading party in Italian politics throughout the Cold War era. A party whose appeal rested on its claim to be the embodiment of Catholic anti-communism has fallen apart since being deprived of its raison d'etre. Without anti-communism, the Christian Democratic Party is more easily seen for what it is: a highly corrupt patronage machine which has ruled by buying votes and intimidating opponents - neither very Christian nor democratic.

No big ideas

Even at the best of times, capitalist society has experienced a problem of social cohesion, whether it is expressed in class conflicts or in anti-social behaviour such as delinquency and dropping out. But when the ruling elite is unsure of itself, and has lost its bearings as badly as it has today, the problem of social cohesion is magnified. That is why there is a greater sensitivity on the part of Europe's intellectual and political elites today to the absence of any great principles or big ideas which can galvanise society.

However, the identity crisis now gripping Europe is more serious than a lack of big ideas in high places. The combination of the end of Cold War politics and the arrival of economic slump means that governments now lack anything with which to pull people behind parties, churches and other stabilising national institutions.

In such a situation, politics becomes a far more arbitrary affair. This explains why small parties can suddenly come from nowhere to pose a challenge to established institutions; or why local movements which were a minor irritant in the past can no longer be ignored by the powers that be.

Home or away?

The Olympic Games in Barcelona provides a good illustration of the point. Out of the blue, the Olympics have become a problematic issue within the host nation itself. This is ironic given that the Games have traditionally provided a focus for national rivalries between outside states. In Barcelona, however, the Games have also become the focus for Catalan nationalists to advance their claims to a separate national identity.

They have threatened to disrupt the Games unless their demands-- that the Catalan anthem be played during the opening ceremony and that the Catalan flag should be raised whenever a Catalan competitor wins a medal - are met. Once, such agitation would not have been a problem. But those who could previously be brushed aside as petty grumblers can no longer be ignored. The question being posed in Barcelona is 'will Spain be playing at home or away?'.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992

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