Nationalists of the World, Unite!
Yoram Hazony's work provides a global scaffolding for the new far-right.
With its cover made up of puzzle pieces that form national flags, Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism gestures at a harmonious whole composed of distinctive parts. The book, which has been praised in conservative outlets, is the most visible of recent attempts by figures including Yascha Mounk, John Judis, and Lawrence Summers to make nationalism palatable again.
But there’s a core irony in the book. Hazony argues for the centrality of innate group identity over common political commitments, yet this is a deeply global book. The Virtue of Nationalism underscores the common underpinnings of the Israeli right, the Trump administration, ethnonationalists, and indeed neofascists the world over. In Hazony’s book, full of historical anachronism, false binaries, and logical flaws, a reader can find an explanation of how far-right Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu can embrace a U.S. president who tweets anti-Semitic memes, a Hungarian authoritarian, and a neofascist Brazilian patriarch. The Virtue of Nationalism’s most important contribution may be in creating a theoretical scaffolding for contemporary nationalism’s darkest impulses.
In Hazony’s telling, the national state represents a happy midpoint between the anarchical tendencies of clan-based or tribal politics and the globalizing vision of empires, ancient and modern. This conflict between competing political models is, he asserts, as old as the Hebrew Bible itself. It was the ancient Israelites who first gathered together as a political unit, providing Western political thought’s first example of a national state.
The national state thus conceived allows for the expression of each people’s unique cultural inheritance—its particular laws and language, religious traditions, and view of history—and stands in opposition to universalizing empires bent on doing away with difference. Echoing John Stuart Mill, he argues that the existence of multiple “national laboratories” each competing with one another permits us to collectively learn what forms of social, cultural, and political organization are best.
Over and against the universal aspirations of the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire, the emerging national states of England, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Sweden, and Denmark—rooted in, according to Hazony, a fundamental “Protestant construction” of legitimate and independent government—asserted the right to chart their own course.
The essential dignity of the national state was recognized by the Peace of Westphalia and continued unchallenged until it fell out of favor following World War II. The subsequent dismissal of nationalism, Hazony asserts, stemmed from a misunderstanding of the Third Reich: Adolf Hitler was not a true nationalist but rather an imperialist looking to resurrect the Holy Roman Empire. Liberals essentially learned the wrong lesson from the war, which resulted in the creation of a new imperial body dominated by Germany—the European Union—that has robbed its member states of their sovereignty. In turn, the surge of multiculturalism that accompanied globalization put nationalists everywhere on the defensive against liberal-imperialist political ideals (e.g., universal human rights, the International Criminal Court, and global trade regulations). While there are a number of trenchant critiques to be made of any and all of these institutions, Hazony prefers to dismiss them out of hand as “among the most powerful agents fomenting intolerance and hate in the Western world today.”
Much of this is patently and verifiably false. Nationalism and imperialism often complemented rather than opposed each other. His version of Hitler’s motivations relies on the misinterpretation of isolated remarks in order to ignore the fundamental nationalism of Nazism. And the ancient Hebrews had no conception, however hazy, of anything like the modern national state.
The idea that countries arose because of nationalist sentiment among the hodgepodge of peoples who lived in these territories—rather than the political ambitions of their monarchs—is false, yet it offers a clear example of Hazony’s view of national identity as innate, stable, and prior to the modern state. This type of ahistorical thinking is in fact perfectly cogent within Hazony’s overarching theory that human collectives—be it the family, tribe, or nation—“maintain their existence through time, holding fast to certain fixed purposes and forms.” That’s why classic works on nationalism, such as those of Benedict Anderson, Eugen Weber, and Ernest Gellner, are disparaged in a lone footnote. Their detailed historical account of how institutions, commerce, and state power inculcate a sense of shared identity has no place in Hazony’s eternal and unchanging collectives.
But Hazony’s mistaken view of history is secondary to his far more consequential premises about the nature of political cohesion. The book is at its most fascinating, illuminating, and dangerous in excavating a different genealogy of the state from the version proposed by liberal political theory. Hazony lays out his case by differentiating between the bonds that link people together in a business relationship—built upon individual freedom, calculation, and consent—and those that unite the family. Railing again generations of liberal thinkers who have regarded politics as an extension of commercial relations, Hazony contends that the state is instead an extension of the family unit into which one is either born or adopted. The national community is thus the natural extension of the “strong bonds of mutual loyalty” of the natal family and produces cohesion not because of common ideological commitments but because it represents an extension of the self.
In a line sure to delight aspiring authoritarians, Hazony argues that the traits that are beneficial within a business enterprise—individual freedom, rational calculation, and public deliberation and debate, i.e., the stuff of liberal democratic theory—are wholly out of place in the family and, by extension, the state. Rather, the family requires its members to practice “loyalty, devotion, and constraint.” It is in tracing these fundamentally anti-democratic principles to a genealogy of the state based in the patriarchal family that Hazony is at his most original. He is, of course, not the first to put the family at the center of nationalist ideologies, and one could draw many unsavory comparisons to figures from the past century—from Philippe Pétain’s travail, famille, patrie to Benito Mussolini’s glorification of motherhood. What sets Hazony apart is his attempt to grant patriarchal authoritarianism a more distinguished lineage, one that is supposedly rooted in empirical reality as opposed to some fanciful “state of nature” in which individuals joined together to create governments. Indeed, he seems to believe that by proving that no such original state ever existed in the past, he can render such consent irrelevant to the present and future as well.
Hazony’s worldview does not entirely exclude freedom. Yet individual freedom, he claims, can be achieved only collectively. As an example, he cites the predicament of American Jews during World War II, who, unable to access the reins of state power, were also unable to act on the slaughter of their brethren in Europe.
True freedom is thus envisioned as the collective ability to act in the nation’s interest, which can exist only when the nation has control over the state apparatus. Consequently, “[o]nly the national state, governed by individuals drawn from the tribes of the nation itself, can be a free state.” It is with that conviction in mind that he disparages the possibility of a neutral or civic state that claims to exist without the “particularistic commitments to any of the different nations, languages, or religions within its borders.”
Yet the existence of the United States refutes Hazony’s arguments. He is right in noting the country’s roots in Protestant Christian communities and how many of its supposedly secular civic rituals similarly grow out of this particular heritage. But as with his remarks regarding the social contract, his fixation on origins as determinative blinds him to what is best about states like the United States, which are not built to serve a singular nation. For Hazony, practical considerations mean that minority communities can be grafted on the core national group, but they cannot penetrate it—still less represent it. Yet the civic state actually does have the capacity to deal with difference in another way altogether: not by effacing what is particular but by expressing it as the core of what is national. This is not your standard melting pot in which everything gets combined into a singular mush. It’s more akin to something like jazz, which is both the creation of a particular minority community and quintessentially American—not merely tolerated but celebrated. It is true that the United States has failed to live up to this ideal repeatedly over the course of its history, but it is equally true that only a civic state has the potential to do so. In contrast, Hazony claims that stable and free states require “a majority nation whose cultural dominance is plain and unquestioned, and against which resistance appears to be futile.” One can almost hear Richard Spencer applauding in the background.
Having rooted this argument in the familylike nature of political community, Hazony then goes on the offensive against anyone or anything that might interfere with the national state’s absolute sovereignty within its borders. Thus he celebrates Britain’s so-called independence from the European Union, Israel’s building blitz in East Jerusalem, America’s refusal to allow its soldiers to appear before the International Criminal Court, and the right of nations to legislate in support of “traditional religious views of marriage” and to enact anti-immigration and refugee policies. Putting nationalism at the center of his analysis also offers a way to critique the free trade agenda that transforms “business enterprises into ‘multinational’ corporations that serve the global economy rather than any particular national interest.” Tellingly, he has nothing to say about global entities such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which are the frequent target of leftists for undermining national sovereignty in meaningful ways. So, too, citing Margaret Thatcher as inspiration, he supports universal technical standards for the sake of economic efficiency—just not universal labor protections, social security, or modes of taxation. These positions, which generate no shortage of contradictions, can be read as an attempt to put theoretical legs on an ungainly creature we might term neoliberal nationalism.
Moreover, his defense of national sovereignty against so-called globalists reaches its theoretical and moral limits fairly quickly when it comes up against the shibboleths of the American or Israeli right. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq—as imperial a venture as any—is rebranded as an attempt by the United States “to solve pressing security problems on its own.” Similarly, there are numerous theoretical positions that seem custom-made to support Israel’s land grab in the West Bank. For instance, he concedes that his model does not allow for universal self-determination; each people’s case must be weighed “only in the balance of moral and prudential considerations.”
Nations found wanting for military or economic strength, cohesion, or defensible borders—or deemed a threat to the well-being of others—should rather content themselves by seeking “a protectorate state with some measure of delegated authority” latched onto a more powerful and fully independent neighbor. The resonance between Hazony’s theoretical argument and the proposal for Palestinian “autonomy on steroids” forwarded by the Israeli right should not be treated as mere coincidence. Coming on the heels of the country’s controversial nation-state law, those familiar with the inner world of Jewish politics will quickly grasp the debt Hazony’s thinking owes to a particular version of Zionism.
This is not to say there’s nothing worthwhile about Hazony’s intervention. Like others who have noted the salience of national identity in an age of globalization, Hazony is right to note these rumblings of discontent. In particular, isolation and alienation are genuine social problems in every industrialized nation, having been linked to higher levels of depression, withdrawal, addiction, and violence. Yet here national identity is more snake oil than salve. As sociologists have long argued, local communities are, in fact, most beneficial when it comes to countering alienation and building a positive sense of identity. These might include religious congregations, cooperative ventures, neighborhood associations, or parenting groups. Such communities run counter to everything Hazony holds to be true about identity: They are based on the consent and active participation of their members and, as such, are dynamic and evolving rather than stable or preexisting. A sense of national connection with millions of individuals who share your ethnic and religious heritage is no substitute for the role of face-to-face interaction and cooperation at the local level.
At the global level, nationalism fails as strongly as on a local scale. Hazony repeatedly argues, for example, that more global or cosmopolitan identities are impossible because humanity has no common enemy. Yet, in the face of climate change, we face just such a foe. How are we to address coral bleaching, rising sea levels, and extreme drought through nationalist means? Should Jair Bolsonaro be allowed to deforest the Amazon, which releases an estimated 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen? It is not that we lack collective problems. It is that nationalism is both too big and too small to address them.
Nor does this mean, in Hazony’s logic, that to denounce nationalism is to embrace the imperial ordering of the world. Rather, articulating alternative solutions requires moving beyond false binaries that hold nationalism and imperialism to be the only available options. Even Hazony seems to grasp the limits of his model when it comes to certain types of interventions but still tries to shoehorn them into a nationalist framework. Thus, he argues, the world’s nations had no choice but to interfere when faced with Hitler and Joseph Stalin because “[t]he crimes these men committed against their own people were only a prelude to the attempt to destroy all the neighboring national states and to annex their populations to a universal empire.”
Are we to conclude that had the Third Reich targeted only German Jews but not those across the border in Poland, the international community should have remained on the sidelines? How is one to know for sure when crimes committed internally are a prelude to those of outward aggression? And why shouldn’t nations everywhere, under such logic, fight environmental policies that put them all at risk—indeed, that in some cases threaten their very existence?
Given that authoritarian nationalism is on the rise—from Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Viktor Orban and, of course, the upstart Donald Trump—Hazony’s book is likely to find fans the world over. Its chief virtue, if we can call it that, is offering a remarkably cogent view of how the right views the world: patriarchal, blood-based, and remarkably stable over time. Like all reactionaries who appeal to some primordial way of the world, Hazony doesn’t so much as argue for a return to what has passed as inaugurate something new. And indeed, his work underscores how the new nationalism is anti-democratic to its core, resorting to a collectivist vision of freedom in which disdain for the dignity and liberty of the individual is not incidental but foundational. That the nation may be coercive toward its members in a way that the international community is forbidden from doing so regarding individual nations is but one of the book’s many logical difficulties.
Finally, for anyone who has ever marveled at the seeming incoherence of Jews teaming up with anti-Semites (or those happily supported by them), reading Hazony’s book can help clarify that these are not mere marriages of convenience. Looking beyond the primacy of ethnonational identity, we rather find strong points of ideological overlap that link these unlikely bedfellows. As I noted early in the Trump administration, there is a long history of anti-Semites supporting Zionism as a solution to the so-called problem of having to live with Jews. In the aftermath of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, there is a growing awareness that this problem rather lies with those who dream of ethnic homogeneity—whether they reside in Pittsburgh or Jerusalem. Coming to terms with this reality requires us to grasp the extent to which identities are cultivated rather than innate and to trace our alliances across communities rather than along their fault lines.
Suzanne Schneider, a historian of the modern Middle East, is deputy director and core faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is the author of Mandatory Separation: Religion, Education, and Mass Politics in Palestine.