Nationalism: The Healthy and the Unhealthy
Nationalism, like so much else today, represents something of a paradox. It has healthy and unhealthy aspects corresponding to Gebser’s “life-pole” and “death-pole” of all psychic energy (or eros and thanatos “instincts” in Freud’s terms). I was musing upon that this morning in relation to the selection of Boris Johnson as the UK’s next prime minister, which is probably a god-send for the Scottish Nationalists. The contrast between Scottish nationalism and the English nationalism of the Brexiteers is rather stark.
In contrast to English nationalism, which is a rejection and retreat from the whole, Scottish nationalism moves in exactly the opposite direction. Scottish nationalism is, contrariwise, quite inclusive, and it sees its future as an integral part of Europe and the European Union.
There is a certain kind of nationalism and patriotism — we will call that an “inclusive” kind — that takes great pride in what the country can contribute to the whole and to the development of the whole. This is a creative kind of nationalism. On the other hand, there are diseased forms of nationalism which we may describe as “exclusionary” or subtractive, and seek to withdraw from the whole, which we might describe as “particularism”.
A healthy patriotism and nationalism is expressed in the joy in making a healthy and creative contribution to the overall well-being of the whole (let’s call that “the global commonwealth”), while a diseased form of nationalism and patriotism — a quite nihilistic form — damns the whole and erects walls, mental, cultural, or even physical, against it. In this kind of nationalism or patriotism, the thanatic pole dominates, and it is also often seen in its surrounding itself with symbols of the morbid and the thanatic as well, which is rather typical of fascism.
As in everything, then, with nationalism too we must exercise some discernment to obtain a proper diagnosis and prognosis, for the rise and fall of nations is also very much linked to this alternation of energies (a kind of alternating current, as it were) of the life-pole and the death-pole of energy.
As always, we must submit such questions to Nietzsche’s standard of value: “what is its value for life?”
Nietzsche was, in fact, one who had explored this polarity of psychic energy and knew it extremely well. His whole philosophy basically emerged from that and he also tried to get us to think “beyond good and evil” to perceive how the eros pole and the thanatos pole were paradoxically related. This probably accounts for Gebser’s great interest in Nietzsche, too. And this was also expressed in Heraclitus’s observation of the paradox of Dionysus (who represents eros) as being also the alter ego of Hades (who represents the thanatic). Nietzsche himself testified that his “unique” way of looking at things was owing to the fact that he had one foot in life and another in death.
And, ironically again, that’s implicated in the symbol of Christ’s tongue as a “two-edged sword” — the paradoxical — for Jesus was also one who had one foot in death and another in life, and therefore knew the value of life like few others.
What today flaunts itself as nationalism and patriotism is a diseased, destructive, and thanatic form of it symptomatic of decline — a kind of morbid and nihilistic nationalism that is no longer capable of creating beyond itself, or that is capable any longer of making its own unique and positive contribution to the well-being of the whole, which should rightly be the very thing that constitutes its joy and its “pride”.
So, this was the “spirit of America” — the promise of “equality and justice for all” and without regard for “race, creed, or colour”. This is what made America great and the idea of “the shining city on the hill”. But this isn’t what is meant by Trump’s “MAGA”. The new nationalism and superpatriotism is actually the antithesis of all this and its own self-negation. It’s a pretty stunning example of Nietzsche’s formula for nihilism: “All higher values devalue themselves”.
The same, of course, can be said for the UK — the home of the Magna Carta which now seems to be in process also of dramatic reversal and self-negation.
These symptoms do, of course, bear on what Gebser has described as “the deficient mode” of the mental-rational (or perspectival) consciousness structure. But, still, you might take heart in the conviction of a Nietzsche, or Gebser, or William Blake, or many others, that all this current nihilism and decadence is a necessary preparation for the “leap” into a new consciousness structure and a new “revaluation of values”.
Although, that “leap” is like Neo’s first leap in The Matrix — fraught with peril and the grave danger of failure, which is what makes our times so tense and suspenseful.