The Lesson From Brexit: Change Nationalism

UK flag and EU flag

The people of Britain have voted to leave the European Union. There were a few arguments used to support this decision, such as Britain has the right to vote democratically and reject an economic union which seemingly wasn’t benefiting many in the country, therefore asserting its right to self-determination. But another common narrative is that those who voted to leave did so in support of British nationalism, opposing the multi-national cosmopolitan elites in London and the pro-globalist forces of the EU. The people of Britain “wanted their country back,” as some have said, implying that they had lost something which they no longer had.

Of course, they had not lost their country at all. The United Kingdom hadn’t gone anywhere or dissolved. They hadn’t lost their right to vote. They weren’t of all a single political party and were just angry at the current government. No, they felt that Great Britain had become less great and less British because of a changing cultural landscape they grew less and less familiar with. Britain had become less ethnically British as more and more “foreigners” with different languages and different values immigrated.

The reaction by many to this reality was repudiation and an embrace of culture and values which define what it means to really be “British” in their eyes. And while not everyone immediately linked British culture and British values with a tendency toward white anglophile ethnic nativism, many who voted to leave drew that direct link between the two. In their eyes, a true British nation is white, English-speaking, and ethnically native to the British Isles. These are the characteristics which define their common sense of civic belonging; this is their definition of British nationhood. Their nationalism is an expression of this view.

Never mind the countless millions in Britain who aren’t white or aren’t ethnically British yet identify as such and exemplify the same culture and values many, who voted to leave the EU, champion and support. Never mind the absurd basis for drawing a link directly from race and ethnicity to culture and values is the assumption that one’s shade of skin color or one’s physical ethnic traits force an individual to behave a certain way. No, none of that mattered to many on June 23rd. Their nationhood is identified by auxiliary anthropocentric characteristics and their nationalism excludes anyone who could more easily be identified as “the other.”

The result was a good chunk of voters choosing to leave the EU based more on xenophobia than a cogent understanding of the totality of Britain’s relationship with the EU, or of the EU as an organization itself. Whether or not leaving the EU was “the right decision,” this factor cannot be ignored.

This should be a wake-up call to all of us. We need to change nationalism.

What is Nationalism?

At its most fundamental level, nationalism is simply an expression of one’s nationhood: a common sense of civic belonging. Void of any particulars, nationalism is when one acknowledges and supports the intangibles of their national society’s ethos. Support for whatever that foundation is can, theoretically, be a positive and inclusive force.

However, the predominant understanding of nationalism, and of nationhood, is that it has a basis in things like race, ethnicity, and/or religion. And it is with this understanding that nationalism results in exclusion and prejudice. If the basis of your nationhood is a particular ethnicity, anyone who doesn’t look like you or share your ancestry doesn’t belong in your national community; in your civic society. Ethnic diversity is not only undesirable, it’s threatening.

This is the cancer that is nationalism in its current form. It creates hostility which weakens a civic community’s ability to unite and function. It’s a force that says, “If you look different than me, or don’t follow my religion, or don’t speak my language, then we can’t be in the same society. We can’t share the same neighborhoods. We can’t share the same civic institutions. We can’t share the same place. Your very presence is threatening and we don’t belong together.”

I reject this wholeheartedly.

In the context of identifying a common sense of civic belonging—a common nationhood—its foundation should not be these auxiliary anthropocentric characteristics. That doesn’t mean nationhood should necessarily be destroyed. Without it, we’d live in a monolithic global society; frankly, I don’t think such a lack of cultural diversity is possible or desirable. There are, and always will be, points of differentiation which separate the ethos of societies from one another.

So, what’s the alternative?

National Identity Rooted in Place

The planet has arranged itself in unique places, each defined by ecology, geography, watersheds, and climate. These places are called bioregions. Within each, the character of society is shaped by the nature of the bioregion itself; human communities learn appropriate ways to truly thrive as being a part of that place and adapt to its environment. This paradigm of societal identity, established by ecological philosophers such as Peter Berg, is called bioregionalism. It testifies to a simple and profound truth about our reality: place shapes identity.

Bioregionalism is the alternative. By using factors of ecology and geography to define and differentiate civic communities by, we establish a new understanding of nationhood and, thereby, nationalism. This new standard says that people of any given ethnic, racial, or religious background adapt to the place they live in. The community as a whole becomes an extension of this place and embodies the ethos—what Peter Berg called a “terrain of consciousness”—shaped by the characteristics of the place itself. To be of a certain nation, in this sense, means to truly inhabit a place; to embrace the values and characteristics which allow society to thrive in the place it’s in.

With this alternative, nobody’s anthropocentric characteristics become criteria for exclusion in a national society. Co-existence flourishes and nationalism ceases to maintain its potency for prejudice. We must begin defining nations by the places they correspond with and not the physical characteristics of the people who live there. Even if nations don’t necessarily correspond with states (multiple nations may be in a single country, a nation may be split between more than one country, etc.), it is vital we begin identifying nations within a bioregional paradigm. Only then will societies around the world have the ability to truly move past a dying era of struggle rooted in fear of “the other.” The differences between us as human beings become inconsequential and each will be free to embrace those who are different as their brothers and sisters in civic community.