When was nationalism reborn? Everything began, in a sense, in 1979, with the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and the imposition of neoliberalism as a political-economic approach. Because to understand the reasons for the emergence of what we might call "Nationalism 2.0," we first have to concentrate on the long-term effects of neoliberal policies.
Available data tells us that neoliberal policies have caused a noticeable increase in inequality within the various countries that adopted them. With the rise of inequality, numerous other signs of social distress have also grown. In countries where inequality is greater, social mobility is much lower, meaning it is more difficult for the child of a poor family to improve his or her social or economic status. Also, where inequality is greater, crime is also more prevalent, health services are worse, and illnesses, both mental and physical, are more widespread.
That's not to say that there's a direct causal relationship. Greater inequality isn't, in and of itself, the cause of social problems. What happens in such cases, rather, is that rising inequality results from economic policies that reduce public spending and, therefore, also spending on social services, making the quality of these services worse. As a result, poorer families have access to fewer tools for social assistance, their living conditions worsen, and the causes of psychological or physical distress increase.
With the rise of inequality, numerous other signs of social distress have also grown.
Those in difficulty need answers, and they find them where political storytelling is simpler and more plausible. The main center-left parties in Europe have a different storytelling approach and, once in power, tend to accept the fundamental principles of neoliberalism: privatization, deregulation, cuts in public spending, and limited fiscal pressure — particularly on high incomes.
Moreover, the symbolic narrative they offer (for example: "We open our arms to those who need reception and come from disadvantaged countries") sounds decidedly counterintuitive to all those who have low incomes, modest levels of education and not particularly complex cognitive resources, and who react by saying: "How? And why don't you think of us before all these 'others?'"
What's at stake here is not so much the ethical or sociological foundation of such a reaction, but the fact that this type of reaction is common to a large number of people. This applies as much to people in Torre Maura or Casal Bruciato, in Italy, as it does to residents of depressed neighborhoods in London, Manchester or Birmingham.
Keeping it simple before the Brexit referendum — Photo: David Holt London
These same people, who reject the storytelling of the center-left parties, turn instead to the persuasive storytelling offered by populist parties. The latter build a narrative entirely based on the logic of difference, on the identification of an enemy, of a scapegoat on which to pour frustrations and anxieties. Their story is simple: Those to blame for our misfortunes are the international finance system (maybe Jewish), national political castes, the technocrats of the European Union, and migration.
The Nationalism 2.0 message goes on to say that migrants, at any rate, are the ones who constitute a threat to prosperity, because they are bearers of cultures and religious identities that are completely foreign to ours. Therefore, if we recover national sovereignty, we will be able to carry out policies to support the people. Italians first. French first. We defend Hungarian culture. We defend Polish identity. And let us do it in the name of ethnic, religious and cultural differences that separate us from our enemies.
Those in difficulty need answers.
Here it is, the storytelling of right-wing populist movements. It is simple, easily understandable, and psychologically satisfying, even when it does not at all set the premises for policies that are truly effective from an economic and social point of view. And because of its easy comprehensibility, it attracts weak layers of the population.
But it is clear that it is also a storytelling full of implications. The first, and most important, is the resumption of a dialogue with the memorial archive of nationalism from the 18th and 19th centuries, even in its most extreme forms. Hence the re-emergence of the idea that the nation is a bio-political community, born of a history that is cultural, but also biological — of blood and lineage.
From this assumption comes the idea that one must defend not only national sovereignty, but the conception of the nation as a community founded on ius sanguinis (from Latin for right of blood, it is a principle of law by which nationality is determined by blood and not by place of birth): We are Italian (or French, British, Hungarian, etc.) not because we can choose to be Italian, but because we were born within the national community. And it's this idea that brings us back to the darkest moments of European history.
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