A debut book offers a history of nationalism and its application to contemporary global affairs.
Especially since the creation of the European Union, it’s become popular to discuss this political age as post-national, meaning that the division of the world into sovereign entities has been transcended for the sake of geopolitical cooperation. Decock avers, however, that the new international theater has been built on top of the nation-state rather than supplanting it. The author begins this impressively wide-ranging study with a history of nationalism, which developed over a 200-year swath of time, forged out of the bloody French Revolution. Decock discusses nationalism not only as a political form, but also as an ideology, a psychological construct, a consequence of evolving socio-economic realities, and a cultural phenomenon. The author contends that nationalism is spawned by a historically peculiar emphasis on national self-determination, which was impossible without the establishment of a homogenously shared language. One of the most intriguing discussions in the book examines the tension between “Lockean democrats,” who believe a certain incarnation of the modern nation is possible despite extraordinary cultural and linguistic diversity, and acolytes of John Stuart Mill, who see that as a fantastical pipe dream. Decock makes his own position abundantly clear: “The contradiction between the multilingual society and the monolingual state constitutes the nationalist challenge, paradox, or dilemma.” And while the author largely avoids in-depth analysis of either Africa or Asia, there are still memorable aperçus about the difficulty of understanding China, India, or Indonesia through the filter of a political model that seems simply inapplicable. Given the technicality of the subject, Decock mercifully avoids foreboding academic language and doggedly pursues a thesis without devolving into strident dogmatism. One could have hoped for a more searching and philosophically nuanced history of the origins of nationalism—many scholars trace the germ of its emergence as far back as Machiavelli’s The Prince. But the treatment of contemporary political affairs, especially of the future of the U.S. in light of its own potentially multilinguistic citizenry, is razor-sharp. This is a rigorous, thorough, and timely contribution to an oft-misunderstood subject.
A lively examination of the intransigent persistence of nationalism.