As globalization has progressed, there has been a reaction against it from a growing segment of the population. The main manifestation of this reaction has been a call to revive a sense of nationalism amongst the people. As the nation was the premier mass-mobilizing myth of the 20th century, the hope is that the nationalist standard can serve as a rallying point to unite the people against globalization, which, as a process, threatens the existence of the nation.
However, many centre-right conservatives fear the rise of nationalism because it is a threat to the American-style fusionist conservatism which now dominates right-wing politics across the world. This conservatism amongst other things takes it as axiomatic that a nation, especially if it is a western nation, must accept mass immigration from all over the world. This notion fits quite conveniently with another core axiom of American conservatism: the belief that national identity is defined by one’s notional acceptance of a series of political propositions outlined in a constitution, or even more vaguely: a set of political values that are held in common by members of the country.
Consequently, American conservatives, all over the world, including here in Canada, have adopted the ideology of Patriotism. Patriotism, also referred to as Civic Nationalism, is a repackaging of the American conservative idea of national identity as a belief in a set of political propositions. It is defined in opposition to the idea that an essential part of national identity is that the members of a national community have a shared ancestry. In this way, establishment conservatives hope to redirect the energy behind populist nationalism into support for the same conservative agenda of the past 50 years.
One of the major issues with this project is that it goes against the ways human identity and social organization have worked for most of history. By looking at the origins of the words nationalism, patriotism and civic nationalism we can see how far the right wing have diverged from our historical roots. To begin with, nationalism is an ideology that became particularly historically significant during the 19th century, though it has earlier roots. However, nationalism is based on the concept of nation, which is much older. The word nation originates in the roman word natio, which means “that which has been born”. The connotations of natio are the idea of birth and an almost taxonomic form of classification similar to the way we classify animals according to genus and species.
This becomes clearer considering the Proto-Indo-European root word of natio, which is gene. Gene means to “give birth/beget” and is also the root word of the latin word gens (family/clan/nation/race). Gens was a very important concept for the romans and refers to one’s clan. From the beginning of their history romans were divided up into gentes (plural of gens) which were extended families that traced their lineages back hundreds of years to the companions of Romulus, who had set down roots on the land in the years surrounding the founding of Rome. All the gens came together to make up the roman republic or res publica (literally: public thing). Political rights were conferred on people based on class and property ownership, both of which were contingent on which gens and family one was born into. There were plebian gentes and patrician ones; within the patrician gentes, there were the gentes maiorum (major gentes) and the gentes minores (minor gentes).
This kind of clan structure is reflected in the Old Testament Kingdom of Israel. The nation of Israel was composed of 12 tribes named after the sons and grandsons of the patriarch Jacob. The importance of ancestry is shown by how often the Bible dedicates time to lay out the genealogy of various figures, in various scriptural passages one will find lines of patrilineal descent. For example Matthew 1:2 has “Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob…”.
Indeed, genealogy had very important practical uses in Biblical Israel. Just as for the Romans, one’s place within the national community was determined on the basis of ancestry. For example, the priesthood of the Temple, which was the centre of Old Testament worship, was only drawn from the tribe of Levi, one of the 12 tribes. More particularly, from within the Levites, only men of the branch descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses, were eligible to be High Priest. One of the reasons that Old Testament temple worship had to come to an end, even among the Jews who rejected Christ was that when the Romans destroyed the second Temple in 70 AD, the records containing the genealogies for the nation of Israel were lost. Thus, even had the Jews been able to build a third temple, there was no longer a way of determining who among them had the proper genealogy to be a Levite or a High Priest.
The traditional notion of nation is also reflected in the English translation of the New Testament’s use of the word nation. Nation is usually translated from the Greek word ethnos in the original Biblical text. Ethnos means race/nation/tribe. Looking at particular uses of ethnos in the scriptures gives us insight into how the ancients understood it. Mark 13:8 reads, “For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles: these are the beginnings of sorrows”. Here, in contrast to our modern understanding, there is a clear difference between the nation and the state (Kingdom). These were two different concepts and one kingdom or empire could rule over multiple nations; this was often the case.
Acts 17:26 reads, “And [God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation”. Here Saint Paul is clearly expressing that it is God who has given to each nation its own space and boundaries, until such a time as he allows that nation to fall or be conquered. The “one blood” in this verse refers to the blood of Adam, the first man and thus the ancestor of all people.
However, it is important to be clear that while the Bible does highlight the shared humanity of all Men, it also has a clear concept of different nations being defined by different ancestries. Genesis 25:23 is a very clear example of this: “And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger”. God is speaking to Rebekah, the wife of Isaac. She was pregnant with the brothers Jacob and Esau, who would go on to be the fathers of two different nations. These nations, as the verse says, would be defined by which brother was their ancestor.
Genesis 10 provides us with the Table of Nations, which is the genealogy of all the peoples known to the ancient Israelites based on from which sons and grandsons of Noah they descended. The three sons of Noah: Japheth, Ham and Shem were the ancestors of different peoples. For example, in the ancient world and Middle Ages, Christians understood Europeans as being the descendants of Japheth, while many of the peoples of the Middle East were descendants of Shem. Moreover, Japheth, Ham and Shem each had many sons and grandsons, and particular nations were said to be distinguished by which particular son, grandson and son of the grandson they descended from. In this way the particularity and uniqueness of each nation remained a deeply held belief for the Christians.
This traditional concept of identity is more easily understood if we visualize a person’s identity as a series of concentric circles expanding outwards from himself. Any given person’s identity is bound up with his immediate family, and his clan, and his town, and his nation, etc. In this way the Old Testament Israelites could divide themselves into twelve tribes while also understanding themselves to be part of the nation of Israel, which was made up of those twelve tribes put together. We might also consider the fact that while the Romans understood themselves both as Romans and as Latins.
The Romans identified with the city of Rome and its people as evidenced by the SPQR battle standard under which they fought (Senatus Populusque Romanus, which translates to: the Senate and People of Rome). But, they also deeply valued their Latin identity as evidenced by their participation in the festival of the Latin peoples called Latiar.Every winter the Romans and all the other Latins would gather at the sacred site mons Albanus and celebrate their shared heritage. The importance of Latin identity was written into Roman law as a special citizenship status called the ius Latii (Latin Right). Latin Rights were below citizens of the city of Rome itself, but above the non-latin socii and foederatii subjects of Rome.
Turning to Patriotism, we find it is intertwined with the idea of the nation. The root word of Patriotism is the Latin word Patria (fatherland) which comes from the Latin Pater (father). Fatherhood was central to the life of the res publica. The senate was the highest governing body of the res publica and was composed of patricians, whose legitimacy was based on the fact that they descended from the patres: founding fathers of the city at the time of Romulus. The Roman family unit was organized hierarchically, with the head of the family being the Pater familias (father of the family), the head of an extended family within a gens. The Pater familias was responsible for his wife, children, extended family, servants and clients. He had legal authority over all of them and was owner of the family estate. The role as Pater familias was passed from father to son, marked by the son taking the name of his father. As a child Julius Caesar was named Gaius, and Julius Caesar had been his father’s name. The name Julius Caesar was passed from father to son in the Caesar household. When Gaius’ father died, Gaius received the role of Pater familias from his father, along with the name Julius Caesar by which history came to know him.
In this way every Roman Pater familias was not just an individual, but the embodiment of Rome, his blood a living tradition which he was entrusted to bear with honour. The Pater familias was the source and bearer of political authority, hence why among the honours the Senate bestowed upon the emperor Augustus was the title Pater Patriae (father of the fatherland). Thus returning to the concept of Patria from which we get Patriotism, we find that the idea of Fatherland attaches to the physical land of the republic, the connotation of being an inheritance. The Patria is the land and institutions passed from father to son from the foundation of the state. Loyalty to the Patria in the sense of patriotism is inseparable from an understanding of yourself as part of a gens whose ancestors created and then bequeathed the country to you.
Finally, we look at the origin of civic from civic nationalism. The word civic comes from the Latin word civis, which means citizen. Therefore, civic nationalism would translate to something like, the “nationalism of the citizen”. At first glance this might seem like a more promising term to use if one wishes to reject the ancient understanding of identity. However, it is worth looking at the Roman understanding of citizenship to get an idea of what citizenship meant. The key Latin term here is civitas, which refers to the citizens of Rome as a collective body.
The individual citizens were bound together by law into a civitas; the body of the citizens thus became a res publica. Citizenship during the early republic was obtained by being the child of two Roman citizens, though some exceptions were made for the children of a citizen and a non-citizen (generally a Roman man and a foreign woman). Thus, the core of the Roman civitas were the descendants of the founding stock of the city. Foreigners could be granted citizenship by the Roman people, but during the early republic, at least, they would have been the minority.
A defender of the American conception of civic nationalism might bring up here that as Rome expanded, the res publica came to include many people from foreign nations who were given citizenship. Indeed, eventually the civitas came to be composed of mostly people of a non-Roman origin. But it's relevant to note that the Romans themselves were aware of this fact, and the mixing of foreigners into Rome and the accompanying decline of the old-stock Roman population was written about extensively. Indeed, this demographic transformation became part of the narrative of national decline which is present in the writings of most of the major Roman authors.
In the beginning of his Pharsalia, the Roman poet Lucan criticizes the Empire by describing the consequences of imperialism as “the causes which have ever brought down ruin upon imperial races”. One of the main factors of national decline according to Lucan was the transformation of the Roman countryside. He says “those acres, which once were furrowed by the iron plough of Camillus and felt the spade of a Curius long ago, grew into vast estates tilled by foreign cultivators”. Camillus (Marcus Furius Camillus) and Curius (Manius Curius Dentatus) are two heroic figures from the early republic, and in this context are being used by Lucan as archetypes of the ideal roman citizen-farmer. One must imagine that for a typical Roman reader, Lucan’s description would have brought to mind an image of traditional Roman men in the idyllic countryside, his forefathers, being replaced by foreign labourers.
It is notable that Camillus was a patrician and Curius was a plebeian. By choosing them as his archetypes of the Roman man, Lucan is demonstrating that the different Roman social classes shared a common identity. It was not the case that the distinction between patrician and plebeian gentes meant that there was no overarching identity. Indeed, while one was defined by gens, all the patrician and plebian gentes found unity in their shared identity as romans. This is evidenced by the willingness of both patricians and plebians to go fight and die en masse in Rome’s many wars.
During its many wars, Rome captured hundreds of thousands of slaves and a lot of treasure. This influx of wealth and cheap foreign labour disproportionately benefited the richest Roman elites. Rome was primarily an agrarian society where economic activity was very much centered around the family farm. This had a deep impact on Roman culture; from the beginning of the republic, the ideal of masculinity for native Romans from both the Plebeian and Patrician classes was to be a citizen-farmer. As a citizen, a man had the right and duty to political participation in the Roman state, religious rituals and to serve in the army (originally only land-owning citizens could be in the army). As a farmer, a man had the right and duty to raise a family, and own a plot of land he could cultivate. In the early republic, citizen-farmers were the core of the Roman state; they were the largest and most influential class. They fought the wars, they did most of the economic production, they paid the taxes and they were the bearers of Roman culture.
However, as Rome expanded, the army had to go on years-long campaigns in faraway lands, which meant most of the citizen-farmers had to spend years away from home. During this time their farms were left to be tended by their wives and children, who often could not keep the farm going without the patriarch of the family. Thus, many family farms went bankrupt and were sold to rich patrician landowners who gradually built up huge estates called latifundia. The rich landowners preferred to use foreign slaves, many of whom were captured during war, to work the latifundia. Unlike a Roman citizen, a slave did not need to be paid or have his rights respected. Thus, when Roman soldiers returned home after years of war they found their families destitute. The farms that had been passed down through their families for hundreds of years were now owned by wealthy elites and worked by the very foreign slaves the Roman soldiers had captured at war.
Naturally this situation led to the rise of a nativist populist movement among the Roman plebians, led by Tiberius Gracchus. In his Life of Tiberius Gracchus, roman historian Plutarch explains that Tiberius Gracchus was himself a patrician who took the side of the Plebeians “[Tiberius Gracchus] observed the dearth of inhabitants in the country and that those who tilled its soil or tended its flocks there were barbarian slaves he then first conceived the public policy [of land redistribution]”.
Indeed, he notes that the problem of land created a vicious cycle: “the poor, who had been ejected from their land, no longer showed themselves eager for military service and neglected the bringing up of children”. Since the landless Roman plebeians were no longer bringing up children, the native Roman population would naturally decline, and therefore the native labour-force would decrease and new foreign workers would need to fill the labour shortage. According to Plutarch, “Soon all Italy was conscious of a dearth of freemen and was filled with gangs of foreign slaves, by whose aid the rich cultivated their estates”
Plutarch recounts a speech given by Tiberius Gracchus:
The wild beasts that roam over Italy...have every one of them a cave or lair to lurk in, but the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else. Houseless and homeless they wander about with their wives and children. And it is with lying lips that their Imperators exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend tombs and shrines from the enemy, for not a man of them has a hereditary altar, not one of all these many Romans an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and although they are styled masters of the world they have not a single clod of earth that is their own.
Plutarch explains that Tiberius Gracchus was loved by the common people. It was common to find messages of support for Tiberius written by common people on the walls of their houses and in the public spaces. However, his plans for re-distributing lands to the poor ultimately came to naught because he was murdered by a group of Patricians who accused him of sedition against the republic.
Rome’s demographic problem remained unsolved. Towards the end of the late republic, Roman author Appian speaks of the state of Rome in his The Civil Wars “The Republic has been rotten for a long time. The city masses are now thoroughly mixed with foreign blood, the freed slave has the same rights as a citizen, and those who are still slaves look no different from their masters”.
As noted in a previous article, the decline of Rome’s old stock families was considered a serious enough problem that the emperor Augustus passed legislation to attempt to increase the Roman birth-rate.
Returning to the modern day, it is a curious phenomenon that conservatives who are so concerned with critical theory, cultural Marxism and socialism are so willing to celebrate the deconstruction of the nation. This attitude of conservatives is like the army who gives up the battlefield before the battle is even fought. To be sure, the nation is the battlefield of the 21st century, more specifically the question of whether nations will continue to exist at all in our brave new world. This question is especially poignant for Canada considering that as the northern neighbour of the United States, Canada has been under immense assimilationist pressure from American imperialism.
The classical conception of political life passed down from our civilizational forebears understood the nation as an inheritance passed down from one’s ancestors through the generations. Nation is the foundation of culture and is inseparable from the family, the state and even the right of property. These ancient concepts have traveled to us today through the etymology of words like Patriotism and Civic Nationalism. People seek to use these terms to identify a nationalism that is separate from the ideas of ancestry and family, but it is a futile pursuit. Nationalism begins in the home and is informed by the stories of one's ancestors, whose deeds shape the path of their families for generations to come.