Against the Nation
Something better than the nation?
by Blair Taylor
Book Review: Rob Ogman, Against the Nation: Anti-National Politics in Germany. Porsgrunn, Norway: New Compass Press, 2013.
In the wake of the fall of the Wall and reunification the German left confronted a resurgent nationalism. One section of the Left’s response was an “anti-national” tendency whose answer to questions posed by historical developments challenged received political categories by rejecting not only nationalism but, ultimately, traditional left attitudes towards both the nation-state and “the people.” In Against the Nation, Rob Ogman charts the emergence of this “anti-national” tendency by examining two activist campaigns of the 1990s, “Never Again Germany” and “Something Better than the Nation,” to show how “the encounter with nationalism resulted in a fundamental reorientation of a broad set of political assumptions, and produced a deep restructuring in the content and contours of left politics and practice” (11). However, more than an interesting window into radical movements in Germany, the book’s real strength is that it uses these cases to reflect upon left discourse on nationalism and nation-states everywhere, but with particular emphasis on the post-9/11 United States.
The book’s opening chapter, “The Left and the Nation,” begins by tracing the evolution of left positions on nation-states and nationalism in the U.S. since the 1990s, examining discursive continuities and breaks between the alter-globalization movement, the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements of the Bush years, up to Occupy Wall Street in the recent past. This overview describes how a “binary worldview” in the alter-globalization movement often pitted presumably benign nation-states and cultures against the ravages of global capital, which later during the War on Terror morphed easily into a similarly uncritical understanding of “oppressed nations” dominated by imperialist states, the latter primarily represented by the United States and Israel. The result was a simplistic and flawed conceptualization of both global capitalism and state power which demonized foreign capital and imperialist states while ignoring or downplaying domestic forms of exploitation and oppression. Valorizing the people, nation, or “culture” as sources of resistance, the discourse of anti-imperialism turned a blind eye to local state and capitalist elites, as well as popular forms of domination in traditional societies. It also made for strange political bedfellows, translating into tolerance and support for reactionary movements and parties, especially Islamist ones like Hamas and Hezbollah, in some cases even defending oppressive theocratic regimes like Iran. Ogman describes how this political frame obscured a more complicated political reality shaped by the deeper structural logic of state and capitalist power relations, one that undermines simple inside/outside distinctions. It also reinforced the nation-state and “the people” as the logical alternatives and unproblematic bases of resistance to the ills of capitalism and empire. By tracing “the failure of the Left to develop an emancipatory perspective opposed to nationalism, the nation, and the nation-state” (33) within the U.S. Left, Ogman provides a political context for understanding the German case that follows.
The following chapter, “German Nationalism after Reunification,” lays out the specific historical context the anti-national left emerged from. Primarily, this meant German reunification, a process that saw an immediate spike in nationalist sentiment as postwar Germany’s discourse of postnational citizenship was eroded by a revived ethno-nationalist one, accompanied by a wave of right-wing extremism that often received tacit popular and governmental support. The Left was not immune to this nationalist turn. Even the main East German opposition group subtly shifted their previously democratic slogan, “we are the people,” into the nationalist articulation, “we are one people” (40). German identity was increasingly being defined in opposition to outsiders. At precisely the moment the German state was reconstituting itself, “foreigners” became the number one stated concern in opinion polls. As Ogman notes, “as soon as the division separating East and West Germany came down, new boundaries were drawn” (44). Reunification exposed the brutal underbelly of nation-state formation, with chilling historical continuities. It was followed by an explosive rise in violent racist attacks, culminating in what the anti-nationalists did not shrink from terming “pogroms” in Rostock and Hoyerswerda in 1991 and 1992. In what became watershed events for the anti-national left, neo-Nazis in these East German towns violently evicted local guest workers and asylum seekers, setting fire to their residence house and running them out of town. The neo-Nazis had been unhindered by police and local officials, and were cheered on by crowds of locals.
Contesting Nationalism: “Never Again Deutschland” and “Something Better than the Nation”
These developments prompted the formation of an oppositional coalition called The Radical Left, which organized the “Never Again Germany!” mobilization to protest reunification and draw attention to its negative effects, such as the “Aliens Act” that restricted immigration and asylum. Aware that political reunification was basically inescapable, they mounted a principled symbolic opposition that sought to problematize and disrupt tendencies toward consensus and integration through “the power of negation.” This included militant protests and interventions into both public and left debates, developing and pushing an anti-national position. After reunification, the “Never Again Germany” coalition was superseded by the campaign “Something Better than the Nation.” This network of musicians, artists, and intellectuals organized concerts, public fora, and blockades aimed at hindering the spread of both right-wing and centrist forms of nationalism. Their major campaign was a traveling caravan through the country, especially the East where neo-Nazism had taken root most virulently. The campaign aimed at fighting extreme right and nationalist sentiment by articulating an anti-racist and anti-national alternative culture embedded in music and youth subculture.
Ogman devotes a chapter to each of these early anti-national campaigns, drawing extensively on movement documents and media coverage to capture the aims and motivations of the mobilizations. In his narrative, their importance was less their direct impact on political events, which was marginal, but rather their articulation of a novel left approach to nationalism. Drawing on Frankfurt School critical theory, this milieu understood nationalism as structural rather than simply ideological. It was not an aberration derived from outmoded or irrational notions of communal identification, but was instead a radical expression of basic features of the dominant society: a competitive and hierarchical social order with clear winners and losers. Therefore solely attacking the extreme nationalism and explicit racism of neo-Nazis was insufficient: One had to address racism’s much deeper social roots. Indeed, the anti-national turn was in part a realization that traditional anti-fascist and anti-racist politics were too limited, and that nationalism must be fought on a broader scale. In particular, nationalism was another expression of the competitive logic of capitalism, wherein the winners and losers of class struggle within states are in turn reproduced between them in the international arena. The result of this recognition was a specifically anti-national critique that addressed an expanded range of concerns including Germany’s geopolitical normalization and return to the global stage; the complex relationship between capitalism, nationalism, and nation states; as well as racist and essentialist notions of identity and citizenship.
While also deploying more familiar concepts like “negative patriotism” that describe how “national unity” ideologically conceals underlying class cleavages and obscured the self-interest of workers, anti-national politics also understood nationalism as simultaneously an elite and a popular phenomenon. Unlike traditional left theories which primarily understand nationalism as an ideological ruse by elites to preserve their power by obscuring class interest, anti-national discourse viewed it as a populist impulse wherein the working class also appealed to “the nation” to gain material and symbolic benefits by excluding those at the bottom of national and international hierarchies. Thus nationalism was not simply a top-down project, but also an endeavor from below, part and parcel of an interlocking social totality. The result was a form of leftism deeply skeptical of its traditional target audience: “the people.”
By looking at the early historical emergence of a broad anti-national left in Germany, “Against the Nation” is a useful corrective to caricatures that reduce this milieu to its most visible and controversial tendency, the “anti-Germans” who only later emerge as a distinct and differentiated political tendency. Clustered around journals like Bahamas andKonkret, the anti-Germans are communists who espouse steadfast support of Israel and, in some cases, support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This is often the only form of anti-national critique known outside Germany, often causing bewildered leftists abroad to over-generalize and dismiss it as a case of extreme national guilt. Yet this pop-psychologization misses the concrete historical conditions that fostered the initial emergence of the anti-national left in Germany. Rather than a guilt-induced obsession with National Socialism, anti-Semitism, and Israel, Ogman shows how German anti-nationalism developed out of specific anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles against racial violence and its tacit popular support. Although later in the specifically anti-German milieu, fear of the potentially fascist nature of populism translated into distrust of social movements generally, the early anti-national movement was a strongly activist as well as theoretical endeavor addressing concrete political problems confronting the German left. As a rather small tendency, this manifested primarily in provocative texts and symbolic demonstrations. Yet rather than an abdication of politics, this intervention was, at least initially, an attempt to force a certain conversation within the Left and build an alternative political base.
However, in attempting to describe and rehabilitate a broader anti-national milieu the book overcorrects. Strangely, it omits the anti-Germans altogether, declining to so much as mention them by name. Ogman’s narrative focuses exclusively on the early “anti-national” phase tightly bound to activist campaigns directed at specific historical events, leaving readers to wonder how this was eclipsed by a more hardline anti-German position marked by a penchant for quoting Adorno and waving Israeli, American, and Soviet flags. This evolution into a new orthodoxy is only alluded to by a remark in the introduction, “Where they challenged Left dogmas, they were at their strongest; yet where they established new ones, they failed to hold onto their original critical intentions” (16). This may well be the case, but the book would have benefitted by more explicitly making this argument and addressing the relationship between the two. Instead, it leaves the eventual emergence of the anti-Germans ignored and unexplained. The book’s close attention to the specific historical context and debates that launched the anti-national milieu during the early nineties makes for a rich empirical account, but allows relatively little space to explore the deeper roots of anti-nationalism or its relationship to earlier left debates on nationalism. Ogman argues that prior to 1989 “the dominant left orientation relied on a positive affirmation of the ‘nation’” that resulted in the Old Left’s “proletarian internationalism,” which in turn “sought to build solidarity between different national working-classes” (92). Thus, even the Communist Manifesto’s plea ‘Workers of the World Unite!’ only “targeted the antagonisms between workers of different countries… but not nations as such” (92). Broadly true, this sweeping claim dispenses with a over a century of left theorization of nationalism in a few short sentences. Later, the German New Left’s confrontation with the legacy of National Socialism made the rejection of German national identification a central component of its politics. In spite of this fact, Ogman documents how nationalist arguments surfaced in a variety of forms, from student leader Rudi Dutschke’s calls for “national consciousness,” to what Ogman calls the “substitute nationalism” whereby New Left anti-imperialism “meant supporting ‘national self-determination’ in the Global South” (93, 9).
By contrast, the anti-national left that emerged after 1989 “represented a clear break with the Left’s inherited positions on nationalism… Not only did these movements reject nationalism… but also foundation, ‘the nation’ and the nation state as such” (9, 8). The result was not simply “an amended leftist worldview,” but “a fundamental reorientation of a broad set of political assumptions [that] produced a deep restructuring in the content and contours of left politics and practice” (11). In Ogman’s narrative, the arrival of the anti-national left appears as a sharp rupture, leaving the reader with little sense of what specific intellectual and organizational traditions it grew out of or drew inspiration from, only briefly mentioning that early on the movement was primarily comprised of Greens, autonomen, feminists, and communists dissatisfied with integrative appeals to nationalism by the traditional left. In this sense, the book falls victim to the anti-nationalists’ own self-conception, even as it exoticizes the German left by claiming, in effect, that in Germany a break from trends prevailing elsewhere in the world had been effected.
Against the Nation provides a persuasive analysis of the U.S. left’s shifting views on nationalism in the 1990s, but ignores another important political development unfolding at the time which also had implications on how the Left addressed nations and states. At the same time that primarily Marxist radicals were articulating an anti-national perspective in Germany, anarchism was consolidating a dominant position on the U.S. radical left. Given anarchism’s historical critique of the state and, at least until the 1960s national liberation movements as well, a comparison between anarchist and anti-national arguments might have revealed deeper insight into both positions. Comparing the historical context of the U.S. and Germany in the 1990s reveals other interesting parallels: Both the anarchist and anti-national movements arose in an era of relative economic prosperity, and both were strongly shaped by opposing projects of national reunification and historical sanitization. The first Gulf War was widely lauded as the conclusive defeat of the “Vietnam Syndrome” that had tarnished American national identification since the late 1960s. In both cases, attempts to forge a new national consensus created a strong left impulse to dissensus and a highly disidentificatory politics skeptical of or even hostile to “the people.” It was during this decade that the first flag burning case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and hardcore punk became an increasingly important avenue of politicization into the radical left. Indeed, this subculture was an important site for both the expansion of anarchism in the U.S. and that of anti-nationalism in Germany.
The symbolic and moral power of such disidentificatory gestures made bold interventions into the political debates of the day, and forced discussions that might not have otherwise taken place. But, in order to make a greater impact in a specific national context, explicitly anti-German and anti-American positions have tended to reinforce the very national frames they sought to undermine. Perhaps nowhere is this failure to see beyond one’s specific national context so evident than in contemporary left debates around Israel/Palestine, where anti-imperialists solely fixated on the sins of American empire champion reactionary anti-Semites like Hamas, while anti-Germans uncritically defend Israel as the state necessitated by the crimes of their fascist predecessors and in the process become apologists for ongoing state violence. Such deadlocks ultimately reflect the powerlessness of the contemporary left, reduced to cheering or denouncing one player or the other from the sidelines in a political drama it has no meaningful role in.
No right state in the wrong one?
Against the Nation makes an important argument against common left assumptions regarding nationalism and nation-states. However, the book would be stronger if it at least briefly addressed some common objections to such a position. In addition to a variety of familiar traditional left and Marxist arguments, there is the Habermasian hope that states might develop in more “postnational” directions. Focusing solely on the repressive narrative of “Fortress Europe” misses the progressive and radical aspects of a partially denationalized European Union wherein citizens are free to travel, work, and access social benefits within 27 member states—an ambition and reality now being increasingly restricted and renationalized in the face of the economic crisis. The anti-national critique of nation-states is compelling, but like its anarchist counterpart, offers no clear political alternative. Given both the weakness and inaccessibility of global governance institutions, and the absence of any postnational leftist alternative, it is unsurprising that people continue to think within given national, provincial, and municipal frameworks.
However, just as 9/11 and the concomitant “War on Terror” revived a leftist anti-imperialism which reinforced a national frame (even as both political Islam and Western liberalism transcended them), the current global economic crisis might possibly undermine that frame by highlighting the functional political limits of nation-states. The rootless cosmopolitanism of finance and the neoliberal redesignation of state capacity to that of armed accountant have emphatically underscored their non-neutrality and structural inability to exert democratic control over capital. This basic anti-statist insight is an article of faith uniting resistance movements today from the Indignados to Occupy Wall Street, although typically manifest in problematically anarchist form. In lieu of abolition or even robust regulation of capital we see the continued direct subordination of once-nominally democratic institutions to market imperatives, carried out by actors as diverse as Tea Party Republicans to Greek social democrats. With troika-led austerity in Europe, and budget deadlocks, fiscal cliffs, sequestration, and entire cities being put into “political receivership” in the U.S., the state has perhaps never so faithfully approximated Marx’s concise description as “the executive committee of the bourgeoisie.” The current situation only strengthens Ogman’s claim in the book’s final pages that “emancipation from capitalist society could not be achieved without combating nationalism and abolishing the nation-state” (109).
In this sense, while the twinned crisis of global capitalism and national democracy conceivably present an opportunity for articulating anti-national critiques, the book concludes by examining how contemporary responses to the economic crisis redeploy nationalist tropes. In the U.S., the Tea Party has challenged the president’s identity as an American by “othering” him via association with both Kenya and European socialism, while Obama himself calls for national unity and sacrificial belt-tightening in order to better compete with the rest of the world. Against the Nation argues for an alternative left perspective to both familiar nationalist and neoliberal approaches to the economic crisis, as well as left nostalgia for nationalist social democracy now in its death throes.
Despite its limitations, Against the Nation packs a disproportionate heft of empirical, theoretical, and political insights into its slim 130 pages. If it stopped only at describing an understudied and misunderstood political tendency, it would mark an important contribution. Yet Against the Nation has broader aspirations. By extracting political implications from the German case to explore their relevance in a broader international context, Ogman makes a provocative intervention in current debates while fostering an engaged internationalism sorely absent within most contemporary left discussions.Against the Nation delivers a timely examination of the nature of nationalism and nation-states at a moment when capital’s disregard for such quaint loyalties has become uncharacteristically frank, while the Left largely still remains trapped within a narrowly national political frame.