Nationalism—obscuring the class divide

Workers in Australia have more in common with workers around the world than they do with the Australian ruling class, writes Raul Haagensen

In the face of a rising far right and an intensification of racism and nationalist ideas around the world, it’s increasingly important to have a clear understanding of nationalism.

In Australia, nationalism can often take on a particular vile form, encouraging not only racism and division, but also being used to justify Aboriginal dispossession and the legacy of White Australia.

Today, the world is divided up into nations all with supposedly distinct cultures and many with separate languages.

However, the modern nation state is only a relatively recent invention, one which developed in lockstep with the rise of capitalism.

Nationalism only began developing in Europe from the 1500s onwards, and even by 1800 only a handful of nation states existed.

Previous states and kingdoms had little necessity to structure themselves around nationality, culture, or even a common language. Instead, society was usually organised around the power of individual kings and emperors who drew their legitimacy from birth or religious sanction.

At the birth of the French nation in 1789, only half the population could speak French, and in Italy, only 2.5 per cent could speak the dialect declared the “Italian” language at unification in 1861.

It was only following the rise of the new capitalist ruling classes, who needed a unified market and a loyal labour force, that imposing a common “national” language and identity became necessary.

Today, nationalism is everywhere. In sport we are expected to support our national football team or celebrate when our country does well in the Olympics.

When an Australian wins a film or literary award it is even supposed to be a national point of pride. And in politics, mainstream politicians are always promising to govern on behalf of the Australian people, and in the name of the “national interest”.

One of the fundamental things to understand about nationalism is that it serves to bind workers to their rulers. It says that workers and the poor have something in common with wealthy CEOs and politicians and that their interests are aligned.

However, their class interests are diametrically opposed. This means there is no common “national interest”, only “capitalist interest” in disguise.

When Scott Morrison talks about ensuring a healthy Australian economy, it is often implied that it will benefit all Australians. But there is a constant struggle about how the benefits of economic growth are distributed.

In recent times bosses have been taking the lion’s share of economic growth while workers’ wages are barely able to keep up with rising prices. As Jim Stanford, director of Centre for Future Work, points out: “From 2000 to the present, real wages have grown half as much as real labour productivity”—the output bosses are squeezing from us.

Nationalism is also often used to justify aggressive foreign policy and wars. Overwhelmingly, however, it is big business that benefits from this, not ordinary workers.

The Iraq war in 2003, for instance, was waged largely for control of the region’s oil resources and provided billions of dollars’ worth of contracts for US companies.

Breeding racism

Another important aspect of nationalism is its link to racism.

During periods of crisis, governments almost always urge some form of scapegoating to divert people’s legitimate anger onto a weaker group. Mainstream politicians and the media often tell us that refugees and immigrants are responsible for our economic hardship, for the lack of jobs, and the decrease in wages and the standard of living.

In creating a divide between those considered part of the nation and those outside of it, nationalism encourages racist ideas which, in turn, can embolden the far right. It was Peter Dutton’s and Scott Morrison’s barrage of Islamophobic fearmongering that inspired the Christchurch massacre, for instance.

This is how nationalism divides workers against one another, both on a global scale as well as nationally.

However, a worker in Australia actually has much more in common with a worker in Indonesia or China, than either have with their respective ruling classes, owing to the fact that their material circumstances and position in society are the same. Often, in fact, they are employed by the same massive corporation.

The director of the award-winning South Korean film Parasite told an interviewer that, when he was making the film, his intention was to express what he thought was a distinctly Korean sentiment. But the film’s themes about class inequality have proved universal.

When the film started screening, he said, all the responses from different audiences made him realise that, essentially, we all live in the same country called capitalism.

This is why socialists are internationalists. Now, more than ever in history, capitalism is a global system. It follows therefore that the fight against it must also be global in nature.

The primary purpose of nationalism is to make workers identify with their rulers rather than other members of their class.

It is true we are seeing a rise in the far right and an intensification of racist ideas around the world. But in the past year we’ve also seen a wave of global revolt and international solidarity from Sudan to Hong Kong, Iran and Iraq.

Despite the barrage of nationalist propaganda, workers can and do recognise that they truly “have no country”, as Marx wrote in 1848. When workers engage in class struggles they often reject racist and nationalist ideas. But the degree to which this happens depends upon the level of collective struggle in society, and also the degree to which socialists are willing and capable of taking up the issue.

As socialists we must oppose racism and nationalist ideas, not just on a moral basis, but also because we understand the role they play in dividing the working class against one another, when the crosshairs should in fact be aimed at our rulers.


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