In the puzzling rise of retro nationalism in an age of digital linking, a well-argued warning by Spain’s most famous philosopher is being ignored — again


ortega y gasset

The Revolt of the Masses (1929) — a warning about nationalism published between the  world wars to international acclaim — is being dusted off and read, but not widely enough

The anger of people who blame their country’s social problems on letting in too many outsiders — Brexiters and their nationalist counterparts worldwide — is not hard to understand. They have been led to think as they do by the facts available to them — a minute fraction of the internet’s bounty, despite its magical capacity for instantaneous dissemination.

Some far from obvious information that they might want to look at — if only to refine their arguments and positions — is in Jared Diamond’s panoptic Guns, Germs and Steel (1997). In that prizewinning book’s interdisciplinary explorations, drawing on the whole of human history, Diamond floats his hypothesis that the most successful civilisations evolved where geography allowed for the freest movement of people, ideas, agricultural innovations and technologies, and let rival cultures compete in material prosperity.

In an interview posted on the leading American (NIH) medical research website, he described his theory’s genesis:

 … [Y]ou asked about “Eureka” moments. There were actually two. The first occurred in 1990 when an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina was discussing with me why Europeans conquered Native Americans, and we started talking about agriculture. “Yes, there’s corn and maize and tomatoes and wheat and so on,” he said, “but an important consideration is that Europe has an east–west axis whereas the Americas run north–south, and that made it difficult for crops, as well as technology, to spread in the Americas.” A year or two later, when I was at the University of Utah preparing to give several Tanner lectures and had 2 or 3 days to kill, I thought to myself, “I need another lecture topic. Why not see if I could have some original insights into African history?” So I looked at a map of Africa, and it was, “My God, look at that map. Here is another continent with a north–south axis.”

In fact, slow north–south spreads are an issue not only in the New World, with Andean potatoes and llamas never reaching Mexico and Mexican turkeys never reaching Peru, but also in Africa, where the spread of cattle and sheep and goats from the Fertile Crescent was very slow, and where wheat and Mediterranean crops from the north never reached the south at all.

Not much of a leap from that train of thought is the insistence nearly a hundred years ago of Spain’s most famous philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), that successful nations are built not from nationalism and shutting out other people and cultures but by opening mental doors and windows to their influence.

In The Revolt of the Masses ( La rebelión de las masas ) — a protest against narrow, parochial thinking that has been finding new audiences lately, not least because so much of its criticism applies to the nationalist prejudices reshaping contemporary politics all over Europe and in the U.S. — Ortega spelt out risks of aggressive tribalism that are not obvious. He distinguished between nation-building (good) and isolationist, defensive nationalism (bad) in making an original, passionate case for a European federation, advancing a refreshing argument from first principles. That was decades before the European Union was born, only after his and other wise warnings were ignored and nationalism killed an estimated 60 million in a second world war started less than a decade after the first.

Hispanist contributors to the Wikipedia have corrected a crucial misconception in the entry about his Revolt — pointing out that the ‘masses’ to which Ortega was referring are not the poorer, uneducated citizens that critics of ‘populism’ have in mind today:

He does not … refer to specific social classes, as has been so commonly misunderstood in the English-speaking world. Ortega states that the mass-man could be from any social background, but his specific target is the bourgeois educated man, the señorito satisfecho (satisfied young man or Mr. Satisfied), the specialist who believes he has it all and extends the command he has of his subject to others, contemptuous of his ignorance in all of them.

If only the following short extracts from TROTM could be debated on mainstream television …

Blood, language, and common past are static principles … If the nation consisted in these and nothing more, [ the idea of nations ] would be something lying behind us, something with which we should have no concern. … England, France, Spain, Germany would never have been born… [ but ] … Whether we like it or not, human life is a constant preoccupation with the future … bringing something future into effect.

… The groups which … have been known as nations arrived about a century ago at their highest point of expansion. … They are now mere past accumulating all around Europe, weighing it down, imprisoning it.… What was before a nation open to all the winds of heaven, has turned into something provincial, an enclosed space.

Everyone sees the need for a new principle of life. But as always happens in similar crises — some people attempt to save the situation by an artificial intensification of the very principle which led to decay. This is the meaning of the ‘nationalist’ outburst of recent years. … On the very eve of their disappearance there is an intensification of frontiers — military and economic.

But all these nationalisms are so many blind alleys. Try to project one into the future and see what happens. There is no outlet that way. Nationalism is always an effort in a direction opposite to the one that creates nations. The former is exclusive in tendency, the latter inclusive. In periods of consolidation, nationalism has a positive value, and it is a lofty standard. But in Europe everything is more than consolidated [ in individual nations ] and nationalism is nothing more than a mania, a pretext to escape from the necessity of inventing something new, some great enterprise.

… Only the determination to construct a great nation from the group of peoples of the Continent would give new life to the pulses of Europe.