The Role of Nationalism in the Anthropocene. A Conversation with Dr. Eglė Rindzevičiūtė

February 20, 2018
Author Neringa Černiauskaitė
Published in Detour
Living Machine at the Findhorn Ecovillage, Scotland.

Living Machine at the Findhorn Ecovillage, Scotland.

Eglė Rindzevičiūtė has a PhD in cultural studies, and teaches sociology at Kingston University near London. In 2008, Linköping University Press published her book Constructing Soviet Cultural Policy: Cybernetics and Governance in Lithuania after World War II. Along with Jenny Andersson, she edited The Struggle for the Long Term in Transnational Science and Politics: Forging the Future (Routledge, 2015). In 2016, Cornell University Press brought out her latest book The Power of Systems: How Policy Sciences Opened Up the Cold War World. In this interview, we discuss the meaning and actuality of the term nationalism in the complex and dynamic Anthropocene epoch.

In a video interview for the platform The Deep Splash, you stated that the idea of ‘a nation’ is dated and even dangerous, because it creates a false sense of control and security. Could you please elaborate on why ‘time is up’ for the term ‘nation’? Is it a result of economic and cultural globalisation, or are there other reasons? 

To begin with, what is considered to be ‘a nation’? There are many different concepts: some emphasise the cultural and genealogical content of the term, others emphasise political values, loyalty to a political community, and participation in the creation of a better future. The first term determining the idea of ‘nation’ is seen as conservative: communities that tend not to be open to ‘aliens’; while the second one is more liberal, and open to anybody who might like to join their ‘political project’. [1] The difference between them is obviously abstract and theoretical. History and life have clearly shown us that even a liberal understanding of the term ‘nation’ is full of cultural meanings, and integration into it is not necessarily easy or obvious.

Why do so many people hold on so hard to their national identity? What does the understanding of oneself as Lithuanian, British or Swedish, etc, really give a person? One hypothesis claims that the collective understanding of identity for an individual works as a resource of meaning, and helps to answer existential questions, such as: Is there a meaning to my existence? Am I leading a good and successful life? Why is it not working for me? The story of a nation provides some powerful answers to these questions, and so then the individual can state confidently: Yes, imperfect as it is, my biological existence is valuable, because I’m special, ‘a member of the old Lithuanian nation’. It works for me because I fight, just as courageously as Vytautas fought against the Teutonic Order. Obviously, I lead a humble and difficult life, because for centuries my country has been plundered by foreigners and devastated by communists. We’re stuck between the East and the West, and exploited by Scandinavian banks. In these cases, national narratives play a very important semiotic-psychological role. But that’s a culturally specific resource. In other countries such as Great Britain, the success or lack of success of an individual is explained in terms of social class.

I personally believe that both national and social narratives are relics of political projects and practices from the past, which are becoming more and more defunct. It doesn’t seem to me that these narratives help people in any way to understand and improve current changes in the world’s structures. The only reason we exist as biological and social individuals is because of modern institutions, such as medicine, education, the police, etc. These institutions are a result of all our daily work, and not because we’re some chimeric nation coming from the deep past, moving towards a faraway future. [2]

Most of the time, a lot of discourses that appeal to nationality as such try to hide institutional problems, offering destructive solutions to extreme cases, such as Brexit, and the reforms in Poland and Hungary, not to mention Russia. From a historical point of view, a nation was never a useful concept for an individual: nationality is an instrument of control, which is paradoxically presented as a tool for power and control, i.e. an illusion is encouraged, stating that an individual can somehow affect collective ‘nation-wide’ decisions, and make use of semantic resources for their own decision-making. But to allow yourself to be guided by nationalist categories today, in these times, means to euphemise reality, ignoring and hiding from severe and complex problems, such as corruption, social inequality, climate change, and an open and uncontrolled future.

Benedict Anderson says nationalism is equal to a form of representation: the nation points to an imaginary/fictional community, which was shaped mostly by the invention of printing technology. What’s your opinion of the influence of today’s information technologies in terms of the disappearance or the exaltation of the term ‘nation’?

You’re totally right there: the media works through images and the diffusion of narration; therefore, it’s an extremely important resource for the collective identity. Anderson wrote about the roots of nationalism, when the diffusion of the media was marked out territorially, and was used as a tool for integrating the population of a certain territory. [3] Today’s media is far more pluralist, and its social influence is much more difficult to evaluate. The media landscape is utterly complex; on the other hand, according to media pundits, people still shape their thinking in relation to their friends and acquaintances. The media works as a sort social ‘echo chamber’, and it knows this perfectly well, so it picks out echoes of those meanings and amplifies them. Information technologies work outside the realms of society, they’re an organic part of both society and its individual parts. Therefore, the linear control and distribution model of meanings/semantic model won’t help us to understand better the way the media affects people. For example, an exaggerated discourse on national patriotism and its secularisation can easily put off a lot of genuinely patriotic people, as it happened during the Crimean crisis, when the news portal Delfi put out dozens of scaremongering articles soaked in extreme nationalism. A lot of readers, and even journalist themselves, chose 15 min insteadOn the other hand, Anderson analysed only the visible, public side of the media. Meanwhile, information technologies allow multiple parallel communities to emerge, which, although working in the background, push people towards a more radical path, such as white supremacy, radical nationalism, or Islamic fundamentalism.

Despite the so-called 3.0 era of globalisation, for the last few years we’ve been witnessing the rise of nationalism far more than its decline, not only in Western countries, but also in other parts of the world. Is this nationalism provoked by uncertainty about the future (and the present too), about which you also spoke in your interview for The Deep Splash? 

You could say so. It’s also worth going back to Benedict Anderson, who suggested that the emergence of racist ideologies had to do with economic decline, during which white lower-middle-class Europeans, mostly from the Netherlands or the United Kingdom, didn’t see a chance for social mobility in their own countries, and moved to the colonies, where they tried to improve their social status through white supremacy. If the world’s views are based on constant economic growth, economic values automatically make a society vulnerable. People live longer. If in pre-industrial society a family’s main concern was trying to keep at least a couple of their many children alive, so that they would care for them when they grew old, despite the fact that they wouldn’t even live very long, now citizens of ‘advanced’ countries have to take care not only of their senescence, but also the future well-being of their children and grandchildren.

In the past, this intergenerational concern was only the privilege of the elite. Now everybody has to take care of their own future. But economic models ‘see no future’. [4] Thirty years from now, a thousand of today’s euros will have zero value if it is not invested. Most Europeans don’t own any property that could be considered ‘capital’; the house in which you live is not real capital. But there’s a common idea lingering in society that every single individual has to think and plan his and the next generation’s future as a capitalist. Most of them give in to panic.

In this context, culturally and politically dense and obfuscating ideas, such as race and nation, allow people to run away from a vision (and non-control) of an economic future to a national vision of the future, naively believing that an individual’s well-being will somehow be assured concerning their biological status, i.e. being part of a ‘nation’ or a ‘race’. You don’t need to be a ‘Lithuanian’ or ‘white’ just to survive biologically. The question as to what the quality of this ‘subsistence life’ is becomes secondary. According to Timothy Morton, the main aim of an agrological society is to survive, not to achieve quality of life. [5] Perhaps Morton’s argument wouldn’t hold up against historical criticism, but in my view he depicts very well the present feeling towards the hierarchy of quality of life. So, I would say, the rise of ideas of extreme nationalism tends to be provoked by bad coincidences, visions of future economic growth, and the reality of slowing economic development.

Talking about the future(s), it seems that the precarious ideas of the new populism imply no discussions of the future; instead, it looks back to a (fake) ‘great’ past. We can see this happening in the USA, the UK, Russia. How would you explain this paradox? 

The future depends on several factors. One fact which societies are most used to is that the future is organically and structurally connected to the past. Supposedly, with present actions, people can assure a selective experience of the past in the future: institutions, values, things, landscapes, language. Despite all this, during a person’s biological life, it takes a while to realise what this so-called ‘past’ is: basically, the history of their family, their country, and mankind. The societies of the Western world are ageing quite quickly, so the general orientation towards the past is growing, at least for now. It should not be forgotten that the previous generation is a war and postwar generation, who survived an extremely traumatic period both in Eastern and Western Europe. It was a generation that grew up at the dawn of feminism, anti-colonialism and emancipation, but none of these movements were mainstream back then. The values of that generation are quite conservative. In thirty years’ time, older people will have completely different values. The past is used as a blueprint for the future by a certain generation’s cohort, which is growing, and will keep on growing, even though its values will always be changing. Meanwhile, a disruptive, radically innovative future evolves from the chaos of multiple activities. Anything can happen. Chaos is both disruptive and creative. That’s the sort of heteroglossia of the future that the younger generation are living through.

On the other hand, being oriented towards the past is a sort of escapism from current issues. Global climate change and the need for a reevaluation of basic values, rethinking the boundaries of human activity and responsibility in relation to the planet’s own processes, raise essentially new questions and push institutions and individuals away from their usual way of thinking and operating. What will we do with radioactive waste? What will happen to the heavy metals and asbestos temporarily buried in simple waste cemeteries? How do you justify animal farms? How will the reach of most modern medical treatments be organised when the pay gap is widening every day?

Institutions would rather stick to solving old problems, instead of looking for ways to articulate and solve new problems. This short-term and non-systematic approach is dangerous and destructive. I think that is the main thing I wanted to say: that the orientation towards ‘nationalism’ is a symptom of being unable or too lazy to solve new, real problems, like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand.

Another interesting, exalting tendency of the present is the growth of megapolises, and the gap between the centre and the periphery. This was mostly evident in the results of recent elections, Brexit, and the Austrian, US and French presidential elections, when the inhabitants of big cities voted for more liberal, cosmopolitan candidates, whereas in the regions, where people earn less and have a lower level of education, people chose to vote for conservative, reactionary and often openly racist candidates. After Brexit, people started half-jokingly, half-seriously, talking about London’s separation from the United Kingdom. From a completely speculative point of view, is there a chance for cities, not ‘national’ countries, to become an alternative to the new system? What are your thoughts on the future of ‘nationalism’? 

Yes, the results of Brexit baffled a lot of people, but not everybody. According to the result, voters for Brexit came not only from the provinces, but also from a large part of the educated middle-class. [6] In London, even in wealthy districts such as Kingston, Brexit received 38 per cent of the vote. That’s quite a figure. I was in Singapore when the Brexit referendum was held. In the bubbling economic centre of southeast Asia, the events in Britain seemed like a complete anachronism. Local people found it incredibly difficult to understand what was going on in Europe. Ironically, it was suggested Britain follow Singapore’s example, and adopt an economy that is open to global processes, and is also based on high immigration. Today, a little more than half the world’s population lives in cities, and it is said that by 2050 only 34 per cent of people will live in the countryside. Still, it’s really difficult to make any kind of prognosis on the political effects of urbanisation. It should not be forgotten that nationalism as a political ideology was invented by the bourgeois intelligentsia. I haven’t lived in Lithuania for about twenty years. While living abroad, I translated a very interesting study by Egidijus Aleksandravičius called Karklo diegas: Lietuvių pasaulio istorija (2013). In his book, he tries to cover the universal realm of Lithuanian migration, looking for a mechanism that shapes the meaning of national identity. Ironically, in looking for traces of the Lithuanian identity, from Brasil to Chicago, he proves that it’s not a national idea, but the processes of globalisation, from the meat industry to mining, that shapes individual destinies.

Looking at it from a long-term and global perspective, the personal choice of migration is not so much a free choice as a function of global economic structures. At the dawn of the nationalist era, the power of nationalistic ideology lay in the ability to offer the illusion of individual freedom, where all people would be equal as citizens, not as members of a certain social class or estate. I doubt whether today’s cultural and political metropolitan economy offers a similar kind of freedom, because nowhere else are social differences as evident as in the city. Maybe the real project of political emancipation is in a global and systematic mentality, in an anthropocenic vision of the world, in which we’re obliged to rethink our everyday activities.

[1] Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism and Modernism (London: Routledge, 1998), Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), Yale Tamir, Liberal Nationalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[2] Barbara Czarniawska, ‘Emerging Institutions: Pyramids or Anthills?’ Organization Studies, 30, no. 4 (2009), 423–441.

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

[4] Jens Beckert, Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[5] Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

[6] Will Davies, ‘Thoughts on the Sociology of Brexit’ (24 June 2016),