Interview with Keith Hart on Nationalism

by Nika Dubrovsky

Keith Hart was the International Director of the Human Economy Programme, University of Pretoria and Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, Goldsmiths, University London. He is the author of many books on economic anthropology. He contributed the concept of an “informal economy” to development studies. From 2009 he helped found and run the Open Anthropology Cooperative, a global association eventually with 22,000 members. He has several blogs, and is active on Twitter and Facebook. ranks Keith Hart second only to the American Anthropological Association as an online influence on anthropologists.

Nika Dubrovsky interviewed Keith Hart in his Paris home during the summer of 2012. It was originally circulated in Russian and the English has been tidied up for the present purpose. Despite some of the obvious resonances with our world a decade later, we have resisted making it appear more prescient now than it already was.

Introduction: The 1960’s in the West and in the Soviet Bloc saw a significant decline in the strength of nationalism, and even of racism. The whites began to study with the blacks, Russians with Jews and the anti-colonial revolution won independence and greater equality for the subjects of European empires. It seems, at the beginning of 21st century that, the opposite trend is now taking over: nationalism is on the rise all over the world. Nika asked Keith to talk about nationalism and changing ideas of citizenship.

Nika: Half a century ago, it seemed that the horrors of World War 2 had vaccinated the world against nationalism. But today nationalism raises his head all over again.

Keith: Nationalism is an obvious response to economic decline. Did you know that the British introduced national passports only in 1920? Until then, anyone could come there to work and many became citizens. The British Empire was so confident in its power and ability to extract economic benefits from immigrants that no border barriers were needed. In America, this belief persists to this day.

Modern Englishmen can no longer pretend that they rule the world, although many are nostalgic for when they did. So now they build barriers to keep out those who wish to join them. Migrants usually add to the wealth of a country, but they are increasingly seen as a threat to the inhabitants. The economy of North America and Europe is on the verge of collapse. We want to hold onto a diminishing pile and have neither the time nor space for newcomers. For 500 years, the West has added what it takes from other countries to what it makes itself. Not long ago, the situation began to change. Countries such as China, Japan, Korea, India and Brazil, plus a number of other non-western countries have begun to challenge the monopoly of western industrial capitalism. But the West does not want to admit it and rather fantasizes that they still live in the world they conquered in the 19th century. I doubt if they will ever give up the assumption of world leadership without a fight.

Nika: It’s hard to admit that you live off poorer people elsewhere. Do you think that anti-immigration feeling is likely to grow in Europe?

Keith: Europeans reproduce too slowly and we grow old fast; that’s why we have to bring in immigrants to work hard for our pensions and then we hate them for it. We are likely to do the same that the Americans have already done. We will introduce four categories of inhabitants: the actual citizens with full rights and above all the right to exploit the other statuses; then the green card holders (foreigners who are permitted to work without political rights). Below these are the illegal immigrants who don’t have the right to work and prisoners who have no rights at all. These last two categories grow persistently.

Nika: Doesn’t building a genuinely democratic society depend on a citizen body dedicated to “liberty, equality and fraternity”?

Keith: Citizens were never the only population of a democracy. Slaves, foreigners, racial and ethnic minorities, women, children, the old and varieties of unfree labour never enjoyed full citizen’s rights. National capitalism – the attempt to control money, markets and accumulation through central bureaucracies in the interest of a citizen community — was launched in the mid-19th century and became the norm in the last century. Its apex came after 1945 in the West, the Soviet bloc and newly independent countries who came together in the United Nations. This is what is falling apart now as a result of the counter-revolution against the post-war settlement that we call ‘neoliberal globalization’. Nation-states join regional trade federations in order to combat ‘the markets’, but governments don’t have the power any more to protect their people from the predations of global corporations and finance. Who would have believed that the far right could aspire to national power in bastions of social democracy like the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries and France? The social principles of democracy have given way to a situation where everyone is trying to snatch a piece of a disappearing pot in full view and without shame.

Nika: Today, nationalism sometimes seems almost progressive in protecting local societies and cultures from the negative consequences of globalization in an ocean of financial crisis.

Keith: Nation-states are become more narrow-minded, while society is increasingly global. But we do not have a functioning world society yet and national societies are more familiar to hold onto. As a result, humanity is polarised between those who reject globalization and others who are committed to joining it. The world’s problems are ecological and economic in ways that no national government can control. Since we do not have world government, responsibility for mobilising some sort of response lies with international movements claiming to represent common interests. But the main social agents are transnational corporations whose interests are anything but non-partisan, even if they claim to be evolving an alternative system of ‘corporate social responsibility’. We need some form of supranational government, but globalization is increasingly chaotic. This is the main reason why nation-states are in decline, while encouraging opportunistic fascists to play the national card as an answer.

Nika: Nationalism could be understood as a particular definition of belonging, on drawing a line between those that belong to a community and those that don’t. How does nationalism manifest itself in different types of states?

Keith: Nationalism is a very peculiar phenomenon. It is the belief that we are one nation and that is why we need a national government. For instance, Israel and Czechoslovakia are nation-states, whereas countries such as Russia and U.S. are federations. China has a long history in this regard; the Chinese believe that they are the whole world; but the centre has been broken up several times.

Nika: Does the rise of the nationalism mean that the idea of multinational society is in decline?

Keith: That’s not entirely true. The world is vast and diverse. Let’s take Africa: in some countries, thereare from 15 to 20 different ethnic groups, some of them large enough to count as nations, and all have their own language. In many African countries, people are more likely to identify with a local group and its language than with the nation. Alternatively, look at India, Brazil, or Canada. These are all federations. They are not nation-states. For many years I have claimed that the United Kingdom is the most unstable major country in the world, with at least a dozen unresolved constitutional issues, any combination of which could destroy the country. So far, everything is still in its place. Nigeria is home to 1 in 6 Africans and its political organization is a mess – they even had a civil war. But so far, Nigeria remains intact.

Nika: How do we deal with national identity then? For most people, it is very important.

Keith: Nation-states are only recently with us, but they seem inevitable because they are an extremely robust social form. They combine five types of community closely intertwined: political, territorial, monetary, cultural identity and common interest in trade and war. We must never forget that most people like to keep what they have; only a few agitators would turn society upside down whenever possible. But then, for any number of reasons, the majority realise that they have lost or about to lose everything. Then they embrace radical change.

After the Second World War the British elected a radical socialist government. It took two terrible wars and the Great Depression for citizens to realize that they could not carry on living like that and needed to change something! We still enjoy some fruits of that choice, but these public assets are fast diminishing because we have handed political power to the rich, imagining that capitalism will restore what we lost with empire. Before long we will experience another major war. For now, most people are too comfortable with what they have gained since the last one. But things could change dramatically.

Nika: Would another war be even felt by the West? After WW2, we entered the nuclear age, when wars took place abroad and Western people saw them on television.

Keith: The United States has the geographical advantage and global military control to make sure that any future war will take place far from home, unless it is nuclear. The same could not be said for Europe which has already kicked off two world wars and could easily launch a third.

Nika: Do you think nationalism could be an ideological justification for the use of physical force?

Keith: Of course! Up to 40 percent of the US budget is spent by the Pentagon. It has to fight to justify its existence. And nationalism is the last hope for governments that are losing control over economic problems they created themselves. The fact that the European Union, NAFTA, the International Monetary Fund and others are organized clubs for bullies that have proven to be ineffective does not mean that international organizations are unneeded. It means only that they should be organized differently. These structures were a response to real challenges. We just need to keep on trying and eventually we will form structures that can respond adequately to the challenges that humanity faces today.

Nika: What does national identity mean to you?

Keith: I was teaching in Jamaica in the 1980s and a student told me that “you British got rich by exploiting our ancestors.” I replied that I am not English, I’m from Manchester and my ancestors contributed far more to capital accumulation than his did. Race and class – it just runs and runs. On the other hand, I am willing to be called British, since my family came not long ago from Northern Ireland, a surviving racist theocracy. I am proud of my country, in particular of the fact that we stood up to Hitler’s Germany, even if it is a myth. I was born when their planes were blowing us to pieces. We lived in the ruins until the late 1950s. The British have lost a lot of pride since.

Edited by KH, April 2022