Challenging intolerance does involve a political economy of justice. But it must also provide an affective alternative.
Democracies around the world are turning away from liberalism to ethnonationalism for security against the upheavals of an open society. In the last decade alone, majorities in the United States, Britain, Brazil, India, Poland, Hungary, Italy and Turkey have voted for nationalist parties decrying elites, migrants, minorities, liberals, experts, professionals and cosmopolitans as the enemies of a prosperous and cohesive society. Heroically and without much evidence, these targets are blamed for corrupting the democratic process, sacrificing the economy, destroying national identity and betraying the interests of a historic ‘people’.
This is a dangerous and punitive shift in political culture, with strong echoes of the aversions that culminated in the victories of fascism and Nazism a century ago. The seismic proposition is that liberalism has failed and that a strongarm state is needed, ready to suppress dissent and constitutional legacies, tighten the boundaries of the nation, promote indigenous interests and communicate directly with the people. The precepts, protagonists and beneficiaries of liberalism must be sacrificed to revive national order and wellbeing, so the nativist narrative goes, with worryingly widespread popular and media consent.
Loss of progressive verve
This is partly because of the absence of liberal thinking able to convince the ‘left behind’ that their interests will not be best served by the strongarm state, sequestered behind boundaries. If anything, the slim victories of social-democratic parties in recent years have the ring of liberalism surviving by virtue of just sufficient electoral fear of the consequences of xenophobic nationalism—not out of conviction that a pluralist, open and democratic society is the source of prosperity and wellbeing. It is ironic that the steady spread of progressive social attitudes, especially among younger and urban populations, towards consumption, conservation and personal, sexual and cultural liberty, has not strengthened support for liberal democracy.
This disjunction may be due to a sense that liberal democracy in its least protective forms has betrayed the material interests, sense of place and voice of ‘ordinary’ citizens. But progressive parties—liberal or social-democratic—also seem to have lost their verve, pushed by nativist populism towards a drawbridge politics of selective welfare, populist appeasement and border closure to secure electoral survival.
They have not responded to the nationalist turn by developing a clear and compelling narrative of the ‘good society’, premised on the reinforcements of cosmopolitan engagement, generalised wellbeing and democratic expansion. They have not presented a vision of what it means to belong, beyond the strictures of a closed nation and historical community. In the gap, nativism has managed to insert nationalism and old-country traditions into the heart of popular understanding of what the good society is.
Disarming nativism will require more than underwriting the material and existential security of left-behind people and places: the politics of nation have an important affective dimension. Undoubtedly, a political economy of social and spatial justice—regulating markets and ensuring fiscal fairness, regenerating distressed cities and regions, spreading decent, secure and well-paid employment, reducing wealth and ownership disparities and tackling multiple deprivations—will help to dampen the discontent feeding nativism. Yet the dividing lines it emotively draws are about community, belonging and voice, and popular perceptions of just deserts.
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This is amply evident in the ‘identity wars’ at the centre of ‘America first’ and similar British campaigns, in Hungarian and Polish pushback against European Union liberalism in purported defence of national autonomy and cultural heritage or in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s projection of India’s prosperity and security as reviving Hindutva traditions supposedly threatened by Islam and secular pluralism. Popular senses of prosperity and wellbeing have become closely harnessed to sentiments of ‘imagined community’, exactly as conceptualised by Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner and Michael Billig exploring resurgences of nationalism in earlier times.
The challenge for any anti-nativist politics is to articulate a vision of belonging with sufficient appeal to shift a public reflex of aversion in the face of discontent and insecurity towards one of convivial coexistence and common effort. Building on relational ideas of belonging premised on the encounter, such as those of Judith Butler and Marilyn Strathern, my new book, After Nativism, argues that there is ample material for a new imaginary of belonging available from everyday urban negotiations of difference.
These negotiations propose the nation as an open relation and not a closed community—the de facto site of multiple and shifting geographies of encounter and affiliation. For most people in modern democracies—pace nativist proclamations—these geographies turn out to be transnational, plural and evolving, as well as lived negotiations of distance and difference stemming from long global histories of migration, colonialism, travel and consumption.
The encounters are never only convivial but, consciously or otherwise, they are negotiated in various affective registers. An idea of nation as contiguous difference could be projected from these geographies, presenting belonging as the challenge of building shared senses of place, common purpose and collaborative engagement amid constitutive pluralities. Many everyday cultural crossings could be foregrounded as the measure of community and its cohesion, against nationalist mythologies of the homogeneous and autarchic nation. This is the first of three arguments for a new politics of belonging in the book, drawing on evidence from European cities and slums in Delhi.
Strengthening the public sphere
The second relates to strengthening the public sphere as a space of ‘common practice with others’, to cite Isabelle Stengers, so that the polyphony of voice, opinion and conduct unleashed by the ‘social media’ revolution can be nudged towards the common. Nativism, with its derision of foreigners, experts, elites, professional politicians and bureaucracies, thrives on the fiction of direct communion between the people and their avatars, sustained by digital platforms inflating small communities and fringe concerns, amplifying parallel worlds of opinion and making fringe groups feel connected, empowered and politically significant.
The public sphere has become unruly and fragmented. It does not, and cannot, exist as the arena in which democracy is enhanced through checks and balances between delegated institutions and a civic-minded citizenry, as envisaged by its pioneering thinkers from Walter Lippman to Jürgen Habermas. Yet it remains all-powerful and influential, key to politics in the hyper-expressive society and an important site of belonging based on the multitude of claims coursing through it. After Nativism suggests that a progressive endeavour would be to reinforce one of its forgotten dimensions, named by Anders Ekstrom as a spirit of publicness oriented towards the common interest.
Backed by strong reforms to curb the power and influence of platform providers as well as outlaw violent and hateful speech, the public sphere could be rebuilt as a meeting place where multiple forms of expertise and intelligence—professional and lay, expert and experiential—come together to address matters of common concern. The collaborations struck among professionals, communities, experts and decision-makers during the pandemic are a good example, as are experiments of living with or mitigating the climate crisis through collaborations across spatial and epistemic boundaries. A reinforced culture of publicness would begin to neutralise the war of small worlds and corruptions of democratic debate on which nativism thrives.
An art of border crossing
The book’s third line of argument, sensitive to the close connections between myths of nation and sentiments of belonging, is to propose a ‘minor’ aesthetics of imagined community. Nativism’s strength derives from a raw imagery of good insiders and bad outsiders, homely pasts and scary futures, and secure traditions and disruptive invasions, making the indigenous population feel betrayed but entitled. Its resurgence has been greatly facilitated by a powerful archive of sounds and images of homely nation, proud tradition, secure borders and sovereign citizens. Its opponents find themselves on the back foot, unable to muster popular support for the nation of liberal freedoms, democracy and the law, modernity and cosmopolitanism.
Sceptical of the chances of such a counter-aesthetics as well as one of civic or moral patriotism, the book leans towards an art of border crossings of all kinds making life and community. The politics of a contiguous plural nation could seek to enchant the archive of affirmative practices of coexistence, past and present, that expose the flimsiness of an aesthetics of national purity and isolation.
Pursued as a dissident venture with exactly the same indignation as the nativist cause, this could sponsor diverse art forms affectively amplifying the practices of convivial coexistence, fugitive cohabitation and compassionate susceptibility that exist among strangers. It could support the shared infrastructural, natural and social commons that enables collective survival and the chains of connection across national, social and ecological boundaries whose severance weakens that stock of resources, wherever located.
As in past periods of radical cause against the grain, when nascent claims for gender, sexual, racial and labour equality developed art forms that moved hearts and minds, the cause for the open nation could do the same instead of tiredly repeating the nostra of liberal democracy. There are lessons to be learned from the world environmental campaign’s efforts to mount a media aesthetic, which has managed to turn public opinion and sentiment.
After Nativism suggests the beginnings of an urgently needed response to a violent democracy unfolding before our eyes. The propositions are debatable and in need of practical articulation, and there may be other ways of disarming nativist nationalism. Its intention is to encourage discussion of a new aesthetics of imagined community, able to channel the social furies and displacements of our times away from nativist regressions riddled with animosity towards the stranger and democracy itself. There is a lot to be lost—but also gained—in the battle between imaginaries of community, so far stacked in favour of the illiberal and xenophobic nation.
Ash Amin is professor emeritus of geography at the University of Cambridge and author of numerous works, including with Nigel Thrift, on the city. His most recent book is After Nativism: Belonging in an Age of Intolerance (Polity Press).