Hannah Arendt on nationalism and imperialism

Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1948/1968) describes how in the late 19th century nationalism was declining under the influence of capitalism and class consciousness but imperialism offered a resurgence of nationalism.  

At the close of the century the owning classes had become so dominant that it was almost ridiculous for a state employee to keep up the pretense of serving the nation. Division into classes left them outside the social body and forced them to form a clique of their own. In the colonial services they escaped the actual disintegration of the national body. In ruling foreign peoples in faraway countries, they could much better pretend to be heroic servants of the nation, “who by their services had glorified the British race,” than if they had stayed at home. The colonies were no longer simply “a vast system of outdoor relief for the upper classes” as James Mill could still describe them; they were to become the very backbone of British nationalism, which discovered in the domination of distant countries and the rule over strange peoples the only way to serve British, and nothing but British, interests. The services actually believed that “the peculiar genius of each nation shows itself nowhere more clearly than in their system of dealing with subject races.”

The truth was that only far from home could a citizen of England, Germany, or France be nothing but an Englishman or German or Frenchman. In his own country he was so entangled in economic interests or social loyalties that he felt closer to a member of his class in a foreign country than to a man of another class in his own. Expansion gave nationalism a new lease on life and therefore was accepted as an instrument of national politics. The members of the new colonial societies and imperialist leagues felt “far removed from the strife of parties,” and the farther away they moved the stronger their belief that they “represented only a national purpose.” This shows the desperate state of the European nations before imperialism, how fragile their institutions had become, how outdated their social system proved in the face of man’s growing capacity to produce. The means for preservation were desperate too, and in the end the remedy proved worse than the evil—which, incidentally, it did not cure.

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism . HMH Books. Kindle Edition.

War, of course, has a similar effect. A foreign “other” alleviates social class tensions within a nation.

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