Protesters rally at Düsseldorf Airport on September 12, 2017, against the German government's decision to deport migrants who have been denied asylum. The sign reads: 'Against deportation'. Photo: Reuters / Wolfgang Rattay

Significant electoral gains made by various nationalist and far-right parties across Europe and electoral success as well as rising support for US President Donald Trump’s “America first” policies have been results of reactions against crises stemming from uncontrolled migration and financial processes associated with globalization, which brought with it a perceived sense of a dilution of national identity.

Even though Marine Le Pen lost the French presidential election to Emmanuel Macron in May 2017, her efforts at making the far-right National Front more acceptable as an alternative could not be ignored. Le Pen is known for her opposition to the European Union and the euro and for placing the blame on Brussels for mass immigration. Similarly, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has not only been a staunch advocate of “defending” Hungary and Europe against Muslim immigrants but raised a specter of “a Europe with a mixed population and no sense of identity.”

In Germany as well as Austria, the migrant crisis has been the key campaign item determining the electoral success of political leaders. The tough immigration rules in Denmark underline the popularity of the right-wing Danish People’s Party. Within the EU, employment concerns and migration overflows have been the key elements in engendering support for Brexit.

It is apparent that a steady rise of cultural nationalism has been witnessed in various parts of the globe as states increasingly resort to religious and cultural precepts to defend themselves from perceived external threats. In the Middle East, while Arab regimes remained concerned with their survival after uprisings on the one hand, regional powers were witnessed accentuating sectarian differences in their quest for regional hegemony on the other. Securitization of religious and ethnic identities by political leaders implying that their communities are under existential threat from certain identity groups is perceptible in many parts of the globe.

Identity politics obstructs and obfuscates rational debates on and explanations for the causes of economic inequalities and problems related to migration. Demands for equal rights in identity terms make them look like claims for something special.

The reasoning that globalization unleashes unifying and integrating forces has been disputed by several of its disintegrating features, which in turn solidifies national identities. While the argument that increased modernization and interactions among people across nations unleashed by the forces of globalization would dampen the inclination among people to cling to their national, sub-national and ethnic identities seems to be flawed, the reasons people believe that membership in particular identity groups serves their purpose have attracted greater academic attention.

Modernity has not replaced tradition, as the latter enjoys mass appeal not only because it provides a sense of rootedness amidst economic, political and social changes, it has also scientific and rational elements (the core elements of modernity) within it

Modernity has not replaced tradition, as the latter enjoys mass appeal not only because it provides a sense of rootedness amidst economic, political and social changes, it has also scientific and rational elements (the core elements of modernity) within it.

Globalization implies an expansion of market economies under the supervision of global financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization and, at the same time, underlines the growth of political institutions beyond nation-states, as manifested in the evolution of the EU and universalization of human-rights norms. However, neither the political institutions nor human-rights norms have transgressed the nation-state system in reality.

Globalization seems to be an unfinished project given the complications involved in the process. While the more developed countries want free flow of capital, they wish to see more restrictions on the movement of labor. On the other hand, developing and underdeveloped countries wish to see their people getting employment in different parts of the globe given their small and underdeveloped economies but they do not favor free flow of capital lest their indigenous small-scale and handicraft industries get washed out.

Additionally, most of the developing economies perceive globalization as it has manifested itself, as of now, as Westernization and fear their culture being swamped by the Western culture and value system. The negative fallouts of globalization like increasing inequalities both in terms of unequal distribution of wealth and knowledge, displacement and migration and rise of consumerism remain unresolved and have pushed individuals to cling to their identities at various levels.

In this context, the Bhutanese attempt at redefining its development in terms of Gross National Happiness (GNH) can be justified in its defense against the anti-democratic and consumerist tendencies of globalization. In the US as well as Europe, there is a growing feeling among certain sections that many migrant communities are “job stealers” even though the globalizing economy not only opened up enormous opportunities for them in different sectors of the host states’ economy, they contributed to the strengthening of the economy of the host states as well.

There are cases of racial onslaughts in many countries. Forces of modernization and globalization have not prevented fringe groups of many countries from making attempts at redefining the nation by invoking history.

Contemporary liberal theories defend a thin version of nationalism on the ground that democracy, redistributive justice and welfare of people depend on a conception of national identity based on shared moral beliefs and commitments and that these ideals cannot be achieved at the global level. Liberal theorists argue that a shared identity is prerequisite for ensuring social solidarity that motivates citizens to make the sacrifices necessary not only for political participation but also for social redistribution. The sense of obligation that underwrites redistributive taxation derives from a strong sense of attachment to and identification with one’s fellow citizens and political community.

However, they fail to suggest how the concept of shared identity has to be realized on the ground. They also fail effectively to reconcile citizens’ freedoms with the universal notions of human rights, leading to de-politicization and naturalization of the nation-state system without diminishing the prospect of ethnic identities, religion, language and other cultural aspects (which were supposed to be relegated to the background with the advent of modernity) being invoked for ensuring human freedom. There is every possibility that the prescription for a thin version of shared identity would take a thicker form on the ground.

Although human rights have been incorporated into international declarations and conventions, turning individuals into subjects of international law like states, individuals and states enjoy different status within international law, as individuals are considered merely bearers of rights and not authors of law like states. Human-rights norms are negotiated and adopted by the governments of sovereign states, and the adjudication of human rights in the United Nations system does not allow individuals to appeal directly to an international court against their governments.

It is noteworthy that groups or associations at intermediate levels between individuals and states have no firm place in international law. Even the cultural minority rights of Article 27 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) from 1966 are not formulated as group rights, but as rights of individual persons to enjoy “in community with the other members of their group … their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”

Unresolved issues associated with the process of globalization have led the modern state to seize the universal language of enlightenment in its favor. The modern state has become the upholder of people’s rights, liberty and equality. However, the possibility of politicization of religious and ethnic identities has not diminished, as they can be tied to modern aspirations of human freedom. Elites who have influence over the modern state apparatuses can manipulate these primordial sentiments and make selective use of symbols and ethnic markers to promote their own socio-economic interests.

Elites who have influence over the modern state apparatuses can manipulate these primordial sentiments and make selective use of symbols and ethnic markers to promote their own socio-economic interests

The emotive and indigenous elements of identity propel the elites to use it as the basis of their rise to power and on the other hand, the influence that elites exercise over the decision-making process enables them to distribute welfare goods and influence identity groups in a desired way. As has been observed, uneven tendencies of globalization can lead to greater politicization of identities, thereby making it banal.

Recognizing the banality of identity politics, Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama – an American political scientist, political economist, and author (known for his book The End of History) – observes: “Nationalists tell the disaffected that they have always been core members of a great nation and that foreigners, immigrants, and elites have been conspiring to hold them down.” They say, “Your country is no longer your own and you are not respected in your own land.” Leaders with a cosmopolitan outlook, rather than building solidarity around large collectivities, begin to focus on ever-smaller groups that have found themselves marginalized in specific and unique ways.

Fukuyama suggests strengthening of the American national identity by a universal requirement for national service, underlining the idea that US citizenship demands commitment and sacrifice. He argues that a citizen could perform such service either by enlisting in the military or by working in a civilian role, including teaching in schools or working on publicly funded projects.

However, Fukuyama’s suggestion of imbibing the values of civic nationalism cannot be immune to the wave of cultural nationalism. It is only the recognition that the other person is a human being above all other identities that will help us understand the predicaments of the other.

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