Nationalism and Political Philosophy

Margaret Moore. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

Prior to 1989, political philosophy largely ignored issues connected with nationalism. Liberals and socialists were primarily interested in issues connected to the production and distribution of economic goods. Socialists argued against the private ownership of the economic resources of society, while liberals accepted private ownership principally as a means to the creation of wealth, which, they argued, could then be subject to some redistribution by the state. Liberals argued that it was possible to justify certain kinds of inequalities, either on the basis of desert, or as a necessary component to the efficient organization of society. Those of a more egalitarian bent, by contrast, argued that inequalities of income and wealth, and the class divisions to which they gave rise, were unjustifiable. In spite of these differences, both types of theories agreed that the fundamental hierarchy was class, and the fundamental questions of social justice revolved around the appropriate modes of producing and distributing goods.

Since 1989, there has been a different type of challenge to the contemporary unequal order, variously called ‘the politics of difference,’ ‘the politics of identity,’ ‘the politics of recognition’ or multiculturalism. Theorists classified under this rubric challenge the status hierarchies of contemporary Western societies—hierarchies of sexual orientation, race, gender, national or ethnic identity. They tend to question the ways in which contemporary liberal-democratic societies privilege one group over another, the ways in which one group’s experiences are deemed ‘normal,’ and therefore as the benchmark according to which state expectations, practices and policies are measured.

The philosophical treatment of national identity and nationalism is closely related to this general critique of status hierarchies. At one level, of course, the increased discussion and debate in political philosophy after 1989 can be directly related to the collapse of communism, and the emergence of secessionist struggles and explicit national consciousness throughout the former communist bloc. On this view, philosophical debate about nationalism was a response to developments in the political arena. However, in addition, the arguments that minority nationalists deployed against the state were on all fours with other theories in the multicultural camp, and can be viewed as part of a general concern with the distribution of non-economic goods in society. Minority nationalists’ main argument against the contemporary state focused on the fact that they were disadvantaged and marginalized by the (state’s) nation-building policies, which tend to privilege the majority national community on the territory. In this respect, they pose a challenge to the status hierarchy of their societies, and in particular to the way in which the state is infected by the norms and culture of the privileged (usually, majority) national community on the territory.

Theorists interested in ‘identity politics’ or the ‘politics of recognition’ are struggling for equality or equal treatment, but this is mainly pursued not through the acquisition of economic resources, but by challenging the assumptions, practices and rules in societies that tend to reinforce these hierarchies. Despite the temptation either to prioritize or reduce class hierarchies to status hierarchies, or vice versa, it is now generally accepted that the two types of hierarchies operate along different dimensions, and not only do not overlap fully but sometimes cut across one another, or even possibly undermine each other. Although women as a whole, for example, do worse than men as a whole, some women do much better than some men; yet a woman may still face some discrimination or disadvantage that her similarly situated male counterparts do not. In some cases, such as that of homosexual men, the group as a whole may be better off in economic terms than heterosexual men as a group, but are worse off in the sense that the rules and practices of the society rest on the assumption of heterosexuality Homosexual people are still subject to general disapprobation and discrimination in society, and are legally barred from marrying, adopting and other practices open to their heterosexual counterparts in most jurisdictions.

Political philosophers dealing with national identity have mainly focused on the questions of what, morally, one should think of national identities and claims to institutional recognition of this identity, either in the form of exemptions to state-wide rules and practices, or a right to secede from the state. This chapter will disaggregate the question of the value of the identity from the questions about the appropriate forms that institutional recognition of the identity might take.

The question of what one should think about national identities raises the question of the normative status of identity in general, and national identity in particular. Those who think that there is little value in nations or national identities tend to make the point that merely having an identity of a particular type does not constitute a moral argument for institutionalizing it in the state, and they therefore respond negatively to the issue of institutional recognition.

Those who argue for the institutional recognition of national identity, by contrast, tend to make the point that national identity is not withering away under the glare of globalizing capitalism, but it is a force to be reckoned with. From this empirical claim, they then tend to raise concerns about the extent to which state policies and practices marginalize or disadvantage members of a minority nation. This can take two forms: the first is for fair treatment by the state, or fair inclusion in the state, and raises concerns about the legitimate limits of the state’s nation-building on behalf of the (majority) national community. The second is the claim that nations have a right to self-determination or right to secession. This is frequently raised also in the context of fairness, with the point that the current, over-holding state is identified with a particular national group, and the only fair remedy for the disadvantage that national minorities experience is to have a state of their own. Unfairness is usually associated with the particular policies and practices of the state, but sometimes it is also claimed that, under the current arrangements, some groups are permitted to be collectively self-determining while other, structurally similar groups are not.

To some extent, then, these two aspirations to institutional recognition are tied to the two projects that characterize nationalist mobilizations. Nationalists typically have both a nation-building project, by which I mean policies aimed at facilitating the creation of a common national identity, and a national self-determination project, by which I mean a political project aimed at securing increased political autonomy or independent statehood for national minorities. Minority nationalists (members of nations without states) tend to seek increased political autonomy (the second project) and majority nationalists (nations with states) tend to be more concerned with how the political authority should exercise its powers and authority (the first project). The two projects are, to some extent, complementary in so far as political autonomy is necessary to the implementation of a nation-building project. They are also, of course, potentially conflicting, as when the majority nation seeks to extend its nation-building agenda to a minority national group within its borders.

This chapter will discuss the three main debates in political philosophy generated by this new attention to nationalism. The first section deals with the philosophical debate about the value of national identities. The second section deals with legitimate forms of nation-building. Here the central question is whether, and how, the state can create a unified body politic without demeaning or discriminating against certain people within the community—people from a different ethnic or religious community, for example. The third section deals with the aspirations for collective self-determination that are felt by territorially concentrated minority national communities who are encapsulated within a state territory, those nations who do not have states. There has recently been a great deal of work on the ethics of secession, which primarily concerns the conditions under which a national group can justifiably secede to form its own state, although of course self-determination can occur within a state context.

Is National Identity an Acceptable form of Identity?

One recent debate in the philosophical literature on nationalism centres on the question of whether any value should attach to nations, or to the sentiment that people sometimes feel that nations, or their nation, are an important source of value. in the immediate post-war period, nationalism was inextricably linked with the aggressive expansionism and racism of Nazi Germany. Nationalism was regarded almost universally in negative terms, which progressive people should eschew, where possible, in favour of more universalist, cosmopolitan sentiments. In cases where cosmopolitanism was not an option, the idea was that nationalism was bad, but that patriotism, or fidelity to constitutional principles, was acceptable.

Since that time, and especially following the demise of communism, the kind of nationalism that has been defended has been principally minority nationalism, which is justified in defending itself against the homogenizing expansionism of American capitalism and statist coercion. The ‘nation’ is not conceived in racist or strictly ethnic terms by its defenders; rather, it is defined in relatively neutral terms as ‘a community (1) constituted by shared beliefs and mutual commitments, (2) extended in history, (3) active in character, (4) connected to a particular territory, and (5) marked off from other communities by its distinct public culture’ (Miller 1995: 27).

Two recent lines of argument have been developed that suggest that value attaches to national communities. Interestingly, neither argument suggests that the value is inherent nor indeed that the sentiment ought to be cultivated in the virtuous person. The question is not the existential question of what constitutes a valuable way of life, or whether nationalism is a sentiment that one ought to cultivate as a component of ‘the good life.’ Rather, the attachment that many people feel to their particular nation is viewed as an empirical ‘given’ and the question is how that attachment and that sense of value should be viewed by others.

Drawing on the central ideas of the liberal-communitarian debate, Miller has argued that the nation is a political instantiation of the idea of the community, which unites individuals by a common identity and conception of value. Like more conventional communitarians, Miller emphasizes liberalism’s reliance on communitarian ideas of territory and membership. Specifically, he argues that liberal theories of (redistributive) justice, as a matter of empirical fact, will need the social cement of nationality, so that people are prepared to contribute to their society and have the requisite trust to engage in redistributive practices. In some respects, his argument here echoes J. S. Mill’s argument in Considerations on Representative Government that democracy can only flourish where there is a shared national identity. According to Mill, ‘Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion necessary to the workings of government, cannot exist’ (Mill 1993 [1861]: 394). Although Miller discusses the ‘good’ of democratic governance, his main emphasis is on social justice and the role that shared national identity (in Mill’s terms, ‘fellow-feeling’) plays in facilitating it.

Miller’s mainly instrumental argument has been criticized on the grounds that its view of human motivation is too unidimensional. Liberal commitments can be defended in terms of reasoned commitment to social justice, and do not require an emotional commitment to a particular national community. Critics have pointed out that many people are prepared to redistribute as citizens of the world (Jones 1999). An opposite line of criticism accepts Miller’s empirical claim that, in fact, human motivation is limited, but argues that liberal justice should be understood as a corrective to limited altruism or suspect motivations, not grounded in it (Weinstock 1996: 87-100). in fact, however, Miller’s mainly instrumental argument extends the familiar liberal idea of the ‘burdens of commitment,’ by which is meant the idea that liberal justice shouldn’t be so burdensome that it would presuppose altruistic or angelic motivations. Miller would deny that this idea is undermined by empirical examples of deviation; indeed, he would probably admit that there are both cosmopolitan universalists and people who hate their own national community. The question he poses is whether liberal redistributive practices are supported or undermined by these relations of trust and identity. The empirical evidence supporting Miller’s claim that shared ties of national identity facilitate social justice is unclear, at best. If we think broadly and comparatively about societies that have strongly felt national identities and try to correlate this with levels of redistribution, it is not at all clear that there is any evidence for this proposition, or, at least, that it is certainly not apparent that any relationship between the two is straightforward. On the other hand, Miller’s argument has a certain ring of plausibility and may be defensible in a weakened form. For example, there is some evidence that, when there is no shared identity, as in the case of British sentiments towards Northern Irishmen from the late 1960s, there will be a general desire to dissociate from the territory, in legal, juridical, territorial and public policy terms (Moore 2001: 82-4). This suggests that the instrumental nationalist argument cannot be dismissed, that, where there is a persistent feeling of non-shared identity and substantial one-way redistribution—that is, the relationship cannot be argued for in reciprocal terms, as mutually beneficial—the long-term continuation of a redistributive practice may be in jeopardy, for the political will is not there to discharge these obligations in the long term.

A second line of argument deployed by minority nationalists, in defence of national communities, involves linking national identity with both personal autonomy and cultural communities. This is the most common argument deployed by liberal nationalists to reconcile liberalism with (non-aggressive) nationalism. This argument works by stressing the close relation of liberalism with the idea of personal autonomy and then examining the conditions under which individuals can be said to be autonomous. A central move in this argument is the claim that culture provides the context from which individuals’ choices about how to live one’s life can be made. According to Kymlicka (1995: 8), ‘individual choice is dependent on the presence of a societal culture, defined by language and history.’ Miller (1995: 85-6) follows the same line: A common culture … gives its bearers … a background against which meaningful choices can be made.’ Culture provides the options from which the individual chooses, and infuses them with meaning, so that self-forming autonomous beings have some conception of value with which to guide their choices.

The next step in the argument is that claim that, since a rich and flourishing culture is an essential condition of the exercise of autonomy, liberals have good reason to adopt measures that would protect culture. At this point, the argument has only shown that the existence of a (or some) flourishing cultural structure is necessary to the exercise of autonomy, but not a particular culture. However, liberal nationalists also make the empirical point that ‘most people have a very strong bond to their own culture’ (Kymlicka 1995: 8). This supports liberal nationalists in their conclusion that different national (or societal) cultures should be supported as a context in which personal autonomy is exercised, and this might involve some protections for culture within the state context, or secession from the state to ensure that the group has the jurisdictional authority to protect its own culture.

This second argument does not use the language of identity, but it does deploy the idea that people generally, as an empirical fact, identify with their own culture. Sometimes that is combined with the idea that there are serious costs involved in leaving one’s own culture and adopting another, which many people might be prepared to bear (immigrants, for example) but which it might be unfair to force people to bear. It is interesting, though, that there is some ambiguity concerning the empirical claim that there are costs attached to changing cultures. It is unclear whether the costs in question are of the more material sort, the kind involved in learning a language, adopting a new cultural repertoire, and so on, or are related to the difficulties involved in changing identities. The idea here is that many identities are formed relation-ally, so that part of what it is to have a Scottish identity, say, is to have a non-English identity, or to have a Canadian identity is to be not American. This means that, as an empirical fact, it is difficult to move from one identity to another, as if one were changing hats. It would not be devastatingly dislocating, in a cultural sense, to leave Canada to live in the United States, or to leave Scotland to live in England, and would not involve the traditional costs involved in learning a new language or new symbolic repertoires. But it may be profoundly difficult for the Scot to think of herself as an Englishwoman, or the Canadian to think of himself as an American. Indeed, the very idea of having an identity of a certain kind suggests that it is conceptually not easy to change one’s identity, and some identities are simply not amenable to being nested in the appropriate way. Interestingly, throughout this argument, there is considerable ambiguity over whether the work is being done by ‘culture,’ or cultural difference; or by the fact that people have an identity of one sort or another.

Neither the Miller-type instrumental argument nor the cultural-autonomy argument for valuing national identities confers inherent value on those identities. In both cases, they are conceived as valuable either in terms of the support for the goods that the state can produce (like redistributive justice) or as an important component of the autonomous life. Both arguments proceed fairly abstractly, and the first argument would seem to support only those national identities that facilitate just states, and deny any worth to those identities that facilitate vicious or aggressive states. Similarly, in the second argument, the link between autonomy and culture is obviously a contingent one, and one can imagine that in some cases the culture is so autonomy-undermining that autonomy liberals could not give it any protection.

Is Nation-Building Legitimate?

Another important recent debate in the philosophical literature on nationalism concerns the type of nation-building policies that the state is justified in pursuing. In the nineteenth-century nation-building typically involved the use of repressive state power to eradicate cultural, ethnic and religious identities. Today, there is almost unanimous assent that policies of coercive assimilation are unacceptable, and increasing recognition that the creation of a unified national community will not occur ‘naturally’ (without the state making any decisions bearing on these issues), simply as a corollary of modernization. Indeed, the burgeoning of identity groups is testimony to the increased mobilization and politicization of a number of minority cultural and other disadvantaged groups within the state. Yet, the state typically seeks to create some kind of shared identity within its territory; and, if the argument above is correct—that this facilitates either liberal justice or the exercise of personal autonomy—may well be justified in doing so. National groups that have some institutional instantiation either in the state or in a self-governing unit (e.g. a province) within the state also typically aspire to using the state apparatus to express the cultural life of their particular national community. Part of the philosophical debate on nationalism is centred on the question of the extent to which this is legitimate.

The legitimacy of nation-building is raised by two different types of groups within the state. Following the basic distinction between two types of diversity, developed by Will Kymlicka in his bookMulticultural Citizenship (1995), these can be classified as (1) multiculturalism and (2) multinationalism. A society is multicultural (in a sociological sense) when it is comprised of various—ethnic, gender, religious, sexual orientation, racial—identity groups. A society is multinational when the state is comprised of different national communities, that is, historical communities on what they perceive to be their ancestral territory, who aspire to be collectively self-governing. Obviously, many societies contain both kinds of diversity, but the distinction is still relevant, since, according to Kymlicka, the two types of groups aspire to different kinds of rights. In much of the literature, this distinction is collapsed into a distinction between immigrant and non-immigrant societies. Immigrant societies are characterized by the first kind of diversity (although obviously women and sexual orientation groups are not the product of immigration). Non-immigrant societies are typically characterized by nationally mobilized communities, ensconced on their own territory, with the demographic basis for self-government, but who are encapsulated within a larger state that is comprised of at least one other national community.

There is often a tension between the nation-building policies that the state employs to create a single unified national community, on the one hand, and multicultural groups, on the other, who claim that those policies have the effect of disadvantaging or marginalizing them.

This problem is particularly acute when the majority national group in the state is strongly identified with a particular ‘thick’ culture or religion, and seeks to create unity by extending that cultural expression across the territory. in general, there is no argument for privileging national identity groups over other kinds of identity groups. After all, nationalists (majority and minority varieties) no longer argue that the nation is natural or organic or primordial; their claims are framed in the language of identity, and in the case of minority nationalists, in terms of the unfairness of the policies and practices of the state. This is structurally similar to the claims of other minority groups—gay people, minority religious, ethnic and linguistic communities, as well as women—who have legitimate concerns about how the exercise of political power will affect (disadvantage or marginalize) them. It would be contradictory (unprincipled) to appeal to the norm of fairness in advancing one’s own case (or that of one’s national group) but reject the very same appeal when it is advanced by some other group. At the very least, there would have to be a good argument for doing so.

On the other hand, one of the main criticisms of multiculturalism and indeed identity politics of all kinds has emphasized that such policies are divisive and reify difference. According to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr, in his book The Disuniting of America (1992: 102): ‘The cult of ethnicity exaggerates differences, intensifies resentments and antagonisms, drives ever deeper the awful wedges between races and nationalities. The endgame is self-pity and self-ghettoization.’ Brian Barry (2001) argues, from an egalitarian perspective, that equality of results (which is presupposed in the claim to rectify the kinds of marginalization associated with the uniform application of rules) is not attainable. The best we can hope for in our diverse and complex society is equal rights, equality under the law and redistributive justice. Multiculturalism threatens all these, first by arguing for exemptions from the only kind of equality that is attainable, namely, political/juridical equality; and, second, by distracting us from the real problem, which is poverty or economic disadvantage.

This line of criticism is greatly exaggerated, but there may be some truth to the claim that the normative limits to cultural (or multicultural) recognition are reached when the policies have the effect of undermining the society’s political framework. There is obviously room for disagreement on whether a particular form of ‘recognition’ simply rectifies an unfair disadvantage or whether it potentially undermines a system of universal results, but it is probably true that there are limits to cultural recognition, dictated by the imperatives of a modern state, capable of being governed justly and democratically.

There is no evidence of disagreement on this by either multiculturalists or their critics—for example, Iris Young (1993), one of the most prominent exponents of the politics of recognition, seems to presuppose the existence of a common arena in which differences and commonalities can be recognized and discussed. Nevertheless, she does not address the tension between the two in specific cases. For example, it is undoubtedly the case that speakers of minority languages encounter certain kinds of disadvantage. Yet, at the same time, it is not possible to have a modern state and give equal recognition to every language spoken in the community. Public education, public debate and commercial activity have to be in one or two or three languages—possibly, the upper limit is higher than this—but it is certainly lower than the number of languages typically spoken in a diverse political community. The modern bureaucratic and democratic state, with mass literacy and increasingly standardized modes of interaction, requires for its smooth functioning a limited number of common languages in which different people are able to discuss their differences and commonalities. Significantly, most forms of multiculturalism may talk the language of equal recognition but do not actually propose policies that embrace absolutely equal treatment. Iris Young (1993: 175-81) proposes bilingual education for Hispanics, which, in Patten’s (2000) terminology, is a form of norm-and-exemption approach. It assumes some accommodation for non-majority language speakers in dealing with the state (some educational accommodation, translation services or bilingual agents in dealing with public agencies and so on) but also assumes that this will occur in the context of a public culture operated in a common majority language.

The normative goal suggested by the accommodation of these dual concerns—non-oppression of minority groups on the one hand and the viability of a just and democratic political society on the other—suggests the need for a thin, political identity. It suggests forms of political accommodation where it will be possible to think of oneself as both Italian and American, Muslim and British, Jewish and Australian. It suggests forms of accommodation that will enable people to develop various forms of nested identities, and repudiate policies and practices that set these identities in unnecessary opposition.

The problem with respect to national groups is somewhat different, since what is at issue is not simply the particular laws or policies of the state, but the very jurisdictional authority of the state itself. This arises because minority national groups typically aspire to be collectively self-determining and question the jurisdictional authority of states in which they are encapsulated, whose borders and structure prevent them from being collectively self-governing. In these cases, the only way to be fair to national identities—as distinct from other types of identities that are typically considered under the rubric of ‘multiculturalism’—is through creating the institutional or political space in which members of the nation can be collectively self-governing. In cases where the state is dominated by a majority national group, and political autonomy for the minority national group is both possible (demographically) and desired by the group itself, fair treatment would seem to require political recognition of this aspiration to be collectively self-governing. This does not necessarily mean secession but it does mean the transformation of the state into a genuinely multinational state, a state not associated with a particular national group, but one in which the thin political identity can encompass the different national communities on the territory. The goal here is to ensure that it is possible to be both aboriginal and Australian, Quebecois and Canadian, Scottish and British, Catalan and Spanish, Kashmiri and Indian, Kurdish and Iraqi. All of this suggests that justifiable nation-building policies are considerably more limited in scope, and more deferential to the identities and commitments and culture of the members, than was ever the case in the past. It is no longer possible to create unity in the same way as nineteenth-century nationalists did; indeed, the only justifiable method of creating a unified political community is by being inclusive of the legitimate diversity of the society.

Is a National Self-Determination Project Justified?

The third area of debate among political philosophers concerns the justifiability of secession. This debate is relevant to nationalism, since collective self-determination is an important—indeed, some argue, central—goal of nationalist movements. Political philosophers interested in the ethics of secession have largely ignored nationalist aspirations, identities and feelings, but focus on the legitimacy of the state, and the conditions under which it would be justifiable for a group to secede (Buchanan 1991).

The two main lines of argument are developed from liberal justice theory and liberal democratic theories of legitimacy. These are widely referred to in the literature as just-cause theories of secession and choice theories of secession. On the first line of argument, the question is whether the state is a just one, and the answer to that question requires an assessment of past state behaviour. Has the state engaged in egregious violations of human rights, systematic suppression, ethnic cleansing or genocide of a particular population group? The answers to these questions are relevant to the question of the legitimacy of the state, for if the state has engaged in practices of this kind, it has no right to government, no entitlement to have its territorial integrity protected.

This line of argument is developed directly from liberal theory, and particularly from liberal accounts of state legitimacy. One problem with this line of argument is the widespread difficulty in distinguishing between the legitimacy of the state and the legitimacy of the government (Buchanan 1999,2003; Naticchia 1999). Even in cases where there is a proven record of human rights abuses perpetrated by the government or its agents, it is not clear that the correct remedy is secession rather than a change of government, and especially the installation of a legitimate, human rights-protecting government. To make the case for secession as an appropriate remedy, it would seem to require that the state is illegitimate; that the state (and not just the government) is thoroughly infected in its structures and overall design with discriminatory and unjust practices. This is a high bar to set, and seems to presuppose a static view of the role of governments in effecting change, and reforming the state itself.

This problem also makes it evident that the liberal case for legitimacy does not map completely on to nationalist disaffection for the state in which the group is encapsulated. Once a group has become mobilized in favour of collective self-determination, it is doubtful that its members will be satisfied with reforms to ensure that the state is respectful of human rights and non-discriminatory This is so even if the impetus behind the initial nationalist mobilization was the exclusion and marginalization of the group from the state. Yet, this line of argument is able only to deal with the justice or injustice of the currentstate and/or government.

Another line of argument, which, to some extent, deals with this problem, focuses on the democratic legitimacy of the state. This is derived from standard liberal consent theory, but it is modified to suggest that consent is not actually required. Nevertheless, if there is evidence of widespread rebellion and/or lack of consent in the state by a minority population, the legitimacy of the state in governing over these people is brought into question. In both Harry Beran’s (1984) and Daniel Philpott’s (1995) formulations of this basic position, the device of a referendum is proposed to ascertain the preferences of the people living there.

The appeal to consent cannot be directly derived from individual consent, since that would render the state illegitimate unless it gained unanimous consent (which would make all states in the world today illegitimate). If the consent is that of the community, the question is raised: which community?, and relatedly, over which territory?

One problem with this account is that it is not clear how to draw the border within which majority consent is necessary. If the state as a whole is the domain in which (majority) consent is needed, then this fails to fully consider the feelings of the minority population, or to address the problem of minority nationalist disaffection. If only the latter is necessary, this raises the question—which theorists in this camp do not adequately address—of why the national group should have a corporate character of that kind. The problem here arises because appealing to liberal-democratic theory does not map perfectly on to nationalist mobilization and sentiment, which is the impetus behind all secessionist movements. This line of argument tries to justify a right to secede under certain conditions, but does not explain or justify it in nationalist terms. This is understandable, in light of the discussion in the first part of this chapter concerning the morally suspect character of nationalism, but it creates a curious gap between the political philosophy of secession and the dynamics of actual secessionist movements.

Both just-cause and choice theories, of course, are normative theories and have an implementation problem in the sense that in large swathes of the world—most of Africa, Asia and the Americas—state elites are very unlikely to agree to anything that might lead to the ‘dismemberment’ of the state. Indeed, most successful secessions are the result of the implosion of the central government—for example, the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia—rather than the voluntary relinquishment of parts of the territory, and groups of people, who have proved indigestible to the modern state. This is not a serious criticism of these theories, for it would be unfair to criticize a justice theory on the grounds that many people continue to be unjust, or a democratic theory for the fact that dictators are not likely to implement it. In some cases, proponents of these theories have argued that these normative principles should be included in a domestic constitution, to manage the otherwise often violent process of ‘divorce’ (Norman 1998; Weinstock 2001) or in international law, where principles and institutions could be designed to bring these processes under the rule of law (Moore 2001; Buchanan 2003). Others argue that, in the absence of institutional rules, it is still necessary to develop normative principles to help guide us in particular cases about whether or not secession is justifiable (Miller 1998).


The three areas of debate in political philosophy—concerning the value of national identities, the legitimacy of state nation-building and state break-up (or national self-determination)—fail to take issue with the postmodernist critique of identities as fluid and relational. All are potentially vulnerable to the critique that they ‘essentialize’ nations and national identities.

Most proponents of these arguments concede that nations are socially constructed and that it is important to be aware of the political mobilization (or construction) of political identities in designing public policies and institutional arrangements. However, they also argue—contra the postmodernist critique—that the mere fact of being socially constructed does not mean that they are easily deconstructed. Walker Connor, writing in the late twentieth century, has argued that nationalism has become such a powerful source of identity that he can think of no case in the twentieth century where territorially concentrated national minorities, on their own territory, have voluntarily assimilated. Indeed, he claims that assimilationist measures directed at national minorities tend to backfire, and almost always lead to increased consolidation of the minority identity (Connor 1994: 51-5). There are many examples of groups—Crimean Tatars, Kurds—that have struggled to resist assimilation, often at great cost to themselves (McGarry 1998: 613-38). The empirical evidence suggests that once a group has become successfully mobilized—by which is meant that the population has generally accepted the description of itself as a separate political community—modernization policies, state nation-building and coercive assimilation are unlikely to work. This is why the three issues above, considered only very recently by political philosophers, are of pressing importance.