Philosopher Abroad – Edges of Europe

In the module ‘Edges of Europe’ students learn about the intersections of citizenship, religion and identity. During our semester together, we explored many relevant problems, including the problem of nationalism and its exclusionary and violent tendencies. This article comprises a fierce debate navigating the problems of nationalism, refugees, inclusion and exclusion which have played a key role in the module.

Luckily, we had the support of the brilliant academics Evert van der Zweerde, Hans Schilderman, and Joud Al Korani, also specialising as our cartographic, conceptual and gastronomic leaders, respectively. Our gratitude to them for all their hard work in making this module possible. 

During this time, I, Charlie, was accompanied by my persistent interlocutor, Felix Hohlfeld, who has been a thorn in my side since our first year; the consistent “no” to my “yes,” the idealist to my cultural relativism, and the bright sun to my dark cave. So, when we were both accepted for Edges of Europe, honestly, I thought we were in for another series of debates between two white cishet men, which turned out to be the case. But to be perfectly honest, Felix is a fine philosopher and a worthy interlocutor. 

In order to complete the module, all students were required to conduct fieldwork in Athens. For most of us, the week’s culmination was the celebrations during the Greek Independence Day. On the 25th of March, Greece celebrates its independence from the Ottoman Empire with a military parade. As fighter jets roared overhead and proud soldiers marched past with guns gleaming in the March sun, many of our party were struck by a tragedy unfolding behind us. A group of young Greek boys enthusiastically cheered and patriotically shouted their support for the cause. This image of children embroiled in the world of tanks, guns and bombs left a lasting impression. Why is it that a peaceful and innocent love of a nation, like those young boys exhibited, often ends in bloodshed and violence? Shrouded by the dark clouds of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a conversation about the importance of the flag, nation, and nation-state seemed not only pertinent, but necessary.        For the purposes of our ensuing debate, we have defined the nation as a social construction in which a given group of people identify themselves as part of “the nation” (i.e., it implies something shared; history, culture, language, values, etc.). The central question that guides this debate is as such: Should we abandon the nation-state? In light of our location, a shared love of philosophy and an inability to reconcile our positions into a single voice, we chose the form of dialogue. 

“A fantastic idea, Charlie.” 

“Thank you, Felix.”

FELIX: Now, I concede that the nation-state is responsible for much of the bloodshed which has occurred in history. Colonialism, imperialism, violent warfare and the chauvinist idea of the superiority of one’s own nation undoubtedly serve as equally illustrative and sad examples of this. But is it nevertheless not also true that people need a sense of stability, an identity rooted not in the individual itself, but in a common group? 

CHARLIE: What you say is true, wise Felix.

FELIX: And is it not true that the nation-state – although obsolete in some respects – is still the most prevalent source of common identification in the world today?

CHARLIE: Yes, I suppose the nation-state is the one of the most common identities today.

FELIX: Exactly, noble Charlie. Often a source of evil in past and present, the adoption of a national identity, so I think, is no malum in se. For it can offer people a vital source of collective identification. 

CHARLIE: I see your point, but let me outline mine. I can agree with you that common identity is not only important, but necessary. Identity politics – a means to unite a group towards a common political goal – is often the best and even only way to pursue various forms of justice. The Stonewall riots and LBGTQ+ mobilisation are a fine example of how common identity can bring the unity that you desire, and the mobilisation that I require, to bring about lasting change. But, my dear friend and interlocutor, what I am asking you is why save the nation-state? Can we not find other forms of collective identification, that provide your sought-after “stability”, which are not grounded in an idea of “the nation”?

After all, do we not agree that the nation is indeed only a construct, constructed of course by humanity?

FELIX: What you say is true, Charlitos.

CHARLIE: Very well. I’m clearly no conservative, but let’s use their “logic”; “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Well excuse me, but the nation was broken to begin with. You say the nation-state is no malum in se, but I staunchly contest this. I believe the very concept of the nation, coupled with a state, is in itself a problem.

In her article, “The Nation-State, the Race-Religion Constellation, and Diasporic Political Communities: Hannah Arendt, Judith Butler, and Paul Gilroy,” Anya Topolski provides the foundation for this devastating argument, Felix. The ideas that support the nation-state claim that there is a given nation that deserves to have the power (state) in that nation. My claim is that this not only denies the heterogeneity that characterises human existence, but furthermore, it is fundamentally anti-democratic because it prioritises one nation over all others.

I seek to convince you that, ultimately, these two problems are structural misconceptions embedded into the design of the nation-state. This is the root of the inevitability of nationalism to falter into violence. This is why the nation-state was a lie upon conception at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Why it was long dead by the time its invasion reached the gates of Moscow, and why it was shattered, gassed, and buried in the trenches and artillery fire of WW1. And today, the logic of the nation-state returns to the Donbas; Putin believes the Russian and Ukrainian nations are one and should be homogenised into one nation-state.

But is it nevertheless not also true that people need a sense of stability, an identity rooted not in the individual itself, but in a common group?

FELIX: Well… I must say…

CHARLIE:  Firstly, let us discuss the anti-democratic nature of the nation state. In Who Sings the Nation State, Judith Butler argues that the nation-state as a political model prioritises a single nation over the others. This is fundamentally anti-democratic because it prioritises a single group, casting any “others” asunder to the realm of “not-welcome”, “not-native”, to “allochtoon”

The logic of the nation-state posits that there is a given space designated for a given group. But the reality of human societies is that they are extremely heterogeneous in nature; people from here, there and everywhere come together in any given space, for many different reasons. As such, every town, city and state is comprised of many “nations”, many ethnic groups living together. Thus, I must begin by asking, is it not true that a multi-national society is an inevitability, and an ever-present reality? Is there really such a thing as a one nation-state?

Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism attacks the nation-state in this same way; at the very heart of the nation-state lies the idea that the political community requires national homogeneity. This is why I argue, Felix, that the nation-state must be scrapped altogether, because it denies the reality of human heterogeneity.

I ask you then, why are we trying to salvage the nation-state, when it is clear that the mechanism of prioritising one group not only excludes national “Otherness”, but even denies its very existence? Can we not begin anew, create a more human identity that does not carry the heavy history of dehumanisation?

Can we not find other forms of collective identification, that provide your sought-after “stability”, which are not grounded in an idea of “the nation”?

FELIX: A more human identity, devoid of the sinister history of colonialism and bloodshed is necessary indeed. Yet we must realise that all collective identities – be they national or otherwise – are constructed, which is why their pasts are always ambivalent and contested… Thus, the question is not how to overcome socially constructed and previously problematic identities but how to adequately realign them in order for them to become less hermetic, less exclusivist, and more inclusive.

Perhaps this is my central claim: National identities can be reconvened in a non-exclusionary manner and its previously chauvinist and colonial elements can be stripped from common national narratives. What we need for this is a form of national identity that organises its citizenry not around essentialised ethnic characteristic, but around a minimal set of shared liberal-democratic principles. Think of pluralism, rule of law, human equality, freedom of speech or freedom of association. We thus need a Rawlsian overlapping consensus, or Habermasian constitutional patriotism, if you will: A convergence on and identification with the fundamental values of pluralist democracy. This, consequently, will yield a form of national identity that is reconcilable with, rather than opposed to other, arguably more progressive, forms of political identification – like a European and cosmopolitical political identity. As Francis Fukuyama succinctly puts it: “National identities can be built around liberal and democratic political values, and around the shared experiences that provide the connective tissue allowing diverse communities to thrive.” 

We must, therefore, move beyond the ethnocentrism that has hitherto defined national identities and embrace a form of national identity that provides a shared, overarching sense of identity – an identity that transcends, rather than excludes specific sub-groups within society. A civic national identity, in other words, that stresses what unites us rather than what separates us and that is truly acceptant of the empirical fact of pluralism. 

Certainly, collective reflection, critical awareness of citizens and a problematisation and re-evaluation of the nation’s often-shadowy past are necessary to meet these aims. Not at all easy tasks, that much is clear. Yet are these tasks not still eminently achievable for a democratic citizenry? The cheering children, I have to concede, are not at all fitting examples of the requisite critical and reflective ethos. Rather, they show what still needs to be done – they shed light on the path many Greeks have not yet, but may very well embark on in the future. 

CHARLIE: I concede, reluctantly, thanks to your impressive sophistry and rhetoric argument, that there is a need for identifications around which a political community can organise. But I suppose we have reached somewhat of an impasse; though we agree that the nation-state as it stands is a problem, we disagree as to whether we should reform or remove it altogether. 

You think we should reform the bad parts while keeping the good. But according to my position – and the faulty start that Topolski analyses – to remove the negative aspects of the nation-state is to remove the nation-state altogether; because the very logic at its heart is both anti-democratic and a denial of human heterogeneity. You aptly see that we must rid ourselves of the ethnocentrism that has hitherto dominated nationalism. But in my understanding, the concept of national sovereignty, which underpins the nation-state and its right to self-determination, is at its heart ethnocentric. After all, it means national determination for each constructed “nation”. This seems obvious, but I believe this specious concept has clouded your good judgement, Felix. If we are so concerned with the needs and wants of our constructed and homogenous nation, how can we begin to pursue a state in which all peoples are considered equal? If we are so bound up with the desires and needs of, for example, the Dutch in Netherlands as is the constitution of the nation-state, how can we begin to address the needs of other nationals inevitably living within any given state? 

And so, I reject your position that we might create a nation-state free from ethnocentrism. It is a violent logic that is thrust upon even those too young to understand what it means. It seems abundantly clear, that these children who are the subject of this debate, in having their Greekness thrust upon them, will one day succumb to the same nationalist tendencies upon which both, we international and Dutch students, have come to critically reflect – only with the benefit of hindsight. That, I argue, is the real tragedy of this case.

Located as it is at the margins of Europe, we experienced that Greece is not just like any other Western European country, but shaped – in culture and cuisine, politics and geographic position – by a split between Europe and the East.

FELIX: I agree that ‘pre-reflective’, and exclusivist forms of nationalism are profoundly harmful. Yet this does not provide, I claim, conclusive evidence for the inherent destructiveness or irreparability of the nation state. As with other tainted concepts – like modernity, rationality or justice – we should not throw the idiomatic baby out with the bath water. There is much positive to be retained in the construct of a nation-state that a straightforward rejection thereof simply cannot account for. I alluded to the nation as one of the protective entities for liberal-democratic principles already (although the EU, for example, fulfils this task too in a measure). The emotional and cultural capital that a nation can offer, however, should also not all-too hastily be discarded. Despite, or more likely, precisely because of increasing globalisation, people yearn for a sense of cultural identity – which the nation-state is often able to provide. The big conundrum, then, is to reconcile the twofold status of the nation as both a source of cultural identity and as an inclusive space for those who identify with its underlying democratic-liberal-principles. Greece does not currently manage this balancing act particularly well. Yet it not managing this balancing act does not suggest the impossibility of the act in any way – or so I believe. Maybe herein lies our disagreement?

Concluding remarks

As the parade drew to its close, the last Souvlakis were digested, and the last Uzos imbibed, it was time for us to make our much-lamented way back home (if, in light of the many international students in our group, the word “home” is even appropriate here). While saddened by the inevitable end of our trip, a number of things did ultimately offer us a modicum of solace. Namely, the prospect of bitterballen, kaassouflé and frikandel speciaal to be eaten upon our arrival in the Netherlands. Granted, not everyone was equally enthusiastic about this prospect. What everyone was enthusiastic about, however, was the week that laid behind us – the memories it created, the culture it introduced us to and the insights it unearthed. We learned about the practicalities of field-research, the importance of being prepared even for the unpreparable, and the relevance of inter-cultural knowledge. Located as it is at the margins of Europe, we experienced that Greece is not just like any other Western European country, but shaped – in culture and cuisine, politics and geographic position – by a split between Europe and the East.            

Having immersed ourselves in Greek culture, in any case, the title of the module ‘Edges of Europe’ ceased being just another trite title of a university course – it became a lived experience for everyone involved. An experience that will certainly continue to linger in the heads of all of us – even after the module itself, too, which will soon draw to its inevitable close.