George Orwell penned his now-famous essay “Notes on Nationalism” just as Imperial Japan and the Third Reich were breathing their dying breaths. The essay established the dangers of the phenomenon, but it did not, as one would think, focus on nationalism in Germany or Japan. Instead, Orwell’s focus was on growing nationalism in Britain and the threat that posed to the British state. A similar type of nationalism is on the rise in the United States today and Orwell’s essay is thus, once again, timely. In this essay, I will 1) define Orwellian Nationalism and highlight its characteristics, 2) provide examples of this nationalism in America today, and 3) discuss the dangers of this nationalism as well as the solution to it.
Orwellian Nationalism Defined
First, I must make it clear that Orwell has a very broad definition of nationalism. Here it is:
“By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”
Orwell admits freely in his essay that he defines the “habit of mind” he is attempting to describe as ‘nationalism’ simply because nationalism is the “nearest existing equivalent” to what he seeks to define. This is why his definition is so broad, and it is this broad definition I will use in this essay. On another definitional note, Orwell is careful to differentiate between nationalism and patriotism in his essay:
“Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism…By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”
Thus, for Orwell, nationalism is generally a negative entity in which a person submits part of their individuality to a group or organization and focuses their efforts on increasing the power and prestige of said group. This nationalism is offensive. It is coercive—and it sees the world in zero-sum terms. In his essay, Orwell considered a wide range of power-units to have nationalistic tendencies or nationalistic subscribers: political Catholicism, Communism, Pacifism, Antisemitism, Christendom, Islam, the Proletariat, the White Race, Judaism, political parties, etc.
Characteristics of Orwellian Nationalism
For Orwell, the first key characteristic of nationalist thought is obsession. Nationalists obsessively speak, write, and think about the supposed superiority of their group. Nationalists see nearly every issue faced in life in terms of their nationalistic struggle. The smallest praise of a rival group or the slightest condemnation of their own will be met with strong rebuttal. They will take their claims of superiority to the extreme. Orwell puts it this way:
“If the chosen unit is an actual country, such as Ireland or India, [the nationalist] will generally claim superiority for it not only in military power and political virtue, but in art, literature, sport, structure of the language, the physical beauty of the inhabitants, and perhaps even in climate, scenery and cooking.”
The second key characteristic of nationalistic thought is instability. Nationalists, though intense in their beliefs, may shed said beliefs easily. Conversely, they may also embrace emerging groups and beliefs rather quickly. As an example of this phenomenon, Orwell puts forth the fact that adherents of many fascist movements in Europe were actually converted from fascism’s ideological opposite, communism. But not all is unstable with the nationalist: “What remains constant in the nationalist is his state of mind: the object of his feelings is changeable, and may be imaginary.”
According to Orwell, the third key characteristic of nationalistic thought is indifference to reality. “All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts.” Here are a few examples, as cited by Orwell:
- A British Tory defending self-determination in Europe while opposing it in India. (Orwell wrote his essay when Britain still occupied India)
- A Liberal newspaper publishing, as an example of barbarism, photos of Russians hanged by Germans, and then, a year later, publishing pictures of Germans hanged by Russians with approval.
The nationalist thus ignores objective truth and morality. “Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them..” To aid this process of subverting truth, the nationalist will frequently seal his or herself off from inconvenient facts by only subscribing to news outlets that espouse his or her worldview. The nationalist often will not even care if they are receiving absolute bunk from said new sources:
“…although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him. All nationalist controversy is at the debating-society level. It is always entirely inconclusive, since each contestant invariably believes himself to have won the victory. Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connection with the physical world.”
Manifestations of Orwellian Nationalism in America Today
Here are some examples of how this nationalism manifests in the United States today. Now, let’s be clear that I’m not saying all people associated with the groups and causes listed below are Orwellian Nationalists. Orwellian Nationalists can, however, be found in any group, and the examples listed below are common hypocrisies found in America today due to Orwellian Nationalism.
- A Christian on the Right that thinks separating immigrant children from their parents at the border is somehow in alignment with the teachings of Christ.
- A social justice activist on the Left that preaches against stereotyping while promoting acceptance of all peoples and beliefs… unless the beliefs in question happen to be those of a white male Protestant. This activist actually stereotypes all white male Protestants as bigoted and oppressive.
- A small-government conservative that preaches states rights and the principle of subsidiarity—but only until they have the opportunity and power to mandate their favored policies at the federal level.
- A Leftist that decries the use of tear gas to stop immigrants from crossing the border, while failing to recognize that President Obama also used tear gas on the border because this is, in fact, a relatively safe way to break up a crowd.
- A Leftist that ignores the role that globalization played in the election of Donald Trump. This person truly believes that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist.
- A wealthy capitalist that spreads xenophobia in the United States while failing to recognize the vital role immigrants play in the economy.
- A Black Lives Matter activist that sides against the police, regardless of who was really at fault in a police shooting.
- A Blue Lives Matter activist that sides with the police, regardless of who was really at fault in a police shooting.
- A Rightist that rails against the out-of-control debt in the United States while failing to acknowledge the role that an out-of-control military industrial complex has played in creating that debt.
- A Leftist that casts capital punishment as inhumane while simultaneously supporting partial-birth abortion in all cases whatsoever.
- A gun-advocate on the Right that absolutely refuses to see the links between easy access to semi-automatic weapons and the epidemic of school/mass shootings in the United States.
Why Orwellian Nationalism Is So Dangerous
The obsession, instability, and indifference to reality found amongst Orwellian Nationalists means they are incapable of compromise and that they are uninfluenced by reason. At their worst, Orwellian Nationalists will drive their cars through crowds of peaceful protesters, or commit other acts of violence. At their best, these nationalists will slowly push both the Left and the Right further and further away from the compromise and justice found at the center of American politics until large-scale violence is inevitable. This road to violence and unrest is not a foregone conclusion, however. Orwell notes that genuine patriotism is probably an inoculation against nationalism. I would add that the promotion of truth, unity, and justice by millions of responsible citizens on the Right and the Left can also save the Republic from the nationalistic scourge.
While this article represents my views alone, I would like to thank Alex Langer, Eduardo Atjian II, and Andrew for providing editorial feedback on this essay.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.