The Swedish sociologist Göran Adamson’s latest book, Masochistic Nationalism: Multicultural Self-Hatred and the Infatuation with the Exotic (2021), identifies two forms of nationalism in contemporary society (white supremacist and anti-white) and explores their similarities and differences. They are similar in that each treasures its own roots, culture and biased textbooks, has its own kitschy, nebulous origin story, is obsessed with past injustices, wants to impose its laws and customs on other cultures, has adopted counter-Enlightenment values and is fundamentally racist—idealising particular homogeneous groups (seen as inherently superior, with unique good qualities) while vilifying other groups (seen as inherently inferior). They are different in that white supremacist nationalists have a thirst for vengeance, while anti-white nationalists are united by a feeling of having been shamed; white supremacist nationalists insist that Christianity is inherently peaceful, while anti-white nationalists insist that Islam is unambiguously innocent; and white nationalists tend to talk to outsiders harshly, while anti-white nationalists tend to talk to outsiders ingratiatingly. Adamson’s argument draws on the ideas in George Orwell’s 1945 essay, Notes on Nationalism, in which Orwell identifies two forms of nationalism in the Britain of his time, calling them positive nationalists (intent on boosting their nation) and negative nationalists (intent on denigrating it). Orwell noted that, though the two groups opposed each other politically, their fundamental attitudes, sentiments and ideas were virtually identical: both idealised hierarchies, judged actions based not on their merit but on who the actor was and thought primarily in terms of competitive prestige. Orwell also noted their differences. He saw the positive nationalists’ outlook as purely geographical—hence superficial. By contrast, he saw the negative nationalists, who belonged to the illiberal left of the time, as combining a tendency towards collective self-abuse with a sense of excitement, and he called them transferred nationalists because they tended to romanticise a particular foreign country while denigrating their own. Adamson notes that today’s white supremacist nationalists are similar to those Orwell called positive nationalists, while today’s anti-white nationalists are similar to those he called negative or transferred nationalists—but Adamson prefers to describe the latter as masochistic nationalists.
Today’s illiberal new left, which has coalesced around a programme advocating state-imposed multiculturalism, Critical Race Theory-inspired trainings and identity politics, frames today’s political conflict as a rift between narrow-minded, Trump-voting nationalists and progressive, unprejudiced internationalists. But Adamson shows that the illiberal left’s self-described internationalism is actually a kind of masochistic nationalism. Its members do not support internationalism—rather, like Orwell’s negative or transferred nationalists, they simply romanticise whatever is not positive nationalism. These masochistic nationalists include many members of the current UN, the EU, Silicon Valley companies, the Washington political elite, the New York Times and the Guardian. They think of themselves as globalists and multiculturalists intent on taking down the borders of nation states from outside and within, but they are still nationalists: they have merely replaced adulation for their own country with a patronising warmth towards all things exotic.
Adamson (pictured to the left) draws on examples from his native Sweden to point out the many ways in which masochistic nationalists simply adopt whatever is the opposite of the positive nationalists’ beliefs. (Orwell presciently predicted that when racists inevitably made a comeback, they would call themselves “anti-racists.”) For example, while positive nationalists claim that our roots are deep and strong and the roots of others are weak and short, masochistic nationalists claim that we have no roots ourselves—that all supposed roots have in fact been imported or stolen from some other culture. And while positive nationalists thrill to the homeland mythos, the masochistic nationalists sneer at it, though they are delighted to see it flourish in any other culture’s language, folk music, sentimental nationalist poetry, literature or home-grown cuisine.
A double standard is evident in the similarities between positive nationalists’ indiscriminate excitement about their own culture and left-wing Swedes’ indiscriminate excitement about certain foreign cultures. As an example, Adamson cites Christopher Caldwell’s observation about Europeans who consider churches to be hotbeds of stupidity, sexism and superstition but rush to embrace exotic religions like Islam with “childish credulity.”
Many of today’s masochistic nationalists have been steeped in postmodern theory and have transformed it into a playbook for authoritarianism and for the stamping out of dissent. They tend to frame those who disagree with their ideas—whether civilly and reasonably or not—as disingenuous power players (at best) and fascists (at worst). The result of this framing is that democracy decays into groupthink.
Adamson argues that, although masochistic nationalists see themselves as progressive, they are even more attached than positive nationalists are to Rousseau’s regressive noble savage idea of humanity’s supposed primeval purity, which imagines that indigenous non-western societies are peaceful, harmonious and respectful of nature. At the same time, they maintain their citizenship in the successful, progressive, liberal, western democracies to which their entire outlook is ostensibly opposed.
Although many history books that have been written by positive nationalists can be fairly characterised, to a greater or lesser extent, as Eurocentric, ethnocentric, monocultural, imperialist or nationalistic, the masochistic nationalists who are quick to condemn them promote history books that present a similarly narrow and biased outlook. For example, the so-called Afrocentric works, as Yehudi O. Webster has put it, “lack even the pretence of scholarly neutrality” and promote ancestor worship. This Afrocentricity only leads to further politicisation of the curriculum. Rather than counteracting bias, it merely introduces it from the opposite direction.
Conservative Values: Collectivism and Communitarianism
Adamson homes in on the illiberal left’s obsession with culture, and its tendency to prioritise groups or communities over the individuals within them. Its adherents use the same kind of language that conservatives use to paper over class tensions, negate individual self-determination, and imply that there is a harmony of interest between natural leaders and their people. Nikolaos Michaloliakos, leader of the far-right Greek group Golden Dawn, has said that “individuals do not have historical significance”—implying that group identity is more significant. Similarly, masochistic nationalists use the term “identity” (which sounds like a word that affirms individuals) to manipulate individuals into prioritising group interests over their own. Although these illiberal activists are self-described leftists, they have turned the word identity into a Newspeak term for communitarian dependence and conformity—political values which have traditionally been held by ultra-conservatives.
Multicultural leftists often assume that in non-western societies relations between individuals are uniformly harmonious, which is a colossal political fiction. Yet many are eager to believe these fictions: Adamson cites a story that Ayaan Hirsi Ali tells, about how the UN has trustingly distributed food to self-described clan leaders who have then kept it for themselves or sold it.
Masochistic nationalists in the western world are dedicated above all to criticising colonialism, but they tend to support their criticism with two related myths: that non-western cultures are organically harmonious, and that ethnic minorities living in the west are members of homogeneous communities that are free from political or religious tensions. This leads masochistic nationalists to make political choices that belie their claim to support left-wing causes and opposition to the oppression of minorities: when left-wing dissidents who live in non-western cultures are under attack by religious reactionaries, these westerners offer no help, or worse, lend deferential support to the reactionaries.
Thus, ironically, wherever religion is cloaked in a non-white ethnicity, masochistic nationalists, despite being self-proclaimed leftists, are currently religious fundamentalism’s greatest defenders. They ignore foreigners’ individual political or religious views altogether, lump them all together—oppressors and dissidents alike—and label them Syrian nationals or Iraqi co-patriots or just Muslims, on the assumption that any member of a particular ethnic group must be speaking on behalf of all members of that group (although they make an exception for people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali who are known to have rejected the masochistic nationalist ideology—they throw to the wolves progressive individuals who come from within the minority society).
When members of European political groups like the Greek Golden Dawn or the Bulgarian Ataka defend the primacy of national ancestry, masochistic nationalists rightly denounce them. But when they hear non-Europeans express similar hard-core positive nationalist views, they do the opposite, praising those statements as expressions of self-determination or cultural pride. In this way, masochistic nationalism’s illiberal anti-western zealots show that they actually support group fanaticism, so long as it doesn’t happen at home.
Adamson concludes that both positive nationalists and masochistic nationalists fuel support for right-wing parties, even though the latter’s grandiloquent labels create the opposite impression. Certain influential global elites have pushed the notion that even moderately social conservative values at home, such as safety, family and social cohesion, are extreme right-wing values—but the general public is unconvinced. That line has been swallowed only by self-described left-wing antiracists (masochistic nationalists), but the sense of superiority that they convey and their categorical rejection of all western values have only boosted public support for right-wing parties and radicalised the European electorate.
Both positive nationalists and masochistic nationalists have tried to control artistic expression. In 1930s Germany, as Adamson explains, positive nationalists tried to stop left-wing artists from mocking the west. Today, masochistic nationalists seek to demote artists who are defending the west. Both types of nationalists throw artistic freedom under the bus in order to promote their respective political convictions. Both share the view that art must have a purpose and be edifying.
In the past, the conservative establishment’s bourgeois art critics clamped down on perceived threats to traditional conservative values such as decency and order. Today’s newly minted establishment left-wing art critics have abandoned their traditional role of defending art for art’s sake, and instead focus on the morality of a particular work of art or the virtue of art that expresses a left-wing or antiracist ideological perspective—and they now frame artistic rebellion as right-wing extremism. As Adamson points out, this is just another authoritarian way of dismantling artistic freedom.
Imperialism and Colonialism
The western empires of the early twentieth century forced legislation on overseas cultures. So imperialism must be categorically bad, right? Not according to positive or masochistic nationalists: to them, it depends on who’s doing the intruding. The idea that colonialism is bad is only a weapon that each group uses selectively to promote its own ideological self-interest. For example, masochistic nationalists do not tend to object to the spread of Islam’s political doctrines and sharia laws throughout the west: they only mind foreign intrusion into sovereign nations when westerners do it.
Positive nationalists say that foreigners are dangerous; masochistic nationalists say that inhabitants of their own country are dangerous: both groups are societal pessimists, and both end up taking a surprisingly callous, ungenerous attitude towards suffering individuals in foreign cultures. The masochistic nationalists heap scorn on western society, while continuing to enjoy its benefits; and they downplay the suffering of people in other cultures, either by romanticising the causes of that suffering as part of their culture, or—like many leftist western feminists—by claiming that we should focus on our own problems here at home (rather than try to help women in foreign cultures). This can sound like humility, but in practice it is callous indifference—to the suffering caused by practices such as child marriage, female genital mutilation or culturally sanctioned rape. Only those who already live where there is clean water, personal safety, self-determination, education and a reasonably accountable legal and political infrastructure can afford to downplay the importance of those benefits. And when they do that, it is as if they were having a food fight with caviar in front of a starving crowd. Given a choice, most women in traditional patriarchal cultures would much prefer to have western women’s resources, time, experience, money and solidarity instead of having westerners pay them the empty compliment of pretending that no culture is better off than any other.
Neither positive nationalists nor masochistic nationalists tend to consider data and statistics or use them to engage in reasoned arguments. Instead, positive nationalists, being xenophobes, draw attention to horror stories about migrants, while masochistic nationalists, being xenophiles, draw attention to stories that romanticise foreigners. As an example, Adamson cites the reports about the wave of sexual assaults that took place across Germany on New Year’s Eve in 2015. There were more than 2,000 sexual assaults and robberies that night. But when it turned out that almost all the perpetrators were men described by witnesses as of “Arab or North African appearance,” the German police were no longer encourage to publicise the incidents. Instead, the wheels of whitewash appeared to be spinning. By contrast, in the Arab world, the incidents were described straightforwardly as taḥarrush jamāʿī (group sexual harassment in crowds).
Johann Herder and the Counter-Enlightenment Perspective
Adamson suggests that the two forms of nationalism share a counter-Enlightenment worldview. The Enlightenment prized the individual, equality, reason, science and progress. It rejected the idea of certainty based on belief or authority. By contrast, the romantics of the early nineteenth-century counter-Enlightenment believed that the interests of society should take precedence over the interests of individuals. They valued emotions, passion, mysticism, organic collectivism, nationalism based on myths, and the virtues of one’s own unique culture. One of the most well-known proponents of early counter-Enlightenment ideas was the German philosopher Johann Herder, who wrote that attempts to understand cultures other than one’s own were futile because it is impossible to judge any society from the perspective of one’s own. He argued that, instead of trying to understand other cultures, people should focus on venerating their own. He valued the experience of belonging, the bond that individuals feel for their group, and their desire to care for its future. These same values are important to today’s positive nationalists. Herder also discussed what he called the “organic” nature of cultural entities; he compared society to a body with a thinking head and active limbs. He did not focus on the phenomenon of internal tensions within a society or of cultural change over time.
Adamson’s most topical chapter is titled “Racism.” He notes that the 1960s civil rights movements combatted racism by criticizing the generalisations and assumptions upon which racism ultimately rests—related for example to stereotypes, segregation, hierarchies and physiognomy. Those movements aimed to break down ethnic walls and defend critical thinking and the rights of the individual.
Today, most academics in the western world still say that they reject the idea that any race is inherently superior to others—calling it outdated essentialism—but the prevalence of essentialist reasoning in woke identity politics is staggeringly high, as Laurie Wastell has pointed out. For example, writers like Delgado and Stefancic, in their book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, begin by asserting that their theory is antiracist, that essentialising people by their race is a problem, and that “no person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity.” But they almost immediately contradict themselves. They divide society into two ostensibly opposing camps—white people and everyone else—and replace the defining tenets of the civil rights movement with the idea of intersectionality, which they describe as the antithesis of essentialist thinking, but which in fact is both blatantly essentialist and racist. Intersectional feminists assume that being a member of a given racial subgroup must mean one has the same experiences as everyone else in that subgroup, whether one is male or female. But with mind-boggling inconsistency, they also assume that being a member of a given gender subgroup (for example, being a woman) cannot lead one to have the same experiences as everyone else in that subgroup—because some members are black and some are white.
Skin Colour and Physiognomy
Making skin colour important, which used to be the epitome of racism, is now claimed to be vital to the cause of antiracism. In 2020, Black Lives Matter activists were shouting that all whites are inherently disgraceful.
Adamson cites Yehudi O. Webster’s observation that “references to human beings as white people and black people are part of a tradition of anatomical reductionism that … belong to the blunders of a bygone biology.” The only group other than today’s self-described anti-racists who approve of basing ethnic identity on skin colour are National Socialists. This similarity is not consistent with masochistic nationalists’ self-image as progressive. Webster points out that certain critics of white supremacy employ a “racial inventory” that smacks of the mid-nineteenth-century pseudoscientific idea that physiognomy reflects people’s internal characteristics.
So, on the one side, among those who say colour doesn’t count, we have Martin Luther King, enlightened leftists and Marxists, feminists uncrippled by relativism, cautious universalists and liberals who take the root meaning of liberal seriously. And on the other side, among those who insist that colour does count, we have Islamists and other positive nationalists, as well as masochistic nationalists such as multiculturalists, adherents of political correctness and intersectional feminists.
Adamson notes that there is little difference between positive nationalists and masochistic nationalists: both hold deeply conservative views, emphasise segregation and native pride and prefer the company of their own kind. But one cannot reduce racial segregation by replacing negative stereotypes with positive ones. There is no difference in principle between wishing to exclude whites from the lives of black people, and the other way around.
Masochistic Nationalist Branding
Adamson notes that both kinds of nationalism tend to use exotic caricatures or superficial images to depict members of ethnic minorities, rather than depicting them as individual human beings rooted in real-life contexts. It is striking how often masochistic nationalist images focus on the same things that the world of commercial consumerism focuses on to sell products: bodies, skin colour, hairstyle, clothes, jawbone and the shape of the skull. Adamson concludes from this similarity that, at base, masochistic nationalism is a mere symbol of one’s lifestyle and social status—the academic equivalent of cosmetics: basically, “L’Oreal™ with a footnote.”
Adamson argues that the way out of this mess is through the promotion of classical liberal values, which hold that nobody should be a prisoner of a particular culture, and everyone should have access to the full international arena of technology and progress. If people want to show zeal for foreign cultures, he suggests, then let it be based on knowledge rather than on a combination of ignorance and idealisation.
The classical liberal values of equal rights, equal opportunity and meritocracy are clearly preferable to the honour-culture-based belief that a single person’s transgression infects her entire tribe. Even the most ardent multiculturalists—if they were consistent—would have to agree with this, since, when it suits their ideological agenda, they already agree that preserving individual agency and responsibility is preferable to group stereotyping: for example, they typically believe that no one should blame all Muslims when one Muslim commits a terrorist act.
I recommend that we engage in rational arguments (meaning the kind of arguments that we aren’t already sure in advance we will win), rather than weaponising sentimentality, resurrecting blasphemy laws or throwing temper tantrums. Let’s follow the advice of the liberal philosopher Karl Popper, in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, and turn away from “utopian social engineering” towards “piecemeal social engineering”—with the well-being of all life on earth in mind.