Globalisation and nationalism

Displaying the flag on Australia Day

Many things have changed in Australia since I first came here in the mid-1990s. One of these is a noticeable increase in displays of national ardour: for instance, there is the ever-expanding flag-waving and display of the national colours on Australia Day; or there is the fact that there has been a resurgence in ANZAC Day ceremonies since the 1990s after decades of decline; another example can be found in the introduction of citizenship testing for prospective citizens in 2007. I often discuss these changes with my students as we try to understand why Australia has become a more nationalistic place in the past two decades. The best argument is usually put forward by those who argue that nationalism is a reaction to globalisation and increased immigration, where the national flag becomes a symbol of stability in times of rapid change.

Indeed, the debate around the relationship between globalisation and nationalism is wide open. While increasing nationalism can be read as a reaction to globalisation, a diametrically opposed argument is also put forward. Two new studies (Ariely 2012; Machida 2012), for instance, have found that people in more globalised nations such as Australia are less ethnocentric, less patriotic and less inclined to fight for their countries than their counterparts in less globalised nations. These researchers suggest that nationalism is not a reaction to globalisation but that globalisation actually serves to reduce nationalism. Globalisation will eventually be the end of nationalism – or so this line of argument goes.

Both globalisation and nationalism are notoriously broad concepts and the contradiction between claims that globalisation increases or decreases nationalism must be sought somewhere in how the concepts are understood. If we define globalisation as the latest phase of capitalist expansion under the ideological banner of neoliberalism, a convincing case can be made that globalisation is likely to lead to an increase in state-sponsored nationalism, as Blad and Koçer (2012) do. Blad and Koçer (2012) provide a case study of the rise of Islamism as a political legitimation strategy in Turkey over the past decades. Specifically, they argue that

[…] contrary to analyses that point to political Islam as a cultural reaction to modernity or Western imperialism and facilitated by an ever-weakening state in the globalization era, we argue that the rise of political Islam in Turkey is tied to strategies to bring the state more in line with neoliberal, modernist governance and is a function of sustained state authority. (p. 370)

For Blad and Koçer (2012), the story goes like this: neoliberal economic globalisation has meant that states are increasingly losing their economic legitimacy. For most of the 20th century, the legitimacy of the Turkish state had rested in the fact that it was seen to protect its population from the negative effects of economic inequality. It offered state-led development and with it social security. However, in the 1970s its foreign debt began to catch up with Turkey and it needed to turn to the IMF for a bailout. In exchange it was forced to devalue its currency and accept a range of austerity measures, which were intended to bolster production for export and to curb public spending. The latter in particular meant that the Turkish state largely lost its ability to ensure social stability through the remediation of economic inequality. Initially, the 1980 military coup ensured stability at gunpoint but then the problem for the state became how to return to democratic governance after having lost the ability to offer economic protection. And that is where “culture” comes in:

The neoliberal Turkish state clearly required authority to maintain stability if its economic reforms were to have any efficacy. However, it also needed to remove the state from its position of protectionist authority. The solution was an integration of cultural—that is, Islamist—legitimation strategies in two exemplary areas. The first was the Islamization of Turkish labor through the state advocacy of cultural, rather than the traditional class-based, trade union organizations. The second was the reduction of state-managed social service provision and the privatization of these services under Islamist patronage. (p. 45)

Blad and Koçer (2012) thus argue that the Turkish state wilfully adopted Islamism as a means to maintain state legitimacy while allowing for state withdrawal from the economic sphere. The latter is a direct requirement of the imposition of neoliberalism as a global ideology that requires the state to give up its economic regulatory capacity while still maintaining social stability.

Of course, there are as many differences between the Australian and Turkish cases as there are similarities. However, as our public transport, healthcare and education decline, it is obvious that the legitimacy of the state as a system to ensure social security is under threat. At the same time, cultural legitimacy comes cheap (in contrast to the provision of welfare).

The political economy of language and culture in neoliberal times will be a research problem for generations of students and I would recommend reading Blad and Koçer (2012) to all of them. Ariely, G. (2012). Globalisation and the decline of national identity? An exploration across sixty-three countries Nations and Nationalism DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8129.2011.00532.x
Blad, C., & Koçer, B. (2012). Political Islam and State Legitimacy in Turkey: The Role of National Culture in Neoliberal State-Building International Political Sociology, 6 (1), 36-56 DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-5687.2012.00150.x
MACHIDA, S. (2012). Does Globalization Render People More Ethnocentric? Globalization and People’s Views on Cultures American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 71 (2), 436-469 DOI: 10.1111/j.1536-7150.2012.00835.x

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Another dimension to this debate is class position, education, and individual and social group material conditions. I’m thinking in particular of a small, but clearly growing group of highly educated elites, including, of course, academics, who regularly travel across national borders, interact regularly with, work with, and collaborate with people across national borders, etc. For this group — which some call transnationals — nationalism is very often something from which they want to distance themselves. I’m not an expert on scholarship that’s looked at nationalism and class/education position, but I will speculate that the higher the education level and the more international interaction and travel, the lower the level of nationalism you are likely to find, and vice versa. I personally think this has a lot to do with power and empowerment: Transnational identity empowers the privileged educational elite but offers little in the way of personal empowerment for the less educationally privileged. For this group, nationalism provides power and empowerment and therefore continues to hold tremendous appeal. Sure, there are plenty of educational elites who are nationalistic, but I still say that’s where you’ll find the greatest push/pull away from nationalism, especially in countries like the U.S., Australia, Germany, etc. and it’s a significant and powerful pull indeed.

  • Khan

    Thanks for opening up an interesting debate. I think one possible way of looking at the phenomena of free-market economy is to examine the ways in which neoliberalism has transformed the mode of production and the division of labour in different settings. In case of Post-colonial countries, Alavi, a Marxist theorist argues that Classical Marxist explanation is inadequate to explain the development of capital in colonial world. He holds that colonial countries are a case of ‘peripheral capitalism’ and colonizers are a case of ‘metropolitan capitalism’. The major difference between them has been that in the former the generalized commodity production was not made an integrated process of development as in the latter. I see neoliberal economy as the new form of metropolitan economy where the generalized commodity production feeds into the national economy of some countries. In other words, globalization though might give an impression of the demise of nationalism on surface level, the discourse of nationalism is very much the part of globalization in making a clear differentiation between peripheral and metropolitan economies.

  • Thanks, Khan! I like your comment that “globalization might give an impression of the demise of nationalism on surface level” – lack of attention to the material base is clearly bedevelling much globalisation scholarship in the humanities …

  • Cory Blad


    Thanks for the comments on our paper – and for continuing what I feel is an incredibly important discussion. While globalization is certainly a multifaceted series of processes, there is most certainly a material foundation that cannot neither legitimate itself nor offers an institutional framework to provide such legitimacy. Transnational capitalism and capitalists (generally speaking, of course) certainly champion the growth potential of a liberal economic context; however, it is equally essential to note that neoliberalism requires some form of local institutional authority to create (1) the differentiation between investment/production locations that motivates capital mobility and (2) a means of mitigating/assuaging the adverse material conditions that result from deregulated capitalism. To that end, both global capital and state proponents of global capitalism face a quandary: How to both promote a deregulated, corrosive capital accumulation regime while at the same time maintaining local legitimate authority? To that end, I hope, our argument that the legitimation of state authority through increasingly primordial (nationalist) cultural means offers some way of explaining the mechanical utility of nationalist cultural definitions in an era of neoliberal austerity.