Today it is easy to forget that the idea of ??the nation was once a revolutionary idea that expanded the space for individual freedom. But the French and American revolutions cannot be understood without considering the nation, nationalism and the nation state. Neither modern democracy, nor the welfare state’s solidarity projects would be possible without this notion of national community.
Nevertheless, for many, the nation is today an obsolete if not directly objectionable idea that justifies limits and exclusion. Historically, nationalism’s bad reputation is also understandable. Nationalism remained admittedly closely associated with liberal and democratic ideals, but also came in time to find nourishment in racist and social Darwinian thought, which in its most extreme form was perfected in Hitler's gas chambers.
In the Swedish debate, in recent years, the latter interpretation dominated. Article after article not only emphasised nationalism’s dark sides, but also presented a historical image of Sweden as being plagued by racist ideas – a country where racial biology and an ethnically based welfare state ideal dominated. One can also see a continuity that connects yesterday's Nazis with today's Sweden Democrats. Racialisation and racism have become terms of abuse that are liberally thrown about, as with nationalism and racism, and the idea that nationalism is necessary for ??the good, for democracy and welfare is absolutely denied.
Today's anti-nationalism in Sweden is paradoxical. Sweden belongs to the small group of countries where both the story of the nation, and nationalism’s contemporary political expression had, already in the 1920s, come to be linked to democratic rather than ethnic ideas. This is well illustrated in the title of Per Albin Hansson’s famous "People’s Home Speech" of 1928. What is not always noted is that the complete title was "People's Home, Citizens’ Home" and that it was the individual citizen that stood in the centre, rather than the people as an ethnic community. Social democrats and liberals won the fight about who would define ‘the Swedish people's way’ and what the Swedish flag would stand for –with dramatic and positive consequences for Sweden and Swedish political culture. The Nazis had purely marginal success, and the racists and race biologists did not play any decisive role.
After World War II came a reaction against the isolationism to the outside world that characterised the welfare state in the 1930s. Internationalism became an increasingly important part of the Swedish national identity, but the conviction of the nation-state’s value remained. Olof Palme saw Sweden as the small states’ champion and said that the ‘national liberation fronts’ were expressing legitimate demands for national sovereignty and social justice. The goal was not a post-national state, but to jointly build effective intergovernmental bodies. Not least, the support for the UN was high in Sweden.
Opposition to the EU was also symptomatic. Up to the 1994 referendum, the EU was portrayed as a threat to the Swedish model, often characterised in terms of the four famous Cs: conservatism, capitalism, Catholicism, colonialism. It was really only after the Sweden Democrats took over the banners of both the welfare state and opposition to the EU that the parties of the left – V, MP, and S – have gradually turned more or less into enthusiastic supporters of the EU.
Today's anti- or post-national rhetoric cannot be traced to a historical penchant for post-national Utopias. It has rather more contemporary roots. Firstly, the nation and nationalism in the mid-1980s became the focus of researchers such as Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson. In the deconstructive spirit of the time, the nation often came to be perceived as a ‘social construct’, an ‘invented tradition’ (Hobsbawm), or an ‘imagined community’ (Anderson). In the same way that masculinity and femininity, for some gender researchers, came to be seen as narrow and exclusionary forms of insidious essentialism and limiting normalisation, the nation came to be seen as artificial and false, like a social and political straitjacket.
This was an idea that took root even among journalists, who did not always understand that a scientist such as Benedict Anderson, in fact, saw the nation as very real and legitimate. As an ethnographer with strong leftist sympathies, he took as his starting point, a little like Palme, Indochina’s contemporary anti-colonial war of independence. For him, nationalism was a step forward in human development, linked to the democratic liberation movements that linked the American patriots of the 1700s to Vietnam's contemporary national liberation movement into a common, historic project from imperialism to national sovereignty, from autocracy to democracy.
But this academic-coloured critique of the idea of the nation might not have had the same impact among liberals and on the post-socialist left if it had not coincided with the emergence of a new political vision based on the idea of ??human rights. After the Berlin Wall fell, it came to replace the tarnished socialism as the secular religion that could, more than others, attract young idealists. In time, human rights ideals, often in alliance with the environmental movement, came to find expression in both popular academic programmes as well as political movements. For the liberal thinker, human rights were also linked to a critique of the welfare state and the affirmation of a post-national order, where companies and individuals were free to run riot in the global market society without being disturbed by meddling politicians with the national, democratic agendas.
Human rights ideology assumes that each individual is a carrier of certain fundamental rights and freedoms. At first glance, these universalist claims resemble the modern concept of citizenship – something that is hardly surprising since these two ideals share historical roots. Both are cornerstones of modern political theory, where the primacy of the family, the clan and status is replaced with liberal notions that all individuals have the same value.
The link between civil and human rights is captured clearly in the French and American revolutions’ founding documents. The American Declaration of Independence in 1776 thus begins with the famous words that "all men are created equal with inalienable rights". In the French "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" from 1789, it can, in the same spirit, be read that "all men are born and remain free and equal in rights" and that "the aim of all political association is the preservation of natural and inalienable human rights".
In other words, we are dealing here with two trump cards in political rhetoric. Both are expressions of the same impulse to expand the boundaries of freedom and community. Within the new national states, over time, it took the form of the struggle to expand citizenship and rights from the (white) men to all individuals in the nation. This was the utopian talk of ‘all people’ – a powerful rhetorical springboard for women, workers, the religious, and sexual and ethnic minorities, which resulted in historically successful civil rights movements in Western national democracies.
But, from the beginning, one can identify a latent tension between these figures of thought and the political utopias to which they act as midwives. If you read on in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, you will be met by an important limiting principle, namely the idea of ??the nation and its sovereignty: "All the supremacy (sovereignty) is derived from the nation. No organisation or individual may exercise any authority that does not come directly from the nation". The question, then, becomes the extent to which the nation's sovereignty and citizenship’s primacy, on the one hand, and the individual's inalienable rights as a human being, on the other, strengthen or conflict with each other.
One answer is that, as long as the future vision requires a federalist political system, it nullifies – in large part, in any case – this conflict. This was also the essence of how, for example, Immanuel Kant was thinking when he wrote his treatise on "perpetual peace". And, to a great degree, federalism has also been the concrete form that democratic attempts have taken in order to expand the framework of liberal universalism. The League of Nations, the UN, the EU and the US are all political structures built from below, with nation states – constituent states – as the basic units.
One problem with this principle has been that many of the UN member states have in fact suffered from serious democratic deficits. To talk of the British sociologist, TH Marshall: they have not guaranteed their citizens civil rights and political rights, not to speak of social rights. The numerous international conventions that have followed in the wake of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 can be understood as attempts to establish global norms and to nudge recalcitrant regimes in the right direction. A very Swedish and particularly important example, as far as I’m concerned, is the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), where Swedes like Thomas Hammarberg played an important role. To some extent, this convention can also be seen as an instrument to globalise a Swedish or Nordic view of children as autonomous, rights-bearing individuals, rather than as the parents' property in the context of a more traditional family ideology. But such universal claims open up not only a criticism of recalcitrant and reactionary countries in other parts of the world, but also potentially unmanageable demands on Swedish municipalities in a situation where large numbers of children and young people who come to Sweden and require rights with reference to the CRC and other international treaties.
Here, the human rights movement directly challenges national sovereignty. When initially conceived, human rights was more like a list of long-term moral goals than legally chargeable rights, but over time the human rights movement has become an expression of policy legalisation. They have become a part of the rights revolution that swept the world with roots both in the US civil rights movement, and the UN conventions’ growing demand for legally binding status. If social rights in Marshall’s spirit are best understood as an expression of the primacy of national policy in democratic welfare states, human rights are instead linked to the globalised judicial challenge of a national majority politics that is perceived as restrictive and exclusive of domestic minorities and non-citizens.
At the time of writing, the ongoing refugee crisis shows that the former merely latent tension between civil and human rights has now become very tangible: refugees who appeal to human rights are encountering resistance from those who claim citizenship’s priority. Public and non-profit operators are now forced to navigate this minefield. This applies particularly to civil society organisations that have traditionally worked internationally from a human rights perspective, but which also now regularly receive tax funds to carry out operations in Sweden – funds that are primarily intended for citizens.
This legalistic form of universalism is, therefore, in principle conflict with the nation state’s political and moral logic: the nation as a community of solidarity and the state as a sovereign political and legal institutional order. If having no borders is a characteristic of utopian human rights, the idea of ??citizenship in the nation state is based on borders and a more cynical and realistic understanding of the nation state as a stalwart insurance company, where citizens work, pay taxes and therefore deserve their rights.
It was with this crucial insight into the human mind that Hannah Arendt, after World War II, made her groundbreaking observations about the paradox of modern democracy and citizenship’s central role as the "right to rights". And we still live with this paradox, that national democracy is, at the same time, both a powerful instrument for inclusion, solidarity and liberation of the nation and its citizens, and an equally fundamental tool for the exclusion of those who are not nation state citizens.
The paradox is about the conflict between moral ideals and firm power in the form of the dispensation of justice. The moral principle of human equality nourishes this quest. But this can be achieved only if democracy, the tax base, the rule of law and the power of law enforcement reach beyond the nation state’s boundaries. And sometimes we also encounter the idea that a democratic state free from the notions of national identity could be possible. And, by extension, a world of post-national states populated by the post-national individuals.
But we have not come close to that, and the danger is that the human rights critique of the nation state is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Not least, the left’s cluelessness is striking in this regard. They, more than anyone, should realise that the democratic nation state, historically, has been their best friend, without which policy towards solidarity and equality would hardly have been possible. For the bourgeois right, things are different; the state, especially the welfare state, is often painted as a problem. But even here you can see a naiveté emerging; without the nation states' investments in infrastructure, education, health, justice, defence and banking, it is unclear how well a turbo-charged free market would work. There are good reasons to analytically separate the concepts of state, nation and democracy. But the link between them is equally important and the question is whether they can operate without each other.
For the same reason, it becomes important for us to think more realistically about the relationship between human and civil rights. On the one hand, we must accept that two equally legitimate solidarity ideals stand against each other. There is no point in using human rights idealism as a rhetorical bat against civic solidarity, just as human rights idealism cannot be dismissed as illegitimate. On the other hand, we need a more cool-headed way of clarifying the difference between different types of rights.
The long-term, and, at present, utopian goals enshrined in various international conventions are essentially different from those legally binding contracts that constitute national welfare systems. Today, there is a certain confusion about the legal status of international conventions. This is captured well in the report Civil Rights Defenders published in December 2015, where it sometimes seems to imply that international treaties should have priority over national sovereignty. This can, it finds, be justified in terms of negative rights, which is basically about anti-discrimination legislation. However, it becomes problematic when this logic is applied to positive rights, i.e., social rights that cost money, and which are ultimately paid by citizens through taxes.
To a certain extent, the confusion is that human rights policy is based on a movement from politics to law, where citizens' democracy is set against more elitist projects that are grounded in conventions with legal claims. Human rights movements, like environmental movements, tend to be not just post-national, but also post-democratic. The label of ‘populism’ is now used increasingly to disparage ‘the people’ when they do not think the same as the ‘enlightened’ elites, and this is an ominous sign. There is reason to warn of a growing gap between democracy and law that simultaneously acts as a tension between post-national elites and nation-minded citizens.
Here, one can draw lessons from the American civil rights movement, where an excessive faith in the courts allowed the gap between popular support and its own beliefs become too big, which led to a still-ongoing ‘backlash’. It may also be appropriate to note that this global legalisation has, so far, mainly served the needs of large companies to deal with conflicts on their own terms, rather than creating effective global legal tools to promote human rights.
In the end, it will be crucial that both bourgeois parties and leftist parties mature in their understanding of and fight against the Sweden Democrats. Much effort has been put into an overheated rhetoric that casts the Sweden Democrats and their supporters as racists, with their roots in 1930s’ Nazism. In addition, this criticism of the Sweden Democrats often takes the form of a self-glorifying moralising that repels precisely those citizens who they want to convince, thus missing the core of the Sweden Democrats' strength: their nationalism. It is an old wisdom that, if one is to defeat an opponent, one must first and foremost counter them where they are strongest (in the Sweden Democrats' case, their nationalism), not where they are weakest (their supposed racism).
Therefore, the fight must be about who is writing the story of Sweden and what Swedish society stands for, both historically and in the future. And the way forward can, then, not be about denying or contesting the nation and the nation state’s legitimacy. On the contrary, we cannot, even if we as a long-term goal strive for a global, cosmopolitan world order, overlook the national level, especially when all democratic politics that have legitimacy still exist right within nation states.
Lars Trägårdh is a professor of history and civil society at Ersta Sköndal University College.