National Solidarity and Social Solidarity

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National Solidarity and Social Solidarity

This paper published in Cahiers du département de sociologie, Université de Montréal, no 97-02, 1997, 23 p. ISSN: 0831-4438, ISBN: 2-89463-014-x. Cet article est également paru dans Le Devoir, 14 mai 1997, p. A11.


There are new trends in contemporary left wing thinking. We are discovering the importance of nationalism. Left wing philosophers like David Miller[1] and Yael Tamir[2] have argued that nationalism can be liberal. Nationalism is according to them compatible with political liberalism. More specifically, it is compatible with the promotion of an egalitarian liberal political philosophy.

Some also argue that when it is properly understood, it may even create favourable conditions for the implementation of liberal policies, as opposed to conservative policies. If we define broadly nationalism as the promotion of the collective rights of a nation, then nationalism may include, among other things, a defense of the principle according to which the nation-state is one of the best, if not the best, form of political authority. Nations have collective rights, and one of them is the moral right to self-determination. And very often, self-determination leads to the creation of a nation-state. This is the reason why nationalism may be associated with the promotion of the nation-state as a priviliged form of political authority.

Now, with such a restricted sense to the word "nationalism", a lot can be said for it in connection with the implementation of liberal policies. John Rawls, for instance, introduces his principles of justice in relation with what he calls a "well ordered closed society", and in practice, he often compares this simplified model with actual nation-states[3]. The choice of such a simplified model is essentially political, but it seemed to be constrained by important facts concerning membership in a political community. We don't choose to be part of our political community in the way we choose to be part of an association. The simplification supposes that the individual members enter and leave the community only by birth and death. For Rawls, membership in a national public culture seems to play an important role in the individuation of the person, and this seems to be the reason why he chooses the simplified model of a closed society.

Now, the point I want to make is that this simplified model is the one that must be retained according to Rawls in order to be able to introduce the two fundamental principles of justice. This suggests that the nation-state is an important form of political organization, for it seems to be the required framework for the implementation of liberal policies. By arguing in this way, Rawls is not far from saying that national consciousness is a necessary condition for social consciousness. Of course, he never even comes close to saying this explicitly. But the liberal philosopher who endorses the claim would feel perfectly at ease with most things Rawls has to say concerning the appropriate political framework for liberal ideals of justice[4].

There are also many contemporary left wing thinkers who share the idea that there are important drawbacks with globalization and competitivity and who think that a certain amount of nationalism is required for counterbalancing the negative effects of the free circulation of capital, labour, services and goods. A philosopher like Philippe Van Parijs, for instance, thinks that a left wing political philosophy has to be Rawlsian in spirit, and adds that Rawlsians must also be "patriots"[5]. According to van Parijs, those who endorse political liberalism must also accept the important consequences that it involves for an individual ethics. He suggests that patriotism is one of the consequences that follows from such an endorsement.

These new trends can also be observed in Quebec. The three major trade unions support the sovereignty of Quebec. Almost all of their members are strong nationalists. During the last referendum campaign, the sovereignists were confronted almost on a daily basis to the representatives of big multinational companies such as SNC Lavallin and Power Corporation. A large number of socialist thinkers in Quebec are also siding with the sovereignists.We could mention, for instance, people like Gilles Bourque/Gilles Dostaler[6], Stanley Bréhaut-Ryerson[7] and Kai Nielsen[8]. Quebec intellectuals are for the most part favourable to the nationalist movement in Quebec. Could all these thinkers be wrong? Of course there is still perhaps nowadays a majority of socialists that would condemn all forms of nationalism, but what can we say about this new trend[9]?

The Thesis

I would like to investigate the connection that holds between national solidarity and social solidarity. By "national solidarity", I mean the existence of a certain form of nationalism held by the majority of a population belonging to a particular nation. Here the key word is that of a "nation". A nation, as I see it, depends on the existence on a given territory of a political community that includes a national majority (the largest sample in the world of a group of people with a certain language and culture), national minorities (extensions of another nation living on a closely situated territory) and individuals of different origins. The "culture" of the national majority may simply be understood as involving the existence of a common public language (the one used by the national majority), a common structure of culture (institutions such as the constitution, the parliamentary system, courts of justice, museums, newspapers, radios, librairies, cinemas, etc.) and a context of choice (cultural, moral and political influences coming from outside countries that share the same history, geography, or language). To put it crudely, a nation is a national majority that enters into a political community on a given territory with national minorities and individuals of different origins.

There are, of course, all sorts of nationalisms. Some of them may be illiberal, while others may at least be compatible in principle with liberalism. I am going to concentrate on forms of national solidarity which are not illiberal. I am going to take it for granted that there are certain forms of nationalism which are compatible in principle with one version or another of political liberalism. I am also going to avoid as much as possible identifying national solidarity with a particular sort of nationalist sentiment. Nationalist sentiments may take different colorations in different cultures and for different individuals. They can be romantic and particularistic. They may involve a certain degree of parochialism. They can be founded upon ethnicism, patriotism, or chauvinism. But I wish to avoid as much as possible an identification of nationalism with a particular kind of emotion. By avoiding to do so, we might escape a pejorative characterization. I will take it for granted that we can adopt a rational attitude towards the problem. By nationalism, I simply mean the defense and promotion of the collective rights of the nation. We could label it "political nationalism".

By "social solidarity", I do not mean anything so specific as to include a particular political ideology such as socialism, social democracy or communism. I am rather thinking essentially about economic benefits for the poor. I mean to refer to a set of measures that will benefit the less favoured members of society. Examples of such benefits are equalization payments, social welfare and unemployment insurance. I am thus wondering whether national solidarity creates favourable conditions for the implementation of such measures. By "favourable conditions", one could mean either sufficient or necessary conditions. I want to investigate whether national solidarity is more than simply compatible with social solidarity.

There is a prima facie case to be made for the suggestion that national solidarity creates favourable conditions for at least a certain amount of social solidarity. It could be argued that a community in which we find a strong national solidarity between its members encourages individuals to see beyond their own interest in dealing with other citizens. National solidarity is what allows one to feel that she is a full citizen and to recognize other members of the community as equal. (By "citizen", I mean a member of a certain political community and not necessarily of a member of a sovereign country. A country may involve many different political communities) By being members of the same nation, individuals have an empathy towards each other, and this creates favourable conditions for a genuine concern regarding the fate of all members. It is in the name of nationalism that we can sometimes prompt citizens to do their part, to make sacrifices for the poor and fight against exclusion. Nowadays, with high unemployment and scarce public funds, national solidarity becomes indispensable. Without it, we shall not achieve equitable solutions.National solidarity is more than an idealist catch phrase, it has important social repercussions.

Is National Solidarity a sufficient condition for Social Solidarity?

There are a number of problems with such an argument. The most obvious one is that there are counterexamples that falsify the claim. There are cases where nationalism is not a sufficient condition for social solidarity. In several different countries, there is a strong nationalist sentiment shared by the different members of the population and yet, no true social solidarity seems to emerge from this. That point is obvious enough. But it does not show that national solidarity is not a necessary condition. If national solidarity does not immediately alter the social climate, it is perhaps not to be blamed. It might still be a requirement that must be met. In addition to national solidarity, there must perhaps be a sincere consensus over fundamental principles of justice. When national solidarity is combined with a sincere consensus over these principles, it yields social solidarity. And it could be argued that there is no hope of securing at the local level a consensus on fundamental principles of justice in a society in which no one feels the same attachment to a common public language, a common context of choice and a common structure of culture. By belonging to the same nation, we acquire a certain empathy with the other members, and it is this empathy which creates favourable conditions for putting ourselves, so to speak, into the shoes of our fellow citizens.

The same kind of remarks would apply at the multinational level. Again, in the minimal sense in which I am using the term, nationalism as such does not interfere with the emergence of an international social consciousness. On the contrary, it might be a necessary condition for it. What's missing, though, is perhaps an ethics of nationalism, or a "law of peoples" to use Rawls' happy phrase[10]. An international consciousness would take place only if nationalism were to go hand in hand with the acceptance of certain fundamental principles concerning the relationship between peoples. We can and must be nationalists, but we must in addition respect the equality of all peoples. We must accept that each nation has a right to an equal development, an equal access to natural resources, and an equal right to an economic infrastructure. And the idea is that it is only if we allow for a certain nationalism at the local level that we are going to create favourable conditions for the emergence of an ethics of nationalism at the international level.

Even when conjoined with a law of peoples, nationalism would probably still not suffice to create an international social consciousness if we don't endorse as well for our own people the fundamental principles of justice. But once we do, nothing will prevent a true international social consciousness from occurring.

To sum up the argument. At the local level, nationalism in the minimal sense of the word, which entails only a defense of the collective rights of the nation understood as a particular kind of political community, is a necessary condition for social solidarity. Together with an egalitarian ethics such as the one favoured by Rawls in his two principles of justice, it can yield social solidarity. And nationalism creates favourable conditions for the emergence of a sincere consensus concerning these fundamental principles. At the multinational or international level, nationalism must be completed by an ethics of nationalism or a law of peoples. Understood together, these two ingredients would form a necessary condition for the emergence of an international social consciousness. What's missing in order to attain a sufficient condition is perhaps an acceptance of the fundamental principles of justice. In other words, if nationalists accept these principles for their own community and accept the law of peoples, they will automatically be endowed with an international social consciousness.But could it be that national solidarity is not even a necessary condition for social solidarity? It seems at first sight that we can argue in this way. There seems to be manifestations of social solidarity that run against national solidarity. Let us consider for a moment advanced industrial western countries. A good example seems to be Scotland. The Scottish working class seems to entertain more solidarity with the British working class than it does with the remaining part of the Scottish nation. But is this a good example? Is it a case of a place where there exists both a national solidarity held by the majority of the population and, simultaneously, a social solidarity that runs against it? It might be argued instead that national solidarity is still in the making in Scotland. So it is not an example of a nation in which both national and social solidarities run counter to each other. In a country such as England with almost no peasant class, a very large number of workers have been more than everywhere else very deeply affected by the industrial revolution. This fundamental economic factor is still at the core of the experience of the working class in Britain, and this is also true of the Scottish working class. Of course, the industrial revolution has had an enormous impact all over the world. But in countries such as Britain with almost no peasant class, the working class experience has been pervasive and it still is present more than in most other western countries. Furthermore, the Scottish population as a whole does not have a distinct language and distinct state from the British. There is no local government available for control by the Scottish National Party. These different factors contribute to the difficulties encountered by an emerging national consciousness on the part of the Scottish population.

Is National solidarity a necessary condition for social solidarity?

There also seems to be many other counterexamples to the claim that national solidarity is a necessary condition for social solidarity, especially if we go back in history. It cannot be denied that nationalism was often used by the bourgeois class in order to increase their economic advantages against the working class. But the question that must be asked is the following : now that we've entered both an economic globalization and a technological revolution, is it still possible to ignore the possible misfortunes of national economies? And isn't it true that those who want to preserve the national economy very often have to fight against the negative effects of globalization? And is it possible to expect social solidarity to take its roots directly at the international level? Must we not move, first, from national solidarity to strong local governments that are the expression of this national solidarity, and then to the creation of a multinational political solidarity between these different states that would counterbalance the negative effects of the global economy? We can appreciate these questions both from an international and from a domestic level.

Let us look at the international level first. We can perhaps do more than simply reassert that social solidarity begins at home. There are other coincidental interests shared by nationalists and those who entertain a certain amount of international social consciousness. When the economy is concentrated more and more into the hands of a small number of persons, there emerges a conflict between whole populations and the growth of capital. The global economy enters into a clash with the requirements of national economies. And as the middle class finds itself losing its economic power into the hands of an economic elite, larger chunks of the population within the nation may come to feel that they are, so to speak, on the same side of the fence. As the population involved into this change becomes wider, national and social solidarities coincide more and more.

At the same time, from a domestic perspective, the technological revolution imposes its own pressures on the nation as a whole. National economies must try to counterbalance as much as possible the negative effects of globalization by developping technologically sophisticated goods. This very often generates a lot of tensions within society, but it can also sometimes induce a constructive dialogue, especially when the domestic economy is to a very large extent based upon small and medium size companies. (Compare and contrast : Bell Canada which generates huge profits but still cuts large numbers of employees in order to compete globally with AT&T in East Asia; small and medium size companies like Soft Image (before it was sold to Microsoft), which could only be possible in a context in which highly skilled individuals are trained in universities, in which an efficient transfer of information takes place between different kinds of expertise, and in which a creative effort exploits the imaginative resources of local talent.)

One could hardly resolve the problems occurring within national economies that are vulnerable to the negative effects of globalization without a productive dialogue between the various socio-economic agents. As the middle class loses its economic power and becomes closer and closer to the average citizens, there appears to be common interests emerging between small and medium size companies on the one hand, and the remaining socioeconomic agents on the other hand. In a growing number of national economies, we now face enormous economic problems which are partly the result of the negative effects of globalization : unemployment especially for the young people, poor (especially monoparental) families, economic dependence, the high school dropout rate, the shrinking social programs, the deficit and the debt. In order to solve these economic problems, there must be concertation, synergy, collaboration and cooperation between the different socio-economic agents belonging to these less favored national economies. But we can ask : what is the common interest shared by trade unions, small and medium size private companies, colleges, universities and governments? If they are to cooperate, collaborate and consult with one another, the society as a whole must be united. There must be a solidarity between all these economic agents. But where does this sort of solidarity come from, if not from a national solidarity?

I am not suggesting here that this kind of collaboration is possible in all countries and with all the socioeconomic agents. The argument is compatible with the fact that a large number of countries are not in a position to hope for such a solidarity to be reached. But there should be a strong connection that holds between national and social solidarity for national economies which are victims of globalization, in which there is a lack of multinational companies, and in which there are pressures for a strong concertation between the different socioeconomic agents. The more we feel the negative effects of globalization on the national economy and the more we feel the pressures of having to develop products with a high level of technology, the stronger is the link between nationalism and social consciousness.

National solidarity must increase as we become victim to the globalization process, and it creates favourable conditions for a synergy between the socioeconomic agents within the national community. The result of such a synergy is a favourable regional development. It guarantees positive effects upon local companies. It also encourages the process of collective learning, in that it permits a more effective transfer of technology. Further, it induces permanent growth. It ensures inter-regional and inter-generational equity. Finally, it promotes the healthy maintenance of the national human resource on the national territory, because it discourages its more skilled citizens from leaving the country.

So my provisional conclusion is that national solidarity is nowadays becoming a necessary condition for social solidarity, as long as we define the nation in terms of a political community between a national majority and minorities, as long as we restrict our claim to countries in which the economy is not run by a large number of multinational companies, and as long as we restrict the claim to countries which are not deprived of certain capabilities for the development of innovative technological products. National solidarity, in these cases, will yield social solidarity at the local level if the members sincerely endorse, in addition, fundamental principles of justice such as those put forward by Rawls. And here I'm suggesting that national solidarity is a first step in that direction. If all the members of such a society have a true national consciousness, there is hope to witness a certain amount of social consciousness. And it would yield a social solidarity at the multinational level as long it goes together with the sincere adoption of a law of peoples.

Intellectual Socialists against Nationalism

Why do most left wing intellectuals still think that nationalism is reactionary? The first answer is that some of them have a view of the world economy which is still to a very large extent inspired by the industrial revolution of the last century. They do not sufficiently take into account the negative effects of a global economy upon the national economies. I suppose though that only a small minority of left wing intellectuals could nowadays ignore these important facts.

The second reason is that some of them live in countries that host a large number of multinational companies. In these countries where there are enormous differences between the rich and poor, increased by the presence of numerous large scale companies, the idea of a national solidarity can only sound suspicious. In the United States, for instance, what does an appeal to national solidarity amount to? The difference between the rich and poor in the US is simply devastating, the country is enormous and it is the biggest economic power in the world. So it almost makes no sense to think that there could be a chance of creating in the US strong links between national solidarity and social solidarity. The "efforts" of Bill Clinton for a national health care program have soon given way to a complete capitulation on his part. Pace Leonard Cohen, democracy is not coming to the USA.

But the last reason why left wing intellectuals reject nationalism is perhaps the most important. Some of them mistakenly reduce nationalism either to ethnic nationalism (of the Nazis and the Serbs, for instance) or to an exclusively civic nationalism (of the French and the Americans, let's say). But these two forms of nationalism (the ethnic and the exclusively civic) clearly go against the adoption of liberal principles of justice and/or against the law of peoples. Ethnic nationalism is, by definition, illiberal at the local level and agressive or imperialist at the international level. So it cannot be compatible with the acceptance of liberal principles of justice and of an ethics of nationalism.

But what about an exclusively civic form of nationalism? In what sense can we claim that it is not easily compatible with political liberalism? And in what sense is it a driving force against the sincere acceptance of a law of peoples? Let us look at it from a domestic perspective first. We must admit that an exclusively civic nationalism can fail to be democratic. And even when it is, it can fail to be liberal. Even worse, it cannot easily appeal to a political ideal. It can only appeal to civic virtues. It cannot rely on important factors like the sharing of a common public language, a common context of choice or a common structure of culture. The civic ties that it promotes are too thin to induce solidarity or even empathy between all the members of society. In short, an exclusively civic form of nationalism fails to be a plausible source of solidarity. We should and must look at it with suspicion[11].

If we now turn to the relationship between civic nationalism and the adoption of a law of peoples, the diagnosis is even worse. In a sovereign country which turns out to be multinational, the adoption of an exclusively civic form of nationalism leads to a systematic exclusion by the majority nation of the collective rights of the minority nations. This is what has been going on for instance in Canada. Most English Canadians subscribe to civic nationalism, and it is for that reason that they fail to recognize the collective rights of Quebecers and of First Nations. In short, they violate the principle of the equality between peoples.

On the international scene, the civic nationalist can adopt at least two distinct courses, but each one of them yields no favourable results for the emergence of an international social solidarity. The civic nationalist may promote, first, the creation of a supranational government which would not take the form of a community of nations. For instance, she may promote in Europe the replacement of national identities for each of the European nations by a European identity. Those who would want to defend these views would not even want to accept a subsidiarity principle like the one found in the Maastricht Treaty. Or she may alternatively oppose to a law of peoples by refusing any supranational order. The civic nationalist will in this case defend an old view of the nation-state. Like Britain under Thatcher or Major in its relationship with Europe, it will resist any form of political union with other countries. It will be protectionist, self centered and reactionary.

These two different attitudes towards the international community seems at first sight quite opposite. What could be more different from Margaret Thatcher's relationship with Europe than the view held by Jacques Delors and so many others who have favoured a political union for Europe? But in fact, these two views share a common premise. According to both, the only possible political identity is an exclusively civic one. And thus they both share the view that concerning Europe, we only have a choice between two identities : one based upon the old civic nation-state model, or the other based upon the new supranational civic state. The only difference between lies in the choice that each one makes. What is so remarkable is that they both ignore the importance of national consciousness as a ciment for social unity and of a a law of peoples founded upon the mutual recognition of the different nations composing the international community. The reaction against the European Union in Britain is in essence a conservative reaction that stems from an outdated view of the nation-state. And the promotion of Europe by many defenders of the Maastricht Treaty is founded upon an irrational rejection of all forms of nationalism. In both cases, the baby is thrown away with the bathing water.

The conclusion that we are reaching is that there are certain forms of nationalism which run counter to social solidarity. I have just discussed the cases of both ethnic and civic nationalisms. But what about a nationalism understood in the sense of the promotion of the collective rights of the nation, where a nation is defined in terms of a political community between a national majority and national minorities? That concept of the nation is clearly not ethnic, since it is pluricultural (by incorporating national minorities) and multiethnic (by incorporating individuals of different origins). And it is neither exclusively civic, since it does not appeal merely to an abstract political community.

Under my account, there wouldn't be nations if there weren't national majorities. With the concept of the nation that I am putting forward, I want to argue that we are promoting a thicker concept of nationality. It involves more than an exclusively civic tie. It entails the existence of a national majority and, very often, of national minorities. In addition to the political community, it involves a common public language, a common specific structure of culture and a common specific context of choice. I submit that if all the members of society shared this view of their nation, then under the additional constraints mentioned above, this would create favourable conditions for the emergence of an egalitarian ethics.

There are also good reasons to believe that with such a view of the nation, we can easily accept an ethics of nationalism. In a way, the law of peoples is almost built in such a concept of the nation. According to that view, each member of the national majority must accept to treat the members of national minorities as part of the nation (and thus, as equal citizens), but they must also, simultaneously, recognize their differences, since they are at the same time extensions of closely situated nations. Conversely, members of the national minorities must go beyond their affective attachment to their closely situated nations, and must accept that they belong to the local encompassing nation. This mutual respect between the national majority and national minorities is in a way the beginning of the acceptance of an ethics of nationalism. It also reveals that our concept of the nation is normative. It is partly the result of ethical considerations both on the part of the national majority and national minorities. For that reason, I submit that my concept of the nation, if accepted, would create favourable conditions for the emergence of an international social consciousness.

Social Unity in a Multinational State

I have argued until now that nationalism can under special circumstances be a source of social solidarity. But of course there can be tensions between national interests and multinational interests. In the very name of social solidarity, we must sometimes make compromises. For instance, what should the liberal nationalist do in the context of an economic association between two or more different "peoples" understood as two political communities? Here I am not referring to economic arrangements such as NAFTA or GATT, but more specifically and perhaps less controversially about economic unions such as the one which is sought by the European countries or the one which is to a certain extent already achieved within Canada. In Canada, whether or not Quebec becomes an independent state, there are enormous pressures on both Canadians and Quebecers to maintain a close economic union. And by an economic union, I mean a single currency, the same trade barriers and a free maket, i.e. a free circulation of labour, capital and goods. When we are confronted with such a reality, it might be argued that the liberal nationalist must favour a certain form of supranational political government, i.e. a multinational state with an elected legislative body, a parliament, a constitutional order and a supreme court. This supranational government might even take the form of a federal system.

Here I am not alluding to the arguments of someone like Thomas Pogge who radically departs from Rawls on these matters[12]. Pogge is an individualist who thinks that there is no significant distinction to be made between justice at the domestic level and justice at the international level. He thinks that one must try to implement liberal principles simultaneously at the international level, and thinks also that these are the same than the ones held by Rawls within the nation-state. Since Rawlsian principles of justice concern individuals, Pogge's position amounts to give absolute priority to individual rights, whether they concern individual liberties or egalitarian principles. This is why he is a moral (or political) individualist. I suggest that we put aside considerations like those of Pogge for the moment.

I am rather referring to the views held by Philippe Van Parijs[13] or Will Kymlicka[14] who think that solidarity is precisely what justifies the survival of multination states. If they are right, the maintenance of an economic union within Europe or Canada should go hand in hand with the creation of a federal system. At least we should so if we agree on the importance of social solidarity. For instance, we must favour a political control over the central bank of Europe (or Canada). We must also favour the adoption of social measures and social norms uniformally implemented in the economic union. The argument, here, is that we must not leave the social protections of workers to the so called "laws of the market". Finally, we must also endorse a supranational system of equalization for the poorer regions. But in order to achieve, apply, decide and implement all these things, there must be a multinational political authority.

Van Parijs, by the way, also defends similar views for Belgium. He thinks, for instance, that solidarity in the case of Belgium requires that policies such as social security, social norms for workers, and unemployment insurance be left at the federal level. Kymlicka explicitly favours a multinational entity in order to save the solidarity between members of different nations.

Now it seems that these considerations enter into a certain tension with nationalists. Should't a nationalist endorse liberation movements for nations belonging to multinational federations? To take an example that dramatizes the problem, must the liberal nationalist within Quebec favour the creation of a nation-state even if Quebec is and must remain into an economic union with Canada, or must she favour the maintenance of a federal system, and thus of the Canadian federation, which is responsible for a certain control over the economic union? In other words, can the liberal citizen ignore the problems raised at the supranational level, and if not, how can that be reconciled with the creation of a nation-state? Can she favour both the creation of a nation-state for Quebec and the maintenance of a certain federalism for the relations between Quebec and Canada? Is the notion of a "federation of sovereign states" a contradiction in terms? Answering no to the last of these questions would perhaps be a way of partly showing how one can be both nationalist at the domestic level, and be a cosmopolitan, at the supranational level. This perhaps would indirectly prove once again that nationalism may be compatible with liberalism.

Nationalism vs Individualism. Is Nationalism compatible with political liberalism?

I shall consider one final objection. I now want to raise, in closing, the problem whose solution I took for granted at the outset of this paper; namely the compatibility between nationalism and liberalism. Some think that a liberal approach is intimately linked with moral individualism. Social solidarity must be closely linked with the well being of individual citizens. We must therefore give absolute priority to the individual. However, the minimal definition of nationalism that I gave involves the promotion of the collective rights of nations. This seems to contradict moral individualism and it thus seems to threaten liberalism itself.

A parallel criticism concerns my use of the law of peoples as a basis for international social solidarity. It might seem objectionable for the following reason. Rawls has precisely been criticized for renouncing the two basic principles of justice in the formulation of his law of peoples. As mentioned above, an individualist like Thomas Pogge thinks that the fundamental principles at the international level must once again be those of A Theory of Justice and of Political Liberalism. In other words, Pogge sees no difference between the international and the domestic levels. The methodology of the veil of ignorance is the same at both levels, and it involves at each time representatives of individuals citizens (of a country or of the world) and not representatives of peoples. Pogge criticizes Rawls for abandoning the difference principle and for renouncing a truly egalitarian law of peoples.

But the mistake in both criticisms is the same. Liberalism must not be confused with moral individualism. Liberalism is certainly directly connected with the promotion of individual freedoms and individual equality, but it is compatible with the preservation of an equilibrium between individual rights and collective rights. Some of the rights of nations, national majorities and national minorities are fundamental. The linguistic rights of these groups, for instance, are fundamental. Collective rights may in certain circumstances impose reasonable limits upon the individual liberties of citizens. We can allow for a tension to take place between some of the interests of the group as a whole and those of individuals inside the group.

For instance, we can allow, not only as temporary but sometimes as permanent measures, certain laws that give predominence to the language of the national majority on the commercial signs within the confines of the national territory. We can also impose the learning of the language of the national majority for the children of immigrants. To give a final example, in the case of a democratice vote favourable to the secession of a nation from a multinational state, we can give priority to the moral right of self-determination of the people as a whole over the individual right of citizens who are against secession. The exercize of a moral right at self-determination for the people supersedes the self-determination of the individuals. The only option left for those who refuse the positive result of a vote on secession is to leave the territory of the nation. These are just some of the examples of reasonable limits imposed by the collective rights of the nation over the individual rights of ordinary citizens.

Liberalism is compatible with an appropriate balance between individual rights and collective rights. One of the reasons why so many people resist this idea is that most liberal philosophers have not until recently reflected upon the problems raised by the legitimacy of nationalist demands. We mistakenly think that since liberal authors put a lot of emphasis on individual freedom and individual equality, this must entail the absolute priority of individual liberties and freedoms under all circumstances over any collective interest whatsoever. But this is an extremely dangerous idea. Moreover, it is founded upon a misreading of the claims made by these liberal authors.

Let us just consider the writings of John Rawls for a moment. Must we not interpret Rawls as defending in Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism only a particular concept of justice and not the concept of justice? The one that he seeks to develop is the one that is relative to the basic structure of a closed well ordered society. But according to Rawls himself, there are other concepts of justice to be developed, namely for instance, the one which is expressed in the law of peoples.

If I am right, this enables us to have another insight into the relationship between liberalism and nationalism. The two liberal principles of justice of Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism apply first and foremost at the domestic level (with perhaps the above proviso inspired by Van Parijs and Kymlicka for multinational entities that are engaged into an economic union), but there are other principles of justice which are additional to the first ones. These principles are formulated by Rawls in the law of peoples. Most of them take the form of collective rights. They could be described as "nationalist principles" in the very mild sense of the expression, because they concern the promotion of the collective rights and obligations of peoples.

These principles state, for instance, that peoples are equal. The subjects of the right are not individuals in this case but collective entities. The two liberal principles of justice apply to individuals within a particular political community, but the principles of justice formulated in the law of peoples, those that I call the nationalist principles, apply to peoples. For Rawls, these two sets of principles must be accepted, and nowhere does he suggest that the liberal conception of justice between individuals should supersede the conception of justice between peoples.

Now we might, along with Thomas Pogge, criticize Rawls for abandoning completely the individualist principles of Theory of Justice at the level of international politics. But even if we would reinstate them as an essential component of a law of peoples, they could be interpreted as competing with the other principles and not necessarily as overriding them, pace Thomas Pogge. This important amendment made for the law of peoples would still be instructive for our reflection on the compatibility between liberalism and nationalism.

Those who subscribe to an individualist interpretation of liberalism (and who see the liberal principles of justice as overriding the nationalist principles) may also be led to think that nationalism is incompatible with liberalism. But those who, like Rawls, try to develop side by side a liberal theory for the individuals and a theory of justice for the peoples do not defend an individualist version of liberalism, and thus are not led to believe in such an incompatibility. These considerations are very important in the context of a multinational state such as Canada in which one should try to implement both the two liberal principles of justice and those that concern the law of peoples.

There are important reasons for wanting to enrich our liberal conception with a law of peoples similar to the one expounded by Rawls (with the proviso that perhaps, under special constraints, this law should include the two principles of justice as well). The compatibility is more than merely a compatibility between progressist "individualist" principles and less progressist collectivist measures such as those that hold between peoples. For as I have tried to argue in this essay, there are progressist effects to be gained from adopting a nationalist law of peoples. By asserting the equality between all peoples, their right to an equal development, an equal access to natural resources, and an equal right to an economic infrastructure, we are defending progressist views. These views have among other things important consequences for the North-South economic relationships. It is very natural for moderate nationalists to accept a nationalist law of peoples, and it must be emphasized that such a nationalism can serve the purposes of an international social solidarity.

Michel Seymour
Membre des Intellectuels pour la souveraineté (IPSO)


  1. On Nationality, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995.
  2. Liberal Nationalism, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1993.
  3. See "The Basic Structure as Subject", in A.I. Goldman, J. Kim (eds), Values and Morals, Dordrecht, 1978, 47-71, footnote 8.
  4. See, for instance, Jocelyne Couture's "Pourquoi devrait-il y avoir un conflit entre le nationalisme et le libéralisme politique?", in François Blais et al (eds), Libéralismes et Nationalismes, Québec, Presses de l'Université Laval, 1995, 51-74. In her paper, Couture shows that in order to create a sincere consensus on the two fundamental principles of justice, Rawls thinks that we may make use of non-liberal strategies. For instance, in order to create a consensus against slavery, the Americans used religious doctrines. In the same way, she claims that we may use national consciousness as a way to generate social solidarity between members of society.
  5. Sauver la solidarité, ƒditions du Cerf, Paris, 1995; "Rawlsians, Christians and Patriots : Maximin Justice and Individual Ethics", European Journal of Philosophy, Vol.1, no 3, 1993, 309-342.
  6. Socialisme et Indépendance., Montréal, Boréal Express, 1980.
  7. Unequal Union: Confederation and the Roots of Conflict in the Canadas 1815-1873, Toronto, Progress Books, 1968.
  8. "Cultural Nationalism, Neither Ethnic nor Civic", Philosophical Forum, Vol. XXVIII, Nos. 1-2, 1996-1997, 1-11; "Secession: The Case of Quebec", Journal of Applied Philosophy, 10, 1, 29-43.
  9. I could have added references to those communitarian thinkers who, like Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer or John Gray, argue that capitalism is an ennemy of the community. But I wish to resist as much as possible the identification of nationalism with a particular form of communitarianism, because my central concern is to establish a connection between a certain form of nationalism and a liberal egalitarian political philosophy. Some communitarians may also want to be liberal, but this opens up an entirely different set of questions that would move us away from our present topic.
  10. John Rawls "The Law of Peoples", dans Stephen Shute et Susan Hurley (eds), On Human Rights, The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1993, New york, Basic Books, 1993.
  11. See for instance, Wayne Norman, "Les points faibles du modèle nationaliste libéral" dans Libéralismes et nationalismes, F. Blais et al (dir), Québec, Presses de l'Université Laval, 1995, 81-93. Norman shows convincingly that civic nationalism does not lead to more social solidarity. But from that point, he draws the erroneous conclusion that nationalism, per se, does not lead to social solidarity. The canadian case is a good example that illustrates the problem. Of course, civic nationalism on the part of Canadians threatens the federation, for it triggers frustration on the part of Quebecers. In this way, it threatens the "social solidarity" that holds in the country as a whole. But from these observations, Norman tries to derive the conclusion that the federation must be founded on no nationalism at all. I submit, on the contrary, that this solution is only a variant of the traditional civic approach and that the best way to maintain the country together is to recognize the multinational character of Canada. The best way to preserve the social solidarity for the country as a whole is to respect Quebec's nationalism and the nationalism of the ROC (rest of Canada).
  12. "An Egalitarian Law of Peoples", Philosophy and Public Affairs, 23, 3, 1994, 195-224.
  13. Sauver la solidarité, op. cit.
  14. "Social Unity in a Liberal State", Social Philosophy and Policy, Vol. 13, no 1, 1996, 105-136.

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