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An ideology of desire: Orwell’s ‘Notes on nationalism’

Written by: Thomas Bouzereau and Pauline Darrieus

‘The very concept of objective truth is fading in the world… This prospect frightens me much more than bombs’, George Orwell says in Fascism and Democracy. In his ‘Notes on Nationalism’, published in 1945, Orwell develops the above thesis by studying the mechanisms of nationalism, which he defines, in this context, as the feeling of identifying oneself to a nation or other unit, ‘placing it beyond good and evil’, and recognizing no other duty than to advance its interest. Therefore, nationalism does not form as a result of a rational intellectual process based on reality. Instead, the theory of nationalism is moved by emotions and inconsistency. This article will thus dissect the concept of nationalism as described by George Orwell, following the order of the diagram below, before critically reflecting on its relevance and limits.

Good/Evil.

Desires > rationality.

Absolute imposition of subjectivity.

Orwell primarily insists on the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is the devotion to a particular place, way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force it on other people. Whereas nationalism is offensive and inseparable from a desire for power. The nationalist thus seeks to increase the power of the nation, however, this is often accompanied by a centralization of power in the hands of a few individuals. For the concept of the nation is abstract and must be incarnate at some point in individuals in order to impose itself, and depart from the realm of ideals to that of reality.

Another fundamental distinction that Orwell emphasizes between patriotism and nationalism is its universalist intention. What allows nationalism to seize power and use it against others is the nationalistic belief in a binary reality, divided between good and evil, set in a zero-sum game struggle for survival. There is a very telling example of this concept in Animal Farm, when the pigs state that ‘All men are enemies. All animals are comrades’, therefore testifying of the essentialization of the self and the other.

Nationalism assumes that relations are only governed by a power struggle, which is associated all through Orwell’s text with the idea that nationalism is ‘at the mercy of [its] own desires.’ He draws particular attention to nationalist discourses as the emotional enslavement of the mind. In the zero-sum game of nationalism, the nation inevitably deals with the gravest matters in human existence: to live, or to die, to be free, or to be subjugated. This grounds nationalist discourse on a whole array of emotions appealing to large masses. 

Fear is the most prominent of the premises of nationalism. It is manifested as the fear of the other, who represents a deadly threat, be it a different skin colour, creed, political affiliation, ethnicity, or morals. Nationalist emotional politics, mostly based on fear, are potent because they can only trigger extreme responses. If one faces an existential threat, the only reasonable response is to crush it in the most radical way in order to preserve one’s own existence. This essentialised struggle rests on a new, erroneous sense of reason: one cannot possibly deny the undeniable when faced with an existential choice. 

In order to justify fear, nationalists need to draw new, arbitrary boundaries to create an adequate reality in which what is politically reasonable is re-defined. Orwell claims in this fashion that the sense of reality becomes unhinged. Against this backdrop, nationalism legitimises violent political action according to a new understanding of reason. 

However, one may note that this new understanding of reality is often based on irrational premises. Nationalist ideologies always thrive on conspiracy theories denouncing a pretense systemic evil of which society should be purified. Here lies the ultimate paradox of nationalism: it questions tangible reality whilst defining discursive reality as both absolute and incontestable. Reality therefore becomes a political choice, not a tangible agent, while pretending to be the latter. Orwell notes accordingly that nationalist ideologies actively refuse reality when facing ‘intolerable facts.’ Trotskyists could not face the fact that the Russian masses accepted the Stalinist regime. Nationalism operates therefore on a system of intellectual fallacy in which rationality is subjugated by desire. Struggling against our own desires is a moral effort for Orwell. Not doing so would ultimately lead the fair-minded to false theories of denial. 

Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism are very insightful in circumscribing the limit between patriotism and nationalism, and give a clear definition of the concept of nationalistic ideals as motivated by emotions through the desire for more power to the nation. Orwell’s contribution is useful in saying that nationalistic feelings are not strictly attached to a nation as such, but more broadly to any unit claiming a homogenous and totalising essence. Hence, he describes the three pillars of nationalism as first the obsession – for the hegemony of one’s unit- then, the instability of this thought, that can be seen in the discontinuity of national history and thought, and finally, its ability to shy away from reality. However, despite the above characteristics, the notion of nationalism as seen through Orwell’s eyes is still very obviously marked by a theme that is omnipresent throughout his whole literary work. Namely, the obsession and the fear of the disappearance of objective reality, through the manipulation of facts themselves. It is very obviously exemplified in his most famous dystopia, 1984: ‘Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing’.

Featured image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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