06 décembre 2017

The Nationalism of the Rich

Based on rigorous analysis of the propaganda of five Western European separatist parties (in Catalonia, Flanders, Northern Italy and Scotland), The Nationalism of the Rich (Routledge, December 2017) provides an original explanation about why, in Europe, several rich regions have called for independence and why there are some surprising similarities with the rhetoric of populist political parties. Interview with its author, Emmanuel Dalle Mulle, SNSF Research Fellow at the Graduate Institute.

Your book invalidates the idea that revolutions and independence movements are the consequences of poverty.

I think my book shows that deprivation is always relative and protest can also come from relatively wealthy areas, where a number of people might feel that they are being “exploited’ by the state administration and/or by poorer regions in the same country accused of living on the welfare benefits paid by richer areas. After all, it is not such a surprising event. Quite a few fiscal protest movements have arisen since the late 1970s and early 1980s in Europe and North America. The difference here is that the opposition is not so much framed at the individual level (between poor and rich people) but rather at the regional one (that is, between different areas of the same state). This explains why the nationalism of the rich often is an interclass phenomenon, unifying both the rich and the poor of one territory against the central state or other territories of the country.

Is this phenomenon a new one in Europe?

Yes it is, or at least so I argue in the book. It is not fiscal protest per se that is new, but rather the importance of socio-economic arguments about inter-territorial redistribution in nationalist discourse. When looking at the propaganda of nationalist movements in most of Europe during the 19th and early 20th century, one finds that most claims were about language and culture or political autonomy. Economic demands were not absent, but often secondary and generally coming from poorer areas. This is also because richer groups tended to dominate the state apparatus since states, especially in Western Europe, were usually formed by means of what Charles Tilly has called a “capitalised coercion” model whereby economic and military power tended to coincide around the capital area of a given state. Where this did not happen, and economic power was more disseminated, federal structures were put into place to allow for more autonomy in rich peripheries, thus reducing the likelihood of fiscal protest. We find however two exceptions that might be considered forerunners of the nationalism of the rich: the Catalan and Basque nationalist movements of the late 19th and early 20th century. There, economic arguments were quite important, although not primary, and came from a rich periphery complaining about the backwardness of the central state. Yet they revolved mostly around trade tariffs rather than central expenditure, as the former were much more important than the latter at the time. This is completely different from the fiscal argument based on inter-territorial redistribution that arose in Catalonia at the end of the 1980s, after the construction of the Spanish welfare state.

You say that the nationalism of the rich can be seen as a rhetorical strategy portraying independent statehood as a solution to the dilemma between solidarity and efficiency arisen in Western Europe since the end of the Glorious Thirties. Can you elaborate on that?

Since the mid-1970s, most European states have been confronted with what Paul Pierson has called an age of “permanent austerity”, that is, a period in which their fiscal room for manoeuvre in improving welfare benefits has been greatly reduced as compared to the first three decades after the end of the Second World War – the so-called Glorious Thirties. During the Glorious Thirties improving benefits was almost politically “costless” because states could pay them out of the yearly fiscal dividends “naturally” obtained by means of very high growth rates, but when these slowed down the match between spending and revenue had to be much more tightly controlled and people were faced with a dilemma between solidarity (welfare benefits) and efficiency (the profitability and competitiveness of the economy). This dilemma is due to the fact that the welfare state does not itself produce the resources for redistribution, but depends on the prosperity and profitability of the economy for that. The nationalism of the rich can thus be considered a rhetorical strategy used by parties to get out of the dilemma – again in discourse, not necessarily in practice – because it simply consists in calling for a redistribution of resources from the out-group (the poorer regions of the parent state where welfare recipients are said to be) to the in-group (the members of the national community).

How do you explain this tendency? 

The main argument of the book is that the nationalism of the rich is a consequence of a combination of structural and cultural processes. At the cultural level, there is a sub-state national identity that can be used to mobilise people around ideas of belonging and solidarity. Furthermore, in the cases I analysed, such sub-state national segmentation coincides with economic imbalances between richer and poorer areas. At the structural level, the introduction of Keynesian economics and the welfare state after the Second World War is a key event since the role of the state in managing the economy and welfare increased exponentially. Also, by automatically redistributing resources between richer and poorer individuals, the welfare state and progressive taxation set the ground for inter-territorial redistribution. Yet fiscal protest did not arise before the 1970s because of the peculiar conditions during the Glorious Thirties that we have seen above. When growth rates slowed down considerably, in the mid-1970s, many states experienced fiscal strain, which forced them to increase taxes, reduce spending and resort to budget deficit and public debt. All this, in combination with the cultural factors mentioned above, prepared the ground for the rise of the nationalism of the rich and its inter-territorial arguments of fiscal protest. Besides, one must consider that some states managed such fiscal strain better than others, which explains variation in the strength of the nationalism of the rich in different countries with similar underlying conditions. Thus, state efficiency is also an important variable to be taken into account. 

How can Europe deal with this paradoxical thought: wealth must be produced but not shared?

I do not think that I can properly answer this question, but I can point to an important component of the discourse of the parties analysed in my book. All use the nationalism of the rich to criticise the use of public resources in their parent state, but they do not criticise the welfare state as such. On the contrary, they all want to get more resources back (through independence or more autonomy) to improve welfare for their own national community. This somehow reflects a paradox in public opinion research all around Europe, that is, although the welfare state has long been criticised for its actual functioning, the majority of people in most European countries want to keep it in place. In other words, they like the benefits but not the burden. That the burden can be reduced if only others were not “stealing our resources” is a tempting argument.

Dalle Mulle, Emmanuel. The Nationalism of the Rich: Discourses and Strategies of Separatist Parties in Catalonia, Flanders, Northern Italy and Scotland. Abingdon: Routledge, December 2017.

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