One hundred years ago, the flamboyant, rabble-rousing Italian poet and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio marched into the disputed city of Fiume on the Adriatic with 2,000 squadristi and set up a farcical Italian regency, appointing himself Duce.
For 15 months, D’Annunzio rehearsed rituals that later would be imitated to tragic effect by Benito Mussolini — the stiff-armed Roman salute, balcony speeches punctuated by Achilles’ war cry from Homer’s epic The Iliad, rhetorical dialogues with adoring crowds. The grandiose D’Annunzio electrified his supporters as he practiced politics in the grand style and promoted the idea of an expanded Mother Italy.
Ignominiously, the vainglorious poet-hero fled Fiume when the first shots were fired by the Italian navy. Nonetheless, D’Annunzio’s ethno-nationalist adventure foreshadowed the era of the demagogues — nationalists who initially attracted the support of angry misfits, but soon channeled the broader disaffection of those who had been left behind as a maturing industrial revolution upended lives and dislocated traditional forms of political order.
A century later, nationalism is on the rise again, threatening to unpick maps that were mainly drawn up by Western nations at the height of their military and economic power.
Nationalist stirrings are being felt across the globe.
In Europe, where leftist Catalan secessionists are threatening to break with Spain, and where Germany last month saw far-right nationalists enter the Bundestag for the first time since the Nazi era. In Africa, where 56 years after British Cameroon and French Cameroon united following a referendum, the marriage seems to be heading for divorce. And in the Middle East, where Iraq’s Kurds voted overwhelmingly last month to set up their own national homeland.
War in Syria has opened up the possibility that the country’s destiny is to be split into three among Shiites, Sunni and Kurds.
For scholars like Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra, there are similarities between the so-called gilded age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the globalization and rapid technological change the world is experiencing now.
The gilding of the late 19th and early 20th centuries benefited some greatly, but masked serious social problems for large swathes of people, building up a widespread sense of resentment that sought refuge in the great ‘isms’ of the time — fascism, communism, anarchism and nationalism.
Writing in his book Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Mishra argues “much in our experience resonates with that of people in the nineteenth century.”
Now as then, many people feel powerless, have lost faith in traditional political authorities to protect them and to restore predictability, and resent unequal distributions of wealth and power. But, he notes, we are witnessing economic-fostered shocks of even greater magnitude than that experienced when D’Annunzio marched into Fiume with “dangers more diffuse and less predictable.”
Communism and fascism appear busted — ideologies which are unlikely to recover from their history of bloodlust. In Russia, the Kremlin is making patriotic loyalty to the state, not communism, the bedrock of its efforts to engineer the resurgence of Russia as a great power.
As frustration builds over marginalization and social injustice, and as expectations about the benefits of material well-being are dashed, nationalism appears increasingly to be the political beneficiary. In Poland and Hungary, nationalist governments are in power, defying the European Union on burden-sharing when it comes to the influx of refugees and asylum-seekers from the Middle East and sub-Sahara Africa.
Ethno-nationalist movements can be seen developing across the globe, challenging globalization and immigration. In Europe, many have been around for some time, but have gained traction through digitally-savvy campaigning, mobilizing political support by blending ethnic-centric memes of shared ancestry, religion and language with populist attacks on corrupt elites’ accused of selling out their countries for their own benefit.
When it comes to Europe and America, what’s changed according to Bart Bonikowski, a Harvard professor of sociology who studies populist and nationalist movements, is how nationalist-populist ideas appear as salient to more and more people.
Earlier this year — in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” election and as European far-right nationalist leaders such as France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini held their first congress of the Europe of Nations and Freedom — Bonikowski argued in the Harvard Gazette that many factors were conspiring to heighten the anxiety the nationalists are feeding off. Those factors include economic crises, persistent inequality, demographic change and fears associated with terrorism, along with local political developments like the perceived non-representativeness of the EU governance system or paralysis in Washington.
“All of these things have generated some level of anxiety among particularly white, native-born populations and a perceived status loss at the group level among these folks, which then makes both nationalist and populist claims — and, especially, nationalist-populist claims — more resonant and more salient than they had been in the past,” he said.
Using social media
Ethno-nationalists not only cheer each other on using social media — helping to reinforce and magnify the message of each — they also campaign for each other. Britain’s leading Brexiter Nigel Farage made several appearances with Trump during last year’s White House race, and campaigned in Germany in last month’s federal elections at rallies for the Alternative for Germany.
Ethno-nationalists also learn from each other, swapping notes on what has proven effective in rallying support and winning elections, and what fails. EU officials fear others — from the Flemish in Belgium or would-be secessionists in the nooks and crannies of Europe — will be spurred to copy this month’s independence poll in Catalonia, Spain’s restive north-east province.
In Africa and the Middle East, the mix of factors spurring ethno-nationalism are different from Europe, but economic change and demographic change wrought by immigration also figure prominently, say analysts.
When it comes to migrant influxes, Western-focused international media coverage has focused on the flows from developing countries into Europe and the U.S., but migration movements are also huge between developing countries. In the past 15 years, Asia added more immigrants than the U.S. or Europe combined. About 20 million people from Bangladesh are living illegally in India, spurring the Hindu supremacism of Narendra Modi and his BJP.
Nativism is growing swiftly not only in Europe and America. Pakistan wants to evict Afghan immigrants; and Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria are among several sub-Saharan states that have talked of expelling migrants.
‘Everybody against everybody else’
And the inequitable distribution of wealth and power also is playing a role in fueling would-be separatist movements, as is the failure of economic growth and technological innovation to meet the expectations of rapid material improvement. The availability of social media and mass communications gives those shut out from prosperity a clear view of what life is like for those rewarded by globalization, prompting not only aspiration but envy and frustration.
Mishra, in his book The Age of Anger, quotes Hannah Arendt, the German-born American political theorist, who warned of how globalization risked triggering “a tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat universal irritability of everybody against everybody else.”
In Nigeria, Igbo activists are calling for a breakaway Biafra state as resentment mounts, with people in the south-east saying successive governments in Lagos have failed to use the country’s oil-wealth to develop and invest in their region. In 1967, control over oil production in the Niger Delta was a major factor in Biafra’s effort to break away from Nigeria, which led to a brutal three-year civil war that claimed the lives of as many as two million people, before the secessionist rebellion was defeated by government forces.
A divided Western response didn’t help to prevent the Nigerian civil war — nor to end it quickly. Britain and the Soviet Union backed the Nigerian government; while France and Israel supported Biafra. In September 1968, then-U.S. presidential candidate Richard Nixon noted: “Until now, efforts to relieve the Biafra people have been thwarted by the desire of central government of Nigeria to pursue total and unconditional victory and by the fear of the Ibo people that surrender means wholesale atrocities and genocide. But genocide is what is taking place right now — and starvation is the grim reaper.”