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Theodor Adorno on Nationalism

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“The characteristic form of absurd opinion today is nationalism. With new virulence it infects the entire world, in a historical period where, because of the state of the technical forces of production and the potential definition of the earth as a single planet, at least in the non-underdeveloped countries nationalism has lost its real basis and has become the full-blown ideology it always has been. In private life, self-praise and anything resembling it is suspect, because such expressions reveal all too much the predominance of narcissism. The more individuals are caught up in themselves and the more fatally they pursue particular interests—interests that are reflected in that narcissistic attitude, which in turn reinforces the rigid power of the interests—the more carefully this very principle must be concealed and misrepresented, so that, as the National Socialist slogan has it, “service before self.” However, it is precisely this force of taboo on individual narcissism, its repression, that gives nationalism its pernicious power. The life of the collective has different ground rules than those at work in the relations between individuals. In every soccer match the local fans, flouting the rules of hospitality, shamelessly cheer on their own team; Anatole France, today so prone to being treated en canaille—and not without some justification—remarked in Penguin Island that each fatherland stands above all others in the world. People would only need take the norms of bourgeois private life to heart and raise them to the level of society. But well-meaning recommendations in this vein overlook the fact that any transition of this kind is impossible under conditions that impose such privations on individuals, so constantly disappoint their individual narcissism, in reality damn them to such helplessness, that they are condemned to collective narcissism. As a compensation, collective narcissism then restores to them as individuals some of the self-esteem the same collective strips from them and that they hope to fully recover through their delusive identification with it. More than any other pathological prejudice, the belief in the nation is opinion as dire fate: the hypostasis of the group to which one just happens to belong, the place where one just happens to be, into an absolute good and superiority. It inflates into a moral maxim that abominable wisdom born of emergency situations, that we are all in the same boat. It is just as ideological to distinguish healthy national sentiment from pathological nationalism as it is to believe in normal opinion in contrast to pathogenic opinion. The dynamic that leads from the supposedly healthy national sentiment into its overvalued excess is unstoppable, because its untruth is rooted in the person’s act of identifying himself with the irrational nexus of nature and society in which he by chance finds himself.”



Theodor W. Adorno. Opinion Delusion Society. Trans. Henry W. Pickford. The Yale Journal of Criticism, 10(2); 1997: 227-45.


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