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Lifestyle nationalism

21st century nationalism is linked to appearances and emblems; not ethics, but aesthetics, says Bulgarian cultural anthropologist Ivaylo Ditchev.

For several years now it has become increasingly fashionable in Bulgaria to declare oneself a 'nationalist.' At regular intervals intellectuals admit that they have always been nationalists; party symbolism at rallies has been replaced by national emblems and politicians differ only in the temperature of their patriotic metaphors. The sudden success of the neofascist Attaka party, whose leader made it to the second round of the presidential elections in 2006, was of course striking. But the winner, the incumbent mainstream socialist president Georgi Parvanov, was also patriotically packaged starting with his having been an expert on the Macedonian issue for the former State security.

Ivaylo Ditchev photo courtesy of Mr. Ditchev

There is the nationalism on the right which is directed against a Russia that is somehow still viewed as a communist country. And there is nationalism on the left which is directed against America. The xenophobic version feeds on anti-Roma sentiments, and the cultural variant spins yarns of glory to Thracian sages and proto-Bulgarian khans. Left and right have converged and recently a group of former socialist nomenklatura poets and artists issued a public demand to introduce religious instruction in schools, 'our' orthodox creed being the best defence against the current moral degradation.

Curiously enough, patriotic feelings do not run deep. For instance, asked whether they would sacrifice themselves for the fatherland, only one fifth of the Bulgarians felt obliged to answer positively, whereas 44% gave a rather un-patriotic 'no.' As a matter of comparison, 96% say they would sacrifice themselves for their children, with less than one percent giving an outright 'no.' I know this is just linguistic ritual, but the comparison seems interesting nonetheless.

21st century nationalism is different from its earlier incarnations: it is not linked to solidarity or belonging, but to appearances and emblems; not ethics, but aesthetics. You do not live it, you have it, as Erich Fromm famously said. Its popularity is not linked to the heavy guilt-inducing commemorations that never really disappeared from state TV, but to a tacit smuggling of the national into global consumer culture. It is a lifestyle choice to write emails in Cyrillic, to eat 'Czar' pickles or listen to local folk-pop. Moreover, as globalization mixes up populations, there is a growing need to set oneself apart by some simple and clear-cut emblem.

Global franchising has also brought about the reinvention of the national. For instance McDonalds will develop a 'haiduk hamburger', to bridge the gap between global and local, and the reality game 'Survivor' in Rupert Murdoch's TV version divides the participants into two proto-Bulgarian tribes, announcing that they will educate the audience in the spirit of nation's greatest strength (which, as we know, has always been survival). And just think of the American transnational NGO Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance that is designing a quality label 'Authentic Bulgaria' to be bestowed on local tourist sites.

On the other hand, there is local ressentiment about the dark ages of what is known as 'the transition.' Retro-nostalgia for communism is also a factor, of course. Not that some sort of Marxist-Leninist ideology is about to make a comeback. Soc-nostalgia is a way to oppose the foreign cultural dictate that has almost erased the country from the map in the last 17 years. Socialism was the last time manufacturers thought it a good idea (or were obliged to think it a good idea) to give Bulgarian names to their products before everything became Milka or Coca. By consuming one of these retro-products that has started reappearing on the market, you also satisfy your hunger for identity, the poor (retro-socialist) quality notwithstanding.

Then there are the smaller cable TV operators, who associate social and political critique with national pride. Instead of reselling global products (for which they often lack the money) they offer a mixture of 'authentic' folk, clairvoyance, historical data reminders, and of course – telephone calls from viewers taken live by some frowning writer or historian. Hundreds of these cable stations have sprung up thanks to some legal loophole and the relatively low cost of subscription prices, and the sheer quantity of them lends importance to the phenomenon. Suffice it to say that the aforementioned extreme right party started out on one of these cables channels and the commentator Volen Siderov (an anti-communist and anti-Semite in the 90s) went on to become its ultra-nationalist leader. The show opened with Wagner's Valkyries and shots from the First Balkan War.

Another vector of the new national phantasm is certainly the web. If you think that this super-device will bring enlightenment to the planet, you are sadly misled. What it causes is the fragmentation of the public sphere into semi-private, semi-public virtual salons, kafeions, clubs, hammams, call them what you like, where rumours circulate at the speed of light and cock-and-bull stories compete freely with centuries of scientific tradition. One of the favourite topics – aside from where to get free software - is nationalism, and, mind you, there is no censorship here, as no one uses dirty words or steals intellectual property. So all sorts of crazy theories flourish in these spaces, based on partial school-book truths, bold metaphors, aggressive stereotyping of others, and the paranoid assumption that the corrupt politicians are hiding it all under the pressure of the West.

But even in its strange new get-up, nationalism is a symptom of a deep malaise. Instead of being perceived as a safeguard against the storms of globalization, in the minds of the people the EU has gradually become synonymous with it – the closer it approaches, the higher the anxieties. The ordeal of 'the transition' – the fall in employment, the collapse of social standards, insecurity – is mostly to blame on 'them', on the West that forced us to destroy 'our' lovely country. In the most radical view, the EU is something like an occupying force after the end of the lost Cold War.

In the 90s, East-Europeans saw the EU as an ally against the corrupt local elites whom it was supposed to discipline and punish. Now things have changed and the EU looks much more like an ally of those same elites, helping them to consolidate their illegitimate power and regulate their transition loot. There is a desperate cry for justice that no one hears in Brussels, where they insist instead on Realpolitik and liberal permissiveness. As a result, the search for new public morals and the rejection of corrupt politicians has acquired an anti-European edge - Catholic in Poland, anticommunist in Hungary, nationalistic in Bulgaria. This sort of patriotic morality seems to have caught on among the young and I wonder whether, more generally, it has not become cool to be anti-European in Europe, just as it was cool to be leftist in the 70s.

How sad if I am right!

If you ask me, the main problem facing Europe is the dissociation of the two basic pillars of the modern political system: rule of law and democracy. At the beginning of the 90s we naively thought that they were linked, but they are not, they even seem to work in opposite directions. What happens is that the law is gradually transferred to the level of the EU, whereas democracy remains national. Over 80 percent of legislation is imposed on nation-states by obscure institutions of the Union, and countries like the two south-eastern newcomers cannot even translate the 'acquis' at the speed it is produced. Subsequently democracy is taking an increasingly nationalistic turn, combining the rejection of meaningless political correctness with anti-Europeanism, and the desire for moral revival with xenophobia. No democracy at the EU level, less and less legitimacy of law at the level of individual nations. Remember the lesson we were taught by the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, USSR and Yugoslavia. Practising democracy at a republican, rather than federal level, created an impetus that ultimately dissolved the whole. Once the split between 'them,' those who impose the laws, and 'us,' who decide about our lives, has formed, it will be extremely difficult to turn back. Lifestyle will then turn out to have been only the beginning.


Ivaylo Ditchev is professor of cultural anthropology at Sofia University and author.

The article originally appeared in the Tageszeitung on December 13, 2006. The English version was provided by the author himself. - let's talk european