No More Lifeboats
No More Lifeboats
While acknowledging the ongoing emotional and institutional power of the nation as a community of shared fate, we are also clear-eyed about its limitations given the scale of today’s challenges.
In 1974, the science philosopher Garrett Hardin, best known for his idea of the “tragedy of the commons,” published a lesser-known piece in Psychology Today called “Lifeboat Ethics.” The metaphor of Spaceship Earth was at the height of its popularity. But, Hardin observed, this ship had no captain, and the United Nations was a “toothless tiger.” Much better, he thought, to see the world for what it was: a vast ocean where the wealthy sat in a few lifeboats while the poor bobbed in the water alongside, pleading for berth.
The lifeboats were nations, and the drowning had no right to enter. For Hardin, the value of nationalism was the principle of collective self-interest—a group survival instinct. Limited resources meant limited carrying capacity. Nations were common sense, coded deep in the human instinct for self-preservation. Their alternative: “the boat swamps, everyone drowns. Complete justice, complete catastrophe.”
Hardin’s vision resonates in an era when left-leaning parties like Denmark’s Social Democrats are grafting ecological concerns to immigration restrictions, picking up the line that nativists like John Tanton and the Federation for American Immigration Reform have been selling for decades.
The resurgence of nationalism talk in the last few years is undeniable, but attempts to grapple with it have too often defaulted to the “two faces of nationalism” genre. By this schema: on the one hand, nationalism can be inclusive if based on civic principles and redistribution; on the other hand, it can be toxic if based on principles of racial hierarchy and zero-sum defense of existing privilege.
The contributors to this issue find this an inadequate way to approach the topic. While acknowledging the ongoing emotional and institutional power of the nation as a community of shared fate, we are also clear-eyed about its limitations given the scale of today’s challenges. Three factors make it less possible than ever to treat the nation as a gadget that must simply be programmed correctly to work properly.
The first is the global nature of finance. The vision of a world economy of islands (or lifeboats) engaged in trade with one another is a relic of an earlier era. The world economy shows little regard for national borders. This does not mean that national state power is meaningless for rooting the system. On the contrary, it’s essential. Re-nationalizing finance in a meaningful way is a significant challenge that few leaders of the current nationalist resurgence have pursued seriously.
A second factor that makes the lifeboat implausible is migration. Even beyond the ethical questions, the economics of migration are full of complex and unpredictable tradeoffs waved away when political actors on the right and left put forth closed borders as the royal road to social justice.
A third factor, perhaps the one that overshadows all others, is climate change. The reboot of commercial space colonization under the current administration aside, there is little prospect of seceding from the Earth itself. Hardin’s lifeboat, whether escape pod or ark, needs a place to land.
Dissent co-editor Michael Kazin and Nation editor and Dissent editorial board member Atossa Araxia Abrahamian set the parameters of the debate in their opening exchange as they locate “open borders” between right-wing smear and genuine demand and disagree whether nationalism can be used instrumentally or if it is a poison pill to any viable version of leftist politics.
A bracing proposal follows from E. Tendayi Achiume, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Achiume uses the historian’s eye and the lawyer’s logic to reveal that demands for free movement are not as far-fetched as they seem. Histories of empire, often quite recent, involved free movement by settlers outward to the colonies and colonial subjects back to the colonizing states. Recognizing this recent past shatters the seeming common-sense status of the right of nations to control their own borders.
National liberation was always a mixed blessing—both the victory of long struggle but also a way for former colonizers to flee the crime scene and wash their hands of accountability. In her contribution, Adom Getachew shows how the nation-state was never a straightforward destination for freedom fighters like the first Ghanaian head of state, Kwame Nkrumah. Like other anticolonial thinkers, Nkrumah envisioned not only a world free of domination, within which nation-states could prosper and cooperate, but also multinational federations to help secure true national sovereignty. Understood correctly, the history of decolonization is not about the dead end of the isolated nation but about a larger—and ongoing—project of world-making.
“Seek ye first the political kingdom.” This was Nkrumah’s slogan for colonial states. In my article with William Callison, we show how echoes of this call can be heard in the curious case of Aufstehen, the would-be left-populist movement launched in the summer of 2018 by leftist politicians and sympathetic intellectuals in Germany. We show how and why this resurrection of left-wing nationalism failed in the site of the twentieth century’s worst nationalist atrocities, where grassroots energy on the left still drives toward solidarity with foreigners and refugees rather than their exclusion.
The demand of left-nationalists across Europe is a rejection of the rule of “Brussels” and the turn inward to alliances with local forces and traditions. By all appearances, Turkey has performed just such an about-face in the last few years, morphing from aspiring EU member to critic of the rule of globalists and financial elites. Yet, as Cemal Burak Tansel shows in his piece, beyond the rhetoric, little has changed in the concentration of power and wealth in Turkey. The apparent backlash against neoliberalism reveals itself as a new variety of “national neoliberalism,” grafted now onto more overt authoritarianism and appeals to religious authority.
It is not only Turkey where such versions of culturalist neoliberalism rear their head. In Kate Aronoff’s interview with Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek Finance Minister and leader of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 lays out what he sees as the virtues and perils of nationalism after the financial crisis and in the midst of ongoing climate crisis. Varoufakis paints a portrait of the possibility of winning back popular consent from the rising “neo-fascist international” through a Green New Deal in Europe, where virtuous statespeople and experts re-engineer an architecture for ploughing investment into a zero-emission economy replete with new kinds of employment and jobs for all.
In a fitting conclusion to the section, Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright play soothsayers. What version of national and international politics will the slow-moving disasters of climate change bring forth? We are already in what they call Climate Behemoth, as the world’s most powerful nation scorns international treaties on reducing emission and adopts an unapologetic attitude toward the ramping up of carbon-driven growth. We seem far from their version of Climate Leviathan, where an international technocracy steps in to perform large-scale acts of regulation and brokers binding agreements between nations. What role nationalism can play in mobilizing populations toward a future of mitigating climate crisis in a way consonant with the left’s standing goals of social justice will be the ultimate way we judge the politics of the coming years and decades.
That nationalism is a language we know is undeniable. Its colors and myths are well-worn and fit smoothly. For Americans, especially, it is always possible to find a redemptive story somewhere in national history that tells the tale of a better homeland. The authors in this section seek to snap the reader out of such reveries, to unpick the stitching of the flag, and rediscover some order in the jumble of threads we live in.
Quinn Slobodian is the author of Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. He teaches history at Wellesley College.