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During the past few decades, globalisation grew stronger and stronger, while nation-states increasingly transferred their sovereignty to supranational institutions. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West entered a period of massive economic growth and technological development gave it more means to communicate with each other and revolutionised the means of production. The world became like a Global Village in which globalisation and internationalism looked like the final earthly frontier.

Multiculturalism became the norm for our socialist and liberal elites, and borders came to be viewed as more of a pest than a fundamental institution of nation states.

Nationalism, Decentralisation and Patriotism

In 2016 and 2017 we saw the rise of nationalists, populists and Brexiteers. Nationalist sentiments have returned to Europe and have been renewed in the United States. Last year, the northern regions of Italy, Lombardy and Veneto, voted in favour of more autonomy in a referendum. In some cases, regionalism differs from nationalism, for example, it sometimes prefers a federalist system over complete independence, but regionalism is a form of nationalism. In any case, these election results signal another sign of the call for more decentralisation in Europe. While the European Union wants to centralise more and more power through its own supranational institution after the Brexit, local and regional communities want to obtain more control on a regional level. Catalonia took it one step further and wants a republic of its own.

So what might be going on here? What’s the reason for the rise of nationalism and patriotism in a world where everything and everyone is connected by the Internet and social technology? Shouldn’t national identities, as a consequence, have ‘evolved’ into something larger, like Western or European identities? These are all legitimate questions, and many people don’t know the answers.

Conservative thinkers tend to ascribe to people a certain craving for community, identity and meaning. They can quote the philosophical thoughts of Burke, De Tocqueville or Ortega Y Gasset on culture and identity. But could these brilliant minds ever have foreseen the enormous effect of the Internet, social media, and modern technology on culture and identity?

Space of Flows, -Time and -Place

For an answer to the questions stated above, one could, for example, turn to the works of Manuel Castells. He wrote many books about globalisation, technological development and the digital world. He’s a sociologist and his social theories are influenced by Marxist ideas. It might seem somewhat odd  to inform Castells about culture and identity, but even a Marxist thinker may every now and then come up with a solid framework.

In his book Grassrooting the Space of Flows (2000), Castells presents the concept of ‘Space of Flows’. Throughout time, in every form of communication and interaction, humans have been dependant on the place and time they live in. People communicated faster with each other when they were in the same area or city compared to when they lived in different countries. With more modern communication, like sending letters via buses, trains, or airplanes and conversations via telephone, communication became a lot easier and faster. But truly ground-breaking was the invention of the Internet and with it, social media. The importance of the place where you lived had by then been almost completely negated.

Castells explains it this way in his book:

“The material arrangements that allow for simultaneity of social practices without territorial contiguity. It is not purely electronic space… It is made up first of all of a technological infrastructure of information systems, telecommunications, and transportation lines.”

Long story short, communication and interaction no longer had a foundation in your place of residence. One can have great friends on the other side of the country or the world, but not know anyone in your own street or community. The space of flows also had effects on national economies, because communication and production-cycles could be constructed every time of the day, anywhere in the world.

Thus, the global 24/7 economy was born. Politicians liberated their economies or integrated their economies to form economic blocs to survive in the global market. These economic shifts created parts in the national communities, where the space of flows was concentrated and capitalised in a space of places, where there is a concentration of the digital- and social infrastructure and expertise. A good example of a space of places is the City in London. 

Identity and Globalism

The economic globalisation and technological progress created a political climate in which nationalism was a dying concept. After the Second World War, nationalism and patriotism got a bad name and the globalisation and technological developments in the 90’s and the 00’s created a political discourse in which nationalism had no place. But Castells explained the contradiction between the space of flows and the construction of identity in his trilogy, The Power of Identity.

Globalisation and the development of an integrated international market create new concentrations of wealth and power in the space of places. This is where the Marxist in Castells pops up, because he explains that new structures of power have been formed by the political-, economic multinational elites which have been formed and have benefitted from globalisation. And he might be onto something.

Corporations like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple: they all have the power, capital, and infrastructure that is needed in this digital and globalised world. Is this the end of the story of an evil capitalist dystopia? No, because Castells proposes another concept that greatly influences the people in the world: identity and nationalism.

Until the end of the 20th century, nationalism has been explained as a system or an ideology to create a nation-state; a state that embodies the construction of history, culture, and identity created by nationalist movements.

Over the last decade, Europe has seen a resurgence nationalism and patriotism. That gave Castells the idea that nationalism could be seen as a reaction and preservation of identity, not merely a tool to create a nation-state. In this world where globalisation effects the cultural and national identity, and also takes away the legitimacy of the nation-states, identity is formed by language, religion, and locality.

Most of the people in the world, who don’t benefit from the international market and globalisation, can’t identify themselves as a ‘Westerner’, ‘European’, or ‘African’. They find meaning, primarily, from identity, religion and their community. He views the rise of populism and nationalism as the intrinsic reaction of the ordinary people to this fast-changing world. You can’t negate that part of humanity and it will eventually clash with the technological developments and further globalisation. In The Power of Identity, he writes:

“Religious fundamentalism, cultural nationalism, territorial communes are, by and large, defensive reactions. Reactions against three fundamental threats, perceived in all societies, by the majority of humankind, at this turn of the millennium. Reaction against globalization, which dissolves the autonomy of institutions, organizations, and communication systems where people live. Reaction against networking and flexibility, which blur the boundaries of membership and involvement, individualize social relationships of production, and induce the structural instability of work, space, and time. And reaction against the crisis of the patriarchal family, and the roots of the transformation of mechanisms of security-building, socialization, sexuality, and therefore, of personality systems. When the world becomes too large to be controlled, social actors aim to shrink it back to their size and reach. When networks dissolve time and space, people anchor themselves in places, and recall their history. When the patriarchal sustainment of personality breaks down, people affirm the transcendent value of family and community, as God’s will.”

In this, one could read that Globalization bares in it the seeds of its own demise, because it strikes at the heart of human experience. The further globalisation continues, the stronger the human experience will react. The nation-state will revolve around culture and identity, the space of flows and space of places will make the economy resolve around globalism. These two concepts develop separately, but react to each other intrinsically.