When the dominant African nationalist force, the ANC, won the 1994 elections, it took political control of an existent national state that had been built to secure the dominant interests of a (white) national bourgeoisie. There was a changing of the nationalist ‘guard’. The only difference was that now, the state was in the hands of a movement whose main aim was to build, and secure, the interests of a black nationalist (as opposed to white nationalist) bourgeoisie, notwithstanding the ANC’s constant claims of the leading role of the working class. In this sense then, the democratic victory of 1994 represented, above all else, the triumph of a majority (black) nationalism over a minority (white) nationalism.
This politically, state-centred ‘changing of the nationalist guard’ was overlaid by the ANC’s acceptance (indeed, embracement) of South Africa’s capitalist political economy, within the context of a dominant, global capitalist neo-liberalism. The two went hand-in-hand. What was thus demanded was the creation of a dominant discourse of ‘nation-building’ as a means to politically legitimise the role and character of the ‘new’ state and the ‘place’ of those under its command. The majority black population who had, historically, been denied any meaningful national or international ‘belonging’, were told that they could achieve both because they were now the ‘real’ owners of a nation state dedicated to securing their national identity, interests as well as their (nationally-located) international status and position.
Over the last several years, what has been consciously, politically constructed then is a ‘new’ kind of nationalist popular hegemony (ideology), congruent with a ‘new’ national identity and politics but within the same historical framework of capitalist development. This macro-design creates the illusion (and the accompanying politics) that the struggle for political and socio-economic liberation by the black majority was, and remains, defined by the active and loyal participation of an ‘authentic national subject’ bounded by the ‘new’ nation state and a ‘new’ nationalism.
To a large extent, this South Africa specific example of the ‘naturalising’ of nationalism, alongside its capitalist twin, has worked. Despite regular and even increasing shows of dissatisfaction with the performance of the state and the maldistribution of socio-economic benefit, there is no sign that the majority has jettisoned the ‘national popular project’. Nor is there any sustained sign of the same at the global level.
The reality is that the capitalist system, at a global political and institutional level, fundamentally remains a constellation of various nationalisms. While such nationalisms might be differentially ‘practiced’ in tandem with the changing nature of the capitalist system of production, accumulation and distribution, they are fundamentally grounded in a common ideology, which, over time, always ‘returns’ to the source. Even the presence of "socialists/communists" in the management and leadership of the nation state and/or the nationalist movement has proven time and again to make little difference in this regard, although it might make a difference in relation to how the national cake is cut.
As can be so plainly seen as a result of the latest capitalist crisis, the role of the nation and nationalism has done anything but engage in a disappearing act. Indeed, that role has taken on greater importance/centrality. This is the case not only in reproducing the conceptual/spiritual power of the ‘nation’ and the politics of nationalism which allows varying degrees of popular support/impetus (whether as applied to ‘opposition’ and/or acquiescence) but in resurrecting the specific role of the national state in ‘rescuing’ and/or managing the key component parts of the capitalist system itself – and thus temporarily ‘addressing’ the crisis.
Not surprisingly, it is the billions of poor and working class people that have borne, and will continue to bear, the dominant burden of these acts of systemic reproduction. It is when this majority of humanity, of whatever national ‘identity’ or place, no longer accepts and embraces the janus-faced ideology of nationalism that there will emerge the real possibility for breaking the back of a capitalist system whose trump card always has been, and always will be, the cul-de-sac of nationalism.
extract from Dr. McKinley article