Swiss nation-state and its patriotism

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Nenad Stojanovic

McGill University Montreal
In recent years we have witnessed a considerable increase of interest in the issues of multiculturalism. It has become one of the most discussed issues in liberal political theory. The main question goes: How, if ever, should the state react in front of the demands coming from groups of its citizens who claim differential rights on the grounds of their ‘cultural distinctiveness’?

One of the most influential authors of the past decade who has tried to assess a theoretical model of defense of ‘cultural rights’ from a liberal prospective is Will Kymlicka. His theory is probably unavoidable in any contemporary discussion on multiculturalism.

This paper stems from my critical reading of Kymlicka’s theory. On the one hand, I have found his use of terms like ‘culture’ and ‘nation’ rather ambiguous and misleading from a liberal viewpoint. This is not a minor issue insofar as Kymlicka’s very aim has been to provide a liberal theory of defense of cultural rights. On the other hand, I was unsatisfied with the way in which he relied on Switzerland as an example of a ‘multination state’. The evidence he provided for justifying that claim seemed neither sufficient nor appropriate to me.

It is not my intention here to provide an alternative model of dealing with ‘cultural differences’. My aims are more modest. First, I want to provide a critical assessment of Kymlicka’s theory by pointing out some of its conceptual ambiguities. Second, I want to discuss the case of Switzerland by defending the thesis that it does not constitute a multinational state.

I argue that Kymlicka’s theory of multiculturalism - in which Switzerland does play a role, and, I claim, a crucial one - draws wrong conclusions from the Swiss case and misinterprets its multicultural experience. At the end of the paper I will try to summarize some of the findings that, I believe, could serve if not as an alternative model then at least as suggestions of some interesting lessons that we can draw from the Swiss experience.


I do not believe that Will Kymlicka succeeds in reconciling liberal premises with the language of nationalism. As a matter of fact, it is one thing to argue that individuals need a ‘context of choice’ in order to exercise their right to choose the ‘good life’; it is a different thing to claim that such a context of choice is provided only and foremost by ‘societal cultures’ or ‘nations’ defined almost exclusively in linguistic terms.2 If a liberal, as Kymlicka believes, should agree with the idea that the question ‘Who am I?’ is irrelevant to his or her liberal credo, and so no given community of individuals can be seen as constitutive of one’s personal identity, then it is not comprehensible why he implicitly endorses the idea that ‘nation’ is, might or should be the ‘primary focus of identification’.

On the other hand, the passage from ‘culture’ to ‘nation’ in Kymlicka’s theory is problematic also because the language of nationhood bears its specific political meanings. Kymlicka seems aware of this when he states that ‘[t]he sense of being a distinct nation within a larger country is potentially destabilizing’, while acknowledging that he has not yet been capable of identifying the sources of unity in a ‘democratic multination state’ (1995: 192). In fact, this is even said to constitute the ‘fundamental challenge’ to which liberal theorists still have to provide an answer.

Moreover, Kymlicka’s fundamental distinction between ‘single nation-states’ and ‘multination states’ is rather muddy. On the one hand, since he claims that ‘[i]n very few countries the citizens can be said to share the same language, or belong to the same ethnonational group’, one would expect that all the countries in the world, except perhaps for ‘Iceland and the Koreas’ are multinational (Kymlicka, 1995: 1, 196 n.1). In that case, most of the world’s countries should worry today about their stability. On the other hand, Kymlicka continuously draws his conclusions from such a contrast by pointing on specific and relatively restricted examples of multination states. Such examples progressively narrow down until the author is left with only one credible country that he can pick out in order to show that a multination state can be viable - that country is Switzerland.

My aim is to argue that Kymlicka misinterpretes the experience of Switzerland in terms of multiculturalism when he labeled it the ‘most multinational country’ (Kymlicka, 1995: 18). My thesis, instead, has been that Switzerland constitutes a true nation-state and that over the centuries it has developed a particular kind of patriotism. In order to illustrate this, I will first shortly mention the historical evidence that shows that the Swiss nation has been progressively constructed since the late 18th century and that it is a result of a rather typical process of nation-building. I will then passed onto sociological evidence by examining the two features that Kymlicka himself sees as essential in adopting the language of nationhood: that is, the power of a nation to name itself (designation-based argument) and the assumption that nations represent people’s ‘primary identities’ (identity-based argument). I want to show that the Swiss linguistic groups neither consider themselves as distinct ‘nations’ nor see their respective linguistic communities as their ‘primary foci of identification’.

Nevertheless, it is still possible that, some day, Switzerland might become a multination state. Some evidence related to the increasing impact of the mass media in segmentation of the Swiss public space and the potentially dividing impact of direct democracy suggest that Switzerland might end up being divided into distinct linguistic blocs as it is the case with the contemporary Belgium. Faced with such an alternative I shall, in the third part, distinguish a couple of normative arguments that speak in favor of maintaining the concept of a single Swiss nation.

A - Historical evidence
The late 18th century was a turning point in the European and World’s history. This assertion is especially true for the realm of politics. The shift of the source of state sovereignty from divine and personal to popular and impersonal radically changed the vision of state and of politics. Hence the two major political upheavals of that time, American (1776) and French (1789) revolutions, placed the ‘people’ and the ‘nation’ at the core of the politics. ‘We the people of the United States’ and ‘la nation française’ became the mots d’ordre of that time.

Therefore, I find it appropriate to begin the discussion of the Swiss nationhood at the end of the 18th century, preceded by a short presentation of the origins of the Swiss Confederacy. My aim here is to provide an account of the first political developments that brought about the rise and implementation of the idea of a Swiss nation. For that reason I shall particularly focus on the events that took place since 1798, when the Helvetic Republic was created, leading up to the creation of the federal Constitution in 1848. In that year the modern, federative Swiss state came about and, since Kymlicka has often argued that ‘multinational countries’ like Switzerland were formed by the ‘more or less voluntary federation of two or three European cultures’ (Kymlicka,1995: 13), it is of utmost importance to check out if such an assessment really holds in the case of Switzerland.

My second aim is to show that the discussion over the existence of one Swiss nationality is not new and that it was well present in the intellectual circles of the 19th and the early 20th century. Just like Kymlicka today, many intellectuals of that time refuted the existence of the Swiss nation and were criticized by other thinkers who, on the contrary, defended such an idea. Particularly interesting is the reliance of some of the latter intellectuals on the Alpine landscape which was seen as an ‘objective’ feature of common Swiss nationality. This point will be more illustrative than analytical but I believe that it is important to point out that by many accounts Kymlicka’s uninformed and aprioristic view on states like Switzerland represent a true saut en arrière insofar as it brings us back to the debates that took place over a century ago.

Every nation-building process consists of some common symbols, discourses and practices meant to provide an ‘objective’ basis for fostering the ‘subjective’ national feelings. Thus my third aim is to provide an account of certain features of the Swiss nation-building that belong to this category. They notably include national holidays, public ceremonies, national songs and anthems and so forth. This shall help us better understand the ways in which the common Swiss nationality has been promoted all over the country.

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