National Identity Is Toxic - An Essay from Carlo Rovelli

Posted on 9th October 2020 by Anna Orhanen

Carlo Rovelli, theoretical physicist and the bestselling author of The Order of Time and Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, is known for communicating intricate theories and equations to the general public with such clarity and elegance that it has earned him the nickname of 'the poet of modern physics.' 

His new book, There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness, is a luminous collection of essays reflecting on history, physics, philosophy and politics that reflect the true breadth of Rovelli's insight and literary craftmanship. We are delighted to have the chance to share one of the essays from the book, National Indentity Is Toxic.

National Identity Is Toxic

Great Britain is an old country.  My own country, Italy, is relatively young. Both are proud of their past. Both have marked national characteristics: it is easy to identify the Italians and the British among the crowds in international airports. I recognize the Italian in myself: I can’t say anything without waving my hands around, there are ancient Roman stones in the cellar of my house in Verona, and my schoolboy heroes were Leonardo and Michelangelo…

And yet this national identity is only a thin layer, one among others that are far more important. Dante shaped my education, but so too, and to a greater extent, did Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. I was born in conservative, bigoted Verona, and going to study in libertine Bologna was something of a cultural shock. I was brought up within a particular social class, and I share the habits and preoccupations with people of this class everywhere else on the planet, more than with fellow Italians in general. I belong to a particular generation: an Englishman of my age has more in common with me than a Veronese of a different generation. My identity comes from my family, which is unique – just as every family is unique – from the groups of friends I had growing up, from the cultural tribe I chose in my youth, from the network of geographically scattered friends made in my adult life.

It comes, above all, from a constellation of values, ideas, books, political dreams, cultural preoccupations, common objectives that were shared and nourished, for which we struggled together, and that were transmitted in communities that were bigger, or smaller, and that completely cut across the confines of the nation. This is what we all are: a combination of layers, intersections in a web of exchanges woven by the whole of humanity in its multiform and ever-changing culture.

I’m only stating the obvious. So why, if this is the variegated identity of each one of us, do we organize our collective political conduct into nations and base our sense of identity on belonging to a nation? Why Italy? Why the United Kingdom?

The answer, once again, is simple: it isn’t power that constructs itself around a national identity, it’s the other way around: national identity is created by the structure of power. Seen from the perspective of my young and still somewhat dysfunctional country, Italy, this is perhaps easier to notice than from within the very old and noble realm of Her Majesty the Queen. But the same applies. As soon as it emerges, usually through fire and fury, the main preoccupation of any centre of power – be it a very old monarchy or a liberal bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century – is to promote a robust sense of shared identity. ‘We have made Italy, now we must make Italians’ is the famous exclamation attributed to the pioneer of Italian unification, Massimo d’Azeglio.

I am always surprised by how differently history is taught in different countries.  For someone from France, the history of the world revolves around the French Revolution. For someone raised in Italy, the (Italian) Renaissance and the Roman empire are the events of universal significance. For an American, the crucial event for humanity, the one that ushered in the modern world, democracy and liberty itself, was the war of Independence against… Great Britain. For an Indian, the roots of civilization are to be found in the time of the Vedas…  Everyone finds slightly ridiculous the distortions of history caused by the national perspective of others. No-one reflects upon their own.

We tend to read the world in terms of grand narratives of discord and struggle, which we share with our countrymen. These are narratives deliberately created to generate a sense of belonging to fictitious families, called nations. Less than two centuries ago there were people in Calabria who called themselves ‘Greeks’, and not so long ago the inhabitants of Constantinople defined themselves as ‘Romans’… and not everyone in Scotland and Wales supported England in the last World Cup… National identities are nothing more than political theatre.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there is something necessarily bad about all of the above. On the contrary: to unify a diverse population – Venetians and Sicilians, say, or various anglophone tribes – so that they can collaborate for the common good, is wise and farsighted politics. If we fight among ourselves, it is obviously much worse than if we work together. It is co-operation, not conflict, that benefits everyone. The whole of human civilization is the result of co-operation. Whatever the difference between Naples and Verona, things are better for everyone without a border between them. The exchange of ideas and merchandise, gazes and smiles, the threads that weave the fabric of civilization, enriches everyone in goods, intelligence and spirit. Helping diverse people to converge in a common political space is to everyone’s advantage. To then reinforce this process with a little ideology and political theatre, to keep internal conflicts at bay, to put on the farce of Sacred National Identity, is a useful strategy, regardless of how fake it is. It takes people for a ride, but who can deny that cooperation is better than conflict?

But it is at precisely this point that national identity becomes poisonous. Created to foster solidarity, it ends up becoming an obstacle to larger scale co-operation. Forged in order to reduce internal conflicts, it ends up provoking external ones that are even more damaging. The founding fathers of my own country had good intentions when promoting the idea of an Italian national identity, but only a few decades later this resulted in fascism, the extreme glorification of national identity. Italian fascism inspired Hitler’s Nazism. The passionate emotional identification of the Germans with a single Volk culminated in the devastation of Germany and a good part of the world. When the national interest promotes conflict rather than co-operation, when instead of searching for compromise and agreed rules it is thought preferable to put one’s nation above all else, national identity becomes toxic.

Nationalist and sovereignty-obsessed politics are spreading throughout the world, increasing tensions, planting the seeds of conflict, threatening each and every one of us.  My own country has just fallen prey to this recklessness. I think that it’s time to say loud and clear, in response, that national identity is a con.  It’s good for overcoming local interests for the common good, but it is short-sighted and counterproductive when it promotes the interests of a totally artificial group, ‘our nation’, above a more ample sense of what the common good consists of.

But localism and nationalism are not only miscalculations; they draw power from their emotional appeal: they offer an identity. Politics likes to play upon our insatiable desire to belong.  ‘Foxes have dens, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head…’. The nation offers just such a home, a fictitious one: it is a fake, but is costs little and pays politically. 

Not that we don’t have national identities: we have them. But each of us is a crossroads of multiple, layered identities. Putting the nation first means betraying all the others. Not because we are all equal in the world, but because we are different within each nation. Not because we don’t need a home, but because we have better and more dignified homes outside the grotesque theatre of nationalism: our families, our fellow travellers, the community we share values with, spread throughout the world. Whoever we are, we are not alone: we are many. And we have a wonderful place to call ‘home’: the Earth, and a marvellous, variegated tribe of brothers and sisters with whom we may feel at home and identify with: humankind.


This essay was originally published in the Guardian, on 25 July 2018.  Reprinted in Corriere della Sera on 30 July 2018.


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