National guilt


Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption describes how luxury goods or services (yachts, private aircraft, fowling pieces, Fabergé eggs eggs, Gucci handbags), because of their expense, are a badge of class membership. Their purpose is the signalling of status, adherence to a collective tradition or identity, or display of credentials, intelligence and good taste.

The middle classes lack the purchasing power for such displays, but their private consumption choices and leisure activities do often serve the purpose of signalling good taste and discernment (in the manner satirized by Stuff White People Like).

The more exacting the better, as Adorno described in Minima Moralia:

The high life aspires to be the beautiful life. It affords those engaging in it ideological pleasure gains.

Because the formalization of life becomes a task requiring the adherence to rules, the artificial preservation of a style, the maintenance of a delicate balance between correctness and independence, existence appears endowed with meaning, so appeasing the bad conscience of the socially superfluous.

The constant injunction to do and say what exactly befit’s one status and situation demands a kind of moral effort. By making it difficult to be the person one is, one gains the feeling of living up to a patriarchal noblesse oblige.

Thus are life’s common activities, the everyday routines of consumption, transformed into exercises of style (what Kojève called snobisme, using the example of Japanese tea ceremonies that survived as a kind of postmodern ritual adornment without content or substance).

‘You must change your life,’ ran the injunction issued to bourgeois audiences by Rilke’s archaic torso. Today’s middle-class public is likewise encouraged to shed its complacency. But postmodern art, more gratifying, presents itself to readers and viewers as lifestyle supplement, rather than revision. It offers a means to decorate their lives, adorning, adjusting and embellishing themselves with the finest appurtenances and soundest thoughts.

Members of the liberal professions (certified academics, architects, lawyers, accountants, etc.), together with civil servants and other members of the skilled professional salariat, imagine that the income premium they command, and other privileges, are due to their ‘different genius’ (as in Adam Smith’s parable of the philosopher and the street porter).

Their relatively high earnings (compared to the wages and salaries earned by employees generally) are understood as a just reward for talent. According to the prevailing economic ideology, the level of payment they fetch in the labour market (or receive as proprietorship or partnership income) is set by the worth of what they contribute as an input to production.

The latter capacity is held to derive either from intrinsic characteristics of the person themselves (superior cognitive skills), or from a provident and well-calculated investment of time and effort in education — foregoing earnings for several years of additional study, bestowing upon them a stock of human capital.

These qualities (so it is believed) also manifest themselves in good taste and discernment in consumption, e.g. the best food, clothes, cultural products, etc.

Products marketed at this audience thus often contain deliberate signs of ‘quality’, difficulty and seriousness. These are a kind of screening device: consumption of such products is a reliable signal of the consumer’s underlying ‘type’, since it requires a costly investment (e.g. of effort, time or money spent acquiring the taste, knowledge or capacity for appreciation) that most cannot afford (due to lack either of resources or motivation).

Through these products, consumers can thus signal their correct thoughts, depth, sophistication, possession of good taste, and status as a Serious Person.

Alexander Cockburn described such consumer behaviour in his article on the ‘Conscience Industry’:

Today, at the level of symbolic action, a person of progressive temperament can live in a bubble bath of moral self-satisfaction from dawn to dusk…

For every decision in the liberal day, there’s a certificate of good behaviour being flaunted by some of the most disgusting corporations on Earth.

His examples came from fair-trade coffee and similar speciously ethical products.

When it comes to products like art and periodical publications, such markers of quality include the latest bienséance: the ideological badges of decorous respectability, intellectual fashion and contemporary right-thinking.


Middlebrow arthouse cinema is one example, draped like ‘literary fiction’ with obvious badges of ‘seriousness’ that are designed to distinguish it from mainstream filmic dross (which it dwells happily alongside as a complementary market segment, in peaceable and mutually constitutive coexistence).

Such middlebrow products today include an especially deplorable sub-genre: a filmic variety that, dramatically incoherent and gesturing limply towards political ‘topicality’, gels utterly with liberal-progressive ideology. The latter now includes various tenets of identity politics, and has abandoned any attempt to think seriously about imperialism, racism, sexism, etc.

Instead there is the posturing and demagogy of ‘collective guilt.’

When it comes to novel and film publicity, any promise to ‘explore’ the theme of collective guilt is a fairly reliable warning of middlebrow vacuity to come: of portentous and dramatically specious attempts to fuse ‘psychological complexity’ with political ‘topicality’.

More than this: for a particular social layer, these art products are a kind of positional good, in Veblen’s sense.

Auteuil and Binoche - Caché

In Michael Haneke’s Caché, for example, Daniel Auteuil’s adult character is haunted by a nasty lie he told as a six year-old boy, which turned out to have terrible consequences for an Algerian boy.

This seems intended as an allegory for France’s colonial legacy. Here the secret of overdrawn individual culpability (for who could blame the man for the child’s petty fib?) lies in national guilt. Auteuil’s character is culpable not for what he personally did, but, as a Frenchman and by virtue of that alone, for colonialism.

Even more representative of the genre is Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader, which received Oprah’s seal of approval and was made into an Oscar-winning movie.

In this story, a young German man feels guilty because, as a fifteen-year old, he had a sexual relationship with a woman who later turned out to have been an SS camp guard.

At the novel’s beginning, his parent’s generation, which ‘had been been served by the guards and enforcers, or had done nothing to stop them, or had not banished them from its midst as it could have done after 1945, was in the dock’.

Eventually, though, the main character learns of his ‘accrued or inherited responsibility’:

I was guilty of having [unwittingly, as a child!] loved a criminal… [Perhaps] we are responsible even for the love we feel for our parents… [My] love for Hannah was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate [das deutsche Schicksal].

Here a person, by virtue of national origin, has acquired responsibility for something he wasn’t directly involved in. And, in a step beyond Caché, he wasn’t even born in time to see the crime.

Schlink has since expanded on his theme.

Last year Queensland University Press published a group of his essays called Guilt about the Past. Schlink can be watched addressing the Melbourne Writers Festival on how ‘individual guilt becomes collective guilt and is passed on to the next generation.’

Collective liabilities, he says, are founded on ‘communities of solidarity, such as ‘a family, an association, an organisation or institution and even a people’. Nations are like kinship groups, in which the ‘web of guilt… is high and wide’. If a member of my group offends against morality, I can only achieve absolution by severing the ‘ties of solidarity’ between us — ties that ‘exist by default’.

Guilt thus extends not only to ‘perpetrator, inciter and accessories to the crimes’, nor merely to ‘those who were perfectly capable of resistance but did nothing’. It ‘entangles an entire generation and even casts a shadow over later generations’, so long as the criminals aren’t ‘cast out’.


Here Schlink has borrowed — his Australian audience no doubt remains ignorant of the transaction — from Max Weber and Otto Bauer’s description of the nation as Schicksalgemeinschaft, or ‘community of fate.’ The intellectual pedigree is impeccable.

Yet its origins in the early-twentieth century empires of Wilhelmine and Habsburg Europe ought to give pause. Stripped of Schlink’s piety and examined coldly for its consequences and internal logic, the notion of assigning guilt to an individual on the basis of group membership or ascriptive characteristics (racial or ethnic identification, language, religion, etc.) is bizarre, incoherent and sinister.

It’s the precise analogue of the idiotic demands, regularly made over the past decade, for ‘moderate Muslims’ to disavow or condemn every terrorist attack committed by other Muslims (Daniel Dennett adds an extra layer of responsibility: ‘if we non-Muslims do not speak out, we too must share in the blame.’) And Schlink’s notion of trans-generational guilt, acquired by ‘a people’ then transmitted via consanguinity, creepily mimics that old anti-Semitic saw, by which Jews are forever condemned as Christ killers.

Is there a Jewish or Muslim ‘fate’ (Schicksal), along with a German one?

Underlying the idea of collective guilt is a vision of ‘the nation’ (or the ‘race’) as a collective personality, a supra-individual actor that can perform actions and incur liabilities (and culpability for wrongdoings) just as a natural person does.

This entity (the nation) is understood to have an existence distinct from that of the individuals who constitute it: like a limited-liability corporation, with its ‘perpetual succession’, the nation endures after the departure of its original members. The nation is considered to act vicariously through the agency of (some or all of) its members. A government, especially, is said to act ‘on behalf of the nation’, either as its mandated representative, or in holding jurisdiction over the territory in which members of the nation reside. The consequences of actions undertaken ‘by the nation’ at one time may fall upon subsequent members, just as an individual is assigned responsibility for actions he has performed during earlier periods.

The nation is a kind of moral agent, which entails that its members, having jointly committed a collective wrong, may justly be subjected to collective sanction.

The appallingly reactionary origins and implications of this line of thinking hardly need to be stated.

The idea of national guilt collapses the distinction between a territorial state, its population, and the imagined community that ideologically binds part of the population (the in-group) into a ‘nation’ (or ‘community of solidarity’, to use Schlink’s term).

Among other things, this confers a whiff of legitimacy on the targeting of civilians in times of war. After all, by signalling their membership of the enemy out-group — by saluting the flag, singing the national anthem or speaking the national language — they become, on this view, responsible for the state’s actions like any member of the ruling elite: the Kaiser, police chief or army general.

Once deemed collectively culpable, they may — why not? — be susceptible to collective punishment.

This last argument, it will be recognized, was used to justify the murder of ordinary people in New York’s World Trade Center. And Schlink’s book, in turn, reads like the fictional equivalent of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners.

The adherence of avowedly ‘progressive’ people to such ideas (they are expressed not just in middlebrow cinema but in bien-pensant organs of opinion) testifies to the deep intellectual and political confusion of the ‘liberal left’ in the present era, and to the deep contempt felt for the broader population among members of the skilled intelligentsia and middle classes.


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23 Responses to “National guilt”

  1. Dan Says:

    I think you are making a few leaps in logic here. I’m not overly familiar with many of the arguments you cite, but it seems to me to be one thing to identify a cultural phenomenon (as Schlink seems to be doing) and another to suggest that it should be so (as Dennett seems to be) and another again to then extrapolate it to justifying mass murder of civilians. To me, these are three very different arguments, and although not unrelated, it’s a stretch to point to a slippery slope of logic that says one leads to, or justifies the next.

  2. Nick Says:

    You say I’m compressing three distinct arguments, which I guess suggests two different compressions, making 1=2 and 2=3.

    Taking the first: what is the “cultural phenomenon” that Schlink idenitifies, but doesn’t approve of (in the way Dennett apparently does)? Both suggest that an individual of one group is by default implicated in the wrongdoing of another individual from that same group. There is no difference between the two here.

    As for the second: verily, Schlink’s way of thinking (collective guilt) isn’t the same as justifying national extermination. But national extermination is a big enterprise, requiring a few pre-existent ways of thinking, and this is one part of the toolkit. That is, the elision of the distinction between an individual member of a population, his “national “community”, and his sovereign state. War against the latter implies war against the nation, and thus war against all members of that nation. As I said in the post, collecitve guilt is “a good excuse”.

  3. Dan Says:

    1. As I said, I’m not that familiar with the arguments here. I haven’t read The Reader nor Schlink’s essays on national guilt, but I have seen the film (which could very well be as distant from his argument as possible, as adaptations often are) and from the excerpts you’ve posted here I still think that it looks like he’s just pointing to the phenomenon rather than justifying it.

    2. If, for the sake of argument we just step aside from Schlink and take one argument to be identifying a phenomenon of national/racial/religious guilt, and the other to be condoning it effectively by suggesting that members of a group who do not apologise for or denounce certain actions are then complicit in them, then I still think it’s wrong to conflate the two. It’s the difference between identifying that Jane is riding a bike and suggesting that she should be!

    To put it in a slightly more nuanced way: to identify that nations, as far as that term has a meaningful use, may have collective guilt, is not analogous to arguing individuals of one group must act to rectify the actions of another member of that same group. You are right to say that, “Both suggest that an individual of one group is by default implicated in the wrongdoing of another individual from that same group”. But by saying that you’re (intentionally, perhaps?) conflating the differences in the arguments: that one says individuals should be implicated, while the other simply says that for whatever variety of reasons, it simply happens to be the case that they are.

    3. The slippery slope is a poor argument, no matter how elegantly you phrase it! It is possible to both hold a view of national guilt and to understand that individuals are separable from nations.

    4. I believe that I won this debate by default, as you began it by invoking Godwin’s law. Though actually I’m not sure if the law applies if the actual debate is about German guilt to begin with. :p

  4. Nick Says:

    I think there may be some semantic confusion here.

    There’s no distinction between saying someone is guilty and someone should be guilty, because it’s normative by definition. Unless you think, like some “positive” theories of law, that justice/right is an arbitrary matter of who has the power.

    But perhaps when you say “nations may have collective guilt” you don’t mean “nations may collectively be guilty of something” but “nations may feel collective guilt.” In which case, yes: there’s a distinction. But that is not the meaning I’m using here, nor that which Schlink uses. (In fact, the phenomenon of a nation feeling guilt doesn’t seem to exist, aside from the observation by some people that a given nation is guilty of something.)

    Finally, you say: “It is possible to both hold a view of national guilt and to understand that individuals are separable from nations.” I don’t see how. This isn’t a slippery slope argument: it’s strict logical implication.

  5. Daniel Golding Says:

    You’re right that there’s been some confusion – I was meaning that they feel collective guilt. Of course whether Schlink is arguing that I’ll defer to you because, as I said, I’m not really familiar with his arguments.

    I think that might change most of the argument – does it? I’m happy to return to it if it doesn’t. :p Such as the last sentence; I’ll rephrase it to “It is possible to hold a view of a nation feeling guilt and to understand that individuals are separable from nations.”

  6. Nick Says:

    OK. What does a “nation feeling guilt” mean in practice? I understand it as being a situation in which the national myth requires all individuals to feel a measure of guilt for actions that they haven’t performed themselves but which were performed by fellow countrymen (e.g. Germans feeling guilty for Nazism).

    What does “individuals are separable from nations” mean in practice? I understand it as requiring individuals not to acquire a characteristic or quality (e.g. guilt) simply because their “nation” or other individuals of the same nationality have that quality.

    The first seems to violate the second.

  7. Daniel Golding Says:

    I don’t think it does. I simply mean that individuals are individuals; the idea of a nation, in practice and aside from tangible things like laws and repressive state apparatuses, is just as nebulous and unclear as things like national guilt or national myth. So, as I said, insofar as ‘nation’ has a meaningful use, then nations can be said to feel national guilt. As far as individuals go, it entirely depends on the nature of their engagement with national ideology and a variety of other subjective factors as to whether they feel that guilt or not. I’m sure you agree that it is far more complex than individuals either being part of a national ideology or rejecting it. Even if it were possible for individuals to wholly reject a national ideology, that individual would only ever be provincialising it and in a sense increasing its potency as a myth. And I’m even surer that you agree that groups can have defining mythologies or concepts and the individuals within them can accept or reject a mixture of these. There are many examples that are irrefutable to my mind; the factions of the Labor party is a good and topical one. One does not have to reject being a member of the Liberal party in order to cross the floor and vote for an emissions trading scheme. Thus a nation can be said to feel guilt despite individuals having a plethora of responses to the guilt.

  8. Nick Says:

    That a person can, within reason, pick and choose which aspects of the national myth she’ll subscribe to is, I think, not the point. It doesn’t matter whether national-collective guilt is freely chosen or compelled. (Though note that, because guilt is a normative concept, choosing for me implies choosing for others, i.e. if I think I’m guilty of something merely because I’m a German, I must locate guilt in German-ness, therefore I must ascribe guilt to all Germans.)

    The problem is in the very concept of national guilt itself. Let me put it this way: let’s say I’m a member of the U.S. population, who considers himself “American.” I consider the attack and invasion of Iraq to be a crime. I had no causal role in the invasion, and could not possible have prevented it. Nonetheless, as an American, I feel a sense of responsibility and guilt about what we did to Iraq.

    Is there anything wrong with this?

  9. Daniel Golding Says:

    I’m not quite sure what your argument is then. You’re just saying that national guilt is bad? I don’t think I’ve made any statements here about it being good or not; just about the compression of arguments in the original post and the degree to which you can identify national guilt without making any further claims as to responsibility or culpability.

  10. Nick Says:

    I have tried to explain my position as simply as possible in my last two comments. Perhaps knowing Schlink’s orgininal argument is necessary to understand what I’m saying. But I’ll give it one more try anyway. Apologies for the length.

    (1) “National guilt” is an incoherent concept. This refers to guilt as a property attributed to the nation (i.e. being declared guilty), not a phenomenon (i.e. the nation feeling remorseful or bad about itself). Nobody has ever seen seen, heard or otherwise observed a nation, so national guilt in that latter sense would be imperceptible, anyway. But national guilt in the sense I am discussing requires the attribution of responsibility and culpability, no buts about it. (For example, in Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Goldhagen declares the German people guilty, i.e. collectively responsible for the crimes of the Nazis).

    (2) “National guilt” attributes guilt (and thus responsibility) to people without regard to their causal role in any crime or wrongdoing, but solely on the basis of their national membership. (The notion of transgenerational guilt, where members of a national group may be considered guilty for events which occurred before they were born, is especially egregious here). This is the case even if national membership is freely chosen. This is also the case even if guilt is freely chosen as an aspect of national membership.

    (3) The assignment of guilt to a nation is a category error. The property of being responsible for an act requires that the agent in some sense caused the act to occur. A nation is not an actor with causal powers. A state has causal powers, as do individuals and social classes. A nation, however, is merely a shared myth which binds people together. An agent (state, class, person) may act in the name of that national myth, but it is not the case that the myth itself has acted.

    (4) Where some wrongdoing has occurred, declaring a nation guilty is thus to excuse the the true perpetrator.

    (5) Though a nation cannot have the property of being guilty or responsible, attributing guilt to a nation means in practice that the population constituting that nation (i.e. subscribing to that national myth) is declared guilty. And I haven’t made this point previously, but the fundamental attribution bias means that we are more likely to judge other nations (i.e. the populations of other territorial states) to be guilty than our own.

    (6) It is a generally-accepted principle that the guilty should be punished. Attributing guilt to a population thus increases the likelihood that they will be subjected to punishment or correction of some sort.

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  12. Daniel Golding Says:

    Sorry, I was unclear. I understand your argument (though your latest comment puts it across with admirable clarity) but wasn’t sure what your argument with me was. Or rather what our argument is! I agree and have done from the start that guilt-as-property is incoherent, though initially I mistook (probably aided by my unfamiliarity with Schlink) your guilt-as-property argument for one about guilt-as-phenomenon. I’m fairly sure that’s the crux of these two thousand words. :p

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  14. Nick Says:

    I just came across a superb review of Haneke’s film, by David Walsh of the World Socialist Website, here. I thought it was worthwhile to mention it here.

    Walsh responds to a remark by Haneke:

    ‘Georges should really question his whole way of life.’ Why precisely? He is the host of a television program dealing with literature, he has a wife and a child, he lives in a pleasant home. It may very well be that someone like Georges, a French petty bourgeois, rather pleased with himself, perhaps shut in emotionally, should criticize his whole way of life, but the filmmaker does not permit enough of that life to appear for us to know one way or the other. We are expected to take his word for it, as the result of a type of all too easy ‘radical’ shorthand (comfortable surroundings=hopeless bourgeois in need of ‘re-education’).


    It very seriously trivializes the atrocities committed in Algeria and elsewhere to set up any kind of equivalence between an individual’s guilt over his unthinking cruelty as a child and the continuing responsibility of a modern imperialist state for a criminal policy it carried out decades before. One feels a little embarrassed to have to point this out.

    In any case, why should a child have acted as Georges did? If it resulted from his background and upbringing, from a certain social milieu, then say so. But Caché chooses to paint a picture of parents who wanted to do the decent thing and a child who reacted malevolently. How is this to be explained? Was he simply a bad seed? If so, we’re heading back to something dangerously close to original sin.

    Unfortunately, above all, one feels that the childhood events are a plot contrivance, a means of providing Georges with something to feel guilty about, which has some tenuous connection with the Algerian war and the 1961 massacre. But it simply doesn’t add up, psychologically or in any other way.

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