Why the left needs nationalism

The future belongs to the nation-state

January 03, 2017
©Andrew Harnik/AP/Press Association Images
©Andrew Harnik/AP/Press Association Images

With the election of Donald Trump on top of Brexit, the two pillars of British foreign and security policy are crumbling before our eyes, and taking with them a good part of our national identity. It is now clear that large numbers of Americans are committed to the national interest and identity of the United States rather than those of the “west.” And recent elections and opinion polls across Europe suggest strongly that the European Union is unlikely to last for much longer in its present form.

These developments are a challenge to the British people to think of their country once again as a “community of fate” and to explore what national identity should mean in the generations to come. After all, Britain existed for some 250 years before the EU, and England for a thousand years before that. In a national history of this length and depth, the decision to leave the EU is only an episode—if a deeply painful one.

Charting a British national identity and role will be of paramount importance to this country but also to Europe—of which we were part before we joined the EU and of which we will remain part. It is in many ways tragic that the idea of a European federal state has failed; but failed it has. We appear to be heading for something closer to Charles de Gaulle’s vision of a L’Europe des patries, co-operative and at peace, but made up of independent states. In such a Europe Britain will still play a vital part, and we need to think how to make it a positive one—especially if the American role in the continent is going to decline steeply.

One of the reasons why it is so important to think of Britain’s (or England’s, if the Scots leave the union) identity as a nation is that in Europe and throughout the world, the future clearly belongs to nations and their supporting nationalisms. It is now obvious that while the threat of war between countries has thankfully been banished in Western Europe at least, and close links have grown up between nations there, the vast majority of Europeans remain loyal to their own nation state.

As the absurdly low turnout for EU elections has indicated for years, a mass European political identity and commitment has simply not emerged. Elections with turnouts this low do not confer any real democratic legitimacy. Ideas of strengthening democracy at the EU level are therefore empty—you cannot have democracy without an electorate that feels itself to be part of a collectivity and is prepared to organize and vote as part of it, rather than along separate national lines.

The EU’s grandest project, the euro, has proved an economic, political and moral disaster. It has demonstrated that wealthy northern Europeans will not make serious sacrifices for their poorer southern neighbours because they do not see them as fellow citizens. In Eastern Europe, the drive to join the EU and Nato was largely powered by nationalism directed towards escape from Moscow’s hegemony. These nationalisms are now directed largely against the demands of the EU, especially when it comes to the admission of migrants.

Outside Europe, all the most powerful countries possess very strong nationalisms. This is true of not just China, India and Russia, but the US, where the major party presidential candidates of this election were both passionate nationalists, albeit of radically different kinds. A belief in American national sovereignty rooted in the popular will is an obsession in the Republican party, and is also held by most Democrats, in a quieter way.

Powerful nationalism is also behind other smaller but successful states across Asia, from Malaysia to Iran. Its enduring importance is shown by a negative: most of the deeply troubled, failing or failed states are those where nationalism has proved too weak to overcome the conflicting claims of religion, ethnicity or tribe. And since Japan in the 1860s, nationalism has generally been an indispensable support to states attempting to impose necessary but painful economic, social and cultural reforms on their people. The inability of Arab states to generate this kind of nationalism largely explains their parlous condition.

Of course, nationalism comes in very different forms. In the US there is the chauvinist and exclusionary nationalism of Donald Trump, and the inclusionary civic nationalism of Hillary Clinton and her liberal supporters (which can come with problems of its own in terms of ideological messianism and megalomania). In France, much of its modern history has been largely defined by the tension between civic and ethnic or ethno-religious nationalism. The same is true in India today. In Russia, the mixture is somewhat different, being divided between the imperial state nationalism of Putin and the ethnic chauvinism of much of the Russian opposition.

And “civic” in this sense should by no means be equated with “weak.” The civic nationalism of the US today, like that of France in the past, has been strong not just because of the strength of its democratic values but because of its passionate identification with American pride and power, and its strong rootedness in a specifically American national identity.

In Britain, the task of thinking about this kind of nationalism falls on all the national parties, but most of all on Labour. This may seem odd, since it is the Conservatives who have always been seen and seen themselves as the patriotic party. But as Brexit and successive elections in Europe indicate, the future of politics will largely be a question of which political forces can most convincingly and effectively resist the negative effects of globalization, regain some control of transnational financial flows, and restore a sense that the justice system punishes thieves from the overclass as well as the underclass. The Tories are far too tied to the City of London to play this role effectively.

Moreover, any convincing British national identity must include some capacity for a genuinely independent foreign policy. This is also necessary in practical terms, since it is obvious that long-term US support for Europe cannot now be guaranteed. However, the Tories are far too committed to American primacy to even contemplate this. The humiliating rush to invite Donald Trump to make a state visit to Britain is proof enough of that.

The final reason why Labour needs to take the lead in this debate is even more paradoxical: it is that the party today is a wreck, and it is much easier to think radically when you have been defeated than when you appear to be successful. Under the leadership of Theresa May, the Tories have pulled back together to a degree, for the moment. By contrast, the Corbynite and anti-Corbynite factions of Labour are not only savagely divided, but in terms of new policies remind me of the old saying about two bald men arguing over a comb. Corbyn’s supporters have more moral authority given the repulsive record of the Blairites, but in terms of radical thinking the two sides hardly have a hair between them.

And yet we desperately need a strong left in Britain, one capable of convincing the struggling middle classes, and the descendants of the old working classes, that they will be protected against the worst effects of globalization, and offering Muslim minorities a vision of social integration. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the rise of the National Front in France, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, and a host of other parties. The present failure of the left, and left-leaning liberals, to craft a new mass appeal is all too obviously leaving the way open for the radical right.

In the US, Donald Trump will inflict long-term damage on American democracy, but his ability to inflict catastrophic short-term damage will be limited by the same checks and balances in the constitution that have frustrated previous presidents. Moreover, while hostility to Latino migrants is real, it is also limited by the fact that their values and attitudes—especially when it comes to the practicing Catholics and evangelicals among them—are not very different from those of the white conservative working classes who voted for Trump.

A precedent may exist in the masses of Irish migrants who in the 19th century were widely feared and despised by white American Protestants, but who in the end were accepted peaceably into the American mainstream. If on the other hand the US were facing mass Muslim migration today, white reaction would be infinitely more chauvinist and hysterical, to the point where democracy would be in peril. This is the danger facing Europe from the combination of mass Muslim migration, the widespread (though by no means universal) failure of integration, Islamist terrorism, and right-wing populist backlash.

What should be the intellectual and cultural bases of this new socialist thought? I would suggest four directions: a rethinking of the relationship between socialism, conservatism and patriotism; a return to some of the original moral bases of socialism; a new emphasis on citizenship; and a concentrated engagement with the threat of climate change. These ideas are not intended as the basis for an immediate party programme, but rather as suggestions for how thinking should develop in the years to come.

To redefine socialism as a form of conservatism might seem an outrageous paradox even in the increasingly bizarre western political world; but a little thought should reveal its inner truth. In the US, and wherever American influence predominates, most so-called conservatives are in fact what were once called laissez-faire liberals, devoted to a revolutionary form of unconstrained capitalism that threatens the broadly social-democratic civilization created in the west and elsewhere over the past century. The free-market capitalism of the past generation recalls Marx and Engels’ description in “The Communist Manifesto”:

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…All fixed, fast, frozen relations with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away; all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.”

The central task of the social democratic left today is to conserve this civilization in the face of the multiple threats generated by globalised capitalism: the return of rampant inequality; the growth of a global capitalist class with no responsibility to any society; the privatization of essential state institutions; the decay of communities and social solidarity; the increasingly loathsome character of mass culture and television in particular (with Donald Trump as its representative in politics); and mass migration that is driving increasing numbers of the old working classes and middle classes into the arms of the radical right. Looming up beyond these immediate threats is climate change driven by global economic growth, which threatens to bring modern civilization itself to an end.

For a long time to come, this will be an essentially defensive struggle. This is a hard thing for the Left to accept, wedded as it is to the idea of human progress. Climate change, however, creates a bridge between the core socialist ideals of the past and the vital human needs of the future. Progressive politicians of the present era need to see themselves as lantern bearers, carrying the ideals of the past forward into what is beginning to look like a dark time, so that they will survive to help rekindle a new civilization in future.

This means, among other things, preserving our existing states. So far, the debate on the response to climate change has been overwhelmingly a technical one, focused on prevention and amelioration: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and blue-sky thinking about technologies that can reduce its extent or its effects, at least for those countries that can afford them. Such measures are absolutely necessary and may indeed be able to ward off complete catastrophe; but all the evidence suggests that even limited effects will be more severe than anything the western world has faced since the second world war.

What has not been nearly so much talked about—because it goes against the nature and purpose of contemporary global capitalism—is what will need to be done in social, economic, cultural and ideological terms to strengthen the resilience of our countries so that they can survive the effects of even limited climate change. The idea that our societies in their present rotten form will be able to do so is nothing short of laughable.

The words that come to mind here are ones with deep resonance in socialist tradition, but also in aspects of the Christian tradition, and in patriotism: solidarity; equality; community; equal justice; self-discipline and self-sacrifice—joined, it seems unhappily probable, to a certain capacity for ruthlessness. In the context of the contemporary west, these are revolutionary principles implying a profound transformation of existing societies and economies—and are therefore in tune with socialism’s revolutionary past.

Of course, combating climate change will also require international co-operation on an unprecedented scale; but this will need to be co-operation between strong and effective states, enjoying legitimacy among their own populations and therefore able to demand sacrifice from their people and the mobilisation of them behind essential tasks. Without such states and their capacity to implement changes and have them accepted, progressive declarations—whether in the area of climate change or anything else—remain empty statements, of the kind that we have come to know so well.

In an era of climate change, every state and society has to think about its own long-term survival, and how to transcend the immediate material interests of the present generation. From this point of view, official statements from India, for example, concerning the continued vital role of fossil fuels are the equivalent of someone declaring publicly that they intend to drink themselves to death on homemade cane alcohol.

But I have argued for this in terms not of global charity and solidarity but enlightened national interest. To expect the vast majority of leaders, politicians, bureaucrats and ordinary people round the world to sacrifice current popularity and prosperity for the interests of humanity at large is hopeless. With religion and family loyalty both gravely weakened, the one thing that can still transcend the selfish interests of the present generation and its leaders is nationalism (or patriotism): implying a belief in and loyalty to a national community that transcends time, of a contract between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born, as Edmund Burke wrote in one way and Confucius in another.

This does not mean that the British education system should not do its best to spread a sense of global responsibility, but it should be distinguished from the idea of global citizenship. In the furore over Theresa May’s statement that “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” both sides have missed essential points. May did not mention global responsibility, which is a duty for every decent inhabitant of Britain or anywhere else. On the other hand, she was right that those who talk about global citizenship have not understood the meaning of the word. Citizenship is inextricably tied to membership of a particular state in a particular place, and the rights, duties, commitments and possibilities that this membership brings with it: the rights to vote and to hold public office, the duty to pay taxes and to serve in the military when required.

Outside the EU, the people calling themselves “global citizens” can vote and be elected or appointed to office only in the states in which they are citizens. Everywhere else, they are only guests, albeit generally protected ones. They may in some cases draw their salaries from international organisations, but they are taxed where they live, and dependent on the states where they live for the water they drink, the roads they drive on, the electricity they use, the police who guard them and the infrastructure of their lives. The only people who have to some extent escaped from this dependence are those of the rich who have moved their wealth beyond the reach of states, who can pay for their own services and protection, and have therefore evaded the duties and commitments of any citizenship at all.

A more urgent reason for a new sense of national citizenship and identity is the challenge of integrating the existing Muslim populations of Europe while limiting the numbers of new arrivals. On the one hand, the need for bounded citizenship with duties and commitments as well as rights should be central to the debate about future migration. If migrants and their descendants are to be integrated, then they need a clear sense of what they are integrating into. Lacking such a sense, it is not surprising that Muslim populations often cling to hard and exclusionary versions of their previous ethno-religious identities, which in turn help keep them in isolation and resentment. In Britain, it is difficult to give Muslims a sense of true membership in a country which defines itself as a satellite of the US.

Attempts to build a new British identity will founder if not accompanied by a strategy to recreate a economy that works for people as a whole and not an elite or “the market.” This will have to include reviving the prospects of the post-industrial areas where too much of both the Muslim population and the former white working class population are trapped. Radical strategies, without precedent since 1945, will sooner or later be needed to reduce the growing imbalance between the southeast and the rest of the country, and where this cannot be done, to assist people to move to areas of economic growth.

These suggestions will doubtless seem to many simultaneously far too revolutionary and far too reactionary. I would only reply that over the past ten years most of the certainties of the past two generations have crumbled. The radical free market ideology of the “Washington consensus” is in ruins; the EU is in profound decline; migration has reached levels not seen since 1945, and in important respects, not for a thousand years and more. Menacing parties of extremism are everywhere on the rise. Donald Trump is about to become President of the US. So if this isn’t a time for radical thinking—what is?