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Optimists in dark times

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the co-founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness.

Some of my colleagues have told me to come clean. In my 2 December editor’s note on why we are publishing Tom Nairn’s great response to Tim Garton Ash’s book Free World, I wrote that Tom’s piece is long and difficult because it addresses a difficult problem and at the same time seeks to identify the historic experience that needs to assist the answer.

“Come off it!” they said. That’s not good enough to justify an overlong read however compelling. Aren’t I just indulging an old friend? And anyway, whose side am I on?

Free World sets out a clear argument. The transatlantic alliance of America and Europe won the Cold War and in so doing emancipated much of the Soviet sphere and elsewhere. It should be re-forged after 9/11 and use the opportunity to lead the whole globe into a “Free World” (not, Garton Ash notes, “The” Free World, which implies that it is in combat with an alternative). His argument is more far reaching than just a call for a reconstruction of the old Atlantic alliance. It is in every sense a ‘world view’ a picture of how our new world can shape up.

Nairn wants it to shape up as well. He wants a world of boring, national democracies, living as they will. Let’s call it freedom. But he does not see how such an outcome can be ‘made’ by the West. Globalisation has left its Atlantic playground for good and America is in the grip of a state machine which in its nationalist folly seeks to dominate a process that cannot be so ruled.

I now see that a key point is indeed buried obscurely in my initial Editor’s Note. The argument between Nairn and Garton Ash is, almost uniquely, a clash between two optimists.

Think about that. Neither of them take a traditional leftist position or a right-wing one. Both see progress not regression as the leading edge of world forces.

Both see extremism, from terrorism to the ‘war against evil’, as fundamentally weak, even if temporarily acute. They see them as reactions born of weakness against an underlying positive movement: for Tim the progress of democracy and freedom, for Tom the liberation of civic nationalism thanks to globalisation.

Against both of them are ranged the hard left which scorns as imperialism any call for democracy associated with America, and the militant left which sees globalisation as the capitalist disempowerment of people. Often these two lefts are the one and the same, depending on which demonstration they are on.

When we started openDemocracy we committed ourselves to open debate and exchange. For example, we did a careful interview with Shirley Williams and Peter Sutherland who created the WTO (now in our archive). I had hoped that the global justice movement would engage with his arguments, but its thinkers and writers whom we approached proved too busy.

Then we ran a debate between David Held and the late Paul Hirst on globalisation that was widely read. The lesson I drew is that often the most clarifying exchanges are not between those who are furthest apart. Instead, one learns most from debates between those who share a great deal even when they have sharp differences.

It is the overlap of progressive optimism, the shared ground, that promises an interesting challenge to Timothy Garton Ash by Tom Nairn.

Whose side I am on? Well, it cant be a black and white answer as it is not a simple divide.

I am for Tim’s celebration of freedom based on his research and journalism across Eastern Europe, the Balkans and now the Ukraine and his beguiling honesty. There is no such thing, he points out in a recent piece on Kiev’s Orange Revolution as ‘immaculate victims’.

But this acknowledgement, though important and right, is also too easy. It seems to me he does not inquire deeply enough into what causes and drives the dark side of our current affairs.

Tom Nairn has wrestled with this and greatly influenced me. I plead guilty to a shaping friendship. Way back in time we were both on New Left Review. Tom began a process, rooted in his Scottish experience and fuelled by his learning, of recognising nationalism.

There was a code for talking about it at the time. Did you think 1917 was more important than 1914?

What this meant was, did you see the patriotic mobilisation of the workers into the catacombs of the trenches of the 1914-18 war as a mere expression of false-consciousness, however terrible, and the Russian revolution as the great breakthrough into a correct challenge to capitalism and violent imperialism? Or did you see the popular forces behind the First World War as expressing a determining aspect of human existence however appallingly distorted and manipulated, and 1917 as an expression of the same force, whatever the sentiments of the Bolsheviks, hence the culmination of their experiment in Stalin’s great Russian nationalism.

Well, I went with Tom and the defining importance of 1914, and what I think of as the real world.

Since then, as Tom has described, his own theory of nationalism has shifted from accepting the Ernest Gellner argument that nationalism was both a means and expression of modernisation and ‘catching up’, to recognising deeper aspects of identity. Now, he emphasises, the United States, the foremost home of modernity and globalisation itself – the country that has no need whatsoever to ‘catch up’ because it is well in front – has been captured by a determined leadership that draws upon the raw spirits of all too familiar nationalisms past. (This process has been compelling described on openDemocracy by Anatol Lieven).

In his openDemocracy response to Tim’s Free World, Nairn emphasises that the Bush or fundamentalism branch of American nationalism has captured the American state and is currently reshaping it and its constitution fundamentally. It is not values or ‘isms’, but an entrenched machinery with its own interests and logic which stands before the world once more as its pale colossus.

Of course, we can and must argue that it should be more realistic, but to believe that it will listen to reason is a category mistake.

What fascinates me about the argument between Tim and Tom is that neither of the two see economic interest or networked globalisation as determining the world’s destiny. Both reject structural fatalism and economic determinism, whether neo-liberal or classical Marxism.

Both are committed to the reality and possibility of global politics built from national democracies.

Garton Ash is an exceptionally clear writer who has done much to record and support popular movements, but his argument has a flaw, in my view. He appeals to the traditional ruling elites of Washington, London and Paris to be more enlightened. He seems to want them to plan his new world from above. I share Nairn’s scepticism that any such solution is now possible.

But I am not convinced by Nairn’s conclusion that freedom has to be unplanned if this means being unpurposive. If Nairn himself has no answer does this make what he argues all the more convincing? I leave that as a question.

And the length of Nairn’s essay? Garton Ash has written a book. Nairn has set out his alternative worldview in 11,000 words and it is free!


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