Blimey, it could be the unconstraining voice

Anthony Barnett’s book on BREXIT prompts the hope that Britain will continue to inspire both the US and Europe to ‘transcend ourselves by finding ourselves.’

Jim Sleeper
Jim Sleeper
4 July 2016

Plaque of The New Colossus poem by Emma Lazarus ("Mother of Exiles") in the museum inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Wikicommons/Melanzane1013. Some rights reserved.Here on the American side of the pond, the news of the Brexit-decision sent me reeling backward to a lament written by the British-American poet W.H. Auden in February, 1939:

In the nightmare of the dark

All the dogs of Europe bark,                                                                                            

And the living nations wait,                                                                                              

Each sequestered in its hate; 


Intellectual disgrace                                                                                                                 

Stares from every human face,                                                                                      

And the seas of pity lie                                                                                                            

Locked and frozen in each eye.

This is from Auden’s ode “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” his contemporary, who’d written that the center cannot hold as the best lose all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity. Glancing at developments not only in the Brexit controversy but also in the American presidential election as in Russia, China, and the Middle East, I did wonder if the nightmare is returning. 

But Anthony Barnett’s “Blimey, It Could Be Brexit!” has the perhaps-paradoxical effect of reinforcing my conviction that “living nations” aren’t condemned to “wait, each sequestered in its hate,” each erupting into a “nationalist’ variant of racism, xenophobia, and imperialism. To the contrary, national identities may remain more necessary to democracy than it pleases some of us to believe.

Understood as Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” or as the late American historian Robert Wiebe’s “grand fictive families,” nations are as essential as real families to nourishing democratic dispositions and habits. Fail though they often do, we discard them at our peril.

Even Kant, the great universalist, hoped for a federation of republics, warning that a one-world government would be a “soulless despotism.” If the EU is to become a federation of real republics, not a despotism, its nations must renew their democracies from the ground up. Before June 23, Anthony posed that challenge starkly, and rightly, to a multi-national Britain and its often-avowedly post-national left:

It is simple, and fundamental. A multi-national entity like the United Kingdom whose constitution is uncodified is bound to be fundamentally threatened by membership of a larger, multi-national entity that is dedicated to codifying itself. If its membership continues, its constitution will eventually be dissolved by it….


The Anglo-British have a long tradition of seeking to preserve their unique constitutional arrangements. [Britain] prides itself in this combination of flexibility and tradition that has ensured an unrivalled continuity….Britain remains a purposive country, with an old constitution that seeks to encompass new energies…


If Britain stays in, we face the prospect, over the coming decades, of membership of the EU dissolving the bonds that have reproduced the UK’s uncodified settlement; at the level of the nations, of rights, of legal systems, of sovereignty, of parliament. The political caste are acutely aware of this as it strikes at their existing powers and influence, hence their various forms of ‘Euroscepticism’. Regular folk don’t have so much to lose but instinctively – and rightly – the English know that if they want to stay British in the old way they have to leave the EU.

Far from idealizing “the old way,” Anthony sees it as broken, perhaps beyond repair, but he notes that democratic sovereignty has been reborn in the past, bursting its aristocratic and imperialist casings. Has the Leave victory opened the path for a new birth, amid and against what neoliberal, global capital has become? Anthony shows that Brexit has posed that challenge to Britain -- to Scottish nationalism certainly, but to English national identity, especially.

Democracies “act in the name of universal principles which are then circumscribed within a particular civic community,” explains the political philosopher Seyla Benhabib. “This is the ‘Janus face of the modern nation,’ in the words of Jurgen Habermas,” the German political philosopher who in the 1960s marveled at and praised what he called the “constitutional patriotism” of Americans in the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s, who resisted their state in the name of their civic-republican nation.

Even when a liberal capitalist republic has a written constitution like that of the United States, it depends on a critical mass of its citizens to nourish and uphold democratic beliefs and virtues which neither the liberal state nor markets nourish or defend – the liberal state because it doesn’t judge among differing ways of life, and markets because their very genius is to approach investors and consumers as narrowly self-interested individuals, not citizens who might persuade one another to subordinate immediate self-interest to achieving public goods in common that they cannot achieve alone – and to achieve, in the process, larger “selves,” as well.

The critical role for national civic-culture is explained in Robert Wiebe’s revelatory Who We Are: A History of Popular Nationalism: “States, hovering like crows over the nests that nations make, have… played on the sentiments of ancestry, destiny, and sacred soil. Try though they might, however, they have rarely inspired feelings of kin-connectedness, the core around which cultures of nationalism have developed,” he wrote.

To nourish democratic dispositions and virtues in order to remain free, a society has to assert itself against as well as within the state hovering over it and, often, plundering it. When Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of global capital, announced, “There is no society” and summoned British nationalist sentiments as stimulants for investment, she seeded last week’s Leave decision.

She may have supported European economic integration to facilitate movements of global capital that she assumed the City of London could master and guide. But, as Iain Martin noted in the Financial Times two days after the Brexit vote, “in her final term she and her supporters realized that, in pushing successfully for open markets in what later became the EU, she had sacrificed way too much sovereignty and undermined democratic legitimacy.”

Nationalism need not -- and cannot -- say “No” to multiplicity and trans-national cooperation any more than an individual family can say “No” to its membership in a community that may be more fractious and pluralist than some myths suggest. Anthony is right to hope that a healthier, more democratic British civic-culture may yet contribute to a federation of republics. He rekindles my own hopes, first, that the US can avoid the equivalent of a Leave vote in an election of Donald Trump to its presidency, and, second, even if it can’t, that such an election would force the rebirth of a “constitutional patriotism” with sufficient national civic wellsprings to draw from.

We had such wellsprings late in the nineteenth century, thanks to an open frontier and burgeoning labor markets when Emma Lazarus penned “The New Colossus,” the great civic-national poem whose final lines are mounted on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, and we revived such hopes in the 1960s:

York Harbor:


Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame                                                                                     

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;                                                                    

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand                                                                           

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame                                                                               

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name                                                                  

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand                                                                                           

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command 

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.                                                                    

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she                                                   

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,                                                                 

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,                                                                       

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,                                                                         

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.                                                               

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

The European Union, too, has lifted its lamp beside a golden door, at least intermittently; and I hope that Britain -- America’s political forebear in more ways than I can count – will continue to inspire both us and Europe, to transcend ourselves by finding ourselves. Only if we can, on both sides of the Atlantic, can we hope to follow W.H. Auden’s concluding admonition, as Anthony is doing.

Follow, poet, follow right                                                                                                           

To the bottom of the night                                                                                                

With your unconstraining voice                                                                                                     

Still persuade us to rejoice .                                                                                                        

With the farming of a verse                                                                                                      

Make a vineyard of the curse.                                                                                                                                    

Sing of human unsuccess                                                                                                      

In a rapture of distress.                                                                                                          

In the deserts of the heart                                                                                                           

Let the healing fountains start.                                                                                                             

In the prison of his days                                                                                                  

Teach the free man how to praise.


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