On Anthony Barnett’s ‘Lure of Greatness’

In the era of Brexit and Trump, if another world is possible, what should it look like? Jeremy Fox finds much to praise in Barnett's timely new study - but also interrogates the book's interpretations of nationalism and neoliberalism.

Jeremy Fox
20 September 2017

Image: "Demagogues", Flickr/Philip Hunt. Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US are the focus of this elegantly written and insightful analysis about the period of political uncertainty in which the West finds itself. We are living through this period and many of us – citizens as well as politicians and the media – are struggling to understand both how we got here and what kind of future we might reasonably hope for and expect. Anthony Barnett’s book, The Lure of Greatness: England's Bexit and America's Trump, provides an account of the lead-up to the current situation, offers a global perspective especially regarding the role of neoliberalism as the dominant economic paradigm of the age, and suggests some possible ways forward for the UK, of which the most salient and dramatic is that it should cease to exist so that our four constituent nations can go their own independent way.

The book is unashamedly judgemental about some of the key figures on both sides of the Atlantic. Notably enjoyable – and apposite –  is the author’s contempt for Tony Blair and David Cameron, the first of whom he describes as governing with a more than passable imitation of megalomania, and the latter as a frivolous, contemptible liar who treated the country as just another playground for the destructive wantonness of the Bullingdon Club.

Where I part from the author is in his characterisation of the English as rejectionist of English identity. He chides Paul Mason with stating that he doesn’t want to be English and complains that Mason thereby “joins most of his country’s intelligentsia…” who are, trapped along with England itself within a “Britannic integument”.

I fear this is an intellectual’s view about other intellectuals with whom Barnett disagrees. If they are not English nationalists, then they must necessarily be “Brits” - which he interprets as “a neo-imperial indulgence - an arrogant refusal to be like other people…”.

Barnett uses the terms “nationalist” and “national identity” as synonyms – which, of course they are not. A nationalist is someone devoted to their country, probably believes in its superiority, and supports its independence. National identity by contrast is not an emotion or a political ambition. It is either a cultural and linguistic birthright or an identity acquired by the exercise of a political right. You don’t have to be born in England in order to be English; but someone born in England is English unless they have both a right and an option to choose otherwise. One can be English without being in the least an English nationalist, that is without an emotional attachment to a nationalist project. This, I think, was the sense in which Paul Mason describes himself as not wanting to be English. As someone with dual nationality, I find myself on Mason’s side.

Barnett also argues that a lack of nationalistic sentiment among English intellectuals and artists is an obstacle to achieving England’s independence from the sclerotic structure of Great Britain – a release that would catalyse the independence of the other three nations. The UK would cease to exist, and in its place all four could and probably would return to the EU fold, Scotland and Northern Ireland willingingly (the latter reunited with the rest of Ireland) and England and Wales as chastened prodigal children who were lost for a while and are found.

Our duty then – or at least our ambition should be “…helping to ensure the independence of Scotland and the unification of Ireland…. Hopefully Wales too.” This scenario suggests a kind of English self-absorption against which Barnett fulminates elsewhere. Is it for the English to “ensure” independence for others, whatever “independence” truly means? Except perhaps in the neoliberal world that is so distasteful to the author, to myself and to so many of us, we should recognise that the four nations have responsibilities towards each other. One of those responsibilities may not be simply to recognise the right to decide for ourselves – but in this case to make a collective decision about how to live together and apart. Should we not be averse to seeing the costs of individual independence borne unevenly or unfairly? If divorce is ultimately good for us, we must surely part on good terms and with concern for each other’s welfare, not as a purely selfish act of perceived and probably transitory national advantage. That is the truly anti-neoliberal position. Its converse is the national equivalent of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous “no such thing as society”.

Barnett maintains that nationalism in England could galvanise all four nations. But it has a poor historical record. Prior to the nineteenth century the idea of nationhood would have left most peoples mystified. Countries belonged to empires either political and dynastic like the Holy Roman, the Mughal, the Spanish, the British; or religious as represented by the spread of Islam in the East or that of Roman Catholicism in the West. It is because of the latter, for example, that in 1796 Ambrose O’Higgins from Catholic Ireland could become Viceroy of Peru - one of Catholic Spain's most important overseas possessions. He could achieve this elevated status because he belonged to a supra-national mosaic of many peoples and languages. Most countries of today came into existence as political entities during the last 200 - 250 years – including Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Hungary, the US, Canada, the whole of Latin America, most of Africa etc. For millennia, the survival of local languages and cultures did not rely on nation states. In fact what nation states have presided over among many other things is a loss of human culture, a precipitous and seemingly ineluctable decline in the number of languages spoken and therefore of different ways of seeing and interpreting the world.

Nation states have not enhanced human cultures, they have crushed them. They have led to regimentation, conformity, and often the repression of minorities trapped within borders not of their own making. They are the opposite of generous, multi-faceted and accommodating which is what the EU, for all its many warts and betrayals by its political class, has tried to be.

Then we have the issue of whether intellectuals and artists – those spurners of nationalism – are representative of England as a whole. I suspect strongly that they are not; that in the hinterland, among those English non-Londoners who voted heavily for Brexit, nationalist English sentiment or a least a consciousness of being primordially English remains powerfully at the core of their identity. If they fail always to distinguish between British and English (as Barnett points out) it is the latter that holds sway. Canadian novelist Robertson Davies once remarked about the English that “…they don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of them,” an observation repeatedly demonstrated by riotous English football supporters and cricket’s barmy army when they travel abroad, as well as by the uniquely genteel dress and deportment demanded of participants at Wimbledon where even the seeding differs from that of the other Grand Slams. The English have a high level of self-confidence about their identity that objectively – in the 21st century – may appear wholly misguided and even rather foolish given our diminished and still diminishing status on the world stage. But it is there – as I was told in no uncertain terms by a group of Brexit campaigners in the west country with whom I ventured to debate.

Outside “sophisticated” London, the bulldog is not only alive, it snarls at the very idea that the nation which “led” the defeat of Germany twice in the last century, and “sent the Argentineans packing” in the Falklands should be told how to run its affairs by a faceless bureaucracy of officials in Brussels “who’d be speaking German if it weren’t for us”. One told me to visit the war graves in France so I could see how many had died “for democracy and freedom.”  Were these campaigners and others whom I interviewed confusing Englishness with Britishness as Barnett suggests? Emphatically not. Questioned about Scotland’s possible departure following a vote for Brexit, the unanimous answer was “let them go.”

On neoliberalism, Anthony is right to say that neoliberal policies fetishize competition. But neoliberalism is not a synonym for competition - which can be a spur to innovation. At the heart of the neoliberal project are three mutually reinforcing positions.

First is the posture of minimal state interference in the workings of the market. Regulations aimed at ensuring that markets operate in the public interest are abolished and corporations are set free to act as they wish on the assumption that everyone will benefit. As Noam Chomsky has noted, freedom for corporations constitutes a fundamental assault on democracy because it allows them to operate beyond the control of the state and independently of the ballot box. They spend vast sums on lobbying and on the provision of “advice” to governments not to enhance public welfare but to influence policy in their favour. This is where the posturing comes in. They don’t want interference, but they do approve of low taxes, labour flexibility – a euphemism for insecurity, and the right to move profits offshore. Should a government wish to restrain their activities, they can discourage the idea with threats of disinvestment and even speculation against the currency.

Second comes marketisation of the public realm – that is of activities that in social democracies are considered to be within the remit of governments: provision of education, health, social and physical infrastructure, essential utilities, etc. In a neoliberal world, these are contracted out to the private sector or, where this is not immediately feasible, are structured in the form of quasi markets and operated as if they were private enterprises or businesses. Some activities of this kind are not and will never be autonomously profitable. They require state subsidies. Such is the case, for example, with UK railways which – except for the initial bidding process for network franchises – do not operate in a competitive market. They are, in fact, natural monopolies for that mode of transportation; and their profits are dependent on the state. Delegation of government responsibility to the private sector is a quintessential component of neoliberalism; with the government reducing its role as far as possible to collecting taxes from the citizenry and recycling them to private enterprise.

Third is the definition of citizens primarily as consumers whose ultimate and most important right is to exercise choice. If the UK signs a post-Brexit trade deal with the US, consumers should be left to decide for themselves whether to eat US chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef. When people fall ill, they are supposed to be able to choose between hospitals and even surgeons. Consumer choice should also be available to parents in deciding where to have their children educated. And so on. No need to elaborate on the absurdity of this form of thinking which – except for the rich who can buy services independently of the state – can have little or no significance for the bulk of the population.

In summary, while the raison-d’être of neoliberalism is profit, as Barnett contends, it requires – and this is critical – the relationship between government and governed, and between the providers and users of public services, to be purely transactional. It reduces humanity (genuine choice being an absurdity in many instances) to the level of non-sentient creatures whose fundamental role is to consume and thereby to ensure the continuing welfare not of themselves but of business.

Where I think Barnett has misrepresented neoliberalism is in his remark that neoliberal competition “…is not all bad. Since the 1980s it has accompanied the greatest movement out of extreme poverty in history”. China and India are the two countries where the reduction in poverty has been most dramatic and is most significant in populational and statistical terms.

However, neither country is run on strictly neoliberal lines – especially not China whose economy and economic development have been and continue to be overseen by the government. The same is true of another Asian success story, that of the Republic of Korea whose remarkable rise from a poor, Third World nation to a prosperous member of the First World has taken place under government auspices and with a considerable degree of government direction (See UN Human Development Report 2016, and Ha-Joon Chang, 23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism). 

One of the most dispiriting features of Western capitalist propaganda has been its success in claiming for itself achievements derived from economic policies that are quite contrary to neoliberal or laissez-faire models of capitalism.

Perhaps because Barnett himself may have swallowed a measure of that narrative, he has been led to describe the European Union as a “Petri dish for neoliberalism.” I think this is quite wrong – partly for reasons that I outlined last year in an Open Democracy piece in which I described some of the ways in which Germany and France (in particular) sidestep the EU’s own economic policy regulations.

But there is another fundamental reason why we cannot catalogue the EU project as neoliberal – and it is one that may help to explain why important members of the UK elite, as well as President Trump – the ultimate neoliberal – want us out, namely the regulations themselves  – workers’ rights summarised here, standards on food, on chemical additives, on product safety, on pollution, the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy and so on, all of which override competition for the sake of other objectives considered important by the political and administrative representatives of the collective.

For ‘new’ entrants, the EU’s anti-competitive policies can be painful. When Spain became a member in 1986 some of its wine-producing regions were ordered to cease production in order to protect existing producers in France, Italy and Germany. One such region with which I have been closely acquainted since the 1960s has never recovered from this assault on what was once an important local source of income and employment. Restrictive directives of this kind are by definition “unnecessary” restraints of trade in a neoliberal world where consumers and producers must take responsibility for their own choices and their own approach to the market.

In short, the EU has always operated with a strong if selective anti-neoliberal bias which the Commission would doubtless describe as a concern for the welfare of the citizenry. Brussels control may be undemocratic, but it is also an opponent of strict neoliberal dogma. We are close here to the familiar philosophical tussle between libertarianism and socialism. Nestled in the heart of the EU project are ideas first propounded by Saint-Simon and Comte in the nineteenth century and subsequently taken up by Engels when he wrote about “the withering away of the state.” and “…replacing the government of persons by the administration of things…”. In other words, when the ends are agreed, the only questions that remain concern the means – which can and should therefore be dealt with not by politicians but by experts and knowledgeable administrators. Herewith the end of politics as Francis Fukuyama might have it – and maybe of what we have come to think of as democracy.

Ironically, the most assiduous enthusiasts for neoliberalism within the EU have been the British who have sold off state assets, privatised everything that can be privatised, and fought tooth and nail to defend the financial services industry from the imposition of restraints on its ability to damage our economies.  Following Brexit, I would not be surprised if the EU opted to impose tighter restrictions on the financial sector as a condition of the right to “passport” services throughout the member countries. In the UK, on the other hand, those same financial services, centred on the City of London, will probably continue to operate as before  – which is why international banks are claiming that the transfer of jobs to the EU post–Brexit will be no more than a few thousand people out of a total workforce of more than a million. The City will remain supremely neoliberal and profitable – top dog in the murky world of international finance.

If neoliberalism in action is to be condemned, and the lack of democracy in Brussels – and for that matter in Westminster – is incompatible with our desire for popular self-government, how should we proceed? What kind of political and economic paradigm should we be aiming for? If another world is possible, what should it look like? How do we want it to be governed and administered? Many of our most pressing issues are not just national or even international, they are planetary. If we are “all in it together” in a sense undreamed of in Cameron’s and Osborne’s philosophy – as I think we are – how do we proceed in a way that benefits both humanity at large and the flora and fauna with which we share the earth? These are questions that the “Lure of Greatness” can’t be expected to answer. But what it can and does do is provide us with tools to help us understand where we are and how we might think about our collective future. It is engagingly written, thoughtful, appropriately angry in places and tough, but also inspiring. For all of which the author deserves our thanks.

Anthony responds to Jeremy's critique here: Why Berexit? It's the Engish stupid

The Lure Of Greatness is published by Unbound Books - available here.

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