When a fire starts to burn: who wants to be national?


In this concluding piece of the re-birth of the nation series, the editor asks what these articles tell us about the left’s troubled relationship with ‘the nation’. How might these arguments inform efforts to develop a thinking politics?

Jamie Mackay
17 June 2013

Over the past few weeks, articles belonging to the re-birth of the nation series have been flanked on the OurKingdom front-page by a number of pieces probing the implications of the ‘surge’ in support for UKIP and, in light of the murder of Lee Rigby, the militant ‘rise’ of the EDL. As street fights rage, and hate crimes gather #hashtags, the metaphors and theoretical abstractions raised in this series seem at once regretfully lofty and yet strangely apposite to intervene in a debate that, in many forums, has been unable to go-beyond the toxic cocktail of panicked Islamaphobia and a collective frowning at the boorish misbehaviours of a homogenised English working class.

Several of the articles in this series provide an important context through which to interpret these current political anxieties beyond the supposedly ‘neglected’ immigration narrative that now dominates mainstream media coverage. Nigel Farage is now a regular on the BBC and as Tommy Robinson is given more and more airspace the terms of the debate are shifting. Establishing the links to challenge this increasingly aggressive narrative requires the patient construction of bridges, between theory and history, media and activism, politics and culture. What are the various relationships, for example, between ‘governments as containers’, ‘banks as sock puppets’, ‘the nation-state as the QWERTY keyboard’, and the actual alienation felt within many communities in the UK? How are the ‘new’ phenomena of ‘spontaneous frontiers’ and ‘networked subjectivities’ still determined by the state’s violent enforcement of its own form of ‘diversity’? What do abstract conversations about sovereignty and citizenship tell us about the fear on the streets and vice versa?

The purpose of this conclusion is to suggest a few preliminary answers to these questions, to evaluate some of the key arguments raised in this debate as a whole and, finally, to flag up a number of unresolved issues that might be usefully picked up in future conversations on and beyond this website.

How to stop thinking like a state

As I described in my introduction last December, the initial aim of this series was to challenge the ‘emptiness’ of so many arguments for global citizenship through an examination of the role of nations within the various movements working to further a democratic world interest, including openDemocracy itself. The call for submissions was therefore premised on two assumptions: firstly, that nationhood cannot be reduced simply to national-ism, and secondly, that ‘the global’ cannot be conceived as something separate – i.e. above - its constituent nations. This argument was positioned as part of a skeptical narrative concerning the legitimacy of representative democracy in the UK Parliament and beyond. Indeed it was against this concentrated model of sovereignty that I suggested the initial question: if the state and nation are separate entities, what is a nation without a state?

One commentator, Cantloginas_Momo, questioned the validity of this question from the offset:  

I have some problems in imagining ”nation” without “state”. After all, it was the nation-state that invented the nation. Is there no word for some sort of identity pattern that is connected with territory but not with state?

My immediate response – following John Holloway - was to argue that the nation is inevitably, by nature of its hyphenated relationship, a separate and antagonistic challenge to the state. Having failed to convince my interlocutor, however, I promised to commission a response along the lines suggested. In the end, an ultimate ‘word’ wasn’t found, but two pieces by Tom Nairn took vital steps in problematizing the notions of origins and territory that Momo identified as vital in moving beyond conventional statehood. The first of these, ‘Fate of the First Born? English nationalism and Euroscepticism’, gave a detailed account of England as ‘prime mover’ in the formation of the nation-state, presenting in the process the inverse of Momo’s account of ‘invention’. The piece also forwarded a razor sharp analysis of the Thatcherite subjectivity which drove Britain’s jump into an agreement that was presented as a strategic – read, financial - necessity:  “most UK electors voted to join the E.U. But comparatively few of them felt that their identity was deeply involved”. In today’s context, in which ‘national’ racist movements are gathering momentum through the exploitation of cultural anxiety, this remark seems well placed to remind us that such as response cannot be simply viewed as a response to the crime in question, but symptomatic of a long multi-institutional embrace of capitalism’s deterritorialising effects.   

With this close analysis of the links between identity, geography and the flow of capital, a second piece, ‘Frontiers: a re-evaluation’ deployed many of the arguments from ‘Fate of the First Born?’ as a challenge to the various ‘no-borders’ movements. Against the assumption that “less borders equal greater freedom”, this piece suggested the active proliferation of ‘soft’ borders as a more effective means of developing liberty through a more deliberative democracy. Nairn’s implicit target, the key distinction between independence and interdependence, has much to inform discussions of both UK immigration policy and the 2014 Scottish referendum (particularly for the reminder that it is not just the quantity of frontiers we should be focusing on but what we mean by borders in the first place). Nairn’s vision here is thus an optimistic one: “cultures are like a nuclear fusion-process, not mere accidents of geography or personality. They depend upon conflicts unsustainable without borders, existential encounters and a degree of stressful contrast”. In the contemporary conditions of globalisation, however, and as the ontology of the nation-state itself is called into question, new expressions of power are emerging, which Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt call Empire, that pose a problem for this inter-connected vision of cultural emergence. A simple question underpins these new claims to modernity that Nairn has addressed elsewhere on openDemocracy: can some nations be, or legitimately purport to be, more global than others?

While Phil Cohen and David Goodhart each sought to disentangle the implications of this question through a close analysis of the ‘carnival capitalism’ of London 2012, Michael Gardiner situated its emergence within a wider consideration of imperial history in two pieces on the ‘organic’ myth that has, through a range of ‘national’ institutions, been used to justify Britain’s unwritten constitution. Spinning a web around the Dutch-imported expansion of credit, the anti-Jacobin era right up to War-Keynsianism and the state-nationalism of the BBC, Gardiner’s tireless sabre rattling with the pusillanimous ghost of Edmund Burke clarified a point I was trying to make in my introduction about the role of ‘the national’ in resisting the logic of capital: “Alternative sovereignties arise via the national, but this does not makes them nationalist as an end in itself, or the question confined to one region”. This seems to me a much-overlooked truism, alien in many discussions in the so-called liberal press which presents ‘nationalism’ as a homogeneous category based on race. It is this which underpins the caricaturing of attempts to establish new models of democracy in Scotland Wales and England itself with the ‘politics’ of the BNP or EDL. It certainly remains the case that to speak of ‘the national’ in a Scottish context (to use Gardiner’s own example) is to be condemned as national-ist, while the silencing and ridiculing of calls for self-determination by those who describe themselves as ‘British’ are rarely cast aside with this same label. This latter case, as condemned by Cohen, and perhaps inadvertently reinforced by Goodhart, appears to my mind at least a more accurate use of the term.

Against this troubling phenomenon of disguised nationalism (often perpetuated by those very Guardianistas who were ‘revolted’ by the flags at last year’s Great British Summer) I wanted to explore the potential relevance of this argument to the language of cosmopolitan resistance. In an extended essay about the potentialities and pitfalls of the controversial term ‘multitude’ - perhaps one candidate for the word that Momo was searching for - I argued for the need to recognise any such term’s embededness within the biopolitical practices that constitute national politics

The fact remains that for the duration of what might now be called ‘modernity’ the nation-state was the primary focus of political thought, the construction of ideology and subsequently the production of subjectivity. It was and is at the centre of institutional contestation in imperial centres and key to anti-colonial struggles around the world. With this in mind, what could be more relevant than nationhood as an irresolvable struggle from where the multitude might be able to emerge and develop politically?

The basis of this piece was an agreement with Negri and Hardt over the global scale of ideological and constitutional change that is needed. Where I differed was regarding the role of national struggle as a vehicle in initiating this change. It is an argument I still believe to be important, and which was only reinforced throughout this debate by the overwhelming resignation of those searching to defend a ‘pure’ global perspective. Ron Israel, head of the global citizens initiative, detailed the obstacles facing the cosmopolitical movement, in a somewhat anemic call for those with a “raised consciousness” to lead the way as citizen leaders. Who these people might be, what this consciousness might constitute and what democratic processes this new citizenship might emerge from were, in this piece, left undeveloped. It seems to me that the answers are simply not there. At the very least, without presenting these issues as fundamental, the concession that “there is an absence of mechanisms that enable greater citizen participation in the growing number of institutions practicing global governance” seems terminal for a notion of global citizenship.

A quick glance at today’s trans- and extra- national organisations such as the European Central Bank or World Trade Organisation provide little cause for optimism, and it is perhaps as a result of the widespread turn against such bodies that Owen Worth’s call for a postmodern alternative to the Bretton Woods institutions ended with the sigh that any such initiative seems a seems “a long way off”. So why make the argument at all? For a left that is interested in both democracy and in challenging global inequality, the categories of national and international clearly remain foundational. Rather than engaging in an tyrade against nationalism per se, then, might it not be more fruitful to note, specifically contra-UKIP, that ‘national sovereignty’ alone means little without a transformation of the state?  

What this transformation might look like was only a peripheral concern in this debate, yet it is no doubt the largest single issue around which future discussion should re-group. That being said, Tariq Modood, Ted Cantle and Christian Karner each made strong cases for the necessity of such change through, and against, the much-abused discourse of multiculturalism. As the state-society configuration enters a new moment of turbulence there is certainly an opportunity for a new multicultural discourse, resistant to its multi-ethnic appropriation in the wrong hands, to lead the way. Other articles, skeptical of the reformist tone of these pieces, turned to questions of organisation and class struggle as the primary tools for smashing, dissolving or bypassing the state and to initiate an entirely new form of government. Greg Sharzer’s celebration of the pan-European workers’ struggles of November 2012, for example, hinted at the potential for networks to revolutionise traditional mechanisms of industrial action. In a widely shared piece that gathered some considerable controversy he condemned the ‘accommodating’ philosophy of localism – including perhaps the glocal activists imagined by Ron Israel - as having no relevance to a larger movement of resistance against the system of capitalism:

The localist from-below vision empowers people as everything from consumers to producers but, crucially, not as citizens. This is because a citizen is a fundamentally political being who engages with the issues of people who don’t have the opportunity or luxury to drop out”

While I personally don’t agree with Sharzer’s analysis, as I have outlined here, it is surely a fundamental recognition of this debate that global citizenship cannot present itself as something out there just waiting to be unlocked. Neither is it available to everyone. Recognising this, as the Occupy movement did to a limited extent in their 99% slogan, is useful for isolating the most grotesque examples of greed and corruption, but it also has a key national significance as a means of challenging the neoliberal portrait of working class England as something unified. Bridget Byrne addressed this point in modest terms in her observation that “it is easier to be a global citizen if you are secure in your rights as a national citizen”. Situating the complexities of identity within the 1981 Immigration Act and the six categories of citizenship contained within it, she detailed the vast inequality in the UK’s population in terms of their ability to move across borders as well as political and social rights such as that to residence. Meanwhile, Peter Hill explored this striking ‘isolation’ of social spheres in contemporary Britain in a piece exploring the role of globalisation in changing how identity might legitimately be linked to space and place. Seeking to develop the concept of an ‘other’ global divide he asked (as a means of affirmation):

what if London is drawing closer to New York and Dubai, but further away from Gloucestershire? Or still more specifically: the stylish bits of London closer to fashionable Manhattan, but further from Hackney and Brixton?

This is a key point. As an elite of politicians, businessmen and media executives literally fly over the great unwashed it is important to recognize that the nation, by now understood as both an antagonistic and unequal grouping as well as the potential for collective sovereignty, really is dead for many of those in positions of global power. Of course this will have a knock-on effect on the ‘national’ legitimacy of institutions in the UK and other countries – and the conditions by which they might develop in the future. To take just one example, if the BBC continue to conflate the actual population of Newcastle with the fictional cast of Biker Grove, the process of Westminster-led enclosure will continue to take on new forms, not in spite of but precisely because of the potentially exciting work figures such as Tony Ageh are currently attempting in the sphere of digital ‘public’ space. If, then, ‘the regional problem’ persists, it will no doubt be presented as in spite of, rather than due to these intrinsically ‘progressive’ initiatives. Despite this, the solution is, on the surface at least, relatively simple: centres of power, in this case the London ‘gaze’, need to be tackled within such research processes and not constantly deferred as problems that will be resolved once the work is done.

Towards the end of this series, Marc Farrant situated the terms ‘nationhood’ and ‘globalisation’ within different configurations of temporality; the pure simultaneity of globalisation clashing violently with the shared construction of time that remains latent in the concept of nationhood. In my view, this is a useful way of linking the rise of a global class with the illusion of the outmodedness of national politics and in turn, the reaction of right-wing populist parties across Europe. The anti-historicism of the global elite is protected by obliviousness on large parts of the left to the biopolitical importance of nationhood. As such, it is this hollowed-out mannequin of neoliberal nationalism that movements such as UKIP are currently mobilizing against, knowingly or otherwise. In these terms, despite what Anthony Barnett correctly recognized as the singularity of the actual criminal act, the follow-up events of May 22nd might nonetheless be read as exemplifying the untenable illusion of British space-time. Far from ‘isolated’, the response itself constitutes a trauma through which the present tense fantasies of the UK’s supposedly global subjects come face to face with the nightmares of this nation’s postcolonial unconscious. When a soldier was decapitated in a London street and masked figures appeared from the cracks to defend ‘their’ streets from ‘Muslamic Ray Guns’ the echoes of laughter overpowered a more revealing question: who are these people? Perhaps more urgently, we need to ask when and where they are. 

Beyond the occupations: nationhood and networks 

What emerged from the dialogue between the articles mentioned above was a complex and mutli-disciplinary account of social reproduction in the UK and further afield; an account which, as both Dylan Hewitt-Page and Alessandra McAllister explored, will continue to call itself into question as a result of technological developments. In line with the instability of these narratives, and what therefore shaped the editorial decisions in this series, was a desire to focus the debate on questions of history, sovereignty and culture rather than entertaining quasi-mythological odes to a particular privileged group: ‘the socialist scots’ or ‘gentle English’ for example. While the notion of a nation being ‘re-born’ might be interpreted as having certain nostalgic connotations - a ‘return’ to a Golden Age, for example – one of the strengths of this debate was a notable commitment by the majority of the authors to actively flag up the dangers of this narrative. The space carved out in this series was used by and large for the description of processes that might be useful for tackling questions relevant to working-through the ubiquitous crisis discourse. It was also resolutely anti-essentialist. Against pageantry, spectacle and the closed-narratives of myth, all of the authors defended their own interpretation of the idea that nations only exist in the contested space of conversation.

It is precisely the reluctance to take advantage of this conceptual space (and to instead regard nations as being merely myths) that underwrites the current panic about nationalism on the part of many extra-parliamentary left movements. It is indeed this same inability to recognize that subjectivity exists within narratives and contested traditions, and not merely as floating ‘free’ individuals, that UKIP and to some extent the EDL have been able to capitalize by re-asserting the rule of a myth which has its roots in the heart of Britain’s sovereign mess. Nationhood and democracy are co-dependent and have a complex relationship far beyond that of state representation. In a context of ‘crisis’, however, and as the former configures itself in Britain today in an anti-historical and hyperbolic form, so too democracy is jeapordised.

What does this mean, then, for those seeking to construct an alternative against the determined pursuit of infinite growth? Is it sufficient to summarise that we simply need to find a new language to describe the changing interface between democracy and collective identity? In my opinion no. Or, at least, not only this. What I think this debate has demonstrated is the extent to which nationhood remains fully implicated in conversations that many people consider as urgent to democracy. Going beyond the representative procedures of Parliament cannot be achieved by an vanguard imagining themselves as after the nation, but only as the result of a long revolution in many forums that while experimenting with new modes of communication maintain some kind of national organisation. This does not mean in any sense limiting a struggle to the nation but is to state, simply, that if the goal is to transform the state, the nation is better placed than other ‘levels’ of identification to initiate a productive split. The racism of the current right wing street movements is, of course, unforgivable, but those working to resist and counter its influence should avoid the condescending category of the ‘the masses’ (“look, they can’t be trusted!”) or an exaggeration of the current influence of groups like the EDL. It is my view that, and as this debate demonstrates, the complex community involved in reading, commenting, running and funding openDemocracy alone is better placed to facilitate contradictory demands for popular sovereignty than inflexible groups organising around concepts such as ethnicity or 'organic' heritage. 

Like many others, I found myself profoundly unsettled by the sudden evaporation of the Occupy movement; of its actual impact in developing processes, and critiques, of the public assembly, but also its important role in inspiring and publicising related movements. Dan Hancox’s recent reflection on Zuccotti Park “the only socialism we will ever know?” was hard hitting and left me with more than just a bitter taste. The decision to run this debate was born out of that same moment which Dan so passionately described and I agree with his assessment that one of the most valuable results of the movements was that, at least for its participants and perhaps more widely, “the sense of what is possible has been irreversibly reconfigured”. My conclusion on an initial read of his argument, however, was quite different to his, and the pieces in this debate have only reinforced the feeling: that where movements such as Occupy are successful in forcing change within the system it remains the result of national organisation. This does not and cannot suggest nationalist myths of exclusivity, but does imply a horizontal respect and cultural interaction between different towns and cities struggling to transform the same institutions. It is my contention that it is within this new attempt to stretch the limits of an historic form – as Kerem Oktem has argued is currently the case in Turkey - that the lessons of cooperation and deliberation that are the strength of occupations can be spread using networks as the fuel for more effective and sustained actions.  

The provocations and insights of the above pieces are well-placed to remedy the current exhaustion of the European movements and, in a British context, to temper the current panic about both Euroscepticism and the far-right. Isn’t it liberating, for example, just to imagine what diverse popular constitutions might arise from a series of interdependent republics after the UK? We need to think outside of the state and we need ‘the nation’ to do it. As frustrating as it can be to define, and particularly for those ashamed to belong to a particular nation, ignoring the national as a key political category per se is to fall for a trick that the global citizens of the 1% have exploited in securing their version of globalisation. With this doublethink in mind, and as the same old Britain begins to plead once again for its innocence, I hope this debate has made one thing clear: that to ignore the contestation over what it means to be national, is to play into the hands of those across the political spectrum who, precisely because of the two-faced trickery of the ‘neoliberal nation’, have found themselves abandoning democracy for the imperial illusions of certainty, security and purity. 

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