Essay: a new sense of nation?

Michael Calderbank and Ashish Ghadiali discuss the meaning of ‘national pride’ and ask if it can – or should – have a place in a truly radical left politics

May 3, 2020 · 12 min read

This essay was first published in our Spring 2020 issue. Subscribe today.

Michael Calderbank: People in the former industrial towns that voted Leave in 2016 and rejected Labour in 2019 feel like they’ve been left with nothing. A hurricane of neoliberalism has blown through their lives, ripping out jobs, security and a sense of community. It feels like ‘progressive’ forces want to take away the last shred of dignity: people’s sense of identity and pride in where they’re from.

We mustn’t acquiesce with an uncritical ‘patriotism’ which celebrates national identity as though it is synonymous with the institutions and interests of the ruling class. Waiving the Butcher’s Apron; pledging oaths to crown and country; backing ‘our boys’ in war whatever the justification; doffing your cap and knowing your place – it’s enough to make you vomit.

At the same time, though, much as Marx saw religion as the ‘heart of a heartless world’, this sense that as materially poor as we might be, we are nevertheless privileged in our identities as bearers of a world-historical national lineage might be an illusion, but it can be a comforting one. It gives people a sense of value to their lives, something they can affirm and of which they feel they can be proud. Against the backdrop of people taking away everything they have of value, these communities are understandably resentful of a left which wants to deprive them of even this.

The ‘culture war’ approach of the right is effective because people feel disrespected and disparaged by a left which sees people only as racist, bigoted and uneducated. Therefore, if people show us nothing but disdain, why do we think they’d be sincere in making our lives better? We need to set aside this whole Fabian understanding of politics for one which is about empowering people to change their own circumstances for themselves.

The left should be far more critical when it comes to understanding itself as ‘progressive’, in a context where the driving force of change, of technical/economic development we understand as ‘progress’, is neoliberal globalisation. Isn’t it a mistake to vacate the terrain of people’s concerns with issues like security, tradition, identity, community and belonging to the (far) right? Can we positively reconstruct an understanding of a tradition such that people see no contradiction between being proud of themselves and the place/ culture they come from while at the same time decisively rejecting the institutions and prejudices of the British ruling class?

Ashish Ghadiali: In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon, grapples with something like the dilemma you lay out. He works to make the distinction between a kind of bourgeois nationalism that functions, not to ‘transform the nation’ but rather ‘to serve as a conveyor belt for capitalism’, versus something else that he calls ‘national consciousness’ – a process by which the colonised subject liberates herself from the gaze of the oppressor and, finding herself in concert with her fellow citizens, creates herself anew.

He has the most memorable, glimmering phase for the latter; that ‘the living expression of the nation’ is ‘the collective consciousness in motion of the entire people’. The nation emerges here, properly understood, as a radically inclusive and, yes, progressive entity, created ‘for the disinherited and by the disinherited’.

Fanon warns ‘if we really are to safeguard our countries from regression, paralysis, or collapse, we must rapidly switch from a national consciousness to a social and political consciousness’

And yet writing from the frontline of the African liberation struggle in 1961, he also recognises that national construct as one constantly threatened by the reactionary forces of stagnation, corruption, nostalgia and by the over-identification with race and tribe (racism!) – so much so, that Fanon ultimately warns that ‘if we really are to safeguard our countries from regression, paralysis, or collapse, we must rapidly switch from a national consciousness to a social and political consciousness’.

I agree with you, Michael, that belonging, as it was for Fanon too by all accounts, is a kind of be-all-and end- all of the human experience and that any political project that fails to recognise this is more or less doomed from the outset.

I also agree that it’s useful to see Labour’s collapse on the ‘red wall’ in the 2019 general election through this lens – that after 40 years of neoliberal globalisation that has decimated mining communities, manufacturing industries and public services, the Brexit votes of 2016 and 2019 amount to precisely what Fanon might have called a ‘national’ response.

However, the fact that the nationalism that has driven Brexit has lined up so neatly behind the elitist and racist agendas of politicians like Rees-Mogg, Johnson and Patel should serve to remind that, whatever legitimacy you find in the national consciousness that has revealed itself through Brexit, you might also see how it’s brought us one step closer towards the dead end that Fanon warned against, and that now the real national project – the one that expresses the evolving consciousness of an entire people – must be ‘explained, enriched and deepened’ if we are now to find ourselves as a ‘nation’ within the frame of human history.

In order to do this, I believe we need to move beyond the idea of the nation as one rooted in the kind of nativist pride you’re alluding to and instead look forward towards a kind of ‘planetary humanism’, to use Paul Gilroy’s phrase, which, to my mind, is the only proper sphere of belonging for any progressive political project in the 21st century.

I’m concerned less with reviving dead and racially exclusive traditions than in working for a collective understanding of what it is, in the narratives of Englishness and Britishness, that gets in the way of our connection both with the natural environment that sustains us and with one another in all our diversity.

Because, while that key demographic of English voters that you point towards – over the age of 55, in former industrial towns – might see themselves, as you say they do, as having ‘been left with nothing’, that’s a statement of extraordinary (white) privilege in a world shaped, as it is today, by climate breakdown, where Britain remains the fifth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide into the world’s atmosphere and where the lives of millions of people in the global south are being devastated by that breakdown for which we, as ‘bearers of a world-historical national lineage’ (call it empire!) bear significant responsibility.

Within this frame, pride would amount, in my view, to a kind of bizarre and inhuman response, one at odds with the task of now forging an inclusive nation. The real national project, I believe, the one that gives a place of belonging to our whole humanity, demands that we learn now to see ourselves truthfully within this frame, and then begin the work of reconfiguring ourselves accordingly.

MC: As a psychoanalyst, Fanon believed (with Freud) that every form of identity – both of the individual subject and the group – is rooted in the past, a past which is traumatic. We can’t break free from our pasts to ground some alternative identity from year zero – repressing the memory of our history doesn’t work. The dead won’t stay buried, and the repressed returns in forms which we’d rather not encounter. Instead of rejecting the past, or facing a compulsion to repeat it, we need to work through it, and emerge on the other side. It can never be erased, but the significance to which we attribute it can be recontextualised.

You only need to look at the history of the 20th century to see the appalling levels of atavistic violence and cruelty to which it can lead. Idealistic appeals to the nation can’t be naively appropriated by the left and given a superficial coating of progressive values. Nationalisms might be based on irrational unconscious drives, which mistake fantasy for reality.

But dry appeals to reason simply don’t clinch the argument – the psyche has too much invested in its irrational attachments. I’m not at all opposed to the idea of ‘planetary humanism’ as a kind of utopian telos of future development – indeed the very idea of socialism probably requires something like it. But as yet it’s an empty signifier, an abstract idea which floats high over concrete, real-world commitments.

It’s an empirical fact that – like it or not – again and again people do feel that there’s something valuable about their national identity. We can tell people that national identity is a big ruling class con trick, that they’re stupid to fall for it, they’re irrational or all the rest of it – but how persuasive will that be? And what are the chances that the repressed won’t return with a vengeance?

Why doesn’t the left do a better job of working through our national history, rearticulating the story we tell ourselves, to advance inclusive, egalitarian values? When I referred to ‘pride’, I certainly didn’t mean we should encourage a kind of narcissistic self-worship (at the expense of the excluded, racialised other), but as a basic sense of selfworth. Let’s not forget this is the birthplace of Tom Paine and Mary Wolstonecraft, where workingclass people organised to demand social and economic rights – the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists, the Suffragettes. The English Romantics were heroic early resisters of rapacious economic and ecological devastation of our countryside. We give birth to perhaps the world’s first comprehensive system of free public healthcare.

It’s an empirical fact that – like it or not – people do feel that there’s something valuable about their national identity

It’s not unreasonable for the former industrial working classes in this country to feel aggrieved at what they have lost (which is substantial, both economically and culturally), and to search for some kind of positive validation for the present/future. This is the generation of Ken Loach’s protagonist Daniel Blake. If the left thinks it’s justified in attacking these people for their ‘white privilege’ it will condemn itself to a well-deserved irrelevance and create a vacuum for an extreme racist nationalism to grow.

AG: All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. I think you and I are talking about the same thing, Michael – about a project of inclusion. But the unshakeable fact for me remains that we inhabit a world that has been shaped by whitesupremacist thinking, brutally so. That thinking persists. It shapes our global inequalities. It shapes injustices at home. It swings elections. Always has. The nation is something we create all the time by who we include and who we leave out. My point to you is very simply that we are a nation now of many stories, not just one and that multiplicity, its diversity, is the process of moving on from empire that it is our role to facilitate, not to deny.

I hear what you say about the English radical tradition, but what struck me, in the article you cowrote with Hilary about this subject (Red Pepper, Autumn 2019), is how the tradition you outline appears to vanish around the mid-19th century only to re-emerge as the top-down socialism of the 20th-century Labour party.

My hunch is that this tradition was engulfed by empire, which is the greatest temptation – that denial of human equality in pursuit of the privilege that comes from empire’s deal. The British working classes have not been exempt from this complicity with empire, hence its persistent appeal at the ballot box, nor (let’s be honest) has the socialist left in Britain.

Attlee’s 1945 government, for example, while it built the NHS at home, also partitioned India and Palestine and wrote the manual for colonial warfare in Malaya and Borneo which would form the basis for violent counter-insurgency tactics used by the French in Algeria, the Israelis in Palestine, the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq. Blair was by no means the first imperialist to lead the British Labour party. This is the story of our nation too and arguably more at large in the soul of the nation today, sadly, than either Thomas Paine or Percy Bysshe Shelley…

Within this context, it’s worth taking a moment to recognise that Corbynism has brought something truly revolutionary to our national political landscape. Corbyn has used his office, as leader of the Labour party, to decisively address this century-long history of misidentification with empire, bringing hidden histories of antiracist struggle to the forefront of the national conversation. This is a move that has been met with derision from certain quarters and also the decisive electoral support of voters under the age of 30 who, let’s remember, are the future of this nation.

To reckon with the imperialist legacy in this way, on Corbyn’s part and on the part of all of us who participate in this work, is an act of planetary humanism, which is not the ‘utopian telos’ you evoke, but our most basic identity, the most deeply felt part of ourselves that connects us with others and with the planet. We experience it all the time and when we know ourselves through this kind of identity, we start to step forward not with pride or shame but with confidence and dignity. That experience alone can be the basis of this vital national culture that is emerging and that we all share.

Michael Calderbank and Ashish Ghadiali are editorial advisors of Red Pepper. Illustrations by Andrzej Krauze.

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