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Step backward, leap forward

Around the globe, new forms of governance are being sought to counter-balance the hyper-empire of global capitalism. Scotland is developing its own resistance, writes Tom Nairn, and England could follow suit

January 19, 2014
8 min read

scot-krauze‘C’est en Europe que commencera l’hyperdémocratie’ (‘Hyper-democracy will begin in Europe’)
Jacques Attali, Une Breve Histoire de L’avenir

In his Brief History of the Future, the political philosopher Jacques Attali suggests that ‘more than a hundred new nations could be born in this century’ in reaction to what he sees as the ‘shock wave’ of capitalist-led globalisation. I see Scotland is in the middle of his list, in between Catalonia and Kurdistan.

The argument of this ‘history of the future’ is that capitalism’s victory in the cold war has led to what Attali labels ‘l’hyperempire’, a definitively polycentric world where democracies have found no alternative to swimming with the capitalist tide, but as a result are compelled to find new ways of living with it. Hence novel modes of adaptation are required, to assert (or reassert) themselves against the triumph of faceless markets.

‘Social democracy’? Yes, but under new conditions: the hyper-empire of globality calls for what Attali describes as ‘la deconstruction des états’. This is where the question of scale becomes more important. What he calls the ‘irony of history’ may be encouraging a switch of scale: from ‘bigger is better’ to the return of something like the smaller entities that nourished the beginnings of ‘l’ordre marchand’, the ‘mercantile order’. Not quite ‘smaller is better’, but tending in that direction.

Originally, capitalism arose among early modern city-states, and smaller societies such as the Netherlands, Belgium, pre-imperial England, Scotland and south Wales. Their successors today will depend upon ‘hyper‑democracy’, the capacity of new kinds of governance to ‘counter-balance’ the pressures of advancing globalisation — like the constraints of City finance-capital in Great Britain, for example, convinced from the outset that ‘globalisation’ had arisen primarily to serve its naturally worldwide interests and ambitions.

A new England

‘Little England’ too may be required for the regroupment of such a tolerable globalisation. It was heartening to see that the Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader, Simon Hughes, is calling for an all-English parliament as one necessary response to the political return of Scotland and Wales. Such affirmation can be peaceful, and uncontaminated by inherited hatred or resentment. What was wrong wasn’t ‘the English’, but the ‘Great Britain’ that an early 18th‑century elite signed up for, in pursuit of both industrial development and natural resources to be derived from more successful colonisation.

The contrary of that union might of course be a differently articulated association, some kind of ‘confederation’ along Swiss lines. But any such reform would itself demand that ‘sovereignty’ be first re-located and diversified, among Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and a restored ‘Little England’. This return of statehood would not be an impossible backward plunge into the epoch of extinct ‘-isms’. We can’t help inheriting ideologies from the past, but ‘nationalism’ in that time-bound sense will itself alter and adapt, to confront the novel circumstances of ‘globalisation’. Sovereignty means having the final word, but also seeking more freely for the new words urgently needed in such rapidly shifting times.

Isn’t this what David Cameron’s government is really devoted to? His recent walk-out from European ‘interference’ suggests as much. He may have found temporary support in Hughes’s party, a movement subscribing to broader views for quite different reasons: what Attali describes as ‘relational’ philosophy or ‘planetarism’ – encouraged of course by the anxieties of global warming. For a time, this has carried them into a very circumscribed authority. Yet already we see Hughes calling them back towards a different agenda – to a ‘little England’ in which democracy could at last over-rule the City, and dislodge the rule of finance-capital and the south. London and the direly-named ‘home counties’ were of course vehicles of the unitary ‘Great’ that has continued to configure Britishness, even after nearly all overseas possessions have vanished.

Fortunately, Little Scotland has been at the same time developing a differently grounded resistance to the same mercantile order. Usually emphasis is placed on historical grounds stemming from the pre-1707 state, and the odd agreement that permitted a distinct Scottish ‘civil society’ to continue – not without good reason, the very idea of civil (non-political) society arose among 18th century Scots, as a consecration of such persistence.

However, it may also be that their historical patience is now being justified – and that an emerging global future will provide conditions for rebuilding it. The future, rather than the early-modern past, will be decisive. Naturally, an altered politics will be in order for that. But isn’t this what people will be voting for or against in 2014? It may be true that a return to independent statehood is in one sense a ‘backward step’. But it is now being undertaken for a more significant run and forward leap: reculer pour mieux sauter, as the French say.

The periphery’s revenge

Leap forward to what? Well, this shift can also be interpreted as a long-overdue revenge of the periphery against the UK’s over-large and concentrated centre – the relic of imperial times, and of a nationality that that had embarked too soon upon over-bearing outward reach, an extension that could not possibly be maintained. Theorists of nationalism such as Ernest Gellner and Liah Greenfeld agree that England – the old English national state – was the initial motor of modern state formation. Gellner pointed out back in 1983 that there are thousands of potential nations, mostly with differing customs and languages – but (so far) only around 200 nation-states.

Why so few? Shouldn’t there be many, many more? One difficulty was that the course of what one might call ‘first-round’ industrialisation initially demanded communities of a certain scale – societies smaller than the great empires of antiquity, yet large enough to foster adequate markets, working classes and urban conglomerations. Only there could anything like contemporary ‘economic’ living (something like England’s model) develop – and compete against one another through the rapids of the industrial revolution’s first wave. This explosion in turn favoured an aggressive, often war-like culture: as it came to be called later (firstly in the USA) an ‘ethnic’ way of life where both families and acquired tongues put ‘country’ first, instilling convictions of what Ben Anderson would later define as ‘imagined communities’.

Among the consequences were the intensity and passions inseparable from the disruptions of ‘progress’ and well-being. These gave meaning and a sort of equality to growing masses of people, but in their wake lay imperialism and world wars – and then, attempts at state-fostered development far removed from the ‘civil society’ originally promulgated in Scotland, in both eastern Europe and areas of the third world.

Only after the cold war would such high-pressure strategies diminish in intensity. The ‘-isms’ have slackened at last, to become more a matter of choice and ambition: the recognition, rather than the enforced adoption, of variety and lifestyles. The great good fortune of the British-Irish periphery is its return to affirmation under these newer conditions. They now have some claim to represent the imagined communities of another, emergent generation, one that benefits from post-1989 alterations of climate and general outlook.

So the 2014 referendum vote could be a significant contribution to this incoming wave, more about the future than the past – a future reaching out beyond the archipelago. ‘Yes’ is about the conditions required for such advance, which can’t be ‘cultural’ or emerge from civil society alone. Scots invented ‘civil society’ in the 19th century as an alternative to the loss of statehood, but in the 21st century it is no longer sufficient.

The prolonged recession between 2008 and the present has underlined the need for more political diversity, for new ways to tackle a ‘cosmopolitan’ capitalism no longer able to guarantee reasonable development and prosperity. Of course independence ‘by itself’ won’t generate miracles. But the point is, surely, that no society is any longer ‘on its own’, and will only be able to contribute to a broader ‘Common Weal’ with the means to act, experiment, and be different. Independence was never a sufficient condition of societal success, but does it not remain a necessary condition of tolerable change and bearable identity?

Illustration by Andrzej Krauze. A version of this essay was first published as ‘New Faces of Nationalism’ on OpenDemocracy’s ‘OurKingdom’ website. Tom Nairn has also written a foreword to The Case for Left Wing Nationalism (Luath Press) by the late Stephen Maxwell


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