Left Problems, Nationalism and the Crisis

by Malcolm James & Sivamohan Valluvan

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The below is one of the essays published in Salvage #6: Evidence of Things Not Seen. All of the essays published in print are released online in the months after their print publication.

Crises abound. Crises that might be productively seized, or crises that usher in a new threshold of capitalist governance no longer tempered by the nominal equality of juridical liberalism or the egalitarian reflexes of redistributive social democracy. Whatever else Brexit, Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Sanders and now Corbyn may be, they all seem to indicate a crisis – a moment of rupture, a proliferation of new horizons, and a centre that cannot hold. On the left, the ‘full automation now’ and universal-basic-income Neo-Keynesianism of the bright young things finds affinity in the avuncular socialism of Sanders and Corbyn. Elsewhere, a popular authoritarianism, committed, amongst other things, to overseeing the full ravages of climate change, butts up against far-right neoreaction.

Many of these positions found some degree of articulation in the run-up to the British 2017 General Election – an election initially intended to clear the path for Teresa May’s Home Office styled authoritarianism. Thankfully, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party won an unexpected number of seats, forcing a shift in parliamentary discourse. This shift moderated right-wing populist vehemence, and, following the tragedy of Grenfell, contributed towards a renewed consideration of social welfare. However, before that transpired, an emboldened revanchist nationalism had already consolidated itself at the centre of English politics, and, in spite of the renewed optimism of the Corbyn moment, that formation has only marginally dissipated.

After all, much of the previous decade had seen nationalism became the most reliable broker of electoral power. It informed the rise of far-right populisms whilst also fortifying centre-right rule across the West. This nationalist revival manifested along multiple registers. At times, the emphasis is on economic protectionism. Elsewhere, the discourse rails – not without justification – against the dictats and opacity of various supranational institutions, not least the European Union. Sometimes, it amounts primarily to a rustic nostalgia for something supposedly primordial. Common, however, is a consistent compulsion to place the bulk of a society’s challenges at the door of racialised ethnic communities, domestic and foreign.

As western capitalism reneges on some of its key promises of the trente glorieuses (the years 1946 to 1975), it is painfully frustrating that nationalism is rehabilitated as the most prominent custodian of political discourse. It is doubly frustrating that some who agitate for a left alternative seem wedded to the nation – as part of an attempt to assert control over migration, defence, security, and over how we imagine our everyday sense of community. As these frustrations multiply, it is timely to sketch out a more historically attuned reckoning of the relationship between the current crisis and xeno-racist nationalism, including an engagement with whiteness and the working class. At its simplest, our point is to press the importance of recognising the central role of racial nationalism in recent governance. Our more overarching contention is that a realisation of alternative left visions for governance must, at minimum, start with the repudiation of xeno-racism’s hold on contemporary politics, and of the Left’s routine submission to its lustre.

Such a reckoning is, in a small way, necessary to appreciate the initial electoral success delivered by a Corbyn-led Labour. Any alternative model for mutual care and sociability will be sustained by energies outside the Labour Party, not within it. But it is nonetheless vital to note that Corbyn not only insisted on a substantial social democratic programme, rare to recent centre-left agendas, but he also declined the call to rally nationalist shibboleths – although he did not advocate for migrants’ rights either. His partial success is then accounted for by not having bartered with key nationalist agitations. Instead of capitulating to nationalist populisms, he presented an anti-establishment social democracy with popular appeal.

But to say this is also to note that nationalist agitations remain intact. As the dust settles on the election, nationalism has begun to return to left politics, parliamentary and otherwise – because it never left. In parliamentary Labour, we see Corbyn’s initial quietism on migrants’ rights accumulating a more recognisable anti-migrant language; we see it in the recent pronouncements of MPs Gloria De Piero and Graham Jones on the ‘white working class’; we see it in the formation of John Denham’s English Labour Network; but, perhaps more importantly, we also see it in the continued attempt by influential opinion-makers to lend anti-immigration sensibilities a more pronounced left-wing rationale. As such, aside from a limited defeat of right-wing authoritarianism, it seems little else has changed. Optimism has certainly returned, even the word ‘socialism’: but the crisis that forged the nationalist demand, which props up its contradictions, which keeps Philip May’s investments in tax avoiding multinationals healthy, is still very much a reality. The Left must, then, not only reject nationalism, but do so on certain terms, based on a solid understanding of the contemporary crisis in which it arises.

***

As so often before, Stuart Hall helps us answer this call. Until recently a less-quoted aspect of his vocabulary, Hall’s commentary on the ‘crisis’ has been revived. The parallels between now and the time of which he spoke are clear enough. Hall’s crisis of 1970s and 1980s social democracy is, after all, the direct antecedent of our own, wherein the popular gradually yielded to the populist.

Hall observed how under Callaghan, but more prominently in Thatcherism, the formal ideals of democracy became eroded, accruing a more authoritarian guise. As market-society programmes were enforced, the broader conditions necessary for labour security, social mobility, comprehensive public provisions and affordable networks of community-based leisure dissipated. Confidence in the democratic contract was accordingly threatened. What emerged out of the resulting democratic void was an intensified emphasis on belonging to the nation; a belonging premised on certain fundamental exclusions. That is to say, this was a renewed and affirming cult of belonging based on identifying the threats posed by generally racial, frequently classed, and sometimes unionised, outsiders. Here, a familiar cast of pathological presences begin to obtain their fuller political definition – the nihilistic black male, the degeneracy of the multi-ethnic inner city, and, not least, the (increasingly Muslim) migrants ‘swamping’ the realm. These appeared alongside the periodic assertion of remembered imperial glory via select military campaigns – the Northern Ireland Troubles and Falklands being particularly significant.

The slide towards nationalist authoritarianism could then be narrated (with a degree of hyperbole) along the following lines: the democratic project no longer hinged on the conception of a collective good; no longer aspired to deliver a shared social arrangement; no longer envisioned a society that could deliver a socio-economic stake for all its members. Instead, the ‘democratic’ moved towards identifying populist objects of threat, disruption, decay and dependency both in the body politic and at its borders. For Hall, this was not only to say that racialised alarmism and policing offered cover for market reforms, though it is partly that: it was to note the more fundamental shift in the locus of democratic governance and desire itself – toward authoritarian populism, understood elsewhere as ‘parliamentary dictatorship’, collected and sutured by nationalism.

The advent of Blairism seemed initially to constitute a departure from this doubling of capital and nation. While Blairism certainly represented the consolidation of neoliberal common sense, tying the cult of enterprise and the animal spirits of competition to an edifice of urban chic, it also momentarily muted the little-Englander defensiveness characteristic of Thatcherite neoliberalism. This reading, however, is partial. First, the initial (if piecemeal) commitments to race-equality legislation and multicultural Britain were in actuality awkwardly embedded within a resurgent core of white popular cool, as embodied by indie band Blur and its upbeat white nostalgia. Second, the move away from heavily worn assertions of Britishness, minority threat and xeno-racism was largely reversed through the return to a ‘community cohesion’ thesis borne out of the 2001 northern disturbances, and increased hectoring against asylum seekers. This general recourse to integrationism was indirectly hitched to already available imperial nostalgia, lived through and repackaged in a manner suitable for early twenty-first-century sensibilities via the militarism of 2001 and after, but already primed in the seeming successes of Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

It was of course not only the Labour Party that rehearsed the return of nationalism. After a confident first three years, New Labour became reactive, easily pressed into an opposition political agenda compelled by the Conservatives and its own well-worn nationalist impulses. Failing to redistribute wealth and lacking anything substantive to champion beyond a scramble for a fetishised ‘centre’ as an end in itself, Labour in the 2000s was apologetic and defensive, dancing uneasily to the tune of an emboldened right-wing press. As such, during New Labour’s reign a popular consensus around immigration as being unequivocally problematic, the depiction of Muslims as unequivocally ominous, and multiculturalism being deemed unequivocally bust, was secured. In short, what Richard Seymour calls the ‘soft racism of the hard centre’ became entrenched. All that subsequently remained was for its more virulent spokespersons to promise nationalism’s more spectacular palliative potential.

***

The resulting nationalist consolidation occurred, however, under conditions somewhat distinct from those discussed by Hall. In his analysis, the ideal subject lionised by Thatcherism was the self-determined meritocratic individual – personified in the petite-bourgeois shop owner (and therefore Thatcher herself). The threading of free-market capitalist ideology through the mundane fabric of the new town and suburban high street permitted the dismantling of the welfare state and the incremental application of market logics to all human relations. It was consequently the petite-bourgeois Poujadist who became the ideal nationalist subject, characterised by a deep private innocence, smallness under siege, and a familial innocence largely at home with capitalist mantras.

Today, the mythopoesis of the shopkeeper, the ‘self-made man’, and the striver scarcely delivers in material terms. It is not even a consistent emphasis in Tory dogma. Rather, ‘the market’ itself gradually displaces the myth of the shopkeeper as the ideal neoliberal subject. The market is, of course, a pseudonym for the triumph of global finance capital. In Home Counties’ high streets, we see this operationalised in the Conservatives’ house-price indexed business-rate hikes. Bases of traditional Conservative power, such as the fabled entrepreneur, are sacrificed to the exigencies of the corporate multinational, to Tesco and Costa, and to the rationales of the market. However, this shift from local to global is certainly not a rejection of the nation. Indeed, the Brexit-themed neoliberalism of global-trade utopians Liam Fox, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and David Davis engineers its own potent version of nationalist assertion. Neoliberalism is first and foremost an ideology of enterprise, and all objects come under its purview, including the nation. Construed as competitive, cost-effective engines of pure accumulation, the nation too is then reimagined as enterprise – a visualisation with overtly colonial overtones. It is the ghost of the East India Company that haunts Liam Fox’s desire for an ‘Empire 2.0’.

This particular rendering of the national project, however, reneges on a formal affinity with Little England. It is a neoliberal project that is becoming gradually uninterested in petite-bourgeois conservatism. This is not to say that neoliberalism does not continue to inform the quotidian fabrics of local life too. The ideology of the free market is still found in street-level anxiety about the failure to self-actualise the myth of merit, but these fixations with the optimising self must sit alongside job precarity, income stagnation, widening inequality, diminished public services, disciplinary welfare (‘workfarism’), rising costs of living, accelerated urban restructuring, the formal end to the promise of social mobility, and increased social atomisation. As such, while our dominant ‘structure of feeling’ may still be petite-bourgeois capitalist, its conceits of mobility and meritocracy run up too frequently against these social and economic realities. The cultural investment in ideals of competition and the sanctity of enterprise do not remotely align with the wider realities of socio-economic stagnation, austerity regimes, and the resultant individual struggle and hardships. Contemporary neoliberalism is global-hegemonic, and as such any promise of freedom it does contain is, for the majority, too far away.

It is because of these increasingly undeniable realities that we are said to be currently witnessing the partial crumbling of the neoliberal consensus. Across Europe, more confident challenges to the austerity conceit are materialising. What concerns us here, however, is that the potential diminution of neoliberal logics still leaves intact the emboldened chauvinistic attachments to nation and whiteness that characterised the other side of that same governmental coin. Put differently, nationalism is all that remains of the established ruling culture when, or if, the consensus around neoliberalism and its austerity politics starts to slip. The task of a renewed anti-racist Left should therefore be to subject calls to nationalist myopia and defensiveness to the same hard-won rebuke to which leftists subject neoliberal capitalism. To soft pedal on this task, or worse yet, to accept some core nationalist nostrums would be to succumb to the shape of governance already rehearsed over recent history. Only now, its partial untethering from former capitalist bedfellows allows for xeno- and anti-Muslim racisms to obtain a greater and more pernicious autonomy.

***

The ability to map these distinctions and transformations is notably absent in certain branches of the Left. We might say that failure on these grounds has become habit. Those in such corners of the Left even cite Trump, Brexit and Le Pen as the results of straightforward anti-capitalist impulses. Such a version of the crisis critique, endorsed in part by journalist Paul Mason, and often put forward by merchants of progressive contrarianism and/or self-styled spokespersons of working-class authenticity, then accepts retrenchment to the nation as an anti-neoliberal move. The fact that some middle-class people oppose nationalism further compounds their mistaken notion that the new nationalist cry must be anti-capitalist, or at the very least, a recognisable act of anti-elite, working-class assertion.

This is bad Marxism done worse. It takes the metaphor of oppositional class interests and writes it into every streak, corner and recess of culture and ideology. Such arguments have already received some critical attention, but its continued prominence in left-nationalist circles means it merits more. And whilst we cannot address here every rendition of how nationalism obtains a leftist inflection, we do want to isolate here a select few angles that we believe to be particularly misleading.

One prominent left-nationalist move regarding contemporary crisis is the ‘the working class has spoken’ ploy. Here, the multiple dimensions of nationalism are reduced to a working-class politics, an insurrection via the ballot box. Anti-immigration becomes a normalised sentiment of working-class populations (denying the petite-bourgeois triumph that the nation actually is) at the same time as it is read as anti-capitalist politics (as opposed to the anti-minority xeno-racism that it so belligerently affirms).

Key to this reading of Brexit, Trump and aspects of May is a distinction between supposed ‘cosmopolitanism’ versus ‘working-class culture’. This distinction has two dimensions. First, it is said that the working class lacks the resources to cultivate attitudes more receptive to immigration and its resultant ethnic diversity; and second, cosmopolitanism (read multiculture and anti-racism) is characterised as merely an exercise in middle-class metropolitan self-aggrandisement, and ultimately superfluous to any genuinely progressive project. This argument, recently aired by Wolfgang Streeck but apparent in other commentaries on class and culture, alleges that a resource deficit explains resentment towards migration and ethnic diversity among the working class. And, by the same token, it is argued that cosmopolitan resources are the preserve of the middle classes. Ignorance of this resource deficit is then put down to the smug arrogance of metropolitan elites.

Some important truths need restating in response. First, this ignores many apparent dynamics of our cities. The unspectacular commitment to multiculture occasioned by the quotidian textures of much urban life, that is to say, a city habitus common to many black, brown and white working-class people, is well-documented. As such, it is hard to seriously justify the suggestion that an alleged liberal middle class has the resource monopoly on cosmopolitanism. (It is hard, too, to imagine that the city is the unique preserve of the metropolitan elite, or that xeno-racism only exists in multi-ethnic areas.) Although many middle-class people might nominally share the rhetorical commitment to multiculturalism, they are scarcely its only or even primary agents or symbols.

Indeed, much, though not all, of what is narrated as being a middle-class embrace of cosmopolitanism might rather be seen as the rather thin marketplace consumption of ethnic diversity. It is often a form of cosy realisation of self via consumer discernment – rather than an extension of sociability, care and concern – that is sometimes forgotten when Polish off-licences outnumber bespoke coffee shops, when multicultural neighbours become noisy nuisances, and when such personal discomforts are weaponised through the police, spending power, and property prices.

To reiterate, the reality of many urban working-class areas discredits the thesis that a resource deficit between middle-class and working-class populations explains wariness of migration and ethnic diversity. The suspicion of what is here called cosmopolitanism, when it does indeed materialise, is therefore best accounted for elsewhere. To be specific, the presence of ethnic minorities becomes a basis for resentment only when it runs up again thickly textured defensive narratives of the nation.

This analysis is often forgotten, perhaps due to the melancholic visualisations of the working-class as white. It is particularly important to deconstruct this invocation, because of the sense of victimhood and injury it offers to nationalism. In this assessment, the working class is invested with whiteness, and this whiteness is presented as under threat by migration, political correctness, equalities politics, and the very idea of a multi-ethnic society itself.

Leftist social science has become particularly good at recycling this canard; a canard in which class exclusion is either used to explain all other features of modernity, and/or certain white interviewees’ testimonies on the dangers of migration are presented as unmediated social truths. In both cases, proper analyses of culture and race go missing. These articulations occur in a wider left discursive environment that too often presumes the historic entitlement of ‘indigenous’ white working-class people. Weaned on soap operas, the memory of a Blitz spirit, the golden era of the welfare state, and football as it used to be, many left vanguardists indulge this position by distinguishing the entitlements of the white working class against the illegitimate claim to the same made by ‘new migrants’.

When left scholars claim that the white working class have unique grievances against capitalism, conterminously understood as legitimate grievances against the pressures put on them by immigration, they are not then sufficiently interrogating the relation between whiteness and the nation. What is more, they are conveniently constructing a lived reality of whiteness that is not easily borne out in many working class multi-ethnic neighbourhoods, although the continued discursive operationalization of a ‘working class-as-white injury’ trope does certainly threaten to remake the realities of these areas.

Such a position also refuses to acknowledge the contingent porosity of whiteness and how its symbolic ‘wages’ are often claimed by populations who a generation or two ago would not have been white enough. Through this lens we can actually start to understand the ways in which whiteness and anti-immigration sentiments coexist, and the ways in which they become a repertoire through which some working-class people are encouraged to make sense of their social and economic marginalisation. From here, too, we can account for the complexities of xeno-racism in multi-ethnic parts of our cities, where hostilities to ‘newcomers’ can be mobilised by those who claim whiteness but related exclusions can also be adopted by some black and minority ethnic people who reject white supremacy yet favour exclusionary territorial claims – ‘I was here first’. This internally discrepant but nonetheless majoritarian discourse of exclusion is in fact where we should be focusing our attention..

In sum, the left-nationalist argument hinges on a conflation of essentialised, fetishised whiteness with working-class struggle and anti-capitalism. A defence of class becomes a defence of whiteness, and, by extension, of the nation and anti-immigration politics. This reading of working-class politics is, then, an argument for nationalism and racism, and it inevitably harms working-class people.

More constructively, we must stress that contemporary nationalist discourse is not a speciality of the working class but has historically developed across several prominent platforms, each important to the recent political history of Western Europe. These discursive heritages include but are not limited to: the liberal nation, in relation to Eurocentric interpretations of tolerance, free speech, secularism, the rule of law and civility; the neoliberal nation as mediator of economic enterprise and ‘homo economicus’; the conservative nation, in nostalgic relation to the provincial, imperial, Christianist, or rustic white; and the communitarian-left nation, in relation to the welfare state and broader anti-market, anti-globalisation sentiments. The ideological contouring of nationalism at the present moment requires all these various repertoires.

This argument constitutes, therefore, a reminder to those with left or left-of-centre leanings that nationalism cannot be opportunistically gamed for anti-capitalist ends. Nationalism is itself the populist play. All else becomes marshalled in its service. As Maya Goodfellow comments, to realise a popular politics without appealing to the totems of anti-immigrant xeno-racism might seem a Sisyphean task. But it is the challenge that must be reckoned with, as otherwise one merely gives succour to the nationalist call.

Nationalism is never simply a means to other political ends, not least left collectivism. Nationalism is always, in the final instance, about its own exclusionary racisms – anything else is a convenient bedfellow rallied to make its appeal more likely.

Postscript for web publication. The bulk of this piece was written in the immediate wake of the 2017 General Election. Much of what has subsequently transpired further confirms the thematic angles and tensions we were tentatively opening. That said, some of our optimism for a critical Left position came from the way the election threw things up in the air; and although nothing has yet fully settled, it is important to note some consolidations that we are increasingly concerned about.

Labour’s continued silence on various toxically racialised debates – on immigration and the border; on security and policing; alongside a failure to more forcefully complicate exclusionary, often nostalgically white, visualisations of community – is deafening. (We note for instance that Labour has not challenged the prominent Brexit position on the curtailment of free movement in any noteworthy sense, suggesting a shortage of political will where it most matters). As such, whilst we remain cautiously encouraged by many aspects of this Labour leadership’s agenda, its prevarication on these key matters (as profiled in our essay) is both frustrating and dangerous – even when taking into account the scarcity of political capital at this moment for a social democratic leadership that is routinely slandered and under attack, from within and without.

Malcolm James is a Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. His research interests are in postcolonial and critical race approaches to youth, urban culture, migration, music and sound. He is author of Urban Multiculture: Youth, Politics and Cultural Transformation (Palgrave, 2015).

Sivamohan Valluvan is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. He is on the editorial board of the journal Sociological Review. His forthcoming book, provisionally titled The New Nationalism, aims to, among other things, critically unpack and challenge recent invocations of a ‘Left Behind’ in much public analysis.

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