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Nationalism After Coronavirus

by | June 29, 2020

The following piece first appeared in print in Salvage #8: Comrades, This is Madness, our latest issue. Issue 8 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue (issue 9). 



We all write today amidst the early convulsions of what will be remembered as the time of coronavirus. As many have skillfully observed, nothing will be the same again. And yet, as ever, already a well-consolidated nationalism is being tentatively eased back into the frame, insinuating itself as a lens through which to both evaluate and govern the present transformation. 

This is a nationalism that speaks of ‘Chinese’ and ‘foreign’ viruses. It casually brushes aside an EU invitation to engage in joint tender for life-saving ventilators. It blusters about buying British. It rails at international organisations, not least the World Health Organisation. It remains unmoved by the cries for help from elsewhere. It threatens to monopolise vital medicines and vaccines. It extends sanctions against countries in the Global South already devastated by the sweep of coronavirus. It reheats already-established aversions to those iconic minorities upon which any nation-state imagination turns. It appeals to borders, decrying the peril of human mobility. And it is also cautiously whispering about something called autarky. 

We scarcely need to rehearse here the failings of the recourse to nation when dealing with what will always remain a global vulnerability from which nobody is inured – excepting those elites who will accelerate their surveillance enforced entitlement to absolute health and micro-fortification. Such vulnerability will of course be experienced unevenly – the violences of a supposedly indifferent nature remain stubbornly loyal to the eminently human stratifications and exclusions that are renewed on a daily basis. But still, if anything, the realities of global exposure and interdependency should accelerate the case for democratically credible, post-imperial structures of global coordination and an attendant ethos of radical internationalism. Alas, amidst the seemingly naïve utopianism of any such corrective, we see instead nationalism readying itself to claim the void; but a nationalism that is also, I add, somewhat different from the one to which critics of nationalism, including myself, have hitherto attended.

I cannot confidently infer what the denizens of Britain so galvanised by Johnson’s promise of Brexit rapture might be thinking at the moment. But one does fear that the appetite for nationalism that underscored the December election result, and much else before it, may intensify amidst this dramatic reconstitution of nigh everything that remained familiar: namely, a nationalism as premised on health security and ‘bio-austerity’ that overlays the nationalism consolidated in the Brexit moment. Consider, for instance, how the infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster, picturing a line of refugees at the Croatia-Slovenia border, was a portent of something else as well – not only a racialised demonisation on its own cruel terms, but as a more immanent threat too of what the nation-state must by duty be vigilant against. As I wrote at the time, this was a visual language of ‘lumpen decay and pestilence’ speaking back to Victorian fears steeped in a colonial and classed logic of hygiene and repulsion – it was, indeed, a poster that could just as well be ‘reimaged as insects, as pests, as grotesques.’

Needless to say, many will be deeply alarmed by the scope such a nationalism can achieve when further unleashed. The writing of Fintan O’Toole, among others, tells us that nationalism is animated by a toxic but dizzying mix of drives – a drive that prizes the poetics of heroic survival, desires the comforting safety of the foetal hearth, is awed by the sublime scale of fortified walls and ‘splendid isolation’, and is frenzied by the chronic but seductively sadist aversion to the multiplying ills of the exterior. In short, a heady brand of what Richard Seymour has coined ‘disaster nationalism’ is distinctly well poised for a full capture of the Covid-19 aftermath. 

I contend in turn that we can no longer afford any equivocation about nationalism’s illusory merits or bend to the seemingly practical certainty of its existence. All too often during the fallout of the last few years, and the wider anti-immigration animus that was its ambient norm, we have been invited to adopt a conciliatory position. Much was said about unbridgeable ‘culture wars’ that require compromise; ‘left-behinds’ whose voices must be heard (in spite of the primary voter share for the right’s weaponised nationalism still being furnished by the middle classes as well as wealthy conservatives as scattered across the shires); and also the insistence that the promise of a ‘sovereignty’ regained is a benign exercise attesting only to the affirmations of fellow-feeling and community. 

As nationalism threatens to prise open another authoritarian frontier amidst this newest but most substantial global crisis, it is time to put paid to all such false virtues and purported practicalities alike. A post-nationalist future is a must as new waters are chartered. And indeed, as all that till now passed for normal is again up for reevaluation, it is evident that other more encouraging alternatives are also taking improvised shape. After all, might we be seeing today the nascent drafting of a new economic commonsense that calls time on the orthodoxies of austerity and fiscal ‘prudence’? Similarly, do current governmental measures constitute a deformed prelude of what genuine action against climate breakdown is likely to look like, the menaces of ecofascism notwithstanding? And might we even be readying the terms for a bottom-up driven politics of care and mutuality to take renewed, twenty-first-century shape? 

In other words, it does seem to me that particularly generative pivots are available when a renewed neo-Keynesianism meets ad hoc ‘welfarism’ – a pivot sutured by the underlying imperatives of biopolitical security, yes, but also collective obligation. As Bue Rübner Hansen recently observed, ‘biopolitics can also be democratic’ and the ‘Leviathan is often inept’. Put differently, under certain enabling contingencies there arises a presentation of bio-political work that retains a more inclusivist temperament – which represents in turn a momentary breach of some key right-authoritarian orthodoxies. Remember here that most authoritarian impulses of recent nationalist vintage were to be always externalised – as reserved for already demarcated racial pariahs; for sites of classed decay, dependency and danger; but also against representatives of liberal friction that the authoritarian nationalist turn was unwilling to countenance, such as the judiciary, the BBC, Parliament, the civil service, and even the humanities as a general branch of the universities. Needless to say, the emergency personality currently visible in Britain is not yet of this order. 

These remain in turn important openings that cannot be denied, even as critics rightly decry the ‘nonchalant’ and, amidst the flurry of about-turns, an even periodically Malthusian streak towards disposable lives that some governments have exhibited. For many commentators to long in turn for the yesterday of a pre-pandemic time is to mistakenly assume that most of the world’s population, as well as our own, deemed that era to be similarly congenial. The possibilities herein of an alternative social arrangement that is being intermittently glimpsed should not be summarily dismissed. What the future cannot afford is for such emergent openings to be ceded to the destructive myopia of disaster nationalism. 

Sivamohan Valluvan is assistant professor in Sociology at the University of Warwick. His most recent work is The Clamour of Nationalism, published by Manchester University Press in 2019.