Monday, 22 September 2014

Does Globalisation Breed Nationalism?

Yuck, globalisation. A notion so commonplace, so banal that to write it these days is like murmuring a vulgarity. It's a truism universally acknowledged that the circuits of capital, the organisation of production, its division of labour, and worldwide commodity chains tend to treat borders as irrelevances. Cheap air travel and affordable internet access has shrunk the planet and thrust economies and cultures closer together. Societies and their fates are interpenetrated, and the possibility of describing human civilisation as a single, integrated entity is here. Wonderful, isn't it? The soft underbelly to globalised economies and cultures is the opposite movement in politics. If there was a mechanical correspondence between production and politics, supranational entities like the European Union and UN would enjoy increasing legitimacy. The project of pooling sovereignty would correspond to the needs of the system and be accepted as necessary. Yet they're not. Nationalism in Scotland and England are on the rise. Nationalist movements in Basque, Catalonia, Belgium, Corsica show no sign of disappearing.

How come economic and social integration is heading one way and politics the other? Why is closer global integration breeding separation? I want to concentrate on Britain and Scottish and English nationalism - nationalist revanchism in the former USSR and its clients have specificities bound up with bureaucratic repression and the brute scrubbing of national minorities.

Potted history lesson. Capitalism and the formation of nation states were coincident, intertwined processes in the West. Both were the contingent outcomes of the class struggles of decaying feudalism, and they recast more or less static societies into dynamic entities. Capitalism, emerging in the countryside, established wage labour as an exploitative, surplus-yielding social relation awarded land owners greater shares of the surplus than the old arrangement of lord/serf bonded labour. Simultaneously the apparatus around the monarchy was centralising and waged more or less perpetual wars against their neighbours. Military competition demanded funds, provided by taxes which were levied primarily on the monarch's landed cronies. They in turn had a clear imperative to squeeze as much surplus to make good the taxes, giving them a material interest to dissolve bonded labour and liquidate serfs' right to the land. More free wage labourers were the result, and on and on the process went.

Prior to the emergence of industrial capitalism in the mid-18th century, it was more or less a nonsense to speak of nationality as we understand it today. But the wars from that period on, particularly those between the two most advanced states - Britain and France - suggested a sense of one national community facing off against another. Likewise industry drew masses of people into huge workplaces. Languages and traditions were shared and new ones born over the spinning jenny, the steam pump, the finery forge. Differences too were exploited mercilessly by employers. Cheap Irish labour undercut the wages of English, Scottish and Welsh workers - ostensible communities of solidarity turned against an outside nationality in defence of immediate class interests. All the while, the emergent national identity from below was in-step with a national project from above. The state, as an instrument for networks of competing elites and fractions of capital assumed a managerial problematic. It assumed the responsibility for governing and regulating the unruly, growing masses. Having established a monopoly on the legitimate means of violence in a territory (in the 19th century, this was the entirety of the British Isles), the growth of state bureaucracy, the press, the education system, the military, these institutions secreted a (contrived) commonweal of myth, history, dress, and character. And this was the natural order of things: the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of national struggles. Such were the roots of the pan-Europe phenomenon of young men by their millions cheerfully marching off to slaughter one another a century ago.

Today, states are acting in much the same way. They continue to manage populations. They are nominally subject to those populations too while remaining, in the last instance, capital's guarantors. But the conscious efforts of governments to create a globally integrated social system has not engendered a bottom-up internationalism to go along with it. Even bourgeois internationalism from above is hardly championed in elite circles, except by the odd fringe group. Instead, borderless integration is calling forth a recrudescence of nationalism along a number of axes:

1. In pushing the integration of global capital, governments are undermining the basis of their own states. By now we're familiar with the terror our political masters have of currency markets and bond traders, that they are powerless in the face of the world they have and continue to create. If states cannot shelter their citizens from the ceaseless maelstrom lashing the country, what is the point? Despite this, politicians' unalloyed enthusiasm for more, more, more globalisation reinforces their position as remote, out of touch, and fundamentally against the interests of the populace. The Us vs themism of left and right populism mobilises national identity as a reference point - hence how the neoliberal unanimity of Westminster cut against Scottish social democratic values; how the PC-loving pro-EU consensus of the establishment crowd out Englishness on the behest of a Stalinoid super state. When legitimation fails, movements from below will grab the nearest, most convenient tropes to hand. Invariably, that tends to be nationality.

2. Progress on capital's terms is not a linear path to a better, braver world. It proceeds violently, by a process of creative destruction. The world is made and remade in its image, according to the whims of the invisible hand, and the orgy of surplus extraction that the metaphor artfully conceals. The flux and flows of capital generate new jobs, make others obsolete, throws up gleaming palaces overnight and leaves them ruins just as quickly. In capital's global race, there are winners and there are losers. The winners, in Britain, has been finance. The circuits of capital have made London the hub of its empire. Untold billions pour in and out everyday, blessing - or blighting - the city with the most amazing wealth. The streets aren't paved with gold, but its skies are awash with digital ones and zeroes denoting untold riches. As the new Rome, or Babylon, London is increasingly the world centre for culture and the arts too. Celebrities and celebutants flock to the big smoke along with millions of others making it the most mongrelised, international city on Earth.

Every winner needs a loser. As global capital fires its hub, so the rest of Britain is drained. The financial prosperity of London rests on the broken skulls and broken communities dotted over this island's industrial heartlands. Thatcher's assault on the miners and the labour movement in the 1980s made possible the dispossession of public wealth. The grease for deregulating the city were the profits and expectations of (guaranteed) profits to be creamed off the privatised utilities. To get to this point industries were torn down and ways of life were destroyed. And with it went a central plank of Britishness. Industries up and down the land were not only integrated into a vast manufacturing division of labour, trade unionism and, to a lesser extent, the Labour Party united workplaces in a shared sense of solidarity. When all this was dynamited, Britishness stumbled. The comeback of Scottish and English nationalism is the product of slippage, it is driven by loss. It is kickback against seemingly impersonal forces which were anything but unintended. Scottish nationalism oppose broken solidarities with the hope independence might offer something better. English nationalism thinks withdrawing from the world is an escape back to bucolic times. The content is different but the underlying drivers are the same.

3. None of this makes sense without acknowledging anxiety and precarity. With countries torn up by economics, politics content to cheer it on, and a pace of social change that is as bewildering as it is maddening, nationalism is more than a convenient ideological resource to mobilise people. It's an anchor, a rock. As the globalised winds blow in from the coast, national identity stands steadfast. It can be packaged up and sold, but it remains the property of the people. In a world where values are upended and identity is promoted explicitly as a project of self-actualisation, nationalism is a port in a storm. It offers the familiar and the unquestioned. It's a shortcut to belonging and solidarity. In a world where that is barely valorised, a communal readymade is seductive. No wonder that, perversely, uncertainty breeds familiarity.


Boffy said...

It isn't the case everywhere. In Latin America, In Asia, in Africa not only has globalisation and development gone along with a growth of bourgeois democracy over the last 30 years, but it has also gone along with greater regional co-operation.

The reason in Europe is that in order to develop a United States of Europe would have required big capital making a more overt alliance with the working-class, rather like it had done in the 19th century to defeat the landlord class.

Big industrial capital was unlikely to do that in a modern context, because it runs the risk of the workers going much further than Capital would like. So, big capital pushed through the changes it requires bureaucratically rather than democratically. Things like the EU were set up from above.

That provides the basis for a backlash. When ever there is a problem, the backlash has a n easy target. If Germany decides its interests are best served by developing Europe, and abandoning the absurd fiscal austerity - its clear Monetarism, i.e. QE, does not work to expand economies - and spearheads a drive to create introduce the same kind of fiscal stimulus as used in the US, alongside a requirement for a single fiscal authority, Europe will start to grow strongly, as is the US, and all of the nationalism will subside.

Chris said...

The mistake you are making here is thinking that this is nationalism and not something else, e.g. in the Scots case a wish to be freed from London rule, more social democratic policies etc. After all the Scots want to remain in the EU, so they want to be part of a larger economic block that dilutes their identity they just don't want to be part of Toryland down South.

It is the same with the other regiions you mentioned.

So when you look at attitudes to the EU, a much larger economic identity than the UK and a larger trans national body, then I would say there is less nationalism now than ever before.

Take off those biased glasses that sees nationalism everywhere!