Friday, 20 March 2015

From Anti-Capitalism to Little Englandism

I'm not an avid follower of Paul Kingsnorth's work, but I do remember his One No, Many Yeses. This was a contribution - some may say cash-in - to the burgeoning library on the internationalist, anti-capitalist, and fashionably networky movement of sundry NGOs, anarchists and occasional Trots of the early part of the last decade. As something of a radical travelogue, our Paul flitted from country to country giving us the low down on the Zapatistas (of course), the G8 summit in Genoa, hung out with gold miners in New Guinea, and all other kinds of things. It was an uncritical celebration of this most rooted of rootless movements, an advert for the New Way of Doing Things. The book stuck in my mind because it helped fill an adventure of my own - a bus trip from Stoke to Telford.

Since then I've heard tell of brother Kingsnorth as something of an authority on Englishness. His Real England, a book I haven't read and therefore cannot comment on, was generally well received by polite left society. What caught my eye about latest piece for The Graun was the epithet our chums over at Bella Caledonia granted it: "a deeply sad Green Powellism ... full of resentment, nostalgia, and paranoia." Could this really be the same Paul Kingsnorth, previously cheerleader for the transnational global resistance?

One and the same, unfortunately. It's a piece we've heard before (and readers will have seen previously here, here, and here. Of course, the idea that England has become a scary place for some is not new. That insecurity is stalking the land and causing some to lash out at immigrants, fearful that newcomers are out-competing the "natives" for jobs, for housing, for school places, for slots on the dentist's waiting list. This is all very fine. One can write about it sensitively and with understanding and still maintain that essential analytical and political distance from it. After all, when all is said and done most left writers on nationalism, and English nationalism particularly, identify its roots in order to understand it and ultimately, undermine it. Hence why, for instance, I sound like a one-trick pony banging on about self-security.

That sceptical attitude is missing from Paul's account. It starts off okay, but then the telling asides start creeping in. We are baldly informed, for instance, that in "four English cities, including the capital, English people have become an ethnic minority." At the risk of sounding like an elite metropolitan from the, um, Potteries, I didn't know 'the English' were a discrete ethnicity. A nationality, certainly. Does Paul really want to get on the slippery slope of regarding second and third generation Afro-Caribbeans, Africans, Asians, and East-Asians as 'not-English'? Of course, I know what he really means, he's talking about white people, but stated in this way it's only a nudge from "ethnically English" to authentically English. Kerfuffles of this type could so easily have been avoided had he merely talked about white English people.

I'd like to put it down to a slip of the pen, but then we have this nonsense about nationality being an innate need. As he puts it,
A nation is a story that a people chooses to tell about itself, and at its heart is a stumbling but deep-felt need for those people to be connected to the place where they live and to each other. Humans in all times and places have needed ancestors, history, a place to be and a sense of who they are as a collective, and modernity and rationalism have not abolished these needs
For someone who's written a book on national identity, this betrays a shocking ignorance of the mountains of scholarship on the topic. With nuances and some dispute over timing, the consensus is national identity and the nationalism appropriate to it is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, linked with patterns of state formation from the 16th century onwards. The sense of belonging Paul romantically writes of were unknown to the English peasant, the Frankish warrior, the Roman house slave. Affective ties were the property of the immediate household, family group, and comrades-in-arms. in all cases a "belonging" different in kind to nationality.

Therefore it is a nonsense, even if only as a rhetorical device, to suggest - as Paul does - that the English were the first victims of the British Empire. The invasion of what would become England in 1066 by the Normans was not the occupation of one nation by the armed forces of another. It was the dispossession of one feudal elite by another. The Domesday Book was a census not for the management of a society, but an audit of the booty William the Bastard reigned over.

What is also lacking is a sense of national self-awareness, which is surprising in a scholar of nationality. Paul berates the Left in England for not wrapping itself in the flag, unlike our French, Greek, and Spanish counterparts. This, supposedly, is a sign of our metroleftyism. Or, perhaps, it has something to do with history. Paul writes about England/Britain's three century rampage across the globe. He doesn't mention the revolutionary republican (and universalist) roots of French nationalism, despite the crimes of French imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nor the leading role the left had in representing a rising nation against fascist dictatorships in Spain and Greece. Whatever problems these nationalisms have, insurrection and insurgency are part of their national narratives. No such content is present in English nationalism, so small wonder the left aren't keen to embrace it.

Yet this is what we need to do, says Paul. What is needed is a radical parochialism to resist the predations of global capitalism, and Englishness is a ready made for the task. The problem is this. Such a project is hugely out of step with the trajectories of modern Western societies. Wherever global capitalism has put a plus, Paul paints in a big fat minus. There is a globalism of above, and a globalisation from below - a point understood by the movements Paul used to write about but one he has since forgotten. The multiple networks ever-growing numbers of people plug into voluntarily are knitting together millions of people with weak affective ties far more closely than the nationalism of old ever did. Sometimes, though one shouldn't overstate it, they collapse the communicative and social distances across borders. But within England, millions are arguing, sharing ideas and memes, liking this 'n' that, trolling, plugging selfies (some even promote blog posts - absurd!) and this is transforming what it means to be English. Why do you think the younger a cohort is, the fear of immigrants, the antipathy to the EU, the attachment to the parochialism Paul endorses gets progressively less? Because it, the media landscape, and day-to-day life are great social mixers. To their credit, the main political parties - and I exclude the smaller-than-the-Greens UKIP from this - have a concept of national identity, albeit a British one, that is officially inclusive. Instead of looking to the past, a new, open sense of Englishness is starting to emerge.

A great sifting of the national identity is taking place. The left don't have to stand in vanguard fashion and articulate a correct Englishness that can be taken up - folk are doing it for themselves. Some might want to fly their England flags, those who are anxious can grumble away, feel resentful, and vote accordingly come election time, but theirs are a large, diminishing slice of England. Address their concerns, yes. Trying to tackle the insecurity driving their angst, absolutely. But to flatter and pander to it as if the fetishising of Morris dancing, hot dog vans, and real ale pubs is some radical alternative? No, no, no, no, no.


Speedy said...

"national identity and the nationalism appropriate to it is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, linked with patterns of state formation from the 16th century onwards."

500 years is a long time. Around 10 generations.

"A great sifting of the national identity is taking place."

So on one hand half a millennia of identity is written off as last minute, on the other the demographic changes over the last 50 years (or even 15) somehow trumps it.

Can't you see the contradiction there?

What is inconsistent with someone who has been involved in the anti-globalisation movement and spent time with Mexican Indians etc, simply applying the same principals to the UK? Would you make the same statements about Mexican indigenous people (who after all are just Aztecs or whatever) as you do the English (who in any case recent DNA evidence suggests they are remarkably "tribally" consistent)? Do you think that would go down well?

Can't you see the contradiction there?

Wasn't there once a movement on the Left that opposed the UK's membership of the EEC, for much the same reasons you cite - the reduction in bargaining power etc? Yet you appear to see no problem with that from a socialist perspective, simply wounded feelings to be managed away...

As a materialist and universalist you have your own agenda but appear to be oblivious to the contradictions in your position - essentially a cheerleader for global capitalism.

Ken said...

There is a Left narrative of England, partly constructed by the CP and its allies in the People's Front period (including of course the famous British Marxist historians) but with roots going back to pre-WW1 socialism and then to Chartism, and carried forward in the anti-fascist aspect of WW2 and then the post-war settlement.

It certainly needs (and lacks) critical appraisal rather than sectarian dismissal. Some of it might be worth rediscovering, reinventing, and remixing.

asquith said...

Say what you like about Paul Kingsnorth, but the novel he wrote last year is really something special.

And really a member of the liberal elite like me, sneering at horny-handed sons of toil from my ivory tower in Goldenhill, wouldn't have written that book, so I'm glad of people like that even if their views certainly aren't mine.

I did quite like Real England too, though I parted ways fom him at the time he started this Dark Mountain business, but you don't agree with his standpoint, I do recommend his work. Hanley library have got a copy.

Speedy said...

Sound familiar?

“The economic crisis, unemployment, social problems, globalisation make people afraid, but if it was just about economics we would see these people voting for the radical left, which they are not,” Bouvet told the Observer.

Phil said...

+1 to Ken, and of course the Left history of England can go back further than that: the regicides of 1649 were just as English as the King they killed.

"Morris dancing, hot dog vans and real ale pubs"? With the greatest respect, one of these things is very much not like the others! I think Kingsnorth is saying that the hot dog vans with England flags are a sign of people feeling the loss of an English identity, not any kind of resource for the future - which English food & cultural traditions could be.