Defining and Challenging New Nationalism

Image: Lena Bell

Wednesday 7th June, 2017

Sivamohan Valluvan

Brexit represented the formal consolidation of a new electoral coalition in the UK: middle-income conservatives as dotted across the green shires and provincial towns of England hitched to huge swathes of previously Labour voting working-class Britain. Much ink has been accordingly spilt trying to account for the different motivations and socio-economic circumstances that aligned to produce this new political pivot where, put proverbially, middle England’ meets the ‘left behind’. A speculation that has been renewed upon the declaration of a ‘Brexit’ themed General Election. Amid all the burgeoning and at times maddening commentary, the one apparent consensus among detractors and supporters alike is the observation that Brexit, and the feelings of resentment and powerlessness that fuelled it, was primarily framed by issues of ethnic difference and immigration.

This is not to discount the various other themes that surfaced during the campaigns – claims pertaining to unaccountable bureaucracies, democratic deficits, the Euro’s crisis tendency, the drive towards centralised federalism, and even, from admittedly slightly quixotic leftist factions, the EU as an unapologetically neoliberal single-market body that undermines locally progressive politics. Yet, in spite of these no doubt significant criticisms, it is apparent that the assortment of more overtly xenophobic, race-baiting themes was ‘wot won the referendum’. Themes relating to immigration, refugees, Muslims, the spectre of Turkey, the Roma, the tyranny of anti-racist political correctness, and the ECHR sanctioned human rights restrictions that, among other excesses, supposedly impugn the integrity of British soldiers.

The fact that populist firebrands across Europe, not least Marine Le Pen, received the result with a flurry of enthusiasm is no mere footnote to the Brexit episode. It is instead an exemplary expression of the very political reality that has come to define contemporary Europe. The well-documented transatlantic dimensions of this new political stage is attested to in Nigel Farage – who by any reckoning must be recognised as the charismatic lynchpin of the Brexit cause – promptly decamping to the United States in order to bolster Donald Trump’s own nationalist assertion. An affinity mirrored in Prime Minster May’s happy acquiescence to the tune of Trump whilst also enthusiastically ventriloquizing Farage in her own electioneering.

What is Nationalism?

Many arguments have been advanced attempting to develop an analytic schema that can account for this malaise. A malaise that consigns both the social democratic and liberal left to the ignobly hapless position of bystander, a mere observer to the history dramatically unfolding. This article adds to that body of writing, advancing an argument that trades on two claims – this first, diagnostic, the second, political.

First, it is clear that the idea of nation has recovered the lustre that had momentarily subsided, a hiatus that fed much hubristic speculation about the end of history and the teleological triumph of liberal, post-ethnic democracy. Nationalism’s long historical arc in Europe was by my reckoning punctuated by two bouts of intensity. The age of Romantic expressionism and the major nation-making projects it sponsored; and the early 20th Century era of protectionist mercantilism tied to fading imperial influence and economic instability that suffused two global wars, fascism, and the subsequent, not unrelated, crafting of the welfare-state contract. The west is in the midst of a third such intensity.  

Nationalism might be initially understood here as the set of discourses by which primary culpability for significant sociopolitical problems, whether real or imagined (depending on one’s political leanings), is attributed to various ethno-racial communities who are understood as not belonging. Nationalism can of course be read through any number of other postulations. Such a significant feature of modernity, perhaps even modernity’s centrifugal achievement, is always about so much at once: culture, territory, democracy, the vernacular, alongside the ‘invention of tradition’ and monumentalised elite history. In short, nationalism pertains to the manner in which modernity frames the entire aspiration for peoplehood, community, and the attendant expression of sovereignty.

But if one basic proposition about what constitutes nationalism is to be advanced, one proposition from which all else follows, it is the relationship between political discourse, ideology and nation that is the most helpful. Namely, western nationalism can be read as the formation by which a self-appointed normative community attributes its putative socioeconomic, cultural and security concerns to the excessive presence and allowance made to those understood as not belonging. Those who comprise the relevant field of non-belonging include the variously constituted insider minorities but also various foreign peoples and/or international forces, some of which intertwine with and reinforce the pathologies attributed to those internal, generally non-white groups. (For instance, the intensification in anti-EU sentiment in the run up to Brexit made extended reference to how the refugees amassing in Calais and elsewhere in Europe threatened to replenish the already vilified internal minority groups with whom the potential refugees share a ostensible commonality – via Islam, skin colour, or country of origin).

The contemporary constitutes one such moment where much political discourse projects a significant nationalist orientation. Increasingly shrill populist claims traffic in a number of core nationalist anxieties that hinge on certain iconic figures of non-belonging. Anxieties written upon the figure of the migrant, a figure that is articulated via multiple guises – as the labour migrant, as refugee, as asylum seeker, and, less frequently, as rapacious, uncouth foreign capitalists. Anxieties associated with the nihilist materialism attributed to the black inner city, and the black male in particular. Anxieties stemming from the purported vulgar incivility of eastern Europeans (with the Roma becoming a particularly visceral signifier of this) amid their unsolicited arrival in the townscapes of provincial Britain.

And, of course, the increasingly trenchant anxieties tied to the figure of the Muslim – as misogynist, indolent, violent, fanatical, sectarian, and, perhaps most invidiously, as protean and unpredictable. It is uncontroversial to note that the entire democratic landscape is being remade by the advances of these above political assertions, assertions that recommend harsher, uncompromising responses to the threats these multiple but often overlapping outsiders represent. Relatedly, nationalist solutions increasingly obtain a panacean value in the popular imagination, suggesting that various significant challenges will be magicked away through the emasculation of the significant others in the nation’s midst.

The electoral power of nationalism was of course realised in particularly profound ways during the 2016 US Election. To quote the New Yorker, in the context of Trump’s seemingly carte blanche and largely improvised political programme, ‘voters are willing to tolerate’ various seemingly unpopular and highly contradictory political measures and personality warts in ‘exchange for the rest of Trump’s ethno-nationalist ideological agenda.’ Indeed, in the wake of Brexit and Trump, it seems banal to assert the contemporary importance of nationalism. Even The Economist pithily titled their November 19 issue, ‘The New Nationalism’.

It is, however, the case that when critical attention is given to the rising nationalist mood, it often tends towards a well-worn economic reductionism. These accounts ascribe to nationalism some basic illusory properties that merely deflect or manage economic uncertainty and inequality. This frustratingly thin thesis understands nationalism as only applicable to momentary crisis resolution and as deflecting more pressing but inconvenient questions about economic stagnation and wealth concentration.

Beyond Economistic Explanations

Economic factors are certainly integral to the emergence of this new nationalism, given that they undeniably cultivate nationalist desires. Hostility towards national governments’ transfers to the EU or to international aid, claims over the financial largesse extended to refugees and other undeserving others, or competition for the diminished and seemingly diminishing resources that insecure and low-skilled labour affords, all operate as grist to the nationalist mill. The fact that nationalism has been emboldened at the very moment economic inequalities widen across advanced industrial countries and as economic deregulation and recession have engendered deeper senses of insecurity – which if not always directly experienced is widely felt – cannot be a coincidence.

However, it is also apparent that such economistic explanations only get us so far, and to see nationalism simply as epiphenomenal of economic factors misses the way in which nationalist appeals find resonance through both busts and booms and across stark economic divides. Put differently, it may be that it is not the economic that organises nationalism but that nationalism and ideas of nation itself shape how material forces are comprehended and responded to.

This recognition helps avoid rehearsing a simplistic either/or dichotomy between the economic and xenophobic racism. The economic explanation is commonly staged as either emerging from a rational, legitimate rage at an elite and/or arising from increased hardship amidst deindustrialisation, outsourcing, rising living costs, the casualization of labour and the dissipation of public services and social security provisions. This is contrasted to the more knee-jerk xenophobic racism that has always animated western modernity. That these two cannot be reconciled is a false dilemma. There are in turn three brief observations that help situate the economic in a manner that avoids attributing to it an exhaustive or misrepresented causality.

First, despite regular intimations to the contrary, it is not just the ‘white working class’ that has experienced hardship as a result of the broader neoliberal consensus, most acutely experienced in the wake of the 2008 recession. In Britain, as elsewhere, many minority ethnic groups remain disproportionately worse off across a range of indicators in the areas of employment, housing, health and poverty, and have been severely impacted by both the recession and subsequent state austerity. The play to class as being the preserve of white people is therefore, at best, naïve, at worst, an incendiary racial nativism.

Second, the voter base for new nationalist politics is not exclusively this oft-invoked white working class. Its support also sources the middle and lower middle-classes, as well as capturing a not insignificant share of the affluent conservative vote – responding to similar homilies regarding moral decay, multicultural excess, and welfare dependency. Needless to say, the appeal of new nationalism confounds traditional class distinctions, and for that matter always has. A defining hallmark of fascism was, after all, its ability to rescue from the ruins of industrial exploitation and fin-de-siècle alienation, an invigorating, putatively unifying ethnic ecology.

Similarly, one simple context that immediately compromises the economic thesis regarding new nationalism is the case of Norway. Norway has seen over the past decades the slow emergence of the very same nationalist political discourse and electoral capture that is now being rehearsed elsewhere. The reality that Norway famously enjoys some of the highest living standards in the world, as premised on its well-managed petro boom, seems to do nothing to dispel the nationalist anxieties around immigration, Muslims and multiculturalism that are definitive of the nationalist formation.

Third, some try to equate nationalist populisms with certain new left, anti-capitalist agitations – reading the nationalist rise as a misrecognised critique of contemporary neoliberalism, a critique that otherwise sits more naturally within the supposedly equally prominent left wing agitations. If only. This wilfully optimistic reading of the political spectrum bundles the newly emboldened, often youth driven leftist movements’ desire for change with the actual change and brokerage of power already exercised by nationalist factions. Only one brand of politics and mobilisation has successfully claimed the mantle of power – democratic, media, and otherwise. That brand is nationalism. Brexit belongs to the real. Occupy and Momentum to the hopeful. The Front National belongs to the general, the Nuit debout protests and Mélenchon to the particular. The People’s party and the Progress party, both long-term Nordic stalwarts of xenophobic alarmism, are in government, not merely aspirants. (Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece represent powerful counter examples but remain exceptions that prove the rule and are also buffeted by historical and present circumstances that render both contexts substantially different to the broader northern Europe clustering, and the place of Britain in particular, that is of interest here).

Theresa May does not secure her otherwise absent mandate as premier through any substantive commitment to the virtues of class solidarity, scrutiny of capitalist precarity, and an end to boom-and-bust crisis cycles. No – rather more prosaically, May shores up her legitimacy through an unambiguously nationalist interpretation of Brexit as having constituted a straightforward proxy referendum on immigration. This is a proactively nationalist gamble that – according to Kenneth Clarke, the resident dissident of the Conservative Party – would make even Enoch Powell blush. This is therefore not the age of populisms sui generis, as is suggested by John Judis. It is instead the age of nationalist-populism. This specification is not a minor quarrel. It instead fundamentally alters how we, as analysts and critics, diagnose the present.

Which Nationalism?

There is, however, an underlying validity to the argument that the contemporary populist form is not merely right-wing and summarily conservative. But herein lies the second observation upon which this essay’s argument turns. Namely, it is not that populisms of all different constitutions are currently competing in a largely unresolved contestation for ascendancy. It is rather that new nationalist populism, as the ascendant form, does absorb and rearticulate a wide variety of political constitutions – constitutions that traverse, crudely put, the left-liberal-right spectrum. Put differently, contemporary populism is nationalism, but nationalism’s current appeal and vitality lies precisely in its ability to draw upon an assortment of opposing ideological traditions, meanings and symbols.

A passing glance at the historical theorisation of the nation-state helps situate this claim. As Hobsbawm and Ranger memorably clarified, nationalism hinges on the ‘invention of tradition’ that establishes a polity’s preferred historical bearing and its entrenching of what Benedict Anderson called ‘simultaneous temporality’ – a conception of peoplehood that ties the present to a particular imagining of the past but also the future. These narrative mechanisms culminate in engendering a profound sense of a timeless ‘We’, a ‘deep horizontal comradeship’ that placates other social divisions. The nation consequently offers modernity the fundamental lens through which it renders community, as the appeal to a shared entity of belonging beyond those whom we know and congregate with at any given moment. No other modern social formation has been able to generate the communitarian taxonomy and feeling that is, in any historical context, so central to how a society manages and expresses its sociopolitical transactions and ambitions.

It is now certainly a truism, in the time after E.P. Thompson, Hobsbawn and Anderson, to note that the nation is a historically specific artefact, finding its proper expression only via the waves of Romantic nationalism and the subsequent mass society, state centralization periods that succeeded it. This historical contingency of the nation was perhaps made most beguilingly apparent in Massimo d’Azeglio’s 1861 exhortation, as an ambivalent observer of the Risorgimento, ‘We have made Italy, now we must make Italians.’ Less well understood, however, outside of the shamefully neglected canons of postcolonial and anti-racist scholarship, is that this construction of the national we is not in any sense benign. As scholars attuned to the nuances of racisms’ centrality to colonial modernity have observed, nation-states do not simply reflect pre-existing framings of ethno-national membership. Rather, societies actively produce and entrench ideas of nation, conceptions of the national subject (its ‘fictive ethnicity’ as goes the memorable phrase of Balibar) that are necessarily exclusionary.

To revisit an elementary sociological observation, in the making of the nation, definitional emphasis is in fact placed on who is not part of that nation. And crucially, this process of national self-definition through relational negation has always found ideas of ethno-race and broader civilizationist constructs of the ‘West and the Rest’ to be its most instructive typology. As Paul Gilroy and David Goldberg have regularly noted, the fact that the European nation and ideas of race both began to find their thickest political and cultural definition at the same historical moment is no coincidence. It is instead the fundamental interplay that the very premise of European modernity regarding its sense of peoplehood rests and, and as recent events attest to, continues to rest upon.

This brief theoretical digression regarding the historicisation of the nation is necessary here only in order to clarify an understanding of nationalism’s relationship to the more general concern of political ideology. Simply put, the nation, which is at its plainest a constitution of the normative ‘we’, has no inevitable political complexion other than that of its own exclusionary, ethno-racial desires. Contrary to the often assumed affinity of the nationalist to the crudely pictured conservative, a more watchful analysis will note that nationalist sway at any given historical moment requires a particular kind of racial othering that is able to assemble an ideologically disparate collage. Comparable to what the sociologists Solomos and Back have called, in the course of summarising George Mosse’s important commentary on racism’s elasticity, ‘a scavenger ideology which gains its power from its ability to pick out and utilize ideas and values from other sets of ideas and beliefs in specific socio-historical contexts.’ 

I accordingly argue that any real reckoning with the current nationalist moment must better locate its mooring within very different and at times contradictory ideological clusters. This diffusion is in fact central to its current triumph. The ability of nationalist affirmation to find its sense amid contrasting ideological vocabularies and symbols plays a significant role in accounting for the intelligibility of contemporary nationalism to so many different factions and recesses constitutive of Britain’s current political scene.

To give this claim some initial, albeit inadequate, definition, what is of interest here is the ability of contemporary nationalist discourses to appropriate and occupy a number of prominent platforms, each of which has had a substantial role in shaping the recent political history of Western Europe. These multiple discursive heritages that become susceptible to nationalist co-option include: the liberal – as the self-arrogated and ethnically exclusive European claim to values of tolerance, free speech, secularism, the rule of law, alongside the more indefinite sense of liberal civility and everyday etiquette; the neoliberal – as the symbolic premium placed on a moral distinction between the deserving, self-reliant and entrepreneurial capitalist self (‘homo economicus’) on the one hand, and the increasingly racially inflected understanding of the work-shy dependency of others; the conservative – as the nostalgic appeals to the moral and aesthetic clarity as well as public safety of provincial, imperial and/or rustic whiteness; and the communitarian left – as the welfare state and as anti-market, anti-globalisation sentiment, sentiments which are increasingly expressed through the allure of ethno-national community. Across these primary contours also lurk more finely-tuned political lexicons, not least the disingenuously and instrumentally purposed feminist rhetoric of gender equality and sexual liberation, the conservationist feeling and visualisation of bucolic environmentalism, and even certain speculations about ideal urban life – in terms of regeneration, consumption and habitation.

Recognising this expansive ideological map accordingly prevents the convenient attribution of the current malaise to an allegedly vulgar, largely emotive rump of fear and bigotry. Instead, any attempt to resist nationalism must first involve properly addressing its sophisticated affinity to multiple ideological forms, some of which we mistakenly consider to be inured from such trends. I am not in a position here to sketch further how these multiple ideological vocabularies all inform the deep nationalist cry being sounded across the West. But, importantly, I am not simply arguing that all political repertoires are capable of racism: that is, the left too can be racist or the liberal too can be nationalist. This is already very well understood and I have no wish to rehearse such truths. Rather, I am merely positing that nationalism, in order to become ideologically over-determined, requires all these various repertoires. And part of the resistance to this nationalist wave, as much as it involves a critique of the economic conditions that render populist-nationalisms more likely, is also about clawing away at these ideological contradictions that comprise European nationalisms.  

Labour and Nationalism

This argument also constitutes a reminder to those with left or left-of-centre leanings that nationalism cannot be opportunistically gamed for other political ends. Nationalism is itself the contemporary populist play – all else is merely marshalled in its service. Of course, 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 further succour to the nationalist call. A call that might absorb other ideological positions but is ultimately promiscuous, only committed to its own ethno-racial exclusion and nativism.

It is within this context that the ever-observant Ash Sarkar despaired not so long ago via Twitter, ‘I asked last year if it was possible to do leftist populism without nationalism, and Labour apparently cba [can’t be arsed] to even try.’ Sarkar’s frank frustration was warranted. There were increasingly vocal summons that asked the left, via Corbyn or otherwise, to bargain with the nationalist case. Thankfully, the dignified and unapologetically social democratic policy vision set out by Labour for the election has seemingly declined the nationalist invitation. (Even if they remain strategically silent on actively repudiating the anti-immigration consensus, a silence sadly necessary given the above electoral context). Whilst this rejection might further confirm their defeat, this is in itself not the issue at stake. As observed by Richard Seymour, increasingly peerless in the complexity of his pro-Corbyn interventions, it is not the defeat itself that is cataclysmic. The unfortunate truth is that defeat was nigh guaranteed this time round whoever Labour leader. It is consequently the terms on which the Labour defeat is delivered that are of more long-term consequence.  

Transposed to the context of my own argument, it is my hope that if Labour can perform creditably without emulating nationalist impulses, it might then obtain the base and time to pursue a sustained spell of coherent and confident opposition. Or seen inversely, a mangled attempt to ventriloquize nationalist motifs can only sow further confusion while still conceding relevant territory to those outfits, not least the established Right, that already boast a well-defined anti-immigration and racialised law and order, security line. These outfits will accordingly always outmanoeuvre Labour if offered these terms.

Nationalism, put differently, must be either shelved or delivered upon. A partial and opportunist accommodation by a formal left is hardly going to suffice. Labour must continue to recognise that any attempt to recycle nationalism has become a fool’s errand. Nationalism cannot be seen to be a viable vehicle for other political ends, not least, leftist collectivism. Nationalism is, in the final instance, primarily about its own exclusionary racisms – anything else is largely a convenient bedfellow rallied to make its appeal more likely. To paraphrase a typically haunting reflection by Hilary Mantel on the mandate obtained by Trump, the deep affect of nationalism, once galvanised, is not easily reversed, diluted or repackaged.

“Trump must make good on its promises, for its supporters will soon be hungry. He, the ambulant id, must nurse his own offspring, and feel their teeth.”

Any friend of the left would do well to remember this.

Sivamohan Valluvan is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Manchester. The argument set out in this essay, originally published in issue 23.4 of Juncture (IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas), is a key point of departure for a book that Valluvan is currently writing, provisionally titled The New Nationalism and due to be published by Manchester University Press in 2018.

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