The New European Politics of National Resentment
The New European Politics of National Resentment
Europe is in the throes of a major economic and political crisis. The later, overused, word barely covers the depths of despair felt by those facing mass unemployment, wage cuts and the devastation and privatisation of public services. Protests against austerity have united radical lefts, trade unions and the peoples. They have yet to succeed.
In the absence of any substantial – ‘actually existing’ – alternative to the austerity consensus of Christian and Social Democracy, reactionary currents have gained ground. Nationalists, such as the UK Independence Party, UKIP, the weevils of British politics, have had a strong echo, encouraging popular anger against the European Union. Overtly xenophobic parties, the Front National in France (17,9% in the first round the 2012 French presidential elections) and a host of others in Western and Eastern Europe, have gained ground. The Greek Golden Dawn has gone backwards so far that it has revived the far right’s tradition of bullying private militias.
But it is another reaction that has caught attention today. The victory of the right-of- centre party of Artur Mas, Convergència i Unió (CiU) in the Catalonian regional elections opens the way to a referendum on national independence. In Belgium the New Flemish Alliance (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, N-VA) of Bart Wever appears on the way to complete Flemish autonomy, if not the dissolution of the kingdom. The Scottish Parliament has decided to hold a popular vote about the country’s future that could lead to the ‘break up of Britain’. In Italy the Lega Nord, Northern League, stands for the rights of North Italy’s ‘Padania’ against the South. It has lost momentum in recent years following its collaboration with Berlusconi, but may well revive.
Are these different populist protests against Europe’s oligarchs? That is, part of broader demands for “localism”. Tory Ferdinand Mount is a critic of “centralisation and top-down control” He calls for, “giving power back to the people” on the “human scale”(The New Few 2012). Are these movements in any way aimed at the “distribution of power to the many, the taming of the oligarchs, and the opening of opportunities to the worst off.”? (Page 219) It can be quickly seen, that some on the left, notably the Catalan left, Esquerra Republicana which looks set to work with the victorious CiU, and the warring factions of Scottish socialism, do indeed consider the push for independence in their lands as opportunities for such moves.
Most of these movements are however not principally concerned with reviving an idealised municipal government past or the voluntary associations that made up David Cameron’s vision of the Big Society. The route they take, from hard-right to apparently ‘social democratic’ Scottish nationalists, is towards what Mount described elsewhere as the “”visible symbols of national community and unity” (Mind the Gap. 2005) But as Mount would recognise, all these movements are intensely concerned with control over money. From UKIP’s jibes about Brussels to the Catalan, Flemish and Northern Italian regionalists, they are preoccupied not just with bureaucratic waste, but the feckless use of public funds by their improvident – Southern – neighbours. Scottish nationalists, for reasons which are all too obvious, show less interest in this, but continue to rail against the UK-wide distribution of revenues taken from ‘their’ oil and gas,
If there is any common thread between these, often very different, parties and the tides of opinion that bolster their position, it is resentment. They are not movements of national liberation, comparable to Irish republicanism, the fight for Norwegian independence from Denmark, or the forces that created national states following the break up of the Hapsburg Empire, the “prison of the nations”. Perhaps the Flemish nationalists are unique in holding an annual trek around francophone Brussels, pissing on every lamppost to mark out Dutch speaking territory (okay, I made the urine bit up). But the impulse to define and protect ‘their’ people, our ain folk is widely shared.
Catalans, Scots, and – much more ambiguously – the Flemish and Northern Italians – would demarcate themselves from the racial right. They are apparently “civic” nationalisms, open to others, anybody who lives in their space. Yet they indulge in rhetoric about national oppression – shameless in the light of what is happening at the present – to really oppressed nationalities, like the Kurds. They therefore have enemies, and these enemies, are, the national states they are locked into. The supporters of these states, that is, the different nationality, are, therefore, their opponents.
And why do they want to separate? Do they not have a feeling for what the French nationalist Maurice Barrès called “la terre et les morts”? Many Catalans have a very high opinion of themselves, their culture and their history. The same, no doubt, could be said of all nationalities, including those attached to the existing multi-national countries. This often goes with a lower opinion of other peoples. Doctor Johnson observed in his account of a voyage to the Hebrides that, it “seems to be the disposition of man, that whatever makes a distinction produces rivalry” (A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland 1774). It would be stretching credibility to assert that any of the modern European nationalists cited here are immune to accompanying competition with dislike. Or that that this frequently takes the form of what one might, with restraint, call chauvinism.
The Scottish issue has a long political history, and a thick layer of literature and sentiment, behind it. On the left there is the lingering influence of Tom Nairn. Nairn, a supporter of the Scottish Nationalist Party, for a period affected Marxism. By association, rather than causality, the British Monarchy, the Sovereignty of Parliament, the Imperial State – Ukania – and the reformism of the British Labour Movement – have been held bound up with the City of London’s hegemony. This “archaic state”, a “two party dictatorship”, Or even, writing at the end of the Thatcher years when hysteria about Constitutional Reform was in full flood, and the extraordinarily named Charter 88 and Samizdat magazine came out, that “Britain is not a democracy”. By 2001 Nairn detached a “wind of change” coming principally from the rise in support for democratic Scottish independence. This might clear the way for an “intelligent republicanism” that would sweep away Ukania’s cobwebs and let the peoples of the Archipelago freely decide their future (After Britain. 2001). (1)
Some have argued, and some continue to assert, that Scottish independence would be the occasion for a modernising ‘democratic revolution’. Those who pointed out that the major faults of the British state – its lack of direct popular control – were common to all forms of liberal democracy. Its peculiar Monarchical unwritten Constitution and other traces of the ancien régime counted for less than widely shared traits across the Western world. Today, this criticism has clearly won out. A common template of the “market state” has left its mark, deeply, in the UK and across the globe. Economic power is, as they say, “globalised”. Political power on the ground is taken out of the hands of elected officials and into the hands of “outsourced” companies running ever greater swathes of the administration, Nairn’s nationalist response, his flirtation with “intelligent protectionism” looks threadbare.
More significantly the experience of Scotland’s parliament is a challenge for those who saw it as an alternative to oligarchy. Domestic political elites have a stake, physical comforts, and importance, in Holyrood all of their own. The ‘social democratic’ policies of Scottish Labour and the SNP – on education and health and elsewhere – are constrained less by Whitehall but by the country’s place in the world market. The SNP has embraced markets to the extent of co-operating with the idle wishes of the Planet’s wealthy, as the case of Donald Trump’s vanity golf-course project indicates all too well. . Competitive bidding against England, once focused on Edinburgh’s financial services (now wisely less audible), continues. Scottish independence may mean many things, but a Cuba of the North is not one of them.
“Un peu d’internationalisme éloigne de la patrie, beaucoup d’internationalisme y ramène” Jean Jaurès.
“A little internationalism takes you away from the Nation; a lot of internationalism brings you back.”
For all one’s admiration of Jaurès this is one of the most misleading statement he ever made. The French left continues to be marked by a heart-felt pride in the Revolution of 1791. But the legacy of republicanism has often slid into ‘sovereigntist’ ideology, that is, a belief in the virtues of national ‘independence’. The career of Jean-Pierre Chevènement, once close to a form of Marxism and now an ultra in this respect, with few traces of socialism, illustrates that any appeal to the “Patrie” should be treated with suspicion.
The Communist Party of Britain (CPB), advocate withdrawal from the European Union. Restoration of national sovereignty is, for them, a precondition for the ‘British Road to Socialism.’ Scottish socialists, of different hues, consider that their own national independence is a necessary step towards socialism. Some Catalans, hostile to Madrid’s centralism (even with the extensive powers now granted to the country’s regions) on the left think in the same way.
Political decentralisation, the proper place given to different languages (Dutch in Belgium, Catalan in Spain), and cultural autonomy, are important issues. It is less clear where nations begin and end, even less and less obvious as commerce, cultures and politics are ‘globalised’ and migration means that multiculturalism is a reality, not a policy of managing different ethnic, religious and cultural groups. The boundaries between territorial ‘communities of fate’ and ‘imagined communities’ have never been so difficult to determine.
What is the left if it is not practical internationalism to bring the exploited and oppressed together between Nations and Communities? What is the left if it supports breaking up cross-nation ties to concentrate on their ‘homeland’? What is the left if abandons internationalism to build and be part of a new Patrie? That sees the future through the institutions of new capitalist states. Can there be territorial locations for realistic projects? Yes, for us: Europe. What kind of left fails to support, as a priority, the way out of the European crisis is the construction of a European Social Republic led by united European left parties, and not smaller and smaller political units and more and more splintered political groups?
The idea that you can built a forward-looking movement out of national resentment looks more and more flawed. Those who support the Scottish and other independence movements are moving way from the left. They are increasingly nationalistswho have answered the Communist Manifesto by declaring that the workers have a country.
(1) The. Break up of Tom Nairn. Andrew Coates. What Next? No 27. 2003.