Will Nationalists Bury The Nation State?

Although willing to eat my some of my words from the previous post, having now read this follow-up from Jehu, it feels only sensible to further clarify what we’re actually seeing here in the aftermath of the recent European elections, because Jehu’s viewpoint still feels like a strangely detached and reductive commentary, uncharacteristic of Jehu’s otherwise on-point Brexit analysis. He writes:

Don’t make the mistake of trying to make sense of the EU parliament election results. Remember, in Britain a party that didn’t exist a month ago managed to come from nowhere and capture the plurality. You can’t make sense of the complete collapse of the nation-state, because the nation-state was how you made sense of everything up until this point.

Again, there’s a trajectory here that it would be a mistake to ignore. The Brexit Party may not have existed a month ago but it’s hardly new. It was founded by the former leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, and that party’s economic spokesperson, Catherine Blaiklock.

The “new” Brexit Party’s sizeable vote share can be seen as coming straight from UKIP’s own and the party was openly formed as an attempt at a do-over following UKIP’s fall into irrelevance; as an attempt at rescuing its own image following its failure to define a space for itself post-referendum.

Many commentators have long predicted the fall of UKIP as a party given that it had campaigned doggedly on holding a referendum as its only policy and had failed to find a new direction after achieving that goal, with attempts at formulating a broader manifesto ridiculed in all corners. And so, in comes the Brexit Party to move the conversation along a bit and give the party-political wing of our nation’s Brexiteers a new single-policy party to throw their weight behind — that policy now being to leave the EU and set up trade deals with the WTO.

Even though the party definitely did not come from nowhere, it is nonetheless an astounding achievement that it now has 29 seats in the European parliament, making it the biggest party in the whole of the EU… But those 29 seats are only an extra 5 in addition to UKIP’s 24 seats, won in the last European election in 2014, which then made that party the biggest in the EU parliament.

UKIP now has no seats there… Mostly because all of its previous seat-holders defected to the Brexit Party…

So, whilst I agree with the sentiment that you can’t “make sense of the complete collapse of the nation-state”, there is nonetheless a clear evolution here. The Brexit Party’s “nowhere” is quite obviously UKIP. This is not to deny the party its success but it is nonetheless a continued one which has been growing for many years. To deny that trajectory is to give the party even more credit than even it wants to claim for itself.

This previous success is worthy of being further acknowledged, not least because I completely ignored it in the last post. It was wrong to suggest that these EU elections are of no consequence to domestic policy, but those consequences nonetheless remain indirect. Granted, that’s still not something anyone should ignore. It was arguably UKIP’s previous success in 2014 that led to Prime Minister David Cameron reading the pre-general electoral tea leaves and agreeing to hold a referendum in the first place in order to save his own party’s skin, but that’s not to say that UKIP has had any say in negotiations since then.

This has been the party’s consistent humiliation. They persuaded the in-crowd to throw a party but then weren’t invited to attend it. They have nonetheless put on a great deal of outside pressure — mostly relying on the press’s obsession with their hopeless antics — but outside Farage’s bloody-minded EU parliamentary performances and their favour with an international rightist movement, they have achieved very little outside of blowing the political weathervane a few degrees to the right. (Notably not as far as they themselves would have liked.)

Farage has been repeatedly humiliated in other ways too, of course. His strong EU election performances have never been repeated in general elections and, at every turn, his other business successes have been resoundingly ignored by the UK’s political establishment. (Lest we forget that, despite Theresa May’s many sycophantic gestures of support to Donald Trump, Trump’s suggestion that Farage would make a great US ambassador was laughed at by all.)

As said last time, all that remains to be seen before any real comment can be made is whether the Brexit Party manages to buck its own trend and repeat its success in a general election. It is not known when the UK will go through this process again — it’s only two years since the last one — but most commentators expect it will be very soon.

Success at a general election is the only way in which the Brexit Party will be able to influence the Brexit process directly and, with everyone already expecting the two main parties to get a hefty beating in the EU elections, it is unlikely the parties’ EU success this year will influence the seated government as much as they have previously . Labour and the Tories will no doubt be reconsidering their position on Brexit now as a result but so far this has only meant the Labour party suggesting they will finally agree to a second referendum. And if Labour is softening, it’s likely we’ll see the Conversatives, under a new (Boris Johnson?) leadership, hardening its own stance in response.

However, things don’t end here. As Jehu continues:

But there is a pattern if you are cunning enough to catch it. We have been here before. In 2015, SYRIZA, just three years old, swept aside the major parties in Greece and became the ruling party. It had all the appearance of a party in power. The reality turned out to be otherwise, of course. What SYRIZA actually had was the opportunity to bury the state — an opportunity it squandered foolishly in a vain attempt to hang on to state power.

I said at the time that SYRIZA’s failure would be to the benefit of the fascists and let me just emphasize that I was absolutely correct. The radical Left refuses to admit its mistakes, refuses to correct its errors. It paves a path for its political enemies. Even now radicals want us to believe that the results of the European election have no domestic political consequences, that business as usual, in the most literal sense of a continuation of wage slavery, can continue unhindered.

Suit yourselves, the nation-state is dead; stick a fork in it … and the radical Left.

This is an interesting comparison, not least because Syriza emerged onto the national and international stage on a similarly Eurosceptic ticket. They, too, troubled the waters by winning big in the EU elections before — most importantly — going on to succeed in repeating this feat at a general election — an election triggered by Syriza’s EU success indicating a complete lack of confidence in the ruling parties.

Syriza were, in some ways, a nationalist party and one which hoped to exit EU neoliberalism in order to implement a newly socialist form of government. In this sense, Syriza was a symbol of hope in a Greece that was wracked by an EU-enforced austerity and the new party had promised to take the fight straight to the EU’s doorstep.

Their success on a national as well as international level sent a shockwave around Europe and an international Left watched closely to see what might happen next. Unfortunately, not a lot did happen. Syriza failed, knocked back by the EU’s governing body, which proceeded to make an example of Greece’s dissenting political sovereignty.

It was largely this defeat that stoked a new wave of Euroscepticism on the Left abroad around Europe, and particularly in the UK where the conversation was already bubbling up from the right. Corbyn was elected as leader to a dead-in-the-water Labour Party after this fact but he has continued to struggle against the traditionalists in his own party and the conservatism of his own fanbase.

And so, the UK Left’s failure has been its inability to contend with this austerity issue. Whilst Corbyn was championed for his strong stance against austerity at home, little has been said about austerity abroad. The right falls into the opposite position — austerity (and other kinds of economic limitation) abroad take precedence over those implemented by the government at home.

For the middle-class left, this dynamic isn’t even acknowledged in any part of the conversation. Yes, we all love being a part of the big European family and all the freedoms that provides us — particularly our freedom to travel between states with ease. However, the hard lesson, reverberating down the years and landing on deaf ears, is that “Syriza is paying the price for promising the impossible: abolishing austerity while remaining in the EU.”

Despite this failure, this is the same plan the British left has held up for itself. Defeat the Tories, defeat austerity, and continue living in the EU happily ever after. Whilst the situation in the UK is not as dire as in Greece, little has happened to suggest a Corbyn government that remained in the EU could achieve radical change where Syriza couldn’t. (Although the growing dissent amongst various other countries could potentially lead to internal reform — and this is a dissenting bloc which was not so present prior to the UK’s Brexit debacle.)

It is obvious that this is a lesson the Left elsewhere — and especially in the UK — has not learned. And this is something that I think Corbyn instinctively knows but has utterly failed to publicly articulate, perhaps because he knows that middle-class internationalism will always trump working-class austerity. And, furthermore, it is the inability to link these two things together that has also been his downfall. It seems that the people he is fighting for have swayed to the right, whilst the hollow words of a middle-class left are all that is keeping him in charge.

This has to be acknowledged because this is precisely the promise that the right successfully made to the general public, even if dishonestly. The left’s argument has been that the Brexit divorce bill will make austerity worse, not to mention the fact that the EU has given many of our country’s poorest regions a great deal of funding to alleviate issues of socioeconomic depression already. The right argues that, freed from EU limitations, we’ll be able to rake in more money and fund that back into our own services without any bureacratic hand-holding. We’d be worse off, says the left, whilst the right says the opposite.

So which is it? The misinformation and lack of imagination in government makes it hard to tell. I’m still somewhat of the opinion that a right-wing Brexit is in favour of neoliberalism at home over neoliberalism abroad, and we can easily swap “neoliberalism” out for austerity. Outside of the EU, with the Tories in charge, I doubt anything would improve within the communities that are resoundingly voting for change. It is in this sense that I’m personally sympathetic to Jehu’s claim that the radical left has been woefully inept at countering the narrative of “business as usual, in the most literal sense of a continuation of wage slavery” — and I’m left wondering if his follow-up post might be silently including my own previous post in its judgment — but it seems that even Jehu is not only glossing over leftist’s failures but also rightist successes here.

This blog has repeatedly echoed the claim that we are simply living on the slowly decaying corpse of the nation-state but still, there’s something egregiously lacking here.

I’m reminded, as ever, of Tom Nairn’s book The Break-Up of Britain — the book I have turned to again and again throughout this Brexit process, in hoping to understand how we got here and what was lost along the way.

Nairn’s book was published in 1977, only 8 years after Britain first joined the EU, and in that book he too predicts the death of the nation-state and sees the EU as an opportunity for its accelerated demise, potentially allowing the introduction of alternative political and economic strategies for various newly established regions that may result from a post-EU fragmenting.

(This certainly happened elsewhere but not in the UK, and the EU was cunning enough to legislate a straitjacket for those newly-formed countries if they wanted to join the club, which they had to accept in trying to recover not just from civil war but — in many cases — post-Soviet poverty more generally.)

Nairn also notes, for instance, how this rapid decay of internal British relations is not simply the result of EU consensus but rather a dissensus amongst the states that make up the British isles most specifically. He goes on to predict that, if Great Britain remains in the EU, it will inevitably fragment soon afterwards — and this is very good news for the radical left.

This didn’t happen, of course, but the threat has nonetheless persisted, and it seems more likely today that Nairn’s predictions — that Scotland will lead the charge and challenge not just how we view class struggle but also national struggle in this multi-nation-state — may still come true, albeit after a considerable delay. (Neoliberalism is, of course, very good at those.)

One of the primary arguments made by Nairn, in his Marxist appraisal of the state of Europe in 1977, is that the dynamics we currently see warring with each other are already familiar to us. It is a old tension between Luxemburgist and Leninist revolution.

For Rosa Luxembourg, Nairn writes, “workers or intellectuals might have to make a choice between a nationalist struggle and a class struggle” and it was her view that “the former should never be given priority” over the latter. As far as she was concerned, “national struggle was a distraction, if not a positively hostile barrier, to what really mattered: the imminent break-through of the class-struggle.”

Lenin, however, disagreed with Luxembourg:

[H]e argued that the nationalist revolts had a more positive meaning. The social forces and passions they harnessed were too great to be genuinely ‘renounced’; and in any case they worked to unseat the old dynasties, and so foster conditions generally favourable to social revolution. The break-up of these old states was necessary (thought admittedly far from a sufficient) condition of the kind of change marxists were working towards. In this pragmatic spirit the nationalism of liberation struggles ought to be encouraged, at least up to the moment of their seizure of state power. After that, it would of course become the task of the revolutionaries to disassociate themselves from the nationalists: national liberation would then turn into ‘bourgeois nationalism’, and a force hostile to the broader revolutionary cause.

This is relevant to our present situation if only due to its complete absence from political discussions today, and that is due to the history of European Marxism in itself and a more recently British political dementia.

Both Luxembourg and Lenin were refuted, of course, and their strategic advice turned out to be impotent in the face of capitalism’s continued and cunning development. Nevertheless, Nairn’s appraisal of the legacy of these arguments remains strangely resonant today:

Lenin argued that nationalist upheavals could contribute to socialist revolution where it counted, in the great centres. With appropriate modifications, one can surely make roughly the same case here. The fact is that neo-nationalism has become the grave-digger of the old state in Britain, and as such the principal factor making for a political revolution of some sort — in England as well as the small countries. Yet, because this process assumes an unexpected form, many on the metropolitan left solemnly write it down as betrayal of the revolution. […]

[However,] the marxist left which totally spurns Westminster and (on paper at least) wants nothing more than its overthrow, also criticizes the separatists. Their reason is that proletarian socialism is supposed to be the grave-digger, and no one else will do.

Nairn’s argument here is inseparable from what were then newly revived independence movements in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but the analysis nonetheless holds strong. We can look, of course, to the huge gains made by the SNP in recent years — a party which dominates in Scotland and swept the board in the 2019 EU elections, winning every single seat; their continued successes making a second (and this time no doubt successful) independence referendum all the more likely.

In this sense, Scottish nationalists are continuing to do their part to bury the British state, but the same can be said of the English nationalists too — albeit perhaps unwittingly. We can look to Tommy Robinson and Carl Benjamin’s woeful MEP campaigns, on English nationalist tickets, which seemed to show them as ringers of their own death-knells, having largely fuelled this antagonism against the establishment but lacking any real support beyond being political saboteurs. Neither would attract the audiences that they do without the rise of a popular nationalism but it seems that their domineering presence is paradoxically indicative of their own irrelevance, and the election results proved as much, with working class communities in the north-west of England resoundingly rejecting them.

What does this mean? I have no idea. Jehu is certainly right that trying to make any coherent sense of this collapse is a loser’s game, but still we can at least accurately identify the paradoxes fuelling this dissent and the national struggle / class struggle divide remains, quite obviously, the front line of the culture war.

I am happy to take any embarrassment that might emerge from this — I write the above tentatively, knowing Jehu is far more knowledge about the history of Marxism than I am — but it does seem to me that, if we’re going to be honest about the position the UK currently finds itself in, as cathartic as laughing at the scrambling political classes is, there is surely more we can say that might reveal something about the opportunities that lie ahead.

That — along with everything else — is where the left continues to fail and fail again, stuttering over the enunciation of its own role in a crisis that the movement’s intellectuals predicted 50 years before the movement suffered a great amnesia. It is perhaps because of the left’s insistence on teaching its own global successes that it fails to account for its local failures in the minds of its future generations.

In that sense, I suppose I agree with Jehu wholeheartedly, but since I’m living in it, I’m still left wanting to trace the elusive boundaries of this moment in the UK so that we might articulate something worth hearing before it’s too late.

Too late for what? Perhaps before neoliberalism entrenches itself to such a degree it actually survives the downfall of the nation-state.

Maybe that’s an impossibility and a dumb note to end on but, to be honest, nothing surprises me anymore. That certainly wouldn’t.

I suppose the point is this: the “radicals want us to believe that the results of the European election have no domestic political consequences” precisely because nothing seems to be of any consequence anymore. Pointing and laughing at the frenzied stasis is as impotent a response as pathetically accepting it, surely?

There is always more to be said, and it needs to be said because no one else is saying it.

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