National-Identity Politics:
On the Contradictions of New New Labour

If you want to understand where the UK is at right now, look no further that the Labour Party presentation leaked today, which details a planned turn towards flag-waving patriotism in order to shift the party’s “body language” and win back voters lost to the Conservatives and Brexit Party.

So much has been written on this today, I don’t want to retread all the talking points. Frankly, it is a cornucopia of paradoxes, ironies and cringe. Generally speaking, the takeaway is this: disillusioned former Labour voters say Starmer is a fence-sitter; the action to be taken to counter this perception is moving the party back to the centre…

The irony doesn’t stop there. At its most innocuous, I quite enjoyed the fact that a new commitment to Queen and country has been recommended to the Labour Party following a consultation with an advertising agency called Republic… But it’s not just that the Labour Party’s current politics are contrarian. It’s that these PR recommendations seem to indirectly identify us as a nation hooked on its own impotence. We have dressed up our own rhetorical incompetence in appeals to “authentic values” and the reaffirming of “commitments”, “purpose” and “principles” whilst being acutely devoid of anything of the sort.

This isn’t a new affliction, of course, but I’ve been astounded by how blatantly it has been on display today, not just in terms of the leaked document itself but how the Guardian has reported on it, revealing this party-press relationship to be utterly ouroboric.

Consider the real head-twister of the Guardian‘s exclusive report on Labour’s new centrism — not a line from the leaked report itself but the Guardian‘s own pretzel-phrasing. It is this sentence, more than any other, that has been reverberating around my head all day:

The bigger possible consequences of the left playing national-identity politics have concerned some staffers who have seen the presentation.

What is meant by “the left” here is, presumably, the Labour Party generally speaking — that is, Labour as the de facto “left-wing” party contrary to the de facto right-wing Conservative Party. But, as this is a concern coming from within the party itself, we can safely say that what they really mean is the “Labour right”. But this is further obfuscated by the Guardian‘s use of the phrase “national-identity politics”, which is used to sound like a sly nod to Corbyn-era student-activist rhetorical impotence, when what is being objected to is a shift towards right-wing talking points.

Confused yet?

To break it down, what has really concerned Labour staffers is “the Labour right playing with nationalist rhetoric and symbolism”, but these concerns have instead been rendered in the now-familiar language of the anti-Corbyn press, in order to… I don’t actually know… Trigger the right into thinking Labour is still playing idpol games with their own concerns? Or is it some sort of double bluff that contaminates nationalism with wokeness, therefore making nationalism suddenly uncool? The truth will be nothing so Machiavellian. This is just how far the contrarian rot goes.

What’s interests me in all this is how it affirms the Deleuzo-Guattarian understanding of late-capitalist dynamics and how they have utterly infiltrated the political sphere. Nothing has ever died from its contradictions, they say. But they also go a step further, suggesting that a capitalist system actually feeds on contradiction. The Labour Party affirming contradictory centrism over the principled Corbyn years in the hopes of doing better at the next election demonstrates that fact with a painful clarity.

In fairness, the actual point being made here is clarified almost immediately afterwards — if the Guardian‘s phrasing hasn’t thrown you off balance. Those progressive MPs still clinging onto the party in the aftermath of the Corbyn era rightly call out the party’s prospective appeal to “patriotism” for what it is — something of a TTIP dog-whistle imported from American political discourse.

So many times we’ve heard leftists in the US challenge an anemic understanding of patriotism — the most flogged of that nation’s dead-horse concepts, surely. Theirs is an understanding that often excludes progressives, as if wanting to improve your country is somehow the same as hating it. However, as many have pointed out over the years, serving in public office is, in its most idealistic sense, an innately patriotic act. But, in our backwards world, this commitment to public office is tainted by a self-serving majority who claim patriotism as an act of economic conservation rather than the pursuit of anything that might be more broadly in the national interest.

This is to say that most patriotic progressives not only want to preserve human life but improve its conditions. What is more patriotic than a commitment to the betterment of one’s nation? For a left still mourning the failure of Jeremy Corbyn to win a general election, this is the most bitter pill to swallow. A man so principled and patriotic, who happened to care about the welfare of people abroad as intensely as he cared about people at home, was denounced as a threat to national security.

In short, he was a man who represented a truly disillusioned demographic of people, who want to build a nation that truly has something to be proud of but who are routinely denounced for not being proud of the messes the country has previously stepped in. As a result, a true patriotism languishes beneath the bloated principles of nationalism and jingoism. (I’m sure militantly anti-statist readers are cringing at this point. Don’t worry: you’re valid. But this is the level at which today’s discourse is circulating. Maybe you’ll get your turn one day but it’s unlikely to be soon.)

And yet, even this progressive understanding of patriotism has been cynically affirmed by the right.

The other big news story in the UK today is the death of Captain Sir Tom Moore, the centenarian war veteran who raised millions for NHS charities. He’s a complex figure. On the one hand, he’s the propagandist’s perfect patriot — a superficial pin-up who fought in World War 2 and supported our NHS. But he also died of Covid. And so, whilst Boris Johnson implores the nation to get out on their doorsteps tonight and clap for Captain Tom, it only becomes more surreal that this man, who raised millions for the NHS — and whose efforts were used by many to turn questions around underfunding into a win for virtuous Tory individualism — still ended up a statistic of government incompetence. His is one more death poured through the sieve-like Tory conscience. A man whose actions, in their necessity, should shame us all, but who is transformed into a symbol for a “patriotic” right to laud and beatify.

Labour’s desire to turn towards the kind of superficial discourse that Captain Tom nonetheless represents is understandable, in some senses. They remain a party haunted by their apparent inability to speak to “the common man”. But what this kind of “speaking to” requires is an utter immersion in the sort of backflipping rhetoric we’ve seen today, which is ironic on the surface but nauseates and confounds in its virulence. It is a virus as toxic as Covid itself. What they are gulping is not a cure but political snake oil, drunk for the sake of a hollow victory. What’s the point of winning when all you’ve done is regurgitate your opponent’s tactics? What sort of victory comes from further polluting the air of parliamentary politics?

I keep thinking back to that other bizarre scene from at Surrey hospital last week, in which two anti-lockdown gobshites tried to discharge a man with Covid from hospital. The doctor present pleaded, “If you take him off his oxygen, he will die.” The pair replied, “We’ve got oxygen at home.” I’m struggling to think of a better analogy for where we are at the moment. (Insert “Mom: ‘No, we have oxygen at home'” meme here.) For all the talk about the far-right and “the oxygen of amplification”, it is not a lack of “oxygen” that will starve the circulation of their rhetoric. Under communicative capitalism, we’d have to jettison the whole infrastructure into the vacuum of space to solve the problem. It’s not oxygen that’s the problem but air quality. Indeed, it is precisely more oxygen that we need. Proper oxygen. All our politicians and our press have to offer us is hot air. Hot, humid, sickly air, all the better for circulating word-virus.

“Viruses are obligatory cellular parasites and are thus wholly dependant upon the integrity of the cellular systems they parasitize for their survival in an active state. It is something of a paradox that many viruses ultimately destroy the cells in which they are living…”

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