Friday the 13th, and the Fates are laughing. Talk about bad timing. The most divisive, damaging UK election in decades yields its results on the most inauspicious day. Only a figure as tone-deaf to irony as to honesty and decency could have picked such a date. Who the gods would destroy…
Yes, there were signs of hope, when both Scotland and Northern Ireland elected progressive nationalist majorities. Yet were they beneficiaries of exactly the same forces that had mortally damaged the United Kingdom as a whole? Is one nationalism bad, and the other nationalisms good? Are nationalisms acceptable when they support progressive, left-leaning policies?
There’s one obvious lesson, which is that nationalism is a recipe for disintegration. There are few modern nation-states that are truly homogeneous enough to embrace chauvinist identity politics without risking internal fragmentation. Demagogues may seek to profit from that fragmentation, but it’s unlikely to do the nation-state in question much good. The so-called march of populism has mostly involved the manufacture of internal resentment of one part of the population against another as much as it has involved any genuine popularity. Demagogues are just becoming more ruthless about playing internal divide-and-rule, at whatever cost to their countries. Unfortunately, nationalism gives them every basis for doing just that.
From the former Yugoslavia to the current soon-to-be-disunited-Kingdom, it’s self-evident that nationalism within the nation-state on the model we’ve inherited from the 19th century destroys states, just as pan-Germanism destroyed the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There never was a “Great Britain” that wasn’t already a British Empire, and there never was a “British” nation that didn’t incorporate a diverse mix of traditional polities, ethnic stocks and religious traditions. The United Kingdom’s name is a great deal more honest than any attempt to pass it off as an ethnically distinct nation: it is a monarchical government that has united, sometimes by legal means but mostly by force, a great many lesser entities under its sway. Even before the modern, belated absorption of post-colonial immigrant populations as some kind of recompense and acceptance of its imperial legacy, “Great Britain” incorporated numerous different languages, ethnic sub-groups, and conflicting legal and religious traditions. Anyone calling it one nation is assuming a lot, and usually with an agenda. Try asking Chechens or Kurds or Tibetans if the modern nation-state is a sufficient basis for sovereignty.
The nation-state was not even the highest power in the supposed golden age of nation-states: it was simply a historic pretext or springboard for the acquisition of multiracial, multiethnic, polyglot empires, which have been the true Great Powers from ancient Persia and Peru on down. Once things had moved on from the march of Christendom to the Nation in Arms, the nation-state became the machinery for agglomerating and subjugating nations. Yet that national basis for conquest, competition and expansion put a time bomb at the core of the nation-state. The contradiction between the idea, or inherited tradition or myth, of a nation, and the realities of state power, is the kind that torments a mind devoted to the myth of nationhood to near insanity – it’s only resolvable in the end by the typically fascist rejection of thinking and critical analysis, and expiation through destructive and suicidal aggression.
There never was a Great British nation. Great Britain was a multinational empire from Day One: frequently at war with itself, always mixed and heterogenous. Nostalgia for greatness based on that kind of empire is obviously, insanely, at odds with nationalist enthusiasm for a sovereign British nation-state. A “Great” Britain that gives way to nationalism will find itself both split apart and ground between the far larger continental powers that are truly able to project geopolitical strength – on a level that one slice of the British population evidently still wishes they could, but can’t. You can count on the fingers of more than one hand the number of Chinese provinces whose individual population now exceeds that of the entire UK. Britain can only pander to such powers – exactly what it’s been doing since the Second World War, towards America.
Any attempt to recover national greatness is therefore blindly, insanely self-contradictory and destructive. And needless to say, the atavistic tribalism of collective emotions whipped up under the guise of nationhood makes a pretty poor mix with the apparatus of states. The adulation of nationhood was almost certain to transform nationalist states into killing machines on a massive scale, because any contradiction between the power of the state and the felt greatness of the nation had to be suppressed and eliminated, which ultimately meant exterminating the subject peoples – just as Nazi Germany did in the conquered territories of Eastern Europe. Napoleon’s Empire, the military realisation of the Nation in Arms, could only truly accept citizenship for the French and subjugation for the rest.
The nation-state does present one seductive feature for a certain section of the population: The abdication of citizenship. Weariness with the entire political process has been one of the hallmarks of the Brexit “debate,” and it’s all too easy to see where this can end. It’s been well said that fascism is not the people’s abandonment of democracy, but their abandonment of politics. They simply want to be the passive objects of government, not active, thinking participants as citizens. A prime minister who hid in a fridge was the perfect figurehead for what happened: the election of the xenophobia/selfishness/irrendentism/sloth that dare not speak its name. It was an election where voters really did not want to know, or be reminded of, or face up to, or be held to account for, let alone be shamed by, what they were voting for. An uncounted number were probably voting just for the opportunity to forget and give over the responsibility of thinking for a while. It looks like another of those English fits of absence of mind like the one where we acquired the enormous moral burden of the British Empire: a concerted effort of the left hand not to know what the right hand was doing. For an era stuffed with people trying to forget that their actions had consequences, it was the perfect poll.
Given the values on show, that’s hardly surprising. Only a few, more or less unhinged, right-wing figures – usually ideologues rather than practising politicians – actually admit to valuing and endorsing cruelty, bigotry, selfishness, and aggression for their own sake and on their own terms. Far more voters like to get the benefits without admitting the nature or the consequences of what they supported. That arch-priest of “the art of lying,” Adolf Hitler, preached the power of the Big Lie to overwhelm the judgment and discrimination of small minds, but it’s easy for small minds to play small tricks of moral sleight of hand to cheat their own consciences with, especially when no one is holding them up to judgment. (Small minds meaning uneducated or unexercised minds unable or unwilling to judge or evaluate.) This also neatly allows them to evade moral responsibility for their actions.
Even the Labour Party embraced the tactic. Having played Tory-lite in the Blairite era to provide a less repugnant version of pre-Crisis bonanza capitalism, it plugged the same tactic with Brexit, and tried to provide a more fudged, digestible version of the same prejudices and insularity. If the UK Labour Party couldn’t fight the Tory narrative that Polish plumbers and other immigrants were to blame for the woes of the English working class, then what legitimate claim did it have to be a party of the international labour movement? How shamefully far the British labour movement has fallen from the days when its heroes marched off to fight the Fascists in Spain.
Did the British working class have just cause to embrace nationalism to defend itself against globalization and job-stealing immigration? That debate falls down on the basis that it’s the modern Conservative, populist Big Lie. The myth left fact behind long ago. I don’t see much need here for a moral panic about the dangers of the Internet and fake news either: ever since the earliest approximations to a mass media, from the pulpits of Paris in 1572 to the Vienna of Karl Kraus’s “destruction of the world by black magic,” people have always followed what they wanted to hear. Certain aggressive outliers were more adroit and ruthless in mastering the new media, that’s all, just as highly motivated outsiders always have been. And they had material ready to hand in the form of fear and insecurity, the dry tinder of nationalism.
Nationalism is a collective expression of individual paranoia, facilitated by exactly the kind of fear and insecurity that propagate paranoia on the individual level. A demagogue’s first goal is to create paranoia, because fears overwhelm facts. Paranoia is delusional by definition; it also is one of the easiest abberant pathologies to foster and create on a mass level. Ignorance fuels suspicion, suspicion fuels paranoia, paranoia fuels fascism. And fascism is always going to be the totalitarianism of the stupid, because it appeals to the kind of insecure nature which views discrimination, thought, analysis, as a direct threat, to the kind of undifferentiated, syncretic identity that they cling to. You can see a whole lot of what Gerard Manley Hopkins once described as: “what came in with Kingsley and the Broad Church school, a way of talking (and making his people talk) with the air and spirit of a man bouncing up from table with his mouth full of bread and cheese and saying that he meant to stand no blasted nonsense.”
The Labour Party certainly had very few facts and arguments to hand to counter the nationalism of 2019 apart from those that it stole from the Conservatives. On the critical demographic and social divisions in England prior to the 2019 election – town versus country, young versus old, educated versus undereducated, internationalist versus nationalist – Labour had nothing to offer. Rich versus poor? Fine, except that left-wing conspiracy theorists were reduced to seeing the entire Leave : Remain debate solely in terms of two conflicting conspiracies of the rich.
Selective preference for any particular group, party or faction or class within a society, however disadvantaged, is the easiest thing to manipulate in the world, and is also the easiest thing to turn into chauvinist hostility when transferring to a different context. Robespierre’s sans-culottes were the cannon fodder for Napoleon’s armies. Class war is dead. Not because there are no disadvantaged classes, but because the only winner from such a war is the strongest warlord. A society built on the sovereignty of all has to work for the benefit of all; neither the rich, nor the insulted and injured. No state or community is perfect, and the balancing out of different claims is exactly what a state or society is about. But none can claim that any part enjoys preference or precedence by right – for reasons I’ll go into below.
Hating the rich is a fine and honourable pursuit but it is no substitute for freedom. and it takes no great perspicacity to see that the left has pivoted way over towards the Equality leg of the Liberty/Equality/Fraternity trinity at the expense of the other two, and worse, rewritten that Equality into primarily economic terms, not political terms. The 19th-century socialists may have been too in awe of industrialization and the prestige of the exact sciences to give heed to the other elements of human life but we’ve surely had enough experience by now of the limitations of both to spot the errors there. It’s not that these struggles weren’t without purpose or validity; it’s just that they cannot help us now. Modern times do indeed suffer from a huge maldistribution of capital, but that has nothing to do with foggy 19th century post-Hegelian metaphysics. Equal distribution of power comes way before equal distribution of wealth. The predominant working-class movement of Britain’s industrial heyday was Chartism before it was socialism, the simple struggle to be enfranchised. That priority was right. Either you’re a citizen, or you’re a subject, a slave.
Try asking a Syrian or a Yemeni refugee if economics trump politics, and if their most immediate concern is a redistribution of wealth. Might matters much more than money. It was Mao Tse-tung who said that power grows out of the barrel of a gun. No matter how false, partial and misunderstood that famous comment is, one thing it absolutely is not is an argument for the “withering away of the state” and the irrelevance of armed force. Economics does matter: No healthy democracy can survive without some mechanism to counter the inevitable accumulation of wealth in the hands of the wealthiest. But economics cannot provide a legitimate basis for sovereignty and justice, whether in plutocracy or in dictatorship of the proletariat. The property franchise was rightly seen as the most glaring offence of the British oligarchy prior to 1914. Equality before the law was a dead letter in a country that disenfranchised the majority of its citizens.
Economics has enjoyed primacy purely because it provided the vehicle or pretext for that most completely, entirely, exclusively political phenomenon: an ideology. There is plenty of room for progressive versus reactionary beliefs and parties in the modern political landscape, except that they make zero sense if they are constructed on some faceoff between Capital versus Labour. That’s as irrelevant and exploded as a division between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. As Hannah Arendt wrote, “race-thinking had been one of the many free opinions which, within the general framework of liberalism, argued and fought each other to win the consent of public opinion. Only a few of them became full-fledged ideologies, that is, systems based upon a single opinion that proved strong enough to attract and persuade a majority of people, and broad enough to lead them through the various experiences and situations of an average modern life. For an ideology differs from a simple opinion in that it claims to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all the ‘riddles of the universe,’ or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man. Few ideologies have won enough prominence to survive the hard competitive struggle of persuasion, and only two have come out on top and essentially defeated all others: the ideology which interprets history as an economic struggle of classes, and the other that interprets history as a natural fight of races… not only intellectuals but great masses of people will no longer accept a presentation of past or present facts that is not in agreement with either of these views.” The 20th century proved that both are fake. Neither had the keys to history, or the solution to all the riddles of the universe. Economics is an important subject for the state and domain for government action, like many others in a state and a society, but it absolutely cannot provide the basis for legitimate sovereignty. The only legitimate as well as the only practical foundation for sovereignty is the free consent of the governed over the full area of the operation of a government. A state is the embodiment and articulation of that consent.
A state is not an expression of an individual or a general will, whether the will of a people or of some Hegelian geist. It is exactly an embodiment of the relinquishment of will, of the surrender of part of your individual volition, to be diffused and incorporated into institutions and codes of law. Constitutions and institutions exist precisely to balance out and arbitrate the chaos of individual wills, and to ensure the longevity and continuity of a community. A state’s legitimacy lies in the mediatization or delegation of this portion of discrete personal wills. Obviously, relinquishment like this is one of the easiest things to abuse in the world – King Lear is a warning to more of us than just kings – which is why the institutions needed to mediate it have to be held to such a high standard of accountability. The trust invested in them is immense. And the more states become expressions of will, the more they become despotisms or dictatorships. The more they ignore or override their own constitutions and institutions, the less legitimate they become, because they revert to exactly what a state was designed to prevent. There is no individual or general will that can challenge the legitimacy of institutions: they can be legitimately reformed or rebuilt by the same governments that they embody, as part of the state’s natural organic processes, but to challenge or supplant them from outside purely on the grounds that this is an expression of individual or general will is far beyond legitimacy. Margaret Thatcher was the one to pinpoint the referendum as “a device of dictators and demagogues” entirely because it overrode legitimate institutional and constitutional constraints under the colour of the general will. But the general will is not the expression of a democratic state, but its annihilation. No wonder today’s demagogues are so keen to seize on referendums.
As for the individual will, of the private person or the dictator, that is no more sovereign than the spinning jenny or Babbage’s difference engine. The individual, individuated, self-conscious personality is not man in a state of nature, but a highly sophisticated, delicate, cosseted product of millions of years of biological and social evolution. It may be one of the greatest achievements of such a process, but it is absolutely not foundational and prior to the incredibly complex institutions and social traditions that were required to enable it to come into being. A reasoning entity could have existed at any point during or before the evolution of Homo sapiens; a Rousseau, a Hamsun or a Raskolnikov could only have existed when they did. Men were born citizens since Antiquity; it took the Enlightenment to create the State of Nature.
If anyone needs a mathematical proof of democracy, that it is the only legitimate form of government, it is this: the Church-Turing thesis requires that any abstracted computing machine – meaning, any reasoning entity – must sooner or later be able to work through any and all reasoning problems. Mathematically, there can be no difference in kind between the reasoning capacity of any reasoning entity. There may be differences in degree, in the time or resources available to the entity to work through those problems, but those are absolutely arbitrary, not fundamental. All thinking beings are essentially the same. Given enough time and power, a pocket calculator’s innards, can, must be able to, work through any program for a supercomputer. No thinking being has an intrinsically higher competence that justifies it per se deciding on behalf of any other thinking being; any differences are local, historical incidentals. There can be plenty of good reasons for those incidentals, but none of them can yield the kind of in rerum natura justification required of sovereignty.
That principle of sovereignty also enshrines the greatest good of the greatest number as the guiding principle of policy. The same kind of Darwinian pseudoscience that fed into Marxism and social Darwinism has now got a fresh insight to contribute a couple of centuries later: cooperation means survival. Competition means extinction. Game theory analysis of evolutionary processes demonstrates exhaustively that the optimum survival strategy is the Golden Rule. Do as you would be done by. Do not do unto others what you would not have done to yourself. The strategy that provides initial cooperation rather than confrontation delivers the best chances for survival of all concerned. A conflict-first strategy drives everyone eventually to extinction, victor and victim alike. And it’s worth remembering that modern evolutionary theory postulates evolutionary processes as abstract mathematical algorithms, which happen to work particularly well in a biological context, but can equally well apply in economics, politics, etc. The same game theory applies across all. If Darwin didn’t have the mathematical and conceptual tools available for him to see that, then it’s no excuse for his self-styled inheritors to remain 150 years behind the times. The nationalist demagogues who claim some kind of Darwinian conflict of civilizations as the justification for their abandonment of democratic values are appealing to arguments that say they will exterminate us all.
Against the bigotry and entitlement, there is the cold mathematical game-theoretical fact that the greatest good really is for the greatest number, that the optimum survival strategy is always the win : win, and that if you pursue a zero : sum game, you are always going to end up, sooner or later, as the zero. There is only reason or force, democracy or fascism. Either a state is governed with equal regard for the rational capabilities of all its citizens, or it is controlled by, and for, the rulers who have appropriated its governing apparatus. And that equal regard does not stop at borders.
Globalization was a technological and practical fact long before it became a bogey-word for those sections of the Left whose goals are still linked to a 19th-century conception of the nation-state and state power. National governments cannot defend and protect workers, any more than they can protect their own borders and interests against predatory superstates. The boundaries of nations are no longer sufficient expressions of the frontiers of common interests. We are all far too close together now to duck the consequences when we affect others. There is multilateralism, or suicide by proxy. There is no survival unit smaller than the whole human race. There is no conceivable subset of humanity that is going to win out, or even be able to preserve the ecosystem that sustains it, while maintaining the fiction that we can play a zero-sum game and win. We have already gone up a level too high for that, despite the protests of those for whom the air is too rarefied up here. There is no more Capital and Labour; only Nationalism and Internationalism. If the left needs a new progressive project to replace the equal distribution of wealth, how about this: Justice and survival. It’s about time we got back to what used to be the rallying cry of the Left, the Internationale: United Human Race.
Paul StJohn Mackintosh, December 2019