14 June 2015

The curse of nations

The European, and particularly British, political left is incarcerated in national parochialism

In the mid 1980s a group of socialists in Exeter decided to set up Exeter Labour Briefing which soon morphed into Devon Labour Briefing. We identified with the politics of London Labour Briefing (the capital city of the UK) and adopted the Labour Briefing rubric. At around the same time there was a Brighton Labour Briefing, a Dover Labour Briefing and so on. There were surprises in the bag when an Isle of Wight Labour Briefing was in the pipeline, but nobody expected, nor was there any talk of, for instance, a Calais Labour Briefing.

If there had been we would have said in surprise, “Yes, but their situation is so different; they’re part of French politics - and anyway how can we understand them unless they write in English, and why would they do that.” Very much the same applies today: North Devon may get its own branch of Left Unity, but North Brittany will not. Let’s unpack the obviousness behind all this.

Since the French Revolution, but particularly since the First World War, the nation state has become the main terrain of cultural and political identity. The legal and political structures of the state are the focus of identity and meaning for the state’s citizens, even its socialist ones. Knowledge of the political position facing people in the neighbouring states is usually thin on the ground. In addition, everyone in one state knows (or should know!) the state language, but armed with single language literacy, meaningful communication with citizens from another is rendered difficult to impossible.

The political and cultural zenith of the nation state occurred in the years following the Second World War, when nation-statism was bolstered by state economic planning and the welfare state. Since the 1980s neoliberalism has undermined that dominance to some degree through globalisation at the economic and cultural level; yet the nation state remains the focal point of organisation for popular political activity.

So today the focus of all socialist and progressive activity in Britain is national. No significant political movement in Britain has its HQ outside the UK. British political organisations may affiliate to pan-European organisations, but the key unit of organisation remains national. In contrast, even if they have a national base, many corporations are international in their scope, while the left, trade unions and left-leaning political parties are stubbornly national. The asymmetry of this situation is noteworthy.

So long as pan-European political identity remains non-existent, and while the nation state remains the key unit of legal, political and financial power (even more so since the financial crisis of 2008), there is no option other than social struggle at the national state level. That much is clear. But the way out of the stranglehold of exclusive national identity can only be through downsizing national identification to bring it into balance with other identities: municipal, regional, European, international. To do that requires the acceptance of universal values plus opening up means of international communication.

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