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In Theresa May’s Shadow

Labour strategies that try to win over English workers through patriotic appeals are both condescending and self-defeating.

Theresa May in 2009. Conservatives / Flickr

Theresa May is very popular, or at least more popular than any Tory leader has any right to be after over a decade of declining living standards and growth rates. After all, food prices are projected to increase and further public spending cuts are on the way.

Obviously it makes no sense to speak in absolutes. May is still supported only by a minority of the public. But she has a plurality, and in our parliamentary system that is turned into an outright majority.

So, what’s going on? Briefly, Theresa May’s right-wing, racist, nationalist form of class politics has significantly more support than Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing, internationalist, antiracist form of class politics in today’s Britain. Polarization is happening, but unevenly. Generational trends are working themselves out, but in a protracted and irregular fashion.

This was the case before Theresa May took the leadership and embarked on this Poujadist turn, but it was not apparent for as long as David Cameron held the Tories to the center and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) mopped up the hard-right vote. But at the last general election, just barely under half of the electorate voted for the Tories and UKIP. Currently, both parties combined hold just over half of the electorate.

This is the fruition of a series of long-term trends. In a direct sense, much of it was incubated and matured in the New Labour era. The rise of the British National Party and the English Defence League, and then UKIP, is a direct legacy of that period in which the unity of the British state was aggressively re-pivoted on the basis of clash-of-civilizations ideology, anti-immigrant sentiment dressed up as “British values,” and the revival of colonial nostalgia.

The linked practices of racialized surveillance of Muslim communities, securitarian practices around non-EU migration, “Britishness” discourses to hold off Scottish secession, and so on, combined with the ongoing breakdown of social democracy, smashed existing class identities that formed a crucial part of the Labourist electoral base, contributing to the 2010 “Cleggasm” which allowed a coalition government to be formed. It is important to acknowledge this given how many people in Labour’s higher ranks think, opportunistically, that a little bit of poll-driven sop to anti-immigrant politics and belligerent nationalism will deal with their underlying crisis.

But the success of that thrust owed itself to the inherited cultural assumptions embedded in British society by the New Right. In particular, they interpreted postwar decline and the culminating crises of the seventies as a crisis of national-racial authority. Britain had gone soft, had let (black) immigrants in, had let (black) criminals run amok, had allowed welfare and state largesse to sap enterprise, had let families go into decline, had allowed public order to disintegrate, and so on. It is striking just how commonsensical these contested ideas had become for much of the commentariat and political establishment by the time Blair was recapitulating them as Labour ideas.

Social Democracy’s Slide

So there is an ongoing struggle over the meaning of Britain’s colonial past and its collapse, its imperial present and its crises, and the racial politics through which these transitions have been managed. And the Right has benefited immensely from the vast, barely noticed substructure of white chauvinism pervading the dominant institutions and large parts of society. That structure is weakening in parts, eroding in places, far from assured in its future grip.

The social-demographic changes indicated by generational patterns suggest that Corbyn’s approach is likely to make more headway in the future, although nothing is guaranteed. But that is why Corbynism is not and cannot be a short game, contained within the time frame of one election cycle. If it is to have any chance of success, it has to go far deeper.

Those who argue that Labour has to center everything on winning the next election (or not being wiped out), at least recognize something important. By this, I don’t refer to the clichéd argument that “a Labour government is a lifeline for working-class people.” That is simply not representative of the far more contradictory real-world experience of Labour governments. Rather, the kernel of truth in their stance is that they comprehend the power of the state and of representation to shape our sense of the political possibilities and determine our preferences. And they recognize that not only has Labour always been an electoralist organization, but that any break from electoralism would constitute a huge affront to every common-sense notion of political strategy.

Where I think they are mistaken is that they underestimate how deep and resilient the scale of social democracy’s continent-wide meltdown really is. It is not just that Pasok has been reduced to a rump party: the average vote for social-democratic parties has dropped by 10 percent across Europe since 2010. And they greatly underestimate how damaging, and limiting, the obsession with electoral power, ahead of every other conceivable type of power, has been in Labour’s past.

Worse still, deferring to electoralism in this context tends to lead people to want some sort of impossible, populist left answer to racism in the form of “progressive patriotism.” This is an idea floated by the apostles of Blue Labour, above all Jon Cruddas, but I have seen Owen Jones noising it abroad too. It is a really old strategic concept. You can go back to the early days of British Eurocommunism and find intellectual heavyweights like Eric Hobsbawm and Robert Gray trying to mobilize an affective core of patriotism behind a British “popular front” against Thatcherism (this at the height of Falklands fever and “rule Britannia”).

At its most sophisticated, this could dilate into quasi-Gramscian investigations into the “national-popular,” invoking the National Health Service and similar social-democratic institutions as the possible bases of a patriotism that doesn’t stink of racist exclusion (though it wasn’t accidental that Stuart Hall was, of this cohort, the most skeptical toward such ideas).

Reaction and Chauvinism

It was bullshit then, and it is bullshit now. British patriotism has for almost two centuries been heavily pre-structured by racist and colonial sentiment. For Britain, the national question is a racial question. “Progressive patriotism” — which has no better recent public instantiation than the widely loved Danny Boyle–created New Labour-tastic Olympics saga that made leftists go #ProudOfBritain — has an unconscious structured by the same sentiment. It necessitates repressing and deleting those parts of the national memory which tend to be cherished and celebrated by the Right, in order to create a “people’s patriotism.”

The resulting narrative of change driven from below, without any unpleasant references to the enduring impact of slavery, colonialism, militarism, race riots, etc. (and certainly without any banging on about Trident), is very seductive precisely because it is pitched as a form of counter-history, a struggle against dominant national myths.

However, it cannot, of necessity, engage seriously with the ongoing systemic effects of British white supremacy, because such a focus would seriously complicate and defeat the affective basis for any kind of patriotism — which has to reflect a benign image of ourselves back to us. And because it, of necessity, cannot acknowledge these ongoing realities, because it has to suppress or minimize them, they continue to be active elements in the discourse.

That is what I mean by saying that “progressive patriotism” has a reactionary unconscious. Even when it delights in Mo Farah’s sporting success and mocks the Daily Mail, it is doing important work in reproducing the very chauvinism that it wishes to undermine. Blairite flag-waving and “Britishness” in the climate of racist repression after the Cantle Report and during the “war on terror” was the sad culmination of that idea, with predictable effects.

I am not suggesting that all manifestations of British patriotism should be read in a simple, dogmatic way as racist and chauvinist. Patriotism is of its nature polysemic, “mentioning” diverse experiences and attitudes. I am not suggesting that the conscious intentions of “progressive patriotism” count for nothing. I am suggesting that people looking for the answers here question their own assumptions about the historical and ontological presuppositions of British nationalism.

Even if they think a progressive version of British nationalism is in principle possible — the same people are often highly skeptical of Scottish nationalism which, being predicated on a break with the empire state, is not pre-structured in the same way — why do they think it will have any traction in this society? Even if they think it could conceivably have traction, why do they think it is necessary or helpful? What is it that they think patriotism can do for working-class people? It is obvious that they can see the tremendous power of patriotism in May’s hands to reach lots of voters. It’s not obvious that they can demonstrate that Labour could reach these same voters by the same means.

Assumptions

There is also, encoded in all of this, an inferiority complex, a congealed legacy of defeat. Those who look to a borrowed “patriotism” to rescue left-wing politics evince no confidence in the persuasive power of their own ideas. It is often argued, to some extent accurately, that the neoliberal recomposition of British society and the underlying shifts in capitalist civilization that have been organized by neoliberalism, has fragmented old stalwart class identities and left the coordinates of conventional radicalism weakened.

But it is strange to see these same people, who are often wary of the raised profile of new politicizations such as antiwar and antiracist activism, behave as if these changes have had no effects on the extent and depth of nationalist identifications. As if the one form of collective belonging and destiny to which the poor will always fanatically subscribe is the nation. As if nationalist ideology in Liverpool and Birmingham still today resembles, in its fervency and politics, that which obtains in Belfast. As if even Belfast still has exactly the same “fleg” fixations as thirty years ago.

The hackneyed assumption about working-class people seems to be twofold. First, that they are too embedded in their parochial material interests to think in terms of abstract, intellectual notions of internationalism prized by middle-class leftists. And secondly, that they are so in thrall to that reified abstraction known as nation, that they will eternally interpret their palpable material interests only in relation to it. Occasionally, this patronizing cliché will be qualified by an emphasis on the “white working class.” But even then, it remains oblivious of the fact that even white working-class people, like everyone else, have complex, divided, and evolving views of nationalism.

How they act politically often has little direct reference to the flag. By banging repeatedly on about “patriotism,” the Left will simply succeed in driving the ideas of its natural opponents up the political agenda.

In short, all the gimmickry of “progressive patriotism” is: 1) short-term, opportunistic thinking about a deep, long-term crisis; and 2) structurally underpinned by a white chauvinist unconscious. The Left has to reject it.