Plan C Birmingham recently posted a call for an anti-nationalist initiative, “practical actions of solidarity and resistance that create an alternative to the nation”. The idea itself is fine as far as it goes, but much more is needed before we can claim to have a real idea of what an alternative to the nation could look like. What would a real challenge to nationalism involve?
Before tackling the nation head-on, it’s worth taking a moment to think about another subject: Islamic fundamentalism. We can all agree that jihadist ideology should be fought against, but, with the possible exceptions of a few clowns like Sam Harris, no-one thinks that it’s as simple as just explaining to people that killing people in the name of Islam is wrong and that it’d be much nicer if they could just be tolerant secularists instead. Jihadist ideology has the appeal that it has because of a complex and very specific set of historical circumstances – everything from the alienation felt in the Parisian banlieues to the state-backed communalist networks of patronage that created “the British Muslim community” with its approved representatives, and not forgetting the consequences of the Bush/Blair adventure in Iraq that created such a fertile territory for al-Zarqawi and his successors to operate in – so any real struggle against jihadism also has to be simultaneously a struggle against, as Marx might have put it, the conditions that require jihadist illusions.
So if a materialist perspective means attacking both bad ideas and the conditions that allow those ideas to make sense, what are those conditions in the case of British nationalism? A recent article by David Goodhart in the Financial Times* had a shot at providing an answer:
“What may also have been missed, especially on the left, is that while many people in the top 25 per cent of the educational and economic hierarchy have become less attached to national social contracts in the past couple of generations, others have actually become more dependent on them. The national welfare state has been expanding — think tax credits and the growth of housing benefit — and although state employment has been in decline, if you live in a rundown area, you are more likely than ever to be a state employee.
Moreover, the loss of close, industrial communities over the past few decades might well have produced a stronger attachment to the imagined community of the nation and its social supports.”
It’s possible to go through each claim made here and attach a “citation needed” – for instance, we can question whether the expansion of in-work benefits as a subsidy for low-wage work really balances out the restriction of out-of-work benefits through ever-expanding conditionality, ask for a source for the claim about the prevalence of public sector work in rundown areas, or ask how the vote could simultaneously be driven by resentment against the EU among people receiving EU money and gratitude to the UK among people receiving UK money – but we should recognise that Goodhardt has performed an important service by drawing our attention to the question of the material foundations of British identity. If he’s wrong about these things being the material supports of nationalism, then what do we think they are instead? And what would it mean to attack these situations?
Part of the answer has to be rebuilding a tangible culture of solidarity. It’s no good trying to destroy the imagined community of the nation if the only alternative is a Thatcherite “no such thing as society”. The traditional alternative has been class solidarity, across both national borders and internal barriers like the migrant/native-born divide. At some points, in some times and some places, that has been not just a nice idea but a real material force – think of the role played by international supporters in feeding the miners during the 84-85 strike, the orders of pizza delivered to the Wisconsin and Wall Street occupations and paid for by supporters across the globe, and more broadly the sharing of tactics, slogans and ideas as the wave of occupations rolled around the world in 2010-11. But it’ll take a lot more, and a lot more embeddedness in everyday life, before the internationalist alternative can form a real material community that can compete with the rewards of belonging to a nation.
Another article on the Plan C site, “For a Spoons of the Left”, looks at the kind of institutions that could embed class solidarity in everyday life, but again this article can only be a starting point for a conversation that needs to be much deeper and more critical – in particular, any discussion of “alternative infrastructure” needs to involve a serious analysis of the pros and cons of subcultural scenes**. And crucially, there needs to be a recognition that one size does not fit all, and that what works in Brighton will not necessarily work in Barnsley. In some places, something like the Cowley Club may well be useful; in others, an examination of the lessons of the Independent Working-Class Association might be more helpful.
The comrades involved in the anti-raids network are right to say that we need to build an anti-fascist culture in the days and weeks to come. But to do that we need a full understanding of what our enemy is, where its strength lies and what our alternative is.
*paywalled, but if you’re interested you can google the title and then click on the “cached version” option.
** and just to be clear, simplistic “lifestylism is bad” stuff isn’t enough either – a fun, exciting, politicised subcultural space that does a good job of being what it is and has no illusions of being anything else is way better than trying to appeal to everybody and creating something so bland that no-one can get enthusiastic about it. On the other hand, if you’re trying to create an accessible resource for the local community and just happen to end up with somewhere where everyone just happens to dress the same, listen to the same music and eat the same food, you might have a bit of a problem.