Do we need a left-nationalism?
In a previous piece from March 2019, I largely ignored the role of national ideals in motivating hard-Brexit politicians, whose motives I explained in material terms. The vulgarity of this analysis was pointed out to me, so I shall try to fill in the gap a little bit here. While I am happy to aspire to a world where nationalism is mostly denuded of political significance, I am not sure that a viable strategy here and now can ignore the mobilising power of these kinds of communitarian identifications or, more specifically, of the affective bonds they can involve and succeed only on the basis of, say, class identification.
It is hardly novel to insist that the left ought to focus more on forging an emotionally engaging narrative, community and identity. This is vital for strategic reasons – people who really care about other people and about their ideals will be more motivated for necessary political struggle. But it is also vital if the left is to offer an alternative vision of social life, because affective, sentimental attachments to communities, ideals or identities, national or otherwise, are inescapable sources of value and meaning in human life.
The tendency towards over-simplified materialist analyses has prevented the left from taking such feelings seriously, largely dismissing them as variously super-structural, and thus causally secondary, and ideological, as with nationalism dividing the workers of the world. This analysis is probably wrong at the macro-level but is definitely insufficient at the level of praxis, of actually existing politics and strategy, where feelings and ideas undoubtedly play an important role alongside and in complex relationships with material concerns – as in cases, such as no-deal Brexit, where people seem willing to accept material costs for the sake of other values, like an ideal of national sovereignty.
Emotional attachments of all kinds must therefore to some extent be accepted on their own terms rather than dismissed as false-consciousness or re-defined in terms of any material interests they might serve. Refusing to take such feelings seriously makes it difficult to communicate effectively with actual human beings and thus win their political support. People do not relate to their emotions as complex functions of their material circumstances or symptoms of alienation.
Leftists might also baldly insist that the workers movement will develop its own sentimental bonds off the back of material victories and that they thus mostly don’t need to be actively fostered. This might be true if there were no other pre-existing attachments, but it hardly grapples with the reality of powerful competing communitarian ties that make such victories harder to achieve. Workers must be united – including affectively - in order to win at all and this unity cannot simply be assumed or insisted upon in the face of a contradictory reality.
The left may need to re-frame and thus take advantage of existing national narratives in the service of its own internationalist, liberatory ends – perhaps by inventing and pushing a cosmopolitan, liberatory nationalism, if this is even conceivable. A genuinely international class-based social movement is hardly on the horizon, at least to the extent of any coordinated attempt to take and wield political power, despite some nice ideas from Yanis Varoufakis about a left take-over of the IMF and World Bank.
So it seems premature to think we could skip straight from where we are to an idealised internationalism. Power over international institutions, and real, hard power in the form of armed control of territory is still largely in the hands of states. And the political cultures of states are still pretty strongly entwined with those of nationhood. Perhaps existing class sentiments could be mobilised independently of nationalist appeals, but class loyalty is presumably largely circumscribed by national boundaries.
A class-first or class-only strategy in the context of national politics might seem like the most promising alternative to any explicitly left-nationalist strategy and has been roughly the approach of the more successful left electoralism of recent years, like Sanders, Corbyn and early Podemos. Notably, each of these has mostly populist rhetoric of us vs. them rather than explicitly invoking any underlying class analysis in their public arguments. But this approach actually serves to highlight the risks of leaving explicit nationalist arguments entirely to the other side. The populist framing posits a hazily delineated ‘people’ as the subject of a political demands. It leaves open whether this people - the 99% - is basically coterminous with the nation or with some other group, such as the (international?!) proletariat.
This strategy has perhaps allowed these efforts to secure some votes from people who would be put off by any explicitly anti-nationalist, internationalist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist and pro-immigration strategy without on the other hand alienating those who would prefer or respond to such an idealistic, principled approach. This lowest common denominator approach certainly seems to be the idea, as embodied most obviously by Labour’s contortionism on Brexit. The aim seems to be to set aside the harder arguments for the sake of building an electoral coalition in the short term. Its limitations are highlighted in different ways by the success of Farage and the Brexit party in the UK, Sanders’ seeming problems with talking effectively about race in the US and Podemos getting boxed in on the Catalonia question and retreating into the traditional minoritarian niche of Spanish leftism. These examples highlight the challenges of trying to be all things to all people by being vague about the specific contours of the community invoked by populist framing.
The big problem, as noted above, is that nationalist sympathies already exist and already seem to circumscribe any class loyalty that also exists. Even if workers in any (wealthy) country have a sense of solidarity – or if such a sense can be cultivated - it seems unlikely that this yet extends to making any significant material sacrifices for the sake of workers in other countries, which is surely the relevant standard that an internationalist movement must reach. So while this class-first approach may facilitate some kind of left victory at the national level (although it has not done so too recently), it does not promise much in the way of progress in terms of the geo-politics of globalised trade and production, which is surely where a lot of the most important action is and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
This ‘fact of nationalism’ bears repeating. Any political culture where there is a significant discursive distinction between ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ policy is almost by necessity, a culture where some kind of nationalism is taken for granted. Think about how implausible it is that a political party could garner support by proposing to raise taxes in order to, say, increase foreign aid or provide material support to people in a different country. This is just now how domestic politics works, anywhere, because a national frame is a foundational assumption of politics in nation-states – our people matter more (to us) than others. This isn’t necessarily terrible because, after all, governments have more power over residents of their territory than people elsewhere. But it does mean that if the left – and anyone else with internationalist values – simply ignores nationalism as an issue it will almost unavoidably perpetuate whatever form of nationalism already exists.
And insofar as the dominant strains of nationalism are traditionalist and conservative, it is always more likely that the floating signifier of ‘the people’ will be filled in with this default, traditionalist vision than by a more inclusive, let alone internationalist, class-based identification. This is fairly readily apparent on the pro-Brexit British left, with its dog-whistles to fantasies of a homogenous, ‘white’ working class. When push comes to shove, any coalitions constructed under this populist banner are unlikely to prove reliable when threatened by rightwing nationalist provocations which highlight the contradictions between competing specifications of the people. The right is pretty much always going to be better at mobilising traditionalist visions of national community and when the left tries to compete on this ground it is always likely to alienate key constituencies, like communities of colour and their allies.
The forces of conservatism are already picking up the threads of their preferred exclusionary and traditionalist visions of the nation, which have the additional advantage of being historically dominant and thus rather easier to mobilise. This analysis suggests that the potential for an intellectually coherent, ethically defensible and strategically useful left-nationalism is worth exploring. This is true at least in the short to medium term, before the establishment of affective bonds of international solidarity between workers of all nations. It is justifiable largely on pragmatic grounds, in that it could help to head off the right and because national sympathies are probably the strongest extant social attachments and thus provide the best material with which to work.
The challenge is whether the exclusionary logic of the nation can be made compatible with an anti-racist, internationalist vision – whether a persuasive narrative can be told that integrates some kind of national pride with a principled rejection of jingoism and bigotry. If not, then the left has no choice but to tilt at the windmill of building an affective community at the with some other ingredients, most obviously class identity.
This may be possible and would probably be desirable. But it is, I think, highly optimistic that there is enough time for this project to come to fruition, especially insofar as it has barely begun and certainly doesn’t have much cultural weight so far, let alone political power. And of course because the right is not standing still but is instead mobilising an exclusionary nationalism, making this idealistic left project ever more difficult.