Green Nationalism? No Thanks.
Greens must go nationalist. That is the disastrous kernal of Pauls Kingsnorth’s political turn. We are, he writes, like the fox in the garden or the bird in the tree, animals in a place. Defending his vote for Brexit he argues that ‘whoever can harness people’s deep, old attachment to tribe, place and identity — to a belonging and a meaning beyond money or argument — will win the day. […] You want to protect and nurture your homeland — well, then, you’ll want to nurture its forests and its streams too.’
Perhaps Kingsnorth climbed the trees around his place and stapled the birds in situ because the birds that stop by my trees don’t understand the metaphor: they keep buggering off when it gets cold, moving this way and that around this globe, chasing good weather, old air trails locked into their nomadic migratory minds. The cuckoo has just returned amidst spring warmth to remind me.
Rooting in is a phrase of high currency amongst the more wild and low tech fringes of environmentalism, amongst whom I also wallow. It means to set ones roots down, to trade the modern liquid life for a more solid one, connected to the land. Its metaphorical link to the natural world sentimentally binds us in loamy authenticity. So does Kingsnorth’s metaphor of birds and foxes.
We are all animals in a place, he says. Most of these birds get to see far more of the globe than I do in any given year, rooted in as I am on my little patch of land. With whales and the like they are one of the globes most globalist denizens. Foxes too, though incapable of flitting away to enjoy the best seasons of the world, will stay somewhere a while and move on after a time. Certainly a catastrophe, like a forest fire, will drive them out of place, just as a war drives refugees on to new countries, new nations.
As Kingsnorth well knows he is not the only one to talk of people and their place. It’s an old trick of racists to say they are not racist: they have nothing against muslims or black people — those people are just out of place. They need to go back to the places that they belong to so that white British people can build their own lives in their own place.
But rooting down is not the only apt metaphor for human activity. We have long been as restless a species as most others. It’s no coincidence that humans and birds both share the common verb to migrate. It’s a core characteristic of our natural lives such that even hardened British tribalists who voted for Brexit to keep the foreigners out can be found on the shores of southern Iberia as migrants insisting that they are not foreigners, but expats. Humans have swirled and settled, roved, wandered and set down cottages and crops and then moved on again sometimes. Rooting-in and migration are both elements of our rich animal heritage.
To defend Brexit Kingsnorth must paint his green nationalism using a very broad brush. Globalism, you see, is all about neo-liberalism, the economic project of opening up capital to flow freely across the globe, of dismantling the welfare state and privatising just about everything and as far as he is concerned everyone who voted to remain in the EU is tarred with this brush. He writes:
Most people in the leftish, green-tinged world in which I had spent probably too much time over the years seemed to be lining up behind the EU. The public intellectuals, the Green party, the big NGOs: all these people, from a tradition founded on localisation, degrowth, bioregionalism and a fierce critique of industrial capitalism, were on board with a multinational trading bloc backed by the world’s banks, corporations and neoliberal politicians.
There is no space in this argument to say, I oppose Brexit because it is taking place in the context of an anti-immigrant upsurge. Or, I am against the free movement of capital but for the free movement of people. No, according to Kingsnorth, if you voted remain you’re on board with neo-liberalism. There are two camps in his article’s world. The globalist neo-liberals and the localists.
But things are not so simple: there is not just the one globalism, there are many. To begin with, the anti-capitalist resistance to ‘globalism’ that was born in Seattle and spread to Prague and Genoa was itself a globalism. Doctors without borders is a globalism, modern anarchism is a globalism, literature is globalist, including the books that Kingsnorth himself writes and sells globally. This modern wave of nationalism is a globalist wave, spreading quickly from one country to another, building links between each other, offering technical, hacking and propaganda support from one nation to another.
Racists from Canada and France and India and Hungary praise Trump’s wall and take delight in his election as a personal victory for their own movements. Truly, a globalist movement. All environmentalisms are globalist. Rooting down is a globalist idea, a globalist phenomenon and culture as the many of us taking part are inspired by each other, share stories, understand what we’re doing in the context of this choice between rooting and migrating. Localism is a globalism. It’s a global ideology. A truly non-globalist localism wouldn’t even be able to articulate itself as a localism: its only concerns would be the points of conflict that the particular culture had with forces that were changing it. Some Amazonian tribes fit that description, little else does. We do not escape globalism today, especially when we are trying to escape it. Kingsnorth admits as much himself recognising that the ‘[early environmentalism’s] outlook was planetary — no true ecological movement can be anything else — its actions were often local or national.’ No environmental outlook can be anything other than planetary. Planetary. Kingsnorth can’t bring himself to use planetary’s synonym, global because his argument, as do the arguments of nationalists, rests on trying to hide the globalist nature of all modern projects.
Certain evils in the current configuration of the world cause many of us to seek out more solid ground and certain types of globalisation are indeed at war with the ancient solidity of culture.
Where Kingsnorth points to indigenous resistance in North and South America against the power of global capitalist forces, he is indeed tapping into a very real conflict. There will be a very understandable and easy tendency to react against the aggressor and, in taking up the cause of local culture, to make a fetish of it. This fetish is, as described above, a globalist fetish of localised culture. And again, I am like Kingsnorth in lifestyle. Not only have I fled liquid life for a more solid one but I fell head and heart forward into the culture around which my little piece of land sews its meaning. Galizan language, culture, its music, dance, bagpipes, struggles and its gasps for liberty from the Spanish state have all woven themselves into me, tying me down further into a love relationship with land and culture: with place. And yes, culture should be defended, small cultures should be defended against homogenising non-culture.
But Kingsnorth takes one step more, that fateful step from localism to nationalism. You see, nationalism, of the Trump and Farage type that we’re talking about here, doesn’t actually make culture. I remember when Nick Griffin told his mini-horde of followers to flood folk events and Morris dances. Humble groups of dancers and musicians doing their thing up and down the country were suddenly faced with the odd spectacle of fastidiously dressed thugs awkwardly gawking at something they really didn’t understand. These nationalists didn’t know how to dance or make music — they just knew that they didn’t want certain skin types and accents dancing and making music here. Kingsnorth is wrong. Nationalism isn’t culture, it’s not a rooting into place, it’s not creative, only destructive. If nationalists were realistically concerned with conserving their culture they would have been out there doing it, making it. Other people moving in and making different kinds of culture next door is only a threat to your culture if you don’t make any of your own.
And if you truly fear for your culture then don’t stop someone else from making culture in the house next door: just shut up, make your own and then invite your immigrant neighbours around to join you. There are two very different things going on here that need to be unpicked and seen clearly. One is the defence of the local, the valoration of culture against the homogenous and the other is the poisonous worm of othering groups of people, of turning against migrants and refugees, of turning culture into identity and then identity into a weapon.
Kingsnorth’s discursive strategy is to always link three elements together ‘place, tribe and identity,’ but the linking is an artifice and should be recognised as one. He, evidently, is concerned with place and the nationalists he wishes to hitch up with, tribe and identity. He’s setting them a classic bait and switch hoping that those in thrall to the rising racism won’t notice that he’s replaced their walls and immigration officers with some more national parks and clean water legislation.
What he would like to offer is a less hateful nationalism, one based on a sense of place and a defence of loved things. ‘’In the [Standing Rock resistance] we perhaps see some indication of what this fusing of human and non-human belonging could look like today; a defence of both territory and culture, in the name of nature, rooted in love.’
Here’s what Kingsnorth is up against: 93% of his fellow brexit voters want free trade with the European bloc while nearly 70% of them want hard borders, customs checks and no migrant welfare. According to the voters Brexit means yes to nativism, and yes to neo-liberalism. On the bright side, 67% of leave voters want to keep the EU minimum standards for water quality at beaches so we might get a green touch after all in Britain’s brave neo-nationalist neo-liberal paradise.
Without a hint of a strategy as to how to switch the trap after laying the bait we see only blankness when it comes to replacing hate with love. And what a strategy that would have to be. Like writing a plan to harness the passion and energy of Hitler’s stormtroopers, converting their mass movement into one based on love and green principles, it’s hard to see it as anything but a most dangerous, delusional utopia. A vote for Brexit or Trump does not happen in an ahistorical vacuum. These things are happening in the greatest upswing of anti-immigrant sentiment seen since the thirties. From Britain to India to Turkey to America we are seeing the rise of majoritarian communalist rule in the most violent, racist and hate-fuelled ways. Tying a green wagon to the end of a juggernaut bound for hell will only send that wagon to hell.
And all of this is happening as our global climate crisis begins to truly swell. Have we given up on a global solution? Do we not believe that we should at least try to work together on our species greatest crisis? It’s telling that there is only one dismissive mention of climate change in the article. Kingsnorth seems to have pivoted his writing to win over the hearts of nationalists. A vast international cooperative movement to respond to the challenges of climate change and reduce our environmental impact are momentarily embarrassing for his audience. His green is the faux green of mono-cultural pine plantations, pretending to be forests but lacking all diversity, all ecological richness that only comes from movement and migration and many species and types of creatures sharing a space together. It’s no coincidence that his one positive historical example, Theodore Roosevelt’s conservationist nationalism, kicked first nation people out of their homelands to create these grand new parks of ‘pristine wilderness.’
One senses that the author feels the prevailing winds of nationalism are too strong, that he has no choice but to fold and follow and in so doing he has spurned those of us who still look to migrant welfare, and the opening, not closing of borders. Those of us who want a globalism of peoples and ecologies not of corporations or nationalisms or walls. He has painted the divide crudely: neo-liberalist globalism versus localism. But the earth is shaking and the scenarios are changing. Neo-liberalism itself is in crisis: even the IMF are turning against it and the US government is deeply ambivalent towards it. He, like Zizek and others, have ended up on the wrong side of the argument because they failed to understand that there could be something worse than neo-liberalism.
When Zizek praised Trump’s election as a way to help shake up the world, he showed himself rooted into the conflicts of the last decade, without understanding that the ground is shifting under us as we speak and that only a nimble response will help us leap to the right side.
Now we face a shaking when we have to decide which side of the quake we are on and a few things are clear, on the side of nationalism we cannot offer our solidarity to the refugees of our governments’ global wars. We cannot be those who have chained themselves to planes in order to stop vulnerable and threatened individuals from being deported back into dangerous situations. We might even find ourselves awkwardly silent as Katie Hopkins gloats about humans sinking in the Mediterranean. And what if this upsurge in nationalism dies down, defeated, sullen. Where will the green nationalists be then? In an ill-chosen cess-pool of failure with abominable pond-mates.
On the eve of the first world war the great Second International faced a crisis, torn between holding fast on its internationalist principles and slipping into the nationalist jingoism tolling the bells of war — each section of the international soon fell into the war camp of its own nation. The Second International was destroyed and so was much of Europe. Now again, in our thoroughly modern way, we face a similar pull — though now we are far less organised than then. Now, amidst the greatest global ecological crisis humans have ever seen, now that the concrete lives of refugees and migrants hang in the balance — now we must choose what kind of environmentalism we think the world needs.
No, now is not the time for environmentalists to appease nationalism, to put ourselves on the wrong side of humanity. Let us lose neither our sense of perspective nor our values. Pull the nails out of those perches. Let the birds be free to follow their migratory needs and the human animals too, in their own needs to root-in and then to move on and then root-in once again.