A Chill Snake Lurks in the Grass
You lads who cull flowers and strawberries that grow so low, begone from here; a chill snake lurks in the grass.
Virgil, The Eclogues, Book III
Is there a hidden danger in bioregional thinking? The question comes to mind now after reading some of the first reactions to ‘Elysium found?’ a new essay by Paul Kingsnorth written in response to the film Arcadia released today. Kingsnorth has been an influence on my own thought and has written about the values of ‘human scale’ forms of association that inform bioregionalism, so I am keen to pay attention to comment and critique.
The reactions to ‘Elysium Found’ I’ve seen online have been overwhelmingly negative, the following tweets give something of the flavour.
Key to Kingsnorth’s response to the film and to the reactions that it has evoked is the line: ‘I defy any Briton to watch Arcadia and not feel a surge of patriotism’ [Britain and England are used rather interchangeably in the essay]. The choice of the word patriotism — loyalty to the fatherland — in order to describe fealty to place is infelicitous. When it is expanded as ‘patriotism; the real kind, the old kind’ it’s not hard to perceive the dangerous territory Gareth E. Rees senses, a dangerous territoriality.
Kingsnorth senses danger too —and he preempts Rees with the line ‘The guardians of our civilisation tell us that attachment to place and tradition is reactionary, backward, dangerous’; he also finds ‘dangerous’ unfashionable questions in Arcadia, questions about magic, the power of place, the truth in the soil. It’s unclear whether the dangers of the questions are the same dangers forebode by the guardians of our civilization, but the incantatory repetition of the word soil in the essay along with the phrase ‘aboriginal Britain’ — the Britain of the native, of the indigenous — has inevitably led some commentators to be reminded of the Nazi slogan Blut und Boden — blood and soil.
Concerns with the politics of a literature of place led Gary Budden to offer his thoughts on the darker aspects of nature writing in an essay, Awake Awake Sweet England: Why We Need Landscape Punk. That essay is troubled by how the feelings Budden ‘hold[s] towards landscape dovetail with those I disagree with, and at times despise.’ As an avowed anti-fascist he is wary of narratives that privilege being ‘English’ and he singles out Kingsnorth for sinking ‘into a kind of left-wing, pro-Brexit eco-nationalism.’ Similarly, Warren Ellis called Kingsnorth out as a poisonous little Englander ‘preferring localism over multiculturalism’, suspicious of the ‘benevolent green nationalism’ Kingsnorth proposed in his 2017 Guardian article ‘The lie of the land: does environmentalism have a future in the age of Trump?’
I think that Kingsnorth’s views on Brexit are more sophisticated than a simple equivalence with Lexit concerns would suggest, and that implications that he is a crypto-fascist can come a little too easily. Those already inclined to disagree with him - bright green environmentalists distressed by Dark Mountain’s rejection of faith ‘that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’’ — or greens and leftists who see betrayal in any view distinct from remain orthodoxy.
I recognise the fears around fascism though and I asked him about this back in 2013 in ‘1066 Was Not All That’ an article first published in Managed Retreat. In this interview I also introduce the problematic concept of ‘ecological Englishness’ which I should have firmly distinguished from any sense of biological Englishness.
JPT: Ideas of political and poetic ecology such as reclaiming our sense of place, acting locally, reinhabiting our landscapes all support a more regional focus and therefore an engagement in England with English (rather than British) identity. This ecological Englishness is a concept you have written passionately about, and something which I also resonate with. We have some suspect fellow travellers though — from the Kinship of Husbandry through to postwar British fascist organisations and curious ensembles like English Green and Albion Awake… How do you navigate this landscape? What are the paths to English identity that avoid the nationalist trap?
PK: I like the phrase ‘ecological Englishness.’ I think this is crucially important, and in all honestly I think we worry too much about these ‘fellow travellers’. It often seems to me that the left uses the threat of ‘giving succour to the far right’ to conveniently avoid discussing these issues at all.
That’s not to say this isn’t an issue: of course it is. Narratives of place and belonging are very easy to hijack in that way. But I just don’t think it’s very difficult to make it clear where you stand. I do that myself in Real England. In fact, I think is vital that more of us do that. The more English people who talk about place and belonging, who reclaim their history both from the jingoistic right and the multicultural left, and who also make it very clear that they want nothing to do with the far right or any of the idiots on that part of the political spectrum, the better for the nation as a whole. It’s quite possible to have a sense of place and ecology and tradition and continuity without sinking into hostility to outsiders, and I think more of us need to make that clear.
Similarly in Kingsnorth and Warren Draper’s pitch for The Anglarchist
‘Some may feel uneasy about speaking of England in a positive light, in case they are somehow seen to be fuelling the crass, jingoistic nationalism which the English have long found distasteful and rather embarrassing. But to remain silent is to give the bigots free rein to dictate their own vision of Englishness. This is why we must distinguish ourselves from those on all sides of the political argument who would use English identity as a divisive tool. In the light of Brexit, rapidly shifting political landscapes, ecological crisis and global economic upheavals, the future of England has never seemed more uncertain. The Anglarchist hopes to help shape it.’
In the light of the last few years, it feels like we have worried too little about those others who have made claim to narratives of place and belonging. There have been toxic debates about refugees and migration in the UK and across Europe and the USA, shocking scenes of human suffering — the Calais ‘jungle’, infants washed up on Greek beaches, children taken from their parents and placed in cages on the Mexican border. Neo-Nazi terrorists have planned ‘gay slaughter’. There has been the rise of ‘strong-man’ authoritarian leaders — Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Recep Erdogan and electoral successes for political parties that are openly nationalist and racialist if not explicitly fascist: Partij voor de Vrijheid in the Netherlands, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the Front National in France, Fidesz in Hungary, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość in Poland, Lega Nord in Italy, Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs in Austria, Golden Dawn in Greece. Many of those parties advised by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. co-founder of the website Breitbart News which he boasted was “the platform for the alt-right”. The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign seemed to unleash ideas of white supremacism long considered beyond the pale. American neo-nazis marched with burning torches, the English Defence League hit the streets in full idiocy, airtime was given over to Richard Spencer, David Duke of the Klu Klux Klan and far-right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka ‘Tommy Robinson’). Former indie darling Morrissey dribbled out all sorts of racist nonsense and offered support for Anne Marie Waters’ For Britain — a party formed by people UKIP deemed ‘Nazis and racists’. Thomas Alexander Mair murdered the MP Jo Cox.
With violent fascism at work in the world, it seems a fair expectation that we take care with our narratives of place and belonging to choose our words carefully and to leave no ambiguity about where we stand.
In many ways, the Twitter reaction to ‘Elysium Found?’ echoed the robust social media retort to right-wing appropriation of folklore in that same space. A retort which coalesced around the hashtag #FolkloreAgainstFascism formulated by David Southwell of @HooklandGuide (Southwell is also the coiner of Landscape Punk).
Southwell correctly recognised the parallels between claims that ‘Folklore and homeland belongs to the indigenous people’ with the ideology of the C19th Völkisch movement in Germany, the ideas of which flowed into Nazism. The Blut und Boden sloganeering of the Völkisch movement was part of a broader philosophy of unity between Heimat (homeland), Landschaft (landscape) and Kulturlandschaft (cultural landscape).
The inherent need for an enduring “inner correspondence” and “intrinsic unity” between Volk and the natural universe was expressed through the image of the Bodenstandigkeit — roughly, the “organic territoriality” of the Volk-organism and its “rootedness” (Verwurzelung) in the natural environment.
Mark Bassin, ‘Blood or Soil? The Volkisch Movement, the Nazis, and the legacy of Geopolitik’ in Franz-Joef Bruggemeier, Mark Cioc and Thomas Zeller (eds.), How Green Were the Nazis? Nature Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich, (2005)
Lest these just be seen as curious German ideas, it’s wise to learn how they were paralleled in England in the 1930s and ’40s by figures such as Rolf Gardiner, Jorian Jenks and Gerard Wallop. Gardiner, Jenks and Walop were all amongst the founders of the Kinship of Husbandry an organisation devoted to organic farming and the revival of Britain’s rural areas that evolved into the Soil Association, Gardiner promoted Morris dancing and English folk culture. They all also had links to German Nazism and were involved in British far-right groups — they were variously members of the British Union of Fascists, the English Mistery and the English Array.
The historian Philip Conford has done much to aid understanding of this period in the development of ecological thought in Britain and through his study of documents written for the English Array he reveals how its members: ‘subscribed to a creed requiring them to “hate the alien corruption and internationalism which tries to destroy the frontiers of culture and clean breeding”, and which referred to “God’s purpose in making soil and blood and climate something different for every land” — ‘Organic society: agriculture and radical politics in the career of Gerard Wallop, ninth Earl of Portsmouth (1898–1984)’, The Agricultural History Review, Volume 53, Part 1, 2005.
A couple of years back, in the wake of the Brexit vote, I started a Facebook group, the Confederation of Soviets of the Atlantic Archipelago (CSAA) in order to explore with others how the UK’s secession from the European Union might offer opportunities for a new settlement in the ‘British’ Isles and a shift towards subsidiarity in political decision making and ecological governance.
It’s an open group and not long into its existence it began to gain members unknown to me personally. At some point I realised that I was attracting interest from some of those ‘fellow travellers’ I had referred to in my interview with Paul Kingsnorth. What connected them was the concept of National Anarchism. This idea which stirred in a 1980s anarchist publication Black Ram interested in ‘Volkisch Anarchism’ , gained velocity with the work of Richard Hunt a green anarchist activist drawn towards nationalism, before its contemporary association with Troy Southgate.
I hadn’t realised at that time that the ideas of subsidiarity, human-scale societies and ecological governance in the works of people like E.F. Schumacher, Leopold Kohr, Kirkpatrick Sale, John Papworth and Murray Bookchin that had been part of the development of bioregional thought were also amongst the influences cited by the white supremacist Wilmot Robertson in his book The Ethnostate — a primary text for the type of ideas found in National Anarchist Troy Southgate’s ‘ethno-cultural identitarism’ and core to National Anarchist thinking. In my ignorance I had always associated Shumacher/Kohl/Sale etc. solely with a fringe end of the green movement — readers of Resurgence and The Ecologist. I had not perceived the racialist interest in small-scale societies, I found like Gary Budden before me that some of my interests dovetailed with those I disagreed with.
Many of those attracted to National Anarchism do not appear to be fascistic in their beliefs, but it’s apparent that those at the core of it have a clear fascist lineage. Tracing the factional mess of British fascism and the shifting positions of its advocates is a headache inducing and ultimately pointless task that leads in a thousand directions — towards lost and abandoned geocities websites archived on the Wayback Machine and fringe fanzines and pamphlets that barely left the mailing lists of closeted white supremacists (you can get a flavour of some of this type of execrable stuff scanning the titles on the secondhand list of the British People’s Party.)
It’s useful therefore to be able to turn to the work of academics with the time and resources to acquire original materials and make sense of the disorientating and bewildering panoply of publications. Graham D. Macklin’s ‘Co-opting the Counter Culture: Troy Southgate and the National Revolutionary Faction’ (in Patterns of Prejudice, Vol.39, №3, September 2005) reveals National Anarchism’s aim as the formation of racially segregated communities. Macklin notes that the movement is fuelled by a ‘desire to create a decentralized völkisch identity’ and borrows ideas from anarcho-primitivism to form a concept of ‘folk autonomy’ as a bulwark against the encroachment of globalization.
Bioregionalists were wise to fascist co-option early on. In ‘Bioregionalism Versus Fascism: A Conversation About Place, Ethnicity, Globalization, and the Waning of the Nation-State’ (in Raise the Stakes. The Planet Drum Review 28 (Spring 1998)) Peter Berg and Martin A. Lee discuss how neo-fascist leaders in Europe ‘manipulate a deep-rooted regionalist impulse, a primordial longing for place-locatedness, which has been trampled upon, but not completely smothered, during the era of the nation-state’. Peter Berg states that ‘The people of the place are different from ‘the people’ as a race or ethnic group’ — which I guess finds meaning in the particular soil a person stands on but not in the particular blood in their veins.
Martin A Lee is more useful:
‘Bioregionalism is identity medicine. It offers a holistic context in which to reframe questions of identity. None of this bogus, romantic folk-rootedness that the Nazis are always conjuring, which has more to do with a lack of place-locatedness than an actual connection to the earth.’
‘’a bioregional concept of identity… is rooted in place… is neither static nor exclusionist. Bioregional identity is existential rather than essentialist. It perceives difference not as a threat to eliminate, but as something to negotiate as part of an evolving, over-arching project that entails remaking ourselves, our identity, through reinhabitory practice. We aren’t simply born with an identity because of our blood type; we have to cultivate our identity by consciously relating to the place we live, our bioregion’
In ‘Towards a Cosmopolitan Bioregionalism’ Mitchell Thomashow rejects any focus on nativist indegenity and writes that ‘bioregionalism should necessarily speak to the transient as well as the rooted’ [in Michael Vincent McGinnis (ed.), Bioregionalism (1999)]. Permaculturalist David Holmgren writes that ‘wherever we live, we must become new indigenes’ [Permaculture; Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, (2002)]
In the light of all this, Draper/Kingsnorth’s ‘Anglarchism’ a portmanteau of a nation’s name — England (or perhaps worse a ‘people’: Anglo-Saxons) with anarchism (where else is that ch coming from?) is an unfortunate neologism that seems to align with national anarchism rather than distinguish itself from it. These language traps are important to recognise and name. I hope by doing so we can tell better stories.
Elsewhere in Draper/Kingsnorth’s pitch there is the conviction to ‘kinship (a word which has the potential to go beyond the boundaries of species, let alone the misguided divisions of race and culture)’ and a vision of diversity, sharing places and neighbourliness that is far from the racial separatism core to National Anarchism.
In his essay on the mythical land of Deep England Paul Watson writes of his own efforts in remaking the ‘mythscape’ of England, one not beholden to discriminatory attitudes about race or class or sex. He points towards the words of the novelist Melissa Harrison quoted in Alex Preston’s article ‘If our landscape truly belongs to us all, we must stop romanticising it’:
“When it comes to the fetishisation of place that happened in the 1930s, and is happening again now, it’s vital to ask: who does this vision serve and who does it exclude?”
This of course is the Grail question — Who Does it Serve? What will these ideas be used in the service of? Who do we share common ground with? As in the Arcadia described by Virgil, care must be taken as we reach towards the soil that we are not poisoned by disguised beasts.