Recent analysis on how the “Right” has gained ground west of the GMT line, has been structured, in dominance, across a fault line of globalism vs. nationalism. And although this analysis may be well placed in understanding voter trends and individual attitudes, it fails at exploring the social root of current anti-progressive and indeed racist rhetoric. Worst yet, it doesn’t help in providing a real solution.
At its core, globalisation is an economic movement. While nationalism, although containing anti-globalist tendencies (protectionism), remains more about social cohesion than economic issues. This is the ideological starting point of the globalism vs. nationalism demarcation line. In political practice, though, it has morphed to both include and exclude a plethora of other causes, all of which work to prevent progressives from understanding the real issues.
Social ills and populism
On the reactionary side, nationalism is neatly summed up with Trump’s “America first”, and in the UK, “taking back our borders”. These movements ultimately want to see decision making centralised, and to happen within the country’s borders. They want to see respect to their country restored, including traditional aspects of the state: police, veterans, and industry.
From this, two other trends have also been emboldened, one social and one economic. On the economic end, anti-welfare has gained ground. The idea of lazy individuals sapping the state dry and not pulling their weight — the “fiscal conservative”. This trend has led the way for the successful austerity movement in the UK; although in the US, we have also witnessed the evident backlash once social support is plugged, as has occurred with the proposed “American health care act”.
This idea of fiscal conservatism is not something new to the current government in the US or the UK, and both parties have engaged in this neo-liberal drive be it the democrats under Obama or the “new labour” movement in the UK. It just so happens that coverage on the issue has now increased seeing how the “non-progressives” are now in power. Theoretically, though, this drive to austerity and the dismantling of the welfare state is in line with the same neo-liberalism that has driven globalisation.
The second trend has been the emboldening of xenophobic rhetoric. Like the existence of the neo-liberal notion of dismantling the welfare state, xenophobia and racism have been around for a while. The question is why, with an increase in nationalism, has this rhetoric been gaining ground?
At the centre of racist rhetoric is a social issue of cohesion — the idea that national prosperity is under threat due to a lack of social cohesion. In 1930 Germany, this lack of social cohesion was seen to be perpetrated by the Jewish community (among others). Now in the US and Europe, this is seen to be perpetuated by Muslims. Economic decline has also emboldened anti-immigrant sentiment, legal or otherwise.
There are two important things to acknowledge here. First, that a lack of social and economic cohesion does exist in the countries that are experiencing the “rise of the Right”. Second, that the emboldening of racism and xenophobia is happening because immigrants and religious differences are the line of sight “symptoms” that individuals think are the cause of the lack of social and economic cohesion. This line of sight provides an easily exploitable angle for politicians, who have avoided the deeper complexities behind the social issues in their respective countries. The fact that the state of security and economic withdrawal has been a global phenomenon has further helped in masking the complexities of nation-specific issues. This has allowed Trump and others to capitalise on issues like the refugee crisis in Europe to further his political gain. As such, these politicians have acted as catalysts and magicians, practising political sleight of hand.
As this has progressed, nationalism has taken a puritanical turn. No longer is it about “making America great” or “controlling our borders” (which are both amicable goals). Instead, it has become about “cleansing”. Nationalism has become a fever meant to rid the body of the pathological “intruder” who is standing in the way of social cohesion.
The discussion politicians are still not having
This is where progressives have misdiagnosed the problem. They have assumed, to their own detriment, that the rise of xenophobia is directly linked to the notion of nationalism, and not to the sleight of hand that has created this puritan form of nationalism. They pour their energy into countering the nationalist narrative, as if it were an anti-racist narrative. However, by engaging with the fringes of the nationalist movement, progressives are not only missing their mark, they are also alienating everyone around them, because they fail to acknowledge the systemic issues at the root of this sudden rise in “racist nationalism”.
To counter puritanical nationalism, progressives have chosen to stand staunchly by their globalisation and internationalism. Which, according to the predominant interpretation, has spanned beyond its intended economic definition of the free movement of goods, and now includes a welcoming attitude to refugees, socially progressive causes such as LGBTQ rights, and global warming. They have transformed the economic “globalisation” into an ideological edifice.
The problem with this does not lay in the interpretation itself, all aforementioned issues are on the progressive agenda worldwide, but rather the problem is in how these goals are translated to the political sphere. Progressives are well aware — as they are the one raising the issues — of the dysfunction of the police and justice system (including correction facilities), the economy, social bias and implicit racism. Yet all these systemic issues are not fought politically, they are fought socially.
Just as progressives attempt to counter a social issue of nationalism with an ideology that has its roots in economic theory (globalisation), here progressives are attempting to counter a political issue socially.
Let us take a few examples to elaborate. In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement was at its peak. The protests, and other actions of civil disobedience, aimed to counter income inequality and attempt to create a separation between business interests and politics. But who were the targets of the protests? Businesses. As the name implies the movement wanted to “occupy” Wall Street and force companies to change their own practices. But beyond free market economics, businesses operate on regulation prescribed to it by the state — that is, the body politic. OWS was pitting itself against the wrong enemy. Or, more precisely, against a body that could not, and would not implement the changes they were seeking of their own volition.
More recently, Black Lives Matter, is resorting to moves of civil disobedience against police forces across the US. But again, police forces operate under political and legal restrictions enforced by the state or city.
Both these movements can be described as “anti” movements, in that they are both bound by their own limitations of being nothing but “against”, and not standing “for” any specific action.
Today, progressive protests and the entire progressive movement are following in similar pursuit. They are anti the-puritan-view-of-nationalism, and by pitting themselves against nationalism as a whole are confining the movement as a whole in its “anti-ness”. This has only furthered the process of social radicalisation, entrenching both sides in more polarised rhetoric. What’s more, by entering the battlefield on an ideological and not social grounds, they continue to practice a similar misidentification between a symptom (puritan nationalism) and the cause (lack of social cohesion). Simply put, by involving themselves in an ideological battle the progressive movement has neutered itself, and has bound its entire existence in the presence of only what they oppose.
The question of social cohesion remains unanswered. And although the root of the incoherence is economic, it would be naïve to think the solution is in an economic-political movement. This is the same dichotomy discussed throughout: you cannot solve a social consciousness issue with economics. Having said that, such a movement would be integral in avoiding a return to a situation that Right-wing populists could exploit. No, for progressives to get back on track they need more than economic policy, they need to go through the nationalistic sentiment. That is, they need to exploit the weaknesses in the current nationalistic narrative to first, uncover its empty promise, and second, create their own form of nationalism.
Puritanical nationalism, as with any puritanical movement, suffers from a lack of a core. It hangs on two things: a circular feedback loop of social morality, and by presenting itself as a counter to a less desirable social structure (very much like we described our anti-movements). Applied to nationalism, we are quick to find that if confronted with the question of “What makes an X?” (American, British, Polish, Dutch, etc.) The answer will automatically be they need to be Nationalistic; they need to love their country. Pressed further with a follow up of “How does one show their love to their country?”, you will be met with a list of “you do not X, Y, and Z” or “You do A, B, and C”. Both of these lists are built on nothing but personal and subjective interpretations, which have been morally reinforced by the surrounding society, or floated by the eager politician. Ask a third question: “Do you think people can show their love in other ways?” and you would have reached the empty core of this puritan form of nationalism.
On the second element, nationalism as a counter-form, we see the objects of race, religion, or ancestry solicited. You are not a real [Nationality] unless you are [race, religion, of this ancestry]. Simple prodding into the historical development of a nation here is enough to dismiss any strong standing belief on the above lines, exposing them as handy mnemonics based on the individual’s own race, religion, ancestry.
Having exposed any notion of puritanical nationalism as empty, it’s now time to replace is with a more progressive alternative. Here we will need to go back to the classic definition of nationalism discussed at the beginning of this piece: a sense of agency through traditional domestic state institutions. There must also be a focus on the individual’s direct relationship with the state, where it is no longer one individual who is determining whether other citizens are nationalistic, but whether they themselves are. This involves first, avoiding any sort of in-group out-group categorization (us vs. them) and focusing immediately on the relationship between state and individual (the nation vs. you). A good example would be the tradition “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” a contemporary portrayal with this could be “are you being good to your neighbour?”. The implicit message here is that it might be your actions that have brought us here. Better yet, one could pose the question “is your neighbour being good to his neighbours?” By focusing on the individual, progressives can remove the entire “anti-” on which puritan nationalism is built on, and redirect that into progressive, or even more accurately, neutral and humanistic behaviour away from global zeitgeists.
The above questions will also need to be draped with a nationalistic direction ex. “are you being good to your neighbours because together we will create a stronger economy.” “We need to stick together to weather these tough times, it’s us against the world and we need everyone we can get.” “The [Nationality] is not defined by X, Y, or Z, but by our common struggle as a nation to take solid steps forward.” “We must invest heavily in our police force to make sure that they are capable of protecting us all from the threats out there.” It would be wrong to assume that this rhetoric is anti-globalist. Progressives are simply taking advantage of the weakness in the puritan nationalism to bridge the gap of social unbalance, and direct it in any which way possible to define what the nationalistic struggle is and where it needs to be fought (The UN, the global economic arena, the IMF). The goal is to redirect the frustration from a domestic front, to an international one.
Progressives were wrong to present nationalism and globalism as incompatible entities. In doing so they have lost ability to capitalise what should be their main concern: the social capital of their citizens. They have instead chosen to abandon nationalism as an archaic movement that has come out of fashion. Making them, and their supporters, an easily exploitable target by farcical puritans.
It’s time for progressives to stop engaging in ideological fantasies and practice in some Realpolitik, and that starts through embracing the totalitarian unit of the state, the Nation.