Towards national or human unity? A Reply to John Denham.

AuthorChowcat, John

John Denham's persistent search for a popular social-democratic narrative, like his principled 2003 resignation as a government minister over the Iraq war, commands respect, yet his latest contribution to the debate over Labour's attitude to patriotism, in the last issue of Renewal, reveals important limitations. (1) While understandably arguing for a clearer national-level Labour policy platform to equip the party to again dominate UK politics, Denham conflates this objective with the more challenging, longer-term task of changing traditional and widespread British 'common sense' nationalism. Since most British people characterise themselves as 'patriotic', he believes that this should now be accepted as 'an integral element' of progressive politics; this would allow the centre left to 'reclaim the symbols of the nation' and generate public support for progressive social transformation by promoting a 'national interest' redefined as the common good. Rightly calling for the real history of the country to be more widely understood, he adds little about how to refocus entrenched popular perceptions of the nation to this end, admitting that his vision is 'a long way' off and blaming this on Labour members' aversion to patriotism and an overcautious Leader's office.

There are deeper reasons why this is not within reach. The intensity and durability of narrow British nationalism (and its familiar corollary, xenophobia, among a large minority of British adults), recently bolstered by Tory Brexiteer flag-waving, can be traced to recognisable sources. (2) As Goran Therborn argued, such popular ideologies, as systems of social ideals and attitudes, are slowly-evolving processes reflecting significant socio-economic but also psychological roots. (3) And, as the psychologist Erich Fromm warned in 1956:

Nationalism, originally a progressive movement, replaced the bonds of feudalism and absolutism. The average man today obtains his sense of identity from his belonging to a nation... his objectivity, that is his reason, is warped by this fixation... just as love for one individual which excludes love for others is not love, love for one's country which is not part of one's love for humanity is not love but idolatrous worship. (4) This overriding collective national identity, shaped over long decades by powerful ruling interests, is strongly present in today's Western consumer-orientated societies, where possessive individualism is constantly encouraged. (5) National identities and nationalism persist because human beings need a set of social beliefs to frame their basic understanding of the world around them. This identity duly generates a considerable emotional impact, and an often uncritical loyalty. Outside of exceptional revolutionary moments, longstanding national ideologies are therefore very hard to refashion as Denham proposes, although I will suggest that they can eventually be weakened through carefully targeted initiatives. I discuss some of these below.

Denham also stresses the unaltered 'primacy' of the nation-state today, just as a series of distinctly global dilemmas, resolvable only through the adoption of internationally coordinated measures, confront the entire human race. These include climate change driven by over-rapid industrialisation; pandemics arising from the short-sighted erosion of eco-systems, which spreads dangerous pathogens from wildlife to humans; rushed applications of machine learning systems; and an increasingly unequal world economy, weakened since the 2008 crisis...

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