Tuesday, 13 December 2016

'Populism', Imagined Communities & Nations

by Brian Bamford
ROUTINE elections in European countries in 2016 have ushered in a mercurial quality to the political landscape.  Jon Bigger in a thoughtful article on the Freedom Blog about the recent by-election in Richmond wrote:   

'The recent Richmond by-election victory for the Lib Dems shows that the Brexit split can make a very real difference to British politics.  It isn't inconceivable to see the British public split along the lines of the referendum for years to come, with the conservatives and UKIP on one side and the Lib Dems, Greens, and SNP on the other.' 

Mr. Bigger then writes: 

'Note that as things stand there isn't any real role for the Labour Party in this scenario.' 

On the 'libertarian communist' website libcom, commenting on Brexit, someone wrote in what appeared to be an editorial: 

'In the UK context it was clearly a vote against foreign “others” and anybody who can be labeled as such...  Nigel Farage (former leader of UKIP and important leader of the Leave campaign) said on more than one occasion that he would be able to sacrifice economic growth to see less immigrants.'

This seems to have been the case and François Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said:

' In Britain, one of the campaign slogans for Brexit was “Vote Leave, Take Control”.' and the idea seemed to be that being in 'the EU was preventing Britain from doing that.'

The feeling is that the motivation driving many voters in Britain, the USA and now in Italy's referendum over a week ago, is to impress upon the politicians that the status quo and the establishment elites are now unacceptable. 

The Italian electorate threw out a constitutional overhaul that would have increased the power of the prime minister by cutting the number of senators and decreasing their power.  This wouldn't have mattered so much, but for the fact that it gave a political opportunity to the Five Star movement to gain political prestige by opposing it. 

What makes things worse is the lasting consequences of the global recession in 2008 in both Europe and the USA, and the underlying frustration of the pain still being suffered in many European countries. 

In France, economic growth only reached 1% last year, and youth unemployment is still close to 25%.  In Italy, Spain and Greece it's higher. 

Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, the director of the Paris office of the German Marshall Plan, said recently:  'The Rust Belt isn't just in America – there's a Rust Belt in the north of France, ... they feel they are dispossessed, dispossessed of their countries sovereignty and their economy.' 

Ms. Scheffer added:

'The way Washington is perceived by many American people is the way many French or Germans or Italians perceive Brussels... they perceive Brussels as almost an illegitimate entity.'

Jon Bigger in his Freedom essay prudently argues that the 'changing [political] landscape may be something we don't fully understand for years and I don't think anyone has got the definitive vision yet (and you shouldn't expect to see it here either).'

And, he suggests:  'Think for a moment about how this anti-Establishment feeling has manifested around the world since it started:  the Arab Spring, Occupy, Brexit, Bernie Saunders, Donald Trump, Momentum and Corbyn...  The response to a disaster within global capitalism hasn't been one of simply global revolution.  Instead people have responded in ways that reject a simple left / right ideological perspective.  When things settle at home and abroad there will be a new alignment, a new politics which which may well conform to a clearer ideological split.'

Geert Wilders, the leader of the right-wing Freedom Party in the Netherlands and regularly rated as the most popular politician, also has said:  'Right verses left doesn't exist anymore'. 

Clearly politicians who look to nationalism and promote worries about disenfranchisement are in vogue. 

The lib-communist website editorial is at pains to stress that they are against nationalism and claim they are 'indifferent towards any national question'.  They stress that 'for us, all nations (small or big) are fake communities.' *

The dogmatic thinking of the 'communists' on their website tract seem in a bit of a muddle between what is the 'state' and what is the 'nation'.  They even finish off with an exit platitude taken from the 1848 'Communist Manifesto' by by Marx and Engels: 

'The working men (sic) have no country.  We cannot take from them what they have not got...' 

Yet then it goes on 'the proletariat must ... constitute itself the nation... though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.' 

What are 'fake communities'? *  Are nations and nationalisms invented?

Or would we be better-off embracing Benedict Anderson and his now his famous study entitled 'Imagined Communities'?**

Put crudely what seems to have happen according Mr. Anderson, is that when peasant face-to-face communities declined from the 18th Century onwards people have felt a psychological need to replace the everyday communities of the village with the 'imagined community' of the nation state in which though people can't possibly know all of the members of the nation they come to feel an affinity with the other citizens through the national media and other cultural forms of identity. 

The 'libcoms' or 'communist libertarians' of small organizations like the so-called 'anarchist federation' are inclined to use a cookbook approach in such a way that their analysis almost writes itself.  Unlike Jon Bigger on the Freedom Blog who modestly admits the 'changing [political] landscape may be something we don't fully understand for years...', while the libcom gang for their part have the dreary dogma of a party-line don't even try to get to grips with the anthropological emergence of nationalism.***  It is so much easier to simply dismiss the whole phenomena of 'popularism' and resurgent nationalism with a grim guffaw and a quote from the 19th century Communist Manifesto to give their statement gravitas. 


*    Ernest Gellner has written:  'Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist'

**  An imagined community is different from an actual community in that it is not—and, for practical reasons, cannot be—based on everyday face-to-face interaction among its members. It is a concept coined by Benedict Anderson to analyze nationalism. Anderson depicts a nation as a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group.

Anderson's book, Imagined Communities, in which he explains the concept in depth, was first published in 1983, and reissued with additional chapters in 1991 and a further revised version in 2006.

***  Benedict Anderson has explained his now influential concept thus:

'In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation:  it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. 

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.'

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