Politics – translated from the Greek as “affairs of the city” – refers to the way power is exercised on behalf of the people. It is the competition for governance of a specific community, state or territory by political parties grounded within alternative traditions regarding how society should be organised. Yet progressive politics appears to be moving away from any notion of politics being anchored within specific ideas of community, state and territory. Increasingly these are considered reactionary, exclusive categories. It is true for both the liberal and the radical left. It might well account for why the left keeps losing elections.
This retreat is hardly ever discussed yet is arguably leading the country toward political disaster. Whilst much of the left has abandoned the currency of nation and solidarity in favour of a vague abstract global cosmos, almost everywhere the populist right appear to be on the march. The two developments are related.
Nearly twenty years ago in February 1998, one of the founders of the social democratic ‘Third Way’ – the sociologist Ulrich Beck – provided us with the ‘Cosmopolitan Manifesto’. He proposed the basis for a new ‘world citizenship’ through an ‘ethical globalisation’ by focusing on two key stages in the emergence of this entrenched modernity. First, the legacy of freedom captured through various civil rights struggles. Second, through our dissolved attachments where ‘community, group and identity structure lose their ontological cement’. These values, expressed through the emergence of ‘cosmopolitan parties’, have been replaced by a radical individualism and strengthened democracy, especially amongst the well educated and the young.
These parties, he thought, were best seen as political movements within and between nation states emerging to form ‘world parties’ in a threefold sense. First, their appeal – ‘liberty, diversity, toleration!’ – is to transcendent human values that appear in every culture and religion. Second, they prioritise global political action over that of the local or national. Third, in their attempts to democratise transnational regimes and regulators. Here the new base of the left is seen to be amongst the post national, urban, networked, educated, youth. Nearly twenty years to the day after Blair’s 1997 landslide and having witnessed the collapse of this political project, we might assume that these ideas belong to the past.
Appearances are deceptive not least because today Blair’s liberal left joins forces with the most fashionable radical thinking. As the ‘third way’ collapsed, those that self identify as being on the radical left have also pronounced the nation as dead – or at least as offering diminishing returns given intensifying globalisation. For example, in their widely celebrated work Empire, Hardt and Negri identified the declining significance of the sovereign nation given the amorphous power of capital whose modern rule suggested a declining relevance attached to questions of territory and country. What was emerging was empire without the significance of nation. For today’s left this has brought forward the political possibilities offered by a transnational multitude to condition and challenge global capital – a radical new form of political agency. The concerns of the radical left today have cohered with the sociologists of the New Labour era – of Giddens, Beck and Castells.
Followers of Negri – such as the popular writer and journalist Paul Mason – suggest now that the globally orientated networked youth are the new progressive agents, as the working class is being destroyed by automation and the nation state is increasingly insignificant. It precisely echoes the assertions of the social democrats in the mid 1990s.
These are big calls. Cosmopolitanism asserts a privileged global citizenship over other forms of society, attachment or fidelity. The question is whether today’s thinkers and activists will simply hand over to their opponents ownership of political categories such as home, community and nation. It raises obvious questions about building a more inclusive, radical approach to nation and community, and the consequences if this is to prove beyond our grasp.
These arguments are especially acute for politicians who seek a mandate from a specific piece of territory – a constituency or a nation. Prospective political leaders do not seek their mandate from a global electorate but one situated within particular geographical boundaries. The point is an obvious one: does the prospective political leader have a set of particular moral obligations to that particular electorate over and above an imagined global responsibility? It appears that much of the modern left are suggesting they do not. Indeed those politicians that have suggested just such an approach have been recently criticised for trying to ‘out UKIP UKIP’.
Yet these suggestions cannot simply be written off as the product of calculated political expediency or of pandering to a visceral nativism. They are legitimate questions of political philosophy. Aspiring national politicians in turbulent times have a duty to explain how they hope to build resilient, stable communities – ones which share the sacrifices, risks and indeed rewards in a difficult world. In short, the cultivation of renewed solidarities which, all things being equal, appear to challenge the universalist ethic of the cosmopolitan.
"If the left is unable to reclaim the territory of the national imagination, we might well inhabit a one party state for a very long time"
This is especially the case when we discuss difficult subjects such as immigration and the free movement of labour. This is often seen through another fashionable prism: of those who embrace either an ‘open’ or a ‘closed’ politics and are who support or oppose free movement. It tends toward a wider binary world of progress verses reaction, of left and right, and indeed right and wrong.
There is, of course, a totally coherent position that holds that all global citizens should have equal economic and social rights, and it is entirely appropriate to consider the benefits of free movement through this framework. Yet we might also suggest that free movement might also be seen in terms of its reproduction on a cheap reserve army of labour. It might also challenge our ability to sustain social insurance for say adult social care and health provision, or our wider ability to pool resources and share risk across society.
The point is that not everyone who challenges the consequences of fashionable universalism is morally reprehensible. These arguments are complicated. Arguably, our detached cosmopolitanism fails to provide the arguments to counter those of the alt right as we surrender the currency of much modern politics, of home, community and nation – things that are pretty significant in the eyes of the people.
Yet there is a deeper problem here. The majority of the left have always tended to recoil from issues of nation, identity and patriotism. Patriotism as pathology – ‘a primitive lust’ – is a guiding theme of the left over the last 100 years and often linked with a fear of the uneducated working class mob at the gate.
Moreover, by their very nature many progressive politicians are radical in that they want to change at root and to depart from tradition. Yet it can warp into contempt for those fearful of change. Those who look to the past for knowledge and wisdom are often derided as nostalgic and enemies of progress – traditional and sentimental. Nostalgia links the Greek for pain – algos – with that of home – nostos. In other words it literally means homesickness. It is therefore a short step for the progressive to deride the desire for home and community.
Cumulatively many progressive politicians feel uncomfortable when discussing issues of patriotism, home and community. They tend to assume they retain exclusive, reactionary, backward looking associations. Indeed even seen as pathological concerns that inhibit our progress. Of course they all can be restrictive, exclusive terms, but do they always have to be?
Within modern politics many see Theresa May’s new government as offering a break, or at least a challenge, to neo-liberalism (and indeed Thatcherism) but from the right, not the left. It is searching for a new inclusive national settlement. On the right, Brexit is seen by many to mark the end of liberal political dominance, as a democratic moment. How should we on the left respond? Should we continue with our detached retreat into a vague cosmos? Or should we seek to re-assert a radical, dissenting English history? To articulate a federal UK settlement, a new inclusive economic growth, and a desire for national cultural renewal?
The Prime Minister in her first Conference Speech as Leader suggested: ‘if you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’. She knew what she was doing. She was trying to consolidate the image of her opponents as detached and remote. It is succeeding. Do we help and walk straight into the trap?
In 1982 following the Falklands War, Eric Hobsbawm wrote that ‘it is dangerous to leave patriotism exclusively to the right’. Is it beyond our collective wit to reimagine an inclusive, radical, popular ‘national’ sentiment? Is it possible for us to challenge the story of dispossession and abandonment offered by the right by reclaiming the territory of national reimagination? If we are unable to, we might well inhabit a one party state for a very long time.
Read more from this issue of IAI News here: A Tribal World