Friday, 3 February 2017

The problem with the 'n' word

One of the problems with words is that they can mean one thing to the person using them, but be interpreted to mean something else by those hearing them.  Sometimes, that difference is entirely intentional; it’s a way of twisting what someone has said to mean something that they haven’t said. 
The word ‘nationalist’ is a case in point.  When I use the word, I mean someone who seeks the same status and rights for his or her own nation as are granted to other nations.  In the Welsh context, I’m referring to those of us who believe simply that Wales should take control of its own future by becoming a free and independent state.  However, some people use the term to refer to people who have an excessive sense of patriotism and pride in their own nation, whilst yet others use it as a term to refer to those who believe that their nation is somehow better or superior to any other.
One of the problems is that it’s impossible to say that any of those definitions is either right or wrong; dictionaries will quite happily give all three definitions as valid.  But that doesn’t mean that anyone falling into one of those categories must automatically fall into the others as well; they’re alternative definitions rather than different aspects of a single definition.  That confusion does cause problems, though.
Over the many years that I spent canvassing, I lost count of the number of times someone would say to me on a doorstep something along the lines of “I’ve seen what nationalism does and I want no part of it”.  It’s an entirely natural reaction to one of those definitions coupled with a difficulty in understanding that there are alternative definitions.  I won’t argue that it hasn’t been difficult dealing with this confusion between different meanings, but for decades I’ve felt that the tide was, slowly, turning; as the worst excesses of one type of nationalism receded into the past, so it was becoming easier to reclaim the term for the meaning which I give it.
Sadly, I feel that things are now moving the other way.  We’re seeing a rise in the sort of nationalism which I thought had been confined to history, and it isn’t pleasant to see.  ‘America First’ seems to be a catchy slogan whose real meaning is that ‘what we say goes’, and it is tinged with elements of white supremacism and religious discrimination to boot.  In several European states, we’re seeing the rise of parties expressing hostility to people who are in any way ‘different’ from the perceived ‘norm’.  The US actually wants to build a wall to delimit itself from its neighbour and here in the UK, we now have a government led by people who want to close the borders, and who take pride in the idea that we should ‘punch above our weight’ when it comes to determining the world order. 
By and large, British – or, in this context, mostly English – politicians love to say that they are not nationalists.  But as R Tudur Jones put it in “The Desire of Nations” in 1974: “An Englishman never calls himself a nationalist.  This is one of the characteristics of English Nationalism.”  English/British nationalism has always been there on the right of UK politics, in that attitude of superiority which so sets them aside from those mere Europeans and foreigners.  But the Labour Party has often been little better.  I found the speech by Keir Starmer in the Article 50 debate to be a particularly powerful expression of Labour’s hypocrisy on the question.  He said, “We are a fiercely internationalist party.  We are a pro-European party.  We believe that through our alliances we achieve more together than we do alone.  We believe in international co-operation and collaboration.  We believe in the international rule of law.  These beliefs will never change.” 
Having said that, he went on to say that the majority of Labour MPs would be voting against their unchangeable and unshakeable beliefs and for the British exceptionalist and nationalist stance being proposed by the government.  And they went on to do precisely that, despite the fact that the majority of people who voted for Labour MPs were opposed to what those MPs were voting for.
I am finding it increasingly difficult to justify using the word nationalist to describe my own position when the worst type of nationalism is rearing its ugly head all around us.  In Catalunya, there is a potential solution; the word often used there is independentista rather than nacionalista.  Independentist doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue in English (although annibyniaethwyr has a certain ring in Welsh), but perhaps we could get used to it?


Democritus said...

Didn't Lenin draw a distinction between potentially progressive nationalism in the form of colonial liberation movements and chauvinistic, reactionary nationalism in already existing nation states which obscured class identities leading to false consciousness and ultimately wars in which workers became cannon fodder for the interests of their ruling capitalist cliques (the Great War of 1914-18 obviously being the one he had in mind)?
The first category of nationalism had the potential to be an ally in the class struggle while the second was a mortal foe. By definition then as soon as 'good' nationalist movements had achieved the self-determination they became 'bad' nationalists if they remained in being a moment longer since 'bourgeious' nation states pursuing their own 'national' interests would be a barrier to the main goal of international workers unity under which the nation state would wither away.
The issue with Welsh or Scottish nationalism for socialists such as Mr Corbyn then is to what extent they can really claim to be fighting colonialism or exploitation given that the UK is fundamentally a democracy and the principle of self determination is not being withheld. No socialist would for example on principle support the right of the confederacy to secede

John Dixon said...

"socialists such as Mr Corbyn" and "No socialist would for example on principle support the right of the confederacy to secede". 'Socialist' is another of those words which means different things to different people, I fear. But leaving that aside for a moment, I understand the point you are making about whether a movement for independence within a democracy can really "claim to be fighting colonialism or exploitation", although it's worth at least noting, in passing, that "socialists such as Mr Corbyn" do somehow manage to interpret the Irish situation rather differently.

But what, other than the words of Lenin, means that nationalism can only be progressive where it is fighting for colonial liberation? That looks to me a little like setting the parameters in order to arrive at the desired conclusion.

I've blogged previously on the difficulty that I have in reconciling the concept of redistribution with that of decentralisation. To return to the definition of 'socialism': for me there are several elements. Three in particular are relevant here:

1. Economic power should be in the hands of the people, not the capitalist corporations,
2. Democracy should be direct and participative rather than simply representative, and
3. Wealth should be shared equitably.

The first two push me in the direction of smaller units, of which my 'independentism' and support for devolution of power within Wales are a part. But the second pushes me in the direction of a more centralised structure which can redistribute wealth from the richer to the poorer. I accept that there is a degree of contradiction between those two positions with which I admit to struggling at times, but I don't accept that for any 'socialist' point 3 necessarily trumps points 1 and 2. To return to your summary of Lenin's position, I don't see that international unity is inherently an obstacle to the idea of national and local identity and control; it rather depends on what we mean by 'international unity'.

Democritus said...

Good reply. Agree the difficulty with reconciling points 2 and 3 is the crux of the dilemma. Lenin, Trotsky & co resolved it by de-prioritising 2 and introducing the concept of 'democratic centralism' and we now know where that led. Bakunin and the anarchists came down on the other side but were never in consequence clear about how they would manage to put bread on the table.

Fundamentally both groups missed the potential of capitalism to evolve and be semi-ameliorated by redistribution within strong representative democracies that pursued varying degrees of mixed economies with markets playing a major role, but natural monopolies subjected to strict controls and corporations ultimately accountable to and dependent upon their national governments as well as their shareholders. The mixed economy model however really came of age only after the first era of globalisation had hit the buffers in 1914. The second era of globalisation has seen that accommodation between democracy and capital undermined because capital has grown beyond the capacities of most nation states to control and effectively tax in order to mitigate the situation of the masses. In this context one can see the EU and other supra-national groupings as an attempt by national governments to keep up with and stay ahead of multinational capital's efforts to play them off against each other in a kind of dutch auction.

With war between advanced states effectively off the table as an option in the post Hiroshima age (no matter how bad things get, suicide is never a rational response) and key national democracies effectively pulling the plug on international institutions it is hard to see how things are going to get any better. Maybe the dawn of artificial intelligence will help, but it is not certain that beyond preventing us from switching it off an AI would have any interest in or sympathy for the mass of humanity and our problems - however it is concievable that a benevolent, god-like, AI might lead to new political movement - lets call it humanism - that supercedes nationalism, capitalism, socialism and all the other 'isms' we've struggled to reconcile since the enlightenment knocked over the previous hypothesis that there is a God, that the key to life is accepting his authority and things will all come good in the afterlife.

Depressing perhaps, but probably better than extinction or returning to barbarism ...

John Dixon said...

'Democratic centralism' was certainly centralist; whether or not it was democratic is another question entirely. I've blogged before that I have struggled for years to define what Plaid means by "decentralist socialism", not because I'm against either concept, but because balancing the two isn't as straightforward as I might wish, or as many assume.

I think a lot of people over many decades have missed the potential for capitalism to evolve and change to deal with changing circumstances (many of which are the result of capitalism itself). But that doesn't change the underlying fundamental that there are inevitably limits to growth, and an economic system which is based on an assumption that there are not is ultimately doomed. The timing of that inevitable doom may have receded into the future time and again, but it is inescapable; it's just that anyone who claims to know precisely when and how it will happen is probably a false prophet. I agree with your point about potentially seeing supra-national groupings as an attempt to keep up (although that isn't the only reason for sharing sovereignty on a range of trans-national issues), although it hasn't really worked that way to date; they've been more about facilitating the globalisation of capital than preventing it.

I'd like to believe that "war between advanced states [is] effectively off the table", but it does sort of assume that decisions are taken on a rational basis. I'm not sure that we can depend on that assumption. Nor am I at all convinced that AI is going to help us here. It seems a little like hoping for a "Deus ex machina" moment just like in the old Greek tragedies, but firstly I think we have to accept that we have to solve our own problems, and secondly I doubt that any human artefact will ever be able to completely escape its human origins.

I rather like your reference to the way in which the enlightenment knocked over the previous hypothesis, but never fully replaced it with a new one. How we complete the task is an open question. Perhaps we never will; the point about utopia is that it is something to which we can strive, but never actually achieve. And I'm not sure how attractive a human society which has no further room for development would be either; it doesn't sound very 'human' to me. But striving towards a society based on reason, where all people are 'free and equal' (and there's a whole lot of debate to be had around what that means - hence the quotation marks), and where the variety and richness of humanity is valued has always seemed to me to be a worthwhile enterprise, even if I have regularly doubted (and still do) how much progress can actually be made in the timescales of any human life.

Democritus said...

it's a bit trite but there's quite a bit of truth to the idea that progressives aim for utopia while conservatives simply look to keep the show on the road. Perhaps age is having its effect, but keeping the show on the road and staving off disaster does not seem a worthless political objective right now!

You are perfectly right that we cannot depend on rationality being the basis for political decision making. Evolution has 'hardwired' homo sapiens to intuitively simplify our understandings of the world around us and disposed us to misunderstanding, delusion, and violence, particularly under pressure and when interacting beyond the networks of not much more than a few hundred individuals we are optimised to function effectively within.

In the 21st Century our technological civilisation is inherently fragile, the knowledge it has generated is terribly dangerous and consequently a profound mismatch exists between the scale and speed of destruction our knowledge can cause and the quality of individual and institutional decision-making. Unfortunately, though perfectly naturally we ignore this fragility and vulnerability in our daily lives in a way we would not if we were were walking a literal rather than metaphorical highwire when the danger would be very clear. Even though the probability of mass mutual annihilation in any given year is low (say 1%), what’s a small probability in a short period approaches certainty in the longer run.

To return to your original post, new forms of international organisation and co-operation between peoples are urgently needed to supercede the Westphalian model of competing independent nation states pursuing their immediate interests, since in the long run this model is clearly unsustainable.

John Dixon said...

I don't think there's any part of that with which I would disagree. Finding the 'right' way forward - or at least, the first step in that direction - is where the difficulty lies. I see it as a combination of creating smaller more 'human' units on the one hand, whilst pooling sovereignty on the big issues on the other. The apparent contradiction between those two isn't as great as some choose to believe. I respect the views of those who think that there's a different way forward; my problem is with those who don't see the need!