Friday, 3 January 2020

Imagined Communities

It is not just nationalism that depends on imagined communities. All politics makes claims about who the people are and whom the state should serve, whether that's the working class or hardworking property portfolio owners. In recent years it has become a commonplace that populism depends on defining the people against an elite, but this is a statement singularly lacking in insight given that practically every political movement presumes an antagonism at the heart of society that reflects a difference in virtue. There is always a "them", whether it's the 1% or the metropolitan elite, that helps to negatively define "us". The problem comes when we try to positively define that "us", particularly when we seek to subdivide the nation into its constituent political communities. Then we struggle to identify a coherent identity and are all too often reduced to caricatures based on the epiphenomena of class or regional prejudice. But this struggle is not consistent across the political spectrum: it is far more acute on the left than the right.

The media's obsessive anthropology of Labour's support is matched by a lack of interest in the Conservative Party. While there was a vogue for the sociology of the right during the heyday of UKIP, this was very much a political science perspective about the allegiance of right-wing voters to particular electoral vehicles in pursuit of fetishised ends, such as Brexit or curtailed immigration, rather than an analysis of their reasoning or value formation. This was the corollary of the fashion for vox-pops that avoided interrogation. The characterisation of right-leaning voters as goal-driven dovetailed with the broader study of populism's "rise" as the emergence of innate prejudices under contingent pressure, and was in stark contrast to the rational assessment of self-interest suggested by public choice theory in the years before 2008. This turn was reinforced by the more philosophical speculations of writers such as Jonathan Haidt who posited intrinsic "types" of character and associated values. The unity of homo economicus was replaced by a theory of incompatible humours.

In this intellectual setting, flirting with far-right parties was seen as regrettable but natural: the product of a predisposition that was not easily amenable to rational persuasion. In contrast, leftwing voters are characterised as a mixture of the mad, malign and mistaken, with the last of these being particular to the young (hence the persistence of the "in want of a heart" maxim). What the last decade has done is augment this with a belief that older leftwing voters are really conservatives who were hijacked by history, specifically the postwar settlement's marrying of economic radicalism and social conservatism. You obviously have to ignore a lot of evidence to make this thesis work, such as the aversion to workers' control in nationalised industries and growing tolerance in attitudes towards sexuality and race, but selective historical amnesia is central to imagined communities. The consequence has been an increased emphasis on the fragility of Labour's electorate and a tendency to downplay the liberal policies of Labour administrations, or at least question their popularity with the "base".

Since 2015, Labour's coalition has been characterised as far more divided than the Tories' because cultural values were deemed to cut across material interests and those values were in turn held to be much stronger in determining voter choice than traditional "economic concerns". The ideological utility of emphasising the metaphysical over the material is obvious. Just as Tories two hundred years ago emphasised throne and altar, and Conservative Unionists of a century ago emphasised crown and empire, so modern Conservatives will seek to foreground issues that marginalise the consideration of material interests, from sovereignty through patriotism to "Cultural Marxism". One reason why Labour's leadership candidates should aggressively neutralise issues like singing the national anthem (actually the royal anthem - if you want a national anthem, become a republic) is that out-competing the Tories will only see the goalposts shifted to some other "value". In other words, adopt a strategy of "I'm not married" rather than "Yes, I have stopped beating my wife".

Since the victory of the Tories in December's election, much ink has been expended on the Conservative Party's need to "deliver" for its new blue-collar voters in the North and Midlands, but this compositional change is not seen as altering the basic nature or interests of British conservatism - its imagined community - any more than it did when working class Toryism was the dominant electoral force in cities like Glasgow and Liverpool in the mid-twentieth century or when Thatcher won her decisive victory in 1983. Those new Northern voters are instead described as auxiliaries, "loaning" their votes to the Tories in order to get Brexit done. This transactional framing reflects not only a longstanding prejudice about the biddable working class, which goes back to Plato's beast, but also an assumption that Conservatism has only a marginal dependence on that class. The working class Tory is never fully integrated into that imagined community.

Labour also has to contend with competing imagined communities that span the left and centre. The most prominent of these in recent years has been the community of remain. I don't need to rehearse the way that the remain cause was used by some to undermine the Labour Party. What I'm more interested in is the way that it presented itself as a national community with a superior claim to the loyalty of the broad left. This recently culminated in the insistence that because 52% of the electorate voted for pro-remain or pro-second referendum parties in last month's general election, the Conservatives lack a mandate for Brexit, an insistence that was absurd (the last time a single party won more than 50% of the vote was in 1931) and also excused the Liberal Democrats for splitting the anti-Tory vote. Our relationship with Europe was (and will remain) an objectively marginal issue in British politics, much as empire was a hundred years ago. It may generate strong emotions, and it may win or lose specific elections, but it isn't going to define our future. The stagnation of productivity over the last decade will have a more profound and lasting impact on the British economy than changes to the trading relationship with the EU.

As the role of remain has been eclipsed, so another imagined community has come into focus: the progressive alliance. This isn't new, but it has been given a fresh impetus by the 2019 general election result, particularly among leftist thinkers who see it as a pragmatic recognition of the limitations of Labourism and a warning about the necessity of electoral reform. However, the legitimate criticisms of Labourism (its intellectual conservatism, the not-invented-here syndrome, the party's democratic centralism etc) should not distract from the fact that it is a rational response to the structural problem of first-past-the-post. Labour already is, and always has been, a progressive alliance that encompasses a wide range of political positions from the radical left to the establishment centre. The argument that it should formally ally with the Liberal Democrats or Greens is not so much a plea that it should expand its ideological "broad church" beyond its current boundaries than a demand that it should weaken its organisational strength.

Imagined communities are, by their very nature, exclusive. This means that one way of better understanding what they represent is to identify who is excluded. For example, the imagined community of Northern Labour voters appears to omit the young, the educated, people of colour, city-dwellers and a whole variety of "types" that don't match the profile of the 60-something shopper encountered in a mid-morning, small-town vox-pop. Conversely, the remain alliance appeared to omit every Northern working class pensioner, despite scoring over 40% in every UK region and securing the same share of the over-65 vote. The guest who is missing from the progressive alliance feast is organised labour. The unstated assumption of the alliance, whose dynamic will inevitably tend towards a bourgeois front, is that the influence of the unions would be diminished. Despite the unions' history of strategic caution, that is anything but progressive in the context of British politics.

A progressive alliance is unlikely to come about unless Labour commits to proportional representation, though it's worth noting that this wouldn't currently be in the interests of the SNP, even if it is in the interests of the Liberal Democrats and Greens. Should PR be enacted, the Labour Party would likely split into at least two parts: broadly the left and right. Given that the latter will almost certainly pursue a reinvigorated neoliberalism (i.e. Blairism unshackled by any scruples), it is probable that most of the unions would cleave to the left. At this juncture, the most likely basis for a governing coalition would be the centrist combination of the ex-Labour right and a centre-right Liberal party (augmented by former "moderate" Tories). This means that while a progressive alliance might well eclipse the Conservative Party, it would also marginalise the institutional representation of the working class in politics, which British capital would probably see as a fair deal. A progressive alliance would be the political death of labour.


  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment4 January 2020 at 10:07

    Populism is not the 99% versus the 1%. People never fell for that bullshit anyway. If anything we the left are the 1% and the 99% are those who back this horrific system and back imperialist supremacy.

    Populism is an alliance between rulers and ruled, against some nefarious ‘other’, usually with dark skin and alien ways.

    You cannot provide an analysis of the political makeup of this nation without putting this nation in the context of the world market and the world system.

    The excluded community is the ‘global South’.

    And forget imagined communities, what we have are imagined differences. Tory and Labour, they are ultimately the same and history shows this.

  2. «The unstated assumption of the alliance, whose dynamic will inevitably tend towards a bourgeois front,»

    That's what Tony Benn wrote in his diary in 1993-05-19, in his last NEC meeting:

    I think, candidly, what is happening is that the party is being dismantled. The trade union link is to be broken; the economic policy statement we are considering today makes no reference to the trade unions. Clause 4 is being attacked; PR is being advocated with a view to a pact with the Liberals of a kind that Peter Mandelson worked for in Newbury, where he in fact encouraged the Liberal vote.

    The long standing idea may be to have coalitions "centred" on the LibDems, so as to limit the "extremism" of the major parties. As to that my impression is that currently the right-wing Establishment is worried that the Conservatives might be too extreme, and they would like rather more a repeat of the Conservative-LibDem coalition, to appeal to both far-right-nationalist voters and right-wing-globalist ones, than a LibDem-Labour coalition.