“There’s no future and England’s dreaming…?”
September 17, 2022
The death of Her Majesty is undoubtedly a seismic event culturally and socially. But it is unlikely to be an event that changes anything about British society. Because as the news media is saturated with rolling footage of funeral processions, mourning royalists and sycophantic politicians, there is precious little rhetoric or even debate about whether she should be the last Royal of our nation.
Whether or not Britain should become a Republic has been a staple discussion of the political Left for many years. I distinctly remember the first question that Paxman asked Corbyn in one of the Leader Debates on the BBC in the run-up to the 2017 election: “Do you think we should abolish the monarchy?” Corbyn’s half answer was to suggest that it was a discussion for another time. But with the passing of our longest serving and perhaps most loved monarch, surely that time has come? If we were to judge by mainstream media outlets, the answer is emphatically no. Even those debating it on social media are rapidly targeted by Royalist and Conservative trolls.
Traditional Leftist institutions such as trade unions, the Labour Party, even some once extremely counter-cultural punks, have all been genuflecting to the Crown; gushing forth their reverence, obsequiousness, and jingoistic piety in the form of tributes, greyscale logos, and images of Her Majesty plastered over their social media. In a social context, just a few days after a rising national anger at stagnant wages, waves of industrial action, an out-of-touch and callous government and rising authoritarianism, it is incredibly frustrating and rather sad to see these institutions succumb so easily, and to be honest, so pathetically, to this rhetoric.
That is not to say that this is surprising. It is not surprising because the Left in this country has thus far been unable to produce a narrative to counter the rampant nationalism that has ensnared Britain and its political-media nexus for decades. Such a right-wing nationalism may have been obscured under a blanket of a Cameronian multiculturalism but in 2016 (with the Brexit vote) it came bursting forth into the world, bringing with all the overt societal racism and violent policies that targeted racial minorities. Any attempt to appeal to a similar sense of nationalism was to yoke oneself to these horrific narratives – so of course, any form of nationalistic pride was to be defenestrated by progressive thought.
And rightly so. But the failure of the Left to counter this narrative is to leave the innate desire that it feeds unfulfilled. Right-wing nationalism has mastered the art of corralling populist fervor in a form of collective desire, that has resulted in these damaging and violent governmental policies. The Left, for all its progressive work in identity politics, decolonization and cultural production, has systematically failed to offer a counter-narrative of nationalistic pride that isn’t implicitly tied to the injustices of statehood. ‘Left-wing nationalism’ is often expressed as a force of subversion to a more dominant State, most readily expressed institutionally in the UK by the Scottish Nationalist Party, or as independence movements around the world (i.e., Catalonia or Quebec sovereignty movement). But such movements still adhere to a centralized hierarchical (and in some cases, historical determinant) cultural and social norm, one that can exclude just as much as it can emancipate.
Perhaps an alternative way to express the ‘nationalistic’ desire without centralized cultural hegemony is to look elsewhere in Leftist praxis. In the UK, the toppling of Colston’s statue in Bristol was an important event in this regard. It should have been a moment in which we championed the emancipatory, collective and joyous desire of the anti-establishment yet crucially still nationalist praxis, but it was drowned out by a media too obsessed with calling out ‘wokeness’ and mob-like behavior.
Without a constructive narrative, there will be no victory – and even worse, Leftist institutions (the Labour Party being a prime example here) will continue to pander to the prevailing winds of nationalist populism in the vein attempt to get elected. Hence there is a real need for a radical and progressive alternative to nationalism.
A media in cahoots with the government makes this a monumentally difficult task. But if there is a narrative that is carefully constructed in community spirit, localism, and working class power, then there is hope of superseding the blunt, racist, and traditionalist narratives that we have seen spewed all over our TV screens this last week. This right-wing racist vitriol is feeding a desire for collectivity and social belonging by creating and ‘us’ and ‘them’. Whether invading hordes, migrants, or trans folk, there is always a group that is Othered so as to ossify and thereby control the masses. To counter this is to create a new version of collectivity and social belonging, but one that makes the elite the ‘other’.
By creating a community collective that rely, feed and communicate with one other economically as well as socially, a collective that is horizontal, local and rooted in working class sensibilities can be created. We saw this exemplified with great ‘success’ during the pandemic with multiple mutual aid groups that were set up in neighborhoods. And one of the best political ad campaign videos that has ever been produced (sadly, not viewed enough) was in 2019 by the Labour Party, which showed what happens with you give money to a community rather than to another billionaire.
There are plenty of such examples to point to. In these instances, barriers of race, gender, ability and class become more porous. Creating a community that works for each other rather than for a corporation can instill that same desire of collectivity and belonging, but without the prejudices needed to maintain capitalist control.
With climate catastrophe biting, crises of the economy, of society and of the environment will come more regularly, and with deeper cuts. We will need to rely on each other more. Hence, a collective community ‘nationalism’ – one that is horizontal and based on interactions, rather than hierarchical, cultural hegemony and based on subservience – can be achieved and indeed will need to be, before it really is too late.
Oli Mould is a geographer at Royal Holloway, University of London His books include Urban Subversion & The Creative City, Against Creativity, and Seven Ethics Against Capitalism.