There are few things as powerful as an idea whose time has passed. So often, they finally get their chance after the historic moment has been and gone, when the circumstances have changed but the careers built on the idea no longer can. John Quiggin’s Zombie Economics applies this to macro-economic ideas. This is basically what I think about Scottish independence, or rather the larger project of a Europe of little republics, as Chris Brooke calls it (in this facebook überthread), of which it is indivisibly part.
What was the idea? Starting in the late 1970s, nationalism re-emerged in Europe as one of the so-called new social movements, a form of identity politics that promised to break up the boring, outdated national states and bring government closer to the citizen. There was both a traditional form of this new nationalism, which swung predictably to the far right, and a modern form, which adopted the tone, style, and intellectual apparatus of the New Left.
The relationship with Europe was critically important, and complicated. Some people saw it in dialectical terms – the technocratic, unelected commission was the ultimate continent-spanning distant masculine institution, but it was only under its aegis and through its mechanisms that the new nations could emerge. Others saw the emergence of new states and the weakening of old ones as a force that would drive integration forward, creating a demand for European-level government and a new constituency for it among the politicians elected by the new nationalism. The two options can be identified with the new nationalists themselves and with the European institutions.
To begin with, this was captured by the notion of a “Europe of the regions”, but then the end of the Cold War and the beginning of European enlargement gave the whole thing a tremendous kick. New states, and indeed new nations, were being created in numbers. The dream was alive.
A lot of people conceptualised the new nationalism as a progressive or leftist project. But I think you can make a case that it was as much a neoliberal or libertarian one. On one hand, you can look at it as a way of harnessing the emotional forces of identity to progressive goals that for some reason are no longer inspiring in themselves. On the other, you can look at it as a way of clearing the ground for corporate Europe, getting rid of institutions that might be big enough to get in the way, putting important decisions out of the reach of democracy up there with the ECB air power, and wrapping it all up in the flag. There is a reason why Tories like to kick the idea of a reduced UK or an independent London around.
The whole idea that nationalism had been de-risked by Europe relied on the key European economic institutions, just as these were emerging as a powerful and unaccountable force for deflationary economics, privatisation, and deindustrialisation. Although the same historic period saw the emergence of an explicit social dimension to the European Union, with the Maastricht social chapter, when it came to the crunch after 2007, what were the guarantees of the social chapter worth for the Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese, or Irish?
And the new states of the East got to be the first to try out a variety of flat-tax and other financial experiments nobody would have got away with in, say, Germany or France. That was an extreme case, but it is very, very telling that right around peripheral Europe, and even not so peripheral (Jörg Haider’s Carinthia is a case in point), the newly empowered nationalists and autonomists all seem to have hit on the same economic policy: tax-havens, big banks, and property bubbles. Funny that.
We should look at the results – hardship much worse than Thatcher ever managed – as a policy disaster as appalling as Iraq. As with Iraq, we should demand as an absolute minimum expectation that anyone who wants our vote should go through an agonising reappraisal of whether or not this was ever a good idea. But I don’t see any sign of that, although Alex Salmond is proposing precisely the Europe-of-little-republics model with the euro scribbled out and sterling scribbled in.
From here it reminds me of nothing more than the Olympics, and not the version everyone liked either, but rather the one we feared. An extended and tiresome cheer-up campaign, with shiny-happy West Wing obsessives spinning polls and talking about “big mo'”, lashings of terrible compulsory fun, canned volunteering, and the fullest support possible from Rupert Murdoch.
This is rather why I haven’t been writing about it – participation even to the extent of blogging felt a bit like complicity. Even if the Games passed off in the end without anyone getting shot by the police or run over in the Zil lane, I think the people who were moved out are still waiting for their council flats back. The zombies still have them.