Euro-nationalism, a zombie idea

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Europe as one of the so-called new social movements, a form of identity politics that promised to break up the boring, outdated national states and bring government closer to the citizen.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.

9 comments

  1. Igor Belanov

    I think you’ve fallen into the trap of trying to pigeon-hole nationalism into a left-right continuum. Nationalism is really about getting the likes of Salmond and co into positions of power and status that they can manipulate and hold on to for as long as possible. In some cases ideological or interest-based politics will re-emerge at the formal level. In others, such as post-1922 Ireland one particular nationalist party will tend to occupy political power and arbitrate between or demand tribute from the various interest groups. If Scotland had somehow achieved independence in 1979 then we could have seen an attempt at oil-financed industrial and social reinvestment under the SNP, in 2007 it would have been a deregulated effort at becoming a ‘Tartan Tiger’. Nationalism will always change its practical proposals and outlook according to circumstances and political populism, but the ideology of nationalism is nationalism. The problem for the SNP is that their nationalism is almost completely free of practicality or politics at the moment. If they win on Thursday the hangover might last a lot longer than the time it takes for the effect of the celebrations to wear off.

    • Pete

      I don’t see how you can say that it’s free of “politics” unless under a very strange definition of politics?

      Practicality is more subject to question, but the SNP have been successful enough to win election and re-election at Holyrood, and you don’t get re-elected on protest votes. I think a major part of their popularity is being better at practical delivery than Labour in Scotland.

      • Igor Belanov

        There’s a big difference between an election campaign and a referendum on independence.
        When fighting a Holyrood election the SNP will stress its abilities to administer the devolved administration and campaign on certain policies. Other parties will do the same. This is political, even within a limited extent, and Scottish voters have proved their ability to differentiate between Scottish and UK politics as the results of recent Holyrood and Westminster elections have shown.
        The independence campaign has been fought on one side as Scotland freeing itself to aim at completely vague and unspecified goals while retaining the old currency and other facets of the union, and on the other as Scotland risking some kind of decline into the Dark Ages with famine, pestilence and war. Nobody really seems to be debating what an independent Scotland would or should do, or what a continuation of the Union would offer Scotland. It is a political void.

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  3. dsquared

    Generally agree, but the comparison to Iraq kind of puts it in perspective. Unlike the Iraq war, the property bubble was actually fun while it was going on, also however many deaths you attribute to the recession, it won’t be half a million. Even the fiscal cost is probably going to come in below three trillion dollars in my view, although people who believe in “trend growth” might disagree with me on that one. I think that one of the reasons I get into so many nasty arguments is that people really don’t get how trivial financial mistakes, even the big ones, are when you compare them to geopolitical mistakes.

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