This is part 2 of a 5 part series

Orwell on Nationalism

The far-right are increasing their reach and winning the hearts and minds of ay people across the globe. John Feffer provides a neat outline of why and what we might say in opposition to it. His key message is that the far right are using a strong story – us v them – based on the idea of ‘The Great Replacement’. This is the fear that white Christian nations are being overrun by migrants and Islam. Feffer says:

Between 2012 and 2019, for instance, 1.5 million tweets in English, French, and German referenced it. You could hear an echo of the phrase at the Unite the Right gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, when neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other demonstrators chanted, “You will not replace us!” But the phrase really broke into the headlines in March 2019 when a mass shooter who opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people, titled the online manifesto he prepared for the occasion, “The Great Replacement.

George Orwell – Nationalism

In ‘Notes on Nationalism’, George Orwell wrote:

“Somewhere or other Byron makes use of the French word longeur, and remarks in passing that though in England we happen not to have the word, we have the thing in considerable profusion. In the same way, there is a habit of mind which is now so widespread that it affects our thinking on nearly every subject, but which has not yet been given a name.”

In 2018, we still have ‘the thing in considerable profusion’. Many people in Britain are afflicted with ‘longuer’ and we have some names for it: ‘post-colonial melancholia’ and ‘nationalism’. The first is a yearning for a return of our Imperial Glory, the second is a feeling that the interests of ‘our country’ comes first. The yearning is for a time when we ‘stood alone’ against continental tyrants. The Spitfire is not only a beautiful piece of machinery, it is also a very potent symbol of patriotic pride which for some also includes nationalistic pride. This is why Churchill is still a national hero, the White Cliffs of Dover a potent image and the Monarchy goes almost unchallenged.

You hear ‘longuer’ voiced by the more fanatical wing of the Brexiteer camp today. They have a visceral hatred, and mistrust, of European capitalist elites. They yearn for taking back control without realising they will merely hand back a veneer of sovereignty to home grown capitalist elites, but because these ‘Greedy Bastards’ wear Union Jack waistcoats, that will be just fine.

Orwell continues:

“As the nearest existing equivalent (for longeur) I have chosen the word ‘nationalism’, but it will be seen in a moment that I am not using it in quite the ordinary sense, if only because the emotion I am speaking about does not always attach itself to what is called a nation — that is, a single race or a geographical area. It can attach itself to a church or a class, or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty”.

Orwell writes here of ‘emotion’ and this is key. To understand why people will undertake acts of heroism, or folly, don’t underestimate the role of emotion. Those who have strong moral foundations based in ‘Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity’ will have very strong feelings guiding action towards loyalty to nation, the authority of monarchy, or Presidents, and of the righteousness sanctity of their cause; “One Nation, Under God” for “God Blessing America” for “King and Country” and for crying “God for Harry, England and St George”. These feelings can all too easily be mustered in the service of Capital for foreign wars in order to secure commodities such as oil. Thinking about the dynamics and complexities of capital accumulation – who dies, who benefits, just gets in the way of making dirty money. Simple easy slogans bypass thought.

In Britain, capitalist elites (you can see them at Davos and graduating from Eton and Oxbridge), have for many decades decided that great swathes of the population do not really matter, that they are cannon fodder, cheap labour, in the elites’ unending quest for capital accumulation at any cost. British capitalist elites, such as Johnson, Gove, Rees-Mogg et al have used the EU is a cipher for ‘capitalist elites’ and provide the nationalist with something ‘to be against’. We witness home grown elites calling others elites in order to foster division and support for their own self-interest or as a result of wallowing in their own national mythologies.

Orwell adds:

“By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad”.

Here Orwell prefigures work on ‘dehumanisation’ by, for example, David Livingstone Smith, and of course the language of swarms, vermin and rats beloved by Thatcher, the Daily Mail and Katie Hopkins.

“But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests (my emphasis). Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality”.

When Gove repeatedly parroted ‘Take back control’ he was tapping into this nationalist sentiment of securing power and prestige.  One has to ask who was taking back control over what and for whom? The English nationalist in 2018, perhaps feels that England has become a minor global player emasculated by ‘the bloody french’ among others, and that we needed to become ‘Great Again’. The ‘again’ of course refers to Empire. The likes of Rees-Mogg are petty nationalists fearing the power of a supranational organisation controlling their access to tax havens, a particularly British elite resource and one which facilitates their quest for capital accumulation. What they don’t spell out is that Brexit will make not a blind bit of difference to the call centre worker or the zero hours contractor or the underpaid care worker. Perhaps, though the underemployed, the precariat, in the Brexit heartlands will feel better about themselves as they will feel momentary joy when raising the Union Jack as they did on June 23rd 2016.

See the following piece on Adono and the Authoritarian Personality.