…many of the great political upheavals… of their twentieth century were launched from the territory west of the Ohio River. The region… gave the country Socialists like Eugene Debs, fiery progressives like Robert La Follette, and practical unionists like Walter Reuther; it spawned the anarchist IWW and the coldly calculating UAW; and it was periodically convulsed in gargantuan and often bloody industrial disputes… there were once Socialist newspapers in Kansas and Socialist voters in Oklahoma and Socialist mayors in Milwaukee and… radical farmers across the region forever enlisting in militant agrarian organizations with names like Farmer’s Alliance, or the Farmer-Labor Party, or the Non-Partisan League, or the Farm Holiday Association. And… Social Security, the basic element of the liberal welfare state, was largely a product of the Midwestern mind. (What’s The Matter With America?)
It was thus something of a shock to see that left populism alive once again in an address by Michael Moore to the crowds of Madison, Wisconsin. At one point in his excellent speech he shouts out that they want their country back; no more the Corporate States of America, but the United States of America! And then everyone’s chanting: United States of America! United States of America!
Here was another shock! Liberal and left sentiment has been wary of nationalism, and for good reason. However, we in live in societies where the nation state is part of the texture of everyone’s lives, engendering a national feeling that is strong and very pervasive. Inevitably these feelings are exploited for narrow political and business ends; historically it has been used to support the military, which in reality means imperialism, and to attack the left, often viewed as a narrow sectional interest as opposed to the national interest of their opponents. This was the Conservative Party’s strategy for many successful decades. New Labour seems to have decided to neutralise this by copying the tactic – both are patriotic parties now.
But does it have to be so? By ignoring these feelings, or treating them with derision, don’t we risk living a fantasy; prone to irrelevance as the ordinary voter is repelled by a liberal culture that treats it with contempt?
Moore’s speech suggests an alternative strategy: embrace the national sentiment, but give it different values. Thus his vision of America is one of equity and justice; of a true democracy. It’s a position his listeners appear to share. There is, it seems, a place still for rewriting the national story, and to provide a social democrat narrative, which resonates with the ordinary voter.
So in Britain, should be acquiesce to the latest populist measure from above, of altering Wootton Bassett’s name so that it becomes a royal fiefdom? Is Buckingham Palace or the plc truly representative of British values? Surely they are its perversion… should a town that honours the dead of an imperial war be renamed by the imperialists who kills them; and thus be given the imprimatur of its values? It’s as if a town where the victims of the Kray twins are buried was renamed to honour their mother.
Of course people don’t see it those terms, and I risk being called a liberal elitist. Perhaps even an extremist. But in the linked article one person makes a distinction between the Queen and the government; as if her actions were separate from it, rather than their validation. This person recognises there is an issue, but elides it. This is the problem of British populism, how to detach the royal family from British patriotism, and to give it values that are fairer and more humane; and yet which still resonate with the man or woman on the street. Or does Michael Moore offer us a different model: to refashion the royal family, by exposing how they have been corrupted by the corporate culture, and turned into its image. In this scenario we would dress them up in a different set of values, in part social democratic, but also in part a return to the older aristocratic world of social obligation, honour, and a certain disdain for money and the politicians. That is, remove royalty from the political and corporate world so that it becomes a symbol, albeit a rarefied one; and thus more akin to the emperor of Japan, or at least in those periods of the country’s history when he has been simply a spiritual entity, quite distinct from its institutions of power.
For over a hundred years the Labour movement moved some way to achieve a different reading of our history; and thus a different sense of what the nation means. It failed, and its successes have been rolled back – thus Ed Miliband’s “very fitting” on hearing the news of this decision. We have to start again, but perhaps not from the beginning. The Murdoch press, who hates the old establishment, has spent many years undermining the royals; and this has certainly weakened them. The time might be ripe, as this government prepares to bring the “shock doctrine” to Britain, to create a new picture of the country, to expose our own kleptocratic elite, of which the royals are but one example – Andrew, for example. isn’t an isolated case of sleaze, but part of an elite culture that has little or no morality; money is all that matters now. The time may have arrived where the whole establishment, their values, and their identification with the national interest, might come undone. A perfect time then for a new vision, where the powerful and wealthy are seen as enemies of the state, selling its life and soul to international capital, the multi-national corporation and the odd dictator, here and there. Now is the time, perhaps, when it is we who should be shouting Britain! Britain! Will you?