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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

Sivamohan Valluvan

“Stories of England”

28 March 2018

University of Winchester

Dr Sivamohan Valluvan, Warwick University


This is a corrected transcript of talks given at the ‘Stories of England’ seminar held at the University of Winchester on 28 March 2018.  Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speaker.


Gauging what has been previously said, I am not sure much of what I say will go down particularly well. Not only am I likely to say rather unkind things about the ‘English Project’ so to speak, but I don’t even have the defence of having any remote claim to Englishness. You might discern from my accent that I’m not from here. I am from Sri Lanka but also Stockholm, Sweden where I grew up. But I don’t know if you’ve ever read it, but like in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, I think sometimes it takes an outsider, crudely speaking, to know whom you really are. As such, it is in this spirit that I hope that some of the things that I might touch upon might clarify, to whatever extent, some of the debates that we have already been having.


What I want to speak about specifically is the current predicament faced by a remade Labour Party and, if I may say so, perhaps even a revitalised Labour Party.  I am sure that many here will not be in agreement with much of the current shape of the Labour party; I myself do find it quite exhilarating. But I do also notice that, whilst they proceed with great confidence in challenging various orthodoxies of the market society as rehearsed in Thatcherism, they do also seem to stumble when faced with the need to challenge the nation and nationalism question. This is the one kind of fault line that seems unbridgeable or poses to them a similar kind of paralysis as it has posed to many other previous parliamentary parties of a left variety.


And in mapping this problem, in wanting to look specifically at the kind of nationalist temptations that are available to the current English Left, I also want to talk specifically about the place of class – or rather, the disingenuous use of class – and how it is smuggled in to lend this new nationalist moment what I feel is a false alibi, but an alibi nonetheless. It is the claim to class that dignifies and ennobles a nationalist project with a certain kind of, what shall we say, injury and victimhood – that allows it to do a certain kind of ideological work which nationalism is otherwise lacking.  So that will be principally what I will speak about later on, the kind of abuse of class in the new nationalist politics that a lot of us are contending with.


Now, my personal experience is I believe worth briefly flagging here, just as a tuning device. I am a migrant and grew up in the social housing expanses of North Stockholm, which were populated extensively by other people of migrant background. And you know, it might be pertinent to today’s debate, but where I grew up, if you see a white person, they are called Swedish.  They are the Swede. It doesn’t matter if you are from France or Norway or Germany.  They’re in a vernacular sense described as Swedes. And if they see us, we are called immigrants. Doesn’t matter if you are born there, how many generations you have been birthed into the country. Indeed, some of them can be rather ‘off-white’, so to speak; if you know, for instance, the footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović. For us he’s an icon. And though it doesn’t quite translate in a British race politics iconography, in Sweden he is very much seen as the racialised other.  And we all identify with him as the same kind of, I mean, to be rather vulgar about it, but he is just a rock star, as far as we are concerned.  He carries himself with a certain bravado that we felt was quite exhilarating as an immigrant youth.


Well, you know – owing to that experience of growing up in those estates, but also owing to my political training in post-colonial theory and cultural studies –when I say nationalism, I’m afraid I take it for granted that race and racialised conceptions of ethnicity is the Western nation’s primary othering ontology. It can be many other things too of course, but that is its primary impulse. So, today’s nationalism, for me, is not about the proverbial ‘narcissism of small differences’ that characterises certain attempts at internal distinctions within perhaps devolved Britain, but also within Western Europe, as a whole.


And also, when I say nationalism, I mean primarily a set of political discourses that manage and present in particular ways a broader culpability for various significant socio-political, socioeconomic, and also cultural and security problems, whether real or imagined. Most of them I happen to think are imagined. But whether real or imagined, it attributes blame and culpability to various iconic ethno-racial minority groups and external entities who are seen as not belonging.  And that’s how nationalism, as far as I see it, finds its principal energy and its principal political vocation.


Now, without wanting to get too lost in any all too archaic a theorising about what is nation and nationalism, I do want to signal one discourse over the last 20 years which I think has created the territory for Labour to slip into nationalist thinking.  Now, it is worth noting, and I liked your question earlier about Left and Right, it is worth noting here that nationalism draws upon a whole set of contradictory and conflicting political rationalities.  It always has.  That’s partly why fascism was so effective.  It was about the great project of resolving the great problems of modernity. That’s how it presented itself and it could rally across ideological formations, across class electorates and followings. 


So, in the contemporary, I think that some of the rationalities that nationalism draws upon includes a classical values liberalism; it includes of course a neoliberal individualism and the particular racialised pathologisations of poverty which sits within its moral and symbolic economy; it includes I am afraid some nominally, and I stress nominally, but some nominally feminist rhetorics regarding gender equality and sexual liberation; it includes even strands of a certain kind of bucolic environmentalism; it, of course, includes an arch-nemesis, that kind of old crusty conservative and a certain kind of nostalgia for the putative unity, stability and public morality of pre-war colonial whiteness. Of course, that nostalgia is putative, but it is nonetheless, how it is remembered. 


But it also includes a resurgent anti-market Left communitarianism.  So, you might recall a prominent trend in academic and political discourse in the nighties really which was called the communitarian position.  Which is a left-driven critique of the increased normalisation of the market society, globalisation and this attendant liberal individualism.  You know, prominent here was the, sorry to be all-philosophical about this, but it was the kind of virtue ethics anti-liberalism political philosophy like McIntyre, Sandel, Walzer. All very interesting. But they argued that a progressive, altruistic society that might operate beyond the terms of a kind of solipsist self-reliance that we attribute to Thatcherism requires a common community bond.


And considerable stress was placed in what they called, this is a really a little too conceptionally loaded, but what they called the thick affective ties of community versus the thin abstract altruism of something like liberal humanism or radical cosmopolitanism.  Things of that sort.  As necessary for a defence of a redistributive, welfare-state ideal.  But what becomes of course apparent is the possibility of this communitarian critique to be appropriated, quite straightforwardly, by much more aggressively white nativist nationalist discourses. 


So, as far as I see it, the emergence of a tendency within Labour which adopted much more circumspect, even hostile attitudes about immigration.  But more importantly, I know you invited him last year but, you know, the general ubiquity of someone like David Goodhart.  And I am sure people here are perhaps friendly with him, but you know his political influence, as far as I see, is incredibly toxic but also formative. You know he has this paper for instance, ‘Too Diverse?’ I mean he had the good grace to include a question mark. But ‘Too Diverse?’. And just recently he wrote with Eric Kaufmann - what’s the paper called.  It is something entirely mindboggling, something like ‘White self-interest is not the same as racism’.


Now to us in certain fields this is indeed a textbook definition of racism.  We even see it as a tautology.  You know.  And yet this is passed over, and someone I know of, she wrote a fantastic response to this.  Great title anyhow, even if you don’t agree with the content. It was called ‘Populist correctness gone mad’. And clearly, something was afoot over the last few years, which we were talking about earlier, about the aggressive mainstreaming of things that Goodhart and them were putting out initially.


So, what actually transpires in everyday commentaries is that this putatively   progressive understanding of community – interesting as it is, as a critique of market individualism – does unfortunately get reduced, in de facto terms, in everyday terms, to a concern for conservative ideals of ethno-national community. And, in particular, and I don’t think entirely insincerely, a particular concern for what they call the ‘white working-class’. What I still consider to be a very distorted weaponization or misreading of who the working class actually is, in its fullest sense, but it is nonetheless a notion that remains central to most leftist renditions of nationalist commentary. 


And indeed, where I am from, the far right in Scandinavia, which I have to say is whole lot more polished than the lot you have. You know, they are not these four aristocratic, bumbling, avuncular folk; they are a little more slick. Anyhow, in some ways, I grew up with these people in the areas we called home. When we were very young, we saw them in neo-Nazi paraphernalia. But now in Sweden they are in parliament and polling 20 percent.  They are called the Swedish Democrats.  But they make a defence of the working class, anti-globalization, workers’ rights even, central to their rhetoric. A lionisation of these motives.  A racially coded lionisation, but a lionisation nonetheless, which they make central to their nationalist political aspirations.


Now, this is only a potted sketch of the communitarian position, as I don’t want to get unduly academic about matters.  So, I just wanted to signal this as a philosophical heritage via which the English Left become susceptible to certain overtures or flirtations with the national project.


But I just want to expand now on the particular uses or missuses of class.  That is to say how they continue to traffic in a series of misnomers or misreadings about how class actually has featured in recent political history.  By that I mean the last 3 or 4 years. 


First, there is the assumption that this new nationalism, electorally speaking (though that is a limitation in itself), is driven by a disaffected working class when, as a kind of the numerical majority, it was in fact the petite bourgeoisie, what in France they call usefully the Poujadist, the kind of provincial, defensive middle-class.  It’s of course not the same as the kind of cosmopolitan or effete metropolitan elite that they speak of, but the provincial and defensive middle-class. I know this is a very archaic Marxist language which can seem very tired, so I don’t necessarily mean only small-business owners and so on, but also a general scan of a certain kind of private-sector dependant salaried professional.  Well-paid and less well-paid, which I think did the kind of heavy lifting for the recent nationalist electoral gains.


Similarly, and to state the obvious, the most extremely disaffected, the long-term estranged, for the most part, do not generally engage in electoral politics.  Such is the extent of their very concrete exclusion. So, to read recent electoral results, as some kind of proxy insight into the psyche of the kind of disaffected working-class seems to me a rather fraught exercise. 


There is also the assumption that hostile attitudes to immigration and multiculturalism are driven by actual working-class experiences of living amidst these places.  But as all of you will know, those susceptible to strong anti-minority views or strong anti-immigration or strong anti-multiculturalism views, are actually not as likely to live in areas with large ethnic minority concentrations. I mean there is terrific academic work on this. See, for instance, Rydgren and Ruth’s work on, admittedly it is Sweden, the support for the radical Right through what they call the halo-effect – which is essentially about living within a ring of whiteness.


Or consider even the kind of rural heartlands that form the core support for the French Front National.  Actually, they are not called that anymore.  They have changed their name to National Rally or something. Well, it’s contentious of course, but it doesn’t sound any less fascist to me. I would stay with National Front or what not.  I mean it evokes Nuremberg the very minute you mention it.  But, anyhow, their core voters are rural.  This is important to reckon with.  It’s not an actual encounter with the migrant that is driving these processes necessarily. 


And also, as many have argued – and I think actually there’s some very good work in Southampton but the names escape me – but some have argued that when you read class as a whole – as opposed to racializing it artificially to only be the white working class – then most studies reveal a continued attachment amongst the working class to fairly non-nationalist, orthodox social democratic politics.  So, it’s not that the working class has vacated orthodox Left or centre Left politics but rather, and I am afraid to say it, it is specifically white people that seem most susceptible to the invitations of nation. And, naturally, that will also include many or some white working-class people. They are also white, after all.   


I am going to skip the Norway problem and let’s talk about Norway later.  Norway is very interesting.  Just on a quick aside, Norway is a filthy rich country.  Filthy rich due to its well-managed petrol boom – probably the richest country in Europe with a meaningful population. But they are contending with the same toxic nationalisms as elsewhere.  That tells a particular story.  This can’t be just about capitalist dysfunction or widening, chronic inequality. Other things are afoot as well.  But anyhow we won’t talk too much about Norway, cause Swedes like to beat up on Norway, and it is something I also risk doing here.


Now, some other confused claims that are peddled by the Left about class vis-à-vis nationalist politics. So you know, first there’s sometimes an intimation that if a politics has any whiff of middle-class support, if, you know, a receptiveness to multiculturalism or some kind of pro-migration politics, if some members of the middle class espouse this, it is suddenly seen as some great bourgeois concept or some great anti-working-class politics.  This is what I typify in a forthcoming article as ‘bad Marxism done worse’.  This reads the thesis of oppositional class interest into every niche and recess of culture. Needless to say, politics often escapes the easy distinctions of class. 


I also want to end by saying, because Catherine discussed this very well, that my own work was actually previously about multi-ethnic conviviality in working-class urban contexts.  And we need to be much better at making use of those cultural resources available to us. Forget these distinctions about the somewheres and the nowheres or what others dub ‘the latte drinking metropolitans versus the good old provincial left-behind.’  Just come to some of these urban contexts, inhabited by working-class people, and look at the very interesting, radical anti-racist habituations that are often an ordinary feature of their working-class urban cultures.  And just on a quick aside I know we are meant to be all rather august here, but things like ’Grime for Corbyn’ and the popular music that is coming through at the moment, they are not uninteresting claims for an alternative horizon of belonging. They are in fact very important.  And whilst it is terribly non-rustic, and I say that in Winchester of course, and terribly unglamorous, I think that is ultimately a more productive political and cultural energy for where we might need to go as an alternative modelling of a political culture beyond the myopias of nationalism and its insincere co-option of classed motifs.




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