10 January 2011

On scorning Nationalists....

Over the festive piece, inspired by this from the Philosophical Zombie, I revisited George Orwell's collected essays, including his (1945) Notes on Nationalism. For all of Orwell's attention to the clarity of his prose, it is a piece of writing which is actually quite difficult to understand and understand in a sustained way. Still worse for those eager to extract a stinging quotation to wound a nationalist opponent, who tend to ignore the idiosyncratic way in which Orwell defines his "nationalisms". Calling it a "habit of mind", an "emotion", Orwell emphasises that:

"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’. 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. 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."

It is not my purpose here to launch into a sustained analysis of Orwell's position or the subset of nationalist sentiment he was analysing. However, Orwell's commentary strikes me as an interesting starting point upon which to found a subsequent discussion. In a piece late last year on the Scottish variable rate ballyhoo, I touched on one curiosity of my Scottish nationalist experience. I joined a group of close cronies who had determined to stow themselves comfortably in a pub with drink and grub to outlast a dreich winter day. One of the folk there was an English chap  who had been educated in the sciences at the University of Edinburgh. Discussion turned to Scottish politics. A comrade in the company was minded to vote SNP in May. His English friend's eyes rolled back into his head, loftily declaiming "Oh God, not the SNP!" before drawling "You can't be serious..." Why, not? my friend demanded, taking this dubious soul through some of the the party's positions on notable public policy punch ups of the last decade with which he might be familiar and interested. I kept my own loyalties and my peace.

ID cards? Iraq? Student fees? Trident? He was unmoved.  Indeed, he agreed with the SNP on almost all of these issues - but his condescension towards nationalists simply could not be rebutted by outlining this series of perfectly reasonable, perfectly mainstream convictions which hardly furnish a solid basis to write one off as an addled fantacist. "What do you think of Alex Salmond?" I added, with just a touch of mischievous asperity. "Alex Salmond!" he huff-puffed. No explanation was forthcoming, merely gusty ridicule and the mute significance of rolled eyes. This struck me as a fascinating phenomenon - in part because it is so familiar. I've experienced a number of discussions with substantially the same content and atmosphere, where only the lines and arguments are re-jumbled and re-jigged somewhat. Nor, I must add, is it an archetypical debate limited to English folk with passing, scanty knowledge of Scottish politics. You can hear a similar refrain north of the Tweed. The tone is at its most striking when it emerges from the mouths of friends who have reason to credit you with a measure of sense and intelligence. It is always tickling fun to learn that you are a shortbread-tin fugitive from "reality" and a scandalously impractical and unserious political neep-heid. This tendency, curiously enough, does not appear to be diminished by the SNP's stint in government.  Like my English Scottish nationalist-bashing acquaintance, the pose seems to have the deep-rooted tenacity of a hardy perennial, defying argument, evidence or even a developed discussion. Eye-rolling dismissal forecloses the possibility. My point is not the tyrannical one that all reasonable persons having marshalled the facts must  support Scottish independence, nor am I suggesting that there are arguable reasons why one might doubt the Scottish nationalist project. It is precisely because this familiar dismissal is not predicated on those sorts of arguments that I find it interesting.  While some of its furth-of-Scotland manifestations can be attributed to a (not unreasonable) disregard and distance from matters Scottish, it is not uninteresting or insignificant that ignorance does not breed interest or a self-reflexive knowing distance - but instead seems to prompt this species of detached scorn so regularly.

It is at its most interesting when those selfsame speakers despise the Labour Party, Tories, Liberals and so. They'd apparently rather have the tidy "realistic" governance of a political party whose opinions they do not share. There is scorn there certainly, but of a crucially different pitch. In a further post later in the week, I'll speculate a little more about this interesting phenomenon. If this first reflective flutter prompted a thought or two,  or you have had similar knockabout experiences, do please share them. Thinking about these issues might be stimulated by snipping a note or two from Orwell's essay which I opened with.

"Obviously there are considerable resemblances between political Catholicism, as exemplified by Chesterton, and Communism. So there are between either of these and for instance Scottish nationalism, Zionism, Antisemitism or Trotskyism. It would be an oversimplification to say that all forms of nationalism are the same, even in their mental atmosphere, but there are certain rules that hold good in all cases."

Orwell further suggests these common features include (1) obsession (2) instability (3) indifference to reality. He further classifies "Celtic nationalism" as positive. This, not in the sense that is was desirable, admirable - but instead argues that:

"A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist — that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating — but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade."

Of this "Celtic nationalism", he contends that:

"CELTIC NATIONALISM. Welsh, Irish and Scottish nationalism have points of difference but are alike in their anti-English orientation. Members of all three movements have opposed the war while continuing to describe themselves as pro-Russian, and the lunatic fringe has even contrived to be simultaneously pro-Russian and pro-Nazi. But Celtic nationalism is not the same thing as anglophobia. Its motive force is a belief in the past and future greatness of the Celtic peoples, and it has a strong tinge of racialism. The Celt is supposed to be spiritually superior to the Saxon — simpler, more creative, less vulgar, less snobbish, etc.— but the usual power hunger is there under the surface. One symptom of it is the delusion that Eire, Scotland or even Wales could preserve its independence unaided and owes nothing to British protection. Among writers, good examples of this school of thought are Hugh McDiarmid and Sean O’Casey. No modern Irish writer, even of the stature of Yeats or Joyce, is completely free from traces of nationalism."

The central question remains unanswered. Why do people respond in this way? Why did my friend's friend refuse to countenance the idea that the SNP could be taken seriously? What assumptions, ideas, judgements make such a view plausible to those who warmly entertain it? How do different folk feeling the same scorn differ? My sense is that nationalists should take Spinoza's (presumably badly translated) sage saw as our starting point: "Do not weep, do not wax indignant. Understand." I intend to offer a thought or two on the whys and wherefores of the pervasive phenomenon of nationalist scorn later this week.


  1. "Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power."

    Under Orwell's definition I am a patriot not a nationalist and the SNP should be the SPP because as as far as I'm aware the SNP has never had designs on anyone else's country. However I'll use nationalist in its usual sense in the rest of the comment because that's the usual description of an Orwell patriot these days.

    Orwell's language may be precise but his labeling of the Scottish desire for independence as nationalism under his own terms shows an underlying anglo-prejudice about the Scottish desire for independence which still surfaces regularly today. It's not an uncommon accusation in both the MSM and the blogosphere that the SNP is based on anti-English racism and that nationalism is based on the politics of grudge and grievance. As I doubt these writers and commenters know much about Orwell beyond, "1984". it would appear it they are using old and common prejudices simply restated by Orwell.

    In your conversations with the eye-rollers you appear to be under the impression that you are the only nationalist in the conversation when in fact as a Scottish nationalist you are speaking to a British nationalist. In your terms you want your beloved country to leave a failed political union but under their terms you're a strange cove who follows some cult that wants to carve off the northern province of their beloved country.

    I must admit that I'm too mannerly to do physical eye rolling when someone of seeming intelligence announces their allegiance to Scottish Labour but my estimation of their character does drop a few notches.

  2. Orwell may have been a great mind, but it's important to remember that even great minds are not infallible. In 1945, the world had just experienced 6 years of war at the hands of a party claiming to be "Nationalists", and their aim was indeed to classify human beings "like insects". This wasn't nationalism though, it was racism. Contrast the Nazi dream of having a German Mutterland populated only by "indigenous" Germanic people, with the SNP's dream of having an indepenent Scottish nation populated by anyone who considers themselves to be Scottish, regardless of creed or race.

    It's unfortunate that racist parties such as the Nazis, Front National and the BNP choose the word "nationalist" to describe their brand of exclusionist rhetoric, and in these cases Orwell's description of Nationalism is probably fairly accurate. The problem is, it isn't nationalism, or certainly not in the sense that we understand it to be in the 21st century. Nationalism today is not about exerting power over others and spreading the ideals of that nation onto others - there's only one country I can think of that truly tries to do that, and interestingly enough, it's possibly the one nation that espouses more talk of "patriotism" than any other nation, which perhaps suggests Orwell's two definitions are the wrong way round. No, nationalism today is about preserving cultural identities and making sure we are governed by those closest to us, while living in harmony with other nations. The various struggles for independence throughout the world have nothing to do with trying to opress others, they are about trying to empower those who feel crushed under the weight of over-bloated, distant governments and who feel their distinct cultures are being threatened by a desire for uniformity, a desire driven by the need to make government over increasingly larger land masses easier.

    Perhaps today's nationalism would be better thought of as "localism", a desire to reverse the trend for globalism. Globalism depends on people becoming increasingly similar, so that multinational corporations can sell the same things to everyone in the most similar ways possible. The endevours of companies like Coca Cola and McDonalds are far more in line with Orwell's definition of "nationalism" than anything you or I will ever read in an SNP manifesto.

  3. As a post-script, for the avoidance of doubt (as Brian Taylor would say) that "one nation" I mention is, of course, the United States of America.

  4. Alas, as a shortbread-tin fugitive from reality(effin brilliant by the way),I could only mope from the sidelines...until 'tinternet.
    The MSM has it's Hearstian guidlines and will not be moved from them until instruction from above; we can whistle Dixie or indeed Floower o Scotland all we want-naething will change in that particular department.

  5. I've always struggled to reconcile Orwell's 'nationalism' with the 'nationalism' that I understand to be mine and that of my party, we quite clearly have different semiotic myths attached to the word. It may be, as indicated by Doug Daniel above, that the Nazi abuse of the word tainted it but it seemed not to have the same effect on socialism which was, of course, the other part of the Nazi name.

    The anti-nationalist scorn you refer to is always interesting, it lacks a cogent core, as you say, and appears (to me, anyway) to be a repetition of something heard elsewhere rather than the result of thought - a heuristic gleaned from other company or media. It is at its most interesting when a holder of that scorn discovers that someone they respect is a nationalist. It's amusing (and probably a little cruel) to watch the discomfort of the cognitive dissonance as they try to resolve these contradictions. I have met a couple of people who were persuaded from such a position by the calm nationalist argument given by their protagonists, so there is always hope.

    I'm sure the same must happen in the other direction too, I'm sure that there are unthinking nationalists who have a Pavlovian response to any criticism of the nationalist cause but find it difficult to reason away and can never cede the littlest piece of ground. It might be an instinctive attachment to the tribe, I suppose.

  6. The effort in changing ones currently held beliefs, facts, figures or ideas when faced with the risk involved in suspending them whilst bridging that gap to learn, understand and perhaps accept a new reality is possibly much more intellectually demanding in time and energy than defending your status quo.

    Fear of the unknown or even fear of potential success in new territory protects one from provoking self-incrimination and guilt in having previous ideas once held so dear, marked as inadequate, wrong or less competent. It takes a certain amount of intellectual courage and adventure to alter modes and purposes of thinking differently in spite of what the new or different facts are! A sort of indifferent turpor descends which blanks off a personally threatening engagement with ideas that might show the intransigent as a victim of their own incompetence - in their mind at least!

    A wonderful colleague of mine started but was unable for personal reasons to complete her PhD study on - why do nurses persist in performing procedures and holding views they know to be wrong. She was interested in exactly what you describe as the rolling eye response in the face of what would appear to be rational and logical argument!

    It's not the ideas or facts themselves - I wonder if it's more related to our levels of lazy comfort in the familiar, tolerance of the status quo, anti-intellectualism and failure to have the self awareness of what we really need and want to seek genuine satisfaction in our best interests.

    Getting caught in the definition of terms, although it can spice up a good debate, labels people possibly in a subjective manner when the urge to survive by most is dependent on defending the known rather than the risk of exposing our frailties.

  7. DougtheDug,

    Visa vie your point about my interlocutor's apparent lack of self-reflexive awareness about their own nationalist commitments - I'm quite aware of its paradoxical character, encapsulated neatly in that most curious phrase "Reject narrow nationalism, be British!" This approach is at its most amusing amongst those who see nationalism of any stripe as inherently divisive, perniciously Othering and so on.

    Often the upshot of this unevenly applied suspicion is the naturalisation of the British - simultaneously allowing the speaker to deplore nationalism while oblivious to their own functionally nationalist ideas. There are others who are more thoroughgoing and consistent about their hostility to nationalisms - and still others who deploy more developed arguments about Union virtues which doesn't attempt to draw cheap binary distinctions of the sort you're referring to.

    Intend to return to these issues in the second part of this piece.

  8. Doug Daniel,

    In many ways, the most interesting aspect of Orwell's piece is the immediately strange suggestion that various groups can prompt the ressenting "nationalism" he describes.

    As I indicated in the piece above, I regard Orwell as referring to a particular subset of potential nationalisms. I don't think we'll get too far by vying about the "real" nationalisms. We needn't get into that to deplore the perversions of racialising theories. I might be helpful to recall Tom Nairn's discussion of the "Janus faces" of nationalism.

    Sceptical friends - often of a lefty persuasion, who often entertain ambivalent feelings towards their own countries - seem theorise all nationalisms as inherently pernicious. For them, this "civic" mask simply obscures the leering, divisive "reality", whether for political advantage, conscious dishonesty - or more commonly, think that daffy souls such as myself have simply hoodwinked ourselves about the pernicious character of a "nationalist logic", whose "inner significance" we fail to realise.

  9. Calum,

    It strikes me that it is the relationship and distinctions between patriotism and nationalism is particularly problematic - and unclear - in the essay. Indeed, Orwell's description of patriotism includes an odd phrase which it wouldn't occur to me to claim about Scottish life -

    "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."(Emphasis mine)

    The interest of this remark is partly that it seems to demonstrate just such a concern with "competitive prestige" he imputes to "nationalist" mentalities.

    In which context, I would add the caution that we shouldn't try and decontextualise Orwell and try to tease out some universal essence of "nationalism" which particular instantiations could be assessed against. That won't get us anywhere useful. He was clearly referring to a particular phase of historical time, with particular movements, ideologies and rhetorical tendencies at large. In all of our writing, one of the mute problems is our half-consciousness about the particular empirical facts we're referring to or have in the backs, middles or fronts of our minds.

    For my own part, I think he captures a recognisable version of "nationalism" which I would find problematic and politically unacceptable. Equally, I think keeping his curious definition of nationalism constantly in mind is vital when reading his argument (not least, because one is left with a sneaking suspicion that at times that Geordie isn't consistently using "nationalism" in the way he defines it in the outset...)

  10. I don't mind English people being quite sceptical about independence or the SNP. Why should they be anything else? All they have to go on is what they read or hear in the media.

    It is the people here in Scotland that bug me. I always think of Elaine C Smith's comments when she "came out" as a nationalist, as it was an experience I shared - campaigning in the 80s and early 90s to support the right of people in countries like South Africa, Nicaragua etc to control their own destinies - but then if you dared to suggest that Scotland maybe had the same right to self-determination as those countries you were just told not to be ridiculous! Vote SNP? Madness!

    There is a great big huge blind spot for many in the Labour movement when it comes to Scotland and Scottish independence. They just don't get it because they do not see Scotland as an actual country and they just cannot get their heads round the concept of not being in the UK. There is no-one as conservative as a tradtional Scottish socialist.

  11. Indy,

    I think the reason for English scepticism is ignorance. There is a tendency to assume that Scotland is just another region, like Yorkshire or the West Midlands.

    People who have visited or lived in Scotland and see it as a distinct nation seem to have a more open mind. Though there are, as you say, some with a complete blind spot who cannot conceive a break up of the union. I would include here the Conservative party, who from a point of view of self interest, would be pro independence.

  12. Nevertheless, as you hint - deny it all you will - "all reasonable persons having marshalled the facts must support Scottish indepence"!

  13. Indy,

    Your description immediately describes the attitude adopted by an English flatmate of mine, when I lived in Edinburgh. Born and raised in north London, it came as something of a shock to him to discover such a rooted sense of Scottish difference. He took it in good part.

  14. Clarinda,

    An interesting comparison. In my own research, you observe similar things being reported quite often, described as "professional intuition", which often relegates cognition to the guts.

  15. The essay you quote is one of Orwell's most confused pieces of work - as you suggest, his definition of 'nationalism' seems to slither around a bit, ending up as something like his remark on fascism - something of which we vaguely disapprove. It seems really to be a rag-bag of causes which receive or do not receive his approval - Indian nationalism OK, Irish not - Catalan nationalism OK, Scottish not, and so on.

  16. Vronski,

    Unsurprisingly enough, I agree with your assessment. Its confused character was one of the reasons why I brought the piece up, after having been meaning to for a while. Orwell is one of those authors who for many can do no wrong, thoroughly righteous and canonical. Many anti-Nationalists I've encountered, familiar with this critique of "nationalism", quote it freely ex cathedra, paying scant regard to its argumentative content or the eccentricity of Orwell's definition of "nationalism". This seems to me unfortunate, and as you suggest, loses sight of the essay's slipperiness.

  17. The excesses of absolutely ANYTHING are unnatural and negative and even evil upon occasion.

    The Brit nat is arrogant in its assumed wisdom that the nation (by every single measure of that word) of Scots is their playhing and private propeerty.

    May the 5th told them otherwise.

    Told them democratically, clearly and positively.

    No man worth his blood lets another nation rule his land.

    Alba gu bràth.