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Here is a dilemma well worth pondering on: we live in societies which have been evolving in directions which are more global in terms of the economic and political principles which animate them, and yet our mental frameworks for understanding our identities and the conditions of our lives seem to be reverting to stridently nationalistic modes of thinking.
There is plenty of evidence supporting the first of these two contentions, with the levels of interdependence between human beings at the world level now being better understood each time we find out that our clothes are manufactured by workers labouring in the conditions of Dhaka’s Rana Plaza, or that the interests of trade and commerce across large parts of the world require draconian levels of policing which can lead to the suppression of popular movements seeking democracy, or that our healthcare needs ought to be capable of tackling the conditions which produce Ebola outbreaks or pandemic influenza across the face of the planet. We are a global species and we prosper or perish in proportion to our acknowledgement of the challenges and potential of this fact.
But there is much to suggest that these facts are being contested by the political moods which are revealing themselves across the developed world, expressed in increased levels of support for right wing, nationalist parties and a trend towards the reassertion of ethnic identity as the force which binds society together. Why should this be happening at a time when we might have expected to see aspirations towards better societies and greater fairness being framed in the context of global society rather than national communities?
Liberal values and freedom of movement
These are some of the ideas discussed in a recent book (Migration and Identity in a Post-National Word, Katherine Tonkiss, Palgrave Macmillan) by the Birmingham University based political scientist Katherine Tonkiss. The author sets out a solid argument in favour of the proposition that a consistent approach to liberal values and the promotion of individual rights requires a defence of the freedom of movement across national frontiers. Anything less than this means a failure to fully adapt to the conditions of life in what she asserts is a ‘post-national world’ and consequently falling short on opportunities to advance the values of liberalism, social justice and individual rights.
Yet her argument concedes the fact that the prospect of an increase in migration that would probably follow on from an extension of free movement rights is preventing many people from identifying with progressive and internationalist perspectives. It often seems, as UKIP leader Nigel Farage suggested during the European election campaign last May, a lot of voters would be willing to take a hit on their standard of living if that is the price to be paid for lower levels of immigration.
Tonkiss looks for the source of this enmity by probing the views of people who identify with explicitly nationalistic currents in British politics, supporting groups like the BNP, English Democrats, the English Defence League and UKIP. On this point she concludes that migration is disliked because of the perception that it poses a threat to the distinctiveness of English culture and reduces its moral relevance in sustaining social cohesion. There is a hint that this effect is amplified by the absence of a strong civic culture in the UK, with local government and other authorities failing to play a significant role in bringing about cohesive outcomes. The type of ramped up rhetoric which right wing groups trade in might be seen as filling a vacuum in knowledge about the real as opposed to the hyped-up impacts of migration, with jaundiced viewpoints and racialised prejudice fill in the space which might be more usefully occupied by actual experience and objective data gained from a practical engagement with the lives of newcomers.
From this point nationalism becomes founded on what Tonkiss refers to as the ‘banal loyalty’ which assumes that, if what is British is equal to a state of virtue, then what the migrants get up to has to be less than that, for no better reason than they are indeed non-British. It is an attitude that runs rampantly across the whole public conversation about migration, affecting even the members of the church-based voluntary groups befriending migrants arriving in Herefordshire, one of the areas covered in her study. Though the opportunity to better get to know some of the newcomers helped build some resistance to the more inane accounts of migrant alleged perversity, the volunteers she interviewed were still inclined to think occasional dark thoughts about what ‘twenty Eastern European men’ walking down a street in Leominster might ‘really’ be up to.
This is interesting, but it is surprising that in accounting for the persistence of nationalist viewpoints in this post-national age Tonkiss gives very little consideration to the role played by the blocs of political and economic power which provide a large part of the structure of the national conversation about immigration. To the extent they are mentioned it is limited to the suggestion that it is public opinion that is pushing these elite interests to follow in the wake of nationalistic negativity.
This would be an unwarranted conclusion to draw from the simple fact that the public mood appears to be swinging in the direction of nationalism at the present time. Politics and markets in liberal democratic societies function in accordance with sets of rules and structures that have been around a lot longer than any of the people who are subject to the systems of governance which they give rise to. The way they represent interests and push forward their points of view, not to mention the resources they have available to coerce those individuals who might think differently to toe the line forms an important backdrop to much of what is going on in the way of shaping viewpoints. It is often all the more powerful because it is so completely naturalised into a non-visible background that it appears to have no substance whatsoever.
But a big part of the answer to Tonkiss’s question as to why nationalism continues to persist in a post-national world must surely be because all the structures of national states and national economic interests remain founded on national principles and are unlikely to fade so easily into the mists of time and history. If we want to know what is locking nationalistic responses to immigration in place at a time that a defence of liberal values and individual rights would suggest that they should be withering on the vine then we need to look at more than the issues of ethnicity and identity, and delve for at least some of the reasons in the interests that are fostered by the continued influence of the national state.
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This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.
*Don Flynn, the MRN Director, leads the organisation’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. He is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.