Thursday, November 30, 2006

A patriotic Bragg?

Back in 1990 Billy Bragg released his own version of the socialist hymn The Internationale:

So comrades come rally
For this is the time and place
The international ideal
Unites the human race

Come greet the dawn and stand beside us
We'll live together or we'll die alone
In our world poisoned by exploitation
Those who have taken, now they must give
And end the vanity of nations
We've but one earth on which to live.

Today Bragg’s message has changed. He is no longer vowing to “end the vanity of nations”. Instead, he has written a book describing his love for his country, England.

In The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging Bragg tells us that he loves his country in the same way he loves his son, as both are a part of him for which he wants the best and shares responsibility. He asks why he should be any less proud of one love than the other.

So Bragg does experience patriotism as something positive – as a kind of love. But can he effectively defend his own national tradition?

I think not. What comes first for Bragg is his “progressive” (i.e. liberal) politics. So he can only accept a national identity which fits within this politics – and this isn’t much.

Why? According to liberalism what counts is that we are self-determining. We are to shape who we are according to our own choices. It is then thought unjust if we restrict the choices of others by discriminating against them.

This understanding of things is lethal to a traditional national identity. Traditional nationalism was based on a shared ethnicity: on a common culture, ancestry, language, religion and history. This is what established the idea of a distinct “people”.

But we don’t determine membership of such a national tradition for ourselves: it is something we are born into. So an ethnic nationalism comes to be thought of negatively within a liberal politics as an impediment to individual choice.

Worse yet, an ethnic nationalism is thought discriminatory and unjust as it places a restriction on the choices of the “other” – on those who aren’t part of the nation.

So how does Bragg manage to negotiate the idea of a liberal patriotism? One argument he makes is to compare multiculturalism to class:

Class, he says, is a social distinction which still exists but no longer acts as a barrier to achievement. “So perhaps we should think of a multicultural society in the same way we perceive our present classless society, as an evolutionary process which does not necessitate the abolition of cultural differences or the assimilation of one group into another. The multicultural society would be one in which ethnicity, like class, no longer matters.

Notice the emphasis here. The concern is with ethnicity as a potential barrier to the individual. It is allowed to exist as long as it is made not to matter.

(And this is the more soft-line liberal rejection of ethnicity. The hardline attitude is to treat an ethnic tradition as an oppressive social construct, thereby denying its real existence.)

How can there continue to exist distinct peoples, each with their distinctive culture, if ethnicity is not allowed to matter? Bragg apparently believes his British identity can be based on a tradition of tolerance or fairness, rather than ethnicity. But as is frequently pointed out, such values are hardly unique to any one country. As it happens there are Australian liberals who think that our own national identity should be based on exactly the same thing – the tradition of a “fair go”.

Trying to base a national identity on values which are compatible with liberalism tends to make all national identities the same – and therefore meaningless.

To have a love of our own tradition is part of being fully natured as a man. Even though we don’t determine for ourselves the tradition we belong to, it is not a restriction on us, but the very opposite, as it allows us to live through our nature more completely.

Its absence – its being made not to matter – is the more serious barrier to what we might have become.


  1. I see on the Wikipedia page that he grew up in Barking, a working class area that has recently elected 12 BNP councillors, the highest number in any district.

    I imagine that had some influence on his abandonment of the international socialist idea.

    That’s the thing about ideas, people's natural instincts have a way of making a mockery of them - the 'national identity of values' will be no exception.

  2. Bragg may have come from Barking, but he certainly doesn't live there now! One of these "passionate" multiculturists, he has deliberately moved to an area in England's south where "ethnic minorities" are in extremely short supply!

    He is similar to many of those passionate supporters of "Reconciliation" who live in some of the old leafy suburbs in Australia's major cities, whose only contact with Aborigines is on "Sorry Day".

    We can but hope that Bragg's new found "patriotism" is an attempt to keep some life in the concept of multiculturalism, which would imply he feels it's an ideology that is on its way out. One can but live in hope.

    Bragg is an example of the "imperialist left-liberal". By that I mean that he attempts to impose his favoured ideologies and view of human relations on others, but doesn't have to live with the consequences himself. Sadly he is no orphan in this.

  3. Interesting to see the piece on Billy Bragg. I used to be quite a fan of his, while never agreeing with his socialism. He even performed the Internationale and Blake's Jerusalem, the latter which he considers a "left-wing anthem," maybe correctly.

    Before multiculturalism, I suppose it was enough for a left-winger to be working class. Bragg made a point of singing in a working class accent. Of course, he also supported sexual liberation, etc. Later, in William Bloke he sang about how having a baby had made him more conservative (in lifestyle, not politics). Now he has to try to support international leftism and multiculturalism while trying to preserve what he likes about being English. A tall order indeed!

  4. Simply to try to clarify concepts.

    Intenationalism (a concept of the worhing class movement) is not some kind of philanthropic cosmepolitanism (a bourgeois concept). Marx and Engels were very clear in 1848:

    "Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie".