Sunday, February 13, 2005

"Progressive" Nationalism?

Comrade Liam over at the Comentariat posted his NYLL Journal article a week or so ago on Progressive Nationalism. In it, he proposes that the symbols, rhetoric and language of nationalism should (re)appropriated by the left in Australia and used for progressive purposes.
In the past decade we have let them be used against us, and they have become tools of the radical Right of politics. I argue that national symbols are too important to be left to those politicians.
I broadly agree. There is in the left (at least, a lot of the left I have dealings with) a phobia of nationalism and patriotism. Slogans such as "internationalism" and the fears of being thought Stalinist are rife.

Moving beyond Liam's look at a progressive nationalism, which concentrates largely on the ALP (as, perhaps, it should, since it is for a Young Labor forum), I'd like to comment on the the left's use of language and thought normally thought to be irredemably right-wing.

A lot of this gets back to what I have already written on hegemony-- that conservative forces maintain their dominance by limiting and defining the language, and thus thought, of those classes they subordinate. Because the motive force of history is humanity's conscious relations with its material circumstances, the human consciousness and its limits is crucial to the unfolding of historical events.

Conservative forces within political society (that is, the State) is able to infiltrate civil society (that is, the private sphere) through its use of symbols, language and rhetoric, expressed from birth through education, mass-media, the workplace, sport, religion, etc. Capital is therefore able to rely on direct State dominance (police, military, legislation, etc) and also through determining the way in which citizens are able to conceive of their position, role and situation within society. This is particularly the case in advanced Western nations; in states such as Iran or Nepal, there is little civil society, and so the State relies on direct rule rather than developing a consensus.


Capitalism is a global force; corporations and big business are increasingly less locked within specific borders, labour forces are mobile, and goods travel increasingly freely around the world. Despite this, conservative forces are still predominantly based upon the nation-state as the basic organ of political organisation. States are still the most influential and powerful international bodies. National interests therefore, today are one of the key means by which the subaltern classes in Australia (and elsewhere) think. Essentially, a "progressive nationalism" is the rational starting point for any discussion of, or move towards, internationalism.

While our ultimate goal should be the uniting of all people in common interest, regarldess of nationality, race or gender, it is pure mechanistic Marxism to expect the subaltern classes to throw off generations of indoctrination by government and big business and disregard all or any of those things. Nationality, race and gender are crucial components to the divisions necessarily created and exploited by capitalism; it starts at birth.

(This is why I believe feminism to be important and why I support it: because it identifies, challenges and struggles against a tool by which conservative forces maintain their hegemony.)

Liam points out that:
The current manifestations of Australian nationalism are not pretty. One of the more subtle but far-reaching consequences of the Howard years has been the adoption of national iconography—the flag especially, but other myths such as egalitarianism and the difficult concept of the ‘fair go’ as well—as specifically conservative iconography.
Left-wing control of institutional authority is required for Liam's progressive nationalism, through two mediums: the media and education.

All too often people don't care what is said, only who says it. This is why the media is so important. Institutions like the ABC and broadsheets are considered (correctly or otherwise) to be authoritative, truthful, impartial and accurate by most Australians. Liam, of course, deals with media:
Broadcasting, which is at its best a national medium, is a good model to follow for campaigning toward this end. A good broadcaster both taps into commonly held assumptions and myths, and challenges them; both of these actions must come from a basic position of understanding, empathising with, and conveying a deep sense of commonality with, the audience.
Education, the other biggie, is covered by various right-wing commentators, following Prof. Sawyer, president of the NSW English Teachers Association expressing his disappointment at the re-election of Howard:

"This is about the idea that students have to be able to analyse language and be critical of language and that's an important thing for citizens in a democracy to be able to do," Professor Sawyer said.

"And I was throwing down the gauntlet to the idea that if we are going to create critically literate citizens in a democracy then the last two elections, in particular, have been run around the use of language."

He said the Howard Government had used language effectively, coining emotive phrases such as queue-jumpers for asylum seekers. He said political material from both major parties could be analysed in classrooms when teaching critical literature to students.

(Side-thought: what about private secular schools which teach an entirely left-wing curriculum to its students, available from reception through to year twelve? Viable? It would need to be subsidised somehow, possibly through union or similar donations... An answer to religious private schools?)

I mentioned in "What is to be done?" that a counter-hegemony is needed to combat the rule of conservatism. Counter-hegemony is the challenge of conservative language, rhetoric and ideology, and the organic formation of progressive, left-wing ideas and language that allow the subaltern classes to form an emancipatory consciousness.

Ending divisions within society must start at home-- the old aphorism, "act locally, think globally" holds as true to advancing democratic socialism as to anything else.

By using language and symbols traditionally thought to be the province of conservative forces to express progressive, radical and left-wing ideas, the strength of the conservative symbol to express a conservative idea is undermined, while at the same time, its authority uplifts the truths of the progressive idea.

Educating a new generation to challenge and disregard the means through which conservatives dominate our society, to express a counter-hegemony is the only way to successfully overthrow the rule of capital. This comes through the whole-sale rejection of the previous social "norms" (ie, conservative norms whose purpose was to perpetuate the class rule of big business and its captains), developed organically from the subaltern classes themselves.


  • At February 13, 2005 8:58 pm, Blogger Liam said…

    Alex, the idea of having left wing private schools is a terrible idea. Did someone mention the word 'cult'?

    As to this:

    Counter-hegemony is the challenge of conservative language, rhetoric and ideology, and the organic formation of progressive, left-wing ideas and language that allow the subaltern classes to form an emancipatory consciousness.Do you just mean "Let's make being 'Australian' something to be proud of again"? I thought so. Why didn't you just say so?

  • At February 13, 2005 9:15 pm, Blogger Alex said…

    Liam: I mean more than just making leties proud to be Australian again.

    I'm talking about allowing a working class consciousness to develop naturally from the working class, rather than being imposed, either by petit-bourgeois intellectuals like us, or by the conservatives of big-business.


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