On Nationalism and Freedom

(From: ISRF Bulletin, Sept. 2014)

As I write this Scotland, where I live, is about a week away from an historic referendum on the question of whether or not to become independent from the UK.  The polls have narrowed—at the moment it is neck and neck between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ options.  In this context (combined with the start of the teaching semester) it is difficult to put one’s mind to much else.  But I think I can make a virtue of a necessity, because what people think and feel about freedom has quite a lot to do with this issue.  So let me try.

The first point is that people today often misunderstand nationalism, simply equating it with ethnic chauvinism, or an emotional commitment to some identity, however defined.  It is true that nationalism mobilizes whatever identity resources there are to hand, and these are often ethnic and cultural.  But other kinds of identity also are subject to mobilization, such as religion or political ideology.  Nationalisms have also mobilized strenuous civic republicanism and Marxism, among other things.  There is much more than just the mobilization of identity at work here.  Modern nationalism has its roots in movements of the eighteenth century that sought to throw off the domination of traditional elites and assert freedom, in the form of new territorial sovereignty (the US), or the replacement of old elites by a new class (France).  And this is characteristically done in the name of ‘the people’, as a project of collective liberation.  This idea of a free people had its ideological antecedents, particularly in the republicanism of the Renaissance Italian city-states.  But it took on a substantially new form as the rise of transatlantic commercial-imperial society weakened traditional structures of authority, creating the space for evolving ideas of democracy to more fully establish themselves and supplant those structures.  This demand for freedom, sovereignty, and self-determination, is at the core of nationalism.  Anyone who thinks it is simply an expression of ethnic chauvinism does not understand the phenomenon they are dealing with.

This association of nationalism with the demand for freedom does not automatically give it a clean bill of health, but it does mean that respectable demands for freedom will often, for necessary structural reasons, take a national form.  That is the situation we find ourselves in, in contemporary Scotland.  To make sense of the referendum, and the heat surrounding it, we need to understand the value we place on freedom, and the complexities of that deceptively simple idea.

One side in the current debate sees national independence as the best or necessary path to greater freedom.  Collective control over national and natural resources, scope to customize social policy, the capacity to opt out of morally repugnant politics (e.g. the Iraq War, Trident), are some of what this position aims for.  The people want to be free to make separate choices from the rest of the UK on these matters, and there is evidence that they would make many different choices to those made by UK governments in the recent past, if they had the choice.   Calls for freedom are always shaped by, and defined against, that which they resist.   There is a prevalent view in Scotland that its freedom has been perversely limited by a UK state, captured by neoliberal ideology, and destined to be controlled by either the Tories or a Labour Party that has given up on its social democratic roots.  Or even worse, to be given over at the hands of UKIP, to a combination of ‘little England-ism’ and anti-Europeanism.  Many Scots see these as encroachments on and threats to their freedom.   The cry has been that there is a permanent democratic deficit—that Scots are regularly at risk of being governed by a Conservative Party with only minimal support in Scotland. And indeed, the modern state and its governments, laws and policies are always the immediate face of the limits that are placed on our freedoms.  It is something relatively solid and tangible that one can kick against.

The other side in the debate sees continuing membership in the UK, combined with the likely extension of devolved powers, as the best way to protect and increase the freedom of the Scottish people.  But this side is not kicking against a clear opposition, other than the SNP and the  ‘yes’ campaign (two different things), which makes its alternative assessment of freedom much less apparent.  Instead it is inevitably cast in the role of the agent of those very forces of unfreedom that the yes campaign opposes.  ‘No we shouldn’t’ tends to be heard as ‘no you can’t’, which in some quarters merely consolidates the yes position.  But there is a case to be made here.  Freedom in the real world is always limited by circumstances, and membership in larger collectivities amplifies the agency of mere individuals.  Those who want to be as free as possible need to make hard choices about which collectivity they invest their powers in.  The ‘no’ campaign generally consist of people who think the UK is still a crucial context for that enhancement of freedom, from the individual, on up through the various collectivities that make up our lives in modern society.  Both sides can legitimately question each other’s judgment about where the best option lies.  But the image that one side wants to loosen its chains, while the other wants tighten the manacles (an eternal image of nationalism), is a misrepresentation, a rhetorical flourish.

Much depends on what we identify as the sources of our unfreedom, our domination.  As I said before, the state always provides the most visible face of constraint.  It forbids, punishes infractions, and allocates powers.  But states dominate us not just as the final arbiters of force and law.  Democracy itself constrains us at the same time that it enables us.  The freedom to play a role in choosing those who govern us comes with the constraint of submitting to those we have not chosen, at least some of the time.  And even if we manage to elect our preferred rulers, their policies will reflect complex compromises among supporting forces, and only partly our preferences.  The state and its political classes are of course only one force that places limits on our freedoms.  Global capitalism, while constituted through and reliant upon an international network of cooperating states, and often having strong national roots, nonetheless as a whole creates a transnational environment over which each state has only partial control.  States and their policies are dominated by economic forces beyond their immediate control.  Moreover, states are compelled to operate within a context of international alliances, and sometimes hostilities, in which big players have disproportionate influence over negotiations and agreements.  In the context of the Scottish referendum, the point is that breaking away from the domination of the British state and various political parties it contains is not the same as breaking away from the domination of capitalism or the constraints imposed by international relations.  If Scotland becomes independent, the constraints imposed by international capitalism and geopolitics, will become more apparent.

So we can seek to break free from the structures that limit our freedom.  But another way to look at this question is to ask, not what is placing limits on our freedom, but what will enhance it.   Implicit, or weakly articulated in the ‘no’ campaign’s arguments, is the idea that membership in the UK for Scotland is not just more safe, secure and stable, but more empowering.  Power, which is the true face of freedom, is always a matter of amplifying one’s lesser powers by conjoining them, through social coordination and organisation, with those of others.  In teams, businesses, alliances, unions, campaigns, parties, and yes, states.   And that amplification of power, of scope of choice and maneuver, inevitably involves compromises with one’s fellow members.  The core contradiction of power dynamics is that greater freedom sometimes requires greater submission.  This is a frustrating message.  Who wouldn’t choose to be free, full stop, over being free by means of a chosen form of subordination.  But only the latter is ever really on offer.  So it is perhaps not surprising that the ‘no’ campaign have had trouble making their case.  I am sure that in some quarters of the unionist camp, there is condescension towards the idea of Scottish self-government, and insulting belief that Scots couldn’t manage on their own, that they require the safety and greater wisdom of Britain.  But I am also sure that many on this side of the argument sincerely believe that Scotland is more empowered within the UK than it will be without, that the compromises of UK membership nonetheless yield more freedom than the compromises of independence.

An honest case for independence needs to grapple with this same dilemma.  It needs to discuss not just how options are constrained by the status quo, but how a sovereign Scotland will confront the pressures of global capitalism, to lower taxes and wages in competition with other states, and the pressures of other states to enter into various undesirable deals.  The inherent compromises and constraints of democracy will appear again in and independent Scotland.  The frustration of getting the government you didn’t vote for will be reproduced.  It is in the nature of democracy that a substantial portion of the population always gets the government it didn’t vote for.  Independence will be liberating in some respects, but perhaps not as globally liberating as many on the ‘yes’ side seem to expect.  I have no doubt that many on the ‘yes’ side are aware of these challenges, but have reached such a state of exasperation and disillusion with the political status quo in Britain that they prefer to face these and other challenges, and take their chances.  I am also convinced that there is a good portion of those planning to vote yes who have unrealistic expectations about the liberating effects of independence and the scope of maneuver Scotland will find there.  There is a risk of a new wave of distinctively Scottish disillusion for these people.

The language of nationalism is one that links problems of personal agency to those of the collective agency of the nation.  It promises freedom in those terms.  All forms of collective social organisation, that seek support and membership do this—it is not peculiar to nations.  This is also true of trade unions and political parties for example.  But as we know, the membership and vibrancy of those last two are in a sorry state.  They have been weakened, in part by a broad cultural shift towards the idea that it is as individual agents in the marketplace that we will achieve the most freedom.  In this environment it is not surprising that a national movement in Scotland, with its left-of-centre leanings, has become the vessel that helps carry aspirations for greater agency and freedom.  How much of that it can deliver, if a Yes vote succeeds, we will have to find out.  The extreme alienation from the moribund and London-centric state of mainstream British politics is understandable.  I’m sure it is not peculiar to Scotland.  But for reasons of historical particularity, Scotland has a means of acting on that alienation that the other parts of the UK do not have.  The perhaps surprising strength of the Yes campaign is evidence of the enduring link between nationalism and the search for freedom in the modern world.

Published by jshearn

Professor of Political and Historical Sociology, University of Edinburgh.

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