By Michael Chessum
In the debate around patriotism, I see a way of thinking and doing politics that has a lot in common with the debates around Brexit and Lexit.
The common thread that runs through both of them is that instead of seeking to oppose one of the right’s big ideological weapons – patriotism, or Brexit – you try to “redefine” it. You do this partially in the name of being electable or connecting with people who like patriotism and Brexit, but you also vastly (and perhaps wilfully) underestimate the effort and controversy that is required to really “redefine” concepts like these.
Was it possible to “redefine” Brexit so as to make it progressive? Yes, certainly in the abstract it was. But if you want to seriously redefine it, as opposed to just pandering to it, you have to start by fighting tooth and nail for free movement and putting forward your strategy for a “left anti-nationalist” version of European disintegration. Which immediately alienates you from all of the people who voted for Brexit in the real world (who are, mostly, right wing, anti-immigration and prone to reactionary nationalism).
Is it possible to “redefine” patriotism? Well, you could give it a go, but you’d have to do a lot more than give the odd interview and write the odd article saying “well but to me patriotism is all about fighting fascism and loving immigration”, because the role it plays in our national political life is defined and has been worked over for centuries by our ruling class who have built an empire and structured an entire society around it.
If you really want to redefine patriotism you have got to start by absolutely going to war with the imperial nostalgia and exclusion it contains. Which completely destroys the point of doing it, because the overwhelming bulk of people who love flags are very into imperial nostalgia and exclusion.
So in practice, most efforts to “redefine” patriotism or Brexit are either dishonest – not really about redefining it, but about pandering and trying to move the debate on – or else they are perfectly principled but extremely marginal and not very successful.
Maybe better to reject the right’s frames, and make the case for our own.
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