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Saturday, 28 January 2017

Invisible Cities

The BBC recently launched a new TV series, Italy's Invisible Cities, which momentarily piqued my interest until I realised it was just another cultural travelogue and nothing to do with the writer Italo Calvino. His famous 1972 novel, Invisible Cities, was an imagined series of reports by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan on the places that he had visited across the vast empire, though all his fantastic descriptions were ultimately just versions of one city: the Venice of his birth. The emperor's interest in these tales could be described as psychogeographical: an attempt "to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites' gnawing". The structure of the novel, with its collections of trading cities, thin cities and hidden cities, was clearly influenced by the strange taxonomy of the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, who was in turn heavily influenced by Franz Kafka's experiments with categories (Metamorphosis, A Report to an Academy).

Borges's taxonomy also provided the starting point for Michel Foucault's The Order of Things (Les Mots et les Choses) and his playful theorising of "heterotopias", or spaces of otherness. While Foucault's interests were mostly physical - schools, prisons, museums - the idea of a heterotopia would quickly move to the virtual realm, providing a vocabulary for both the emergent Internet (famously John Perry Barlow's A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace) and the imaginary of the modern conspiracy theory (e.g. The Matrix). We have, in other words, become used to the idea of imagined spaces as having a reality in discourse, even if they remain uncertain in the concrete. Related to this is the idea of emergence within the interstices of society as a variety of heterotopia, which builds on the older grammar of dialectics and autonomy to posit potential states such as the post-capitalism of Paul Mason of the "real utopias" of Erik Olin Wright.

What I'm interested in here is the impact that this conceptual turn has had on nationalism, and in particular the way that imagined places and structures have supplanted imagined communities. In other words, the "nation" is increasingly represented not as a people with common characteristics but as a collection of defined spaces and properties. I don't mean metonymic places like palaces and capitals, or historical monuments and "sites of memory", but heterotopias that connect the real with the ideal. Examples are academy schools, with their half-mad emulation of what they imagine public school norms to be; gated communities, that exclude not only the poor but spontaneity and disorder; and the replacement of excursions in the vocabulary of travel with "destinations". What triggered this line of thought was not Alexander Armstrong saying "fascinating" in that minor royal manner of his but two recent political expressions. The first was the advocacy of "the Singapore model" as a template for a post-Brexit UK, and the second was Donald Trump's wall. Before I turn to these, it's worth reviewing the orthodoxy of nationalism and its revival over recent years.


Contemporary nationalism in the West is largely seen as a reaction to globalisation, an interpretation founded in Karl Polanyi's idea of a "double movement": the instinct of society to protect itself against the encroachment of the market. According to this reading, globalisation's penetration of national boundaries, and the visibility of the "fictitious commodity" of labour in the form of economic migrants, has bent the double movement towards nationalism and xenophobia. But this theory doesn't explain why programmatic nationalism - a commitment to economically protectionist and socially nativist policies - had little purchase prior to 2016, long after the crisis of 2008 let alone the emergence of globalisation's discontents in the 1990s. In fact, there is little evidence that people become more nationalist in response to economic distress and there are obvious dangers in assuming that an antipathy towards globalisation due to the loss of well-paid jobs is joined at the hip to an increase in xenophobia, or that bigotry is an atavistic emotion resurfaced by sudden shocks rather than the persistent prejudice of a minority.

This "reactionary" model was initially developed to frame the emergence of Fascism in Europe in the 1930s as a response to the Great Depression. However, we tend to forget the variety of non-nationalist (and very rational) responses at the time because of subsequent putsches and war. The Spanish Republic, the Popular Front in France and the Social Democrats in Sweden were arguably more typical than Nazi Germany. In Britain, distaste for the Blackshirts was not restricted to ardent socialists or East End Jews, while the Attlee government of 1945 was nothing if not "national" in its focus, but hardly nationalist, and post-war conservatives continued to emphasise patriotism against nationalism in their commitment to empire. In other words, the reality of twentieth century nationalism was often closer to the older nineteenth century theory, embraced by both liberals and socialists, which saw it as a means by which emergent capitalist strata drove economic consolidation and reform.

What is common to both nineteenth and twentieth century theories is the invention of the nation as an homogeneous people, a process famously described by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities. Extreme forms of nationalism, such as Nazism, characterised society as polluted by foreign elements and degenerates but promised national renewal through expulsion, re-education and extermination. Moderate forms of nationalism, which were mostly social democratic in their political orientation, tended to focus on common interests and characteristics (e.g. Orwell's valorisation of British tolerance), which allowed racial prejudice and sectarian bigotry to be kept in check by propriety. In contrast, modern nationalism accepts that society is heterogeneous. The aim then is not merely to expel the other or to marginalise the deviant, though policies to those ends may be pursued, but to defend and prioritise one part of society as uniquely deserving: Nigel Farage's "decent people", the True Finns, "real Americans" etc. While this has been cast in racial terms as "the defence of white privilege", it is the privilege rather than the whiteness that is dominant.

Singapore has long been an imaginary city in the rhetoric of conservatives, both for its combination of extreme free trade and extreme social control and for its transformation, apparently by an act of will, from a colonial backwater to a thriving city state. Traditionally, the "what we can learn from Lee Kwan Yew" tales tended to focus on the combination of low tax, cheap domestic servants and obedient proles, rather than the commitment to high-tech industries and the reliance on immigration for growth. It was the city's roots in empire that attracted conservatives as much as the Confucian social order. But if this admiration was once driven by nostalgia, in recent years it has been driven more by a sense of opportunity. Now, we see Singapore lauded as a services-heavy economy and a concierge for regional wealth. But the parallel - "Singapore-on-Thames" - is limited to London. And that's the point. The unspoken opportunity is to finally slough off the dead weight of the UK hinterland, a desire that can be seen in the characterisation of northerners as racist idiots as much as the growing English contempt for the Scots. One obvious problem is that conservatives seduced by Singapore and contemptuous of the hinterland also tend to resent London and its liberal and cosmopolitan citizenry.


Singapore's prosperity depends on selling its services to nearby countries and acting as the hub for global trade and investment in the region. In other words, Brexit is likely to make it harder for London to be any more like Singapore than it already is. Singapore then is not a viable economic or social model but a state of mind, and one that requires an enormous suspension of disbelief. When Philip Hammond talks of changing the UK's economic model if the EU doesn't play nice we know the threat is empty because successive British governments have failed to substantively change the economy, or at least in the way that they intended. The Thatcher revolution was part of a global transformation, rather than a pioneering act of national will, and it did little to address structural weaknesses. When we talk about an unbalanced economy we are referring to the exacerbation of trends that were visible a century ago: the loss of global markets, the dominance of finance and the gravitational pull of the capital.

Donald Trump's announcement that the US really is going to build a wall on the border with Mexico prompted extensive media coverage on the practicalities of construction, down to speculation about the building materials and even the composition of the labour force - ironically likely to be mostly Mexican due to proximity. Trump's ability to conjure this wall into existence reminded me of Kafka's short story, The Great Wall of China, which dealt with the duality of a physical structure and its symbolic counterpart. One categorisation of imaginary cities is between those supposedly created out of nothing, such as Singapore, and those whose origins are lost in time. It might seem odd that conservatives often prefer the former to the latter - i.e. the new to the old - but the common feature is the invisibility, or at least subordination, of the lower orders (those Mexican construction workers, those Singaporean maids).

The Great Wall of Trump must not only be new and bigger than the existing border structures but "beautiful". That adjective isn't just the hyperbole of a real estate mogul but a sign that what is being built is the world's largest gated community. At one level this is absurd, and that's leaving aside the likely damage to trade, because the gated community of the USA will not exclude the poor or the dissident, no matter how many "illegals" the Trump administration manages to expel. But at another level it is reassuring as a symbol of control to people who fear their historic privileges are under assault as economies converge globally. Trump understands the psychology of real estate, from protecting neighbourhood property values by segregation to the rituals of security and purification (he's a "germaphobe", apparently). The Beautiful Wall may appear to be a folie de grandeur, but it has a logic that is vastly superior to the suggestion of Singapore as an epitome for the UK.

5 comments:

  1. Herbie Causes Extinction29 January 2017 at 10:58

    I think the gated community analogy really does get to the heart of what underpins the attraction of right wing politics in this day and age. It is a disdain for the poor, immigrants (dark skinned ones), those who for whatever reason can't work. The message is clear we don't want to live near these people or have to pay a penny for them. Which brings us onto their greatest myths, .i.e the idea that they live solely by their own efforts and don't rely on anyone who is poorer than them and the other myth that the best person always gets the job!

    We should recognise that within the gated community called the USA there are internal gated communities also! gated communities within gated communities! I guess is we drill down far enough we have the alienated teen in his own gated community, i.e. the bedroom!

    Incidentally, so we are now in post Brexit world and I guess that means the nation has to send someone to prostitute themselves to other nations in order to get the best trade deal (whatever that means). But why the hell are we sending a repulsive old bag like Theresa May, how remiss of us, how careless, these are vitally important trade deals don’t you know!

    We should be sending over some nubile nymphet, particularly to see Trump. Are we serious about these trade deals or what?

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    1. Trump famously reckoned he "could have had a chance" with Princess Diana (wonder if he'll bring that up again when he meets the Queen), which reinforces your point that the UK needs to rely on its allure more than its material advantages.

      We're not in a position to secure "good deals" because we have little to offer over and above current business. To use a retail analogy, we aren't about to launch new lines and there is only so much we can do to cut current prices. We therefore need to persuade others that shopping in the UK is a positional good, worth paying a premium for. To that end, we would be better represented by Victoria Beckham that Liam Fox.

      The problem is that this will further bias our new "industrial strategy" towards London - i.e. we stand a better chance in areas like corporate services, wealth management, media and culture than in manufacturing. We've also missed the boat in that the optimum launch conditions were in the early 90s: before the single market became embedded and ahead of the Cool Britannia wave of interest.

      The beef over the Maastricht Treaty represented a pivotal moment. If we had left the EU then, we could still have benefited from globalisation but in a more politically palatable way. The tragedy of Brexit (i.e. thinking about this pragmatically rather than in terms of the principle) is that we are leaving at the worst possible time.

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  2. I think the most significant thing about 'modern' nationalism is in its rejection of collectivism and the fact that it basically accepts the global economy while bemoaning all its symptoms.

    There seems to be little political clamour for economic protectionism, and in many cases the thirst for national sovereignty is linked to the quest for freedom to compete more harshly and aggressively with other states. In essence, the driving force is to secure a head start in a race to the bottom!

    A recent Daily Mash headline summed the situation up quite nicely: 'We need to look after our own first, say people who would never help anyone'.

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    1. Protectionism today looms large mostly in the imagination of liberals who prefer to frame the rise of Fascism in the 30s as a response to it (i.e. depression > protectionism > Nazis) rather than a miscalculation by a centre and right who considered socialism the prime threat.

      Calls for protectionism are pretty marginal, and usually emerge from small business owners rather than workers. The US opposition to NAFTA has been about the (perceived) loss of jobs to Mexico, not the flood of imports from the south. It's no accident that support for a tariff on Mexican goods has to be justified in the context of a security policy.

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    2. Herbie Causes Extinction30 January 2017 at 18:02

      "I think the most significant thing about 'modern' nationalism is in its rejection of collectivism and the fact that it basically accepts the global economy while bemoaning all its symptoms."

      The right have a history of bemoaning the symptoms of their own policies, think how Thatcher destroyed families and all the Daily Mail headlines about the breakdown of the family!

      The right have also always supported a race to the bottom, which springs from their ideological view of the world (lazy v hard working people etc) to their vulgar economics (flog the worker to death and reap the benefits).

      The modern right look very very much like the old right to me.

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