New Nationalism and Old Ideologies

Posted in: Brexit, Political ideologies, Racism and the far right, UK politics

Dr Sivamohan Valluvan is Lecturer in Sociology at The University of Manchester.

No event in recent British political history has generated the level of despondency, exhilaration and chaotic scramble that has accompanied the result of the 2016 European Referendum. Brexit, in the course of engendering a historically unique standard of socio-political uncertainty and constitutional intrigue, tore apart the two-party compact that had defined much of 20th century politics. Put differently, the allure of nationalist assertion in the form of exiting Europe seemed to cross and confound the distinctions of class, geography and ideology that had underpinned so much of recent British, and – truth be told – Western European politics writ large.[1]

Brexit represents, however, only one – albeit spectacular – milestone. Indeed, the issues constitutive of new nationalism, and the demagoguery intrinsic to it, only seem to be intensifying in the wake of the referendum result. These iconic issues include: the purported ‘refugee crisis’ and immigration concerns more generally; the War on Terror and cognate anxieties regarding British Muslims; the diffuse disenchantment with even just a nominal commitment to multiculturalism; alongside the outpouring of nativist concern regarding the plight of a disenfranchised ‘white working class’.

Whilst this expansive nationalist present is at last acquiring the analytic regard that it had long been denied,[2] insufficient attention is being given to the actual ideological content of new nationalism. Most critical analysis tends instead towards an account of the socio-economic and/or party political circumstances that have allegedly provoked the nationalist reaction.[3] An emphasis on the economic and the institutional is certainly necessary – but equally important is the need for sustained scrutiny of the multiple and conflicting ideological traditions that new nationalism comprises of. Any such undertaking consequently allows us to repudiate some of the complacencies currently prevalent about what nationalism is vis-à-vis its ideological composition.

Namely, populist-nationalism is not just a base appeal to fear and hatred lacking in any broader conceptual loading. On the contrary, various ideological repertoires definitive of political contestation across the 20th century all assume an integral role in anchoring the nationalist wave. Recognising this expansive ideological map accordingly prevents the convenient attribution of the current malaise to an allegedly vulgar but largely contained rump of racism. Instead, any attempt to resist nationalism must first involve properly addressing its sophisticated affinity to multiple ideological forms, some of which we mistakenly consider to be inured from such trends. I will accordingly gesture here, in an admittedly synoptic manner, at how various political traditions have all become susceptible to the capture of contemporary nationalism. These repertoires include: classical ‘values liberalism’; a resurgent anti-market left communitarianism; neoliberal individualism and the particular racial pathologisation of poverty that sits within its moral economy; some nominally feminist rhetorics regarding sexual freedoms and liberation; strands even of bucolic environmentalism; and, of course, a more familiar conservative nostalgia for the putative unity, stability and public morality of pre-war, colonial whiteness.

Muscular Liberalism and Civic Nationalism

A significant trend in academic and political discourse over the last two decades contended that a national community need not be demarcated by its ethnic origins but by its civic, liberal principles – what was alternatingly called the ‘post-ethnic’ nation, civic nationalism and, elsewhere, ‘Constitutional Patriotism’. It might be said that this line of speculation did open certain interesting progressive possibilities regarding visualisations of the democratic polity, visualisations that look beyond the origin myths of blood and soil. It is, however, also apparent that an aggressively white nativism has been very successful in publically capturing this liberal assertion – an appropriation that is particularly likely given the broader legacy of Orientalist civilisationism that sits within most public affirmations of liberal distinctiveness. Put less obliquely, it becomes apparent that many ideas of liberal virtue become ethnically coded during the course of everyday populist demagoguery. An early anecdotal primer of this capture was evident in then Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for a ‘Muscular Liberalism’ whilst championing his case for integration.

It is instructive to consider here the regularity with which many ethnic minorities are popularly presented as lacking the cultural disposition to assume these prized liberal virtues, virtues foregrounded as constitutive of the national self. The opportunist recourse to certain ostensibly feminist themes regarding sexuality and gender becomes a uniquely important site of analysis here in terms of scoping the full, sophisticated reach of an ethnically aggressive civic nationalism – an incorporation that is particularly pronounced amidst the public demagoguery aimed at European Muslims. Anti-Muslim sentiment, so central to the contemporary nationalist sensibility, is routinely channelled through reference to how Muslim culture is said to be antithetical to a liberal value base. What consequently materialises here is a kind of self-satisfied and racially marked liberal civilisationism that does so much work in terms of how new nationalism attains its popular validity, particularly regarding its attractiveness to certain middle-class constituencies.

Melancholic Conservatism

Popularly seen as the direct antonym of the liberal position, a prosaic conservatism is perhaps the domain most commonly associated with new nationalist desires. We witness today a set of conservative nostalgias – a pastoral and imperial nostalgia, or what Paul Gilroy famously identified as ‘Postcolonial Melancholia’. These nostalgias are seen, for instance, in the rehabilitation of monarchy through recurring spectacles of weddings and reproduction; in the revival of Edwardian and inter-war period drama; in the disproportionate success of the Help for Heroes charity, insofar as it has become a key staging ground for the much broader symbolic valorisation of the soldier and military, both past and present; and, also, in the all-too-explicable popularity of rustic Countryfile and other cultural phenomena that invoke a similarly provincial ideal. All these instances speak to a conservative cultural nostalgia and the thinly veiled imperial mythology that accompanies it. It is a nostalgic formation that remembers a homely greatness and the genteel whiteness redolent of that greatness.

However, what is often elided or misunderstood in existing analyses of conservative nostalgia is that much of this commentary and cultural output does actually pivot on a certain critique of unbridled free-market capitalism, a critique that is often expressed via a conservationist, pastoral, Christianist, and/or culturally elitist mould. It therefore becomes necessary to disentangle this particular formulation of nationalist desire from neoliberalism, a project that it is often but wrongly bundled together with in commonplace critiques of contemporary politics. Maintaining this distinction allows us to tie another constituency and tradition, so significant as it is, to the broader flurry of voices that animate the nationalist cry.

Neoliberal Will

When seen accordingly on its own terms, the primary concern of the neoliberal right posits that a market-society ideal is hampered by cultures of welfare dependency and inadequate individual responsibility. This neoliberal position individualises outcomes of success and failure, muting in turn issues of structure and access to resources. But, again, important questions arise regarding the imperative of this neoliberal frame to also racially code conceptions of failure, dependency and national crisis. It is important to remember here that neoliberalism is not only an economic or legislative programme, but also fundamentally a cultural and moral programme. So whilst it is, on one level, quite obviously about the retreat of the redistributive and interventionist state (except for its security arm) in favour of the market and its internal mechanisms, it is also a cultural category that foregrounds particular values and motifs. This includes the modelling of the ideal individual as aspirational, responsible, and self-reliant.

And the symbolic mediation of these ideals does draw heavily upon established racial representational frames in asserting who is not the ideal neoliberal subject. Consider, for instance, images of the black ‘welfare queen’, the lazy, deceitful immigrant leaching on the largesse of the welfare state, or the Muslim and her unproductive proclivity for matters of family, religion, and custom. These are what we might call the racial subjects of the neoliberal. Indeed, even when some working-class white figures are brought into the fold of a general capitalist shaming, they are often judged by their proximity to the pathologies of blackness. An obvious but nonetheless indicative instance was when the ubiquitous David Starkey claimed in the wake of the 2011 riots that the ‘whites have become black’; or simply consider the racial implications of the term ‘white trash’, or consider why the term ‘chav’ is seen as the preserve of poor white people – signalling a reaffirmation of whiteness, when properly realised, as a marker of neoliberal success. Amidst the expansive resonances of these popular terminologies, it becomes possible to note that a neoliberal moral framework provokes its own distinct set of nationalist anxieties and constitutive outsider figures.

Neoliberalism’s prizing of urban consumerism, and the remaking of cities and its inner core as havens of ‘experience shopping’, also brings about a series of racial anxieties whereby certain bodies, languages and tastes become antithetical to the ideal consumer space. These bodies become repulsive and disruptive to pleasurable consumption, adding in turn another layer to how everyday neoliberal rationales induce a particular anxiety about the outsider, the new migrant, and the urban poor more broadly. Put bluntly, if Roma people show up on your carefully curated consumer street, it poses an acute challenge to neoliberal consumer aesthetics.

Left Communitarianism and the Left Behind

Amidst the historically defining advance of the above neoliberal orthodoxy, an influential counter in 1990s public commentary was the communitarian position – a left-driven critique of the increased normalisation of the market society, globalisation, and its attendant individualism. It was accordingly argued that an altruistic society which might operate beyond the terms of solipsist self-reliance and provide solidaristic reference points for its polity requires a common community bond. Considerable emphasis was placed here on the thick emotional ties of community[4] as necessary for a defence of a redistributive welfare state ideal.

It is clear however that this communitarian critique of global capitalism’s excesses enjoys a close proximity to more avowedly nativist political discourses. For instance, there is increased talk of how a defence of the welfare state is only possible if an idea of unitary ethnic community is rejuvenated. The emergence of the tendency called Blue Labour, a communitarian school within the pre-Corbyn Labour Party, and also the general ubiquity of David Goodhart’s writing and political influence speak to this recuperated ideal of ethnic homogeneity. Goodhart’s important ‘Too Diverse?’ article in Prospect ought to be considered a particularly formative moment for a whole spate of subsequent left-leaning nationalist commentary.

It is my broader contention here that the initially progressive understanding of community, as a critique of market individualism, has been reduced in prominent public analysis to a concern with majoritarian ethno-national community. It is particularly telling here that the already well-established, putatively far-right parties across Scandinavia[5] exhibit a very assertive but racially coded defence of the welfare state, workers’ rights and collective solidarity, a defence that is presented as a central plank of their nationalist aspirations.

This nationalist frame has obtained particular ubiquity in the UK in the wake of the Brexit referendum, whereby much public analysis has centred on what is increasingly referred to as the ‘left behind’ – this being a conception that speaks to a particular concern for some notion of the white working class. Whilst many anti-racist critics rightly consider this to be a highly disingenuous appeal to class (see Bhambra and Goodfellow for two such exemplary pieces), it is nonetheless an invocation that is central to leftist renditions of nationalism. Put more specifically, the left behind refers to a working class, defined exclusively as white, that is understood as being uniquely marginalised and looks, accordingly, to legitimate certain anti-immigration and anti-minority attitudes that are popularly attributed to this constituency. An extensive matrix of populist left-wing idioms – anti-establishment, anti-metropolitan elite and anti-globalisation – are in turn folded into a much broader, symbolically aggressive nationalist attachment to particular understandings of authentic white working-class consciousness. Herein, in unpacking the left rationales that have become susceptible to contemporary nationalist articulation, particular critical attentiveness must be given to how this ‘left behind’ framing of the white working class manifests, and the racial ideological work it is accordingly called upon to perform.


Resisting the inclination to attribute a unitary, generally rightist character to this new nationalism, it is important to appreciate how its heightened appeal hinges crucially on the convergence of multiple political repertoires. There are of course a variety of other factors equally important to situating the consolidation of nationalism’s electoral power: economic factors pertaining to austerity governance and the precarity of post-industrial labour; media factors regarding shifts in cycles of news circulation and the role of digital platforms in particular; as well as the broader political evacuation by the left of a counter-narrative to neoliberalism’s recent monopoly on our very conceptions of what is even considered politically possible.

It is the case, however, that new nationalism is also an affirmative system of making sense that roots itself across a multitude of well-established political traditions. Amidst this acknowledgment, where nationalism is itself a way of actively thinking about one’s social and political surroundings, it becomes vital that critics apprehend the different conceptual traditions informing the nationalist rationality; a new nationalist cacophony that is righteously liberal, mournfully conservative, belligerently neoliberal, and solidaristically leftist, all at once – and necessarily so. A critique of nationalism is therefore, when properly realised, also a critique of how these respective traditions as currently construed are either complicit in the demonisation of various outsider figures and/or remain hapless at sponsoring robustly anti-racist narratives.

This blog post is part of an IPR series focused on the rise of racism and the far right. This collection of commissioned blog posts will be published as an IPR Policy Brief in summer 2017. Sign up to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or join our mailing list to receive invitations to our events and copies of our Policy Briefs. Much of this article’s argument constitutes the point of departure for a book that Dr Sivamohan Valluvan is currently working on, provisionally titled The New Nationalism and to be published in 2018 by Manchester University Press.



[1] It should be acknowledged that a strongman authoritarian nationalism has already been consolidated in other regional contexts, the most conspicuous being Putin in Russia, Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey and also, perhaps in a less spectacular sense, Abe in Japan. These contexts are not, however, germane to my argument as regarding the particular ideological configurations prevalent in Europe.
[2] It seems salutary to note here that for a long time, outside of the increasingly siloed field of race and racism, it was a considerable struggle to get questions of the nationalist wave onto the sociological or political agenda. The reasons for this omission as far as academia is concerned are legion – including the above reduction of race and racism attentiveness to merely another discrete academic specialism; the counter-productive fixation with an unimaginatively construed notion of ‘impact’; as well as a byzantine preoccupation with methodological trivialities, increasingly set up as a social science end in itself.
[3] Valluvan has written elsewhere about how we might want to situate the economic within the broader rise of new nationalism, a context that is certainly integral to any comprehensive explanatory account of populist-nationalism but must not be attributed an exhaustive causality.
[4] Affirmative bonds of community that are contrasted to the ‘thin abstract altruism’ of liberal humanism and/or cosmopolitanism. I borrow this phrasing from a short piece on the cosmopolitanism contra communitarianism debate by Gyan Prakash.
[5] The Scandinavian context has increasingly become an accurate portent for later political developments in the UK. Not only are the tropes favoured by British populist-nationalists already well-rehearsed over a longer duration by prominent Nordic outfits, but it was Scandinavia (not least Sweden) that first trialled many of the key manoeuvres definitive of a whole range of recent political developments: for instance, the nominal ‘greening’ of the centre-right as well as their rebranding as the ‘worker’s party’; the outsourcing and deregulation of public provisioning in healthcare and education (e.g. Free Schools); alongside the 1990s embrace of neoliberal maxims by formally Social Democratic parties. For a lively recent account of Sweden’s unique place in the political imagination, see Gavan Titley’s ‘Swedens of the Mind’.

Posted in: Brexit, Political ideologies, Racism and the far right, UK politics


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