I watched some of the final debate over Britain’s referendum to Remain/Leave last night and wondered at the wild clapping and cheering that greeted references to Britain’s putative ‘independence’ if we vote leave. Boris Johnson referred to this coming Friday morning as potentially Britain’s ‘independence day’. The setting was bound to amplify dynamics in a crowd of 6,000 or so people, particularly with a debate which swtiches between poles. There is no middle position here: Britain will either remain, or leave. A large, public televised space is not a forum which naturally lends itself to nuance or subtle argument. But in thinking about the intense nationalist emotion that this debate stirs up, particularly for Leavers, I was reminded of Norbert Elias’ digression on nationalism set out in the The Germans.
If The Civilising Process is a work which explores how we develop processes of social control along with self-control, how we become civilized, The Germans explores exactly the opposite process. How is it that the civilizing process can go into reverse and descend into barbarism? As a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, this was clearly a matter of direct personal concern for Elias. As for his compatriots Hannah Arendt and SH Foulkes, making sense of the dualisms of human behavior, processes promoting humane ways of coexistence or the opposite, tyranny and barbarism, became a life-time preoccupation.
Elias argues that the ascendancy of the middle class to positions of national leadership from the 18th Century onwards deemphasized the role of the king or prince in people’s allegiances. The practice of politics and power required other ways of uniting citizens in large collectivities where people could not know each other directly, nor could they simply identify with a symbolic figurehead alone . What is needed then, is a way of talking about the collectivity, the nation, which revolves around certain words and symbols, which foster emotional collective bonds between large numbers of people who are strangers to one another in the same country:
“So, the emotional bonds of individuals with the collectivity which they form with each other crystallize and organize themselves around common symbols which do not require any factual explanations, which can and must be regarded as absolute values which are not to be questioned and which form focal points of a common belief system. To call them into question – to cast doubt on the common belief in own’s own sovereign collectivity as a high, if not the highest possible, value – means deviancy, a breach of trust; it can lead one to become an ostracized outsider, if nothing worse.” (1997: 146)
Adducing the symbols of the collective, which in Britain often revolves around the flag, the Queen, appeals to ‘British values’, it is noticeable that the Sun newspaper still thinks it necessary to recruit the Queen to the Brexit cause) is likely to provoke very strong feelings in people. There is much to be gained by doing so if there are no obvious rational reasons for calling on the collectivity: it is very difficult to explain in factual terms why and how one nation is morally superior to any other. The appeal to Britishness is a kind of short-hand, then, a way of bypassing a reasoned argument.
Of course, these social processes producing nationalism, a heroic national ‘we identity’, do not just occur in Britain, but in any country of a certain size and stage of development, according to Elias. Nationalist belief is usually backward-looking, and is used as a way of preserving the established order even if the social movement rallied in the name of the national heritage claims to overthrow the existing order. This too, we notice in the UK, with the Outers claiming that a vote for Leave is a blow against the establishment, even though they are the establishment. According to Elias: ‘In a latent or manifest form, nationalism constitutes one of the most powerful, perhaps the most powerful, social beliefs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.’ (op. cit.: 149) Once unleashed, these feelings can be self-amplifying and are no longer under the control of individuals or groups who seek to recruit them to their cause. They elicit a kind of love of the collective, but also a form of self-love: anyone who feels intensely British is at the same time revering themselves for being part of the heroic group. The creation of an in-group also produces an out-group through exclusionary processes which involve scapegoat-seeking, and may even cause violent behavior to protect the sanctity of the heroic group, which we experienced in Britain last week with the murder of a British politician.
Elias notes that nationalist feelings are not the only set of beliefs that form us as late modern citizens and which become our internalized habitus. In the West we are also brought up in a humanist, egalitarian moral code which values the individual human being as such, and encourages us to treat other individuals as we would expect to be treated according to a strict moral code. Both become facets of our characters which can call out feelings of guilt and bad conscience if breached. In this sense social norms can be contradictory and potentially set us at war with ourselves and with each other.
“People in societies whose ruling elites stand in the traditions of the industrial middle and working classes are generally brought up to believe in a moral code of norms according to which it is under all circumstances wrong to kill, maim or attack human beings physically, or to defraud, lie, steal or cheat. They are at the same time taught to believe that it is right to do all of these things, and to sacrifice their own lives, if that is found necessary in the interests of the sovereign society they form with each other.” (op. cit.: 161)
Elias draws attention to the difference between the British and the German way of resolving potential clashes of values. Traditionally Germans thought that it had to be either/or, while Britons have been taught to make what appear to Germans as muddled compromises. These pragmatic and negotiated ways of thinking about and resolving our individual and social dilemmas are increasingly under pressure, particularly when set in the context of longer term polarizing processes in UK society.
Both humanist and nationalist values are clearly visible in the daily back and forth of political debate, with perhaps nationalist arguments more visible in the Leave camp. But both tendencies show up on both sides. The forthcoming referendum provokes very strong emotions and differing interpretations of what it means to be British as people struggle over the ‘cult value’ of Britishness. For Leavers, often draping themselves in the Union Jack (literally in some photos of Leave rallies), claiming Britishness calls into play the paradox that Elias noted about nationalist feelings: that strongly identifying with a particular kind of British ‘we identity’ immediately produces an excluded group, people who do not share it, in this case immigrants to the UK, or perhaps EU ‘bureaucrats’.
There are lots of reasons that could be given for leaving the EU, many of them progressive. But I would argue that making a strong nationalist case for Britain leaving has automatically produced an out-group, or groups (migrants, EU bureaucrats, the ‘establishment’), in order to sustain it. It has led to self-amplifying and uncontrollable feelings, particularly towards those who are thought not to believe in a specific formulation of Britishness. It has also led to quasi-narcissistic fantasies, particularly in the Leave group, about the unique ability of the British people to make their way ‘on their own’ in the world, because of our inherent moral superiority. To an extent, these social processes are inevitable, but this is not to say that we can’t recognize what is happening to us and find ways of thinking and talking about them.
Elias, N. (1997) The Germans, Cambridge: Polity Press.