Some thoughts on nationalism

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I would like to comment briefly on the discussion on Scottish nationalism. I do not know the political history of Scotland in detail, but I am quit familiar with the mess nationalism is creating in Belgium. It is far from a simple question, and one can not take a general attitude: all depends on the circumstances, who is arguing for independence and for what reason.
The traditional position of Marxism towards the national question is the following:

1. we are in favour of the right of self-determination, providing that the rights of national minorities are protected, but at the same time,
2. we are implacably opposed towards any division of the working class.

Furthermore, being in favour of the right of self-determination does not mean that we advocate it. Sometimes we need to opposite it explicitly, as was the case before and during the break-up of Yugoslavia.

The demand of (more) independence is on the rise in the whole of Europe. It exist in Spain (Bask Country, Catalonia), in Belgium (Flanders), in Italy (Lombardy…) etc. In all these cases, the demand for more regional powers or even independence comes from right wing parties in the rich northern parts that do not want to subsidise the poorer south. Just as racist ideas divide and affect the working class, these nationalist demands also affect and divide workers. So, that sort of nationalism is a poison that we bitterly have to oppose.

But there is something else. Nationalism is not always right wing. In the sixties in Belgium, there was a strong left wing nationalist movement in Wallonia. The Walloon workers felt oppressed in a unitary Belgian state, dominated by right-wing Flemish Catholics. So they wanted a federal state with regional parliaments and governments. They thought that the left could have a political majority in Wallonia and that a Walloon government could then carry out ‘anti-capitalist structural measures’ to solve mass unemployment that was a result of the decline of the mining and steel industries.

Today, real power of all national states in Europe have been eroded as a result of a power shift towards the EU, Europe’s answer to globalisation, deregulation and neoliberalism. In the past, national governments had, within certain margins, some financial instruments to their disposal to ‘regulate’ the national economy: they controlled to a certain extent the money supply and interest rates. Since the introduction of the euro, monetary policy is in the hands of an ‘independent’ European Central Bank. Its independence means that it defends the interests of the big corporations and financial institutions. It is an important institution over which the European citizens have lost every control. Even state spending, another instrument that governments used to soften crises and influence the national economy, was restricted by the Maastricht Treaty and even more so after the PIGS-crisis. Today, European governments in the euro-zone need the approval of the EU before they can put they budget before their own national parliament! Governments that go against the logic of the so-called free market, are immediately punished by the financial markets.

It is against this background that we have to understand the rise of modern nationalism in Europe. The total capitulation before the logic of the markets and the handing over of real power to unelected and therefore undemocratic international institutions undermines liberal democracy in all countries. In an European framework where people are loosing their grip on their national governments, in the absence of a left an international alternative, the gap is filled by regional nationalists calling for (more) independence, witch is off course an illusion within a global economy.

In Belgium, the nationalists are saying that Belgium will dissolve in Europe anyway, so why do we need this extra federal institution? The country is without a federal government since 250 days. ‘We’ broke the record government formation of Iraq. But everything is going well: the economy is growing by 2 percent, the budget deficit and state dept are declining, the regional governments are functioning, and so who needs a federal government anyway? Amongst the many discussions on the reform of the Belgian state, there is one proposal to have all the elections (regional, European and federal) at the same time, because people are tired to vote (in Belgium voting is obligatory). What should be the highpoint of democracy is more and more presented as a big burden. This means that democracy is presented as a burden: Why vote? All politicians are the same! Nothing changes! This is the basis for right (N-VA in Flanders; Wilders in Holland, etc) and left wing (SP in Holland) populist movements and parties.

In this context, the idea of ‘independence’ presented as a form of a stronger local democracy hits a cord, although the reasoning it is flooded with contradictions. Bart De Wever, the leader of the N-VA, the right-wing nationalist party that grew in a couple of years from 5% to 28% of the vote in Flanders (and today 33% according to the opinion polls) says more or less the following: We will save on one government (the federal level) and bring democracy closer to the people! All sorts of economic decisions are shifting to the European level, but personal related issues need to be treated on a local level where there exist a common culture, language, etc. The N-VA says that Belgium is composed of two different and even incompatible democracies because of cultural and political differences. The main contradiction of the N-VA off course is that it is hiding behind Europe, and for one reason or another, the 26 democracies and I do not know how many cultures and languages and economic uneven developments are perfectly compatible within a European structure, but not in a Belgian one. This contradiction has been pointed out by European commentators who see the survival of Belgium as a test case for the political future of Europe. If Belgium that hosts the capital of the EU cannot keep its unity, how on earth do you think that a further political integration of Europe is possible?

Anyway, just as in the past the left in Wallonia felt dominated by a right wing majority in Flanders and therefore wanted more regional powers to fight the crisis, today the right wing in Flanders wants to carry attacks on the welfare state feel but it feels blocked by a left wing majority in Wallonia, hence the call for more regional powers. The Walloon left on the other hand does not talk about anti capitalist structural measures anymore. But they do need public funds to ‘stimulate’ the local economy and they are afraid that more regional autonomy under the present circumstances will mean less money. Therefore they resisted for three years any proposal to reform the state, strengthening the position of the nationalists in the North. Today they capitulated on many issues, but it is still not enough for the Flemish nationalists, hence the political impasse. By the way, living standards in Wallonia are more than 20% lower than in Flanders and unemployment is twice as high, although it has less than 35% of the population (6,1 million live in Flanders, 3,4 million in Wallonia and over 1 million in Brussels).

The question is: can we support the democratic demand for more regional powers (including the power for taxation or ‘nationalisation’) if the demand comes from the left, as was the case in Wallonia in the sixties, and oppose it if it comes from the right as is the case today in Flanders? As I said in the beginning, our approach should be different according to the circumstances. There is in my opinion no principal position on the question of independence. But that is not to say that we should not have a principal position on democracy and solidarity. The whole idea of socialism is taken control over ones own live, in the workplace, in the neighbourhood, community, region, country, etc. We need to have a say in all the decisions that concern our personal lives. So I think we need to take up the idea of ‘more local democracy’ and ‘real power’ for all political institutions that exist, because otherwise they are just paper tigers, window dressing to fool people and give ‘more job for the boys’ in the form of more political personnel. But I think we also need to point out the limitations of these demands and put them in an international context. That means we have to link them with the need for real democratic European institutions, stressing the unity of the working class or “citizens” (as the bulk of wage earners do not consider themselves as workers but citizens or middle class), and that we need to do in a concrete way.

No what about Scotland? I see a parallel with Wallonia in the sixties, with the difference that Wallonia had closing coalmines and Scotland has North Sea oil. Also in Belgium three different languages are spoken whereas in Britain, everyone is supposed to speak the same language (with the exception of Welsh). But there is an important political parallel: a right wing government in London is ruling Scotland where there is a left majority. So the demand for an independent Scotland is understandable, but it cannot be supported uncritically. There can also be a parallel in a negative sense: ‘let’s keep the oil for ourselves’…

So the question is: what would a left wing government in an independent Scotland do? Nationalise the oil? And what is the CONCRETE solidarity link with the workers/citizens in the other parts of Britain, the EU and, for that mater, the rest of the world?

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