National anthems, culture and politics

Jonathan Friedland (Guardian 18th Sept) thinks ‘you can go left on economic questions but only if you are impregnable on cultural ones’. Specifically, Jeremy Corbyn has to be able to sing the national anthem if he wants to make his case on economic questions. This might sound like common-sense – it is harder to make the case for economic radicalism if you have offended your audience – but it couldn’t be more wide of the mark. Economics is about politics, politics is about power, and power is deeply rooted in culture. The monarchism, militarism and jingoism of the national anthem are extreme examples of the culture – and who really­ means it when they sing those silly words – but the rites and symbols of a conservative culture bind economic radicals more tightly than physical chains.

The ‘national’ interest, defined as always by the cultural arbiters, sets definite limits to any economic policy. So does the understanding of democracy and consent so that economic planning, even under the Atlee government, could only operate to the extent that employer agreement was secured (which meant it didn’t work at all).

There is no economic radicalism worthy of the name that can live happily alongside a conservative  nationalism that defines ‘British’ interests against those of Europe and worker and citizen interests against immigrants. Or a culture that sets strivers against shirkers, one that elevates some to rule over us and others who have to fight to make their voices heard.

A really radical political movement will have to break through the web of cultural (ideological)  constraints on its freedom to think and to act before a radical economic policy will see the light of day.

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