I was camping by a lake when I heard the news. My son and I were off fishing and hiking in Connemara in the Irish west, hunting down pollock and wrasse and trout, and plunging into bogs on the slopes of the Twelve Bens. I’d do this most days if I were allowed.
Last Thursday evening we were camped on the shores of a lough, cooking our day’s catch on a grill as the sun set. Remote though we were, there was still — unfortunately — a phone signal, so my wife was able to bring us the unwelcome news from the outside world.
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“Did you hear that the Queen died?” she said.
I hadn’t heard. I had been living in a different world for a while, but now the bigger, bleaker one had broken back in. I was surprised at the sense of loss that swept over me. You have to be British to understand this — and British at this moment in time especially. For my entire lifetime, and almost all of the lifetime of my parents, “the Queen” was just there. She was on the stamps and the coins and the telly every Christmas. Technically, she owned the whole country and had the power to dismiss governments and sack prime ministers, but we all knew she would never use them. Even republicans admitted a sneaking admiration for her sense of duty and work rate. At least somebody in the country, ran the subtext, still knew what duty actually meant.
The Queen lasted: nothing else did. Come up with whatever diagnoses you please, blame who you like, but you can’t deny Britain’s downward trajectory over her reign: steep, dizzying, painful. Only the Queen stood still, or seemed to, and as she did so she represented something much older than any of the rules we live by. A monarch has sat on the throne of England for 1,500 years. The meaning of this is mostly inaccessible to our argumentative modern minds.
Now we have a new monarch, we British, and sitting by that Irish lake last week I felt both sad and, suddenly, homesick. I felt that I wanted to be back in my country to share what was happening with my people. All the ceremony that is unfolding around me as I write, leading us smoothly and impressively towards the funeral and the coronation that will inevitably follow, embodies at once both the determination of the British state to maintain itself and the strange, proud, bloody-minded anachronism of the whole business.
How much longer can it last? The republicans and the rationalists have mostly been keeping their heads down this week, as the tide of media-fanned national sentiment roars over them. But those who want to “modernise” the country still further will be back soon enough. A monarchy is, after all, an offence against modernity. It is a hang-up from an earlier, more organic age, which at its worst is a trapdoor to a particular type of tyranny (our new king’s ancestral namesake ended up with his head in a basket on this charge), but at its best is a bulwark against another: the money-power of digital modernity. A monarchy is irrational, uncommercial and inexplicably mystical. It embodies tradition passed down through time. As such, it is deeply “unrepresentative” according to the current, constipated definition of that word, and yet it manages somehow to represent the country better than any elected politician, celebrity, pundit or philosopher ever could.
For all these reasons, a monarchy in the Machine age will always be in the crosshairs. What, after all, is the point of a monarch in the modern world? There is really only one: to represent a country and its history; to be a living embodiment of the spirit of a people. As such, the throne represents to its critics more than some putative offence against “democracy”: it stands for something whose very existence is increasingly contentious in its meaning, form and direction: the nation itself.
I recently wrote about the home, and its degradation by the culture of the Machine. We are all being levered out of the domestic sphere and sold instead a pseudo-egalitarian fulfilment “in the workplace”, at capitalism’s behest, upending our family lives and diminishing our self-sufficiency. I suggested that the home can be a place of independence and of resistance to this process — for a real home is an economy, a dwelling, and a web of mutual care. For this reason, the home, and the family which inhabits it, must be broken if the Machine is to triumph.
If this is true at the domestic level, it can be true at the national level too. A nation is, at least in theory, a home on a grander scale: a home for a people. “Nation” is one of those over-capacious words which, if not used carefully, can mean almost anything and almost nothing. A term which can be applied both to an Amazon tribe and the United States of America has to be handled carefully. The connecting tissue, though, is that a nation is a group of people with a shared sense of self, forged through time. Quite how that “people” is constituted or defined is as varied as the nation itself, which may be of the tribal, ethnic, civic or imperial variety. But a nation remains a signifier of group belonging, something which seems to have defined humans, for better or for worse, since humans have been around.
Like a monarchy, then, a nation can be hard to define, or perhaps even to justify, at least on reason’s terms, and yet it offers the human psyche something that it seems to need. It should be obvious enough at this point what our Machine anti-culture has to say about this kind of thing. It has to say: no. At its best, a nation is both a home for a people and a repository of history. At its very best, it may also be built around some spiritual or cultural story that transcends Machine values, and its laws or structures may offer its people something other than participation in the metastasising consumer globoculture. Even if our nation does not, in fact, offer us any of this, it is clear that growing numbers of people would like it to. This explains the rift between “nationalism” and “globalism”, which defines much of our current moment.
That rift is in many ways a pushback against the anti-national sentiment that has been evident amongst Western cultural elites for decades. Throughout my lifetime, a relentless deconstruction of the legitimacy of nationhood has been a constant background thrum, rising in recent years to a devouring roar. The right to national self-determination is a founding principle of international law, and yet speaking up in favour of it today is enough in some circles today to see you accused of blood and soil nativism. As for defending actual links between people and place across time: don’t even think about it, unless you fancy being labelled a white supremacist.
To understand the reason for this attitude, we need to understand that Europe has not yet recovered from the trauma of the Second World War. If the Great War laid bare the failures of the old order, then World War II, for Europeans of a certain generation, delegitimised not simply a ruling class and its worldview, but the very existence of nation-states. European nations had been battling each other for centuries, but fascism, and especially National Socialism, revealed new depths to which a country might sink in pursuit of greatness or purity. Theodor Adorno famously claimed that it was “barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz”. For many Europeans, surveying the ruins of a continent demolished by fascism and then carved up by communism, it must have seemed equally barbaric to continue believing in nations.
It was in the bloody aftermath of this carnage that today’s dominant vision of a post-national world took root. The European Union, seeded in the Fifties, is rooted in this vision of national sovereignty “pooled” (read: abolished) for the greater good. The UN, the Bretton Woods settlement, and the entire structure of “global governance” constructed, under American direction, after 1945: all of it stems from this new post-war consciousness, which had no time for the jingle of spurs and the rattling of sabres. Instead, we were offered a new vision, of a borderless world of technocratic co-operation and peace.
Unfortunately, it turned out that a borderless, utopian world with no national boundaries and no national sovereignty also just happened to suit the interests of transnational capital and its enablers. It wasn’t long before universalist utopianism morphed into commercial globalism. Suddenly, “no borders” seemed less of a promise than a threat. Suddenly, those utopian elites chattering about the need to demolish the “social construct” of the nation sounded more like they were defending their own class interests than ushering us all towards broad sunlit uplands.
Years ago, when I was writing Real England, I had a strange sort of vision as I sat in a roadside cafe drinking a mug of tea. I looked out of the window, across the A-road, and saw the physical manifestation of the world this vision had built. I looked over at a couple of huge white boxes squatting on the landscape — delivery hubs, I think, for some supermarket. I saw them connected by the asphalt roads and the electric wires strung out by pylons, and by the invisible digital currents in the air. All of it was rectangular, straight-edged, dedicated to efficiency and the piling-up of riches. We were all products of this layout, I saw. It hadn’t come from here, of course. It hadn’t come from anywhere. Nothing like that even mattered anymore.
Since then, I have thought of this thing as the Grid. The Grid is a physical manifestation of the values of the Machine on the landscape itself. It is, I think, replacing the nation, just as it is replacing culture and antiquated notions of “tradition” and the like. The Grid does not care about tradition. It does not care about anything. It demeans both time and space, and its language is geometry and profit.
It goes without saying that the Grid is also global. Like electricity or the internet, it knows no borders, and neither do its children. It manifests as an identikit globoculture of sameness, a pipeline of product and corporate-progressive verbiage, and its proponents talk relentlessly about “diversity” because the Grid produces the precise opposite. We all know the bland, correct, corporate Gridspeak we must use to get by in this new country: it is what facilitates Progress, by which we mean uniformity disguised as difference.
In the world of the Grid, a nation becomes little more than a postcode or a glorified airport lounge. Its population is from everywhere and anywhere, its people consume global corporate culture rather than drawing their own from place and history, and its ruling class would always rather be somewhere else.
When I first noticed it back in the early 2000s, the Grid seemed unassailable; the End of History in physical form. Today though, like the End of History, it appears to be mired in the escalating mess of the present. In Europe, the nation is increasingly resurgent, and not just amongst monarchists. The unpopular attempt to replace older nations with newly engineered “multicultures”, combined with unprecedented rates of inward migration has, predictably, led to a political backlash, and a resurgence of nationalism. It is unlikely to retreat any time soon, and much of it might not be pretty either.
It would be easy enough to portray the current war over nationhood, as many do, as some David-vs-Goliath struggle between plucky little nations and dastardly globalists intent on their demise. To me, it looks more like a situation in which nobody is clear quite what they want or how to get it. Proponents of corporate globalism want a borderless, frictionless world that offers minimal “barriers to trade” and movement. Nationalists want prosperous nations without the cheap immigration that fuels prosperity. Liberals want multiculturalism and social cohesion, despite the persistent evidence that one undermines the other. The Left wants a world without borders that somehow also contains welfare states, and the Right wants to defend the traditional ethnic makeup of nations without acknowledging that ethnicity is increasingly meaningless in a globalised world.
This last point seems to me important. When the phone in your pocket allows you to make more friends in other countries than you can at school, when the whole world is converging on the same digitally-enabled globoculture, when you can log on to Instagram in Austria or Australia and order from Amazon in the Amazon, what does your “nationality”, let alone your “ethnicity”, even mean? Travelling around Europe this summer, seeing this reality in several different countries, I couldn’t help thinking that Machine modernity is, in some ways, an emerging ethnicity in its own right: a global cultural identity that, for many people, seems to be replacing any older, national or regional cultural markers.
It is in this context that so many people see the nation-state as a potential bulwark against unaccountable technocratic globalism. But it is also a reality that the nation-state is what has driven that globalism forward. While some nations are ancient things, nation-states in their modern form are mostly not: their rise coincides with the rise of modernity, and today they rarely represent the actual nations they purport to speak for. Too often, today’s nation-states are a toxic imitation of real nations. They are nodes in the Grid — economic units posing as cultural ones. They pledge themselves to their “people” and then get on with the job of following the dictates handed down by the EU, the WEF, Silicon Valley, the FTSE-100 or the White House, whether “the people” like it or not.
To many, nationalism seems like a reasonable response to this, and I think it can be, under some circumstances. But there are also good reasons to be nervous about what it can do to the human mind. Humans remain human, and it is easy enough for national feeling to shade into xenophobic triumphalism. Personally, I’ve long found myself in the uncomfortable position of valuing nations but mostly being repelled by nationalism.
I’m not sure what to do about this. It seems to me that if you hold your country lightly, it will nourish you, even complete you. Attach yourself to it needily or defensively or angrily, though, and it will make mincemeat of you just as surely as if you had marched off into the trenches singing the national anthem, only to come face to face with the machine gun nests.
What would the ideal nation look like, and could it act as a collective bulwark against the Machine rather than a driver of it? In the Dao De Jing, over 2,000 years ago, we find a beautiful vision: anarchic, localised, rooted, unobtrusive, soaked in actual, human meaning. It is also — and this is the key — very small. If it has ever actually existed, though, we are certainly a long way from living it now. Western “nations” today are vast, centralised, technocratic entities governed by oligarchies on behalf of big business. In this context, if we are going to talk about nations at all, and certainly if we are going to defend them, the only question that seems worth asking is: what are they for?
René Guénon, with whom our new king is familiar, wrote nearly a century ago in The Crisis of the Modern World that a nation without a spiritual purpose would inevitably be replaced in time by another which had one. Nationalism, he believed, was beside the point if the nation in question was nothing but a human collective in search of glory, or built around nostalgia. Either the West would rediscover the spiritual roots it had abandoned in pursuit of Machine values, or “Western civilisation will have to disappear completely”. As for those who shout about “defending the West”: they should remember that “it is the West that is threatening to submerge and drag down the whole of mankind in the whirlpool of its own confused activity”.
Nearly a century later, we subjects of the digital Grid can understand, perhaps, that Guénon was pointing at us. But it could be that as the global anti-culture trembles and begins to dissolve, our nations may emerge, caterpillar-like, in some new shape. As Guénon also wrote, “the passage from one cycle to another can take place only in darkness”. Perhaps the dissolution of the modern nation state into smaller, more anarchic, less centralised units is both inevitable and welcome. Perhaps then new nations will form, around a spiritual core and a love of their place, which will give to their people the kind of meaning which the nation-states of the Machine era have so successfully imitated while at the same time destroying. Perhaps we will live in real nations again. Perhaps we will build them.
Whatever happens, I suspect we will always need countries. We want to know where our ancestors came from, and where they are buried; we want to find the place that incubated our stories and our characters. Without a homeland we are always partial people; and when our homelands are taken away from us, or we are forced to leave them, the sense of loss can span generations. How many Americans call themselves “Irish” even when they’ve never visited the country? How many Europeans of Asian heritage are still unsure quite where home is? How many Brexit voters felt their country was changing in ways they didn’t understand and couldn’t control? Why are people furiously battling in the ongoing culture wars about the meaning of history and who gets to write it? For now, we are living through the high age of cosmopolis, and the Grid is its image laid out across the hills and the fields, like the Roman roads before it.
But change is coming. As it does, we might heed the words of the French philosopher Frédéric Bastiat who, writing before Guénon, offered his own warning about the consequences of facing in the wrong direction for so long:
“When misguided public opinion honours what is despicable and despises what is honourable, punishes virtue and rewards vice, encourages what is harmful and discourages what is useful, applauds falsehood and smothers truth under indifference or insult, a nation turns its back on progress and can be restored only by the terrible lessons of catastrophe.”
Or, if we prefer, we can take our guidance from Leonard Cohen, a more contemporary prophet — guidance which, I think, comes complete with the only hope worth having:
“I’ve seen the nations rise and fall,
I’ve heard their stories, heard them all,
But love’s the only engine of survival.”
A longer version of this essay first appeared at The Abbey of Misrule.