Bloc Thinking

by Chris Horner

Not long ago there was an article circulating on Facebook about ‘Hating the English’, originally published in a large circulation newspaper. The Irish author says something to the effect that once she thought it was just a few bad ones etc., but now she hates the lot of them. It’s been stimulated, I think, by the repulsive English nationalism that has been raising its head since Brexit, plus the usual ignorance about Ireland, Irish history and Irish interests on the part of your typical ‘Brit’. It’s not a very good piece of writing, and it has a rather slight idea in it. I’d ignore it but for the ‘likes’ and positive comments it’s received, particularly from ‘leftists’. It’s an example of what we could call ‘bloc thinking’ – the emotionally satisfying but futile consignment of entire masses of people into categories of nice and nasty.

It has a number of obvious problems. It is deeply unwise to brand entire national groups good or bad, to declare love or hate for whole ethnic or national communities. Too many English people have branded the Irish in just that way throughout their shared and troubled history; just repeating it the other way is hardly progress. This kind of thing is the habit of the worst kinds of right wing chauvinists, and we should steer well clear of it. We get the same kind of thing about, for instance, from ‘anti-imperialists’ despising the ‘Americans’ (meaning usually: ’citizens of the USA’).  This is particularly obtuse when it comes from people who have never visited the USA and don’t know anyone who lives there. Just think: 328 million people, rich and poor, white, black or brown, anglo and latino, from coast to coast. All dismissed, because policies emanating from ‘America’s’ ruling 1%. It is true that many – not all by any means – US citizens will have supported those policies, but that ought to be the beginning of a problem to think about, not the invitation to simple minded moralising. Fatuous generalisations are so obviously foolish that it might not detain us long, if it were not for the tendency of this kind of approach to encompass whole swathes of people, demographics and even generations as Good or Bad. So we get Greedy ‘boomers’ versus ‘millennials’, or whatever crass label is currently in use. And so on.

A number of otherwise serious minded people have resorted to this kind of thing to ‘explain’ the large numbers of people who voted for Trump in the US presidential election in 2016 and again in 2019.  So we get told that they are all culturally regressive, bigoted and stupid. Apart from the failure to do more than produce abusive labels, this kind of thing not only doesn’t differentiate between very different people and their motives, it also doesn’t address the causes of the big vote for Trump, what that might tell us about how people feel and what could be done to change their minds. Here the bien pensant liberals who hailed Biden really ought to do some careful thinking. Could it be that alienation from the political system and the huge vote for someone as obviously (to them) nasty as Trump had something to do with the persistent failure of the Democrats as well as Republicans to address inequality and precarity in the modern USA?  A similar failure of thinking and imagination in the the UK produces tired characterisations from liberals of the people who voted for Brexit: they are just a bloc of racists and xenophobes, thick and unpleasant British nationalists. But just how did the huge numbers of people who wanted to leave the EU actually get to that position? Perhaps it has something to do with the way part of the nation had been left behind by the neoliberal politics that enriched  a minority in the south East of England.

As for the English leftists that applauded the ‘Hating the English’ article: this is terrible politics, playing right into the hands of the far right and all the other nationalists who want to label all socialists and anti imperialists as traitors within, or threats without. Our goal, surely, is to unite progressive forces across national boundaries, not cement differences between them. Saying that does not imply a desire to obscure the way Britain’s imperialist history involved the killing, enslaving, crushing, exploiting and dehumanising ‘subject’ peoples. Too many British people still remain ignorant of their country’s imperial crimes. So we must remind them, among other things, about what that legacy is and how it lives on. But remember: the same governing class who sent redcoats to kill the Irish ‘Croppies’ on Vinegar Hill in 1798 sent cavalrymen to slash at unarmed working class people in St Peter’s Fields a few year later (‘Peterloo’).

Of course, you wouldn’t expect someone fighting English/British domination in Ireland (or elsewhere) to always make such nice distinctions – fighting an alien power is an all-out thing, and if British troops had shot my father I can imagine my impatience at separating my enemies into working class sheep and imperialist goats. But are those who ‘liked’ the article and wrote approving comments below it really in that situation, or anything like it? I know the feeling: it’s easy to want to vomit at the nationalist posturing and thickheaded insolence of our ruling elite and those who parrot its lies about ‘Our Island Story’, ‘The Indispensable Nation’, etc. But the moral ought to be: beware the vicarious impulse to fantasise about a ‘nation’s’  history – whether it be one’s own or anyone else’s.

Nationalism can have an historically progressive role to play when a subject people rises up to claim its freedom. But nationalism is toxic, in the end, and it poisons those who swallow its simplifications and stereotypes, its allies and enemies. It is too easy, another manifestation of the political infantilism that is Bloc Thinking. This is something that James Connolly, that great Irish freedom fighter and socialist understood: your oppressor can wear the clothing of a foreign power, and when it does, you fight it. But Capital, in the end, can rule you whatever the colour of your flag. In the end, it’s a much more complex global system that we have to oppose than can appear in the Great Simplifications of nationalism. 

None of this means we shouldn’t generalise. I have done it myself throughout this article. To think is to generalise, and we can’t be forever making the nicest distinctions about everything. But we ought to try to drill down into the large summations and broad groupings that we use. Too often they express no more than wish fulfilment, our fantasies or our lazy avoidance of dwelling with hard problems. This is difficult, for if we are going to take a stand on anything we shall have to act as well as think through the complexities. But we should always be prepared to let some uncertainty into our considerations. Since we must generalise, we must generalise better. We must try to think better.