Know Your Place
Our landscape is becoming a shrine to global capital.
Restoring a sense of place and locality is the best
way to fight back; it is the only form of 'patriotism'
New Statesman, 5th September 2005
And so, it is agreed: we are all patriots now. From
the New Statesman to the Daily Telegraph, we all concur
- a renewed sense of national pride is the best response
to an attack on our national fabric from a new Enemy
Within. The London bombings have lent patriotism a new,
cross-political lease of life that would have seemed
unthinkable just a few years ago.
What do we have to be proud of? Take your pick. For
Michael Howard, it is about 'our democracy, monarchy,
rule of law, history.' For Tony Blair, on the other
hands, it is about 'values, not institutions' - splendidly
British values like 'fair play, creativity, tolerance
and an outward-looking approach to the world.' For the
right, this is a chance to show us that they were correct
all along: that a defence of traditional 'British values'
and institutions is our best defence against moral and
social anarchy. For the left, it is a chance to redefine
those values, and remould those institutions, but to
agree, nevertheless, that in national unity there is
Meanwhile, out in the streets and the fields of the
nation we are all now supposed to be so proud of, changes
are taking place that make a mockery of this whole esoteric
debate. While we sit in front of our laptops churning
out drivel about tolerance, fairness, multi-culturalism
and our unique ability to stand in queues politely,
the land we are all so newly attached to is being rapidly
remoulded in the interests of global capital. The irony
is writ large right outside our front doors.
The word 'patriotism' is rooted in the Greek 'patris'
- 'land of one's fathers' - and it is the land, not
the fathers, that we should be focussing on. For the
debate about patriotism is really a debate about belonging,
and amongst all the guff about 'values and institutions',
not one writer, politician, commentator or rent-a-quoter
seems to have mentioned the blindingly-obvious component
of belonging: the place to which we are supposed to
belong. The landscape itself.
Look around you, at the land of your fathers, mothers
or simply friends, and tell me what you see. Tell me
what there is to feel proud of. Increasingly, the landscape
that most of us live in is a soulless miasma of ring-roads,
superstores, 'drive-thrus', 'malls', identical redbrick
housing estates, new motorways, luxury gated apartment
communities and fast food restaurants. This is not the
Britain of our imagination. Increasingly, it is only
the officially protected bits - what Philip Larkin drily
called 'the tourist parts' - which remain green and
pleasant. Even the Dark Satanic Mills have been exported
Instead, the landscape that is supposed to be the root
of this new, inclusive patriotism is an increasingly
placeless canvas onto which the short-term needs of
a global consumer economy are painted; a palimpsest
of capital, smeared across layers of history and locality.
Whether we feel we belong here becomes an academic question
if 'here' is identical to everywhere else.
It's not hard to see what's happening. Take a short
walk around your neighbourhood, and the signs will be
clear enough. I did so just the other day, and saw a
dozen of them in less than a mile.
I saw the last working canal boatyard in the city, around
the corner from my house, under threat of being bulldozed
despite local objections and replaced by luxury flats
and a luxury restaurant. I saw my local pub - undistinguished,
homely, meaningful - closed down, stripped out and re-opened
as a theme bar with a silly name and a drinks list to
match. I saw the brewery which once served it, making
distinctive local beer with local water to a local recipe
since 1782, also gone, its ancient town centre site
now the Lion Brewery development, whose apartments start
at £330,000. I saw a once-public square in the
city centre, now a 'mall', complete with security guards
paid to stop you sitting down near the shopfronts.
All small things, each of them alone perhaps going unnoticed
or unremarked, but taken together with hundreds of thousands
of similar cases from elsewhere in the country, adding
up to something. A pattern. A trend. A change - fast,
on a national scale and not for the better.
What these changes have in common is this: in each case,
something distinctive is replaced by something bland;
something organic by something manufactured; something
definably local with something emptily placeless; something
human-scale with something impersonal.
The things that make our towns, villages, cities and
landscapes different, distinctive or special are being
eroded, and replaced by things which would be familiar
anywhere. It is happening all over the country - you
can probably see at least one example of it from where
you're sitting right now. The same chains in every high
street; the same bricks in every new housing estate;
the same signs on every road; the same menu in every
It seems almost as if battle has been declared on diversity,
distinctiveness, integrity and authenticity, by all
the armies of the plastic, the nebulous, the corporate
and the sham. The result is stark: everywhere is becoming
the same as everywhere else.
We are not alone in this, and it is no coincidence.
What is happening all over this country is part of an
international trend. The expanding, seemingly unchallengeable
global market requires uniformity of taste - we all
have to want the same things, feel the same things,
like and dislike the same things. Only that way can
markets cross cultural boundaries; only that way can
the neoliberal project succeed. At the same time, an
advanced industrial economy requires economies of scale
- which means mass production, the smoothing-out of
edges, uniform development; the standardised manufacture
of entire landscapes.
This is a political project, on a global scale, which
affects all of us at a very local level. In order for
the consumer economy to progress, we must cease to be
people who belong to neighbourhoods, communities, localities.
We must cease to value the distinctiveness of where
we are. We must become consumers, bargain-hunters, dealers
on an international trading floor. We must belong everywhere
If some of this language sounds familiar to New Statesman
readers, it is perhaps because of another irony, which
it might be worth acknowledging. 'National differences
and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more
vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie,
to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity
in the mode of production and in the conditions of life
corresponding thereto,' wrote Mark and Engels, nearly
160 years ago in The Communist Manifesto. 'The supremacy
of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster.'
Thus far, the global supremacy of the proletariat has
failed to materialise, but the global supremacy of the
market rolls on. As it does, parts of the traditional
left, their loathing of 'national differences' as sharp
as Marx's ever was, are helping those differences -
good and bad - to vanish beneath the one-size-fits all
global economy. In their fixation with 'internationalism',
their suspicion of anything that reeks of what Marx
liked to call 'reaction' and their consequent refusal
to stand with those who frame their resistance in terms
of place, identity or locality, they do the neoliberals'
job for them. The global market does it work, helping
national differences to vanish beneath a blanket of
skyscrapers, steel, asphalt, share prices and corporate
In this context, who are the heroes? Who are the minute-men
of what we might call a place-based resistance to this
homogenising economic fundamentalism? They are those
on the margins of political debate and economic influence.
They are the people dismissed by Marx as 'rural idiots'
and Tory politicians as 'nimbies'. They are people in
communities all over the country who refuse to lie down
before the juggernaut of a spurious progress, or to
sacrifice the landscapes and cultures that matter to
them for the benefit of a global economy which itself
is built on sand.
They are, at the same time, ordinary and extraordinary,
and they can be found everywhere.
They are the village community somewhere in rural England
which sees its only local pub closed down by the asset-stripping
pub corporation that owns it, and instead of allowing
it to be sold for housing, gangs together to raise enough
cash to buy it. They are the itinerant communities who
live on narrowboats all over the inland waterways of
Britain, who are conducting very local and very fierce
battles to save working boatyards and canalside facilities
from the avalanche of luxury housing headed their way.
They are the residents of London's Chinatown trying
to save their streets from predatory developers, and
the urban communities in Birmingham, Manchester, London
and Bristol working to prevent their street markets
from disappearing beneath office blocks. They are those
who fight the selling-off of playing fields, the privatisation
of urban parks and the raping of rural landscapes. They
are farmers and orchard workers, fishermen and road
protesters, council workers and the owners of independent
They are all those who stand in the way of economic
and political processes which squeeze history, character
and meaning from our landscape, and leave only money
in its place. You probably know one. Maybe you are one.
There are a lot of us about. Perhaps it's time we started
talking to each other.
Perhaps, too, this is 'patriotism' - in the truest,
most fiery and most radical sense of that misused word.
Institutions and values can divide us: the place we
live in can unite us, wherever we initially came from,
whatever our politics, our class or our religion. Urban,
rural, suburban - the landscape we inhabit is the one
thing that can bind us together, the one thing in which
we all have an interest: it is the real source of belonging,
and anyone who feels part of it can be.
This is a form of 'patriotism' that is surely worth
engaging in. It is one which should be able to unite
left and right. It is one which will annoy politicians
of all stripes, and get right up the nose of a global
money machine which wants us all to stop moaning, give
up and go shopping. In an age of global consumerism,
corporate power and the dominance of a homogenising,
placeless, economic ideology, the one truly radical
thing to do is to belong.
You want a patriotic duty? How about this one: don't
let them take your place away from you. Stand in their
way, get under their feet, frustrate their knavish tricks.
The irony is delicious but no less true for it: the
way to fight back is by knowing your place.