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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' that matters.

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 strength.

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 to China.

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 pub.

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 and nowhere.

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 logos.

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 record shops.

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.