The reactionary firebrands of ‘Real England’

Paul Kingsnorth’s Nietzschean call for the ‘watchful ones’ to defend proud England from the ‘slaves’ of mass modern society is about as liberal or left-wing as Genghis Khan.

Neil Davenport

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Despite the recent electoral successes of the UK Conservative Party, the ideology of British conservatism has, for a while, been seen as an outdated relic, alongside the culture of deference, racial politics and Empire. How strange, then, that traditionalist or aristocratic conservatism is undergoing something of a political revival – and how bizarre that its sly rehabilitation has been assisted by metropolitan liberals and the dog ends of the British radical left.

Initially, the re-emergence of these deeply reactionary ideas was superficially obscured by the unkempt dreadlocks, nose-piercings and juggling of those who spouted them on anti-globalisation ‘carnivals’ in the late 1990s. After all, crusties with dogs-on-string are not readily identifiable with such aristocratic concerns as restoring English heritage, keeping the riff raff off the Green Belt, or with Prince Charles’ twittering on organic farms.

Indeed, many well-heeled anti-globalisation activists went quite far in their attempts to disguise their elite ideas and origins. Many writers adopted a screeching but utterly bogus strand of ‘anti-capitalism’ to appear right-on and radical. And in order to give themselves an aura of Messianic conviction, they would denounce anyone who adopted Karl Marx’s argument – that capitalism has an historically progressive character – as right-wing or ‘corporate apologists’.

Journalist, author and anti-globalisation activist Paul Kingsnorth is one such reactionary firebrand, as revealed in his new book Real England. A sometime contributor to the Independent, the Daily Telegraph and the New Statesman, his first book on the anti-globalisation movement was titled One No, Many Yeses, and he often collaborates with green Tory and multimillionaire Zac Goldsmith on the Ecologist magazine. Kingsnorth is a rural restorationist who poses as a radical denouncing corporate capitalism. And oddly enough, because he considers himself part of the liberal-left, he seems to feel even freer than old-fashioned Tories to indulge his elitist and destructive ideas about mass society.

George Monbiot’s last book, Heat, and some of his recent articles have advocated reducing the living standards of ordinary people and have even welcomed the coming economic recession (1). In a similar vein to Heat and Andrew Simms’ Tescopoly, Kingsnorth’s Real England: The Battle Against the Bland is a no-holds barred championing of aristocratic conservatism combined with a love for the ‘blood and soil’ mythology of peasant ideologies. Kingsnorth’s book comes across as an alarming, frequently unmediated expression of elitist horror at mass society.

Standardised arguments against progress

Kingsnorth’s main thesis is that a combination of corporate self-interest and government centralisation is destroying the ‘distinctive culture’ of England and replacing it with a homogenised and sterile landscape. This is now a familiar – one might even say ‘standardised’ – grievance: that shopping malls, chainstores and supermarkets are forcing the closure of small independent retailers and wiping out the ‘character’ of local areas.

Kingsnorth extends this long-rehearsed complaint to examine the demise of real ale pubs, Britain’s canals and waterways, small farmers and rural villages. He is savvy enough to know just how queasy and musty this Village Green Preservation Society/Campaign For Real Ale kind of thing can sound. So in a pre-emptive strike, he says critics will inevitably say that a complainer such as he ‘must be a nostalgic reactionary or a tiresome romantic, fuelled by loathing for a whole range of things – Europe, America, globalisation, progress’. And over the course of 300 pages, guess what? Yep, Kingsnorth comes across as a nostalgic reactionary and a tiresome romantic for all aspects of Ye Olde Englande.

His attempts to dismiss the marvels of electricity, mobile phones, centrally heated property, 4×4 cars, giant supermarkets and motorways make him sound like a pious, finger-tapping vicar bemoaning the ‘evils’ of the modern age. His critique – if you can call it that – of urban development hinges on such laughably ‘sensitive’ phraseology as ‘intangible sense of loss and meaning’, ‘a demise of place and belonging’, which apparently leads to a rash outbreak of ‘existential despair’. Such cringing terms may sit well with the government’s embarrassing ‘happiness agenda’, but they are a big fat nothing for those of us aspiring to improve our lot. Real England is a manifesto for stripping modern society of abundance and returning, quite literally, to a dirt-poor peasant existence.

Kingsnorth says there’s a groundswell of public opinion which despises standardisation, people who would rather live a simpler existence than put up with Tescos, Topmans and McDonalds popping up everywhere. Yet although he interviews a few local protesters against new development, I’m not convinced that standardisation is as widely despised as he claims. The established argument against the standardisation of goods and services is that it undermines diversity and character, and leads to a bland uniformity that is ultimately dehumanising (though what is more bland than acres upon acres of trees and fields?). Essentially, such an argument about the state of England is based, not on any practical and objective criteria, but on entirely subjective aesthetics and tastes. Kingsnorth and others simply don’t like certain aspects of modern society, and care not a jot for whether these things have made people’s lives easier or freer. His and others’ petty concerns should not be treated as ‘political issues’ in need of immediate action or redress; that would be to elevate the narrowly personal view of a handful of moaners over what the public really needs and wants.

Many of us do not see supermarkets and shopping malls as having anything to do with aesthetics; we’ll leave that to museums, art galleries and art-house cinemas. Instead, the ‘one stop shop’ of the mall and supermarket provides us with choice and convenience, enabling us to cut back on the drudgery of shopping and to free up our valuable time to do something more rewarding and enjoyable instead. Despite what the anti-consumerists say, for most of us shopping is a dreary chore – which is the main reason why internet retail has boomed in recent years. Shopping is entirely pragmatic and practical and not some kind of lifestyle ritual – which is partly why both the giant store and independent shop can actually coexist quite well.

Most of us are not like Kingsnorth, Goldsmith and other well-to-do greens – we are not interested in taking sides in the clash between Corporate Chains on one side and Independent Retailers on the other, because neither has a monopoly on quality and convenience. A retail chain such as HMV is excellent for a trolley dash to get cut-price DVDs and back-catalogue albums; but the specialist record shop is better if you want the latest hard-to-find American import. Likewise, most of us shop at supermarkets for staple stuff, and at specialist shops for luxury cheeses, wines and game birds (2). We mix it up.

In fact, it is precisely because of the advancement of standardisation that more people can afford to splash out on luxury items. The main benefit of standardisation is that it reduces commodity prices, enabling ordinary people to satisfy their basic needs quite straightforwardly. Where in the 1940s and 50s up to two-thirds of people’s income was spent on staple foods, today the cheapening of basic commodities means we have more money left over to purchase the specialised ‘artisan’ goods and services that Kingsnorth champions. Far from standardisation leading to a flattened homogeneity, the abundance of easily affordable basics has enabled the market for diverse foods to flourish more than in any other historical period. Standardisation hasn’t deprived the shopper of consumer choice; it has enabled more and more people to access specialised goods. And maybe this is why the likes of Kingsnorth want jealously to guard specialised goods as exclusive domains for themselves; they don’t like the mucky masses getting their hands on their ‘special’ stuff.

It is political folly to demand that we ‘take sides’ on small business vs big business, or local vs global. In his chapter on the demise of local pubs, Kingsnorth seems confident that even the most ardent supermarket shopper will prefer an old-fashioned pub to a gleaming but rather sterile wine bar. But even here, it’s not that clear cut. A well-kept Victorian boozer can indeed be a preferable drinking den to a sanitised chain bar – but equally, a Tudor-beamed village pub may not be the most welcoming place to have a pint; sometimes, for example, ‘outsiders’ or people who ‘look different’ are not welcome. Furthermore, some of the ragged and decrepit independent boozers that I once tried to avoid in Islington became far more inviting when they were bought up and turned into oak-panelled gastropubs. Certainly, the quality of food in pubs is far better now than in the 1970s, when a cellophane-wrapped ploughman’s lunch with sweaty cheese was de rigueur.

Of course, it is true that the anti-social smoking ban and petty council regulations have contributed to the sanitisation of the adult drinking experience. Kingsnorth touches upon this as an example of the ‘colonisation’ of public space by official health zealots. If he was serious about finding concrete examples of how the quality of life in England has declined, then he might have spent more time investigating the dead hand of the risk-averse culture and stifling over-regulation rather than moaning about the existence of the Slug and Lettuce pub chain. The reason why Kingsnorth doesn’t expand on the theme of anti-social government measures is because, fundamentally, he shares the same prejudices about people and taste for authoritarianism as those local authorities he criticises. So while he praises village pubs and their ‘red faced’ regulars for ignoring council regulations, he describes superpubs in town centres as ‘binge-drinking sheds’ with ‘slab-shouldered bouncers, Bacardi Breezers and vomit-stained, Friday night no-go zones’. Clearly some revellers – the city-based, working-class kind – do need a clip around the ear from officialdom.

Kingsnorth’s raging bile is directed against urban dwellers; he demands that the ‘secret, special place’ of canals, waterways and small villages be protected from ‘urban overspill’. The trouble is, there’s a glaring contradiction between his jealous guarding of the Green Belt and his complaint that independent pubs and shops are rapidly closing down in towns and cities. The general process he describes is not entirely down to the muscle and might of corporate chains – it is also a consequence of the over-subscribed demand for available living space. This means that landlords can hike up their rent demands to small shopkeepers, and property developers can make financial offers to landlords that are more than worth their while.

If environmentalists didn’t have so much influence in relation to planning applications, property developers would be able to meet the housing demand by building on rural land that is simply going to waste. Such an increased supply of housing would alleviate demand in inner cities, making it more difficult for landlords and developers to drive small businesses out of inner-city areas. Ironically, then, the pro-rural, anti-development agenda proposed by Kingsnorth and other more influential greens is directly contributing to one of his major complaints: the collapse of traditional pubs and small shops in towns and cities.

Freeing up the Green Belt to allow existing and new communities to flourish in new homes and new towns is anathema to Kingsnorth. As he says time and time again, his blood-and-honour ‘call to arms’ is about permanently rooting indigenous communities to their existing living arrangements in order to strengthen their ‘sense of belonging’. He rails against a proposed house-building programme near the Kent town of Ashford because it will lead to an extended network of suburbs and the demise of a ‘place-based culture’. Right-wingers have long opposed influxes of foreign immigrants on exactly the same basis. Kingsnorth goes a step further: he opposes nearby ‘townies’ moving to the country and contributing to ‘the tearing up of roots which previously kept places like this, and the people in them, connected to the land’.

The return of a peasant ideology

Kingsnorth’s rationale for extolling the virtues of a peasant existence goes something like this. ‘Humans have lived on and from the land for 99 per cent of their history. They have moved with the seasons and the wider natural world of which they are still a part… In the grand scheme of things, a couple of centuries of urban industrialism is a drop in time’s ocean. Maybe this is what fuels those dreams. Our heads may have broken with the countryside, but our hearts are still there.’ In his vision of a ‘Real England’, the urban working-class and foreign immigrants have no real place because they are not connected by bloodline to an existence on the land. The lower classes and foreign outsiders must be kept at bay.

A similar outlook was once expressed by the French philosopher Walter Darré, who extolled folk traditions and craft skills over the ‘essentially empty products of Western civilisation’ (3). One dangerous consequence of these ‘blood and soil’ arguments is that they can lead to a call for drastic reductions in population levels in order to preserve the fabled village green and farmlands. It’s no surprise, then, that Kingsnorth fully supports the Malthusian pressure group, Optimum Population Trust. Indeed, continually throughout Real England he expresses revulsion for the mass of the population who are ruining ‘a way of life’ for a tiny minority of the nation. Far from seeing other people’s creativity and energy as things that might be harnessed to create something better on a grand scale, Kingsnorth only sees ‘other people’ and their habits as destructive and oppressive. While he may appear to be fighting against the trappings of modernity, in truth he seems dramatically estranged – as are so many other misanthropic environmentalist thinkers – from common humanity.

In his path-breaking The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), British author and academic John Carey noted a similar connection between a hatred of modernity and a loathing for humanity. Both Carey and Kingsnorth quote the novelist JB Priestley, noting his contempt for mass society. Yet where Carey argued that such anti-mass sentiments and peasant ideology found their ‘ultimate exponent in Hitler’, Kingsnorth argues that these anti-modern ideas were ‘eerily prescient’ and the ‘predictions have come resoundingly true’. So where Carey’s survey of anti-modernity sentiments served as a grim warning about what can happen when society loses its sense of humanity, for Kingsnorth precisely the same ideas serve as ‘a call to arms’ to ‘restore England’s heritage’.

‘Wage war against the masses’?

On the accompanying blog for Real England, Kingsnorth recently quoted approvingly an old Joni Mitchell lyric about the ‘watchful ones among the slaves’, and argued that today, he and his tiny number of supporters are the ‘watchful ones’ amongst the rest of us – the slaves. That is, he is an apparently enlightened intellectual as against the slavish, unthinking 9-to-5 masses. As John Carey noted, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche also believed that a ‘higher man is needed’ to ‘wage war against the masses’, in order to save humanity from the ‘tyranny of the least and the dumbest’. Thrust into his self-appointed role as a superman fighting a ‘battle against the bland’, Kingsnorth modestly says: ‘Somebody’s got to do it. It’s not a bad job.’ (4)

The truly remarkable thing is how aristocratic and cranky right-wing ideas have been accepted as good coin by the liberal-left. On one hand, Kingsnorth’s blathering about ‘a tiny elite ruining the country’ sounds vaguely radical and anti-elitist. And it is probably enough to make the pulse race amongst disorientated left-wing readers of his book. He jests that parts of the book ‘make me sound like a Marxist, but I’m not’, which implies some kind of sympathy with the workers. In truth, Kingsnorth’s romantic clarion call for man – well, some men, the ‘watchful ones’ – to return to a simpler, peasant existence goes against everything that Marx stood and fought for. As Marshall Berman noted in his seminal All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (itself a quote from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto), ‘in the literature on modernism, Marx is not recognised in that [modernist] way at all’ (5). Clearly, Kingsnorth and the other anti-globalisation activists are also unfamiliar with Marx’s commitment to modernity.

A quote from The Communist Manifesto should immediately dispel any notion that Marx would support such a small-minded, parochial, nationalistic entity as Kingsnorth’s ‘Real England’. ‘The bourgeoisie, in its reign of barely a hundred years, has created more massive and colossal productive powers than have all previous generations put together’, wrote Marx and Engels. ‘Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to agriculture and industry, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even an intimation that such productive powers slept in the womb of social labour?’ As Berman correctly noted, ‘what matters to Marx are the processes, the powers, the expressions of human life and energy: men working, moving, cultivating, communicating, organising and reorganising nature and themselves’ (6). After reading Real England, you get the impression that, had he been around in earlier eras, Kingsnorth would have considered the horse and cart, the spinning jenny and the printing press as dangerous innovations that might unsettle and disrupt village life.

There is nothing proposed in Real England that could feasibly improve the living standards and liberties of the mass of working people in Britain. In fact, as he haughtily dismisses those of us with mainstream jobs in favour of singing the praises of foragers, farmers and boatmen, Kingsnorth has written a barely concealed elitist diatribe against urbanites and suburbanites. By rights, such antiquated ideas should be in the dustbin of history, alongside using leeches to cure ailments or putting pigs on trial for murder. Unfortunately, at a time when Prince Charles is no longer considered mad and traditionalist conservatism is seen as progressive, Kingsnorth’s war against the masses will find many a footsoldier on the liberal left as well as on the right, amongst aristocrats, and probably in the far right too.

And he has the cheek to label those of us who, like Marx, support bigger and better progress as ‘right-wing’. Get real.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Real England: The Battle Against the Bland, by Paul Kingsnorth is published by Portobello Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) ‘Bring on the Recession’, George Monbiot, Guardian, 9 October 2007

(2) See What’s behind the rise of Tecophobia?, by Neil Davenport

(3) See The nasty history of supermarket-bashing by Neil Davenport

(4) Culture in decline, Real England blog, 8 May 2008

(5) All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, by Marshall Berman, Verso, 1982, p88

(6) All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, by Marshall Berman, Verso, 1982, p93

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