Saturday, 3 August 2013

The Civil Religion Of Britishness

In his classic essay "Civil Religion In America", Robert Bellah delineated the manner in which the mythology of the founding and development of the United States of America amounted to an unconscious, or semi-conscious, religion that paralleled the nation's Christian foundations with its own Moses (George Washington), its own scriptures (the Constitution), its own divine mission (Manifest Destiny) and eschatology (The Shining City On The Hill, the light of mankind).

Britain too would appear to host a civil religion, rich in emotive signifiers whose ubiquity in recent years would tend to indicate that it is in rude health. The symbols of monarchy, the Union Flag and the military are more prevalent than they have been for many years, and yet there is little recognition that they represent a cosmology that the majority of the British people are spiritually embedded in. If these institutions are questioned at all, they are dismissed as a kind of false consciousness, or an archaic remnant. Indeed, it wasn't so long ago that all these symbols appeared played out; a hangover from the past that needed to be shed in order for society to progress. "This Is England" by The Clash is the superlative summation of that moment, when Thatcherism in its most destructive phase reinforced the gloom of the collapse of the post-war consensus, and the Falklands War revealed an anachronistic, redundant yearning for Empire.

That Britishness is a real, if largely unrecognised, civil religion is revealed by how its contents are subject to contestation. Margaret Thatcher's funeral, a state funeral in all but name, was an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the Right to canonise her as one of the nation's secular saints. Similarly, the Olympic opening ceremony was a more successful attempt by the "acceptable" Left, those that don't question the basic structure of the civil religion, to further embed the National Health Service, and the industrial contribution of the working class into the cosmology. Robson Green's recent documentary on the North had a similar purpose.

The reason the civil religion of Britishness evades identification is because unlike most Western civil religions, it is non-eschatological, and this is its strength. If it resembles anything, it is like a violent version of Taoism: Britain is endlessly waymaking itself through the world, meeting similarly endless external challenges with a mixture of cunning, innovation, and, where necessary, brute force. This is what makes the likes of James Bond and Dr. Who such emblematic British figures. And they share with their homeland its most remarkable feature - the ability to re-invent and rejuvenate. If "This Is England" captures Britain at a nadir, at a moment when its myths and narratives appear spent, then it signals not the end, but the time to call in a new team with new ideas and a new script.

But, as John Michael Greer has pointed out, every religion, including civil religions, must have an anti-religion, which inverts its core values in order to give succour to the disappointed and discontented. The classic example of an anti-religion is Satanism, which with its own bible, rites and masses exactly inverts the Christianity whose promises have proven so unsatisfactory. In the same way, Ayn Rand's Objectivism is the the anti-religion of Communism, inverting the elevation of the collective with the elevation of the individual.

And it is in the residue of the once august civil religion of Marxist Socialism that we find the anti-religion of the civil religion of Britishness, in the anti-patriotism of the contemporary radical Left, with its dancing on Thatcher's grave, jeering of Royal Weddings, and animus towards Remembrance poppies. It's sobering nowadays to read a book like Ted Grant's "The Unbroken Thread" and realise how confident British Marxism once was. Grant, born Isaac Blank in South Africa, formed the Trotskyist Workers' International League in the 1940's, and his writings in this period of crisis for ruling class ideology are blithely unconcerned with the patriotic symbols of Britishness. For Grant, the victory of Marxism was inevitable because it was a scientifically superior system of organisation, and was bound to win out in the Darwinian competition for economic efficiency. Indeed, the social inequality that was a product of liberal capitalism was proof proper of its inefficiency.

Grant viewed Britain's capitalist class with a kind of indulgent pity: they were yesterday's men, bound for the dustbin of history, no matter how often the backsliding trades union bureacracy or treacherous Stalinists allowed them a reprieve. There's a similar tone in the contemporaneous writings of Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson; a sense of men who know themselves to be on the winning side of history. It would no doubt astonish them to find today's Left as an effectively ghettoised sect, casting impotent symbolic spells against the blithely uncomprehending followers of a mainstream Britishness, still striding purposefully onwards in its eternal cycle of decay and rebirth.

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