Sunday, 13 November 2011

Commodified Communities: Selling the Nation in a Global Age

Patriotism and consumerism appear to have no obvious connection. The nation as a bounded community of people who identify with one another appears to stand in contrast to the workings of global capital which flows across borders in the search for profit not social recognition. Production and trade have been transnationalised to the extent that ‘Buy American’ and ‘Buy British’ is impossible when buying any consumer goods made of more than a few simple parts. A single computer may be designed in Silicon Valley, built in Japan, assembled in South East Asia, and dumped in China when past their sell by date. However, we still see a growing clamour to sell national pride and to commercialise the boundaries of belonging. Since 9/11 Wal-Mart expanded its sale of flag-emblazoned merchandise for sale with “respectful” and “patriotic” flag disposal services in stores for used flags positioned conveniently next to shiny new ones. In 2004, Wal-Mart was voted the most admired company in the US despite facing criticism for its unfair wages for women, de-unionisation, and monopoly practices. Professor Jennifer Scanlon says “the American Public and Wal-Mart are complicit in a performance of patriotism in which consumerism stands in for more concrete and difficult civic work”. It is easier to buy belonging in a community than to work to make it a better place. This is a reciprocal relationship between consumerism and nationalism such that transnational companies sell the nation and the nation buys it. This dynamic where consumerism and nationalism reproduce and reinforce each other is not restricted to the US. In China, Aigo is one of the nation’s leading electronic companies and is now a sponsor of Manchester United FC. The name Aigo in Mandarin Chinese (aiguozhe; 爱国者) means “patriot” and this is not lost on Chinese consumers seeking to “buy Chinese” in an age where their consumer options are transnationalised. One of the most frequent seen adverts on Chinese state television (CCTV) between 2009-2010 was for a medicine brand which ended with the catchphrase “mother I love you, motherland I love you” (mama wo ai ni, zuguo wo ai ni; 妈妈我爱你, 祖国我爱你). Viewers are then left with the impression that loyalty to a consumer brand equates to loyalty to the nation. You can buy belonging in a national-consumer community.

How people choose to spend their money has long been represented by states as linked to their identity as members of the nation. One of the many propaganda cartoons produced by Walt Disney in the first half of the twentieth century represented American consumers as divided between spending and saving. Scrooge McDuck tells Americans they must “save for victory” in World War 2. Spending money was un-patriotic because it helps the rise of Fascism by draining the treasury of tax resources. Of course representations of the nation have changed as capitalism becomes more and more globalised and it shifts from supply-side economics to demand-led. One of the first public addresses by President George Bush after 9/11 was to stress the threat of terrorism to our ever-expanding consumerist lifestyle linking shopping with national security: “We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our citizens to the point where we don’t…conduct business, we don’t shop”. “We” are being defined as shoppers and the threat of terrorism is to our “we-ness” is through the danger presented to our consumer-lifestyles. More recently, David Cameron defined Britishness through our economic behaviour during the “financial crisis”: “Some say that to succeed in this world, we need to become more like India or China, or Brazil, but I say: we need to become more like us. The real us. Hard-working, pioneering, independent, creative, adaptable, optimistic, can-do”. In practical terms Cameron continued to stress we pay off our credit card bills, tying national loyalty to stabilising financial capitalism. It seems patriotism is emerging as a resource our leaders can draw on to demand the economy works in specific ways. “Can-do” or “stiff upper lip” means “flexible” labour protection policy and a “disciplined” labour force in the words of the IMF. Cameron is using patriotism to tell people in Britain that they are not like Indians or Chinese, we are different. We should supposedly keep it that way by paying off our credit card bills and working hard and without question in a labour market that has seen employment slump and benefits slashed since the Conservative Party came to power. To be British means to behave in ways which maintain the workings of capitalism as it currently works- don’t’ complain about anything or you aren’t “can-do” and you aren’t British. For Cameron, it also means we should identify with billionaires within our borders who benefit from inequality instead of Indians and Chinese who suffer from it.

The recent public debates over the wearing of the poppy for Remembrance Sunday are a case in point. Turnouts at the cenotaph for actual remembrance are relatively small and co-ordinated through active organisations such as the British Legion. However, more passive consumers can now purchase all manner of goods from ties to caps to umbrellas to cufflinks to tablecloths in order to display their level of patriotic devotion and stand “shoulder to shoulder with all those who serve”. Judging by the Poppy Shop’s apology on their website in November 2011 that orders would be delayed due to a high volume of orders, it appears the British public are keen to buy their community membership. However, they are less keen to do “concrete and difficult civic work”. Joining a campaign, for example, to give an hour of one’s time to look after elderly veterans who are now in Britain’s understaffed nursing homes would be of more benefit than wearing a poppy. Wearing of the poppy to symbolise national belonging, which involves nothing but a small purchase, has in recent years been mobilised to the extent that it is framed as an issue of national security. The BBC linked tragic deaths of soldiers in Afghanistan, a very real and violent conflict, to the banality of the poppy. On Question Time, the popular British politics ‘debate’ show, Stephen Pollard, journalist and author on Israeli politics and history, claimed burning poppies should be outlawed, regardless of freedom of speech because they go to the heart of “who we are”. Identity here is framed as a security issue such that alternatives to this particular understanding of national identity are to be eliminated through force. David Cameron saw fit to demand FIFA, football’s ruling body, make the exception only for England to allow “political and religious” symbols on national football shirts in their game against Spain because it was a matter of “national pride”. Cameron and other Conservatives stressed that the poppy was “not political”. However, it is impossible to claim England’s supposed symbols of “national pride” are “not political” but those of other nations, which are banned on national football shirts, are “political”. This representation of the poppy as a performance of patriotism may not be new. However, what is new is this vigour that defines purchase and display of a poppy as the very heart of “who we are” and a symbol which is unquestionable and beyond politics. The English national football team have played on the 11th November many times over the years and haven’t worn or asked to wear poppies on their shirts. This is but an example how of national communities become a commodified mode of self-understanding where alternatives are deemed ‘outside’ the boundaries of community. This follows the framings of how we organise capitalism and how we spend our earnings as security issues at the heart of our national identities. There are many ways to interpret why wars happen and whose interests they serve. However, the voices of those who see the First World War as a human tragedy which saw states across the world needlessly send millions of working class humans to their death are being excluded as un-patriotic because they don’t wish to wear the poppy. The poppy is said to represent them but it does not represent their views because it has become a symbol of “national pride” instead of remembering dead human beings. Today, identifying with humans who are victims of wars waged by Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan beyond our borders over those within our nation who send them to war is deemed unpatriotic in the same way that submitting to a flexible, unregulated labour market is essential to being British. Today, capital and people flow across borders but there is still capital to be made by going to war and selling its products under the banner of patriotism.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful, tightly argued and enlightening piece.

    I don't agree with everything you say - e.g. the benefit cuts - I've no problem with reviewing disability applicants or putting a cap on housing benefit, precisely because my sympathies are with low-paid workers. In fact, I'd like to see the removal of incentives to become single mothers as well.

    And I wouldn't dismiss patriotism as entirely a manufactured sentimentality, either. Nations should pursue their national interests, imho, and in time of war it's necessary to take sides.

    Political differences aside, though, I learned a great deal from this, and have a much better understanding now of the poppy phenomenon.