Dr Greta Sykes – Nation, language, culture – play things of the elites?

Profile Greta Sykes Live Encounters January 2018

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Nation, language, culture – play things of the elites? by Dr Greta Sykes

Poet, writer and artist Greta Sykes has published her work in many anthologies. She is a member of London Voices Poetry Group and also produces art work for them. Her new volume of poetry called ‘The Shipping News and Other Poems’ came out in August 2016. The German translation of her book ‘Under charred skies’ has now been published in Germany under the title ‘Unter verbranntem Himmel’ by Eulenspiegel Verlag. She is the chair of the Socialist History Society and has organised joint poetry events for them at the Poetry Café. She is a trained child psychologist and has taught at the Institute of Education, London University, where she is now an associate researcher. Her Particular focus is now on women’s emancipation and antiquity. Twitter: @g4gaia.      Facebook.com/greta.sykes.      German Wikipedia: Greta Sykes.

2What are the issues that are exciting Catalans and the media who support them?  Their language, culture, nation/land. Compare this with Germany where the media have been proselytising a ‘Willkommenskultur’ dogma since the 2015 opening of the borders to a million refugees. This dogma entails neither nation state, nor language, culture nor belief any more. Instead Germans are encouraged to view no borders with its now steady flow of mainly economic migrants and their cultural traditions and language as of equal value to their own.   That other languages are an enrichment. That other – mainly Islamic beliefs –  are equally valid to Christianity in Germany. How come, we may ask, that in one situation we are asked to celebrate nation, language, belief and in another setting quite the opposite is proposed. We are entitled to feel puzzled and ask questions.

The common backdrop to both settings are US imperialist strategies which have for a century been focused on globe domination (726 military bases in 104 different countries) and, in particular, at destroying European social welfare, pay and trade union structures. Christopher Hitchens used to call Britain the American ‘Trojan Horse’ in Europe. The UK can leave now that it has helped to destroy much of what was peaceful and coherent in the EU. More importantly Anglo-American finance systems have embedded themselves in Europe and become entrenched in all spheres of life, even threatening major European projects, such as Nord Stream 2. This is the American globalisation project headed by the military-industrial complex, the banks, Google and Microsoft. It is threatening local shops, post offices, bank branches and local community structures.  These developments are based on the assumption that the speed of globalised business is sacrosanct. As citizens we have no choice. This was clearly pronounced by Angela Merkel in her phrase ‘there is no alternative.’

Class politics

One vital aspect of Globalisation is that local wage traditions, built up over centuries of trade union struggles by the working class, have to give way to cheap labour that moves at the speed of money around the globe to satisfy the needs of multinational companies.  Cheap labour has been achieved by making wars and creating a refugee crisis. Their departure from warzones is understandable, but so is the hesitation felt by many people to embrace mass immigration. Although willing to be helpful peoples in the countries where refugees arrive are put under enormous strain to comprehend the changes they are to live with. In the case of recent immigration into Germany this strain is added to by the cultural disparity between a modern German culture of equality of the sexes and the Islamic culture of subjugation of women, just to give one pertinent example of difference.

The Merkel ‘Willkommenskultur’  shock preceded the British vote on BREXIT last June. Many commentators agreed that the vote to leave was decidedly influenced by the immigration of a million refugees into Germany. Since then  the Dutch Freedom Party, the Front National in France, in the US the vote for Trump and recently the vote for Sebastian Kurz  of the Austrian peoples party give an indication of the sharpness of dissatisfaction of a large group of people in the West. A prime example is the German election this October. It was likened to a seismic shock. The catastrophic election results of the CDU (34.7%) and the SPD (21.5%) were called the most devastating results in the post-war period. Not only was the German election a resounding defeat of the traditional parties, but a new party, the ‘Alternative for Germany’ became the third most powerful party (13.3%). Their name derives from Merkel’s intonation that ‘there is no alternative’.

There are alternatives

We are told time and again that there are no alternatives by big business and their agents in the media, but the truth is that people want an alternative. And of course there are alternatives to the uncontrolled ravages of globalisation with its neglect of national cultural affinities and the achievements of workers’ rights – a phenomenon Ziegler (2017) [1]calls ‘a cannibalistic world order’. That is the meaning of the recent votes everywhere in the West. The barons of the press try to persuade us that such ‘populist votes’ are cast by ‘deplorables’, the poor, simpletons that fall for cheap ideas. How odd that the word ‘populist’ has been degraded to suggest non-ethical behaviour. Voting for the AFD and other similar parties has been described as populist to mark their voters out as outcasts and even Nazis.

The state/nation, language and belief used to be the gold standard of conservative forces in the world. They were used against leftwing, progressive and socialist movements. Gauland (2017) writes:

‘Since the thirty year war the powers to be were balanced between two opposing forces, the economic and the ideological ones. The economy had to take account of the forces of belief, nation state and language. Such spiritual super structures were used to achieve their goals. No one would have fought for[2] English or French capital or business. Yet for their own language, culture and religion many were prepared to die.

Gauland argues that this balance of power between ancient ideals and economic forces was shattered in 1992 when the Soviet Union decided to abandon the striving towards socialism and instead that country embarked on a sell out of state enterprises during the Jelzin years. Capitalism deemed it had been victorious. Private enterprise has since those years unleashed itself into every domain of our lives, whether citizens like it or not. No questions are asked. Gauland describes it thus:

‘As the conservative powers (of state, nation, language and belief) are not needed any more they only become a hindrance in the forward march of capital, consumerism and financial success. Until then world views and belief systems had guided political decisions, these traditions are now only remnants of processes that are under way…’

Further he notes:

‘The trendy notions ‘modernising, flexibility, innovation and deregulation have one thing in common: The destruction of everything traditional that stands in the way of commercialisation…Liberalism has become the dominant worldview, the free market the salvation of all evils…’

Globalisation then means that we are all just consumers and not citizens any more. Being a citizen of a state with national borders, language, culture has been discarded by modernisation in favour of identity politics. The nation/language culture card is now only used when local antagonisms aid and abet the achievement of economic or political gains. This may apply to Catalan. It certainly did apply to the Crimea, where the majority of citizens (90%) voted for the Russian nation, language and culture which had to be opposed by the US as part of their continuous efforts to weaken the Russian sphere of influence and gain economic spheres of reference.

Identity politics

Liberalist identity politics form a useful tool to achieve a pseudo- egalitarian global cheap labour force. Traditional bonds of citizens to their homeland, language and culture are discarded for gay marriage, ethnic and religious diverse identities and multiculturalism. Even amongst feminists there exists confusion over embracing the ‘cultural’ identity of Islamic women, although they are blatantly discriminatory to women. In Germany the strength of working class trade unionism is amongst the strongest in Europe. The protection of working people’s wages, holiday pay, social security and other social benefits has to be abandoned in order to bring in a global low wage economy in which everyone is expected to be a consumer regardless of gender, race, class and cultural background. While such an egalitarianism might be desirable if it came with a socialist system, under capitalism it will remain entirely superficial and degrading for the majority.  Jetsetting wealthy people can chose traditions, cultures and languages as they please anywhere in the world. They can choose an identity they prefer, trans, queer, straight and have the appropriate necessary operation. Globalisation may please them. Everything is within reach via the internet. You don’t need local shops. You don’t need a local community. Tradition, language and belief are negligible.

It is different for the majority of the working people. Increasing numbers of people are called the working poor in Germany. They work all day or have part-time jobs but only achieve a minimum wage which they can barely live off. For them the choices of identity are nonexistent. All they have is their homeland, their local community and the rights the nation state used to guarantee, such as a passport, social benefits and healthcare.

The handmaidens of global business – the media –  have the task to ensure turning citizens into obedient consumers not just of goods but also of  the ideological corset within which we are supposed to exist, namely identity politics. Jonathan Haidt (2016), social psychologist at NY Stern school of business finds that freedom of speech has evaporated under the iconoclasm of a ‘left orthodoxy’. He comments:

‘We have to bust up the complete political orthodoxy of the left’ which is dominating the universities and not allowing other views to be expressed.

Eric Hobsbawm says (1996):[3]

…we are living through a gigantic ‘cultural revolution’, an extraordinary dissolution of traditional social norms, textures and values, which left so many inhabitants of the developed world orphaned and bereft.’

This feeling of being orphaned is driving a sizeable proportion of German people into the arms of the AFD who promises to stand up for class politics, the nation state and German traditions and against the globalised monopoly capitalist target of a migrating cheap labour force.

Eric Hobsbawm comments (1996):

‘Identity politics is essentially not for everybody but for the members of a specific group only. ..this is why the Left cannot base itself on identity politics. It has a wider agenda which is ultimately a universalist one.’

Workers of the world unite, however, was not the cry of a globalised cheap labour force without trade union rights and on minimum wages, but the proud call to defend the gains of working class organisations against capital across different nation states. Hobsbawm says (1996):

‘There is one form of identity politics which is …based on a common appeal  that is citizen nationalism…seen in the perspective of the nation state, which is where most of us still live, and are likely to go on living, i.e. it provides a common identity or in Benedict Anderson’s phrase ‘an imagined community.’

Hobsbawm’s comments illustrate why the Left of today has lost its direction and impetus and languishes in the opinion polls, closeted inside its own fascistoid orthodoxy. Instead the Olympian torch of lighting the way forward for working people has been picked up by the right. They are fighting for the true heritage of ‘an imagined community’.


We have to accept that the confusion sewn by globalisation and its fashionable implements of  flexibility, innovation and deregularisation with its open border policies has alienated working people. They want the traditional values of the nation state, language and culture embedded in government policies and they will fight for these values against the demands of the elites. They have nothing to lose but their traditional ideals.

[1] Ziegler, J. Interview in ‘Der Freitag’.22.6.17 No 25

[2] Gauland, A. 2017 ‘Kapitalisten gegen Konservative’ in ‘Compact 11/2017

[3] Haidt, J. 2016. We have to bust up the orthodoxy’. The Psychologist. Vol 29 no 11 2016.

3 Hobsbawm, E. (1996) Identity politics and the Left. New Left Review. 1996.