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The clamour of nationalism: Race and nation in twenty-first-century Britain by Sivamohan Valluvan

Tarek Younis | Journal: General Issue [10] | Issues | Reviews | Feb 2020

Book Review: Valluvan, S. (2019). The clamour of nationalism: Race and nation in twenty-first-century Britain. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

“The nation conquered the state.”

-  Hannah Arendt

The successful upsurge of nationalism across Europe is unnerving, to say the least. The Clamour of Nationalism’s achievement is not in its desire to explain why nationalist parties are on the rise (there are other books that have tackled this question),[1] for questions still pervade: what is the role of the Nation-State in today’s political climate? Is nationalism solely the purview of political conservatives? How can we make sense of the success of neoliberal ideology, with its desire to render the world an expansive and penetrable marketplace, while Nation-States increasingly speak of ‘fortifying’ their borders? Finally, why are Muslims increasingly demonised in Nation-States across the Global North—the de facto Other? Sivamohan Valluvan’s success is his ability to tackle these various strands to reveal an upsetting tapestry: race and the Nation-State are intimately interwoven. Drawing extensively on both past and present sources, Valluvan provides a contemporary analysis of Arendt’s famous line (quoted above) as it relates to how racism operates in the political arena today.

Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the ‘nation’. In particular, Valluvan demonstrates how the ‘nation’—far from being ‘an automatic, timeless unit’, or a ‘transhistorical truth’ (pg. 29-30)—is a distinctly Western artefact. However, Valluvan’s objective is not to show that the nation is constructed, but rather “how [sic] it is necessarily constructed that is to be contested” (pg. 33). In the construction of the Nation-State, Valluvan underlines a claim well-recognised in the social sciences: any political project, including the nation, necessarily excludes to define its boundaries; who we are is contingent on who we are not. In Europe, nationalism does so along racial lines—the Nation-State’s ‘ethnic integrity.’ Valluvan recapitulates the various performative functions of how whiteness became the pivot of European Nation-States. In Britain, for example, imperialism necessitated racial hierarchisation—and therefore the homogenisation of whiteness as a superior monolith—to justify vicious colonial projects around the world. Within a Nation-State, the ‘Other’ always sits opposite the political boundary as a racialised, ‘overdetermined and outsized object of political discourse’ (pg .35). This chapter locates racism and racialisation squarely within contemporary European nationalist politics and not only—as dictated by the dominant narrative of a post-racial society—in fringe groups as is suggested to with the ­Far-Right.

Valluvan addresses two counterarguments to the claim that nationalism is inherently racist in Chapter 2. The first deals with progressive nationalism, whereby some may argue that countries like Scotland and Catalan provide an example of an inclusive nationalism. Valluvan however demonstrates how there is little to substantiate such claims—‘less credible, less historically feasible’ (p. 59). Second, that nationalism is not really in question, but rather populism. Insofar as populism only serves to designate what is popular, it has very little analytical utility. Valluvan argues that populism, if anything, can still be subsumed within nationalism.

Chapter 3 explores ‘the Muslims question’ (cf. Anne Norton);[2] or, why Muslims are the principal ‘Other’ in nationalist projects across the Global North. In discussing the position of Muslims, Valluvan gives an overview of liberal (acceptable) racism. For nationalists, Muslims prove to be the ideal object to define the more significant moral and political boundaries of our times. The question in political discourse, especially as they relate to fortifying a border or a stronger sense of national identity, so often revolves around Muslims. This harkens to the orientalist ‘white’ burden to civilise and protect Muslims (especially women) from themselves. In doing so, the ‘good Muslim/bad Muslim’ dichotomy is intrinsic to nationalism, demarcating those Muslims who continuously perform their ‘national identity’ from those who don’t.

Chapters 4 outlines British conservatism’s intimacy with nationalism. Distinct in the conservative’s disposition towards nationalism is its mourning of imperial greatness—‘a time of absolute sovereignty projected the world over’ (p. 120)—while also recalling the racialised imaginaries of ‘small-town Britain’. Chapter 5 then explains how a globalist neoliberal ideology can be made sense of (and succeed in) a British Nation-State which seeks to fortify its borders. We see here how racial capitalism follows the logic of the racial hierarchies of the Nation-State—preferring white migrants over non-whites, impugning the ‘laziness’ associated with Blackness—thereby disavowing the ‘motifs of blood and soil in favour of enterprise and productivity’ (p. 154). At the time of writing, as many put their hopes in Labour and Corbyn, Valluvan offers a sobering reminder in Chapter 6: the left has not forsaken nationalism either. On the contrary, ‘the organised left, newly emboldened and exhilaratingly so for many, still seems, at best, to tend towards quietism and, at worst, to wilfully partake in the demonisation of the migrant’ (p. 183).

The strength of this book is its ability to critically assess a number of common-sensical assumptions so prevalent in our times. One of the challenges in recent years, for example, is explaining how the left-right dichotomy is largely defunct on a number of issues. De Haas and Natter,[3] for example, demonstrate how both left and right parties across European countries share very similar stances on migration policies. Although de Haas and Natter point to economic factors underlying the logic of restrictive migration, Valluvan convincingly demonstrates how the erosion of left-right divergence reflects the rise of nationalism’s organising, political logic as well.  Thus, while some anti-Brexit narratives celebrate the benefits and virtues of immigration, Valluvan inverts this endeavour: to be pro-immigration is insufficient—one must be anti-nationalist as well. In doing so, Valluvan sheds light on the dissonance in being pro-British (racialised to white) and pro-immigrant (racialised to non-white) in the same breath.

The book succeeds in its objective to describe how racial hierarchies are necessarily integrated within the performance of the Nation-State: ‘nation-state actively enters ethnicity and communitarian identities in ways that are historically unique vis-a-vis governance’ (p. 42). While the pivot of whiteness in European nationalisms necessarily involved a subjugation of blackness (therefore accentuating the physicality of non-whites), the current liberal era reifies whiteness in civilisational terms as well. This calls to mind, for example, the ‘West vs Rest’ trope so easily recognised in xenophobia today. In describing how Muslims are Othered in relation to nationalism, Valluvan provides a foundation to critique the rising tide of highly securitised ‘muscular liberalism’ (quoting David Cameron) projects appearing all over the Global North. One of the most obvious examples of this is Prevent’s (UK’s nationwide counter-radicalisation strategy) introduction of Fundamental British Values, which the UK government wedged into education with the dual intent of promoting ‘British values’ and deterring the development of future terrorists. Herein lies one of my criticisms of this book: though Valluvan dedicates a chapter to the Muslim question, the lack of discussion on current policies such as Fundamental British Values—which perfectly encapsulates the overlap of race and nation—seems glaring in a book of this subject.

The book provides a solid foundation to critique the false equivalence struck between “extremist” Muslims and ethnonationalists in current counter-extremism efforts, which has seen widespread popularity (and funding) in recent years. Indeed, insofar as the Nation-State privileges whiteness, counter-extremism unveils a two-tier system when viewed from the prism of race. In my research, I draw on the example of a racialised Muslim male who considered home-schooling his children, which provoked the thought of a Prevent counter-radicalisation referral in an NHS professional.[4] Would this thought have occurred if the patient was a white, middle-class woman? We see how counter-extremism—subservient to the Nation-State project—immediately privileges a white woman as unburdened by the securitised task of performing her ‘Britishness’. Moreover, it explains how nationalist discourses—such as fortifying the Nation’s borders from immigrants—is viewed as politically acceptable (and therefore not ‘extreme’), though it may in fact reflect the very same ideology of the various mosque shooters in recent years.

The fact that nationalism is now a non-partisan issue has vast implications for social policy. For myself who is interested in the institutionalisation of racism through securitisation, Valluvan makes it clear we cannot address policies such as Prevent or the hostile environment head on. Counter-extremists, for example as stated above, may well consider their work anti-racist, but they still abide by the same racialised Nation-State logic which necessarily privileges whiteness as a pivot. All such policies are only symptomatic of the larger political project which is nationalism. Racist policies come and go but unless we take a critical look at how race operates vis-a-vis nationalism, as Valluvan urges us to do, efforts to counter-act racism head-on may be for naught.



1. Elizabeth Fekete, Europe’s Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right, (London: Verso,2018).  [↑]

2. Anne Norton, On the Muslim Question, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013) [↑]

3.  Hein de Haas and Katharina Natter, “The Determinants of Migration Policies. Does the Political Orientation of Governments Matter?” IMI Working Paper Series 117 (2015), https://www.migrationinstitute.org/publications/the-determinants-of-migration-policies-does-the-political-orientation-of-governments-matter. [↑]

4.  Tarek Younis and Sushrut Jadhav, “Islamophobia in the National Health Service: An Ethnography of Institutional Racism in PREVENT’s Counter-Radicalisation Policy.” Sociology of Health & Illness (in print, 2019) https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9566.13047. [↑]

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