Selling England By the Pound?

A view of John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, Ethnicity, Inc. (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2009).

Dancing With The Moonlit Knight
“Can you tell me where my country lies?”
said the unifaun to his true love’s eyes.
“It lies with me!” cried the Queen of Maybe
– for her merchandise, he traded in his prize.

“Paper late!” cried a voice in the crowd.
“Old man dies!” The note he left was signed ‘Old Father Thames’
– it seems he’s drowned;
selling England by the pound.
(Peter Gabriel/Genesis, 1973)

What the hell, you may ask, is someone whose horizons are limited to contemporary British history doing reviewing an anthropological study of corporations based on group identity and commodification of culture with its major case studies drawn from Southern Africa and native American reservations? With my crude historian’s maps being of little use to me in the unfamiliar lands of anthropology, with their strange customs, mysterious language and an internal world that I can only guess at, I ask myself the same question.

There is, however, a point to pulling this from the bookshelf for a belated review here. My target is understanding the nature of multiculturalism in Britain and how it has developed over the last fifty years, and in particular since 1997, and also how this has informed a particularly odd form of British (or probably English) nationalism in the rise of UKIP. This is a book that has something insightful to say about these matters. However, particularly where Britain is concerned, it is not without its faults.

At the centre of this book are two sets of anthropological studies of identity and culture (which together could be considered to add up to ethnicity). The first examines the relationship between native American identity and economic activity that such a claim to identity allows, particularly the building of casinos on reservations. This has not only turned some native American chapters into corporate entities, but has allowed the reproduction, and in some cases rediscovery, of an ethnic identity. The second set of case studies involves some tribal groups in southern Africa who by control of mineral assets, and claims to the ownership of traditional knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants, have been able to capitalise on their heritage, again by taking on the character of a corporation based on ethnicity.

These anthropological studies seem highly convincing to me, although I am in no way qualified to judge. While it is commonly accepted (quite rightly) that there is no such thing as race, these studies show that the idea of an ethnic group is problematic too. It has long been accepted that the concept of race is undermined by no group being united by physiognomic characteristics, but groups are not united by culture either. This book shows that both by commodifying culture (for example, by selling it to tourists in the form of experiences and objects) and by forming ethnically based business groups (native American casinos, tribally based groups to exploit mineral rights) such ethnic identity is not only reproduced but resurrected. I think that Comaroff and Comaroff are right to be sympathetic to poor people benefitting from such processes, but are also right to be sceptical that they do. In societies divided by class, it is those at the top of the heap, the tribal King, the external owners of the mining companies or casinos who get rich first.

These two case studies from the USA and southern African are, however, difficult to generalise from. South Africa is far from typical in its post-Apartheid heritage in that it has both a highly developed business sector well integrated in the world economy and strong ethnic identities promoted by Apartheid through many years of segregated subordination. This creates not only a particular mix of wealth and poverty (South Africa, along with Namibia, Botswana and Angola, has some of the highest Gini coefficients in the world,(1) they are among the world’s least economically equal societies), and particularly in the case of South Africa is highly ethnicised through these deliberately ossified pre-national identities. The USA is another far from typical case, the world’s richest economy based on genocidal clearance of indigenous people that is nearly within living memory, still continuing in some form to late in the nineteenth century (and somewhat longer in Hollywood films). It could be argued that the USA can afford to spend at least a little on its collective guilty conscience.

In both the Southern African case and native American cases what is central to the building of corporate endeavours and strengthening, ethnic identity is based on a genealogical claim to land and sovereignty against the state, and this land and the use of the legal process has allowed the creation of ethno-corporations which then strengthens and regenerates ethnic identity. These ideas are not directly transferable to a Britain where most existing or putative ethnic groups do not have a claim to land or sovereignty. There is a discussion that could be had about the commodification of identity in Britain, (and these have been taken up in Ben Pitcher’s Consuming Race (2014), which I will be reviewing soon). There is also room for a discussion about how, for example, small and localised business (family businesses such as shops, small building contractors etc.) and localised business communities, can strengthen the ethnic identity of racialised minorities. But most larger enterprises in Britain with roots as ethnic minority based companies do not continue to be ethnically specific as they grow. Marks and Spencer has not remained (if it ever was) distinctively Jewish, and it is difficult to put your finger on anything distinctively Asian about the vast majority of big businesses owned and run by people of Asian (or often African-Asian) descent in the UK. Indeed, many of the most identifiable ‘Asian’ brands such as Patak’s and Cobra Beer are no longer Asian owned.

The idea that ethnicity could become commodified is an interesting one, but the theoretical basis of doing so is weak in this book. For example, there is considerable discussion throughout the book that pivots on ethnicised commodities blurring the distinction between use value and exchange value. I think I understand what is being suggested here: that such labour (and consumption) that reaffirms someone in their identity is less alienating than labour on commodities in an imposed culture. But this needs much more working through, both empirically and theoretically, not least in terms of theories of labour and commodity production. In the classic Marxist theory, all commodities have a two-fold character, as use values (they have to have a use for someone to be sold and are commodities) and exchange values (in that they are the product of human labour and are exchanged on that basis). Similarly, paid labour has a dual character, it is real labour making something for which someone else will have a use, and it is abstract in that is making a thing for an unknown market without direct knowledge of the consumer and how it will be used. It is an interesting point that the production commodities within a minority ethnic group might (to a degree) subvert this and (at least at a local level) be far less abstract and alienated, and be production for real and known consumers. But this would have to be shown through empirical study and theorised on that basis. Similarly the idea of ’embodied capital’ is mentioned without much elaboration much, which suggests that part of the production process relies on some aspect of the producers ethnic identity, but again more flesh is needed on these bones.

There are certainly cases that capital and commodity production in Britain (as distinct from the case studies above) tend not to have the functions of strengthening ethnicity through the processes outlined above. For example, there are certainly cases of what starts as ethno-prise can end up as just another brand: Patak’s food brand may have started out in 1957 meeting the needs of the Asian community in Britain, but by the time of its sale to (Anglo-Canadian) Associated British Foods in 2007 it was a world food brand.(2) Capital, it would appear, has a tendency to make everything its own without ethnicity.

What is most problematic about the book is Comaroff and Comaroff’s attempt to take the carefully grounded theory of Ethnicity, Inc and turn it into a theory of the modern state in general, Nationality, Inc. This suffers the fate of many theories of everything in that it ends up being a theory of nothing. I will look at the idea of Nationality Inc particularly in its application to Britain, although the book here is wider ranging in its evidential base than this.

It is difficult to summarise what Comaroff and Comaroff mean by Nationality Inc since under its banner they have grouped a number of quite disparate attributes of different modern states. Their thesis would appear to be this: the liberal democrat ideal of a state in western Europe has for many years been based on ideas of civic nationalism, acceptance of the rule of a state based on some secular values which are not strongly culturally specific other than a unitary language. Thus, anyone could become a full citizen by accepting these values and loyalty to the state. The archetype of this form of state is that of the first French republic. Although Marxists may have suggested that such a state was a mask for serving the collective interests of capitalist power within the nation-state, this is not how it presented itself. Rather, the state projected its policies as promoting the common good and nationally accepted morality. This reached its apogee in the post-1945 welfare state, where the rhetoric of common good began to congeal into something real. Comaroff and Comaroff suggest that in recent years this has begun to change in two ways. First, that mask of common good has been dropped as states and corporate interest become increasingly intermingled in a corporate state. And second, that an ethnic-nationalism has been reasserted into civil nationalism to create an analogue to ethnic corporations, a corporate state wherein nationality becomes both the basis for that corporate belonging and is commodified by that state in its market relations with the rest of the world.

I will look at the idea of corporate state first since it is less involved. The problem here is that Comaroff and Comaroff appear to be talking about two quite different things here. The first has a meaning close to an older meaning of the corporate state which implied that the state would take a leading role in the economy, particularly reconciling the interests of capital and labour to create a more united national economy. This in different forms has been applied to Mussolini’s brand of fascism in Italy and post-war industrial planning in the west. In the British context Keith Middlemas, for example, wrote about corporatism that reached its zenith in the 1960s with industry/trade unions/government bodies attempting to create a national economic plan. Although it is doubtful that such corporatism was anything like as marked as such analyses suggest, it was a major target for the neoliberals in Britain from Thatcher onwards since it was, they argued, a means of state and trade union interference in the workings of the sovereign market.

One of the types of corporate state, much more the fascist kind, is one of the forms that Comaroff and Comaroff point to. They suggest that at ‘one extreme’ of Nationality, Inc lie Russia and China which have powerful sectors of state owned enterprises alongside authoritarian governmental forms, in a weak democratic form in Russia, in an openly undemocratic form in China. In Russia, particularly, they suggest the de facto state owned enterprises such as the energy giant Gazprom, such corporatism has become the way in which nationalism is reproduced. To be a proud Russian is to be proud of its economic virility and geopolitical strength through such companies (although whether many other companies other than Gazprom are capable of playing this role is a moot point).

The other type of corporate state examined by Comaroff and Comaroff, which they see as being as the other extreme, is exemplified by Britain where functions previously performed by the state are stripped away and handed to the private corporations. The problem is that this is quite different to the Russian style state-controlled business corporatism. Rather, it is a hollowed out state where functions previously carried out by the state are either directly privatised (gas, water, much transport), are outsourced to external contactors (rubbish collection, some health services, prisons) or are run by the state along quasi-market lines (education, core health care).

This is neoliberal governance for sure, but it is neither a corporate state nor does it interpolate its citizens in a nationalist way and it does not commodify their nationality. In order to establish this case Comaroff put up some limited and confusing evidence. First, they point to the rhetoric used by some of the left to oppose the privatisation of state functions, particular George Monbiot’s The Captive State and the idea that this was leading to the formation of ‘Britain, plc’. This rhetoric is not suggestive of a corporate state, but rather of state functions being run for profit not the need. Other examples are even weaker. Comaroff and Comaroff suggest the marketing of heritage is ‘vested’ in Heritage GB, plc. This is quite simply wrong, Heritage GB is a profit making company that runs commercial tourist attractions with a heritage theme, including land, hotels, scenic railways and theme parks.3 The promotion of English heritage is vested in English Heritage, an executive non-departmental government agency under the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the government department that is ultimately responsible for this area of government policy (4) (devolved equivalents operate in England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

In fact, the logic of this neoliberalism in Britain is quite the opposite to the corporate drive in Russia, as shown in an example that Comaroff and Comaroff cite themselves. In 2006 Gazprom proposed to buy the British energy firm Centrica (a merger of British Gas and Scottish Power). There were concerns raised about Gazprom, which had already shown itself being an agent of Russia geopolitical power, buying a major British energy firm and concerns along these lines were expressed in the press. But the government itself stated that (as Comaroff and Comaroff note) it had no objection to such a takeover. Whether this would remain so today with Russia being seen as a hostile political force is another matter, but this has more to do with Russia asserting its imperial ambitions the tradition realm of the Tsarist and Soviet empires than anything to do with the elision of nationality and state power.

I share Comaroff and Comaroff’s critical stance on the neoliberal state. They are right to quote the French structuralist Marxist, Jacques Rancière, that while it was once scandalous to suggest that states were but executive committees for managing the common affairs of the capitalist class, hiding behind tropes of the national interest, now states openly legitimise themselves by their closeness to the concerns of business. And similarly, they are right to point out how the state has shifted from promoting welfare and national economic policy which stands, to a degree, between the national citizen and the world market. The state now adopts a neo-liberal position that prepares the citizen for the unmediated rigours of the world market. ‘Britain is open for business’ may have been a slogan for the current coalition (and especially the Conservative chancellor, George Osborne) from the time of the 2010 budget but its roots of opening up the economy to inward investment, and particularly a relaxed attitude to foreign ownership of sections of the national economy had long been accepted by policy makers, most notably since the early 1980s.

Much of this material about the nature of neoliberal governance is not contentious, but I would attract attention to one area of their analysis that is both interesting but possibly a step too far. They suggest that some of the state’s functions of supporting the needy and home and aboard have been handed over to the corporate sector via their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes and to the public via an increased emphasis on volunteering within the Third Sector (the book was written, however, before David Cameron’s abortive attempts to launch the ‘Big Society’). Recent shifts in the nature of the third sector and corporate philanthropy are an important but somewhat neglected area. The increase in funding of the public sector from Third Sector programmes to deliver public services is a notable element in the emerging mixed economy of welfare, and the politics of CSR (in which environmental policy is as big an element of philanthropy as corporate donations) is a part of how many large companies now promote their image and seek to legitimate their activities. But it is not true that such charitable and voluntary work is new, as Comaroff and Comaroff claim. For example, they state this approach has ‘spawned’ the National Council of Voluntary Organisations in the UK, but it was founded (as the National Council of Social Service) in 1919 representing an already well established current of civil engagement and philanthropy. This is far too unstable an evidential base on which to launch a grandiloquent theory of the transformation of ‘modernist conventions of the social responsibility into postmodern idealisations of ethical responsibility’ which conjures ‘living, right-minded persons into corporate like ‘private contractors,’ human agents who won and market their skills, their heritage, their embodied capital.’ These are interesting comments worthy of more investigation rather than solid conclusions.

The second half of this equation is that this corporate state (which as shown above is actually a semi-hollowed out neoliberal state in Britain) by dint of its nature reproduced nationality in a new form and then commodified that nationality for the world market. There is some truth in this, from Margaret Thatcher covering up the redesigned tail fin of the model of British Airways plane without its Union Jack logo to Tony Blair’s promotion of ‘Cool Britannia’ in his early days in No. 10. Raising this to the level of a more general explanatory model of economy and citizenship is, however, questionable

The evidence provided here is, again, weak. Comaroff and Comaroff over emphasise the degree to which industrial products become indentified with a national economy. I would argue instead that they become identified with much more local areas of production. Thus they point to ‘English cotton’ and ‘Portuguese wine’, but they would be more correct to speak of Manchester Cotton (Manchester was, after all, Cottonopolis) and Port (from Oporto), and could continue with Nottingham Lace, Sheffield Steel and London Dry Gin. To find goods identified as English or British is much less common and ‘buy British’ campaigns tend to be directed at the home market, not commodifying identity for overseas production. The earliest that I can recall is the ‘I’m backing Britain’ campaign of 1968, but they have become increasingly less common.

Comaroff and Comaroff also argue that national identity is the locus of a new form of protectionism through systems such as the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO, also known as DOP, appellation d’origine contrôlée etc). This means that certain goods have to come from where they say they come from. This, typically, applies to foodstuffs traditionally produced in a region with that place in their name (Gorgonzola cheese, Champagne, Melton Mowbray pork pies etc.). As with Manchester cotton, these are seldom national designations, but can apply to regions, cities or towns. And it does not stop very similar things being sold, you can sell a pork pie made wherever, you just cannot call it a Melton Mowbray pork pie. Only in those few lucky cases of metonymy, where the category of thing becomes synonymous with one place (Champagne, Parmesan) is there real advantage. Even if, as Comaroff and Comaroff are right to point out, ‘sparkling wine’ does not have the cachet of Champagne, there is now much more Prosecco and Cava and on the supermarket shelves. For the vast majority of goods, such PDO status is not an issue anyhow.

National brand is a term politicians use, but it is hard to judge how meaningful this is. The idea that British goods maybe sold abroad because of a general perception of quality (or cheapness) or that investors might come to Britain because of a general perception of the skills of labour (or its flexibility and exploitability) is a matter for a detailed study by an economist. But this does not amount to ‘commodifying the essence of the imagined community’, and it is not clear what that might mean. Similarly it is entirely unclear how this then leads to ‘suturing genealogically related human beings into bodies politic’ beyond the normal process of nationalism, and it is difficult to see how a particular form of nationality in the process of production centred on a neo-liberal state is part of this process.

It is possible to find politicians using language that reimagines citizens as the shareholders in a national endeavour reconceptualised as a single business, but it is difficult to show that these have substance beyond analogy and political rhetoric. One example, referred to obliquely by Comaroff and Comaroff, is Tony Blair’s use of ‘stakeholders’ to describe his idealised citizenry in his Singapore speech of January 1996. However, the context of this was in the term ‘stakeholder capitalism’, and rather than being an attempt to put citizens in a new relationship with a corporate state it was an attempt to move the Labour Party away from its image of being a party of state control to suggest that capitalism should be made more responsive, participatory and democratic by recognising a variety of stakeholders in private companies other than its shareholders: its customers, workers and the communities affected by its operations.(5) The continued use of the term stakeholders has been exactly this, through processes of consultation between organisations with various constituencies of interest, often as part of the CSR policies mentioned above. While this is totally consistent with the neoliberal state sinking from view leaving a voluntaristic relationship between individual and big business that regulates itself (as Comaroff and Comaroff rightly point out), it does not presage a new citizen-state relationship.

Comaroff and Comaroff are, nonetheless, right to link the neoliberal state with the rise of (what I would call) cultural nationalism, but I am not convinced that the mechanism of that link is as they describe it. I would suggest that the linkages are far more prosaic.
Particularly, cultural nationalism now occupies the space (sometimes exactly the space) occupied by racism. The discrediting of ideas of race, and the increasing social opprobrium that surround openly racist sentiments means the idea that ‘coloured people are not like us’ has become replaced with ‘Islam is inimitable to the British way of life’. In some cases this is supplemented by a less racialised anti-immigrant racism, favoured by Nigel Farage’s version of UKIP, that the impact of Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians et al is not in their culture, but in their very presence putting pressure on services, and housing while depressing wages. But all this occurs in the political sphere, not a new sphere of fused economic and political power in a corporate state.

2 Fiona Walsh, ‘Founding family sells Patak’s’,, Tuesday 29 May 2007
6 Andrew Gamble and Gavin Kelly, ‘Stakeholder capitalism and one nation socialism’, Renewal
volume 4, number 1 (1996), pp. 23-32.


One response to “Selling England By the Pound?

  1. Pingback: Selling England by the Pound? | British Contemporary History

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