Reflections on the Empire State

Michael Garner argues that living in the British world is to be sealed off from real time experience

A British separation from experience was embedded as early as the codification of the needs of ancient English capital in opposition to the union’s great imperial rival, revolutionary France. Already a founding condition of the new pragmatic imperial state from the start of the eighteenth century, the codification of vested capital over action becomes even more readable at the century’s end, particularly in the influence of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

The Burkean, counter-French years influentially offered protection from any form of systematic thinking – that is, thinking which threatened from first principles the forms of power which seemed always to have been there, to have grown organically, preceding and structuring any new experience. This is not the same as tradition, since tradition implies an accumulation of real experience in a real past – it is an absolutely pure precedent, which can never be touched because it is outside of history altogether. And this remains what is almost unique about the British constitution, the rules that underscore our lives – it has always already happened, it is always over, it is retrospective, it can never be reached.

The victory of Burkean British time was embedded during the 1790s pamphlet war which hinged on the Reflections’ distinction between the regime changes of 1688 and 1789: 1688 was the restoration of an established state which had always been legitimate, 1789 was a

violent, present-tense usurpation of such eternal structures. This distinction between locked-in and apparent violence has never left Britishness: it allows for slow systematic killing through queues in a marketised NHS, while keeping taboo personal decisions over life, death, and the body (‘This is for your own safety’, as notices often have it).

The split between present action and the continuity of that outside of experienced time came to divide apolitical acceptance and political action, the British and the counter-British. (This was indexed, also, by the importance of pure continuity in the rising British canon of English Literature – which has frequently been challenged since devolution). In the Burkean British lineage, what is proven by the ‘passage of time’ – a misleading phrase, of course, since time is made immobile – is more authoritative than the present. In the sense of John Macmurray, action becomes impossible. The shape this has taken in the last three decades is the ‘realism’ of an instrumentalising neoliberal establishment whose only function is to hang on to power – expanding the reach of the state at the expense of the public, or, as Mark Fisher has it, ‘market Stalinism’.

In the nationless state that is the United Kingdom, this disjunctive temporality has become so deeply ingrained as to be quite difficult to pick out. Surely we all recognise, for example, the scene of waiting for a train, while being assailed by automated security threats, looking at a departure board which gives firstly the official train time, secondly the present time which is seen to be after the official train time, and thirdly the assurance that the train is nevertheless ‘On Time’.

What is at stake here is not whether or not trains run on time, but the ability to make present-tense experience meaningful. What is remarkable is that the disjunction of times – on-time trains which are known a few centimetres across the board not to be on time – is so little noticed. The same could be said, of course, of call centres, forcing us to behave as if we are in conversation, while we know that time and money are being stolen by a machinery that requires no person at all – or for that matter, those bulwarks of neoliberalism, the ‘National’ Lottery and the pseudo-democracy of talent shows, all transmitting a vague ideology of improving life chances – and aimed at those most disenfranchised while siphoning money upwards during times of inequality increase.

This contestation between these two different understandings of time is crucial, and maps closely onto the contestation of nation and state, as this has become clearer in post-imperial times. ‘Pitt’s Terror’, the building of a security state to track those who found themselves on the wrong side of the 1790s pamphlet war, was uncannily echoed in ‘Thatcher’s Terror’, the setup of another, neo-Burkean, vested-capitalist security state in the 1980s, which survived right through the next three decades. At the inception of both Terrors, foreign ‘systems’ were seen to threaten the immobile organic constitution – as Soviet communism took the place of French Jacobinism, again used for a tightening of authority under a revived sense of British unity. Echoing the 1790s, the fear was transmitted by the ‘enemy within’, the loony left, unions, immigrants, and now a nuclear threat which was in true Burkean fashion never violence because it was never really ‘now’ – but was instead the constant potential of absolute violence in a kind of surrogate present.

The temporal terrorism of the ‘New Cold War’ coincided perfectly with the ‘democratic deficit’ which as James Mitchell and others have shown forced the setup of the Scottish Parliament, as Britain was strenuously recreated as neo-imperial. ‘Heritage’ (which is continuant and has ‘always’ been there) rose over ‘culture’ (which is ongoing and negotiated). Meanwhile generational unemployment wiped out any conception of a future for many. Such moments of unification have typically been accompanied by fear, temporal confusion, xenophobia, and the kind of managerial ‘realism’ which saw the UK grow to one of the world’s top-ranked security states.

During both these unifying and defensive periods of Terror, 1790-1815 and 1980-2007, rather than gathering in London, where civil society was seen as too compromised by a continuity with the state, constitutional critics chose Edinburgh, in key critical conventions in 1794 and 1988, the impacts of which were then worked through over coming decades. Scotland, through the historical accident of greater separateness from the constitutional continuity of Anglo-Britain, seemed to offer a clearer conception of civil society, to be more ‘national’, with all the dangerous reformist Jacobin implications of the term, more socially liberal, and more politically inclusive. It had not, in other words, succumbed nearly so completely to Burkean time. The implications of the Edinburgh conventions were still being felt throughout the kingdom in the franchise and Chartist movements of the 1820s-30s, as they would be again in anti-banking and anti-disempowerment disturbances at the turn of the 2010s.

In other words this historical asymmetry between Britishness and the national was a coda always waiting to unravel imperial Britain after the final fading of the Pax Britannica, the outwards imperial push of universal always-already-established British standards, established by victory over France in 1815 – but waning from 1919 all the way through decolonisation till the neo-imperial crunch of 2008. The debt-backed, ever-expanding para-national state which stretched out from an imaginary centre located somewhere in an unreachable past, had by the last unravellings in 1999, 2008, and 2011, lost all sense of authority. We now inhabit a time when no-one really trusts the instrumental logic of politicians or de facto monopolies, however much everyday life obliges them to go through the motions of doing so.

And as Burkean time, the quelling of political action from a position outside of history altogether, has lost its one and only use with the fall of empire, martial or financial, the Suez Crisis or the RBS crisis, its ability to hold together the state’s flimsy ideological conception of a British public has become far too extenuated to go on. This post-British process has accelerated dramatically during the latter reaches of devolution, and has started to show its closeness to grass-roots left action. Recent developments like the Occupy movements, which refuse the alienation of here-and-now experience to be an agent in a definite place in a definite present, is also a direct challenge to Burkean British time. So also is opposition to student debt – an issue which has given rise to some of the greatest boundary disputes between Holyrood and Westminster – since debt means giving away present-tense experience for the promise of an ever-receding future, increasingly seen as the alienating logic of the credit markets of empire, which were once, although it now seems long ago, concretised in the British state form.

In other words, citizenship as debt, whether seen in student fees, property investment, or complex financial instruments, is increasingly being seen not so much as entrepreneurial realism as the terminal incarnation of alienated experience most clearly seen in Burke’s anti-French distinction between 1688-as-continuation and 1789-as-rupture. Serious constitutional opposition to Burke and the Burkean Thatcher may have been particularly pronounced in Edinburgh, but the opposition reached throughout Britain and troubled its integrity.

This time, though, unlike the counter-Napoleonic times which opened the age of expansion, there is no imperial structure on which to hang Britishness and give it an ambition. Whether or not Scots can be persuaded to play at a kilted-and-ethnic ‘unionist nationalism’, as did many in the high Victorian empire, this time it is too late. There is nothing left in the British tank but a rebranding of debt creation as a form of industry, and the citizens of the ancien régime know it. All will secede from the UK in some form eventually, but Scotland will be first. Already Scottish unionist party machinations are seen as, as Doug_Johnstone recently hashtagged the Tory leadership election, ‘#fuckingirrelevant’.

As the Occupy and self-determination movements are increasingly revealed as post-British movements then, it also becomes clear that all these movements have to lose is their empire – but empire is, always was, and always would have been, the product of an imaginary time sealed off from history, a Burkean pure-continuation which can never really be placed inside history, a dream from that same time you see on the railway board, when the train has already departed while you stand and wait for it, forcing yourself to swallow the doublethink of its being both late and on time. All these movements have to lose is imaginary empire; all they have to gain is the ability to overcome that nagging sense of alienation from the lived present, a nagging feeling which best summed up by the term ‘Britain’. All they can gain, really, is access to their own experience.

This article was first published on Bella Caledonia.

Michael Gardiner is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at The University of Warwick and author of fiction and non-fiction, short-story collection Escalator (2006) and critical work At the Edge of Empire: The Life of Thomas B. Glover (2008).

2 thoughts on “Reflections on the Empire State

  1. Another potentially interesting article by an academic so disfigured with jargon that the ordinary reader remains quite unsure what he is trying to say. Can he be thinking clearly when he writes so opaquely? It would be nice to know…
    We complain about illiteracy among our NEETs but this article seems out to demonstrate that it exists in rarified form among our academics. Literary Studies seems a particular location of it. Orwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour….

  2. I also found the article confusing… and I really cannot see the common ‘post-British’ thread linking the ‘Occupy’ movement, student protests against tuition fees and the nationalist parties. Very different groups with their own particular agendas.

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