“Citizen of nowhere”: Revolution and reaction revived

“Citizen of nowhere”: there’s a poetic ring to it, I suppose, though its inference is dark.

As Peter Catterall points out, Theresa May was probably seeking to echo George Canning, that staunch Anti-Jacobin and self-appointed defender of England’s constitution. In his sneering stab at ‘The New Morality’, Canning lampoons the imagined proponent of French Revolutionary values as:

“A steady Patriot of the World alone,
The Friend of every Country—but his own.”[1]

Hindsight is instructive, and Canning’s brand of conservativism has been eclipsed; the values of the Revolution, however (divorced from the messy reality of their implementation), have outlived his memory to be championed as progressive, positive and even intuitive (though also disputed, inconsistent and with big blind spots on race and gender, in particular). That’s not as pithy as Canning’s couplet, perhaps, but that sort of complexity sits ill with an AB rhyming scheme.

Whigs aping the Revolution

To co-opt the anthem of the Revolution in negation of May’s phrase: “Aux armes, citoyens de nulle part” (To Arms, Citizens of Nowhere). The ugly rhetoric of the UK’s current lurch towards nativism has channelled an ill wind: lists, repatriations, and other phantasms of the dark, joyless night of introspection. I continue to feel as if something’s shifting, some grand realignment that we’ll look back on some day for clues as to how we got here. Whether it’s a new ‘Age of Narrative’, as I’ve fretted in the past, or a more cyclical movement away from the liberal consensus I’ve always known, the times they are a’changing.

It seems only natural that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front Nationale, should have congratulated May’s words. Indeed, she might well have found in them the same rejection of Revolutionary values that is her own party’s inheritance, echoing Canning’s taunt. In France, too, the fragile security of the nation is trumpeted against the ‘flood’ of threats that seek to undermine it: the brutal and percussive rhythm of religious violence has drummed up old insecurities and accentuated a feeling of crisis. Yet the root of this seems to lie in the reduction of man to the multitude. As I’ve written before, so called “waves” and “floods” of refugees and migrants are little more than groups of people laid low by events beyond their control. To equate all those escaping conflict in the East with the heinous campaign of violence perpetuated by extremist thugs only serves to support the trumpeted aims of those self-same murderers. Again, in this diminution of the individual, are echoes of the Revolution, and the ways in which critics condemned the crowd: Hippolyte Taine, for one, sneered at the “savages” who took to the streets.[2] There is savagery in this world, and lots of it, but to find it in the face of a stranger is to carry it always inside ourselves. To stand against the Revolution and its Enlightenment values is to deride the cause of common humanity, to erode the individual in favour of some tawdry label.

There are no shortage of critics to call out these nativist impulses, and long may that condemnation be rowdy and resistant. Between the fickle and emotive idea of the Nation, and the ever vulnerable reality of the securitised state, lies all the rhetorical rope to hang ourselves. When the outsider conjures up an image of violence that conflates doctors born overseas with violent religious fanatics that image is a dangerous fiction. I, for one, would rather be a Citizen of Nowhere than complicit in that insidious fallacy. It is a tragic irony that the most resonant critique rests with a singularly brave and important voice tragically silenced by a man who had drunk deep of that draught: “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”




[1] George Canning, ‘New Morality’, Anti-Jacobin, 36 (9 July 1798)

[2] Taine quoted in N. Plack, ‘Drinking and Rebelling: Wine, Taxes, and Popular Agency in Revolutionary Paris, 1789–1791’, French Historical Studies, 39:3 (2016), 599-622.

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