NS Essay - 'The place where we live can unite us, wherever we initially came from, whatever our politics, class or religion'

If we don't fight to protect the landscapes we live in, we will find ourselves in a world without co

So, it's agreed: we're all patriots now. From the New Statesman to the Daily Telegraph, we concur - a revived sense of national pride is the best response to an attack on the country from a new Enemy Within. The London bombings have lent patriotism a cross-political lease of life that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago.

What do we have to be proud of? Take your pick. For Michael Howard there is British identity, which is about "our democracy, monarchy, rule of law, history". For Tony Blair, on the other hand, it is about "values, not institutions" - splendidly British values such as "fair play, creativity, tolerance and an outward-looking approach to the world". For the right this is a chance to show us that they were correct all along: that a defence of traditional "British values" and institutions is our best defence against moral and social anarchy. For the left it is a chance to redefine those values and remould those institutions, but to agree, nevertheless, that in national unity there is strength.

Meanwhile, out in the streets and the fields of the nation we are suddenly supposed to be so proud of, changes are taking place that make a mockery of this whole esoteric debate. While we sit in front of our laptops churning out drivel about toler- ance, fairness, multiculturalism and our unique ability to stand in queues politely, Britain is being rapidly remoulded in the interests of global capital. The irony is writ large right outside our front doors.

The word "patriotism" is rooted in the Greek patris - "land of one's fathers". It is on the land, not the fathers, that we should focus, because the debate about patriotism is really a debate about belonging. Yet, in all the guff about "values and institutions", not one writer, politician, commentator or rent-a-quoter seems to have noticed the blindingly obvious component of belonging: the place to which we are supposed to belong. The landscape itself.

Look around at the land of your fathers, mothers or simply friends, and tell me what you see. What is there to feel proud of? Increasingly, the landscape that most of us live in is a soulless miasma of ring roads, superstores, "drive-thrus", "malls", identical housing estates, new motorways, luxury gated apartment communities and fast-food restaurants. This is not the Britain of our imagination. Increasingly, it is only the officially protected bits - what Philip Larkin drily called "the tourist parts" - which remain green and pleasant. Even the dark Satanic mills have been exported to China.

Instead, the landscape that is supposed to be the root of this new, inclusive patriotism is an increasingly placeless canvas on to which the short-term needs of a global consumer economy are painted; a palimpsest of capital, smeared across layers of history and locality. Whether we feel we belong here becomes an academic question if "here" is identical to everywhere else.

It's not hard to see what is happening. Take a short walk around your neighbourhood and the signs will be clear enough. I did so the other day and saw a dozen of them in less than a mile. First, around the corner from my house, was the last working canal boatyard in the city, under threat, despite local objections, of being bulldozed and replaced by luxury flats and a luxury restaurant. Next came my local pub - once undistinguished, homely, meaningful, then closed down, stripped out and reopened as a theme bar with a silly name and a drinks list to match. The brewery that once served it, which, since 1782, had made distinctive local beer with local water to a local recipe, has also gone: its ancient town-centre site is now the Lion Brewery development, with apartments that start at £330,000. A public square in the city centre has become a "mall", complete with security guards paid to stop you sitting down near the shopfronts.

Alone, each of these is a relatively small thing, perhaps going unnoticed or unremarked. But taken together with hundreds of thousands of similar cases elsewhere in the country they add up to a trend: a change that's fast, on a national scale, and not for the better.

The denominator common to all these developments is that something distinctive is replaced by some- thing bland; the organic by the manufactured; the definably local with the emptily anonymous; something human-scale with something impersonal.

The things that make our towns, villages, cities and landscapes different or special are being eroded; conversely, their replacements would be familiar anywhere. It is happening across Britain - you can probably see at least one example of it from where you are sitting right now. The same chains in every high street; the same bricks in every new housing estate; the same signs on every road; the same menu in every pub.

It is almost as though battle has been declared on diversity, distinctiveness, integrity and authenticity by the armies of the plastic, the nebulous, the corporate and the sham. The result is stark: everywhere is becoming the same as everywhere else.

We are not alone in this, and it is no coincidence. What is happening is part of an international trend. The expanding, seemingly unchallengeable global market requires uniformity of taste - we all have to want the same things, feel the same things, like and dislike the same things. Only that way can markets cross cultural boundaries and the neoliberal project succeed. At the same time an advanced industrial economy requires economies of scale - which means mass production, the smoothing-out of edges, uniform development: the standardised manufacture of entire landscapes.

This is a political project on a global scale, a project that affects every one of us at a very local level. In order for the consumer economy to progress, we must cease to be people who belong to neighbourhoods, communities, localities. We must cease to value the distinctiveness of where we are. We must become consumers, bargain-hunters, dealers on an international trading floor. We must belong everywhere and nowhere.

If some of this language sounds familiar to New Statesman readers, it is perhaps because of another irony, which it might be worth acknowledging. "National differences and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto," wrote Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels nearly 160 years ago in the Communist Manifesto. "The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster."

Thus far the global supremacy of the proletariat has failed to materialise, but the global supremacy of the market rolls on. As it does, parts of the traditional left, their loathing of "national differences" as sharp as Marx's ever was, are helping those differences - good and bad - to vanish beneath the one-size-fits-all global economy. In their fixation with "internationalism", their suspicion of anything that reeks of what Marx liked to call "reaction" and their consequent refusal to stand with those who frame their resistance in terms of place, identity or locality, they do the neoliberals' job for them. The global market does its work, helping national differences to vanish beneath a blanket of skyscrapers, steel, asphalt, share prices and corporate logos.

In this context, who are the heroes? Who are the Minutemen of what we might call a place-based resistance to this homogenising economic fundamentalism? They are those on the margins of political debate and economic influence. They are the people dismissed by Marx as "rural idiots" and by Tory politicians as "nimbies". They are people in communities all over the country who refuse to lie down before the juggernaut of a spurious progress, or to sacrifice the landscapes and cultures that matter to them for the benefit of a global economy which is built on sand.

They are, at the same time, ordinary and extraordinary, and they can be found everywhere. They are the village community somewhere in rural England which sees its only local pub closed down by the asset-stripping corporation that owns it and, instead of allowing it to be sold for housing, gangs together to raise enough cash to buy it. They are the itinerant communities who live on narrow boats across Britain's inland waterways and are conducting fierce local battles to save working boatyards and canalside facilities from the avalanche of luxury housing headed their way.

They are the residents of London's Chinatown, trying to save their streets from predatory developers, and the urban communities in Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol working to prevent their street markets from disappearing beneath office blocks. They are those who fight the selling-off of playing fields, the privatisation of urban parks and the raping of rural landscapes. They are farmers and orchard workers, fishermen and road protesters, council workers and the owners of independent record shops. They are all those who stand in the way of economic and political processes that squeeze history, character and meaning from our landscape, and leave only money in its place. You probably know one. Maybe you are one. There are a lot of us about. Perhaps it's time we started talking to each other.

Perhaps, too, this is "patriotism" - in the truest, most fiery and most radical sense of that misused word. Institutions and values can divide us: the place we live in can unite us, wherever we initially came from, whatever our politics, class or religion. Urban, rural, suburban - the landscape we inhabit is the one thing that can bind us together, the one thing in which we all have an interest: it is the real source of belonging.

This is a form of patriotism that is surely worth engaging in; that should be able to unite left and right, that will annoy politicians of every stripe and get right up the nose of a worldwide money machine which wants us to stop moaning, give up and go shopping. In an age of global consumerism, corporate power and the dominance of a homogenising, placeless economic ideology, the one truly radical thing to do is to belong.

You want a patriotic duty? How about this one: don't let them take your place away from you. Stand in their way, get under their feet, frustrate their knavish tricks. The irony is delicious, but no less true for it: the way to fight back is by knowing your place.


This article first appeared in the 05 September 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Ground zilch: how Al-Qaeda defeated New York