And Wallonia? In 1960–61, galvanized by a massive strike wave, support grew for a regionalist breakaway movement as proposed by the charismatic metalworkers’ leader André Renard. Flemish support for the return of the Nazi-collaborationist King Leopold iii in 1950, bitterly opposed in Wallonia, helped to cast the Flemish North as a drag on the South’s socialist ambitions. Rather than accept Flemish cohabitation in a house tended by Belgium’s bourgeoisie, Wallonia’s proletariat should contemplate a proper jailbreak. The escape was to be both economic and political: autonomy for the country’s two linguistic communities, and a socialization of industry in the South. Although never a majority force in the Parti Socialiste (ps), Renardists assembled a lively cohort for socialism in one region.
Before too long, however—compounding the shock loss of the Congo in 1960—Europe’s oldest steel sector was hit by the consequences of global overcapacity. Suddenly, there was no industry left to nationalize. By the early 1970s, Renard’s followers were left with a desiccated industrial landscape, only meagrely irrigated by state coffers. Meanwhile, in 1968 Flemish students had followed their Parisian counterparts by demanding an end to the Francophone dominance at the country’s oldest academic institution, the Catholic University of Leuven. Regionalization was now continuing at cruising speed, but hardly to the South’s benefit. Instead, Liège and Charleroi became the ruined temples of Belgian manufacturing, Manchesters without the sea, Pittsburghs on the Meuse.
These developments gave the final push to a tottering Belgique à papa.footnote28 From 1970 onwards, Belgium’s old guard relaxed its grip on the unitary state as it initiated a series of reforms to regionalize and de-centralize the political system. Three official language communities, Dutch (59.6 per cent), French (40 per cent) and German (0.4 per cent), were established through the talentelling (language count); they would eventually acquire a council each, charged with education. Three political regions—the Brussels Capital Region, Flanders and Wallonia—were also given their own parliaments. An intricate system of financial transfers was set in place—disparagingly known as centenfederalisme, or ‘cash federalism’, by Flemish nationalists—through which regions and communities would receive the bulk of their budgets from the central government. Step by step, in the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, new institutions began to operate and the Constitution was amended to define Belgium as ‘a federal state composed of communities and regions’.
Wallonia’s leaders decided to swim with the tide. During the crisis years of the 1970s, they picked at the carcass of the unitary state and secured emergency funding for Wallonia. It was clear that the centre of gravity of the Belgian economy had shifted dramatically northward: two economic poles—the port delta around Antwerp and a Brussellian metropole welcoming lobbyists into a growing eu bureaucracy—had replaced the South’s industrial magnets. The shift left behind a self-determining Wallonia that now had little to determine for itself. Subsequent generations of Walloon Socialists vacillated between performative unionism in government, to assure revenue for their region, and an assertive regionalism when stuck in opposition.footnote29 The Flemish bias towards export strategies, coupled with the North’s voting power, further marginalized the Renardist tendency. In the 1980s, the Walloon Socialist leader André Cools tried to counter regional decline by promoting municipal sharing schemes known as intercommunales: local councils could jointly manage public services and safeguard the country’s welfare gains.footnote30
Here was a further difference between Wallonia’s post-industrial status and that of England’s North. Compared to Thatcher’s onslaught, the neoliberal medicine administered by her Belgian admirer Wilfried Martens was relatively mild. The Catholic Party leader was partly checked by the stiff opposition of the Christian-Democrat trade-union wing. Federalism certainly helped to cushion the blow, albeit more through a Hegelian cunning of unreason: Belgium’s byzantine set-up has given Francophone Socialists veto power over a neoliberal push from the export-oriented North, despite the latter’s greater voting strength. With conservatives permanently unable to gain a unicameral majority à la Thatcher, it has been much easier to maintain Belgium’s corporatist structures—union control of social-security finances, enforced social bargaining, wage indexation, generous insurance mechanisms. In a small country with a relatively well-organized working class—in 2019, union membership surpassed 50 per cent—Thatcher’s Blitzkrieg on the miners never was a practical possibility. Unlike Italy or France, Belgian elites were also less eager to instrumentalize the eu to implement capitalist policy by stealth. That option required a greater degree of elite closure anyway, something Belgium’s fractious ruling bloc could never muster.
Flanders became the luckiest legatee of Belgium’s regional partition. Fusing the institutions of the Flemish ‘community’ with those of the Flanders ‘region’, it achieved full parliamentary devolution in 1995. For the Flemings, the Belgian house has been uitgeleefd—out-lived, or perhaps out-grown. As with any separatist squabble, the ‘transfer debate’ remains rife with acrimony; in 2005, Flemish nationalists drove a lorry full of fake euro bills to the south of their language border. The man who performed this stunt, Bart De Wever, is now Mayor of Antwerp. He has become only slightly less histrionic in his advocacy for the city’s export interests. No regionally unified Flemish capitalist class has cohered around this transition—yet.footnote31 Both the port of Antwerp and the Brussels metropolitan region are domains where foreign companies call the shots, ‘facilitated’ by Flemish and local authorities. Attempts to grant a Flemish-separatist project real political-economic depth remain breathless at best, mostly ruses to normalize the region’s far right. Nevertheless, visions of a regionally anchored neoliberalism have enjoyed a resurgence since 2010 with the rise of the free-market n-va (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, or New Flemish Alliance), currently the dominant party in Flanders—and led by the same Bart De Wever. Opting for a gradualist line—first confederalism, then full independence—the n-va is without doubt the most vocal of all separatist formations. The other contender, Vlaams Belang, has always stuck to a more chauvinist line, preferring to save money by keeping the foreigners out.
Lessons for the North?
English Northerners undoubtedly have reasons to be envious of their Walloon cousins. Though companions of the same post-industrial fate, Belgian deindustrialization has treated its working classes more fairly and less punitively. Walloon clientelism has proved less financialized, with social housing keeping up a steady pace of growth, in contrast to the council-housing sell-offs granted by Thatcher to the North’s ex-factory workers—said by some to be a key indicator of the Brexit vote. Contemporary Belgium is certainly no corporatist Eden, untouched by the market turn. But it has resisted many of the trends that have scarred countries in the developed world and boasts a better Gini-coefficient than other early industrializers.
Anglo-Belgian divergences should not be overstated, however. Regionalization has hardly been a benediction to Belgium’s South. While Britain has six of the ten poorest regions in Northwest Europe, the Walloon regions of Hainaut, Liège and Charleroi are little better off. And just as South Yorkshire is only a few hours from inner London—still Europe’s richest district—so Liège also lies conspicuously closely to Luxembourg. Federalization has helped Wallonia, but it has hardly saved it. The cinema of the Dardenne brothers, with its focus on ‘poverty’ rather than class, provides aesthetic backing for a ps project of federally funded regional poverty management for the South that has given up hopes of reindustrialization altogether. The Dardennes’ oeuvre, from Rosetta to Two Days, One Night and The Unknown Girl, makes a striking contrast to the class confrontations depicted in the electrifying 1934 documentary Misère au Borinage by Henri Storck and Joris Ivens.
Flemish neoliberals remain hopeful about a separatist free-trade breakthrough, letting the ‘best student in the Belgian class’ flourish next to competitors in Poland or Latvia. To no avail, however: anno 2021, the Belgian state is still here, badly mismanaging the covid crisis. But managing, nonetheless. It has to be said that the regional response to covid was just as shambolic as the federal one. Beneath Belgium’s so-called ‘communitarian’ crisis smoulders not only a medical or logistical crisis but above all a political one, affecting Belgium’s party democracy at its core. Recently leaked memos of the 2019 governmental negotiations indicated Francophone Socialists’ willingness to split between regions not only social security, but also labour-market policy and fire services. Hoping to secure its baronies in Brussels with a final pay out, the ps appeared willing to trade in the national achievements of the Belgian labour movement.
Some tough questions follow. As the Walloon example shows, behind the question of regionalization stands the more intimidating one of capital investment. The English North never acquired a form of proto-statehood that would allow it to practice a properly local developmentalism; it was forced instead into an amorphous form of rebellion, within a topsy-turvy electoral geography that never provided a platform for regional consciousness. A look at post-industrial regions that did gain this form of statehood, however, is not comforting. In 2016, Walloon prime minister and Socialist Party leader Paul Magnette garnered laurels from the European left for his rebellion in the federal parliament against the imposition of the neoliberalizing eu–Canada trade deal. This act of resistance hid a structural dependency of the Walloon region on Flemish transfers, which have grown precipitously in the wake of federalization. Behind this lies the secular decline of Wallonian industry, unable to profit from containerization and shut out from the German-led Central European export boom.
In the uk, Labour’s debacle in the 2019 election led to a resurgence of calls for proportional representation and constitutional conventions, along with a rise in regional consciousness. Loyal to the Labourist tradition, the Corbyn movement always indicated its willingness to play within the parameters of the Westminster system. Its dressing-down in December 2019 did manage to crack this consensus. As Owen Hatherley tweeted, socialists ‘obsessed with sorting out the British constitution’ now did not simply seem like ‘wet ex-academic Marxists who had given up on socialism and decided nineteenth-century century bourgeois politics would do’. Perhaps, in fact, ‘they were right all along’. Growing support for Scottish independence, strengthened by Johnson’s hard Brexit, has dragged the question of a polity for rump-England into the light of day. Against this, Alex Niven’s New Model Island has promoted socialist regionalism as the ‘sleeping giant’ who will arise to remake the uk—an antidote to the ‘dimly recalled nationalisms of the Middle Ages’, viz. Scotland, as much as an argument against ‘narrow Englishness’, aka ‘the cultural daydream of a neoliberal order’ that operates as a denial of more radical hopes and dreams.footnote32
Dreams of a British 1848 resurface here, with an interclass alliance between Chartists and Cobdenites jointly burying the old order. But Wallonia’s experience suggests that democratic federalization might simply bring Northern powerlessness out into the open—forcing a weak regional government to beg for crumbs at a distant Westminster table. After all, what resources are there to expropriate? What assets to tax? Looking even further north, what oil wells to drill? These exercises raise a more fundamental question: the supposed expiration of the Westminster model. As the estimated £12 billion refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster crawled forward, a right-wing commentator noted that the ‘gothic fantasia on the Thames’—‘the increasing decrepitude of whose architectural fabric is an almost too obvious metaphor for the British state itself’—could now hardly be restored ‘without bringing the whole structure crashing down.’footnote33 In the wake of Brexit, however—and despite Tory promises about new headquarters in Manchester—completing a delayed Europeanization-modernization of the British polity, à la Spaak, seems ever more unlikely. In a world where modernization has simply become a synonym for more neoliberalization, the new appears as just the latest version of the old—the ‘gothic fantasia’ unfit for purpose.
But unfit for what purpose? And unfit for whom? Already in 1991 Ellen Meiksins Wood criticized the Nairn–Anderson theses in The Pristine Culture of Capitalism, claiming that British decline remained the perfect emblem of capitalist development, not an outlier to the mean. An essential corollary of the theses, she argued, was that other late-developing capitalist countries were not subject to the same disorders because they were more ‘modern’ and their bourgeois revolutions more ‘complete’. Britain was a distillate of capitalist history, not a Sonderweg within it. In her reading, the inclination ‘to ascribe the failures of capitalism to its incompleteness, or to the backwardness of its political and cultural environment, appears to rest on certain very basic assumptions about its economic logic: capitalism, apparently, is by nature productive.’ Today, even a quick skim of Piketty would serve to undo such an illusion. Without external pressure, r>g is simply the natural mode of operation for any capitalist class, from Moscow to São Paulo to London. As Wood might have put it: British regional inequality in this sense has less to do with a pre-modern backwardness than with the logic of capitalism itself.footnote34
Nevertheless, as Perry Anderson pointed out in reply to Wood, comparisons between Ukania and Belgium served to show that ‘similar beginnings can have rather different endings’ and ‘national fortunes are not just fates inscribed in industrial birth-certificates.’footnote35 Anyone casting a cold eye on the careers of Europe’s early industrializers would have to agree. But birth-certificates are no execution warrants, either. Much like the North, it took Wallonia several decades to give up the ghost of carbon-based manufacturing. Along the way, it was able to defy capitalist gravity and achieve federal independence. Clemency was never an option, however, and regionalization has only worsened Wallonia’s dependence within the fractious Belgian marriage. British decline can be attributed to a failure to modernize—lacking an English Spaak, but also weighed down by the debilitating success of the City. A type of federalism that the British left might treat as a mark of modernity did indeed save Wallonia from the bleakest forms of stagnation.
But the ‘victory’ here still is a pyrrhic one: globalization has not been stopped in its tracks and Belgian firms still have to compete in a hostile world economy. Regionalization shielded Wallonian workers from globalization, insofar as its political class could threaten a constitutional crisis if ever the North gave up its solidarity. But this very tactic was premised on the evasion of any systemic change in the Southern economy itself. It is often claimed that a federalized United Kingdom might offer the left more means of capital coercion, or at least stem the tide of ongoing privatization. But without the fiscal heft of the Westminster state, even freed of its constitutional strictures, coercing British capital to provide for its hinterlands will probably prove a thankless task. Just ask the Walloon Socialist Party.
The Northern question, as Hazeldine’s account makes clear, is simply the most open pathology of an intrinsically pathological system. Without external discipline or coercion from below, post-war British capital went back into rentier mode and resumed its position as the trans-Atlantic casino owner. Arguments for popular-democratic economic nationalism never impinged upon Britain’s ruling-class consciousness. An industrial-growth engine, they knew, always implied that the engine driver could pull on the brakes: this they would not countenance. Retardataire rentierism, with the City as the world’s money manager, would remain preferable to industrial independence. But that is the capitalist default—not ‘old regime pseudo-nationalism’. More than the symptom of an unconsummated modernity, Britain’s Northern question indicates the inertia of every capitalist order, falling back on its safe spots when overcapacity or proletarian militancy threaten its profit margins. Like the us sunbelt, Flanders was able to capitalize on this transition by setting itself up as a warden for American multinationals. As the sister regions of Liège, Pittsburgh and Detroit exemplify, however, a real solution to the Northern problem implies a solution to that most intractable of problems: capitalism itself.
What other politics are on offer in the comparative picture? Hazeldine shows how the North’s three attempts at challenging the southern-based regime of landed-finance capital came to nought. Nevertheless, Northern discontents have remained highly consequential for the country’s course. They tipped the Brexit vote in 2016 and (belatedly) settled scores with Labour. Is it conceivable that these energies could be channelled into a fourth counter-hegemonic project? Here, Belgium does offer some room for emulation. The Parti du travail de Belgique/Partij van de Arbeid (ptb/pvda), founded in late 1970s as a small Maoist outfit, has grown into one of the most powerful forces on the Belgian—and European—left, after a long multicultural coma in the 2000s. As the last properly unionist party in the country—all the traditional parties having reorganized along regional lines—the ptb/pvda has built up a strong base in Wallonia’s post-industrial heartlands and nearly prised open the dead hand of the ps down there. It is gathering support in a more diverse Brussels. Surprisingly, it has also edged up to 10 per cent in a notoriously conservative Flanders.
Although realistic about Belgium’s linguistic divides, the ptb/pvda argues that modernization and regionalization are hardly a panacea for Belgium’s woes. Instead, it seeks a full ‘re-federalization’ for recently split social services and wants to strengthen Belgium’s remaining unitary structure. The Belgian parliament should be elected by a single Belgian constituency, not split on language lines. Staunch defenders of Belgium’s remaining welfare state, the ptb/pvda has also taken up the cause of the country’s numerous but hesitant trade-union movement, fatherless since the splitting up of the old pillars. The latter remains stuck in a craft unionism not unlike the one practiced by British workers after Chartism. But they did strike for a fairer deal after covid-19 on 29 March, supported by the ptb/pvda’s many federal mps who are themselves card-carrying union members. A British version of this scenario might be hard to imagine in 2021. But it would certainly make an alternative to more devolutionary fervour.
1 Tom Hazeldine, ‘London Punishing the North Is No Accident: It’s How England Is Run’, Guardian, 19 October 2020.
2 Wolfgang Streeck, ‘Reflections on Political Scale’, Jurisprudence, vol. 10, no. 1, February 2019.
3 Perry Anderson, ‘Forget about Paris’, lrb, 23 January 2014.
4 Tom Hazeldine, The Northern Question: A History of a Divided Country, London and New York 2020; henceforward, tnq.
5 Tom Nairn, The Enchanted Glass: Britain and Its Monarchy, London and New York 2011 , p. 244.
6 tnq, p. 12.
7 tnq, pp. 4, 14.
8 tnq, p. 45.
9 tnq, pp. 47–9, 53–5, 61.
10 tnq, pp. 62–6.
11 Theodore Rothstein, From Chartism to Labourism: Historical Sketches of the English Working Class, London 1929. Rothstein (1871–1953) was a Lithuanian-born, London-based Marxist journalist, a founder of the cpgb in 1920, later Soviet ambassador to Iran.
12 tnq, p. 80.
13 tnq, pp. 69–70.
14 tnq, pp. 71–3.
15 tnq, pp. 91, 2, 100, 106.
16 Tom Nairn, ‘The Nature of the Labour Party’, nlr 1/27, Sept–Oct 1964 and nlr 1/128, Nov–Dec 1964.
17 tnq, pp. 93, 96–7, 103.
18 tnq, pp. 116, 124.
19 tnq, pp. 132–3.
20 Respectively, Harry Enfield’s single ‘Loadsamoney (Doing Up the House)’ and Alan Bleasdale’s serial tv drama, Boys from the Blackstuff.
21 tnq, p. 220.
22 Owen Hatherley, ‘The Government of London’, nlr 122, Mar–Apr 2020, p. 112.
23 As Mark Fisher noted, the protagonist of Smith’s song aimed at restoring the North to an unspecified glory: ‘perhaps to its Victorian moment of economic and industrial supremacy; perhaps to some more ancient pre-eminence, perhaps to a greatness that will eclipse anything that has come before. More than a mere regional railing against the capital, in Smith’s vision the North comes to stand for everything suppressed by urbane good taste: the esoteric, the anomalous, the vulgar sublime, that is to say, the Weird and the Grotesque itself.’ Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, London 2016, pp. 36–7.
24 tnq, pp. 220–2.
25 David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism, London and New York 2006, p. 115; cited tnq, p. 1.
26 See Antoon Roosens, De Vlaamse kwestie: ‘pamflet’ over een onbegrepen probleem, Leuven 1981; still the best domestic treatment of the Flemish question from a Marxist viewpoint. For an account of Roosens’s life, see Jelle Versieren, De politieke biografie van Antoon Roosens, 1929–2003: tussen natie en klasse, unpublished doctoral dissertation at the University of Ghent, 2008.
27 Spaak, later nato Secretary General, was rumoured to have been on the us payroll while in exile during the War, leading Marcel Liebman—with Ernest Mandel, one of Belgium’s foremost Marxist thinkers—to dub him ‘one of the most nefarious characters in contemporary Belgian history’. See Marcel Liebman, ‘Paul-Henri Spaak (1899–1972), ou la politique du cynisme. Éléments pour une étude biographique’, in Entre histoire et politique: dix portraits, Brussels 2006, pp. 151–77.
28 André Mommen, De teloorgang van de Belgische bourgeoisie, Leuven 1982, for the best long-term history of Belgian ruling-class formation.
29 A formulation of the journalist Rik Van Cauwelaert.
30 Cools was assassinated in 1991, four months before the so-called ‘Black Sunday’ election in which the Flemish far right first broke through the electoral ceiling. Two cronies of the Sicilian mafia were later apprehended as Cools’s killers. In 2017 the so-called ‘Publifin’ affair exposed widespread corruption in the Wallonian ps, which allegedly milked the country’s intercommunales as clientelist cash cows.
31 See Matthias Lievens, ‘De Vlaamse bourgeoisie: 1 & 2’, Lava, Oct–Dec 2020, and Vincent Scheltiens, Met dank aan de overkant: een politieke geschiedenis van België, Antwerp 2017, for two outstanding recent treatments of this question. After Paul Dirkx’s La concurrence ethnique: La Belgique, l’Europe et le néolibéralisme (2012), Scheltiens’ book—its title translates as ‘With Thanks to the Other Side’—offers the closest equivalent of Hazeldine’s for Belgium, showing how historical squabbles between Walloons and Flemings mainly serve as a channel for national class tensions.
32 Alex Niven, New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond the Idea of England, London 2019, pp. 7–8.
33 Aris Roussinos, ‘The rot at the heart of Westminster’, UnHerd, 24 Nov 2020.
34 Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Pristine Culture of Capitalism: A Historical Essay on Old Regimes and Modern States, London and New York 1991, pp. 13, 24, 163.
35 Perry Anderson, English Questions, London and New York 1992, p. 337.