Roch Wind’s response to Foley and Ramand’s critique: A prefatory note

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The latest article from Ramand and Foley was enough to occupy a lazy afternoon. But in 5000 words of scatter-gun pellets they’ve left us wondering what exactly they were aiming at. Little of their long retort engages directly with one 1500 article written as a one-off post by guest writer Ewan Gibbs, and I, on a site which has been otherwise written solely by the three members of the Roch Wind collective (Westwell, Scothorne, and myself).

Most of Ramand and Foley’s response parodies or lazily criticises some impressions of Roch Wind’s critical project. It is lazy because they say we are loyal to Labour and its history, when we have spent much energy attacking our party, and especially British Labour’s record. Lazy because they dismiss the idea of a Nordic consensus and call neoliberalism the ‘true ideological consensus’ when not just ourselves but a range of experts, academics and commentators have demonstrated how effectively Nordicism is becoming a consensus within the pro-independence movement. Lazy because they misattribute to Gibbs and me various writings from Westwell and Scothorne, misconstrue comments on Gramsci, and say we offer no suggestions for a left-wing programme for an independent Scotland.

To illustrate that they are wrong, using their arbitrary tactics of searching the site for quotes, here are two counter-examples. They may read our site to find some more.

Regarding the current state of Labour, they say we believe that “since it remains a workers’ party, Labour governments will be socialist again as soon as workers recover their confidence. Labour, [Roch Wind] urge, at any given time always expresses the severity of working class needs”. Well, in light of the Collins Review we wrote that “the vote to snap the union links places [British Labour] almost beyond repair” and that the Scottish Labour leadership’s “politics of pessimism are one of the most depressing marks of a withering Labour party that has lost its sense and will descend to the grave.”

They say that we have offered no single measure to “redress the inequalities we’ve spoken of; all we’ve heard is snarky pessimism and utopian fantasy.” But I have written that we should have “three initial goals: higher taxes for the rich, laws to provide secure high-paid work, and an industrial plan under public control… to regenerate Scotland from below, moving beyond conscripted armies of call-centre workers and cashiers, to an industrial strategy suited to people’s ambitions, the condition of certain regions, and the threats of capital flight.”

And they similarly pick us up for neglecting the sphere of education – which they call a means to “mak[ing] working people capable of ruling society’. Their idea orbits around abolishing private schools – but Westwell writes that one direction for higher education is “for academics and students to seize democratic control of universities through mechanisms like students unions and the Senates. Another solution, not necessarily opposed to the first, would be for members of the public and cities to exert control and declare ownership, bringing universities back to the people in a place, for their own pursuit of understanding. The educational impulses of working people in Glasgow, were they to direct the university, might take a different direction… Thus, if someone is oppressed by wage labour, they naturally seek an education that helps them to understand capitalism, socialism and collective organising – this is their own basis for understanding the world.”

So this long article from Foley and Ramand is unspecific, attributes to us a range of views without citation, and conflates one outlying article with a bigger project. Since they know Roch Wind is written by three sceptical, pro-independence Labour members, why do they take one article, co-written by a pro-independence and an anti-independence Labour member who elsewhere have clashed (in the latest issue of Citizen), to be representative of the Roch Wind project? Perhaps they have motives that extend beyond the intellectual pursuits they laud; perhaps they feel more confident in their own compromises if they can watch left-nationalist hawks scrapping on the writings of those who challenge the Nordic consensus they’ve found themselves promoting?

It was amusing, given the range of agreements that Foley and Ramand could have chosen, that they said they agree with us “on one thing: consensus isn’t always a virtue”. We thought that meant that we could at least agree that if there were an emerging consensus in the pro-independence movement between, say, the interests of business and those of the workers, then they would stand not with it but against it. Later on we learnt what they actually mean. They reject consensus in general, but insist that what we characterise as a consensus is not a major issue; the problematic consensus is not the Nordic one promoted again this weekend by the SNP at their conference in overtures from Sturgeon and Lamont, not to mention dozens of delegates, not the ‘social partnership’ model that Jim Mather is working on, cited last week by Oxford and Strathclyde university research as an irresistible new demand to bring employer and worker together in harmony.

No, they see a different consensus to rail against – the consensus against the Nordic model. With their familiar sarcasm, they place us in this sphere:

“Uncritical attacks on Nordic policies are reactionary stock-in-trades, made clear from a recent Newsnight Scotland broadcast on childcare. Susan Deacon, that proletarian icon, endorsed the view that higher taxation would remove “parental choice” from the system… Gordon Brewer, the presenter, agreed, and refused to brook Sweden’s advantages [in the field of education]… That’s the mind-numbing consensus Gibbs and Gallaghershould attack, if they wish to “retake Labour”. Without reforming our education system, criminal justice, and the economics of gender inequality, the preconditions for social change will not exist. In our real context, not the imaginary projection of society fifty years ago, references to Nordicism can be subversive and important.”

Here we get back into the area that myself and Gibbs discussed – on the merits of adopting the Nordic model, in part or as a whole, and of social reforms being “the preconditions for social change”. We will not address this here, but a piece will follow soon from myself and Gibbs responding to the parts of the article which we think engages directly with The Emperor’s New Clothes, addressing again the merits of picking certain parts of the Nordic model and promoting them as an alternative to ‘capitalist realism’. Further responses will follow from Roch Wind, not least addressing the suggestion that we are too fixated on the worker/citizen dichotomy (an accusation previously made by Pat Kane in his response to Westwell and myself’s Citizen Kane), and the strange claims that we somehow aspire to a Labour party based around the Old Labour model.

It is also clear that Foley and Ramand are tough on a sense of humour, and tough on the causes of a sense of humour, so we apologise for any misconceptions caused by our flippant quotation from Johann Lamont. Chiefly used because it was a ridiculously clumsy line which fitted in with our metaphor of the Emperor’s clothes, its only serious content was to illustrate that even the far-from-radical Scottish Labour leadership understand that there is egalitarian posturing going on by the nationalists. As for describing Lamont in casual conversation as a ‘radical egalitarian’, well, next time I will do my best not to keep a straight face when being ironic about the integrity and Communist inclinations of our party leader.

Perhaps the use of the quotation also lit the touch-paper for those left-nationalists who insist they are not nationalist, and who, if you call them nationalist, will tell you how you are ideologically blind to your own uglier kind of nationalism. Ultimately we see nationalism as a distraction, and are anxious when the full spectrum of people who believe in independence for Scotland purport to be pursuing a general, unitary social vision rather than distinguishing their national sentiments from their social ones. Indeed, it is clear to us with the perspective we have into Yes Scotland, and with various other vantage points on the campaign, that there is a nationalist consensus. The Yes campaign promotes the idea of consensus, especially around single issues, as a basis for political predictions for after a Yes vote. Even the BBC criticised Nicola Sturgeon for it this weekend. It is a consensus that we do not like. This is the basis for our criticism of the Nordic model and the left’s flirtation with Nordicism in the name of challenging capitalist realism.

Indeed, it seems plain that Foley and Ramand are quite happy to align themselves with this kind of nationalism in a greater struggle against neoliberalism. Although they dispute the badge of nationalism, we wonder whether they find some affinity with the nationalism described recently by Ben Jackson, the left-wing academic:

“The brand of nationalism that now plays such an influential role in Scottish politics… emphasised that independence was the most effective way to promote the political agenda of the left in a neoliberal era. Insofar as an ancestral culture was believed to be threatened by the British state, it was the culture of social democratic corporatism, which scottish nationalists regarded as well-suited to Scotland’s long-standing egalitarian and democratic traditions. In the face of the neoliberal restructuring of the British economy that emanated from London, Scottish nationalists interpreted growing opposition to the Conservative party in Scotland as expressive of a deep political divergence that could only be resolved by the creation of a new Scottish state.”

But challenging this nationalist agenda is not our principal project. It is, like so much inspired by nationalism, ultimately a distraction, which leaves the more powerful interests unaffected. This is why the powerful are so relaxed about it. Whether the left realises this will determine the kind of political struggle that could emerge after a Yes vote, and whether the left is equipped not with a set of maps of some foreign policy-pathways, but understands the lay of the land in Scotland and the force required to take it.

Foley and Ramand accept that:

“the right-wing has a pre-prepared program. They know how to exploit societal shocks: look at the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Iraq, South Africa, and so on. Gibbs and Gallagher maintain any dabbling with a Common Weal-style framework (or any “blueprint”) will be disastrous for the working class. Our hypothesis is the opposite. Without some framework for unity, whether it’s Common Weal or something more radical, we vacate policy to organised neoliberals, with off-the-shelf free market proposals.”

This takes us back where we started – on the merits of having a programme that is not based on working class interests, but on the cross-class, unifying Common Weal project that is eating up the pro-independence left. Radicals have their own obscure language to identify the power which the right will wield. But all they invoke against it a Nordic ghost.

So we may well be “boxing phantoms”, but we do so because the ideas they summon and conjure are not rooted in the real. We may be lampooned as out-of-date Marxists, refusing to ride the ‘revolution of the normal’ with which Scotland will outstrip the rest of the world on the back of a set of radical demands. But we think their ‘revolution of radical needs’ is groundless, or at least that it requires conjurers like McAlpine to stir up belief in the Common Weal, to shout from the sidelines ‘C’mon Scotland’.

Whatever they say about strategy, the Nordic model is not based on the conditions of modern Scotland, and it flies in the face of the much rougher winds that will sweep over a new nation-state. If all that summons these demands are national attachment and national belief, then they are phantoms that do not need any assault; they will fade on their own, leaving the masses disappointed and dejected. Call us moralistic, call us scientific, but these spells are not the stuff of socialism. As a community campaigner said recently of the Yes movement, what activists are doing is ‘building a wave’. McAlpine, sitting next to her, nodded in approval. But this wave will crash against the rocks, leaving nothing in its wake.

CG

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