Scotland has been in a political union for the entirety of its formative years, so the process of imagining its onwards progression as a state is a difficult one. No real state remains to be revived with independence, beyond that which has been shakily constructed on the back of devolution. Scottish political traditions, having been expressed through a British state apparatus, are in their statist form inseparable from the British state.
But this does create the potential for one particular kind of left thought. Utopianism. Utopianism isn’t imagining the impossible, nor is it setting out a programme to a better society. Utopianism is a process of identifying the bonds that hold a society together, and in place of their inevitable decay, reimagining these bonds as strong and fit for purpose, and then describing the superstructure that might correspond to this foundation.
One early example of utopian thinking was Plato’s Republic. He identified societies as operating on the basis of social roles – men, women, governors, cobblers, farmers. Plato saw that social roles gave men and women an understanding of the part they were required to play in their society, and when people fulfilled their social roles correctly, there would be social harmony, because the roles perfectly fitted together into a State.
Plato’s utopia was based on this idea. In the Republic, Plato laid out the responsibilities and characteristics of different social roles that would form an ideal society, and how the society would in turn create people to fulfil these roles – through education, structures of governance, and lines of responsibility. Plato’s Republic was a utopia, because it showed a perfect unity between the social foundation of society and the social structure of society. And the Republic had an important relationship to reality, because the social roles which formed its foundation were in fact present in an imperfect form, and imperfectly related to each other, in the society that Plato saw around him, and indeed today.
Now let’s go forward to 1516, and the thought of an Englishman, Thomas More. He gets to his fundamental principles, the equivalent of Plato’s roles, by looking at the decline of social cohesion in England. This boils down to the use of land and the nature of work. Noble folk own property and live off rents, while the greedier ones remove tenant farmers in favour of sheep. “Each greedy individual prays on his native land like a malignant growth… Thus a few greedy people have converted one of England’s greatest natural advantages into a national disaster.”
For More, the bonds that hold society together are land-based and agricultural. Humans live off the same land, and ideally should use it rationally and to their mutual benefit. Thus, More’s Utopia involves a high degree of agricultural knowledge among citizens, the practice of working on the land, the abolition of property and a strong identification of the city with the hinterland. As was the case with Plato, More was drawing on politically-relevant and real social relationships that were determining the direction of society, and became particularly prominent during the period of the True Levellers.
Rousseau’s Social Contract also exhibits these features of utopian thought which we are investigating. Rousseau’s work on constitution-forming and interest in constitutional-legal thought lead him to consider how a society would ideally function with a politico-legal social contract as its basis. The most fundamental social link we have is a political one, the practice of governance and the democratic development of the state. Rousseau’s utopia emerged from an era when constitutional thought was becoming extremely important in France, culminating with the French Revolution.
With the advent of Marxism, utopian thought became less common. Marx still identifies a fundamental basis for society: human needs which must be satisfied by civil society (but not necessarily political society). But he does not construct a utopia on this basis, as his project is less philosophical. Instead, Marx identifies in civil society certain laws which will determine its development, and theorises how this might transform the social relationship itself. And Utopian thought is meaningless if we accept a basis for society which has its own principles of change, rather than one that patiently stands still so that we may construct superstructures to complement it.
Marx destroyed utopian socialism, and utopianism largely fell out of practice. It emerged again in mainstream Left thought recently, with Eric Olin Wright’s idea of “real utopias”. But Olin Wright’s utopias are constructed on so many different bases that the only consistent feature is utopianism itself, and his many varied examples tell us little about society or how to work within our own polis.
You might now begin to see why I say that utopian thought could be revived in light of the national question in Scotland. Civil society stands still, everyone ignores world economic change, and the Scotland of the future is projected onto an eternal world-as-we-now-know-it. Everyone is asking what a future Scotland will look like, meaning the institutions, the laws and the roles. We could be living pre-sociology.
The Common Weal is an interesting example. Robin McAlpine in fact identifies common needs as the basis for all society (this is not quite Marxian, since it includes too little sense of the relationships these needs necessarily bring us into, but it is surprisingly close). His vision for the future of Scotland based on this idea envelops universalism, an All-Of-Us-First idea, and a model for industrial development. It’s all quite neat.
But it’s strange this is the only one. Utopianism has proven to be an influential political strategy for the Common Weal, not for the merits of the programme itself, but because Scotland is ripe for utopian thought. Other thinkers in Scotland might be canny to follow the utopian approach and develop their own utopias based on more radical social ideals – using ideal bases for society which are far less familiar, and not preached by the liberal Right. Where McAlpine uses the ideal of social harmony between people and the market, challenges to his utopia might instead assert ideals of land or work
The advantage of utopianism is that it allows the proponent to clearly demonstrate the core principles of their thought. For instance, folk like Andy Wightman could take a leaf out of Thomas More’s book, and propose a radical use of land, in a way that demonstrates the current relevance of land use to most people, and how it forms the basis for the way many people live in Scotland.
This would overcome the difficulty in making people who do not live in Applecross or run social enterprises understand the relevance of land-ownership. Scottish Labour talks incessantly about community ownership, but it is extremely unclear what land ownership might mean in a city or indeed why it is important for those parts of Scotland that do not exist in an absurd pre-clearances fashion. For land-ownership to become a popular radical demand, there needs to be a reassertion of the idea that the polis and Scottish society is based upon the way we share and use land. Utopian thought could provide this, and begin the formation of a radical land-based political language in Scotland.
Role-based utopias could also be important in Scotland in order to create any kind of radical independence. A utopia that showed the way in which social roles have deteriorated to the point where roles are segregated by class and gender, and the individual has only a limited number of forms of social expression, could be an important step forward, particularly for the feminist movement. All too often, decision-makers about women in Scotland rely on pre-existing female roles, such as childcare, and only strive to imagine how this role could be rewarded monetarily, rather than to consider the way that the role is in itself a part of a decayed society, and refuses autonomy and expression to the individual.
At Roch Wind we try to investigate change rather than sketch out beautiful models, and many Labour and trade union-oriented folk feel the same. But while utopianism might feel like a step backwards, the Left should not ignore effective forms of propaganda, nor should it decline to drown out less progressive voices like the Common Weal using their own means. The potential for utopianism in Scottish thought will be around for quite a while, independence or no, and propagandists would do well to seize upon this form while it is still influential. If nothing else, it’ll be an interesting blip in Scottish thought.