Let’s get this straight: Johann Lamont was right, and Aristotle was wrong. Indeed, Jim Murphy’s much-maligned predecessor is responsible for two of the finest rhetorical expressions of socialist principle in recent Scottish history, and she should be recognised for it. In the United States of America the great civic buildings are often adorned with the epochal one-liners of renowned statesmen, and it would be a scandal if one day – maybe years down the line, but someday – the vast marble slabs of some new shining monument to human emancipation are not engraved with the utterly, unavoidably correct words: “We’re not genetically programmed to make political decisions.”
In 1968, Albania’s enigmatic Communist leader Enver Hoxha – who covered almost every square mile of his small, mountainous nation in thousands of disgustingly ugly concrete bunkers in preparation for the Soviet or NATO invasion of which he was terrified – had his name painted in 100-metre high letters on the side of Mount Shpirag. The most advanced sections of the international proletariat live in eternal hope that one day Edinburgh’s Salisbury Crags, or perhaps the side of Castle Rock, will become the rocky canvas for Lamont’s flawless four-word summation of an incontrovertible historical fact: “Nationalism is a virus.”
“We’re not genetically programmed to make political decisions”
Lamont’s disagreement with Aristotle is fundamental. In his Politics the great Macedonian wrote that Man is a zoon politikon: a political animal. The state emerges naturally as the highest form of association, for only it can enable citizens to live the noble, virtuous “good life”. It cannot just be an association: it must also be a community of virtue, held together by a profound sense of friendship which ensures that each citizen cares about their own virtue and the virtue of everyone else.
Of course, this is fascist garbage. Aristotle could only conceive of this state as “good” because the Athenian polis was the exclusive terrain of rich, slave-owning men. Woman in Aristotle’s ideal society was governed by the citizen-husband; the slave was the tool-that-speaks; the landless proletarii were little more than trash in the street. To include everybody in politics is ludicrous; it implies the kind of pure commonality of interest that would make politics unnecessary. Politics is the game of the oppressor and the friendly banter of the privileged; for everyone else it is simply warfare by other means. To suggest that humans are political animals is to suggest that the oppressed are not human.
In this context, to say that we’re not genetically programmed to make political decisions is just about the most radical statement that exists. It is an insistence on a “we” which stubbornly includes the oppressed, flipping over the cruel board on which the rulers play their games. It is, as a result, a demand for the abolition of politics entirely. Contra Aristotle’s fantasy, the state is a response to this demand, an effort to pre-empt and contain the brutal confrontation that will emerge when the oppressed insist on their humanity in the face of those who deny it. “The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonisms objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that class antagonisms are irreconcilable.” Johann Lamont was right, and Aristotle was wrong.
The Anti-politics of “Partnership”
Astonishingly, improbably, the leaders of the two largest political parties in Scotland agree with Lamont that politics should be abolished. The trouble is that they believe this has already happened.
In separate speeches on the 26th of February, both Nicola Sturgeon and Jim Murphy advocated “partnership” policy-making, bringing together the contending interests of society to decide on the issues of the day. Murphy wants “the state and voluntary sector working together to tackle disadvantage together,” and hopes to bring trade unions and business into this sphere of mutual interest. Sturgeon similarly argues that a “strong economy” and a “fairer society” are “mutually reinforcing” rather than “competing”. Her “Invest In Young People” group brings together local government, industry, further education and trade unions, and she argues that education policy must involve things like “a closer relationship between industry and education, enabling courses to reflect what companies need.”
To do this, Sturgeon and Murphy must presuppose a space free from particular interests, a level playing-field where no side enters or leaves with a disadvantage. A space, in short, where politics doesn’t exist. So Sturgeon argues that “education underpins all of our efforts to create a fairer, more productive, more prosperous society,” and that austerity has “been bad, not just for many individuals, but for the economy as a whole.” Murphy laments that inequality is “corrosive to our social fabric. It undermines the basic precepts of our society.”
The plausibility of the partnership model is dependent on that plural term: the possessive our, like subject we and object us, hovering mysteriously above the fray, finding bizarre rhetorical constructs like “the economy as a whole” on which it can perch and sing its enchanting song. “We” depoliticises, and this is why the nationalist politicians of Scottish social democracy are so determined to utilise it. Against the reality of class conflict, it posits a world where decisions can be smoothly made in the interests of “all of us”.
But this noble goal is never realised. Once they arrive at the national border, politics begins again. The nationalist hope of a depoliticised “us” is a false one, dependent on a false “them”: for Sturgeon, a crude caricature of “Westminster”; for Murphy, whichever party is keeping a supposedly classless “patriotic” Labour Party out of power.
The Government of “Us”
To trace this logic of depoliticisation we need to turn to history. In the 18th century the art of government was in danger. For early-modern government, the sovereign guaranteed the rights of homo juridicus, the subject of right. But the arrival and expansion of markets spawned a new subject: homo oeconomicus, the self-interested and utility-maximising “economic man”. This man, at home in his market, needed the sovereign to stay out of things. But government, increasingly dependent on markets, still needed to govern to ensure that things were stayed out of. The subject of right and economic man could not be governed in either the realm of rights or in the realm of the market. A new realm had to be conquered.
Foucault identifies this new realm as civil society, and its chief cartographer as a Scot, Adam Ferguson, whose Essay on the History of Civil Society was an influence on both Hegel and Marx. For Ferguson, civil society is like the market, governed by the interplay of individual interests. But these are “disinterested interests”: sympathy, instinct, solidarity, and so on, binding individuals together in civil society. The invisible force of civil society allows the atomistic world of the emerging market to hang together.
But other disinterested interests like jealousy, loathing, and other less amicable quirks of the human psyche, provoke the civil subject to enlist “on one side of a tribe or community”. Furthermore, the market relies on this community, but simultaneously threatens to tear it apart. Something stronger, broader and more cohesive must be found to ensure stability. We find ourselves back at “we”: the nation, anchored in the state.
“Nationalism is a virus”
Ferguson expresses the governing logic of the modern state: nationalism. Because the economy requires humans that are selfish and economic, government is impossible unless they are simultaneously conceived as civil and solidaristic. The management and justification of this contradiction is the central task of governments and their intelligentsia. The internal tensions of every society, forever threatening to send heads thudding into baskets, need to be harnessed and externalised onto whatever is not “we”.
Tom Nairn wrote that “nationalism is amongst other things a name for the general condition of the modern body politic”. He analysed how this art of government spread, not from the rich capitalist countries to the poorer, underdeveloped ones, but from the latter to the former. In the long back-and-forth battle of uneven development, the nationalist cure for internal maladies of the modern state became a contagion, leaping from the economic periphery to the core and back again until it spanned the globe, undergoing terrible mutations in the process. Nationalism is a virus. It infects the oppressed, disguised as palliative care for a crisis-ridden political malaise from which they cannot recover so long as oppression endures. It is the general condition of the modern body politic, and the modern body politic is sick because we’re not genetically programmed to make political decisions.
The ruling class and their hangers-on say it can never be truly cured. Aristotle says we are political animals. Ferguson believes that civil society is in our nature. Nationalism relies on this naturalism, made explicit by Nicola Sturgeon at the David Hume Institute on Thursday: “a commitment to education is ingrained in Scotland’s history; it’s part of our DNA.” Common talk of “Scottish values” serves the same function. The egalitarian Scottish political animal must be presupposed to make governing class society in Scotland possible. Something fundamentally civil must float above the fray.
The civil sphere is the nation itself. It is that thing “in our DNA” that is assumed to exist beyond class and sectional interests. Jim Murphy calls for “a permanent Civil Society Council. A permanent forum where civil society can openly and without reservation, consider, scrutinize and challenge the policies of the Government.” Trade unions, businesses, think tanks, campaigning organisations and so on, are all welcome to take their seats in the powerless, reconciled vacuum of civil society.
If politics existed here, tainting this sacred forum with all the power relationships which politics implies, then civil government itself would be impossible – until it became unnecessary. Every facet of the world would be warlike, unavoidably full of conflict, exploitation and oppression. Politics, if it existed (and thank god it doesn’t!), would require what Walter Benjamin calls “organised pessimism” – “mistrust in all reconciliation: between classes, between nations, between individuals,” until classes, nations, and any residual bourgeois conception of the individual have been swept away by a far grander “we” than those who love the game of politics could ever imagine.
Nicola Sturgeon and Jim Murphy believe the nation transcends politics, that it facilitates the recognition of mutual interests where none would conceivably exist if it weren’t for the old lie of the national interest itself. The entire construct of the national “we” implies that if politics exists, it should be abolished, but it only implies this by assuming that it has happened already.
The intention is surely virtuous. But if politics does exist, it exists everywhere, and requires Benjamin’s solution. We know that politics endures, and that Johann Lamont was doubly right: nationalism is a virus, and it threatens us all because we’re not genetically programmed to make the political decisions which are demanded of us. In recognition of these facts we believe that the only way to eradicate the virus for good is by destroying its source. Politics must be abolished. Let’s call it the Lamont Doctrine.
Our critics insist that we must offer concrete proposals – how else could the nation benefit from our work? We will humour them this time, but our basic proposal is a general principle for political action rather than a particular action itself. A politics which can abolish itself is not so much about the depoliticized “us” as it is about the political “them”. It is about identifying who really holds power, and excluding them to the point at which we have fully included ourselves. Identify the enemy, and develop and pursue actions which exclude them and them alone. Oppose any action which includes them. This is what it means to organise pessimism.
Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)