The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Mr McLeish said Scottish Labour […] should be taking on the SNP by developing policies and an outlook “embracing pride and patriotism and wrapping them in the Saltire”.

The Herald, May 2011

Come, old broomstick, you are needed,
Take these rags and wrap them round you!

Goethe, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Would it not be easier to cast a spell? To mutter some dark phrase, right there on stage in front of the remaining members, that sends everything back to a time when things were as they should be? The headline speakers at Scottish Labour conference wrestled with ancient, archaic incantations, political formulae handed down through generations. Gathered around the cauldron, Khan, Kez and Corbyn tossed in the traditional ingredients: “There’s no difference,” intoned Khan, “between those who try to divide us on the basis of whether we’re English or Scottish, and those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion.” Here was the old “patriotic” twist on Labour’s so-called “internationalism”. The secret of real magic is concealment, and the hidden signifier of the word “us” is the core of the spell, an example of what Michael Billig calls “banal nationalism”: what could “us” mean but Britain, that famous force for unity-by-gunboat? Kez was more explicit: “the Labour Party I lead will never support independence,” – her party would instead stand up for the workers at Faslane, in the financial services sector, and on the oil rigs in the north-east. Bombs, banks and black gold form the crux of the party’s last-gasp British nationalism, the final desperate linkage of class and nation that allows Labourism to continue its ritual procession between the two with whatever intellectual dignity it has left. Corbyn, priestly as ever, aimed for spiritual uplift: it is not nation but class that divides us, he pronounced. But the faint outline of Keir Hardie’s ghost was left fumbling with the keys to the conference centre, unnoticed by the scrum around Khan.

Scottish Labour’s spells do not work any more. There are far darker forms of magic in play now, and the cheap constitutional tricks which the party has been pulling in Scotland since the 1970s have lost their charm. The latest idea, a ‘People’s Constitutional Convention’, is a perfect example of the extent of the crisis. By the time you’ve finished reading the name, the whole proposal has collapsed in on itself. It begins with a crashing, unavoidable admission of failure: the last ‘Constitutional Convention’, the one whose proposals shaped The Scottish Parliament, was manifestly not ‘of the people’. In the words of Convention participant John McAllion: “The Scottish Constitutional Convention claimed at the time that it was open, inclusive, and broadly-based, but in fact it was none of those things. It was self-appointed, it was elitist, and it was ultimately unrepresentative.”

Within the parliament’s first few years, historians and political scientists were scrambling for answers about why high expectations had been so radically disappointed. Lindsay Paterson identified a “utopian” tendency amongst the Scottish electorate, the inevitable pathology of a small country with big ideas that could never be satisfied by reality. But whose expectations were these? Had anybody seriously believed that a chamber stuffed with sneering debate-club chums, overexcited local councillors and jaded Westminster veterans would be anything other than a disappointment? In a 1978 diary for the short-lived socialist newspaper 7 Days, Donald Dewar wrote that “an assembly controlling education, health, social work may be a talking shop but what it says will be really important.” Over two decades there was little improvement on such paltry ambitions.

And yet now the Scottish Parliament, and Scottish ‘representative’ politics in general, enjoys a legitimacy – or at the very least an extraordinary lack of popular dissent – which far outstrips its equivalents elsewhere. The SNP can bear much of the credit. They seized upon Scottish Labour’s vacuity and complacency, and articulated a distinctively ‘national’ populism that lifted theme after theme from the Scottish Labour playbook: Scottish-accented managerialism, a bolshy and defensive approach to the all-encompassing other of ‘Westminster’, and a rhetorical obsession with vaguely social-democratic ‘Scottish values’. They upstaged Scottish Labour’s dated performance of precisely the same lines, despite their unpopular constitutional politics and coming back from a dire showing in 2003. In spite of all of this, Scottish Labour still thinks that the best route to resurrection is to dress up the same old boring technocracy with a newer, smarter position on constitutional change.

All the most powerful constitutional proposals have a clear sense of who ‘the people’ are, be it Brexit’s Anglified Britons or the cosmopolitan Scots of independence (see, for instance, the smart-casual everyman holding a cup of coffee and gazing from the balcony of his nice, ‘Yes’-stickered flat in the SNP’s recent TV spot). Devolution, on the other hand, has always reflected the fundamental uncertainty of the Scottish labour movement on this question. One of its finest devolutionist thinkers, John P. Mackintosh, sought a twinned British-Scottish identity, but the politics of the British state from the 1970s onwards made such a fusion inherently unstable.

‘Scottish and British’ hovered between two poles, drawn towards whichever element offered the greatest strategic benefit in any given conflict. In almost every case – with the mid-late ‘90s as a possible exception – Scotland had the upper hand. In the 1960s and 1970s, industrial struggles pitted Scottish workers against British economic planners and multinational capital, and the STUC developed a potent rhetorical cocktail of class and national identity which drew an ever-wider spectrum of Scottish civil society towards it. Thatcher’s indifference towards Scottish politics in the 1980s alienated much of the Scottish elite, and by the time of Major and Forsyth’s limp, tartan tokenism there was a near-unstoppable consensus behind a bizarre sort of solution: a retrospective political settlement that supposedly would have stopped it all from happening in the first place, but offered little hope for a genuine reversal of the damage done.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is about hubris. The apprentice confuses power with wisdom, and in his master’s absence enchants a broom to do his chores for him. But once the broom has begun fetching pails of water, the apprentice has no idea how to stop it; he hacks at it with an axe, but only produces more brooms. Only the master’s timely return rescues the apprentice from the ensuing flood. Several scholars have offered persuasive accounts of the ways in which Scottish Labour, caught between Scottish predominance and British collapse, adopted an enthusiastic anti-Tory Scottish nationalism in the 1980s and laid the ideological groundwork for the big-N Nationalist deluge of the new millennium. But while Scottish Labour makes a fittingly farcical apprentice, few of these accounts ever consider the sorcerer. Some on the left believe that only independence, against which Labour’s “tartanisation” was pitched, can halt the saltire-bearing enchanted brooms which have overwhelmed the Scottish public sphere. Once we answer “the national question” for good (the logic goes), we can ask new, more important questions about class power, imperialism, and so on.

That’s exactly what Labour thought they were doing with devolution. It was supposed to “dish the nats” and kill nationalism “stone dead”. Scottish Labour still believe that they need only offer a clear position on the constitution, combine it with an appealing programme of UK-wide economic transformation, and suddenly the people (which people?) will come flocking back. The problem is that Scottish nationalism has never been about constitutions, or ‘civic’ institutions, or the democratic deficit of an unevenly balanced multinational union; like every nationalism, it stems from the contradiction between on the one hand, an unavoidably ‘national’ articulation of raw human identity, and on the other the inhumane experience of life under a state and economic system that does not care about human beings. The constitution, the institutions, the parties and so on force the boundless, uncommodifiable substance of human life into bordered forms of discipline and control, making people comparable and exchangeable as subjects of this or that political-economic regime. To retain popular legitimacy these static forms must offer a kind of ethno-cultural palliative – a decent, incorruptible ‘homeland’ in which people can still grasp at some memory of the togetherness and commonality robbed from them by the generalised violence of commodification. Is this not the twinkle in the eyes of every punter with a ‘Yes’ badge? As if national independence will stop people being nationalist! But this gives us an idea about the true sorcerer in question, who ought to return and stop the brooms from marching: surely it’s the labour movement itself?

It was Labour, after all, who cast the spell at its most powerful. Labour was the force that managed to fully integrate the British working class into a nation-state that has always been resolutely opposed to working class interests. Did the British left cease to be nationalist when they finally ran a state of “their own”, in 1945? On the contrary: they doubled down, wrapping themselves in the Union Flag, left-chauvinism reaching fever-pitch in 1968’s Commonwealth Immigration Act. And when the hostility of the British state to the left became all too obvious, Labour found a new one: Scotland, Keir Hardie’s birthplace and his faltering party’s chosen retirement home. But Scottish Labour never had the same integrating skill of the master. Populated by a new class of professionals and technocrats, with its connection to the working class left threadbare under the pressures of postmodernity, the party formulated a laboratory nationalism which could never survive sustained conflict with the real thing. Those advocates of a more popular, dissenting nationalism like Dennis Canavan and Jim Sillars either got shunted aside or left in frustration. All that was left was Dewar, ready to say “really important” things in his tartan talking shop.

The smugness that Labour brought to the new parliament in 1999 is still there in its defeat. There is something profoundly self-satisfied about the condemnations of nationalism that echo through the increasingly empty stalls of conference after conference, as if the party’s internationalism is confirmed by every further chunk that nationalism takes out of its poll ratings. On the contrary, it is precisely Labour’s nationalism that has made it so easy for nationalism to defeat it, and which still makes Labour so clueless about how to fight back. This is in the DNA of nationalism itself: it is powerful because it always fails, always leads you to the next false summit but offers just enough hope of the real thing to carry on trudging upwards (Camus wrote that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy”). It is simultaneously utopian, fusing personal and national liberation together, and resigned to its fate: a white flag raised against capital becomes a blank canvas to be filled in with whatever national colours you like.

The real horror of it all is this: the SNP’s ‘civic’ nationalism will fail too. They are reproducing all the worst aspects of Blairism: technocracy, bland identitarianism, corporate capture and the total subordination of politics to marketing. Sturgeon’s latest posturing as saviour of the liberal establishment will leave her shaky coalition in an extremely tight spot when the international wave of populist reaction inevitably reaches Scotland.

All of which brings us to the furious debate over Khan’s remarks comparing Scottish nationalism to racism. Many are offended that support for independence is being equated with racism, and are reacting angrily to a recent article exploring the darker racial undertones of Scotland’s myth of progressiveness. Both accusers and accused are, I think, failing to distinguish between the vast sweep of Scottish national identity and the narrower field of constitutional politics. It’s worth remembering that Scottish independence and the SNP are in fact highly partial expressions of Scottish national identity. There are huge numbers of people for whom ‘Scotland’ is a powerful signifier, but who do not support independence or vote SNP. Nationalism is not just about making territorial national borders match political ones; it also means aligning a contested, constructed ideal of what it means to be (eg) Scottish with the political priorities of the state.

It is highly likely that in the coming years as Brexit, austerity, and Scotland’s dire economic state all continue, the focus of this deeper ‘national question’ will slowly shift: this time towards the identities of those who feel left out of Scotland’s cosy liberal ‘consensus’. A new referendum may serve as a rallying point, though post-independence their fury may be even more severe, and they will find new recruits from SNP deserters frustrated by yet another constitutional flop. There is already a political party ready to take up their claim, and it’ll be too late by the time we realise that the Tories aren’t as alien to Scottish political culture as we’ve been led to believe. What if the sorcerer, when they return, isn’t on our side?

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

Roch Winds Christmas Special: On the Good Life, of all things

In the SNP party political broadcast issued at their conference, we heard a familiar list of the many different types of Scot. It’s always difficult to find an SNP citizen-category to identify with – as soon as one of the pastel-coloured kitchen-and-bathroom-paint-slathered storage units is approached one is overcome with a great nausea, a sense that this is a high-radiation or asbestos zone.

“The carers and do-ers” droned the orator, (no, we’re certainly not those, we thought), “innovators and dreamers” (bleaugh), “and yes, the occasional stumblers” (wait, what?), “they are the people of Scotland, who move Scotland forward, who –” Hang on. It’s not perfect, but stumblers, yes. Only not just the occasional stumbler, as the SNP would have it. What about people for whom life is just one colossal stumble? ‘Maybe this is the term we’ve been looking for’, posited one of us, on our group chat, ‘forget the working class or the people or the multitude: The Stumblers. The people for whom reality itself as presently constituted is a perennial obstacle.’ We have been known to very slightly over-analyse SNP PPBs, so we left the concept by the wayside and settled back into our usual existence. We stumbled between reading groups, stumbled over our words at panel discussions, stumbled over fences into private gardens, stumbled through 16th century ideas about assassination. The SNP’s legitimising and kind words had allowed us not to arise from our stumbles, but to relax into them.

As we stumble towards 2017 there is not so much little time for reflection, as little to reflect on. This year we published a book (an ideal last-minute Christmas present for your enemies and lovers, it’s very versatile), and in the much-maligned fourth chapter, we discussed the question of how to live. This section of writing has been very reasonably described by Justin Reynolds as ‘curiously stale’, ‘frustratingly abstract’ and ‘romantic and sentimental’. We three stale sentimental stumblers of Orient are undoubtedly not up to the task of talking about how to live, or perhaps indeed of living, but we can’t help grasping desperately towards the answer; our final, fatal, stumble will be an uncontrolled recalcitrant attempt to clutch at something resembling The Good.

We can write our sneering sentences and adopt a Machiavellian exterior at the appropriate moment, we can chair meetings wholly concerned with pretended democracy – these quotidian radical tasks are not difficult, but they also swing wildly between the poles of being relative and being instrumental, while never coming close to anything that appears valuable. In our book, we described our communism as negative, as arising from criticism of the existing order. We implied that the committed radical should be committed to absurdist critique of the quotidian, all day, every day. The radical we described was a wild-eyed creature, snooping around looking for weak points in the system, cackling as it blew up switch boards and smashed traffic lights. It’s an interesting animal to consider, but can only be a small part of the stumbler, who has to spend a great deal of time picking itself back up, and helping the other stumblers to avoid the boxing gloves on sticks that are wildly swinging towards them. The pessimistic communist we described was only part of a person, and can’t help but to back away from the full force of it. Our Edinburgh book launch, on the eve of Brexit, was titled “Expecting The Worst”, but already at the Glasgow launch in the STUC we felt the gloom had cleared, as we stepped down from our shuddering wagon to find the ground beneath our feet, and to discover people around us who, armed for the worst, are the keepers of a spirit of friendship worth fighting for.

Just as we abandon the purely negative identity, the unadulterated pessimism of our early-20s that we so unfalteringly evangelised for years, everyone else has arrived at it. We find ourselves in the increasingly familiar position of seeing the people around us turn to a doctrine we espoused mere months before its popularity, and which we are now in the process of deserting. It’s not so much that we’re ahead of everyone else, as that our reaction to events seems curiously and sometimes sickeningly off-kilter. As the liberals and radicals have turned to hopelessness in the face of Brexit and Trump, as the Labour Party has become somewhat naturalised to having a mediocre socialist leader, at Roch Winds we have turned to a comforting ideal of armed friendship, and it’s a vision we hope to present to a disgusted public in the near-future.

Merry Christmas.

Editorial: Corbyn’s Cortical Homunculus

– The politician should resemble the man, who, as we have often seen in Africa, seated on a huge and unsightly elephant, can guide and rule the monster, and turn him whichever way he likes by a mere sign, without any violence.
– I recollect, when I was your lieutenant, I often saw one of these drivers.
– Thus an Indian or Carthaginian regulates one of these huge animals, and renders him docile and familiar with human manners. But the genius which resides in the mind of man, by whatever name it may be called, is required to rein and tame a monster far more multiform and intractable, whenever it can accomplish it, which indeed is seldom. It is necessary to hold in with a strong hand that ferocious beast denominated the mob, which thirsts after blood, and exults in all kinds of cruelty, and rages insatiably after the most hideous massacres of men.

De Re Publica, Cicero

In the Scottish borders story of Tam Lin, a man who has been captured by the Queen of Faeries fears he will be offered up as a tithe to Lucifer. His lover must save him, but can only do so by keeping hold of him as he undergoes shape shifting, into a wolf, a bear, and a lion, before he will become a man again. She succeeds, and they escape the faeries to live in happiness.

This is the fabulous image of the Labour party that underpins much of the Labour left’s current approach to Corbyn. In their adoring eyes, the party has metamorphosed from a ‘Blairite’ election machine into a mass party. Under pressure from members and supporters on the left, and right-wing MPs, donors and advisors, the party is being pushed into increasingly fantastic shapes. But as long as Corbyn’s activists can dig their fingernails in hard enough to their lover (for whom they feel great passion though only recently acquainted), the story goes, they will ride the party through its shape-shifting ordeal, and away from the mouth of hell towards a green and pleasant land.

But we have only undergone one supposed transformation and already the Labour Party is looking awfy strange. Rather than changing into some vicious beast, it has taken the weird and warped form of the Cortical Homunculus – a human body reproportioned according to where the brain’s attention is focused so that its hands and head become bizarrely oversized. With the leader’s office and its bulging membership thrashing wildly about in defiance of convention and elite advice, the Labour Party now appears both comical and conflicted – a far cry from the muscular electoral beast all sides hope it can become.

The Left has control of the party’s head and a set of limbs in the form of the membership. Meanwhile its stomach, the Parliamentary Labour Party, is churning. In Capital Marx refers to the legend of Menenius Agrippa (d. 493  BC), a Roman patrician who persuaded the plebeians to refrain from overthrowing patrician rule by using an analogy with the human body. The patricians represented the stomach, he said, the plebeians the limbs: the limbs were required to feed the stomach, and, conversely, if the stomach were not fed, the limbs themselves would soon wither. Labour’s spoilt cohort of MPs now wail about an upset tummy, demanding remedial attention from anyone who’ll listen – but their influence has shrunk, and the party’s new rulers are no longer paying attention.

The party doesn’t look healthy. It looks monstrous – and wonderfully unattractive to the public. The mere weight of supporters, however fervently they paid their £25, confers little public legitimacy on Corbyn. The voters, like most of the PLP, don’t see why members would have the judgment to direct a party of government  – especially when those members contain rogue elements mounting abuse. A good politician takes control of a wild animal and guides it to her ends. Corbyn has been given ample time to take the reins of the nervous creature, but the elephant he mounted rather reluctantly last summer is finally getting out of control. He is losing his grip altogether.

It is not just those on the right of the party that are reaching for the tranquiliser gun. With parts of the new membership starting to rampage, activists on the left flank are growing uneasy. Veteran Labour socialists like Anne Black, one of the candidates for re-election to the NEC on the left-wing slate sponsored by Momentum, have played a part in freezing CLPs out of Labour and reducing the potential for the kind of wildcat party-joining tactics which are increasingly favoured by the Left. The latest suspension was of Brighton and Hove CLP, where former TUSC candidates and Trotskyists entered the local structures and won positions of dominance. Inter-left factions are clashing – the Labour Representation Committee wrote a statement calling for a revocation of the left’s support for Black, before ‘clarifying’ the position after members of the Committee complained that they had not been consulted. Meanwhile Momentum continues to back her. The strange and uncontrollable impact of members that grow apart from the body is becoming evident as parts of the Labour left realise brute force without guile is the hand they have been dealt.

The party seems incapable of effective organisation. What are the hundreds and thousands of members to do? In Scotland we have a prime example of a party that now has incredible density of membership – 1 in 37 people of voting age in Scotland are SNP members – and yet very little has been done to engage or activate this membership. The SNP realise that distended membership can act as a drag on the party, and that numerical strength comes with its own problems. When one of us volunteered in a phonebank to encourage members to vote for the left-wing NEC slate, many were crying out for instructions – other than to vote in more elections. Labour has been labelled a social movement, but it is yet to become at all clear what that label means. Much of the energy Momentum has mustered is spent on the very electioneering which not so long ago the left of Labour were attacking. Paul Mason wants us to believe the movement is formidable, though Corbynism has been perhaps fairly described as a simulation of a social movement: the organisational joints and sinews that should connect the leadership and members to the bulk of the working class remain dangerously weak.

Some are confident any problems of leadership will be solved if Corbyn sticks to his principles – by repeating throughout the new campaign that Labour is a party determined to eradicate the five social ills and institute a more caring politics and society. But preaching principle to a political monster will not make it any prettier, and demanding people cease from internal conflict because there is ‘no place for it’ in the movement will not inaugurate harmony.

About a year ago at the celebratory drinks in Whitehall there was great jubilation when Corbyn arrived – a mass of members and organisers were ready to greet him. There were murmurs: had people been down to the Labour offices to take control of the machinery? Where were the trade union leaders? While most activists anticipated the road ahead, and even expected coups at that early stage, they were on the whole blithely confident that the membership and leadership could take care of the whole party corpus. This never materialised: the party HQ, regional and national infrastructures (particularly in Scotland, Wales and London), and of course the NEC have not yet demonstrated any kind of coherence of purpose or identity, while the fate of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet of ‘all the talents’ was predictably disastrous. The aftermath of Corbyn’s initial election suggested that little preparation had gone into actually taking power, having ostensibly won it. The continuous homages to the membership as the sole source of legitimacy only serves to distract attention from the fact that there are multiple power bases within the party, and each of them must be won if Corbynism is to grow beyond its current limits.

All this is not reason for despair but for careful consideration as to what a mass membership socialist party can do, and what the point of it may be. It raises a very exciting question that is at the heart of a debate that has raged for a century: what is the point of a parliamentary socialist party in general, and the Labour Party in particular? And can it be taken over by an influx of thousands of people committed to bringing about a socialist society?

The media flock like gulls to parliamentary stories, as the attention around Sarah Champion’s ‘de-resignation’ demonstrated. Clever shadow cabinet manoeuvres, effective use of the conference, and a well-pitched policy agenda could act as leverage for the political campaign Corbyn is mounting – but they provide no role for the membership. Internal wrangling is necessary but totally insufficient. If the central end is a socialist government, this would require the deselection of all MPs who would make a habit of not following the whip, a complete re-thinking of Corbyn’s messaging strategy, and the co-option of the massive membership into a controlled electoral machine. It is not a project for the faint-hearted. But the greatest fear for socialists must be that having somehow ridden the monster into Westminster, Labour will be in a ‘Syriza situation’, confronted by other States as well as banks, finance and industry that will not let it have its way. Quite clearly, having a socialist party in government is not enough for anything. Socialism needs strength outside government, and against government, and a mass membership can be used to these ends. In Roch Winds we call this ‘Unparliamentary Politics’, something distinct from the so-called ‘extra-parliamentary’ politics which exists outside parliament only to make demands upon it.

One way to burst politics’ parliamentary bubble is to encourage action outside of parliament in resistance either to the government or to capital. Corbyn has expressed outrage about poor housing, high rents, and social cleansing from council houses in London – so why not call for members to rush against property itself – with rent-strikes, and solidaristic activity exposing bad landlords, and the setting up of tenants’ unions like the Living Rent Campaign in Scotland? What happened to the pledge we heard John McDonnell make to a group of trade unionists in Parliament Square the night of the second reading of the Trade Union Bill, when he said we needed to fight on the streets? What about Len McCluskey’s pledge to break the law in opposition to the Bill? This used to be par for the course, not just in industrial but in social and public spending issues – as McDonnell well knows. When he spoke a couple of weeks ago at an event in Lambeth to commemorate the 1985 Council’s refusal to implement Thatcher’s cuts,increase the rates of council tax or shutting services, he described how it was the decision by councillors to break the law that mobilised hundreds of locals into supporting the rebellious councillors with a fighting fund – and sparked life into the communities that had stood with the Labour rebels Momentum has the capability to suggest and support activism, from migrant solidarity and housing activism to interrupting precarious workplaces. It could train, prepare and equip activists to take the fight to the owners of property, and could provide solidarity and support for those who choose to overstep the law.

These are the means around which Corbyn could reconstitute the Labour party, so that the members and the leadership had a task it was able to handle, and so that this is not one great anticlimactic climb towards a weak patchwork Labour government in 2020 or 2025. This Labour party is ill-suited to a slow and weary road to a victory at Westminster when there are battles that a united movement of people, signed up to socialism, could fight in the coming weeks. For socialism is not the belief in obtaining a Labour government at Westminster with a Left-wing leader, nor is it the business of sincerely regretting the ill effects of private property on people’s lives. It is the real movement to overturn and replace property and the power of its owners. There are many battles to be fought.  They may end in defeat. But it is better to be defeated in a battle worth fighting than brought down by your own side. If the moderates find this monstrous – good. It’s time to embrace the monster.

The Coup Against Reality

On the 30th of June, 1871, a 55-year old poet and communarde penned a song that would come to define the communist movement for at least the next century. ‘La raison tonne en son cratére’, wrote Eugéne Pottier, ‘C’est l’éruption de la fin’.

English translations rendered these lines increasingly confusing, in the name of rhyme, rhythm, and national ideological interests. ‘For justice thunders condemnation, A better world’s in birth!’, the IWW hazarded, while others proposed ‘Man’s reason thunders from its crater, ‘Tis th’ eruption naught can daunt.’ The first English translation, by Eleanor Marx, is not easy to locate, but regardless, the rather uninspiring rendition the English-speaking world has ended up with is ‘For reason in revolt now thunders, and at last ends the age of cant.’

Socialists’ unease as to how to treat this line about ‘reason’ is typical of a movement caught uncomfortably between science, dialectics and relativism-cum-postmodernism. The more literal translation, that ‘Reason thunders in its volcano, it’s the final eruption’ is fiendishly theoretically unclear, and anarchically, unreasonably, violent. Indeed, in Britain, the parliamentary character of our socialist movement has resulted in agreement across the spectrum of Left and Right that reason is calm, collected, objective truth. Reason does not thunder in volcanoes, it does not erupt; reason purrs the subheading structure of IFS reports and stills stormy debate with briefings from experts. The soft Right say that reason dictates privatisation and low taxes, in the interest of all; the soft Left say that reason, of a Spirit Level variety, tells us that good public services and progressive taxation benefit everyone, from the millions to the millionaires.

All conspire to present an objective, non-partial view of the world. This becomes most obvious in electoral events like referendums, where orthodox ‘expertise’ is offered to the public from both sides, about which route is objectively ‘best for the nation’. It must never be admitted that certain political decisions might benefit some people more than others, or lend legitimacy and drive to social movements of the left and right. And in an era of short-term market interest, it must never be admitted that the future is unpredictable – experts are prophets, and if the people believe them, the markets have certainty and will fulfil the prophecy.  But the technocratic understanding of politics-as-management has been pummelled by the elemental pyroclastics of popular discontent: against the reason of the expert, the journalist, and the professional politician is ranged the molten, destructive, volcanic reason of the mob – flowing underground while the experts fiddle with their seismographs, now bursting through the surface as they watch awestruck from afar.

Michael Gove, the former minister for stopped clocks, was obviously right when he said that ‘the British people have had enough of experts.’ Academics, economists, newspaper editorials and most of the political establishment warned of an apocalypse should Britain vote to leave the EU. These experts then had to face the humiliating prospect of a majority of the population showing how little they cared for such expertise. The fact that individuals held positions of power and influence in business, banking, government, and the world of celebrity, did not, in the public mindset, mean that they were the bearers of indisputable Right-Reason.

It is not only in the arena of the referendum that technocratic objectivity has perished; within the Labour Party the expertise of the PLP is being consistently undermined by a party membership that does not pay heed to their protestations that they are ordained by reason. Labour’s anti-Corbyn clique appeal to their own ‘expertise’ at their peril. To many partisans of the new movement, their shady shadow-cabinet experience and their ‘reasonable’ capitulations to the right by voting with Blair and Miliband’s whip simply make them feeble. Their insistence that there is one, objective and reasonable how-to-win-elections handbook that must be referred to by all sensible 21st century politicians, with guidance on how to be media-savvy and how to practice the dark arts of triangulation and message discipline, appears to them to be the ultimate form of common sense. Unfortunately for them, common sense belongs to the commons, and it is shifting under their feet.   

Rather than trying to understand and sympathise with the volcanic reason underpinning Corbyn’s support, the plotters have patronised and pathologised huge swathes of party members and supporters as childish, ignorant or just downright insane. There is little indication that self-styled moderates and Reasonable People on the left and right have any awareness of the lava-flows that are devouring the legitimacy of their supposed expertise, and their long-lost college-based internal electoral system. Instead, they’re loudly castigating the volcano for having the temerity to erupt.

The crisis of elite political reason has been a long time coming. Managerialism in the ‘national interest’ has been the dominant way of discussing governance in Britain since at least the 17th century, but this verbal game gained its left party credentials during the boom years after World War Two. With outright anti-capitalist politics largely written off thanks to the solidification of Cold War loyalties and capital’s recovery from the war, technocrats from the upper classes like Keynes and his infinite and insatiable band of followers tinkered sensibly with a general political-economic structure – capitalism – that was based on Principles of Pure Reason, mined from the Eternal Truths of human action and psychology. It was tacitly assumed that history (driven by ‘the markets’ or ‘the economy’) could only ever be something which happened to us, not something we collectively plan and create, and the purpose of government was to adapt to change as rationally as possible.

These experts were considered to be above class or sectional motivation, their elite reason granting them rare access to the national interest itself. When the end of the war led to booming population growth, a huge influx of American dollars through the Marshall Plan, and plenty of necessary infrastructure work to keep employment and demand high, ‘experts’ were credited for their impeccable management of the situation. But the expert construction of the social state was predicated on and enabled by a postwar economic expansion of unprecedented length, creating enough jobs, capital and tax revenue for wages, profits and public services to grow in tandem.

There was nothing eternal or necessary about the experts’ ability to appear to create ‘national prosperity’ from economic conditions, as would quickly become clear when those economic conditions took a turn for the worse, and those same experts had to rebrand with a new image of sensible state-steerers whose game was to avoid imminent and sure disaster. Rather than creating ‘national wealth’ their job became the making of ‘tough choices’. Unfortunately for them, and for the capitalist interests they smooth the ground for, this rebranding does not seem to have been wholly successful.

Elite expertise was also legitimised through the predominance of a mass party structure explicitly designed so that the party would service the experts, giving them the mass support necessary for parliamentary politics, and distributing their ideology in party activists’ communities. Both Labour and the Conservatives boasted a far higher proportion of the population as party members than today, at least in the mid-1950s. (Party membership data for the era is notoriously unreliable: Labour’s institution of ‘minimum’ membership thresholds as high as 1000 for Constituency Labour Parties led to widespread exaggeration of figures, but the sheer size of the ‘minimum’ is nevertheless testament to the levels of engagement which were generally expected). It was likely that of the people we all trust the most – friends and family – a decent handful would have been active in a political party. Those at the helm of the party and/or in government benefited from a sort of transferred trust-by-proxy, and relative to today party politics was seen as a normal, worthwhile activity.

Through these community, familial or friendship networks, millions beyond the membership were drawn into a sense of common political endeavour and direction; votes were cast in a strategic sense, for a set of distinct values and principles that would be translated into policy by the appropriate members of the elite once in power. Volcanic political reason is more appropriate to the chaotic world of the present – it is opportunistic, spontaneous and spurns convention, the kind of thing we describe as a ‘roch wind’ in our book Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland. If the ‘Yes’ campaign was Scotland’s roch wind, full of the newly politically engaged who were thrilled by rude and cathartic defiance of expert advice, then Corbynism is Labour’s. But whether it can be more than that – mair nor a roch wind, as Hamish Henderson put it – is still unclear.

Today, the postwar economic growth on which the elite’s legitimacy was constructed – and its farcical tribute act, the ‘privatised Keynesianism’ of the late-1990s and early 2000s – is clearly over and done with. Every effort to counteract the gravitational forces which pull profit rates downwards seems spent: military spending, fossil fuel exploitation and financial deregulation all ended in crises of sovereign debt, private debt, climate crisis and various other maladies. The mass party has suffered accordingly, with the array of experts on offer seeming increasingly dusty and inadequate, their reformist politics less and less able to deliver the goods for most people.

The recent growth of  Labour’s membership, which may approach mass levels again, has been little consolation to those yearning for a return to expert party management. New critiques of Corbynism have condemned the relative inactivity of new members, as the old moderate doorstep enthusiasts have been supplanted by left-wing touchscreen fondlers in both the public eye and on many CLP membership lists. But ‘the doorstep’ is only one particular form of activism, necessary in a party system reliant on the loyal distribution of top-down lines, literature and – increasingly, and particularly in Scotland – apologies-to-the-people. The mass party may have helped to give the electorate a sense of strategic direction, but the strategy and the victory was always disproportionately set by and delivered to the very technocrats in whom those masses placed so much trust. There is more than one way to mobilise huge numbers of party members; Corbyn and Momentum have a machine at their disposal with as yet unknown powers.

Corbyn’s ‘new politics’ is certainly not a rejuvenation of the old forms. But as Cailean Gallagher and Matt Bolton have written recently, the ‘new politics’ renounces established expertise (assembling a team of ‘experts’ only to ignore and eventually lose them after Brexit) only to replace it with a sort of spiritual certainty. It understands itself not as a movement with clear material and societal transformation in mind, but as something propelled by moral means, with a vaguely more moral world as its end. It is the product of a sort of dual nostalgia: on the one hand, it yearns for a more principled and mythologised ‘Old Labour’, defending what’s left of welfare and the NHS; and on the other, it renounces the rose-tinted image of Blair as master electioneer. In this way the fundamental continuity between Old and New Labour, each characterised by the predominance of elite, managerial reason applied to different material circumstances, is glossed over.

The result is still unclear, but Corbyn’s latest leadership launch was hardly promising. The central focus of his campaign seems to be a return to the founding principles of the welfare state, with Corbyn identifying “the five ills of 21st century Britain” in a dull attempt to update 1942’s Beveridge report. The image of the politician as a sort of social doctor is precisely the kind of top-down approach to combating social ‘sickness’ that left Labour so unprepared for recent political upheavals. It presents society as a unified body in need of disinterested care, rather than a set of conflicting and self-interested forces within which we must pick a side. Poverty’s not a sickness, it’s a symptom caused by the rich. The whole tenor of Corbynism is becoming increasingly and understandably defensive, but its early strength – demonstrated by the PLP’s total unpreparedness for his success last year – was its ability to draw on forces that elites both inside and outside the Labour Party simply cannot assimilate. Social democracy has collapsed and it’s not coming back. Now is not the time for the Labour left to mistake a sinkhole for a trench.

The focus need not be on putting together committees of academics to write better policy, or developing better branding that tricks people into voting for socialism. It should be on finding ways – predominantly outside parliament – of shaking the earth under the feet of the ruling class, rattling loose those parts of society whose loyalty to their bosses and lawmakers hangs by a thread. Corbyn and his supporters should be discovering and encouraging alternatives to the elite form of reason which is collapsing so violently in front of our eyes. The left should certainly not be afraid of the new popular scepticism towards expertise and traditional forms of legitimacy: the working class need appeal to no legitimacy but their own. We shouldn’t accept any old replacement either, and particularly not the impotent spiritual uplift of the ‘new politics’. Gilles Deleuze, observing the changes wrought by the end of the postwar consensus, wrote: ‘there is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.’ Corbynism, for all of its limitations, represents the only part of the party sufficiently independent from the ruling class to understand and attempt that search.

What kind of weapon is Owen Smith? The collapse of trust in ‘reasonable’ politics which has led to both Brexit and the enduring popularity of Corbyn is part of a massive shift in social, economic and political tectonics, moved by molten underground forces that the Parliamentary Labour Party used to think they understood. Their response to that shift should leave no doubt about the ideological character of the coup against Corbyn. These people are conservatives in the classical mode, characterised by William F. Buckley as those who ‘stand athwart history, yelling Stop.’ They’ve chosen Owen Smith as their saviour, a man who thinks all that Labour is lacking is the expert salesmanship of a PR guy from the pharmaceuticals industry; who thinks Labour should respond to losing the EU referendum by simply Having Another One; and who thinks he gained crucial insights into the nature of social inequality by living in Surrey. This isn’t just a coup against Corbyn. It’s a coup against reality. Like volcanologists in denial, ‘moderates’ are still standing on the slopes fiddling with their instruments; socialists should be down in the crater, siding with the eruption.

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)
Amy Westwell (@amywestwell)

Kiruna’s Choice

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism) reflects on A Utopia Like Any Other: Inside The Swedish Model (Luath, 2016) by journalist and academic Dominic Hinde. This essay was first published in the Glasgow Review of Books

Utopias are hard to avoid. Look at the popular culture of rich western societies, for instance. TV series like Master of None show implausibly wealthy millennials spending implausible quantities of free time in Manhattan’s best bars and coffee shops. Advertisers tell us that kind of life can be ours at the tap of a credit card. From Facebook to LinkedIn, social media lets us swap finance for fiction, meticulously curating our personal Pravdas of social and professional achievement.

These utopias are generally considered to be safe. Sure, in reality it’s all pretty toxic: the implication of those monetised cultural utopias is that our own poor and boring lives aren’t good enough, that we should spend more money and time trying to attain the unattainable. But Facebook’s dark side pales into insignificance compared to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Now there’s a utopianism worth forgetting.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed, political utopia has been shuffled quietly off the agenda. The Cold War’s binary utopias have been replaced by a messy convergence on pick ‘n’ mix politics, a middle-ground of “social” enterprise, “ethical” consumption, and their foreign policy equivalent: “pro-democracy” drone strikes on picturesque little villages in the Middle East. Find your nearest non-profit cooperative bakery and the menu will offer you the chance to have your cake and eat it too.

Anybody insisting on an alternative to this social order – not some free-range bunker untainted by the system, but worldwide transformation – is inevitably dismissed as utopian. Not in the harmless, profitable, cultural sense of the term, but as a political utopian. Utopia, as we learned from the gulags, has no place in politics.

No place. That’s what it means. Any understanding of utopia – as critique, as social phenomenon, as political project – has to start with Thomas More’s foundational pun. In Greek, οὐ means “not” and τόπος means “place”, but “utopia” is ambiguous enough to hint at the term εὖ as well, meaning “good”. “Good place” and/or “not place”: More’s intention when laying out the ideal, peaceful and property-less society in 1516’s Utopia is similarly ambiguous, but later uses of the term have been less so.

Marx and Engels sought to distinguish their variant of socialism – “scientific socialism” – from the “utopian” work of their predecessors, Sebastian Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. In its utopian form, socialism sought

to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society from without by propaganda and, wherever it was possible, by the example of modern experiments. [italics my own][1]

For Marx and Engels, the trouble with this was that it wasn’t rooted in the realities of “time, space, and the historical development of man [sic].” Utopian socialists placed too much faith in the abstract truth of their model future, and in their ability to persuade the world of its rightness. The “scientific” alternative was to identify real, social forces in the world as it exists, which can lead towards something better. Chief among these forces was, of course, the working class, pressed by the fatal contradictions of the capitalist system into revolutionary agitation and the construction of socialist society.

For utopian socialists, the reason the world wasn’t socialist was simply that nobody had thought of socialism yet, or hadn’t been persuasive enough in advocating it. For Marx and Engels, the world wasn’t socialist yet because capitalism and the working class had not reached the necessary stage of historical development at which the next mode of production – socialism – could supersede the existing one.

But isn’t communism the utopia? For Marx and Engels, socialism develops into communism, class society is abolished, and the state withers away. All of that is quite unlikely, and I say that as a dedicated communist. Marx and Engels were certainly right to suggest that capitalism was, in the long term, unavoidably doomed (I give it 100 more years at most), and that the working class – the vast majority of people who depend on a wage to live – were the only social force able to replace it with something better. But there’s nothing certain, never mind “scientific”, about the idea that its replacement will be any more stable or humane than capitalism. It could even be worse.

Here’s a workably broad definition of utopianism: it’s the intransigent belief that, despite the lack of much evidence, things can – and should – be better. Not just briefly, but better for good. As the 19thcentury socialist Louise-Auguste Blanqui put it: “what exists is bad: something else must take its place.” But even here, there are distinctions within utopianism. Blanqui ended his aphorism with the unfortunate insistence that “…and gradually things will become what they ought to be.”[2] The Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin, an admirer of Blanqui, didn’t share the Frenchman’s optimism:

On this planet a great number of civilizations have perished in blood and horror. Naturally, one must wish for the planet that one day it will experience a civilization that has abandoned blood and horror; in fact, I am […] inclined to assume that our planet is waiting for this. But it is terribly doubtful whether we can bring such a present to its hundred- or four-hundred-millionth birthday party. And if we don’t, the planet will finally punish us, its unthoughtful well-wishers, by presenting us with the last judgment.[3]

Benjamin’s utopianism, like Marx’s, had a fundamentally pessimistic premise: either the future is communist, or we’re all doomed. His pessimism fits our age too, where the prospect of ecological Armageddon meets its older economic and military equivalents. Benjamin’s pessimistic utopianism is far more realistic than the insistence that we compromise with the “reality” of capitalism because it’s here to stay. No social order has survived indefinitely thus far. There’s no reason to believe this one will break the trend, and plenty of evidence (CO2 emissions, for example) that suggests it won’t. There’s nothing more utopian than thinking we can avoid catastrophe without a fundamental transformation of society. Utopias are hard to avoid.

But is there not something else, that doesn’t require all the effort, uncertainty and upheaval of a worldwide socialist revolution, yet which can still avoid capitalism’s ecological and moral collapse? In the 1930s, as the world stood at an existential crossroads between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the American journalist Marquis Childs published a book called Sweden: The Middle Way. He travelled through Sweden as the country was constructing its now-famous welfare system, and the book describes a society that offered something very different to both the red peril in the East and the brown-shirted horrors driving Germany’s economic revival.

Capitalism in the north, it seems to be, has been modified and, in a sense, controlled; the profit motive in many fields drastically curbed and abolished – subjugated might be a better word. To a considerable degree it is true that the domestic economy has been made to serve the greatest good of the greatest number.[4]

Sweden, and the Scandinavian or “Nordic” world in general, has found itself associated with this kind of thought for a long time. A little brook of Scandi-utopianism has trickled away through one hundred years of wars, crises and atrocities, occasionally disappearing underground only to re-emerge deeper and wider than before. In the 1950s the Labour Party intellectual Anthony Crosland described Sweden as coming close to an “ideal of the ‘good’ society.” It had high welfare provision, low rates of economic inequality, and yet private property remained very much intact alongside the institutions of liberal democracy.[5]

Crosland’s fondness for Sweden was inextricable from his disagreements with Marxism. Chief amongst these was a belief that, after 5 years of transformative Labour government from 1945-51, British capitalism had been transformed into something that did not need to be overthrown. The Labour Party, he believed, had democratised capitalism to the extent that socialists could now focus on gradually reducing the power that markets and property had over people’s lives, without actually doing away with the market and property altogether.

Crosland wrote during an era known variously as the “post-war consensus,” the “golden age,” thetrente glorieuses and so on. The depression, the Second World War and the Communist threat had combined to give an enormous amount of political influence to the West European working class, while America’s newfound global power kept this influence contained within the basic parameters of capitalism (if not always democracy).[6] Runaway rates of capital accumulation provided sufficient room for an unprecedented rise in material wealth for workers. Back then, the Swedish model looked like a sort of destination for a journey already underway, a modern society relatively free from the class hierarchies and stuffy traditions that continued to infuriate the British left. However, by the end of the century the imaginative function of the Nordic Utopia had changed. In the late 1960s a wave of economic and political crises shook the world, provoking capital to begin the sustained assault on the working class that is now vaguely described as “neoliberalism.” Trade unions were crushed, wages, taxes on the rich and regulations were slashed, and democratic institutions were gradually hollowed out – often replaced by opaque, transnational bureaucracies ruling by financial diktat.

CoverNowhere in the world escaped these changes. But the Scandinavian welfare states approached the millennium with far more grace than their European neighbours. In 1990, a year after poll tax riots had broken out across Britain’s streets and Thatcher wobbled, the Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen published The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, a comparative study of welfare systems in western world.[7] Even at the high point of neoliberal advance, Esping-Andersen described a Scandinavian welfare system that continued to reduce the subordination of people’s lives to market forces. The “liberal welfare states” of countries like Britain and the USA, on the other hand, offered paltry, means-tested payments and encouraged the stigmatisation of recipients. Trade unions and social democratic parties continued to fare much better in Scandinavia than elsewhere in the western world, and Sweden had been at the forefront of measures to combat gender inequality in politics and the workplace.

Resurfacing in the 21st century, the quiet little stream of Nordic utopianism has changed course. Far from being seen optimistically as “the future of socialism”, many on the centre-left cling to it as the last glimmer of hope during a worldwide collapse in social democratic fortunes. While Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in the USA has referenced Scandinavia as an example of “democratic socialism” in action, it is Scotland where the new Scandi-utopian logic has been applied the most consistently. The Scottish National Party point to Scandinavian countries to show that it’s possible to be a small, independent state with a big, generous welfare system. Common Weal, a pro-independence “think-and-do-tank,” has repeatedly drawn on Nordic examples to show how social democracy can be rescued from “neoliberal” Westminster. The “Nordic model” even has its own Scottish think-tank, called “Nordic Horizons.”

In the Lilliputian world of Scottish politics, the quiet little stream of Nordicism often looks and sounds like a river. The Nordic utopia is very nearly the only utopia in town, transplanted onto an imagined independent Scotland of the future. Dominic Hinde has gone wading into the middle of that river withA Utopia Like Any Other, a welcome critical exploration of what the “Swedish model” really means beyond the idolatry and mythmaking of faraway utopians.

Hinde follows in Childs’ footsteps, highlighting key aspects of Swedish society through a series of journalistic snapshots. A discussion with hotel workers (Hinde speaks fluent Swedish) in a wealthy Stockholm suburb frames an explanation of Sweden’s consensual labour relations model. The important thing about this system is that while it relies on the legal backing of the state, it requires little active government intervention. Once embedded in law, Sweden’s collective bargaining occurs between employers and workers at a national level, and trade unions have representation on various important legal, public and corporate boards. Thus we get a “delicate triangle of government, business and unions,” with no party able to dominate.

This theme of equilibrium – between classes, genders, and between humanity and nature – is crucial to the image of Swedish society at home and abroad, but one of Hinde’s crucial insights is to show the origins of equilibrium in struggle. Sweden’s system of labour relations was “the result of almost 40 years of destructive conflict,” thrashed out after the army massacred striking sawmill workers in 1931. The country’s renowned efforts to combat gender inequality, and indeed gender binaries themselves, have their roots in the bolshy activities of feminist organisations like Gruppe 8, who disrupted Trade Union rallies, established local feminist cells and terrified politicians with threats of direct political competition. If Nordic utopians are enamoured with Sweden’s seemingly peaceful, consensual social order, they may be turned off by Hinde’s exposition of the outright conflict that has been necessary in building it.

Hinde offers an even stronger rebuke to the Scandi-fetishists when his analysis enters the “neoliberal” era that Sweden so often appears to have escaped. In the 1980s, the Swedish working class sought to reassert their interests over those of Swedish capital with an approach calledlöntagarfonder. This diverted private profits into employee funds, allowing the employees to buy shares in their companies: gradually, workers would come to own the means of production. But this quiet revival of class conflict threatened to snap the supposedly benign equilibrium, and the equilibrium snapped back. A single-term right-wing government abolished löntagarfonder in the 1990s and it has never been restored. A more sustained right-wing insurgency in the late 2000s attacked trade union rights, along with public services and top tax rates. Trade union membership duly fell from eighty to sixty-eight per cent. On his travels around Sweden Hinde finds himself in Kiruna, a city in the arctic far north. Kiruna is entirely dependent on its vast iron ore mine: so dependent that it is being forced to move en masse down the road, “to last another hundred years or until the ore runs out.” The “green” state-owned mining company is paying for relocation. A local lake is now “a sealed off zone of scrub and unstable black spoil speckled with snow.” The relocated railway line runs between frozen ponds of dirty waste runoff.

Hinde writes that “Kiruna is in a Faustian pact with the industrialised world outside, selling its mineral wealth and culture in return for being allowed to exist.” Kiruna is a microcosm of Sweden: “the success of Swedish capitalism abroad was integral to the development of socialism at home,” and as capitalism abroad falters, Swedish “socialism” risks losing permission to exist. At the heart of the Swedish model is this idea of a profitable niche in the world where, so long as the dirty work is done elsewhere, Swedes can brand themselves as an attractive alternative while benefiting enormously from the established order. “Kiruna wants to carry on living. To do so it needs the dirty world around it to buy its environmentally-friendly Swedish ore.”

As the international basis of Sweden’s utopia – post-war capitalist growth – has worn away, its domestic foundations have begun, embarrassingly, to poke out from under the surface. Those foundations are inescapably nationalistic. In the 1930s, when the Social Democrats began constructing Sweden’s welfare state, they consciously rebranded themselves from a party of the blue-collar working class to become a party of the nation or “the people.” The welfare system was calledfolkshemmet, the “people’s home.” Much of Sweden’s universalist, egalitarian national identity is built not on the image of the worker, but on that of the small-town independent farmer. But as urbanisation and globalisation have continued, Hinde argues that this aspect of Swedish life has “played less and less of a role in the national picture.”

Key constituencies in Swedish politics feel forgotten – and as UKIP’s success in Britain’s decaying seaside towns has shown, forgotten people can be an important political force. While Sweden seeks to maintain its global reputation for tolerance by welcoming thousands of refugees, the far right has surged. The Sweden Democrats, with their roots in Sweden’s White Power movement, have made significant electoral gains by playing on a sense that the threatened “people’s home” can be best protected by excluding non-Swedes from it. Sweden’s Social Democrats and their international admirers believe that nationalist consensus can make capitalism work for everyone, but the inclusivity of nationalism can only be guaranteed so long as capitalism provides enough to go around. With the world-economy stumbling along at rock-bottom growth rates, there is little reason to believe that efforts at a “civic,” inclusive nationalism such as the SNP’s can remain plausible. Sweden offers a warning about where things might go next. The last stand of democratic capitalism, before it collapses into outright authoritarianism, will be the restriction of democratic rights to “nationals” and their denial to outsiders. As the welfare-and-wage pie shrinks, those less powerful groups inside or outside national borders will be denied a slice entirely, to ensure those with more power still get their fill.

The trouble with the Swedish utopia is that it’s not really worthy of the name. Rather than insisting that things could be better and taking the future as their model, Scandi-utopians look for something that already exists – what Erik Olin Wright calls a “real-utopia.”[8] But Sweden’s real-utopia is far too real, too dependent on a happy little “good-place” in a vicious worldwide economy. Now the niche is vanishing, and something deeply unpleasant is emerging instead. A decent, committed utopianism would envision a better world, not just a “better Scotland” following Sweden’s path. Hinde writes that “Sweden for the Swedes could be a positive rallying cry if everyone can indeed be Swedish,” but of course, the problem is that not everybody can be. The nature of Swedish exceptionalism is that not everyone can follow that path – and those who do, can’t do so for long. There is no safe “middle way”, as Childs hoped. Success might be hard to imagine without one, but the choice remains unavoidably binary: socialism or barbarism, on a world scale.

Dom will be launching A Utopia Like Any Other at The Glad Cafe in Glasgow this Sunday (the 29th) at 19:30. See you there!


Notes:

[1] Engels, F., ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, Marx/Engels Internet Archive (marxists.org, 1880),https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/

[2] Blanqui, L., quoted in David Van Dusen, ‘Worlds Without End’, 3AM Magazine (September 2014),http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/worlds-without-end/

[3] Benjamin, W., quoted in Arendt, H., ‘Introduction: Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940’ in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zorn (Pimlico, 1999), p.42

[4] Childs, M.W., Sweden: The Middle Way (Faber & Faber, 1936), p.18

[5] Crosland, A., The Future of Socialism (Jonathan Cape, 1956)

[6] US-backed dictatorships and military coups across southern Europe in particular were needed to keep the more militant sections of Europe’s working class in check.

[7] Esping-Andersen, G., The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Princeton University Press, 1990)

[8] Wright, E.O., Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010)

Spicing the Holyrood Baby

In the spirit of citizenship, which we know the Scottish government will be pleased to see us adopting, we would like to issue a public warning about a rogue messaging device. Her name is Kirsty. Think of Kirsty as the Agent Smith of the Scottish politics Matrix – she started off as an extra to clean up pieces of messy ideology, but now she has learned to multiply and is quickly spiralling out of control, her hunger for ever greater social order seemingly insatiable.

Kirsty started life as the SNP’s premium messaging device, a child whose life is determined from the start by poverty, but who can be rescued through ‘interventions’ from the benevolent state. We describe Kirsty’s rather boring life in our book – she is a pure economistic subject, who can either nobly and apolitically serve the cause of capital, or be a drain on the welfare budget and the political energy of the state. Her path will be determined by the Scottish parliament’s limited policy choices.

“In this narrative Kirsty’s life is overdetermined by her economic and social position, and every individual is an intersection of structures of economic necessity and ability. Governments try to find ways to represent the people back to the people. They raise a distorting mirror that highlights the virtues and ills everybody has in common. What seems like a highly personalised politics in fact reduces people to the common denominators of their lives. If you want a shorthand for the process of representation, call it Kirstification: the human characterisation of the nation’s economic life.”

But now Kirsty has really come into her own. She is no longer merely the child of one party, she is, we are told by Holyrood Magazine, the child of the whole 2016 Scottish Parliament. Here she is; she even has a hashtag (those squeamish about social nationalism look away now):

Holyrood baby.png

Baby Kirsty represents everything wrong with Scottish politics. Let’s see how Holyrood Magazine present the concept. They say it is a ‘social experiment’, important because this parliament may well be ‘one the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world [sic]’. As we know, says the editor in her didactic wisdom, ‘inequality doesn’t just happen; it is a choice’, and the parliamentarians can choose Kirsty’s life out of poverty if they make the right decisions. Kirsty is ‘a child born into one of Scotland’s most deprived communities’, and we’re invited to watch our imaginary poverty child through the pages of Holyrood Magazine, with a rush of middle class do-gooder voyeurism.

‘Evidence shows’ that poverty impacts on childrens’ ‘health, cognitive development, social, emotional and behavioural development and educational outcomes’ (the managers of Scottish society are always hungry for evidence of the nature of poverty, since it is such a confusing entity from where they’re standing). And Kirsty’s life has been determined from the start. She will have been born less healthy than more affluent children. And she will do worse at school, and continue to have worse health than rich kids.

What the Scottish government have to do is stage a series of interventions in health and education. They will adopt a policy of universal services with extras for particularly deprived areas, so that Kirsty’s life will be affected by ‘local initiatives’, that direct her mother towards third sector advice and extra healthcare. Somehow, using the powers of health and education, and despite massively depleted budgets, Kirsty’s poverty will be ironed out, at least enough that the Scottish government can claim to have met certain targets that they set themselves.

WEe kirsty
Kirsty in a former incarnation

The story of state intervention after the fact of disadvantage was implanted in Scotland by Blair, the creator of this ugly parliament. Blair’s immortal words, ‘Education, Education, Education’, were his bland offering to the people, and under him New Labour ground into action, trying to change the lives of the poor by lifting each individual soul through school and university. The Scottish Parliament had the ability to engage in this enriching and mindful exercise through ‘health powers’ as well. Poverty appears to these parliamentarians, journalists and third sector gurus as a terrible apparition, Poverty with a capital ‘P’, godlike, impenetrable. It is a monster that we can’t defeat, we can just give people better armour and provide them with healthcare and life insurance in case they get mauled by it.

The emphasis on child poverty in particular is heavily Blairite. Children can’t be blamed for their poverty, only adults, who we assume like the parliamentarians might just make the wrong choices in life. When asked why they don’t tackle poverty itself, rather than its effects, the Scottish political class are bemused. One answer that comes readily to their lips is that we don’t know what poverty is. It’s like the Glasgow Effect, it’s just a Really Complicated Thing That Everyone Is Trying Really Hard To Tackle. Another answer is that tackling poverty itself comes under reserved ‘powers’ (Scottish politicians are very keen to stress that there is nothing they could possibly do with their own powers to tackle bad work, bad rents, rising prices. And of course, nobody mentions taxation and gets away with it.)

rennie.png

In one sense they are right. If we are to take the distribution of ‘powers’ far too literally, then we can agree that Westminster administers capitalism, Holyrood administers the inadequate palliative care. But that’s not really how the state operates – even the corporate Early Modern states ended up spawning violent and territorial mini-states like the East-India companies. In the murky fog of the distribution of ‘powers’ we seem to lose the state somewhere. Something doesn’t sit right with the image of governments tossing ‘powers’, over health, tax, finance, back and forth between their respective parliaments, councils and executives, and sometimes farming them out to private companies. Where has the state gone?

The ‘State of Things’, vague as it seems, is sometimes an easier way to conceptualise something that is scattered in such a way as to prevent us from really being able to comprehend it. The State of Things is always the same, no matter what powers we choose to shift around on our Kriegsspiel (which at the end of the day is only a representation). Call it what you will – capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy – for the moment we don’t care, we just want to acknowledge that the Scottish government, far from administering palliative powers, administers a part of the State of Things, in a way that is not clearly defined or divisible. And this means that the Scottish Parliament, and its faithful crowd of consultants and third sector gurus, administer poverty.

If we become the disciples of the Scottish Ideology of ‘powers for a purpose’, we will waste our lives, and, ironically, the lives of the real-life Kirstys. We will never look behind the tartan curtain, never tackle the real monster: not Poverty but the rich, the people who appropriate wealth produced by those they employ and, through a sort of obscene reverse alchemy, turn it into poverty. The rich are never discussed in the world of Scottish politics, how could they be the problem – if Kirsty was rich, she’d be lovely, not a burden but an ‘asset’! Poor Kirsty is the problem, with her nasty deprivation, her cruel childhood, her bad teeth.

Holyrood Magazine don’t know what they’re doing of course. As we said in our last editorial, people willingly buy into the Scottish ideology without realising it’s an ideology at all. Holyrood Magazine have openly taken the SNP’s messaging device and declared that they will use it in an ‘objective’, ‘evidence-based’, ‘non-party-political’ way. They have no conception at all that it might be a political position to use the device in the first place – after all, how could a baby be ideological?

In One Way Street, Walter Benjamin wrote that ‘proper polemics pick up a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby’. Since we are always extolling the art of criticism, join us for once in roasting Kirsty on the flames. We ask you to do no more than Holyrood Magazine’s bidding: ‘tweet a baby picture of yourself with the hashtag #holyroodbaby and include any suggestions that you think could positively alter the course of Kirsty’s life.’ But think of it more as a recipe than a manifesto: don’t be afraid to turn up the heat.

Editorial: Into The Abyss

Those who take the meat from the table
Teach contentment.
Those for whom the taxes are destined
Demand sacrifice.
Those who eat their fill speak to the hungry
Of wonderful times to come.
Those who lead the country into the abyss
Call ruling too difficult
For ordinary men.

Bertolt Brecht

The left wing of Scottish politics has been broken, and the country’s political flight path is listing towards the right. In the election just past, Scottish Labour stumbled uncertainly leftwards, tripped over their own position on the constitution, and fell gracelessly into third place. The Scottish Greens gained seats, but the left of the party was disappointed to see socialists Maggie Chapman and Sarah Beattie-Smith unexpectedly stranded outside Holyrood, while the arithmetic of the new Parliament offers few chances for Green kingmaking.

RISE were beaten by the National Front in the north-east, and by the Scottish Christian Party and Solidarity nationwide. Fascists, theocrats and a personality cult triumphed over ‘Scotland’s Left Alliance’ just two years after the independence referendum was supposed to have thrust the population into their outstretched arms. The risk of using seasonal metaphors in Scotland is that they can be all too accurate: after the vaunted ‘Scottish Spring’ we appear to have vaulted over anything resembling summer, and the leaves are already turning brown.

whobenefits

The SNP spent the election positioning themselves in the centre, digging bunkers into the open ground vacated by tax-hiking Labour and tax-cutting Tory manifestos. A Nordic-inspired emphasis on childcare was at the heart of their centre-left social policy programme, but their centre-right economic prospectus included tax cuts for the air travel industry and a stubborn reluctance to make rich people pay more income tax.

The main opposition party is now the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party, a group dominated by land and business owners who like their justice tough and their taxes flat. If the SNP are the parliamentary representatives of the ruling class, the Scottish Tories are the bastards themselves. In government the SNP will have to deal with an increasingly disastrous economic situation in a chamber where “entrepreneurialism” has louder advocates and public ownership more braying, tweed-jacketed critics than ever before.

This is what we crusty anachronisms on the far left might call an unfavourable balance of forces.

It ought to have taken a lot of people on the left by surprise, given the hitherto widely-held belief that the left was doing better than ever in Scotland. Instead, people don’t even seem to think it’s happening. Robin McAlpine, great chieftain of the CommonSpace, believes everything is fine. “Stop worrying about the Tories,” he writes. They’re “just a slightly bigger bunch of people stranded on a remote island with little influence over mainstream politics in Scotland.” If the second largest party in the Scottish Parliament has “little influence over mainstream politics”, who does?

Is it possible that only one party – the SNP – determines Scotland’s political life? Some political commentators seem to think this is the case, and the reason given is that the party is not particular to any one interest group, but universal. It is a curious facet of Scottish politics that no one really knows who the SNP stand for. We know about the other parties. Scottish Labour are either stooges for the Tories, a job-creation scheme for useless councillors or the parliamentary wing of the organised working class, depending on your perspective. The Scottish Tories are the party of good decent orangemen, noble small businesses or old rich bigots, again depending on where you stand. The Greens are either a bunch of nerds and hippies or the vanguard of the precariat. And so on.

But the SNP are a mystery, and their members and parliamentarians appear to come from a range of social classes and from across the political spectrum. Even their funding offers few clues; much of their spending power appears to come from fortune itself, thanks to two lifelong members’ massive Euromillions win a few years ago. Obviously lots of people think they know who the SNP stand for: “all of us”, that common wail of the Common Weal. We are to believe that they encompass every class and subculture of Scottish society, as if we could simply negotiate our way out of capitalism without a single person losing their house, or head.

For all their talk of parliamentary consensus and working together, the SNP claim they are the only party anyone in Scotland could ever need, posting leaflets during the election which asked “who benefits most from our policies?”, with the fantastically illogical answer: “we all do”. When one party successfully presents itself as encompassing almost every interest in Scottish society, it’s no wonder that opposition parties, particularly opposition parties that represent clear sectoral interests, seem irrelevant.

This view of the SNP has led parts of the Scottish Left to view the SNP as ideologically neutral, open to being swayed this way and that by the clever manipulation of public discourse. Apparently all that is needed is for the left to create or appropriate a set of ideas that produce (as if by magic) various good policy outcomes, and then persuade the SNP to adopt those ideas too. A side-effect of this strategy, though not one that is particularly problematic for its proponents, is that power on the Left drifts away from any substantive socialist movement and into the hands of a little clique of ideologues and left gurus.

These are, of course, the absolute worst people to be tasked with assaulting the structures of power in Scotland. The SNP’s actual ideological character is totally hidden from them, because they don’t think there’s anything ideological about the belief that all the different social interests in Scotland can work together for the common good. They just think that’s the truth. The most important feature of ideology is that so long as you’re in it, you can’t see it.

roch_windsThat shared ideology sustains an approach to government which we call “social nationalism” in our recently-published book Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland. Social nationalism isn’t a creation of the SNP but the product of a decades-long rise to parliamentary and societal hegemony. Its roots lie in the self-interest of a distinctly Scottish social stratum that emerged from what political scientists call “administrative devolution”.

Since the Act of Union, a significant amount of responsibility for enforcing the power of the British state and capital in Scotland has been delegated to local administrators, first through moral and educational institutions of ‘civil society’, then expanded after the Second World War through various devolved aspects of welfare bureaucracy. There has always been a distinct Scottish establishment tasked with managing, persuading and disciplining the working class in Scotland on behalf of the British state and capital.

The unionist bargain between Britain’s ruling class and its administrative Scottish fraction remained strong so long as the British state and economy had the requisite energy to sustain the diffusion of some power to its northern periphery. But Thatcher’s inheritance – a crumbling state apparatus and a tanking economy – meant the Tories’ traditional sensitivity to Scottish autonomy was subordinated to the rapid concentration of power at Westminster as the crisis demanded a speedy resolution. The simultaneous attacks on the British working class and on the autonomy of Scottish institutions by Thatcher’s government provoked a reaction not only from the working class, but also from those to whom state power had been delegated in Scotland.

reidheathThis reaction pushed many working class Scots into an awkward embrace with Scotland’s imperilled managerial establishment. The former had a long tradition of radicalism, and had recently given Ted Heath’s government a bloody nose during the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in in 1972. Their obvious place, therefore, was not with the Scottish elite whose key role and expertise in society is to persuade people to be governed.

One of the most effective tools of persuasion is the ability to present one’s own particular interests as universal. Scotland’s political managers absorbed the defensive demands and militant methods of the Scottish working class into a pacified cross-class ideology that rejected the outright conflict of Thatcherism in favour of a moralising, communitarian ethos of public service and corporatist negotiation. Alex Salmond once said that Scots “didn’t mind the economic side” of Thatcherism, but disliked “the social side.” The alternative to Thatcherism, which split the nation along clear class lines, was to dissolve class differences into a new national project: that of defending the remnants of social democracy, expanding Scottish autonomy, and holding a stratified society together through thick and thin.

This did little to halt the destruction of working-class lives at the hands of capital, but it did a lot to protect Scotland’s administrative elite from the same onslaught. They won themselves a parliament, constructed in a lab by a ‘Constitutional Convention’ of the great and good and implemented by a Labour government with little interest in redistributing power to the working class.

The Scottish Government which emerged from that process now funds, or at least provides a profitable focal point for, a grand constellation of voluntary organisations, think tanks, expert advisors, media pundits, consultancies, lobbying firms, public sector boards, lawyers, advocacy groups and media institutions – the list goes on and on.

Almost every single one of these organisations or individuals reproduces social nationalism through their work, papering over the cracks in Scottish society with platitudes about our common interest in social justice, human rights and sustainable growth. The SNP thrives on this, keeping Scotland placid and governable so that capital can continue to exploit the people’s labour power with as little resistance as possible.

Scotland’s imagined political community is classless, consensual and run by disinterested technocrats, and this makes it hard to envision success for a party of open class interest. But imagining a classless Scotland doesn’t make it real, and the Tories are not as isolated from this ideology as Robin McAlpine seems to think.

Our post-election editorial discussed how the Ruth Davidson For A Strong Opposition Party might effectively navigate social nationalist currents. But they’re also well-placed to profit from any emerging discontent with an increasingly stagnant consensus that doesn’t actually manage to resolve social antagonism. As the SNP continues to settle into power and the promise of a better nation disappoints, popular discontent will gradually but surely grow.

So long as the left allows itself to be pulled by social nationalism into the SNP’s orbit, the Tories may come to offer the only obvious source of resistance to a new Scottish establishment. The new Tory MSP Adam Tomkins has already made a start on this, asking crucial parliamentary questions about the same politicisation of Freedom Of Information responses that RISE sought to expose during the election – a noteworthy shift in critical responsibility from left to right.

The Tories are already mastering the SNP’s old trick of operating simultaneously within and outwith the existing structures of power and influence, deferring to social nationalism in some ways and distinguishing themselves from it in others – just as the SNP attacked Labour while appropriating its traditional message. They have an influential cohort of quiet sympathisers in Scotland’s burgeoning corporate lobbying sector, and their distinctive positions on tax and land have drawn them closer to other powerful interests in Scottish society. It’s likely we’ll see them play a key role in a Scottish Government in our lifetimes.

During the UCS work-in the Scottish Trades Union Congress called for a “workers’ parliament” in Scotland. Now we’ve got a parliament with more powers than ever and a popular Scottish Government, with a minister for Fair Work and a partnership system of industrial relations that is lauded by social democrats. But it’s no workers’ parliament – the two largest parties represent everything but the working class.  Nothing sums up the Scottish left’s complacent tolerance of social nationalism as clearly as its embrace of the reactionary slogan adorning Holyrood’s north wall: “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” With the right wing gaining ground, perhaps it’s time to strike as if we live in the early days of a worse one.