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)

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The Lamont Doctrine: On Organised Pessimism and the Abolition of Politics

johann

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.

Organised Pessimism

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)