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!


[1] Engels, F., ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, Marx/Engels Internet Archive (, 1880),

[2] Blanqui, L., quoted in David Van Dusen, ‘Worlds Without End’, 3AM Magazine (September 2014),

[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)

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


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)

After The Roch Wind

I’m not sure where it’s from, but I vaguely remember a moment in an old cartoon when a large, burly character yawns widely and a fly buzzes determinedly into their mouth. The burly character, having closed their mouth and discovered what’s inside it, starts to choke, all wide eyes and flailing hands. It’s a funny moment, and a triumphant one – what was once an arrogant, lazy beast is transformed into a spectacle of panicked indignity by the coincidence of their yawning mouth with an inquisitive insect’s flight path.

But it’s also, ultimately, a moment of tragedy. The beast finally succeeds in swallowing the noble fly and, we presume, digesting it. They might be humbled and quiescent for a while, or maybe angry, but eventually the old swagger returns, and they remember to yawn with caution from then on.

Open Wide…

Nationalism yawns. The mouth opens: Nairn argues that 19th-century European nationalist politics, formulated by a narrow, educated elite, granted the masses a large but fleeting sense of power – or, if not power per se, it ensured that “the whole people becomes part of society, really, for the first time”. Reacting against the chaos and dislocation of a ballooning industrial capitalism which replaced local powers with foreign financiers and industrialists, peripheral elites rallied their people – many of whom had never been engaged in politics at such a level before – to defend a new, romantic notion of the Volk.

But the mouth, having opened almost as wide as it can go, has to shut. Mass politics is forced back into an institutional and ideological framework designed by and for the nationalist elite, and a fire kindled to ward off a foreign ruling class is stamped out before it consumes the indigenous equivalent. After yawning, nationalism grits its teeth. Either in defeat or in victory, every sin of the leadership is justified and every complaint suppressed by the overriding priority of the nation and its elite architects.

Despite Nairn’s efforts to distinguish between them, his formulation of Scottish “neo-nationalism” resembles his functionalist analysis of its 19th-century ancestor rather too closely, and it’s tempting to suspect that he has projected his own (sympathetic) impression of modern nationalism backwards. Scottish nationalism is about to finish yawning. It is clearly a reaction against the profound uncertainties of a globalised economy. It offers a reassertion of community and locality, but also the hope of a resurrected social democratic settlement for people struggling in low-pay, precarious and undignified work, those out of work, or for small businesses and consumers who feel helpless against multinational corporations.

For many of its most enthusiastic supporters, most visibly students and young people, it offers intellectual and practical stimuli that are hard to find in the increasingly unrewarding worlds of work and education – a chance to meet new and interesting people, think new and interesting things, and gain the attention and respect of one’s peers. It promises democracy in a world we are told is controlled by the market. In this way it has generated a substantial amount of support and activity amongst people with little political or economic power who were and remain willing to fight for a more humane, open and democratic society.

The Roch Wind

Somewhere in this tumult we identified a rough wind; something elemental and raw that could upset the delicate balance on which modern Scottish nationalism was constructed. Nationalism’s elite architects – primarily the SNP, but also figures in think tanks, business and whatever passes for a Scottish intelligentsia – were forced by the limits of their own position to encourage the development of a mass, spontaneous movement, full of contradiction and crudity, but nevertheless with the potential to incubate something beyond the kind of defensive civic-nationalism on which it was built.

The “Roch Wind” argument for independence was rooted in this specific set of circumstances. The referendum itself was a strange fluke, a result of the SNP’s unexpected majority in 2011, and this flash of lightning just happened to strike a fireworks factory. Neither Scotland’s nor Britain’s elites were properly prepared for the terrifying opportunities of a Yes vote – the management of fundamental conflicts of interest between classes and interest groups which had hitherto been sunken into a stagnant political binary at Westminster, the enormous pressure to keep at least some of their impossible promises, and so on. This, combined with the raw energy of the Yes campaign and the experience of a post-independence labour movement, could have opened the door to genuinely radical possibilities for dissent and disobedience in an independent Scotland.

We also identified something sinister in the “Team Scotland” or “all of us first” attitudes of the SNP and the Common Weal, which emerged not only from the nationalist and cross-class basis of those organisations but also the nature of devolution itself – devolution in Scotland has always been innately defensive, concerned with mediating between competing interests rather than taking sides, with key economic powers and conflicts obscured by the bogeyman of “Westminster”. The SNP are experts at this, sublimating their own sectional divisions, and Scotland’s, into the overriding goal of independence. This allows them to achieve both internal unity and a consistent, competent and compromising approach to government.

We foresaw an initial strengthening of the social-nationalist project after independence followed by a long, drawn-out weakening as its contradictions unravelled. The civic basis of this nationalism, necessitated by the politically weak cultural basis of Scottish national identity, means it cannot marshal sufficient popular support with the national question alone – it must consistently offer material benefits to its supporters. We expected this material base to become unsustainable after independence, buckling under the pressures of separation, the competing interests in the social-nationalist coalition, and the state-level influence those interests would be competing for.

We believe that this unravelling would have created significant opportunities for socialists and the labour movement in Scotland, who could be bolstered by the more general popular energy unleashed by the possibilities of independence. There could, in short, have finally been more than a rough wind. The yawning nationalist beast could have choked on the fly as it closed its mouth, and its grip on Scottish politics could have been loosened for good.

It might also have swallowed us, of course, and this is what our No-voting comrades predicted. But we felt that Scottish nationalism was weaker than they believed, ultimately incapable of overcoming its internal contradictions should independence be won.

The expected closeness of the vote was crucial, for an easy Yes win would have implied an unstoppable nationalism and an easy, unproblematic transition for the nation’s elites. But there were, as Gordon Brown identified, real risks – to jobs, pensions, currency and more, problems to which we believed only socialists and the labour movement had workable and popular solutions. The weakness of the nationalist case for independence was, for us, inextricable from the opportunity for a truly radical “Yes”.

Our main efforts, then, were threefold: first, we sought to persuade the pro-independence left to maintain a critical distance from nationalists in the SNP and the Common Weal. Second, we hoped to encourage the sceptical or No-supporting members of the labour movement to consider the possibilities of independence. Finally, we pressed both of those vague groupings – pro-indy left and sceptical labour left – to develop a more thorough critique of social democracy in both its nationalist and unionist forms.

Jaws of Defeat

Alas, we’ll never find out if we would have been swallowed or not. Mainstream nationalism could offer no sufficiently convincing rebuttal to those real risks, and so the Scottish people placed their electoral hand over the nation’s yawning mouth before the fly could even begin to taste the celebratory buckfast on the beast’s breath. Now, Scottish nationalism is gritting its teeth.

One side of the nationalist jaws is the doctrine of “One Scotland”. This is the civic nationalism of an elite that must re-engage with the majority who voted No in order to restore some degree of nationwide legitimacy. Nationalist leaders have retreated to the safer ground of “further powers”, but they will be perfectly comfortable under the present devolution settlement too.

The other, accompanying side of Scottish nationalism is summed up by the social media slogan of “we are the 45%”, which takes the earlier, exclusive message of Salmond’s clumsy “Team Scotland” to logic-defying extremes. Scotland’s new ‘45ers hold up the nation – “all of us,” as the Common Weal put it – as the basis of their politics, but they openly exclude a majority of the nation’s people by mistaking the minority who voted Yes for the nation’s entire stock of progressives.

This is the hidden exclusivity of Scotland’s supposedly “inclusive” nationalism laid bare. In the final instance, its acolytes view Scottish statehood as the primary condition for all possible progress, and refuse to subordinate this to any politics rooted in class, gender, sexuality or any other nexus of oppression and exclusion. Jim McColl, Brian Soutar, Bill Walker and Stuart Campbell are welcome participants (they must be, for they are part of the 45%, whether you like it or not), but socialist No-voters like Neil Findlay are emphatically not, despite their obvious commitment to radical politics.

Having been rejected by the majority of Scottish people, the “45%” – united, ultimately, by nothing other than Scottish independence – is still seen by nationalists as the only plausible basis of “progressive” change. Anybody who seeks the same kind of changes without independence must either retrospectively “join” the 45% (and thus, by implication, apologise for the treacherous way they voted), or simply wait until the next referendum.

“The 45%” is an explicit example – a regressive beacon, even – of narrow nationalism. “We” lost, and Scottish nationalism is stronger and far more sinister today than it was on the 18th of September. The circumstances which justified our support for independence – particularly its immediate possibility at a time when nationalists seemed incapable of fully controlling it – are no longer present. Critical participation in a nationalist movement or nationalist discourse is no longer a useful priority and is now, more than ever, a danger for the Scottish radical left.

What Next?

Roch Wind will carry on, in some form or another and with the same personnel, but through the post-referendum fallout we hope to reconnect with any comrades, regardless of how they voted, who want to work together for socialism and the labour movement in Scotland, the United Kingdom and beyond. We’re also happy to work with people from all left-leaning parties. But just as we fought for a Yes while criticising the movement’s nationalism and reformism, we will be fighting for Labour governments in 2015 and 2016 while condemning the nationalism and reformism of the Labour party, with a renewed focus on the limits of “One Nation” ideology.

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

If you’re interested in getting involved, please send an email to roryscothorne AT gmail DOT com, tweet us at @Roch_Wind, or send us a message on Facebook. We genuinely don’t care which way you voted.

Traitors For Yes


With a Yes vote now more possible than ever, and its left-wing advocates in a particularly excitable mood, here are a few thoughts inspired by Euan McColm’s latest column discussing what he perceives to be scant evidence that the left would be strengthened in an independent Scotland. McColm is perceptive in his analysis of the risks posed to the left by any collaboration, however critical, with the SNP, who are adept at talking to the left while walking (and occasionally talking) to the right. He suggests that “Scottish independence is more likely to benefit the right than the left”, and that socialists will find “very little reward” for their efforts in winning independence, echoing a similarly sceptical argument made earlier in the campaign by the Record’s Torcuil Crichton, who wrote that socialism struggles to break through “in a country where all civic politics is about the nation”.

The crucial basis of the SNP’s pitch for independence is civic nationalism, a supposedly inclusive doctrine which seeks to benefit and draw support from business and the working class alike. The civic nationalist approach is often very explicit – Nicola Sturgeon said this week that independence could benefit “all sectors of society”. Socialism, by contrast, is necessarily exclusive, taking sides with the majority who must work to survive against those who own and control industry and capital. When the left adopts the language of nationalism, advocating the building of a “better nation”, and attacking those who “don’t have Scotland’s best interests at heart”, they make it far more difficult to advocate a politics of progressive exclusion further down the line.

While civic nationalists are enthusiastic about their own inclusivity, many on the left are reluctant to openly embrace a more exclusionary politics, particularly when they feel within touching distance of powerful forces. The Common Weal has fallen victim to this already, with one memorable line from Robin McAlpine’s manifesto proclaiming that “an effective system of industrial democracy begins from an awareness from both parties (employers and employees) that their interests are broadly shared”. What happens when a low-paying employer faces a strike in this context? The workers, pursuing their own narrow interest, can be condemned for endangering the “national interest” by not considering the needs of capital.

Most socialists rightly reject the idea that a nationalist coalition of interests can work together to build an “all of us first” economy where this kind of conflict isn’t necessary. The theory expounded in the Common Weal’s industrial policy documents suggests that businesses simply need to be persuaded that decent wages are in their interests, and workers simply need to be persuaded to restrain their demands so business can continue making a profit. Who will do the persuading here? Well, none other than the state, of course. But for the state to be able to mediate between competing interests, it must be governed by a party with a foot in both camps – a national party. One need only look at the priorities of Scotland’s current “national party” to see how pathetic an ambition this is for the left.

No politics, nationalist or socialist, is ever truly inclusive. Politics in a society which is structurally unequal (indeed, politics only exists because of structural inequality) is always exclusive, for it must either maintain the present structures of exclusion or militate against those with a vested interest in the present state of things. Scottish nationalists are able to pretend that there is a third option, where those with a vested interest in the present state of things exist only at Westminster, and therefore “all of us” within Scotland can benefit from leaving the union.

The Radical Independence Campaign has pursued a slightly more critical path, but appears prepared to give its support to a new Scottish state – its critique of the Common Weal is not that McAlpine et al will hand power to the nationalists and the state, but that the Common Weal simply isn’t as radical as it could be. RIC’s own proposals contain some good ideas – nationalisation of oil and infrastructure, the empowerment of the labour movement, an independent currency and more – but their primary focus remains parliamentary.

The new Scottish state towers above everything else in the ambitions of Scotland’s “new radicals”, and unless this is rectified we risk being cursed with a complacent, toothless left, happy to direct its appeals to the government rather than the people. Independence shouldn’t be viewed as an opportunity to build a sustainable progressive state – such a thing is impossible under capitalism. The SNP will be forced, very quickly, to take sides in the various sectional conflicts of Scottish society that had previously been the business of Westminster, and it is the role of a critical, dynamic radical left to expose these conflicts and take the correct side, often against what is perceived to be the “national interest”.  The SNP’s neoliberal streak, combined with what will likely be a fairly rough transition to independence, will force them to make “tough choices,” providing opportunities to resist and challenge the Scottish state and the elite it will protect.

Notably absent from McColm’s analysis is the Labour Party. The Labour leadership is hardly composed of socialist firebrands, but they have plenty of experience opposing the SNP and a deep-seated desire to do so, and have remained largely excluded, partially by choice and partially by the hostility of the pro-independence coalition, from efforts to build a civic-nationalist consensus in Scotland. Their scepticism of nationalist social democracy will hopefully remain after a Yes vote, and as a result there is some potential for Labour, which retains a large electoral base and crucial ties to the labour movement, to be part of efforts to build a more realistic and conflict-ready Scottish radicalism. But Labour’s moderate leadership is already being tempted by the nationalist “Team Scotland” project, and the left within and outwith Labour must work to ensure the party is not dragged into a sterile consensus which it could be a powerful force in opposing – in negotiations and beyond.

Below are two scenarios, each ending on what might be a slightly exaggerated note, indicating how the pro-independence left’s actions now are of crucial long-term significance.

  1. The nightmare scenario

Independence is won, and the SNP form a minority or coalition government in 2016. They deliver on several of their “progressive” promises, and a small but not insignificant left bloc in parliament offer critical support. But the vicissitudes of currency union demand cuts in some areas, and global economic turbulence hits the Scottish economy just as it is regaining its balance. The left, widely viewed as a part of Scotland’s “cosy left-wing establishment”, has little chance against an invigorated anti-establishment right (the rebellious, intelligent young rightists of late-1970s USA are a good precedent here), who squeeze into power as the major party in coalition with a weakened SNP, or at the very least pull a desperate SNP rightwards. Suddenly, Scotland finds itself to the right of the UK, and the Scottish left is rudderless and discredited for a generation. Leftists across Europe, initially inspired by Scotland’s example to fuse civic nationalist with social democratic politics, find themselves in a similar situation, and the “radical” right sees its path to power unopposed.

  1. The alternative:

Independence is won, and the SNP form a minority or coalition government in 2016. They deliver on several of their “progressive” promises, but vocal criticism from a small but not insignificant left bloc, on the streets as well as in parliament, helps to foster widespread disappointment with the first years of independence. The vicissitudes of currency union demand cuts in some areas, and the left leads demands for an independent currency and opposition to cuts. When global economic turbulence hits the Scottish economy just as it is regaining its balance, a coalition of Labour and the radical left surges into power on the back of mass protests demanding that the promise of independence be fulfilled. This coalition hands immense power to the labour movement and encourages the ongoing formation of people’s assemblies across the country, while nationalising industry and infrastructure and withdrawing from NATO.

Continuing economic instability damages the Labour-led government’s credibility, but its mass extra-parliamentary base pulls politics further leftwards, much to the horror of right-wing commentators at home and around the globe. The Scotsman churns out red-baiting editorials about “the enemy within,” while The Times scoffs about the “failure” of independence as inequality plummets, capital controls come into force and top rates of tax soar. As continuing global turbulence thrusts the left into power across Europe and the US, Scotland’s socialists are ready and willing to join – even inspire – an international wave of strikes, nationalisations and occupations which mark a decisive step towards a profound transformation of the global system.

In the first of these scenarios, the left weds itself to the state too soon, risking complicity with the inevitable failure of the social democratic dream; in the second, the left remains a critical, sceptical force in Scottish society, seeking state power when nationalism and capital is at its weakest, and becomes the primary beneficiary of popular discontent when the contradictions of social-nationalism are exposed. We obviously favour the latter, and the opportunities it presents, and will be fighting for a Yes vote with that in mind. Let’s not be afraid of a bit of treason.

Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

Socialism For Goodness’ Sake

For the fourth anniversary of Jimmy Reid’s death on 10th August 2010

Many socialists in Scotland are campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote, and their ideas have influenced the broad campaign for independence. They are part of a tradition of Scottish socialists who believe Scottish independence is a useful, perhaps crucial, condition to be met before people in Scotland can reorganize society for their collective benefit. John Maclean, R. B. C. Grahame, Hugh MacDiarmid, Hamish Henderson and Jimmy Reid all supported the tradition in earnest. The latter died four years ago last Sunday; and it is on a reading of his famous inaugural lecture that I want to base this critique of pro-independence Scottish socialism.

Jimmy Reid’s famous rectorial address is one of the only major statements by a Scottish socialist that has tried to balance the end of individual freedom with the means of social reorganization through national reconstitution, seeing the end of socialism as the beginning of a moral society that can happen in Scotland. Its passion and rhetoric leaves the reader convinced Reid was a socialist who had, in his words, ‘faith in humanity’. Yet the lecture does indicate Reid was not clear about the flaws and traps of too much faith in collective cures to human alienation. His rhetoric concealed a tension we should explore today.

This tension is between the political ambition for better social organization, and the moral ambition for individual liberty. Critics of socialism exploit this tension, which the best socialists have tried to resolve.

Scottish socialists have a weak case for Scottish independence because they have tended to let solutions concerning society carry them away from what should be the real motivating force for socialism, which is the moral freedom of humans. Scottish socialism has disconnected itself from Scottish people’s conditions and aspirations, which has dehumanized it.

At the same time, Scottish socialism has become too bound up with an abstract campaign for independence of the nation-state, which has nationalized it. By neglecting real-life human aspirations in favour of collective or social-national visions, Scottish socialists have struggled to relate their aims to the lives of the people. They have developed a habit of missing the trees for the wood.

So it seems to me that Scottish socialists today neglect a more valuable and radical aspiration for liberty. This omission has obvious practical consequences as well as moral implications. After the referendum socialists will no longer be able to rely on building national visions. The appeal of socialism must then be to remove barriers and oppressions that force people’s lives down certain paths: inflexible working hours and conditions, pressures of convention, gender norms, financial insecurity. The positive side of these ambitions is a struggle for liberty.

At home with freedom

Jimmy Reid said his famous inaugural lecture was “an affirmation of faith in humanity” and he ended it with the following lines from Burns:

In virtue trained, enlightened youth shall move each fellow creature,
And time shall surely prove the truth that man is good by nature,

Despite the dreams and wishes of countless socialists, no degree of social organization can replace human relationships and interaction that are the ways, chiefly through sympathy with one another, that we become better humans. “Beneficence is always free, it cannot be extorted by force”, wrote Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which many scholars believe to have inspired Burns more than any other work of philosophy. Our sympathy with one another, our long and helpless childhoods under the guidance of other people, and our diverse ways of living, inventing and reinventing ourselves, are key to understanding how virtues can develop.

To force people down certain tracks is to inhibit the goodness of humanity. This happens in our society: capitalism allows and encourages people to exert control, homogenize, and manipulate other people into living in a way that makes them worse human beings. Modes of social organization created to contain capitalism’s excesses allow for lives to be influenced and molded collectively, creating more dependent kinds of life. In each case, the power to choose goodness and live humanely is taken away from the common people.

In his opening remark, Reid famously defines ‘alienation’ as:

“[The] feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.”

Reid suggests alienation is a symptom of a badly organised society. It is a “major social problem”. Reid’s imperative is that a person should be able to determine their destiny – so the role of social organization must be to make people free. Good politics reorders society so our desires and passions are unconstrained (unless such passions inhibit the humanity and liberty of others), whereupon people will contribute to a more creative, lively and fulfilling culture. Freedom is just the start of morality and of giving value back to human relations.

Reid clearly believed in human goodness – that much I have picked up not just from reading his lecture but also from speaking to people who knew him, including comrades from the UCS work-in and family members who are carrying on his legacy. His teleological belief in humanity is given in terms of a challenge:

“The big challenge to our civilisation… does involve morality, ethics, and our concept of human values. The challenge we face is that of rooting out anything and everything that distorts and devalues human relations.”

The struggle to meet this challenge takes many forms, and requires much more than a programme for social reorganization. But when Reid turns to a social solution, he begins to lose sight of the freedom and worth that has characterized the lecture so far. Reid describes a different target for society, and finds an answer that has preoccupied the Scottish left ever since:

“Let’s gear our society to social need… Our aim must be the enrichment of the whole quality of life.”

What is this social need? If the individual, free not just from capitalism’s coercion but from the coercion of gender, race, and other oppressions, must enrich their own life through chosen moral actions, then how can we hope to meet social needs collectively? A prescription for general enrichment rather than individual freedom lays bare the tension I have described, and Reid comes down on the side of saying society should be geared and aimed at raising living standards.

Reid then offers a second target, this time in terms of collective control:

“… economic decision making by the people for the people… is an ethical and moral question for whoever takes the important economic decisions in society ipso facto determines the social priorities of that society.

We may well grant that economic decisions determine social priorities. But to what extent should social priorities be collectively determined? A criticism of his case is easy and obvious: setting social priorities through collective control of the economy is an ersatz substitute for freedom. It places socialism as an end, which is an approach to politics that has cruelly tested consequences. For collective responsibility is not the same as control of your own destiny; shared power is not how most people understand freedom; and socialism is not collectivism.

Reid then concludes this section with a third demand or claim that leaves us even more unsure of where we stand – a less-than-radical demand for the “restructuring of the institutions of government and where necessary, the evolution of additional structures so as to involve the people in the decision making processes of our society”. His justification for bringing national political administration into people’s lives is based on the collective ‘we’:

“To unleash the latent potential of our people requires that we give them responsibility.”

This is the social nationalist move that completes the triad of collective economic decisions to meet the social needs of our people. Our people, who are to be made responsible, are collectively defined in terms of the nation that represents them – for he is thinking in terms of the Scottish people when he says we must give them responsibility. They must have responsibility for economic decisions and social organization to provide for themselves. But are these ingredients sufficient for socialism? They seem to put a lot of stock in the kind of national political and economic decisions that we expect governments to take. He seems to want national government to introduce a form of economic democracy and control by the workers, in order to meet social needs, and enrich people’s lives.

In terms of his prescriptions, Reid leaves us close to the social nationalism that socialists are offering in the referendum. It is at least an inadequate solution to the language of moral crusade that sets his speech apart. Why is responsibility for social control a solution to an individual’s lack of freedom?
But Reid does return towards the end of his speech to the individual, with a declaration of faith in the essential goodness of humanity:

“I am convinced that the great mass of our people go through life without even a glimmer of what they could have contributed to their fellow human beings. This is a personal tragedy. It’s a social crime. The flowering of each individual’s personality and talents is the pre-condition for everyone’s development.”

This must be so, and Reid could express it better than anyone else on the left.

Social Nationalism

In the course of his speech, Reid’s solution does not seem to address the problem he raises, of alienation and a lack of freedom. Instead of individual control over your social and economic life he posits collective control. Reid prescribes that we urgently need to give people collective responsibility for economic and political decision-making; that such involvement in production will lead to an improved society. But why does this follow? It is good to control our own destinies, which are of course tied up together; but collective control is not the same as control of our destiny, nor is the latter a necessary outcome of the former. There is nothing inherent in collective governance that ensures any kind of freedom, even of the collective. Sometimes collective control inhibits individual freedom. The collective can govern badly, immorally, and to ends other than freedom. The collective is not inherently good. It is not easy to see how Reid’s conception of a radical, moral socialism will grow from the form of collective rule he proposes.

In the end Jimmy Reid moved from the Communist party to the Scottish National Party – a move made by other Scottish left-wing thinkers like Tom Nairn and Hugh MacDiarmid. Their faith in humanity and the struggle for liberty puts its earthly hopes in social and economic organization through a national social democratic party. Such social nationalism lacks the moral integrity that Reid exhibits in his commitment to freedom for the oppressed and alienated.

These socialists’ support for the SNP did not mean they rejected any of their principles, since their move was probably instrumental. But socialists would do well to notice the different ideas that pull against each other in the thought of all of these thinkers, and consider whether in this political moment, the SNP social democratic model is the best carrier for socialism they aspire to. The ends of socialism held by each individual cannot find true expression in the available means of parties and movements. In the end, their joining the SNP meant that in time their real socialism was dulled through the means of social nationalism.

Many people on the Scottish left have joined with this social nationalism, and are unsure of their own socialism. They seldom refer to the lives and potential freedom of the people in Scotland, starting instead with a collective idea that is not real, relying too much on a national campaign for social reorganization.

A popular theory on the left says that in an independent Scotland we can progress towards socialism via a kind of utopian Nordic model of social partnership. This is flawed because the people do not aspire to such a society, those who would be willing to concede to such a transition do not control sufficient resources in Scotland. Even if such Nordic policies were put in place, they would not provide the kind of freedom that amounts to empowerment of every person to determine their own destiny.

A popular slogan, ‘Britain is for the Rich, Scotland can be Ours’ – along with another, ‘All of us First’ – contain a collective ‘we’ identity which is not in fact widely felt and imposed or encouraged by those who believe the nation can be a rallying point for so-called socialist demands. Furthermore, the suggestion that we may all control and own Scotland presupposes a national collective that necessarily leads to freedom, simply by virtue of being a collective.

The policy of universal social service provision is defended (by the SNP, by the Common Weal, by Ramand and Foley among others) even when the poorest lack other vital services. Universal services are not a priority ahead of the social investment that would provide the poorest cohorts of society with the kind of housing, education, health and social care that would bring to their lives the kind of choice that is enjoyed by the numerous middle class who get most benefit from universal services. The temptation of collective provision for has trumped the actual freedom policies might bring to those who are deprived, oppressed and, in a word, alienated. The principle of governance of everyone for everyone by everyone fails to take into account the priorities of socialist freedom.

The fish that never swam

An unanswered question lies at the heart of the socialist case for independence. Why is independence a solution to the alienation of people living in Scotland?

The question is very difficult to answer, and I can attempt only a cursory overview of the things that socialists might focus on. The priorities for the left in an independent Scotland will become clear when oppressive forces and interests start to show their hands. But we should be honest that if there is a Yes vote, the initial years will be rough and turbulent. We should focus less on scoping out the kind of systems that will make us better, and focus more on getting rid of the kind of systems that made us worse. Reid believed in the potential of humans, free humans (almost unknown in a world of gender and economic and racial and other oppressions), to live well if they have the opportunity. We should not work to create good lives, but to end bad systems that hold us back from being human.

Freedom must belong not to society, not to a nation, but to the individual. Freedom is the end of politics, and the start of goodness. This radical ambition has yet to be expressed as part of the socialist case for independence.

Too much attention is placed on rearranging or trying to bring about another Scotland. Better figures on the left remember our struggle’s aspiration is not social organisation but social morality. Socialist aspirations should become more radical and humanistic; when systems take over our minds, whether designed ones like social utopias, or economic ones like neo-liberalism, or long historic social ones like patriarchy and oppression, our sense of humanity retards. This should inspire not only our ideals, but also how we treat each other as comrades.

It is not uncommon to find people involved in left politics who leave their human impulses at the door of a meeting room, or at home. Some think they are too big for everyday morality. Others insist morality is a system that is contingent on society’s development. Of course it is, but those who ignore morality are cranks. They are the ones who scare and deter most people from the left. They also spread their inhumanity, because they see politics as a struggle for power or a game in which their own character is only important for what it can be for the movement. They will change their attitude and temperament – do what they would not naturally do – in order to bring something about they think is closer to the social organisation and political engagement they have in mind. Eventually their temperament comes out in a flash. So long as they are fired up by their ideal, they seem to fly, but they always burn out to reveal a woodenness: no personal morality, only political direction. Up like a rocket, down like a stick.

These are the people who would do well to look again at Jimmy Reid’s lecture, and to read it as a reminder not just to the left but to a whole generation that their ideas and ideals, and their personal gain, are not important compared to their morality. The body of Reid’s argument, the social solution, is fishy. But the head and the tail are morally sound. Social thought and social planning is necessary, but totally insufficient for socialism to swim at all. The goodness of those who are free is what underpins the aspiration for socialism.

I never met Jimmy Reid, and cannot purport to be able to discuss his own morality or his humanity. But I have as much of a sense of his legacy as most others on the left in Scotland. I know him through a few folk who were close to him, and through his most well-known piece of writing. I have a sense of Jimmy Reid as a Scottish socialist who was clever, witty, hard-working, audacious, and determined, who also studied people and had enough sense of history to know he was part of a moral struggle older than Maclean or Marx or anyone in the movement. And it is precisely because his prescription falls short of his own moral test, that I have no doubt that Jimmy Reid was a socialist for goodness’ sake. It’s up to us to start building a programme worthy of his legacy.

Cailean Gallagher

Tearing at the roots

Vasili Vasilevich Sokolov - Storming the Winter Palace 1962
Scene One: Wednesday, in the House of Commons, Jim Sheridan, MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North and one of Scottish Labour’s deadwood planks, entreats David Cameron to encourage businesses to inform their Scottish employees of risks associated with independence, so that they vote No in the September ballot. In a staged show of unity, Cameron replies: “With him, I would urge them to speak out” – ‘them’, those cowed masters of capital, who are petrified into silence by the referendum, and must be supported, by media and by Parliament, to ensure that their concerns are heard.

Scene Two: Thursday evening Cameron comes north to offer Glasgow £500 million investment for city businesses. Labour council chief Gordon Matheson says it “will lead to more and better jobs, new companies which survive and grow and a massive expansion in modern high tech industry… We have been able to secure a great deal from the UK Government”, he declares. United they stand.

Everybody knows that Labour and Conservatives are coordinating a campaign message that the future of investment and jobs depends on the United Kingdom. With the employment rate in Glasgow only 60% and the Scottish Government offering pitifully little by way of new employment, these promises will be heard.

But when a Glasgow Labour Council celebrates the ‘great deal’ between itself and a Tory government that has suffocated jobs-growth outside London, the darker days of complicity between Labour councils and Thatcher’s government in the 1980s come straight to mind. In Westminster and across Scotland, Labour politicians, who are meant to represent workers, are calling on employers to make the case for the United Kingdom. Such explicit high-level coordination is a chance for critics to expose elite complicity.

They should be easy targets, the elite who represent the institutions we are shortly to endorse or dismiss in September’s referendum. Labour MPs, in post for longer than a generation, who have overseen poverty for generations but seem clueless about the obvious solution of empowering those who lack means to make their own ambitious real. The leaders of a council which has pumped its spare funds into a Commonwealth charade while the economic tide has turned, leaving debris in its wake. And the government which has made austerity the only option so that even Labour has to commit to “ruthless” cuts if it wins control of government in 2015.

Left-wing groups in Scotland have so far failed to hit the targets because of idealistic assumptions that institutional failures are so obvious that they don’t need to be exposed. These idealists are bad radicals because they never expose the roots and branches of institutions that connect the politicians and the businesses in conspiracies against the public, instead attacking the whole form – Westminster, NATO, neoliberal consensus. The few writers who actually manage to attack the incidents and scenes of institutional power tend themselves to be skeptical of the vast and obscure demands of the ‘radical’ nationalist movement.

In other words, it is not radical to simply declare that an independent Scotland would be fairer, with better work and better jobs, because these claims from groups without power sound like self-important musing to the public. The groups with authority to offer better jobs are businesses and government, opposition parties and perhaps trade unions – not radical campaigns. Radical pretensions to set the independence agenda are ridiculous; radicals should instead be critics of the agenda that is set by those in power. Parts of the left seem to have forgotten their role as critics of the establishment. We are running out of time to learn it again, to pillory and undermine our institutions.

Radicals have the advantage that the very narrative everyone is given, that comes from the staged agreements and disagreements by people and interests within the institutions like parliament, business and media, is open to criticism just when it needs to be – it is exposed by global crisis just at the moment people in Scotland are forced to choose in the referendum whether they trust these institutions. The institutions’ weakness comes from the financial crash and capitalist crisis of a few years ago – and the referendum is an opportunity to reject it, to sack the bosses, to topple the Labour careerists.

James Stafford recently wrote that if you don’t think the case for either Yes or No has changed since the crash, your arguments are weak. The referendum is framed by the crash in ways that go beyond ‘finding an alternative to austerity’: the crash changed the referendum from being a vote of confidence in Scotland’s moderate government, into a vote to build a state outwith institutions that have run working people into the ground.

But to make the case, radicals have to break down the institutions into their component interests – and personages. This means learning and scrutinising characters who sustain Labour, Conservative and SNP complicity. This includes the institutions and businesses that create and sustain jobs in Scotland, and the Scottish Government which has the same industrial policy as Westminster parties. Because of naive prejudices and idealism (explored in this article), many radicals find it hard to attack the Scottish establishment.

All political decisions from a radical perspective are negative decisions – a response to the way institutions are linked in an elite and conservative ways. The left should not be turning this decision into a moment of great positivity, especially as this would make us almost uniquely out of sync with most of the European left. The European radical narrative is not utopian – to build a better society – but seeks a revolutionary moment where controllers of society on the centre-left and right can be displaced, and powerless groups like workers, women and immigrants force their interests to the surface. Such radicals seriously doubt the ability of government and opposition to advance interests of anything but the crumbling institutions they sustain (like ‘Westminster’ and ‘Scotland’).

Popular frustration is the proper light in which to see our referendum. The critical mode is not idealist –presenting a picture and imagining it will come real, or believing that ideas and principles themselves drive progress – but should start by tearing at the roots.

Cailean Gallagher