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)

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Kiruna’s Choice

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

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

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

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 The Cold War’s binary utopias have been replaced by a messy convergence on pick ‘n’ mix politics, a middle-ground of “social” enterprise, “ethical” consumption, and their foreign policy equivalent: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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editorial: Into The Abyss

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

Bertolt Brecht

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

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

whobenefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Against The Citizen’s Income

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The idea of a “Citizen’s Income”, or “Basic Minimum Income”, or whatever else it gets called, has been rattling around the left for ages, but has been thrust into the limelight by the recent failure of the “surging” Green Party to successfully advocate it more publicly. It’s already popular amongst the autonomist and eurocommunist elements of the left, but the slew of coverage it has had recently means it’s worth briefly setting out the case against it from a more class-oriented position:

The best argument, as far as I’m aware, for the Citizen’s Income says that it would lessen workers’ dependency on the labour market, allowing them to refuse work and thus removing the ability of the ruling class to force down wages by threatening to replace you with someone cheaper. This would help us transition away from a low-wage economy and force the automisation or eradication of what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”, and would give the working class breathing room to fight for socialism. This seems to be the essence of Paul Mason’s recent defence of the policy in the Guardian.

This seems pretty fatally flawed on a number of levels. First up, let’s assume that the Citizen’s Income wouldn’t necessarily achieve these things. A variant of it was proposed ages ago by the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman in the form of the “Negative Income Tax”, and Richard Nixon gave it very serious consideration in the early 1970s. It’s not hard to imagine why the right might support it: under a government controlled by capital, a guaranteed minimum income would essentially be a huge public subsidy for low private wages. In the case of Freedman and right-wing ‘libertarians’ this was also a mechanism to dismantle ‘dependency’ on the state through replacing the public ownership and provision of services with a single cash payment. Indeed, it’s not far away from Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit, or Blair and Brown’s tax credits.

So we need to assume that every government in control of the Citizen’s Income will use it to empower the working class, particularly the government that actually implements it. But a worker’s government is just that – a worker’s government. In fact this is the only kind of government that could plausibly put it into practice. As Mason argues, the policy would demand a great deal of restructuring for business, with huge additional investment required to transition from low-wage to high-wage industry. Only in the depths of Fabian fantasy would the ruling class put up with this without a fight. At the very least, they would try to seize control of the policy and transform it into something far more beneficial to them, as US businesses did with various New Deal programmes in the postwar era. So if we’re proposing that a ‘progressive’ Citizen’s Income could actually be implemented and sustained, we’re assuming that there is already a very powerful working class, with a well-organised, radical party at its head, that can win power and impose its will upon the rich and their allies.

But a powerful working class doesn’t need legislation to get high wages – that’s what trade unions are for, and when they’re strong they do a perfectly good job of raising wages without legislative help. So in order to have a ‘progressive’ Citizen’s Income, you would need certain radical conditions to be in place – but creating these conditions is the goal of the policy! For the left, it’s an idea that can only survive by eating itself, forever consigned to a kind of resigned utopianism where working class power is the rhetorical ends, but is completely abandoned as means.The Citizen’s Income is only confirmation that any perspective of wielding political power through working class mobilisation and organisation has been abandoned by large sections of the left in favour of the hopefully benign actions of the state. This was evident in the hopes that many placed on the hopefully more “democratic” government that would be provided by an independent Scotland and is also clear in the Green Party’s aspiration for a state funded political party system, removing both big business and organised labour from direct influence on political parties.

For all that, let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s still possible. A Citizen’s Income by itself could just as easily be reactionary as progressive – for it to be the latter, we’re really talking about it being just one element in a broad programme of radical structural change in the economy that would ultimately require the permanent domination of the propertied class by the working class.

We’re talking, in short, about socialism. And if we assume socialism to be a process of transferring power and wealth from the few to the many, what function does the Citizen’s Income serve in that? We’ve already established that strong trade unions can do a perfectly good job themselves of guaranteeing better wages, but now we’re suggesting that that power be given to the state. And once you can rely on the state to guarantee you a decent income, why join a trade union? All of sudden we’ve got a supposedly progressive policy kicking the legs out from under working class organisations and boosting the abstract, supposedly classless power of the state. The Citizen’s Income doesn’t build working class power; on the contrary, it is parasitic upon it.

Fundamentally, it’s a nationalist policy. It doesn’t begin from questions of class and power but from an imagined community ultimately embodied in the state, in which everybody’s interests are equally considered and represented, and struggle is procedural, between vague strategic coalitions organised around ideas, rather than warlike, between the classes in which very real material interests are concentrated and combined. It’s hardly surprising that those peace-loving Greens are so enthusiastic about it.

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

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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)

Review: David Torrance – Britain Rebooted: Scotland in a Federal Union

Britain Rebooted

There are two main themes of David Torrance’s short book on UK federalism, one negative, one positive. The first, the negative, is a critique – sometimes implicit, often explicit – of the common argument that federalism should not be taken seriously because it’s not going to happen any time soon. Let’s call this argument, for the sake of brevity, “impossibilism”. The impossibilist dogma is pervasive in the Yes campaign, inspiring sneers and eye-rolls whenever the federalist option is suggested. The SNP are actively complicit in perpetuating impossibilism, with Salmond reminding Scots at every opportunity that the UK government refused to allow a third “devo max” option on the referendum ballot paper. This, goes the typical argument, is evidence of unionist dishonesty over “more powers”. If they really wanted further devolution, they’d let us vote on it.

It’s an argument that requires more than a few intellectual contortions, and Torrance dismisses it with relative ease. It is, he writes, an “inherently conservative argument”, for it assumes that a state which has permitted universal suffrage, devolution and even a binding independence referendum is incapable of codifying, expanding and consolidating what is already a vaguely federal constitutional setup. But these common-sense rebuttals form the limits of Torrance’s persuasiveness, for his proposals detailing precisely how federalism might triumph fall far short of what would be required for a federal programme to command the popular support necessary to make it work, and, crucially, to outpace its nationalist counterpart on questions of economic and social change.

The second, “positive” theme of the book is a coherent, if somewhat veiled, statement of Torrance’s own political philosophy, in which he outlines how federalism could empower federated nations and regions of the UK to innovate new ways of promoting social mobility and reducing inequality across a “rebooted” union. Here he strikes a notably similar political pose to that of one Richard M. Nixon, whose “New Federalism” sought to fuse a classically liberal emphasis on meritocracy and personal freedom with a nuanced subsidiarity. Under Nixon, welfare was centralised, but distributed in cash payments to be freely spent rather than through specific services (a basic minimum income was even proposed) and local authority block grants were generally freed of conditionality, while affirmative action was advocated for African Americans in the construction industry and small business, and segregated schools were forcibly integrated. Torrance retreads many of the ideological principles underpinning these reforms in his own proposals, and for those who, like me, have been intrigued by his hitherto inscrutable ideological prerogatives, the result makes for an interesting and often surprising read.

On Nationalist Coat-tails

The opening chapter of the book is devoted to a potted history of British federalism, an idea “as old as Britain”, in which he seeks to demonstrate that the terrain of British constitutional politics has been far from inhospitable to federalist ambitions. However, this history does suggest that most serious high-level proposals for UK federalism have come from politicians and intellectuals with their backs against the wall: late-19th and early-20th century supporters saw it as a possible answer to the Irish Question, but it was only taken “much more seriously” when the question had become “louder and therefore more urgent,” both immediately before the first world war and immediately after it. These proposals were undermined by what had quickly become a critical mass of Irish nationalist sentiment, and the focus of federalist attention shifted to Stormont. In the postwar era, even Tories were comfortable describing Northern Ireland in federal terms, but fearful of extending the arrangement to Scotland or Wales. It fell to the Liberals to advocate “Home Rule All Round,” but – again – only in reaction to breakthroughs for the SNP and Plaid Cymru in the 1960s. The Liberals and their successors in the Liberal Democrats remained the most committed and proactive supporters of federalism throughout the rest of the century, but persistent minority status meant that their constitutional ambitions made little headway with a political class all too happy to drag its feet.

The Royal Commission on the Constitution, appointed by Harold Wilson in 1969 in response to Nationalist successes, argued that federalism was “foreign to our own tradition of unitary government”, reasserting the old orthodoxy of constitutional theorist A.V. Dicey. Dicey’s preoccupation with the overriding sovereignty of the British (or, for the anglocentric Dicey, essentially English) parliament is subject to plenty of critique by Torrance, who rightly notes its growing irrelevance in light of the various constitutional transformations of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. Wilson and many others in the Labour Party shared Dicey’s conservative views on the constitution, caricaturing federalism as over-complex and “artificial” and glorying in the supposed perfection of the existing system. That said, Labour’s position here should not be over-simplified; the party’s half-hearted support for Scottish and Welsh assemblies in 1976 was not only a response to nationalist advances, but also grew from a long-standing Home Rule tradition in the Labour Party, particularly on its left (the crucial relationship between socialism and federalism will be discussed further below).

The failure of devolution in the 1970s didn’t mean the demand had dried up entirely, however, and Labour’s devolutionary current resurfaced again with New Labour, this time taking English regions into account as well as the nations. The resounding No vote in the 2004 referendum on a North East Assembly may have “stymied…any prospect of a federal UK” under that government, but the vote itself still represented – alongside devolution in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London – some degree of progress towards UK federalism throughout the post-68 era. The eagerness with which impossibilists seize on 2004’s result as evidence against federalism misses the point; a federalism including the nations and regions of the UK is more imaginable today than it has been for most of the country’s history. Labour’s latest proposal – under consideration for their 2015 manifesto – to transform the House of Lords into an “indirectly elected” senate giving equal representation to the nations and regions is the continuation of this trend.

But if federalists have made progress, they haven’t done it under their own steam. Federalism has remained largely reactive, not because its advocates are unwilling – the Liberals and Liberal Democrats, and elements of Labour and the labour movement, have advocated federalism or home rule on its own merits for decades – but because UK-wide federalism has been incapable of marshalling popular will in the way that nationalism has. Where federalism by itself appears to many as an expensive sideshow of constitutional tinkering (particularly obvious in 2004’s “white elephant” campaign against the North East Assembly), nationalism mobilises people – often from a strong working-class base – behind a relatively holistic programme of promised economic, social and political change. Nationalism has offered a cure, however illusory, for the various maladies of capitalist development and crisis which federalists have been unable or – due in large part to vested class and political interests – unwilling to match. Torrance makes little effort to grapple with this problem, particularly given that his vision for a transition to federalism is driven not by the collective efforts of working people but by well-intentioned politicians and civil servants, a point we will come back to later.

A Southern Problem or a British One?

Torrance does make some effort to deal with the argument that English people “don’t want” a federal England, but this is limited to observations about English unhappiness with the present constitutional setup. There remains no groundswell of federalist politics in England, or indeed in Scotland. Polls may show a Scottish preference for “devo max”-style federalism and an English discontent with the status quo, but that doesn’t mean people will get out and knock doors to that end. But when nationalists (or “not-nationalists-but…”) criticise federalism for its lack of popular support, they rarely try to explain why such support is absent or, indeed, why this matters. Occasionally they fall back on the New Left arguments of Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, themselves a kind of haunted-mirror inversion of Dicey’s, about the innate conservatism of the British state. But if the British state is so conservative that it cannot reform itself, how have devolution and a legally-binding independence referendum been tolerated?

Idealism is a funny thing. Not “idealism” in the vague, optimistic sense, defined as a politics of hope and change and “making the world a better place”, but idealism as the philosophical tradition which posits ideas rather than real, material forces as possessing a determining agency in human history. The prevalence of both in the Yes campaign is not coincidental. One of vulgar idealism’s most peculiar attributes is that, while idealists condemn materialists for downplaying the role of human agency and free will in history, they have a tendency to place an inordinate amount of faith in the agency of institutions. In this crude, popular form, little nuance is permitted; just as “Scotland” means “us”, so too must “Westminster” be “them”, and there can be no internally contradictory tendencies in either of these things. The logic is, supposedly, that because institutions set the parameters of what is (at least legally) possible in politics, institutions determine the ideas with which law-abiding humans, and therefore citizens, shape the world.

Dicey’s fetishisation of English parliamentary sovereignty as the basis of British political life is a fine example of this. In impossibilism, Dicey’s fragile and aging parliamentary ideal is kept alive only thanks to the daily sacrifice of every idea which falls outside its miniscule parameters: yesterday the union, tomorrow federalism; and its high priests are the impossibilists. Anthropomorphised by the black magic of neo-Diceyan idealism, the palace of Westminster and huge swathes of Whitehall lift themselves up onto hitherto unseen legs and, sending chunks of masonry and scaffolding splashing into the Thames and crashing through shopfronts, these institutional titans make obscene demands of British politicians: You, puny humans, must deny Scotland the governments “it” votes for. You must lie about your desire for “more powers”. You must remain forever preoccupied with “neoliberal dogma”. You may never change, for we are The Institutions, we are immortal, and we are in charge!

For example, Iain Macwhirter’s recent critique of federalism asserted that there is “no scintilla of a chance of federalism being introduced by Westminster of its own volition.” Later in the same article, “Westminster has not the slightest intention…” and so on, and so on. “England” and “Scotland” are spoken of in a similarly clumsy, simplistic way; when you make up the units of analysis as you go along, it’s easy to meet a print deadline. Throughout impossibilist rhetoric there is a persistent desire to obscure what is really meant by “Westminster,” but Macwhirter lets the cat out of the bag: the problem with “Westminster” is, in the final instance, that “Scotland really isn’t on England’s radar…English people really don’t care [about the Barnett formula and the West Lothian Question]”. The trouble, in short, is with the way English people vote. There is no room here for differences or shifts of opinion within England, not to mention the continuing direction of Labour (via Adonis) and even the Conservatives (via Heseltine) towards English regional devolution.

The idealism that pervades a great deal of Scottish constitutional thinking, even in its more radical forms and particularly amongst supporters of independence, tends to close down any serious questions about the possibilities of popular constitutional change. A fetishisation of British institutions is used to obscure a blanket pessimism about English people and British parties, while a simplistic homogenisation of “Scotland” threatens to contain demands for a transfer of powers in the hands of those who claim to speak for the nation, halting whatever progress devolution or independence might entail before it can reach the majority.

Radical Federalism

Furthermore, there’s no clear effort by Macwhirter and his ilk to actually consider how federalism might be implemented. It might seem obvious during a constitutional referendum that all major constitutional changes come from referenda, or at least from popular support, but that’s not necessarily the case. If a party was interested enough in federalism – as Labour increasingly are, for all nations and regions of the UK – and offered a programme of economic and social reform alongside it in a manifesto which could gather popular support, a majority government could win an election on non-constitutional issues before simply imposing a federal system, regardless of the enthusiasm or lack thereof amongst certain sections of the electorate. Most English voters at least aren’t hostile to federalism, and there’s growing evidence that many are unhappy with their present constitutional status.

This unhappiness doesn’t translate into English constitutional demands because constitutional change in itself is boring. The appeal and ferment of the independence debate lies in the economic, social and political opportunities it presents, not the prospect of constitutional change alone. Things are no different for federalism, and that’s why constitutional change holds relatively little power in England. For English voters there is no alternate state, dressed up in promises of social citizenship and national renewal, which they can grab onto as many Scots do. The impossibilists – those who profess a mild interest in federalism but believe that it could not happen – believe that a federalist programme, if possible, would deliver much the same agenda as a nationalist programme. But this conflation is the reason that federalism seems impossible – the impossibilists think that the only thing that could deliver constitutional change is national sentiment, whereas what could actually deliver federalism is a far-reaching programme of social, economic and political change. A successful federalism must be a radical, federal socialism.

Torrance’s “New Federalism”

This is where Torrance’s argument is weakest, which is strange, because he does in fact smuggle several chapters of fairly far-reaching policy proposals – ranging from tax rises on the rich to affirmative action for state-educated people in higher education and beyond – into a book which is ostensibly about constitutional change. But these proposals all exist within a fairly technocratic framework. The goal of progressive policy for Torrance is not the radical transformation of society, or even greater equality per se, but the old-fashioned liberal dream of meritocracy. Private education is bad, not because it reproduces ruling class unity, but because it inhibits social mobility. The distinction between social mobility and social justice is not discussed, but a preoccupation with the former suggests a degree of comfort with the existence of class society just so long as everyone has the opportunity to be in a higher class.

Particularly revealing is his uncritical acceptance of Will Hutton’s assertion that “socialism and neo-liberalism have demonstrably failed,” and that we are now faced with the Quixotic mission of “making capitalism work”. Change is to be made by moderate but “bold” politicians and experts – he draws extensively on the policy recommendations and research of both – rather than popular movements or, perish the thought, an empowered and self-serving class. Tories and Liberal Democrats are oddly over-represented in his discussions of traditionally left-wing issues like challenging private school dominance and reducing income inequality, and it is tempting to suspect that for all his progressive suggestions, Torrance still struggles to escape his past entanglements with the Scottish right.

When it comes to the implementation of federalism itself, his policy proposals are justifications for constitutional change rather than, as suggested above, vehicles for it. This federalism will come about through “baby steps,” as he believes it has throughout British history. More significantly, it will require “cross-party agreement,” essentially guaranteeing that any radical potential is sucked out by the vicissitudes of compromise. Torrance here succumbs to the temptation of gradualism: just as the SNP, facing public scepticism over independence, sought to moderate and minimise the impact of what should have been a profound societal transformation, so too does Torrance hope to convince the haters with a relatively smooth, simple transition to a constitutional arrangement that will subsequently do little to help resolve the overlapping economic, social and political crises of modern Britain.

Federal Possibilities

The most important question for advocates of a federal union is not whether federalism can be achieved, but by whom and for whom; a possible Tory or liberal federalism may promote a race to the bottom between constituent states on wages, taxation and working standards; a possible Labour federalism, as hinted at by Powers for a Purpose, might create a nationwide “base” below which tax, welfare and wages may not be lowered, but with the ability to raise them, as well as flexibility over other aspects of industrial policy; but it could also be a technocratic, regressive federalism, hinted at in the Adonis review, which focuses on handing local powers and wealth to business rather than workers.

The overriding problem with all of these is that they remain federalisms-from-above, not from below. If Miliband’s Labour was able to command the same degree of popular enthusiasm as the Yes campaign, it would at least find itself in power under a substantial weight of progressive expectation. But as things stand, One Nation Labour may win a small majority simply because it’s less awful than the Tories. Thus the only force in the UK which seems ready to implement something approaching federalism will most likely do so in a managerial and broadly conservative fashion, just as it did with devolution.

The second most important question for Scottish federalists is whether this, or the hope of overturning it in favour of a more radical federal system of the possible future, is worth supporting over another “constitutional” change which already has a rough wind of economic, social and political demands in its sails.

Torrance has secured himself a prominent position in the referendum debate, partly through the strategic use of nice jumpers and expertly crafted hair, but largely on merit. His much-maligned scepticism about Scotland’s “progressive” consensus is welcome, and places him in a broad but often silent (or silenced) third camp of cynics, sceptics and grumblers of which we are also a part. Britain Rebooted is a thoughtful, nuanced (and generously short) work which deserves far better than the lazy impossibilist critiques to which the author’s proposals have been subjected, but it falls short where it could be at its most innovative; a couple of pages dedicated to the actual forces which might produce a federal UK is simply not enough for such an important topic, particularly given the nature of the critiques ranged against it. What is particularly evident is that there remains a pressing need for sharp, radical thinking in Scotland about the nature and direction of not only Scottish but also British politics that evades the reductionism of “Westminster vs Scotland”, but which can also break free of a dependence on expert-led and top-down tinkering to move towards an informed, intelligent popular radicalism.

Rory Scothorne