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Scotland’s Eurovision Entry: UKIP and the Culture War

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(This article was originally published at Bella Caledonia, as ‘Scotland’s Eurovision Entry: UKIP and the Culture War, on 15th May 2014)

By Thomas Coles

Last Friday evening (9th May) Nigel Farage’s trip to Edinburgh was disrupted for a second year in a row. This time not by simple visceral hatred of the man and what he represents – and a refusal to give him the space to operate – but by the celebration of community and values, and a rejection of division and hatred. It was robust, it still blocked and shamed UKIP, but it was overwhelmingly positive and joyful.

Nigel Farage boasts that he cannot remember the content of the last UKIP manifesto. We should be very clear what this means – at this stage in its rise UKIP does not principally operate with policy, but with a very effective sort of dog-whistle politics. Even its one fixed policy – an exit from the European Union – is symbolic rather than instrumental. We must exit Europe, but we are not told what exiting Europe means. It has something to do with the idea that we must make Britain great again – not economically or politically, but libidinally.

“Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”

We are told that standards have slipped, and that we must return to the values and borders that existed before things went wrong. UKIP and Farage do not operate with facts and figures, but within the space of what “everyone knows”. The issue for UKIP is culture. The issue UKIP has with ‘the left’, as the supporters who descended on the twitter accounts and facebook pages of those protesting said, our agenda. The homosexual agenda, the European agenda, the communist agenda, the feminist agenda, the immigrant agenda. These things are meant to turn the stomachs of all patriots. He relies on the inability of all major parties – including the SNP – to outline what it is about our economic system that is creating such desperation and poverty in our communities. You cannot defeat UKIP on its own terms, you need a counter-narrative which exposes the poverty of its proposal.

‘Europe’ for Farage is a useful set of values – effeminate, trans*, trans-national, left-wing, racially plural, collaborative – which he can reject. He ignores the fact that by many measures the European project is currently carrying out policies that his libertarian economic ideals would support: destroying living standards, enforcing austerity and creating a plight for migrants as heinous as any dreamt up by the UK Border Agency. His Europe is the bogeyman of the ‘liberal agenda’. And while we have to be careful not to throw around terms such as ‘racist’ or ‘fascist’, in case they wear thin with cynicism, we must remember what fascism looks like, and know that ignoring it as a form of appeasement doesn’t make it go away or stop it developing. Terrifyingly, Faragist common-sense is quickly becoming a sort of British common-sense. We should take note of what author Michael Rosen noted:

I sometimes fear that people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress worn by grotesques and monsters as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. Fascism arrives as your friend. It will restore your honour, make you feel proud, protect your house, give you a job, clean up the neighbourhood, remind you of how great you once were, clear out the venal and the corrupt, remove anything you feel is unlike you… It doesn’t walk in saying, “Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”

All the professionals of media debate threatened the demonstrators that protesting against Farage would give him what he wants: publicity and more normalisation through the media lens. As if he wasn’t already the darling of Lord Rothermere and Murdoch. They said he would look depressingly good when confronted with the rabble, and instead we should debate with him. Or rather, we should give those journalists a quick vox pop and let them chalk up the ‘debate’ thus: “Farage says immigrants cause poverty, others disagree”. They were proven wrong. Farage doesn’t want a debate, he wants yet another a picture of himself in the newspaper with a pint and a fag so people could smile and say “that man’s got his priorities straight!”

The protest by a motley crew of 400 meant that the media had to contend with a strong, immovable counter agenda. Like Occupy Wall Street or the student protests of 2010 it could perhaps be criticised for being unfocused, raucous, a street party rather than a political statement. It didn’t have a clear ‘message’. It didn’t have a White Paper or a demand. But still it was in the street, refusing to hide its agenda. Its agenda was obvious. It was against the establishment counter-revolution that Farage embodies. It was the Scottish entry to the European Song Contest, with all its glorious campness, embodied by this year’s explicit rejection of gender norms represented by the Austrian winner Conchita Wurst.

This was the message. Everyone understood why singing the ‘YMCA’, ‘Gay Bar’ and ‘I Will Survive’ was important. As were the signs bearing “Mon the Multi-Culture!” and the chants of “We’re Here! We’re queer!” When Farage complains that he is against ‘political correctness’ those protesting understood exactly what the political phrasing hides – to be against ‘political correctness’ is to say that society attends too closely to the needs of minorities, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. To talk of ‘controlling immigration’ is to reject the right of people to move where they want in the world – even if you say “its not racist to impose limits”.

We know that to live our lives by the old “common sense” and nod along with “what everyone knows” isn’t good enough. We know that the global movement of financial capital outweighs in its destructive effect even the most dramatic of contemporary movements of people. Farage’s politics only works by ignoring this, and whistling eeny meeny miney mo. It is a deep cultural conservatism, and a mode of politics that comes out of the ‘culture wars’ of the American right and Thatcher’s war against the ‘enemy within’. We must always remember that the vilification of the working class and the destruction of its political institutions will not be undone by the persecution of minorities. The working class does not come only in a white skinned variety – it is global.

Over the pond this conservative trend has kept the American political system tacked to an extremist right-wing position since Reagan’s claim to represent the ‘moral majority’. While to an extent UK neoliberalism arrived in somewhat tolerant ‘Cool Britannia’ robes, UKIP is attempting to redress this. When Farage says people over 70 are uncomfortable with homosexuality – although he is wrong in my experience – he is not saying we should all start throwing ‘Gays and Grannies’ potlucks. He is telling the old to be afraid, and gay people to get back in the closet. He is not primarily interested in winning power at the moment, but in narrowing what is politically thinkable. He claims to speak for the ‘moral majority’. In 1992 American politician Pat Buchanan gave a chilling speech that helped re-launch the radical right-wing which today expresses as a UKIP brother-in-arms, the American tea-party movement. He exclaimed:

Friends, this is radical feminism. The agenda Clinton & Clinton would impose on America–abortion on demand… homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat – that’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God’s country.

And he finished, referring to the Los Angeles ‘uprising’ in 1992 after the beating by police of young black man Rodney King:

The mob was heading in, to ransack and loot the apartments of the terrified old men and women. When the troopers arrived, M-16s at the ready, the mob threatened and cursed, but the mob retreated. It had met the one thing that could stop it: force, rooted in justice, backed by courage…. Here were 19-year-old boys ready to lay down their lives to stop a mob from molesting old people they did not even know. And as they took back the streets of LA, block by block, so we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.

We must always be aware, as Rosen said, that what starts with promises of safety, that promises a counter-revolution against ‘foreign’, ‘effeminate’, ‘urban’, culture, can always end with troops on the ground. We only saw a hint of this in London – the retributive lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key justice after the Mark Duggan riots. The popular broom-squads cleaning up the streets afterwards. We saw a more sinister version this weekend, where a group calling itself Britain First offered to protect Farage with ‘armoured vehicles’. We remember the National Front and the casuals. What starts with the claims of a moral majority ends with “force, rooted in justice, backed by courage”. American and British foreign policy post 9/11 gave in to fear – domestic policy is going the same way.

As a community we have to make a choice over what our values are. Do we respond with violence to a ‘mob’ of young, frustrated people in the streets calling for justice? Do we claim they are completely outside politics? Do we put more weapons in the hands of the police? Do we respond with tolerance? If there is to be a cultural war in Britain, is it one that claims to ‘take back our country’ or one that tries to build a new country? Do we let a thousand flowers bloom, or console ourselves with the one true way? Are the poor an excluded detritus?

There is nothing especially ‘British’ about intolerance, or something nobly ‘Scottish’ about tolerance. There is only our individual and collective commitment to enacting and building the sort of society we want to see. As Terry Eagleton says, “Genuine equality means not treating everyone the same, but attending equally to everyone’s different needs.”

From what I saw, Nigel got the perfect response in Scotland, yet again. Rather than sending it into the comments pages of the Herald or the Scotsman, the young and old of Scotland shoved their agenda right under Farage’s miserable face and waggled it about. Rather than giving in and blaming the weak for the crimes of the rich they danced, they mocked him, they had a drink, they queered their resistance and yes, they told him to fuck off. One day soon this may not be sufficient, but for the moment it sets the terms of the struggle.

Making Our Dreams Come True, Review of Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence

(This article was originally published at the Glasgow Review of Books, as ‘MAKING OUR DREAMS COME TRUE: JAMES FOLEY AND PETE RAMAND’S YES: THE RADICAL CASE FOR SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE’, on 9th April 2014)

Review: James Foley and Pete Ramand, Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence (Pluto Press, 2014)
by Tom Coles

1. Radical Skepticism

A couple of weeks ago this reviewer attended the Glasgow Skeptics‘ discussion on Scottish Independence, and was a bit saddened by its initial co-option of the audience. We should, the introductory comments outlined, all be committed to “evidence-based policy.” This left me reiterating – perhaps it could be better classified as muttering – that the appeal to evidence, to “the facts,” is the last refuge of scoundrels. Truth 1: “The fact is that x not y!” Truth 2: “The fact is that y not x!” The demand that we root out the truth is becoming the general demand of Scottish chatterers. If only we read our way through the rainbow of white / red / blue / green papers. If only we can discover the true experts! We need to chew it all over with highlighter in hand – put that underemployed degree to work! – into a general mince of facts and figures, until we have a palatable truth. I am deeply skeptical about this form of skepticism. For the philosophers out there, the problem is that the law of noncontradiction is about a thousand years out of date.

Every society has its own regime of truth, the sorts of arguments which it can understand, accept, and to which it gives value. In Scotland there is an ongoing battle for truth. It is a battle fought with conventional weapons. Our mode of truth has set boundaries. Firstly, the only grand narrativesallowed are economic. This is the ubiquitous appeal to the economy, and the suggestion that if the economy improves, then everyone’s lives necessarily improve. Think “trickle-down.” Our collective politics is only ever to be found in our shared economic experiences. Secondly, all decisions should be made by weighing up the evidence. Aye must put its evidence on the scales, Naw must put its evidence on the scales. Evidence is measurable – count the citations.

But what if there was a different mode of politics? James Foley and Pete Ramand, authors of Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence want to believe that this is possible. It’s a desperate yearning, one I shudder along with, tempering it with as much cynicism as possible. Although the illusion of the adequacy of our lives to our aspirations is beginning to wear thin, our drive is still some desperate, hysterical sort of hope. As a part of the generation that got its first credit card as queues formed outside Northern Rock, who’s 20s have seen the first European annexation since 1945, there’s some form of contradiction in our existence. Do you feel it? Is it just me? Which way are you voting? Does it feel exciting? Sufficient? Do you really need more evidence? And what are you going to do now you are convinced, when history teaches that the fulcrum is not knowledge, not even desire, but power.

Yes is full of evidence. It is written by two of the prominent figures in the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC). It is likely to become an unofficial RIC handbook. It is 124 pages long plus notes. It costs approximately two hours of minimum waged work. In it you will find the British political economy characterised as “banking, bombs and bullshit.” Few could disagree; these are the principal virtues of post-industrial societies. Those of us who still have jobs pick up our wages with clean hands, but dirty consciences. Some of capitalism’s advocates believe this reversal – in the old days life was hard work – is a broad improvement, but they can no longer completely discount any criticism. In some indecipherable way history has ceased to end. The book summarises the position of the pro-Independence democratic socialist left, much as I understand it from my own involvement in the debate. In short: 1) the British state is constituted to maximise the power and circulation of a primarily financial capital; 2) it is a key junior member of the American geo-political consensus; and 3) its political make-up is unreformed and semi-feudal in key areas. There is a special relationship between Scotland and Britain, and a special relationship between Britain and the USA. The pantheon of evils are: bankers, warmongers, monarchy.

These days even The Spectator is disturbed by the new position of Britain (they mean London) as merely the well-turned out butler, banker, and art-salesman for a global class of capital owners and managers. The class society has become a cash society – the British conservative establishment wistfully recall the good old days with Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife much as the progressives yearn for the ‘Spirit of ‘45.’ It is beneath our (they mean London’s) dignity – read the article to understand how victimised the posh people of Britain currently are. But if we vote Yes, say some, we slip these chains and emerge (potentially) fresh and slippery as a new-born babes: as guilt-free as debt-free, and unimpressed by wealth and power.  Patrick Harvie put it in the following manner at the Skeptics talk: “I’d rather be a little bit poorer and a lot fairer.” Again, the opponents of a left-wing vision for Scotland may disagree with this perspective, but they can no longer deny that it has traction. For the first time in a generation the left are largely setting the terms of the debate, and power and wealth begin to feel a bit feart on dark nights. What is needed is a way of turning the outcomes of the debate into reality; what is needed is a plan.

Foley and Ramand have a plan. In Chapter 6, “Scotland vs the Twenty-first Century,” we have an outline of the policy prescriptions for a “Radical Needs Agenda”: 1) Green new deal; 2) Nationalise the oil; 3) Scottish currency; 4) People not profit; 5) Tax the rich; 6) Nationalise the infrastructure; 7) Free childcare; 8) Free education; 9) Equality; 10) Exit NATO; 11) Scrap Trident; 12) Empower strikers; 13) Participatory governance; 14) Land reform, 15) A maximum working week; 16) Post-GDP economic measures; 17) Free movement for people, not money.

This is a form of “Common Weal Max,” inspired by the proposals of the Jimmy Reid Foundation for a Nordic-style social democracy, and going beyond it. Take Finland’s education system (Foley would abolish private schools, for example), stir in Norway’s oil policy, garnish with Sweden’s social and welfare set-up. The grass is greener across the pond – all we need to do is look over the North Sea rather than the Atlantic. And when we do look across the Atlantic, we should look to the South Atlantic, towards Latin America. Yes, the victories of the followers of Bolivar are mixed, yes those North European countries are undoing their post-war consensus, yes Sweden has carried out a rapid privatisation of education and health, but those are politicalmistakes, wrong decisions. An independent Scotland would not make those mistakes, it would make different decisions. Unfortunately, we have to ask, are different decisions possible, or is this electioneering? Is the socialist left at risk of standing up after 2016 and saying – ‘sorry, its all a lot harder than we thought’?

2. “A specter is haunting the world’s governments — the specter of globalization.”

Although it is key to answering this question, Yes does not engage with how the emergence of a Scottish desire for its own statehood is a symptom of the crisis of the state’s viability as a mediator in the global economy. Foley and Ramand have no better perspective on this broad historical process than the rest of us. It is not enough to point to the symbolic or geographic conflux of space – it is essential to engage with this localisation as an effect of globalisation. The dynamic has shifted – no longer is there an international community of discrete states, but today’s communities are “sub-global” organisations of identity. Our social and political values are important, yes, but today all values are priced and ready for sale. Scotland may become a new state just as the state disappears as a site of power, its institutions another site for profit to emerge from – what else are the ubiquitous processes of market deregulation, expanding and harmonising trade treaties, and privatisation?

Gerry Hassan, surveying Scottish political identity, puts it like this: “Thatcherism became Scotland’s ‘Other’: the negation of all we as a people collectively valued and held dear.” Keeping this in mind, it must be remembered – as Alex Salmond certainly does - that Thatcherism was just the full throated advocacy and “enforcement” of the generally accepted truth that the “ability of national governments to pursue a policy of their own choosing was being steadily narrowed by the increased integration of the world economy.” This erosion of the power of liberal democratic politics in the face of the sheer volume and mobility of global capital has not been checked, but has accelerated. If – if! – Scotland seeks to define itself against Thatcherism, it must look past the pussybow blouses, pearls, handbags, and the rictus grins of her successors. A large proportion of the left are voting Yes to avoid the chances of another Thatcher or Blair, but if we go a step further the real target is obvious: for the left this is the rejection of globalization. It is Scotland vs. the Twenty-first Century. Who’re you betting on? If the twenty-first century looks ready to eat up all nation states, then does a new-born Scotland stand a chance?

The social democrats are operating in a changed world – this was what Blair, as the inheritor to Thatcher, understood. Blair, insofar as he had good intentions, believed he could use the structures of the state to mediate the worst effects of an increasingly laissez faire global economy. It turned out he was wrong, and you can’t hold down the jabbering maw of market forces for long. Only a few keep it at the front of their minds, but in this changed world the source of a state’s legitimacy (its credit rating, not its poll ratings) is no longer how effectively it can handle globalization on behalf of its citizens, but rather, how effectively it can handle its citizens on behalf of employers.

That is not to say that the implementation of any of the policies outlined in Yes: The Radical Case For Independence wouldn’t really piss off those who own and administer capital – the traders, the investors, the pension fund managers, the commodity traders, the logistics experts, the stock owners, the oligarchs. If achieved, these changes would represent a barrier to the flow of capital, an increase in power for workers, and quality of life for citizens, which would present a cost to businesses. Many on the Labour-left rave against Scottish independence because they are against the erection of new borders (including, I presume, borders to trade). They do so from an avowedly cosmopolitan position, a belief that freedom of movement and communication is a natural good (of course they still want people to hold onto their passports). On the other side are the soft-soap xenophobes. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) wishes to re-erect barriers to inwards immigration and labour flows, mediating in the globalising labour market, although “in principle, neoliberalism favours compulsory competition at every level… Farage is suggesting that British workers be protected from at least this form of competition.” The Yes campaign is advocating a different form of escape – a different, more moral and less hate-filled escape, but an escape nonetheless. Both UKIP and the SNP claim they would make austerity unnecessary by reinstating, on the one hand, a ‘true’ British subject(presumably elected by God for the imminent economic rapture), and on the other a more moderate tartan-coated capital. Two choices: 1) do we resist the flow of labour, or 2) the flow of capital? Yes: The Radical Case For Independence chooses the latter: “Freedom of Movement for People, Not Money.”

Can we stomach this turning back of the clocks? Do we want to re-erect the tariffs and protections? Neither of these projects would solve the problem of how our societies create value, as they mistake the sources of the dynamic that has brought about the British constitutional crisis. Under this ongoing deepening of global capitalism – where capitalist processes are no longer internal to nations, but nations are internal to capitalist processes, and where the power of capital supervenes upon the state and not vice versa: in short, the totality of capitalist relations – austerity is now permanent. Austerity is not just the reduction in public services, but the demand that all the costs of doing business, including the wages of workers, must be driven down. Austerity is ideological only insofar as the social classes which own capital are also subjects of that capital, and they support, justify and imagine that it serves them only insofar as they are compelled to keep their hands on the wheel for fear of veering off cliffs. The Tories roar in support, and Labour roars 2/3rds as loud. They don’t do these things because they believe them, they believe in them because like the rest of us, they see nothing else they can do.

3. Power

Back to truth. Our regime of truth is determined by what is thinkable, and what is thinkable is a mediated form of the possible, and somehow we are still in a moment – despite all the hope sloshing about – where nothing but economic submission or rejection seems plausible. But the alternative to the twenty-first century is not its rejection, it is its negation. Here echoes back the inevitable question – “well, what does that mean, what do you suggest?” I suggest that we are not going to get anywhere if we keep replicating the party form, and the party campaign. We need to push at those spaces where the debate, and the activity, goes beyond discussions about the truth of the economy. A new (and interesting) development has been the Radical Independence Campaign’s mass canvassing of working-class areas (HeraldGuardianBBC). It has gained a lot of attention, may well have a real effect on the result of the referendum, and has managed in a short time to realise within the wider discourse a lot of the critiques of the Yes campaign made inYes: The Radical Case For Independence. What is telling, however, is the limited space inhabited by this form of political activity, even though it melds the normal canvassing of the election cycle – going door to door discussing and persuading – with the image of the mass, a impression of the multitude.

This something beyond the 2 or 3 folk with clipboards and rosettes going door-to-door – it is a latent riot, either literal or of enthusiasm, realising itself in the Scottish dormitory districts. It also explodes the quiet and composed activities of the official Yes campaign. There is something unseemly – glorious – about its arrival. Although it is a manufactured spectacle – it is similar to the first activities of the ‘mobs’ that threw the tea into the sea in Boston – there is a common purpose here to the organic whole. However, it is not sufficient. Why is this location (the individual family home) the place to target? People are are being asked to leave their homes to vote, only to return to them after the election. Why is ‘the left’ not waiting outside workplaces and jobcentres talking about the opportunities of independence? Why is freedom available at home, but not at work? Why is it not addressing people at the location where their lives really come into contradiction – where they are defined by jobs and lack of jobs. Is Yes (or RIC) really carrying out a discussion of equals? The issue of class has only ever been obscured by questions of identity – it is about how we produce. And is it not far too easy for this campaigning tool to morph into an electioneering tool? Should we not be asking, what does a movement that is in it for the long term look like? What do the rich really fear? Elections may become important, they may (as always) be able to achieve limited gains – but they must never do at the expense of excessiveness. Foley and Ramand admit that their proposals are modest – my worry is that they are too modest to be possible to achieve. Our criticism must be deeper, so must our actions, and every action must build our capacities.

It is this aspect we must hold onto – what is organic, excessive, and not what is programmatic or plausible. At the launch of Yes: The Radical Case For Independence Foley referred to the Obama campaign machine as the model for activating a latent working class vote. But by instrumentalising the techniques of Obama, we ignore the result of Obama – a continuation of Bush-era policies within new, liberal/radical clothing. The elites of America heaved a sigh of relief after the election, as activist movements collapsed, seeing this symbol as somehow sufficient to their material needs. I don’t fear a No vote, I fear a Yes vote which stops short. Here is a simple truth: we have won the symbolic debate. Britain is broken, and a new Scotland is possible. This form of ‘nationalism’ will now spread and be hard to shift. The question we have to answer today is do we have the power to make a new Scotland, and if not, how do we take it? How do we take it without falling into the trap of Obama – the trap that official power and influence always sets for those those who start with good intentions. Power, yes, but what sort of power, where, and for whom? Scotland may well believe itself to be more progressive and socially just than the UK, but what tools does it need to make this true?

Because once in government there is very little debate. Politicians, fighting battles of office politics for their own skins rather than on behalf of their constituents, pick their policies off the shelves of ‘think-tanks.’ The thinkers and campaigners of today are no better or worse than the young Labour student who thought they could change the world by becoming an MP. I think we’d do better to look to a different American tradition than Barack Obama. Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), who visited Glasgow in 2013 – and sadly died earlier this year – has a great poem that speaks to this, “A New Reality is Better than a New Movie!” (n.b. 1) Even if that movie is Braveheart; 2) For Hollywood read ‘Holyrood’.)

If you don’t like it, what you gonna do about it. That was the

question we asked each

other, &

still right regularly need to ask. You don’t like it? Whatcha

gonna do, about it??

The real terror of nature is humanity enraged, the true

technicolor spectacle that

     hollywood

cant record. They cant even show you how you look when you

go to work, or when you

     come back.

They cant even show you thinking or demanding the new so-

cialist reality, its the ultimate

     tidal

wave. When all over the planet, men and women, with heat in

their hands, demand that

     society

be planned to include the lives and self determination of all the

people ever to live. That is the scalding scenario with a cast of

just under two billion that they dare not even whisper. Its called,

“We Want It All . . . The Whole World!”

There it is. Rather than ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ we need to be able to say ‘We Want it All,’ and see a route for taking it. It can’t be Scotland resisting the twenty-first century – Scotland, the world, must take it. We need to resist our current search for the truth, in favour of building a society that can make our dreams come true.

Don’t Blame the Folking Bankers

zulu-paramount-film_791122cPrior to his descent to Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square, the Governor of the Bank of England (the UK central bank) Mark Carney had sat awaiting the world’s politicians as they climbed the mountains of Davos to consult their gurus. There Peter Sutherand, a Goldmann Sachs non-executive chairman gave this grim warning ahead of the European elections:

 “It is already evident that in the European elections there has been a significant rise for parties which I would consider to be advocating xenophobic responses rather than positive responses to migration.

Right across Europe there is a negative view about migration which not merely contradicts some of the values which many of us associate particularly with the European Union but more generally with civilized society.”

 However, this subject of Europe troubles me deeply, for a deeply personal reason. There is a spectre haunting Europe – not just of financiers telling people how to vote, and warning them of wrong answers – which again stalks the land, the spectre of enthusiasm in a political world which tells us “Enthusiasm is bad.”1 Similarly, a spectre is haunting me. Over the past week I haven’t been able to get a tune out of my head, a familiar form of madness. Its more than a tune, its a whole space, a whole idea, it in some sense embodies the idea of enthusiasm. Its with me as I walk around the streets of Glasgow, working, delivering letters, thinking. Sometimes the sun comes out a little – as though a positive poll had burst from the cover of clouds –  its the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the choral depiction of ‘universal humanity‘ from Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ (‘An die Freude’). Everytime I think I’ve defeated it, pop! pop! its back in my head. It is ubiquitous, the sign of European Enlightenment culture, taken up as the anthem of the European Union. For young Alex in Clockwork Orange:

“Oh bliss! Bliss and heaven! Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh. It was like a bird of rarest-spun heaven metal or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now. As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures!”

In his book on Beethoven, Theodor Adorno makes some grand claims. Beethoven’s music is “truer than [Hegelian] philosophy… it is informed by the conviction that the self reproduction of society as self-identical identity is not enough, indeed it is false” (p. 14). For Adorno Beethoven “uses technique to manufacture transcendence” (p. 78) depicting the hopes of revolution, of Napoleon, of the fundamental change to a withered social order, but also makes manifest the coercion and the violence that come with such invocations.  What are the values of the European Union except ‘looking at the rest of the world and thinking ‘thats ours’? Europe is capable of as much empire building as were, historically, the nations of which it is composed. The Labour Party’s switch from resistance to European integration, as a handbrake against Thatcherism, has played out as a tragedy – instead we have the E.U. enforcing the kind of fiscal reorganization originally meted out by the I.M.F. against the global south. The project of empire has turned against home subjects – just as watercannon were once reserved for the Indians and the Irish, today they are finding their way to London. What is the difference between the flashmob of singers in a Catalonian square, belting out Ode to Joy, and the inspiring young chap singing for the beer garden in Cabaret? Can the European National anthem not be sung in the same manner? Could the same not be done with Flower of Scotland? Does Sutherland not depict a potential future for Europe that an independent Scotland – historically intertwined with European thought – must have a part in heading off?

Appeals to European values are a limited internationalism that ends were ‘Fortress Europe’ begins, just as current British values are a limited and contorted intra-nationalism which ends every time the U.K. Border Agency kicks in the door of an asylum claimant. What remains of the European project is, for its intellectuals, bound up with the question of what remains of the Enlightenment project. Within Britain this resolves into the question – what remains of the Whig tendency today? Rory Scothorn correctly identifies that the maximal limit of this imagination at the U.K. level is the Labour and Liberal Democrat hopes for ‘federalism’, a federalism which extends not only into the U.K., but outwards towards Europe. No longer a Scandanavian, but instead a German Scotland. This is a hard limit project that, even if possible, is as patently insufficient for achieving the latent hopes the ‘100 voices’ of National Collective as is the current likely outcome of a Yes vote. At the level of a European polity, European federalism has already shown itself bereft of solutions to social collapse. Scotland imagines itself entering a European community of progressive opportunities, failing to realise that just as the era of easy credit for mortgages did not reflect real wealth, the era of cheap travel to foreign capitals and beach resorts did not reflect growing European social integration. Scotland must do better than this, not just for itself, but for Europe. What, for example, would it feel like to imagine once again not a federalist horizon, not even a Scottish horizon, but even an internationalist communist horizon? Once scores have been settled with a withered British establishment, what does Scotland’s contribution outwards look like?

There is a collapse of the centre within European polities, but also the collapse of European polities. Nowhere more obvious than Spain, the UK, and Ukraine. Whereas in the Ukraine the two supra-national tendencies pulling the nations apart are Russian and European capital, in Scotland it is a tension between British/Global capital, and an imaginary Scottish/Global capital. Sutherland imagines a resurgent fascism, one which thinks of itself as a defence of European culture, blood and soil – but more likely for Scotland, and for the 100 voices of National Collective, is a thistle on your bank card.

Is the current offer to an independent Scotland anything other than a global bank with a folk tune as a soundtrack? Singing songs that seem to be about human emotions, but their content is the valorization of capital? It must try to be.

 

References

  1. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.75 []

The Problem with Mapmakers

In a recent ‘What is to be Done?’-typearticle at National Collective, Michael Gray summarizes the analytical work being done by those at Mair nor a roch wind, some of my own thoughts, and the “McAlpine propositions”given at the Radical Independence Conference of November 2013, himself producing a five fingered to-do list for the architects and mapmakers of an independent Scotland. Put these together with other ‘mapmakers‘, and there emerges a series of propositions and plans, knocking down one idea to build up another from the fragments, each bringing a little material to the pile. A contra-Yes campaign of friendly amendments to the general proposition. This article continues this process, but tries to keep in mind the ineffectiveness of it all. As a debating process it is delightful, engaging, robust and consensual – but it remains, as a Third Sector activity, as much a hostage to fortune as its medieval counterpart (the Third Estate) was to feudal and monarchical power. Debate is effective so long as state and economic power arranges so as to produce space for it to take place, and provides routes for it to influence power. Those spaces and routes can be easily closed. We should also be aware that there is no risk that political debate of this kind will become a truly popular sport, or engage the popular consciousness, while it remains a voluntaristic, belletristic activity. Instead it remains the plaything of that generation, unnamed but sloping towards birth – global in wider scope – that finds itself over-educated and under-employed, and with a political and intellectual inheritance inadequate to the current conditions. The modern-day Romanticism of misanthropes, para-academics, clubbers, hipsters, bread-line artists and part-time baristas. Don’t get me wrong, its great, but its not going to do the job.OZBSOLIDAR

Finding itself in this crisis, and unable to manifest or understand itself politically or intellectually, the Scottish branch of this change submerges itself (largely usefully) in the first available well of symbolism and meaning: the social and cultural symptom that is the independence referendum, which appeared just in time, where “the ancient thing that we call ‘Scotland’ collided with the crises of the late 20th century to produce the debate we’re having now“. This is true both figuratively and literally – many of the faces of the student protests transitioned directly into the independence campaign.  See 100 New Voices of the Independence Referendum for a handy example of the insuperable pluralism which results from this tendency. The commitment to Scottish independence, especially on the left, cannot be seen clearly except as in large part a local and incipient manifestation of a global resistance to the reconfiguration of sources of profitability and state management. The unwaged commentariat holds, largely unconsciously, to a collective re-enactment of the ‘journal wars’ which took place during a historically similar period, where the Edinburgh Review (1802-1929) and Blackwood’s Magazine (1817-1980) allowed the Whigs, the Romantics, and the Tories to battle it out – the supposed prize is the political unconscious of those who would aspire to be the ‘architects of the nation’ over the next half century. What else is the playful Scottish blog feed of early 2014, with National Collective, Derek Bateman, Gerry Hassan, Mair nor a roch wind, Wings over Scotland, Bella Caledonia, A Thousand Flowers, BBC Scotlandshire, Newsnetscotland… other than the newspaper spread casually over a petit-bourgeois breakfast table? Scottish nation formation becomes a useful mechanism for achieving unrelated social aspirations – but it is clear that what is reached for is not that which we are attempting to grasp, much as Byron and Shelley weren’t actually the French Revolution. Why else the continual insistence that this independence projectisn’t nationalism, that in fact it barely even has anything to do withScottishness, other than that behind all this activity there lies the motor of some otherpotential consciousness?

This literary playfulness is suspect even if it is often heated, because it is aimed at an ersatz form of liberation. What exactly is at stake? Despite some of the more strident rhetoric, this is not yet a people’s revolution, but an enlightened reconfiguration undertaken by the native bourgeoisie who largely run party politics. Whilethe working class may have the most to win, as it currently stands it is not in their name which the battle will eventually be won, they will not be in power, and power will not be for them. We must allow the project of Enlightenment, which has extinguished any trace of its self-consciousness, to die its death. Instead we need to ask: what is our exit strategy, not just from the Union, but from the current mode of social existence, what is our exit from this enlightenment way of thinking? Can we imagine what it would mean to do our thinking within the prospect of this exit? If we must re-enact a fragment of this thread, can it be the publishing by the New Edinburgh Review (1969- ) of some of the first translations of the writings of Antonio Gramsci? And dare we hope that the generation which repeats this experiment of coming-into-being produces something more lasting than the expectations some had for Gordon Brown? If we are to follow this route, can we cite the Gramsci that pointed out:

“The crisis creates situations which are dangerous in the short run, since the various strata of the population are not all capable of orienting themselves equally swiftly, or of reorganizing with the same rhythm. The traditional ruling class, which has numerous trained cadres, changes men and programmes and, with greater speed than is achieved by the subordinate classes, reabsorbs the control that was slipping from its grasp. Perhaps it may make sacrifices, and expose itself to an uncertain future by demagogic promises; but it retains power, reinforces it for the time being, and uses it to crush its adversary…”(( Gramsci, 1971, Selections from the Prison Notebooks,p.210-11 ))

Poverty of ideas

Mair nor a roch wind also begins to explore this poverty, the poverty of a consensus politics that demands, via the esophagus of Dennis Canavan, that we must all concentrate on winning the prizesimply because that prize is within our grasp. The prize is an independent Scotland. This is a subsumption of politics into electioneering which allows Common Weal, Business for Scotland and Wealthy Nation to present themselves as kissing cousins. Canavan proves every left critic of Scottish independence right – that under the umbrella of nationalism all class antagonisms can be hidden. It is a subsumption of the concrete reasons for the drift towards nationhood, mistakenly identifying an independent Scotland as the target, when we must be trying to smash through to the other side of nationhood. No nation dreams itself towards existence simply on a whim, but only because it allows the society to solve certain contradictions, avoid calamities, or achieve objectives. To the individual (this individual included) it may seem that tears appear in their eyes when they consider an independent Scotland, but those tears are merely the sign of something much deeper and incomprehensible.article-2948

Of course, things move quickly, and events will accelerate as we approach the September referendum. Since I began writing this article David Cameron has given his Quebec-referrendum inspired attempt to recruit the English, Welsh and Irish into a giant phone-bank of pro-UK campaigners. And, as pointed out by Mike Small at Bella Caledonia, as the polls begin to shift it is not only the British right, but the English and British left which is beginning to come to terms with the Scottish proposition. Owen Jones, after trying to teach the Scots how swig whiskey, used Facebook to quietly defer to Small’s analysis, as well as highlighting that of Rory Scothorne. Jonathan Freedland writes out in large type the Scottish left consensus in an article in The Guardian:

“Since 1979 Britain has been breaking away from what used to be called the postwar settlement. Led by an overdominant London and south-east, British politics has been tugged rightward. The prevailing ethos of the past 35 years has been one of turbo-capitalism, privatisation and a shrinking welfare state. Yes, the process was begun by Margaret Thatcher, but Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did little to stop it, and in some cases accelerated it. And Scotland wants no part of it.”

The nodes around which post-independence formations can gather are in place, and my great fear is that the dash for the middle begins again. By the logic of the game-theorists and political strategists: “the parties must offer the same program; their expected “political profit” is zero, and they may try to appear to be all things to all men at the same time.”1 Every UK politician has learned, since Blair convinced the nation that Labour would not only be like the Conservatives, but would actually commit to becoming the Conservatives by matching their spending plans, that the game is strategic cynicism. The cycle: in January 1997 Gordon Brown promises to match Ken Clark’s tax and spend plans; in 2007 Osborne promised to match Brown’s budget; beyond 2015 Ed Balls promises to match Osborne. Plus cachange: the right dresses left, the left dresses right. No political risks are taken.

 But political risk is important – there is no politics without risk. The enthusiasm that the Scottish left has felt for the prospect of independence, even if they are not fully committed to the idea, is the observation that where risk is taken, politics is happening. The admiration for Salmond occurs on the level of his commitment, and the shock, bordering on revulsion, that most professional politicians feel for the first minister is based upon an the understanding that he is staking his career – his project – on the outcome of a single vote. Salmond will not be gone after a No vote, but his currency will never be so high as it was in the run up to September 18th. While his contemporaries fear annihilation if they step away from the centre, preferring the bland strategies of well calculated equilibrium, Salmond understands that political profit accrues to the risk-taker, and that power flows away from those that lose the knack of using it when the time is ripe.

And the risk is great. The pro-Union parties do not want to be having this debate. If, after a potential No vote, when over 40% of people have indicated they no longer wish it be in this political union, what does that mean? What happens after the first protest at which violence is used? What happens once water cannon begin to be used on the streets of the UK? How will the British State bolster their legitimacy in the face of permanent austerity – austerity papered over with a heady mixture of increasing private debt, increased consumer spending, and state violence. The already unstable business environment becomes increasingly riven with potential flashpoints.

Of course, Salmond would cringe at the thought that he is taking a profound risk with his political projects, that he is trying to break a consensus. Where he has implied as much, it is because he has been driven from his natural territory of describing an independent Scotland as a ‘return to normality’ by a Labour party that has abandoned the strategic high ground of social democratic discourse. His return as leader of the SNP was predicated upon his own Clause IVmoment – though perhaps more profound – never explicit, but always within the ‘new normal’. Always understanding that the way of the world is consensus, as opposed to the argumentation of his (and his class cohort’s) youth. He does not conceive of a positive politics – except in the symbolic realm – but instead clings to an imagined mid 20th century consensus. Thankfully, the debate continues to move out of Salmond’s grasp – though not nearly far enough. The BBC furthers this confusion of personality, imagining that it is enlightening to ask ‘How Scottish is David Cameron‘, as if discovering the genetic heritage of a head of state is a substitute for analysing the concrete and historical situation of that state. As Freedland continues: “It’s not that the Scots are leaving Britain it’s that Britain has left them…” which ignores the fact that ‘the Scots’ never had Britain any more than ‘the English’ have ever had Britain. Nowhere is this more apparent than thetone-deaf attempts of Cameronto hold the line, unable to see that the latest crisis of the British identity is a result not of the lack of vivid colours in the collective British imaginary, but the unviability of the British state – which stands as the last partial outpost of the medievalancien regime- for achieving the aspirations of those excluded from (and many nominally within) the modern, global, cosmopolitan community of capital’s managers.

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Carefully hedging himself against the unexpected, the modern politician takes pennies on the dollar rather than doubling-up. The recent visit of the master of thetechnocratic assessment, Mark Carney governor of the Bank of England, must have sent shivers of tumescence through the salaried Yessers, re-invoking the sentiments of Adam Smith: “Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.”2 Carney was in Scotland not to pronounce, but to enlighten, in Salmond’s words: to provide “the answers to make sure that institutional arrangements can make the political situation work.” Are these institutional questions really the first that must be answered, as Gray’s re-channelling of McAlpin’s ‘alter-technocratics’ suggests? Gray claims that Scotland must develop the institutions and apparatus of a fully formed state. It’s an essentially miserabilist and technical argument, the Guardian’s Andrew Rawnsley admits. It is logical that we must persist with these miserable efforts of clarifying our flavour of nationhood, if our wish is to completethe final battle of the incomplete English Revolution and stand up straight as a delightful, well proportioned, 19th Century Westphalian nation state devoid of the reactionary, bourgeois-romanticist aspects (monarchy, parliamentary sovereignty, an evolutionary product peculiar to the British and unrelated to any rational presuppostion3 ) of the 1688 Glorious Revolution and subsequent retrofits. With this outlook the cart is squarely before the horse, and the fetish of the institution remains hale and hearty. We’re operating an argument about the problem of The (British) State, rather than the ground we must occupy that has been occupied all independence and liberation movements, the problem of The State and Capital. I won’t bore you with the olddebates at Putney – only to point out the importance of the Diggers – and the young English bourgeoisie’s failure to find a new technocratic solution to the arbitrary power of the monarch, which left the way open for the arbitrary power of capitalism to flourish once it had captured the reins of a reinstated monarchical regime. All I would ask is that we aspire to more than a pleasingly composed and branded (to use the Cameronwestminsterese argot) ‘best nation’of our own – are our aspirations really limited to reproducing the two hundred year old forms of government brought in by the French and American revolutions?


[Note: this article originally included material, now in a separate article as ‘Scotland in Europe‘.]

References

  1. RAND: A Two Party System, General Equilibrium, and the Voters’ Paradox, 1968 []
  2. Wealth of Nations,Book 5 Chapter 1, V.1.203 []
  3. Lefebvre, G. The French Revolution p. 60 []

boychild at ARIKA 13

(A version of this piece was originally published at Glasgow Review of Books, under the title ‘ARIKA 2013: Confronting Us as Flesh‘.)

With ARIKA‘s latest series of events the welcome transition from festival-as-celebration to festival-as-potential-interrogation continues to develop. The destination is an arts event at which all entertainment and aesthetics (though not enjoyment or representation) are barred. Praise be.

So it may seem strange that this review will focus solely on a single piece which is overtly aesthetic and performative, attempting to subject it to a (necessarily incomplete) immanent critique. It is the defunct nature of the possible analysis available which is important here, if as I suggest the piece itself acts – as is so often claimed but rarely realized – not as a presentation, explication or mimetic representation of material to be criticised, nor as an offer of a position from which to critique, but as what one participant described as ‘embodied queer coloured critique’.

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boychild – instagram

…it is not only on the revolutionary plane that interior life goes bankrupt, it is also on other planes, more individual, less naturally open to exteriority. Why is it that so often interior life cannot be evoked without dragging along the image of large soft flowers, drivel and stomach growling, sweaty palms, white larvae and hints of disrobement… we revile interior life, we no longer understand it except in the form of sweatiness.

(Gilles Deleuze, ‘From Christ to the Bourgeoisie’, Espace, 1946, pp. 93-106, trans. Raymond van de Wiel (August 2010))

boychild – Performativity (2012), MOCAtv

The boychild performances, #untitled lipsync 1, 2 and (ARIKA 13 Episode 5: Hidden in Plain Sight, Tramway Glasgow, 24-26 May 2013), are a monumental and athletic triptych whereby a human body performs a human body. This is not a story or argument, as the performances do not narrate or explain. They are isolated from each other in their recapitulation of the image. They reminded me of the triptych Studies… of Francis Bacon: primordial figures which grin at our biological tragedy. They present our bones, and beyond that our physicality, as alien to our bodies. They are perhaps, as Gilles Deleuze describes “…a trapeze apparatus… upon which the flesh is the acrobat.” (Francis Bacon: the logic of sensation, Continuum, 2003, p.23)

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion circa 1944 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion circa 1944 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992

In #untitledlipsync a collation of de-feminized parts is recomposed as an avatar to be operated by an alternative logic. This body glitches between states, in and out of existence, simultaneously both a luminous paper thin shell, and an inordinately heavy clay; alternating between flattened image, and inflated volume; string-tied meat and the vitreous panelling of mass-architecture; an automaton created to be silent; an ecstasy muffled.

We are here besieged by video which is body. The lyrics of modern pop – which celebrates the kitsch transcendality of love, sex and dancing – are driven to their horrible and logical ends through the decomposition of the physical performance. It asks, what if the grand declarations of our culture were to be taken seriously? What if love is the end, if orgasm is a gunshot, if sex is rape. This is the alternative logic by which the figure is constructed. Nina Simone’s ‘Sinner Man’ – already a terrifying piece of music – is allowed to build cleanly as citation before fissures, loops and remixes push it towards breakdown. Rihanna’s ‘Rude Boy’ is is exploded into the single twitch of “love me love me”.

The interior life of emotionality and the bourgeois romantic love that underpins the thematics of even the most unacceptable pop culture figures, is sweated out, threatening to disgorge in a mass of vibration and light. It must always do so, as the self is – rather than being a monad projecting its actions outwards – a projection from the outside constituting a web of events which resolve into a desiring force known as a person. The disgorgement from the body is the return of content of life and the end of form of life: here the abstraction which we perceive as the individual is shown simply as a canvas – a convex cave, a de-gloved volume.

A body is revealed only when it ceases to be supported by the bones, when the flesh ceases to cover the bones, when the two exist for each other, but each on their own terms: the bone as the material structure of the body, the flesh as the bodily material of the Figure.

ibid. p.22

They Work these Machines to the Bone

The boychild performance, like the dipping of a swan’s neck or the actions of a car-assembly robot, is a performance without a performer. There are only spectators, who do the work of seeing, the performer dissipates. They work these machines to the bone with no complaints.

In one performance flesh is manifest as lipstick, it ceases to cover, instead it invokes: it is more flesh than flesh is allowed to be. This painting mirrors that in another of the triptych, where the black body is smeared with a black grease in a parody of the phosphorescence of black light. The Figure hangs in the air, discontinuous from the flesh. It is dead, and unbearable. The bones, the articulations, are inscribed into the surface as an alternative articulation, a carapace rather than a human skeleton.

The disgorgement of the body from the mouth is achieved by a simple technical means: blue light is held between and behind the teeth in the lower jaw, glowing through the cheek and other fleshy parts of the head. As the body twists above the plinth, judders against the floor, and against walls in a interpretation of human movement, this light produces tracer trails. The ball of light escapes from the body and seems to float detached from the form a few seconds behind.

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boychild – instagram

This is a moment whereby the banal apocalyptic claims of our times is unmasked as a simple search for authentic bodies. Where the fecundity of the body is halted in order to present itself as an escape from this social abstraction of the figure. This performance is something astounding, new, uncommoditized, but all the time there is the lingering knowledge of how easily it could be reproduced as an advertisement for clothing, cars, perfume. In this aspect there is something desperately romantic about this evocation of the body as an attempt to externalize and translate interior emotionality, where the anonymity of the club scene’s collective emotionality (usually adumbrated with alcohol, amphetamines, MDMA etc.) is provisionally concentrated into a mythical figure.

Confronting Us as Flesh

After-the-Bath-Woman-Drying-Herself-circa-1890-1895-National-Gallery-London-England-Drawing-pastel

After the Bath: Woman Drying Herself, circa 1890-1895, National Gallery, London, Drawing: pastel

While the figure of the female body is ubiquitous in our culture, it rarely confronts us openly as flesh. It is presented as an attendant to the commodity, in service of or as an articulation of other values, always as a mediation, even when it is mediating itself. The spectacular figure of the feminine body is the salt to the meat of the female body: here the two are divided in the strobe effect in a “visual semiotics of unrest”1 – for one subsecond the figure appears illuminated, for the next the flesh appears, dim but glowering. “The Figure is not simply the isolated body, but also the deformed body that escapes from itself.” (ibid. p.18) Here the spectacle of the Figure is upset, the social relationship – the performance which produced the female body – is upset also when the flesh intervenes (disfigured by light and more explicitly by string ties) against the Figure as a aggressive attendant, and vice versa. The body attempts and fails to possess its own emanations.

A joining-together separates the figures and separates the colors – such is light. The Figure-beings separate while falling into the black light. The color-fields separate while falling into the white light. Everything becomes aerial in these triptychs of light; the separation itself is in the air. Time is no longer in the chromatism of bodies; it has become a monochromatic eternity. An immense space-time unites all things, but only by introducing between them the distance of a Sahara, the centuries of an aeon: the triptych and its separated panels.

ibid p.84-5

In a final gesture towards this sociality – and the dead hand of gender – red lipstick is applied, and the grease hangs on the body as pain is projected outside the accelerated metronome of the strobe. The performance produces fear, arousal, sentimentality. It presents club culture as it would appear from the grave: the audience is silent, uncomfortable, rapt. There is no solidarity among bodies, in this, a sexually indeterminate deconstruction of modern pop and fashion culture within an anti-humanist aesthetic framework.

Beyond this, what? If an immanent politics emerges, it only does so to remind us that we are to submit to the necrotizing forces of a culture for which we are already unsatisfactory.

References

  1. One Archives, ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archive, http://www.onearchives.org/standclose/ []

Making The Scottish Revolution

Is Scotland a nation?
How can a stateless nation become a state?

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The only way to resolve this is to ask, in short: does it wish to be a nation? The answer to this is simple: if she so wishes, she shall be – everything else is detail. The problem is, who is voicing the wish? And what are they wishing for?

Scotland contains many of the articulations – the details – of a state. It administers and defines large sectors of the apparatus of social reproduction in its own legislature and executive, especially within the spheres of education, law and health care – these are the services of a modern state, and the maintainers of a body politic. Many of them – including its aesthetic and symbolic structures – date in some sense from the pre-1707 Kingdom of Scotland. Services and symbols alone, however, do not make a state.

They might be, however, a ‘latent’ state; what Amy Westwell in ‘To Constitute the People‘ refers to as a “constitution of institutions”, the content of a state without the shell of sovereignty. They are, formally and practically, devolved issues within a larger body which claims ultimate sovereignty – the British State. Scotland plays the decorative airs of doctor, teacher, advocate, but the drum-beat of formal self-determination still resides at Westminster, a discordance which is increasingly apparent.

But when combined with the cultural imaginary of Scotland – an issue in much dispute – we have an idea of Scotland which is ready to be ‘stood on its feet’. This can only be done in combination with the institutions of civil society, where the ideal of Scotland can be made manifest in a social, economic, and political formation as an independent state. It is only through a Scottish political imaginary – one cautiously but consistently built up over the past 30 years – that this idea of Scotland becomes a desire for a Scotland equal to that in the imagination1. This fantasy world of Scottish politics must mobilize the will, as it is only by an expression of will – picking up the drumsticks – that the current simulation of an independent Scotland can realize it’s desire. A Scottish constitution is already latent, it needs to become actual.

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So the test of this desire must become a test of the people’s will, and the referendum in 2014 is the apparatus by which the question of will is to be tested. So far so good. However, this differs greatly from previous processes of British state formation, a process which is, by one framework, still incomplete. A process which has produced the position from which we are attempting to act.

The English Political Revolution

What Scotland will precipitate out of the British morass?

Scottish history is inextricably bound up with the English and British projects. The history is well known. In the two-part ‘English revolution’ which took place in the late 17th century Charles I was overthrown during the English Civil war, and the absolutist monarchy was replaced with direct rule by the nascent merchant classes and middling gentry during the Commonwealth republic (1649-53). This prototype ‘bourgeois revolution’ could not maintain itself, and after Cromwell’s Protectorate (1653-59), the monarchy was restored with Charles II (1660) in a counter-revolution, since called the ‘Restoration’.

But the capitalistic aspects of this revolution were not going away – the return of the threat of absolutism under James VII (James II of England) was as intolerable to the re-enfranchised aristocratic classes as it was to the merchants – and while the absolutist state came to be limited by the Bill of Rights (1689) it was not completely discarded. Instead it was appropriated to parliament by the Glorious Revolution (1688), to be exercised by that body in a mildly democratic form via what has been come to be known as a constitutional monarchy. The king’s state, previously his personal property, was expropriated, and therefore nationalized on behalf of the emerging middle-classes which would come to operate the state apparatus. Today the UK Parliament nominally still has this unlimited power (though the executive has periodically appropriated it), and instead of a written constitution it has an activist constitution: it is what it does (its will) that constitutes the constitution:

No Act of Parliament can be unconstitutional, for the law of the land knows not the word or the idea.

(Chrimes, S B (1967). English Constitutional History. London: Oxford University Press. p. 42.)

It truly is a living constitution (an idea proposed by many contemporary reformers), alive in the brains of our political class and constantly emended in a permanent parliamentary process – but this life is the life of a Hobbesian Frankenstein, it does not act independently or fully and the breath it breathes is that of the ruling class. The arrangement erected by the Glorious Revolution stands as the material birth point of many enlightenment ideas – of sovereignty of the people, the rule of law, limited powers, national unification, representation – long before their full theoretical birth. It is a birth that was immediately strangled by tender mercies, first those of the aristocracy, and later by the great industrial barons with which they politically and genealogically interbred.

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History does not move by clear narrative, however, and the Enlightenment proper was arrive at a later stage. Westwell looks forward to a point where the people of Scotland (indeed, of England) can act as “democratic citizens”, where sovereignty is a force that is constituted by those people who submit to it, in “a real political rather than institutional movement, which talks about democracy, active citizenship, and public law in terms of the constitution, so that when the constitution comes to be formed it is seen as a political statement…” The fatal limitation of these ideals – important as they are – is that they look forward to an eighteenth century movement which never quite managed to shift all the structures of the British state, which have remained forever somewhat provisional. That a re-enactment of this struggle is best we can propose for twenty-first century Scotland seems, to me, absurd. The time for such changes is long past.

The British Social Revolution

However, there are two key sorts of revolution, political revolutions and social revolutions. While a political revolution changes the names of the rulers, a social revolution changes the natures of the ruled. Constitutions are political, but markets are social, and it is the markets of Britain which reconfigured the lives of its people. At the point (1707) that Scotland was absorbed into the English political system  it took on the Glorious Revolution’s political aspect and collated it with its own political developments. What was yet to come was the gradual – and not so gradual – social revolutions: the agricultural2 and industrial revolutions.3

What is certain is that in the 18th century the powers gained in the English Political revolution were used by English and Scottish landowners, the “committee of landlords”4, to pass various pieces of legislation – particularly the Inclosure Acts (c.1750-1860) – which terminally wounded the previous social organization of the Scottish and English lowlands. The resulting exodus of people from the land created a surplus population ready to work in the factories of the industrial revolution, and soon the booming towns and cities. Their new entertainments, opportunities and modes of life, attracted millions and created a fundamental change in the manner in which people lived and reproduced themselves socially.

The unsuspecting Britons spoke of such novelties as ‘civilization,’ when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement…

Tacitus, on the Roman conquering of Britain, Agricola, c.98

While the political foundations of the constitution of Britain were an English project, the new social order was a fundamentally British project, undertaken by a Britain-izing elite made up of the English and Scots in collaboration. Unable to carry out their own political revolution, the works of the Scottish Enlightenment carry out in political tracts what was done in political fact in France and the USA. The yearning for an independent Scottish state today is the wish to carry off the political projects of these ancestors to become truly modern: indeed David Hume explicitly advocated that the first act a serious reformer of the British state would be to restore the “plan of Cromwell’s parliament”5, something which is yet to be achieved. This misses the point, because while Britain has never had  a fully-formed democratic state on the terms the theorists laid out, it has been periodically the most developed of all capitalist economies.

Deferred Revolution

pyramid_gfxWhile Edinburgh and Glasgow remained – and indeed became – centres of law, industry and commerce, it was the City of London which emerged as the dominant centre of the expanding capital-investing classes and vehicles from an early stage. Without independence from this nexus – by no means an impossibility – Scotland cannot become anything other than politically independent.6

Today we are left with a constitutional, political, and cultural state which is the result of centuries of pseudomorphosis. The structures of ancien regime have been invaded with aspects of republican ideology; they have the been reformed by aristocratic values; and in turn these has been reconfigured as a middle-class cultural imaginary, all without any of these aspects being completely demolished. The composition of land ownership – concentrated in the hands of nobles – was first turned to the needs of early commodity production; later it enriched the inheritors of a feudal class when minerals were found throughout Britain; and this wealth gave Britain a military and political dominance which drove it on towards Empire. This class are still with us to a huge extent (half of Scotland is owned by just 500 people), and by the beginning of the twentieth century they had largely transformed themselves into an international force which acts as much upon as within nations. We are today left, yet again, in a situation where:

… an older alien Culture lies so massively over the land that a young Culture, born in this land, cannot get its breath and fails not only to achieve pure and specific expression-forms, but even to develop fully its own self-consciousness. All that wells up from the depths of the young soul is cast in the old moulds, young feelings stiffen in senile works, and instead of rearing itself up in its own creative power, it can only hate the distant power with a hate that grows to be monstrous.

(Spengler, Oswald, The Decline of the West (1926), p.189)

Gerry Hassan has described perfectly how Britain has “given up on the future and instead appears content to live permanently in a fictitious past…” asking “do we really want to continue living in a culture where the loudest, most influential voices are those of past generations, who are being used to legitimise one of the most unequal places in the rich world?” The most destructive tradition of dead generations weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living is the tradition of capital, which is monstrous insofar as it has no explicit voice of its own. Without moving to “develop the material basis to challenge capital” we will get nowhere. This, however, is impossible without a change of perspective. Class consciousness in Scotland is at every turn transformed into national consciousness by the persistence of the contradictions of the British constitution, a formation which must be broken.

The Scottish Revolution & The Whig View of History

So the issue arises of what sort of state state will result from the satisfaction of the desire for a Scotland? What latent structure crawls towards birth, spurred by a exertion of will?

I argue that what is being called for in this current proposal emerging from the debate is for state formation as the completion of the eternally deferred Scottish Revolution – an event which has never been able to appear, submerged as it is in morbid national boundaries and political accidents. The dominant narrative – though it is never put this clearly – is that Scotland has inherited an incompetent and incomplete political structure foreign to its intellectual history, and wishes to shrug it off in favour of the best of the political philosophical tradition it did so much to found. Within the framework of Britain this is impossible – supporters of the current British ‘constitution’ read its logic correctly when they find the current devolution of powers to Holyrood to be a “ridiculous” sort of innovation, which must be abolished (“Losers should lose.”) if the referendum in 2014 goes against independence.

Independence is certainly not a revolution in the true sense, it is a recombination of previously existing ideas, moulded in the image of currently functioning democracies and state systems. There is nothing heroic in a plebiscite (except in the imaginary); it is only a mass-bureaucratic form-filling of a licence for the political class to act on behalf of the ‘national will’. The most radical end of this debate is contained in the concept the Common Weal, though its plausibility has been challenged.

For me this is a version of the Liberal Democrat utopia – that we can fix all social and democratic deficits by pushing at the logic of ‘Whig history’, re-enacting the arguments of the heroic stage of the bourgeoisie and discarding the remaining feudal encrustations, most prominently the Lords. The old Liberal shriek of Reform! Reform! Reform! is reborn. While this attracts a certain sort of  completionist – the constitutional fetishist who feels they must tick off every aspect of a liberal state in order to clear the ground for any further progress – we must instead call for something else through and beyond this aim. The Scottish Whig aspiration is that an every more perfect independence will provide a framework to fulfil the currently twisted aspirations of a re-energized ‘young’ culture. It won’t. Gramsci sets out the stakes:

…the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. is no longer “leading” but only “dominant”, exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear…. the mechanical impediment that has been imposed on those who could exercise hegemony… prevents them from carrying out their mission… The death of the old ideologies takes the form of scepticism with regard to all theories and general formulae… But this reduction to economics and politics [leads to] the possibility and necessity of creating a new culture.

(Gramsci, Antonio, The Prison Notebooks (1972), p.275-6)

By focusing on ‘the constitution’ question we risk carrying out an old project of political revolution – replacing one section of the political class for another, within a slightly modernized framework – rather than the necessary project of social revolution.

Radical ‘Constitutionalism’

Fashion_Ease

Neil Davidson says that the idea that “ the Scottish Revolution has presumably still to be consummated in the absence of an independent Scottish state” is an absurdity. I agree, it is an absurdity, because what is being proposed by those who view Scottish Independence as an opportunity for a republic with a written constitution is in fact the final battle of the incomplete English Revolution ((There is a certain irony that demanding independence in this framework is undertaking the job of rationalizing the unfinished historical projects of political ‘colonists’!)). It risks becoming a historical re-enactment of the English Civil War with – in full the Hollywood tradition – the wrong outfits and wristwatches. We are proposing to vote off the head of the monarch, but do nothing about the model of the state which we inherit from the liberal tradition.

As a brief aside, the only thing more absurd than attempting to complete this revolution is the suggestion that we might avoid its completion. This is what Alex Salmond is suggesting by retaining ‘The Crown’. Not just the Queen as Head of State, but the remnants of the absolutist power which so infuriated the followers of Oliver Cromwell (and which the ruling class of Britain have so well exercised to reconfigure the social life of England, Scotland and its fellow colonial victims) is to be maintained. The white paper, which promises to carry out the melding of culture and institution with its invite to writers for the preamble, may prove to contain interesting innovations, but how far that can be pushed is doubtful. Constitutions are always written by the constitutionally literate, always imposed by an elite, even when they deign to convene a convention to draft the text.

A Scottish Revolution must therefore be a Scottish Revolution. It must develop out the contradictions of its time and place, not of the 17th Century. These are the contradictions of exploitation, lack of ownership of necessary social services, and that great unknown continent, the working class as constituted in a world of call centres, 0-hour contracts, tourism, high-finance, and a global rather than a simply national elite. Scotland, like all societies today, is in great need of a conceptual shift in a context where the state itself is becoming increasingly irrelevant, even as a mediation between and suppression of powers. Rory Scothorn in ‘Curse of the Unicorn‘:

The SNP is not a party of class politics. At its best, it is a party of social democratic nationalist politics, and as such aims for a state in which workers and capital can happily coexist, the inherent tension between the two carefully mediated by a supposedly classless party acting in the national interest.

unicorn

Making the Scottish Revolution

This ‘Whig history’ of development towards the ‘ideal’ liberal social democracy has a backside, not in the options which were suggested but not acted on, but in the resistances to the policies which were instituted. The fight between absolutism and proto-capitalism resulted in parliamentarianism, but outside this logic there were other groups, groups which were ultimately erased from the mainstream tradition, who were playing a different game. Neil Davidson:

One set consists of our socialist predecessors – that is, those who looked towards collectivist solutions which were unachievable in their own time, like the Diggers in England or the Conspiracy of Equals in France. The other set consists of our bourgeois equivalents – that is, those who actually carried the only revolutions possible at the time, which were, whatever their formal goals, to establish the dominance of capital.

(Davidson, Neil ‘Bourgeois Revolutions: On the Road to Salvation for all Mankind’, Isaac Deutscher lecture (2004))

We must attempt to carry out the only real Scottish Revolution that is possible today, following the projects which were ‘unachievable’ once, but may be possible now. It is not enough to simply put the last piece into our own version of an edifice of the ‘modern’ nation state and liberal democracy: that was the ultimately failed task of previous generations. The nation state as constituted is defunct, and internal experiments with land reform or local legislatures is not going to bring about the social revolution that is needed. As Gramsci points out, it is not the imposition of a reheated Enlightenment constitution which will prevent an alien power from yet again sitting astride the Scottish people7.

Independence was always a tactical beginning – those who see it as an end in itself are mistaking the part for the whole – shrugging off the old powers of legitimation and statecraft, the pomp and grandeur of a British state which still has the power to bedazzle. We should be planning to win this political revolution, but we must also be getting ready to win the social revolution – one where no ballot boxes will be required, and one where we must be prepared to abandon the traditional ideas of the state entirely, even if that seems like an impossibility.

References

  1. That culture acts as the realm of the ‘younger son’ of the bourgeoisie needs to be tackled. []
  2. i.e. the doubling of crop yields between 1600-1800 []
  3. Whether you see the political changes as a necessary adjustment to make government adequate to emerging economic forms, or that vis versa the political changes began the agricultural and industrial revolutions, will determine your eventual access to classical Marxist heaven. Here I am remaining in dialectical purgatory on the issue. []
  4. Moore, Barrington (1966). Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press. []
  5. Hume, David, Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth, 1754 []
  6. This is the most damning critique of Scottish Independence I have come across – that Scotland can be legally independent, but financially remain tied to British social formations by economic chains. []
  7. “No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.” (Marx, Karl Critique of Political Economy, p. 13 []

Historical Propaganda

This past week an argument has raged north and south of the border (and on both sides of the Scottish Independence debate) about the democratic nature of Labour, and whether it was capable of the social democratic reforms that Scotland sups for its tea. I am dubious about many of these claims, but there is evidence as well as anecdote to stand behind them. The main problem, in my mind, is that many in Labour consider an outdated 90s idea of a ‘third way’ to be superior to a 50s idea of social democracy. Both are defunct. Fighting over these corpses will do us no good.

Find below enjoyable video evidence, and links to the key articles in this debate.

Labour still believe the dream is just round the corner:

But actually this is what is going on:

Analysis and Critique

Just watch them again. If it doesn’t help, find below all you need to know about the past week’s debate on Labour, social democracy, and Scottish independence.

Gerry Hassan - Labour and Independence: The Power of the Past

“Once upon a time, Scottish Labour became a party of instrumental unionism, by which I mean, not the notion of the union as the be and end all of everything which was the Tory variant, but of the union as a means to an end – that end being the end of exploitation and the triumph of solidarity.

As the United Kingdom has become this ‘global kingdom’ of inequality, insecurity, winners (and losers) and new elites, this has become an almost impossible story to tell. Near too impossible. This has led to Scottish Labour slipping its moorings from this qualified, pragmatic, progressive unionism, and ending up arguing for the union as an end in itself. This is a complete cul-de-sac for a progressive party, because to take just one fundamental, it entails colluding with the dominant Tory account of Britain.”

Ben Sellers – Sleepwalking in the Labour Party

“It’s clear that too many people on the left of the party are paper members only, cowed by defeats, beaten down by the hegemony of the right and the depoliticisation at a local party level… but for those of us still in the party, is it not time to question the practical usefulness of such membership? In other words, if you’re not in the party to “cause trouble”… what are you in it for?”

Thomas Coles - England, what are you doing?

“Fighting over who gets to be the inheritor of Blair’s Labour is like arguing over who your old aunt promised the gollywogs to.”

Amy Westwell & Cailean Gallagher – Labours Parliamentary Malfunction

“Labour should fight to forward its aims and objectives at whatever level or in whatever system it thinks it will be most effective. It is tied to a movement, and a Party, not to any one political system.”

Euam McColm - Labour for independence? Really?

“Labour for Independence is a sham, a tawdry little con in which some of the party’s most bitter rivals are complicit.”

Amy Westwell - On Labour for Independence

“… some are preparing for this fight, in order to use economic powers in Scotland to create better conditions and wages, to win real control by working women and men over the future of the people who live here. We should be allowed that voice in the Labour party; but Labour for Independence were not that voice.”

Cailean Gallagher – The King, the Court and the Castle

“The SNP are bourgeois in the old sense that they are concerned with people as they operate freely outside work. They deal with the public as a body of burghers, not workers. Through this lens they come to believe that all a government can ever do for the working class is to implement measures to improve people’s ability to enter the labour market…. But they ignore one of the central features of class politics: that we can, through political action, change the conditions of the labour contract itself.”

Rory Scothorne – Riding the Unicorn (Mair nor a roch wind)

“The Common Weal’s idea of the Nordic model confronts us as the end (or containment) of history, an indefinite time-out from historical struggle and transformation, precisely because it exists in their rhetoric as if history has ended. It offers no significant analysis of the historical conditions for the emergence of their chosen utopia…”

Dan Paris – The Case for a Common Weal

“The basic institutions of the social democratic state already exist in Scotland. The challenge is to move beyond protection and instead extend these. This is far from impossible…”

Ben Sellers – Why We Need a Red Labour Alternative

“The last six months have seen a clear change in the leadership under Ed Miliband as the 2015 election comes into view – and it is bad, rather than good news for the left as New Labour retrenchment gathers pace. What has also been noticeable, however, is the beginnings of a resistance in the party.”

Thomas Coles – Then who do we shoot?

“If we are not going to shoot the beast with the social democratic bullet, what are we going to shoot? and to keep the metaphor rolling, what are we going to shoot it with?”

 

This week things were a little better.

Then who do we shoot?

A recent article, ‘Riding the Unicorn‘, on Mair nor a roch wind has comfortably dismantled the recent provisional embrasure of the Jimmy Reid Foundation‘s ‘Common Weal‘ proposals, which outlined a possible economic and social settlement after Scottish independence. Rory Scothorn outlines how the the ‘Common Weal’ idea is, as it stands, simply a reconstituted social democracy based on various ‘Nordic’ examples. The analysis is: there is nothing radical here. This resuscitation of long-dead ideas in today’s political constellation represents nothing more than a longing for a Golden Age we never had, a spirited defence of an opportunity missed 50 years ago. It is a thing of dreams, not only impossible to achieve, but undesirable.

However, this necessary puncturing does not leave those who look towards a ‘radical’ independence quite back where we started. If we are not going to shoot the beast with the social democratic bullet, what are we going to shoot? and to keep the metaphor rolling, what are we going to shoot it with?

We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change…

In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath a tenant farmer threatens to kill the man bulldozing his home. The bulldozer driver responds:

"I don't aim to starve to death before I kill the man that's starving me."

“I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.”

“It’s not me. There’s nothing I can do. I’ll lose my job if I don’t do it. And look – suppose you kill me? They’ll just hang you, but long before you’re hung there’ll be another guy on the tractor, and he’ll bump the house down. You’re not killing the right guy.”

“That’s so,” the tenant said. “Who gave you orders? I’ll go after him. He’s the one to kill.”

“You’re wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, ‘Clear those people out or it’s your job.’”

“Well, there’s a president of the bank. There’s a board of directors. I’ll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank.”

The driver said, “Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, ‘Make the land show profit or we’ll close you up.’”

“But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.”

“I don’t know. Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t men at all. Maybe like you said, the property’s doing it. Anyway I told you my orders.”

“I got to figure,” the tenant said. “We all got to figure. There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.”

"It's not me. There's nothing I can do. I'll lose my job if I don't do it."

“It’s not me. There’s nothing I can do. I’ll lose my job if I don’t do it.”

This is the conundrum that faces us when confronted with the injustices of our current situation. The spectre of a hunger stalking the land is dressed up with low-level PR, as the politicians that have led us here glad-hand at increasingly ubiquitous food-banks while imitating rictus grins. There is a grim joke here: no longer willing to claim or carry out policies that would make sure that no-one goes hungry in Britain, they can only attempt to celebrate the charity that keeps the poorest fed. Not long ago it would be unimaginable to see a minister of the treasury at a foodbank – their presence today admits that this is not a passing phase, and that food charity is becoming a necessary part of the social structure.

Annie Get Your Gun

This is one of those moments where the desperation to simply act, to attack the immediate threat, becomes overwhelming. Some open our cupboards – or buy a bit extra at Tescos – and pull out the grapefruit segments and near-expiry beans. Others reach for their guns and cry “Independence!” But the bulldozer driver has a correct analysis of the political totality. We ask: “where does the buck stop?” He answers, “it doesn’t stop”. There is an entire structure1 within which the individual is merely an apparatchik and cannot be held personally responsible. “Don’t shoot me!” smiles Danny Alexander, “it may satisfy you for a second, but you’ll still be hungry afterwards!” Power and responsibility are shown to circulate through the system, invigorating it with as sense of necessity.

The bulldozer is correct, but he is not politically neutral. He shows how responsibility is dissipated, but does not analyze how power is concentrated. This is the position of many pro-union politicians and activists, they understand the frustration of the Scottish people, but point out – quite rightly – that independence isn’t going to solve all our problems, or produce the right outcomes, however desirable. This advice, while correct, is dishonest, it does not investigate the nature of hegemonic power within the British political system, but only points out wryly that it is hegemonic. It is one of the few moments when it is quite right to ask, when a suggestion is discarded, what are their proposals? At best it is proposed that a Labour government will restore a social justice sheen to the current rapid and terminal collapse - a One Nation finger holding the deluge back – in state-run welfarism.

What they fail to understand is how untenable this position is. In a previous article I asserted that “Scottish identity isn’t going back into the ‘Britain’ box again after all this.” Further to this, what applies to identity is more important in the political sphere,  where after a close-run No vote2, the British state apparatus surely becomes even more obviously the weak link in the polity of the British Isles, and indeed, within the European settlement.

Leave it to us!

Leave it to us!

It is telling that while ever more awkward attempts are made to discredit the support – much of it a desperate sort of support indeed – for independence, the prospect of constitutional reform short of this gentle riving called ‘Independence’, such as federalism or further devolution, is not even mocked but simply discarded as implausible within the early twentieth-century framework of the British state. As the debate continues, as state structures come under increasing scrutiny and the hope for further devolution becomes ever more untenable, the frustration of the majority of Scots who wish for a grand reconfiguration will look increasingly like that of the tenant farmer, who declares “I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.”

Attacking the Weak Links

“A chain is as strong as its weakest link. In general, anyone who wants to control a given situation will look out for a weak point, in case it should render the whole system vulnerable. On the other hand, anyone who wants to attack it, even if the odds are apparently against him, need only discover this one weakness to make all its power precarious.”

(Althusser, Louis, ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’, For Marx)

We have a lesson to learn from the Tories. The welfare state, which went up for all purposes as a common edifice of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, was never the permanent legacy we imagined it to be. When the post-war settlement bought out the potential popular power of the post-war era with a governance based  solution with centralized power vested in various ministries, it instated provisional services rather than fundamentally reconfiguring political or economic power. It was always for the subjects of Britain, never of the citizens. The reforms carried out by the 2010 coalition, particularly in health and education, recognize the opportunity afforded by this shallow-rooted arrangement. The popular demand for more control over ever-degrading services – shepherded into a call for more choice - is solved by devolving power from the bourgeois state to the bourgeois professional, the GP and the (semi-amateur) educationalist, who can be trusted to understand that they are newly minted nominees of an increasingly clientist state.

Simply put, Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt do not wish to be shot – a serious risk if they were to be seen directly running down much needed services. Their hope is that by passing roles onto a multitude of smaller groups all failures (e.g. dead pensioners, poorly educated children) will be seen as market signals, and therefore outside of politics. However, just because there is a network of power relations, each attempting to abscond from responsibility for the entire system (the key activity of modern governments), does not mean that there are no nodes within this system which can be usefully targeted. The bulldozer driver’s reply, “Maybe there’s nobody to shoot,” is facetious, as is the converse argument – that rather than no-one to blame, now everyone is to blame. Parents are to blame for poor education. Dying patients are to blame for making appointments with GPs. Sacked workers are to blame for going to too many tribunals. The shopper at Primark is as responsible as the chief executive. The coffee-drinker shares the guilt pro-rata with the chairman of Starbucks.

‘Where all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilty are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime is the best excuse for doing nothing.’

(Hannah Arendt, On Violence, p.65)

So, do we shoot the politicians? The debt collectors? The rich? The company owners? Do we ground the air-planes, blockade the detention centres, close down the banks? It gets right to the heart of this issue – where in the structure of power is the weak link, and what tools are most effective for applying pressure? As Amy Westwell and Cailean Gallagher put it in ‘Labour’s Parliamentary  Malfunction‘, a party committed to social justice must “fight to forward its aims and objectives at whatever level or in whatever system it thinks it will be most effective.” In a society where power and responsibility are increasingly replaced by bureaucratic governance manoeuvres and the market exchange mechanism – “it weren’t me guvnor! it were that hidden hand! the blighter” – we have to identify the real power that these operations maintain, and where (and in who) they manifest that power. After all, this society is something made by us, but not for us:

“The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.”

(Karl Marx, ‘Estranged Labour’, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844)

“There’s some way to stop this…”

Ideological Apparatuses in the Process of Subject-Qualification of Class Members

Ideological Apparatuses in the Process of Subject-Qualification of Class Members

This is where critique is important, indeed necessary for analysing our situation in order to identify these weak points. Too much of the current analysis of the Scottish/British contradictions and opportunities takes place on the superstructural level of identity and ideology. National Collective – brilliant as it is – demonstrates how easy it would be to win one Scotland in our dreams, and receive a different Scotland in our lives. What is key is that we should look not just at ideology, but at how concrete power and capital are distributed – the question of “property” in Grapes of Wrath. Scothorne says that:

“An analysis of Scottish, British and global historical conditions, including the development of capitalism and the struggle of economic classes, is necessary for any particular vision to be a realistic and effective alternative to the status quo, either within or outwith the union.”

The Common Weal got people excited – and will continue to do so – because it claims to be “a model for economic and social development in Scotland”. Its value is that it does not simply outline how easy it will be to maintain the current situation, as Yes Scotland and the SNP are so anxious to do – but proposes how to build a different society. The central issue with it is that it does not speculate from a concrete analysis of the current situation, but instead from the fevered dreams of “the Nordic ghost of ‘45, rendered transparent by our knowledge that it has died already, in front of our eyes”. As a discursive moment it is neccessary and interesting, but we must go beyond it.

The man with the golden... analysis of the concrete situation.

The man with the golden… analysis of the concrete situation.

I suggest that we need to start writing a hit list, a set of tools or a map on which we can begin to discover these weak links:

  1. Who sponsors, writes and passes laws.
  2. Who owns and/or operates capital.
  3. Who controls violence.

We cannot rely simply on our intuition in these matters. Behind the social abstractions which confront us – laws, employment, rent, debt – there are real positions from which value is extracted. You can push through this with the right weapon. The question “Who do we shoot?” is a weaponization of Что делать?: “What is to be done?” Well, the first thing to do is to map the distribution and structures of power in our society. Scothorne and others (including this author) need to get down to work on this, unless they’re to become apologists for bulldozers, knocking down projects like the Common Weal without anything else to offer.

References

  1. Based around, as all good communists know, the problem of property. []
  2. We also need to be asking why it is that we are unwilling to plan openly for a No vote. []

England, what are you doing?

(This article was originally published at National Collective as ‘England, what are you doing?‘.)

Where are the English? It’s a question I increasingly find myself asking as the referendum gets closer. I know where the Scotland-based English are – the ones I know anyway – they’re largely on the side of Scottish Independence, curiously in greater proportions than my Scotland-born friends. The simply hilarious UKIP/BNP English, they’re on the Telegraph commenting:

good riddance, don’t want my taxes paying for deep-fried heroin and Mars bars LOL #EUFASCISM”.

My family (we’re all English) are largely in the “Scottish Independence, so that might happen? Really?” camp. Many of my friends from the North East of England, where I lived until I was 19, are always begging to be allowed to come along. And the Westminster English, they’re all like “but do you really want to be a dirty foreigner?” Fine, but where are the English? Where are they in the debate? Are they really thinking this through?

To anyone English, living in England, stumbling over this article by complete accident like you might any other obscure provincial dispute, it is going to affect you, you know? It will not only mean that you risk finding an itinerant nuclear weapon rocking up uninvited in your local marina, it will mean who you are is going to change. Profoundly. Lets be clear, whisky will be no longer be a local product down at Oddbins, but one of those crusty three-holidays-gone bottles, like schnapps, limoncello or or unicum. The middle-classes will wring their hands over the tragic fate of the curly kail harvesters overseas. Soor plooms will be banned by the EU, as their importation is a threat to the soft fleshy mouths of bairns. Tizer and Rubicon (also Scottish. I know!) will be reformulated for the local British market, and you’ll have to pop over the border to get the real stuff, like Americans do for Mexican Coca-Cola. It’ll be like… crossing a Rubicon.

Overseas British Territories – they’re never going to stop

You might think I’m kidding, exaggerating, but think about it: with Scotland gone what is there left? The Welsh have a language and no great love for Britain; Northern Ireland is clearly somewhere on the ‘colonial possession’ scale; the Caymans, Gibraltar, Mann, Jersey, Guernesey are all financial instruments that have somehow managed to manifest themselves in reality, like that bit in the Sorcerers Apprentice. Without Scotland, what are you English? Well let me tell you. You’re British. When it comes to it, at the point that Scotland leaves, Britishness = Englishness. There’s no firewall, no bumper, no gap. I think this is what the English Left, the trade unionists, the thinkers and the commentators are coming to realise. They’re simply terrified, not of losing Britain, but of having to find out and fight for what being English is. The founding antagonism, the mixing of the two nations which built the British Empire – of which today’s Britain is the husk – will have changed fundamentally. The English think they’re Einstein when they opine “nationalism is an infantile disease”, or that there’s a risk of “splitting the working class”. Well we’ve heard the arguments, and its not the Scots’ fault you’re afeart of taking the blame on your own. They’re well on their way to setting it to rest.

So sorry to break it to you (and here I’m especially thinking of the left-wingers who are against Scottish independence) but it will happen. Even if the vote is a firmish ‘No’, it will happen. If its a sloppy ‘No’, then jings, crivvens, help ma boab. The Scottish identity isn’t going back into the “Britain” box again after all this, and the English identity is going to have to reject or come to terms with Britishness. I think you should be getting prepared to settle some scores. It’ll be like turning on the lights after a party to realise the floor is covered in the remnants of “Keep Calm…” T-shirts, genocide, roast beef, oppression, wee Butcher’s aprons, destroyed communities, Bulldog crap and mass-unemployment.

Yeah – we’re not getting into that again

I am English, but I hope to die Scottish. Or Anglo-Scots. If someone gets me a bench in a park it could say “Reluctantly born in Britain, died Scottish.” I don’t much care about what it says on the passport after independence, but the longer I’ve lived in Scotland the less I can see a difference between Englishness and Britishness. You do know what you look like down there? What they’re making you into? I am not ashamed of my English identity quite yet, but I am terrified about what it is being turned into by demagogues and shysters. Just as I am not ashamed of being white – but I am ashamed that my whiteness is a key part of racial profiling, that it makes me invisible. The problem is structural, and half the house is subsiding. The English on the television, you know what they look like? They look like bosses, and they’ve got the whips out. You do know they’re privatising blood now? And social services for children? I mean even Karl Marx had to grudgingly note that there were efforts by Tories back in the eighteen-sixties “to prevent the coining of children’s blood into capital”. I mean, come on.

You expect Scotland to maintain that system? Someone else has to help prop up the bloody flag, the wars, the weapons, the bouncing royal brat? We should stick at it because you’re terrified of carrying the weight alone?

I’m not ashamed of being English, but I am ashamed of being British. I’d discard it totally if it wasn’t the best term going for the collection of peoples on these islands. Despite that, I believe that there is a potential idea of Britishness that needs to win out, one which is the obverse of that which we have at the moment. One that celebrates the endless struggles against colonialism, against unearned privilege, against racism, against endless competition: the struggles we won, and all the struggles we lost. I get it, theClyde the Mersey and Tyne should stick together, but there were a thousand Scots in London in 2010 protesting tuition fees they weren’t even at risk of paying. They were some of the first kicking down the doors of the Conservatives’ head office. If you set up a rammy, Scots will still turn up to have a go.

I grew up with Swan Hunter’s in the news just as Scots did with the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. I learned at primary school about the Jarrow March. But the Jarrow march is not what being ‘British’ means today. He who pays the piper calls the tune. While there is a possibility and a hope that the British identity can be reclaimed, that some of it can be recuperated and reformulated, its not going to happen within the United Kingdom.

Even if it were possible, there’s still a few red lines – the flag is just a rag and its awful dirty, Kate and Wills and the rest have to go, however much tourist revenue they bring in. The coat of arms – gone. Eton – gone. Oxbridge – gone. Lords – gone. The City – gone. Turn them into social housing or museums if you must. The structures – and the identity – of power need to be completely dismantled. I don’t hold out much hope though, they have grown up over hundreds of years to reward privilege and punish dissent, to allow mediocrity and self-service to rise to the top, and to twist every attempt from below to achieve equality. The ‘United Kingdom’ has got to go, and its not going to collapse on its own. Why aren’t the English dancing in the streets at the prospect of Scotland picking up a brick? It all looks dispiritingly like you’re telling us that it’ll will be aright after some imminent global political reconfiguration. What can you see from down there that we can’t? In the meantime, we’re not waiting.

Scotland is already ahead: building a new identity is already under way and has been for decades. It will have a lot to inherit, and a lot to argue over. Its not a Scottishness of tartan, haggis and wizarding pubescents, though it has enough confidence to smile at the thought. I chose to move to Scotland at the age of nineteen largely on the back of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and Barr Cola. The Scottish identity is a place where the struggles which should be part of Britishness are alive in a way they rarely are in England. At the very least in Scotland they are visible. People regularly defend a fizzy drink from slander. Alex Salmond photobombs Tories. A major think-tank named after a communist is releasing papers debating the applicability of the Venezuelan model to Scotland, and the SNP are debating their ‘Common Weal’ concept at their conference. The water’s warm! Come on in!

It’s too late

Visit Scotland. The debate up here is quickly becoming a bizzaro-world bare-knuckle fight over who is the best social democrat – while the debate in the rest of the UK increasingly becomes over who can be the most effective gravedigger of the welfare state. Fighting over who gets to be the inheritor of Blair’s Labour is like arguing over who your old aunt promised the gollywogs to. Where is the idea of England that can resist the demonization of workers, minorities, the disabled? What alternative is there to Farage? Miliband? Personally if I have to try to become more ‘Scottish’ in order to learn how to build the best England that is possible, then so be it.

The rest of the English need to work this out for themselves. Appealing to the past isn’t going to work – the past is on the way out.

Thomas Coles
National Collective
gettingworse.co.uk 

UKIP and the Fascist Tendency

UKIP are not welcome in any city, Scottish, Welsh, Irish or English. The reasons are clear. I’m glad Nigel Farage realized he wasn’t welcome. This will happen every time he tries to campaign in Scotland, and it is right that it does.

Some don’t agree, so before we come to the problem of UKIP, we must strongly defend the use of street confrontation as a political method. There has been an unfortunate series of articles, from people who should know better, complaining that Farage was unduly harassed,  that violence was directed at him, and that he had his right to freedom of speech violated. There’s also been a conflation between anti-UKIP protests and anti-English protests.

Farage is continuing to attempt to identify himself as the embodiment of a sort of ‘common sense Englishness’, and therefore sees and presents any attack on him as an attack on an entire nation. If I was being charitable I would say the commentators above (as well as the BBC, Guardian, and other major media outlets) have simply fallen for this. If I was being mischievous  I would say that their dislike of the Scottish independence movement outweighs their dislike of UKIP’s British/English movement. One independence is simply not the same as the other. Mike Small and George Eaton have, at the very least, tried to point out the fallacy.

This is not to deny that there is a certain dynamic between English nationalism and Scottish nationalism – a dynamic which exists because Scotland is a different country. It is interesting how clearly polling seems to be showing that the prospect of leaving the EU will greatly increase the likelihood of Scotland voting for independencea fondness for Europe which has not been in recent display in England. However, despite some isolated cases of which much is made, the Scottish attitude to the English is, rather than xenophobic, a poorly understood mixture of rivalry, historic self-hatred, and contemporary self-confidence. The famous ‘Scottish Cringe‘ exists, but as it is being undone any new self-confidence will appear to some in the UK as an attack on their values. Its not surprising, being a small nation of just over 5million, within an economic and political union with a nation of over 53million, that Scottish citizens feel the need to assert themselves – in the main it seems to me that the values asserted here, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, anti-elitism, social democracy and robust political campaigning, are the right values to assert. Its telling that Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, proved yet again that he can spot a shyster better than most across the UK, basically telling Farage to get away and boil his heid.

Lets be clear:Kip_M_1729779a

  1. Harassment – there is a long tradition on the Royal Mile, and the streets of Scotland, of politicians getting some ‘rough music‘. A misplaced respect for politicians is, thankfully, absent. You only have to look at the video of the 1997 devolution debates, Question Time, or any of the dozen or more protests against right-wing politicians in recent years to see that this is a traditional way of greeting the great and the good. When our politicians believe they only have to meet those they agree with, in sanitized circumstances, behind gates, we have no real political debate.
    When you see a bawbag, you call it a bawbag. “UKIP are just bullshit” is possibly the best analysis so far.
  2. Violence – there has been a complete misuse of the term violence, a misuse which has been developing for some years1. During the student protests of 2010 property damage suddenly because ‘violence’, now heckling a semi-major politician seems to be ‘violence’. There is a violent aspect to this, as there is in all social relations – but there is violence everywhere in our society. Compared to the current economic violence inherent in schemes such as Workfare, the Bedroom Tax, wage freezes and inflationary monetary policies, this doesn’t rate.
  3. Freedom of speech – Farage was not simply speaking, he was not merely carrying out a conversation, or giving his opinion. He was a politician, giving his message to the press, and intending to campaign within an election. He was not here to debate, but to spread a message. We do not complain when people remove advertising hoardings, or turn down the sound on the TV. He was challenged robustly both verbally and physically. It is key to note that he certainly was not silenced – after the protest he had full access to the media to give his side of the story.

‘Freedom of speech’ is the sacred liberal value – its violation is invoked probably more often than the freedom to do business.

Robin McAlpine of the Reid Foundation has pointed out how this entire narrative risks crowding out and demonizing any form of radical politics: “what seems to be being argued is that only the political class have a right to be heard.” If press conferences are the only form of politics allowed, then those who can afford press conferences (and summon the media) will rule the country – as they do now.

It is always telling what people choose to find disgust in – is it the politics of UKIP, or the action of protesters? It seems that some within Labour and the wider political spectrum do not see UKIP as a threat – in fact they revel in the damage it is doing to the Conservatives, and the Coalition government. They would also rather attack anyone they see as pro-Independence than counter Farage. UKIP are indeed a threat to all political parties, not because of what they are currently, not simply because they can take votes (itself a crass instrumentalization of the idea of politics), but because of the effect they can have on the politics of the UK, and from what they can become.

The question we should be asking is not ‘why did Edinburgh behave this way’, but ‘why didn’t this happen before?’ What did those in Edinburgh, within the Scottish radical independence movement, see in UKIP which was not visible before? What did they make visible?

It seems it takes a few Scottish students to do what the Westminster establishment has been incapable of doing, namely to get Nigel Farage running.

Pre-Fascism

UKIP as currently constituted – both formally, and in terms of who and what they represent, and their political tactics - are not a fascist party. But then, there is no stable definition of fascism. The term itself is usually unhelpful, except as a slogan – it would be far more useful to suggest that there is a fascist tendency. UKIP tend towards fascism. There are many good reasons to refuse UKIP a platform, and to confront them on the streets – for the same reason you would confront the Conservatives: because they are socially regressive class warriors – even if they are not ‘formally’ fascist.

A concept of the fascist tendency (with a fascist imaginary) would mean that we no longer attempt to take the outward form of regimes that existed in 1945 as the model. We will never see the political movements of the 30s again: next time all will look different, and if we spend our time trying to sniff out Nazism, we will be sorely disappointed.

51QZ+N1frPLAll politics is filled with contradiction, with uneven developments – indeed, in most situations it is never clear ‘before the flood‘ exactly what is occurring – and once the flood is here everything becomes even more murky.

Some on the left are uncomfortable with noting that Fascism and Socialism are born in the same spaces opened up by economic uncertainty, and that historically some fascisms have been able to rule in the name of socialism. As an ideology of negation the fascist tendency is capable of picking up various economic, aesthetic, and ideological features and re-purposing them for its own means. All political systems find a unique way to resolve the currently existing contradictions in our social and political economy.

Some of the general features of a society which (traditional) fascist tendencies attempt to resolve are:

  1. A reactionary middle class: the populace has gone through a shock, and a decline in its living standards, and is uncertain of its future prosperity. There is an instability in the political and economic confidence of the middle and ‘petit bourgeoise’ classes.
  2. A fanatical, determined right-wing.
  3. A democratic structure which is no longer seen as legitimate by a large section of the populace.
  4. Finance capital (versus manufacture, merchants, or labour) attempts to wield the majority of economic power.
  5. A consolidation of economic power, where small businesses are collapsing and large organizations are able to grow.
  6. A defeated working class and a spineless ‘left’: the lack of non-fascist alternatives to the current ruling social and economic ideology2. Massive unemployment or underemployment.
  7. An identifiable ‘other’ group – who may be ‘other’ racially, politically, or via any other identifying feature.

A rise in ideologies of division and scapegoating require multiple crises. Simply, the fascist tendency resolves these crises by identifying and elaborating on a perceived threat (always with a certain truth to it) in order to consolidate power in the hands of a economic group which is able to quickly solve some symptoms of falling living standards. This would  be the effect of UKIP’s policies to decrease market regulations. Rather than ‘left’ or ‘right’, the solution is radically centrist. It is the apparent resolution, along regressive and totalitarian lines, of the contradictions of the whole of society via the tools of nationalism and radical pragmatism.

The key fault line of the fascist tendency is that it never fully resolves any of the problems it confronts. This creates a momentum towards increasing violence and extreme political positions. It defers their resolution, and solves an imaginary problem. E.g. the problem of stagnant wages is solved by ending immigration. This first stage resolution is never enough – exile must be escalated into eradication.

Nipping it in the bud

There are two key features that mark UKIP out as non-fascist. Firstly, they are not a street movement with a robust street politics (as Edinburgh demonstrated), but a movement of financiers (Farage was a stock-broker) and disillusioned social conservatives.

The tactics of the BNP, and the other new-Right street movements such as the EDL3 (in Scotland the SDL) are the missing component of a formation which would be able to begin a real escalation of the fascist tendency4.  During their brief period of success the BNP and EDL managed to confront anti-fascists regularly with reasonable numbers, but they are now at a low ebb due to complete electoral failure, and overwhelming confrontation on the streets. The worry is that any tacit or explicit alliance between the a disillusioned, anti-Europe middle-class and a working class abandoned by the mainstream political parties (the UKIP and the BNP tendency) could create a serious social and political threat.

“Only where there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and are not does rage arise.”

(Hannah Arendt, On Violence, p.63)

Secondly, UKIP doesn’t present an alternative structure outside the state which threatens the ‘legitimate’ state’s democratic processes. Ironically, its dominance of the European elections – which are almost totally absent from the common currency of UK discourse – presents itself as the closest attempt it has made yet for an alternative mode of political representation, albeit a completely negative one. There are plently of ways an alternative structure could arise – business groups and think-tanks, for example, are spaces which can claim to affect political discourse and organize different formations of power. The mostly likely mixture of ideologies is some mixture of fundamentalist individualist libertarianism, supporting a narrative of national sovereignty  very much like the American Tea Party movement, which made headway in the run-up to the 2010 American Presidential election by conflating liberal values with authoritarianism.

Pre-fascism

I suggest we are currently in a pre-fascist type moment. Things are likely to get worse, but we are nowhere near a point of no return. In a previous piece I argued that over the next few years a political choice will be made between laying blame on a minority, or on a totality. Does a society tend to find a group of workers (immigrants) responsible, or do we address a more complicated, less visible problem, the organization of our economic system and our wage system?

BNP Burnley protestUKIP, and racism, cannot be stopped solely on the streets. It is necessary, but not sufficient, to starve them of oxygen via protest. It is necessary  but not sufficient, to offer alternative explanations for social ills. What must be presented is a possible change, and a possible route to change – both of these narratives are still completely lacking from the left. Farage may have lost a skirmish in Edinburgh, but his tendency is winning the war.

During the last financial crisis of this scale – the 30s – both the fascist and the social democratic fixes were attempted, in sequence, and in different ways across the world. This occurred first at the ‘centre’, in the dominant Western powers, but the legacy of fascism lasted well into the 70s and beyond in many European countries and further abroad. The ‘Keynesian fix’ was only turned to once the combined efforts of late-imperialist European wars and the fascist regimes proved intolerable and, ultimately, simply incapable of resolving the contradictions of society.

As we have seen with the unravelling of the Keynesian consensus the social democratic fix did not survive either.

We either have various potential futures:

  • a new ‘Keynesian’ fix,
  • a new ‘fascist’ fix,
  • revolution.
  • A slow collapse into a worse world.

http://gettingworse.co.uk/ukip-and-the-fascist-tendency/

References

  1. ‘It is, I think, a rather sad reflection on the present state of political science that our terminology does not distinguish among such key words as “power,” “strength,” “force,” “authority” and… “violence”…’ Hannah Arendt, On Violence, p.43 []
  2. historically this has been communism []
  3. English Defence League []
  4. Such an alignment forms the basis of Golden Dawn in Greece. []