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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 For the philosophers out there, the problem is that the law of noncontradiction is about a thousand years out of date.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.