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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.


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‘.]


  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 []

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