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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.


  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. []

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