Off with the kilts: The scottish referendum on independence

The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet—and breaks the heart.

Hugh MacDiarmid, The Little White Rose

One may be forgiven for having believed that the fate of the world’s “community of nations” somehow hung on the September 18th vote of just over 5 million scots, on whether to remain in the british union, or set out as an independent nation State. But from the moment that an opinion poll on September 6th suggested that the “yes” for independence might actually win, the merchants of fear, that sentiment so dear to, were unleashed upon scotland, with echoes well beyond.

Britain’s political parties, as parties everywhere, revealed themselves, if further proof was necessary, as non-ideological instruments of self-serving power. Whether of “right” or “left”, the goal was the same: save the union! The european union and other states looked upon in horror at a people taking seriously the old 19th century ideal of national self-determination, and chaos was solemnly predicted should the passion of the scots carry the day. And the worlds of business, finance, and the “markets” were not to be seconded: “If the yes wins, hang on to your kilts!” (Willem Buiter, chief economist of CitigroupLe Monde 20/09/2014) In a world where, the media (dis)-informs us, nothing is supposed to happen that is not predictable, and where risk nevertheless hounds us at every turn (plagues, ecological apocalypses, terrorism), that people should add to the latter can only be seen as a sign of madness. Yet “reason and the wallet finally won over national pride and hostility towards Westminister”. “The Scottish, on Thursday, the 18th of September, wisely voted no to independence”. (Le Monde 20/09/2014) In sum, reason triumphed over passion.

What fear was this? I suggest that of democracy, however modest the guise that it took in this instance. But behind a referendum for national autonomy, reside other possibilities; possibilities perhaps unmanageable within the very limits of the “nation”.

The intention here is not to celebrate some kind of “progressive” nationalism. The nation State, rather than being the instrument of liberation that so many have seen it as, is a war machine, a machine of capture of the powers and agencies that animate human societies, capable then of channeling them into paths of discipline and control, locally and globally. The argument that smaller nation States are more responsive to their populations than larger ones is testified to nowhere. And in a world where Capital problematises all claims of national sovereignty over its movements, what nation State can resist, except through a radicalisation of the democracy that in the best of scenarios is supposed to animate it? As for the parallel argument that the “yes” movement was a heterogeneous movement comprised of more radical elements than the Scottish National Party, and that these would gain through independence, is again by no means obvious. (E.g. Roarmag 18/09/2014) Sadly, historical counter examples are similarly abundant.

That the political debate engendered by the vote expressed itself with an intensity recalled by few is undeniable. That some even dreamed of creating a “virtuous State”, is almost inspiring. (Le Monde 20/09/2014) But the passion of revolution lies elsewhere than in State forms. If the State is not something that stands above and outside us, if it is present in the many folds of social life, shaping and moulding, freedom lies in the ways of life that escape its seduction and powers.

What follows are two anarchist interventions from Scotland on the referendum, that we share …

Beyond the Scottish referendum
Posted on August 20, 2014 by Anarchist Federation Scotland
By Mike Sabot, in a personal capacity.

It’s less than one month to the Scottish independence referendum on 18th September.

I’m not going to tell you to vote or not vote. Some anarchists will abstain and focus on organising where they are, others will vote Yes in the hope of at least a few reforms.

But if you do vote Yes, make it a wholly pragmatic choice – don’t buy into the ideology of the Yes campaign or its variant, left nationalism.

Whatever the rhetoric of some on the Left,* this is a Scottish nationalist campaign, just as the No camp represents a British nationalism. Anyone who cares about class struggle politics needs to strongly oppose both.

Nationalism, whatever form it takes, does two things: it tries to create a community of interest between the bosses and the working class; and it binds this community to the capitalist nation-state, reinforcing the latter’s power and role in exploitation.

There is no genuinely ‘progressive’ form that this can take.

We have, as Paul Mattick observed, a century of experience of national liberation struggles where apparently progressive anti-imperialist movements culminated in an oppressive new ruling class.

And we could now potentially see a new wave of independence movements in Europe in response to neoliberal restructuring and the more immediate crisis of capitalism. Do we expect different results?

New divisions and rivalries among European workers are not something to be applauded. Neither is the spectacle of a decidely bourgeois-led independence movement like that in Catalunya, where a more wealthy region seeks to stop ‘subsidising’ the rest of Spain.

But smaller states are better and more democratic?

Well, if we were to take a critical look at actually existing small European states we find:

• that they’re certainly no more favourable to workers’ organising;
• they are also coercive (which is the role of any state apparatus) and can be just as authoritarian (an exceptional example being the role played by the Catholic church backed by the Irish state);
• they have been remarkably open to neoliberalism and austerity (which has had a devastating effect on small states from Finland to the Netherlands, nevermind southern Europe);
• there is a growing anti-immigrant trend related to systemic white supremacy across northern Europe;
• that some have also sent willing to send troops abroad (Denmark in Afghanistan) or have aided others who have (Ireland again, offering Shannon airport for use by the US Air Force);
• and they are always subject to the dictates of larger supranational structures and of capital itself.

‘When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called “the People’s Stick”.’ – Mikhail Bakunin

The claim made both in the Yes campaign and on the Left that Scotland too can be a ‘normal democracy’, is an astounding attempt to ignore the obvious bankruptcy of representative democracy and its living critique in recent global social movements.

Even if the Scottish government is for now less likely to introduce draconian measures like the Bedroom Tax or adopt an anti-immigration stance, this is not in any sense a static situation. Massive political-economic forces will be brought to bear on post-independent government policy – it will make cuts and it will use its borders in its own economic interests.

Small states are more than capable of manufacturing consent or of over-ruling public opinion when they need to (take the famous ‘crowdsourced constitution’ in Iceland, which was in fact quietly buried by the government). The real ‘democractic deficit’ will continue post-independence.

What about the Scottish Left?

It is in content a mix of left nationalism and nostalgic social democracy. It argues against neoliberalism rather than capitalism itself – a winning strategy for regaining seats in parliament, but absolutely nothing to do with fundamental social change.

Both Common Weal and the vision of the Radical Independence campaign are concerned with trying to manage capitalism better.

Surely hegemonic on the Left, Common Weal is an explicitly class collaborationist think-tank – nicely summed up in its slogan ‘All of us first’. Its proposals in creating a high-growth economy, are in reality about increasing the rate of exploitation and outcompeting workers internationally.

Its advocacy of ‘work councils’ to smooth relations in the workplace is a necessary part of increasing productivity – i.e. profit. Where they have been used in Europe they have consistently undermined unions and workers’ militancy.

Yes: the radical case for Scottish independence, the most comprehensive statement made by members of the Radical Independence campaign, is a call for united frontism to the extent that socialism – even a bureacratic state ‘socialism’ – isn’t even on the agenda, but is treated as a utopian project for some distant future.

It seeks to create a Scottish broad left – not an ‘anti-capitalist’ – party along the lines of Syriza or Die Linke, and it reproduces the same ‘Keynesian wish list’ based on the same weak analysis of the state and capital, critiqued so well by Michael Heinrich.

Like Common Weal, it sprinkles radical rhetoric – participatory democracy, decentralisation – on its reformism. It doesn’t differ substantially from the latter, but offers mild criticism of certain aspects, including its support for the Nordic model.

The Nordic example

Small states par excellence, Common Weal want us to emulate the Nordic states where thanks to a number of reasons – a strong labour movement, available natural resources etc. – it has been able to maintain more of its welfare provision than Britain. From an international perspective, these countries have been labour aristocracies living off the toil of workers abroad.

But all of the Nordic states have experienced their own neoliberal offensive and inequality is growing there too. Asbjørn Wahl has shown how even in oil-rich Norway the welfare state is being eroded from within and the ideology of workfare is growing in strength.

He insists that constant reference to Nordic countries’ position in international league tables is unhelpful:

The problem is that all the teams in the league table are being weakened. Or to use another image, we still have a cabin on the upper deck, but it is the upper deck of Titanic, and the ship as a whole is sinking. (2011: 11)

The Nordic example is incredibly useful, however. We can learn a great deal from the internal class contradiction and struggle in these countries, which belies the case made by social democrats here.

In the Nordic Left we find a debate going on about how to combat the challenge to welfare provision. Along with Wahl, the work of Swedish welfare academic, Daniel Ankarloo, is particularly interesting.

He argues that the labour movement there has been ‘weakened by […] class co-operation’ (2009) and belief in a ‘social policy road to socialism’ (2008: 78-84) – i.e. that somehow the welfare model was an example of socialism in practice that just needed to be expanded. Instead, to defend existing gains as well as to fight for a different society, we need to rediscover class militancy and that this, ‘radicalisation must […] come from below in the form of the self-organisation of the labour movement’ (2009).

Welfare struggles, rather than commitment to welfare statism itself, are a crucial part of this – strengthening the working class and its capacity to struggle (ibid.).

Ankarloo rightly argues that this movement needs to organise across society and in the rank-and-file of unions. We should also draw inspiration from the revolutionary syndicalist SAC in Sweden and the broader Nordic extra-parliamentary Left, which is far more organised than any similar movements in Scotland or the UK.

Renewing the struggle

None of the promised reforms of the Yes campaign are guaranteed.
We should not trust an independent Scottish state to share much wealth, to protect NHS provision, not to attack the unemployed or the disabled, not to make cuts, to deport people or remove trade union restrictions.

Some are hopeful that the grassroots pro-independence movement will produce an oppositional social movement after secession. But this is wishful thinking. It would require it to reject its own ideological basis, its very nature as a cross-class alliance organised by forces who seek to gain political power.

Aspirations for social change, for ‘democratic control’ and redistribution of wealth in this movement should be encouraged but pointed in a revolutionary direction.

If the nationalist project isn’t soon wrecked on the rocks of its own contradictions, we will need to work to fragment it.

Whatever the result of this referendum, the lasting gains we need depend most of all on our own capacity as a class for itself to organise and struggle.

A genuine and practical internationalism is key to this.

Hope lies not in trying to create new labour aristocracies or the international solidarity of left nationalists, but in uniting workers struggling from below against state, capital, patriarchy and white supremacy around the world.

Notes
*There has been a great deal of confusion, or obfuscation, over the meaning of ‘nationalism’. Green party co-convenor, Patrick Harvie, for example insisted that he is not a nationalist, some have tried to distinguish between a ‘good’ (small or new state or civil) nationalism versus a ‘bad’ (large state or imperialist or ethnic) nationalism, others have made facile declarations of ‘internationalism’ – another term warped out of recognition. We should judge people by their actions not their rhetoric: do they foster a cross-class imagined community and social change through the state or not?
Daniel Ankarloo (2008), The dualities of the Swedish welfare model
(2009), A new phase of neoliberalism: collapse and consequences for Sweden
Asbjørn Wahl (2011), The rise and fall of the welfare state

 

Don’t Mourn. Organise
Posted the Edinburgh Anarchist Federation 19/09/2014

by Robert Lanark

Yesterday Scotland voted against independence. Today half the country are mourning, their hopes of a new state and it’s social democratic promise dashed. The other half are relieved, if perhaps not enthusiastically celebrating, the potential uncertainty removed; things will persist as before.

We neither mourn nor celebrate. The scaremongering of the No campaign would likely have proved largely unfounded. So too would the promises of the Yes campaign. In reality our lives would have continued mostly as they did before in either event. We will trudge to the same jobs we hate along the same roads, through the same congestion on the same expensive transport. We’ll do so we can pay our wages back to the capitalist class in the same shops, to pay rent to the same landlords and mortgages to the same banks. We’ll take our kids to the same schools with the same education system, when we’re ill we’ll wait to use the same hospitals. We’ll escape our jobs to the same parks, beaches, museums and pubs.

An independent Scotland would in most respects have resembled the Scotland of the UK, a patriarchal, capitalist, environmentally destructive society. A country with the most unequal land ownership in the developed world – where 50% of the land is owned by just 432 individuals. A country dependent on North Sea oil for much of its exports – oil that must be left in the ground to prevent climate catastrophe. A country with huge poverty and huge wealth and little in the way of organised working class action to change that dynamic.

And in so continuing to uphold the same institutions, the same structures of power, the same business interests, and the same political configuration, our fight against the state, capital and oppression continues.

Social Movements

It has become popular amongst some on the pro-independence to claim that even in defeat politics has been radically altered. People are engaged with politics for the first time, turnout was 85%. A new broad popular social movement is born, the referendum was never about a vote for the Nationalists (capital N(1)). The campaign they built to push for independence will now re-orient itself against the Scottish and British governments and push for material concessions, emboldened by how close they came and bringing newly radicalised people with them. But a high turnout in itself tells us very little of what will come next, the complacency that we have already changed politics is dangerous.

Leaving aside the tactical mistake of offering the SNP the support they wanted to pass the referendum and then hoping to win concessions rather than making those concessions a precondition of support, this seems at best an optimistic prediction, which is far from certain to be realised. It is highly probable that the movement built to advance a radical case for independence will fail to maintain the unity it has shown pre-referendum in a post-referendum situation. A new left unity party (perhaps Left Unity itself) seems likely to form out of the Radical Independence Campaign and will have to compete for votes with the Scottish Green Party. The disintegration of the SSP last decade bodes ill for the lasting chances of that configuration. If the parliamentary left can regain even the position it held from 2003-2007 it will have done exceedingly well (in its own terms).

Undoubtedly many from the radical independence movement will want to maintain extra-parliamentary organisation, though how much of it is truly independent of the parliamentary parties will be an open question. But as with the referendum itself elections have a tendency to draw activists away from direct struggle and towards themselves however good peoples’ intentions are. Perhaps the most debilitating effect of the referendum campaign was its draw away from other, more meaningful, sites of struggle – the boycott workfare campaign, anti-deportations and pro migrant work, environmental organising and so on. Of course, that is not to say that no independence campaigners continued their engagement with these causes, but no one has unlimited time and energy to contribute, and that expended on the referendum could have been better placed elsewhere.

Ecology

As the independence referendum moves into the past, other issues may start to regain their prominence. Foremost must be the commitment of politicians in Westminster and Holyrood to continuing extraction of Scotland’s share of North Sea oil.

The independence debate was consistently shaped by the prospects for oil production and how the proceeds will be distributed. Even where criticism did exist and a call for a “green new deal” was made, the focus was to argue for renewables. Whilst greater use of renewable energy is to be welcomed, it is far from sufficient. As Jason Moore has highlighted energy revolutions of the past have always been additive and substitutive. Market logic plus intervention for renewables will only give us both renewables and fossil fuels. As alternative grow fossil fuels prices will fall and maintain their use alongside. Real decarbonisation of society requires the fuels be left in the ground and their value written off.

You cannot build a “green” capitalism. You certainly cannot create it in time. There is too much money invested in fossil fuels – in drilling, in mining, in fracking. The ruling class will never voluntarily give up this wealth, or allow it to be simply voted away. “To survive we must act now” and “couple bleak reality with the utopian impulse” to demand a complete transformation of our society(2).

An independent Scotland would have relied heavily on fossil fuels – not least to maintain currency reserves and a positive balance of trade. The extraction of North Sea oil will instead continue to prop up the UK’s trade deficit. As part of a larger economy that dependence may now not be brought as clearly to the fore. But that reliance must be exposed, and it must be broken. That will be an expensive and difficult task, but one which we have no choice but to take up – there will be no future for Scotland or the UK if we do nothing. We must create the movement which makes that possible. Too much time has been spent on bourgeois constitutional questions while the rich consolidate their wealth and power, impose austerity and hardship and leave the planet to burn safe that adaptation will be good enough for them.

So tonight, drown your sorrows. Take time to regain your energy and when you’re ready come back to join us. The better society that had been pinned on independence doesn’t need a new state. Keep talking to your neighbours and your workmates. We have a world to win and only our own working class self-activity and organisation will secure it.

1. We’ve discussed previously the obfuscation of “good” and “bad” nationalism and the left’s claim that independence has nothing to do with nationalism. In our opinion both yes and no campaigns de facto represent competing nationalisms, whatever their intentions to the contrary.

2. Goodbye to the Future – Out of the Woods.

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