Demonstration Effects: Reclaiming Scotland Part 2

In February 1998, William Hague, at the time the new leader of the Conservative party, made a speech at the Centre for Policy Studies in London which captured the collective instincts of his party’s response to New Labour’s constitutional reforms in its first term. In his speech, Hague memorably told his audience that:

“Labour has embarked on a journey of constitutional upheaval without a route map”.

Long after Hague’s speech, the bills kept filing through the corridors of Whitehall. By the end of 2000, New Labour had steered through the Westminster Parliament no less than 20 bills on constitutional reform. If nothing else, Hague’s observation about Labour’s constitutional hyperactivity in this period casts an unflattering light on the weary refrain from Scottish Labour that it is the SNP that is ‘obsessed’ with the issue of constitutional reform.

But, of course, there is so much else to Hague’s observation, for Hague was expressing the worst fears of his party, fears that are now materialising. The lengthy (and painful) gestation period after the ‘failed’ devolution referendum vote in 1979, has created a momentum of change in Scotland which no-one could have anticipated. Within the space of a decade, we not only have a Scottish parliament but, after the long eight years of a quiescent, if not supplicatory, Lib-Lab coalition (no “picking fights with Westminster” for them, though Scottish Labour has gone a bit quiet with that line in recent months), we now have an SNP government and await the imminent arrival of the Calman reforms. But even before the limited and hastily-conceived Calman reforms have been implemented, far less bedded down, many unionists themselves are already debating the post-Calman settlement, including fiscal autonomy, as the next line of defence against independence. This is not the ‘British’ way but, crucially, it is now the Scottish way. And what the Calman reforms demonstrate is that it isn’t just Labour that doesn’t have a route map, the Tories don’t have one either.

What counts now is whether the SNP and the independence-supporting left can capture this momentum of change before the forces of conservatism in Scotland, led by Scottish Labour, attempt to neutralise it. Fortunately, in spite of all the bells and whistles that will accompany the election of Ed Miliband as the new leader of Labour – or should that be the new leader of new New Labour? – Scottish Labour’s capacity to do this will be inhibited by the present conjuncture. More importantly, this conjuncture itself creates possibilities for Scotland that, even a decade ago, were unimaginable. Even if we put the internal dynamic of devolution to one side, the effects of this conjuncture, once they feed through into mainstream Scottish politics (although they’ll need to be argued for), can only intensify this momentum of change on three broad fronts.

First, the present crisis has stopped in its tracks the claim of the more enthusiastic advocates of the globalization thesis that the nation-state has a limited role to play in the ‘global’ world. As Alex Callinicos argues, “One of the chief ‘follies of globalization’, as Justin Rosenberg admirably put it, was the idea that greater global economic integration has fatally weakened the nation-state”. (Callinicos, Bonfire of Illusions, Polity 2010). Just as both small and large nation-states across the world all used their economic, (de-) regulatory and other powers to unwittingly navigate their way into this crisis, so they are using these same powers to navigate their way out of it. The exposure of this particular myth of globalization, as well as the national-specific responses to the crisis, demonstrates that a new space is opening up for independent nation-states, not only to map out the co-ordinates of their distinctive responses to the crisis but to explore the pathways of their own possible futures in a spirit of what we might call, ‘aye we can’. It is this spirit that the SNP and the independence-supporting left in Scotland must continue to encourage the Scottish people to claim.

Second, the present crisis of capitalism has halted the momentum of neo-liberalism. In terms of the British response to this, if the Tories’ big society rhetoric is seen for what it largely is – an attempt to kick start second-wave neo-liberalism in the context of crisis management – surely this, too, is destined to fail. In his Models of Capitalism, Polity 2000, David Coates convincingly argues that all post-war models of capitalism have ultimately failed. Coates identifies three (stylised) models: market-led capitalisms practised and advocated by Britain and the US; state-led capitalisms, most evident in post-war Asia; and negotiated or consensual capitalisms in, for example, post-war Germany and Scandinavia. What the failure of all these models of capitalism, as well as the recent rupture in neo-liberalism demonstrates, is that capitalism and capitalist states are running out of reformist options.

Moreover, if as The Economist recently argued in its leader (‘Radical Britain’, August 14th, 2010), the British Tories’ crisis management model of ‘downsizing’ the state, fiscal austerity, welfare retrenchment (with the burden of adjustment falling on taxpayers), is indeed followed by capitalist states across the rest of the world, doesn’t this invite the obvious question: who will save capitalism in its next crisis? In Scotland, the centre-left consensus and anti-Tory reflex of the majority of voters suggests not only a healthy scepticism about the inflated claims of the apologists of neo-liberalism, a scepticism that preceded the present crisis, it also surely provides fertile electoral territory for Scotland to “chart a different course from Westminster”, as Alex Salmond recently put it, and to press home the possible futures offered by independence.

Third, the British state is in crisis. Not simply because of the effects of New Labour’s boom and bust, or the crisis management of the Tories, though of course these are the most obvious manifestations of crisis. But the British state is also in crisis because the British are losing control of Scotland. The absence of a constitutional route map and the crisis itself has created an open-endedness, a defining characteristic of all crises, that, when added to the pre-existing momentum of change in Scotland will make it increasingly difficult for Scottish Labour to re-direct this momentum back towards the agenda of Britishness. An agenda which, in the case of Scottish Labour, has historically served to reproduce the subordination of the Scottish working class to British state capitalism.

Part of the defiant logic of Britishness is that, like capitalism, it starts from where we are now. It is in situ and it speaks to us with all the authority of the incumbent. Through its institutions, its media, its governance etc it reproduces an embedded ‘common sense’ that makes it difficult for many Scots to imagine a future where we can unlearn its routinised practices and learn a new ‘common sense’. Britishness then, isn’t encumbered with the ‘nationalist’ appeal to a great leap, a great leap that Scottish Labour can present as a threat to these routinised practices and British ‘common sense’.

But why on earth would anyone in Scotland fearfully imagine any disasters that might be visited upon an independent Scotland when the British have repeatedly demonstrated the real disasters that a succession of Labour and Tory governments have visited upon Scotland over the last fifty years? In this respect, the last Labour government and the present Tory government are maintaining a long-standing British tradition. Over the last fifty years, the Tories have condemned Labour governments for their economic mismanagement and for the terrible legacy they have left to an incoming Tory government. Labour, on the other hand, have condemned Tory governments for their economic mismanagement and for the terrible legacy that they have left to incoming Labour governments. From a Scottish perspective, they are both right of course, a succession of both Labour and Tory British governments have mismanaged Scotland’s economy and bequeathed a terrible legacy to Scotland.

Starting in the mid-1950s when a Tory government began the notorious ‘stop-go’ cycle, a succession of British governments have demonstrated their unerring capacity to make a bad situation worse. The costly prevarication of the Wilson government over the 1967 devaluation; the disastrous policies of the Heath and Callaghan governments in the ‘decade of crisis’ in the 1970s; the Thatcher years of record unemployment, homelessness, with huge numbers of firms and workers leaving Scotland altogether; the effects of ‘Black Wednesday’ under Major and a Tory government that tore itself apart over Europe and, in the process, isolated Scotland even further from its already tenuous connections with Europe; New Labour’s decade of boom and bust; and up to the present crisis management of the Tories.

It was two former Labour ministers who captured an important part of the substance of the developing crisis of Britishness in the post-war period, and it’s worth recalling their words. In his diary on June 30th 1952, Labour’s first post-war chancelleor, Hugh Dalton, comparing the prospects of the post-war reconstruction efforts of Britain and Europe, wrote:

“I see Europe going by default: Free market Germany will be forging ahead; with all their gifts of efficiency displayed to the full. And we [the British], in our mismanaged, mixed-economy, overpopulated little island, shall become a second-rate power, with no influence and continuing ‘crises’”.

Another former Labour minister, Michael Stewart, in his aptly titled, The Jekyll and Hyde Years: Politics and Economic Policy since 1964, Dent, 1977, characterised one important cause of the ‘Jekyll and Hyde Years’ of successive British governments’ economic policy, when he wrote:

“Both Labour and Conservative parties, while in opposition, have succumbed to the temptation to condemn a large proportion of the government’s policies and have promised to reverse many of these policies when they themselves took office. The result has been a fatal lack of continuity. Incoming governments have spent their first year or two abolishing or drastically modifying the measures – often quite reasonable – of their predecessors, and pressing ahead with the measures – often unrealistic or irrelevant – which they have formulated in opposition. After a year or two they have come to closer terms with reality, and changed course, but by that time much harm has been done, and the benefits that would have accrued from continuing the policies they inherited have been lost”.

Both these former Labour ministers showed a remarkable degree of prescience. In Stewart’s case in particular, it’s surely the case that the ‘Jekyll and Hyde years’ continued after 1977 and that, as the decades from the 1980s up to the present demonstrate, eerily following the denouement of Stevenson’s classic, Dr Jekyll has now morphed permanently into Mr Hyde.

On three core policy issues though, there has been a consensus between the British elites in the Labour and Tory parties that has acted, and continues to act, against Scotland’s national interests: market-led capitalism; promoting the City of London as a ‘global’ financial centre; and defence and foreign policy. These are all looking somewhat sordid now, but then they always were, and it is surely the most auspicious sign for the prospects of Scottish independence that this is now so much more transparent than previously.

We will never know how many voters in Scotland would have supported Scottish Labour over the last decade if, instead of viewing on their television screens the stream of sombre images of the union flag-draped coffins of British soldiers, they had seen instead the images of the thousands of burnt-out corpses of Iraqi and Afghan children. Indeed, so numerous are the Iraqi and Afghan casualties in these wars, that there is no reliable estimate of their total number.

We congratulate ourselves on the ‘peace’ that we have secured in Europe in this ‘post-war’ period, and conveniently displace the reality that so many wars in the last 60 years have been conducted in our name. Although Scotland has been dragged into many of these wars by default, the reality is that in the last 60 years, Scotland has been one of the most belligerent nations on earth, more belligerent than Israel, for example, but even the heinous Israeli regime can cite the fact that it is surrounded by enemies. What is Scotland’s excuse?

In his Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, Vintage 2003, Mark Curtis recounts many of the atrocities, and duplicitous bullying of the peoples of other nations, committed in the name of ‘British’ defence and foreign policy throughout the last 60 years. Not surprisingly Curtis reserves much of his wrath for the shameful policies of New Labour supported by a “liberal intelligentsia” which is itself, as Curtis states:

“…guilty of helping to weave a collective web of deceit. Under New Labour, many commentators have openly taken part in Labour’s onslaught on the world, often showering praise on Tony Blair and his ministers for speaking the language of rights, development and global security as they proceed to demolish such noble virtues in their actual policy”.

And, of course, Scottish Labour has done its bit to put the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain since 1945. How many in Scottish Labour applauded Tony Blair when, announcing his decision to stand down as leader, he told Labour Party members at the Trimdon Labour club in his Sedgefield constituency on May 10th 2007:

“This country is a blessed country. The British are special. The world knows it, we know it, this is the greatest country on earth”.

Given the pernicious influence of such triumphalist British nationalism, it is little wonder that we have recently witnessed the unedifying spectacle of the candidates for the Labour leadership shamelessly falling over each other in their attempts to distance themselves from many of their own government’s policies. A party that is so publicly in need of a clean slate is surely a party that is destined for a period of lengthy opposition. Whether this is the case is not the issue however, the consequences for Scotland will be little different whether it is Labour or the Tories who bequeath their terrible legacies to a Scotland that for so long has been unable to arrest its decline into a backwater of the British economy.

The SNP government, for all its imperfections, and working with all the limitations of a minority government and the devolution settlement, has demonstrated its competence to govern. This may not have exorcised Scottish Labour’s caricature of the folk-devil of ‘nationalism’, but it must surely cause more people in Scotland to ask themselves the question: if this is what the SNP can achieve working with all these constraints, what could they achieve if these constraints were removed as they would be after independence?

Next month, the STUC are organising demonstrations against the “Tory cuts”. This will see a re-run of the 1980s, only this time the Tories, having decimated private sector trade union membership in the 1980s and 1990s, have much unfinished business with public sector trade unions. After these demonstrations are over, Scotland needs to have other, more important demonstrations. These demonstrations must carry a message to every worker and every household in Scotland. Now more than ever, it is time to stop demonstrating against the Tories and to start demonstrating support for Scottish independence, not least because this time, there really is no alternative.

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  1. Dave Coull says:

    The ConDem government is planning an Autumn “Spending Review”. Although we have yet to hear the precise details of this, more than enough has already been said by members and supporters of the regime at Westminster for it to be obvious this will include measures which are very bad indeed for working class families, for young people seeking a job, for old people struggling to survive, and for huge numbers of the most vulnerable people in society.

    This has been widely recognised for some time. At the beginning of August, an advert appeared in “The Guardian” signed by Tony Benn, by Caroline Lucas (leader of the Green Party) and by over 70 other individuals calling for resistance this Autumn. This green/left coalition has called for a demonstration at Downing Street itself on the day of George Osborne’s speech, and they are planning a conference on 27th November to organise widespread and co-ordinated active resistance. But what needs to be understood is that, even if Tony Benn, Caroline Lucas, and various trade union officials, didn’t plan for resistance, SOMEBODY would. Popular movements do not actually need “great leaders” in order to come into existence.

    Given that, if the STUC did NOT organise demonstrations in Scotland against the ConDem government’s plans, then somebody else would.

    Although Donald Adamson’s analysis makes some good points, one thing which appears to be missing is an understanding of how popular movements work. Take the anti-poll-tax campaign, for instance. Not mentioned by Douglas Adamson, but in which myself and many others played an active part. That campaign was certainly NOT led by the STUC. The person who managed to establish himself as a sort of media figurehead was Tommy Sheridan, and his tendency/party benefited from this – but if it hadn’t been him, and if it hadn’t been them, then it would have been somebody else. Popular movements arise out of the actual circumstances of the people, not out of calls from “Leaders”.

    Douglas Adamson talks about “after the demonstrations”. Doesn’t he realise there will be on-going resistance, with or without the STUC?

    We can’t predict exactly what forms that on-going resistance will take, but Douglas Adamson’s talk of “other, more important demonstrations” just sounds like party political wishful thinking.

    Who is going to organise these “other, more important demonstrations”? The SNP? Don’t make me laugh! I helped to organise demonstrations for a referendum on independence when Jack McConnell was First Minister and whatsisname the LibDem was his Deputy, and I took part in demonstrations for a referendum on independence after Alex Salmond became First Minister. The SNP promised “legislation for a referendum within the lifetime of this parliament”. They broke that promise.

    As for “stop demonstrating against the Tories”, don’t be daft. The Tories are the government in power. OF COURSE demonstrations will target the Tories (and their LibDem handmaidens). If the Labour Party was in power, and introducing measures which hurt working class families, hurt young people seeking a job, hurt old people struggling to survive, and hurt huge numbers of the most vulnerable people in society, then there would be demonstrations targeting the Labour Party. But they’re not in power, so it’s just plain daft to say “stop demonstrating against the Tories”. There will be demonstrations against the ConDem government; and they will be supported because it is the ConDem government which is introducing measures which hurt working class families, hurt young people seeking a job, hurt old people struggling to survive, and hurt huge numbers of the most vulnerable people in society, Whether these demonstrations are called by the STUC or by somebody else is kinda beside the point. If you want to get an independence message across, you have to be part of that popular movement.

    1. Donald Adamson says:

      I agree with much of what you say here and, on the surface, it makes sense to continue in oppositional mode. The STUC demonstration is scheduled for Saturday October 23rd and, of course, I wasn’t suggesting that from Sunday October 24 we should stop opposing the Tories, that would be absurd, which is why I used the plural, “demonstrations”, anticipating that there would be similar type mass demonstrations to follow.

      But mass demonstrations, involving tens or even hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, are only one type of resistance and, for obvious reasons, they’re pretty rare events. Important as such demonstrations are, it’s the other type of resistances that you refer to in a general sense, that I’m more interested in because, I would argue, they have greater potential to release us from oppositional modes of thinking and acting, and encourage us to adopt transformational modes.

      One of the things that most people on the left would agree on is the belief that human beings are reflexive. We interpret our social, political, cultural and economic environments, attach meanings to them, modify our behaviour on the basis of what we learn and so on, and this, among other things, shapes our thinking about what is possible. The upshot of this, for the left at any rate, is that we believe that we have the capacity to shape these environments, not necessarily in a monolithic ‘social engineering’ sense, more in a creative sense. As Roberto Unger put it, transformative politics, “is not about blueprints; it is about pathways. It is not architecture; it is music”. These resistances, therefore, have to be more creative, not least because it’s widely understood that our actions will encounter as well as create, numerous constraints, contingencies, unintended consequences etc.

      I take your point about popular movements. My only defence here is that I wasn’t trying in the piece to explain them or provide a typology of popular movements, which is why I didn’t mention the poll tax demonstrations or, for that matter, the demonstrations against pit closures in the 1980s, the Iraq war, Make Poverty History and many others. Since you raise the subject though, I would be more cautious than you seem to be, in providing explanations for the existence of popular movements.

      Of course, material conditions are critical, but we can’t just leave it at that. To give just a few obvious examples, ideas are important, media and means of communication, particularly alternative media, are increasingly important. Individuals are also important. If we drop your loaded term “great leaders” and replace it with ‘individuals’ or ‘influential individuals’, doesn’t history provide us with an abundance of examples of individuals who have often had a decisive impact on popular movements? Sometimes they have led these movements it’s true but, more often than not, they have inspired them, articulated their aspirations, added momentum to their progress and so on, and that includes Scotland. We may have precious few heroes but, fortunately, we do have some.

      ‘Ordinary’ individuals, people like you and me, are also important and, here, I would argue, this is where ideas, alternative media and new forms of resistance are converging and have great potential to create a transformative politics and economics in Scotland as well as elsewhere. Individuals today, whether they act as individuals or collectively, are using these alternative media to disseminate and exchange ideas, pool resources, make connections and so on in ways which, because of their immediacy and accessibility, are changing the ways that both local and global resistances are being conducted.

      But alternative media like, for example, social networks, texting, twitter and, of course, the blogosphere don’t just provide new means of communication, they are providing new means of resistance. More than this, they are themselves constitutive of new resistances. In fact, you don’t even have to look further than the Blogroll and ‘Category Cloud’ on Bella’s homepage to see evidence of that. Isn’t this one of the key developments in alternative media, that is, their contribution to the socialisation of ideas, at least for those who are connected to these networks?

      This is one of the reasons why I agree wholeheartedly with your final sentence, “If you want to get an independence message across, you have to be part of that popular movement”, but it’s the resistances that follow the mass demonstrations where, I would argue, using alternative media as well as other, including more traditional means, there is potential to create the type of independence-supporting popular movement and “important demonstrations” that I, and I think many others, would like to see. You identify the key question here, as you put it, “who is going to organise these ‘other more important demonstrations’”?

      There’s no easy answer to this, if there were, we’d have done it by now. The most intractable problem so far has been the inability of the independence movement (not just the SNP) to make significant inroads into Scottish Labour’s heartlands. The effect of this is that the anti-Tory reflex in Scotland continues to deliver a ‘comfort-zone’ vote to Scottish Labour as, so far, they have been the main beneficiaries of this anti-Tory reflex. This is surely the problem with limiting ourselves to anti-Tory oppositionalism, it consolidates Scottish Labour’s position. Part of the creative response to overcoming this is to set out a vision of independence that can win hearts and minds. Here, the SNP has failed, in that, like Scottish Labour, its neo-liberal economism has reduced elections in Scotland to a competition between the business models of Scottish Labour and the SNP.

      Another area that needs to be addressed is the strategy of the Tories. In the piece, I argued that the big society rhetoric is an attempt to kick-start second wave neo-liberalism. There is more to the ‘big society’ than this of course. But while they were in opposition, the Tories would have carefully calculated the effects of major public spending cuts. In this respect, their rhetoric about the ‘state of the books’ when they took office, is largely a post hoc rationalisation for the policies that they intended to pursue anyway. What’s critical here though, is the Tories’ appeal to the approval of markets. This is the public message that will be reiterated time and again right up to the next British general election. Labour are in no position to complain here as Gordon Brown spent thirteen years boasting about the markets’ approval of Labour’s policies, when Labour actively encouraged the imperatives of neo-liberal globalization and financialization.

      The added benefit for the Tories though, and surely part of their pre-election calculations, is that their policies will weaken public sector trade unions. Although their target is public sector trade unions in England, if successful this will weaken public sector trade unions in Scotland also – their resource base, their organisational capacity, political influence and so on. Here again, Labour has created the conditions for this. After all, trade unions got little from 13 years of Labour governments so they can hardly expect a sympathetic hearing from the Tories. The problem for Scotland, as so often during the last 60 years, is that once again, the Scots are little more than spectators overseeing Scotland’s continued decline.

      The Tories, although they would prefer to have a bigger presence in Scotland, aren’t interested in Scotland here. In fact, the Tories are quite content to leave Scotland to Scottish Labour. Partly because Scottish Labour pose no threat to the Tories, and partly because the Tories understand – as David Miliband understood – that British general elections are not won or lost by anything that happens in Scotland. The added benefit, for the Tories, of leaving Scotland to Scottish Labour is that it secures Scotland’s future in the union. In effect, Scottish Labour does the Tories’ work for them.

      I started by saying that, on the surface, it makes sense to continue in oppositional mode. To put it another way, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been demonstrating against Tory governments for over 30 years now and, here we are, once again, preparing to demonstrate against yet another Tory government that has no democratic mandate in Scotland. Don’t you think it’s about time that we changed strategy and objectives or, at the very least, open our minds to the possibility?

  2. Dave Coull says:

    Right after the Westminster general election, I wrote a letter to several papers, which got printed in “The Independent” of 13th May, in which I said

    “After all the talk of ‘change’, what we have, as so often in the past, is a government led by a posh boy from Eton and Oxford, with another posh boy from St Paul’s and Oxford as Chancellor.

    The same kind of international banking speculators whose vile greed brought us into recession in the first place are circling like vultures over a sick animal, and this government will serve the interests of those vultures.

    This very old-fashioned government is preparing to make the common people pay for the crimes of their pals. THEY are preparing for class war.

    Those of us who are not from their privileged class (or that of Nick Clegg – Westminster School and Cambridge) have to prepare to resist. I don’t know exactly what forms the resistance will take, but resistance there will be.

    This government will, of course, soon be in conflict with the Scottish government and parliament, who will be trying their inadequate best to protect us in Scotland from the worst. But nobody should look to the SNP or to the Labour Party for leadership of the resistance. It wasn’t them that took the initiative in resisting Maggie Thatcher or her poll tax, and it won’t be them at the front of the resistance now.

    In fact, don’t wait for any politician, or any party, to ‘lead’ the resistance. Be prepared to take the initiative yourself, and be prepared to link up with anybody else who is showing willingness to resist.”

    (Note that bit about me not knowing exactly what forms the resistance will take – and I’m all for a bit of imagination.)

    Donald Adamson writes “I don’t know about you, but I’ve been demonstrating against Tory governments for over 30 years now and, here we are, once again, preparing to demonstrate against yet another Tory government that has no democratic mandate in Scotland. Don’t you think it’s about time that we changed strategy and objectives or, at the very least, open our minds to the possibility?”

    Apart from showing a naive faith in Twitter and the like, you have written an awful lot of words without actually suggesting any “changed strategy”.

    “On the surface, it makes sense to continue in oppositional mode” – that’s a fairly meaningless thing to say. The ConDem regime is on the attack. You either resist, or you don’t. If you resist, then you are opposing the government; which means, whether you like it or not, you are “in oppositional mode”.

    “As Roberto Unger put it, transformative politics” – ah, I see, you’re using some sort of in-jargon known only to the initiated, which doesn’t include me, and probably never will.

    Yes of course mass demonstrations are only one form of resistance. That’s a statement of the blatantly bloody obvious. I was active in the anti-poll-tax movement right from day one. I took part in demonstrations against the poll tax in Montrose, Dundee, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and London. The biggest one, in London, had perhaps a quarter of a million folk taking part. But of course it wasn’t the mass demonstrations which defeated the poll tax and fatally weakened Maggie Thatcher. It was the non-payment movement, organised at local level, with phone-trees of folk prepared to turn out at very short notice to resist the sheriffs’ officers or bailliffs on the doorsteps of folk threatened as a result of their non-payment. And yes, of course, the vast majority of non-payers never went to an anti-poll-tax-campaign meeting. But they did nevertheless know that an organised movement existed at local level which would support them.

    “alternative media like, for example, social networks, texting, twitter and, of course, the blogosphere don’t just provide new means of communication, they are providing new means of resistance. More than this, they are themselves constitutive of new resistances.”

    That is wildly exaggerating the importance of computer-based “social networks”. Even though I take part in them myself, I’m very well aware of their limitations. There is an interesting article on why “The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” by Malcolm Gladwell in the most recent edition of “The New Yorker”
    I don’t agree with Gladwell’s stress on “leadership” in social movements, but one thing he is absolutely right about is that direct actions tend to be taken by folk with quite strong “real life” ties with each other, rather than by folk with the sort of “weak ties” of social media.

    In talking about the need to be part of the popular movement, of course I wasn’t just meaning marches organised by the STUC; but neither was I talking about placing your trust in Facebook or Twitter. I don’t know exactly which forms the resistance will take, but, like Malcolm Gladwell, I’m pretty sure the revolution will not be tweeted.

    1. Donald Adamson says:

      If I could start with the final point of your reply. You say, “I don’t know exactly which forms the resistance will take but, like Malcolm Gladwell, I’m pretty sure the revolution will not be tweeted”. You can add my name to that list as well, for that’s not what I was arguing and I don’t think that’s a reasonable conclusion to draw from my reply to you.

      What I was arguing was that all forms of alternative media, not just twitter, are contributing to new forms of resistance, new forms of organising resistance as well as disseminating new ideas. I don’t think that’s naive at all, it just happens to be the case. To put it another way, suppose someone in the early twentieth century or even the 1960s, had said of the telephone, ‘You know, one day, people will be using the telephone to organise resistance at short-notice in an attempt to subvert government policy’, someone adopting your position would have felt entitled to reply, ‘Don’t be daft, that’s showing a naive faith in the telephone’.

      Sure enough though, we have it from your own reply, that, in the late 1980s, during the anti-poll tax resistance: “It was the non-payment movement, organised at local level, with phone-trees of folk prepared to turn out at very short notice to resist the sheriff’s officers or bailliffs on the doorsteps of folk threatened as a result of their non-payment”. In fact, such resistances, organised at short notice, could not have been organised so effectively without the telephone. The invention and widespread use of the mobile phone illustrates the point even better. Prior to this invention and widespread use, individuals had to physically be at a specific land-line destination to either make or receive a call.

      The example of the telephone and the invention of new means of communication illustrate another point. Today, it’s twitter, texting, the blogosphere and so on. We don’t know how these media themselves are going to develop (a point that Malcolm Gladwell readily concedes, though he can hardly do otherwise) or how they are going to be used in the future, and we can’t predict what new media will be invented and how they will be used. That’s another reason why I wouldn’t dismiss the potential that alternative media have, not only in resistances themselves but in disseminating ideas about alternatives.

      This discussion has got bogged down in alternative technologies. By alternative media I’m not just referring to alternative technologies (important as they are), but alternatives to the mainstream media as well as the dissemination of alternative ideas. It seems that the main difference between us, on this (technological) issue though, is that you seem to be saying that it’s a choice between either alternative media or “direct action”, whereas I’m arguing that it isn’t an either or choice, they’re both important, they’re both meaningful, they feed into each other, have repercussive effects on each other and so on. As I said in my last reply: “using alternative media as well as other, including more traditional means” new movements and resistances are being and will continue to be created.

      I agree that the Malcolm Gladwell article, as well as the follow-up questions and answers on the article, are interesting. I’m not sure about the implication that only face-to-face relations are ‘authentic’, in the sense that they are the only meaningful relations in society and the only possible agent of change in society. Even Gladwell himself concedes that and what he calls “social media” had a profound influence on the election of Barack Obama. The argument here isn’t about whether the election of Obama truly represents a fundamental change in the US but that people in the US used these alternative media in the belief that they were contributing to fundamental change.

      For me, the key points that Gladwell makes are his distinction between what he calls the “broad audience” and the “deep audience” that social or alternative media reach, as well as his point that social media must “be married to some kind of traditional grass roots organisation”. I agree with this latter point but, again, I would argue that it’s not an either or choice, or a question of arbitrating between the putative ‘authenticity’ of one or the other. I would argue that they are both ‘authentic’ as agents of change.

      The distinction between “broad” and “deep” audiences is interesting. To paraphrase Gladwell, it’s the distinction between communicating to the unconverted (a ”broad” audience) and communicating to the converted (a “deep” audience). I agree with him that it’s the former that is more important as far as alternative media are concerned and that the left needs to explore ways of communicating to the ‘unconverted’, but this is hardly a new problem and it lies at the heart of ‘historical socialism’ – why has there never been a proletarian revolution in any of the advanced capitalist countries? I would argue though, that alternative media do have the potential to at least address that problem in ways that weren’t available to us before.

      As for your reference to the point I made, “’As Roberto Unger put it, transformative politics’ – ah I see your using some sort of in-jargon known only to the initiated, which doesn’t include me, and probably never will”, I’m not sure what to make of that. Here, I definitely don’t agree with Malcolm Gladwell that, “Incomprehension is simply what a narcissist calls disagreement” as people have all kinds of reasons for expressing incomprehension, often because they do genuinely find something incomprehensible, but sometimes because they’re trying to make some other point.

      But how is this point to be squared with what you say a few paragraphs earlier, “I’m all for a bit of imagination”? It’s also surprising that you quote approvingly from Gladwell who, like you, uses the jargon of Granovetter’s social network theory yet you find such an innocent point from Unger an example of jargon.

      If you’re not curious about Unger why not just say so? But if you were curious about his arguments you could read the little paperback ‘The Left Alternative’, Verso 2009 from which the quotation is taken. The reason it’s worth reading, I would argue, is because he does offer some pathways for the future. It doesn’t mean that he’s right on everything or that he has all the answers but he recognises that what we’ve been doing up to now hasn’t been very successful.

      On the issue of “oppositional mode”, the point I’m making is straightforward. Of course, at least for many on the left, resistance is a default position, a response to the exercise of power. But surely you must have thought to yourself, at some point, why have many of our previous resistances failed? What comes after the resistance? It’s my own thoughts on those questions that explain my position and that’s why I argue that by limiting ourselves to anti-Tory oppositionalism we limit our capacity to explore how we can transform politics and economics, that’s all that a transformative politics and economics means. For the reality is that by confining ourselves to anti-Tory oppositionalism, what that has meant historically, and what it still means today, at least in Scotland, is the illusion that everything will be alright when Labour gets back into power. One of the points I was making in the piece was that this needs to be challenged and that new conditions are emerging that, I believe, will help that challenge.

      Short on suggestions for a changed strategy? Yes, you’re right, although I will come back to this in the final and concluding part of the series. But some of these strategies are already evident in the very existence of alternative media (on the broad understanding of ‘alternative’). Thinkers like Unger, John Holloway, Erik Olin Wright and numerous others suggest various strategies for the left. What I’m saying though is that, like others (and of course it has to be a collective effort), I’m up for making connections, exploring ideas for alternatives, including more alternative strategies, using all means that are available to us.

  3. Dave Coull says:

    I may have more to say later, but, for now, just one point: Donald Adamson writes “you quote approvingly from Gladwell who, like you, uses the jargon of Granovetter’s social network theory”

    I wasn’t even aware of the existence of Malcolm Gladwell until somebody recommended reading his New Yorker article. Having done so, I made clear that I have a major area of disagreement with him (“I don’t agree with Gladwell’s stress on ‘leadership’ in social movements”) as well as some areas of agreement.

    As for Granovetter, I have definitely never heard of her/him. If this person of whom I have never heard, and who has probably never heard of me either, happens to agree with me about some things, fine. But it’s nonsense to talk about me using the “jargon” of his/her “theory”. Except where I put quotation marks around something, my words are pure, undiluted, unfiltered, Dave Coull.

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