Positively Independent

What’s the point of independence? Opponents routinely portray the independence movement as being about ‘divorce’  ‘break-up’ and separation. Those within it see it as an opening future – a path to create an alternative based on home-grown principles facing the realities of today.

This Sunday at the Piping Centre, Cowcaddens,  (10.30 – 4.30 pm) the Scottish Independence Convention has invited a collection of people to share their ideas and their positive vision for the new Scotland. Your ideas and questions are welcome. We’ll be discussing:

Woman and the independence Vote with blogger and Scotsman columnist Joan McAlpine, and comedian and SIC convenor Elaine C Smith. Innovating the Scottish Economy with Prof Mike Danson, veteran political activist John McAllion, Mike Small, and economist and journalist George Kerevan

Re-imagining Scotlandwith musician and writer Pat Kane, and writer, publisher, and activist Kevin Williamson.

Scotland and the World
– with political activist, former ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray and Osama Saeed of the Scottish-Islamic Foundation.

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  1. Seon says:

    “Opponents routinely portray the independence movement as being about ‘divorce’ ‘break-up’ and separation. Those within it see it as an opening future – a path to create an alternative based on home-grown principles facing the realities of today.”

    I think it’ll be easy for the panel to argue against strawmen – especially that we need to defend the union or things as they are. More difficult will be answering the class position: independence is a false alternative; a Scottish ruling class will be as bad as any other.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      A Scottish ruling class would be as bad as any other, quite right Seon. I think that’s why the SSP and the Communist Party were at the Positively Independent event yesterday arguing the case for left nationalism or Scottish republicanism. That’s why John McAllion was there talking about how we need the full powers of an ordinary parliamant to make laws that will transform our country which, after 80 years of full suffrage in Britain and 12 years of a Scottish parliament suffers the blight of poverty. Scottish children are twice as likley to live in poverty than their equivalents in Nordic countries.

      1. Seon says:

        Left nationalism cannot but stand for a class system and wage labour (in ideal terms aiming for greater redistribution of wealth). There would be a ‘ruling class’ – a hierarchy of power and wealth – just as there has been in every other ‘left nationalist’ regime.

        Why should Scottish independence avoid the fundamental flaws of every other nationalism? Why would Scottish sovereignty eradicate poverty – denying access to the means of life, culture and creativity – when no other nation-state has done this, ever? Is this all there really is left to offer?

        I won’t push the point further, but what gets me is that there is so much to agree with in the pro-independence camp in terms of its desire to radically change and rejuvenate. Independence is achievable and it could even improve things. It is not an alternative, however, but a brilliant means of diverting Scots’ energies into propping up capitalism.

        1. bellacaledonia says:

          Thanks Sean but i disagree. You write: “Why would Scottish sovereignty eradicate poverty – denying access to the means of life, culture and creativity – when no other nation-state has done this, ever? Is this all there really is left to offer?”

          Scottish sovereignty on its own would make little or no difference. But you cannot have a republic, an imaginative new space to take us beyond our feudalist dependency culture without it.

          No nation state has ever alleviated poverty? Not Venezuela not Brazil? Nowhere ever? Are you waiting for Nirvana? Your response seems doggedly ideological pure but unrealisable, a pleasant state to remain in but I’d rather see some change in my lifetime than sit in an ideological bubble.

  2. Tocasaid says:

    Looks interesting and pertinent question. Maybe there’s some – in the Labour Party? – who think independence is just about ‘the SNP’, remembering Bannockburn or somehow ‘anti English’. Its simply a way of raising our living standards – be it the homeless in the Highlands or the slums in Glasgow, the Union aint working. Some food for thought here possibly from some architects on Eilean a’ Cheo:

    http://tocasaid.blogspot.com/2010/11/politics-mortality-and-architecture.html

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks for the link Tocasaid, great piece.

  3. David McCann says:

    Hi Mike,
    Having just returned from the conference, I have to say that you hide your own contribution under the proverbial bushel. Congratulations on a well constructed presentation. I look forward to the video and recommend it to anyone who did not get the chance to attend. There is something there for all interested in Scottish independence.

    Well done to all. Great turnout and a huge intellectual input to the independence debate.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks David. All plaudits got to Shona and Kevin who organised everything and Elaine who chaired with great humour and a great touch.

      It seemed like a lively day full of ideas and maybe SIC is emerging as a space for ideas when parties have to concentrate on polices, if you see what I mean?

  4. Donald Adamson says:

    Seon,

    No-one can give any guarantees about Scottish independence. After all, none of us could accurately predict what side of the bed we’re going to wake up on tomorrow morning, never mind predict what an independent Scotland would look like. At the same time, this cuts both ways and your own position is as open to critique, particularly from a Scottish perspective, as your critique of “left nationalism”.

    For example, you seem to be waiting for socialist revolution. As I’m sure you know, the criticisms of ‘historical socialism’ (within Marxism as well as the broader left) are even more numerous and, I would argue, far more convincing than Marxists’ criticisms of left nationalism. As the Canadian Marxist Michael Lebowitz recently put it, “The [histortical] abstract proletarian is not going to come to the rescue”.

    The net effect of this is that your approach seems to be an all or nothing approach – it’s socialist revolution or nothing. In effect, just like so many previous generations of Scots who held your position, you are saying to the Scottish working class, ‘Forget the illusions of left nationalism, continue the class struggle and just you wait and see, there will be a socialist revolution’. Maybe in the long-term you’ll be proved right (I hope so) but as we now know, these previous generations of Scots waited and waited and took their hopes to their graves.

    But there’s more to it than that. For while they waited, Scotland was dragged into more British wars, continued to be subject to the pernicious influence of British defence and foreign policy and an elitist, corrupt and undemocratic British state, governed by Tory governments that had no mandate in Scotland and so on. Here we are in 2010 and guess what? In other words, apart from more ‘wait and see’ what the effects of class struggle are, I’m not sure what your own alternative is. To put it another way, however opposed you may be, like left nationalists, to the British state the net effect of your approach is to advocate more of the same.

    But why should we privilege this approach over left nationalism when it has consistently delivered such devastating consequences to the Scottish working class? In other words, the questions that you raise about an independent Scotland apply equally to Scotland’s position as part of Great Britain. But with one important difference, the British have consistently demonstrated for generations that they have nothing to offer other than more of the same.

    What most left nationalists are arguing is not that Scottish independence will create socialism in Scotland – this itself is a straw man used by critics of left nationalism, as most serious left nationalists understand that Marx was right to argue that true socialism is and must be a “world-historical” phenomenon – but that Scottish independence offers the potential for Scotland to take the first steps on the pathway towards creating the conditions for a post-capitalist society. A potential and a pathway that simply isn’t available in Britain, if the Scottish left has learned nothing else from history it has surely learned that.

    To deny this potential, however limited you may believe it to be, in preference for more of the same and a continued ‘wait and see’ approach, isn’t offering an alternative to the Scottish working class. On the contrary, this position condemns them to more British rule in the mistaken belief that, because it holds that there is no alternative, this is the price that the Scottish working class must pay in lieu of socialist revolution.

    Most left nationalists would agree with some of your criticisms, to a greater or lesser extent, and they are long-standing criticisms to anyone familiar with the history of Marxism. But, at the same time, many left nationalists take as their point of departure the spirit of the often overlooked words in the Communist Manifesto: “The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie”.

    The debate about the capacity of the Scottish working class to do this in an independent Scotland, and the transformative potential of this, will have to wait for another day. But, in the interim, if it’s a choice between a British road of more of the same and taking those first steps with Scottish independence, I would argue that no-one on the Scottish left has the right to condemn the Scottish working class to the former, and everyone on the Scottish left has the responsibility to embrace the latter.

    1. Seon says:

      Thanks for your reply, Donald.

      I genuinely believe in friendly if passionate debate and that this is important for Scots on the left.

      To clarify, although the libertarian and critical strand of marxist thinkers are part of my political tradition, in terms of labels, I’m an anarchist. Obviously, this doesn’t mean I advocate mindless violence or terrorism but that it’s through the working people organising – through direct democracy etc. – in their workplaces and communities that we’ll achieve real, lasting change that will suit those working people.

      In fact, I agree with the main points of this article by bella caledonia:

      https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2007/11/20/scotlands-libertarian-left/

      My position certainly isn’t that ‘it’s socialist revolution or nothing’. Rather, I take the view that we can’t wait until we replace capitalism itself to bring about radical improvements. These must come about by the working people’s own actions, however, outside of the control of bureaucrats and politicians. It’s possible and necessary to build from below and create the mass movements that will eventually create communism (which isn’t itself a static end-point).

      In otherwords, class struggle involving all common people taking some degree of control over their own lives is essential. In place of ‘wait and see’, we should involve ourselves in the myriad struggles that are happening right now. It’s things like community campaigns to save schools and services that matter. We need to forge links with the different campaigns, encourage militancy and argue against any parties or individuals trying to take over. In the workplace, we’re already seeing the stirrings of discontent but again we need to greatly strengthen union militancy outside the control of the bureaucrats, as well as encouraging other means of organising in the workplace which stresses workers’ control.

      In Scotland there are some brilliant groups and campaigns which I support such as the Edinburgh Campaign Against Poverty, Glasgow Solidarity Network (nothing to do with the party!), Unity centre for asylum seekers, the IWW, and groups of anarchists.

      Thankfully, though, what I mean by class struggle isn’t just the actions of these groups but, more importantly, the activity (in whatever form) that working people take to defend and fight for their own interests.

      This can be seen in the students’ expression of anger in London, the parents across Scotland fighting to save their schools, BBC journalists trying to save their pensions, benefits claimants uniting against forced labour etc. Not only should these be seen as being against specific govt. decisions but also containing the potentiality for something much wider and more radical.

      You’re right to say that we can’t predict things but we can look back at real historical examples to make educated guesses. I think we’ll see Scottish independence, though it might take longer than we think. However, whether the government of any Scottish state is ‘left-wing’ or not, there is no reason that it won’t conflict with the working class and that it won’t try to impose its own rule, its own (capitalist) budget cuts etc. In other words, whoever gets in it won’t change the basic game and rules: we have nothing in common with bosses or politicians.

      Briefly, I’d say that every historical example has shown that national struggles don’t create movements for self-emancipation but support for nation-states. Working class Scots won’t learn to reshape their lives for human need and creativity by voting for someone else to do it for them but by collectively facing up to it and gaining in confidence. Whether we do this in the union or a republic is irrelevant in a globalised society and when we have only ourselves to rely on.

      1. Donald Adamson says:

        Seon,

        Many thanks for this. Now that you’ve outlined your position more fully the first thing I would say is that, apart from your closing sentence, I agree with virtually everything you’ve said here. I can’t and wouldn’t presume to speak for everyone at Bella but there is clearly a wide range of opinion at Bella, some of which wouldn’t be uncomfortable being located at the strong end of the spectrum of anarchism in that we do believe in and promote, among other things, the common good, anti-authoritarianism and self-management in the full sense of the term. I don’t think that there are any dewy-eyed left nationalists though.

        To put it another way, for many of us, the foundational statement of Kevin Williamson’s that you refer to isn’t just words or abstractions from reality but expresses a collective commitment to deeply-held objectives. After all, if the left stands for anything, it stands for creating the conditions in society that will allow all individuals to expand their capabilities and live better lives. Underlying this, at least in my own thinking on this, is the belief that, ultimately, Marx was right to argue in The German Ideology that: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”.

        You’re right to draw attention to the issue of independence. I suppose that what I was reacting to here was the implication of your argument that we weren’t aware of the dangers of Scottish statism, elitist capture and so on and/or hadn’t thought about them. But the point you imply still stands, that is, there is a real problem here in that we can’t just assume that an independent Scottish nation-state would ipso facto provide a more benign and favourable environment to realise our objectives than the British state. But we don’t assume this, we argue for it, although no-one is under any illusions about the difficulties involved.

        I don’t think that the argument that the past is a guide to the future is as compelling as you suggest. There are a number of arguments here that inform my own thinking on this issue as well as my support for independence and, in the interests of brevity, here are just a few of them.

        First, it’s not difficult to demonstrate that the impediments to our objectives are significantly greater as long as Scotland remains in the union. To put it broadly, the British state, as an embedded hegemonic power, uses its considerable resources, institutions, political parties, ideology and so on not only to counter Scottish independence but to neutralise dissent and therefore the development potential of any counter-hegemonic project. The effect of this is that, among other things, it reproduces the subordination of the Scottish working class to British state capitalism, a cycle that has repeated itself for generations. Independence offers the potential to break that cycle and, although this is no guarantee against Scottish statism or elitist capture, as a point of departure on the pathway to realising our objectives it will create new opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

        Second, and relatedly, Scottish independence has the potential to add greatly to the momentum of transformation that currently exists in Scotland. There are two aspects of this. First, the changes that would occur in Scotland itself after independence and, second, the impact of Scottish independence on what was left of the British state. It’s in this double sense that Scottish independence has socialist potential, though of course this mustn’t be overstated. Notwithstanding the potential it would create within Scotland, independence would weaken what was left of the British state itself. The British would be forced to re-orient themselves to the world and, with the potential that an independent Scotland could pursue an alternative path to Anglo-American neo-liberalism that yielded positive results, Scotland could demonstrate the plausibility of that path to the other nations of the UK.

        Third, Mike has already cited the examples of Venezuela and Brazil. Not perfect it’s true but a significant advance on the development paths that those countries had previously been pursuing. We can add to that list. For example, at various stages of their development/economic reconstruction, countries like Taiwan and Sweden have seen significant improvements in poverty-reduction and although the socialist experiment was emphatically defeated in Sweden, nevertheless its legacy, more social democratic than socialist, means that it’s unlikely to follow the Anglo-American path. A strong case can be made that Scotland is even better equipped than any of these countries were to pursue an alternative path.

        Fourth, and this feeds in to several of your own arguments, although I support the objectives of Parecon my own view is that these objectives are long-term. A more hopeful horizon, at least for an independent Scotland, is presented by Erik Olin Wright in his recent book Envisioning Real Utopias, Verso 2010. The substance of Wright’s argument is that the path to historical socialism is no longer plausible, at least as a short-to-medium term objective. This doesn’t mean that socialism is dead but that we need to follow alternative paths.

        But instead of imagining unreal (socialist) utopias, or waiting for socialist revolution – I understand now that you weren’t arguing for the latter – we only need to look around us to envision the ‘real utopias’ of social empowerment that are already in existence. He provides a number of examples – the cooperative movement in Mondragon, Wikipedia, Universal Basic Income, the Quebec social economy – but there are numerous others which are either in existence or have previously existed, or which can easily be ‘envisioned’, for example, community credit unions, stamp scrip money, bank nationalisation, shorter working week and so on, not to mention the numerous micro-initiatives of social empowerment which many groups in communities in Scotland are pursuing, some of which you refer to. These, it seems to me, offer a more hopeful path for an independent Scottish nation to follow than either its current fruitless path of development or, for that matter, the more ambitious objectives of Parecon. At any rate, a fuller treatment of Wright’s interesting and hopeful thesis and its relevance to an independent Scotland, will probably need to wait for someone at Bella to do a piece on it.

        Finally, your last point that, “whether we do this in a union or a republic is irrelevant in a globalised society”, is the one that I have most difficulty with. You seem to be suggesting that there is something about the nature of globalisation that renders the form of social empowerment irrelevant. I disagree. In fact, what is most encouraging about Wright’s thesis is not only that it is grounded in reality but that it demonstrates that nation-states and communities within nation-states can achieve greater social empowerment.

        More than this, although I won’t develop the point here, contrary to what so-called ‘hyper-globalisers’ argue, nations are not helpless victims of global forces. In fact, because many nations and governments have acted and behaved as if globalisation had this all-pervasive power (e.g. New Labour), they have helped to shape those global forces. But other nations have demonstrated that nation-states can make a difference, that we don’t need to slavishly follow the imperatives of (neo-liberal) globalisation. It can be done and that, at least, would be a start.

  5. bellacaledonia says:

    Just to say thanks for your comments on the site – they are very welcome.

    You are right in saying that Bella Caledonia is looking for a new political space, exploring new forms and has its roots in a libertarian socialist view of the world.

    When you say ‘Whether we do this in the union or a republic is irrelevant in a globalised society and when we have only ourselves to rely on’ though this seems to suggest an individualised atomised experience we reject. There is a role for collective action, public control and shared ownership within a libertarian tradition. It’s not state socialism OR Stirnerite libertarianism.

    Clearly we are now a globalised world but the decisions about how we form and prioritise our nations are significant and can be more significant and of immediate benefit to our citizens.

  6. Pat Kane says:

    Wonderful & useful ref to Erik Wright Olin in this discussion, Donald. “envisioning real utopias” seems to be exactly the terrain we should be on in Scotland. Or is that “work as if you were in the early days of a better nation”? Feels to me that we avoid the scattered chaotic mess of the Big Society in Scotland by having those meso-level “real Utopias” of policy where progressive government responds to community pressure (I’m pushing for reduced overall work hours/redistributed jobs at the moment, but land reform or free higher education might be another). Should we keep an eye on our national(ist) bourgeoisie? Sure. But in this small place, it should be easier to hold feet to the fire. Heartening to see new media platforms like this intensifying and refining the flame.

    1. Donald Adamson says:

      Thanks Pat. I think that you’ve identified something here that needs to be developed further – real utopias as a counter- narrative in Scotland to the vacuous Big Society. I can’t decide whether the prospect of Scotland being subjected to these awful Tory ‘policies’ is more or less horrific than the prospect next May of the nightmare ticket of four long years of a Tory government at Westminster and a Labour government at Holyrood!

      The receptive “progressive government” you refer to is the sticking point of course. I suspect that, like me and many others, you’d be more optimistic about the “community pressure” side of that equation and then, who knows? But real utopias as an alternative to the Big Society in Scotland? What a mouth-watering prospect for anyone on the Scottish left. I’m sure that we’ll revisit Wright at Bella but, in the interim, for anyone who hasn’t read the latest book in the series, Erik Olin Wright gives an excellent video presentation of Envisioning Real Utopias here: http://realutopias.org/

      I’d also give a plug to the exciting Agenda 15 being promoted in the current issue of Scottish Left Review : http://www.scottishleftreview.org/li/

      It’s not the finished article by any means and the authors are aware of that. What it does feed into though, is the shift that’s been occurring in the left, particularly over the last decade. That is, the growing awareness that it’s not enough just to critique or resist capitalism, we need to develop alternatives – what Wright calls a strategy of “interstitial transformation” – as one pathway to greater social empowerment.

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