2007 - 2021

Take Caledonia

After Tony Blair was questioned by the police in No 10 Downing Street, and Barack Obama’s ‘hope you can believe in’ turned out to be a slogan rather than  a promise, then Julian Assange’s ‘temporary global hero’ fragment , we have experienced a profound crisis of belief in political leadership. It’s not partisan to say that nobody finds the Bullingdon Club Cabinet credible. Nobody actually finds David Cameron convincing. There is a simulacra of respect for these people, maintained only by the media-class reading the right script. As puce-faced Jim Devine shuffled off into obscurity at Saughton you felt that this was the start of the end of an era for Labour’s old dinosaur elite, municipal socialists one and all. Not a duck-house among them, just a sort of fetid belief in a right-to-reign. Jackie Baillie as Kate Middleton, David Whitton as an angry Harry.  This crisis of leadership is a good thing, and when combined with an understanding of the potential of horizontalism and the multiple challenges we face, a great thing, a potentially liberatory moment.

The Sheridan Trial, the events in Egypt and the forthcoming Holyrood elections provide context and urgency to these serious questions about the nature of political leadership and the drivers of change in society. Where are we going? How does Scotland ensure it is part of the political revolution that is shaking the ground all around us rather than appear as an northern onlooker waving a saltire in one hand or a faded Butcher’s Apron in the other? What’s the nature of our relationship to the British State and how do we as citizens take charge of our own destiny?  These questions struggle alongside deeper issues of technology and ecology in a rapidly changing landscape. They combine to create a political experience you might call the personal and the post-colonial and are finding expression in what John McAllion has called the ‘wisdom of anger’.

‘It’s only with the passing of time that the picture comes fully into focus, as the present slides and settles into history. Who are we? One of the unintended effects of Margaret Thatcher’s revolution, he sees now – and let’s face it, that’s what it was, a revolution – was to destroy Scottish loyalty to the British State. If it didn’t provide you with a job, if it didn’t give you a decent pension or adequate health care or proper support when you were out of work, what was it for? It wasn’t for anything – except maybe things you didn’t want or believe in, like nuclear weapons on the Clyde, or the poll tax. In the Thatcher years the great presumption of the left – that the industrial working class would eventually tame capitalism – came crashing down. The class war may not yet be over but it’s certainly not what it used to be. In its steed there may be many creeds, ancient and new, ethnic and national and religious and green…’ – And the Land Lay Still – James Robertson

Elsewhere in the book one of Robertson’s characters reflects that the point of the Scottish Parliament may be simply to say ‘we exist’. That’s not good enough any more. It never was.

As global crisis finds local expression, as globalism unfolds before us, the impetus for control of our own resources and self-management increases. This is not about a retreat from Westminster incompetence, entrenched venality or the allure of the City as a sump for corporate whoredom. This is not  – crucially – about wallowing in victimhood, glorious failures, the iniquities of yesteryear (count them). This is not about creating ‘a smarter, fairer, better’ clone of Nu Labourite efficiency, nor a Jim Matherish beacon of entrepreneurial business-slick Scotian buzz. The ‘how many start-ups’ and hand-wringing about reliance on the (utterly taboo) public sector is redundant. And while communications technology  can, will and is transforming our experience, it is still not a material basis for living. It’s a means not a code, a tool not an ethic.

The challenge now is to create an alternative way of operating based on being in the world.

Vinay Gupta has reflected recently that we face major challenges (globally). Here’s what he calls the three big lies:

  1. Lie: one day everybody will be rich.
    Truth: the earth does not have enough natural resources to support the global middle class. The poor are dying of this already. 20 million a year, a third of all death.
  2. Lie: America and Europe will look much like this in 20 years.
    Truth: they haven’t really looked like this for three generations. It’s the borrowing which has maintained the illusion of wealth. Ask the Irish.
  3. Lie:Technology will save us.
    Truth: nanotechnology and biotechnology take all the problems of the nuclear age and make them cheap and self-replicating. We can’t handle it, we have no governance or risk management. We’re going to get walloped. Hard.

It’s important to think of Scotland as being a country not yet here, rather than one with a glorious past. This isn’t to forget our history, mislaid, distorted as it is, but to not dwell on it. Know it, don’t look back on it. This is the difference between seeing Mackintosh for what he is in the context of European architecture – not admiring kitschy tea towels. We need to reject not celebrate the idea of £5 million investment in Scottish football when even McLeish says we need £500 million. In short we need to lift our ambitions far higher. Knowing this – and organising around it – moving on from nostalgia not indulging in the political equivalent of watching Joe Jordan circa 74 on YouTube (then, as now, not one to pick a fight with). Re-reading Arthur Herman’s The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World, but not buying into myths that that makes us special, unique. We are as good as anyone but better than no one. That gives us the right to self-determination.  Unique enough.

So what do you do with ‘many creeds, ancient and new, ethnic and national and religious and green…’?

First we need to transcend the tribes. Gerry Hassan writing an optimistic account of Nick Pearce’s (Institute for Public Policy Research) visitation to Scotland notes:

‘Scottish Labour is a party of patronage, preferment and clientalism. It has not modernised or renewed itself under devolution, or after defeat in 2007. All of Scottish Labour’s five leaders since 1999 – from Donald Dewar to Iain Gray today – have chosen the path of least resistance when it comes to the traditional Labour state way of doing things. Today behind Gray a small army of quangocrats, academics and serial consultants plan to renew the way they have governed Scotland since the 1950s; indeed most of them have continued their roles since the SNP came to office, but clearly the return of Labour will provide more opportunity for reward and the expansion of their entitlement culture, even in tough times.’

As Jim Devine goes to jail for the naked brazen cheek of out-and-out fraud, the task remains not just to collar the Devines everywhere in small-town Labourland riven with decades of in-fighting, backhanders, gladhanders and pork-belly politics. The task is to transform the political culture of patronage Hassan describes and to open up the system to the cold blast of fresh air. You don’t need to be explicitly corrupt to be part of a stale political system that is holding us all back. We are locked in a blame culture where the worst Scottish nationalists blame everything on London and  the worst Labourites blame everything on Edinburgh.

Acres of media were given over to the Egyptian revolt and many were a re-tread of the cliché that Egyptians were by nature apathetic, lazy and politically inert. But being able to watch the unfolding Egyptian revolt was an eye-opener in power politics. Three issues stand out:

  • The revolt was far from leaderless – what it lacked was a Yeltsin, a Walesa or an Obama, and was none the worse for it.
  • Social media has an essential role to play but is not an end in itself.
  • The police are an arm of the state and the nature of your armed forces (conscript or professional) is crucial.

In a post-euphoric blog Newsnight’s Paul Mason (a deceptively interesting journalist for such a senior position in the BBC) captured some of the spirit of the time saying http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/newsnight/paulmason/2011/02/twenty_reasons_why_its_kicking.html:

“We’ve had revolution in Tunisia, Egypt’s Mubarak is teetering; in Yemen, Jordan and Syria suddenly protests have appeared. In Ireland young techno-savvy professionals are agitating for a “Second Republic”; in France the youth from banlieues battled police on the streets to defend the retirement rights of 60-year olds; in Greece striking and rioting have become a national pastime. And in Britain we’ve had riots and student occupations that changed the political mood. What’s going on? What’s the wider social dynamic?”

Some of his diagnosis was more convincing than others but three key aspects stand out and are crucial if Scotland is to be part of this revolutionary time rather than by-standing as the vested interests of two political blocs slug it out to see who can best manage our failed non-State:

NEC (Network enabled collaboration)
They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy – but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. So if you “follow” somebody from the UCL occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California who mainly does work on Burma so then there are the Burmese tweets to follow. During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.

People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”. While Foucault could tell Gilles Deleuze: “We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation, and to this day, we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power”,- that’s probably changed.

Leaderless Revolt
Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.

This idea put forward by Mason that this young wired movement somehow ‘knows power’ makes sense in a post-Wikileaks world. We have had a ‘knowledge economy’ and this is now a ‘knowledge politics’. In this sense the moronic nature of popular culture takes on a different meaning, it is the obvious salve to informational overload, where we shelter from disfunctionality and ‘too much’ of just about everything.

The most distinguishing feature of the Egyptian revolt, which hasn’t ended or succeeded yet , is that this factor was dominant: a highly networked movement of focused, motivated young people had rapid success with relatively little violence. The role of leadership here is key. The uprising was marked by covert leaders rather than charismatic ones – a lesson the Scottish left might do well to reflect on after recent experiences.

We have these tools, these circumstances and these people here in Scotland. We know how to use social media, we have an educated and frustrated mass of young people and an inspiring base of rotten post-industrial urban chaos, the sort of wellspring which desultory Devines have ruled over for 80 years and more.

But if Robertson’s analysis is right and one of the unintended consequences ‘of Margaret Thatcher’s revolution… was to destroy Scottish loyalty to the British State’ how are we to reconcile this with our pleading for military bases for Tornados, fighter jets and all of the armoury of the MoD? Neither of the two political parties offer a real alternative to this version of dependency culture.

As Pat Kane has written in the Caledonian Mercury:

‘How much historical irony would there be in a Tory-led Coalition, swingeing its axe at public expenditure, doing more to demilitarise Scottish identity than all the bards, playwrights and protestors combined? It’s a strange feeling to be at one with a Tory Scotland Office minister when he warns that “Scotland’s defences would be reduced to little more than a handful of fisheries protection vessels”. Again, instead of being a critique, shouldn’t that be an aspiration?’

The issue is an ancient one, one of leadership. Who leads Scotland, and how did they get to that position is a key issue and one we’ll return to.

To ‘Take Caledonia’ we need to move beyond the idea of propping up a political class and see a future that begins to deal with Vinay Guptas big three lies. In doing so we’ll need to reinvent ourselves as a place and a people where bigger challenges are fought.

This May the choice isn’t between political parties it’s between political futures.

Comments (21)

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  1. David MacGille-Mhuire says:

    This is super.

    However, why nil mention of Socialist Republican activities and contributions to contemporary thinking in Scotland/Alba?

    MacLean, Connelly, Lygate, Muir of Huntershill and numerous other luminaries feted abroad.

    Why nothing about fundamental issues of history and conscience?

    The Scottish Enlightenment that helped found modern Europe in the face of persisting English parochialism and pig-ignorantly entrenched, until recently, in the “Oxbridge” veto of Jocks and Papes and Presbyterians and Non-conformists and Paddies and Taffies and other non-fitting candidates though founded by member of the self-same outfits.

    Maybe, conscien

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Fair point David, here’s an article ‘from the vaults’ where we cover some of the (important) ground you mention:

      https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2007/11/20/scotlands-libertarian-left/ an earlier interview with James D Young also covers some of the
      radical history your referring to (see Bella Caledonia #1).

    2. Tocasaid says:

      Is that Sorley Maclean? One could also add Murchadh MacPhàrlain, the ‘Melbost Bard’ of Lewis who railed in his poetry against ‘the British Hitlers’ who had decimated his people and language. Gaels are too often airbrushed out of our history by those who claim to have Scotland’s nationhood and people at heart.

  2. David MacGille-Mhuire says:

    … Conscience does indeed, ultimately, come out of the “barrel of a gun” ( pace the Meiji Restoration; the American War of Independence as well as other struggles)?

  3. Alastair McIntosh says:

    I’ve been culling pictures from Egypt this past fortnight to use when giving talks about nonviolence. A striking image has been large numbers of Muslims at prayer before the tanks. It excites me, since it perhaps not since the time of Ghaffar Khan (the “Muslim Gandhi”) and his nonviolent Khudai Khidmatgar against the British Raj that we have seen such public use of NVDA against oppressive power: in short, an Islamic theology of liberation which, it should be said, many of the radical Shi’a voices have long been.

    I make this observation prompted by your statements, “There is a simulacra of respect for these people, maintained only by the media-class reading the right script” and also “The issue is an ancient one, one of leadership. Who leads Scotland, and how did they get to that position is a key issue and one we’ll return to.” To me, both of these beg the question of real substance. Is there real substance to nationhood, to peoplehood, or is it all just a simulacra at the end of the day, a social construction? And I ask that question in the context of Renan’s famous 1882 Sorbonne lecture, “What is a Nation?” http://www.nationalismproject.org/what/renan.htm … which begins with the assertion: “A nation is a soul; a spiritual principle.”

    Renan was, of course a great Celtic scholar as well as a Catholic theologian. His assertion poses the question of essence – of essentialism in the sense of a spiritual core – of what George Steiner in “Real Presences” suggests is what determines whether or not there is anything in what we are able to say.

    To me, and I speak as one inspired by liberation theologies, the question facing Scotland today is the question of soul. Do we “believe”, or rather, have empirical experience that causes us to believe that ensoulment is for real? If so, how do we (in the sense that African animists understand) call back the soul – both individually and collectively as a nation.

    We have seen more than a century of materialist thought that ends not just in nihilism over such questions, but as Mike points out in this essay, outright corruption. I am weary of the corrupt and their prosaic corruption. I am interested in what it is that gives life – to the people, the land, the nation. Here in Govan this question is a life and death question. People need vision or else they perish. We need public intellectuals to explore this question so that we can forge from out the fire of life a politics of ensoulment.

    1. kevin says:

      I’m not sure what ‘soul’ is Alistair but I can recognise soulless. And that’s what weve got – a soulless economic system at large replicating its soulless meme of acquisition and greed. It’s destructive to the human. Scotland is no different to any other industrialised hierarchical soicety in that respect. We’ve just got an extra monkey on our back. FWIW IMO nation is an imagined community in the Benedict Anderson sense, yes, but like all imagined communities (with geographical boundaries) is an extension of real smaller communities. I can live with that, if its a community among a community of equals.

  4. George Mackin says:

    The musical theme of my year is not Imagine but Won’t Get Fooled Again. Nice to see some fresh thinking on old problems. I liked the article.Thanks.

    Chomsky talks about the need for left unity groups within the communities although he is unhappy with the clumsy nature of the term. I agree not cos it’s the brave and bold Chomsk’ but it amplifies what I have been thinking of late. How to construct, how to build, how to connect and how not to implode into a maelstrom of my my own anger and my own powerlessness? Answers on a postcard or a tweet or whatever please.

    I feel sympathy for Devine. Did he begin this journey in life as the man he is now or was there a decent man who day by day imbibed the poison of real-politiking to become the monster he became. Perhaps Connolly and Maclean and others were right after all and alcohol and politics don’t mix.

    I wouldn’t be too harsh on Municipal Socialism (we could do with some of it now in modern forms) Mike and certainly New Labour is more akin to politics in ancient Rome garb- grab as much of the goodies the state has to offer to ourselves and the folk around us while the music still plays..

    Yours Aye George M

  5. bellacaledonia says:

    I’m absolutely FOR real municipal socialism George, what we have in West of Scotland is a degraded version though…

  6. drew grozier says:

    Marvellous article.
    Another lie we’ve been fed since childhood is that radical change in a society can best achieved in Britain through non violence, e.g. Fabian Socialism. And it’s on this lie that the British Left (in whatever guise) have retained power in Scotland for too too long. Radical change can only come from the people. Are there enough true believers in Scotland to say form a human chain along the Border with England? Where are the twitter and facebook pages that will foster a revolution in this country.
    We need to break away from the power plays of the corporate fascists and the closet communists and fashion a true post industrial society.
    Tae say anymair wid be unlawfu unless ah cin meet wi like minds.
    Otherwise in the end its all talk talk talk.

    1. John Craig says:

      I sympathise with your notion that to say any more on certain subjects would be unlawful. It’s long been my opinion that we are being slowly pushed into a pen. There’s a massive disparity in the distribution of UK armed forces with almost no basic firepower in Scotland (other than our beloved Trident system). This should be of some concern to our government yet the situation is on going. This in itself is bad enough, but when the Scottish public have diminished access to weapons ( unless your are a member of the land-owning gentry), Police Scotland are armed and Police Scotland are carrying out covert surveillance on journalists, then maybe all we will be allowed to do is talk; as long as we choose our words carefully.

  7. douglas clark says:

    Marvellous article,

    though I don’t, necessarily agree with this extract from Vinay Gupta:

    ” Lie:Technology will save us.
    Truth: nanotechnology and biotechnology take all the problems of the nuclear age and make them cheap and self-replicating. We can’t handle it, we have no governance or risk management. We’re going to get walloped. Hard. ”

    That seems to leap from the idea that some science could save us to the equally ridiculous idea that just naming names – Oh Err! Biotech and Nanothech! is condemnatory enough to justify his conclusion.

    Well, it just doesn’t.

    I have gone over Alastair McIntosh’s post @ 5.06 pm and I can’t actually fault it. Though the idea of a soul is anathema to me, it seems to make a rhetorical rather than actual point. I wonder if Alastair is arguing from a religious perspective? Which is certainly not how I see nationalism. I am for a secular democracy, not anything else. It would be interesting to here or read more of what Alistair thinks.

  8. douglas clark says:

    drew grozier

    You may disagree with me, but I do think that what has happened in the Middle East is a horizontal splitting of nation states legitimancy. By that I mean that we are not here on this planet to be governed, we are capable of governing ourselves. And I think that is how Arabs are seeing it. The hierarchy is a busted flush. And, so, they see the last post imperial legacy, the idea that strong government is a necessary means, as perhaps a bankrupt idea.

    They do not need that and neither do we.

  9. Donald Adamson says:

    Alastair, excellent post, providing much food for thought and a fitting reply to Mike’s inspired piece. On the issue of social constructionism, I used to think that Benedict Anderson, in his Imagined Communities, made one of the most profound observations about nationalism when, referring to the ideological “emptiness” of nationalism, he wrote:

    “Unlike other isms nationalism has no grand thinkers, no Hobbesses, Tocquevilles, Marxes or Webers. This ‘emptiness’easily gives rise, among cosmopolitan and polylingual intellectuals, to a certain condescension”.

    This deceptively simple observation triggers all sorts of associations in the reader. For example, with the grand thinkers of the other isms you get grand narratives. Nationalism has no grand thinkers or grand narratives to compete with socialism, liberalism or conservatism for example. As a consequence, nationalism has no canonical tradition to draw on (or to defend itself with), unlike these other political traditions. Look at the way that the left has historically developed from early nineteenth century French socialism onwards, its factionalism being the most instructive example. Each faction believes that it, and it alone, is the authentic bearer of the ‘true’ ideology. But this contestation and its (canonical) development provide much of the elusive “substance” that you refer to here, that is wanting in nationalism.

    This is one of the reasons why nationalism, or what we call ‘nationalism’, is more vulnerable to a priorism and why it has such a powerful capacity to mobilise its opponents. One of the peculiarities of nationalism is that those who elect to offer us their opinions (in print or otherwise) about it are often the most hostile to it. None of the other isms come close to rivalling ‘nationalism’ in this respect.

    Even such free-thinking and original voices, but from very different political traditions, as Eric Hobsbawm and John Dunn, independently come to similar conclusions about nationalism, to the extent that they use exactly the same words to define it: “Nationalism is the belief in something that patently isn’t so” (there’s that word “belief” again). Though neither of them is very helpful in clarifying what this “something” is. It can’t be the nation, for the nation patently is so, contrary to the common misunderstandings of the term “imagined” in the title of Anderson’s book.

    It is perhaps Anderson’s reference to the “condescension” of “cosmopolitan intellectuals” that will be most familiar to many Scottish nationalists, whatever their location on the broad spectrum of political beliefs that comprise ‘nationalism’ in Scotland. A condescension that manifests itself in, among other things, ill-disguised contempt – the contempt that big nations have for small nations, that long-established nations have for new or aspiring nations (and aspiring nation-states), rich nations for poor nations, ‘developed’ nations for ‘undeveloped’ nations. Perhaps though, we Scots shouldn’t get upset about the Anglocentric bias of the BBC or the ‘British’ MSM or the lofty contempt that these ‘metropolitans’ effortlessly exhibit for ‘parochial’ nationalists. Maybe we should be encouraging their superiority complex, for they help to make Scotland a distinctive space and contribute to its sense of nation-ness though not, as yet, nation-stateness.

    But, engaging and original as Anderson’s thesis is, there is also a certain emptiness in his as well as other ‘modernisation’ theories of nationalism. And it’s this that chimes with your central point here. It took a refreshingly impartial, and genuinely curious, observer of nations and nationalisms like Anthony D. Smith to draw attention to this. Anderson’s thesis, like other modernisation approaches, is “cognitive”, it’s relatively blind to the “emotive resonances” that nations and nationalisms appeal to, and it has little to tell us about the “inner world” of nations and nationalisms. These, it seems to me, are close to what you refer to as “ensoulment”.

    What you refer to as the “soul” of the nation and this process of “ensoulment” is something that needs attention not only from our public intellectuals but from our artists also. If artists really are the antennae of the species – they feel or sense things, they see things, they articulate things though not, of course, in a programmatic way, before the rest of us – we need them, too, if this “ensoulment” is to have any meaningful transformative capacity.

    But although nationalism may be ideologically ‘empty’, and may lack a canonical tradition, it does have characteristics that set it apart from the other isms. One of these is its widespread appeal. Smith, for example, identifies three broad (and ongoing) developments in the post-war period that should encourage all those who struggle for national self-determination: popular legitimacy (i.e. nations and nation-ness are still the primary means of exercising popular legitimacy, and today we might affirm this by emphasising that this is partly because of not in spite of ‘globalisation’) ; normalisation (i.e. the nation has been normalised and it is arguably more difficult to think of a world without nations today than at any time in modern history); and replication (i.e. effectively, the demonstration effect, nationalism may lack the characteristics that Anderson and others have identified, but as more peoples across the world win self-determination, reclaim their nations, they inspire peoples in other nations to replicate their achievement). These also partly address your appeal for “empirical experience”, albeit in a general rather than a Scottish-specific sense.

    The protests in Egypt present dilemmas for Western liberals and “cosmopolitan” intellectuals who are used to venting their prejudices against ‘nationalism’. For how did the Egyptians collectively express their solidarity, their expression of their attempt to reclaim their nation? They waved their national flag and they sang their national anthem. All the instincts of the cosmopolitan intellectual tell her to condemn such ‘primitive’ displays of ‘narrow nationalism’. But of course, in the case of Egypt, though there are numerous other examples, she can’t. This takes us back to the core issue of your post. Whichever way you cut it, they waved their flags and they sang their anthem. They didn’t do this for the international TV stations or to gain the attention of an international audience. These particular practises were conducted for purely domestic purposes, for the eyes and ears of an Egyptian audience, most ominously for the watching Egyptian military.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your critique of materialism and of the need for a “vision” of Scottish independence. One of the consequences of the latest capitalist crisis is that the crown of homo economicus is slipping and, crucially, is widely seen to be slipping. We’re not in a position to steal that crown yet, of course, but we are getting there.

    The challenges for the Scottish left are, at the same time, its opportunities. How to provide a vision of an independent Scotland that captures the growing disaffection with the corrupt and dysfunctional British state and Labour-Tory neo-liberalism, and connect that with the “ensoulment” of Scotland, or maybe make that the foundation of the ensoulment? Much as I would like to see an independent Scottish workers’ republic, as we anticipate the full effects of Labour’s boom and bust and the mendacity of the Tories’ response, right now I’d settle for an independent Scotland that pursued an enlightened social democracy. Hardly perfect it’s true, and certainly not socialism, but even this small step, not as regressive or as unachievable as some would have us believe, would be a huge improvement on the fate that the British would decree for Scotland in the years ahead. Our aspirations have to be higher than making life a little more tolerable than they would be under the Tories. The poverty of that ambition is best left to Scottish Labour.

    Mike is right, the May election isn’t a choice between political parties, it’s a choice between political futures. The thought of Scottish Labour winning in May is too depressing to dwell upon and, if it happens, it might confirm the deepest fears of some nationalists that the Scots are indeed a defeated people. But, whatever the result in May, we mustn’t believe that. Maybe one day, in the not too distant future, we’ll be singing too.

    1. Pat Kane says:

      Provocative essay, evidently, by responses. But Donald I would slightly disagree with Anderson’s point that there have been no great theorists of nationalism a la Hobbes, Tocqueville, Marx, or Weber. We have one on our own doorstep, Tom Nairn, whose entire body of thinking (it seems to me) is a justification of the right of national self-determination in the shadow of overbearing imperial powers. And no-one has been more eclectic or searching in his sources to justify that. The most relevant of his recent essays is from the LRB, where Nairn grapples with exactly the kind of network-inspired politics that Mike and I are also inspired by at the moment, and wrestles it into an engagement with what democratic nationalism can actually do for its populations, practically and immediately.

      1. Pat Kane says:

        And, I just realised, Nairn’s critiquing a kind of left spiritualism (sorry Alastair!) in this piece:

        “…. however misguided it is, some may still feel Empire and Multitude to be on their side, allied to democracy and the left. Susan Sontag wrote that ‘an idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may serve the needs of the spirit.’ But unfortunately, spiritual needs are served here by adventures onto a terrain already occupied by fundamentalists of varying hues, all ready with their own formulae for rapture and ecstasy. Each one has its own multitudes of the faithful, armed and ready for great encounters still to come. Norman Cohn, the historian of millennial thought, traces the idea back to Zoroaster (Zarathustra), who added the idea of a happy ending to previous visions of disaster: ‘a glorious consummation of order over disorder, known as “the making wonderful”, in which “all things would be made perfect, once and for all”’. Later the notion was transmitted via Hebraism to Christianity. In When Time Shall Be No More (1992), Paul Boyer gave a graphic account of how strong this belief remains among born-again Americans, and more recently still Anatol Lieven has underlined the rapport between such apocalyptic convictions and US political identity in America Right or Wrong (2004). Unfortunately, being on our side has in this wider context the sense of carrying our side over to their terrain: we too have our apocalypse, better than the rest.

        No we don’t. Globalisation must be about burying such delusions, not reviving them. It’s for the boondocks and the bearers of boundary stones, not for intellectuals avoiding the graveyard of their kind of aristocracy through a rehabilitation of spiritualism.

  10. Donald Adamson says:

    Pat, Tom Nairn as a “great theorist of nationalism”? You won’t hear any arguments from me. But I was making a slightly different point. Without wishing to be too tortuous about the definition of a “grand thinker”, I don’t think that Nairn, for all his brilliance, has contributed to a grand narrative and canonical tradition, as I called it. In other words, a tradition with universal pretensions, that can be summonsed, mobilised to motivate political action, and that inspires enduring beliefs and values. But this is an issue for nationalism rather than Nairn himself, which is the other broad point I was trying to make. Nationalism doesn’t lend itself to these grand narratives, that’s not what this particular ism is about.

    This, it seems to me, is one of the points that Nairn himself implies in the helpful link that you provided (many thanks for that). The implication being that, compared to those other isms, in our contemporary globalising and nation-state building world, this may actually prove to be a strength rather than a weakness of nationalism. Here, Nairn’s periodisation of nationalism, particularly his comparison of post-1989 nationalisms with their predecessors is instructive. His reference to the late Fred Halliday’s point that, “nationalism has been promoted ‘by processes of globalisation’ and its paradox is to ‘stress the distinct character of states and people’ while itself being manifestly a global phenomenon” is similar to a point that I tried to make, albeit more prosaically. That is, that nations and nation-ness are still the primary means of exercising popular legitimacy, and today we might affirm this by emphasising that this is partly because of rather than in spite of globalisation.

    Hardt and Negri may have performed some nifty intellectual manoeuvres in their attempt to salvage their pre-9/11 argument in Empire that imperialism is “over” but few seriously believe that now, and that’s before we factor in the likely trajectory of China in future decades. In effect, one of the things that Nairn is communicating to us is that the universalist pretensions of Hardt and Negri’s “multitude” will probably go the same way as the other grand narratives. Here, it might be argued that this particular aspect of Anderson’s discussion appears somewhat archaic today.

    In this respect, Nairn’s reference to Norman Kohn echoes that of Leszek Kolakowski’s conclusions about historical materialism, in his magisterial Main Currents of Marxism:

    “The idea that half a million years of man’s life on earth and five thousand years of written history will suddenly culminate in a ‘happy ending’ is an expression of hope”.

    Finally, I wonder if you’re being just a wee bit a harsh on Alastair (who I’m sure will speak for himself)? I may have mis-read him, in which case I owe both him and you an apology, but his question: “what [is] it that gives life – to the people, the land, the nation”, is one that we do need to engage with and understand in Scotland, not to promote “left spiritualism” but to help us to navigate a way out of our current malaise.

  11. bellacaledonia says:

    There may be a possibility of getting ‘lost in theory here’ but it seems that the line: ‘Today time is split between a present that is already dead and a future that is already living … In time, an event will thrust us like an arrow into that living future. This will be the real political act of love’ would seem to be be made for the Arab Spring.

    I’d also argue that there’s a sort of spirituality in common endeavour to overthrow tyranny (an Arendtian vita activa) and therefore Alastair and Pat may not be as far part as first thought

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