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A Reputation Not Reconsidered

In a recent Scottish Review article, Kenneth Roy takes the opportunity of the announcement of the late Edwin Morgan’s will to expose what he sees as a hypocrisy in the Scottish liberal left in terms of its unwillingness to condemn Morgan’s riches while fulminating against bank profits. The piece is eloquent and has valid concerns about takeovers in ‘care’ and about the quietism within the Scottish establishment even post-May (a network of power which has been tracked by Political Scientists since the early days of devolution) – but there is something unwholesome about the way Roy attributes to what he calls an ‘unreconstructed left’, no names named, an unwillingness to condemn anything that touches on ‘the market’, including Morgan himself.

The question is why this failing-to-condemn version of the left is described as ‘unreconstructed’; rather, here there is a knee-jerkiness which assumes that condemnation of ‘the market’ is and should be built in to every conversation; it is this that feels ‘unreconstructed’, and whether consciously or not, whiffs of old British statist orthodoxy.

There are at least two serious problems with Roy’s commentary which would suggest it belongs to the statist old-left. The first is a technical question of literary disciplinarity: the whole business of ‘reputation’ on which his analysis rests, the centering of readings around individual sensibilities, was a staple of that British-imperial organisation of writing (along class lines) which became known as English Literature; sensibility and reputation have little place in post-British reading. During the high period of empire, the ideal sensibility was the one which was the carrier of civility – so that, just like the British-imperial constitution to which it was tied, it could be described as ideally (that is, ahistorically) as Anglo-British – allowing for cultural expansion as a cheaper and less troublesome alternative to military takeover during the Pax Britannica. This era has often been retrospectively and misguidedly been described as a high point of economic liberalism – but was in fact dependent an imperial idea of ever-expanding markets, which helps explain why both Britain and the British discipline of English Literature are in such deep trouble now.

Part of the pleasure of reading Edwin Morgan has always been his disregard for individual reputation. His experimental energy and his relentless humanism constantly frustrate any reading in terms of concern for his own standing as an individual, or ‘reputation’. The ‘reputation’ business is individualist, critically long since discredited, and frankly depressing, and is locked in to a British-imperial conception literature’s mission. Morgan has never substantially been incorporated into English Literature despite huge popularity in Scotland, largely because his work strikes the wider community as an expression of a certain kind of un-British civicism which does not rely on the individual reputation or sensibility as underscoting a correct type of voice which can then be used to psychologise a whole discrete body of work. Put another way, if you centre literary discussion on biography and literary reputation, what you’re doing is methodologically English Literature, even if the names on it are Scottish: the disciplinarity remains the same, but just takes on a different cast of members (and in this sense it has much in common with the British hijacking of the term ‘multiculturalism’). This may all sound obvious to some, but it remains lost on not only general readers but also a fair number of professional Scottish literary critics.

The second problem with this critique concerns the ethics of being in touch with ‘the market’. It’s certainly true that Morgan sat on pile of unearned cash that could have been working in some other way (though he did, in passing, spread it out to according to his beliefs and with the kind of modest forward-looking integrity he showed in life) – but the implication of the ‘reputations’ piece is an unseemlier one which whiffs of a specifically statist form of redistribution and of the public (at UK-level, of course, there has been no functioning public for some time). There is a misconception, the kind you might pick up reading The Guardian, and one peddled by the really-unreconstructed left, that tax money is paid to hospitals and schools. Not true: tax money is paid to the state, which then spends some of it on hospitals and schools, but quite a lot of it on creating asset bubbles to bind labour, past, present, and future, to its own power for purely instrumental reasons. And this for of debt-slavery-as-citizenship finds its highest expression true of a unitary, unconstitutional state, of which the UK represents a rare example. Thus the disasters – and the opportunities – of the 2008-2011 period, when it began to become clear that it was not simply the case that the UK state had helped along a debt bubble, but more widely that at base the UK state was a debt bubble. With the coalescence of resource scarcity, democratic deficit, and systemic economic corruption, the re-heated corporate state of tax obligation and avoidance of ‘the market’ has little to say to this, even if what it’s trying to say takes on a Scottish accent. The problem of 2008, after all, was that the state bailed out the banks: although profit was assumed to have been predicated on the possibility of loss, it turned out that in this version of British ‘liberalism’ there was no moral hazard at all, banks could not lose since the state was always underwriting the emptiest, most soul-destroying type of accumulation with taxpayers’ money; it turned out also that amongst the British left this was seen as a relatively unproblematic state of affairs. ‘The market’ then was not quite the problem – what was, rather, was the underwriting of an empty, debt-based, and unproductive market by the corporate state. If there is an opportunity for the post-British Scottish left, it is to drop this knee-jerk fear of ‘the market’ which only works in favour of the worst type of ‘market’, and welcome entrepreneurialism. This has nothing to do with Sir Sugar Lord, or however the state broadcaster now demands we styles that loathsome illiterate; it is something much closer to the restless, networking, filesharing, scarcity-aware creation which can be seen in figures like Pat Kane or (sorry) the editors of this journal. This cannot happen at the level of the United Kingdom, a state only existing for imperial reasons. The UK doesn’t do ‘liberalism’, and wouldn’t recognise a free market if it was slapped in the face by one. Indeed what is needed in a post-British environment is a kind of ‘political entrepreneurialism’: one in which future-oriented, risk-taking, and creative networks are fostered and eclipse the rotten-borough-esque mantra of ‘but you mustn’t touch the market’. Seen at the cusp of British-statist debtonomics and the need for creative solutions to democratic deficit throughout the UK and energy scarcity, a harrumphing over our unwillingness to condemn Morgan’s willingness to touch the ‘market’ is more toxic than it at first seems.

Morgan was not a perfect figure. But he lived ascetically yet playfully, humanistically and with almost boundless generosity, open to experiment both in aesthetics and in life, and eschewed the debt-mired statist consumerist-shite-for-all-and-like-it ethic that was pushed pretty constantly by the Labour Party from the 1940s. He may have had shares, but (at least when I knew him) he had no TV, and so could not be compelled to subsidise the British state and their banking associates through a form of propaganda taxation which is iniquitous even by our standards. Modestly and in an uncondemning way, he knew he had no time for be brainwashed by the old left of any country (as his public run-ins with Hugh MacDairmid testify). And his work appeals to our sense of the civic, the ludic, the humanitarian, and, to an extent the entrepreneurial – and especially given that he was a ‘sleeping player’ in shares terms – expecting us to automatically condemn any contact he might have had with the market really stinks. Morgan’s ‘legacy’ (we will use that word in its doubly counter-Burkean sense, straddling economic and literary meanings) points to a spirit which is entrepreneurial, which has red, black, and green elements, which is future-oriented in both Deleuzian and devolutionary senses, and which relentlessly converts po-faced base-superstructure orthodoxy into more ludic and productive forms. Should we condemn him for owning shares? A thousand blessings on his memory.

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  1. DougtheDug says:

    It’s interesting to contrast Kenneth Roy’s treatment of Edwin Morgan and the late Labour stalwart Donald Dewar.

    Both men when they died left estates worth over £2 Million but in his article on the recent choice of 25 great Scots “Dewar and Black lead the field of greats by miles”, which is on the current front page of the Scottish Review he describes Edwin Morgan as a, “wealthy admirer”, of Alex Salmond while Donald Dewar’s estate gets nary a mention amongst the accolades of, “astute stewardship”, “father of the nation”, “Scotland’s man of destiny”, “chief facilitator” and “inaugural leader”. A certain double standard at work there.

    Slightly off topic, though it is in the article you link to, is Kenneth Roy’s assertion that the reaction of the Scottish Government on the death of Lord Roger was hypocritical because one of them, “…suggested earlier this month that what Lord Rodger and his colleagues knew about Scots law they had picked up on a visit to Edinburgh during the festival..”.

    He was of course referring to Kenny MacAskill. At that time there were twelve justices in the Supreme Court ten of whom had not come through the Scottish legal system and what what Kenny MacAskill actually said was, “We’ll do so through our own courts at our own pace in our own way, not have it imposed by a court in London that is made up of a majority of judges who do not know Scots Law, who may have visited here for the Edinburgh Festival”.

    It’s surprising the number of journalists who paraphrase quotes to twist their meaning.

  2. Derick fae Yell says:

    “debtonomics” – love it!

    A rather better critique of Roy (as is DtD’s comment) than recent blunt instrument attempt on Newsnet

  3. Donald Adamson says:

    Michael,

    This is an excellent piece, advancing powerful and subtle arguments. I hope, though, that it doesn’t get lost in the spate of articles that have appeared on Bella in the last 24 hours and which are providing tough competition for our attention.

    Since the last Scottish election, Kenneth Roy has written a number of articles that have had the clear objective of tempering the triumphalism of the ‘nats’, bringing them down to earth with a bump. This is no bad thing in itself, whether Roy is wearing his ‘voice of reason’ hat, as in his piece on the SNPs election victory (‘The Myth of a United Scotland’, Scottish Review 10th May 2011), or his iconoclast’s hat, as in the Edwin Morgan piece.

    It’s inevitable, though, that these articles, given their brevity, are as notable for what is left unsaid as they are for their actual content. Having said that, his brief articles are also good journalism, which is why I don’t think that we should lose sight of your opening sentences in this piece and, in this week of all weeks, we should be grateful for all the good journalism we can find. But your paper is a wonderful antidote to his article. Incidentally, it wouldn’t be difficult to counter his arguments in his 10th May piece, though better that it didn’t take the form of the abusive response to it that he received from assorted nationalists – apparently it was Ian Hamilton who provided an explanation for this response, Roy was being too “gloomy”. P.G. Wodehouse will be birlin in his grave!

    Was Morgan right to hold shares in trust? Perhaps the issue here is not so much how should we judge Morgan but whether we should judge him? Some may be tempted to respond by citing the fact, as some of Marx’s biographers never tire of reminding us, that Marx sometimes played the stock market and often lived off the generosity of Engels. Let’s not complicate this here by asking where Engels got his money from! In a letter to Engels he wrote, “had I had the money during the past ten days, I’d have made a killing on the Stock Exchange here. The time has come again when, with wit and very little money, it’s possible to make money in London”. Marx, of course, was permanently in debt and lived in poverty for much of his life, punctuated by occasional bouts of extravagance, everything from unaffordable parties to generous donations to various workers’ associations. His estate, consisting largely of books and furniture, was valued at £250.

    Others might cite Keynes, who as college bursar, starting with an initial fund of £30,000, increased King’s College’s “chest” ten-fold at a time when equity markets were in decline. He did this, he said, by “keeping quiet”, that is, analysing fundamentals and holding on to stocks that other less gifted but often more wealthy players (it was ever thus) ditched theirs. Curiously though, what they both had in common was contempt and repugnance for the vulgarities of money-making. This is an interesting phenomenon in itself, for example, it’s one of the features that distinguishes the residual aristocratic from the industrial wing of the bourgeoisie as well as the petty bourgeois and the nouveaux riche. The latter, in particular, are not encumbered with such delicate pecuniary sensibilities. Edwin Morgan doesn’t seem to have ‘played’ the stock market and he seems to have shared their distaste for a life dedicated to money-making. I’m not aware of how closely he monitored the value of his shares. But whether he did or didn’t, it hardly addresses the questions that you raise here, so we cannot explain his situation by falling back on the argument that Morgan was in good company. I do think that it is interesting enough to draw attention to it, not least because it feeds in to some of your arguments here.

    What I really want to comment on, briefly, is the subject of the “unwholesomeness” that you refer to in this paper and your excellent penultimate paragraph. This is a tricky area for everyone on the left, but particularly for Marxists, who are right to be deeply suspicious of the illusions of ‘market socialism’, but I don’t think that’s what you’re arguing for. There is a huge difference between arguing that the spirit of the ‘market’ should be harnessed to promote what you call “political entrepreneurialism” (after all, markets, like money, predate capitalism by millennia) and arguing that the capitalist market is the most efficient means to allocate scarce resources. This suggests to me that what you might have in mind here, would sit comfortably with what Erik Olin Wright has called “real utopias” as well as with the “cracks” in capitalism that John Holloway has addressed.

    I think that your response to what you call “the statist form of redistribution” is a most telling point, particularly if, as you do here, it is linked to the British context which, since the 1970s, has been passing through the transition from a crisis in the state to a crisis of the state. In this respect, devolution becomes a form of crisis-management. But this (crisis-management) is also taking on new forms today. For example, the debtocracy’s ongoing strategy of shifting private liabilities into the public sector suggests, as you acknowledge, that the “unreconstructed left” shouldn’t be our only target here. Those apologists for neo-liberalism who are now condemning the banks are the same people who, for several decades, have been promoting the very practices that the banks have been conducting: vulgar entrepreneurialism, risk-taking, risk-spreading, the creation of new commodities, opening new markets, competitive capital accumulation and so on. The banks are to be criticised by the apologists of capital, it would seem, for being too successful!

    I would also link your piece to some of Justin Kenrick’s arguments in his article above, ‘What is the Commons and How does it Work?’. He is right to draw attention to the shift in position of the mature Marx, although others have made the point before. The only quibble that I have with his piece is that I wish he had used the term ‘labour power’ rather than “labour”. This isn’t just a question of semantics, for again, it feeds in to some of your and his arguments.

    Labour power has two meanings. One is descriptive, and refers to all the faculties (intellectual, physical, emotional etc) that we use to produce commodities. The other meaning is analytical, it refers to our capacity to create value. Labour power, then, is the commodity that labour sells to the capitalist in exchange for a wage. Both these meanings are important not least because, for Marx, human beings were, fundamentally, productive and creative. Marx criticised (unfairly in my opinion) Adam Smith’s “philosophy” of labour but it is the possibilities of Marx’s often unacknowledged arguments here that suggest what you call “political entrepreneurialism” and what Justin implies as the ‘common good’. Justin links this to Marx’s call for a return to “communal property” but we also need to note the young Marx’s foundational critique of private property that informed the former:

    “Private property has made us so stupid and narrow-minded that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists as capital for us or when we directly possess, eat, drink, wear, inhabit it, etc. in short, when we use it.” (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts).

    It is a small step from this to the recognition of the potential of the ‘common good’, particularly if we recognise that capitalism demonstrates, as no other previous mode of production has demonstrated, that production, distribution and exchange are social products, social activities. All (!) we need to do now is reclaim the commons, reclaim what has been taken from us. I like to think that Scottish independence might be the beginning of this process. The statist form of redistribution was an attempt by the capitalist state to save capitalism from itself. The debtocracy’s shifting of private liabilities to the public sector can be seen in the same light. But our collective failure to end the reproduction of our subordination to capitalism is a constant reminder of the futility of our periodic attempts to save capitalism from itself.

    We seem to have moved away from Edwin Morgan. Maybe not, though. I like your reference here to the “red, black and green” elements of Morgan’s legacy – inside every genuine socialist there is an anarchist waiting to break out. In that sense, long after Edwin Morgan’s shares have been ditched we might get a better sense of perspective that permits us to conclude that he was a man ahead of his time.

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