Gordon Asher and Leigh French’s ‘Crisis Capitalism and Independence Doctrines’ is a critique of the independence movement seen as one that is reformist and shallow in it’s potential to deliver any transformation of Scottish society. It is an extended version of a contribution to a book to be published later this year. The authors have been instrumental in Variant magazine – one of the UK’s most insightful sources of radical critical thinking for decades.
The authors argue that it “Our motivation is the concern that while the independence referendum could be an opportunity for dialogical participation it is instead functioning as a process of closure, where independence is posited as ‘progressive’ – as if “independence (give or take all the known variables) is a known quality” (i) This habit of thinking serves to co-opt struggles and movements working for social justice in ways that demand critical attention.”
This call for a political movement that is self-critical and open to new ideas and dynamics is the strongest aspect of the contribution. But while the authors raise important questions, they are largely railing against imagined enemies. The edifice of the article is essentially a category mistake. They suggest trenchant and complex arguments against a trans formative revolutionary act, but fail to realise that no-one is arguing that the referendum, in and of itself is such a thing. We are therefore faced with what is essentially an internal monologue, a series of arguments blossoming out from this false premise: critiquing ‘democracy’ as if the referendum in 2014 was proposing a revolutionary new form of direct or economic democracy (‘Returning to conflations of voting with participatory politics, it seems important to emphasise referenda are not liberating acts of direct democracy’). This is followed by a well-worn (and well aimed) analysis of the shortcomings of the Homecoming (2009) event and it’s cultural and racial exclusivity. This attempt to tie a government marketing campaign to the independence movement is a confusion that is combined by a familiar re-tread of Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities thesis (“imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”).
There follows a discourse on ‘nationalism’ (‘Focusing on nationalism – on national/ethnic identity – homogenises and flattens our multiple, complex and mutable identities’) which seems adrift from decades of debate about self-determination, cultural identity, socialism, and the national question.But the question remains ‘Focusing on nationalism – on national/ethnic identity’ – who is actually doing this? Most of this is imagined.
French and Asher argue that “having the political class closer to home doesn’t necessarily make replacing them any easier, never mind challenging the idea of a political class per se” and in this they are absolutely right. But this argument is one which the nationalist left is acutely aware of and is repeated and explored in and amongst the burgeoning publishing and media forums that are thriving in pre-independent Scotland.
There seems to be no acknowledgement of, consciousness of or engagement with these forums or discussions. It’s an important question for – perhaps both these forms and the writers themselves have to ask, why is this? Do we live and work in such silos that these movements have no crossover?
In the final set of arguments French and Asher state: “At the risk of stating the obvious, Scotland is part of the capitalist and neocolonial order. Its institutions and systems of law and governance operate within the logic of that order, which did not ‘happen to’ some hitherto-undefiled Scotland after 1707”. This is true but whilst self-mythologising and romanticisation of Scotland’s egalitarian past is rampant, the authors analysis seems devoid of any awareness of the process of colonisation (however defined) that took place. This is a historical. Of course Scotland is part of the capitalist and neo-colonial order. ‘We are all prostitutes’ etc. Save from (say) Chiapas and occasional deliberative communities, disputed T.A.Z., we all are part of the system. But in choosing to ignore Scotland’s different political cultures, roots, traditions and trajectories, the authors set themselves apart and create yet another false summit to be triumphantly climbed. No-one, simply no-one suggests Scotland is not part of the capitalist order. What is suggested is that there’s a discernible political culture and aspiration that is markedly more progressive and egalitarian than can be currently expressed through a subordinate devolved chamber. This is ignored but in doing so the authors separate themselves from contemporary political debate to instead discuss as set of conditions and arguments which do not exist.
In setting out their ideas in this fashion they have created a set of four constructs: that civic nationalism is a dangerous myth, that lack of integrative thinking means the independence movement is shallow and fails to confront nexus of power on different related levels and that the forms of statehood and democracy being constructed are dangerously open to corporate corruption and capture which haunt Westminster, and indeed Holyrood.
What’s striking about the article are three large holes or blindspots. There are three simple elements that have gone awol: it lacks an analysis of power of the British State (particularly of the military complex), it lacks any cultural attachment and it seems oddly bereft. Issues of enclosure, language loss, self-colonisation, contemporary British imperialism, environmental justice are glossed over or lost completely. Trident, use of depleted uranium, Cape Wrath, Raytheon or Faslane are ignored – presumably because the rich and radical interwoven history of the women’s movement, the peace movement and the independence movement is inconvenient in the narrative they are building.
Whilst ‘civic nationalism’ is poked at, British nationalism is ignored, and this the entity that brought us the charnel house of the Iraq War. No consideration either of the role of Scottish elites in Westminister. As Nairn writes – prefiguring this the 2012 Year Long Celebration of Queen Flag & Empire in 2007: “Gordon Brown launched an unprecedented campaign to boost not just New Labour but British identity as such at a Fabian conference in January 2006. Should he become Prime Minister, the ‘Save Britain’ movement threatens to raise us-style flagpoles in Ukanian front gardens for the restored Union flag; ‘Britain Day’ could soon succeed the former ‘Empire Day’. But if Brown believes that old-style Britishness can be conjured up from the dead, he is mistaken.”
To discuss the periphery – edge-land – is to veer dangerously into ‘the spatial’. In doing so the Anglosphere is re-established. To be wedded to it is natural, normal and to question this marks you out as ‘nationalist’.
Perhaps Nairn was wrong (it took a far slicker operation than Brown to play resurrecter). But for French and Asher the nationalism under question is Scottish, others are not to be questioned. But Iraq (‘an infamous and gory failure of the old, in which Great Britain’s role has lapsed into a despicable mixture of bleating apologist and camp guard’), possibly the guiding light that brought us here to this point, is not on the table. Nor is recent history. The process of political collapse, legitimacy failure and regime meltdown that we have lived here is simply not present in this account.
How did constitutional reform come about? How and why are we in the pre-amble to an independence referendum? However much you may despise it and find it in failing – you still have to somehow account for it? You can’t do that without examining the Thatcher-Blair continuum and the (failed) efforts of the Anglo-British State to re-brand and re-articulate itself. Nairn again:
On the constitutional reform front, the radical horizons of 1998 have taken on the dimensions of a disintegrating dog-kennel. In 2005, the ancient Westminster magic returned New Labour to office with a large majority based upon less than 22 per cent of the electoral vote. New Labour then returned the favour by making clear it had no serious plans whatever to farther alter the system that has ‘served us so well’. In 1997, for instance, the preposterous House of Lords was to have been transformed into an at least semi-democratic, electable second chamber. But a decade on, this affront to democracy still awaits its nemesis—the only substantial difference being that by now nobody expects anything better, or indeed takes much interest in the farce. Blair’s collapse has involved his interrogation by the police about an ongoing peerages-for-cash scandal. ‘Modernization’ of this kind has generated a UK climate recognizable enough in many other parts of the neoliberal world: generalized scorn and despair of politics and politicians. (ii)
We have lived since through a further descent, a further exposure of relations, a further crisis of governance from feral bankers to a rolling narrative of the violence of finance capitalism centred around and drawing strength from the Square Mile.
But the truly sad thing about ‘Crisis Capitalism and Independence Doctrines’ is it’s inability to explore ‘possibility’, and this from writers who eschew a libertarian socialist analysis, a worldview that could and should thrive on potentiality.
In French and Asher’s analysis (in amongst seeming complexity) there’s much binary simplicity.
The argument – developed at some length – appears to be that because the independence referendum does not include, embrace and aim to resolve at a stroke a pot pourri of issues and in and of itself resolve capitalism, it is politically not just useless but reactionary. This is Magic Wand Theory which lacks credibility and seems to expose the authors to accusations of a sort of comforting and infectious form of lost loserism. It is a historical, and, incredibly from editors of a Variant, lacks any sort of cultural rootedness.
As James Kelman has written recently:
Scotland does have a history. I’m not sure where it belongs, in the history of servitude, subjection, psychotic inferiorisation, god knows, these different ways people avoid responsibility. We need a proper debate and it’s up to us that it should go that way. How many of us never mind the rest of Britain know that those in favour of independence are not necessarily nationalist? It’s said of me. Let me repeat I am not a nationalist but I favour independence 100%. I was on a platform with four other Scottish writers in France recently. Each of us favours independence, and none of us is a Nationalist, as far as I know.
Independence is not an economic decision, it concerns self-respect. How many countries do we know in the world where the people need a debate about whether or not they should determine their own existence.
Perhaps Kelman is culpable too? Where does this take you? Where does it take us?
There is a hesitancy. Amidst a cloud of references (‘Zlatko Hadžidedić’ ‘Swyngedouw’) the only specific reference to anyone or anything from the independence movement itself is to Gerry Hassan. No attempt is made to engage with the radical elements coalescing around a key strategic goal. In this analysis there is no gay Edwin Morgan, no Irvine Welsh no green Alison Johnstone. There’s no Leanne Woods or Isobel Lindsay either. Where’s Jimmy Reid?
Instead, the authors seem lost: “Rather than taking a pro- or an anti-stance to voting (if at all) in the referendum, here we seek to problematise the central terms, narratives, limits, assumptions and promises of the independence campaigns, in a spirit of critical dialogue foregrounding the evolution of an empowered and engaged populous.”
So, given the opportunity to be part of a movement of change that has a specific historical opportunity to dismantle the British State, these activists choose … nothing. No view, just a sort of puritan abdication, a sort of disaffection.
Yes to openness.
Yes to the possible.
Yes to peace.
Yes to sovereignty.
Yes to whatever’s next.
(i)‘We need to have a One Question Referendum. It is that simple!’, Gerry Hassan, January 28th, 2012: http://www.gerryhassan.com/uncategorized/we-need-to-have-a-one-question-referendum-it-is-that-simple/