Common Sense, Scottish Thought and Current Politics

900ffdb9e3873f3dcdb714e501c7f0ed-gAll movements need to connect themselves to their past. Richard Gunn connects the threads of Scotland’s radical history with today’s independence movement.

In an interview held in 2010, Bella Calledonia reminds John Holloway of his earlier involvement with the Edinburgh-based journal Common Sense (published between 1987 and 1999).[1]

Bella Caledonia observes that there ‘seems to be a continuity’ between Common Sense and Holloway’s later Crack Capitalism, and goes on to wonder whether this connection is real. Holloway’s response is unequivocal: ‘For me, the continuity is very real and very important’. Especially important was the link between the ‘common-sense aspect of Scottish eighteenth-century philosophy’ – the view of common sense which Common Sense favoured – and the conviction that ‘being an anti-capitalist revolutionary is the most ordinary thing in the world, simply part of everyday life’.

Reading these words on the Bella Caledonia website recently, I felt that I was transported through time.

The time was the late 1980s, when the early issues of Common Sense appeared. Together with Werner Bonefeld and John Holloway and some others, I was a member of the Common Sense collective; words quoted in the Bella Caledonia interview reminded me how vital and self-transformative – personally and politically and conceptually – the Common Sense project was. The atmosphere which surrounded the journal was electric. Distinctive perspectives fused and fertilized one another and developed in different but related directions. Distinctive vocabularies – those of critical theory, of autonomist Marxism and of Scottish philosophy – presented themselves in lights that could be surprising. Underlying Common Sense was a conviction that could be implicit or explicit: political and philosophical ideas exist in and through, and as part of, what Holloway terms ‘everyday life’. A radical political idea or movement must have a first-person, grassroots existence. A truthful philosophy must address an audience amongst whom mutual recognition prevails. Whether theoretical or practical, ideas subsist in and through interaction. They subsist, that is, through shared or common sense. And they must understand themselves as subsisting in this fashion.

The just-summarised points give a reader an idea of what Common Sense stood for. But an all-important step remains to be made. Mention must be made of the journal’s most striking conceptual reversal: in its pages, the term ‘common sense’ ceases to mean, merely, current prejudices and assumptions. It points out ahead towards free interaction in an unreified world. Everyday life becomes shot through with not-yet-existence. Understood in terms of common sense, nothing counts as stable. Cracks – to employ Holloway’s later term – open within it, and points forward to what may become. Such is the argument, I note in passing, of Holloway’s Crack Capitalism. As the Bella Caledonia interview indicates, Crack Capitalism (published in 2010) connects directly with debates of the Common Sense period.

The first issue of Common Sense appeared in May 1987. Since then, a period of almost thirty years has elapsed. Do the ideas that were associated with the journal still have meaning? I propose that they do. In what follows, I suggest that Common Sense was right to link grassroots revolution with the ‘common-sense aspect of Scottish eighteenth-century philosophy’ (in Holloway’s formulation). And I sketch issues which, from a Common Sense-inspired viewpoint, arise concerning the independence debate.


The title of Common Sense and articles in its pages relate Scottish thought to a radical, first-person viewpoint on political issues. Was Common Sense justified in so doing? I suggest that it was. The history of Scottish social and political thinking between 1560 and the 1770s – or between the Scottish Reformation and the high point of the Scottish Enlightenment – is complex and many-sided. But it bears out the proposal that face-to-face interaction is a theme to which Scottish thinking recurred.

It is true that, from a Common Sense-inspired viewpoint, much in Scottish thought is a disappointment. The Scottish Reformation was a revolt of the ‘nobility and estates’ of Scotland as much as the ‘commonality’ – I borrow John Knox’s terminology. When the National Covenant of 1638 spoke in favour of ‘Noblemen, Barons, Gentlemen, Burgesses, Ministers & Commons’, it underscored existing social orders rather than conjuring a comminity that was interactive and free. When the line of Stuart monarchs was ended, in 1688-89, an upsurge of clerical authority and witchcraft persecution were amongst the results. In the eighteenth century, piety based on Natural Theology became hegemonic: Francis Hutcheson spoke for many when he referred to the ‘benevolence’ of the ‘ORIGINAL MIND’. In the same fashion, Colin McLaurin rounded off his exposition of Newton by admiring ‘an All-Governing Deity’ and Thomas Reid grounded common sense in humanity’s God-given ‘constitution’. An easy-going belief that all was for the best in a divinely ordered nature underlay some (but not all) of the Scottish Enlightenment’s positions. Worse still from a Common Sense-inspired view, there seemed to be no equivalent in Scotland of a Rousseau who pointed accusingly to Natural Law’s and the Enlightenment’s property-based social assumptions. When Adam Ferguson came to draw up a list of kinds of people who might serve in a civic militia, he ended on a telling note: the list ‘excludes all Cottagers, Day-Labourers and Servants’. Thereby, he draws a line around the social élite who might, in his view, be socially active. The Scottish Enlightenment, which has been celebrated as a hotbed of genius, can no less accurately be described as a hotbed of philosophical and political complacency.

This said, Scottish thought of the period between 1560 and the 1770s contains fissures and insights and patterns of thought which support Common Sense’s claims. I sketch three such patterns.

(i) The first is the pattern of ideas linked to philosophical scepticism. This pattern is, at first, difficult to see – for two reasons: it is conceptual (or “philosophical”) and, further, it enters Scottish thought in an indirect way. Let me explain.

By scepticism I mean the view that truth claims and value claims lack a conceptual basis. In the sixteenth century, a characteristic move made by scepticism-influenced thinkers was to despair of human reason and turn, instead, to faith. One such thinker was Jean Calvin – and the Scottish Reformation was Calvinist in character. When, in 1560, Scotland imported Calvinism it took on board more than faith and dogma and assurance. It committed itself to a sometimes-agonizing process of questioning and self-doubt. When, in the eighteenth century, David Hume renewed sceptical perspectives he gave deeply ingrained anxiety a voice. For this reason, he was both admired and denounced by his contemporaries. Hume was familiar with the ‘despair’ (his word) which a consistently applied scepticism might bring, and sought to avoid it. Not all of his attempts were successful, however. A notably weak attempt was his invocation, in his Essays, of market mechanisms: just as a Calvinist placed his/her trust in God, so Hume trusted the market to arrange human affairs aright. This was not, it is true, Hume’s only solution to problems of scepticism. And at no point did Hume consider that a realm of pre-sceptical innocence might be restored. A philosopher must live in a demystified and disenchanted world. How was this possible? In the event, it was Adam Smith (Hume’s close personal friend) who took up scepticism’s challenge. For Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, human interaction was deep enough and resourceful enough to address foundational issues. At this point, a proviso implicit in Smith’s argument must be noted: interaction may address foundational issues as long as the to-and-fro dynamic of conversation is unimpeded. Smith’s Wealth of Nations – a work frequently, and wrongly, read as a hymn of praise to market relations – depicts a society where conversation is corrupt.


How does all this relate to Common Sense’s project? The image of interaction presented in Smith has a lengthy future. It is echoed in in G.W.F. Hegel’s notion of mutual recognition and, from there, in Marx. When Common Sense looks towards a realm of free, first-person interaction, it carries forward an idea which the Theory of Moral Sentiments launched. And there is more. If sceptical challenge may be met through unconstrained interaction, scepticism itself may be rehabilitated as a step towards emancipation. In the pages of Common Sense, seemingly unrelated subject-matters are juxtaposed – in the expectation that they illumine (rather than undermine) one another. Juxtaposition is seen as a step in rewarding conversation. More than this: it is a step towards free interaction in which emancipation consists.


(ii) The second pattern has, initially, a discouraging appearance. At the time of the Reformation and during the seventeenth century, Scottish Calvinists expressed political points in terms of social contract theory (according to which promising is the basis of social existence). At the time of the Scottish Enlightenment, political theory based on promising was widely (although not universally) rejected. Social contract theory came to seem a thing of the past.


My suggestion is that Scottish social contract theory has, nonetheless, points of interest. This is so because social contract theory has taken various forms. The core idea of social contract is that of a contract concluded in a presocial or asocial state of nature: from this contract, social and political relations arise. But this idea may be nuanced in a number of fashions. The contract may be pictured as a horizontal pact of association, where individuals contract with one another; alternatively, it may be pictured as a vertical contract of government between a prospective ruler and a people who is to be ruled. In addition, the contract may be pictured as actually taking place or as merely “hypothetical”. A final difference is one of conceptual focus: a social contract theory may emphasise the the idea of a state of nature (understood as a realm where Natural Law prevails). Or the theorist may emphasise the act of promising or covenanting or contracting. When these differences are considered, intriguing features of Scottish contactarianism are revealed. First, a shift occurs during the period which concerns us: whereas writers of the Reformation crisis – I am thinking of Knox and Buchanan – refer to vertical contracts, the 1638 National Covenant gives horizontal promising a central place. All citizens of Scotland are seen as promising together (although, as I have commented, distinctions between them remain). Second, Scottish social contract theory of the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries thinks od contracting in actual (rather than “hypothetical”) terms. Thirdly and finally, the emphasis of Scottish social contract theory falls on the act of promising. Throughout sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Scottish theory, there is scarcely a mention of a supposed state of nature. In the case of, say, Hobbes and Locke the emphasis is very different. The reason for this difference is, I suggest, the difference between English and Scottish estimations of natural law: whereas Hobbes and Locke belong in the Natural Law tradition, the Scots (influenced by a Calvinist scepticism) regard nature and human reason as saturated by sin. Be this as it may, the three features of Scottish contractualism that I have highlighted fuse in unforgettable image.


The image is of individuals who, together, make a mutual promise. The promising is not merely “hypothetical” or theoretical; it is an actual speech act. The promise is not merely an application of pre-existing Natural Law; it is constitutive and (to use a term from speech act theory) performative in the full meaning of the term. At the centre of Scottish contractarianism there lies an image of practical action. Insofar as promise-makers assemble together, and promise together, the action concerned is interaction. Because the promise is constitutive, rather than an application of existing law, the white heat of the the interaction forges a political beginning. My claim is that, despite its dusty and dated reputation, Scottish social contract theory points towards interaction and freedom. As such, it points towards Common Sense’s project.


(iii) The third pattern is that of the common sense tradition. Above, I have referred to Thomas Reid (Scotland’s chief common sense philosopher). Reid grounded common sense in humanity’s ‘constitution’ – a ‘constitution’ which was, in his view, God-given. Reid appears to have endorsed the following position: because God created humanity, and because God was benificent, common sense might be trusted. My suggestion that common sense has no need of this theological underpinning. Reid himself does not always employ it, and the term ‘common sense’ has more than one meaning. In what follows, I indicate what some of these meanings may be.


In philosophy, the term ‘common sense’ (or sensus communis) has a lengthy history. In the light of this history, common sense may be pictured as an area – an area across which lines of division may be drawn. The lines sometimes reinforce and sometimes intersect with one another. I note three lines of division here:


  • First, ‘common sense’ may refer to a sense or meaning shared by a number of individuals: it may, in other words, mean ‘Publick Sense’ (in Francis Hutcheson’s translation of the term). Or ‘common sense’ may refer to a specific human capacity: our capacity to synthesise data which the five more familiar senses (sight and touch and so forth) supply. Might these two senses be related? I suggest that they can. It is through interaction with others that self-coherent individuality emerges; conversely, totalised or coherent individuals interact in a mutually recognitive way. Writers influence by Scottish thought – I have mentioned G.W.F. Hegel – draw the meanings of common sense together in this fashion. The journal Common Sense, which sought to prefigure mutual recognition, shared such an aim.


  • Second, ‘common sense’ may be pictured as either as something – a a sense, a capacity, a set principles or judgements – that is common to all human beings as atomized individuals or as something actively shared. The twentieth -century philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer draws this distinction when he contrasts common sense as ‘a feature given to all men’ with common sense as ‘a social virtue’. In the eighteenth century, Reid frequently understands common sense in the first of these meanings. With its emphasis on interaction, the journal Common Sense favours the second.


  • Third, common sense may be understood as an assumed context in which interaction takes place. Or it may be understood as something which interaction brings into being. It can be understood as a background or as a project. The distinction is important: if common sense is understood as a background, sceptical and relativistic objections go unanswered. Moreover, the notion of common sense remains politically conservative. If common sense is understood as a project, then everything changes – as can be seen, if we turn to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. For Smith, conversational interaction does not merely presume this or that set of criteria. On the contrary, it is through such interaction that foundational questions may be addressed. The to-and-fro play of sympathetic imagination is, for Smith, the basis on which a set of publicly shared meanings may be erected. Unlike Reid, Smith does not present himself as a common sense philosopher. But the notion of common sense as a project is central to his concerns.[2] How does the background/project distinction, as just sketched, relate to Common Sense as a journal? I suggest that it underlines a double meaning contained in thejournal’s title. Common Sense crititicised common sense as a background, the better to highlight common sense as a project to light.


The above remarks do not exhaust the meaning of the term ‘common sense’. Nor do they exhaust the common sense tradition. One important issue not discussed is common sense’s relation to generalist education (see George Davie The Democratic Intellect especially chapters 1 and 11). My earlier remarks about Common Sense’s juxtaposition of seemingly-unrelated subject matters refer, indirectly at least, to the notion of generalism. But I do not disciss the notion here.


Standing back, I conclude that Common Sense’s claim to grow out of Scottish thought is well-founded. Of course, Common Sense did not only grow out of Scottish thought. Common Sense was much more than an outgrowth of Scottish ideas. Within Common Sense, a wide range of national and international themes were addressed. My concern here is the limited one of relating Common Sense to Scottish theory. Do the claims about Scottish thought, which gave Common Sense its title, stand up as well in 2014 as they did in 1987? My claim is that they do. There are features of Scottish thought – major features, conceptually important features – which are carried forward in Common Sense’s programme. Viewed in retrospect, the features proliferate and grow in significance: my comments indicate how much, in a history of Scottish ideas, there is to explore. Above all, my comments link Scottish thought to the notion of free, first-person interaction. I have suggested that, in Scottish social contract of the seventeenth century, such a notion is fundamental. And I have indicated aspects of common sense – aspects associated with Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments – which highlight this idea. It is, I propose, the idea to which Common Sense was committed.


In section 1, I have commented on interaction in a history-of-ideas context. I have proposed that, in 2014, Common Sense’s perspective on Scottish thought may be defended. What about its political perspective? In 2014, in a Scotland galvanised by the independence issue, does a politics grounded in free, first-person interaction have a place? In the section which follows, I raise some questions and offer some thoughts.


What were Common Sense’s politics? The journal was politically committed: for example, issue 8 (published in September 1989) carried a cut-out-and-display anti-Poll Tax poster. A horizontally related anti-Poll Tax conference was organised. (Someone attending the conference raised an objection: should there not be a crèche? We proudly replied that a crèche existed.) This said, individuals wrote and published as as individuals; in the pages of Common Sense, a party-political voice would have been out of place. Common Sense’s commitment to free interaction and a politics of ‘everyday life’ (Holloway) meant that principles resembling those of the later Occupy movement prevailed.


In one sense, the editorial attitudes of Common Sense were uncompromising: free interaction meant free interaction. That is to say, the interaction which the journal sought to bring into existence, and which its in-house style prefigured, was one of a grassroots (rather than institutional) kind. Just as the editorial practices of Common Sense made the institutional status of a contributor irrelevant, so the politics of Common Sense drew on autonomist traditions. Social change had to mean more than a change in institutions. If change were merely a matter of replacing one set of institutions with another, deep-level continuity would result.


Are the political perspectives of Common Sense relevant in a 2014 context? I suggest that they are. In order to argue this, I set out what (I believe) would be a commonsensical response to the independence issue. In Scotland today, political debate focuses on the September 18th referendum and large parts of the left see returning a “Yes” vote essential. How, from a Common Sense-guided viewpoint, should this focus be regarded? Does national independence offer an ‘opening’ – I employ James Foley’s and Pete Ramand’s term[3] – to radical ideas? If the discussion which follows raises troubling questions, Common Sense has continuing significance.


Viewed in what I have termed a commonsensical perspective, a worthwhile political campaign promotes free interaction. If this is so, the origins of current debate on independence give grounds for disquiet. At the start of the campaign lies an agreement between two political leaders, both of whom form part of the neoliberal establishment. It is, of course, possible for such an agreement to trigger a radical movement. An agreement between established leaders is, however, likely to have pro-establishment results. Viewed from the grassroots, the institutional and “top-down” beginning of the bebate is inauspicious. A first instinct is not to endorse either a “Yes” or “No” position wholeheartedly – but to question, and stand back from, a state-inspired alternative.


A second instinct is to be suspicious about nationhood. The supicions that I have in mind do not concern (or do not merely concern) nationalism’s blood-and-soil manifestations. They concern the circumstance that nation states are institutions. As institutions, nation states belong – and are required to belong – in an international world order. This order is neoliberalism. If this is so, September 18th offers a choice between two forms of nationalism – “Scottish” on the one hand and “British” on the other[4] – and, thus, a choice between two pro-neoliberal positions. Despite these remarks, can a nation state (for example, an independent Scotland) set itself against neoliberal norms? Are my remarks too pessimistic? Perhaps. But the notion of nationhood is scarcely encouraging.


From instincts I turn to issues. In an interview earlier this year, Tariq Ali stated: ‘If Scotland gains independence, and if its leadership has the guts, it could break with neoliberalism’.[5] I comment on ‘guts’ later. Here, I focus on ‘neoliberalism’ and on what a ‘break’ with neoliberalism entails. Sometimes, ‘neoliberalism’ is understood as free-market capitalism – so that a change from free market solutions to a form of Keynesianism would bring neoliberalism to its knees. At other times, ‘neoliberalism’ is seen as taking free market and Keynesian (or semi-Keynesian) forms. My inclination is to take the second position. I understand neoliberalism as, so to say, capitalism distilled to its essence: neoliberalism turns on market principles, but such principles may be (and usually are) enforced by states. If ‘neoliberalism’ is understood in this fashion, a ‘break’ with liberalism breaks with capitalist principles. In the current debate on Scottish independence – in, for example, the invocation of the ‘Nordic’ model in the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s ‘Common Weal’ document – the notion of what may be termed left-Keynesianism is widely invoked. I shall take it that, although Tariq Ali refers warmly to ‘Scandinavian’ countries, his remark about a ‘break’ has more than a left-Keynesian meaning. In the quoted interview, Scottish independence is described as an ‘opportunity’ to ‘break out of the prison that is the United Kingdom’: in the last instance, the ‘prison’ is the capitalist world.


Does Scottish independence provide an ‘opportunity’ to move (or to start moving) beyond capitalism? It is difficult to reply that, yes, an opportunity presents itself. This is partly because any state moving in an anti-neoliberal direction faces all-too-familiar opposition. What happens if an independent Scotland takes its oil industry into public ownership? What happens if an independent Scotland takes a principled stance against the politics of austerity – and refuses to shoulder what Yes Scotland terms ‘a fair share of the UK national debt’? What happens if an independent Scotland decides to leave an alliance armed by nuclear weapons? In such situations, a state learns what membership in a neoliberal word order entails. A foretaste – the merest foretaste – of the pressure to be expected was the Ineos lockout at Grangemouth in 2013.


Besides difficulties faced by any state which moves against neoliberalism, diffulties specific to Scotland arise. Present-day Scotland is heavily dependent on foreign investment: ‘almost none of the the North Sea oil from Scottish waters is owned by Scottish companies, while more than 80% of whisky and salmon production is foreign-owned, and only a third of the Scottish-based finance sector is Scottish-owned’.[6] According to the official Yes campaign, ‘Scotland is an extremely attractive place to do business’ – and Swinney’s determination is that nothing will change.[7] Suppose that the government of an independent Scotland decided that, pace Swinney, change was desirable. Suppose it discovered ‘guts’ to take a step out of the neoliberal ‘prison’. How much room for maneouvre would it have?


Standing back from my comments, I add a note of explanation. What I have said about ‘opportunity’ is not to be taken as a declaration against anti-neoliberal struggle. It is to be taken as an indication of difficulties to which institutional struggle is exposed. An anti-neoliberal struggle which focuses on national independence is struggle which focuses on a specific institution. In 2014, a nation state belongs in a world order that is increasingly well policed. This being so, a struggle for national independence and against neoliberalism is a struggle against itself. In a sense, this contradiction has been present in all forms of social democracy. In a neoliberal world, however, the contradiction is acute.


Are there forms of anti-neoliberal struggle which do not pursue an institutional path? Are there ways of changing the world without taking institutional or state power (to paraphrase the title of an earlier John Holloway book)?[8] In Latin America, Raul Zibechi has discussed the idea of power’s ‘dispersal’;[9] in the UK, writers associated with the Heathwood Institute and Press ( explore the Occupy movement’s notion of of horizontal organisation. Can such lines of thought be developed further? I suggest they can. Here, however, I confine myself to a general comment: discussion of emancipation cannot be left to institutionalist ideas.


My discussion of the independence campaign has, so far, focused on institutional pressure. I turn now to interaction. Tariq Ali has claimed that, if Scotland’s leadership had guts, it could break with neoliberalism. Does the question turn on the ‘guts’ wich a ‘leadership’ may or may not have? I doubt that this is the case.


Viewed from a Common Sense angle, social movements begin in interaction and, if they are emancipatory, have free interaction as their goal. How, in this light, is the independence movement to be seen? Above, I have suggested that the top-down beginnings of the current debate give grounds for disquiet: what about the debate itself? Can a social movement begin with an institutionalist perspective and put down interactionalist roots? For Robert McAlpine, the radical independence campaign (unlike the “No” campaign) has ‘given birth to a spontaneous grassroots movement’: it taps into a sense that we no longer ‘accept being told what is good for us by “important people”’.[10] If McAlipne is right, ‘leadership’ is not the most important political issue – and I agree. But is the notion of a ‘spontaneous grassroots movement’ for national independence coherent? Such a movement may, to be sure, be widespread and popular, If it is to remain a national independence movement, however, must it not fix its eyes on the institution of the nation state? I have suggested that such a focus is not without its problems. Here, my concern is with a movement which makes national independence a key theme.


A danger with national independence as an issue is that it threatens to engulf all else. All other issues which have emancipatory meaning – peace, equality, social justice, participatory democracy – tend to be seen through the independence issue as a lens. If national independence is viewed as an ‘opportunity’ (Tariq Ali) which makes other goals achievable, the élan and excitement and moral seriousness of issues such as peace and justice come to be transferred to the independence issue. If national independence is viewed as a straight gate through which radical struggle must pass, as it is when the costs of non-independence are stressed, the same shift of focus takes place. So to say, the issue around which single-issue campaigns make common cause becomes an end in itself. Is such a shift inevitable? It seems likely, to say the least. A campaign for national independence may see itself as a political catalyst. That is, it may see itself as breathing life into quiescent or inadequately-supported issues. If it does, the meaning of the hitherto “quiescent” issue is altered: the issue becomes a national issue, rather than one to be pursued in its own terms. Perhaps a campaign for independence may avoid seeing itself in this quasi-magical fashion. If such temptations are avoided, however, the danger remains.


Does it greatly matter if the left succumbs to this danger? My response is that it matters profoundly. To the extent that campaigns come to focus on national independence, they allow themselves to become incorprated in an institutionalist world. Earlier, I suggested that a choice between “Yes” and “No” on September 18th is a choice between two neoliberal positions. To make the choice between “Yes” and “No” the pivotal issue in present-day Scottish politics is to step away from interaction and on to territory where neoliberal criteria apply. If such a step were merely a loss on the left’s part, it would already be disasterous. It is more: it is to invite every single-issue campaign, however everyday, to see itself in relation to institutions and to adopt a state-centred gaze. If this is so, the independence referendum has already performed chilling and debilitating work. It has domesticated a left that dreamt of less institutional and more interactive things.[11]


Where next? The logic of the position that I have described as commonsensical may seem to dictate abstention on September 18th. If “Yes” and “No” are both pro-neoliberal options, why vote? The position is not so easily met, however: an abstention, like a “No” vote, supports UK nationalism and thereby neoliberalism. On September 18th, there is in fact no way of keeping ones hands clean. My response – which I offer as a response, rather than a recommendation – is to avoid supporting the most objectionable side. Given the depth of my antipathy towards the Cameron government, this means voting “Yes”. A further part of my response (which I regard as the most important) is to argue for social movements’ autonomy in post-referendum days and years.


My paper has asked whether the ideas underlying Common Sense carry conviction today. My answer to this question is that they do. In both of the areas that have considered – those of Scottish thought and present-day politics – commonsensical ideas strike me as fresh and telling. Scottish thought really does contain lines of thought which, in the 1980s, Common Sense could develop. More, a Common Sense perspective invigorates the study of Scottish thought. Regarding politics: an emphasis on common sense helps counter a drift into institutional thinking.


In what I have said about Scottish thought and Scottish politics, the notion of interaction – first-person or, in Holloway’s term, ‘everyday’ interaction – is my most controversial theme. Controversial or not, it is the theme on which my discussion turns. In Scottish thought, interaction is not merely one theme amongst others: the versions of social contract and common sense philosophy that I have highlighted picture interaction as having a constitutive – so to say, a socially formative – role. In political debate, similarly, interactive life and institutional life do not merely affect one another: institutions are interaction which has frozen into fixed and “reified” existence. The notion of what may be referred to as living common sense underlies Common Sense’s blend of radical politics and earlier theory.


In his interview of 2010, John Holloway describes the continuity between the ideas of Common Sense and the ideas of Crack Capitalism as ‘very real and very important’. My suggestion is (echoing Holloway) that Common Sense opened still-vital paths.



Note: All twenty four issues of Common Sense (1987-1999) are available online at

[1]    ‘Crack Capitalism’ (interview with John Holloway) in Bella Caledonia 22 July 2010.

[2]    A reader of my text, or of Common Sense, may be surprised to encounter favourable remarks on Adam Smith. Was Smith not a champion of a free market? Of unrestrained capitalism? Although widespread, such views of Smith strike me as absurd. For a reading closer to my own, see Neil Davidson, Patricia McCafferty and David Miller, ed., Neoliberal Scotland (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2010) pp. 3-6.

[3]    J. Foley and P. Ramand Yes: The Radical Case for Scottish Independence (Pluto Press 2014) p. 122.

[4]    I agree with Foley and Ramand that a choice between “Yes” and “No” is not a choice between nationalism and its opposite. Both “Yes” and “No” positions are nationalistic. My worry is that nationalism in 2014 has neoliberal connotations.

[5]    ‘Dismantling the British State’ (interview with Tariq Ali) Bella Caledonia 10 March 2014.

[6]    I quote from S. Carrell ‘Scotland independence case “strenthened by foreign wealth”’ The Guardian 30 May 2014. For more detail, see S. Carrell, I. Griffiths and T. Macallister ‘New doubt cast over Alex Salmond’s claims of Scottish wealth’ The Guardian 29 May 2014.

[7]    Thus Swinney: ‘We will have the economic levers to make Scotland an even more attractive place to invest in’ BBC News: Scottish business (5 June 2013).

[8]    J. Holloway Change the World without Taking Power (Pluto Press 2002).

[9]    R. Zibechi Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces (AK Press 2010).

[10]  R. MacAlpine ‘Taking politicians out of politics’ The Scotsman 26 April 2014.

[11]  The tension between autonomy and domestication is not, of course, unique to Scotland: see B. Dangl Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press 2010).

Comments (9)

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  1. pat kane says:

    I have quite a few copies of Common Sense around & a delight to find out the archive is online. I do remember this opposition between face-to-face interaction and “institutional”/statist politics. However I always wondered how this sat with Habermas’s vista of “communicative action” & the “ideal speech situation” being the healthy, social ground in which complex, highly differentiated state democracies could be rooted – the “lifeworld” keeping the “system” responsive and open. His “constitutional patriotism” – loyalty to good governance – could be an example of those big steering mechanisms of power and money being guided by popular will. I think that does characterise the mainstream of the indy movement: Yes to better governance, finding Scandi mitigations and accomodations with the giant capitalist global forces that Richard correctly identifies as neoliberal.

    But even on the strictest terms of adaptive response to this environment, a nation-state Scotland needs a left-autonomist critique of the “Team Scotland” approach. Wolfgang Streek’s essay on the end of capitalism in the current NLR talks about lifestyle revolutions & cultural changes being one of the few incubators of a possible alternative. I remain convinced that a politics of nationhood – and the rich, subtle collective narratives it can enable – is one way to incubate such lifestyle change. The vibrancy of thought & action around, say, land use/ownership and media reform that has arisen within the indy movement are the building blocks of a Scottish “eco-social” consensus, that might only be an election away from forging, if left-greens get their act together post-Yes.

    1. Leigh says:

      The Glasgow Keelie link dropped out of my comment:

    2. Richard Gunn says:

      I appreciate the thoughtful reply. This note is about Habermas: for comments on Habermas from (roughly) a Common Sense angle, see Richard Gunn & Adrian Wilding ‘A Note on Habermas’ on Heathwood Institute and Press ( or on my website’s MARX AND MARXISM page: – Adrian’s and my comments may be of interest, although they’re unlikely to satisfy you.

      – Richard G

  2. alistairliv says:

    Living in London from 1979 to 1997, I wasn’t aware of the ‘Common Sense’ journal until I read this thought provoking article. I was pleased to see references to G W F Hegel in the article. Aware that Hegel was influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment- for example James Steuart’s writings in political economy as well as Adam Smith’s- I have been researching Hegel’s theories of the state and its relationship to civil society.

    The Union of 1707 created an anomaly which separated political power, now concentrated in London, from Scotland’s intellectual resources – its universities, its Church and its legal establishment. In a development of world historical importance, the Scottish Enlightenment emerged out of this new situation, contributing major advances to philosophy, to political, economic and social theory, to aesthetics and to scientific and technological knowledge. While Scottish Enlightenment thinkers were keen to distance themselves from the religious and political ‘enthusiasm’ of the seventeenth century and from Scotland’s medieval past, the political and social idea of civil society developed by Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith contained elements drawn from pre-Union Scotland. Civil society was held to exist between the private realm of individuals and families and the political realm of the government and the state. Civil society was also the realm of economic activity.

    In 1816, after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and before the capitalist industrial revolution had taken root in German civil society , Georg Hegel was appointed Professor of Philosophy at Berlin University in Prussia. Hegel was deeply influenced by Scottish Enlightenment thought, but in his ‘Philosophy of Right’ published in 1821, he proposed his own version of civil society. In Hegel’s version, civil society emerged out the disintegration of the family as the focus of ethical life and in turn a rational state would emerge out of civil society as the ‘actuality of the ethical idea’.

    What Hegel hoped was that Prussia and other German states would be able to modernise and become a rational state without having to undergo a bloody revolution. But by the time he wrote an essay on the English (that is British) Reform Bill just before his death in 1831, Hegel was less optimistic. He feared that the forces unleashed by industrial capitalism would lead to revolution rather than reform -at least in Britain.

    While reform won out, the progress from civil society to rational state in the UK was slow and long drawn out. It was still in process when the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 saw the restoration of economic rather than ethical ideas as the purpose of government. In Scotland the response to the Thatcher era was a revival of the Scottish Enlightenment idea of civil society. This revival in turn led to the establishment of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999.

    However, the crisis of capitalism which began in 2008 and the policies of austerity pursued by the UK coalition government have revealed the limits of civil society and of devolution- without provoking a British Revolution. Instead, with the movement towards Scottish independence, a dramatic solution to the constitutional contradictions of the ’English’ (UK) state identified by Hegel in 1831 is underway. This revolutionary reform will cut the constitutional Gordian knot by dissolving the Union of 1707.

    In this movement, the active involvement of civil society in the Yes campaign has the potential to create a rational state based on a written constitution as the actuality of the ethical idea. If this occurs it would truly be, in Hegel’s language ‘a world historical event’. It would be unprecedented, a world first.

    However, following Hegel, before this can happen, civil society in Scotland must achieve self-awareness, become conscious of its limitations and contradictions. This collective self-consciousness must then actively engage in the process of ‘aufheben’- an advancement or progress which both preserves and changes a idea of Scotland into an actuality.

  3. Leigh says:

    thanks Pat (and Richard!):
    ** I agree that as “a nation-state Scotland needs a left-autonomist critique of the ‘Team Scotland’ approach”, today not tomorrow, so as to help “counter a drift into institutional thinking”, and Gunn’s is a refreshing voice. Amongst others, elements of e.g. Variant, Strickland and Glasgow Games Monitor can also be understood as projects having encompassed such an approach, with some rediscovering Workers City and The Glasgow Keelie as such . I mention these few not with promotional intent but to caution against processes absenting concurrent discussion in Scotland and restricting what Gunn describes as their socially formative roles.

    To that end, I’ve been meaning to ask and it’s long overdue, would you like to meet up to chat about the situation of culture within ‘competitive nationalism’ some time? (There’s already much to get into e.g. Felix Stadler’s pre-2008 critiques of Castells and ‘Team Finland’.)

    ** If Habermas’s ‘constitutional patriotism’ characterises the mainstream of the indy movement, then e.g. Brown, Xenos, Yack [my thanks to Arianna] throw up some (not so new) awkward questions for the claim of Team Scotland’s commitment to the supposed ‘good’ form of national identity: ‘civic nationalism’:

    ‘The myth of civic nationalism’, Bernard Yack
    Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society, Volume 10, Issue 2, 1996, Special Issue: Nationalism

    ‘Civic Nationalism: Oxymoron?’, Nicholas Xenos
    Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society, Volume 10, Issue 2, 1996, Special Issue: Nationalism

    Contemporary Nationalism: Civic, Ethnocultural and Multicultural Politics
    David Brown
    London ; New York: Routledge, 2000

    ** Can I ask why you choose to focus on ‘eco-social’ *consensus* and not *justice*? Is this just a casual slippage or something else – a retro-fitted imperative for a revival or reinvention of a form of collective identity (that corresponds to the notion of ‘patriotism’) indicative of the language of rights being pushed aside by the language of past political collectivity that Xenos [above] challenges?

  4. J Logan says:

    A very enjoyable article but I disagree that this journal transformed the notion of ‘Common Sense’ from a notion of everyday wisdom, as I don’t think that was how Reid meant it

    “Every operation of the senses, in its very nature, implies judgment or belief, as well as simple apprehension… When I perceive a tree before me, my faculty of seeing gives me not only a notion or simple apprehension of the tree, but a belief of its existence, and of its figure, distance and magnitude; and this judgment or belief is not got by comparing ideas, it is included in the very nature of perception. (These) original and natural judgments…make up what is called the common sense of mankind”

    This seems to imply a realisation of the manifold nature of sense in both senses. Interdependent sense is perhaps the best meaning. I really like James Kelman’s essay on this:

    Thanks for this article though, this is a minor quibble.

  5. macfhionn says:

    It may be of interest to some that a sophisticated and dynamic neo-calvinist perspective on philosophy and politics remains ongoing, building mainly on the work of the late Dutch thinker Herman Dooyeweerd (died 1977). Dooyeweerd championed everyday “naive” experience. In his magnum opus, “A New Critique of Theoretical Thought”, he challenges the dogma of autonomous rationality: “It s necessary to make the autonomy of theoretical thought a critical problem and no longer to pass it off as a scientific axiom… By this we understand a critical inquiry (respecting no single so-called theoretical axiom) into the universally valid conditions which alone make theoretical thought possible…”

    The entire work is online here:

    An extended extract regarding the structure of the State can be read online here:

    In Dooyeweerd’s view the foundational prequisite of a State is “the monopoly of the power of the sword over a given territory”. This leads to despotism, however, unless the State also manifests its second (higher) prerequisite, namely a commitment to justice.

    Jonathan Chaplin’s “Herman Dooyeweerd: Christian Philosopher of State and Civil Society” was published in 2011:

    Inexpensive paperback editions of many of Dooyeweerd’s own books have recently become available, for example “Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular and Christian Options” (Paideia Press, 2012). This was written in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, and contains an analysis by Dooyeweerd of the philosophical origins (in “historicism”) of German fascism.

    The two main sites regarding Dooyeweerd are:

    Andrew Basden’s “Dooyeweerd Pages”:

    J. Glenn Friesen’s “Studies relating to Herman Dooyeweerd”:

  6. An interesting article and I am glad to see it published here. I am however a little uneasy with the starting point: the characterisation of scepticism in terms of “the view that truth claims and value claims lack a conceptual basis. In the sixteenth century, a characteristic move made by scepticism-influenced thinkers was to despair of human reason and turn, instead, to faith”.

    I do not think that it was the lack of a conceptual basis that was the intellectual problem, but the assertiveness and dogmatism of truth claims. This is found particularly in the starting point of 17th century scepticism, in the rediscovery of Sextus Empiricus, ‘Hypotyposes’ (principally through Henri Estienne’s Latin translation of 1562). Sextus Empiricus, through what Popkin described as the ‘crise Pyrrhonienne’ had an enormous influence on sceptical thought in Europe thereafter, including Scotland. The impact of Pyrrhonism became a strong secular influence in the 17th century in Scotland, for example through men like Archibald Pitcairne. This can scarcely be overstated and it has an impact on Descartes’s Meditations.

    Sextus Empiricus was a profound influence on Hume in the 18th century. The latent, attenuated Stoicism we can often see in Hume probably finds its origin in Sextus Empiricus’ purpose: ‘Ataraxia’, which Sextus describes in these terms: ““The originating cause of skepticism is, we say, the hope of attaining quietude” (I.12, Bury translation, p.18). I do not place Hume among the Common Sense school, nor I think Ferguson, whom I would classify as a sceptic. The Enlightenment thinkers disguised their sceptical beliefs deep; Robertson was probably a Deist.

    I also think the relationships between the Humanists and scepticism are much closer than I think the article was implying (but I may not be right here about the article); We find scepticism in Servetus and Montaigne, and it is forgotten that Montainge was the pupil of Buchanan, who was both a Humanist of remarkable insight and compassion (Jepthah) and a Monarchomach.

    While Calvin clearly reacted to the sceptical crisis with a fideistic response, I am not sure that this at least wholly explains the Scottish pursuit of Calvinism, although it perhaps goes some way to explain the unyielding response of the 17th century Orthodox Presbyterians. Nevertheless there is another pattern to Scottish thought: a cautious Fideism in tension with scepticism, which appears to be much more an enduring part of Scottish intellectual culture, since we may perhaps find it in Duns Scotus (Broadie, ‘The Shadow of Scotus’).

    The problem of over assertive truth claims by ‘authority’ became particularly difficult to sustain in the 17th century, not only because of the rise of scientific method, but because of the new biblical criticism.

  7. cattyclysm says:

    While I agree with most of the assessment, there are a couple of additions that complicate the mix. My own involvement with the Yes campaign and debates has not involved any use of ‘nationalism’ as an element of inspiration of persuasion. Part of this is due to a broader understanding of ‘independence’, both as a recognition that independence from Westminster is part of a process as political power also has to take on board relations with NATO, the EU and corporate influence (as well as ‘independence’ on a social level becoming meaningless unless it includes the means to address social inequalities). As far as ‘the left’ in Scotland is concerned, there have been disagreements over the immediate means but that has worked alongside a consensus that, whatever the outcome, the established struggle against social, economic and environmental dangers and injustices will be continued. Few people, in my experience, see success of a Yes vote as a panacea in itself, merely an important step towards making the establishment more accessible and more responsive to citizenry than Westminster (admittedly a low hurdle). My reservations about Tariq Ali’s otherwise helpful assessment was ‘whether the leadership has the guts’ which, accidentally or not, implies that the rejection of one ‘leadership’ accepts that of another. Of greater importance is whether the work less defined by party politics has the guts, the ability, to maintain the agenda and the appetite for change that has been enhanced by the campaign. Finally, and this is closer to the final conclusion but with a greater emphasis, is the matter of ‘clean hands.’ Any political campaign is operating in a particular context and while I can understand the attraction of disdain for mainstream politicians, that is a self-indulgent purity that achieves nothing more than impotent self-satisfaction. Work against a neo-liberal establishment will not end with a Yes vote; it will merely be contu=inued in different circumstances.

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