Why anarchists should vote ‘Yes’
This piece by Thomas Swann contributed to the debate between authors like Gordon Asher, Leigh French and Richard Gunn, and draws on arguments from Israeli anarchist Uri Gordon on anarchists supporting state formation as a strategic move in a larger struggle. It has broader relevance than just to anarchists as it is an important question for radicals more generally and argues for the need for radical social movements post-independence during the process of state formation.
Facebook friend of mine recently posted a message recounting his frustration at, in his view, supposed anarchists supporting a ‘Yes’ vote in this week’s referendum for Scottish independence. As someone who’s at least very sympathetic to anarchist theory and practice and who supports and has written on Scottish independence from a radical left perspective, I saw this as at least in part directed at me. For this reason, but also because the question of anarchists supporting the creation of a new state is an interesting one, I wanted to take the opportunity to respond and outline my reasoning on why I don’t see support for a ‘Yes’ vote and for independence as contradicting anarchist or more generally radical left politics.
Anyone familiar with anarchist politics can imagine the arguments put forward against supporting Scottish independence. In an article written a couple of years ago, an anarchist activist in Glasgow made the case that anarchists should at the very least keep a critical distance from the pro-independence campaign. While advocating the retention of the British state in Scotland is clearly contradictory to anarchism, a blanket approval of and activism for independence is problematic.
The author of that article writes that ‘Talk of Scots ruling themselves and of self-determination is an appealing rhetoric which masks the continuity of the class system: the working class will not suddenly become empowered but wealth and power will remain concentrated in the hands of a few.’ Independence for Scotland means replacing a British state with a Scottish state and this could never be supported as it does nothing to further the interests of the working class and the overthrow of capitalism. Furthermore, the argument goes, Scottish nationalism, while opposed to British nationalism, is still nationalism and so should be rejected as, at least potentially, xenophobic and racist.
The author also points out that ‘having a smaller nation state won’t lead to ever smaller democratic units and it won’t replace representative democracy with participative, direct democracy. To suggest otherwise is simply naïve, and misunderstands that working class people can only gain power for themselves through struggle.’ So in short, the only genuine independence the working class can gain is through the overthrow of capitalism and the state by their own means and nationalism is at best a diversion. While I would reject completely the reduction of anarchist sites of struggle to the working class, I do essentially agree with this sentiment. So when the author asks ‘Are we to believe the SNP will be different from other politicians and live up to all they promise?’ I would wholeheartedly answer ‘No’, but maintain that we should vote ‘Yes’ to independence.
In arguing why, it needs to be pointed out that both my friend who raised this issue on Facebook and the Glaswegian anarchist who wrote the article cited above seem to be subscribing to a find of anarchist puritanism that sees anarchist struggle as monolithic and only ever progressing on one direction via one method and that nothing other than this direction and this method can ever be supported. Anything other than the complete liberation from capitalism and the state through direct action should be seen as being complicit in the domination of the working class. This is of course absurd and I’m sure neither my friend nor the Glaswegian anarchist would subscribe to this position, but it does colour their approaches to Scottish independence.
Anarchist support for state formation
Uri Gordon makes some interesting arguments as to how and when anarchists can and should support the forming of a new state. Gordon’s comments relate to anarchist involvement in the Palestinian liberation struggle and the opposition to the Israeli state’s violence and aggression. Before outlining these arguments, it should of course be stressed that I am not intending to draw parallels between the situation of the Palestinians and the Scots, or of those who oppose the Israeli state and those who oppose the British state.
Claims that Scotland is occupied by the British state or that the pro-independence movement is in fact a national liberation struggle blur out the important differences between situations like those in Israel/Palestine and in the UK. This is not to say that the way the British state rules over Scotland, but also over England, Wales and Northern Ireland, is not violent and aggressive. It most certainly is. It may not be the overt aggression of shelling, airstrikes, snipers, invasions, food shortages and economic blockades, but cuts to healthcare, care for the elderly, benefits for those unable to work, education, legal aid, etc. and forcing people to rely on food banks are violent and they are part of an aggressive class war. But the situation clearly isn’t the same as that in Israel/Palestine and the parallel shouldn’t be drawn that far.
Where the parallel can be drawn is to the extent that there is a movement that seeks some kind of liberation through creating a state. While some anarchists have written against supporting such endeavours on the part of Palestinians and that in doing so ’Palestinians are bowing to the idea that the state is a desirable institution, and lending themselves to nationalist illusions fostered by Palestinian elites, who will only become the source of their future oppression.’ These anarchists often offer nothing more constructive than vague appeals to action from below to overthrow the state.
Instead, Gordon offers four arguments that anarchists should support, in action, the creation of a Palestinian state, and the same arguments could well have relevance to Scottish independence. Before discussing these it should be noted that anarchists arguing against liberation campaigns that seek to set up a new state often fall prey to paternalism, seeing the masses, be they ‘the Palestinians’ or ‘the working class’ as unable to discern their ‘real interests’ and as deceived by nationalism. An element of this is present in the article by the Glaswegian anarchist when the author writes that ‘we are outside of the narrative’. I may be uncharitable here, but one could interpret this as arguing that anarchists should keep a distance from the masses and their confused ways.
The first argument presented in Gordon’s article is to is ‘to acknowledge that there is indeed a contradiction here, but to insist that in a liminal, imperfect situation, solidarity is still worthwhile even if it comes at the price of inconsistency.’ In other words, active support for the creating of a state should be seen as a pragmatic move that can lead to an improvement on humanitarian grounds even if it doesn’t lead to full liberation.
The second argument is to point out that ‘Palestinians are already living under a state – Israel – and that the formation of a new Palestinian state creates only a quantitative change, not a qualitative one.’ While creating a new state is certainly not as good as full liberation, it certainly isn’t worse than living under an existing state. And as the first argument highlights, life under one state can be better than life under another. It won’t be perfect, but it could be better.
The third argument is that ‘the establishment of a Palestinian state through a peace treaty with the Israeli state, although far from a “solution”, may turn out to be a positive development on the way to more thoroughgoing social change’ and ‘could open up more political space for economic, feminist and environmental social struggles, and would thus constitute a positive development from a strategic point of view.’
The fourth and final argument is that the whole question of whether anarchists should support the formation of a Palestinian state is mistaken. Anarchists should rather concern themselves with how they should act in solidarity with Palestinians and others, to focus on direct action that supports the everyday resistance of people living under domination.
State formation and Scottish independence
I would suggest that the first and third of Gordon’s arguments are of most relevance to anarchist support for Scottish independence. The fourth is undoubtedly important but in the present case the action being asked is very specific: voting ‘Yes’. Of course anarchists should engage in direct action. The issue is whether they should vote in the referendum and whether they should vote ‘Yes’. The second is less relevant as it clearly applies to anarchists from elsewhere in the world supporting a struggle which isn’t the case in Scotland.
On the first argument, anarchist ought to do so. Independence, even under a Scottish National Party government, would be a marked improvement in living conditions compared to continuing to live under a government in Westminster given all likely future governing parties’ commitments to austerity. Scottish people will probably be worse off if they vote to remain in the UK. This is of course a specificity of the current situation in the UK, but such context has to be taken into account.
On the third argument, again anarchists should support and vote for independence. Again, this is a specificity of the context but radical social movements are likely to have more space to manoeuvre and organise in an independent Scotland and, while they of course run the risk of being co-opted and need to remain aware of such risks, could well play a more central role in defining daily life for people in Scotland, certainly more so than in the UK as a whole. Social movement groups have been at the core of the pro-independence campaign and are coming to the fore in Scottish civil society. Independence offers them the chance to play an important part in structuring the institutions and practices of an independent Scottish state.
On all these counts, anarchists are not being asked to support independence because it will necessarily lead to achieving anarchist goals, whatever they may be. Independence will not lead necessarily to liberation of anyone in Scotland, just as a Palestinian state will not mean the liberation of people in Palestine. Nevertheless, in both cases, anarchists should recognise that actively supporting the formation of a new state can play a strategic role in larger anarchist struggles.
As Gordon Asher and Leigh French have argued, ‘it’s not just a case of voting to dismantle a British state structure, while leaving concurrent interests intact, but of politicising the processes and realising the participatory potentials of actually disassembling state power.’ Asher and French make am incredibly nuanced case for a critical support for independence and raise many issues, especially to do with nationalism, identity and democracy, which are central to a radical left approach to the referendum and their ‘Crises Capitalism and Independence Doctrines’ is essential reading on the subject.
Critical support for independence
Those on the radical left in Scotland, not anarchists but radical socialists, feminists, queer activists, anti-racists and others, have more or less adopted this position of critical support for independence. They have campaigned hard for a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum and much of the success of the movement (to come as close as a 50/50 share of the vote with the ‘No’ campaign if not, as the case may turn out to be, actually winning in the face of the fully mobilised propaganda apparatus of the British state and capital) can be attributed to the grass-roots activism of radical groups, many of whom didn’t exist prior to the campaign.
Richard Gunn sums this position up well with his call for a ‘Yes, but…’ vote in the referendum. The radical, pro-independence social movement is advocating a vision of independence that goes beyond that of the Scottish National Party. As Gunn writes:
Such a campaign warns not merely Cameron but whoever rules Scotland after September 18th that a peace movement, an ecologically-sensitive movement, a movement for social justice and a movement for participatory democracy flourish at a grassroots level. It warns that movements of this kind have their own, interactive dynamic and are in no way are beholden – in their inspiration and their life – to the structures of a Scottish or UK state.
Gunn makes the important point that the interactional character of social movements can influence the ways in which institutions like the state operate. ‘Emancipation’, he argues, ‘occurs when, on the contrary, interaction gives the rule to institutions’. This is what needs to happen in an independent Scotland and there is a greater potential for it to happen there than in the UK as a whole, at least in the near future.
Anticipating a ‘Yes’ victory in the referendum, Alex Salmond has already started putting together his ‘Team Scotland’ to lead negotiations between Edinburgh and Westminster on how separation with the rest of the UK should work in practice. As well as mainstream political leaders, Salmond has said that he will include so-called ‘civic leaders’. Anyone with a critical eye will see this for what it is: an attempt to shift the momentum of the pro-independence campaign into a liberal or even neo-liberal politics of state formation, one that attempts to turn away from a politics of antagonism to one of management.
For the radical elements of the pro-independence campaign to bring an interactional influence to bear on the institutions of the new Scottish state, and to make the independence in Scotland something that anarchists can and should support, they need to use the momentum they currently have not to bolster Salmond and the SNP’s vision of a new state and society but to continue to prefigure a more radical vision of independence. The post-independence prospect of Scotland has been characterised as a ‘bourgeois democracy with an active citizenry’.
While this is better than the rabidly neo-liberal and authoritarian UK state, it is still a far cry from what an independent Scotland can be in the short term: certainly not reflective of an anarchist ideal of a large, federated organisation made up for voluntary associating collectives embracing both radical democracy and communism, but a more social democratic state with space for social movements to mobilise and create empowering and fulfilling social relations. These radical practices have the potential to introduce elements of anarchism, elements that could contribute to larger anarchist struggles, into Scottish society; living under Westminster makes such prefiguration and interactional influence on the institutions of the state much more difficult, if not impossible.
Whether anarchists support and vote for independence in the referendum will be immaterial to the result. The anarchist movement in Scotland is at best a couple of hundred strong, including those not aligned to any one grouping, and their decision to vote or not will likely not influence the result. It is important, however, to show that there is a consistent anarchist argument to be made for Scottish independence and that it is dependent on a more subtle anarchism than one that adheres to a blunt anti-statism.
While explicit anarchism is thin on the ground in Scotland, anarchist practices of non-hierarchical organising and prefiguration are at the heart of the radical, pro-independence movement and it is worth, as I’ve tried to do, highlighting the relationship between anarchist politics and support for independence. There is a way in which radicals can support independence and engage with the process of forming a new state without compromising their radicalness. A principled anti-statism does not necessitate a complete refusal to engage with state-related politics: it does demand a critical support, and in Scotland right now, a ‘Yes, but…’