Exiting the Morbid Interregnum
The lockdown has felt like a space-in-between, and alongside it the prospect of a Scottish democracy and a decades-denied socio-ecological renewal is left hanging in the balance.
In his Prison Notebooks around 1930 Antonio Gramsci wrote: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”. Today we can see such morbid symptoms all around us, be they immense corruption, virulent racism or the rise of the new and not so new far-right. But amid the morbid symptoms there are also some fragile signs of hope.
If much of British society culture and politics seems mired in a quagmire of nostalgia, this tendency, this obsession has been magnified out of all proportion by the Brexit experience. Fragments of a broken society have been grasped by politicians with few answers but keen to make the most of the potent mix of historical amnesia, culture war and imagined grievance that swirl around us. Nigel Farage has (sort of) left the stage and we are left with the Conservative regime which, through the ‘bodies piled high’ remains ascendant. Oscillating between a bland vanilla centralism and an absurdist left fantasy Labour looks like a doomed project.
Writing in Le Monde Politique ‘Is Scotland closer to independence?’ Rory Scothorne looks at the Hartlepool defeat – where the the Conservatives swept aside the Labour Party for the first time since 1959 as a marker of a historical shift and the sign of a kind of ‘museum society’. He writes:
“In Scotland, however, a different kind of museum society has emerged, and even thrived. Scotland’s parliament, established in 1999, was demanded by trade unions, Scottish Nationalists and the Labour and Communist parties throughout the 1980s and 90s, as a means of defending Scottish industry. By the time it arrived, much of that industry had gone. In its place was — and is — a residual fidelity to centre-left politics, a broad cross-class hostility to the Conservatives, and a popular faith in the ‘public sector ethos’ that still legitimates Scotland’s overwhelmingly state-run public services. Deindustrialised England, with no separate English parliament or regional assemblies, has been forced to leave its memories of a more benevolent social state under Labour behind.”
This has the ring of truth about it and Labour’s terminal decline is surely caught up with in vortex of deindustrialisation and England’s multifaceted identity crisis. Scothorne’s analysis of corporate SNP politics is appropriately scathing but at times we dip into left melancholia when he writes: “… In Scotland those memories were preserved — and institutionalised — in the Scottish Parliament. The ashes of the Scottish mineworkers’ leader and Communist Mick McGahey, one of the leading advocates of that parliament, are buried in the building’s foundations.”
This homage to Scotland’s industrial past is to be found scattered across the Scottish left like coaldust. It’s to be found in calls for a ‘re-industrialisation programme’, in the contempt for the Scottish Green Party, in some nationalists inability to move beyond the ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ as if this was 1974 not 2021, or even in some of the left’s framing of a New Green Deal replete with centralised planning and gigantic-scale state action. Some of this is the failure of political movements to successfully share fresh ideas and new thinking, some of it is the result of brittle left groupings stuck in ideological churn and some of it is just hard-wired into the DNA of Scottish society where the virtues of hard work and Calvinism blend into a seamless set of values which trump all before them. Work, workerism, presenteeism and graft are clung-onto in a fashion that has for a long time been deeply inappropriate and damaging. Defining yourself only by your work (or lack of it) is a practice of late capitalist trauma. If the pandemic has propelled ideas like Universal Basic Income, a later start for schoolchildren and a play-based learning or the Four Day Week they have often been met with a muted incomprehension by the Scottish left and wider polity.
Despite this some of these ideas are breaking through and if the ideas of a ‘wellbeing’ or a post-growth economy remain indistinct and vulnerable to capture and distortion, the outline of a future viable Scotland is emergent. This resistance to change is ubiquitous and entirely understandable. But our society and our is moving through such rapid and convulsive change that sheltering in our ideological comfort zones, our ‘safe spaces’, our home-made dens of safety won’t really work any more.
For those fossil collectors – who cling on to Oil, or Coal or Marx as we step into the middle of the 21st Century the beginning of June saw some step changes.
In a landmark case last week a Dutch court ruled that Shell needs to plan to drastically reduce the climate emissions it is responsible for. Richard Dixon, from Friends of the Earth Scotland wrote:
“This is the first time a company has been held liable for causing climate change anywhere in the world and could open the door to similar challenges around the world. The court said that Shell’s plans to keep on pumping oil were incompatible with the action needed to tackle climate change. The case was led by our Dutch sister organisation Milieudefensie along with 17,000 Dutch citizens as co-plaintiffs and six other organisations.”
Dixon concluded: “The Dutch court concluded that although the targets in the Paris Agreement apply to governments, they are impossible to meet without action from companies. If this can happen to Shell, the biggest European oil company, every other oil company in the world must be terrified.”
At the same time across the world a tiny hedge fund dealt a major blow to Exxon Mobil Corp on Wednesday, unseating at least two board members in a bid to force the company’s leadership to reckon with the risk of failing to adjust its business strategy to match global efforts to combat climate change.
The success by Engine No. 1 in its showdown with Exxon shocked an energy industry struggling to address growing investor concerns about global warming. It happened on the same day as the Dutch court ordered Shelll to drastically deepen pledged cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.
These are legal and corporate victories and should be put in that context.
The wild hysteria evoked by the prospect of a SNP-Green coalition of sorts is testimony to both small and big C Conservatism in Scotland. Andrew Bowie and Murdo Fraser have been scrabbling to undo each other in their condemnation of the prospect of the Scottish Green Party taking cabinet positions, a stance fueled by both the reality that’s not an experience they’ll ever have – as much as their climate denialism.
“Scratch under the surface of the Scottish Green Party and you find not a cuddly group of promoters of cycling, recycling and protecting wildlife, but a group of hard-left extremists,” bellowed Fraser.
If only it were true.
Fraser continues thundering:
“For those in business in Scotland, already concerned about their ability to recover post-Covid, the prospect of the Greens having more influence in government is deeply worrying, bringing with it the certainty of higher taxes and stricter regulation. Similar concerns are felt in rural communities where the urban-centred Greens’ lack of understanding of, for example, the economics of farming and country sports, causes alarm.”
If the SNP-Green coalition comes to fruition it will face a number of obstacles and problems: the gap between the Scottish Government’s rhetoric on climate change and the reality being the uppermost; the dismal failure of the Just Transition project being a close second. The continuing inability of the regulatory body SEPA to have – or be given – any clout is a major problem and a sign that Scotland’s ecological and environmental bodies are riddled with corporate stooges and interlopers and laced with inertia and liberalism. The commitment to a “wellbeing economy” will have to move beyond window-dressing and show some signs of being a tangible strategy.
Both parties will have to carve out messaging that presents climate solutions that present new opportunities in jobs in energy and in housing. But with will and drive both inside and outside Holyrood that is eminently possible, as we know. The SNP will have to step-up and confront corporate power in Scotland, something they’ve showed little appetite for, the Greens have to move out of the comfort-zone of opposition and deal with the realities of governance, and in doing so avoid being split asunder by their own internal divisions. But for both, and for wider Scottish democracy a deal represents the opportunity to renew and strenghten the independence project.
The slogans of ‘just recovery” and ‘build back better” have already been co-opted and need retrieved from the thieves who want to manipulate them for their own ends. The reality is that out of this crisis comes an opportunity to re-think what we mean by work, what we want from our economy, how we understand our cities and how we are going to create an ecologically viable Scotland. All of this needs to be framed as part of a wide-scale social recovery that can’t be hampered by being tied to the British state. The signs are that after this awful but cathartic collective experience we may be finally ready to emerge from this renewed, but this requires us to avoid a return to the distorted “normal” we’re being enticed into.
There’s hope beyond this interregnum but we need to grasp at it.