From hypocratic oafs to Scots indy (under the pandemic)
Shouldn’t we seize this opportunity, to design a new state for a viral age? asks Pat Kane.
This is a guest post from Pat’s E2 (The Future & Scotland Too) E2 = “Second Enlightenment”. Transformative creativity, radical innovation and generative activism, with a Scottish anchor. Subscribe here.
At the moment of writing, it’s not clear whether perceptions of “unfair play” and hypocrisy [I originally spelled “hypocracy”—maybe I should have left it] will damage the regnant Tory government in the UK. Officials being privately recorded giggling about their Xmas-parties with “no social distance” at Number 10 last year, while publicly urging the electorate and their families to isolate and separate, might well—resignation by resignation—puncture the Brexiteering balloon of Conservative legitimacy.
Also this week, 11 out of 12 Westminster toilets were found dusted with evidence of cocaine usage, amidst a new cranking-up of the war on drugs. Do the fumes of anti-politics need any more heat? The call to “clean the stables!” might still be raised by some effective political operator, from whatever point in our livid ideological spectrum. Otherwise, the usual conjunction of luxury and corruption pertains.
Yet these days I am more interested in trying to grasp how a future of escalating biospheric disruptions will shape any and every kind of politics. Not just in parliamentary deadzones—scattered with cheese, wine and wizz—but in movements and phenomena in civil society, and in how we contend with our domestic and intimate lives.
For example, I am regularly infuriated, as an advocate for Scottish independence, when leading ministers of the indy-party majorities in the Scottish Government constantly tie the campaign, and any referendum, to some form of “victory over”, or “normality after”, Covid. How, looking at the epidemiology (and at the alarming adaptability of the new Omicron variant) could one assume any clear “post-Covid” situation?
As the ex-Corbyn advisor James Meadway points out in one of his excellent Pandemic Capitalism columns:
“Given the extremely poor distribution of vaccines, and with a partially-immune global population being the ideal environment to encourage mutations, SARS-Cov-2 was always likely to produce more variants of concern for a long time before it reached endemicity. Having created a global economy almost primed to produce new variants, we are unlikely to remain lucky forever. (Imagine spinning a tombola repeatedly, and drawing numbers from it. The more spins you make, the more likely your numbers are to eventually come up.) If it isn’t Omicron, it remains likely that some other future VOC [variant of concern] has significant vaccine escape.”
If Meadway’s scenario pertains, then it will profoundly shape the case of nation-state independence for Scotland (always one testbed for this writer’s ambitions for a progressive future). Sovereign statehood allows for full health and socio-economic jurisdiction, within internationally-recognised borders; enables public goods to be both generated and integrated; and empowers national expenditure (with an issuing currency) to be raised and directed.
In such circumstances, where a national community can exert a full-spectrum policy response to a crisis, Scottish independence becomes a precondition of (at least) semi-stability. Indy should not be conditional on some socio-ecological stability that is, mid climate meltdown, very unlikely to be achieved (even on the specific concern of viruses, as our baked-in global warming will inevitably generate more pathogens).
We could be facing a definitionally tragic political moment here. As a governing party, the SNP have sought to incrementally and gradually build support for Scottish independence, by means of their “managerial competence” over the functioning of everyday Scotland. However, they may easily find “the Cause” constantly subverted by the Sisyphean efforts of that same “managerial competence”—except it’s now exerted over biosphere disruptions that are barely even manageable, let alone superable.
Welcome to the frustrations of mid-range Scottish indy strategy. But I still find the opportunities of a new, democratically sovereign small nation, able to craft political, cultural and institutional responses to the pandemic era, worth keeping (perhaps doggedly) to the side of my mind, as we tour grander predictions.
James Meadway’s fascinating column says that Covid will put most Northern economies on “a low growth, high cost, big state setting”. Low growth and high cost, because infection makes labour scarce, which means that it has the power to demand more – more money and better conditions – from the capitalists that employ them (they’re already beginning to do so). Big state, because of the surveillance and welfare support that the quarantines of the disease draw out of governments.
For his comrades on the left, Meadway identifies some interesting political priorities, around medical science, info-tech and the state (he assumes the left should militantly take advantage of the scarcity and fragility of the forces of labour). On one hand, they should campaign to sweep away vaccine patents and massively increase non-Western vaccination: this is a matter of both global justice and effective defence against the virus.
On the other hand, they should oppose vaccine passports. Why? First, they’re medically ineffective: new variants may lurk in the bodies of even the most timeously vaccinated. But most importantly, they grant the state powers to tightly monitor our mobility and presence in the public realm. Meadway (following the work of Kalecki) believes that capitalists will ally with soft authoritarians in pandemic-era states (as they have done in past crises). Both will be happy to have new techno-disciplinary powers, whereby they can specify and control “appropriate” and “relevant” labour.
Dishearteningly, Meadway brings us verifiable proof of this state-business info-collusion…from a Scottish Government initiative. The Daily Record reports that “we have learned the NHS mobile phone app [or Scottish vaccination passport] presents personal medical information – in the form of a QR Code – that shares data with companies including Amazon, Microsoft, ServiceNow, Royal Mail and an AI facial recognition firm.” ScotGov subsequently dropped plans to expand the passport beyond nightclubs and restaurants (though a range of reasons have been suggested for this, and Omicrom raises its spectre again).
Scotland’s small but resonant and tightly-packed public sphere means that it’s relatively easy to reverse lumbering, autopilot-like governmental actions. (Human rights activists, backed by Liberal Democrats standing on their traditional principle, were particularly effective here).
This isn’t to mitigate Meadway’s concerns – which is that “the broad dynamic is towards capital and state being drawn closer together, for the purposes of the regulation and control of labour and the natural environment”, and that this “is increasingly likely to come in more authoritarian guise”. However, are we lining up this Scottish story with Priti Patel’s draconian and protest-suppressing bills (The Police Bill and The Nationality and Borders Bill)?
Eternal vigilance, of course. But I would assess the constitutional openness in Scotland allows for the possibility of a more enlightened and accessible policy response to these dangers. Again, it’s a vain hope to build safely (or return to the status quo ante) in the mythical “aftermath” of any pandemic. Wouldn’t it be better to craft the informational rights of independent Scottish citizens, under exactly these biologically demanding conditions?
For example, take Shoshana Zuboff’s critique of “instrumentarianism”, her term for the creeping reality of state-capital techno-surveillance of workers, consumers and citizens – pertinent both in Cupertino or Peking. How could we bring this critique to bear on the human rights of a modern Scottish constitution? What are the new guarantees on the right to deliberation, and the input of community power, over decisions about the management of our bodies, biologies and environments?
The stakes are high for Scottish independence, taken as a political design opportunity – as they should be. Another example: the political economy of a new nation, birthed in such a biospherically-unpredictable era, would want (among other goals) to resource citizens, as citizens: supporting them to be more thoughtful and pro-active about the institutions and regulations around them.
This means securing some existential and imaginative distance from the duties of earning, as a collective right. This usually runs under the policy quartet of Universal Basic Income, Universal Basic Services, a shorter working week and a properly citizen-serving public media.
These are bold reforms that active movements towards national self-determination should be able to establish. They should take advantage of the turbulence at this point in our anthropocene century, not mistakenly hope for it to abate. If Scottish independence is not about a people wrangling with a demanding, planetary future, what other point does it have? Anything to remove us from the bacchanal and (yes) hypocracy of Downing Street.
From Pat Kane’s E2 (The Future & Scotland Too) newsletter on Substack. Subscribe here.
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