One of the most insistent refrains of the No side during the referendum was the claim that nationalist politics is inherently about “putting up barriers.” In part, this was an example of how the No campaign simply relied upon the capitalist fantasy of economic wealth being created through pure, uninterrupted flows (of cash, goods and people). But, of course, there is no such thing as a pure, uninterrupted flow; cash, goods and people are all subject to various interruptions (taxation, stockpiling, social and communal ties and so on). Thus, it would be important for the success of a modern nationalist movement to develop a sophisticated understanding of how these interruptions – call them “barriers” if you wish – should operate. This could have been the basis of an intelligent conversation, but it was hard to explore these points when faced with meaningless slogans about putting up barriers.
There are interruptions and barriers everywhere simply because there are flows everywhere. As pointed out by the two thinkers most known for their exploration of the politics of flows, Deleuze and Guattari, without interruptions and barriers, flows would not exist. There are even barriers within the independence movement itself. Women For Independence have recently come under siege for holding women-only meetings and are now regularly being accused of sexism by a few random people on Twitter. If these comments come from within the independence movement itself, then it is of critical importance that we present a thorough rejection of them – not simply for feminist reasons (as important as those are) but simply because it is essential to the politics of independence and national self-determination that, as a movement, we develop and maintain a robust and sophisticated understanding of barriers.
Even if it is granted that a progressive case can be made for putting up barriers in the name of, for instance, reversing the obstacles women face when trying to be heard in traditional public forums and spaces, the focus of the objections raised is always on the potentially regressive tools of recognition used to exclude certain categories of people. From a progressive perspective, this seems to contradict the principle of equality which so many people are committed to. Quite often these debates focus on the ‘difficult’ cases which (allegedly) test the limits of a women-only policy: for instance, should transgender individuals be permitted to join? In pursuing the debate along these lines, we are imagining a barrier-process based upon a logic of static recognition: you present yourself for entry and then a gatekeeper makes a judgement as to whether they think you meet the established criteria.
But what if there is another way to think about the barrier? What if we were to focus on the barrier’s power to transform both the collective group it serves and those individuals seeking entry (regardless of whether they actually gain entry)? Instead of being a static ‘legalistic’ judgement, this would be a continual process of material power-building. So the question would not be ‘is this person a woman as defined by our policy?’ but, rather, it would be: ‘how would granting entry to this person transform both the group and the individual themselves? Would it increase our strength or weaken us?’
On this model, refusing entry to a sincere and well-intentioned male would not be a snub – it would keep that person focussed on their own politically progressive transformation. Of course, in the abstract, it is perfectly possible to imagine – and it is perhaps something that would be politically desirable as a long-term aim – a feminist organisation which dispenses with women-only spaces on the premise that its points of entry involve such a powerful set of transformations that the collective is unthreatened by the involvement of men. But do the material and political conditions for that sort of organisation exist right now? This is more a question of energy than of moral or political right – the presence of men within the group might by helpful but it could also be toxic, and making sure that it is the former rather than the latter could require an unreasonable expenditure of group energy. Liberal, legalistic concerns about “equality” make the mistake of ignoring the material conditions. Thus, by focussing on material process and power (by which I mean the increase of what people can achieve together, and not the gain of an ability to exercise power over others) rather than identity and judgement, we avoid the sort of badly-articulated criticisms that Women For Independence have recently had to suffer.
My interest here is not over questions of feminist practice (I leave that task to others) but, rather, over the problem of barriers as it relates to nationalist politics. I wrote on this subject during the referendum with respect to immigration policy in a future independent Scotland and I would like to take the opportunity to repeat myself here:
I am not sure if what [Pete Ramand and James Foley, authors of YES: the Radical Case for Scottish Independence] are proposing is literally an open-door immigration policy. What do they mean by “talented people”, for instance? Although I do not for one moment think this is what they intended, this phrase is too close for comfort to class-based rhetoric about Britain attracting the ‘right type of immigrants.’ Besides, as I have already discussed, there is a danger in constituting a new political subjectivity on individual preparedness to labour. But, in fact, there is no need to be vague here or avoid harsh questions about what is to happen at the border of an independent radical Scotland. Instead of glossing over this by talking about attracting talent to a post-YES Scotland (which avoids the difficult question of class-based value judgements), why not turn that into an opportunity to re-imagine the border as a membrane through which one passes into a distinctly different subjective environment? Instead of immigration being a case of either privatising (or, in the case of Soviet-style communism, nationalising) one’s ambitions at the border, we should look into what techniques we can use to get the immigrant to transcend the binary distinction between nationalised and privatised ambition, breaking that distinction apart in order to release the mobile creative and transversal energies that no doubt new immigrants can bring.
What we need is a political movement which will attempt the radical breaking apart of the atomised consciousness of neoliberal subjectivity, not the breaking apart of the organs of what is, still, a very young movement.