In common with many other people, the playwright Peter Arnott only really came to my attention as an important asset to the Yes-side with his electrifying essay for Bella Caledonia, “Dinner With No Voters“. His contribution came at a moment during the referendum campaign when Project Fear had really started ramping up operations amidst a nationalist insurgency which was slowly beginning to gather momentum. What some of us needed at that point – especially those of us who were knocking on doors a handful of nights each week – was a way of articulating the stakes with both concision and a sense of urgency and importance. Peter Arnott’s essay did that and I have been a big fan of his ever since.
So much for the past, now I want to respond to one of Peter’s more recent contributions to Bella, in which he writes:
At the risk of making myself unpopular, I always thought that when Better Together accused us of not just of not being ready for the realities of “independence”, but of not really knowing what that WAS… they had a point. I think the reciprocal gesture towards reality on the Yes side is some serious consideration now of dropping the word entirely. What we want, after all, is autonomy.
Before I respond to the proposed dropping of YES as a word, it’s important to note that a few days after this piece appeared on Bella, a further article by Peter also went up in which, taking into consideration Scottish Labour’s approach to the election, he wondered aloud whether there might be any real prospect at all of a civil and constructive dialogue with whatever remains of the supposedly ‘progressive’ subset of unionism that might be living somewhere within the Labour Party. So it’s possible that this proposed gesture is already to be considered somewhat futile and stillborn.
However, I do want to respond, because the status of YES as a social signifier has been something I’ve given a bit of thought to since the referendum result. The starting point, for me, is a passage from Ernesto Laclau which I hope you’ll forgive me if I quote at length:
Consider for a moment the role of social signifiers in the emergence of modern political thought – I am essentially thinking of the work of Hobbes. Hobbes, as we have seen, presented the state of nature as the radically opposite of an ordered society, as a situation only defined in negative terms. But, as a result of that description, the order of the ruler has to be accepted not because of any intrinsic virtue that it can have, but just because it is an order, and the only alternative is radical disorder. The condition, however, of the coherence of this scheme is the postulate of the equality of the power of individuals in the state of nature – if the individuals were uneven in terms of power, order could be guaranteed through sheer domination… So, while Hobbes implicitly perceives the split between the empty signifier ‘order as such’ and the actual order imposed by the ruler, as he reduces – through the covenant – the first to the second, he cannot think of any kind of dialectical or hegemonic game between the two.
What happens if, on the contrary, we reintroduce power within the picture – that is if we accept the unevenness of power in social relations? In that case, civil society will be partially structured and partially unstructured… If partial order exists in society, the legitimacy of the identification of the empty signifier of order with the will of the ruler will have the further requirement that the content of this will does not clash with something the society already is. As society changes over time this process of identification will be always precarious and reversible and, as the identification is no longer automatic, different projects or wills will try to hegemonise the empty signifiers of the absent community. The recognition of the constitutive nature of this gap and its political institutionalisation is the starting point of modern democracy. (Laclau, Emancipation(s), p. 45-6)
Most of what I have to say on the question of dropping YES as a term of our discourse is contained in this passage. My only job here is to unpack it a little and apply its insights to our current situation. Perhaps the best way for me to start the unpacking is with reference to a left-leaning No voter who said to me during the referendum: “The mistake you are making by voting Yes on the basis of a renewed leftism is that, having been frustrated in your attempt to argue for left-wing policies within the Westminster framework, you think the answer is to achieve those same policies through the backdoor of constitutional change.” In other words, in a democracy like ours, the state is just a politically neutral framework providing an opportunity for different political projects to compete for power. Even this left-leaning No voter was revealing the Hobbesian assumptions which underpinned the case for No.
The basis of my reply was to remind this person of what Laclau says regarding the Hobbesian theory of sovereignty being unable to conceive of any dialectical or hegemonic game between the order imposed through the state as an abstract idea and the actual state we have to deal with i.e. Westminster. Throughout the referendum I was arguing that the nationalism of Yes was not the imperialist, proto-fascist nationalism that so many of our opponents were trying to smear us with. It was, as I claimed then and still do now, the nationalism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that a nationalist focus on social justice within one’s own state was, far from a refusal to care about the plight of the poor and oppressed around the world, a way of ensuring that solidarity with the oppressed becomes consistently centred on real action rather than nice words and the occasional direct debit. In Rousseau’s nationalist account of sovereignty, the state should not be considered a politically-neutral space of struggle but, rather, the political institutionalisation of the constitutive gap between order-as-such and the particular order of a specific state.
So not only was there a political struggle between Yes and No during the referendum, but that there was always an implied philosophical disagreement between Yes and No over the very nature of political struggle itself. And this is why today we have all the calls from unionists to put to bed the fight for independence for a generation. As victors, they don’t just want to prevent independence from happening, they demand the right to reassert the philosophical foundations of the British state: to insist upon the nature of political struggle as something which happens between politically-opposed actors within a neutral framework. For such a framework to operate effectively, questions over its neutrality can be raised on occasion (such as during an independence referendum) but afterwards they must be silenced. That was then, this is now.
Hence, why I view maintaining the presence of Yes, the social signifier that refuses to die, as part of the continuing struggle for hegemony in the post-referendum world.