YES and the Struggle for Hegemony

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.

Dundee-City-20140917-03311So 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.

“About” Chris Dawson

There was a remarkable moment during Channel 4 News’ coverage of George Osborne’s pre-election budget this week. The format for Channel 4’s budget coverage never changes; the formula is: hire a pub to broadcast live from, bring together one or two posh types with a few regular folk on middle or low incomes, and then start stirring up some discussion. Usually the result is little more than a predictable run-through of the announced measures, with expressions of dismay or delight, depending upon the participants’ political leanings and economic status.

chrisdawsonEnter Chris Dawson, owner of the Range superstore. You can find out all about the Range by visiting their website. They are a sort of poor man’s Next, I suppose, if you like that sort of thing. The sort of place where you can pick up a small electrical white good (like a freezer) at the back of the store and buy a box of candy whilst going through the checkout. Their homepage also links to another page where you can find out all about Chris Dawson. You will perhaps get a sense of the character of this self-confessed “Del Boy” (see picture) if I quote from his “About” page:

Chris featured in the Sunday Times rich List and continues to climb places each year. His ethos in business is to make as much profit as possible; whilst to some this may be seen as greed, in his eyes it is merely the measure of how successful he is in his chosen field.

This clear-cut philosophy is obviously what prompted him, as a participant in Channel 4’s budget coverage, to reply to an NHS worker who dared to complain that her pay has been frozen for several years: “Ah, well, the NHS… Maybe you love the job, I don’t know. But have you considered doing a course related to something else and entering a different line of work?”

Perhaps Mr Dawson, who started his working life as an open air market trader, thinks that NHS work is so fully-marketised that, instead of a standard pay scale, NHS workers literally compete with each other for work, so that by the end of the working day, the better ones will have earned more money and will therefore have a proper measure of how successful they have been in their chosen career. Perhaps that is the basis on which people working at the Range are paid; I’m not sure, but I’ll be certain to ask one of them next time I’m in there.

An associate of David Cameron (Mr Dawson’s “About” page features the obligatory photographs of him standing next to the Prime Minister, no doubt another “measure” of success in his chosen field), he spent much of his five minutes on national television justifying his positive economic assessments by alluding to very important business deals he “obviously couldn’t talk about” on air (we viewers were left with no doubt that we were being graced with the precious time of a well-connected and powerful man).

I wonder however, if, in the ruling class circles through which Mr Dawson cuts such a dashing figure, the people in power are really listening to him and his philosophy. After all, the government are paying out huge sums in terms of in-work benefits to working people through tax credits and the like, effectively subsidising the low wages of Mr Dawson’s competitors with whom he has to compete for workers. Surely – I mean, SURELY – if the people in power were listening to him, they would understand that if the government refused to subsidise low wages in this way, Mr Dawson could temporarily divert his profits towards paying higher wages to his employees in the medium term, thereby eventually putting his competitors out of business, in order to reap greater longer-term profits. (“It’s called playing the long-game, innit, Rodney? Cushtie!”)

But then I suppose the reason that nobody hears Mr Dawson say this is because Mr Dawson knows not to say this sort of thing when he turns up to functions at which the Prime Minister, or other powerful people, are in attendance. For he knows that his competitors are in the building at the same time as him and the idea would not go down very well. Oh well, then, perhaps he knows that there is a limit to the profits he can expect to accumulate, for so long as he is reliant on the surrounding power network, the group, the social class, of which he is a part. The measure of success in his chosen field is not absolute – it is compromised by social and political relations. So, despite the fact that individually they may all have to bury their desire to extinguish each other in the name of profit and power, the capitalist class joke with each other about how “we’re all in this together”. The collective enterprise, the class project of accumulation through dispossession, continues.

And what, finally, of Mr Dawson’s employees working in the Range? They turn up to work every day, after a night out clubbing or working in a bar or even studying hard to find a better job; they certainly joke with each other too, albeit about less-political stuff like Gogglebox and Grumpy Cat, but do they ever talk about the possibility of what they might achieve together if they were to ask each other: “whilst we’re all hard at work slogging our guts out here, what does that bloke Chris Dawson actually do?”

I’m not sure if the employees at the Range do ever ask each other this question. But I’ll be certain to ask one of them next time I’m in there.

GE2015 and the Renationalisation of Aggression

During the Q & A session held at the end of Common Weal’s recent “Evening of the Left” (watch Indy Live’s video coverage here) an audience member complained that instead of pursuing the divisive rhetoric of class politics, we should adopt more inclusive language by referring, for instance, to “the people” rather than “the working class.” RIC’s Jonathon Shafi was, as always, to the point in his reply: “We’ve seen some amazing class fighters over the last number of years: George Osborne, David Cameron and the rest of the Establishment. You can’t ignore the fact that a class war is going on right now.”

Following up on Shafi’s reply, however, is it not also critical to point out how, in terms of social class, individuals are as divided internally within themselves every bit as much as they are divided externally into discrete social classes? A (politically progressive) London-based friend of mine recently asked me: “You know quite a bit about politics and economics. Can you suggest when you think house prices in London might fall far enough for me to be able to buy?” Encapsulated in this question was the inherent paradox of class politics today: of course, my friend is as critical of neoliberal housing policies which promote “aspirations” of home ownership as I am, yet at the same time, fear of getting caught in a trap of high rents and insecure accommodation has essentially forced this aspiration upon him.

utopia01Channel 4’s near-future thriller series Utopia at one point presents an even starker example of this contradiction between, on the one hand, our rational understanding of a situation and, on the other, our rational self-interest (and, by doing so, the show presents us with a terrifying glimpse down one possible avenue of our own future: the nightmare world of Neoliberalism 2.0, the logic of which can only serve to deepen this contradiction). In the knowledge that a sinister underground organisation (“The Network”, which believes a future crisis of over-population can only be solved by creating widespread infertility) is working within the British government to unleash a disease-and-drug combo it has designed with the intention of making 95% of the population infertile, the outraged PhD student Becky confronts the amoral biochemist, Donaldson, who is banking on the success of The Network’s plan in order to make himself a fortune from a drug he is developing. Candidly, Donaldson admits to Becky that what The Network are planning is economically insane: as he puts it, with a rapidly-ageing population and no more children to take over the running of society, retirement will be hell; but this is all the more reason, he adds, for him to use his knowledge of The Network’s plan to secure his personal fortune (rather than, as Becky would have him do, blow the lid off the whole thing).

Thus, as theorists of the unconscious have long been telling us, we are all “divided selves”, internally conflicted between social/political understanding and self-interest. This is no more so, perhaps, than the economics journalist Paul Mason’s “new sociological type: the graduate without a future“, whose aspiration to someday maintain a middle class lifestyle is an internal psychological barrier to the realisation that the more viable path to their own economic security and prosperity is to renounce direct personal ambition in favour of uniting politically with others who are in a similar situation in order to work collectively to abolish neoliberalism.

What makes this an almost existential dilemma for some people is the fear of ending up on the “wrong side of history” i.e. actively renouncing personal ambition in order to join the class struggle, with all the risk of long-term personal “failure” that might entail (we need the scare quotes around “failure” here in order to acknowledge that, being caught up in the twists and turns of social class and how it relates to ambition and economic security, people are conflicted over the very terms of what constitutes personal success or failure). And, of course, whilst capitalist realism – the Thatcherite claim that “there is no alternative” – actively encourages us to not only believe that (working) class politics is a historically-exhausted dead-end, capitalist realism also offers us a definitive account of success or failure which attempts to exclude gains in social prosperity and wealth achieved through collective working class action and solidarity.

Thus, we arrive at the realisation that, out of everything the Thatcherites privatised, perhaps the most damaging privatisation of all was the privatisation of ambition. Indeed, there is a very important point to be made here which links these themes to the rise of Scottish nationalism. One reason why, after the Middle Ages, the big states of Northern Europe ended up forming relatively cohesive units despite the existence within each of them of many different languages (and therefore many imagined communities and potential states) was that, in most of the big European powers, a primary language usually came forward to monopolise social mobility.

For instance, during the French Revolution, only half of the people in France actually spoke French. But when speaking French became tied to getting ahead in life, that quickly changed. Aggression between the small estates of the Middle Ages underwent a sublimation and moved down a level to aggression between individuals seeking to make a better life for themselves, learning the required language along the way. The same happened in the British Isles with the English language. Thus, now that social mobility is reaching an almost complete standstill (as Paul Mason says, our graduates have no future), it makes sense that in some places where the possibility exists of creating a viable state (like Scotland), the personal aggression that would be otherwise tied to individual hopes for social mobility now binds itself to the collective ambition of creating a state.

We can see the political effects of this privatisation of ambition by reflecting on the recent history of the concept of the “general strike”. As an index of potential collective working class action, the general strike is needed now more than ever, yet it has been consigned to the status of a historical curiosity. In a recent BBC radio documentary on the history of Militant, Neil Kinnock claims he had to reject the request made by a delegation from Liverpool that he – Kinnock – call a general strike. As a member of that delegation, Tony Mulhearn, has since pointed out, in reality Kinnock had no such power over the labour movement in Britain (hence it would have been absurd to ask him to “call” a general strike).

But the key question is: why, then, does Kinnock – the man who killed the Labour left and prepared Labour for the rise of Blair – want us to think that he had that power? The answer is that he wants the general strike to sit in a trash bin (probably marked Ideas Guaranteeing Permanent Opposition) over which the Labour Party retains the exclusive right of access. This is what makes so absurd assertions like the one I recently heard from the Blairite MP Caroline Flint: “Labour, the party of the NHS, the welfare state and workers’ rights, will be taking no lessons from the SNP about social justice.” The truth is that all the positive things Labour brought in during the post-War period were gains achieved when radical tools such as the general strike were understood to be available to working class struggle if agitation ever reached the point of using them. The working class is never more organised than when it has been conscripted into a massive war effort, which is why these gains often happen after large conflicts.

Having joined the Thatcherites in consigning the radical tools of class struggle to the dustbin of history (tools which, as Mulhearn points out, Labour only ever wielded in its imagination), the Labour Party has no right to now try and present itself as the vehicle for working class politics. Which means that if we can accept that the material prosperity promised to each of us individually by neoliberalism is an illusion, we must work with each other in order to renationalise our aggression. We must overcome the split lurking within each of us between social/political understanding and rational self-interest. As atomised particles of neoliberal subjectivity, we must come together to form a new collective reaction. In the different corners of Britain, this process is attaching itself to nationalist and Green politics. This new, anti-austerity politics must be prepared to pick up some very old tools of struggle as well as experimenting with the new. The #Indyref was just Chapter One in this new politics. In just fifty-odd days or so, with GE2015, we begin Chapter Two.

Anger Management

Sticks-and-StonesParents often tell their children about sticks and stones, in the hope that they’ll end up better able to handle the psychological pain which usually accompanies an insult. But few parents expect the result to be a child who grows to feel nothing at all upon having an insult thrown at them. Such a person would have the ability to separate abstract thought from emotions and feelings – which, incidentally, is one of the definitions of schizophrenia. (When I used to work in a call centre and was advised that the correct response to angry customers who swore and shouted down the phone at me was to “not take it personally”, I was quick to point out that splitting affect from cognition in this manner is to artificially induce a mild psychosis.)

In a broader sense, nobody ever gets through childhood and adolescence psychologically unscathed. As adults, we are always burdened by some neurotic legacy bequeathed by our parents. “They fuck you up,” as the Larkin poem goes. And, again, what sort of person manages to extricate themselves from the orbit of immediate parental care without this sort of baggage? Probably someone quite scary.

Famously, Freud once received a letter from a father who wanted to know Freud’s opinion on how best to raise his children; his reply was along the lines of: “I have no advice for you at all, except to say that whatever you do, you’ll end up doing the wrong thing.” Yet, even if our parents have made some terrible errors whilst raising us, burdening us with a basketful of neurosis, it isn’t quite true to say that we are “victims” in any normal sense of that word. We have moments when we curse them, can’t listen to them, can’t be around them. Hopefully we just spend the rest of our time getting on with our lives, but that’s partly the point: we initially put distance between ourselves and our parents because we can’t stand being around them, but then that act of withdrawal creates the very space in which we live our adult lives unburdened by resentments towards our parents. (Of course, some people find this process difficult and end up needing clinical help with their neurotic problems.)

These thoughts come to me when I read Stephen Daisley’s complaints about a nationalist slide into the “politics of outrage” as a result of things like this. Daisley writes:

There is a strain of Scottish nationalism – present in all nationalisms, if you look closely enough – that revels in outrage. It feasts on slights real and imagined and gorges itself on the psychological junk food of grievance. No offence is left untaken because to do so would disrupt the pleasures of a siege mentality.

Yes, an unchecked discourse of victimhood is a potentially toxic one. This is why political anger needs appropriate management. Weirdly, however, Daisley seems to imply that there is something inherently problematic with political anger:

It is not true what the schoolmarms say. Political anger is not a dead end; it is a potent force for those who seek power or want to retain it. But it poisons everything around it. This is not the politics that inspired hundreds of thousands of Labour voters to fight the muscle memory of class and family and custom to vote for independence. It bears no relation to the positive and progressive visions outlined by Nicola Sturgeon, National Collective, or Women for Independence.

The “positive and progressive vision” belongs to the Platonic realm of Ideas, whilst forceful political anger is a deadly poison. In other words, in a state of political schizophrenia, cognition is divorced from affect. A long-held prejudice of Western political thinking, then, repeats itself in Daisley’s discourse. He accuses some nationalists of engaging in “risible fantasy” and yet his vision of politics is the true fantasy: a world in which positive and progressive transformative change occurs purely through the dissemination of great ideas without the energy of angry people prepared to fight against powerful interests to achieve them. This fantasy achieves perfect expression when Daisley writes:

Scotland is not a victim or an oppressed minority or a subjugated nation. It is a voluntary partner in a political enterprise, albeit a dysfunctional and asymmetric one. The electorate voted No and just as we have to learn to live with that fact, we also have to live with each other. The energy spent on confected victimhood is energy sapped from pursuing electoral advances and securing a second referendum.

This is the idea that securing independence can be achieved cleanly, safely and democratically, with the power of argument and ideas alone. Contrary to this fantasy, my belief is that securing independence is going to be extremely difficult, messy and will involve a lot of political anger. You decide which of us has the more credible understanding of the future for nationalist politics.

Yet perhaps Daisley is correct to say that all nationalisms contain a strain that “revels in outrage”. Stated without qualification (which is certainly as Daisley states it), this is to say that either nationalism, as I argue, requires careful anger management, or else, as I think Daisley wants us to unconsciously conclude, nationalism is trouble best strayed clear of. But the important qualification to be made is this: saying that all nationalism has a strain that revels in outrage is simply the political equivalent of saying that all adults, more or less unconsciously, harbour childhood resentments towards their parents. But, at the same time, just because everyone can be psychoanalysed, it does not therefore follow that everyone needs psychoanalysis.

To be clear: I am not saying that Scotland is a child of the UK which, now that it is all grown up and ready to leave home, is burdened with psychological hang-ups. I am making a point about how, just as part of growing up involves working through one’s anger and hostility with one’s parents, the creation of a politically-effective movement involves working through the emotional grievances which fuel the commitment of activists and supporters. This “working through” does not take place on couches, in quiet consulting rooms in posh parts of Edinburgh. It takes place on social media, in the streets, at local meetings and so on. By necessity, it all takes place in public; and this creates its own problems, as people lose control of their anger and end up making contributions to the process that are sometimes less than welcome.

A few months ago when the Guardian published a cartoon portraying Nicola Sturgeon as a Hitler-in-the-making, I got angry and said I would never read the Guardian again. Somehow I did end up reading it every so often. But with this latest episode, the Guardian really has gone too far for me, and I really won’t be reading it ever again. Two steps forwards, one step back. The messy process of becoming independent continues.

Women-only

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.

F1.largeThe Barrier as Transformative Process (rather than static judgement)

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.

Why I Don’t Buy The National

Some preliminaries… Firstly, because I have only a critical, highly-politicised interest in the staging of consumer enjoyment, I have always considered the concept of the spoiler alert to belong to bourgeois interests. However, I do try to be a nice person and I try to present militancy as something which is fun, rather than just irritating; so if you don’t want to know what happens at the end of Mike Leigh’s 1993 film Naked, then you’d best not read much further.

Secondly, I want readers to know that this blog is not subject to any editorial process. Independence Live do not approve my posts before I put them up. And I point this out only because I would hate for anyone to think that what you are about to read represents anything other than my own personal opinions. Having said that, I know that when I say I don’t buy The National, I am speaking for a large number of others within the pro-independence movement, most of whom don’t buy it simply because they aren’t in the habit of buying any newspaper. What I seek to provide here is a justification for that choice which will give those people greater confidence in rebutting the suggestion that their failure to purchase the newspaper represents a backsliding or a lack of solidarity. As a movement, we need to be able to have robust and honest conversations with each other. If we are unable to do this, we’re fucked.

In any case, I do not want anyone to think that simply because I do not buy The National that this means I am therefore against The National. It serves its customer-base of older supporters of independence, which is a very worthy thing. What I am against is the suggestion that, as a supporter of independence, I should be making a point of buying (or otherwise economically supporting) The National. Writing in Bella Caledonia, Pat Kane, for instance, argues:

We know that Scots voters who were more passive and less interactive in their media consumption – older, more traditional voters – correlated more with a No voting profile. So it is incredibly important that YeSNP (it’s back again!) types and others economically support The National paper in these next few months (and its ideological sister, the Sunday Herald). The National will become, effectively, campaign literature that can be easily obtained at the street corner, and passed to friends who occupy this bracket.

Although I appreciate Kane’s subsequent comments about the importance of Scotland’s new grassroots media, I cannot endorse the suggestion that those of us who are more interactive in our media consumption should be funding something we ourselves don’t read in order to put propaganda in the hands of No voters. The mistake Kane makes here is to believe that the conversion of those who voted No can take place without presenting a challenge to the comforts of a less interactive media.

davidthewlisThis is where Mike Leigh’s Naked provides an important vision of a post-Thatcher world in which we are exhorted to refuse the false comforts of older social forms. The film tells the story of Johnny who flees Manchester and crashes back into the life of his ex-girlfriend, Louise, who now lives in London. After bickering with Louise, Johnny embarks on a lonely odyssey through the English capital in which he is forced to sleep in office doorways, gets caught up in fights with the night-life, and eventually finds himself subjected to a random beating. When he returns to Louise, having been given a taste of London’s violence, he is offered a way out: unexpectedly perhaps, Louise (having herself been ground-down by the harshness of life in the capital) suggests that she and Johnny return to Manchester together to make a second go of things. It sounds like a happy ending of sorts is in the offing. Excited, Louise rushes out to hand her notice into work. Whilst she is away, however, Johnny silently makes his escape and throws himself back into the unwelcoming city, preferring to remain homeless and alone rather than return to the provincial comforts of Manchester.

It is this refusal to seek refuge from the structural violence of neoliberal capitalism by withdrawing to the old comfort zones of a rotting social democracy which makes Naked a work of proto-accelerationism. Johnny may find no comfort on the streets of London, but what he does find there is more truthful than any life he might have had with Louise back in Manchester. The same lesson should be applied to our media: the idea of a print newspaper supported economically by political goodwill alone risks nurturing a desire to retreat to old comfort zones. Changes in productivity are violent: there is certainly an economic violence in the damage to newsprint caused by online journalism. But as today’s promoters of “left accelerationism” are keen to remind us, Marx was himself the first accelerationist; no one understood more than him the necessity of going through capitalism in order to reach a better world beyond.

Where I do agree with Kane is in his call for us to support our pro-independence media institutions, whether young or old. My only disagreement is with the idea of deliberately going out of one’s way to support those old comfort zones that I’ve written about here, when there exists a doubt over the ability of those zones or institutions to support themselves. Many of those who voted No (and who are in the habit of reading newspapers) are more or less blind to the structural violence of capitalism; by pretending that newspapers are, in the long-term, still a viable form of media, all we risk doing is encouraging such people to remain blind.

Some of those who argue (and, yes, I’ve argued with them) that we should buy The National on the basis that its declining sales becomes (however wrongly) an indicator of declining support for independence fail to realise that the opposite may be true i.e. that a loss of interest in The National may be an indicator of how independence draws the majority of its support from the most interconnected and media savvy sections of society. As the Leveson Inquiry demonstrated, a large part of the mainstream press, despite the challenge of online journalism, has used its position within elite power networks to maintain itself. Far from needing a challenge ‘from within’, this model needs to die. In Scotland, a radical grassroots media, politically tied to support for independence, might just have what it takes to kill the damn thing off.

Finally, one last thing. One month’s subscription to The National costs £5.50. A bargain for people who read the paper and, as I stressed earlier, I have no problem with that if they are in the habit of buying a newspaper. But if you are asking me to offer economic support to a media outlet because it is a politically worthy cause, then donating to Independence Live is my priority because it is a service that I actually use (and, incidentally, the current crowdfunder is about to end in less than three days, with 86% of what is needed having been raised so far). There should be no pressure on supporters of independence to either purchase or not purchase The National, just as there should be no pressure to contribute to Independence Live. There is no one, single right thing to do which covers the whole movement. There is only the right thing, individually, for each one of us to do.

Financing the Image of a Post-Capitalist Media

If you switch on television it’s just ridiculous and its destructive. It kills us. And talk shows will kill us. They kill our language. So we have to declare holy war against what we see every single day on television… I think there should be real war against commercials, real war against talk shows, real war against “Bonanza” and “Rawhide”, or all these things. – Werner Herzog

One of my occasional pastimes involves trying to extract subversive, anti-capitalist lessons from the narratives of mainstream Hollywood movies. A favourite example here is the 2011 Adam Sandler comedy Just Go With It. Trying to impress his girlfriend by showing how good he is with his receptionist’s two kids, plastic surgeon Danny (Sandler) takes them out for the day. However, as he is out for the day with the two children by himself, he realises that he will need to produce evidence that this was indeed a wonderful outing. Thus, instead of concentrating on simply having a good time with the kids, with the occasional photograph snapped along the way, Danny spends the whole time obsessively setting up constructed poses for the camera, at the expense of the children’s enjoyment.

just-go-with-itThis, surely, is a perfect metaphor for the modern (post-Fordist) capitalist workplace in which bureaucratic self-auditing (diagnosed and described perfectly by Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism), instead of assessing the quality of the work, comes to replace the work itself. The culture of “performance management” means that, instead of just getting on with the work, we spend much of our time taking snapshots of ourselves doing the work.

Just Go With It, then, holds up a remarkably critical mirror in order to reflect the absurdity of the modern capitalist production process. In doing so, it gives us an image of production which very much speaks to a contemporary economy characterised by secular stagnation, falling productivity rates and, to quote David Graeber, “bullshit jobs.”

Capitalism is the most productive economic system the world has ever seen but, as Marx predicted, private property will eventually serve to constrain and hold back productivity. What was once the red-hot motor powering production will in the end become an obstacle to production. Perhaps we can identify points where private property has started holding back productivity in today’s economy. Today’s open source and self-styled “hacker spaces” present a more powerful and potent image of production than many, if not all, modern capitalist workplaces. We are surely faced with a crisis in the measuring of the value of labour when, under rules governing the calculation of GDP in EU states, money changing hands as a result of drug dealing and prostitution is included in GDP, whilst the economic value of all the unpaid caring, open source programming, media production and numerous other forms of volunteering goes completely unmeasured.

Thus, a free service such as Independence Live, dependent upon individuals donating their spare time, presents us with yet another image of production. This time, however, it is an image of post-capitalist production. An image of production as it might be if production were not constrained and held back by private property. This is one reason why what Independence Live does is politically radical. But there is a danger: we must not allow the image of post-capitalist production to blind us to the reality that what Independence Live does currently takes place within a capitalist world of private property. So, on that basis, I would encourage you to try and support the current crowdfunder, if you have not already done so.

As producers and consumers of media we are, as Werner Herzog says, at war.

I Know What You’ll Do This Summer

Despite its almost two and a half hours running time, Béla Tarr’s 2011 film, The Turin Horse, is composed of only 30, extremely lengthy, shots. It details the extremely mundane and repetitive life of a peasant farmer and his adult daughter at the end of the 19th century. Underlining just how repetitive and empty this life is, the film forces us to sit through the same daily, time-consuming events more than once. The concept of novelty or change in this world not only feels impossible, it appears that it may not even exist as a concept at all. Tarr has said of his film: “We just wanted to see how difficult and terrible it is when every day you have to go to the well and bring the water, in summer, in winter… All the time. The daily repetition of the same routine makes it possible to show that something is wrong with their world. It’s very simple and pure.”

Turin Horse

The horse of the film’s title is the horse around which Nietzsche famously threw his arms and sobbed, before lapsing into a ten year silence. We never see this scene and because the film’s action starts immediately after this event (with the farmer taking the horse back to his home), we never see Nietzsche either. He remains present through his absence. Perhaps the repetition of daily routine which weighs so heavily on ourselves as viewers of the film is a bringing to life of the problems which motivated Nietzsche’s work. As Tarr says, the repetitive nature of the farmer and his daughter’s existence shows us that something is wrong with their world, but the more interesting question is: isn’t the poverty of this grinding repetition, its austere emptiness, ultimately responsible for preventing the farmer and his daughter from articulating what is wrong with their world? Nietzsche’s breakthrough, then, could be seen as the act of having produced a powerful and potent discourse with which to start diagnosing the problems of that world.

If the farmer and his daughter lack the tools required to articulate what is wrong with their world, then today we have the opposite problem: we have no shortage of such tools and we can easily articulate what is wrong with our contemporary world. Our current problem is that it is much more difficult to change our world or initiate an intervention into it such that we would have a greater say over the terms of our existence. Whereas the characters in Tarr’s film are burdened by the heaviness of a spirit-crushing repetition, today we are subject to the idea that things never stay the same. With globalisation, instead of going to sleep knowing that tomorrow will be exactly the same as today, we go to sleep knowing that events taking place overnight on the other side of the globe can have drastic implications for our own lives. Whereas the farmer and his daughter are tied to the dreadful monotony of their farmstead, we are the insecure precariat, whose job security is more often than not tied to the state of the globalised economy.

Of course, insecurity brought about by incessant change is not distributed equally. Since the referendum, we have been bombarded by a unionist message which says: ‘independence must be put to bed for a generation, lest the insecurity caused by the constant threat of independence causes damage to the economy.’ If parliamentary democracy is about mandate-seeking, then the suggestion here is that there should be no pure repetition of past mandates sought by political parties. To offer the exact same thing to the electorate again is simply not playing by the informal rules of the game. Of course, the notorious exception to this is the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty held in Ireland, after the Irish electorate voted ‘the wrong way’ i.e. against the interests of capital – which makes precisely the obvious point that these informal rules of the game exist in order for capital to contain the threats posed to it by democracy.

Perhaps, then, the best way to resist a world in which we are subjected to a regime of constant insecurity and incessant change is to find some way of introducing repetition into the system on our own terms. Within the radical left, there is a tradition of deliberately repeating past events. Slavoj Žižek refers to this tradition when he notes the performative impact of a recreation of the storming of the Winter Palace on the third anniversary of the October Revolution: “Tens of thousands of workers, soldiers, students, and artists worked round the clock, living on kasha (tasteless wheat porridge), tea, and frozen apples, and preparing the performance at the very place where the event really took place three years earlier; their work was coordinated by the Army officers, as well as by avant-garde artists, musicians, and directors, from Malevich to Meyerhold. Although this was acting and not reality, the soldiers and sailors were playing themselves… [T]he formalist theoretician Viktor Shklovsky noted that “some kind of elemental process is taking place where the living fabric of life is being transformed into the theatrical.”

Scottish independence supporters

Nostalgia, in Žižek’s view, is always nostalgia for opportunity lost, so to deliberately repeat a historical episode is one way of trying to reopen the opportunities lost or obscured. I am certain that after the election in May this year, I will experience a feeling of loss, as the turning of spring into summer forces me to nostalgically recall what we achieved – as well as what we failed to achieve – last summer. I am certain many thousands of others will feel the same. The prospect of such a predicament forces me to ask: dare we try to recreate, to re-enact the spirit of the referendum? Of course, I am not suggesting that we literally try to hold another ballot. But what if we were to consider the potential for multiple political liberations opened up by temporarily readjusting the horizon of our concept of independence? What if we make of this coming summer a collective drive, not for the singular declaration of independence by a new state, but for thousands of molecular declarations of independence?

What forms would these ‘molecular declarations of independence’ take? I imagine a sweeping range, from the very smallest scale upwards: individuals inspired and empowered to declare their independence from abusive partners, workers deciding collectively to leave a useless union (like USDAW, for instance, which registered for the No side during the referendum without consulting its members on the issue) to join a radical union like the IWW, all the way up to the fight for a functioning, independent media free of corporate interests. Crowd psychology dictates that we often feel liberated, less inhibited, when we are swept up in a collective process of action. As part of a crowd, we dare to live. In the scenario I am imagining, whilst individuals and communities set about taking action to gain greater independence for themselves, they should simultaneously gain courage and inspiration from the examples set, and the direct support given, of other individuals and other communities.

A surge of activity organised around the concept of molecular independence, then, could take on an ever more radicalising feedback cycle; but to get started, it would have to be driven by a nostalgic desire to return to the shared experience of collective political action last year. Thus, to begin with, this ‘second summer of independence’ may be energised by drawing its inspiration from the past. However, it will have to face the future also. The 2016 Scottish Parliament elections will be one year away. Many of the liberations gained during such a festival will feel temporary and ultimately vulnerable to the return of oppressive regularities. Thus, if all this were to become a reality, it would be important to focus on the sorts of policies needed to consolidate the gains (as Jonathon Shafi has been saying recently, the radical left in Scotland needs to be aiming, at the very least, to become the official opposition to the SNP in Holyrood). This would give the whole enterprise a practical edge, to counter accusations of pure utopia.

Žižek is fond of asserting that radical new political truths require a name in order to gain traction: names like Lenin, Mao or Chavez. The danger of promoting a radical politics organised around the names of individual leaders is obvious enough. However, if the name is an impersonal word such as ‘independence’, then rallying around a broad interpretation of this word would encourage a constant process of liberation and a drive for ever-greater political autonomy. I don’t want people to see the work of Independence Live as belonging to a narrow period in Scotland’s political history. We need independence for Scotland, of course. But we need independence and self-determination for everyone. Independence forever!

This is Not a Democracy

Caroline Lucas inadvertently destroys the case for us being #BetterTogether. The case for a new Scotland (not discussed here) is, as I’m sure most will agree, fundamentally about democracy. This is where we need to look at ourselves and ask what a democracy really is.

http://youtu.be/YdEriGO3r8U

We have been told that America is the world’s greatest democracy. = WRONG!

We have been told that Iraq has been given democracy. = WRONG!

We are still being encouraged to think of Britland as a democracy. = WRONG!

In a democracy there is a democratically elected chamber of ministers. Between the chamber and the public realm there is a lobby where representatives of industry can meet with ministers in order to influence them prior to making decisions that will affect those industries. This is called ‘lobbying’. It doesn’t always happen in the lobby but the ministers have the final word based on the mandate they were elected upon.

A corporatocracy is when the interests of the bankers, financiers and large multinational corporations have been allowed to bypass the earlier democratic process and have taken up a controlling position from within the state structure.

In this instance there is nothing that the voter can do to affect change as they are only able to select different actors to play the various roles of what can only be called a corporate charade.

This is not ‘just the way it is’ and there are various examples of democracies in operation all around us who do what the big money men hate the most. They give power to people who don’t have money. Finland is one of the first countries that comes into my mind as its local democracy is one of the closest to the people in the world and entire healthcare systems have been altered to overturn serious societal health problems within the year based on community action. Iceland was the first country in the whole world to solve the so called ‘crisis’, wrote themselves a constitution and their GDP per capita is now virtually the same as the UK. There is a great deal of wealth in the UK but the state is designed to retain as much of it as possible at the top and has done for centuries. 31% of British children live below the poverty line. That is disgusting and should be challenged any time anyone advocates the continuation of this elitist structure.

Scotland is in a unique position to start from the position of democracy and write into our new constitution barriers and restraints to corporate interests. We will decide what you get to do within our economy and you will be expected to pay your fair share of the tax. This is no utopian fantasy or idealism, this is real but those who have their vested interests in the corporate sector are behind much of the misinformation for the very reason that this means that there may well be another economy out of the control of the multinationals. We have so much to protect and so much we can do that we mustn’t allow weak mindedness and cowardice to hand control of our wealth – that can lift our children from poverty to opportunity and see our society flourish with confidence and positivity – to the narrow interests of the most greedy and some would say evil in our world.

It’s time to take the power back and we can only do that by building from the 45% we achieved against all the odds and with the new and improved new media infrastructure we have created, ignorance will never be the weapon of state that defeats us. Knowledge is freedom, onwards and upwards.

Spanish Fascinated by Scotland

As a Scot who lives and works in Spain I can tell you that the eyes of the world are on Scotland. It is something that I am asked about frequently and as I can provide a meaningful and realistic insight into the matter I find that the fascination escalates. The picture presented to the world usually comes via London and is mainly unrecognisable to a Scottish person. There are many parallels with Catalunya including the right wing media who wage a propaganda war of mind control and a suppression of the fact that Catalunya concedes around 9% of its economy to the Spanish state. They too recognise their position as a member of a union but are perfectly aware that they are not Castellanos. Catalans are very often spoken of as ‘they’ and common statements are that ‘they want their own language…’. Actually, they have their own language. Actually, they are not Castellanos. The centralist mindset of a lot of Spain is to treat the component parts of the nation state as owned by Madrid and this is what we are facing with London. Scotland is de facto not owned by the UK. Scotland is only involved by voluntary agreement of the Act of Union 1707 and that act can be repealed by the sovereign will of the people at any time. Catalunya has a problem in that the constitution of 1978 forbids the central government from permitting a component nation from leaving the nation state and is permitted to send in the military in order to secure this end. Scotland fascinates for various reasons but none more so than the manner in which we have used sound and rational debate to mobilise a long standing and peaceful movement and use the correct political channels in order to allow a fully democratic process to take place.