“Those who draw maps place themselves on low ground, in order to understand the character of the mountains and other high points, and climb higher in order to understand the character of the plains. Likewise, one needs to be a ruler to understand properly the character of the people, and to be a man of the people to understand properly the character of rulers.”
— Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
We enter 2014 with two predominant maps of an independent Scotland in circulation: first, the bold but abstract outline of the Common Weal, toying with scale and distance to bring us notably closer to the hastily scribbled coasts of Scandinavia; second, the Scottish Government’s White Paper, a large and detailed effort that, save a few interesting addendums, looks remarkably like the Scotland we’re trying so hard to redraw. There are others too, of varying scale and skill, from Stephen Maxwell’s republished sketch of a “radical democracy” to the libertarian contours of the right-wing blog Wealthy Nation. “Our multiform, our infinite Scotland” indeed.
Scotland is full of those who draw maps, so it seems. But as prefigurative charts of a political geology yet to emerge, their real usefulness remains uncertain and untested. They certainly have their respective partisans and detractors already. Few socialists can be satisfied with the White Paper, and all should view Wealthy Nation with hostility, but a great deal of enthusiasm exists amongst the various orienteering teams of the Scottish left for the trails marked out by the Common Weal and Stephen Maxwell.
This enthusiasm can obscure the clear tension between the two latter visions, pointed out by Pat Kane in a thoughtful review of Maxwell’s ‘The Case for Left-Wing Nationalism’: Maxwell’s passionate localism, forged in the white heat of the 1960s’ and 70s’ big-state social democracy, clashes awkwardly with the Common Weal’s more sanguine (though by no means unqualified) attitude to centralised power. Tensions aside, both are nonetheless marked indelibly – stained, perhaps – by their Nordic inspiration, limited in the final instance by a politics of moderate, consensus-based reform.
Beyond Social Democracy
Reading Maxwell’s 1976 essay ‘Beyond Social Democracy’ is an odd experience.(1) He writes, for example, that social democracy “has allowed a concept of politics as a manipulative exercise undertaken to create and maintain a compliant consensus to smother the radical ideal of politics as a central activity in a socially responsible and vigorously self-critical culture.” Though written almost thirty years ago, the critique clings to its subject like mud to a boot; Maxwell can almost be heard stomping through the final puddles of an evaporating postwar consensus as he outlines a decentralized alternative of workers’ cooperatives and empowered local government that remains relevant today.
The oddness of that work comes from its proximity to a Maxwell essay from 2011 in which Scottish nationalists ought to be “heartened and inspired” by the historian Tony Judt’s argument that social democracy “is better than anything else to hand”.(2) It is understandable, after three horrible decades of full-frontal attacks on working class organisations and the near-eradication of the public belief that there are alternatives to capitalism, that social democracy might seem like a modest improvement. It is. But the advocacy of social democratic politics in Scotland in 2011 is not an example of a “vigorously self-critical culture”.
In the end, Maxwell’s “radical” social democracy fits all too snugly into the hegemonic ideology of nationalist Scotland. While he hints, at times, at extra-parliamentary politics and industrial democracy, the SNP’s Holyrood bubble has grown far too large to be burst by such quaint sentiments, with their paucity of mass support. The infrequent left-wing twinges that continue within the SNP are absorbed and de-fanged, funnelled into tokenistic offerings like “community empowerment” to take the edge off an agenda that is otherwise centralising, tax-cutting and reluctant to act decisively in favour of the labour force when industrial disputes emerge.
The absorption and moderation of transformative ideas after independence is one of the single biggest risks facing the pro-independence left, and the prevalence of this risk is a symptom of our obsession with building “consensus”. It is no surprise that a Nordic-inspired nationalist movement should be so occupied with consensual politics; the uniquely peaceful development of Nordic capitalist democracy was in large part thanks to its basis in tripartite class compromise, with a large independent peasant class, emergent urban working class and relatively weak middle class pulled together in the ‘national interest’ by a vanguard of labour movement leaders and middle class progressive reformers.
The 1930s saw the development of Folkshemmet, the ‘People’s Home’ of Swedish universalism, and Finland’s growing preoccupation with its Nordic identity, which Finnish labour historian Pauli Kettunen argues became “a code for the future that was inherent in Finnish society.”(3) Like the 19th-century expansion of the USA, the Nordic ideology was that of manifest destiny, inscribed in the very DNA of the people. With this the citizens could be rallied behind their state, tempering divergent class interests in the name of becoming-Nordic.
Is this kind of self-justifying “progressive” nationalism not precisely what the SNP mean when they talk of “Scottish values”? It implies something fundamental to us as Scots that can, given free reign with independence, allow us all to realise its egalitarian implications.
But there’s little political realism in these comforting illusions. Unlike Scotland, Nordic society was already relatively equal before the Nordic welfare state emerged, and the working class were remarkably well-represented in its democratic institutions. They could, to an extent, adapt comfortably to the coming of capitalist modernity. Scotland, on the other hand, has one of the worst levels of economic inequality in the developed world – the top 30% possess over 50% of the wealth, while the bottom 30% have just over 10%. The Jimmy Reid Foundation has found that among Scotland’s political “influencers” only 3% have an income below the national average. As rhetoric, “Scottish values” can perhaps persuade the Scottish poor that their interests are tied to the interests of the rich, but this is utopian. With disparities of wealth and power as great as ours, the idea of a consensus-based ‘national interest’ is meaningless. The rectification of inequality demands the creation of winners and losers. It’s not “all of us first”.
“The Character of the Rulers”
A politics of antagonism – not nationalist, but socialist – is the only way to ensure that we have the right winners. For if our political class is so skewed towards the interests of the wealthy, how can we expect them to suddenly adopt redistributive programmes like the Common Weal, or give up power to local government, as Maxwell proposes? The Common Weal argues that a programme of reducing wage differentials can be in the interests of Scottish business as well. Something similar was suggested by the Swedish ‘Rehn-Meidner strategy’ for trade union bargaining: pushing low wages above market-friendly levels and pursuing wage restraint among the better-paid would force out inefficient capital and allow some breathing space for the kind of long-term, productive investment that grows the economy in everyone’s interest.(4)
But what do you do if inefficient capital is the chief “influencer”, as the financial services sector has been in Britain for decades? A genuinely productive, relatively egalitarian society is only in the interests of the ruling class if the ruling class want the economy to work well as a whole, rather than in their particular interests. But the capitalist is interested in their profit above all else, and inefficient, low-wage business still makes a profit for somebody. We need look no further for a domestic example than the wealth of Fred Goodwin, who Alex Salmond was so enthusiastic to help out with the disastrous purchase of ABN-AMRO, presumably in the so-called “national interest”. Goodwin remains rich. His victims remain poor.
The Common Weal and the SNP accept, to various degrees, Machiavelli’s point that “one needs to be a ruler to understand properly the character of the people”. To grasp the singular character of the people as a whole, a ruling party must both lead the people and depend on them for one’s authority. The SNP seek to be this party, while Common Weal director Robin McAlpine has spoken of the need to have a major party accept the Common Weal as its political programme. But this is dangerously elitist without equal emphasis on the second principle, that one must be “of the people to understand properly the character of rulers.”
Maxwell, with his mistrust of parliamentary absolutism, understood some of this danger but nonetheless focused primarily on winning over the SNP. That party’s most recent conference featured a lecture by Andrew Wilson on their need to become a “National Party”. This way, they could “unify the wonderful rich diversity of our country behind the progress and reform we desperately require. We must let other parties continue to define themselves by us and be confident and clear in our purpose, direction and goals beyond independence.” This is undoubtedly what the SNP want to happen. And yet it suggests precisely the “compliant consensus” that Maxwell warned against in “Beyond Social Democracy”, and it should be fought at all costs.
“The Character of the People”
With Machiavelli we make two assumptions: first, that there must be a party (or, for Machiavelli, a prince) and a state with which to change society; second, that it is ultimately the people who know the best role for their representatives, for they understand “the character of rulers” better than the rulers themselves. So the people must be dually empowered: firstly, in the politics of the parliament and the constitution, where they cannot avoid being ruled but where their particular representatives can come to understand and fight for them. But they must also be empowered beyond the political system, skewed as it is towards the simple interests of the rulers themselves. What might political action along these principles – of interdependent popular empowerment inside and outside the state – look like?
The Haitian Lavalas (‘flood’) movement, led until 2004 by the radical priest-turned-politician Jean Bertrand Aristide, has been described by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek as “a unique combination: a political agent which won state power through free elections, but which all the way through maintained its roots in organs of local popular democracy, of people’s direct self-organisation.” Haiti, where former slaves rebelled against their masters in 1791 to form an independent Republic, has been one of the most tragic victims of global capitalism. Forced at gunpoint to pay compensation to France for their own liberation until 1947, the economy and society has been devastated by international blockades, American invasion and economic pressure, IMF restructuring and a long string of murderous coups and dictatorships supported by the USA.
In 1991 Aristide was elected president with an enormous majority by Lavalas, a coalition of working-class, religious and peasant organisations – in short, the exploited and oppressed of Haiti. Having been forced out of power by Haitian and foreign elites several times, Aristide was finally deposed by an invasion of American, French and Canadian forces in 2004. But during that time, Lavalas were consistently mobilised in huge numbers to resist the assaults of counter-revolutionary paramilitaries, enabling Aristide to pursue what reforms he could: improving literacy and public health, doubling the minimum wage, raising taxes on the rich. Aristide’s maintenance of what little power he could get – the USA repeatedly forced him to share power with the Haitian elites that despised him – was dependent on Lavalas, as was his occasional defiance of foreign demands. Peter Hallward writes that the movement used “a mixture of prevarication and evasive non-cooperation” to deflect IMF pressure for the privatisation of services, mobilising outside the institutions of the state to support party policy within it.
This is a far cry from the desire of our social democratic left to find a ‘niche’ in the global economy where Scotland can prosper through the expert application of reforms. Under that defeatist consensus, our demands for real democracy and independence remain subordinated to those of an authoritarian world economy which can chew us up at any moment. Better to build an enduring movement that can react to global shifts with renewed opposition to our own elites, using crises to create fresh opportunities for genuine transformation. Lavalas was, for all its relative powerlessness, as close as we can find to a democratic movement of this kind, refusing to accept the limits placed on it by both a skewed political system and a cruel international order. It built and maintained a radical base of support with which to seize, defend and extend the power of the masses, which it used in defiance of those limits.
When we stand in the plains and climb the mountains, as Machiavelli suggests we do when mapmaking, we obviously don’t observe a Scottish political topology resembling that of Haiti. But nor do we find a Nordic one. The ‘Nordic model’ for us is not a realistic goal, but it is a method of marshalling ‘consensus’ behind a project of national adaptation to global changes. This project must be criticised and resisted, or the radical edge of the independence movement will be blunted against the brick wall of Scotland’s nationalist establishment.
The masses of Scotland will begin under independence in the same condition as we will leave the union; exploited, robbed of much of the wealth we produce by a ruling class with its claws already gripping the levers of power. Our written constitution will grant us certain rights and our representatives certain powers, which can and must protect us from the predations of the economic élite as much as possible, but constitutions only get you so far when the entire edifice of the world economy is tilted against your interests. Power won through constitutional means – the formal sovereignty of the state – must be pursued with a willingness to use it (or indeed actively not use it), when necessary, in support of extra-constitutional and extra-legal methods – reflecting the real sovereignty of the people.
What the pro-independence left must remember is that the maps they choose are not there to equip an elite, but to guide the mass of people in the nation. The power of the masses need not always be channeled through the floodgates of a conservative parliamentary system, floodgates ready to slam shut at the first sign of a fundamental shift in power and wealth. The utopians of the Scottish left have thus far sought only to win control of the political and economic system and manipulate it in what they deem to be the “national interest”; the point, to paraphrase Marx, is to change it fundamentally, exercising popular sovereignty within, outside and ultimately against its institutions. Only in this way, standing on the mountain as rulers and simultaneously on the plain with the people, can we draw a map of a nation that we recognise as our own.
Picture courtesy of Andrew Barr
(1) Stephen Maxwell, ‘Beyond Social Democracy’, The Case For Left-Wing Nationalism and other essays (2013, Luath Press)
(2) Maxwell, ‘Scotland’s Economic Options in the Global Crisis’
(3) Pauli Kettunen, ‘The Power of International Comparison: A Perspective on the Making and Challenging of the Nordic Welfare State’, in Niels Finn Christiansen et al, eds., The Nordic Model of Welfare: A Historical Reappraisal (2006, Museum Tusculanum Press)
(4) Jonas Pontusson, ‘Once Again a Model: Nordic Social Democracy in a Globalized World’, in James Cronin, George Ross, James Shoch eds., What’s Left of the Left: Democrats and Social Democrats in Challenging Times (2011, Duke University Press)