Beyond the Scottish referendum

neverbedeceivedBy Mike Sabot, in a personal capacity.

It’s less than one month to the Scottish independence referendum on 18th September.

I’m not going to tell you to vote or not vote. Some anarchists will abstain and focus on organising where they are, others will vote Yes in the hope of at least a few reforms.

But if you do vote Yes, make it a wholly pragmatic choice – don’t buy into the ideology of the Yes campaign or its variant, left nationalism.

Whatever the rhetoric of some on the Left,* this is a Scottish nationalist campaign, just as the No camp represents a British nationalism.  Anyone who cares about class struggle politics needs to strongly oppose both.

Nationalism, whatever form it takes, does two things: it tries to create a community of interest between the bosses and the working class; and it binds this community to the capitalist nation-state, reinforcing the latter’s power and role in exploitation.

There is no genuinely ‘progressive’ form that this can take.

We have, as Paul Mattick observed, a century of experience of national liberation struggles where apparently progressive anti-imperialist movements culminated in an oppressive new ruling class. 

And we could now potentially see a new wave of independence movements in Europe in response to neoliberal restructuring and the more immediate crisis of capitalism.  Do we expect different results?

New divisions and rivalries among European workers are not something to be applauded.  Neither is the spectacle of a decidely bourgeois-led independence movement like that in Catalunya, where a more wealthy region seeks to stop ‘subsidising’ the rest of Spain.


But smaller states are better and more democratic? 

Well, if we were to take a critical look at actually existing small European states we find:

  • that they’re certainly no more favourable to workers’ organising;
  • they are also coercive (which is the role of any state apparatus) and can be just as authoritarian (an exceptional example being the role played by the Catholic church backed by the Irish state);
  • they have been remarkably open to neoliberalism and austerity (which has had a devastating effect on small states from Finland to the Netherlands, nevermind southern Europe);
  • there is a growing anti-immigrant trend related to systemic white supremacy across northern Europe;
  • that some have also sent willing to send troops abroad (Denmark in Afghanistan) or have aided others who have (Ireland again, offering Shannon airport for use by the US Air Force);
  • and they are always subject to the dictates of larger supranational structures and of capital itself.

‘When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called “the People’s Stick”.’ – Mikhail Bakunin

The claim made both in the Yes campaign and on the Left that Scotland too can be a ‘normal democracy’, is an astounding attempt to ignore the obvious bankruptcy of representative democracy and its living critique in recent global social movements. 

Even if the Scottish government is for now less likely to introduce draconian measures like the Bedroom Tax or adopt an anti-immigration stance, this is not in any sense a static situation.  Massive political-economic forces will be brought to bear on post-independent government policy – it will make cuts and it will use its borders in its own economic interests.

Small states are more than capable of manufacturing consent or of over-ruling public opinion when they need to (take the famous ‘crowdsourced constitution’ in Iceland, which was in fact quietly buried by the government). The real ‘democractic deficit’ will continue post-independence.

What about the Scottish Left? 

It is in content a mix of left nationalism and nostalgic social democracy.  It argues against neoliberalism rather than capitalism itself – a winning strategy for regaining seats in parliament, but absolutely nothing to do with fundamental social change. 

Both Common Weal and the vision of the Radical Independence campaign are concerned with trying to manage capitalism better.

Surely hegemonic on the Left, Common Weal is an explicitly class collaborationist think-tank – nicely summed up in its slogan ‘All of us first’.  Its proposals in creating a high-growth economy, are in reality about increasing the rate of exploitation and outcompeting workers internationally. 

Its advocacy of ‘work councils’ to smooth relations in the workplace is a necessary part of increasing productivity – i.e. profit.  Where they have been used in Europe they have consistently undermined unions and workers’ militancy.

Yes: the radical case for Scottish independence, the most comprehensive statement made by members of the Radical Independence campaign, is a call for united frontism to the extent that socialism – even a bureacratic state ‘socialism’ – isn’t even on the agenda, but is treated as a utopian project for some distant future. 

It seeks to create a Scottish broad left – not an ‘anti-capitalist’ – party along the lines of Syriza or Die Linke, and it reproduces the same ‘Keynesian wish list’ based on the same weak analysis of the state and capital, critiqued so well by Michael Heinrich.   

Like Common Weal, it sprinkles radical rhetoric – participatory democracy, decentralisation – on its reformism.  It doesn’t differ substantially from the latter, but offers mild criticism of certain aspects, including its support for the Nordic model.

The Nordic example

Small states par excellence, Common Weal want us to emulate the Nordic states where thanks to a number of reasons – a strong labour movement,  available natural resources etc. – it has been able to maintain more of its welfare provision than Britain.  From an international perspective, these countries have been labour aristocracies living off the toil of workers abroad.

But all of the Nordic states have experienced their own neoliberal offensive and inequality is growing there too.  Asbjørn Wahl has shown how even in oil-rich Norway the welfare state is being eroded from within and the ideology of workfare is growing in strength. 

He insists that constant reference to Nordic countries’ position in international league tables is unhelpful:

The problem is that all the teams in the league table are being weakened. Or to use another image, we still have a cabin on the upper deck, but it is the upper deck of Titanic, and the ship as a whole is sinking. (2011: 11)

The Nordic example is incredibly useful, however. We can learn a great deal from the internal class contradiction and struggle in these countries, which belies the case made by social democrats here. 

In the Nordic Left we find a debate going on about how to combat the challenge to welfare provision.  Along with Wahl, the work of Swedish welfare academic, Daniel Ankarloo, is particularly interesting.

He argues that the labour movement there has been ‘weakened by […] class co-operation’ (2009) and belief in a ‘social policy road to socialism’ (2008: 78-84) – i.e. that somehow the welfare model was an example of socialism in practice that just needed to be expanded.  Instead, to defend existing gains as well as to fight for a different society, we need to rediscover class militancy and that this, ‘radicalisation must […] come from below in the form of the self-organisation of the labour movement’ (2009).

Welfare struggles, rather than commitment to welfare statism itself, are a crucial part of this – strengthening the working class and its capacity to struggle (ibid.).

Ankarloo rightly argues that this movement needs to organise across society and in the rank-and-file of unions. We should also draw inspiration from the revolutionary syndicalist SAC in Sweden and the broader Nordic extra-parliamentary Left, which is far more organised than any similar movements in Scotland or the UK.

Renewing the struggle

None of the promised reforms of the Yes campaign are guaranteed.

We should not trust an independent Scottish state to share much wealth, to protect NHS provision, not to attack the unemployed or the disabled, not to make cuts, to deport people or remove trade union restrictions.

Some are hopeful that the grassroots pro-independence movement will produce an oppositional social movement after secession.  But this is wishful thinking.  It would require it to reject its own ideological basis, its very nature as a cross-class alliance organised by forces who seek to gain political power.

Aspirations for social change, for ‘democratic control’ and redistribution of wealth in this movement should be encouraged but pointed in a revolutionary direction.

If the nationalist project isn’t soon wrecked on the rocks of its own contradictions, we will need to work to fragment it.

Whatever the result of this referendum, the lasting gains we need depend most of all on our own capacity as a class for itself to organise and struggle.

A genuine and practical internationalism is key to this. 

Hope lies not in trying to create new labour aristocracies or the international solidarity of left nationalists, but in uniting workers struggling from below against state, capital, patriarchy and white supremacy around the world.


*There has been a great deal of confusion, or obfuscation, over the meaning of ‘nationalism’.  Green party co-convenor, Patrick Harvie, for example insisted that he is not a nationalist, some have tried to distinguish between a ‘good’ (small or new state or civil) nationalism versus a ‘bad’ (large state or imperialist or ethnic) nationalism, others have made facile declarations of ‘internationalism’ – another term warped out of recognition.  We should judge people by their actions not their rhetoric: do they foster a cross-class imagined community and social change through the state or not?

Daniel Ankarloo (2008), The dualities of the Swedish welfare model

                          (2009), A new phase of neoliberalism: collapse and consequences for Sweden

Asbjørn Wahl (2011), The rise and fall of the welfare state


8 thoughts on “Beyond the Scottish referendum

  1. a thoughtful article, with which i broadly agree, except for the pessimistic subtext that, since an independent scotland will be by and large imperfect, we can at best abstain from the process…

    inaction is not the answer… the work will not end on september 19th~ it will begin… nobody should be under the illusion that they are voting for instant change, that we will cut ties with westminster and a socialist utopia will appear… we have a lot to do if we are ever to bring that about…

    the best thing about independence is that it offers much more power to local communities and individual citizens… we will need to take responsibility to push our vision forward, rather than complaining about out-of-touch governments, or hiding away in cocoons of self-righteousness while the wider world without eats itself…

    our biggest threats are the over-optimism of a perfect society, and the pessimism that hits when this appears unachievable… rather, we should work towards that perfection while calmly accepting that the work will never cease, perfection will never be reached… and that’s ok, it’s not a reason for inaction…

    every victory will be co-opted… yes, the nordic countries that are offered as models for an independent scotland are not utopias… their governments have been pulled into the neo-liberal orbit, they host a worrying racial subculture, they are ‘global aristocrats,’ and so on.. but on very many levels– on environmental stewardship, on wealth redistribution, on public services– they deserve praise, even if it’s praise mixed with criticism, that more can and ought to be done… the work continues (it always will)…

    rather than saying ‘independence won’t give me everything i want,’ and doing nothing (an irrational attitude in the first place, because what socialist can honestly claim the westminster of the con-dems and new labour is doing *anything* like working for the workers), we should ask first, ‘what world do i want to see?’ and then ‘what is the best strategy for achieving this?’

    i agree with the author’s point about nationalism, and i agree that a true workers movement should be internationalist… but i would argue that a truly *socialist* internationalism can only be brought about by co-operating local communities, because only on a local level does democracy really reflect its citizens interests– and then, only if the citizens themselves get involved and take responsibility…

    strategically, we should vote yes, and work on building the country we want here, while simultaneously co-operating with other countries and regions to extend that vision across the world… that’s true internationalism… the other option is what we have now– a disconnected westminster, european commission, G20, who are truly international while representing only the interests of the elite…

    (or we can sit and grumble and wish for an apocalyptic revolution that will suddenly and inexplicably leave socialists at the head of enormous, global (and hence, probably un-representative) institutions…)

    i’m no nationalist… i’m not scottish, and not even british (though i’ve been resident in scotland almost a decade now)… my vote next month will not be for nationalism, it not be for the SNP, it will not be for neo-liberalism– even though i am realistic that that is probably what i will immediately get out of it… but my vote is for bringing democracy back to a more local level, with the optimism that we can work together to take advantage of that democracy, to increase it, and to move just a little closer to that world we know is possible…

  2. I found this post positive.

    Not so sure about the reference to labour aristocracies, harken back to Engels and Lenin. Also not so sure why you refrain from criticising fellow anarchists who have indicated they will vote Yes…the article spells out the YES or NO option is support for our class enemy. A few crumbs of reforms is what the Libertarian Right offers in America…If you want to smoke dope and get troops out of foreign wars then support Rand Paul..and forget the rest of his platform.

    The Norwegian sovereign funded from oil revenues invests heavily in dictatorships and ecological unsound projects plus like Denmark they sent troops to Afghanistan.

    If you believe small is better, we have of course, the example of Jersey and Guernsey tax havens for the rich and powerful !!

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