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


Nordic class struggle

Stockholm riots

The ‘Nordic model’ is the name given to the economic and social policies shared by Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland which stress welfare provision, high taxation, and a corporatist approach to industrial relations and governance.  It has come very much into vogue in Scottish political culture as part of the Independence debate, and is said to provide a more egalitarian yet achievable example for what an independent Scotland could look like, or at least, what it could aim for.  There is no doubt that relative to our current neoliberal status quo the Nordic countries – and there are important differences between them – have a higher quality of life and a smaller gap between rich and poor.  However, the Nordic example has become to a large extent mythologized and, because it has so much significance to the political direction here, especially among the Left, it deserves a more critical, class analysis. This is a big subject so here I only intend to point to a few examples of what has been happening recently to give some light to the other side of Nordic society.

So far there have been five nights of rioting in Sweden‘s capital city, Stockholm.  Many cars have been burned and the buildings attacked include schools and a police station.  This comes after a man was shot dead by police, who said they acted in self-defence.  The scale of the rioting, with firefighters responding to 90 different incidents on Wednesday night, declining to 70 last night, has shocked Swedish society.  It has also led many people to look at why this could be happening in what is meant to be one of the most progressive countries in the world.  Those involved in the rioting are said to be young and part of the immigrant community.  They are angry at rising inequality and institutional racism, which they are disproportionately affected by.

“The reason [for the riots] is very simple. Unemployment, the housing situation, disrespect from police,” said Rouzbeh Djalaie, editor of the local Norra Sidan newspaper, which covers Husby. “It just takes something to start a riot, and that was the shooting.”

Although Sweden’s quality of life is higher overall than most other countries, according to OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) figures, it “has seen the biggest increase in inequality of any developed country over the past 25 years”.

Demonstrators in Copenhagen against the lockout of all teachers in Denmark schoolsIn Denmark, a month-long lockout of teachers has come to an end this month.  50,000 teachers were stopped from teaching and 556,000 pupils had to stay at home.  The teachers’ union refused to agree to a new collective agreement with the the Local Authorities’ Association, so the latter stopped their pay from 2nd April 2013.  The new agreement was ostensibly about giving more power to head teachers to arrange the amount of time spent teaching rather than on preparation on a case by case basis with teachers.  But, according to the Guardian’s reporter, this is really about extending the school day and moving away from the current educational approach, which is comparatively much more liberal than here in Scotland and gives a significant amount of free time to pupils to create, play and learn for themselves.  Unfortunately, it looks like this was a massive defeat for the teachers and that new conditions have been imposed by the government, paving the way for more ‘reforms’ in the future.

Last month, the threat of a national strike in Norway was stopped by government intervention at the last moment.  Talks had broken down between the Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) and others with the representatives of the employers, and a deal of a slight pay rise was agreed through a government mediator.    The deal “will cover 156,000 union members and will set the bar for pay negotiations throughout the country” but in fact is much lower than previous years and comes at a time when there are demands to lower wages to maintain competitiveness.

Over 3,000 power workers were on strike for two weeks, this month, for a new collective agreement “risking blackouts”.  On May 16th, the government put a stop to the srtike using powers that can end industrial action where it “it threatens human lives, vital infrastructure or national interests”.  This seems to be a quite frequent occurence:

Workers have struck regularly over the past year in Norway in order to oppose repeated attempts to cut their pay and conditions. Last summer, offshore workers closed large parts of the oil sector to demand higher wages. The strike covered eight oil platforms on the Norwegian continental shelf, affecting 13 percent of the country’s oil and 4 percent of gas exports. […]  The 16-day strike finally ended after the government intervened, invoking emergency powers to impose forced arbitration. This came less than a month after 50,000 public sector workers struck in pursuit of pay increases and in opposition to attacks on pensions.  

IcelandSome of the most interesting stuff has been happening in Iceland.  The country has received a great deal of coverage worldwide for refusing to bear the tax burden of the economic crisis when the main banks went under.  The people then replaced the government and demanded radical changes with a completely new direction from the days when speculative finance was at its height.  A major part of that was drawing up a new constitution which included using responses gathered online – the ‘crowd-sourced constitution’.  This was really innovative and allowed for more democratic input than normal.  But according to Laurie Penny:

Here’s what actually happened. Although it is true that the three largest banks –Glitnir, Kaupthing and Landsbanki – were allowed to go bust in 2008, this was hardly a political choice: Iceland could do nothing else, because their debts were ten times the size of its GDP. It is also true that popular protest brought about a change in power. Demonstrations over the government’s handling of the crisis, particularly its promises to the IMF to repay the financial sector’s enormous debts to countries such as the UK and the Netherlands, started in 2008. On 20 January 2009, the usually reserved Icelandic people turned out on to the streets in their thousands, bashed kitchen utensils and threw fruit and yoghurt at the Althingi, the parliament building. They were demanding a change of government.

They got one. Referendums were promptly held on whether to repay foreign debts, and the state began to draw up a new constitution in consultations with the public that included garnering responses on Facebook. But then, the new administration tried to side with the IMF over the debts of the online bank Icesave and refused, in effect, to implement the constitution Icelanders had been promised. So much for the socialist utopia.

The recent elections in Iceland gave the previous Social Democrat-led government “the worst defeat of any ruling party since independence from Denmark in 1944″, despite serving in a coalition with the Left-Green movement that was meant to provide an alternative to the old parties who created the country’s economic crisis.  In fact, things have now come full circle and there is a new coalition of the Independence Party and Progressive Party who seem intent on opposing the proposed constitution in its current form, pushing for new environmentally-damaging developments and defending the fishing quotas that benefit the wealthy elite.  People voted for change but became completely disillusioned with the parliamentary alternative, and so they ran out of options.

The point in all this isn’t to say that these countries don’t have anything to show us in terms of really progressive reforms and of a different approach to the ruthless neoliberalism we’re used to. They do absolutely.  As just one example, reading about Danish education in comparison to the Scottish system is frankly amazing.  But it’s now under attack.  Although they have had a commitment to welfare beyond the rest of Europe and especially the UK, these countries are, of course, capitalist .  We can see a class struggle at work in all of them.  International competition and the fallout from the economic crisis is hitting hard (although it differs from country to country), and there are political forces present that want more neoliberal restructuring and increased controls on immigration.  In short, reforms that have been won are not permanent but are challenged and have to be fought for.