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.

Mattick2

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.

Notes

*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

 

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Quick reply to: ‘The case for an electoral party’

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By Mike Sabot in a personal capacity. The original article by Ben Wray (ISG) is here.

The only reliable and sustainable basis on which to build a left party is to orientate it towards the only democratic institutions that everyone can engage in and the only institutions that have democratic authority over society – parliamentary elections. In Scotland that means, most importantly, Holyrood.

Generally those in the parliamentary left don’t attempt to justify why they participate in elections and see it not only as a useful form of action but, in fact, the primary means of bringing about fundamental social change.  It’s just what socialists do, right? Ben Wray should be thanked for elaborating on this. Nonetheless, I’d argue that his case for an electoral party is contradictory and rests on a number of unfounded assumptions.  I doubt I can change his mind, but I do think it’s possible and really important that more people are brought around to libertarian communist politics. That means organising as a class where it matters, outside and against parliament.

I’ll try and keep this brief and directly respond to some of the points made.

Let’s start at the very end of the piece where it’s said that the broad idea is that of ‘challenging the system at its point of greatest weakness: the governmental level’. It seems a bit odd that I need to make this argument, but assuming we’re talking about capitalism here, surely other socialists would agree that the working class is strongest at the point of production and at work in general.  It’s there that we can disrupt capital, through organising we can force our demands on employers, or harm their profits through threats of collective action, and actual striking, go-slows, sabotage etc.  This isn’t to say that organising around unpaid labour, in our neighbourhoods and against oppressions isn’t absolutely essential and isn’t just as important to transform society, but we need to try to link these struggles to the strategic site of production and work.

By contrast, the influence we can have as a class at the level of government is minimal, except where our extra-parliamentary movements can ‘wring’ reforms out of it.

Some leftists will recoil immediately, arguing that ‘parliament isn’t democratic, it doesn’t serve the people and the working class increasingly don’t trust it and don’t vote’. This is all true but it isn’t a convincing argument against engaging in parliamentary elections because there are no alternative democratic institutions which possess anywhere near the same democratic legitimacy in society as parliament does.

On the one hand,  it’s accepted  that parliament isn’t ‘democratic’ but on the other, it still has ‘democratic legitimacy’ and is the only institution that ‘everyone can engage in’.

In practice, the mainstream left really does accept and endorse parliament as democracy in action, or close enough, and that it’s possible to control it for progressive ends.  Otherwise, why bother?

But the critique of the institution isn’t explored because it’s seen as unrealistic to reject something which undeniably a) has real power, and b) is understood to be the political arena by the majority.  This is what ‘democratic legitimacy’ really means here.

The communist argument would be that you don’t start with what is seen as ‘legitimate’ or not, or where the majority are.  It is axiomatic that, outside of a period of mass struggle, most people won’t seriously question existing social relations. Gradualist reform and social democracy will be seen as all that’s on offer. What works and how we can recreate a militant labour movement is a different question entirely.

What are some basic points against electoralism?

  • Most people can’t meaningfully engage in it. That’s the point. Representation takes decision-making power away from working class people and invests it in a small minority. This order-giver versus order-taker split is an expression of the wider class society.
  • If they’re to be successful, electoral parties have to become ‘popular’ rather than ‘class’-based. They seek coalitions and try not to appear too radical to attract support. The more mainstream they become the greater the chance of gaining seats.
  • Often these parties are mobilised behind a dominant personality with charisma and oratory skills.  How exactly do you avoid the situation where some individuals accumulate more power or importance?
  • Some like to argue that it’s possible to be both ‘on the streets’ and in parliament.  In reality, parliament takes first place and tends to push out everything else.  Where parties are involved in extra-parliamentary activity it’s usually to its detriment, by co-opting things or exploiting them.
  • Whatever the manifesto of left-wing parties, parliament and government is concerned with the political management of capitalist society.  It isn’t structurally possible to challenge capital through the state and it’s questionable to what extent reforms can be passed without the leverage of a militant labour movement, and in this conjuncture.
  • The function of electoral parties on the left, arguing the case for a better-run capitalism – whatever the radical rhetoric –  is to demobilize and divert from more serious threats, like rank-and-file direct action.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not for becoming like the politicians. I believe representatives should take a workers wage; I believe they should be accountable to the community they are elected from

None of these things would let the electoral party off the hook from ‘becoming like the politicians’. A workers’ wage doesn’t challenge the hierarchical relationship of representative to represented.  And politicians speak all the time about being accountable but most people know this is meaningless. Only recallable delegates are genuinely accountable.

Those who don’t vote aren’t setting up co-operatives to run communities or workers’ councils to run workplaces. Their process of re-engagement and democratic renewal will likely pass through parliamentary elections on their way to participatory democratic control of society, if we are to ever get there.

Not voting isn’t important in itself, and for the growing distrust of politicians and the electoral process to achieve anything it would have to find expression in new forms of organising.  But it’d be naive to think that participatory or direct democracy is something that will be proclaimed one day by parliament – handed down from above.  Rather it needs to be prefigured in whatever struggle we’re involved in.

The point is, however apparently dire our situation and despite the broad extra-parliamentary left being a small minority, it is both possible and absolutely necessary that we create new directly democratic institutions.  Coming from a revolutionary unionist or syndicalist position, I see unions ‘as associations of workers’, rather than as  representatives or service-providers, as probably the most crucial institutional forms for class struggle.* The fact that the trade union movement is so weak means that we actually have an opportunity to go about building a new labour movement controlled from below and rejecting collaboration with bosses.

A false dichotomy is sometimes raised by the mainstream left that you either have to accept  electoralism or you’re for some sort of revolutionary insurrection tomorrow.  Instead, we need to take the long road of trying to spread militant rank-and-file organising, of winning small but significant victories and gaining strength. Whether it’s the IWGB in the Tres Cosas Campaign, the IWW in organising service workers or in setting up rank-and-file networks in, for example, the education sector, SolFed’s campaign against workfare – these are all examples of radical unions ‘as associations’ doing really inspiring work.  I’d also add Glasgow SolNet’s direct action victories for private tenants and ECAP’s actions by and for claimants, as examples of union-like structures outside the workplace.

Put it this way – what do you think the capitalist elite want us to do? Leave parliament to their mates and focus on extra-parliamentary activism, or challenge for democratic control over society? The question should answer itself.

The history of left-wing electoral parties around the world is one where the elites were not threatened by their entry into parliament.  In fact, in Britain, the Labour Party was welcomed by many existing parliamentarians as a reasonable, collaborative bunch who would help to control the extremists in the labour movement and work for the national good.  They were right. The working class is strong to the extent that it is autonomous and can act in its own class interests outside of the state.

Where left-wing electoral parties exist in parliament, the extra-parliamentary left should try to argue the case for class struggle politics with their grassroots, use pressure to gain concessions, and keep up a constant critique of the leadership.

* For the difference, see the excellent SolFed pamphlet Fighting for Ourselves, pp 12-13.