Our Failing Political Culture: Part Two

In part two of their overview on Scottish political culture, James Foley & David Jamieson break down Scottish Labour candidate Richard Leonard's socialist prospectus, what lessons can be drawn from the resurgent English left and 'the marsh' of Scottish social democracy...

In this parliament, Scottish Labour might emerge as the most likely candidate for serious new thinking on capitalism, thanks largely to the second-hand influence of Corbynism in England. It’s worth reflecting on how strange this would be. Only three years ago, the Scottish party had swung further to the right than ever before, electing, in Jim Murphy, a leader with pronounced neoconservative leanings. A member of the Henry Jackson Society, Murphy proved how closely New Labour could move towards the oil and gas wing of American imperialism, even a decade after the Iraq War disaster, while still proclaiming “democratic socialist” values.

Scotland was the area most opposed to Corbyn in internal party elections, which reflects the roots of Corbynism outside of the party’s main core of candidates and officials. Scotland never received a large influx of new members, partly because of the national question, but mostly because of Better Together, an alliance with the Conservatives which made Labour toxic to a huge layer of potential recruits and helped shift internal party opinion further to the right. Even as recently as May 2017, the party’s strategic focus was on electing Better Together chief Blair MacDougall in middle class East Renfrewshire, formerly home to Murphy. Notably, the one seat that survived the party’s apocalyptic 2015 election was the exceedingly leafy Edinburgh South, where Ian Murray MP was a bitter factional opponent of Corbyn. Scotland, then, proved to be the most enduring outpost for the classic version of New Labour: “middle Scotland” outlasted “middle England”.

While Corbynism in England has a mixture of younger, social movement activists and older, long-suffering socialists, the latter group dominates much of the Corbyn message in Scotland. Richard Leonard, a newly elected MSP, is the pro-Corbyn candidate to replace Kezia Dugdale; revealingly, his message is, “I’m too long in the tooth to be a Corbynista”. He's expected to win, which would complete the unification of the party under an all-British left-wing leadership. Intellectually, Leonard has been close to the Scottish Left Review and the Labourist wing of the Morning Star, and has helped produce, alongside John Foster, some detailed and important analyses of external control in the Scottish economy. His personal project has been to reconcile the Christian socialism of his hero, Keir Hardie, with Marxism, an approach outlined in “Socialism: More Than a Creed”, where he tries to reclaim Labour’s founder as a model of twenty-first century politics.

Like Hardie, Leonard favours a brand of Home Rule for Scotland. Specifically, he associates with the Red Paper Collective’s plans for “progressive federalism”. In a series of pamphlets, they have set out their vision, which largely revolves around economic planning and power relations in the Scottish and British economies. This work has brought a welcome focus on issues often neglected by the independence campaign, especially the politics of ownership and workplaces. However, what’s unclear is how their economic proposals are actually linked to federalism: the knots and complexities of the latter are never really untangled. So far, they have left three “wicked” issues hanging. First is how more devolution, or federalism, links specifically to the issues they actually want to talk about, planning and/or economic redistribution. Second is what failed in Labour’s last model, and how their plans would rectify it. The third is what should be done with England, an entity that is several times larger than the others put together and has its own distinct politics of grievance.

Leonard and colleagues are largely interested in planning and economic redistribution, which thoroughly dominates their papers on federalism. This raises the question: how are these two aims connected? Is the link between federalism and economic democracy necessary or accidental, and is it positive or negative? There are hints at answers to these questions in their writings, but nothing definite. In Scotland, many believe that more devolution will inherently lead to more equal outcomes, usually citing positive examples from Holyrood such as tuition fees and the partial eradication of the bedroom tax. However, Neil Davidson, the only theorist to bring much analytical rigour to these questions, reaches precisely the opposite conclusion: he suggests that greater devolution is part of the essence of the neoliberal project, the delegation of responsibility further and further away from the nation state.

Davidson’s theory isn’t necessarily the last word on this question, but, so far, it is the only serious left-wing account of the issue. The Red Paper, with their intellectual roots in 1970s planning debates, are certainly aware that devolution can weaken economic democracy, and has often been designed for this purpose. They insist that it should not, which, they argue, is what distinguishes “progressive” federalism from its other variants. But this implies that federalism is inherently desirable, and since it’s not clear what separates the essence of federalism – progressive or not – from devolution, it’s not always clear why. For this reason, much of our account here is inevitably guesswork, an attempt to fill in some blanks.

Superficially, the way to distinguish federalism from devolution is with the question of sovereignty. Andrew Heywood, in a standard politics textbook, compares the two: “although their territorial jurisdiction may be similar, devolved bodies have no share in sovereignty; their responsibilities and powers are derived from, and are conferred by, the centre”. With devolution, the state delegates its power down to lower levels, but, remaining sovereign, it may withdraw it at will. By contrast, typically, federalism would acknowledge a fundamental arena of last-word power particular to Scotland’s people. Of course, the notion of popular sovereignty in capitalist states is always imaginary, but Catalonia shows the distinctions are often extremely meaningful in practice. It’s not clear whether Leonard and colleagues intend to draw this contrast, since their essays are not really focused on constitutional questions.

Assuming they do mean it, the implications of such a position would be vast for the whole edifice of the British state, which has never been based on any form of popular sovereignty, real or imagined. This question of Britishness hangs in the background but is never actively confronted. In one essay, Pauline Bryan starts by saying: “State structures and constitutions are not neutral. They are moulded by class forces and over time are adjusted to produce particular outcomes.” This is indeed the crucial point, but her examples are exclusively from the European Union and the Scottish Parliament, with what Tom Nairn called “Ukania” left in parentheses. One explanation is that the Paper are unconsciously British nationalist: there is a tradition in Scottish Labour leftism of equating the UK state with internationalism, and their analysis does seem somewhat confined to Scotland and its role in the “British road to socialism”. However, it’s more likely the Paper’s authors are fearful that any radical critique of the British state becomes a concession to the SNP, leading, by successive steps, down the road to Scottish nationalism.

Paradoxically, though, because their ultimate rationale for federalism isn’t explained, it often feels like a grudging acceptance that Scottish Nationalism should be met halfway, with the lure of greater Scottish control used to simultaneously divide the SNP and Labour centrists and help the Labour Left achieve its actual, bread and butter goals. This would imply that while their economic proposals dominate their account of federalism, they have little to do with federalism per se; instead, they're simply the necessary steps to ensure federalism is progressive. If this interpretation is correct, we are entitled to raise doubts about the limits of their programme. True, economic planning and workplace democracy are essential to progressive politics, and often neglected – but why stop there? Important as these issues are, they do not constitute the limits of a progressive critique of state power.

The latter would require, at minimum, examination of borders, national identity, gender and war. In contemporary politics, these issues are not mere superstructures but rather increasingly inherent parts of how capitalist states manage workplaces, the labour market and the social wage. They are also the issues most likely to provoke intense ideological conflict and divisions on the Left, but this doesn’t mean they should be ignored. Quite the opposite. It means ignoring them will lead to inevitable trouble down the road: just ask the SNP about their currency policy.

The Red Paper’s goals would be much clearer if they reached an explicit understanding of what went wrong with Labour’s last administrations. We mean nothing moralistic here. Virtually everyone agrees about the slaughter in Iraq, the foolishness of private finance initiatives, and the ultimate collapse of Blair/Brown’s bargain with the City. There is no need to slander the Labour Left by association. Equally, New Labour did make progress on child and pensioner poverty, albeit under propitious conditions, and did, by half measures, tackle the “backwardness” of certain institutions like the House of Lords. One part of these reforms was devolution. The ultimate rationale for it was to tackle growing regional inequality, a marked feature of UK capitalism since the 1970s that particularly accelerated in the 1990s, and to restore a sense unity around the central state. Clearly, neither aim has been achieved with any success.

The Red Paper shares an awareness, often lacking in Scottish politics, that the true geographical conflict is between London and the South East and everywhere else in Britain. We would take this further, and suggest London’s uncontrolled growth is a central factor both behind the perceived success of the British economy and also behind Brexit, Scottish nationalism and the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. The greatest achievements in thwarting London and promoting the regions occurred in the post-War era, with a highly centralised, unreformed imperial state. Quite why New Labour’s regional model failed so profoundly is never explained: perhaps the trauma of Blair’s long administration remains too raw for the Labour Left to really explore it. Explanations for the failure of devolution that rely on bad faith, however, must be ruled out. It’s not enough to say New Labour was biased towards the rich, or that the SNP’s nationalism deluded people, and to count this as a sufficient explanation. This is why Davidson’s model is appealing: it accounts for the neoliberal direction of devolution in structural terms.

If New Labour’s bad faith is a weak explanation for its failures, equally the good faith of Corbynism is not enough to guarantee a political mandate for radical economic reform will be honoured. Scottish Labour, always more marked by Stalinist influence than by the New Left, tend towards a British exceptionalism and thus rarely discuss the problems of genuinely left-wing governments elected elsewhere. It seems fair to conclude that Corbyn is in a weaker position than leaders like Tsipras or Mitterrand. Labour’s leader, unlike the latter two, is considerably to the Left of all but a handful of his parliamentary group. They have made every attempt to overthrow him, long before he even fought an election.

Added to all the standard problems for social democratic leadership under neoliberalism, then, Corbyn has a mutinous core to his party, composed of those who actively hanker for a return to what they perceive as a golden age of Blairism before Bush. This group has the sympathy of all pro-Labour media outlets and many of the institutions that surround the party (although, crucially, not the unions). So far, Corbyn has had extreme good fortune: with Trump as US President, liberals are temperamentally opposed to supporting American aggressions. This has allowed him to pursue an anti-austerity agenda increasingly untroubled by conflicts over British involvement overseas. However, under, say, a Clinton leadership, the conflict between Corbyn’s pacifism and the hawkish liberal “internationalism” that blends so well with British nationalism, a creed which intellectually dominates among the insiders of UK politics, would be intense.

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To put it mildly, a Labour government implementing radical economic policies without international allies is liable to face severe stress. To do this while facilitating a radical discussion on Englishness – an absolute must for their federal model – would be wrenching. To also raise the prospect of a new regional redistribution in that context would highlight the division of spending between resource-starved regions, an issue easily exploited by the nationalist right. Of all British regions/nations, Scotland currently receives the largest subsidy when “need” is also considered, thanks to the Barnett Formula. Scottish voters might counter that this reflects the wasteful use of North Sea oil, or the region’s population decline that occurred with deindustrialisation.

Both might be fair, but largely depend on how we impute “right” to national consciousness, and, for example, define Scotland as deserving of oil money in a way that Britain’s other poor regions weren’t. England’s Northern regions certainly suffered a similar blitzkrieg during the Thatcher era. However, their inability to organise regional lobbies with anything like the ideological sway of the “Scotland lobby” has left them comparatively starved of money. Meanwhile, the British economic model has put ever greater power and control in London, but, technically, London’s property and financial centre “subsidises” the declining areas of the UK, and, after housing costs, average Londoners have less to spend than the average UK citizen. At minimum, then, regional redistribution is liable to be a contested idea. If the Red Paper is implying that such measures will simply wash away ideology, this is naïve.

The immigration panic, which plagues British politics with so many afflictions, is hardly going to disappear under federalism. The Single Market question and Scotland’s settled parliamentary – if not societal – consensus for more immigration are pressing against England’s desire for extensive border controls. Understandably, the Labour Left has been reluctant to discuss this. But the issue resonates at the heart of Labour’s tradition: Leonard’s hero, Keir Hardie, was a courageous internationalist in opposing World War I and xenophobic in his attitudes to Catholic immigration, and such contradictions emerge at every stage of Labour history. The liberals in Labour’s parliamentary group are formally the opposite of Hardie, being multicultural-imperialist rather than xenophobic-pacifist, yet similar conflicts over Britishness endure. Federalism, today, would inevitably run up against the settled idea of Englishness, and the Labour Left, still equating Britishness with a cosmopolitan outlook, has yet to provide an alternative narrative. Corbyn’s greatest impact remains in London and the English university towns.

Electing Leonard would be good for Scottish politics. The SNP-Green informal coalition has been improvising inertia for years, and their zealous opposition to Brexit has come at the expense of policy. They deserve much greater scrutiny from the Left, and if the pro-independence movement won’t do it, Leonard is well qualified to skewer their contradictions. Still, currently, the plan for federalism is only provisionally a plan, and it’s not really much about the complications of federalism. It certainly doesn’t address the “wicked issues” and rather concentrates on what, for the traditionalist Labour Left, is low hanging fruit: economic planning and the bad faith of Scottish nationalist leaders.

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A notable feature of post-2014 Scotland has been what Hassan calls “Third Scotland”: think tanks, activists, campaigning organisations. These organisations played a key role in the broad Yes campaign but also tried, in the testing context of Scottish politics, to raise the debate above low level tribalism. Three years on, it’s time to admit the failure of this project. The Yes movement did not change Scottish politics forever: tribalism is as entrenched as ever, and internet communication has helped produce bubbles rather than new lines of communication. The brief openness of the independence social movement, with its multi-ethnic, young, and often female composition, has given way to an intellectual debate driven by waning, low level machismo. The bloggers have come to express this trend, but they cannot take sole blame for it: they have become an easy and obvious target when they are really symptoms of underlying problems. The very things that initially made “Third Scotland” exciting, namely, its wired-in connectivity with leftish emotions that spread across the world instantaneously, have blunted its critical perspective.

While Sturgeon seems unmoved by a decade of crisis, Third Scotland has been guilty of the opposite: everything becomes an energetic outburst of instant outrage, yet basic ideological premises never change. The problem of Third Scotland is what we call “the marsh”, a global left swamp of half worked-out liberal-come-social-democratic mush. The marsh is oozing everywhere, not just in Scotland. Its politics dominate once serious newspapers like the Guardian and the Independent, the BBC, and websites like Vice and Buzzfeed. It has few definite features. It is more emotion than worked-out ideology, a feelgood lefty individualism that puts politics into a self-help cultural blender, producing a tonic that promises to raise your moral wellbeing.

Historically, it reflects the cultural dominance of American liberalism; the latter’s growing dominance over the Western middle class via Obama, campus politics and social media; and the hegemony of the preceding over left-wing ideas, including movements that emerge from the European working class. The marsh wants to see clean hands, politics as personal moral superiority, but also hails Hillary Clinton and the EU, in ostensible ignorance of the suffering of Libya, Iraq, Greece, and Catalonia. The paradox in this idealism-realism is only apparent. These are truly exceptions that prove the rule: the essence of marsh politics is to divide the world by cultural standards of educated politeness rather than by historical questions of class and state power. The marsh yearns to demonstrate self-worth and individual authenticity, while constructing a competition for personal status based on the infinitely disposable memetics of internet communication.

Recently, Third Scotland’s preference for the Nordic model has become noticeably marshy. Case studies like the Finnish education system did help to energise the policy debate in Scotland, for a while. They showed neoliberal Britain need not limit our horizons. However, these case studies also built the illusion that social divisions can be “hacked” with nifty policy solutions, which is the policy community’s equivalent to the ephemeral hit of online activism. Unsurprisingly, this ends up overlapping with the cyber culture of the tech entrepreneurs: proposals for a universal basic income, based on the thesis of an emerging total automation, are common to both. The real intricacies of social formations were always politely avoided, to conceal the Nordic model’s main paradox: the (stereotyped) cultural appeal of Nordic society – close-knit community councils, soft environmentalism, liberal feminism and hygge – appeals principally to an Atlantic middle class jaded by vulgar consumerism, but the latter are not known for voting for higher taxes. When these contradictions go unexamined, Third Scotland becomes easy prey for Sturgeon’s offer of a low tax Nordic model, the prevailing illusion in Scottish politics.

Third Scotland has never developed a settled view on capitalism. Patrick Harvie, who has emerged as its political voice, has given a mild version of the post-capitalism thesis. Crudely put, it says our economic system is ultimately unsustainable and doomed, so, in the meantime, anti-capitalism shouldn’t be a barrier to getting policies through. Having raised the question of capitalism, he declares the problem solved, and restores the Scottish centre-left norm of not talking about capitalism. This case highlights a political problem in Paul Mason’s otherwise important thesis. His book is a vital reference point, because it shows a sweep, an ambition, an accessibility and an interest in the contemporary economy that has been lacking in recent leftist theory. Yet its mix of techno-optimism and economic fatalism seems curiously outdated just two years on.

Faith that spontaneous social development will produce an economy internally opposed to capitalism increasingly looks like just that: faith. The thesis should perform a vital role in reminding us of the obscure, background workings of systems that dominate our lives, thus dragging the question of capitalism to the centre of our understanding of the total crisis of civilisation. Instead, softer interpretations have the opposite effect, allowing us to leave the system in parentheses and pursue mild reforms as if the constraints did not exist. Harvie’s account trades on the ambivalent meaning of the word “sustainability”. We would argue that capitalism is environmentally unsustainable, but this has little to do with whether capitalism survives. Devastating weather patterns do not lead organically to a new society. After all, the people most likely to suffer are those furthest away from economic and political power.

Moreover, the climate consequences of economic activity can take decades, even generations, to manifest. The most likely immediate political effect will be greater demands for border controls, to protect Western living standards from those who suffer from climate-based afflictions. The danger for the left is getting sucked into an American-style cultural divide between a globalising, recycling middle class consumerism and an isolationist, retreating working class consumerism. Capitalism is unsustainable in many other ways, but green philosophy has yet to develop its own account of this and prefers instead to trade on ambiguity. The politics of post-capitalism, as Harvie outlines, leads inevitably to coalition government rather than a new model of public power. For Green parties worldwide, as they grow and encompass the counterculture, this lure has proved irresistible, and damning in every instance.

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The last four decades have been, on balance, a period of defeats for the historical aims of the Left. Most importantly, workplace democracy and trade unionism has been defeated, certainly in absolute numbers but perhaps most importantly in consciousness. Many people have ceased to think of work as a remotely political question. This is the ideological essence of our defeat; the left’s acceptance of inevitable automation is an expression of it. However, to truly understand the present, we must appreciate that social conservatives also feel defeated, often for overlapping reasons. Liberalisation has helped undermine class solidarity, but also religious values and traditional morals. Neoliberalism allowed victories for identity-based social movements, both because they cost little, and because they encouraged new forms of consumerism. Thus the Left feels most comfortable in this arena, and least comfortable on the politics of economic planning and work, even as women become a workplace and trade union majority, even as the urban population becomes, for the first time in history, the global majority and thus the capitalist labour market looks increasingly non-Western, even as climate change imposes the necessity of planning for species survival.

Only recently, socialists were stuck in a routine of paper-selling and branch meetings and, when people disparage “the left”, this is often still their target. But the last of that era is dying out. The new leftish comfort zone is the marsh, with its easy hate figures, feelgood activism, and listicles of “ten signs you might be a vegan”. This new left is smarter, hipper, and better placed to make a political impact. But it’s quickly becoming a rut, and proving to be just as sectarian as the old left.

While we have stressed the intellectual problems of the broadly-conceived Scottish left, we do not wish to personalise the issues or, worse, reduce the problem to party politics. These weaknesses have social roots. The nineteenth and twentieth century left was an intellectual powerhouse because it was linked to a seemingly invincible trend of rising working-class democracy. The right to vote was won, and exploitation in the workplace became a political issue that forced progressives to take sides and articulate differences. A sense of inevitability brought the best minds to socialism, and encouraged them to sacrifice their personal livelihoods for a greater cause. The neoliberal offensive severed the link between the left intelligentsia and the workplace. American liberalism, which never took a social democratic form, became the dominant reference point for the new left-wing individualism.

None of this means that the working class has ceased to act politically. Collectivist class struggle has taken new forms, like the anti-war movement and the Poll Tax campaign in Scotland. People remain scandalised by inequalities and the rise of the richest 1 percent. Throughout the neoliberal period, the political bases of centrist parties were deeply ambivalent about globalisation, leading to conflict in numerous forms.

But with workplace organisation collapsed or at best routinised, the left’s responses ultimately followed the rollercoaster pattern of all social movements. Up one minute, down the next. One notable feature of all movements, best exemplified by Occupy Wall Street, is an endless swing between extreme majoritarianism and extreme minoritarianism. “We are the 99 percent” quickly collapses into soul searching – some would say navel gazing –  about our right to speak on behalf of any other individual. Why does this pattern recur with such violent intensity? Undoubtedly it reflects, in part, a psychological conflict between growing individualism and a spontaneous internal revolt against it.

Various solutions are offered, some floating a version of intersectionality or organisational theories which, at their worst, simply impute bad faith or bias to the leaders of movements (a version of the classic Trotskyist trope: “the inevitable victory of the workers was betrayed at the last minute by x leader”). The ultimate problem is small-scale actions do not scale up, and big movements like Bernie Sanders only scale-down to a limited extent. This reflects the decline of the working class as the concrete yet universal reference point that could previously overcome these scale issues.

It’s worth reflecting on why the trade union is important. Many consider it the most boring of all left-wing institutions, when it should be the most fascinating. Thinkers in Adam Smith’s tradition celebrate the spontaneity of the capitalist market: it emerges without anyone planning it. This forms the basis of neoliberal morality, where planning leads to totalitarian rule, and thus any attempt to overcome capitalism will lead to greater authoritarianism. But the category of spontaneity also reveals the darker side of how neoliberalism was established. In response to the capitalist organisation of society, trade unions also develop according in a relatively spontaneous pattern of collective self-defence. They thus form the basis of an unplanned drift away from capitalism towards a more organised society. While this force was not a sufficient condition for socialism, it was a necessary one for any bottom-up approach to economic democracy. Until the 1970s, it was the dominant worry of state managers. To truly establish their vision of a market-based social order, neoliberals needed the brute, planned power of the state to crush this spontaneous outgrowth of capitalism. Decades on, we have normalised this new settlement. Without a thriving workplace politics, we inevitably flit between top-down plans and lefty consumer individualism.

How can critical thinking help overcome this very material problem? The left cannot, at will, recreate a movement for workplace democracy, or democracy in working class communities. It can only engage in projects to strengthen these areas in good faith and with a critical disposition. However, this doesn’t rule out a critical examination of habitual union practice. A new generation of thinkers, led by Jane McAlevey, are developing tactics and strategies that challenge left-wing sacred cows, from Saul Alinsky to the stoic Marxist branch officer. They seek to bring union organising into workplaces that are considered unorganisable. McAlevey’s central argument is that structural issues – globalisation, outsourcing, etc – have become crutches and excuses for defeatist habits. This is one example where, even in practice, critical thinking can provide new insights into our plight.

Our biggest challenge, though, is to reinvigorate the left’s social, historical understanding of the world. Although Marxist theory has been much degraded, we believe its central categories – class, capital and the state – should still form the basis for a critical response to the economic, environmental and democratic crisis. Scotland is an interesting microcosm of broader issues. What’s fascinating about our country is the centre-left has had power for so long, unchallenged by any effective Conservative force. Yet, intellectually, this only seems to have promoted further decay and complacency. Perhaps it takes the rise of an intellectually savvy centre-right in Scotland to really force our leaders to take themselves seriously. We desperately need a theory that encompasses all parts of the triad, class, capital and state.

Where Scottish politics produces an awareness of capitalism, it ignores state power; where it promotes new thinking on the state (the Yes movement), it ignores capital and class. Where Scottish Marxists promote class politics, they often do so as masculine nostalgia for the 1970s, forming a defensive complement to identity-based politics, and thus ignoring the roots of class power in exploitation and the state. Unchallenged centre-left dominance under neoliberalism has thus left Scotland with exaggerated versions of all the worldwide strategic problems of anti-capitalism. Solutions tend to emerge spontaneously, by imitating examples elsewhere. In the meantime, a searching critique of our politics should be undertaken so that future upsurges allow us to build a better political culture.