Against amazement: Class politics in Scotland

Against amazement: Class politics in Scotland

The class critique of the social order in Scotland and around the world is at a low ebb, argues our new editor David Jamieson. Conter will seek to restore it in a bid to strengthen the necessary challenge to power in an era of catastrophe.

Traditions come to the fore in times of dramatic change, and in times of danger. Scotland is a changing country, in a changing continent, in a changing world.

None of the changes we face are comprehensible without tradition.

As the German Marxist critic Walter Benjamin wrote in his final work ‘On the Concept of History’ as Fascism and war threatened civilisation in 1940:

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism. One reason fascism has a chance is that, in the name of progress, its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.”

The tradition to which Benjamin refers - “the tradition of the oppressed” - contains the memory of generations of class violence, of the struggle of the subjugated layers of society to survive, and in that struggle to profoundly reconfigure the social order.

The diminution of that tradition leaves us in a state of “amazement”. Certainly the established political, economic and cultural leaderships of our day are amazed and, without access to tradition, so is much of the left.

The cause of the atrophy is clear. The history of the 20th Century was one of many small victories for the left and a few catastrophic defeats. The damage done to the workers’ movement through ruling class offensives, combined with changes in the organisation of capitalism over large stretches of the globe and compounded by the ideological consequences of defeat could not fail to undermine the traditions of the socialist movement.

Twenty years ago, as an anti-capitalist critique began to emerge from the wreckage, and through the street movements against globalised capitalism from Seattle to London, these calamities were treated to comforting bromides. Socialism was bound to defeat by the faults of its character – its propensity for hierarchy and command structures, thuggish masculinity and obscure priest castes guarding dogma.

The deluge of the collapse of the USSR and the labour movement’s defeat cleared a path for rebirth in a new world, which capitalism had rendered from the nation state and infused with networked technologies and a new networked man, the ideologues of the millennium told us.

Imagine our amazement, then, when the problem of the nation state began to violently reassert itself during the crisis of globalisation.

The Eurozone meltdown, the return of protectionism driven from the one time engine room of globalisation in the United States, the relative re-animation of the geopolitical ambitions of subpowers including China and Russia and fresh pushes for national independence from Scotland to Catalonia have all, in different ways, shattered widespread illusions among intellectuals about the possibility of a post-national capitalism.

The millennium left’s fad for a kind of ideational capitalism lacking the domestic industrial form and global conflict of the 19th and 20th centuries was a hopeful reflection of the utopianism of the right, which imagined a new era in remarkably similar terms. This imagining was taken up most famously and in the most intoxicated way by Francis Fukuyama with the enunciation of the ‘The End of History and the Last Man’. But it’s most consequential expression might have been Tony Blair’s ‘Doctrine of International Community’ deployed to smooth the way for the west’s bloody participation in the Balkan Wars in 1999.

This oft evoked ‘new world order’, which was really a varnish for US supremacy, largely evaporated during the collapse of Iraqi society consequent upon invasion. What little authority the elite maintained was broken by the financial crash.

What followed these events further degraded the vision of the utopians. Far from being the final form of society, liberal democracy has failed to spread in the former Communist world, and is in retreat or at least under acute pressure in many places where it is long established. This defenestration of liberal democracy comes at precisely the time it faces the greatest challenges; a demographic crisis in its heartlands, abrupt technological changes that threaten existing social relations and dramatic global temperature rises, the impacts of which are too various and profound to understand.

unemployed workers movement.jpg

After the bonfire of traditions we are left amazed at the dangerous dynamics of the present social order.

The only antidote to this ‘non-philosophy’ of history, the tradition we need, remains the materialist, class critique of a capitalism whose macabre global dynamics are rooted in the daily exploitative relations that structure our lives – in the workplace, in the home, in the street. No political leadership can seriously pledge a state of ‘climate emergency’ or a commitment to democracy unless they are prepared to abolish the most fundamental institutions of our economy and society, and re-organise on a completely new and historically unprecedented basis.

This intellectual project proceeds upon the fundamental divisions in society, which though often announced resolved or subverted, grow deeper and more decisive all the time. In the two decades leading up to the abandonment of the working class as a historical actor in some of the foundational texts of the anti-capitalist movement of 1999, the global workforce doubled to around three billion, with hundreds of millions more unemployed or in the informal economy.

Scotland is a useful vantage point over these developments, perched as we are on the edge of developments, one of the few countries in Europe where the far right has yet to bend the political process to its favoured dynamic. We are perched, too, upon a linchpin state of the modern global order, and one newly and violently disjointed from it.

The Scottish Independence movement briefly re-animated necessary debates about nationalism and the Scottish socialist tradition. But it probably wasn’t until the Brexit crisis that more fundamental questions have been raised about the capitalist state, the nature of sovereignty and the mechanisms of democracy in contemporary western capitalism.

These engender deeper questions still, near-dormant on much of the modern left and which Conter will seek to address:

1. How can we define the modern global capitalist system in this period? It is not enough simply to note that capitalism is ongoing, is unjust and threatens to collapse human civilisation. What are the central dynamics which make this period distinct, and open it up to attack?

2. How does this modern composition of capitalism manifest in Scotland, and what implications does this manifestation and the longer historical development of capitalism in Scotland hold?

3. What does a socialist ‘politics’ mean in the crisis of globalisation? What is the strategic orientation of anti-capitalists on the state after its decades of mutation under neoliberalism?

4. What is the relationship between organised action for immediate ends – in workplaces, in housing struggles, in social movements and on campuses – and this larger terrain of socialist politics and strategy?

5. From which traditions of anti-capitalist thought can we fruitfully draw in our attempts to answer these questions?

If this editor had the answer to these and the many related queries, he would not be soliciting opinions.

Conter will explore all this in two distinct formats, this regular blog will carry shorter pieces of critical commentary on events in Scottish life and global affairs. It will also produce special editions with longer theoretical pieces and reviews, examining economics, politics, social movements and ideological trends. It will seek to represent views entirely partisan in the interests of the working class and social progress, accepting of the profound dangers we face and the weakness of our organisation but optimistic about the ability for transformation possessed by mass layers of society in Scotland and around the world.

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight.”

Submissions to editor@conter.scot