The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, November 28, 2004

The Strange Death of Socialist Scotland

Socialism, in its modern sense, was born in Scotland. Before Owen there were millennarians and utopians, prophets and putschists. After him there was A New View of Society. New Lanark is where it all began.

(I'll come back to that.)

Not that Scotland has had a natural inclination toward socialism. This is the country that literally rationalised capitalism, by explaining to the English the new world they had stumbled into, and repeating in practice with great consciousness and purpose what the English had done first in their wonted empirical way. The effect was lasting. In the 1950s half the popular vote went to the Tories. The Clyde shipyards and the Fife coalfield produced the bedrock Labour vote and a thin but hard stratum of Communism, and most of the few British Communists whose names became household words: John Maclean, Willie Gallagher M.P., Jimmy Reid, Mick McGahey. Labour, the Liberals and the Nationalists slowly colonised the raised beaches left by the Tories' long decline, and proved tough as machair grass. For all that, Scotland in the 60s and 70s wasn't a particularly left-wing country. At the level of credible political vision, 1979 clobbered Old Labour and 1989 despatched Communism, here as everywhere else. Other socialist traditions less wedded to the state, though deeply rooted, were as obscure and obscured here as everywhere else. So why did Scotland become ever more left-wing in the 80s and 90s?

What gave Scottish socialism a second life was Margaret Thatcher. For nearly two decades Scots voted Labour and got the Tories. Scottish heavy industry - mines, shipbuilding, steel - withered in the blast. To add insult to injury, the Poll Tax was introduced in Scotland a year ahead of England, rather as dangerous weapons are tested off the coast of Mull. Thatcherism never caught on north of the Border. It wasn't just a question of policies. The woman was detested. Something about her rubbed most Scots the wrong way. It wasn't just the working and middle classes she failed to charm. I know a man who in the course of his work met many pillars of the Scottish establishment - captains of industry, distinguished scholars, princes of the church, retired Army officers, lairds so conservative they were spiritually Jacobites - who loathed her with a passion. Some apparent exceptions - Michael Forsyth, Malcolm Rifkind, Lord Mackay spring to mind - all came from outside the establishment. (Mackay of Clashfern's title is not inherited. His father was a railway worker. He was probably the first presbyterian Lord Chancellor since the Revolution.)

Although it was old Labour that had, in 1978, dashed the hopes of devolution, the Scottish left and intelligentsia responded to the Thatcher years with a devolution of the mind: 'Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation', and all that. The results were brilliant. The art was magic. A left-wing nationalism became the common sense of the age. Its left fringe became the Scottish Socialist Party. Tommy Sheridan, now Scotland's best-known Socialist MSP, first became famous for leading popular resistance to the Poll Tax, and for winning a council seat from the prison his resistance had put him in. Later, he spoke for many who were left out by New Labour: those with no hope, and those with much.

The SSP is much more important in Scottish politics than its 6% of the vote would suggest. The political editor of a Sunday newspaper a few months ago explained it like this: By its permanent potential to take disillusioned left-wing votes from Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, it acts as a sheet-anchor keeping the whole system to starboard. It's the main reason why the Scottish Parliament seems to have five left-of-centre parties and one right-of-centre party. The right-of-centre party, the Tories, are almost embarrassed to exist. Now this is all about to change.

In Scotland socialism died this month. It was killed by two Executives: the Executive of the Scottish Parliament, when they decided to ban smoking in all enclosed public (and many private) spaces; and the Executive of the Scottish Socialist Party, when they voted to ditch Tommy Sheridan as Convener. Laugh if you like, but if some day there's a book with the above title, November 2004 will have a chapter to itself. Here's why.

First, the smoking ban. Of course I'm against it, but that isn't why I think it's a nail in the coffin of Scottish socialism. Plenty of decisions made by Scottish Labour have been a lot worse. This one, however, is the first time since the Poll Tax when they've decided to go after their own constituents. It's a huge attack on traditional Labour-voting working-class culture, and a huge attack on traditional Labour-voting bohemian culture. Of course its proponents don't see it that way. They see it as protecting the workers, and (as one of them put it) 'saving the dying Scotsman from himself'. They really think it will be popular. The most prominent left-wing journalists agree. They have some sad awakenings coming.

Another Executive setting itself up for a fall is that of the Scottish Socialist Party. Rumours about Tommy Sheridan's personal life had reached the press. The executive were dissatisfied with how Sheridan handled them. They demanded that he either say nothing to the press, or speak to a sympathetic newspaper, or face an open press conference. He insisted he would sue the newspaper retailing the allegations. The executive refused to back him or back down, and thus (it would seem) forced him to resign. When he spun his resignation as the result of a need to genuinely spend more time with his wife, other stories promptly emerged in print.

The SSP executive had no standing to put Sheridan's personal life on its agenda. Nothing had been alleged that affected the public interest, or the working-class interest. If he was reckless to insist on his day in court, that was his business.

I have no inside information. Perhaps having it would make a difference. That's beside the point. For everyone outside a party, its public actions are its actions. I can only go by what I see, and what I see is a train-wreck.

The SSP executive's political ineptitude in this matter is staggering. None of the other five SSP MSPs have a sixth of Tommy Sheridan's nous and charisma. I don't know him personally, but I've seen him speak in quiet rooms and noisy streets. I've by chance seen him convey to an individual a most personal sympathy. The man is an authentic working-class hero, the SSP's only household name, and its greatest asset.

That this should matter to the SSP is a sign of its weakness. It has many strengths. It has flaunted its republicanism. It has stood firm for the legalisation of cannabis, and the decriminalization of heroin addiction. It has opposed the imperialist war. It has stood up for persecuted asylum-seekers. It has stood by beleaguered trade unionists. It has sunk roots that extend far beyond the far left. But one thing it has not done is produce a credible and coherent socialist programme. By quite deliberately setting out to straddle nationalism and internationalism, reform and revolution, state-socialism and left-libertarianism, the party as such has had nothing very convincing to say. There is no conversation of socialism in Scotland. The SSP - as a party, not necessarily in all its parts and certainly not in all its members - is culturally philistine and economically incoherent. It's a tax-and-spend party with a nationalist tinge and more than a touch of political correctitude.

I've always respected the SSP's strengths, but I've never agreed with its statism and its nationalism. Its successes have been very inconvenient to the powerful and privileged. It has been the backbone of the anti-war movement in many parts of Scotland. That movement has now extended to some military families. It can be only a matter of time before it reaches the military itself. The SSP, and Sheridan personally, have been central to this very recent development, which has caused deep concern at the highest levels of the British state. For those in power the SSP's crisis couldn't have come at a more convenient moment.

Back to New Lanark, where it all began.

Robert Owen's enlightened capitalism succeeded. His communist experiments, inspired by that success, failed. His syndicalist and mutualist union failed. He then threw his great energy and ability into the co-operative movement. This voluntary and everyday socialism was a global success. There are now 800 million members of co-operatives. Engels counted Owen with the utopians, but the workers' co-operative has outlived the workers' parties and the workers' states. Which is not to say that Engels was altogether wrong. We still need the commonwealth as well as the co-operative. If it were to re-examine its libertarian and radical roots, a socialism that began again in Scotland might yet have the last laugh.
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Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Like a Death; or, Altogether Elsewhere, Vast

The Conservative and the Communist sometimes find they have more in common than either might have expected; at least that they understand each other, and agree on what is important; likewise the Freethinker and the Fundamentalist. In politics as in religion, both poles are perplexed by the Liberal; from opposite sides of the case they scratch their heads, like Victorian biologists looking at a platypus and wondering if they aren't being made a monkey of.

That's how I feel sometimes. I love you guys, but I don't understand you. Add to this that I have a tin ear for US politics, and my qualifications for commenting on last week's election, and giving my liberal friends tips on how to warm their eggs and suckle their young are complete.

However, these and like hobblings haven't noticeably shut up anyone else, so here's my take.

It's been like a death in the family. Not of someone close, but of someone you didn't expect to miss so much until after they were gone. You wish you'd made more of an effort. You find yourself thinking of other things, and then feeling an unaccountable sadness seep into your day, and then remembering why. Or you keep coming back to it, looking again at the old photos, at the once insignificant postcards. I mean all that; that's been, to my surprise, exactly how I felt. The death is of an idea of America and the mementos are the blogs of my friends.

From outside, I don't think they've quite taken the measure of what's happened.

Before the election, one could at least blame Bush, or some small group around him. In 2000, leaving aside the shenanigans around the count, people had voted for 'a uniter, not a divider', for a 'humbler' foreign policy, for a 'compassionate conservatism'. The atrocity of 9/11 had knocked America sideways. The fury was not only understandable, but so widely shared that the flag of Red China flew at half mast. It was only as the War on Terror mutated into the Iraq War that the mood changed. But this and other features of the first Bush term could still be seen as an abberation.

Well, now the American people have legitimised the bastard. Of course many, perhaps most, of those who voted for the President didn't consciously and deliberately vote for all he stands for. This is because not all, but a substantial portion, were too fucking stupid to find out. These knuckle-dragging cousin-fuckers who are LIVING PROOF that Darwin was right and who were piped to the polls by shills for crony capitalists who are LIVING PROOF that Marx was right still think America was attacked by Iraq, and payback is a bitch. I have news for them. It is. My only problem with that, frankly, is that I love too many folks who don't deserve to be collateral damage.

So what can the reality-based community do? Blunt the other side's wedge issues and start hammering in some wedges of your own.

God: Give the Dispensationalist heresy a sound thrashing. That Armageddon and Rapture stuff isn't unmediated holy writ. It's recent and tendentious and gets most of its fuel these days from a science fiction novel, for crying out loud. Much the same goes for the Scientific Creationist heresy. The theory of evolution is compatible with conservative and evangelical Christianity, and has been held to be so ever since Augustine. The SciCre theory that the universe we live in has wildly different physical and biological laws from the one God created and found 'very good' is not. It's literally the oldest heresy in the book, the one Paul was talking about when he denounced 'oppositions of science falsely so called'. Hammer on this, and leave atheism to us atheists.

Guns: I won't change anyone's mind on this, but those on the left who support the Second Amendment should proclaim it from the housetops. The rest should just buy guns and keep quiet about it.

Gays: Depressing as the votes against gay marriage are, they should be seen in perspective. The people who voted for them are not necessarily raving homophobic bigots. They might just be objecting to being asked to sanctify sin. I don't agree with them, but I can understand where they're coming from. I don't have any solutions for this.

Wedges the other way:

Class. Give poorer people in the red states some good reasons to vote your way. Forget socialism. From the Babylonian captivity of the Walmart workplace and the Enron boardroom, normal law-abiding capitalism will start to look like the New Jerusalem.

Conservatism. Conservatism is not an ideology of world revolution. Neoconservatism is. Real conservatives know this. Make sure they know you know. Red-bait every ex-Trot neocon, and smear the rest.

Global warming. Forget Kyoto. Build more nukes. Reactors in blue states, nuclear waste dumps in the red. (Comparative advantage; it's all in Ricardo.)

Science. Flood Geology won't find oil. Giving human rights to stuff you can only see with a microscope means handing the future to the French. Come to think of it, this is a win, so scratch that one. (Comparative advantage again.)

Americanism. The Bush coalition is not going to fall apart at the first lost war or the first recession, so you're going to need to think like the Modern Prince. Just don't talk like Gramsci. He was an Italian and he was writing in prison. Every strand of opinion on the left, from the most moderate to the most radical, has had an American champion who spoke and wrote with passion and eloquence. Read Gramsci, but talk like Debs.

War on Islamist Terror. It would be a good idea. With Europe, Cuba, Vietnam, China, Russia and every KGB- or CIA-trained mukhabarat in the Middle East and Central Asia already on side, we could really win this one if America joined in, instead of coddling the folks who gave us Beslan and handing Iraq to Osama on a fucking plate.

I should just stop. This may all be decided by factors we can barely glimpse and can't predict, Rumsfeld's 'unknown unknowns'.
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
Auden, The Fall of Rome
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Friday, November 05, 2004

'In the Beginning All the World was America ...'

It wasn't just another election. Something broke this week.

More than half the US electors have voted for smirking evil. They've voted for a President who openly believes he is above the law. They've voted for torture, tyranny and aggressive wars of conquest. They've voted for religious obscurantism. They've cast a vote of confidence in the past four years, and asked for four more years like them. They've done all this because they believe that this is what it will take to make them safe. They've voted against liberty for a little temporary safety, and they deserve and can expect but little of either.

American socialist Martin Schreader, editor of The Appeal to Reason, gets it:
Until today, it remained something of a question whether or not the people of the United States would use the ballot as a means of demonstrating their desire to maintain nominally democratic norms. As it stands right now, the question has been answered ... in the negative. The combined power of the corporate media, the corporate parties (and their corporatised labour unions) and a contrived ‘culture of fear’ have turned the average American voter into a Pavlovian nightmare. The end result has been that the Bush regime, which came to power through a bloodless coup d'etat in 2000, has now been effectively legitimised through a large 'vote of confidence' by over 50 million Americans.

A plurality of Americans has, through their votes, chosen to approve the burial of the second republic in favour of imperialist empire. Their legitimising of the Bush regime and their support for the 'culture war' has irreversibly broken the continuity of American democracy. The process of Weimarisation is complete.

Certain wooden-headed elements of the left will, of course, continue to assert that little, if anything, new has happened as a result of this election. They will continue to see the old institutional facades in place and will impressionistically conclude that all talk of a new period in American history as delusional. They will note that the uniquely American brand of anti-democratic, anti-worker corporatism that has taken hold in Washington does not correspond to what they read in history books and vulgarly conclude that nothing has really changed. In this author's view, these are little more than the echoes of the past and should be treated as such.

It is time for class-conscious working people, revolutionary socialists and communists to face forward and begin to come to grips with the new situation confronting us. Working class unity will have to take as its starting point the development of a common assessment of this situation and the revolutionary democratic tasks that inevitably flow from it. Left unity - if such a thing is still possible - will have to be its by-product.

Today, I mourn the failure of the 215-year-old 'noble experiment'. The republic is dead: long live the republic!

It is time to begin the world again. We can start here, in the first territory of the Revolution, land of Locke and Cromwell and Paine, by bringing down that man of blood Tony Blair.
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Monday, November 01, 2004

Predicted Top 3 Creationist Explanations of Homo floresiensis

1. Apes, hunted by the humans whose spear-heads were found near their bones.

2. Human, children of Adam, not much more different from most humans
than pygmies are. What are you, some kind of racist?

3. Spawn of the Nephilim.

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