A proposal on the Scottish referendum: "Yes, but…"

  • September 18, 2014

Borders & Beyond

“A ‘Yes, but’ campaign supports a ‘yes’ vote as our least worst option, and supports the autonomy of social movements regardless of which side wins.”

With Scotland’s referendum on “independence” and the likelihood of a very close result now sparking further interest and engagement, we catch breath to consider likely and possible future paths for movements struggling for eco-social justice. To be clear, we do so from a position of voting ‘Yes, BUT’, with no illusions, which is Richard Gunn’s useful way of framing and orienting a response to the highly polarized referendum question:

“A YES, BUT campaign would support a ‘yes’ vote as our least worst option […] And — most important — it would support the autonomy of social movements regardless of which side in the referendum won. […] Both an unadorned YES campaign and an unadorned NO campaign endorse neoliberal positions. By contrast, a YES, BUT campaign reformulates issues in an interactive way.”

It is important to recognize that there are a number of coherent and principled positions to take to voting in the referendum that reflect desires for eco-social justice — including choosing not to engage with the referendum vote at all. There are not simply two homogeneous opposing national positions, spoken for by party political leaders, as is represented by parliamentarianism and the media. Rather, a range of orientations around the national question can and are being expressed.

We sceptically believe that a Yes vote provides a greater likelihood for conditions favorable to ongoing struggles for eco-social justice. From a position of critique — treating Yes as our least worst option — we are under no illusion that ‘yes’ will, per se, enable struggles that speak to both resistance and necessary alternatives to our current socio-economic conditions. A Yes vote is not a solution to our contemporary crises — nor is it a new start.

Rather, it concerns the contexts of continuing present struggles. Something which requires the state-formation processes that are already underway (such as the SNP government’s proposed interim constitution) to be grasped more critically, so as to inform ongoing political action.

So voting ‘yes’, but with an awareness of the need for continuing — deepening and expanding, building and evolving — struggles for eco-social justice. And doing so through participation in and engagement with social movements, which will be necessary whatever the referendum result. In taking a critical stance in such polarised conditions of the referendum, we have repeatedly encountered demands to situate what we are for and what we are against in such binary terms that affirm one side or the other.

So as to be clear, we are against:

  • The rapacious neoliberal globalization of a corporate-state nexus — marked by growing social, political and economic polarization and integrated crises. How situations of civil disruption, social suffering and environmental crises are key strategic moments for the reproduction of capital (Naomi Klein’s ‘disaster capitalism’).
  • The idea of the nation-state as a naturally pre-given form — it is a historically contingent social construct and thus there are alternatives to it.
  • How the nation-state comes to sit above the local in importance — the way banal rituals and routine bureaucratic procedures help to assert the pre-eminence of state authority.
  • The combination of the state as the foremost institution involved in ‘binding space’ into productive territories, and the ideology of neoliberalism which exerts a pedagogical force that acts to shape social space — becoming the automatic ‘common sense’ by which the state, the media, civil society, and ordinary people relate.
  • The contradictory division between ‘good’ (civic) and ‘bad’ (ethno-cultural) nationalism — with the former linked to motifs of progress as an obligatory common destiny.
  • The use of shaming (of stigma) to modify conduct — as has been taken up in expressions and appeals of both campaigns.
  • The growth agenda of competitive nationalism — which, through a rhetoric of national competitive necessity, marshals consensus around the inevitability of market-competition, with practical consequences for international solidarity.

And, what we are for:

  • A path not a model — rather, an orientation or direction of travel beyond an improved future.
  • Asserting that our social relations should and can be different — and that we (as agents of change) can transform them in moving towards greater levels of self-determination, self-management, participatory democracy, and individual and collective autonomy.
  • Eco-social justice — an equal and just world for all with regard to all species and across the integrated spheres of society.
  • A prefigurative orientation towards critical dialogue and engagement that makes existing exclusions visible — because how we locate politics is central to the kind of society we would like to become.
  • A recognition of radical, autonomous social movements as central to living (an ongoing process of being and becoming) — the necessary prefigurative struggles of resistance, creation and evolution of alternatives.
  • Dissensus as central to democratic agonistic interaction (the positive role of political conflict) as it is key to opening up alternatives in political decision-making. Dissensus doesn’t just mean a conflict of interest, opinions, or values but, more widely, a dispute over the space of and for politics itself.
  • Agonistic pluralism — as a way to think about democracy that’s centred on that contestation, as a counter to the de-politicizing technocratic discourse of consensus, which displaces politics by determining the correct place and object of political action. As Chantal Mouffe explains: “while we desire an end to conflict, if we want people to be free we must always allow for the possibility that conflict may appear and to provide an arena where differences can be confronted. The democratic process should supply that arena.”

A ‘Yes Scotland’ and ‘Independence’

Attention to what vocabulary represents or obscures is important — not that we’re polishing any halos — particularly when it can be and is both contested and prejudicially manipulated. As such, should we be talking about a Yes vote leading to a ‘Yes Scotland’ rather than to ‘independence’? Because actual independence is not what is on offer, if indeed that is at all possible for any territory within the post-sovereign global system of nation states.

Rather, ‘independence’ is a matter of degrees and of variable power relations, both internally and externally. Certainly the nation-state that the SNP now envisages, with intentions to keep the monarchy (and hence Crown Powers), and to maintain a currency union (and thus austerity pact with the Bank of England) is, in these regards, no less independent of the rest of the UK than at present.

Neither is it independent of the tension between harmonization/acquiescence and conflict that exists between state politics and global circuits of capital and power — the network of inter-, trans- and supra-national bodies (such as NATO, the EU, the G7, the IMF and the World Bank) that serve to underpin, extend and evolve the processes of neoliberalism, and through membership of which nations have ceded sovereignty, or indeed had it taken from them.

A pressing example is the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), intended to further lock-in, deepen and expand the neoliberal organization of society, and through doing so further weaken undesirable aspects of state sovereignty. A treaty which Scotland will likely be bound by; either through remaining in a UK that has ratified it, or through a post-yes-referendum EU membership.

For a level of independence in which, individually and collectively, we have a say in decisions to the extent that they effect us — that is, participatory democracy — it is incumbent upon us to resist such plans, which includes those of considerable sections of the mainstream Yes campaign. That is, to evolve, build and connect social movements that not only resist and create alternative visions and strategies to the kinds of arrangements and pressures just outlined, but that over time move beyond not just capitalism but the nation-state system itself.

The SNP and the Constitutional Position

It is worth closely examining the recent history of the SNP government, as well as their proposals for a technocratic future Scotland – especially their White Paperxvi and constitutional plans.xvii We hold concerns about both the inter-related process and content. Why is there need for a bill in these terms, rather than the procedural minimum necessary – a “minimal constitutional model which would still leave policy choices to the new parliament”?xviii

The SNP propose a nation-state determined by:

  • Monarchic oversight and thus a continued acceptance of anti-democratic Crown Powers;
  • A US-dominated NATO with its neo-colonial role and developing strategy of first use of nuclear weapons;
  • The ceding of sovereignty to an EU neoliberal framework;
  • The economic primacy of the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) sector, and hence continued domination by corporations — for example, through low corporate taxes and the exploitation of debt and rent at all scales, from individual to state;
  • A commitment to endless economic growth with fossil fuels a significant economic driver.

Such a “treaty-worthy/ready” state (in Chomsky’s terms) will be subjected to and driven by the same neoliberal market processes as Westminster.The realities of the SNP proposals and present policies is that they would function to close down genuinely radical alternative visions and strategies.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, large numbers of people in Scotland have already expressed a sense of disenfranchisement and powerlessness and seek a greater say in how their lives are shaped. That aspiration cannot be satisfied by what is on offer. We will still have to work, post-referendum, to create and develop actual democratic structures and relations.

Issues Arising

Following on from these propositions are issues that we feel are either absented, paid insufficient attention, or grossly misrepresented across the referendum campaigns. They concern imagined visions of society and how we might wish to get to the many possible futures from here — something contingent upon the contemporary contexts of the integrated crises which we face.

Ecological Issues and Imperatives:

The roles of the state in creating and deepening the ecological and environmental crises of global warming, climate chaos, resource depletion and environmental degradation have been the significant elephant in the room with regard to referendum debates and positions, specifically for claims centred on a need for exploitation of oil and gas. Yet, the science tells us that to keep global warming to within a (still dangerous) rise of two degrees Celsius, it is imperative that we leave most petro-carbons in the ground, unexploited.

Further, across the campaigns, environmental policies comfortably sit within the capitalist paradigm, and thus are still based on a model of seeking infinite growth on a finite planet. A system that will continue to create climate chaos and further environmental degradation, even if we do leave carbon in the ground! Which is not to say that, if possible (a very serious question and doubt), these would not be small but significant improvements. But that we urgently need to replace these dictates and imperatives of capital — indeed the entire capitalist system.

Environmentally, we must develop resilience to eco-system changes otherwise locked-in, while rapidly moving from a carbon-based system of immense energy consumption to one that is more localized and consumes considerably less, promoting de-carbonization. Basing that on renewables — creating a low or zero carbon infrastructure — that permits the use of what carbon we do extract for the many petrochemical functions that are vital to modern society. It is worth noting that Scotland is particularly well placed to do so, with huge potential resources in terms of renewable energy.

Representative and Participatory Democracy:

Most of the debate to date has taken place within the paradigm of ‘representative democracy’ — the electoral system symbiotic with, and that is used to justify, capitalism in much of ‘the global north’. It is essential to puncture the myth that such a system is either representative of (or accountable to) those for whom it is claimed to be. Nor is it democratic. In that it does not lead to people actually being the decision makers — to people having, to the greatest degree possible, the ultimate power over decisions, regarding all aspects of society to the extent that they are likely to be affected by them.

It is this participatory democracy that must be prefigured in our movements, working towards an inclusive conflictual politics rather than a consensus that shrinks political space. The relations, processes and practices of our movements should demonstrate a possible world by reflecting the very values and objectives that we espouse.

Nuclear and Militarism — and Demilitarisation

There appears to be agreement across the Yes campaigns with the SNP policy of removal of Trident from Scotland. Yet, while welcome, as it is presently formulated this is limited, and we have to ask if it amounts to much more than a policy of ‘not in our backyard’? Central to the SNP’s stance is the hypocrisy of seeking to remain a member of NATO — a US-dominated, expansionist, and interventionist body and projectxl responsible for:

  • A military alliance with an evolving strategy of first use of nuclear weapons and a continuing history of illegitimate, immoral, and by their own logic, illegal wars and occupations;
  • Waging ‘war’ by other means — the economic pressuring of countries through diplomatic and development routes; from debt and spending, trade liberalization and privatization, to sanctions.

We should, instead, withdraw from NATO, alongside a unilateral relinquishment of nuclear weapons and, indeed, all other weapons and means of mass destruction. Further, we should demilitarize Scotland — which goes beyond divestment of nuclear weapons. A demilitarization through which we end both Scotland’s role as a constituent part of US global bases and force projection, and its part in the manufacturing and distribution chain of militarism globally.

The vast sums saved could instead underpin not just the protection but the expansion and improvement of public services, the vital rapid transition to renewable energy, and thus crucial opportunities for the creation of socially useful employment that such projects would create.

Questions

We will conclude by raising some questions. The first is relevant in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote: how do we not get the neoliberal Scotland envisaged in the SNP’s White Paper? And, more long term, how do we overcome a capitalist Scotland at the hands of any of the political parties?

Secondly, in the event of a ‘No’ vote: how do we resist, through building alternatives to, that which appears to inevitably be in store for us at the hands of the dominant powers in the UK? (Deepening and intensified so-called ‘austerity’, with extra foreclosure to stem any future challenges to UK state legitimacy). Further, what are the points of class (and other) oppressions and antagonisms that far too many national discussions have served, in large part, to overwrite or obscure?

Other questions needing to be asked whatever the result of the vote include: how do we contest the socio-economic consensus of There Is No Alternative (TINA)? That is, claims that there are no alternatives to an incontestable neoliberal vision — the entrenched dogma of competitive nationalism(s); where institutions are subject to reproduction of both banal and overt state ideology, where culture and education are pressed to contribute to a cohering of nationhood and positioned as a competitive factor, and where individuals are treated as responsible for not maximising their economising potential so relieving their burden on the state vision.

How do we address the related crisis of democracy — the political consensus of TINA; here, wedded to claims of a ‘representative democracy’ within a parliamentary system? Such that we genuinely democratize participation and engagement in political processes and decision making? How do we come to understand, and resist, the dominance of both the mainstream media and education systems as part of the state apparatus; and their roles in the manufacture, maintenance and evolution of consent? And in doing so, nourish, build, and evolve the necessary alternatives of education and communication across society?

Nothing is conceded by power without a struggle. While proposing voting ‘Yes, But’ as the least worst option on Thursday, our central focus (whatever the referendum result) needs to be on ensuring that struggles and movements for eco-social justice are continued, deepened and expanded — working to make real the claims that other, better Scotlands (and worlds) are possible, necessary and indeed, under construction.

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Gordon Asher

Gordon Asher is an educator/learner, ‘activist’ and cultural worker, an editor at Variant and board member of Strickland Distribution. He works as a Learning Developer at the University of the West of Scotland and is studying part-time for a PhD at the University of Glasgow.

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Leigh French

Leigh French is also an editor at Variant and board member of Strickland Distribution.

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