With Hillary Clinton currently on her way to a victory of some kind, Bernie Sanders’s voice not quite as powerful as it otherwise could have been, and Jill Stein taking what could have been a chance for the alternate left to continue to have an interesting moment in the United States and fumbling it badly, it is worth taking a moment to look at a book published this year by three young Scottish socialists and how their sense of the politics of the moment holds up against the rest of the world at large.
Roch Winds is a book nominally about Scottish politics and ‘The Scottish Ideology’ written by Cailean Gallagher, Rory Scothorne, and Amy Westwell. Cailean is a trade union organizer for hospital workers in London, Amy is working on her master’s regarding radicals in the 1790’s, and Rory — per the frontispiece of the book — has been spending time as of late with Momentum Edinburgh. I’ve known Cailean and Amy for over a year, have had dinner with them and gone out for drinks with them, and would call them friends. I like them. I’d also argue that there’s more than just ‘backwater-seeming Scottish things’ at work in this book than meets the eye.
If one were to take a wide gloss on it, the book itself is very much a ‘book as prologue,’ a political first half equivalent of Notes From The Underground aiming to ape its growl of a style (at one point, for instance, a speech made by the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown that was given some credit as to convincing Scottish voters to vote against independence involved — in the author’s hands — mass discombobulation amongst the applauding crowd, applause which ended in the wrong heads being picked up off the ground and reapplied to the wrong shoulders without anyone noticing.)
But those expecting the analogy to complete itself and offer up a ‘part two’ shouldn’t look for it here. The three may be socialists, but they are also pessimists with an abiding interest in the wit of the moment. On page 177, the trio themselves write half in jest that “to avoid assimilation into the constructive consensus, pessimists should not yield to the demand for programmatic addendums to their critical thought.”
Were you to attend the readings the authorial trio put on in Glasgow in Edinburgh, however — and, in Glasgow, the reading took part in a beautiful old Trade Union building filled with posters and banners from campaigns and marches past; Kelvingrove and outdoor beer gardens were flourishing with amber yellows and green — you would have had a chance to see the beginning iterations of a ‘part two’: a campaigner spoke against zero-hour contracts. Stewart Sanderson read a poem. Someone spoke about what it meant to form a union of tenants and renters (which was certainly interesting in the context of the news of at least one SNP member acting as a ‘secret landlord.’) And a MSP spoke about the state of Scottish housing laws as compared to Sweden or Berlin, as well as the disparity in access to elected representatives between corporations and the public. At one point, he even suggested having the public write laws and present it to the Parliament something which Finland previously tried in something called Open Ministry.
While excerpts from the books were read at each gathering, no one dived too particularly far in. Were the trio to come to the States, they would have to inform readers that the so-called “Scottish Ideology” is comprised of multiple, moving parts.
The first is its consensus-based approach. At the Scottish Parliament, they write, “politics is in fact little more than understated, consensual budget management in the ‘national interest.’” With the ruling party, the Scottish National Party, “what distinguishes the SNP establishment from other governments is its apparent insulation from any crude manipulation by capital.” This happens in an environment where — as the authors note Alex Salmond said in 2008 — “we didn’t mind the economic side [of Thatcherism] so much, but we didn’t like the social side at all,’ he expressed the communitarian moralism that has stifled and subsumed the Scottish working class response to Thatcher’s decolonialisation, her encouragement of small businesses, her sale of council housing, and her debasement of the economy of industry to services … They deal with citizens, not workers.”
Given what’s been made of Hillary Clinton’s “listening tours,” regardless of the degree to which it reflects things which are genuine or true, the echo here with a potential governing style is enough to provoke our attention when it comes to formulating a leftist ‘response’ to Clinton that moves beyond tarring her with the sheer fact of engaging with neoliberalism again, again, and again.
That doesn’t mean that even socialism, Corbynism, or even some sense of Leninism is likely to ‘fix’ The Scottish Ideology, let alone a Clinton one. As they write on 144 in reference to What is to be Done: “ … like those surreal sections of the Old Testament which offer detailed guides to the minutiae of Israelite tribal life, Lenin’s war manual was debased by the process of sanctification … Communism became more restricted, and critical sentiments became tied to the defence of the Soviet state … the Sovietisation of the question what is to be done? constrained investigation into how a communist should live, and what it means to be a communist.”
That scale of intellectual pessimism is something that partly explains why SNP types and Blairite types have expressed an interest in their project, which itself speaks to the nature of those who have had experience with power, and why — therefore — attention must be paid.
Where does the Scottish left go in the present moment? The American left? Kezia Dugdale’s party is no longer the official opposition at Holyrood, and some leftists there seem more engaged in having a monologue than in organizing and building (there is always a subset of Scottish Socialists asking for more people to sign a petition to increase the minimum wage on the North Bridge corner of Princes Street), which is a staggering thing to consider given the need to work and organize to offset the damage done by Brexit.
On occasion, the book may stylistically err into the realm of literary affectation, which may — in turn — create the impression of an argument rendered slight opaque, as if this were all a matter of obvious of course, but the answer and divergent eclecticism of their readings suggests a path forward that stands by contrast to be remarkably clear: like Machiavelli, “one must therefore be a fox to recognize traps.” From there, the path of avoidance becomes a path forward. A path of its own.