Beyond the Scottish referendum - Mike Sabot

Never be deceived ~ Lucy Parsons

A look at the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence written by Edinburgh Anarchist Federation member, Mike Sabot, in a personal capacity, criticising both the Yes and No campaigns.

It’s less than one month to the Scottish independence referendum on 18th September.

I’m not going to tell you to vote or not vote. Some anarchists will abstain and focus on organising where they are, others will vote Yes in the hope of at least a few reforms.

But if you do vote Yes, make it a wholly pragmatic choice – don’t buy into the ideology of the Yes campaign or its variant, left nationalism.

Whatever the rhetoric of some on the Left,* this is a Scottish nationalist campaign, just as the No camp represents a British nationalism. Anyone who cares about class struggle politics needs to strongly oppose both.

Nationalism, whatever form it takes, does two things: it tries to create a community of interest between the bosses and the working class; and it binds this community to the capitalist nation-state, reinforcing the latter’s power and role in exploitation.

There is no genuinely ‘progressive’ form that this can take.

We have, as Paul Mattick observed, a century of experience of national liberation struggles where apparently progressive anti-imperialist movements culminated in an oppressive new ruling class.

And we could now potentially see a new wave of independence movements in Europe in response to neoliberal restructuring and the more immediate crisis of capitalism. Do we expect different results?

New divisions and rivalries among European workers are not something to be applauded. Neither is the spectacle of a decidely bourgeois-led independence movement like that in Catalunya, where a more wealthy region seeks to stop ‘subsidising’ the rest of Spain.

But smaller states are better and more democratic?

Well, if we were to take a critical look at actually existing small European states we find:

  • that they’re certainly no more favourable to workers’ organising;
  • they are also coercive (which is the role of any state apparatus) and can be just as authoritarian (an exceptional example being the role played by the Catholic church backed by the Irish state);
  • they have been remarkably open to neoliberalism and austerity (which has had a devastating effect on small states from Finland to the Netherlands, nevermind southern Europe);
  • there is a growing anti-immigrant trend related to systemic white supremacy across northern Europe;
  • that some have also sent willing to send troops abroad (Denmark in Afghanistan) or have aided others who have (Ireland again, offering Shannon airport for use by the US Air Force);
  • and they are always subject to the dictates of larger supranational structures and of capital itself.
    ‘When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called “the People’s Stick”.’ – Mikhail Bakunin

    The claim made both in the Yes campaign and on the Left that Scotland too can be a ‘normal democracy’, is an astounding attempt to ignore the obvious bankruptcy of representative democracy and its living critique in recent global social movements.

    Even if the Scottish government is for now less likely to introduce draconian measures like the Bedroom Tax or adopt an anti-immigration stance, this is not in any sense a static situation. Massive political-economic forces will be brought to bear on post-independent government policy – it will make cuts and it will use its borders in its own economic interests.

    Small states are more than capable of manufacturing consent or of over-ruling public opinion when they need to (take the famous ‘crowdsourced constitution’ in Iceland, which was in fact quietly buried by the government). The real ‘democractic deficit’ will continue post-independence.

    What about the Scottish Left?

    It is in content a mix of left nationalism and nostalgic social democracy. It argues against neoliberalism rather than capitalism itself – a winning strategy for regaining seats in parliament, but absolutely nothing to do with fundamental social change.

    Both Common Weal and the vision of the Radical Independence campaign are concerned with trying to manage capitalism better.

    Surely hegemonic on the Left, Common Weal is an explicitly class collaborationist think-tank – nicely summed up in its slogan ‘All of us first’. Its proposals in creating a high-growth economy, are in reality about increasing the rate of exploitation and outcompeting workers internationally.

    Its advocacy of ‘work councils’ to smooth relations in the workplace is a necessary part of increasing productivity – i.e. profit. Where they have been used in Europe they have consistently undermined unions and workers’ militancy.

    Yes: the radical case for Scottish independence, the most comprehensive statement made by members of the Radical Independence campaign, is a call for united frontism to the extent that socialism – even a bureacratic state ‘socialism’ – isn’t even on the agenda, but is treated as a utopian project for some distant future.

    It seeks to create a Scottish broad left – not an ‘anti-capitalist’ – party along the lines of Syriza or Die Linke, and it reproduces the same ‘Keynesian wish list’ based on the same weak analysis of the state and capital, critiqued so well by Michael Heinrich.

    Like Common Weal, it sprinkles radical rhetoric – participatory democracy, decentralisation – on its reformism. It doesn’t differ substantially from the latter, but offers mild criticism of certain aspects, including its support for the Nordic model.

    The Nordic example

    Small states par excellence, Common Weal want us to emulate the Nordic states where thanks to a number of reasons – a strong labour movement, available natural resources etc. – it has been able to maintain more of its welfare provision than Britain. From an international perspective, these countries have been labour aristocracies living off the toil of workers abroad.

    But all of the Nordic states have experienced their own neoliberal offensive and inequality is growing there too. Asbjørn Wahl has shown how even in oil-rich Norway the welfare state is being eroded from within and the ideology of workfare is growing in strength.

    He insists that constant reference to Nordic countries’ position in international league tables is unhelpful:

    The problem is that all the teams in the league table are being weakened. Or to use another image, we still have a cabin on the upper deck, but it is the upper deck of Titanic, and the ship as a whole is sinking. (2011: 11)

    The Nordic example is incredibly useful, however. We can learn a great deal from the internal class contradiction and struggle in these countries, which belies the case made by social democrats here.

    In the Nordic Left we find a debate going on about how to combat the challenge to welfare provision. Along with Wahl, the work of Swedish welfare academic, Daniel Ankarloo, is particularly interesting.

    He argues that the labour movement there has been ‘weakened by [...] class co-operation’ (2009) and belief in a ‘social policy road to socialism’ (2008: 78-84) – i.e. that somehow the welfare model was an example of socialism in practice that just needed to be expanded. Instead, to defend existing gains as well as to fight for a different society, we need to rediscover class militancy and that this, ‘radicalisation must [...] come from below in the form of the self-organisation of the labour movement’ (2009).

    Welfare struggles, rather than commitment to welfare statism itself, are a crucial part of this – strengthening the working class and its capacity to struggle (ibid.).

    Ankarloo rightly argues that this movement needs to organise across society and in the rank-and-file of unions. We should also draw inspiration from the revolutionary syndicalist SAC in Sweden and the broader Nordic extra-parliamentary Left, which is far more organised than any similar movements in Scotland or the UK.

    Renewing the struggle

    None of the promised reforms of the Yes campaign are guaranteed.

    We should not trust an independent Scottish state to share much wealth, to protect NHS provision, not to attack the unemployed or the disabled, not to make cuts, to deport people or remove trade union restrictions.

    Some are hopeful that the grassroots pro-independence movement will produce an oppositional social movement after secession. But this is wishful thinking. It would require it to reject its own ideological basis, its very nature as a cross-class alliance organised by forces who seek to gain political power.

    Aspirations for social change, for ‘democratic control’ and redistribution of wealth in this movement should be encouraged but pointed in a revolutionary direction.

    If the nationalist project isn’t soon wrecked on the rocks of its own contradictions, we will need to work to fragment it.

    Whatever the result of this referendum, the lasting gains we need depend most of all on our own capacity as a class for itself to organise and struggle.

    A genuine and practical internationalism is key to this.

    Hope lies not in trying to create new labour aristocracies or the international solidarity of left nationalists, but in uniting workers struggling from below against state, capital, patriarchy and white supremacy around the world.


    *There has been a great deal of confusion, or obfuscation, over the meaning of ‘nationalism’. Green party co-convenor, Patrick Harvie, for example insisted that he is not a nationalist, some have tried to distinguish between a ‘good’ (small or new state or civil) nationalism versus a ‘bad’ (large state or imperialist or ethnic) nationalism, others have made facile declarations of ‘internationalism’ – another term warped out of recognition. We should judge people by their actions not their rhetoric: do they foster a cross-class imagined community and social change through the state or not?

    Daniel Ankarloo (2008), 'The dualities of the Swedish welfare model', pp 78-84

    (2009), 'A new phase of neoliberalism: collapse and consequences for Sweden'

    Asbjørn Wahl (2011), The rise and fall of the welfare state

    Originally posted on the AFed Scotland blog.

  • Comments

    Red Marriott
    Aug 22 2014 21:09

    Another view on the "rights" of "the Scottish people";

    "We anarchists oppose the state in general but we do support ... small nations to have a right to break away from the main body politic ... anarchists should support the right of the Scottish people to become independent..."

    Aug 23 2014 11:02

    Oh dear Martin in that broadcast still plugging some of the worst aspects of the old 'Class War' group on the back of an anarchist comitment to an abstract concept of 'autonomy', federalism and decentralisation which ignores it's reality in the world of global capitalism, and in this case lining up with a good section of the Left in their 'voting Yes without illusions'' advice. Doesn't suprise me that some anarchists and other radicals in Scotland will 'Vote Yes' in the referendum as one old comrade of mine said ''if only to shake things up a bit'' (which seems to be what Martin is hoping for) but to me this is just an act of desperation and a refusal to accept their own impotence as a force for any genuine change in the current situation. Just as well Martin doesn't speak for all anarchists. Mike Sabot has surely got a better approach to the issues.

    Red Marriott
    Aug 23 2014 12:15

    He talks a lot about the English ruling class but only talks about the cross-class mass of "the Scottish people".

    Aug 23 2014 13:17

    And I prefer this contribution from an old comrade in Scotland posted on the ICT/CWO website reinforcing the arguments of MS above:

    Aug 24 2014 05:08

    I found the Edinburgh AF article a very worthy contribution which i will be passing on.

    My only criticism is having made a very good case not to vote Yes and to abstain, why should Mike Sabot, should hesitate in telling people not to particular, fellow anarchists. Stand by your convictions and indeed tell them very directly and bluntly as possible not to vote. I see no reason why Edinburgh AF cannot make a collective group decision in opposing both Yes and No camps and Mike will no longer require to write in a personal capacity. Perhaps i possess less sympathy for the pro-nationalists but i do argue they are not advancing working class interests but to the contrary are giving support and succor to our class enemy. Sometimes comrades need to be told some home-truths.

    As for the video clip, i listened to some of it but found it very dis-spiriting and stopped and i can only agree with Spikeymike's negative opinion of it.

    Aug 26 2014 11:31
    Red Marriott wrote:
    He talks a lot about the English ruling class but only talks about the cross-class mass of "the Scottish people".

    Presumably this 'English' ruling class includes Cameron, Brown, Blair, Harold MacMillan, Ramsey Mac, Alec Douglas-Home, Bonar-Law, etc?

    Aug 27 2014 08:07
    ajjohnstone wrote:
    II see no reason why Edinburgh AF cannot make a collective group decision in opposing both Yes and No camps and Mike will no longer require to write in a personal capacity.

    As an Edinburgh AF member I can certainly vouch that Mike's not alone in his opinion within our local group, his article appeared without being discussed by the group so I guess he just wrote it and wanted to get it out there, it's not been discussed and disagreed with tho.

    Aug 28 2014 09:25

    Just wanted to say that I would not tell anyone not to vote. I’d simply say that the referendum will solve nothing of any importance to the working class.

    Most people I know, who do vote, do so on the basis of supporting what they consider to be the least bad option. Until the working class feel confident in their own abilities, I think this defensive tactic will continue to operate (this is why the ‘No’ campaign has been largely about engendering fear). To suggest taking a ‘principled stand’ is very laudable, though to most folk I suspect it is political ‘pie in the sky’.

    Aug 28 2014 09:55

    I think we have to recognise that our 'political effectiveness', in terms of persuading anyone to a 'libertarian communist' (or even just basically critical) political consciousness, is close to zero. In this circumstance, what else makes sense but to take a principled stand? It's not like we've got anything to lose except principles, at this point.

    I understand that in some ways that might look quite cynical. I'm really not saying 'stick to your principles now, we can always betray them later for the sake of power'. Rather, that principles are all we have. We have no influence that we'd be giving up. So giving up principles means giving up everything we have.

    Joseph Kay
    Aug 28 2014 10:18

    Isn't it more that it's inconsistent to say 'voting doesn't change anything' and then take a strong position on non-voting? That is, to commit any resources to an abstentionist campaign would be as pointless as campaigning for either side, perhaps even more so.

    Aug 28 2014 10:23

    To slothjabber - I can respect your point of view though I don’t agree.

    Taking the principled (moral?) high ground in the knowledge that most workers will interpret this as political posturing is to highlight their perception of libertarian communism as ‘other worldly’ and not grounded in the experience of their lives. I think the job is to bridge this gap by showing the relevance of libertarian communism in actively combating capitalism. Education through solidarity in the class struggle and generally leaving the high minded soap boxes to preachers and politicians.

    Aug 28 2014 10:53
    Joseph Kay wrote:
    Isn't it more that it's inconsistent to say 'voting doesn't change anything' and then take a strong position on non-voting? That is, to commit any resources to an abstentionist campaign would be as pointless as campaigning for either side, perhaps even more so.

    yeah, I would pretty much agree with this. Unless we were in the position of there being the possibility of being part of a mass, politicised abstention campaign, which at the moment we are not

    Aug 28 2014 11:03

    I think the 'best' answer is to say that either way, nationalism (either nationalism around a British identity, or nationalism around a Scottish identity) and capitalism (either status-quo UK capitalism or re-organised Scottish capitalism) win the day.

    The 'best' result from our point of view would surely be not a rejection of one of the choices, but of the act of choosing?

    Not much to anyone's surprise, I think, this perfectly sums up my position:

    Aug 28 2014 12:49
    Isn't it more that it's inconsistent to say 'voting doesn't change anything' and then take a strong position on non-voting?

    It's not wholly true that 'voting doesn't change anything.' In Scotland there has been widespread animation over the referendumb, and a rekindled belief in bourgeois democracy. Given the recent widespread disgust with bourgeois politics (labelled as 'apathy' or 'cynicism' by the media) this appears a real positive for our ruling class.
    There also appears to be an element in some of the above comments that, given the lack of resonance within our class, militants should keep quiet.(And apologies if I'm picking this up wrongly)

    Taking the principled (moral?) high ground in the knowledge that most workers will interpret this as political posturing is to highlight their perception of libertarian communism as ‘other worldly’ and not grounded in the experience of their lives

    This year, of all years, we should remember the tiny number of internationalists who were standing against the imperialist war in opposition to social democracy and the unions, and a European working class which, at that time, would have regarded internationalist opposition as, at best, 'political posturing.'- presumably no-one here now suggests they should have kept schtum.

    Aug 28 2014 13:42


    To suggest there is an equivalence between opposing capitalist wars and telling the working class not to vote is disingenuous - the first is one of first principles the latter tactical.

    Aug 28 2014 14:28

    Yes, quite right. Except the point being made was that lack of resonance within the working class is no argument against articulating a political position..

    Aug 28 2014 15:59

    Shug #2

    In general I agree with you, though in the case of challenging the defensive voting tactics of the working class there is a balance to be made between pointing out the futility of the tactic and making it a point of principle.