Burke & Fair: Grave-Robbing With The Common Weal

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The Jimmy Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project has gathered quite a lot of support from the Scottish left (and, via Business For Scotland and Jim Mather, the Scottish right as well) during the referendum campaign. We recently enjoyed a piece on their website called “Principles of the Common Weal”, written by one of their growing army of academics, which lays out their ideas in children’s storybook form, cheerily patronising the reader from the first sentence. The article is typical of the Common Weal’s output: its platitudinous liberalism makes for a neatly-fitting lid on the coffin of social democracy, hiding the decomposing cadaver from view while its stubborn apostles insist it has already been resurrected in Scandinavia, that strange land where time stands still and Margaret Thatcher delivers milk to nurseries. We’ve tried to pry open the coffin lid to see what these “principles” really mean…

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1. Society

We live together in society

People do not live in isolation from each other; we live in families and communities.  Most of us belong to a wide range of groups and networks – joined together by, for example, culture, education, religion, mutual responsibility and our shared experiences. A society is a group of all those groups.  A society may seem distant to some, and there are parts of the world where it is, but Scotland is not one of those places.  Many of the things that make life in Scotland work, happen at the level of society as a whole: education, health care, pensions, roads, parks and many other services are organised socially, and they make us all better off than we would be without them.

Translation: “Like Aristotle said, we’re rather like bees. A society is a group of sub-groups. We are joined to others by things like our common interest in spoken word poetry, our common membership of university rowing clubs, our commitment to the Orange Order, the fact that we give other people directions, and that we all like Hogmanay. Some parts of the world are uncivilised and things are organised by religious groups, or by trade unions. Here, everything happens at the TOP level – the group of sub-groups – society – and that is good. By society it turns out we actually mean the State. The State organises education, health care, pensions, roads, parks, and other services, and if we squint at the word “State” it looks a bit like “society” which is a bit like “social”, and we know social things are good, because… Anyway, we know if we didn’t have these state-based things then everything would be worse, because we’d probably be serfs.”

2. The common good

The welfare of every person depends on the welfare of each of us.

The idea of the common weal begins with the idea that the welfare of each and every person matters for the welfare of all of us.  Every member of a family shares, to some extent, the pleasure and pain of others;  it is hardly possible for a family to be content and satisfied with their circumstances when one of their number is deprived or dangerously ill. In the same way, it is difficult for the members of a society to be content if the most vulnerable people in that society are suffering.  There are differences, of course, between families and societies; the relationship we have to members of our family is closer and stronger than it is to others.  But wherever other people lack welfare, it affects us, too.  Poverty makes life worse, not just for the poor, but for everyone.

Translation: Like Hobbes said, the State is sort of like a body. This is useful, because we think that, like a body, when a part of society is sick, the other parts are too. Now, the other parts – that’s people with nice lives who aren’t in poverty- aren’t THAT affected by the hard lives of other people in society, but it does make them feel worried, and sometimes really really concerned. When middle class people are concerned, they are not as happy as they could be. And this is a sure sign that things need to change.

“We hope no one reading this is thinking about certain twentieth-century invocations of the state as a family. Of course, our national socialism is very different to that. We will draw your attention instead to another instance – in 14th century Florence, the elites used an idea laid down in Roman history, the idea of the state as a family, to quell the wool-workers and their mistaken sense of associational politics. See – the state isn’t something nasty, and everyone should learn to love it, just like family.”

3. Solidarity

We have obligations to each other.

The idea of ‘solidarity’ is widely used in Europe to mean that people are held together by bonds of mutual obligation – the ties of family, community and society.  People are included in society when they are part of those networks, excluded when they are not.  The common weal is an idea that includes people, and binds them together.  It means that we are all of us responsible for each other.  This does not mean that people are not also responsible for themselves; but it does mean that looking out for oneself is not enough, and never can be. “All the members of human society”, Adam Smith wrote, “stand in need of each other’s assistance.”  Every one of us depends on the help and support of others.

Translation: “We will just define the idea of solidarity in case you have any misconceptions about the politics behind that word. You might associate the idea with a song containing the line “Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?”, or another song that says “We’ll boot your fuckin’ cockney skulls right back to Bethnal Green” but we don’t want you to worry about those violent and divisive anthems – we’re talking about something much better. What we mean by solidarity is that all the sub-groups, and the main group (society/the State) hold people together in “bonds of mutual obligation”. We have mutual obligation because we depend on others – this is what Adam Smith thought in 1759, and the Enlightenment is the epitome of human thought.”

4. Stewardship

We have a duty to future generations.

Edmund Burke, the great conservative philosopher, argued that society is a partnership, not just of those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.  Part of the responsibility we have is to each other.  Part is to those who have come before us – to preserve our common heritage.  Part is to those who will come after us.  Each generation has a duty of stewardship for the generations to come – a duty that goes beyond the narrower idea of ‘sustainability’, because it is a commitment to make things better, not just to keep things going.  The common weal calls for us to build for the future.

Translation: “Edmund Burke didn’t like the French Revolution. He thought the Ancien Regime was pretty fab, and he thought we’d better preserve the monarchical and political systems we had and let them change organically, even if it did mean people were pissed off. We think the same (sort of). We think we have to preserve our common heritage – the Queen! The empire! nice arty things, like Gaelic. We have a commitment to the future! Here, we’d better depart from Burke. We’re in a muddle now. We must build.”

5. Rights

A society has to protect the rights of every person in it.       

The common weal cannot be achieved by sacrificing the welfare of some people for the good of others. A society where some people are poor, homeless or excluded, is a worse place to live for everyone else.  Most people in Scotland look at exclusive societies – like the gated communities of South East England – with some disquiet. As The Spirit Level shows, societies that are more unequal are less healthy, more prone to crime and poorer than others.

 Translation: “Mutual responsibility means egalitarianism. If some are more equal than others, the middle class get sad. Most people in Scotland think “God I wish I was as rich as people in South East England” “It is wrong that those people are rich and ignore that others are so poor – I am glad I live in a place where the rich love the poor with all their hearts”. As an old sociology study shows, it is better for rich people to live in societies with a smaller gap between rich and poor. We want to live in the “right” society, which is why this section is about “Rights”…”

6. Equality

Everyone needs access to the conditions of civilisation.

There are many differences between people – for example, differences of gender, of religion, of physical capacity.  Equality means that wherever there are such differences, people should not have to suffer from disadvantages because of them.  The most basic type of equality is about respect for persons: people of any kind should not be treated as inferior.  Then there is equality of opportunity; people should not be denied opportunities because of who they are.  Our common weal calls for equality, however,  in a deeper sense.  The real argument for equality, Tawney argued, was that every person in a society should have ‘access to the conditions of civilisation’ – including, amongst other issues, education, housing, sanitation, health care and a basic income.

Translation: “There are differences in society, and people should not be discriminated against for being “different”. Nobody should be treated as inferior. There should be equality of opportunity. But most of all, everyone should have access to a good life. If you are “different” and this is interpreted to mean you are inferior (for instance, you might be a woman!), don’t get angry at those misguided people, but trust in us to deliver a society where you have access to all the conditions of civilisation, due to our good Christian morals. See – we avoided all that nasty liberation politics!”

A common enterprise

To build more we must share more.  

The common weal depends on common action. We are part of a joint enterprise, which every person contributes to, so that every person can benefit.  By working together, every one of us can achieve more than we can do alone. And acting together has another, less immediate advantage: when people co-operate, they have the opportunity to build a community, and identity, and a sense of purpose.  Together, we can make Scotland a better place to live.

Translation: “We all must contribute to the enterprise of the common weal (which means mutual responsibility) so that we all benefit. Working together is known to be efficient, as Adam Smith showed us so wonderfully. But there is value in cooperation itself – it gives us a community (Common Weal Scotland) an identity (Common Weal Scotland) and a sense of purpose (creating a Common Weal Scotland). Now that, my friends, is an ideology!”

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The Common Weal hope to utilise a common civic/social-nationalist impulse, which they believe they have found in Scotland, to overcome class and sectional antagonisms in Scottish society and pinpoint policies which are in the interests of all. It is an ideology of class compromise, idealist complacency and national-political consensus, pre-empting any possibility for a truly emancipatory and internationalist politics of class struggle, historical materialism and political revolution.

The Common Weal claim the Left as their terrain, and yet their intellectual roots – reactionaries like Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, fused with the technocratic paternalism of The Spirit Level – betray a fundamental conservatism. They are disturbed by the growing inequality and instability of modern society, particularly its implications for “social cohesion” (whatever that means), and hope that the right reforms, made by the right people, will fix this. Trying to prove conclusively that their social-democratic messiah evaded death in the 1970s, they rip its skeleton from the ground and rattle it in our faces, proclaiming its vitality as the last slivers of flesh slide off and the skull tumbles comically to the ground. Despite the childish language, it’s a frightening display of hyper-defensive leftism that should come with an age rating.

Our intellectual roots are rather different. When we see instability and inequality throughout the capitalist world, we recognise that Marx was right to argue that antagonism between classes, also identified by Adam Smith, can only be ended by the destruction of the ruling class by the exploited masses. When we see a so-called “left” programme drawing on Burke to argue for a society that is somehow both capitalist and communist, we remember the words of Burke’s great contemporary Maximilen Robespierre: “Citizens, did you want a revolution without a revolution?

Amy Westwell (@amywestwell)
Rory Scothorne (@shirkerism)

6 thoughts on “Burke & Fair: Grave-Robbing With The Common Weal

  1. A materialist understanding doesn’t mean standing outside of reality jerking off about abstract philosophy. Quite the opposite. Any serious materialist understanding can only lead us to the conclusions that (a) communism in one country is a non-starter (b) we are engaged in a long term positional war for class power (c) the balance of class power is altered by material facts not remaining in the splendid isolation of ideological purity.

    Therefore it is logical, and highly materialist, to temper our words (for example, by quoting a conservative philosopher in support of one of our positions) in order to make *material* *gains*.

    The position that what matters is who you quote, not what concrete policies you implement, is not materialist, it is idealism of the highest order and transparently so.

    • A materialist method should attack the spirit of the state of affairs and denounce the philosophy of those who use abstract mantras to bolster an idealist philosophy. Common Weal bolsters the spirit of Scottish affairs by ‘tempering its words’ to shroud the hodge-podge of Common Weal aspirations (which you call ‘policies’) behind a credo of conservative ideas which reduce divisions to ‘differences’ and present poverty in terms of its harms to ‘all of us’.

      CW is not materialist because material gain comes through the ability of a class to formulate demands *against* the ‘all of us first’ idea which CW, along with much of the pro-independence left, has made its slogan. On no materialist grounds is it ‘logical’ or even pragmatic to adopt conservative philosophers and Christian moralists as the philosophy’s patron saints. It is a threat, and it should be attacked – not to *clarify* the philosophy which is unworthy of thought, but to *denounce* it.

      We have no confidence that CW will lead to material gains, because it seeks no power for the class. In the terms of your pseudo-logical argument against ‘ideological purity’, a) communism is not a state of affairs or an ideal to which reality should adjust itself (in one country or many), but is the movement to abolish the present state of things, b) which does indeed happen through the war for class power, a war to be fought against the state of affairs, c) and which, given the importance of the ideology or political philosophies that are at large on the left, and the deception by these philosophies of those who think they are fighting for class power, must be a movement that fights against the muddled impurity of the kind we see in CW, to expose the immaterial platitudes of this sinister liberalism.

      CW is outside of history and therefore below the level of proper criticism – it is not materialist, it is hardly even idealist. The best way to exterminate it is through exposure of its conservative tendencies, and through ridicule. This is why the above comments are not a respectful appraisal, they are an indignant polemic.

      CG

      • What is your positive programme?

        You’re right that Common Weal proposes a detente with the Scottish right, and one that falls some way short of even 60s Social Democracy for that matter. That’s not deception, or stupidity. It is impure, but politics isn’t a game where purists get far.

        Getting down to material facts, our strongest trade union just got taken to pieces at what should be its strongest industrial site, Grangemouth. The tenants’ movement is a mere shadow of what it was as recently as the 90s, having been dismantled during the Blair years. The cooperative movement just lost its last bank. The attempt to take Labour back for the trade unions has failed, and led to a further weakening of their tenuous hold.

        It will take decades of difficult, careful work to rebuild the power the working class used to have.

        My programme, for what it’s worth, is to achieve a progressively-oriented peace with what is left of our power, and set about rebuilding from the base using Alinksyist / relational organising methods, building mass organisations of working class people around their short-term material self-interest to ultimately fight for grander changes.

        I don’t consider that sinister liberalism, but rather pragmatic socialist politics. Picking a revolutionary fight right now would simply lead to us being crushed.

        What is your positive programme, what are the material factors that inform it, and what actions should we – as socialists – be taking to carry it out?

  2. Please define your words “truly emancipatory and internationalist politics of class struggle”, and please tell us if you believe in Britain? Are you British nationalists? What kind of governmental structure do you propose for Scotland? Thank you.

    • I can only respond that the politics of class struggle cannot be easily defined, but our position on this can be found in many of our articles, and perhaps at some point we’ll write an article solely about struggle.

      As to whether we ‘believe’ in Britain, we do not take the position that Britain is the best vehicle for bringing power into the hands of the working class, hence our support for Scottish independence. Having said that, we don’t believe Britain is necessarily doomed, and in the result of a “No” vote will probably be writing on the potential for a re-emergence of left politics in a Westminster context, as well as a Scottish one.

      I can’t speak for the other two, but I wouldn’t say I’m a British nationalist (though I have a curious attachment to the British, or English radical tradition which is somewhat more inspiring than the narrow Scottish one). If you mean whether we support British wars and own union jack merchandise, well, no.

      As to what kind of governmental structure we propose for Scotland, that’s a pretty big question. We don’t support the SNP’s proposals outlined the White Paper for a small, centralised cabinet, and we don’t support the extent to which the current governance proposals allow for business interests to be articulated and become influential, particularly in the stages of the formation of a new State. We support greater power in the hands of the people, which takes parliamentary shape in the form of a workers’ party and workers’ representation. If you’d like a more specific answer you’ll have to narrow down the question.

      AW

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