Riding the Unicorn

Unicorn Photo

The mainstream left in Scotland stands petrified by the ghost of social democracy and its companion, the zombie-demon of Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher’s symbolic role in the transformation of 20th century capitalism is essential to what we can call the ‘containment’ argument, which features prominently in both nationalist and ‘devolutionist’ ideology. According to this position, independence or some degree of autonomy is necessary to protect Scotland from the unholy trinity of free markets, ‘Victorian values’ and xenophobic jingoism that characterised Thatcherism. Thatcher’s main political legacy – New Labour – is a part of this narrative, and the Thatcher-Blair consensus is taken as proof that ‘Scottish values’ have no hope at Westminster.

The demonization of Thatcher is a literal one – she is perceived as a creature of quite astonishing malign power. Her importance in the global shift from the mixed capitalist economies of the USA-led Golden Age to the state-shrinking and multi-centric neoliberal era is not trivial, but we have effectively beatified the iron lady on behalf of the Tory party faithful (a Tory saint being equivalent, of course, to a leftist demon). The implication is that the descent into our current predicament was caused not by the contradictions of welfare capitalism , but by the miraculous will of one British prime minister, whose gains were consolidated by Blairite apostles.

This misdirection plays an essential and dangerous role in the liberal-left ideology of containment. If the manifest ideology of Thatcher and Thatcherism caused rampant inequality, corporate excess, pervasive commodification and so on, then the manifest ideology of Scottish social democracy can contain or even reverse the effects of global capitalism (effects to which the rest of Britain must apparently be abandoned). Such an attitude allows an escape from the truly horrifying realisation that our New Jerusalem of 1945 was an impossible dream: the vast growth of a capitalist consumer economy that demanded cheaply produced goods could not peacefully coexist with the rising wage demands of an empowered working class, so the trade unions and their members were duly cast aside.

Some argue that if we only flip that story on its head and replace our consumption habit with a low-growth and low-consumption (but still essentially capitalist) market economy, we could remake that utopia afresh. This is ignorant of two things: firstly, that capital requires its own expansion in order to function properly, demanding the constant creation of new markets and cheaper production; and secondly, that well-intentioned regimes which deny their citizens consumer goods rapidly lose legitimacy. The European Communist parties of ‘really-existing socialism’, for instance, suffered enormously from their inability to meet the demands of people hungry for the riches of modernity. People expect nice things, and to deny that in the name of an abstract ideology is politically unsustainable.

But can we not see the “spirit of ‘45” made real again with just one glance north? What of Scandinavia, which seems to hit all the right progressive notes on the environment, foreign policy, social and economic equality and beyond? The Scottish utopians’ latest production, the “Common Weal” project, is the most popular Nordic aspirational paper among the Scottish middle classes and many of the pro-independence left. These projects have a firm basis in anti-Thatcherite nostalgia, alongside a passionate fidelity to the Nordic model. Anti-Thatcherism and Nordicism cannot exist independently of each other in Scotland. The myth of Scots-Nordic social democracy, far from its vaunted image as the Brave New World of capitalism with a human face, is an anachronism, an agonising reminder of that abandoned future that expelled its last desperate breath for us in 1979.

The Common Weal’s idea of the Nordic model confronts us as the end (or containment) of history, an indefinite time-out from historical struggle and transformation, precisely because it exists in their rhetoric as if history has ended. It offers no significant analysis of the historical conditions for the emergence of their chosen utopia, nor does it place Nordic success within any kind of historical trajectory. If it were to do so, two things would immediately become clear:

1. The top-down imposition of a Nordic model of welfare capitalism in Scotland is as impossible as the time travel that would be necessary to produce it authentically. The sheer political will of thinkers like Robin McAlpine and Pat Kane will not suffice as a placeholder for the decades of class struggle that created Sweden’s Folkshemmet as a compromise between workers and capital, nor will a ‘Yes’ in 2014 approximate the conditions of relative prosperity in which that compromise was able to occur.  There is no significant link between the development of the British and Nordic economies other than that which binds us more generally to western capitalism, which has spawned a range of different models.

2. The Nordic model, like every other model of capitalism ever, will not last, even in its parent countries. Our attempt at social democracy lasted as long as the Golden Age of British capitalism, which ended in the late 1960s to be replaced with terminal decline. The same trajectory, albeit delayed, applies to the Nordic states, whose increasingly globalized economies are already making significant concessions to neoliberalism. Sweden has been cutting taxes and benefits over the last seven years, with the right-wing rhetoric of “individual choice” being used to justify an increasingly market-centric agenda. In Denmark, corporation tax cuts are being funded by cuts in student grants and unemployment benefits. Norway looks set to go the same way, with the centre-right opposition on course to win elections later this year.

We should therefore question the very desirability of Nordicism itself: with our planet approaching a terrifying ecological crisis and capitalism mutating into new and more insidious forms, dare we rely on something which is eroding in front of our eyes? Far from Scandinavia’s quiet success becoming a model for the rest of the world, it is China’s aggressive, state-driven capitalism that looks most likely to dominate the next stages of global history.

There is in fact something distasteful about the Nordic model, even at its most attractive – a comfortable exclusivity in the face of upheaval, a model that profits from global capitalism but keeps a visible distance from the accompanying dirty work of imperialism, environmental degradation and exploitation of the poorest countries. This is the essence of nationalistic moral containment, a satisfying illusion of redemption for our volk from the horrors of the economic system that brings us riches. This pick and mix of the nicer parts of Nordic culture ignores recent evidence of social degeneration. What about the rage that burned over a hundred police cars and shocked neighbourhoods in Sweden this year?

If we peer through the smoke of these vague ideals, a more concrete but equally fantastic symbol from our own history emerges: the unicorn. Present on Scottish royal heraldry from the 12th century, the unicorn still features on our coat of arms as a Scottish companion for England’s lion (some nationalists will undoubtedly take masochistic pleasure in noting what appears to be a chain securing the unicorn to the British coat of arms, while the lion stands free). Is this beautifully impossible creature not an appropriate metaphor for the predominant ideology of the nationalist left? Positioning itself against Mike Russell’s infamous programme for an independent utopia of free markets, low taxes and low wages, the Common Weal and its supporters are pursuing an equally absurd fantasy – the Nordic ghost of ‘45, rendered transparent by our knowledge that it has died already, in front of our eyes… But in a moment of desperate escape from that grief, Scotland’s social democrats believe their lost love to have returned. The cheap joke of this paragraph is that  the alternative to “Grasping The Thistle” must not be the ambitious but hollow “Riding The Unicorn”, embodied by the Common Weal. Overcoming that impotent binary requires the exorcism of a few ghosts and the slaying of a few demons, of which social democracy ought to be first and the überThatcher second.

It is not the mere combination of an ideology and an election – in this case, independence as the Nordic Thatcher – that will alter the direction of history, but a conjuncture of historical factors. Or, as Marx put it more eloquently:

“Men make their own history, but they do not do it as they please. They do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

An analysis of Scottish, British and global historical conditions, including the development of capitalism and the struggle of economic classes, is necessary for any particular vision to be a realistic and effective alternative to the status quo, either within or outwith the union. The likelihood of this analysis producing a Nordic solution is akin to that of driving up the A9 and ending up in Stockholm.

Rory Scothorne

18 thoughts on “Riding the Unicorn

  1. A wonderful piece of writing. I’m going to post the link on Bella Caledonia’s latest about Stories and Myths –
    as there are many connections.
    A big question arising for me from this is to ask what is the positive alternative to the small-minded and not credible Yes/No stories? Critiquing others is essential but we do need to remember that other Marx quote about the need to change the world…


  2. Hi Tam, thanks very much. I agree entirely – but without the “concrete analysis of concrete circumstances,” efforts to change the world will be little more than aimless, spontaneous tinkering. It’s not just our “stories” that we need to understand, but a real sense of history and where it’s taking us (or where we can take it). I think there are two groups who are really trying to grasp both ends of the task – producing that concrete analysis, and then asking: What Is To Be Done? – one is here, where we’re trying to develop and assert a radical alternative to the nordic/social democratic narrative. The other is the Red Paper Collective, who nonetheless seem to be a little too caught up in Labour’s Westminster fetish (see here https://mairnorarochwind.wordpress.com/2013/07/23/labours-parliamentary-malfunction/). On both sides of the debate at a more general level, there is too much assertion and idealism going uncritiqued – the breaking of that deadlock through ruthless criticism is in itself a necessary part of changing things. Let’s also not forget – because I recall comments you made a while back – that rejecting all possible alternatives to out-and-out “revolution, nothing less!” is not always a constructive position to take. Lenin’s pragmatism should be heeded – he understood full well that the pursuit of certain local or “reformist” demands are sometimes necessary as part of a wider radical programme. We can understand when this can apply only through a comprehensive understanding of our present situation and its historical context.


  3. I think I recognise in myself that state of mind you are writing in and from, where the flaws in someone else’s analysis become very clear, and you just want to take it all to shreds and say “look its not as good as you thought it was, in fact its counter-productive, it’s wrong” . . . I do that too.

    But that often misses the point that thinking is an exploration, writing is a relationship, and it may be better to meet those who are on your side, the side of social justice, by seeing their strengths and why others are welcoming them, before also offering warnings and food for thought.

    That said there is much food for thought in what you write: above all, the fact that what we need now as we plunge towards an ecological (and therefore social) abyss, is something utterly radical – we either wake up pretty fully from our system-induced desire for more, and our system-induced need to be right and prove others wrong, and relearn how to relate respectfully robustly and raucously to all those parts in each other that cares, and relearn how to resist the disparaging exploiting pushing to the top parts in each other, or we plunge off that abyss.

    But some specific questions:

    Who is asking for the “top-down imposition of a Nordic model of welfare capitalism in Scotland”?

    Surely people are looking for hope, for a way of expressing their desire for a just and compassionate world, and the way Common Weal is welcoming ideas and examples and suggesting we think for ourselves, including the thoughts you are putting down here, is really really welcome after the stagnant trio of Thatcherism, Social Democracy sold out, and a Marxist absolutism that is so certain it is right and that none should act unless they have intellectualised everything.

    Who thinks that it is “the mere combination of an ideology and an election. . . that will alter the direction of history”?

    Surely people are sensibly trying to make use of a rare opportunity not just to vote Yes but to making that change one that goes way beyond the nationalist or socialist or any ‘ist’ and instead making it one that can inspire and help us slow the juggernaut as it heads to the cliff of ecological collapse.

    Yes, every moment is born out of “a conjuncture of historical factors”, but if we are to make this moment rather than be slaves to those ‘factors’ then we need to be able to take risks and dare and hope and be pragmatic and be visionaries, and dare to be ridiculed by those who forever claim to know the truth, and never seem to take action themselves.

    Maybe I am wrong, but I really doubt that Robert McAlpine, Pat Kane and others contributing to Common Weal are suggesting the kind of stagnant ahistorical Nordic model you present here. My understanding is that they are adopting what you describe in your reply to Tam as Lenin’s pragmatism. They are demonstrating that there is an alternative, and one that is finding purchase, and usefully undercutting the neo-liberal fantasy. What you are offering here are really useful reflections on why that alternative needs to be more radical, but the fact that Common Weal is one part of the movement that is helping people to be brave enough to withstand the lie that there is no alternative is a reason to welcome it.

    Moving beyond it is to be welcomed, but I’m still left wondering why you and I and so many others so often adopt such an adversarial tone that tears into those closest to us in a far sharper and more bitter way than the way we respond to the thinking and writing of those perpetuating systems of injustice? Understanding the ‘factors’ who berate and scold from within us, and burn us from feeling at home in ourselves and with others, may be as crucial as understanding those external ‘historical factors’, and may help us develop the light and deep heartedness we need to pull through.


    1. This article hits the mark, what it requires is a deepening, and a commitment to doing the hard work of building not only a counter narrative, but a concrete counter power. Where on earth is that to come from?

      The problem is that the Common Weal, as it stands, is not an alternative – it is only a defence of a missed opportunity. It is much the same as when some say “look what we could have done with all those oil reciepts!” Well, the concrete situation is that the oil is largely gone, and we’d all be better off if it had been left in the ground. As a rehashing of Beveridge its not even farce, but the continuation of the tragedy into a new century. I’m waiting for someone to propose building phalansteries.

      I’m sure “people” are looking for a receptacle into which they can pour their aspirations and desires – this is exactly what we have to stop them doing. The neccessary political changes will have to be *made* by that “people” rather than delivered.

      In the darkest moments it is clear that the best argument for independence is that it would solve one set of contradictions – the British state, historically a bulwark both against and on behalf of the British proletariat – in order to set into relief the desperation of the larger contradictions of a truly global regime of accumulation. A resolution of the local demands in order to approach the problems on a systemic rather than parochial scale, without any orientation to a wider radical programme. Accellerationism at its best.

      It seems we will have to deal with what comes next, only when it is the next thing to come. It would be useful to get, as you say, a proper materialist critique on the go. At least then we might know whats in the soup.


  4. Why adversarial? Because the utopian proposals don’t resonate for the great mass of people. Too many people say they can lead the people to a better place, then call themselves democratic. Left pro-independence advocates often fail to acknowledge the experiences, aspirations and struggle of those whose lives are overburdened by work, or those who, being oppressed by half the population, have to endure and submit to aggression and unfair demands. The Labour Party, many socialists, and parts of the labour movement keep their distance from the proposals not for old-classist reasons, or because of some unvisionary pessimism, but because the vision does not offer the kind of prospect that seems real to working people or their representatives.

    Good alternatives arise not from a few well-directed ‘actions’ of self-proclaimed anti-neo-liberals, but from institutional reform through which people can challenge the kind of basic exploitation that is often concealed by a social democratic consensus. We mustn’t permit this consensus to emerge as the sole herald of left-nationalism, holding aloft concepts like ‘common weal’ and ‘justice’ which, because they seem exciting, are seen to be useful. There are clear reasons why we have lost the conceptual tools in Scotland to challenge this consensus, not least because the domain of our politics excludes issues of production, economy, work, and labour. To reform these ideas, critique seems to me a good place to start.


  5. I’ll try to avoid entirely echoing the excellent points made by both Cailean and Thomas here. Justin, I think you’re right that we ought not to entirely dismiss those who are to some extent “on our side” – indeed, the trouble with the Common Weal is that it is implicitly a deeply dismissive approach. Without developing the material basis for a radically egalitarian politics – an organised and powerful labour movement – they seek to offer a set of social-democratic reforms around which they hope a movement will coalesce. But radical politics doesn’t simply spring up in response to a radical idea. On the contrary, radical ideas flourish *in* the movements that define themselves against the present state of things (emphasis on *things*, not just *ideas* like ‘neoliberalism’). A simple analysis of Scotland today indicates that this kind of movement is yet to emerge. The independence movement is not particularly radical at the moment, defining itself against Westminster (or the ever-threatened überThatcher of Westminster) rather than the economic and political system which, with the right ‘ideology’ and the right proximity to the ‘people’, most think will function properly. So the Common Weal is dismissive in the sense that, before any radical movement has truly emerged, it has presented it us with a ‘vision’, thus dismissing any alternative direction that a labour movement of the future could take. Without that material basis for a radically egalitarian politics, any ‘radical’ programme hoping for quick success must seek support from the dominant political ‘selectorate’ – in this case, the the Scottish middle-classes with their deeply (small-c) conservative majority (who have nonetheless convinced themselves of their social-democratic benevolence in a masterful display of illusory self-redemption – ‘redwashing’). This is precisely what the Common Weal appears to be doing right now. Such a strategy will rob their approach of whatever radical potential you see in it, precisely because a radical Scotland would be one where the middle and upper classes aren’t in charge.


  6. I have been a bit surprised that the Common Weal paper got such traction. It’s little more than a few cobbled-together elements from the less radical part of the Scottish Greens’ manifestos. (disclaimer: I’ve been part of the team that’s written one or two of those)


  7. Delighted to come upon a blog with such focus and fine analytical prose. But I wonder what either Rory or Cailean make of Tom Nairn’s centuries-long take on how “Big Statism” – needed to facilitate industrial age national expansion – is now challenged by “smaller is better” polities (i.e., Scotland-scale democratic nationalism), which can respond better to the diverse demands of a “polycentric” global market. Here http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/tom-nairn/new-faces-of-nationalism and here http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n09/tom-nairn/make-for-the-boondocks.

    “One difficulty was that the course of what one might call ‘first-round’ industrialisation initially demanded communities of a certain scale — societies smaller than the great empires of antiquity, yet large enough to foster adequate markets, working classes and urban conglomerations. Only there could anything like contemporary ‘economic’ living (something like England’s model) develop — develop, and compete against one another through the rapids of the industrial revolution’s first wave. This explosion in turn favoured an aggressive, often war-like culture: as it came to be called later (firstly in the USA) an ‘ethnic’ way of life where both families and acquired tongues and put ‘country’ first, instilling convictions of what Ben Anderson would later define as ‘Imagined Communities’.”

    “One consequence was the intensity and passions inseparable from the disruptions of ‘progress’ and well-being. These gave meaning and a sort of equality to growing masses of people; but also in their wake lay imperialism and world wars — and then, attempts at State-fostered development far removed from the ‘civil society’ originally promulgated in Scotland, in both Eastern Europe and areas of the Third World.”

    “Only after the Cold War would such high-pressure strategies diminish in intensity: the ‘-isms’ have slackened at last, to become more a matter of choice and ambition: the recognition, rather than the enforced adoption, of variety and life styles. The great good fortune of the British-Irish periphery is its return to affirmation under these newer conditions. They now have some claim to represent the imagined communities of another, emergent generation, one that benefits from post-1989 alterations of climate and general outlook.”

    “So the 2014 vote could be a significant contribution to this incoming wave, more about the future than about the past — a future reaching out beyond the archipelago at the same time.”

    Or are we now to call Tom Nairn a “bourgeois nationalist”?


  8. Thanks for your response Pat. I remember reading Nairn’s review of Negri/Hardt a while ago and chuckling to myself – for all his condemnation of their “spiritualism”, is he not ultimately peddling the same deterministic spontaneism as them? Where Negri and Hardt see the “multitude”, Nairn substitutes the “outward-looking” nationalists – both are idealised as some new force against capital, with an innate drive to counterbalance it.

    So, the Nairnite argument goes – globalisation has produced this progressive nationalist reaction against it, and if we give this reaction a quiet nudge along the way it will naturally produce a sphere of altermondialiste containment. This is an extremely risky argument to make. What are the forces in the nationalist movement that can really challenge the impact of capital – global, European, British or Scottish – on people’s working lives? Where, in the supposedly coherent unit of the nation-against-the-world, is the space for struggle? Will class be magically suspended as we fight valiantly against the encroachment of “Empire”?

    What we end up with is a left-nationalist consensus that, by its self-satisfied nature, suppresses any efforts to resolve the central conflict of our own society, which is no different from the central conflict of globalization – between workers and capital. We don’t believe that exploitation and inequality can be fought by a national struggle to assert the “common weal”. We think it needs to – and only can – be fought by a more confrontational politics rooted in the economic relationships of people.


    1. “Only after the Cold War would such high-pressure strategies diminish in intensity: the ‘-isms’ have slackened at last, to become more a matter of choice and ambition: the recognition, rather than the enforced adoption, of variety and life styles. The great good fortune of the British-Irish periphery is its return to affirmation under these newer conditions. They now have some claim to represent the imagined communities of another, emergent generation, one that benefits from post-1989 alterations of climate and general outlook.”

      May Nairn’s “incoming wave” not be a tsunami?

      Surely, in a simplistic way, the post-1989 “general outlook” is a new muscular liberalism – or libertarianism – along ‘heroic’ 19th century lines. Pushing us back to a point prior to the rise of powerful collectivist and nationalist ideologies, and giving us a more generalized ideology of self-fashioning? Or as the quote says “choice and ambition” – these are the buzzwords by which my generation is to take responsibility for the systemic lack of horizons beyond that which says we should have the ambition to use our choice to decide which law firm to intern at, which fast-food restaurant to work in, which bedsit to inhabit.

      I’m not optimisitic about this idea that the slackening of ideology, and new disruptive state formations, as being anything other than in the service of the new mode of accumulation. We seem to believe that because we have IKEA, and can order JIT manufactured consumer goods (even with our names inscribed on the back!) that this is somehow a fundamental shift in the mode of production. It is not – what has changed is the exponential mass of commodities available, and the new identities are often merely accumulations of those commodities in order to construct some provisional image of a self. Its the 70s and 80s DIY ethos returning as the corpse of itself, perfectly rehabilitated (like oppositional sexual identities have been reconfigured by their absorbtion via “equal marriage” etc).

      I am terrified that we are sleepwalking into imagining independence as the liberation of an “imagined community”, where we all get the chance to sing the songs of ourselves, mayflies during our allotted time, and drying up in call-centres.


    2. I don’t think class is “magically suspended” in the Common Weal proposals – you’re creating a straw target, Rory. Rather, it seems to me that its emphasis on strong new regulatory regimes, or major new national institutions, is a response to the consistent radical-reformist pressure of the labour movement in Scotland over many decades. Remember how involved the STUC was in the constitutional struggles of the last 30 years; note also that Common Weal comes from the Jimmy Reid Foundation, whose “Alienation” speech as Rector is an eloquent exemplar of Grundrisse-era Marxist thinking.

      For example, Common Weal suggests that we could have a National Investment Bank, as the next-step response to a purely recuperative nationalisation of failed banks. If we think of the urgent need to prioritise Scottish development in smart-grid and local energy generation infrastructure – a planetary necessity that even the worker-capital struggle might admit to – what is the objection to building a “left-nationalist consensus”, under conditions of the early years of nation-statehood, for such an institution?

      I do think that “Labour for Independence” – the concept, if not necessarily the existing entity – should find its authentic voice in IndyRef, around core issues of the quality of work, the nature of recompense, the regulation of the labour market, as outlined by Cailean’s article. I just think it would be much better for that critique to “envision its real utopia” (as Erik Olin Wright puts it) in the context of a worker-friendly Scottish nation-state, enable by a sophisticated democratic process that could place the forces of labour (and of environmentalism, I also hope) in a central position, by the first indy Parliament in 2016.

      Better this than, in my view, futilely pining for a Westminster take-over by a Labour Party which will magically transform into a left government, bursting out of the neo-lib budget-and-workfare carapace constructed by Balls, Byrne and others.

      And for all your chuckling over Hardt/Negri’s capital-letter grandiosities – Empire, Multitude, etc – I do note you’re a wee bit guilty of this here too (The Castle, the Unicorn). We’re all nominalising to get our moment of traction on the totality of the indy situation: it generates a target to launch towards, at least. But let’s be a bit fallibilistic about how we go forward with our critiques.

      FWIW, I still do think Manuel Castells provides the best framework for thinking of how a national polity can negotiate, moderate and push towards reform a networked globalised capitalism. If Scottish independence isn’t a “project identity”, in his terms, I don’t know what it is (other than Habermas’s “constitutional patriotism”, which also works). I advert to Castells a bit in this: see http://www.thoughtland.info/2012/12/unstated-critique.html


  9. […] critique. A Labour-identifying-but-indy-supporting group of young activists (writing in the blog Mair Nor A Roch Wind) have accused it of displaying some of those classic corporatist consensus-building tendencies that […]


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