‘We can afford to be a fairer nation’: a slogan aimed at those who feel the squeeze of post-crash living, who long for comfort instead of late-night shifts. But fairness is a bird’s eye not a cat’s eye view. Seen from below, wealth is like buildings that are grand on higher floors – the grandeur is not on your levels, but it doesn’t exactly seem unfair until you are told that you deserve to enjoy it too.
The nationalist vision of sharing the nation’s wealth resonates most with well off, moneyed folk who are familiar with the higher levels and think a fair society is one where everyone can reach their social heights. This class, the professional and public elite, lap up Richard Wilkinson’s argument that inequality is bad for the privileged as well as the poor. When they hear that it would be good for their own wellbeing if there were less inequality, they sit up and listen. They flatter themselves that so many people, poor or working class people, aspire to be part of their class, and they are happy enough to help people up to it.
Theirs is the SNP’s promised land full of progressive professionals and soft-left lawyers. This class is reassured that their level of living would not be damaged by upwards mobility: ‘prosperity and fairness are two sides of the same coin’. Fairness will not threaten prosperity for those who have already made it, because fairness according to this formula in fact means prosperity – lifting the poor up to the higher levels. And so the social standard of the prosperous class becomes the model for everyone else. Those who lack the means to rise up in society do not look to some ideal of equality, they look to the rich. And as the wealth expands, so the hope of people will grow too. Like the American Dream, being aware of national wealth does not result in anger but in aspiration.
This ideology, to universalise the conditions of the prosperous class, has its own slogan, ‘all of us first’. It wants to lift us all to those grand levels where the comfortable classes live, with their balconies, cheese-boards and sofas. Nordicism in a nutshell, the Scandamerican dream, is the promise of social nationalism that has been critiqued in recent Roch Wind articles.
Levelling up also requires that upwardly mobile citizens are able to reach the great glass elevator. Those on lower levels unfortunately suffer obstacles and barriers to progress. They are hungry, often bitten by breadline living, cold and without the kind of income to afford travelling of any kind, let alone between the classes. Scotland’s new philosophy preaches that we need to offer not some ideal of equality, but rather the help eradicate the ‘social bads’ they live with. To quote Therborn, a theorist of ‘inequality’: “While I am commited to equality as a value, I see no reason to spell out an ideal state of Equality… A focus on social bads, rather than on a social ideal, was… a crucial decision of the path-breaking, Swedish Social Democratic Level of Living Investigations from the late 1960s, later exported to several countries.”
Whilst effective programmes for eradicating ‘bads’ might lack an ideal, a material approach will alleviate social ills thanks to the richer classes’ compassion and willingness to share. This inclusive nationalism, if it works, will ferment solidarity between the upper and the lower classes. When this works its way into the public mindset, we will have almost achieved a final element of this ideology: all of us participating in one nation, aspiring to Michael Sandel’s definition of democracy where “democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share a common life” (2013).
This kind of social-nationalism was the target of Torcuil Crichton’s perceptive article in last week’s Daily Record. We worry that independence will consolidate this social democratic nationalism. Inequality is the absence of shared prosperity.
Therborn says the middle class is the power to which egalitarians must appeal – egging on the people to cry ‘it’s not fair’. For reducing inequality relies on the desire of the middle classes to live in a fairer society (and the belief that we can afford to do so). It relies on their opposition to the wealth of oligarchs (or the ‘one per cent’), and on their aspiration for a rational and civilized society. Each is a feature of social nationalism, which says the problem is not the rich but the very rich. In summary, admiration of the middle class and conviction in its potential for changing society is a central impulse of what Stephen Maxwell called ‘left-wing nationalism’.
So what’s the problem? Why should such a society be enough to put off radicals from skipping blithely towards independence. Our middle classes can carry on their Scandi-navel gazing while working people will rightly see that life in Scandinavia is better than their own living standard. If that’s not class politics, what else is it?
Radical Independence firebrands like to say that a Yes vote will be a victory for the working class. But though they occasionally talk with Marxist rhetoric, they obfuscate the truth that the dominant class in this bid for independence is the middle class. One chief result will be that middle classes will set the pace of society after independence. This is not only harmful for those excluded from it (which is a crucial concern, but not the focus of these comments), but also holds back the whole society. Here is where levelling up and levelling down have very similar consequences, and where, in a society with a dominant middle class, today’s left can learn from ideas of the twentieth century, including from Hayek.
It was Hayek’s notion that the popular public must not be allowed to impose its ideology across society, otherwise society will begin to stagnate. Hayek builds on Tocqueville’s belief that the middle class holds back public thought. When the middle class has accumulated the kind of wealth on which it can settle down – say, because it believes that it is the middle class of one of the wealthiest countries in the world – then social progress begins to halt. It is an concern not so different from Adam Smith’s worry that society, when it has reached a certain level of wealth, begins to wallow in this wealth and become stationary, leading to the decline of innovation and of workers’ wages. Ordinary middle classes do not create real social change but, being content with the state of society, they begin to settle down, leaving workers to smaller wage-packets.
This is why we should not enjoy the ascendency of the middle class nationalism, but should critique it, point out ways it corrupts thought and manners, and work to challenge it. In the face of crude Nordicism, how can we ensure these theorists’ omens won’t apply to an independent Scotland? Whatever happens in September, there has to be the stirring of some new ideas that will challenge the dominance of the ideology of middle class progress that has ascended with this campaign. In the absence of a creative aristocracy that Tocqueville believed drove society forward, we need an alternative agent of social thought and progress, and we need to take care to preserve what we can of the mores and ideas of the class that is submerged as the middle class expands: those of the Scottish working class.
To name such a thing as a Scottish working class is not to claim that it, and only it, will bring about the kind of conflict Scotland needs; but to question whether its political, cultural and industrial power and identity is able to challenge social nationalism. It appears the class is weak, is being seduced into a social partnership system with hardly any bargaining power, and being offered a social wage that is determined by the government rather than set through their own industrial leverage. Nationalism will find workers a solid place in dull civic society, leaving them powerless and making Scottish society stagnant. This is not progressive.
The answer to this stationary, corporate society must come from socialism. Socialism means not just advancing the interests of working people, but taking society forward, not in line with mutual middle class interests, but with the demands of the organised working class, which are qualitatively different from middle class goals. Many advocates of independence who consider themselves to be on the left pay little attention to the interests and the demands of the organised working class. A few dismiss class politics as arcane, others hold trade unions in contempt, while others still say that socialism and business interests are not only compatible but are coherent. They are no socialists, but are charlatans we have to challenge.
We start by proving – as best we can without the power to realise it – that if workers held the power to innovate and direct industry, then as well as accumulating more power and wealth the working class could revitalise society. So who will be the agents? Some who are at odds with the middle class, including eccentrics and socialists, can emerge from the middle class and understand its limits and barriers. They can dream of a better kind of society, better forms of working class control, and a better kind of class struggle. But the ideas that come from the middle class are not enough, for progress must come through organised demands of ordinary working people, as they associate and are represented in society.
The prospects for the organised working class in an independent Scotland, and the space it has in the economy, is therefore a central concern for those discontent with a future spent staring into Nordic horizons. As a starting point, we should admit that class interests have been missing from the independence debate. Too little thought has gone into considering whether the working class in Scotland would benefit from what the SNP offers following independence. Too many Yes advocates deflect this debate, insisting that the vote is not about the SNP’s policy, and that after a Yes vote we can create a society where the interests of the working class have a place alongside those of the other classes (perhaps through forming a new party). ‘No’ advocates are wiser to say that the terms and structures of the initial stages of independence will do much to determine the direction of Scotland and the place of the organised working class within it.
This debate is what Roch Wind intends to explore over the coming weeks and months. Central to this exploration will be the terms and structures of the SNP’s plans for industrial and economic development, at the heart of which is a weak social partnership model. Given that independence will happen immediately after the next elections in 2016, then, supposing the SNP win, its agenda and objectives will be crucial in establishing the model for industrial and labour relations for an independent Scotland. For instance, the government has said it will establish a National Convention on Employment and Labour relations post-independence. What they say about it must come under far more scrutiny.
None of this is to say the government’s position will define or determine what follows from a Yes vote, but rather that it will be part of the scenario into which the working class movement will enter after a Yes vote. If it seems likely to leave the class weaker, with its power diluted, it would be folly to back Yes. But if the labour movement is confident this scenario is a better one in which to advance the interests and power of the Scottish working class without harming the interests of the working class elsewhere, then a Yes vote makes sense. Preparing to take the opportunities this scenario presents is therefore of utmost priority.