What, exactly, is being shot at here?

In the spirit of the guillotine, I will try to make this quick. But the trouble is that James Mackenzie’s response to my recent LRB article is a work of spin. It is comprised almost entirely of misrepresentations and diversions. It is decorated with meaningless gestures towards recognising where we “agree,” or even more vacuously, the claim that I am being “thoughtful.” We are all thoughtful: the question is whether we are full of useful thoughts. Any partial “agreement” is meaningless here, for I know that James already believed the things he “agrees” with; in fact, his whole approach suggests that he found my thoughts anything but useful. Articles like his appeared with tiresome regularity in the debate over independence, and can only be understood as a whole, for they are interventions which serve a single, overarching purpose, and that is to destroy and discredit critics and reassure the waverers. They are a defensive rather than a dialectical exercise. They are carefully written to draw the subject of critique into wave after wave of tiresome and needless rebuttals or explanations, a form of covering fire so that the “left case for independence,” disarmed and disoriented, can drag itself to safety.

But what, exactly, is being shot at here? It doesn’t seem to be my own position — in fact, there is quite literally nothing in James’ piece which disagrees with what I’ve said. The brief characterisation of my argument that he provides is simply false: apparently I suggest that “the Scottish Labour left have seized the moment, and that the 2014 enthusiasm for independence can be diverted from a managerial SNP to a Labour movement which has moved left.”

In fact, my article was a fairly uncontroversial description of how Richard Leonard won the Scottish Labour leadership election, which concluded with the argument that Leonard’s effort to divert the energies of ‘Yes’ into the Scottish Labour Party are a “gamble,” founded on “hope.” I quite explicitly stress that “the national question remains a sticking point.” Basic misrepresentations like this can be cleared up relatively easily. But then the shooting begins with an attack on my critique (now two years old) of the universal basic income. First, by advocating a “workers’ government,” I have supposedly condemned everyone who isn’t a man in a factory banging something with a hammer. This rejection of any broader conception of the working class, such as the “generalised social worker” — a crucial feature of European radical thought since the 1960s, which incorporates the vast world of labour and exploitation that is not linked to a wage — only serves to reinforce, rather than rebut, outdated labourist conceptions of work, value and class. The idea that a universal basic income would inevitably emancipate those who do not or can not be paid to work is terrifyingly naive; so long as the rich are in power, they can turn even the most utopian policy fixes into weapons of discipline and coercion. And if the rich are ever removed from power, then tying our means of subsistence to ‘citizenship’ and the state seems similarly naive about the benevolence of those systems even in a post-capitalist world or anti-capitalist enclave.

By the time my ears stop ringing from these opening rounds, I find that James has discarded one polemical weapon and acquired another: “If offered a choice between independence alone and defeating the class warfare of rich against poor, I am confident that left supporters of independence, whether nationalist or not, would take an end to the kind of capitalism both Labour and the Conservatives have supported since the collapse of the Butskellite consensus.” Despite his complaints about “workers,” James cannot quite bring himself to abandon class after all. Finding his brain in a particularly troublesome knot, he decides to cut it entirely in two. To one side of his brain he delegates the critical faculties: those class-politics types who still traipse dutifully along a British road to socialism don’t understand that “Westminster” is the problem, a Sisyphean trap where “important reforms” may be achieved but are “vulnerable to rollback at any time by a government elected with a minority of the vote or bogged down by peers.”

This is absolutely correct, though it only differs from century-old critiques of reformism insofar as it is a stiflingly moderate variant; from this perspective, it’s not capitalism which imperils our achievements under bourgeois democracy, but the British constitution. “We have elected several Labour governments over the last century, and we still have vulture capitalism, a dying planet, and a moribund democracy.” Now, this might seem like a non-sequitur — at best, it’s just an unusual assortment of historical facts — but you have to remember the guy’s just cut his own brain in two. Nevertheless, the other side of his brain finally pipes up with the thing we’ve all been waiting for: the left case for independence. Here goes: “We’ve never done it, and it might not work.” Oh. “We can either keep trying the same thing over and over again, and each and every time experiencing crushing disappointment, or we can try something new.”

That’s it. It turns out that James’ Gordian slice was inexpertly done, and while the critical side of the brain — the case against Britain — remains entirely functional to the point of being impossible to disagree with, the affirmative side — the case for independence — is barely a dribble of grey matter, slowly but surely trickling out of his ears. The unfortunate fact is that there’s nothing “new” about independence. “We” — humanity, that is — have created several new states over the last century, and every single one have them has been complicit in sustaining vulture capitalism, a dying planet, and not just one but dozens of moribund democracies. Why would adding one more to the list change that?

So to return to the question: what’s he really shooting at? Remember that James’ article is supposedly a “riposte” to mine, and yet my article is almost purely descriptive. I advocate no particular programme, only an analysis of what Richard Leonard might be hoping to do and what his supporters want. So to be clear, the real enemy here — the thing from which James is desperately trying to defend the “left case for independence” — is a factual description of the Labour Party. In 2014, a factual description of the Labour Party basically was the left case for independence. Something important has changed here. Left-wing supporters of independence have popularised a solid — even radical — critique of the British state, which could be a key part of a UK-wide project; but they’ve also risked cutting themselves adrift from any kind of serious anti-capitalist project by valorising a speculative Scottish state — embodied, for now, in the SNP — as the obvious alternative.

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