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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Making an exhibition of my book.

Image of iron furnaces from 1853 plus text from book
For the launch of my book - on sale here -there will be an event and exhibition in September 2014. It will be held at the  Workshop Gallery in Castle Douglas (where I live in Scotland). The gallery is attached to my brothers’ furniture restoration/making workshop.

The plan is to illustrate the themes of the book with a collection of graphic images. I have done a quick trawl through images I have but they will need to be whittled down to 12 or so. There will also be some of my daughter Elizabeth’s paintings. Elizabeth designed the cover image of my book.

The chapters in the book began life as a series of blog posts for Radical Independence Dumfries and Galloway. Reading through them in print there are three phases of history  present

I. Deep history
This  phase runs from the origins of feudal land ownership in Scotland a nearly  thousand years ago when Scots kings borrowed the idea from the Normans in England. This phase carries on through taking in the Reformation, the ‘English’ civil war, the Jacobite rebellions, the Scottish Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and  reaches the present with the idea that the aim of Scottish independence is a democratic revolution .

2. Modern history
This phase covers the past 40 years. The argument here is that the radical possibilities of the 1970s, which could have pushed the post-war social democratic consensus towards a more sustainable society through a combination of social, economic and ecological justice, were  blocked by a neoliberal counter-revolution. More than blocked, the radical possibilities were actively suppressed. The problem here is that I link together what were quite separate ‘alternatives’ at the time- for example punk and the proto-Green radical technology movement .

3. Immediate history
This is where I am responding to, for example, Nigel Farage of Ukip being run out of Edinburgh last year. It is where I try to bring  the deep  history and modern history phases into alignment with the as yet unknown outcome of the Scottish independence referendum vote on 18 September.

To overcome the ‘too long, didn’t read’ problem, the text of the original blog posts is broken up by the insertion of images every 500 words or so.  Although there are illustrations/images in the booklet there are far fewer. The idea of the book launch exhibition is to re-illustrate the book  with a set of powerful/striking images.

Here are some of the possible exhibition images,

From the 'School Kids Oz' 1970

South Scotland Bio-sphere Reserve

Stop the City

Nigel Farage plus Sex Pistols/Jamie Reid graphic

Wind farm


Airds Moss, Ayrshire- monument to Richard Cameron and his followers
 killed after declaring war on Charles II in 1680.

Tipping the Slag by Edwin Butler Bayliss 1870-1950

Coal miner working narrow wet seam, Lanarkshire 1950s
The Mob- Kill Your Pet Puppy 1981
Lugar Iron Works 1858- close to Airds Moss above

Original art work for  Mob album
Let the Tribe Increase, 1983

Poll tax riot Trafalgar Square 1990 plus Situationist text

Situationist image on cover of International Times no.26.


Sunday, August 03, 2014

The freaks attacked capitalism where it hurt.

Did you believe in the idea of an alternate culture whose evolution could undermine and finally break the stranglehold of capitalist death culture on our planet?

From The IT archives  Article by Mick Farren 10 February 1972 It Vol. 1 No. 123

Did you believe in the idea of an alternate culture whose evolution could undermine and finally break the stranglehold of capitalist death culture on our planet?

Did you also believe that the situation of a minority holding authority and deciding the behaviour of the rest of us was a destructive one?

Did you think that a society that was sufficiently plural to contain a number of different beliefs existing in harmony was a preferable situation to a regime that permitted little or no variation on a single lifestyle?

Did you ever express the idea that a person should be free to do what she or he desires providing it harms no one?

Did you feel that social change and a change for individual consciousness was so linked as to be indivisible?As you read this are you feeling embarrassed about the fact that a lot of these concepts are naïve hangovers from flower-power?

This embarrassment could be the result of a trend in underground media that has lately made it fashionable to dismiss the good ol’ hippie idealism as childish and impractical, and suggest a concentration on solid, sensible adult political solutions.The retreat from a hippie, illogical revolution to solid Marxist Leninist good sense is possibly another symptom that social change toward a free human environment on this planet is losing ground.– a symptom similar to finding too many people too wrecked on downers to even think.– similar to us all getting drawn into various consumer capitalist shucks.– Similar to the increasing poverty in freak communities everywhere.

The freaks attacked capitalism where it hurt. (You who are laughing at this statement should now explain to yourselves why our rulers bust hippie rags like Nasty Tales and Oz and not, say, the Socialist Worker). The capitalist system is unable to cope with the active freak on any level. It can be the level of the lone Viet-Cong who rode into Saigon on a motorcycle, machine-gunned a lot of US officers and split, or it can be the level of a bunch of freaks who, stoned on acid, start painting the High Street dayglo.

The system which works on a killer logic is mortally afraid of the freaky, joyous act. They are afraid of homosexuality because it is an act of love, of joy that has no hypocritical bullshit about families, children and apple pie. It’s joy, and that’s it, and so it had to go.The first response of our rulers was to repress the freaks with physical and psychological brutality.It was failure.It merely brought us together and gave us strength and energy.Then they tried to contain us by destroying our energy.And they are getting more successful every day.All God’s children having clap should not demoralise us, but it does, it is as though we had been promised it was going to be easy.

Capitalism, over the last five years, has made great efforts to replace most manifestations of freak culture with sad, rip-off imitations that seek to destroy communal energy and isolate the individual. They also demoralised us by deceiving us into judging the products of our own culture by capitalist standards.If a rock festival attracts a million people who watch a whole bunch of superstars but feel isolated and lonely, it is generally acclaimed as a success. A festival where ten thousand freaks show up, watch other freaks make music, get high and joyful, is put down as a failure.A band like Emerson, Lake and Palmer seek to impress the audience with the fact that they (the audience) lack the ability to do what the musicians are doing: their end product is that the audience feel inferior and isolated. (Think about the groupie reaction and read that again).A band like David Peel and the Lower East Side seek to impress the audience that any one of them are able to do what the band is doing. The audience can take part and create a total joyous event.The problem is that we are encouraged to view ELP as a success and David Peel as a failure.

We are being forced to think of our culture in commercial terms.We are being re-conditioned to think like capitalists.Even concepts like success and failure are being used to undermine our confidence that we are able to organise our own culture and society.Say you wanted to provide the freaks in your neighbourhood with some of their material needs; so you want out and conned some old capitalist to put money into a "hippie store" in the hope of his making a load of bread. Say the store went broke in six months because you had been giving the stock to people who had need of it.Would that be success or failure?The only person who could call it a failure would be a capitalist.

There is a fashionable saying: - Freaks can’t get anything together. It was invented by the system to bring you down.When you are down, the system has another set of answers: -Here, man, have some downers. Here, man, get into sensible, serious politics. Here, man, buy a Grand Funk album.Have you ever had some far out idea that your friends have laughed at and called you crazy? Have you felt frustrated because of it? Your friends are reacting to this kind of pressure.To be called crazy should be a compliment.Blow up a bank as a revolutionary protest or blow up a bank to see the flash? Or does it matter?

The system seems very afraid of colour, of flash, of high joyful energy. It is afraid of people coming together. If you hide in your pad or freak ghetto, if life becomes drab and quiet, it means the pigs are winning.A new summer is coming and it can either be a hard time or a series of weir, colourful, joyful events that jar the confidence of straight society.They may react in hysteria and fear. It will require strength.It will, however, generate it’s own energy and strength once it begins.

If it does not begin, we move closer to being parasites on the system, begging for crumbs, dependant on them for our food, homes, clothes, music and our very lives.We come closer to accepting the drab, lonely, frightened existence of our parents. We will join the system that is killing our planet.The stoned fantasy is in vain, unless it becomes the absurd reality.

Remember Fudd’s First Law of Opposition: - That which is pushed eventually must fall over.

Friday, August 01, 2014

The effect is shattering

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fields, Factories and Wind farms-order now

Fields, Factories and Wind Farms.
Available for £5 including  post and packing from Radical Independence Dumfries and Galloway

And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars. "And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth."  
                    Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Early last year (2013), Lucy Brown got in touch to ask if I would be interested in joining the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) in Dumfries and Galloway. Lucy had been reading  and enjoying Greengalloway with its eclectic mix of local and countercultural themes. I thought ‘Why not?’ and said yes.

Over the past 18 months, as well as giving several talks to RIC meetings locally, I have written many posts for the Radical  Independence Dumfries and Galloway blog. ‘Fields, Factories and Wind farms’ is a collection of edited  -by Kevin Witt- highlights from these talks and blog posts plus (last article)  a talk I wrote for an academic conference on contemporary anarchism . A version of the same article also features in ‘Tales from the Punkside’.

I had a test pressing of ‘Fields, Factories and Wind farms ’(the title is inspired by Kropotkin’s ‘Fields, Factories and Workshops’) to read over the weekend . Although it is rather random collection of articles, a few connecting themes began to emerge.

One is a very broad theme which starts from the origins of feudalism in Scotland 900 years ago and winds  through  political/ religious conflicts over the divine right of kings to the Scottish Enlightenment and the Age of Reason and ends with the dramatic transformation brought about by the Lowland and Highland clearances and the industrial revolution.

This theme then becomes modern history in the 1970s. The radical politics and counterculture of that era inspired and influenced me as a teenager but were blocked and reversed during the 1980s and 90s. Marxist geographer David Harvey has described this era as a ‘neoliberal counter-revolution’. This is where  things become confusing. Many possible futures seemed to come to end with the election of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1979. Were these unconnected futures, or was there an underlying logic behind them?

At the time  I did not connect the failure of a proposal for Scottish devolution with the failure of the radical technology (proto-Green) movement. I did not connect my interest in the Do It Yourself ethic of punk with the closure of a factory I had worked in due to Thatcher’s economic policies. Even in 1990, when anti-Poll tax protests in London where I was living turned into riots, I did not notice that in Scotland they did not.

Only now by reading back through the articles in ‘Fields, Factories  and Wind farms ’ can I begin to see the connections between  Harvey’s neoliberal counter-revolution and my ‘broad’ historical theme. It is in this context that references to Hegel’s theories of the state start to fit in. Hegel anticipated the emergence of rational states 200 years ago. So far, no such state exists. We live in a world of irrational states pursuing economic gains at the expense of a sustainable future.

Although I only mention it a couple of times, the prime example of irrationality is the failure of states to respond to climate change. This failure is intimately linked to the dominance of industrial capitalism and has been since coal replaced renewable sources of energy 250 years ago. Oil is the main energy source today. Without it the whole machinery of modern life would collapse into chaos. But then it  will anyway thanks to climate change.

The Radical Independence Campaign’s slogan is ’Another Scotland is Possible’. Although RIC is determinedly  non-nationalistic, only voters in Scotland have the chance to choose a different future this September. Even if there is a Yes vote, James Foley and Pete Ramand have made it clear in their book ’Yes- the Radical Case’  that the struggle for another Scotland will be long and hard.

The first Stop the City  protest  took  place  31 years ago this September. One of the organisers was my future wife. She was 21, younger than any of our children are now. She was already a veteran of the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp. In the booklet I quote Rich Cross on the event.

Called on 29 September 1983, to coincide with the quarterly calculation of the City’s profits, protestors were encouraged to take part in a ‘carnival against war’ and deliver ‘a day of reckoning’ for the warmongers and racketeers of the Square Mile. Around 1500 anarchists, libertarians, punks and radical peace activists descended on the City to occupy buildings, block roads, stage actions and swarm through the streets.
Cumulatively these efforts were designed to snarl up the operation of the capital’s financial hub. In an analogue era, long before the City’s ‘Big Bang’, when files and paperwork still had to be physically couriered between companies, the impact of mobs of unruly demonstrators filling the City’s narrow streets could be dramatic. Estimates differed, but the occupation of corporate space interrupted scores of monetary transactions, and drove down the day’s profits. The cost to those demonstrating was significant too: more than 200 arrests at the first STC; nearly 400 at the March 1984 event; and close to 500 in September 1984.

The Stop the City protests are all but forgotten now. ‘When ideology becomes absolute,  the thought of history is so perfectly annihilated that history itself can no longer exist.’ and ‘The spectacle, as the present social organization of the paralysis of history and memory, of the abandonment of history built on the foundation of historical time, is the false consciousness of time.‘ [Debord]

It was against the forgetting, the annihilation, of such histories and the false consciousness of time that I began writing Greengalloway in 2005. The talks and essays in ‘Fields,  Factories and Wind farms’ are a bridge between my anti-Spectacular writings and  current events in a Scotland which the UK’s constitutional experts say  ‘was extinguished as a matter of international law’ by the Union of 1707.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Tales from the Punkside-out now!

I have chapter in this.

An eclectic collection of academic articles, personal recollections, short stories, artwork, poetry and more. An anthology of work about Punk written by the survivors and by those who want the world to see not just the writings of those who were in the bands, but by those who were the supporters of the punk movement. 

Available now for £8 plus post and packing from Lulu. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Practical Idealism: the Common Weal and Civil Society

Common Weal- Practical Idealism for Scotland.

On 30 July 1971 Jimmy Reid, chair of the shop stewards committee at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders held a press conference where he announced

This is the first campaign of its kind in Trade unionism. We are not going on strike. We are not even having a sit-in strike. We are taking over the yards because we refuse to accept that faceless men  can make these
decisions. We are not strikers. We are responsible people and we will conduct ourselves with dignity and discipline. We want to work.

Over the next decade, the UCS occupation was followed by more than 260 worker occupations across the UK. [Alan Tuckman ‘Workers’ Control and the Politics of Factory Occupation’, Haymarket Books, 2011] As well as these occupations, in 1974 the Lucas Aerospace Shop Stewards Combine Committee began working on an alternative Corporate Plan designed to save 3600 jobs threatened by re-organisation. The alternative plan was for Lucas to move out of the military market and begin producing social useful products including kidney dialysis machines, electric cars and wind turbines.

The potential for a radical shift in manufacturing industry from a focus on the pursuit of profit to  production for a sustainable future  was set out by Victor Papanek in his 1971 book ‘ Design for the Real World-Human Ecology and Social Change’,  by David Dickson in 1974 with ‘Alternative Technology and the Politics of Technical Change’ and by Godfrey Boyle and Peter Harper in 1976 with ‘Radical Technology’. As ‘Practical Idealism’ puts it [p.119]

Design and innovation are at the forefront of our hopes for the future. A new generation of designers of all sorts is challenging the old order. Do products have to be mass-manufactured in sweat shops? Do the goods in our houses have to harm the environment in which we live? Must things be designed to wear out? Can’t our communities be planned with good spaces to play in?

These are good questions and taken altogether ‘Practical Idealism’ sets out a range of proposals which challenge and offer practical alternatives to the ‘Me-First’ economy and society we live with today.

Reading through ‘Practical Idealism’, the proposals set out seem eminently sensible and reasonable. The contrast is between an economy based on ‘social provisioning’  and an economy based on ‘social extraction’. Social provisioning is described as ‘the process for taking resources (raw materials and skills) and turning them into things that people need and distributing them to people that need them. Social extraction is ‘the process of taking out of society as much wealth as possible in the shortest time possible with the least investment possible.’ [p.38]

Back in the early 1970s it seemed that social provisioning was the future and social extraction was the past. But then, with election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA, social extraction gained the upper hand in what David Harvey has called the neoliberal counter-revolution. This counter-revolution saw the end of the post-world war two social democratic consensus, when the gap between rich and poor had begun to narrow. Since 1980, the gap has once more widened, returning us to the extremes of wealth and poverty which marked the early stages of the industrial revolution.

In the heyday of the UK as a world power, the process of social extraction was matched by the physical extraction of coal, the fossil fuel which powered the industrial revolution. The fear that Britain’s coal reserves might run out was tackled Stanley Jevons in 1865in ‘The Coal Question’. In his conclusion, Jevons argued against attempts to conserve Britain’s coal reserves for the future.

The alternatives before us are simple. Our empire and race already comprise one-fifth of the world‘s population; and by our plantation of new States, by our guardianship of the seas, by our penetrating commerce, by our just laws and firm constitution, and above all by the dissemination of our new arts, we stimulate the progress of mankind in a degree not to be measured. If we lavishly and boldly push forward in the creation of our riches, both material and intellectual, it is hard to over-estimate the pitch of beneficial influence to which we may attain in the present. But the maintenance of such a position is physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice between brief but true greatness and longer continued mediocrity.

UK coal production peaked at 292 million tons in 1913, the same year that shipbuilding on the Clyde peaked when 756 973 tons of ships were launched. The eclipse of Britain as a great power since 1913 should have led to the reform and re-invention of the UK as a medium if not mediocre nation. The immense wealth which began flowing from the North Sea oil reserves in the 1970s could have been re-invested in the UK’s infrastructure and in the renewal of our manufacturing industries.

Instead the wealth was wasted in a futile attempt to restore Britain’s greatness by reversing progress towards social provisioning through a return to an economy based social extraction. The answer to the ‘oil question‘ was the same as Stanley Jevons answer to the coal question- maximise extraction now.

The Prologue to ‘Practical Idealism’ states that ‘This is not meant to be a case for or a case against independence but only a case for a better Scotland’ [Prologue p.4] but it is very difficult to see how a better Scotland can emerge as part of a united kingdom which is still haunted by the spectre of Stanley Jevons’ vision of ‘true greatness’. For a better Scotland to emerge, civil society must become self-aware, become conscious of itself- of ourselves. ‘Practical Idealism for Scotland’ is a significant step-forward in this process.

Why is it significant? To understand why we need  to go back to an unintended consequence of the Union of 1707- the Scottish Enlightenment. The Union of 1707 created an anomaly which separated political power, now concentrated in London, from Scotland’s intellectual resources - its universities, its Church and its legal establishment. In a development of world historical importance, the Scottish Enlightenment emerged out of this new situation, contributing major advances to philosophy, to political, economic and social theory, to aesthetics and to scientific and technological knowledge.

While Scottish Enlightenment thinkers were keen to distance themselves from the religious ‘enthusiasm’ of the seventeenth century and from Scotland’s medieval past, the  idea of civil society developed by Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith contained elements drawn from pre-Union Scotland. Civil society was held to exist between the private realm of individuals and families and the political realm of the government and the state. Civil society was also the realm of economic activity. From this developed the later liberal and current neoliberal belief that government and the state should not interfere in economic activity.

Translated into French and German, the ideas of the Scots thinkers became part of a European wide enlightenment and also influenced  political thought in what was to become the United States of America. However, the French Revolution led to a reaction against the more radical aspects of the Scottish Enlightenment. So when Robert Burns composed ‘Scots Wha Hae’ in August 1793 during the trial in Edinburgh of Thomas Muir and William Palmer for sedition as supporters of the French Revolution, Burns had to hide ‘the glowing ideas of some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient’ within a song about the Battle of Bannockburn. Muir was sentenced to transportation for 14 years and Palmer for seven.

While Burns was a radical poet, Professor Dugald Stewart was a leading light of the Scottish Enlightenment. But  in 1794, William Craig, a senior judge and Lord of Session, wrote to Stewart asking him to retract a section of ‘Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind’ which Craig believed might ‘unhinge established institutions’. Stewart refused to do so and denied that he was encouraging revolution.

Although the more radical ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment were muted in the nineteenth century, the combination of James Watt’s steam engine and Adam Smith’s doctrine of free trade transformed Britain into the world’s first industrial nation.

In 1818, after the end of the Napoleonic Wars but before the industrial revolution had taken root in Germany, Georg Hegel was appointed Professor of Philosophy at Berlin University in Prussia. Hegel was deeply influenced by Scottish Enlightenment thought, including James Steuart and Adam Smith’s theories of political economy as well as the idea of civil society. However, in Hegel’s version, civil society emerged out the disintegration of the family as the focus of ethical life and in turn a rational state would  emerge out of civil society as the ‘actuality of the ethical idea’. The ethical aspect of the rational state would limit the destructive extremes of wealth and poverty found in a civil society based on economic self-interest.

In an essay on the English (British) Reform Bill of 1831, Hegel argued that the minimal reforms contained in the bill would still leave most of the archaic elements of Britain’s constitution in place. Landowning aristocrats would still dominate a minimal (‘external’) state. This in turn might lead opponents of the status quo to inaugurate not reform but revolution. Hegel died in November 1831. Had he lived he might have developed his political theories to include an active role for the organised industrial working class in the movement from civil society to the rational state. Instead it was left to Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx to adjust Hegel’s political theories to include the proletariat.

Since the 1832 Reform Act and further constitutional reforms which extended the electoral franchise, the British revolution Hegel, Engels and Marx all anticipated has been avoided. Under pressure from an increasingly organised working class, the British state began to become more rational. But since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, narrow economic interested centred on the City of London have ‘re-captured’ the state. Gradually these economic interests have managed to reverse the social democratic policies pursued first by the Liberal party and then by Labour and Conservative governments during the post-war consensus period. In Scotland the response to the Thatcher era was a revival of the idea of civil society. It was pressure from Scotland’s civil society which led to the establishment of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999.

The crisis of capitalism which began in 2008 and the policies of austerity pursued by the UK coalition  government have revealed the limits of civil society and of devolution- without provoking a British Revolution. Instead, with the movement towards Scottish independence, a dramatic solution to the constitutional contradictions of the British/ UK state identified by Hegel in 1831 is underway. This revolutionary reform will cut the constitutional Gordian knot by dissolving the Union of 1707.

In this movement, the active involvement of civil society in the Yes campaign has the potential to create a rational state based on a written constitution as the actuality of the ethical idea. If this occurs it would truly be, in Hegel’s language ‘a world historical event’. However, before this can happen, civil society in Scotland must first overcome -negate- the negativity of the No campaign. To do this civil society must become self-aware, become conscious of its limitations and contradictions and find the will to re-invent itself. Common Weal’s ‘Practical Idealism’ is an essential part of this process.

At the same time, the Radical Independence Campaign have been pursuing a strategy recommended by James Foley and Pete Ramand in ‘Yes-The Radical Case for Scottish Independence’ [Pluto books, 2014]. This strategy involves actively canvassing areas of high social deprivation where voter registration and participation are low. Voters in these areas have become increasingly alienated from the Labour party as it has become part of the neoliberal consensus. By accepting what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’ in the 1970s-that there is no alternative to the re-establishment of the conditions for capital accumulation and the restoration to power of economic elites- the Labour party has become part of the problem rather than the solution.

For the Yes campaign to win in September 2014, the majority of current and former Labour voting Scots will have to be persuaded that an independent Scotland  offers the best chance of achieving their aspirations for a more rational (post-neoliberal) state. But a yes vote on 18 September will mark the beginning not the end of the real struggle to secure Scotland’s future. As Foley and Ramand ask, will Scotland’s elites ‘freely surrender their existing privileges’? Without coercion, will they submit to the ‘common good’? [p. 64]

In Hegel’s model, Scotland’s elites would be compelled to surrender their privileges as part of the process through which civil society, as economic society, gives way to the rational state. The ethical idea of the rational state is that economic activity must benefit all of its citizens, not just an elite. A state in which only a few benefit from economic activity would not be a rational state.

Unfortunately, such absolute idealism runs smack up against capitalist realism. Under capitalist realism a rational state which attempts to minimise the extremes of wealth and poverty is an impossible state. Under capitalist realism, the state does not exist to secure the welfare of all its citizens. It exists to maintain the conditions for capital accumulation and the power of economic elites. But what Hegel argued 200 years ago, looking at the USA and the UK was that they were forms of civil society, not states. That capitalist realism - and the No campaign- cannot imagine the possibility of anything beyond civil society does not mean that a rational Scottish state is impossible. It just reveals their collective poverty of imagination.

To conclude.

Although the Scottish Enlightenment was the product of an intellectual elite, it was an elite alienated by the Union of 1707 from the new centre of political power in London. This distancing led the Scottish Enlightenment to two related modern concepts- civil society and political economy. Conservative reaction to the French Revolution cut short further evolution of these ideas in Scotland and the rest of the UK. In Germany they were developed by Hegel who argued that the limitations and contradictions of a civil society focused on economic self-interest justified by political economy would give rise through reform to a rational state.

Reflecting on the apparent inability of the UK to properly reform itself and become a rational state, Hegel evoked the spectre of a British Revolution. Engels and Marx added a new element to Hegel’s notion of civil society - a revolutionary class struggle. The crisis of capitalism which began in 2008  and the policies of austerity pursued by the UK coalition  government have revealed the limits of civil society and of devolution- without provoking a British Revolution. Instead, with the movement towards Scottish independence, a dramatic solution to the constitutional contradictions of Britain identified by Hegel in 1831 is underway. This revolutionary reform will cut the constitutional Gordian knot by dissolving the Union of 1707.

In this movement, the active involvement of civil society in the Yes campaign has the potential to create a rational state based on a written constitution as the actuality of the ethical idea. If this occurs it would truly be, in Hegel’s language ‘a world historical event’. However, before this can happen, civil society in Scotland must first overcome -negate- the negativity of the No campaign. To do this civil society must become self-aware, become conscious of its limitations and contradictions and find the will to re-invent itself.

Significantly, there parallels between this process and the Marxist concept of ‘class-consciousness’. The Radical Independence Campaign’s contribution to the Yes campaign is an ongoing attempt to re-engage Scotland’s working class communities with the political process, a process which can be described as ‘consciousness-raising’.

Common Weal is not directly engaged with the Yes campaign, arguing that their proposals ‘[are] not meant to be a case for or a case against independence but only a case for a better Scotland’. Common Weal’s proposals have their roots in the progressive ideals of the 1970s, in the movements for industrial democracy, socially useful production and what was to become the Green movement. These movements had the potential to deepen and extend the social democratic post-war consensus but were blocked and then suppressed by the neoliberal counter-revolution.

Shared by both Common Weal and the Radical Independence Campaign is a focus on the recent past which has been dominated by the neoliberal counter-revolution. However, since, neoliberalism has its roots in Scottish Enlightenment theories of political economy and civil society, we should be aware that our debates and discussions about Scotland’s future are also haunted by the ghosts of Hegel and Marx.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

the end of alienation and the revolution of everyday life

 the end of alienation and the revolution of everyday life

Recently I was interviewed for 90 minutes for a research project on punk. The focus was on what influence my engagement with punk /anarcho-punk has had over the past 30 + years. As I was answering the questions I realised that punk/anarcho-punk had not directly influenced my political views. By 1976 I was already a self-confessed anarchist. Although I then, through 1977/8, became fascinated by punk, that interest would probably have faded if I had not met up with the Kill Your Pet Puppy collective at an anarchist [Persons Unknown] meeting in late 1979.

But, as even a brief flick through the pages of Kill Your Pet Puppy shows, KYPP stands apart from both Crass inspired fanzines and straight anarchism. The inspiration for KYPP was derived from the revolutionary aspirations of the surrealists and situationists, mixed with hints of gothic occultism. Looking back, KYPP was /is a potent record our lives and histories against ‘the false spectacular memory of the unmemorable’.

Another side of the deficiency of general historical life is that individual life as yet has no history. The pseudo-events which rush by in spectacular dramatizations have not been lived by those informed of them; moreover they are lost in the inflation of their hurried replacement at every throb of the spectacular machinery. Furthermore, what is really lived has no relation to the official irreversible time of society and is in direct opposition to the pseudo-cyclical rhythm of the consumable by-product of this time. This individual experience of separate daily life remains without language, without concept, without critical access to its own past which has been recorded nowhere. It is not communicated. It is not understood and is forgotten to the profit of the false spectacular memory of the unmemorable. [Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord, 1967, #157]

What we were resisting was our alienation. What we were celebrating were our utopian desires which we took for reality because we believed in the reality of those desires.

Fast forwarding to the present, I was reminded of the situationists when I found this passage in David Harvey’s new book  ‘Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism’.

The traditional Marxist approach to the revolutionary transfor mation to socialism/communism has been to focus on the contra diction between productive forces (technology) and social (class) relations. In the lore of traditional communist parties, the transi tion was seen as a scientific and technical rather than a subjective, psychological and political question. Alienation was excluded from consideration since it was a non-scientific concept that smacked of the humanism and utopian desire articulated in the young Marx of The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 rather than through the objective science of Capital.
This scientistic stance failed to capture the political imagination of viable alternatives in spite of the passionate beliefs of adherents to the communist cause. Nor did it provide any spiritually compelling and subjective (rather than scien tifically necessary and objective) reason to mobilise arms in a sea of anti-capitalist struggle. It could not even confront the madness of the prevailing economic and political reason (in part because scien tific communism embraced much of this economic reason and its fetish attachment to production for production’s sake). It failed in fact to fully unmask the fetishisms and fictions peddled in the name of the ruling classes to protect themselves from harm. The tradi tional communist movement was, therefore, in perpetual danger of unwittingly replicating these fictions and fetishisms. [Harvey, 2014, p. 269]

The situationists’ ‘spectacle’ is our alienation from society, from ourselves. Instead of actively participating in the construction of our own lives, in the making of history, we have become observers and spectators, watching our unlived lives pass before us. Punk- or at least the version I found via Kill Your Pet Puppy- was the negation of alienation. In this version of punk the DIY ethic was applied not just to the making of music or fanzines, but to the lives of the participants. To become a punk was to reinvent yourself as an actor rather than a spectator.

What the Harvey quote implies is that this process was and is ‘revolutionary’ even if traditional Marxists -and anarchists- do not recognise it as such.

Coming back to the present, the political struggle I am engaged with now is one which, unlike punk, is unambiguously  a history making struggle. On 18 September 2014, voters in Scotland have the chance to create a new nation-state. What is interesting about the Scottish independence referendum is the contrast between the Yes and No campaigns.

The No campaign is a top-down campaign. To get its negative message across it relies on newspapers and broadcast media. In contrast, the Yes campaign is relying on thousands of local activists who are organising meetings, canvassing and leafleting in their communities to get its positive message across- supported by hundreds of internet sites. If the Yes campaign wins in September, it will have done so by overcoming voters’ alienation from the political process. If a new Scotland is born on 18 September, it will be a DIY Scotland, a Scotland created by its citizens.

In their attempt to overcome alienation, radical punks turned first to squatting and then to travelling. These moves extended the brief experience of liberation achieved through collective participation at punk gigs.  Through squatting punk became a continuously lived experience, something closer to a counterculture than a music based subculture. Within the ‘underground’ network of squats which extended across London and other cities, participants were able to reinvent themselves as full time rather than part time punks. This movement echoed  that of the pre-punk  radical counterculture.

 In the early seventies, the pre-punk radical counterculture gave rise to the first free festivals. As the number of free festivals increased, by 1976 it became possible to spend the whole summer travelling from festival to festival. By the early eighties, many punks began to adopt travelling as an alternative to squatting. Kill Your Pet Puppy 6, published in June 1983 documented the transition as it described a journey from a punk squat in London to Stonehenge free festival. KYPP was successor to punk fanzine Ripped and Torn which was first published in October 1976.

However, the mass arrest of 500 travellers en route to Stonehenge on 1 June 1985 , along with other events from that year- the eviction of Molesworth peace camp in February and the crushing of the Miners’ Strike- revealed the limits of  the alternatives to alienation. As Margaret Thatcher had proclaimed ‘There is no alternative’. For what David Harvey now call the neoliberal counter-revolution  demanded the forcible re-imposition of alienation.

This is an important point. While the Miners’ Strike fits within a class struggle narrative and the eviction of Molesworth peace camp was part of the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union, the attack on the free festivals and the travellers suggests that the neoliberal counter-revolution was also a cultural counter-revolution, one which was continued through into the nineties when the focus was on acid house raves and road-protestors. So while traditional Marxists may have neglected the importance of alienation [see Harvey quote above], the neoliberals did not. They understood that the hegemony of capitalism depended on eliminating the (by now) punk infused counterculture and its Situationist inspired efforts to negate alienation.

The pre-punk counterculture relied on a combination of  alternative media, including music and its own underground newspapers and magazines, to reproduce itself- with  some help from LSD/acid. The punk and post-punk counterculture likewise was able to reproduce itself  by similar means. Within these countercultures, the alternative media were more trusted than the hegemonic media which demonised the countercultures via a repetitive stream of ‘folk devil / moral panic’ news stories.

It is interesting/ significant that a similar situation has emerged in the context of the Scottish independence referendum. As James Foley and Pete Ramand spell out in their book ‘Yes- The Case for Radical Scottish Independence’ [Pluto, 2014],the driving force behind the campaign for Scottish independence is not nationalism but opposition to the neoliberal counter-revolution. At the same time, while support for independence is strongest among poorer Scots/ people living in Scotland, it is more than a straightforward class struggle campaign. Many non-working class people living in Scotland are also alienated from a UK political structure which is moving further and further to the right. If this group could vote for a UK level form of north European/ Scandinavia social democracy, they would do so. But since the Labour party have become a neoliberal party, this option is not available. Therefore the option of voting Yes to the Scottish National Party’s version of social democracy within an independent Scotland is appealing.

At the same time such potential (former Labour) Yes voters are being turned off by the unremitting negativity of the No campaign. Fortunately the Yes campaign is able to reproduce itself via social media, the internet and thousands of small scale / community level public meetings. The No campaign are unable to match this grassroots ‘countercultural’ movement. What the No campaign can and are doing, through their complete control of the media, is radicalise  the Yes campaign. As the No campaign reveals itself to be a front for the neoliberal State, the Yes campaign is having to confront the everyday reality of alienation.

As the countercultures discovered, the act of self-creation is the negation of alienation. The difference is that what is being created in Scotland is not a large group of empowered individuals, but a new nation. In a talk I gave to Radical Independence Dumfries and Galloway, I argued that the Yes campaign represented Scotland’s civil society which was in the process of creating a rational state as ‘the actuality of the ethical idea’. The phrase is Georg Hegel’s, taken from his ’Philosophy of Right’ (1821). Hegel had borrowed the idea of civil society from the Scottish Enlightenment. Civil society was held to exist between the private realm of individuals and families and the political realm of government and the state. Civil society was also the realm of economic activity.

The idea of civil society emerged out of the alienation of Scottish thinkers from the shift in political power which followed the Union of 1707. Without a Scottish state centred on a parliament in Edinburgh, most of Scotland’s former elite- including its intellectuals- were physically separated from  the new centre of power in London. Without the French Revolution, the Scottish Enlightenment may have eventually nudged the UK state towards a rational form. Unfortunately, reactions to the French Revolution and the later struggle against Napoleonic France saw the rationality of the Scottish Enlightenment as dangerously subversive. Then came the Industrial Revolution which established capitalism as the dominant power, rooted in economic alienation.

In Scotland the impact of industrialisation was immense. For over 100 years, iron and coal were mined to feed the furnaces which produced the iron and steel which  were made into ships and locomotives. These industries are virtually all gone now but,  until very recently, their legacy survived in support for the Labour party. What Scottish voters expected from the Labour party was progress towards a rational state exercising democratic control over the economy. By aligning itself with the neoliberal UK state  as part of the No campaign, a crisis of legitimacy has overwhelmed the Labour party in Scotland. The Labour party in Scotland have been revealed as a conservative organisation, holding back and suppressing aspirations for the democratic control of the economy. Without the deadweight of the Labour party, via the grassroots yes campaign, civil society in Scotland is rediscovering its radical, even revolutionary, traditions.

But is a rational state anything more than an ideal? The way I look at this question is shaped by the problem of climate change. Our knowledge of climate change is scientific knowledge, which is a form of rational knowledge. It should be promoting rational debate about how best to make the transition from economies based on  energy from fossil fuels to economies based on energy from renewable sources. This debate had the potential to begin in the 1970s when advocates of ‘radical’ or ‘alternative’ technology proposed a shift towards renewable energy sources. These proposals were understood to be part of the radical restructuring of society imagined by the counterculture.

The problem then and now is that such a restructuring of society would require an economic system focused on minimal or zero growth- which would make existing models of capitalism, which depend on ‘infinite economic’ growth, impossible. In the 1970s, climate change was an obscure theoretical possibility and was brushed aside during the neoliberal counter-revolution. Now climate change is a reality which challenges neoliberalism. The reaction to this challenge has been an attack on science and rationality. What the attack on the science of climate change shows is that the neoliberal project is an irrational project and that neoliberal dominated states like the UK and the USA are irrational states. Such states, in order to continue ‘business-as -usual’ are prepared to sacrifice the interests, the future, of their citizens for the short term profitability of the corporate elites which have captured these states.

What has obscured the irrationality of the neoliberal/ capitalist world order in the past has been the lack of any absolute choices between the world as it is and the world as it must become. Climate change is an absolute. Global temperatures are rising, the oceans are warming and the polar ice caps are melting. Working back from this absolute, we can re-understand  the radical counterculture (including punk) as a rational response to the absence of a future. However, following Hegel, we can also now see the consequences of the counterculture’s failure to recognise the necessity of rationalising the state. The persistence of irrational states which fail to impose democratic control over capital now threatens not only the heat death of modern civilisation but also the liquidation of capitalism in a drowned world.

On the other hand in all my years as a keen countercultural I never came across the idea of the/ a rational state. Or mentions of Hegel. My discovery of Hegel came via stray mention that he had  read and been influenced by Scottish Enlightenment political economists and social theorists. I have been reading up on Hegel’s political theories about a rational state because part of the discussions about Scottish independence involve a plan to create a written Constitution for the new state. Which conflicts with the more anarchist aspects of the counterculture and also with the ‘independence as a class struggle‘ aspects of the radical independence campaign.

Is it possible to embed social and economic justice with a written constitution so strongly that the new Scotland becomes a rational state rather than an ‘external state’ (Hegel’s term) or neoliberal state?  That a written Scottish Constitution would be full of fine words but the reality of economic power in the new nation would prevail (realpolitik). There are proposals to crowd-source  the Constitution, to involve civil society via a continuation of the Yes campaign in its formation, but unless such participation can be maintained over time, the interpretation and actualisation of the Constitution will revert to ‘experts’, to lawyers and other members of the professional class. Thus the people or citizens of the new state will once more become alienated from  their/our nation. The Scottish state would still be an external state rather than a rational state.

To end, for now, on a positive note, it does seem that the unremitting negativity of the No campaign and its full spectrum projection is pushing the Yes campaign to towards Hegelian ‘[collective] self-consciousness’. This is potentially a revolutionary development which picks-up from the frozen moment of modernity when conservative reaction to the French Revolution stopped the Scottish Enlightenment in its tracks.

I guess that is my next job. I need to write up my research on the Scottish Enlightenment and show the links to Hegel and then on to the present/ near future. I have already covered some of the ground in my talks at Radical Independence Dumfries and Galloway meetings. Quite a challenge to make it relevant though.