In your recent editorials, you note that the left of the SNP, including John Finnie and John Wilson, has departed. Although the editorials didn’t say it, it’s no coincidence that they’ve both left for the Scottish Greens, and indeed both will be candidates for the party in 2016.
Where else would they go? The Greens have been the SNP’s only constructive critics from the left, with an unmistakable agenda – it’s localist where the SNP is typically centralist; it’s practical and redistributive where the SNP gets by with words about austerity (local government finance being the most obvious example); it’s anti-authoritarian when the SNP is still too fond of data-gathering; and it’s imaginative, through policies like a fans’ right to buy their football clubs.
On independence, as the SNP promised a Scottish monarchy and proposed a currency option which handed Westminster a veto over the referendum, the Greens argued for our Scottish own currency and for a vote on a proper democratic Scottish republic.
The Greens will also go into the next Holyrood elections as the only consistently left party with seats to retain and a base to build from, and with two (or four, to include the Johns) MSPs whose contribution to the referendum was substantial. There is now a substantial opportunity for the party to grow much further, both inside the institutions and in communities across Scotland.
In overall numbers, of course, the SNP have had the largest surge, but in percentage terms the Greens have grown like no other party in Scottish history, from around 1,200 members a year ago to almost 9,000 now. While those who seek to drag the SNP or the Labour party to the left have my gratitude, as do those who wish to elect left MSPs from other groupings, the reality of the year ahead is that a larger group of Green MSPs holding the balance of power remains by far the best prospect of left change in Scotland.
James Mackenzie, Edinburgh
Owing to an unfortunate editorial change to my article in the last issue of Scottish Left Review (June, no. 87), Common Weal, the organisation (CW), was conflated with the concept of ‘the common weal’. The latter antique expression can mean ‘the common good’ or ‘society as a whole’, rather as the British Commonwealth refers to a benevolent grouping of real people(s), and ‘the common weal’ meant the common people and their interests under medieval kings, in both England and Scotland – whereas, Common Weal, the organisation, is simply a 2-year-old political movement in Scotland which I support. My article was about how we in that movement could promote the ideal of a common, egalitarian state of well-being for Scottish society under conditions of independence -and how that ideal draws on, but does not depend on, some theoretical ‘Nordic model’. As I also pointed out, our common weal in Scotland must take account of the common weal of all humankind; our nationalism must have an internationalist slant. I’m grateful for the opportunity to point out the distinction and correct any misunderstanding.
Peter Lomas, St Andrews
Neo-liberalism: the final stage of capitalism?
Andy Anderson responds to the articles in the edition, arguing for critical support for the SNP.
What is the explanation for the political tsunami which swept across Scotland and is perhaps best illustrated by the results at the recent general election? There is, of course, no shortage of explanations for this, many indeed from the left, as witnessed by the articles in the last edition of Scottish Left Review. But is there a satisfactory one amongst them?
On the left there has been an attempt to analysis the political positions of the different political parties by claims that this party is more ‘neo-liberal’ than that party, as if it were possible for political parties to choose between neo-liberal and non neo-liberal policies like brands on the supermarket shelf. This approach suggests that some political parties are neo-liberal while others, by implication, are not.
The dominant ideology in Britain, including Scotland, today is neo-liberalism. We are able to describe it as the dominant ideology because it has developed from its roots in the economic base of our society to dominate, not only the economy, but the politics, social relationships, culture and thinking. Since it is the dominant ideology, then we find its influence in Labour, the SNP, the SSP and everywhere else. If we did not, then, by definition, it would not be dominant.
Early nineteenth century the German philosopher, Hegel, observed a major political tsunami sweeping through Eastern Europe and noted the old feudal order which had been respected for centuries was being swept aside. He could not understand or explain it, nor could his contemporaries. Hegel defined this phenomenon as the ‘Zeit Geist’ – the spirit of the age. His student, Karl Marx, later brought in what he called a materialist and scientific view to help examine this phenomenon, explaining that a social revolution had been taking place and the dominance of the feudal ideology was breaking down.
Hegel was observing this tsunami, not from its epicentre in France, but from some distance from the epicentre, where the shockwaves were moving out. It may well be that the same thing is happening in Scotland today. We are not at the epicentre of the tsunami which is challenging neo-liberal ideology, but the shockwaves are reaching people here and they are cracking the foundations of neo-liberal ideology.
There is a sound Marxist case to be made for world capitalism being in retreat and neo-liberalism being an expression of its desperate attempt to survive. The struggle to maintain a ‘return per unit’ of capital has not resulted, as Marx expected, in the ‘falling rate of profit’, at least, not in the way he foresaw it. What it has done, faced with the difficulties he identified, is to use the financial system to alleviate the worst effects of the falling rate of profit, by creating the ‘rising rate of debt’.
This centralised ‘financial capitalism’ has not escaped from the core flaw in the capitalist system – it has merely postponed it. Capitalism is now in a boxed canyon with no way out. Its productive potential is still as strong and as vigorous as ever; but its distribution and financial systems are failing rapidly.
Many will say, of course, that this is an interesting, somewhat academic Marxist theory, which most people in Scotland will not even have heard of, never mind agree with. So what has it got to do with the recent general election in Scotland?
The political changes Hegel observed were what Marx later showed to be the effects of the dominant feudal ideology breaking up, in the face of the emerging capitalist revolution from Western Europe. People involved at the time would not have recognised that, or described it in that way.
In the same way people today in Scotland may have valid reasons to distrust traditional politicians without seeing their need for political change as directly relating to a breaking up of the dominant ideology. They may just feel as individuals they’ve had enough of the old politics. Why so many of them should feel the same thing, at the same time, they may not be able to explain. Most political experts did not see this tsunami coming and we are now struggling to explain it. However, if you think about it in the aforementioned way, it is not difficult to understand.
While capitalism itself has a long and strong base in our ideology, the present neo-liberal capitalist ideology is not strongly embedded in our society. It is, in fact, a relatively new innovation. There is also another stronger ideology challenging it on the world stage and helping to expose its weaknesses. Scottish people, like people elsewhere, have seen this and have taken account of it. Political developments, particularly in the last few years, have pushed the ideological issue right into people’s faces and have forced them to make judgements about their ideological beliefs.
Just think about it: we who spend a lot of time working on political policies and ideas are not normal people. Normal people, or most people, do not spend much time thinking about politics but they do take notice in general and share in the dominant ideology. People will notice if big gaps start to appear in the substance of that ideology. They will notice that, even if they do not respond to it straight away.
When I was young, Britain was an important manufacturing country, exporting goods everywhere. China was a massive country distinguished by its poverty. Capitalism was the system which had made us rich and powerful we were told and believed. We were told that a ‘free’ market economy was vital and while it was sometimes very cruel it was also fair. We also understood that if you worked hard you could make a better life for yourself and your family.
While some of us may have been sceptical or even unconvinced, most people bought in to the ideology. After all, we could have a free public health service and a reliable public social security system as back-up. So the 1945-1950 Attlee government, applying Keynesian economic policies, created full employment and relatively high wages so that real incomes rose. It also created the NHS and built the social security system. Against that background, capitalist ideology increased its grip on Britain including Scotland.
However, faced with the demand for a higher return per unit on capital, this did not meet the needs of capitalist development. Keynesian economics was far too re-distributive to comply with the capitalist drive for a return per unit on capital in a production system where capital investment was high and rising rapidly. This required a change and a re-distribution ‘towards capital’ which was impossible in a Keynesian structure. Therefore, Keynesian ideas were undermined and neo-liberalism was introduced.
So neo-liberalism does not have a long base in British society and is associated with Thatcherism. Because of that background there exists in Britain, particularly in Scotland, an attachment to capitalist ideology with a Keynesian flavour. However, that option is no longer viable to international capitalism which is now trapped in neo-liberalism. And, to defend capitalist ideology, only the neo-liberal version is allowed. Hence, the age of austerity.
But what will happen over time, if the main planks of this ideology start to fall apart? What if we start to realise that the ‘free’ market is not fair or equal. If an individual or small business gets into difficulty, they get crucified. But if a big bank or multi-national gets into debt we have to bail them out? What happens if we start to recognise that the future for our children is not safe, that they are not likely to prosper in this society? What happens if we note that in an effort to pay off the errors of the big banks we have to lose income and living standards and our ‘social income’ such as the NHS is undermined?
If the dominant ideology starts to lose its dominance, it is like a bank which starts to lose confidence in its ability to pay out the money it is holding. Once the message gets around that there is a problem, it spreads quickly. A strong ideology can be undermined in a similar way if it starts to break down. That’s what happened to feudal ideology as Hegel observed it and it may be what is happening to neo-liberal ideology in Greece, Spain and Scotland now.
In these circumstances, is it any wonder that politicians who ask us to accept further austerity and to keep accepting the same medicine start to get rejected by people, and that people start to question the ideology they see being advocated by the same ones who want to gain from it at their expense?
The Scottish referendum brought the issues and contradictions in the ideology sharply to the fore. Once this had started to happen, the issue of Scottish independence was added to by other objectives which people wanted to pursue.
The SNP recognised this and under Sturgeon joined the anti-austerity campaign. This distinguished it clearly from the pro-unionist parties, and fitted the growing mood of the people. This explains to me what happened in Scotland in the last two years.
What is interesting is that in England the traditional parties were also losing support, but here there was no alternative view offered. UKIP did the usual trick of offering people a scapegoat to explain their political dissatisfaction. When the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens pushed the anti-austerity line and confronted UKIP in the leader’s debate, not only did they make Farage look stupid but thousands of English voters responded positively to the SNP message of anti-austerity which they had never heard before from mainstream politicians.
It seems to me that the way forward for the left is to support the Scottish Government on a broad anti-austerity Keynesian development programme, which would get wide public backing particularly as it started to produce results such as higher employment and personal incomes, wider social distribution, greater social income and higher government revenues. A broad left movement supporting the SNP government, fighting against austerity measures from the UK Government and keeping the SNP Government on track, could achieve a great deal and carry the people with them.
Now I can hear my Marxist comrades complaining ‘Keynesian economics is capitalist’ and scream ‘we want socialist policies’. Yes Keynesian economics is capitalist, but I make no apology for advocating this. This would be a direct way to immediately advance the interests of the Scottish people. It would improve incomes and help small business and put people into employment and spread opportunity. If we want to fight for socialism we should fight from a stronger base. If our final objective is a democratic socialist society, this would be a good first step on the road to get there.
Andy Anderson is the Education Officer for the Dunoon district of the Democratic Socialist Federation. He is a former miner, soldier and union official who attended Ruskin College and Oxford University.