Yes, But

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By Richard Gunn

I know that it’s late in the day, but maybe it is time to reconsider fundamentals.

In Scotland, perhaps we should support not a YES campaign, but a YES, BUT campaign.

A YES, BUT campaign would (as I picture it) recommend a “yes” vote as our least worst option on September 18th. And – most important – it would support the autonomy of social movements REGARDLESS OF WHICH SIDE IN THE REFERENDUM WON. (By the “autonomy” of social movements, I mean their freedom from all institutional structures – for example, states and corporations. I mean social movements’ freedom to develop in their own interactive terms.)

For me, a focus on the tension – more, the contradiction – between institutions and interaction is fundamental to radical politics. Institutions have a built-in, hierarchical dynamic: they obey an iron law of oligarchy that generates role definitions – role definitions which claim authority and cluster together at the top. By contrast, interaction which follows its own inner logic is unrestricted and unconstrained and in principle free. As in conversation which follows its argument wherever this argument leads, interaction broadens into openness and a non-predetermined world. Thus understood, can institutions and interaction combine? They can. In the real world, rather than in a world of concepts, a range of hybrids can and does obtain. But the combination has an oil-and-water character. Most often, it is institutions which succeed in channelling interaction: they force interaction into patterns which institutionally-approved role definitions approve. Emancipation occurs when, on the contrary, interaction gives the rule to institutions. My proposal is that, if the left loses a sense of the institutions/interaction contrast, the prospect of moving towards an emacipated future is lost.

How does this apply to the debate on Scottish independence? The implications are, I think, all too clear. A nation – even a small nation, even an ethically “good” nation – is an institution. As such, it belongs in an institutional system. A state disciplines its citizens, and it conforms to (and is disciplined by) a larger world order. In 2014, the world order to which states belong is neoliberalism. This point may be developed: whether domestically or internationally, a state is complicit in discipline and coercion. A non-complicit state either is, in fact, complicit despite its protestations – or it ceases to be a state. In the neoliberal world, a state is not merely complicit in coercion and discipline. Courtesy of a barbaric world order, it possesses teeth.

Here, issues which are close to home concern me. An unqualified YES campaign – a campaign without the “BUT” which I favour – celebrates an institution. It celebrates an institution in the sense which I have tried to make clear. This should make us uneasy. It should make us more than uneasy when we find the institution concerned (an independent Scotland) being praised to the skies. Institutional thinking is, I suggest, insidious: all too easily, it may cloud perspectives which should be interactive and open and free. Gordon Asher and Leigh French point to a striking instance of this clouding in their Crisis Capitalism and Independence Doctrines: they point out that a struggle for national independence ‘maintains a referent to state-foundational individualism’. Asher’s and French’s point can be stated in a number of ways. It suggests that, in a pro-national independence campaign, the spectre of institutional thinking appears in the close and intimate space between an individual and his or her self. It suggests that, in a pro-national independence struggle, the individual is pictured in a specific (a specifically institutionalist) way. It suggests that, in a phrase, the distinction between institutionalist and interactive thinking is being blurred.

If Asher and French are right, then all pro-national independence struggles run the risk of becoming institutionalist. In 2014, it runs the risk of consolidating (rather than questioning or undermining) a neoliberal order of things. If the NO campaign wins, then neoliberalism will be safe under Cameron. If the unqualified YES campaign wins, neoliberalism will be safe under Salmond and his friends. Neoliberal co-option is present in the form – the deeply institutional form – that a question about national independence takes. The question which is asked on September 18th is a mystified and mystifying question.

Hence my recommendation: our campaign should not be for YES but for YES, BUT. We should, indeed, vote YES as the least worst option that is before us: no-one in their right mind should give succour to Cameron. But this YES should be a YES, BUT – in the sense that caution and reserve and doubtfulness should be present from the very start. A YES, BUT result refuses to give institutionalist politicians room for manoeuvre – whereas an unadorned YES campaign (or an unadorned NO campaign) operates in institutionalist politicians’ terms. A YES, BUT campaign gives notice that both the notions of Scottish government and Westminster government are mistrusted. Such a campaign warns not merely Cameron but whoever rules Scotland after September 18th that a peace movement, an ecologically-sensitive movement, a movement for social justice and a movement for participatory democracy flourish at a grassroots level. It warns that movements of this kind have their own, interactive dynamic and are in no way are beholden – in their inspiration and their life – to the structures of a Scottish or UK state. It warns that social movements are not merely quangos, or quangos in the waiting, but sites where interaction and emacipation lie.

Both an unadorned YES campaign and an unadorned NO campaign endorse neoliberal positions. By contrast, a YES, BUT campaign reformulates issues in an interactive way.

I end with a comment on the formulation that I have favoured. When I have discussed the notion of a YES, BUT campaign with friends the response has, mainly, been favourable. But two rejoinders have given me thought. One offers a reformulation of my suggested slogan: in place of YES, BUT should we not say YES, AND or YES, NEXT – or, perhaps, YES, THEN? My feeling is that YES, BUT is better – much better – than the rival formulations. YES, BUT remains cautious, and introduces political conditions, whereas the other (more positive) formulations embrace national independence wholeheartedly and attempt to go on from there. I worry that, for the left, national independence is a semi-poisoned chalice – as I have argued. To a dangerous degree, an independent Scotland remains (like a non-independent Scotland) a neoliberal Scotland. If this is so, it is important for us to say that social movements even in a independent Scotland must remain independent from corporations and states.

The second rejoinder that has given me pause for thought is more dismissive. Is the addition of “BUT” to the word or slogan “YES” merely a self-indulgent nicety? In place of YES, BUT or, really, “yes, anything” should we support YES, WHATEVER? This rejoinder gives me pause because it introduces – or seems to introduce – a note of my country right or wrong into current political debates. So far, this note has been refreshingly absent from recent debates on Scottish independence. The circumstance that the note can still be sounded makes it all the more important to campaign for a YES, BUT – rather than for an unqualified YES.



Categories: Commentary

10 replies

  1. A cracking piece – think this one of the most critical and worthwhile contributions I’ve read to debates around voting on Thursday, and the beyond.

    Richard Gunn has a really useful way of framing and orienting a response to the referendum question: “A YES, BUT campaign would support a ‘yes’ vote as our least worst option […] And – most important – it would support the autonomy of social movements regardless of which side in the referendum won. […] Both an unadorned YES campaign and an unadorned NO campaign endorse neoliberal positions. By contrast, a YES, BUT campaign reformulates issues in an interactive way.”

    Myself and Leigh French on ‘Yes, BUT’: ‘While we choose to support a Yes vote – from a position of critique – as our least worst option about which we remain cautious about likely future realities (whatever the result) – as not sufficient and something to move beyond, but sceptically believing that it provides a greater likelihood for conditions favourable to ongoing struggles for ec-social justice – we are under no illusion that ‘Yes’ will per se enable struggles that speak to both resistance and necessary alternatives.

    So voting ‘yes’ but with an awareness of the need for continuing – deepening and expanding, building and evolving – struggles for eco-social justice. Doing so through participation in and engagement with movements – whatever the result next Thursday

    Eco-social justice envisions advocacy and action on urgent environmental issues and “major social justice requirements in a world of predatory economic exploitation driven by market fundamentalism that widens the rich-poor gap while intensifying pollution and waste”, since little will be achieved without movement toward socio-economic justice, and vice versa.

    A Yes vote is not a solution to our contemporary crises – nor is it a new start – rather, it concerns the contexts of continuing present struggles. Something which requires the state-formation processes that are already underway (such as the interim constitution) to be grasped so as to inform ongoing political action.

  2. A welcome contribution in light of the tendency of pro-independence discourse – no matter how inspiring – to veer towards an Obama-lite focus on ‘hope’, which depoliticises the context in which our decision is going to be taken. By extension this also provides a solid riposte to Carol Craig’s recent piece in The Scottish Review arguing for a No vote as the only choice of the informed pessimist.

  3. Wonderful stuff guys,’neo-liberalism’ and all that.
    But surely predetermining how we ‘re gonna run all matters,from the the19th onwards, would have to need a legal majority for YES first.
    Even then that will only be the starting point for decisive and well thought out negotiations.
    18 months would be time enough to make your point(s) and welcome recomendations in how this should be conducted and/or formulated.
    That’s the point ,everyone can participate.
    The YES group is not exclusive.That’s one of the reasons it’s where it is now.
    .Or maybe we should halt the referendum so that ‘YES BUT ‘ can be added as an option? Or what about YES PLEASE MASTER! DAH, DAH ,DAH DAH ,DAH ,DAH DAH ,DAH DAH DAH.LOL.
    Now is not the time to start putting up fanciful projections on how we may proceed to sort out all the world’s problems when that will only detract from the already complicated process for the voter’s- dealing with the most politically negative onslaught in our lifetime- of getting an X in the YES box.
    That must happen first and foremost.
    Then, my freind, I would be delighted to hear all your advice on how to make Scotland’s New Enlightenment a path for all suppressed peoples in the world to follow.
    best regards

    PS ‘ Never take your eyes off your opponent’- Bruce Lee

  4. I think I am more of a “Yes, then” with a bit of “Yes, but”. I’ll fo for “yes, but, then”. Seems more pro-active.

  5. I think I am more of a “Yes, then” with a bit of “Yes, but”. I’ll fo for “yes, but, then”. Seems more pro-active. 😉

  6. My first reaction was to suppose that this was all a bit redundant. For me – and I think for most of the people I know who are campaigning for independence – it has always been “YES, BUT”. It could never be anything else. There was never any notion that a simple YES was enough. Never the slightest thought that it ends with a YES.

    I accept, however, that it is possible to take things so much for granted that we lose sight of them to some degree. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to restate the obvious.

    One concern remains. It is prompted by the phrase early in the article, “REGARDLESS OF WHICH SIDE IN THE REFERENDUM WON”. This seems to imply that there is the possibility of a positive outcome even with a No vote. That it is somehow sort of safe to vote No because there could still be gains for democracy. This is a pernicious fallacy. It assumes that, having gained what it will regard as a telling victory over the forces of progressive change, the British state will be inclined to make concessions. Not in the real world!

  7. Of course there is a tendency to institutionalise and that tendency must and will be resisted.When the majority of the people who live in Scotland vote for independence they will be excercising their will to override the institutions that have served them badly. When they go on to create a Constitution that enshrines the sovereignty of the people they will protect themselves from some of the worst excesses of the institutions that replace them. The fact that the present generation are now so much better informed will work in favour of achieving better government. Nothing will be perfect but I believe that a ‘good enough’ Scotland will be fashioned and that is the best we can ever hope for. The removal of nuclear weapons, the opportunity to decide not to go to war, the creation of a more egalitarian society and the harnessing of renewable energy for the benefit of all are achievable goals for an independent Scotland. They are not achievable in the context of the UK. So let’s set aside the ‘if’s’ and ‘but’s’ and get on with it.

  8. I find the cartoon at the head of the piece ironic. The only tax proposal in the SNP white paper is to reduce corporation tax. While it has hoped for benefits in the long term, its immediate effect is a £500M windfall for the oil companies.

    That’s wealth redistribution for you!

    • Phil –

      Please don’t be guided by the cartoon but read the article underneath. Also perhaps the second section of my ‘Common Sense, Scottish Thought and Current Politics’ – which appeared on Bella Caledonia on 26 July.

      I agree with you entirely on the SNP and corporation tax. (What Seamus Milne says about the SNP etc in his ‘Salmond’s Scotland won’t be an escape from Tory Britain’ – Guardian 11 September 2014 – chimes in almost exactly with my estimation.)

      Many thanks for underlying the irony.

      Richard

    • Those of us not limited by the simplistic thinking of the British nationalist propaganda campaign realise that reduction of corporation tax can make perfect sense as part of a strategy for encouraging economic growth. Only a fool considers corporation tax in isolation rather than in the context of that broad strategy.

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