The Scottish side of history

The world is moving towards more, smaller states. That's a good thing: the Scottish referendum as seen from Tuscany, half a century after Tom Nairn's visit to Pisa.

Mauro Vaiani
7 May 2014

Gramsci - Wikimedia

There is a Scottish side of history and it is the right side. In our age, peaceful separation of formerly integrated political communities is part of a geopolitical grand trend, and the Scottish independence movement belongs to this enduring tendency.

In our research – and forthcoming book, Disintegration as Hope – we argue that, contrary to much theory and the common assumption, the world is not heading towards further, greater political centralization. This is very good news, if one bears in mind that in every case the integration of different territories in a larger geopolitical space has inevitably led to the rise of imperial centers and the decline of exploited and depopulated peripheries. Every England, we could say emblematically, had its Scottish province, from which resources and workforces were drained.

Too many bigger-is-better supporters often overlook the historical fact that totalitarianism and total wars have been the ultimate consequences of centuries of Western agglomeration in ever bigger modern states.

The imperial crisis of big states was foreseen by Scottish theorist Tom Nairn, under the influence of Ernest Gellner’s theory of “grand nationalism” and the anti-colonialist thinking of Antonio Gramsci – which Tom Nairn had early encountered at the time of his university journey to Pisa, Tuscany, in 1957-1958. In the post-Cold War, post-1989 world the pace and the direction of the turn have become still clearer.

Actually, those who have survived total wars, modernity and its contradictions – the gains in welfare alongside unacceptable inequality - and are now living in a post-colonial and post-industrial world, are coping with the rethinking and redistribution of power. Geopolitical disintegration may lead to the creation of a multiplicity of smaller, independent, netcitizen-based communities, which bring with them possibilities of local and concrete fostering of equality and sustainability, responsibility and prosperity, inclusion and peace.

Many people have achieved gains in education, welfare, information, access to international currencies, a global jobs and opportunity market, internet connection, smartphones, free speech, the freedom to organize demonstrations and electoral power. It is highly probable that they will use this considerable power to self-determine their lives, their territories and their common good. It would be surprising if they did not.

And they are very likely to use it peacefully, because the Gandhian lesson has become part of global consciousness. To use Gene Sharp's words: violence is today largely a specialty of imperial centers. They are almost invincible on that ground - as we are seeing in the Syrian drama and the events in Afghanistan, Somalia, Mexico, where imperial mercenaries are artificially prolonging very debatable imperial wars. But this is the subject of another discussion.

The specialty of grassroots, peaceful movements is, in sharp contrast to imperial violence, mass non-collaboration, which in every contemporary, complex society is capable of calling into question every sort of authoritarianism and centralism.

We look then at disintegration with hope. This is not naive optimism but a realistic assessment of the decline of war and violence, that has been confirmed in many studies and reports (most recently by the Human Security Report,, 2013).

The contemporary Gramscian “Prince” used to be a modern, hegemonic, political party. Today this subject tends to take the form of more liquid net-citizenries – wide, inclusive, networks of netizens (net-citizens) - which are coming out as “modern princely peoples”, sovereign in their territories. This evolution is still under scrutiny, but it ought to meet with more interest than opposition.

We are not naively forecasting a proliferation of states and statelets, however, if for no other reason than the fact that so many self-governing territories within bigger states – not only in “liberal” Canada and Australia, but also in “authoritarian” China and Russia – are concretely much more sovereign than many independent states, thus neither needing nor seeking the label of formal independence.

We do not then intend to predict the Scottish referendum results. Moreover, Scottish public opinion is well aware that – in the British pragmatic and elastic constitutional context – the difference between full and formal independence (New Zealand style, for instance) and the so-called devo-max (similar, perhaps, to the Isle of Man's status) is not that great, even if it is important. It does make a difference in the way the country will deal with the Westminster power machine; in how it makes choices in the areas of internal equality, social welfare and common goods; in re-discussing EU and NATO membership; and in managing relations with the UN and other international organizations.

The highest ranking positions in terms of socially meaningful indices – equality, welfare, environmental protection and freedom – are occupied by self-governing autonomous regions, de facto independent units, and especially small independent republics. There are, indeed, very strong pro-independence arguments.

Only full independent states may take advantage of using strong international currencies (the Dollar, Euro, Pound or Swiss Franc), but also their freedom to create local currencies and, even more importantly, to authorize direct exchange between labour and goods produced locally, strengthening local small business and social justice. They enjoy the blessing of closeness between citizens and their representatives and an environment in which welfare may be realized without fiscal oppression and bureaucratic gigantism. They are free to differentiate and experiment, sometimes in a more progressive, sometimes in a more conservative way in issues of freedom and civil rights. And, last but not least, they are also much more viable than large states, and it is easier for them to recover, even after having collapsed – as we have seen throughout Europe, from Iceland to Latvia, from Portugal to Cyprus, during the worldwide private and public debt crisis.

A “yes” victory on September 18, 2014 will be difficult, because Scotland is not the Åland Islands or Crimea. The Scottish referendum is very problematic for the Western military-industrial complex, the big corporations and the status quo of the financial sector. But a “yes” victory can still be achieved by including ever more people in the public debate, with a bit of that Gramscian spirit – a love for the bottom-up process of participation and liberation – that impressed Nairn as a young man visiting Tuscany almost half a century ago.

Many thanks to Eric Canepa (Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung) for his kind contribution and copywriting.

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