Vote Yes for the multitude: a non-nationalist argument for Scottish independence

Is nationalism the sole reason for a 'yes' vote in the Scottish Referendum, or is the argument too restricted in its approach?

Jamie Mackay
27 September 2013

  Flickr/Màrtainn MacDhòmhnaill. Some rights reserved.

In a recent discussion on the BBC’s Newsnight, musician and cultural activist Pat Kane cringed embarrassedly through a malapropos bagpipe performance, expressing his optimistic contention that the more one engages with the independence debate, the more likely they will be to vote ‘yes’ in next year’s referendum. It was a defiant moment, an intelligent response to the night’s constrained format and not-so-subtle pro-union biases. The bored frustration in the room, tangible even on the hyper real TV broadcast, was a clear indication of the need to go beyond the British state broadcaster to find meaningful reflection on the meaning of independence, democracy, culture and, most importantly, the possibility of constructing a hi-tech, low consumption alternative to British neoliberalism. 

Pat’s contention, and it is one that I share, is that autonomous government would create a real possibility to change how political decisions are made in Scotland and provide the best opportunity for stimulating democratic transformation of the UK’s institutions. I find it surprising that extra parliamentary groups, involved in occupations, anti-austerity demos and direct action movements across the UK, continue to disregard the centrality of this moment to furthering the kind of world anticipated by their arguments and slogans. Real Democracy Now. But where exactly? In this piece I want to pose the opportunity of 2014 in relation to this virus-like global desire, to suggest where common ground lies with the struggles of 2010-11 and explore the potential implications of an independent Scotland on the tactical evolution of such movements.   

In imagining this future history it is vital to recognise that a vote for independence is not the same as voting for the policies of the Scottish National Party. For many radical groups, the purpose of the referendum is to facilitate an ‘unfolding’ change; not to pre-conceive its results within the language of top-down planning or a ready-made utopia. It is surprising that this emphasis on ‘movement building’, ‘deliberation’ and ‘transformation’, so alien to Westminster’s pathological short-termism, are rarely recognised within the same discursive framework of, for example, the recent Occupy movement. Even less remarked-upon is that a ‘yes’ vote is not necessarily a vote for nationalism. The SNP themselves are committed to holding elections in May 2016, an opening which would provide an unprecedented stage for participants in exactly such groups to impact on legislation and the future constitution.

The dedicated communities involved in running Bella Caledonia and National Collective in particular are indicative of an intellectual confidence and wealth of ideas for what to do with a new state. Both of these initiatives have been furiously debating how to construct a future governmental structure that is deliberative, ambitious and open to transformation by those who wish to participate in its operation. What is striking about the arguments raised across these sites is how difficult it is to imagine such positions, or even these voices, within the British version of the ‘state-national’. In this context, the concept of nationhood as collective dreaming is stretched to its most radical potential, increasingly liberated from the haunted house of Keynesianism. This desire to transform Scottish society on the basis of participation in a genuinely popular sovereignty sounds remarkably similar to the arguments of anarchists, autonomists and radical democrats who, more often than not, have tended to treat the nation as merely as an extension of the state into the lives of potentially free individuals. These have always been tricky standpoints and for good reason. What of nationhood as biopolitics? And, more importantly, the common space in which this global liberation is imagined to take place?

The notion of the global multitude has often been taken as an attempt to replace the national structures of representative democracy – political parties – with a participatory form of self-government organised around the formation of reflexive power structures; it is best understood in Paolo Virno’s terms as a ‘spontaneous’ array of fluid and anti-hierarchal movements that operate within and against the forms of deterritorialisation generated by global capitalism. The forms of solidarity that underpin this subjectivity are thus necessarily self-critical and, in contrast to traditional nationalist politics, comfortable with openness, duality, hybridity and protest. At its purest (and most obtuse form) this might be understood as the self-government of constituent power against the static forms of constituted power that have historically been imposed upon national communities.

But, of course, life is messier, and less jargonistic, than the model. Why is any of this incompatible with new forms of national politics? That the multitude is not confined to one region or privileged group does not entail that nationhood per se cannot provide a key vehicle for developing its expressive potential (and indeed, developing its ontological assertions into political practice). As I have argued elsewhere, the tendency to brand all calls for self-determined national government as national-ist, to treat them abstractly, and, ultimately, to disregard all forms of national expression as being incompatible with the global reach of the multitude is a serious error. Seen as an opportunity to translate new subjectivities into new institutions, Scotland is in fact fertile ground.

It is useful, for example, to imagine what measures might result from the collision between a UK constitutional collapse and genuine dialogue with the assembled democracies of occupy and the student movement: a new crowd sourced constitution? An alternative welfare system? A restructuring of work-life? The possibility of implementing any of these measures is clearly dependent on a renegotiation of the national, yet the parameters and limits of this process could be determined by the multitude, if people around the world choose to participate. Solid borders and separations have no necessary place in the Scotland of the future, despite the language of ‘divorce’. Independence does not undermine interdependence.

The subtlety of this point, however, continues to be missed by a mainstream media that is both crudely nationalist and uncomfortable with the reflexive thinking of the multitude. This discomfort takes many forms. The ‘yes’ campaign, for example, is disregarded as being ‘nationalist’ without any recognition of the British nationalism that inherently underpins this act of silencing. The union, easily marketable and willingly consumed, is allowed to pass virtually unchallenged, while the potential for a participatory alterative is openly sneered at. Is this fear, stupidity, or an active hatred of democracy?

It is certainly no surprise that the very same individuals that have profited from the union, including the emotive and deeply fought-over class of (successful) small businesses owners, are those shouting loudest about the consequences of losing their own power. This dynamic is more clearly pronounced among those who negate independence as “a nice idea” but “too much of a risk”. Such an outlook seems curiously blind to the very real risks involved in allowing the British project to continue in its current constitutionless form. This pretzel logic, fed by ‘respected voices’ such as Alistair Darling, is insincere and deeply manipulative. In a document entitled 500 questions, anxieties about stamps, postcodes and dialing codes are presented as ‘major issues’ that would doom the future state to poverty. This is not economics, but the basest form of propaganda. 

For ‘yes’ campaigners seeking to extend their arguments to the participants of skeptical new left movements, the principle task is to resist the temptation to fight on these absurd terms; to work on demonstrating that the call for independence is neither arbitrary or nationalist, but an essential component in a larger global shift in the way citizens relate to their states, their parties and their media. There are no guarantees in independence, there are no guarantees in staying in the union and there are certainly no guarantees in radical politics. But when the flags are lowered and talking heads muted, an opportunity is clearly in place to codify the anger that has marked streets around the world into a new kind of democratic state.


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