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By Jason Michael
IN A RECENT INTERVIEW for The IndyPram Podcast, the host of the show – Ray James – asked for my thoughts on the current divisions in the Scottish independence movement. Not infrequently do I read of myself described on social media as a ‘divisive’ personality, my opinions on a number of issues and on a few occasions have provoked heated discussion and caused activists to divide into camps. In fact, this is how we see every writer in the movement described. The divisiveness of opinion is so fundamental to political discourse that everyone in every social and political movement – in any contested field – who airs an opinion or makes a statement is a source of division. Opinion itself is an act of betrayal. In sharing an opinion or in making a statement the speaker is staking a claim on a landscape of contested viewpoints, and in so doing is declaring a particular point of view in an environment where others are busy staking other claims from other vantage points – and not one of these prospectors can have a point of view unless they are situated somewhere. Only the mute and the ignorant can escape this charge of divisiveness.
Division is an essential component of every healthy democracy, and efforts to end division and contention in political discussion invariably produce the same two cancers in the body politic. In the leadership it fosters an authoritarian attitude which tends towards autocracy and even totalitarianism, and in the mass movement it creates a sheepish dogmatism by which the individual abdicates his or her responsibility to think and reason for his or herself and fuels the impulse to reject every contradiction as heresy. Every so often we get glimpses of these things in the independence movement. George Kerevan described the emergence of this in the Scottish National Party:
Sturgeon holds untrammelled executive sway over both the party apparatus and the government machine, blurring responsibilities in a dangerous fashion. On a day-to-day basis, the party is run by Peter Murrell, who happens to be Sturgeon’s long-time partner and husband.
In the grassroots of the movement too we are familiar with the hostility directed by some individuals towards anyone perceived to be asking difficult questions, articulating discomforting truths, or deviating from the dogma of the party line. These people fear division because it challenges their fragile certainties in the party, the leader, and the message – and this messianism, while unchecked, is giving rise to a dangerous populism that projects and so imposes on the whole independence movement a unified and unifying dogma its proponents have largely concocted in their own heads. But the actual Sitz im Leben of these various and competing viewpoints and positions is the pure historical reality of the genesis and evolution of ideas; the various cognitive processes and life experiences which have led very different people to the conclusion that independence is the best way forward for Scotland – and even in this their ideas of what independence means and what shape it should take are often very different.
Peter Bell touched on this in a recent aptly titled article, Fissionable Material. ‘There is a tendency,’ he writes, ‘for the politics of the left to be more nuanced and … more thoughtful.’ And he is correct. But it is this contemplative nature of left politics that leads to division across the left and terrifies the insecure dogmatists on the right. How can there be certainty in division? Where I would argue there can’t be and that this is no bad thing, Bell is more optimistic:
I am persuaded that if we can gain a good enough understanding of the competing forces re-shaping both the Scottish National Party and the broader independence movement then we can bring those forces under control.
What is interesting here is Bell’s conscious desire to see order restored, for the forces acting upon and moving the SNP and the wider movement to be controlled – somewhat underscoring his self-positioning as someone ‘on the left’ but not ‘of the left.’ This is, after all, essentially a right-wing mode of thought – though I doubt this is how Peter Bell meant it exactly. Still, it betrays a sense of uneasiness in a world of out of control forces, and the conservative want for control speaks to the author’s dislike of change in a historical process – a continuum – in which no one may have control. It is striking also that implicit in this reasoning – certainly in the language – is the deistic belief in a hidden and unmoved mover. He imagines this world as one in which society and politics are subject to the application and disapplication of forces that can be controlled.
At first it irritated me that Peter Bell, an atheist, would rely on an essentially theological explanation of history and politics. But then it occurred to me that this unmoved mover of his is Newton’s god: Tis inconceivable that inanimate brute matter should (without the mediation of something else which is not material) operate upon & affect other matter without mutual contact (Newton, 1693). Bell can be optimistic about ending division because to him, as his language would suggest, these forces are both intelligent and intelligible. We can make sense of them and reason with them, and this is an old kind of political reasoning:
For a long time, one of the principal paradigms used to interpret the politics of the founding fathers of the United States was political Newtonianism. This body of thought, developed in the eighteenth century, put ideas and metaphors of Enlightened science to use in constructing political mechanisms and rationalizing political order.
This understanding of history as a great machine with pistons and cogs, weights and counterweights in motion – producing society and politics – is remarkably common. It might even be said to be, thanks to the Enlightenment, the default setting of how we imagine and so attempt to understand the world. Forces acting upon it have predictable and measurable results. When it is running well, that is as it should, we know what it does. People can manage it and fix it. Its cyclical repetition, its rhythm, and its predictability give comfort. It orders all things well.
Disorder and chaos – division, then, is proof positive to the conservative mind that the great machine has broken down. It must be repaired or things will not go well. But this engine is merely a heuristic device for understanding the world, it is imaginary – it is not the world. These forces which we are all in some way trying to gain ‘a good enough understanding of’ may not be inconceivable – we can all conceptualise them – but they are incomprehensible in their unfathomable complexity. These forces are the titans born of protracted historical processes, the endless weaving and disentangling of political plans and ambitions – nationally and internationally, and the result of innumerable social and inter-personal relations the sum and consequences of which are infinitely beyond our ken.
Real life and politics in the real world are messy. We and everything around us are subject to a chaotic mixture of forces that are both predictable and unpredictable. Our imagined machine forces us to see what is happening in Scotland as an ecosystem sealed off from the rest of the world, but the reality is that our independence movement is as much a result of processes within Scotland as it is the child of greater global social and political trends. We have shaped and have been shaped by events in Catalonia, our political language and interpretive tools have come from every corner of the world, and the very protest of the movement is informed by international protests against and responses to a global economic system. Our movement is not ‘an island entire of itself,’ we are – as we always were – ‘a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’ There is no god in the machine, and so we are forced to just roll with the punches and negotiate our collective power in a reality where every member of this nation occupies a different vantage point and has a different point of view.
An Introduction to the Philosophy of Politics