For the last four or five years great changes have been underway in this country. These began to make their presence felt at the end of 2014 in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, as there arose again, especially but not exclusively in England, a familiar strain of nationalism, which confuses the meanings of the words British and English and believes it is naturally superior to others and therefore entitled to special treatment.
This British/English nationalism was expressed most forcefully in 2016 with the result of the referendum for membership of the European Union. This also left the countries of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – this alleged family of nations – bitterly divided, both against each other and within their own borders. As the chaos intensifies, economic and ideological battle lines become more crisply drawn, and these societies more polarised.
The UK has not had a functional government since before the snap election of 2017, when the political establishment lost its hold over parliament and in order to support a minority Conservative government had to bribe the British extremists of the DUP in the north of Ireland with subsidies and the whiff of power. With the failure of her disingenuous efforts to secure an acceptable deal on the first stage of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the Prime Minister resigned as leader of the Conservative Party. The bookies’ favourite to take over is a man who likes to play the role of bumbling fool – but who is certainly nothing of the sort, who is prepared to do whatever is necessary to become Prime Minister, and who apparently believes that leaving the EU without any deal at all according to WTO regulations, will prove to be plain sailing, thereby returning Great Britain to its rightful place amongst the independent trading nations of the world. There are other candidates, but it does not matter who becomes the new leader of the Tory party, and by default Prime Minister, for bitter divisions will not be healed, structural contradictions not suddenly resolved, nor inexorable historical forces held in check. The legal position remains unchanged – at the end of October 2019, if nothing changes, the UK will no longer be a member of EU.
The more burning question is whether or not at the end of October 2019, the UK will still exist.
Brexit is proving to be more complex, chaotic, costly and politically explosive than those who believe in it promised. The most extreme factions allege that it has not yet happened because there has been deliberate obstruction on the part of the British state in collusion with Europe. The institutional inertia of the British establishment is certainly pro European, but the reasons why at this moment the UK remains in the EU are rather more complex than allowed for by simple minded conspiracy theories. Without getting bogged down in the details, the result of the referendum itself must be seen as the origin of all ambiguity, disagreement and prevarication; it was after all an extremely narrow result and no legislation was enacted in advance of the result, which would circumscribe what it meant nor how it should be turned into policy. Thereby guaranteeing chaos. The fact remains that only about one quarter of the population of the UK voted to leave the EU, while the rest of us either voted to remain, actively did not vote, were excluded from doing so or did not appear on the electoral register. It was alleged by demographers only a year after the vote took place that those who had tipped the balance were now deceased, that if the vote were to be repeated, there would be a different result. Although now, under the continuing chaos, the balance has tipped back a bit. Again evidence only that the UK is uncompromisingly divided.
Ever since the UK’s accession to the EU, there have been virulent reactions against its membership and a determination amongst a vociferous minority to revoke it. Although there are socialists and others who do not value the EU for very many reasons, doubts about Europe have mainly played out within the Tory Party. To some extent this mirrors the tension that has long existed within British/English conservatism between those who want to preserve their way of life from the encroachment of foreign influence and who are constitutionally suspicious all things other, and those who are happy to suspend their native prejudice for as long as it provides cheap labour for their industry and business. The existence of UKIP and the Brexit Party PLC under the demagoguery of Farage is simply testament to this – these have long been a safe refuge for disgruntled Tories and their ilk, from within which it has been possible to whip up populist passions and drag the political agenda ever further towards actual fascism.
Recent results of elections to the European Parliament illustrate this. These elections took place only because the government was incapable, unwilling or unable (for many complicated reasons) to remove the UK from the EU before the date after which it would be illegal not to hold elections for the European parliament.
This was the crucial turning point, the event after which there could be no longer any pretence that anybody was in control of anything.
It is widely asserted by the hive mind of the interwebs that the great rush to be removed from EU jurisdiction before this date was motivated by a desire to avoid new EU legislation bringing pensions of member states into parity, and requiring capital to be transparent as it is transferred across international borders. I see no good reason to reject this assertion out of hand. Clearly the establishment is in a condition of extreme crisis; as political parties fail and public opinion runs riot, disaster capitalists are beavering away in search of profit.
As predicted, there was massive support for the Faragists of the Brexit Party PLC, some of whom have some very colourful opinions and dodgy friends, and many others, while claiming to speak for the common man, are wealthy members of the establishment and capitalist classes, and/or ex-members of the Tory Party. Clearly these people are motivated as much by free market capitalism and the pursuit of profit as by xenophobia and the adulation of reactionary disaffection. Theirs is a popular revolution against bureaucrats and career politicians everywhere who stand in the way of freedom and the market; they have well established links to other significant populist movements in other parts of Europe and the world; their aspirations have been ratified democratically with the results firstly of the EU withdrawal referendum and now of the EU parliamentary elections. If they do not get what they want, there will be hell to pay.
Although at one level, the results of the EU elections are entirely symbolic (in the sense that by the time new UK members take their seats, their constituents will no longer live in a member state), they have made a great deal of difference, clarified matters, swept aside old divisions and political parties, crystallised new positions and offered a glimpse of the future.
Scotland stands unanimously alone, very different from England, with a vast majority of those who voted choosing parties that support retaining EU membership. On the whole, the Scots are open to difference and have an intimate understanding of oppression; most of us despise the petty xenophobia and reactionary nationalism of the British establishment. Voters in England and Wales have at last now followed Scotland in rejecting the hitherto dominant parties at Westminster; not however in favour of progressive civic nation building, social democratic governance and the expression of cultural diversity, but rather towards greater polarisation, to either the proto-fascist Faragists or the explicitly European Liberal Democrats. In the north of Ireland there has been no government for some years; the prospect of a British border being again wrapped around the six counties is making everybody a bit twitchy – except the terminally deluded; although this chaos opens up the possibility of uniting the island of Ireland in one country, it also endangers the return of civil war.
The UK is riven, morally bankrupt, openly corrupt, increasingly despotic and pulled ever further towards fascism. Meanwhile capitalism continues to be presented daily as the natural condition of human society, the source of wealth, prosperity, employment, freedom and democracy. At the same time, increasing numbers of people are unable to make ends meet with their wages, more reliant on charity, foodbanks, meagre state benefits, with the bulk of the population only a broken domestic appliance away from bankruptcy, many facing the indignity of choosing between feeding themselves or heating their homes.
Although being televised has come to mean so much more than it did when Gil Scott Heron coined the phrase, the principle remains plausible; the revolution will not be televised, because the revolution will be live. However complex have our relations with our screens now become, it is only by looking beyond them, through them, past them, outside them that we will engage with revolutionary forces.
Two suspicions nevertheless arise: firstly, that the revolution may in fact be now being televised, inadvertently, in amongst the mass recording of events by mobile phones, surveillance equipment, dashcams, drones and so forth, but that we are missing it; and secondly, that what we see presented in the media is simply part of an intricate ideological network of ideas, tendencies and carefully stage managed events, designed specifically to inculcate in populations particular assumptions about political change and how the world works. Even if what is presented in the establishment media is not deliberately put there by powers ensuring their preferred narratives are maintained, the effects are much the same.
On the whole, we like to believe, for better or worse, or maybe we only hope, that established power is legitimate, benevolent and benign; or that any threat to this is illegal, malevolent and malign. Or vice versa. Whatever appears in our personal media echo chambers will reinforce whatever each of us already believes and fill in the details.
With the creation of the interwebs, the sense of the word revolution has changed as much as the sense of televised. Although this has always been a matter of contention. There was always resistance to the Marxist notion that the target of revolutionary practice is capitalism. Which is hardly surprising, nor any demonstration that the principle is not essentially correct; that capitalist expansion creates conditions under which all that people can do with their time is (to be put) to work in exchange for monetary tokens with a value less than the value of the work they have done; that resistance to this is revolutionary.
Profit is created by putting people to work and giving them back less than the value their work produces. Here is the source of that most sought after by capitalists, the object of so much greed, lust and fetishisation. This imposition of labour is the origin of profit and is the first engagement of the class war – no more than a variety of theft. And so it is in pursuit of disrupting this relation, resisting the imposition of labour in the pursuit of profit, that revolutionary practice must by necessity be focused.
Here too is the so called invisible hand of history, the inexorable forces that determine events, in which it would be wise to participate, rather than to become swept along. People are dependent in capitalist societies on work for survival, they do not have access to the means of their own reproduction. They act therefore out of necessity on the basis of available resources and information using the social/cultural means at their disposal. Which means working for money, consuming product and accepting the stories about how it is all so wonderful for everybody.
In practice, within these increasingly individualised societies, everybody has a different experience of capitalism; each will be as complicit with forces of capitalist expansion as much as involved in particular struggles against them, which may or may not be directly related to any obvious process of capitalist exploitation. There are always going to be tensions produced by the imposition of labour; people will always, even if they are not conscious of it, resist the imposition in some way or react against what their work demands, against what their culture and society expects of them in order to maintain the economy and to perpetuate conditions under which the imposition of work is normal, natural, right, good and proper. When their lives and livelihoods are threatened, people push back, irrespective of whether or not they know the forces behind the threat are essentially capitalist, or whether or not their reasons for reacting are utterly delusional, based on prejudice or manipulated deliberately by political forces of which they have no perception.
In such complex, individualised and fluid circumstances it is not difficult to see why few people find it easy to believe in any such objectivist version of history and revolution. We do not like to believe that our lives are determined by historical/economic forces of which we have absolutely no comprehension or ability to control. Common understanding of capitalism has been watered down to the purely ideological; it presents itself as the great engine of a just democratic society, the source of all value, creator of social wealth and provider of meaningful employment. On the whole we either believe this without criticism, or accept, however begrudgingly, that it is simply how things are in the world, while resisting as far as we are able.
There is nevertheless a bigger picture; conditions that exist irrespective of perspective, emphasising that capitalism must be understood generally, as actual production processes, not as the machinations of nations, economies or ideas. Anybody who buys any product for sale in any market place in any western economy is participating in the exploitation of workers on the other side of the world; anybody with a mobile phone is complicit in the extraction of rare earth metals under conditions so obscene I have no wish to describe them; anybody who eats any food product that contains palm oil (try finding any without!) is munching away at the rainforest.
The point of mentioning these things is not moral or emotional, nor should it result in despondency or despair. Rather, it is to underline the micro complexity of our complicity in capitalism, and perforce to demonstrate that interventions against it can take place at exactly the same level, during the micro complexity of everyday life.
There seems little room though under these circumstances for a more common sense understanding of revolution, of collective struggle against forces of oppression, irrespective of gender, race, creed and conviction, of people working together for the common good. History suggests that revolutions more easily arise from the common experience of oppression and material deprivation; we live nevertheless in decadent societies where we are net beneficiaries of capitalist exploitation. Our societies are dependent on the products of cheap Chinese labour; despite widespread real poverty within our own borders and obscene differences between rich and poor, we are relatively wealthy and privileged; our only common experience is watching the same television shows, uncritically consuming the same tired old narratives about how the world works.
If the revolution will not be televised, it does not follow that if it is not on television then it will be actually revolutionary. Nevertheless, mass demonstrations and protests that do not receive attention from established media are likely to be more interesting from the viewpoint of the revolution than movements that do; for there must be something about such events that makes it difficult or impossible for the establishment to exploit to its advantage. Conversely too, movements that appear prominently in the news media are more likely to be reactionary than revolutionary, designed to prepare public consciousness in some fashion. Which would suggest that there is nothing particularly revolutionary about the Brexit Party PLC or what the Faragists have allegedly achieved; theirs is more counter-revolution than revolution.
The most prominent, and apparently genuinely radical, movement for change of recent months has been the Extinction Rebellion – or XR. This presents itself as not only revolutionary but also well organised, media savvy, internet aware; it dovetails easily with historical and global movements, deploying established non-violent direct action techniques. For a few weeks, young people with painted faces mixed it with stalwart campaigners from a bygone era, along with concerned celebrities and musicians, and succeeded in blocking off selected London streets, culminating with a bit of a party on Westminster Bridge. Even before the end of what was billed as the final day of street protests, organisers were already talking about the next stage of the campaign, of bringing their demands to government and discussing actual policy initiatives.
At this moment my sceptical radar pinged. It was almost as if this is what had been planned all along, as if government capitulation had been project managed to take place precisely at this moment, immediately after these few weeks of prominently reported street protests. Which seemed to be a bit odd given that XR was described by its most fervent participants as an assault on the foundations of capitalism, and also given that the government in question represents the interests of a most venal, rapacious and morally bankrupt variety of capitalism. So I did a bit of digging.
In no time at all, I discovered websites where a different story about XR is unfolding. The Acorn hosted by Winter Oak, and The Wrong Kind of Green have published many articles exposing corporate involvement in XR, providing evidence that it is not an assault on capitalism at all, but just another ploy to create new markets. From these perspectives, capitalism is the culprit, the source, cause and origin of any forthcoming extinction event, which will provide disaster capitalists with exactly what they need. Were it not for forces of capitalist expansion and exploitation there would be no environmental crisis to speak of at all. Only if we understand this, that capitalism is not benign, will we be able to create conditions where we might be able effectively to act to save the planet from toxic collapse.
From this point of view, far from XR being a spontaneous uprising led by young people, against the indifference of politics to their futures, standing up to the violence done to their world by systems of power and privilege developed in previous generations, it is alleged to be the product of a sophisticated marketing strategy, extending back several decades, in which environmental collapse is the context for the development of many products and services designed to mitigate environmental collapse, all of which are for sale within the same old marketplace, overseen by the same old neoliberal technocrats. The crucial technical difference between XR and its detractors turns on the little word net, between aiming for zero emissions of greenhouse gasses or net zero emissions – by pursuing the latter, greenhouse gasses will still be emitted, but their carbon content will be offset by planting trees, or by building solar farms, wind turbines and so forth, all of which involve the same systems of production and labour relations, thereby creating further carbon footprints and deferring the inevitable.
Since environmental movements have grown in strength to challenge the predominance of Marxist influenced anti capitalism within the forces of revolution, there has developed on the basis of considerable scientific research, a general understanding amongst educated people in all sectors of society that the planet, our home, faces extreme degradation and imminent ecological catastrophe. It does not matter what our minor political differences may be, if we do not together address the toxic collapse of our environment, we will experience our own extinction and on the way encounter a great deal of suffering – some predictions suggest that human civilisation has only thirty years left, although from another point of view whether such a thing ever existed on this planet is moot. Before XR came into existence, environmental movements were characterised by prevarication, disagreement, and rearguard responses to established economic interests. At the same time there slipped through genuine and well intentioned efforts by people of good conscience to introduce policies that they believed sincerely would bring about environmental regeneration and reverse ecological collapse. Over the years, the state has been asked to legislate and it has complied. Attitudes have changed.
This consensus is increasingly under threat though from a tide of anti intellectual populism, which likes to play with the idea that climate change and so forth are just more in a long line of issues hurled at ordinary God fearing folks by an elite, hell bent on controlling more and more aspects of life and curtailing common freedoms. Faragists are happy for example to doubt climate change at the same time as demanding the country be free of restrictive regulations forced upon it by “Europe” and championing a voracious, self serving variety of capitalism that is very closely allied to both the politics and business model of the US President. There is nevertheless general agreement among the political classes that capitalism is essentially benign, that it can be deployed for the common good and that the attitude and antics of Farage, Trump and their ilk are aberrations.
The belief that capitalism is benign is held together with the most bizarre trope of our times, namely that if we allow wealthy people to become wealthier still, then everybody else will benefit. This is known as the trickle down theory of wealth. It was developed by certain members St Andrews University, misusing the genius of Adam Smith during the 1970s, and became influential on the politics of Thatcherism. It has since become part of the ideological substructure of these times. But it is patently false. It is an idea we are asked to accept only because there is another less palatable, more dangerous truth; that capitalism is not benign at all.
There is a profound difference of opinion between those who believe it is possible to employ capitalism to address the many issues of climate change and those who believe that the system of capitalism is the origin and source of those forces bringing it all about. For as long as Extinction Rebellion is able so easily to bring authorities to the negotiating table, it surely tends towards the former position – despite direct action against certain prominent capitalist buildings in the City of London and a great deal of rhetoric from activists about striking at the heart of capitalism.
During the weeks between the end of the party on Westminster Bridge and the present, there have been many announcements from government(s) about environmental policy initiatives, with declarations first from the Scottish Government and then Westminster that we must now accept that there is indeed a climate emergency. So, the Extinction Rebellion did its thing, the state capitulated, the planet is being saved!
Within these islands, the most consistently suppressed and vilified movement for radical change of recent years is the continuing push towards Scottish independence. In contrast to XR, and despite mass demonstrations and marches, this receives very little media or press attention at all, and when it does, it is entirely negative, portrayed as an aberration and affront to the natural superiority of Britain – even in Scotland, where the press and broadcast media are dominated by British/English Nationalism.
The only goal of the independence movement is to bring about conditions under which Scotland will become independent of Westminster rule, tearing up the Act of Union and reestablishing the sovereignty of the Scottish people to determine our own fate. It is a broad church, and so it also riven by differences, which too easily become tensions and divisions when picked at and stirred up on the interwebs by moronic trolls baiting the vulnerable, to be disseminated gladly by the press and news media and woven into the ideological tapestry. All of which is exacerbated by the usual sectarianism, in which we have so long been immersed. The shiteness of being Scottish.
The political wing of the independence movement, the respectable face, is the Scottish National Party (SNP). It is the dominant party in the Scottish Parliament, forming a government by arrangement with the Scottish Greens. At Westminster it is the third largest of all UK political parties. The SNP is a real political force and the independence movement is gaining momentum. And yet neither is reported faithfully with any degree of equanimity or respect.
In the chaos of Brexit, the contradictory position occupied by the SNP has only been emphasised, thereby destabilising the broader movement to a degree and extent about which we do not yet know. On the one hand the SNP is charged with representing in established political processes the desire of possibly half the Scottish population to be free of Westminster rule. On the other, it has to take responsibility for governing Scotland, up to a point, because it can never stray into legislative territory of so called “reserved matters” – powers retained by Westminster – and so it is actually prevented from governing Scotland. The Scottish government must kowtow to Westminster fiscal policy and is required to operate within a budget determined at Westminster; the Scottish economy cannot be augmented by bonds and loans nor depart from neoliberal doctrines of so called austerity; successive Westminster governments resent the very existence of Scotland and the SNP, while rejecting the power of the wider independence movement in favour of steadfastly believing that Scotland must at all costs be persuaded to remain a valued member of the family of nations.
The UK is now struggling to sustain this ancient narrative. Throughout the world, the reputation of this benighted kingdom has plummeted into the depths of perfidy; in Scotland, even among the swithering and timid middle classes, there is a more genuine revolutionary sentiment emerging, a sense that the current state of these countries is untenable, or at the very least, a rising acceptance that things must change and that the best hope for this will come with independence and support for the SNP. It has for example been easy for those school pupils who felt the need to express their feelings about climate change, to absent themselves in order to demonstrate outside government buildings, without incurring any penalty, fine or black mark against their names, which would not have been possible if councillors, teachers and parents had disallowed it.
There is a growing sense in this country that politics must change, that the time has come to stand up to a rising tide of fascism, both during the minutiae of everyday life and in public discourse, time to recognise that we must now take collective responsibility for our own future. It is time to create compassionate social relations rather to have our lives determined by rapacious self interest masquerading as responsible governance, powered by stupidity and lies imposed from other places by people who do not understand our ways nor respect our aspirations. Time to live differently in defiance of this imposed order, to make our own decisions about matters that affect our own lives while always working towards constructive engagement with our neighbours.
Students of history understand that history is disputed territory. The history to which we are expected to defer, and which is espoused by British/English Nationalism, maintains the narrative of Empire. Glorious times in the past when Britain ruled the waves, sent civil servants to administer pillage and oppression on every continent, produced more stuff in bigger factories than any other and educated ignorant natives of every hue into the enlightened ways of Christianity and Reason. Even more bizarrely, this vision of empire is so fetishised by Faragists and their ilk that it has become what they expect to happen as a consequence of the realisation of their democratic will – a situation that will actually come into existence after the UK is no longer a member of the EU. This level of delusion is quite simply dangerous.
Students of history who have no interest in sustaining any particular (delusional) narratives in the present are painfully aware that the British state has never been shy about butchering its own citizens, slaughtering its imperial subjects nor employing clandestine agencies and dirty tricks to sustain its power. The British state plays a particularly nasty game; by championing values of freedom and democracy, it is able to demand of its detractors that they play nice and join in, so that when they depart from this in any way they can be justifiably vilified or violently put down. It is no more than a hundred years since Churchill sent troops and later tanks into Glasgow after demonstrations in the city turned into running battles with police and militia. All mythology of these events aside, the message was to establish the authority of the British State against what it perceived as a threat from Bolshevism. There is no reason to believe that a future Prime Minister will not be able with as much impunity to employ such tactics against any future demonstrations perceived as a threat to the British state.
It is no surprise that the aspirations of many Scots to be independent of Westminster are so summarily vilified and never given voice in any media over which the establishment has influence. After all, any aspiration towards Scottish independence is in principe a direct assault on British/English nationalism. Moreover, at this particular moment in their history, the Scottish people are distancing themselves from approaching fascism and resisting the expansion of rapacious free market capitalism, aligning themselves with the managed economies of European social democracy. This is a real threat to the British/English establishment; a revolution that is certainly not being televised.
The power of the British state and of the capital behind it resides primarily in the Act of Union, the first movement of the British empire, when the parliament at Westminster took over administration of Scotland, after which her indigenous culture was wiped systematically from the land, her people sent off to the cities to work in squalid factories, or to the colonies as indentured servants, while the land itself deteriorated, became denatured, and is now deliberately designed to support only creatures that can be butchered or slaughtered; cheviot, stag and ground nesting birds.