Seceding from the Modern Era
I’m not a “Sassenach” (Anglo-Saxon, that is). I’m a Scot. My family is part of the Scottish diaspora. Even though I don’t pine for “the Old Country” like my grandparents did, I was raised in all those traditions even when they didn’t make any sense at all in the context of the New World. I was quite happy to shake them off. A lot of them were just phoney, pretentious, and even reactionary… that is to say, “clannish”.
I’m not nostalgic for things Scottish, nor do I feel any ancestral connection to Scotland at all. But I do have an interest in the secessionist movement, largely for the reasons outlined by Fintan O’Toole in a recent Guardian article.
After I posted “Age of Secession” this morning, I came across O’Toole’s piece entitled “Scotland’s vote is not about Braveheart or kilts or tribal nationalism. It’s about democracy“. It was a happy, serendipitous discovery. I was not only thrilled that it tracked so closely to what I had written in “Age of Secession”, but am confident in stating that, if O’Toole’s essay about the motives for secession are understood, half of what I’ve written in The Chrysalis would be redundant. O’Toole’s piece is about disillusionment, and I mean that in a very positive sense.
The key passage in the essay is this (I have highlighted the most relevant parts in boldface):
“The Scottish referendum is in this sense a symptom of a much broader loss of faith in the ability of existing institutions of governance to protect people against unaccountable power. This is why the campaign is not particularly nationalistic: the loss of faith at its heart is Scottish and English and Irish and Welsh and European and American. The demand for independence just happens, for historical reasons, to be the form in which Scots are expressing a need that is felt around the developed world: the urgent necessity of a new politics of democratic accountability.”
Those passages address the issue of the essential ambiguity of neo-liberal globalisation and disillusionment with the nation-state model as it has developed in Late Modernity. Earlier in the piece, O’Toole laid out the sickness at the heart of this model,
“Power lies only in part with elected governments, whether in London, Edinburgh or even Washington. It also lies with global corporations, with media monopolies, with unaccountable oligarchies, with mighty financial industries immune even to their own reckless follies. Hence the real question that Scots have to decide: will independence shift the balance of power away from oligarchy towards democracy? If the answer is yes, independence is well worth having. If no, Scots should look to Ireland’s recent experiences: independence that does not give citizens some power against global forces is fragile and shallow — and, as Ireland learned in 2010, can be revoked by the financial markets.”
There is, in that statement, a rationale for secession, and an insight into why “globalisation” has, as unexpected outcome, proliferating secessionism — the sense of powerlessness and of being disenfranchised by the process. The question of “where does power lie?” arises when trade deals are concluded in secret and the “deep state” remains opaque in its decision making.
“The ‘deep state’ and the City of London continued to hold immense power, of course, but it was reasonable to believe that there was a democratic realm that could weigh in on the side of ordinary people, and convenient to call this realm Britain. The problem now is that almost all those democratic forces are hugely diminished. The no side in Scotland has found itself trying to defend a status quo that scarcely exists any more.”
In other words, economic globalisation conjoined with the democratic deficit = irrelevance and impotence of the existing nation-state model to fulfill its primary function and prime directive, the real security of the citizenry. Economic rationales and political values no longer coincide. The result is “democratic deficit”. This incoherence of economic rationales and political values is what we mean by “dis-integration” and it reflects the impotence or unwillingness of the nation-state to resolve the contradiction. And as the potential vote presently stands, sentiment falls evenly on one side of the contradiction or the other.
“Loss of faith” is another term for “disillusionment”, and as O’Toole has pointed out, “the loss of faith at its heart is Scottish and English and Irish and Welsh and American”, and others besides. It pertain, in other words, to the late stages of the Modern Era itself, which has brought with it “the urgent necessity of a new politics of democratic accountability”. O’Toole, therefore, interprets the Scottish referendum as the first judgement upon an entire Era, not just the adequacy or inadequacy of the British state alone.
“What really matters now is whether after the referendum, Scots return, like the rest of us, to a state of frustrated powerlessness, or can sustain the democratic energy that has been unleashed. If that’s to happen, neither the mini-Westminster in Edinburgh nor a lightly modified Britain will be much use. If the referendum is to be the start of something big, it must also be, for international democracy, the start of something new.”
That is exactly what I suggested as a new “ecology” of peoples — an enthusiastic “Yes, we can” that isn’t just an empty slogan.
There is one last observation O’Toole makes that I find quite remarkable, quite revealing;
“For while it is the Scottish Question that is on the ballot paper, it is the British Question that is really on the table. Alongside the absence of nationalist sentimentality on one side of the argument, there is something equally remarkable on the other: the inability of the no campaign to articulate a coherent, passionate and convincing case for the existing United Kingdom seems, from the outside, quite staggering….[I]t now seems incapable of projecting to a large part of the population a positive sense of what it stands for.”
That’s a remarkable statement, really. It’s a question of what political scientists call “institutional legitimacy” or credibility, and it appears that huge numbers of people no longer recognise their own governments or state institutions as being either legitimate or credible, and are preparing to risk a different course of action. Whether towards an “atavistic tribalism” (a global dis-integration into competing nationalisms) or a genuine “international democracy” (a new integration) is the critical question that O’Toole raises. That is the key question I raised, too, in “Age of Secession”.
But it also means that the traditional nation-state is having trouble articulating a coherent justification for itself, because it has been evicerated and hollowed out by policies of “austerity” and “privatisation”, abandoning its own principal function to “security” in all but the narrowest and most technocratic interpretation of “security”. To large segments of the population, “the Establishment” as such has made itself irrelevant.
And now it seems shocked and surprised by this? Secessionism is blowback from neo-liberalism.
All in all, I love O’Toole’s article for what it says about the crisis of Late Modernity — the weakness of the nation-state model to resolve the contradictions of globalisation, the “democratic deficit” in the failure or impotence of states to deliver on their prime directive — the security of the populace; the question of “where does power lie?” today if not with the populace; the insularity and unresponsiveness of ruling elites which, in Canada at least, has become euphemistically named “executive democracy”, a piece of double-talk and double-think for what others call “authoritarianism” and which is, ironically, the “Chinese model” of democracy.
I wish I could say that I was exaggerating in saying that, but I’m not. Last night I drove to the city to hear Michael Chong, a Conservative MP who is trying to drum up support for his “Reform Act” , a private member’s bill designed to restore some semblance of democracy to Canada’s parliament. Mr. Chong is an impressive orator and knows his stuff, and during the course of his talk he made an oblique reference and cautious allusion to the inadequacy of “the Chinese model” — the very thing being euphemistically described as “executive democracy” by the conservative press. Mr. Chong’s remark about the “Chinese model” echoes the sentiments of another ex-Tory MP, Brent Rathgeber, who just published a book entitled Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada. It’s a fair guess that Mr. Harper’s style of “executive democracy” is going to re-ignite secessionist sentiment in Quebec, too, where Mr. Harper is already considered “the devil” , if not the anti-Christ himself.
An “Aye!” vote in Scotland could easily re-embolden Quebec secessionists, too, particularly as the same problems of governance and the “democratic deficit” likewise plague both Canada and the UK, and beyond.