Heroes of a Deferred Nation

This article was first published by postmag.org in an edited form under the title Patriot Games: Scotland’s false starts on 16/12/2014.

‘All of us first’: the fallow minds of New Labour’s most intellectually vacant meeting rooms could never have come up with something so meaningless, yet phrases such as this have come to litter the popular discourse in Scottish politics since 18 September, 2014. ‘We are the 45’; ‘Better together’ and perhaps strangest of all ‘One Scotland’ used in almost cultish equanimity by both sides, claiming the progressive agenda for their own.

The referendum marked a recent high point in UK politics for social media, citizen journalism, and general public engagement despite this sloganeering. Yet an oft overlooked group of beneficiaries from the near two year campaign are the pseudo-intellectuals and pop academics that are never far behind any significant hype train. Their adoption of populist mantras born of Nordic utopianism, and nationalism with a small (they would like to think, invisible) N gave credence to a torrent of shallow reasoning that would dominate the debate up until the final day.

One of the more prominent strains of Scottish exceptionalism stemmed from a largely unfounded belief that Scotland is like, or can be like, the celebrated liberal democracies of Scandinavia. The most frequently cited being Sweden, which has somewhat hindered this fantasy by electing a significant number of far right xenophobes, managing to bring the governing coalition to its knees in the past week. Practical anomalies like this are not really welcome however, and so it was with Lesley Riddoch’s much lauded ‘Blossom’ in which she set out to define Scotland as a nation formed of a remarkable tolerance for inequality, as such possessing some sort of inherited ‘spirit’ (here she employs Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus; incorrectly). A spirit which apparently didn’t manifest in England because more people had back gardens and a longer experience of urbanisation.

Other publications and frequent blog posts from outlets like National Collective and Bella Caledonia dealt with uncorrelated assumptions such as Scotland being friendlier to immigrants than its neighbours. This historical analysis stops somewhere around 1997 for it would not be advantageous to categorise the history of Irish migration to Scotland prior to this time, nor perhaps to remark that year on year Scotland sees a below capita relative rate of immigration compared to the rest of the UK, yet the majority of Scots still want to see it reduced (1).

Both of these examples disregard serious analysis of contemporary conditions. Aside from health, Scotland performs above and beyond England and Wales in almost all areas. Lower youth unemployment, lower general unemployment, higher expenditure on public services per head, cheaper public transport, lower pay inequality, lower likelihood of being a victim of crime – all of these and more place Scotland favourably in a comparative analysis within Britain (2).

As posited by Anthony D. Smith and Benedict Anderson, any imagined community requires an intense devotion to the idea of nationhood to survive. The multiplication of food banks and increase in general deprivation since 2010 supplied the nationalist cause with a shared solidarity that could be compartmentalised into exactly this sort of intense repulsion and responsible activism. This was always presented as pioneering by writers like Gerry Hassan who opined that the centre-left debate in Scotland was ‘putting the values of solidarity into a lexicon of inter-connectedness and interdependence to produce a politics of inter-independence’ (3) which is another way of saying ‘we did something different here’. We might yet be waiting a long time to see the fruits of this inter-connectedness however, unless you are in the SNP of course, who are reaping it merrily as we speak.

This imagination equally required its own folk devils in the form of the ‘fear campaign’ that shook Jim Sillars to his very core in his book ‘In Place of Fear II’ (presumably he had not witnessed a British or Scottish election prior to last year, nor read Bevan’s original). This allowed groups like the Common Weal to take vague national populism and present it as an alternative to serious costed policy. This was often dressed up in a semi-patronising ‘language of the people’ fit for the worst kind of t-shirt slogan gentrifiers about high-wage economies and reducing wealth inequality. The assumption again being that the economy of Scotland is self-sustaining and not subject to the harsh weather of global capital, so too it is replete with altruistic taxpayers who have been screaming out for progressive taxation since the days of Maxton, all of course to the refrain ‘but they did it in Norway…’.

The nationalism that now proudly states ‘I belong’ to a deferred promised land, to a Jerusalem of the young, hopeful, Yes congregation was the winner of this anti-intellectual bout, not British nationalism. As adequately evidenced by Pat Kane’s remark on the BBC’s Scotland 2014 programme that “If all the world is in Scotland, then it makes sense for Scotland to be in the wider world, and to have that conversation about Scottishness with other people in the family of nations, as a nation” in one of the finer examples of not being a nationalist by speaking exactly like a nationalist. This rhetoric presents Scotland as generous, progressive, civilized; as opposed to the UKIP voting hordes to the South who are but an unfortunate by-product of their own avarice. British nationalism is always contextualised as the Iraq war or Nigel Farage, Scotland on the other hand lilts wistfully to a tune of ‘Freedom Come All Ye’ on a soft Highland breeze.

This very rhetoric provided cover throughout the debate for the new philosophy of nationalism as liberation, in just the same way that various demagogues have concealed the destructive elements of British national identity under the guise of liberalism, and continued to do so as part of the Better Together campaign. The UK and Scotland are suffering from a concerning redundancy of serious thought, falling back on Russell Brand and Owen Jones, Robin McAlpine and the Radical Independence Campaign in the absence of any critical approach to the problems of globalisation, sustainability and the domination of capital. A continuing simulacra of the social movements that have visited yet never remained.

Aside from the usual suspects confined to a strict political analysis, or historians hawking their old wares to new audiences there was little in the way of a rigorous dialectic to be found. There is nothing wrong with articulating hope of course, and certainly not during a partisan campaign, yet when that hope is dressed in the clothes of intellectual legitimacy and hard scholarship there must be calls to reveal its true face.

Perhaps such revelations are still to come, but into the sediment there now seeps a proud ignorance that might be difficult to drain away.

1. Oxford University Migration Observatory (2014)

2. All statistical inferences from ‘5 June 2014 – Output and Productivity – National Statistics, ONS’ and ‘Scottish Crime and Justice Survey 12/13’

3. Why Scotland has finally woken up and become a democracy – September 21st, 2014 | Gerry Hassan

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The Myth of Moral Authority

The U.S Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week released the executive summary of its report on the CIA’s interrogations of suspected foreign terrorists in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. In short it did and did not confirm torture – depending on how you define the term.

Since the report there has been a lot of discussion regarding the loss of ‘moral authority’ as a result of being seen to engage in such acts. This is specifically in reference to the United States. Foreign discussion centres too frequently on our big cousins across the pond, yet often fails to truly question the role countries such as the U.K, France, and Germany played in both facilitating these acts and undoubtedly assisting in their enactment.

The rhetoric from within the U.S goes that due to its position as the foremost world power they are something of an example for us all, and as such should never be seen to fail in their duty as guardians of freedom (ho-hum). Let us quash that falsehood immediately. The United States, the U.K, in fact almost any significantly influential global force has about as much moral authority as the baying mob that stones to death the apostate.

The wonderfully named White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest recently referred to this moral authority as “one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal” to advanced United States’ interests across the globe [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5rH7O8dBAM]. Unsurprisingly ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (as the hipsters at the CIA call torture) have a tendency to undermine such authority, though perhaps only in the United States itself.

No one outside of a specific demographic within even the U.S actually believes in this moral authority, yet like most things in politics, if you continuously state something is the case then over time it will end up being marked down in history as a fundamental belief of civilised humanity – these are the good guys, and those are the bad guys.

What is perhaps more nauseating to behold than any of the facts of the torture itself, are the eulogies for a lost innocence written by the press at large. This is an impression that anyone with even a modicum of foreign policy interest should realise is mournfully naïve, and worse still perhaps even deceitful as so many have reported on this previously (as summed up by John Pilger recently http://johnpilger.com/articles/torture-is-news-but-its-not-new ). In fact, what the Senate report reveals is much more tame than many in the know expected. After all, when you are at the mercy of the most powerful state on Earth, and as such seen as an obstacle to their preservation, then tawdry concepts like your mental and physical health become somewhat nebulous to say the least.

This is symptomatic of the veil of delusion that such structures as the UN and EU have allowed for us. Surely if we have globally/continentally mediated structures of accountability this sort of thing simply cannot go on (so the thinking goes)? Please…

In some ways the foreign policy of old, exhibited with splendid aplomb by the pre-WWII governments of Britain in such conflicts as the Boer War and revolutionary Ireland, was much more honest. I feel this can be adequately summed up in the following exchange between John Connor and the Terminator in that classic of moral philosophy ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’:

John: Jesus, you were gonna kill that guy!
Terminator: Of course. I’m a Terminator.
John: Listen to me very carefully, OK? You’re not a Terminator anymore. All right? You got that? You just can’t go around killing people!
Terminator: Why?
John: Whattaya mean, why? Cause you can’t!
Terminator: Why?
John: Because you just can’t, OK? Trust me on this.

For all their reprogramming, face changes, and new methods of construction the USA and the UK are still very much the same goal oriented, machines of self-preservation that they ever were. They are still Terminators (though in the UK’s case certainly an older model surviving on borrowed parts).

Yet rather than responding with the indefiniteness of ‘Why’, as delivered by the inimitable Arnie, there now comes no response at all. The act of killing, or more accurately ‘harming’ (as John Stuart Mill would prefer to categorise it), is no longer acknowledged. The harm that is of importance is that of reputation and legitimacy, not an inflicted harm upon individuals. Certainly not any harm that might bring the great and the good into disrepute.

Richard Joyce (2007) argues in ‘The Myth of Morality’ that our attachment to moral discourse has left us hopelessly ill prepared for the reality of a world which so often fails to conform to our values. Torture is but one example of this. We are gradually seeing a culture of self-delusion take on a virtuous position within our day to day lives, at least in the UK and similarly sustained countries, to support this. It is of great importance to discuss death and pain, but never to see it. We may witness footage of aerial bombardments, but never the dismembered torsos of dying civilians, never the blood strewn streets of a perpetually vicious environment.

Morality comes to have a ‘useful function’ in regulating our individual behaviour, but rarely that of the wider collective. This in turn allows us to believe falsehoods about our states and those who seek to lead. The discourse used by our politicians embodied by platitudes like ‘hope’, ‘family of nations’, ‘just peace’ begins to appeal to some perceived fundamental nature within us which mirrors a normative ethical standpoint.

We are left powerless by this. Our only hope becomes an expectation that unaccountable supreme powers will regulate their own behaviour due to a wave of moral sentiment. It seems with supreme power comes supreme naivety therefore, and those wielding the sceptre can do little but smile as we coddle ourselves in the knowledge that we have said our bit, our attention soon moving elsewhere.

There will be reports and even legislative reflexes in regards to this issue, the question is; how firmly will they be adhered to when the next attack on European or North American soil occurs? How far does our sympathy stretch when fear guides our hand? Given it is not so long ago that Jean Charles de Menezes lost his life for the crime of looking like someone he did not look like at all, or the shame of Abu Ghraib was revealed and we are still feigning shock, you cannot but question whether we will be reading of similar acts in the years and decades to come.

But hey, at least we have our moral authority.

Pedagogy of the Self: Wittgenstein and Education

This article was first published by socialtheoryapplied.com on 15/01/2014.

The study of education and consequently its application as a means for social change owes more than we might think to the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. His work makes no direct attributions to pedagogy yet traverses many of the same fundamental questions of language, philosophy, and behaviour. Wittgenstein’s philosophy seeks to elucidate the ways philosophers make discursive sense, and quite often their insistence on nonsense. The purpose of his work is to highlight the method by which we can make this understanding explicit through language, a method which is inherently dialogic and therefore educational.

The later work of Wittgenstein which he laid out in various notes and papers, eventually becoming The Philosophical Investigations (1953) is in many ways entirely opposed to that of his earlier magnum opus Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). Such an about turn has left many admirers and scholars of Wittgenstein’s work either confused or patently tribal as to which constitutes his true thought process. Here I will seek to cover both in relation to any pedagogical lessons we can learn from his work.

Wittgenstein is a rationalist, albeit a rather difficult one to place. As a philosopher he sought to link the opposed fields of analytic philosophy and continental philosophy. He was specifically concerned with logical positivism in his early work the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, suggesting that the solution to philosophical problems lay in our ability to use precise statements for which there could be evidence, also referred to as synthetic propositions (1921). The only correct philosophical method to Wittgenstein at this time would be to say nothing except that which can be said with meaning. To communicate in a way devoid of meaning is not to communicate at all.  https://i1.wp.com/i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01131/arts-graphics-2008_1131260a.jpg

It was during this time that Wittgenstein proposed his concept of language games. This essentially expresses the idea that all meaning must be constructed on the basis of context. Words have meaning due to the fact they are used in a variety of ways, they have a multiplicity meaning, and they do not require clear definition. These ideas owed a lot to Gottlob Frege’s work On Sense and Reference (1892) which questioned whether words can have any definite meaning outside of the context of a sentence. For Wittgenstein the self forms within these linguistic and cultural practices as a construction of discourse.

These observations provide a potential critique of the traditional view of liberal education, a view which is concerned with the development of the mind and the autonomous person (Peters & Marshall, 1999). Notions which place the self and the subject as the fundamental concerns of education become tenuous when we understand the self and discourse as non-separate entities. We should seek to correctly identify philosophical problems through our teaching, thereby transmitting good habits which prevent us from holding mistaken beliefs. In short the idea of the teacher and their teachings is a false distinction; there is only that which is said in that place at that time and the meaning we assign to it.

Conversely in The Philosophical Investigations towards the end of his life Wittgenstein espoused the idea that language acquires meaning from the way in which it is used. Language occurs as part of an activity or a ‘form of life’ (1953) not an objective point of reference. This stems from Wittgenstein’s later focus on language as a product of rule following and representation. This should not be mistaken as a focus on how we acquire those rules and representations however; see Chomsky (1957) and Fodor (1975) for a cognitive explanation of how this comes to pass. The way in which the individual establishes their relation to these rules and recognises how and why they should be put into practice is what is important for the educator, not as was suggested in his previous writings, the context within which the language seems to exist.

Here Wittgenstein is proposing that rather than seek truth (in life, in education, or even at all) we seek new ways of thinking; that we should think for ourselves. Classically a child is ‘trainable’ in a socially structured environment in which the ability or competence to be taught is already mastered by the teacher (Williams, 1994). The goal of teaching therefore is to enable learners to ‘see’ rather than interpret (Budd, 1987). Wittgenstein chooses to emphasise the postmodern respect for difference instead and therefore does not see the self as essentially dialogical as the likes of Habermas and Heidegger do, it is more representative to say that he sees the self as pedagogical. To presuppose that our language or objects have any essential order or shape is wrong to Wittgenstein, they only have use, and this is true of how we educate also.

Wittgenstein’s later philosophy in regards to education can be read as this therefore: we do not share the otherness of those being taught, nor can we observe whether they understand our explanations (Maruyama, 2006). We assume, quite wrongly, that the dialogic form is controlled solely by the questioner in the classic Socratic sense. However, the rules by which language is employed may well coincide perfectly with how it is used, yet this does not mean to say they are descriptive of its actual use (Kuusela, 2008). As such we can never be certain of what is being understood and can only strive forward in a confused form of mutual edification.

Combining these divergent thought processes is difficult and perhaps impossible but that does not mean to say they are incomprehensible. Wittgenstein’s work is confusing and at times contradictory yet it remains unique in its breadth and precision in regards to how language can be used as a tool for philosophical excavation, and for that matter there remains a great deal of interest to the educator as well.

Budd, M. (1987) Wittgenstein on Seeing Aspects. Mind, 96 (381)
Chomsky, N. (1957) Syntactic Structures. Mouton de Gruyter, Boston.
Fodor, J.A. (1975) The Language of Thought. Thomas Cromwell, Boston.
Frege, G. (1892) On Sense and Reference. Accessed Online [20/12/2013] at philo.ruc.edu.cn/logic/reading/On%20sense%20and%20reference.pdf‎
Kuusela, O. (2008) The Struggle Against Dogmatism: Wittgenstein and the Concept of Philosophy. Harvard University Press, London.
Maruyama, Y. (2006) The Teaching/Telling Distinction Revisited. In The Proceedings of the Twenty-First World Congress of Philosophy, Istanbul 2003, pp.93-97, Philosophical Society of Turkey.
Peters, M. & Marshall, J. (1999) Wittgenstein: Philosophy, Postmodernism, Pedagogy. Bergin & Garvey, London.
Williams, M. (1994) The Significance of Learning in Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 24 (2), pp.173-204
Wittgenstein, L. (1921) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge, London.
Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

Ivan Illich: A Contemporary Introduction

This article was first published in an edited form by internationalsocialist.org.uk on 15/10/2013. Please click on the link or see Publications & Contributions for the original text and other articles I have published elsewhere.

Not often do we find the character of a Roman Catholic Priest, radical social reformer, ascetic, philosopher, and all round rabble-rouser embodied in one person. Fortunately for those inclined towards such pursuits Austria provided us with the inimitable Ivan Illich in the year of 1926. Boasting an expansive bibliography concerning many topics of contemporary importance it is perhaps time we cast our eye over this enigmatic figure.

For those new to the works of Illich his writing variously covered the fields of education, medicine, sociology, technology, and ecology – yet rather noticeably not theology. He worked and taught in no fewer than twelve different countries in Europe and the Americas and at all times his focus was firmly on those at the sharp end of inequality. Like many polymaths before and after him there is a danger that his output loses significance because of its sheer scope, as such I will try to focus here on his two most important contributions, the way we work and the way we learn.

Illich wrote extensively on the function and role of the human being at work and interestingly also on their journey to work (he potentially leads the grumpy philosopher league table in terms of hatred of cars). His texts Shadow Work, Tools for Conviviality, and The Right to Useful Unemployment set out his benchmark philosophy of conviviality.

A convivial society would be the result of social arrangements that guarantee for each member the most ample and free access to the tools of the community and limit this freedom only in favour of another member’s equal freedom. [1]

Illich believed we should seek out tools, not machines. A tool by his definition is capable of a variety of functions and purposes whilst still being an extension of its user. All of the social structures and hegemonies we create are tools, they are however all too often malignant in nature – family, gender, environment – all tools to a perceived end, all tools which need not be as they are. In finding new tools for conviviality we can become a society of individuals within a purposeful efficient structure.

Illich’s most widely read text, which has received heightened exposure in recent years, is Deschooling Society. As a manifesto for educational change few philosophers have been so scathing in their pursuit of a new approach. It called for the unmasking of ritualised beliefs, the disintegration of formalised learning, and the prescient introduction of new technologies to hand power over to the agents of change – namely, us.

As long as we are not aware of the ritual through which school shapes the progressive consumer- the economy’s major resource – we cannot break the spell of this economy and shape a new one.[2]

Many have referred to Illich as an archivist of ideas rather than a philosopher or theorist and I think this is only to his credit. He is trying to show us what lies beneath the widely held beliefs that construct our supposedly benign institutions – schools, hospitals, churches – and at the same time pose the question ‘how can we seek change when we do not understand the nature of the machinery which nourishes us?’

Deschooling Society neatly encompasses the two bêtes noires of Illich’s work, modernisation and the illegitimate institution. For Illich language is very important and by speaking the language of the poor and allowing them to speak for themselves he hoped to find new modes of learning unfettered by structural imposition.

People can defend language as inherently theirs; they can find in their inalienable natures the confidence to use their unchanged formal structures to express contents entirely opposed to those for which they were taught to use them in their childhood.[3]

Words therefore become the soul of the people, the dormant means by which we can express discontent and truly reflect our own struggles. This kind of unshackled expression will simply not allow for the cosh of institutional arrangements. He was by no means alone in this pursuit, most notably echoing the work of the great Marxist educationalist Paolo Freire in Brazil, but Illich did lay down a manifesto for self education and voluntary arrangements that we can still see today in the emerging trends for lifelong learning and open universities.

Illich understood that systems – be they hierarchical, communitarian, despotic, or religious – are complex, and rarely can the fundamentals of a sound idea percolate from generation to generation without disharmony. It is with this in mind that he sought to question the assumptions of emerging ideas from the perspective of those who might fall under their auspices, namely the poor and disenfranchised. This mindset brought him to both Puerto Rico and Mexico where he taught new missionaries that every struggle is at its first point of fruition a local one. It must appeal to the common desires and shared language of the people swaddled in its injustices before it can hope to incubate change further afield. This was in stark contrast to the imposed doctrine of the Church he officially represented (though personally denounced) and flew in the face of the cultural western powers which sought to capitalise on the vast resources in the region by way of a religiously guided charm offensive.

So what can people in the UK draw from this revolutionary voice? If Scotland is to become a newly independent state it will be incumbent upon all living within its boundaries to question the long held tenets of centuries of UK social and economic policy. The answers to these questions are by no means simple but if we can learn anything from Illich it is this:

In a society caught up in the race for the better, limits on change are experienced as a threat. The commitment to the better at any cost makes the good impossible at all costs.[4]

Which begs the question, what do they mean when they say we are ‘better together’? For those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland the possibility of a break from this kind of rhetoric is not as clear. What is clear however is that radical groups and seekers of socialism have a lot of work to do in every country, city, and community across these islands entirely independently of their supposedly mandated governments in order to realise these essential ideas.

The growth of green industries and worldwide communications has brought about entirely new kinds of industry and social formations, new tools (potentially) for conviviality. In an independent Scotland where possibility is plentiful it is up to us therefore to decide how we can contribute to that society, to one another, and to enrich ourselves.  In doing so we can set an example for our friends throughout Europe and beyond by abandoning an aggressive neo-liberal agenda, thereby creating the most powerful tools for conviviality possible – peace and solidarity.

Illich by no means has all of the answers, yet he does present an interesting case for rethinking how we live, work, and learn – and it is with this in mind that he can be an inspiration still to all who seek a radical alternative in increasingly unimaginative times.


[1] Illich, I. (1973) Tools for Conviviality. p.12, Marion Boyars, London

[2] Illich, I. (1971) Deschooling Society. p.37, Marion Boyars, London

[3] Illich, I. (1973) Tools for Conviviality. p.97, Marion Boyars, London

[4] Illich, I. (1973) Tools for Conviviality. p.75, Marion Boyars, London