Article 2014 The Year in Review

Hope vs. fear: Scotland's referendum & global democracy movements

A review of the ongoing global struggle between progressive participatory politics and neoliberalism

During the Scottish referendum, I witnessed a clear battle of hope verses fear. Within the independence campaign, the Radical Yes promoted a progressive greener, fairer and egalitarian future. The No side stressed independence would herald imminent doom: “There is no alternative” the Labour-led establishment side repeated – dogma that has reverberated since the neoliberal era of capitalism began.

The No campaign coined itself ’Project Fear’, painting a dour picture of independence, not least economically. Scotland would lose the pound then be forced to join the Euro and oil revenues would be volatile. Both pensions and house prices would collapse, and it would haemorrhage jobs, with corporations heading to London. Panic was created around a possible run on the banks and soaring food costs, if independence was the outcome.

In contrast, Yes envisioned re-distributing wealth and ending austerity, realised by measures such as progressive taxes, a citizen’s income, land reform, nationalising oil revenue and positively investing it into schemes like community wind farm projects. Money would also be available by scrapping pointless weapons of mass destruction, transforming Scotland’s global relations and lifting the threat from nuclear incidents to Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow. Other innovations included transforming democracy: with a people-led constitution, local and participatory democracy.

Again, the No’s rang alarm bells; internationally Scotland would forced out from Europe, facing threats from Russia and terrorism.

But even with project fear on full force, hope was abundant on the streets in the lead-up to the referendum. Yes stalls buzzed with optimism. Yes choirs went from the schemes (council estates) to town centres. On referendum-eve, I witnessed thousands gathered in Edinburgh’s Meadows for #YesHope Global Solidarity, a candle lit gathering with flags of different nations that wandered its way down to Holyrood Parliament. Accounts from George Square report it was packed with Yes campaigners too.

The internationalism and positivity of this campaign was routinely ignored or misrepresented in the mainstream media; researcher Dr David Patrick documents a large No bias. Of all national newspapers only the Sunday Herald (a weekly) supported independence. Doubling its readership during the campaign, it recently started publishing a daily newspaper, The National.

Accusations of BBC bias provoked protests outside its Glasgow Headquarters four days before the vote. Bias is apparent in an overview article about the referendum’s ′key issues’. It stresses fears about currency and oil running out, but neglects any progressive possibilities. Equally, BBC News editor Nick Robinson has been accused of doing the No campaign’s dirty work. He leaked Treasury claims that RBS will leave Scotland and edited a report that falsely suggests Alex Salmond refused to answer questions on the subject.

The No establishment seemed bereft of fresh ideas, pumping fear on maximum. During this last week, it struck me how these fear taps are used on an everyday basis to maintain the system.

Business as Usual: Project Fear

Scaremongering is all over the austerity project, with minority and vulnerable groups demonised as “skivers”, “scroungers” or “fraudsters”. The cuts – the establishment tell us – are all the poor’s fault for being “too lazy”. Any moves to regulate or rein in the excessively rich, on the other hand, are rejected by the establishment with echoes of the threats exclaimed within their No campaign. Regulation – they tells us – will mean job losses, drops in pensions, companies to exodus and so on. This anti-regulatory line is the one Cameron is using to push the free trade agreement TTIP, which will increase the power of corporations further.

The establishment diverts attention from the billions of pounds society loses lost through pro-elite activities including speculation, tax evasion, bank bailouts and systemic fraud like LIBOR; the narrative is instead that society owes everything to the rich getting richer. This mimics Stockholm syndrome, those held at ransom feeling indebted and allegiance to their captors.

Project Fear is also used to maintain the military industrial complex and fossil fuel industries. David Cameron showed his true blue colours saying he will “cut the green crap”. The message is energy bills will rise unless we let the oil and fracking industry get their way. Threats about the cost of heating, when there is spiraling fuel poverty, serve as distraction from both the oil elites central within the government and viable green alternatives.

Britain has been in a state of perpetual war for 100 years, justified by supposed threats like how Iraq could hit British territory within 45 minutes with nuclear weapons in 2002. Imminent catastrophe is constantly forewarned if we diverge at all from the business as usual and ‘military invasions as usual’ course. This mindset reflects in the ’Paranoid Style’ written by Richard Hofstadter half a century ago in the midst of the Cold War.

“The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse.”

Hofstadter explains writing about McCarthyism, a practice used by the Right attacking alternative thinkers with wild political accusations, but no evidence.

50 years on, what differs is that there is no discernible Left within establishment politics; New Labour is a party of austerity, big oil and foreign wars. It opposed Scotland’s opportunity to break free from Westminster’s neoliberalism.

The establishment discourse could be said to promote paranoia. Labelling peaceful protesters as terrorists is one manifestation. A City of London memo that defines Occupy London supporters as ”domestic extremists“, on a watch-list alongside al-Qaida, is one example.

The memo warns: “City of London Police has received a number of hostile reconnaissance reports concerning individuals that fit the anti-capitalist profile.”

Occupy is one of the global democracy movements emerging since the 2008 financial crash, all of which distinctive but with similar threads in their ideas – many parallels can also be drawn between these movements and the Radical Yes campaign.

Global Democracy Movements

Iceland’s Pot and Pans Revolution was one of the first post-crash social upheavals in 2009. Icelanders ousted their government under the banner of “Unfit government: unfit bank management”. Similar anti-neoliberal revolution fervour swept through the Arab Spring in 2011 followed by Spain’s 15M movement, “Real democracy now” it demanded. Occupy expanded this squares movement, attacking inequality: “We are the 99%”.

Other mass mobilisations followed, in Turkey growing from Gezi Park, in Canada focused against tar sands and fracking with Idle No More, south of the border the US mobilisation against Keystone XL – the tar sands pipeline. More recently, there have been mass protests in Brazil and Hong Kong.

In common, these movements call for systemic change from neoliberal failure, both for people and the planet. They also frequently sought to reclaim public space and the commons and re-imagine democracy, a vision based on full participation and rights no longer dominated by the corporate elite.

In a nutshell these movements aimed at a progressive future just like the Yes.

Another similarity between these post-2008 global justice movements and radical independence is how the media frequently ignores the issues and the movements.

Media for the 1% and 99%

Recently, anthropologist David Graeber pointed out how the corporate media all but ignored the recent Occupy Democracy camp in Parliament Square, London, that was ravaged by aggressive policing for 9 days. He pointed out that the excessive police reaction and media inaction could be for the same reasons – both working to maintain the status quo.

In the referendum campaign, there was a similar void in corporate media covering alternatives, such as Common Weal, a comprehensive plan of ideas to redefine society as ‘all of us first’, rather than its current ‘me-first’ mindset. Alternative news media filled the vacuum, with the growth and expansion of sites including Bella Caledonia and Newsnet Scotland.

A trend of growing alternative media that discusses dissent against Project Fear and nurtures a space for alternatives can be seen within the global democracy movements. The 15M movement of squares created a newspaper, is a news platform news platform growing from Occupy Wall Street, while Turkish protests that began in Gezi Park has the sites including Everywhere Taksim. In Iceland, they created media protections to a standard that it is the only place where Wikileaks has an official office.

Worldwide, Wikileaks has perhaps reshaped the news landscape the most, going furthest to highlight the systemic corruption and criminality.

In combination with Twitter, blogs and other social media, these DIY and non-corporate media are helping to both tell the story the corporations want to silence and galvanise hope. Unlike the pamphlets and print information of past people’s struggles, the digital age is allowing the leaks, dissent and innovations to go viral.

Hope and alternatives are trending

By its nature, participatory democracy movements draw together people with a diversity of ideas, views and tactics. But through both physical and digital connections, innovative ideas can spread like dandelion seeds in the wind.

Across the world, there are discussions about digital democracy and new media protections that have emerged from Iceland’s moves towards direct democracy. There are new party political structures in action, such as Podemos in Spain that are based on ideas of participation, transparency and inclusion. In Spain, Greece and elsewhere there are movements pushing for debt audits, a way a nation can reject debt that was not created in the public interest.

It is worth mentioning that a great deal of these ideas originated before 2008, not least in South America’s earlier movements against neoliberalism and austerity.

Looking to the future in Scotland and beyond, it is true to say that neoliberalism still remains, but how long Project Fear can sustain seems uncertain. With expanding interest and enthusiasm behind Scottish independence it appears “Another Scotland is possible”.

As hope breeds more hope, as there are alternatives, as innovations spark in public spaces and go viral, maybe it is worth predicting that not just another world is possible but another world is coming.

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