Learning from Latin America: Part 1. The State

By Cygnus

The function of Scottish independence, for those on the Left campaigning in favour, is one of societal revival. Scottish society can enter the 21st century only after the sweeping away of anachronistic British structures – stemming from London – that nurture elitism and stifle democracy. We are now turning towards different societies, looking for positive ideas (policies, laws, etc.), and doing the right thing by stealing them. The most commonly occurring examples cited appear to be practices and policies from the Nordic countries. These ideas are promoted by Scottish think-tanks, Common Weal and Nordic Horizons, with the former being most prominent in terms of reference in pro-independence circles (although it has no formal position on the referendum). ‘All of us first’ are the words of the moment by Common Weal, an attempt to capture opposition to inequality in a slogan. The excitement about building our own version of a Nordic Utopia – as some have sardonically called these countries – has manifested itself in the rhetoric of some active in the Radical Independence Campaign. A couple of questions arise at this point.

Firstly, what is it that people identifying as ‘socialists’ find so covetable about Nordic countries?

It is demonstrable that these countries are more equal and more democratic, with better healthcare, better pensions and better wages. These conditions are said to be achieved by inclusive democratic structures, nationalised services, and a peaceful foreign policy. No doubt hailing the Nordic approach as the paragon of civilisation is a result of living under the British system, where aggressive individualism is rewarded and those weakest in society are punished for the crime of being disadvantaged. The Nordic approach is merely social democracy – the filing down of the sharp, rusty edges of neoliberalism to maintain the structures of cuddly capitalism. This is not radical by any measure. In fact, the trend in Sweden[i] and Norway[ii] is towards privatisation of public services and state-owned companies.

Secondly, why are some on the Scottish left obsessing over Nordic countries when there are more socially-oriented countries they can turn to?

Is it because Scandinavians are more ‘like us’? They also speak a Germanic language. They are also white. They are quite close to us geographically. However, there are examples further afield which are radical and which can be feasibly applied to an independent Scotland. Starting around fifteen years ago, some Latin American countries have been transforming their societies not only politically and economically, but addressing deep social issues of sex and gender in a positive and meaningful way, and prioritising social needs, not capital accumulation. Strangely, they have largely been ignored in favour of the people to our north-east.

After the election of Rafael Correa as Ecuadorean president in 2007, a Constituent Assembly was formed to write a new constitution. The assembly gained approval by 80% of the electorate, and the constitution was approved almost two-thirds of voters. Enacted in 2008, this constitution[iii] – by international standards – is uniquely progressive in that it addresses the fundamental human rights and needs of citizens.

Article 11 recognises the fundamental right to gender identity and sexual orientation. Ecuador is the first state to do this. Article 281 guarantees the right to food: “Food sovereignty is a strategic objective and an obligation of the state in order to ensure that persons, communities, peoples and nations achieve self-sufficiency with respect to healthy and culturally appropriate food on a permanent basis.” The state has fourteen administrative, economic and bureaucratic obligations pertinent to this article. Again, this is a world first in terms of rights. Articles 71-4 address the rights of nature: nature has “the right to be restored” and the state is obliged to restrict or prevent “activities that might lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of ecosystems and the permanent alteration of natural cycles.” Like the previous two, this section of the constitution is globally unprecedented. That the environment can be constitutionally protected is particularly salient to Scotland, considering the recent razing of areas of Special Scientific Interest in Aberdeenshire by the avaricious Donald Trump, enabled by the Scottish government.[iv]

Similar to the Ecuadorean experience, only ten years earlier, Venezuela elected Hugo Chávez who subsequently made provision for a Constitutional Assembly to be voted on. The constitution was approved by the electorate in 1999 with an over two-thirds majority. The Venezuelan constitution has been described as “non-androcentric”. In terms of language, it uses both the Spanish masculine and feminine noun-classes – something lacking in all constitutions up until 1999. It incorporates the definition of discrimination by the UN ‘Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women’. In a more concrete move towards equality of the sexes, women working in the home are entitled to receive payment by the state for this, since their labour is recognised as an economic activity. Economic rights in the Bolivarian constitution are geared in the interests of working people: “every worker has the right to a sufficient salary that allows a life with dignity and covers his own and his* family’s basic material, social and intellectual activities.” In addition, the state is obliged to promote and protect economic democracy, like cooperatives. The right to healthcare is also enshrined in the constitution: “health is a fundamental social right, an obligation of the state, which guarantees it as part of the right to life.”[v]

Both the Ecuadorean and Venezuelan constitutions clearly seek to ensure not only the protection of political rights and freedoms, but to engender a social and economic environment that is conducive to the advancement of individual and community health and wellbeing. The medium- and long-term result of such rights being implemented is that people with their fundamental needs secured can then concentrate on political participation and activity. In turn, then, social change can be harnessed by the working class in a direct way, since they are no longer burdened with daily hardships as before.

Bolivia has been engaging in land reform for years, but the redistribution of land has been accelerated by president Evo Morales since his election in 2006. Land ownership has been shifted from the wealthy to indigenous communities and poor farmers. While the landed classes still own vast amount of land, peasant and indigenous organisations now collectively control one-third of regularised land. Of titled land, peasant and indigenous communities now hold over 55%. The government has acquired (by some estimates) 25 million acres from individuals or businesses that did not use land productively or could not show legal rights to the land they claimed.[vi] Guided by correcting historical injustices and challenging privilege, Bolivia is making those in genuine need the beneficiaries of land use. By contrast, the Scottish government’s Land Reform Review Group recently proposed that there should be an upper limit on the amount of land held by private owners, and advocated an increase in community land ownership.[vii] This is a disappointingly insipid solution to a country which has the highest concentration of land ownership in the developed world, with 432 individuals owning 50% of the land. Scotland only abolished feudal property rights ten years ago.

The only example of lessons in democracy from Latin America which is popular with the Nordicists is that of Porto Alegre. In 1989, the Brazilian city decided that measures had to be taken to combat corruption and wasting of resources. The participative budget was the solution offered: the population would decide on budget expenditure, priorities and development plans. The working class and middle class, leftists and rightists, were invited to talk civilly in an economic forum. This has been lauded as a victory for democracy. Proponents point to results: sewerage systems, drinking water access and paved roads have been installed in poor areas that previously had none.[viii] It’s unsurprising that those favouring the Nordic model are attracted to this scheme – it allows the middle class to retain their position of luxury while the working class must negotiate their way out of poverty. This does reinforce the idea that advocates of Nordic-style democracy have bourgeois interests, contrasting with recent programmes and policies in Venezuela, for example, which are largely working class.

While the radical changes in Latin American countries tend to be highly state-centric and top-down, this is quite a logical step, given the history of US invasions, military dictatorships and systemic human rights violations. The concern with having a state that guarantees rights and can promote and defend working-class interests is an obvious priority. However, there are positive trends that indicate communities are taking control, without state coercion (explored in part 2). In the discussion of the need for Scotland to radically change, there are two flaws in choosing the Nordic model. The first is that Scotland has a large working class population, and a prominent working class political culture. The Nordic approach accepts that governance should remain in the hands of the bourgeois; working class empowerment is not an option. The second is that Scandinavian countries began their social democratic projects in the early- or mid-20th century (depending on which country you are talking about) – before the globalisation of neoliberal capitalism. Capital must deepen and expand, which is why even Norway is now submitting to the logic of the market; social democracy can only slow down capitalism, not stop it. The Bolivarian movements began as a direct challenge to neoliberalism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with the focus on tearing down the economic structures that exploited those poorest in society, to the benefit of the wealthy. Those in favour of independence and calling themselves a ‘socialist’ of any stripe must to turn to Latin America for ideas. With a housing crisis, food bank use rising, concern for the future of NHS, urgent land reform needed – all amid recession and austerity – the lessons we can learn from Latin America are far more instructive and relevant than those from the Nordic countries.






* Assuming this gender specific language is in the English version of the constitution only






A match made in heaven – Common Weal and the Rich

Roch Winds


There is no hiding the fact: we live in a period when moral sense is totally expunged from the minds of the people in the big cities… The worker cannot see why he should lack everything when the rich man goes short of nothing. He revolts against the unjust distribution of wealth which, in his eyes, has ceased to be compensated for in any way. He blames our social system and sees some sort of justice in overthrowing it. He wants, in his turn, to enjoy all the good things of life. This becomes a consuming and intoxicating passion. It is no longer a question of victory over some verbal quibble, or over the form of government. What is at the root of these impious endeavours is the total reshaping of society. From political riots we have passed to social war.

To so grave a malady there would be but…

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EU: Peaceful, Prosperous, Neoliberal

By Cygnus

There are plenty of discussions now on what kind of Scotland we intend to work towards in the next few years, with an eye to social change. Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), the Scottish Socialist Party, the Scottish Green Party and – to a lesser extent – Yes Scotland are often focussed on the same overlapping and intersecting themes and issues. The democratic deficit, crushing poverty and inequality, and unemployment are recurrent in our proposed solutions to the social and economic injustice that characterises the British state today. Specifically, then, and in terms of concrete change, we want quality jobs, workers’ rights, and free and universal health care. Independence, we have realised, is a means to attain these goals, which are socially oriented. This therefore requires a democratised economy which is geared towards achieving ‘sustainable wellbeing’[i] and not the accumulation of profit and the expansion of capital. We are intent on working towards a socially just economy, as opposed to one driven by market fundamentalism, but certain economic structures in place now are, by mere design, a threat to progressive change. This is because their purpose is to implement and maintain neoliberal capitalism, and they are found at the supranational and international levels. However, a coherent discussion about the international economic structures appears to be neglected, despite these having an enormous influence on how we organise our economy.

At the time of writing, the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is being negotiated. According to the EU Commission, this trade agreement aims at “removing trade barriers (tariffs, unnecessary regulations, restrictions on investment, etc) in a wide range of economic sectors so as to make it easier to buy and sell goods and services between the EU and US. The EU and US also want to make it easier for their companies to invest in each other’s economy”.[ii]

While vague on virtually everything, it is clear from the language that this is a serious attempt at the supranational level to further entrench neoliberalism and deepen corporate power over states. In March this year, Tory cabinet minister, Ken Clarke, “hosted a roundtable meeting with professional business services to discuss barriers to the US market that they currently face and explore the many opportunities for business that the proposed [TTIP] will bring”.[iii] Much like the EU level negotiations, we are given no clue as to which individuals representing ‘professional business services’ are present in talks on economic policy that is skewed towards the interests of business. In effect, what this deal does is cut away any bureaucratic fetters on corporations, and grants them unprecedented power, by allowing them to legally alter the structures designed initially to regulate them.[iv] This agreement will be a comically dystopian victory for capital, due to one particular element of it: the Investor-State Dispute Settlement. This is a mechanism that grants multinationals the power to sue states for limiting their profits with regulations.[v] While many of us identify states as obstacles to genuine democracy in themselves – due to their necessarily hierarchical and violent structures – we must concede that they can at least assist with the creation of (somewhat) democratic institutions; laws amended or written by multinationals will be oriented towards the accumulation of capital only.

Even if the dark era of TTIP does not begin (although there is currently no organised opposition to speak of), an independent Scotland will likely be a member of the EU, World Trade Organisation, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. All of the latter three institutions are configured to implement, or assist in implementing, neoliberal capitalism on a global scale – and have succeeded – although only the WTO was created specifically for this purpose in the mid-nineties.

The EU is dedicated to upholding the principle of market fundamentalism, and ensuring that its members run free trade economies. The IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission (executive arm of the EU) work together to ensure that states in the Eurozone adhere to neoliberalism. This is most starkly demonstrated in the event of capitalist crises, where savage public spending cuts are imposed to pay for private losses – Greece being the most current and stark example.

The IMF’s purpose, it claims, is to “provide the public good of financial stability”.[vi] The World Bank has two goals to be complete (by 2030): to “end extreme poverty” and to “promote shared prosperity”.[vii] Both of these international institutions enjoy membership (therefore ‘legitimacy’) from almost all states in the world (188). It’s worth considering the internal democracy of these two bodies with nobly egalitarian aims. Since its inception in 1946, all presidents of the WB have been US citizens, and since the same year, all managing directors of the IMF have been Europeans. Driven by their desire for financial stability and poverty reduction, the WB and IMF have been responsible for socio-economic atrocities on a global scale, notably in the global South. During the 1970s, they put pressure on countries to take out loans, borrow, and deepen national debt. By the early 1980s, those indebted countries were abandoned. There were then pressured to implement ‘structural adjustment programmes’ – this, in short, meant that the working class are required to pay of the debts of the rich.[viii] More recently, the World Bank demanded that Tanzania privatise its water system, and advocated that food subsidies to post-invasion Iraq be terminated.[ix] The role of the IMF and World Bank is to ensure the interests of the rich remain unthreatened by the needs of the many; it is for this reason that Chomsky aptly labelled them “tools of the neoliberal onslaught”.[x] The WTO describes its aims as “reducing obstacles to international trade and ensuring a level playing field for all” and boasts that it has contributed to “unprecedented global growth”.[xi] These words are being echoed today in the TTIP. A US trade representative once lauded the WTO as being adept at promoting “America’s passion for deregulation”.[xii]

Discussion of international neoliberal institutions is crucial if we want to have a socially just economy in an independent Scotland. We cannot ignore them because they will not ignore us: democratic grassroots movements to control the economy for the benefit of all can incur an authoritarian response from the state. There are precedents for avoiding or resisting global neoliberal structures in a formal capacity. In May 2007, Venezuela officially cut ties with the World Bank and the IMF. Regarding the latter, it shut down its offices in the country the previous year.[xiii] Despite this, Venezuela appears to still be considered a ‘member’ of both the IMF and the World Bank. Non-members of both include: Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Cuba, Nauru and North Korea. While these are serious politico-economic issues, they can only be dealt with in a post-independence Scotland. There are, at the moment, challenges to those who seek to build a new Scotland oriented towards social need, by those whose priority is the free market. One page on the site of Yes Scotland is entitled ‘Scotland Open for Business’ and states that the country is a “very attractive destination” to direct foreign investment.[xiv]. An article on the SNP website hails business opportunity in an independent Scotland, arguing that, after independence, it “will be able to strengthen its competitive business environment”.[xv] On another Yes Scotland page, there is simply a screed of uncategorised quotes by various capitalists endorsing independence to varying degrees. Among them are: UK president of PepsiCo, the chairman of BP and the chief executive of Tesco.[xvi] True, none of these pages speak of planning an orgy of privatisation or eroding further the already abysmal state of workers rights, but they do reveal a determination to create a Scotland which is supine, that will not disturb the neoliberal status quo. It is disconcerting that the country should be presented as prey to capitalists while a fifth of children in Scotland are living in poverty. Pandering to the interests of big business is not an ideal starting point for working towards a socially just economy. Even if they are doing this simply to capture the business community [sic] vote, it is a careless and desperate attempt to win a campaign.

The IMF, World Bank and WTO are state- and capital- centric institutions. Their aims, then, are to work with – or impose upon – states to ensure they remain fertile ground for neoliberalism. Likewise, the EU is a state-based politico-economic bloc, which has resorted to unspeakable savagery to maintain the ‘stability’ of the state and safe for business (see the Greek situation). These bodies interact with their members at the national level. For us in Scotland, there is a two year ‘transition’ period after the vote, meaning we can enter that space and prevent any pusillanimous bureaucrats from speaking for us and selling out. We can use this period to build coherent and organised resistance to external neoliberal entities. Erroneously, and sadly, some parties and groups – whose social concerns are at least informally expressed – maintain that the EU is some sort of progressive bloc. TTIP is not an aberration in policy, it is a logical and necessary continuation of EU neoliberal policy, so to oppose the TTIP but not the institution managing it is misguided. Scotland is part of a small island, but economically it is not isolated; it is part of an interconnected web of repressive economic structures. These are genuine threats to fundamental social change, and must be made a priority for those of us discussing a post-independent Scotland. There is a serious danger of being preoccupied with piecemeal political reform, to the detriment of economic restructuring. A reference here to James Connolly’s almost proverbial ‘hoisting the green flag’ argument is difficult to avoid here.


[i] See ‘Environment & the Economy’ by Scottish Environment LINK