A Reputation Not Reconsidered
In a recent Scottish Review article, Kenneth Roy takes the opportunity of the announcement of the late Edwin Morgan’s will to expose what he sees as a hypocrisy in the Scottish liberal left in terms of its unwillingness to condemn Morgan’s riches while fulminating against bank profits. The piece is eloquent and has valid concerns about takeovers in ‘care’ and about the quietism within the Scottish establishment even post-May (a network of power which has been tracked by Political Scientists since the early days of devolution) – but there is something unwholesome about the way Roy attributes to what he calls an ‘unreconstructed left’, no names named, an unwillingness to condemn anything that touches on ‘the market’, including Morgan himself.
The question is why this failing-to-condemn version of the left is described as ‘unreconstructed’; rather, here there is a knee-jerkiness which assumes that condemnation of ‘the market’ is and should be built in to every conversation; it is this that feels ‘unreconstructed’, and whether consciously or not, whiffs of old British statist orthodoxy.
There are at least two serious problems with Roy’s commentary which would suggest it belongs to the statist old-left. The first is a technical question of literary disciplinarity: the whole business of ‘reputation’ on which his analysis rests, the centering of readings around individual sensibilities, was a staple of that British-imperial organisation of writing (along class lines) which became known as English Literature; sensibility and reputation have little place in post-British reading. During the high period of empire, the ideal sensibility was the one which was the carrier of civility – so that, just like the British-imperial constitution to which it was tied, it could be described as ideally (that is, ahistorically) as Anglo-British – allowing for cultural expansion as a cheaper and less troublesome alternative to military takeover during the Pax Britannica. This era has often been retrospectively and misguidedly been described as a high point of economic liberalism – but was in fact dependent an imperial idea of ever-expanding markets, which helps explain why both Britain and the British discipline of English Literature are in such deep trouble now.
Part of the pleasure of reading Edwin Morgan has always been his disregard for individual reputation. His experimental energy and his relentless humanism constantly frustrate any reading in terms of concern for his own standing as an individual, or ‘reputation’. The ‘reputation’ business is individualist, critically long since discredited, and frankly depressing, and is locked in to a British-imperial conception literature’s mission. Morgan has never substantially been incorporated into English Literature despite huge popularity in Scotland, largely because his work strikes the wider community as an expression of a certain kind of un-British civicism which does not rely on the individual reputation or sensibility as underscoting a correct type of voice which can then be used to psychologise a whole discrete body of work. Put another way, if you centre literary discussion on biography and literary reputation, what you’re doing is methodologically English Literature, even if the names on it are Scottish: the disciplinarity remains the same, but just takes on a different cast of members (and in this sense it has much in common with the British hijacking of the term ‘multiculturalism’). This may all sound obvious to some, but it remains lost on not only general readers but also a fair number of professional Scottish literary critics.
The second problem with this critique concerns the ethics of being in touch with ‘the market’. It’s certainly true that Morgan sat on pile of unearned cash that could have been working in some other way (though he did, in passing, spread it out to according to his beliefs and with the kind of modest forward-looking integrity he showed in life) – but the implication of the ‘reputations’ piece is an unseemlier one which whiffs of a specifically statist form of redistribution and of the public (at UK-level, of course, there has been no functioning public for some time). There is a misconception, the kind you might pick up reading The Guardian, and one peddled by the really-unreconstructed left, that tax money is paid to hospitals and schools. Not true: tax money is paid to the state, which then spends some of it on hospitals and schools, but quite a lot of it on creating asset bubbles to bind labour, past, present, and future, to its own power for purely instrumental reasons. And this for of debt-slavery-as-citizenship finds its highest expression true of a unitary, unconstitutional state, of which the UK represents a rare example. Thus the disasters – and the opportunities – of the 2008-2011 period, when it began to become clear that it was not simply the case that the UK state had helped along a debt bubble, but more widely that at base the UK state was a debt bubble. With the coalescence of resource scarcity, democratic deficit, and systemic economic corruption, the re-heated corporate state of tax obligation and avoidance of ‘the market’ has little to say to this, even if what it’s trying to say takes on a Scottish accent. The problem of 2008, after all, was that the state bailed out the banks: although profit was assumed to have been predicated on the possibility of loss, it turned out that in this version of British ‘liberalism’ there was no moral hazard at all, banks could not lose since the state was always underwriting the emptiest, most soul-destroying type of accumulation with taxpayers’ money; it turned out also that amongst the British left this was seen as a relatively unproblematic state of affairs. ‘The market’ then was not quite the problem – what was, rather, was the underwriting of an empty, debt-based, and unproductive market by the corporate state. If there is an opportunity for the post-British Scottish left, it is to drop this knee-jerk fear of ‘the market’ which only works in favour of the worst type of ‘market’, and welcome entrepreneurialism. This has nothing to do with Sir Sugar Lord, or however the state broadcaster now demands we styles that loathsome illiterate; it is something much closer to the restless, networking, filesharing, scarcity-aware creation which can be seen in figures like Pat Kane or (sorry) the editors of this journal. This cannot happen at the level of the United Kingdom, a state only existing for imperial reasons. The UK doesn’t do ‘liberalism’, and wouldn’t recognise a free market if it was slapped in the face by one. Indeed what is needed in a post-British environment is a kind of ‘political entrepreneurialism’: one in which future-oriented, risk-taking, and creative networks are fostered and eclipse the rotten-borough-esque mantra of ‘but you mustn’t touch the market’. Seen at the cusp of British-statist debtonomics and the need for creative solutions to democratic deficit throughout the UK and energy scarcity, a harrumphing over our unwillingness to condemn Morgan’s willingness to touch the ‘market’ is more toxic than it at first seems.
Morgan was not a perfect figure. But he lived ascetically yet playfully, humanistically and with almost boundless generosity, open to experiment both in aesthetics and in life, and eschewed the debt-mired statist consumerist-shite-for-all-and-like-it ethic that was pushed pretty constantly by the Labour Party from the 1940s. He may have had shares, but (at least when I knew him) he had no TV, and so could not be compelled to subsidise the British state and their banking associates through a form of propaganda taxation which is iniquitous even by our standards. Modestly and in an uncondemning way, he knew he had no time for be brainwashed by the old left of any country (as his public run-ins with Hugh MacDairmid testify). And his work appeals to our sense of the civic, the ludic, the humanitarian, and, to an extent the entrepreneurial – and especially given that he was a ‘sleeping player’ in shares terms – expecting us to automatically condemn any contact he might have had with the market really stinks. Morgan’s ‘legacy’ (we will use that word in its doubly counter-Burkean sense, straddling economic and literary meanings) points to a spirit which is entrepreneurial, which has red, black, and green elements, which is future-oriented in both Deleuzian and devolutionary senses, and which relentlessly converts po-faced base-superstructure orthodoxy into more ludic and productive forms. Should we condemn him for owning shares? A thousand blessings on his memory.