The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, July 26, 2013

Use of Calculators

[I've been asked by one or two left publications for a piece about Iain's politics. I've told them I was going to write a blog post on the subject, which they were welcome to use. Here it is. (Update: the Morning Star and the IS Network have reprinted it.) If anyone else wants to use it, please ask.]

When Iain Banks and I were students back in the early 1970s, I was one of the first readers of Use of Weapons. I seem to recall reading the first draft in weekly instalments as the pages flew from the typewriter, and discussing the unfolding content almost as often. Iain explained that the Culture was his idea of utopia, in which advanced technology, inexhaustible resources and friendly artificial intelligence made possible a society in which nobody had to work and there was no need for money or a separate state apparatus. At the time I was reading with some excitement a slim paperback edited by David McLellan and titled Marx's Grundrisse, a collection of extracts from Marx's notebooks, in which he allowed himself some bolder speculations than he ever saw into print. I explained to Iain that the Culture was very similar to Marx's conception of communism: a stateless and classless society based on automation and abundance.

Iain was interested and I think persuaded. But, I went on, the Culture on his telling didn't seem to have come about through class struggle, revolution, and the rest. How, then, could it have come about, given that Iain was as sceptical as I was about the likelihood of such a society being handed down by benevolent rulers from above? By way of answer, Iain pointed to his pocket calculator. He said that on his last vacation job, on a construction site, one of the full-time workers had borrowed it and worked his way through a stack of wage slips, to discover that he and his mates weren't getting all the pay they were due. The site workers had taken the result to the management, who duly if perhaps reluctantly shelled out the back pay that was owed. That, Iain said, was how he'd envisaged the Culture coming about. Conflicts of interest between classes and other groups there would be, but the sheer availability of information and computing power would arm the majority with facts and arguments that would enable them to prove, as well as enforce, their claims. The consequent advance in consciousness would allow the opportunities offered by automation and abundance to be grasped, first in imagination then in reality, and make opposition to their realisation irrational, futile, and weak.

This projection of a democratic, deliberative, and peaceful transition to a co-operative commonwealth wasn't as far removed from Marx's own later views as I thought at the time. I saw Marx through Lenin, Lenin through Trotsky, and -- for that matter --Trotsky through the Trotskyists, and each successive prism lost something of the one before, let alone the original image. Iain respected them all as thinkers, but remained sceptical of any attempt to emulate their practice. He was quite willing to stick his neck out when necessary: he came down to London in 1977 to join the mobilization against the fascist National Front's attempt to march through Lewisham, took his place in a small squad of comrades none of whom he knew but me, and thoroughly enjoyed the fight that ensued. On a later visit he joined me when it was my turn to guard our group's bookshop and offices, which had recently been targeted in an amateurish arson attempt by the fascists. As Iain and I checked the locks on the building's back door, two policemen loomed behind us and tapped our shoulders. It took us some minutes to convince the coppers that we really were there to protect rather than attack the shop. Iain ribbed me about it afterwards:

'I bet that's the first time you've ever had to say, "Honestly, officer, I really am a left-wing extremist ..."'

However friendly he was to the radical left, Iain had little interest in relating the long-range possibility of utopia to radical politics in the here and now. As he saw it, what mattered was to keep the utopian possibility open by continuing technological progress, especially space development, and in the meantime to support whatever policies and politics in the real world were rational and humane. For Iain that meant voting Labour. After the party mutated into New Labour he switched his practical vote to the Scottish National Party and his protest vote to the Scottish Socialists and (I think) the Greens. Even before then, in the early to mid 1990s, he'd come around to the view that Scotland would never be safe from the ravages of Tory governments it hadn't voted for unless it separated from England. This support for independence didn't come from nationalism but from reformism, and from a life-long, heart-felt hatred for the Conservative and Unionist Party.

In Iain's view, popular access to information was decisive to any hope of progress, and control of information was central to the power of the ruling class. One of his few intellectual heroes was Noam Chomsky, who has for decades argued and documented this over and over. Iain made a point of being well-informed himself, and seemed to have read the Guardian from cover to cover every day. The most radical writings -- Chomsky's apart -- that he ever enthused about to me were those of John Kenneth Galbraith, George Monbiot and Will Hutton. Iain valued the far left mainly as a source of information that even the Guardian was likely to gloss over. He followed my own adventures and misadventures in Marxism with a sort of sympathetic scepticism, always keen to read whatever rag I was flogging at any given time, and to listen to my explanations of why which paper I was selling sometimes changed over the years. It was my later explorations of libertarian thought that most sorely tried his patience. I could never persuade him that libertarianism was anything but a shill for corporate interests: a common misconception, and one that many libertarians have worked hard to confirm.

In his view, the left's most stupid and repeated mistake was to accept that 'my enemy's enemy is my friend,' which he saw as at the bottom of most of the left's disasters. He had no illusions in existing socialism, and no hopes for the better in its collapse. He opposed every war the British state waged in his lifetime, with the one exception of NATO's war over Kosovo, which he argued for before it happened and never repudiated. Fortunately, this wasn't the first step on a slippery slope. He was even more vehemently opposed than I was to the attack on Iraq -- I tried to at least see a certain logic to it from the imperialist point of view, whereas he saw it as utter folly and madness from the moment it was mooted, an adventure that would sow destruction, multiply terrorism, and do incalculable harm to the interests and security of the UK and US.

He blamed Blair absolutely for the Iraq war, and never forgave or forgot the crime. Anger over what was going on in the Middle East impelled him to his two best-known political gestures: cutting up his passport and sending it to 10 Downing Street, and refusing to have his own books published in Israel. The former action was mocked, the latter attacked. Iain took not a blind bit of notice.

In summary, Iain's political views were, by and large, what you'd expect from an Old Labour supporter and Guardian reader with an informed interest in the analyses of the radical left. What was perhaps more unusual than his views was the consistency and tenacity with which he held them, and his confidence that they must in the long run prevail if civilization was to survive. He saw quite clearly that events weren't going the way he would have liked them to, but never saw any reason to revise his reckoning that neoliberalism just didn't add up.


What a wonderful piece about a favorite writer of mine.
I self-identify as (more or less) a libertarian, but I see anyone who opposes censorship as a fellow traveler. So I see Iain Banks as an ally, although he might not have felt the same way about me.

Nice piece Ken. Iain Banks was almost always worth reading and his passing is very sad. Dead Air was the one book of his that did absolutely nothing for me and also the most obviously a direct political response to circumstances. The equally political Complicity was a much greater book. Didn't he flirt with libertarianism in The Business.

Thank you for your thoughtful piece about a thoughtful man. I hadn't heard the passport story before.

a common misconception, and one that many libertarians have worked hard to confirm


Interesting account of the boundedness of Iain's thinking - if that doesn't sound too negative - and of what can be built in that space. I guess an Old Labour utopian is something to be.

I mean, ...and of how much can be built in that perhaps surprisngly narrow space. But I guess you knew that.

Good piece.

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Thanks Penny - nicely formatted too!

Thanks. I think there are a lot of Scots who would identity with those views.

I could never persuade him that libertarianism was anything but a shill for corporate interests

Did you ever introduce him to the Kevin Carson / C4SS style of libertarianism, and if so, what was his reaction?

BerserkRL - we probably discussed it, and Iain was certainly aware that there were left libertarians. My impression is he thought they were well-meaning but impractical.

Jason - I'd have to re-read The Business, but I don't recall that aspect. Maybe just the possibility of a benign corporation?

Re: the passport story.

It was recounted at the start of "Raw Spirit". It was also why he never made it to a Writer's Festival in New Zealand, where I'd hoped to see him. I never did get the chance to see him.

But though disappointed his trip was cancelled, I was not bitter. I always thought (still do) that that gesture (cutting up his passport) spoke volumes about the character of the man.

Brilliant article, thanks for the insight.

Ken, I made a similar journey to your own; from a family that knew Robert Smillie and Kier Hardie to someone who would rather read the output of the CATO Institute than the Grauniad. I believe that Banksie wanted the best for everyone and was convinced that his political views were the way that could be achieved. Fair enuff.

Strangely, I have always thought that Espedair Street revealed more on his political views than any other of his works.

Slange, mate.

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Ken, you make me sad I never met this most interesting-and so funny!-man.Strangely, Use of Weapons, like the movie, “Sixth Sense” has inspired a number of lies. Many people have told me of both: “Oh, I guessed the ending!” when I know damn well they didn’t. For the record, I guessed the end of neither. Since Iain blamed you for re-inspiring the novel, did you give him the ending, or was the ending of his original draft the same?

Ken - I want to contact you, but the email contact on the left of your home page does not work... even when I put in an @ sign! Can you contact me at Thanks, Ross Bradshaw (Five Leaves Publications)

Fantastic piece on a good man, which only serves to increase my respect for him.

Ken, how do you use the word libertarian. The classical definition of anarchist, afaik, is libertarian socialist (i.e., anti-statist). But it also could mean neo-liberal-ish, anti-anti-market or perhaps "market socialist-ish".

Personally, I find all these terms unhelpful (or maybe I just don't agree, but just to be clear I do come from a anti-capitalist p.o.v.) because I think the underlying principle is democracy.

Both in the sense that whatever our economic arrangements 1) they have to be consistent with the preservation of democracy (i.e., necessary conditions being meaningful mass participation - which implies some measure of equality and some hedge against concentrations of power) 2) and being consistent with democracy, such debates as how much state (or how little) or how much market (or how little)should be settled by the electorate of the era in which those questions get raised. And perhaps even, experimentation and experience can inform those debates as much as ideology. (Maybe that makes me a utopian, oh well, so be it).

Btw, your discussions of your shared political journeys with Ian (and your self-effacing and congenial descriptions of your own political evolution) is moving, engaging stuff, thanks for it.


Lee - I didn't give Iain the ending of Use of Weapons. All I did was poinht out to him that in his first draft he had the ending in the middle, leaving everything else as anticlimax; and I suggested the structure of chapters counting down interleaved with chapters counting up, so that both strands, forward and backward, met at the end of the book.

Thanks very much for the article. I'm one of many who never met Iain, but who miss him very much already. And I'm one of many who found your own work through his, so he gave me a double boon. You have my sincerest condolences.

From the article itself, it's arguable that Iain was somewhat of a (stereotypical) dialectical materialist! The idea that the means of production determine the relations of production seems very close to Iain's, of trusting on technological advance to see us through to becoming Culture-like. Whereas you tried to push the superstructure, the politics, toward socialism (I hope that is an accurate, if imprecise, view of your earlier politics), he chose to rely on the economic substructure to do the heavy-lifting. Just a thought.


There's also a version of libertarianism that's anarchistic and pro-market but also anti-capitalist; see here, here, here, and here.

Beautiful text, engaging but sober.

Re: Iain's views of Scottish independence, I really appreciate your post for the clarification it offers on his motives. Much respecting Iain for both his writings and his political points of view, I had been puzzled reading about his support for independence - being myself of the persuasion that any sort of nationalism is inherently right-wing inasmuch as it always becomes a tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie.

Coming from a country with a similar secessionist movement where pseudo-left argument are being used to promote independence, I am always reminded of Trotsky's portrait of Jean Jaurès and his sad intuition that, as much as he appreciated the political stature and intelligence of the man, the shadow of social-chauvinism would always loom about, despite knowledge and bone fide intentions.

Now, I'm not quite comparing them, but it always depresses me that we always gets sucked into the national question, again and again - even our best minds.

Anon - Iain's support for independence was left-wing and tactical. This is pretty much the position of a lot of Scottish writers. The odd thing about Scottish nationalism is that it has very few nationalists. Most support for independence seems to be pragmatic, whether it's from neoliberals like George Kerevan, left-wingers like Alan Bisset, or republicans like Tom Nairn.

BerserkRL - I could never interest Iain in that either!

Interesting point about nationalism. I've always had a similar impression of Welsh nationalism - that the number of people who think Wales and the Welsh are somehow superior to the English is tiny compared to the number who just don't see the point of running Wales from London. They're anti-colonial nationalisms, really, even if neither Scotland nor Wales is an English colony in any obvious sense (Wales was settled, but by Normans). Benedict Anderson's idea of the 'pilgrimage' fits here, I think - the idea being that any ambitious young person in (New Zealand/Nigeria/Scotland) will end up spending an inordinate amoount of time travelling to and from a distant foreign capital, and will start to wonder why they can't just go and talk to the boss in (Wellington/Lagos/Edinburgh).

I think Anon's insight is probably correct, but only to the extent that anything is liable to become a tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie (sanitation, literacy, universal suffrage, you name it). In the absence of a revolutionary movement, it's a counsel of despair, or passivity.

Phil - yes, almost anything can become a tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie, or any sufficiently skilled/cynical political actor, but IMHO this is a truism bordering on reductio ab absurdam. Anything might be appropiated by the bourgeoisie, certainly - but nationalism is as close as it ever gets to an ideological device specifically designed by/for bourgeois interests (Bonaparte).

What I meant to say is I normally consider nationalism per se to be inherently right-wing, precisely because of its origins (and two centuries of successful use) as a front for right-wing agendas. This might or might not be true of a certain secessionist/independentist movement.

Perhaps, in the light of Ken's clarification about Scottish nationalism being (mostly) un-nationalistic, I should prefer to more accuretely call it "non-nationalistic independentism". It surely helps me understand Iain's stance on the issue, and I thank you again for that, Ken.

I hadn't perceived the identification article before. The identically political Complicity was a much larger book.Its a nice post. Thanks for sharing this.

He was indeed an inspiring author for political thinking.
Bibliographical supplement:
Yannick Rumpala, Artificial intelligences and political organization: an exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks, Technology in Society, Volume 34, Issue 1, 2012,

The latest (October 2013) issue of Reason magazine has an article "The Endless Lives of Iain M. Banks" by Peter Suderman. Not yet online (though a couple of earlier Suderman pieces on Banks are).

Pull quote:

"Banks may have hated libertarians, but the fictional worlds he built were founded on fundamentally libertarian ideals and morality."

If he did hate libertarians, perhaps this was not motivated by how closely and consistently they adhered to those "libertarian ideas and morality".


Fair enough. Certainly a good many libertarians are guilty of living up all too well to the stereotypes of their opponents (though on the other hand the opponents do also tend to apply those stereotypes even to libertarians who are pretty clearly doing no such thing). \

I'm afraid the Suderman piece compounds rather than alleviating the confusion by linking Banks' anti-libertarianism with his anti-Thatcherism, thus reinforcing the bizarre idea -- popular among both friends and foes of Thatcher -- that Thatcher's centralist, fascist thuggery had something to do with libertarianism.


Many people have told me of both: “Oh, I guessed the ending!” when I know damn well they didn’t.

I wouldn't be so sure. I did guess it (though only a chapter or two ahead of the ending). It's easier to guess the ending if you read it (as many do, and as I did) right after Player of Games, because ... well, I can't say why without spoiling Use of Weapons, but there is an important similarity between the two plots, such that if a certain detail from Player is fresh in your mind, the reveal in Use of Weapons is easier to see coming. Perhaps an argument for reading Use of Weapons before Player to avoid spoiling the former.

Thanks for the links. I don't think that's a politics I have any principled objections to.
Best, W

Hi Ken. Lovely piece.

Tangential question - in the reprint of this piece on the ISN site, you mention in a comment underneath: "The very first IS pamphlet I read, way back in 1970 or so, talked about 'atomic power and automation' holding out the possibility of 'peace, leisure and abundance beyond the wildest dreams of the utopians' if used for the common good, rather than as they are in capitalism."

I tried to find any other reference to that pamphlet online, but the sole link on the Google was to an interview with you in Socialist Worker from 2005, saying: "One of the very first socialist pamphlets I ever read, from Socialist Worker way back in 1970 or so, said that with atomic power and automation we could build a world of “peace, leisure and abundance beyond the wildest dreams of the utopians”."

Do you happen to still have that pamphlet, or know it's name and author? I'd *love* to get a hold of that.


Leigh - sorry to have take so long to reply - I've been rather neglecting the blog recently.

I still have a copy, and I may scan it sometime for MIA or whatever. The title is 'The Struggle for Socialism' and it has no author or date, apart from 'published by the International Socialists'. The pamphlet is at this moment available on AbeBooks:

The reference to atomic power and automation is as I said, but it's not developed as an argument.

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