THE great poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht put it like this: “Identity is a function of position, and position is a function of power.”

Let that sink in.

Think of the army, navy and air force: your rank gives you the capacity of your power: that is your position and your identity. So far, so obvious. The reason why it’s so obvious is very sad: it’s because we’re all familiar with military ranking, militarism, war.

But the rule applies also in civilian, social life: if your identity is that of an artist, an art gallerist, a plumber, electrician, care worker, nurse or doctor, a teacher, an administrator, a farmer, fisherman, a publisher, a newspaper editor, a journalist or reporter, a working man or woman in any job, skilled or unskilled, labour, white collar, gardener, psychotherapist, poet, painter, composer – your identity is created by your position in society – and your position is accorded a certain power.

READ MORE: Tom Devine: Looking ahead to 2021, a potentially momentous year for independence

This truth is most evident in literature in the great poem by Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, “The Birlinn of Clanranald”, in which the position of every single seafarer on shipboard is identified and they all must work together, without competition, to get through the storm: the singer of the rowing-song, the helmsman, the lookout, the bailing-out man, each one of them, must fulfil his role.

So who has the power in our world? Who has had it, for generations? For centuries? How is it recognised? Was it always this way? Are there other structures of power, where certain positions are understood to be truly important for the well-being of all? Are there other societies we can learn from?

The conversation, “The fate of the arts” (The National, December 14, 2020), ended with Beth Junor’s words: “What kind of culture is it we’re creating in this pandemic?” She was asking the question in the light of the fact that the Conservative Government in London in April of last year, at the height of the pandemic, lobbied the US to support the installation of a new warhead for Trident missiles.

This prompted an online comment by Frank Casey, which I hope he won’t mind my quoting here: “The concluding paragraph absolutely identifies the problem. A system that gives preferment to weaponry over creativity, life destroying over life affirming will never provide the funding required to promote the arts nor to ensure a sustainable income for artists and the custodians of the works of artists. I earnestly hope that in the post pandemic world there will be a sea change in thinking. One has to hope.”

In the weeks since then, we’ve been informed of the UK Government’s withdrawal from the Erasmus scheme as part of its retreat from Europe. This is summarised in the headline of Effie Samara’s article in The National (December 28, 2020): “The de-Europeanisation of young Scots has begun”.

Let’s remind ourselves of her words: “Loss of educational opportunity, erosion of human and workers’ rights and loss of European identity. Every council in Scotland voted against these prospects and against Brexit. Every council area in Scotland will, from now on, be subjected to a strategic process of forced de-Europeanisation.”

Welcome to 2021.

READ MORE: Peter Krykant: Holyrood run is about more than politics, it's about community

I started writing essays for The National in 2016. The first, on the 15th/16th century poet William Dunbar, was published on January 22 of that year. They have appeared almost every week since then, either by myself or my friends and colleagues, over the last five years. On December 17, 2020, an accolade was printed – not particularly to me, nor to my colleagues writing for the paper, Hamish MacPherson, Paul Kavanagh, Pat Kane, Lesley Riddoch, Ruth Wishart and so many other good people – but to the newspaper itself.

This came in a letter from Susan Forde of the appropriately-named Scotlandwell. Here’s what she said: “There are several strata in The National: the erupting pumice of hot news, the slow lava of opinion and the cool bedrock of culture.”

If I and my friends, colleagues and comrades have contributed effectively in however slender a fashion to that bedrock, not unaffected nor too distant from the lava and pumice, then The National deserves credit for doing something uniquely worthwhile. Its editors, Richard Walker, Callum Baird, and those we have worked with most closely – Roxanne Sorooshian, Jane Cassidy, Craig Cairns – deserve that credit, with all the staff and working people who have helped make it happen, in their respective identities, positions and powers.

So far, so good.

Now come back to those three terms: identity, position, power. The value of the educational provision generated by the Erasmus scheme is part of a world in which priorities of knowledge and understanding are approved and supported.

The dissolution of that value and those priorities is already under way. Governments constantly engage, manipulate, privilege or denigrate these economies of knowledge, information, and ultimately, wisdom. The “attention economy” is what is finally at stake: what we give our time to, and what time we waste.

ON January 2, 2014, the BBC Radio 4 news programme Today invited the singer PJ Harvey to be guest editor and for the “Thought for the Day” item she invited a contribution from Julian Assange, the initiator of “WikiLeaks”, the online resource that disclosed information that would otherwise have been kept concealed from the public.

I listened to this. This is part of what he said. I transcribed it from the website at the time ( “‘All men by nature desire to know’. Aristotle, when he wrote this, was saying that the thing which makes human beings different from other creatures, the thing that defines us, is the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge.

READ MORE: David Pratt: How the Covid-19 roll-out is leading to haves and have-nots

“This is not just to say that we human beings are curious creatures; it is to say that our ability to think about and to act on the world around us is bound up with our ability to know it. To be alive as a human being is to know in the same way as it is to have a heart that beats.

“We all understand this in mundane ways. We understand, for instance, that part of being a fully independent adult, making choices about life, is learning about the world around us and informing our choices with that learning. […] The powerful throughout history have understood this.

“The invention of the printing press was opposed by the old powers of Europe because it spelled the end of their control of knowledge and therefore the end of their tenure as power brokers. The Protestant Reformation was not just a religious movement, but a political struggle: the fight to liberate hoarded knowledge through translation and dissemination. […] Knowledge has always flowed upwards to bishops and kings, not downward to serfs and slaves. The principle remains the same in the present era.”

And where is Julian Assange these days?