Monday, 24 October 2016

The Revival of Russia

Ever since the Melian Dialogue reported by Thucydides, when the Athenian emissaries pointed out that "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must", the world has been formally divided into states that interfere and states that are interfered with. The 1945-89 era was marked by competing attempts to justify interference on the grounds of either anticommunism or socialist solidarity, but neither were convincing. Interference remained the prerogative of the strong in respect of the weak. The loudly-proclaimed shift to a unipolar world after 1989, and the "special responsibility" of liberal interventionism, was an attempt to limit this prerogative further to the West - which for all practical purposes has meant the USA since the mid-1950s. Much of the current angst over the behaviour of Russia and China stems from a belief that they wish to move from the category of states that are interfered with to the category of states that do the interfering, redressing historic humiliations and buttressing domestic support through foreign adventures.

From the Spratly Islands via Cyberspace to Syria, the geopolitical air is heavy with amour propre, revanche and other dubious fragrances (French remains the spiritual language of diplomacy, despite the contrary insistence of the British), not to mention the smell of charred flesh. This marks a return to the "realist" thinking of old, in which nation states are personified through human emotions - ambition, resentment, jealousy - and materialist explanations are reduced to plunder, a failing found as much on the left ("it's all about the oil") as the right. Class divisions are buried beneath nationalist rhetoric or occluded by tales of oligarchy and corruption, a manoeuvre that suits actual domestic elites as much as foreign critics. An example of this "realism" was the way that Western commentary on Russia, particularly after the failures of the 90s, revived traditional tropes such as crueltysuperstitious mysticism and paranoia, which had long been central to the debate on whether Russia was really European. These tropes in turn point to three persistent themes in the Western interpretation of Russian politics: leadership, the limits of bureaucracy and exceptionalism.

Writing in Foreign Affairs earlier this year, the American historian Stephen Kotkin outlined the issue of leadership: "Peter the Great, the original strong-state builder, emasculated individual initiative, exacerbated inbred distrust among officials, and fortified patron-client tendencies. His coercive modernization brought indispensable new industries, but his project for a strengthened state actually entrenched personal whim. This syndrome characterized the reigns of successive Romanov autocrats and those of Lenin and, especially, Stalin, and it has persisted to this day. Unbridled personalism tends to render decision-making on Russian grand strategy opaque and potentially capricious, for it ends up conflating state interests with the political fortunes of one person". It should be obvious that Kotkin himself is indulging a "personalist" interpretation of Russian history as much as reflecting reality. In fact, various Tsars were criticised for being insufficiently autocratic. It is also clear that Soviet politics after Stalin was far more collegiate, if occasionally brutal, while few would characterise Gorbachev as capricious.

But "personalism" is real enough in Russian historiography and it resulted in many of its leaders being treated as pathological case studies - e.g. Ivan the Terrible's apparent psychopathy and Catherine the Great's alleged nymphomania. In the modern era, Brezhnev's infirmity and Yeltsin's drunkenness were taken as representative of the condition of the state. Successful leadership was associated with decisive (even if capricious) action, not the judicious avoidance of risk, which partly explains the selection as interim president of Dmitry Medvedev, a Russian in the mould of a European technocrat, who was unlikely to develop a rival powerbase to Vladimir Putin. The latter's approach has been to rely on the spectacle of embodied leadership, famously in the form of gym workouts and outdoor pursuits, to amplify a modest record on the global stage. The annexation of Crimea and intervention in Syria are not major strategic victories, and Russia remains a much diminished power both economically and militarily. Putin hasn't restored Russian standing so much as personified it as a Slavic Alan Partridge.

In the Western image of Russia, the totalitarian state coexists with surreal incompetence, and has done since Gogol's Dead Souls. This tension originally reflected the struggle to "catch up" with the rapidly-industrialising West of the early 19th century. As Kotkin puts it, "Throughout, the country has been haunted by its relative backwardness, particularly in the military and industrial spheres. This has led to repeated frenzies of government activity designed to help the country catch up, with a familiar cycle of coercive state-led industrial growth followed by stagnation. Most analysts had assumed that this pattern had ended for good in the 1990s, with the abandonment of Marxism-Leninism and the arrival of competitive elections and a buccaneer capitalist economy. But the impetus behind Russian grand strategy had not changed. And over the last decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin has returned to the trend of relying on the state to manage the gulf between Russia and the more powerful West".

The idea that Russia has repeatedly failed to modernise originally reflected the belief (advanced in particular by the British, who took a different approach to empire and resented Russian expansion in Central Asia) that it was too big to be administered as a unitary state, with effective government defeated by bureaucratic inefficiency and provincial eccentricity (a smaller British echo of this was to be found in Anglo-Irish literature of the 19th century). Much of the Western history of the USSR boils down to the recrudescence of this tendency, first in the 30s and then in the 70s. The surreal - as an emblem of bureaucracy - continues to be central to the liberal image of Russia, hence the over-valuation of performance artists like Pussy Riot and Petr Pavlensky by non-Russian audiences. This allows actual Russian political practice, which isn't so far removed from that of the West, to be marginalised as spectacle. Peter Pomerantsev has been a chief proponent of this surreal reading, though he often skirts self-awareness. Commenting on the trial of Oleg Sentsov, he notes that "Part of the point of show trials is that the over-the-top absurdity of the charges intimidates any potential opposition. They have the added benefit of making the general population feel complicit in the injustice". The presentation of this absurdity conditions Western audiences too.

Russian exceptionalism is usually presented in the West as evidence of an inadequate commitment to liberal democracy. What Russians apparently want is  a "very special kind of democracy, in line with Russia's traditions and mindset", which sets Western liberals tutting. This is amusing because the Russian attitude precisely mimics American delusions about their own unique "way of life" and the assumption that democracy everywhere else should (or does) mirror the US brand. Many Americans do not understand just how unusual their democracy is - e.g. the electoral college, the disparity of senatorial representation, the unfettered power of money etc. Even more bizarre is the notion that British democracy is normal (Crown prerogative, the House of Lords, an opaque constitution etc). In reality, the Russian flavour of democracy is no more "managed" than it is in other countries, even if it is more corrupt (though probably no worse than Italy or Spain) and in the grip of a dominant party (so not unlike South Africa and Japan).

Stephen Kotkin presents a typical American view of Russia's prospects: "Eventually, the country could try to follow something like the trajectory of France, which retains a lingering sense of exceptionalism yet has made peace with its loss of its external empire and its special mission in the world, recalibrating its national idea to fit its reduced role and joining with lesser powers and small countries in Europe on terms of equality". This is condescending (not unlike Obama's claim that "Putin reminds me of a sulky teenager in the back of the classroom"). France's external empire lives on in its overseas departments (Gaudeloupe, Martinique etc), while the major territories it lost (notably Indo-China and Algeria) were not contiguous with Metropolitan France. For Russia, the loss of its "empire" has meant inroads into what it considers "home" territory, hence the fuss over "Kievan Russ". There are actually better parallels between Russia and the USA, such as the outposts of Puerto Rico and Kaliningrad and the semi-detached territories of Alaska and Crimea.

The three themes of leadership, bureaucracy and exceptionalism have come together in recent years, particularly for Western observers, in the person of Vladislav Surkov, a former PR-man and now "political technologist" who has the ear of Putin, has subordinated Russian bureaucracy and media, and has created the uniquely Russian concept of "sovereign democracy". In a 2011 essay entitled "Putin's Rasputin", Peter Pomerantsev described him as "Putin’s chief ideologue and grey cardinal ... the ‘Kremlin demiurge’. Known also as the ‘puppetmaster who privatised the Russian political system’, Surkov is the real genius of the Putin era". The overdose on tropes of manipulation and court politics should alert us to an attempt to big-up the subject's significance and ability. In fact, sovereign democracy, insofar as it can be defined, is banal, simply "not your democracy", which isn't much help given that no two democracies are the same. Surkov is the pseudonymous author of Almost Zero, a novel whose title (an obvious reference to Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero) points to his 80s-era cynicism (he also writes SF stories of a similar vintage). Don't hold your breath for his Imperial Bedrooms.

Surkov is held to have designed a form of "managed democracy" in which faith is deliberately undermined in all political projects and organisations - notably by publicly funding the state's opponents - leading to a weary cynicism and acceptance of the existing order. This has become the accepted wisdom in the West, from establishment mouthpieces like Foreign Policy to unorthodox critics such as Adam Curtis in his recent film, HyperNormalisation. Despite the claims that he is "postmodern", the received image of Surkov owes an obvious stylistic debt to Mr. Vladimir of Conrad's The Secret Agent and the 19th and 20th century belief that Russia sat at the apex of a vast infrastructure of domestic police repression and semi-competent subversion abroad. The trope of the "state actor" has been upgraded for the Internet age (and extended to China and North Korea), but the language used to describe it hasn't evolved much since the days of the Comintern.

Surkov reportedly fell from favour after the domestic protests against the 2011 Presidential election, but returned to Putin's "inner circle" in 2013 to mastermind the campaign in Ukraine. The implication is that the strategy of deliberate confusion had proved too risky at home, leading to the more authoritarian turn of Putin's second presidency, but was seen to be ideal for export, helping to restore Russia as a major power on the cheap. This story appeals to a Western imagination in which Russia is the embodiment of peasant cunning. According to Politico: "Just a few years ago, the Russians wouldn’t have known about the intricacies of American domestic politics. Business was conducted between Putin and whoever was the American president. ... They didn’t quite understand what Congress was all about, let alone K Street or the respective party committees. ... After the pro-democracy protests of 2011-2012, when Putin thought he might be toppled by what he saw as yet another American-orchestrated regime change, the Kremlin got serious. It figured out how the Internet worked".

It is difficult to believe that the Russian state was ignorant of the Internet prior to 2010 (not least because it was formally hooked up in 1991), or that there was no institutional memory of the intricacies of American politics - i.e. the equivalent of Kremlinology, but with the advantage of the US's relative transparency and an extensive body of academic knowledge in the West. What this tale points to is the continuing hold of the twin ideas of backwardness and catch-up. This has given rise, in an era of American self-doubt, to an odd reversal. In the words of Foreign Policy, "The Kremlin, according to Barack Obama, is stuck in the “old ways,” trapped in Cold War or even 19th century mindsets. But look closer at the Kremlin’s actions during the crisis in Ukraine and you begin to see a very 21st century mentality, manipulating transnational financial interconnections, spinning global media, and reconfiguring geo-political alliances. Could it be that the West is the one caught up in the “old ways,” while the Kremlin is the geopolitical avant-garde, informed by a dark, subversive reading of globalization?"

This idea of "roles reversed" is a classic trope of realist foreign policy, dating back at least as far as Tacitus, who used the German tribes as a mirror held up to Roman deficiencies. For realists, the key geopolitical issue of the last 30 years was not the Balkans or Iraq or Syria, but the expansion of NATO up to Russia's borders. Once the Warsaw Pact was no more, the portrayal of Russia as a threat became an existential necessity for the organisation, sucking it into Eastern Europe. Contemporary Russian truculence also stems, as Perry Anderson suggests, from America's rejection of Putin's friendly overtures: "So what did Putin do at the outset of his tenure? Without even being pressed, he made every gesture of good will he could. He shut down Moscow’s outposts in Cuba. He closed its bases in Vietnam. When September 11th occurred, he was the first to call Bush offering every possible help and solidarity. ... Putin thought: We’re going to help the West and in return they will respect us, not like the Soviet Union, but like the Czarist empire of the pre-1914 world. ... It was a fundamental miscalculation. In the eyes of American policy planners, Russia was a diminished country".

I doubt that America's thoughtlessness came as a surprise to Putin, who had spent 16 years in the KGB before entering politics in the early 90s. His accommodation of US foreign policy, before the lift-off in oil prices in 2002 provided economic and political breathing-space, looks defensive rather than hopeful. The dynamic of the intervening decade - the growth in the power of the one, and the alarm this causes in the other - takes us back to Thucydides and the distinction between those that do the interfering and those that are interfered with. Putin's achievement has been to re-categorise Russia despite a lack of substantial change since the 90s, through a combination of picking on small-fry in Ukraine and Syria and presentational techniques as old as Potemkin villages. Despite the recent efforts of the Western media to trace Moscow's hand in malicious events across the globe, the reality is that Russia remains an annoying wannabe rather than a playa, a "paperback edition of the Soviet Union", as Eurozine put it. The irony is that it is the Western press coverage that constitutes the payoff for Putin, in terms of global renown and domestic plaudits. He may only have achieved it through dirty money, hacking and the manipulation of "useful idiots", but making Russia an issue in the US Presidential Election is a success of sorts.

Sunday, 16 October 2016


Populism isn't a political ideology but a critique of institutional democracy. It starts with Rousseau's idea of the general will but seeks to express this through the conventional route of elections and popular votes rather than insurrection. Hillary Clinton's mistake in describing Donald Trump's supporters as a "basket of deplorables" was to characterise an orthodox political movement using language normally reserved for the mob. Though destabilising to bourgeois parties, populism has always been an impeccably liberal cause whose rhetorical style originates in the eighteenth century critique of court politics and factions. Even today we still see a concern with monarchical legitimacy (Obama's birth certificate), the influence of unelected eminence grises (Goldman Sachs alumni), and the role of beholden minorities (we too easily forget that well into the nineteenth century many liberals characterised Jews as an impediment to progress and the forging of national identity precisely because they were seen as compromised servants of the ancien regime).

Though fundamentally liberal, populism borrows a critique of virtue from Burkean conservatism. It believes that established parties or representatives have been corrupted by cynical elites and have thereby betrayed the people. Betrayal is central to populism, which is a clue as to its nature: it seeks a restoration, not a revolution (you can see this in the populist horror at the Tory government's blithe dismissal of parliamentary sovereignty, which we supposedly re-established in June through a popular vote). In many ways populism is the revenge of the theory of liberal democracy on its practice. During the age of restricted franchises, when "the people" represented a relatively privileged community that excluded much of the population, populism was essentially bleeding-edge democracy and thus dismissed as an irresponsible enthusiasm that  jeopardised cautious liberal progress (you can still hear echoes of this gradualism in the PLP criticism of Jeremy Corbyn).

With the move towards near-universal suffrage in the late nineteenth century, and the need to protect political and economic interests from majoritarianism, liberalism began to downgrade the general will in favour of pluralism, often justified on utilitarian grounds by thinkers such as John Stuart Mill. The institutional expression of this was a growing emphasis on "civil society" as a collection of autonomous organisations, from progressive charities through trade unions, rather than just the market-oriented "system of needs" theorised by Hegel and Marx. This in turn leads to the liberal redefinition of populism as a narrower critique of establishment politics and in particular the institution of parties (first in the US after the Civil War and then in Europe after WW1). While this populist critique could lead to plebiscitary dictatorship, it also remained a respectable strand of thought among centrist and conservative authoritarians. De Gaulle and Hitler could both be plausibly described as populist in their appeals to the nation over the heads of "sectional" parties.

The term became increasingly pejorative in Europe after WW2 as the concept of "the people" was institutionally absorbed by the state through social democracy. To call yourself populist, or the people's party, was seen to be presumptuous and to have distasteful echoes of the nationalism of the 1930s. This shift was reinforced by the presentation of loaded terms like "popular" and "people", employed by communist regimes and Third World insurgencies, as in opposition to the "freedom" of liberal democracy. Across the West, "the people" were rhetorically marginalised in favour of "ordinary people" or (in the US) "the middle class". After 1989 and the eclipse of the populist left, the shift of the political centre to the right caused populism to be increasingly identified with xenophobia. This was not because it had become (or always was) racist, but because much of its anti-elite language had been adopted wholesale by mainstream parties ("shrink the state", "hardworking families" etc.), requiring the definition of populism to shift ever further to the right.

In other words, populism is a flexible term employed by liberals to defend the political establishment. The recent flurry of books and op-eds on the subject reflects a desire to dialectically redefine the centre by filling the populist "basket" with as many negatives as possible: racist, bitter, ignorant, misogynistic. But defining liberalism in opposition to populism is not only risky, as Brexit has shown, it doesn't address the philosophical vacuum revealed in 2008. John B Judis's The Populist Explosion, is typical of the genre in avoiding the question implicit in populism: who is liberalism for, if not the people? In a summary in The Guardian (where else), he starts by defining populism's instrumental flexibility as inherent to the subject rather than its critics: "There is no set of features that exclusively defines movements, parties, and people that are called 'populist'". This is contradicted by his thinkpiece's own introduction: "populism is a style of politics that pits 'the people' against 'the establishment'", which is a definition accepted by most political scientists and historians. Populism assumes a people with a common interest and an elite with a contrary interest. That much is obvious.

Since 2008, the political centre has faced a popular challenge from the left, as the marginal anti-capitalist rhetoric of the 90s has gained purchase, as well as from the right. While some liberals have attempted to tar the left with populism's nastier habits, e.g. the desperate search for antisemites in the Labour Party, Judis prefers a more categorical (and pluralistic) approach: "Leftwing populists champion the people against an elite or an establishment. Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle, arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of favouring a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants. Rightwing populism is triadic: it looks upward, but also down upon an out group." The characterisation of right populism as a movement that always seeks an enemy within is misleading. While "in-group" political formations, such as nationalists or racists, employ populist tropes - notably the twin ideas of a homogeneous people and a traitorous elite - not all right-populists are programmatically bigoted.

In fact, a better description of right populism is that it represents a naive view of capitalism: a belief that hard work will be rewarded but that the competition is being rigged by "vested interests". While some right-populist movements do reflect the fear of the déclassé (a phenomenon in developing nations as well as developed ones), what unifies them is the "just desserts" ideology central to liberalism. Examples of centrist or centre-right populist movements that did/do not make a fetish of an "out-group" would be Ross Perot's Reform Party in the US and Beppe Grillo's M5S in Italy. These parties tend to arise when the political system is seen to be failing, but their commitment to institutional reform and public virtue is indicative of their essentially conservative and restorative temperament. The liberal insistence that a scapegoat is the sine qua non of right populism is a way of diverting attention from an often coherent critique of the establishment in its own terms - i.e. the denial of opportunity, the lack of fairness, the poor rewards to obedience. What triggers right-populism tends to be rich bankers being bailed out and spared jail sentences, not the continuing influence of the Rothschild family.

Left populism is a critique of a system, rather than a judgement on the ethical failings of a particular group of people. Consequently, the traditional liberal response has been to accuse it of impossibilism, of making "demands that the populists believe the establishment will be unwilling to grant them". Judis sees Greece as a good example of this: "If they are granted in whole or even in part, or if populists abandon them as too ambitious – as Syriza did with its demands for renegotiation of Greece’s debt – then the populist movement is likely to dissipate or to morph into a normal political party or candidacy". This ignores that Syriza was a normal political party, founded well before the euro-crisis and committed to parliamentary democracy. It also ignores that the party's key proposal for the write-off of Greek debt, which led to its electoral success, was both feasible and accepted by many centrist politicians. The "impossibility" was the EU's determination to protect French and German banks through the imposition of punitive bailout terms.

Judis's interpretation of Syriza's trajectory highlights the liberal belief that populism is a temporary condition, an aberration rather than a permanent interest. As a result, it is often described by medical analogy: a virus, rapid contagion, feverish crisis, recovery. The idea of the people as a sick body that must be cured is little advance on Plato's characterisation of the demos as a "beast", or Aristotle's characterisation of it as a "child". What this attitude doesn't do is acknowledge any plurality among the people, because populism and pluralism are antagonistic in liberal thought, hence the importance of self-ascribed homogeneity in the definition of the former. In fact, the evidence is that populist movements are unstable and fissiparous - i.e. heterogeneous and plural - which is why they often follow a trajectory of rise and fall. Syriza is the "coalition of the radical left", and has consequently been riven by defections and protests after its "historic compromise", while the current meltdown of UKIP suggests that the populist right is no more stable and that victory may be the most damaging development of all. Liberals explain this contradiction away by suggesting the homogeneity is false consciousness, hence the emphasis on "facts" that disprove populist claims and anecdotes about those who eventually "see the light".

Writing for an American audience, Judis claims that modern populism owes its template to the People's Party of the 1890s, a democratic insurgency of small farmers and those who felt they were being disadvantaged by big business. The historiography of the People's Party has oscillated over the years between a view that they were essentially reactionaries resisting industrial progress and egalitarians protesting at monopoly and inequality. Judis leans more towards the former school, whose leading light in the 1950s was Richard Hofstadter. As a result, he fails (at least in his Guardian summary) to mention the movement's influence on the Democrats, via William Jennings Bryan (who enjoyed a brief revival recently as an explanatory model for Bernie Sanders), and the Progressive Era more generally. Instead he cites George Wallace and the instrumental use of racial bigotry in the 1960s as the quintessential form of modern populism, inheriting the rhetorical style of the 1890s and providing a bridge to Donald Trump.

A more telling omission - significant given the seminal role of Hofstadter as the author of The Paranoid Style in American Politics - is the instrumental use of populist rhetoric and tactics in post-war anti-communism, which famously produced the "excess" of Joe McCarthy's campaign against the secret elite of communists and homosexuals supposedly embedded within the State Department. The Italian political scientist Marco D'Eramo makes the crucial point that in the postwar era, "populism was perfect for constructing a bridge linking communism and fascism" and that "as a 'utopia of the past', it connected the historic threat of fascism with the looming, future menace of communism". The McCarthyite frenzy was a small price to pay for this useful equivalence. One byproduct of this process was the idea that populism was antithetical to human rights, which has led to modern liberal attacks on its lack of virtue (Trump's misogyny) being more effective than attacks on its lack of plurality (some women still support Trump).

Given its importance to anticommunism, it should therefore come as no surprise that populism underwent a further mutation after 1989. While the succeeding era was one in which many countries "joined the West", in the form of NATO, the EU or the WTO, these moves were offset by leaving the Warsaw Pact and the nonaligned movement. What wasn't apparent in a triumphant West was that many of these acts of joining were more qualified than the acts of leaving. For example, it is now clear that many East Europeans thought they were signing up for economic "freedoms" but not social reform. In net terms, the world actually became less cohesive as the old blocs either evaporated or were diluted by sheer numbers. A paradox of globalisation is that increased economic integration was parallelled by greater political disintegration, of which Brexit and Syria are recent examples. Though liberals like Judis have been quick to point the finger at 2008 (or even the rise of social media), the populist upsurge in Europe starts two decades earlier with the electoral advance of the Front National in France (the FN are Fascist, but they employ right-populist rhetoric), which provided a template for reactionary parties across Europe after the Berlin Wall came down.

The current "wave of populist insurgencies" is notable for the broad acknowledgement that the elite against which it is arrayed is globalised: multinationals, Internet businesses and "liberal cosmopolitans". This provides obvious scope for xenophobia - the twin claims that domestic elites owe a greater loyalty to fellow cosmopolitans and that natives are being dispossessed by immigrants - but the essence of the protest is that the institutions of democracy, and civil society more broadly, have failed to adequately respond to globalisation (the recognition of this partly explains the political centre's revived interest in Karl Polanyi and his idea of the "double movement"). For example, the existential debate over the EU concerns whether it is part of the problem or part of the solution. Predictably, starry-eyed liberals like Timothy Garton Ash reckon that "To remedy the unintended consequences of globalisation we need more liberal internationalism, not less" (don't you just love that "unintended"?)

More thoughtful liberal analysts take a subtler position. As Cas Mudde puts it, "populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. It criticises the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda by the elites and calls for their re-politicisation. However, this comes at a price. Populism’s black and white views and uncompromising stand leads to a polarised society – for which, of course, both sides share responsibility – and its majoritarian extremism denies legitimacy to opponents’ views and weakens the rights of minorities". But this even-handedness should not be taken to imply a questioning of ideological priors. Mudde also says of populism: "It supports popular sovereignty and majority rule, but rejects pluralism and minority rights". The opposition of populism to pluralism remains central to liberal thought. In other words, the emphasis is always on the disputable claim to represent the people, not the shortcomings of the elite.

A push-back against the liberal interpretation of populism, which shifts attention from the people to the elite, can already be discerned, triggered by a desire for post-Brexit reconciliation in the UK and a realisation that the likely defeat of Trump will leave a fragmented polity in the US. This extends from pessimistic British conservatives like John Gray - "populism is a term of abuse applied by establishment thinkers to people whose lives they have not troubled to understand" - to class-conscious American critics like Sarah Smarsh - "That the term 'populism' has become a pejorative among prominent liberal commentators should give us great pause. A journalism that embodies the plutocracy it's supposed to critique has failed its watchdog duty and lost the respect of people who call bullshit when they see it" (the echo of the 1890s and 1900s  is there is the dynamic of journalism - the original "muckrakers" - and plutocracy).

Populism is simply a democratic response to economic and social stress that questions the bona fides of the political establishment. That vulgar impertinence is its original sin. The dismissal of populism as lacking virtue (that horrible man) and competence (anti-expert, post-fact), may sometimes be legitimate, but it is also a continuation of Plato's argument against democracy. The last word goes to Marco D'Eramo, writing ahead of the present curve in 2013: "No one defines themselves as populist; it is an epithet pinned on you by your political enemies. In its most brutal form, ‘populist’ is simply an insult; in a more cultivated form, a term of disparagement. But if no one defines themselves as populist, then the term populism defines those who use it rather than those who are branded with it. ... Just as the adulterous spouse is always the one most suspicious of their own partner, so those who eviscerate democracy are the most inclined to see threats to it everywhere".

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

She's Got Control

The theme of the Conservative Party Conference was control. Reflecting Theresa May's personal style, evident in her long stint as Home Secretary, this was combined with a refusal to divulge details. The centrepiece was not so much the Prime Minister's promise to invoke Article 50 by next March - which was always likely given the need to complete the two-year process before the EU Parliamentary elections in May 2019 - but the promise of a Great Repeal Bill. This sounds decisive, but all it does is enshrine existing EU legislation in UK law. It doesn't tell us which regulations will be repealed or when. Meanwhile, Jeremy Hunt told doctors to stop arguing, thereby all but admitting that he had lost the argument with them; Michael Fallon promised that British troops would no longer be hamstrung by human rights law; and Amber Rudd threatened to name and shame the employers of immigrants, a plan that unravelled within hours under the weight of its own stupidity.

This playing to the authoritarian crowd should remind us that Brexit was actually driven by middle class reactionaries, not the northern working class, and the unstated assumption behind "take back control" is a hoarding of power in traditional hands, not its diffusion among the people. The theory of subsidiarity, as employed by eurosceptics, was always an elite manoeuvre. If there was a hint of "we are the masters now" in the total eclipse of David Cameron and all his metrosexual works, it would be wrong to imagine that unreconstructed Thatcherites are back in the saddle. Justine Greening lifting the ban on new grammar schools is hardly on a par with Edwina Currie brandishing a pair of handcuffs as an appropriate response to the 1981 riots. More remarkable was May's celebration of an activist state in language that echoed Barack Obama's "we built that" rather than Ronald Reagan's "government is the problem".

While many assume that her promise of workers on company boards and another crackdown on tax-dodgers is just the cynical adoption of populist tropes for short-term gain, it's worth noting that these are consistent with her emphasis on an organic Tory tradition of citizenship and a suspicion of metropolitan elites, which probably owes more to G K Chesterton than Joseph Chamberlain. Real power and wealth will not be challenged, but the rhetorical enemy within has changed. The implication of Rudd's plan is that the nation is undermined not just by the bolshie and the feckless but by the selfish and the unpatriotic: by liberal elites and unscrupulous employers as well as trade unions and benefit-wallahs. Though the news has emphasised immigration and the economy, May has chosen to focus her administration on sovereignty. Post-conference, that will allow the authoritarians to be reconciled with the "liberal leavers", like Andrew Lilico, and Panglossians, like Daniel Hannan, who plaintively insist that Brexit was not a vote for xenophobia.

As I noted on the eve of the EU Referendum, sovereignty has both an internal and an external aspect: who is in charge domestically and what rights and obligations do we concede abroad. The former is foundational, the latter contingent, which is why demanding clarity on whether Brexit - an issue of external sovereignty - will be "hard" or "soft" is absurd. It will be whatever we manage to get, which is probably a lot less than we want though slightly more than the EU27 are currently minded to give. It also ignores the reality that there will be multiple Brexits, including the bilateral negotiations with Ireland over the border and reciprocal rights (the n-word will be avoided in respect of Scotland, but it will amount to much the same thing). May knows she is on more solid ground in emphasising internal sovereignty, which also appeals to her own authoritarian instincts, so we can expect illiberal kite-flying at home to be as accurate a gauge of the progress of negotiations with the EU as the rise and fall of the pound. If Amber Rudd next proposes to barcode all foreign nationals, you'll know David Davis is floundering.

In this light, the Prime Minister's refusal to allow the House of Commons a vote on the government's negotiating strategy is neither hypocritical nor unconstitutional. Parliamentary sovereignty does not mean that the Commons holds ultimate power. It is just shorthand for the Crown in Parliament, which in practice means the exercise of prerogative powers by ministers. The executive has always had the whip hand and the last decade has seen Parliament's ability to hold it to account wither as select committees went for TV ratings and Labour MPs focused their energies on internal party battles. Both can be thought of as examples of institutional rot. The restoration of parliamentary sovereignty demanded by leavers ahead of the 23rd of June meant, in practice, the removal of EU political constraints on the power of the UK executive. The derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights trailled by Michael Fallon is an example of that new-found "freedom": the ability to derogate was always there, but held in check by peer-pressure in the EU.

Ignorance about the UK constitution is endemic, largely because obscurity and opacity are governing strategies. Myths include: Parliament is sovereign; the monarchy is purely symbolic; and we (meaning MPs) make all our own laws. An example of this is the claim that because the Tories were elected in 2015 on a manifesto commitment to maintain access to the European single market, they cannot now pursue a hard Brexit without prior parliamentary approval. This is simply wrong. Manifestos have no constitutional standing outside the Salisbury/Addison convention which holds that the House of Lords cannot oppose the second or third reading of a bill explicitly promised at a general election. There is no constitutional requirement on a government to be consistent with its own manifesto. This is why governments routinely break promises (e.g. "no top-down reorganisation of the NHS"), citing changed circumstances or even, in 2010, the demands of coalition.

In terms of Our Island Story, we are currently heading at speed, like a brand spanking new royal yacht, towards the isolationist end of the spectrum, which is really what's worrying the like of Lilico and Hannan. Their fear is that the economy will be damaged for the sake of popular support. This was to be expected, and while they're right that Brexit isn't just about immigration, it was certainly about a rejection of the outside world, not an embrace of it, so it's hard to see how self-inflicted damage could have been avoided. The whiff of the 1950s in government rhetoric is not just about white faces and restoring the privileges of class over cash (Philip Green must now suspect his knighthood is all but lost), but the return of a society of petty rules and a state committed to benevolent surveillance. The BBC's recent brief revival of Hancock's Half Hour, that paean to British ennui and frustrated ambition, may prove prophetic.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Making of a Woman

The spice of news is revelation: the uncovering of secrets or the shining of a light on the unknown, from Donald Trump's tax returns to the surface of a comet. Human curiosity being what it is, the business of revelation regularly oversteps the bounds of ethical conduct, as the fall of the "Fake Sheikh" has shown. Interestingly, the biggest out-of-bounds story this week was not the evidence-tampering of Mazher Mahmood, but the claim that the pseudonymous Neapolitan author Elena Ferrante was actually a Rome-based translator, Anita Raja, who works for the same niche publisher. Despite being a respected investigative reporter for Il Sole 24 Ore, the Italian equivalent of the FT, Claudio Gatti's story was met with fury, particularly by female writers and commentators (and particularly in The Guardian in the UK), appalled by what they saw as a misogynistic denial of a woman's right to anonymity.

The act was variously referred to as an "outing" and an "unmasking", and one that additionally violated the reader's "right not to know". This language points to the ambiguity involved in the act of revelation: outing (notably of homosexuals) was once praised when it revealed hypocrisy, while unmasking applies to super-villains as much as super-heroes. Our right not to know is less a defence against malign revelation and more an insistence on the luxury of an untroubled conscience: "I don't want to hear about that". Suzanne Moore made the connection with wider journalistic ethics explicit in her bizarre revival of the memory of Benjamin Pell: "Riffling through someone’s bins looking for clues about their life or identity is considered a tabloid activity performed by low-lifes who sell information on celebrities". In fact, examining royalty payments and property purchases, as Gatti did, is precisely what literary biographers do. It's not as if he were counting used condoms or takeaways.

Gatti is no Richard Ellman (a literary biographer who took a forensic interest in James Joyce's finances and Oscar Wilde's sex life), but he isn't Benji Pell either. For one thing, his interest in Raja's backstory, specifically her mother and grandparent's flight from Nazi Germany in 1937 and their subsequent troubles in Fascist Italy, appears motivated more by a conventional curiosity at the links between life and art rather than a search for titillation. The criticism also ignores that Gatti's case includes, as circumstantial evidence, the stylistic and thematic influence of the East German women writers, notably Christa Wolf, that Raja specialised in as a translator from German to Italian. I've only read one of Ferrante's books to date, The Days of Abandonment, but the connection with East Germany makes a lot of sense, not only in the claustrophobia of the tale (a woman suffering a breakdown following her husband's desertion) but in the almost Lutheran concern with bodily functions (this isn't a Protestant speciality, as Joyce proved, but it is unusual among Italian writers).

Ferrante has certainly been the victim of misogyny, but more in the supposition that an author that good - and she is very good - must be a man (Raja's own husband, the writer Domenico Starnone, has previously been fingered). That she has commanded such attention reflects the resonance of her work with a wide audience, which reminds us that popular success is inimical to anonymity, as Joe Klein found with Primary Colors. Even death is no protection: witness the posthumous controversy over A Woman in Berlin. The media, particularly outside Italy, have made use of Ferrante's anonymity over the years, both as a cute angle on the work and as a story in its own right, which makes their protestations now ring somewhat hollow. It's almost as if Gatti's true crime is to have deprived them of a handy and flexible theme, namely female identity and the compromises it makes with society, leaving only the aridity of the media's traditional approach to literary criticism: who are the characters based on?

Frances Wilson in the TLS makes nods towards misogyny and the moral turpitude of journalism, but can't help avoid making explicit the disappointment of litterateurs: "It was a puzzle we enjoyed, and now Gatti has waded in and spoilt the game" (a game that had long been stale in Italy, where Raja's naming has not come as a surprise). The Daily Mail, true to form, preferred the "damaged female" angle with a report that it is "feared" Ferrante may never publish again. Not wholly dissimilar, Vox first established its zeitgeist credentials by describing the revelation of Ferrante's identity as a "doxxing", but then rather ruined the effect by mangling postmodern theory to suggest that Gatti had "killed" Elena Ferrante in a bid to restore the Author-God, missing the point that the mysterious Ferrante had already achieved apotheosis. Given that all publicity is good publicity, and many will now be tempted to buy Ferrante's books to find out what all the fuss is about, a better response might have been the "good career move" crack said to have been prompted by the death of Elvis.

Ferrante is on record as advocating anonymity as a strategy for heightening appreciation of the text: "What I mean is that removing the author—as understood by the media—from the result of his writing creates a space that wasn’t there before ... It has become natural to think of the author as a particular individual who exists, inevitably, outside the text—so that if we want to know more about what we’re reading we should address that individual, or find out everything about his more or less banal life. Remove that individual from the public eye and ...we discover that the text contains more than we imagine". This doesn't convince. Occluding the author doesn't improve the text, it merely avoids the tedious journalistic enquiries about the equivalence of art and life. For some, "Her anonymity has been a protest against those who can no longer read books as works of fiction". Leaving aside who "those" people are, refusing the celebrity grind strikes me as a rather obscure form of protest at the unwillingness of readers to suspend disbelief.

I find more interesting Ferrante's comment on the two protagonists of her Neapolitan Quartet: "I felt Elena and Lila were alienated from history in all its political, social, economic, cultural aspects—and yet they were part of history in everything they said or did. That alienation-inclusion seemed to lie outside the narrative frame". This suggests that excising the author as a definable character in the mind of the reader is not just a strategy intended to unmoor the work from the writer's own history, but an attempt to engage with Italy's postwar history. This was an era of secrets, conspiracies and hypocrisy; of Operation Gladio and a quintessential politician, Giulio Andreotti, who was believed to be an associate of the Mafia. An irony is that the method by which Raja has been "brought to book", so to speak, namely the diligent analysis of financial records, is the same method that was employed successfully against organised crime and corrupt politicians.

Anonymity avoids the question of what is true but it also removes the need to explain why a particular fiction was invented ("How did your years in Africa inform your decision to write about polar bears?"). It prevents the inconsistencies and contingencies of a real life polluting the art. Some authors try to achieve the same end by fictionalising themselves, to the point that they become the dominant character of their oeuvre, a la Martin Amis. Others drain their public persona of interest, suggesting that they are humdrum mechanics of the written word, despite the evidence of colourful lives, a la Ian McEwan. Ferrante's anonymity has become a work of art in its own right, evidence that a woman can be truly independent. The obloquy poured on Claudio Gatti owes much to the shattering of this illusion. What the international response misses is that her public trajectory, from riddle to revelation, is typically Italian.

Saturday, 1 October 2016


Following Douglas Carswell's confusion over Newtonian mechanics, it was inevitable that the hyperbole of leading Brexiteers would be closely scrutinised for more evidence of foolishness. Step forward Liam Fox and his claim that we are entering a "post-geography trading world". To give the good doctor his due, what he is actually suggesting is that "Today, we stand on the verge of an unprecedented ability to liberate global trade for the benefit of our whole planet with technological advances dissolving away the barriers of time and distance". In other words, we are not abolishing geography by fiat (as some of his critics too eagerly claimed), rather technology is making it less significant in respect of trade. Diving in head-first where others fear to tread, Daniel Hannan then claimed that services were largely independent of geography, so an economy increasingly dependent on services was one where physical location was increasingly irrelevant (perhaps he will move to Mars when he steps down as an MEP)

It is certainly true that technology overcomes the hindrances of time and space. This is a banal observation that has been made with regularity since the invention of the wheel. Prior to 2008, it was difficult to avoid the plethora of books, like Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, celebrating this continued development and urging us all to get with the neoliberal programme. Where Fox errs is in suggesting that there is a "verge" or threshold that reflects a qualitative shift in this process. Technology will continue to reduce the inconveniences of geography, but it will do so in different ways and at different rates across different sectors. Mp3s may have displaced physical media for the distribution of music, but bananas must still be shipped thousands of miles. The stupidity of Hannan's claim is not that you can't get your hair cut remotely (a robot barber is not impossible, and might be preferable if it cuts out the chat), but that the sort of premium-priced corporate services that UK Plc is meant to specialise in post-Brexit demand a physical presence for cultural and psychological reasons.

A good example of this is the job interview, or more specifically the interview for a job in which personality is relevant. We have had the technology to do this remotely for over a century, first in the form of the telephone and latterly using video systems like Skype, however most employers insist on a face-to-face interview as the culmination of the hiring process. The explanation for this is that interpersonal communication involves three channels: verbal (linguistic), visual (kinesic), and that indefinable something we call the "vibe" (proxemic). Despite advances in "telepresence" technology, the last of these only really works with actual presence (like the BO test). What surprises many people (but really shouldn't) is that the "vibe" is often more important in the final decision than the verbals (a scripted interchange designed to conceal rather than reveal). What this really shows is that the interview is not an objective assessment but a subjective reading of cues about class, reliability, cultural fit etc.

While the government remains unclear on its strategic preferences, there is no real cost for Brexiteers in demanding cake and the eating thereof, for example in insisting both that the EU will want to continue trading with us because of geographical convenience and that the UK can expand trade with the four corners of the Earth because geography doesn't matter. This unwillingness to think about economic geography might appear to be an intellectual failing of the free-market right, but it is also common among neoliberal centrists and even found on the left among those committed to an anglocentric perspective (i.e. AES revivalists as much as Blue Labourites). One non-partisan trope where this failing appears is the idea that technology creates more and better jobs than the ones that it destroys. You know the drill: field-workers once became factory-hands and blacksmiths became car mechanics, so today's drivers and clerks can expect to become robot designers and social media mavens.

The studies that look at the impact of technology on jobs are usually limited in scope to a nation state, or a combination of them. This is partly because the aggregate data needed to analyse the shifting composition of the workforce is usually gathered at a national level (censuses, workforce surveys etc), but it also reflects an ideological tendency to envisage the economy as a closed system. In the context of the UK, this means analysing the shift between sectors without considering the wider world except as a series of inputs and outputs (i.e. imports and exports) for production and demand functions. Industrialisation in 19th century Britain saw workers leave the fields for factories, but the demand for the product of those factories was often artificially created through empire. This took a number of forms. The most obvious was the deliberate destruction of pre-existing industries in conquered territories, such as the dismantling of the Indian textile industry to create a captive market for the produce of Lancashire cotton mills (what Sven Beckert, in The Empire of Cotton, describes as "war capitalism").

A second form was the repetition of the process of enclosure, and the shift from subsistence to industrialised agriculture, that had been pioneered in the UK in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Whereas displaced agricultural workers in Britain had been absorbed into growing urban industries, albeit at high short-term cost, from the workings of the New Poor Law to the Irish and Scottish potato famines, this same process was curtailed in colonial territories whose administrations were committed to advancing agriculture over manufacture. The imperial vision of goods travelling one way and foodstuffs the other necessarily implied growing unemployment among native populations in the colonies as agriculture became ever more efficient. It also meant the growth of shantytowns as rural workers sought marginal employment opportunities in the growing cities (usually entrepots and government centres, which explains some of the structural roots of corruption). Much of the impetus for political independence, both the dominion status sought by white colonists and the complete rejection of empire sought by natives, came from the pressure of the emerging domestic bourgeosie for industrial development.

We imagine globalisation to be a modern development, the product of telecommunications and containerisation, and it is certainly true that technology has hugely amplified it, but the dynamic is not new. Even when we concede that there were earlier eras that can be described using the same term, such as the 1890-1914 period, we tend to characterise them by the free movement of capital and goods. We rarely think about the movement of jobs. In the long century between 1780 and 1929, we successfully exported the unemployment produced by technological change to the third world (and specifically to non-white populations). Since then, employment has been gradually rebalancing spatially, not just through the process of offshoring but through the localisation of many goods and services (Amazon may be supra-national in its online presence and tax affairs, but it is inescapably local in its delivery). The net effect, becoming ever more apparent after 1980, is that we have started to repatriate technological unemployment.

We have also started to repatriate the characteristics of marginal employment found in shantytowns, even if we haven't reverted to the slums and ash-pits of Charles Dickens's time. High youth unemployment, under-employment, low wages, the need for multiple jobs and persistent insecurity have come to be described as the new phenomenon of "precarity", but this has been the norm for much of the urban working classes of the developing world since the 19th century. This failure to think in global terms, both historically and geographically, leads to delusions about British history and thus contemporary capability. According to Liam Fox, "A small island perched on the edge of Europe became the world’s largest and most powerful trading nation", essentially because "trade is in our DNA". This not only ignores the role of the military in securing an empire, but it suggests the country's position was a disadvantage that we pluckily overcame, rather than a primary reason (dominating the Atlantic sea routes) for success.

Today, the UK's chief geographic advantage is that it is handily-placed by timezone to dominate the capital trade routes between Eurasia and the Americas, an advantage significantly amplified by the historic good fortune of English becoming (through empire) the global language of business, which will probably prove sufficient to prevent Frankfurt eating the City's lunch for a while yet. The geographic reach of UK business services depends on the accessibility and attractiveness of London to foreign business people, hence the importance of Heathrow expansion and Crossrail and the sensitivity of successive mayors. Up until the 23rd of June this year, another key advantage was the UK's bespoke relationship with the EU, i.e. the single market without the euro, which meant it provided proximity to the continent with a built-in currency hedge, an attractive proposition for non-european foreign investors. Technology may well dissolve some barriers of time and distance, but short of a Star Trek-style transporter, the UK's geographical advantages will remain critical. The question is, are we about to sabotage them?