Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Singapore Grip

The eulogies for Lee Kwan Yew highlight the gap that exists between domestic political theory and international practice. This is not just a matter of "realism" - i.e. accepting that we don't have a right to automatically project our values onto others - but a recognition that a nation's international dealings, and its attitude to foreign exemplars, are usually more indicative of the political elite's actual priorities and beliefs than its domestic practice is. This is because there is no effective democratic constraint and public opinion is relatively weak. Indeed, domestic public opinion is more likely to be outraged when we do attempt to project our values (e.g. Iraq) than when we routinely connive in the abuses of foreign governments (e.g. Saudi Arabia).

Beyond the polite praise for his "nation-building" in an ethnically heterogeneous city state, what foreign elites most admired about Lee Kwan Yew was his long monopoly of power, which enabled this "strategist" and "statesman" to deliver the "stability" (i.e. predictability of government policy and absence of economic dissent) that capital prizes above all else. As Henry Kissinger put it, "A world needing to distill order from incipient chaos will miss his leadership". In fact, Lee's role beyond the confines of Singapore island owed more to Jeremy Clarkson than Clemens von Metternich, being that of a "politically incorrect" iconoclast: " I’m not intellectually convinced that one-man, one-vote is the best ... we would have a better system if we gave every man over the age of 40 who has a family two votes because he’s likely to be more careful".

Lee was unwavering in his contempt for democracy and pluralism: "In the East the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms. This freedom can only exist in an ordered state and not in a natural state of contention and anarchy". While the long list of offences defining the boundaries of freedom in Singapore became notorious, what Western commentators usually ignored, amidst the condign punishments for chewing gum and littering, was that the "maximum enjoyment of his freedoms" is a concept imported from Utilitarianism. The East Asian model is less a departure from capitalism than a reprise of its classic form (complete with coal mines, manufacturing and merchant banking) but without the concession of democracy occasioned by World War One. Singapore was a better yesterday, and not just for Empire nostalgists in the long bar of the Raffles Hotel.

East Asian countries (and China in particular) are often "explained" in the West by a supposed Confucian reverence for order and a concomitant fear of chaos. This is ahistorical and superficial, like claiming that you can get the inside track on Syriza by reading Plato. While the "ancients" can still provide ethical insights, they are not sociologists or contemporary political scientists. East Asian politicians have long exploited the cultural legacy of Confucius to justify authoritarianism, social conservatism and the seizure of power (the "Mandate of Heaven"), in the same way that we invoke Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. Lee himself was clearly enamoured of the Confucian idea of the Junzi, the leader whose personal integrity is an example to all, which partly explains why he became a poster-boy for more compromised Western politicians, but this ignores the debt of the Cambridge-trained lawyer to Classical Liberalism, and it also ignores the obvious nepotism and cronyism at the heart of the Singapore state.

Rather than the iron will of Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore's prosperity over the last 50 years was down to its favoured geographical location as an entrepot, its convenience as a financial bolt-hole, and the growth in global business services. The emphasis placed by Lee's government on commercial probity and low levels of state graft was entirely pragmatic, much like similar claims made around trust and privacy in the pre-80s City of London and Switzerland. Surrounded by corrupt authoritarian regimes, both communist and anti-communist, and with a riskier Hong Kong as its chief competitor as a service centre and manufacturing base, Singapore's USP in the region was to be both authoritarian (and thus discreet) and honest (and thus a safe haven for money). Its spectacular growth was based on a rapid expansion of the population and low corporate taxes. That model is now under strain as the population plateaus and foreign direct investment finds more lucrative opportunities elsewhere in the region.

The response to Lee's death abroad has been comically revealing. In their eulogies, most other East Asian leaders have gamely emphasised cooperation, friendship and respect. Lee didn't suffer fools, didn't appreciate criticism, and was instinctively arrogant rather than diplomatic. Obama and Bush II noted his profuse "advice", which is ironic given his tendency to opine on what he saw as moral decline in the US ("there’s already a backlash in America against failed social policies that have resulted in people urinating in public, in aggressive begging in the streets, in social breakdown"). Vladimir Putin notes that "he earned his compatriots' sincere love and respect and won the highest international influence", which is perhaps an insight into the Russian's current state of mind rather than an assessment of Lee. In contrast, what are we to make of Francois Hollande's pathetic "France has lost a friend" and David Cameron's rueful "His place in history is assured"?

In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the totalitarian state of Eastasia's ruling ideology is "called by a Chinese name usually translated as Death-worship, but perhaps better rendered as 'Obliteration of the Self'". I suspect that this was one of the few intentional (if obscure) jokes in the book, satirising the tendency of the British to treat Asians as a mass of ant-like workers lacking individuality. As a former policeman in Burma, Orwell was well acquainted with imperial racism and the dehumanisation of the native population. The idea that East Asians are happiest when they sublimate their ambitions into the good of the wider community is not just a cynical justification for foreign authoritarianism; it's held up as an example for domestic audiences by the very same elites that bang on about our hallowed liberties. As Max Hastings has it, "A hang 'em and flog 'em despot - but golly, we can learn from the man who made Singapore stinking rich".

A more humorous book, and one centred on Lee Kwan Yew's backyard, was J G Farrell's 1978 novel, The Singapore Grip, which tells the tale of the city's fall to the Japanese in 1942 and lays bare the structural failings that will bring about the end of the British Empire in the East, notably snobbish conservatism, cupidity and a contempt for independent thought. One of the characters retails an anecdote about William of Orange being ferried across the river after the Battle of the Boyne. The boatman asks the (new) King how went the day. King Billy replies, "What's it to you? You'll still be a boatman". I'm sure both Lee Kwan Yew and Max Hastings would understand.

Monday, 23 March 2015

The Legacy of Blair

Blairism lives on north of the border, not in the person of Jim Murphy, as you might imagine, but in the person of Nicola Sturgeon. During the 1980s, the 79 Group (which included Alex Salmond) attempted to shift the SNP to the left, mirroring a similar generational struggle in the Labour party, and were temporarily expelled for their pains. In the 1990s, again mirroring developments in Labour, the SNP combined neoliberal economic policies with superficially progressive social policies. But where New Labour "triangulated" from centre-left to centre-right, the SNP moved in the opposite direction, pitching themselves as a more principled opposition to the anglocentric Tories than Labour, hence the emblematic importance of nuclear disarmament and (later) opposition to the Iraq War.

Salmond was probably a more genuine socialist than Blair in the 80s, but his (and others) more recent claim that Scotland is a fundamentally social democratic country is self-serving. The conservative interest in Scotland did not simply evaporate under Thatcher, nor did it shift to Labour. It migrated to both the LibDems and the SNP, once the latter made clear its acceptance of the neoliberal order and its willingness to engage with limited devolution. This is why the result of the independence referendum was all too predictable. The Labour voters that Salmond attracted to "yes" were outweighed by the middle-class SNP voters who quietly chose "no" to protect their economic interests as sterling-based pensioners and rentiers.

Centre-left English observers continue to kid themselves that the SNP is keeping alive the social democratic flame. Commenting on the new Scottish Government Economic Strategy document, Owen Jones cheerfully claims "they have abandoned their flirtation with Osbornomics by dropping their pledge to cut corporation tax", when all they've done is replace a "blanket" cut with a more "targeted" approach. They are still keen on "tax competition" (i.e. regulatory arbitrage) as a means of attracting foreign investment, which means capital-friendly taxation. They're not proposing to increase corporation tax, capital gains tax or the tax on dividends; while their preference for cuts in VAT is to reduce the rate for tourism (i.e. a business-friendly stimulus) rather than the daily goods that Scots buy. It takes a heroic disregard for the facts to characterise the SNP as social democratic.

A better gauge of the party's attitude is the frequency of the word "competitiveness" in the executive summary of the strategy document. With all the usual buzzwords about "human capital investment", "innovation" and "inclusive growth", this is indistinguishable from the output of a New Labour thinktank. "Internationalisation" occurs a lot; "nationalisation" is conspicuous by its absence. The focus of investment is "SMEs with high growth potential", which is a fool's errand. The SNP's instincts remain centrist and opportunistic, eliding tricky subjects such as the strategic prospects of the oil industry or the over-dependence on the financial sector. As Martin Kettle notes, they are as likely to ostentatiously hold their noses, plead the "national interest of Scotland", and support a minority Tory government after May as a Labour one, though he fails to spell out that this is because the SNP have emulated his hero Blair: "make your compromises in advance by broadening your party tent".

Since devolution in 1999, the Scots have voted differently in Scottish and UK elections. Tactical voting has become habitual. The oscillation in the popular vote has seen Labour gain a bonus of around 10% in general elections relative to its share in elections to the Scottish Parliament. Some of this comes at the expense of the SNP, but some also comes from the "others" - Socialists, Greens and independents - who have accounted for between 11% and 22% in Scottish elections (compared to under 5% in general elections). The Lib Dems have also gained a bonus, though a more variable one of between 4% and 11%. This is more likely to be predominantly SNP voters. The Tories' share of the popular vote saw negligible movement between Scottish and UK elections (indicating a hard-core of about 16%) until 2010 when the bonus was just under 3%, suggesting that the SNP had attracted 2-3% from the Tories in the Scottish election of 2007, increasing to 3-4% in 2011 (i.e. about a fifth of the Tory core vote shifts to the SNP in Holyrood elections).

As the SNP vote in elections to the Scottish Parliament has grown, so their discount in UK elections (i.e. the amount of the total vote that then deserts them) has increased, reaching 9% in 2010. The question is whether 2015 will "break the mould", shrinking this discount and keeping SNP support above 40%. I think this is unlikely. Despite the post-referendum bounce and Labour's troubles, I doubt the Scottish electorate will dispense with tactical voting altogether. This is still likely to produce a discount, even if the SNP benefits from greater tactical voting by former LibDems. The 44% secured by the SNP in 2011 looks like a high-water mark; and a proxy for the "yes" vote in 2014, with "no" voting SNPers offset by "yes" voting Labourites.

Though Labour's vote in Scotland will be down, I suspect it will be closer to 33% than the current prediction of 27%. Jim Murphy hasn't been parachuted in because he is attractive to Scottish voters, but because he has the tactical and organisational nous to engineer a late surge and get the vote out. The SNP share of the popular vote will probably be closer to 38% than the current, frothy 46%. If Murphy can "do a Netanyahu" and get the Labour vote up to 35%, the higher concentration of Labour votes in urban constituencies may mean the shift in seats to the SNP will be less dramatic than the pollsters predict, and Labour could still be the largest party at Westminster.

A lot of the anecdotal evidence of the turn against Labour points to the disgust of long-time supporters seeing the party share a platform with the Tories during the referendum. Some of this will dissipate come the ballot, not least because the UK-wide campaign will heighten the antipathy between Labour and the Conservatives and accentuate the material policy differences. If emotion can drive supporters away, it can also attract them back. The more anti-working class the Tories are seen to be during the general election campaign, the more likely that Scottish working class voters will cleave to Labour. It is anti-Tory middle class Scottish voters who are likely to cleave to the SNP, which is why the LibDems in Scotland face a greater existential threat than Labour.

There also appears to be a belief that as Labour has abandoned "socialism", which for many Scots simply means being pro-working class, there is little to be lost in voting for the SNP. Though the nationalists may be less "left" than they advertise, they will be sensitive to local demands and might hold Labour's feet to the fire in a coalition (the Tory posters suggesting that a vote for the SNP will result in a Labour-led coalition may be counter-productive). This belief combines both emotion and calculation - the underlying assumption being that most Scottish voters want a Labour-SNP coalition - but I suspect it's a minority view, and largely the product of media speculation. Labour's bigger worry is deserters rather than turn-coats, in other words their chances depend on getting out the vote.

Some English and Welsh voters, seduced by the myth of a social democratic SNP, may find the idea of a Labour-SNP coalition attractive, even though their assumption that the nationalists would act as an egalitarian conscience isn't consistent with either the party's neoliberal policies or its likely strategy. As an anti-UK party, they aren't going to be seduced into formal coalition like the LibDems: ministerial Daimlers would not go down well in Scotland. Instead, they will achieve more by offering vote-by-vote support in return for a series of staggered concessions throughout the Parliament. Ironically, a Labour administration dependent on the SNP could find itself edging leftwards in order to create some space between it and the nationalists, but don't bet on it. Insofar as Ed Miliband has a project, it is to put a kinder face on an already compromised neoliberal order, which post-2008 looks unimaginative at best and craven at worst. Without an outright majority, he is unlikely to commit to anything braver.

The chance of a longer-term recovery for Labour in Scotland depends on flushing out the SNP as the real heirs of Blair, but that can only happen if Labour in England makes a clean break with the Blairite past. Until then, the SNP have the luxury of being able to punt a neoliberal agenda, with suitably progressive adornments such as the cancellation of Trident, while attacking Labour for the legacy of their multimillionaire former leader. Assuming the LibDems implode in May, Labour could confront the Blairites confident that a centrist breakaway, a la the SDP, is an empty threat, but if the party fails to secure a majority, the Blairites will be emboldened. We could then end up with a post-Blair but still neoliberal Labour party in England and Wales and a noticeably similar SNP in Scotland. This could even become a fixture of the political landscape, like the CDU and CSU in Germany. The prospect of a less (or post-) neoliberal Labour party depends on an outright majority in May. The chief threat to that is the relative success of the "social democratic" SNP in Scotland, and the extent to which the turn against Labour that it has championed influences sentiment in the North of England.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Height of Impudence

The suggestion that the Greek government might seize the Goethe Institute in Athens, as part of its efforts to secure war reparations it considers it is owed by Germany, has a symbolic value far greater than any real estate gain. Paul Mason hopes it might encourage a German volte-face, much as Goethe changed his mind about the Greek struggle for independence, if only because a Grexit would weaken Europe's southern border and potentially embolden Russia, to US chagrin. I suspect that this is wishful thinking and that Washington is currently more concerned by rhetoric in Tel Aviv than in Athens.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has a significance in respect of the current friction between Greece and Germany, but less in terms of his philhellenism than in the idea of Germany as a beacon of European civilisation. This liberal conception, in which bourgeois culture is assumed to be independent of the state and a force for peace, is one of the twin strands that runs through the political culture of postwar Germany. The other strand is the Rechtsstaat, or just state, which sees the rule of law as the foundation of good government. The intellectual roots of this are Immanuel Kant's belief that there are universal principles that constitute a higher moral law: "The constitution of a state is eventually based on the morals of its citizens, which, in its turn, is based on the goodness of this constitution". These two strands are central to capitalist ideology in Germany (i.e. Ordoliberalism), but they are also increasingly central to EU policy as that becomes ever more Germanic.

The irony is that this should be working itself out through a focus on Greece, whose classical history was attractive to Goethe and other Germans partly because of its high regard for ethically-based law. The other irony is that the chief legal theorist of the Rechtsstaat in the twentieth century was Carl Schmitt, an academic jurist who acted as counsel to the Reich government of von Papen in 1932 when it dismissed the elected centre-left government of Prussia. This was a key step in the manoeuvrings of German conservatives that would culminate in their miscalculation of tactical support for Hitler. Schmitt became a member of the Nazi party in 1933 and an active anti-semite, though he was marginalised within a few years as unreliable. He remained an influential thinker in the postwar period because of his theories of state sovereignty and dictatorship and his critique of liberal democracy.

The presumption of the Rechtsstaat is that your own house is in order, while the legacy of Goethe is that Germany - despite the wrong turns of the twentieth century - has a legitimate claim to be a civic exemplar for Europe. This is not "Prussian arrogance" so much as bourgeois smugness, but a smugness founded on a diligent respect for law and human rights. In Britain, we observe the former and dismiss it as officiousness, ignoring the sincerity of the latter. Unlike the American model, where the Constitution sets boundaries and the Supreme Court is only brought into play in extremis, the Rechtsstaat pervades all aspects of law from the parish upwards. In the UK, sovereignty is believed to reside in Parliament (however farcical that may be in reality), while in France it resides in the people (which legitimises revolutions). In Germany, sovereignty resides in the Basic Law, which binds the executive, legislature and judiciary at state and federal levels.

The twin strands can be seen clearly in the person of Wofgang Schauble, the German Finance Minister. According to Der Spiegel, "Schäuble takes laws, treaties and agreements very seriously because he considers rule of law to be a fundamental trait of Western democracy and civilization. The casualness with which his newly elected Greek colleagues want to run roughshod over EU agreements is deeply abhorrent to Schäuble ... The German finance minister regards Europe as an educational project, one for which the past seven decades has been about civilizing the Europeans and educating them about peace and democracy ... Athens' revolt is reminiscent of a teenager who doesn't want to accept the limits to personal freedom that living in a mutually dependent collective necessitates -- moreover, in a collective designed by his predecessors".

In contrast to the media presentation of the purse-lipped, realistic Schauble appalled by the gobby Varoufakis and his mad ideas, this portrait shows the German Finance Minister to be an idealist and Syriza to be pragmatists, despite the snidery about irresponsibility and immaturity. The tussle over wording in the various communiques this year has been presented as a slippery Greece seeking to big up small (or nonexistent) gains and a pedantic Germany insistent on undermining those claims. In fact, what this shows is Greece doing what EU politicians have traditionally done - i.e. fudge and seek interpretative latitude - while it is Germany that is departing from EU tradition in refusing to make allowances for domestic political pressure. This suggests that the EU core, led by Germany, sees austerity as a one-time opportunity to "rectify" Greece, and perhaps even an opportunity to prepare for euro 2.0.

According to Der Spiegel, "For Yanis Varoufakis, the euro is a defective currency. For Schäuble, it is his legacy" (the former is unarguable, the latter debatable). For over twenty years, Schauble has been a proponent of tighter integration for a "hard core" of EU states, centred on a Franco-German axis. He expressed scepticism about the readiness of peripheral nations like Greece to join the euro in the 90s, and has repeatedly worried about the political drag caused by the anti-federalism and opportunism of the UK. For him, the danger of the EU project being compromised is greater than the danger of a Grexit or a two-speed Europe. The emerging danger for the European "periphery" is not that the euro is a new "cross of gold", but that some of its architects would prefer it to be more like the bed of Procrustes. In other words, simple pain may give way to more radical surgery.

While the concern for executive integrity is expressed in terms of the EU, or at least its core, the roots of Schauble's obduracy lie in the Schmittian belief that the authority of the state to act in the interests of the community is fundamental, and that the state must resist being beleaguered by group interests. Schauble sees the periphery as a set of group interests unwilling to fully integrate - i.e. to accept the rules of "a collective designed by [their] predecessors". Domestically, this is echoed by his view on immigration which is favourable (for pragmatic reasons, anticipating Germany's demographic decline) but unyielding in its demand for complete commitment to the community: "Integration: yes — double citizenship: no". While he isn't going to emulate the "Prussian coup" of 1932 and demand a change of government in Athens, the suspicion is that Schauble (if not Merkel) would be willing to amputate the "gangrenous" limb of Greece.

If Schauble's stance towards Greece is heavily informed by Ordoliberalism, in its concern with state (i.e. core EU) integrity as much as fiscal rectitude, it also echoes earlier classical liberal views on responsibility and the mission of civilisation, hence the language characterising the Greeks as "foolishly naive" and untrustworthy and mendacious for questioning the logic of austerity. This is where Schauble starts to sound less like Goethe and more like Charles Trevelyan, the UK Treasury official (and joint-architect of the British Civil Service) who considered the Irish Famine of 1845-52 to be "the judgement of God on an indolent and unself-reliant people, and as God has sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated: the selfish and indolent must learn their lesson so that a new and improved state of affairs must arise".

This is not to suggest an imperialist mindset in Berlin. Rather the similarities concern the conflict of "progressive" and "backward" forms of capital. It needs to be remembered that the racism of the Victorian establishment, which strikes us as offensive now, was unremarkable in the nineteenth century. Far more significant was the belief of the Whigs (in government 1846-52) that Irish landowners, many of whom were absentee Tories, were failing to properly develop Irish agriculture - i.e. to invest in larger farms and improvements - which was a continuation of their critique of the Corn Laws, whose repeal in 1846 had brought them to office. The modern parallel is the disdain of North European big capital for the oligarchic capital of Greece - the diaplekomenoi, or "entangled ones" - which it believes is as much of a hindrance to the necessary "restructuring" of the Greek economy as the "bloated" public sector.

The UK government provided £7m in famine relief to Ireland in the form of workhouse support, soup-kitchens and pointless public works (deliberately unproductive to avoid damaging private enterprise). In contrast, it compensated West Indian slave-owners to the tune of £20m in the 1830s (you can think of this "superior" claim as equivalent to the bailout of European banks). The Irish Poor Law Extension Act of 1847 shifted the responsibility for relief funds wholly onto Irish ratepayers (i.e. landlords and tenant farmers) in the spirit of liberal self-reliance. This exacerbated the famine because the sums raised were inadequate; because the requirement that landlords pay the rates of small tenants triggered mass evictions to consolidate tenancies; and because tenants holding more than a quarter of an acre were barred from assistance, prompting many to abandon their holdings. A private sector failure was transformed into a public sector crisis.

In the circumstances, the suggestion by Declan Costello, of the European Commission Directorate, that the Greek government should not unilaterally pass its "humanitarian crisis" bill to alleviate poverty looks obtuse. Fortunately, Costello is not representative of Europe as a whole, any more than Schauble is representative of all Germans. On the issue of wartime reparations, Gesine Schwan of the SPD notes: "It would be good for us Germans to sweep up after ourselves in terms of our history. Victims and descendants have longer memories than perpetrators and descendants". If Schauble doubts this, he could perhaps ask Declan Costello how Charles Trevelyan is still viewed in Ireland.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Time is Money

The news that the Apple Watch will cost between £300 and £700, depending on features (iPhone not included), confirms that it is being positioned as an elite "want" rather than a mass-market "need". The announcement of a £13k limited release gold and sapphire model seems rather superfluous in the circumstances. Though the coming ubiquity of the quantified self is real, and smartwatches will be part of it, Apple has no intention of stepping beyond its target demographic of the well-heeled. It also looks determined to launch the device primarily as a toy for boys. This association of time with gender and class is emblematic of the modern economy.

One of the revolutionary achievements of neoliberalism has been the breaking of ranks in respect of the fixed working week, with precarious employees scrabbling to secure minimum hours and many executives and professionals expected to be "available 24x7". Of course, plenty of people still work a 40-hour week, but they are not ideologically exemplary, so they don't get the media coverage. The key difference between the two extremes of "not enough" and "too much" is autonomy. Though executives complain about their busy schedules, they actually have a high degree of control over their own time (not to mention the time of others), while the low-paid are at the "text and call" of zero-hour employers. This is no different to the class divisions of the past when workers were subject to the regime of the workplace clock (and daily "picks" if casualised) while owners and managers had their own fob-watches (they literally possessed their own time).

The overwork of the "cash-rich, time-poor" is not the product of modern technology, as is often claimed, but a cultural choice: the architecture of email is not realtime and the marginal increase in accessibility brought by mobile phones is exaggerated. "Busyness" is performative. The cultural origins of this lie in America (with roots going back to the nineteenth century), reflecting the global spread of US corporate practices in the 60s and 70s. In the 90s, this was reinforced first by BPR (business processing reengineering) and outsourcing, which normalised the idea of management as a series of ongoing projects and organisational changes, and then by the spread of US "new economy" norms, such as working stupid hours in the expectation of an IPO or building a portfolio career (i.e. precarious, multiple part-time jobs).

One theory for the growth in hours worked by the highly-paid is that as wage inequality increases so the rewards for marginal hours become greater, encouraging more work. Though they aren't paid an hourly rate, "putting in the hours" is a way of indicating loyalty and implying productivity, which may lead to greater remuneration. This has a superficial plausibility, but there is an obvious flaw. In the majority of roles, the most productive workers are those that minimise their time, not those who maximise it. An alternative explanation is that presenteeism is thought to morally justify outsize rewards for those not on an hourly rate. In other words, it is partly motivated by social embarrassment and can be seen as a form of visible penance. What is significant is that both views see time not as a commodity that is exchanged for cash, but as a claim against a de facto rent.

Rent-seeking is not just a case of executive looting, such as university vice-chancellors adopting CEO norms, but also occurs through the creation of supernumerary roles. This may be endogenous, in the form of roles created to build and reinforce internal power structures, or exogenous, in the form of socially-mandated roles whereby elites take a cut from businesses or state bodies, such as non-executive directors or the members of quangos. The growth of whitecollar jobs relative to bluecollar has long been seen a sign of increasing human capital and thus aggregate productivity, but this ignores the greater scope for rent-seeking as jobs become less measurable in terms of individual output. Parallel to this, the growing demand for regulation and oversight (and thus responsibility) increases supervisory overheads. The drama of a Parliamentary committee, whether interrogating bankers or spooks, reflects the growth of software and automation, which in turn is feeding the growth in supernumerary roles.

Increasing inequality in pay is as much about the inequality in hours as it is in hourly rates. The need to "get the hours" drives behaviour at the bottom of the income scale, such as taking on a second job, and at the top, such as collecting non-executive gigs. This has a negative impact on productivity: at the bottom, it leads to soldiering in order to justify overtime, as well as labour-capital substitution; at the top it leads to superficiality - i.e. having insufficient bandwidth or expertise to be effective. The affront of various senior bankers and non-execs at HSBC that they couldn't be expected to know what was going on in their own organisation is not mere disingenuousness. Rona Fairhead, like her fellow HSBC non-execs, is paid to adorn a committee. She is not expected to actually do any work beyond read an audit report, sit through a meeting and nod assent.

Fairhead's understanding of her role, and the continuing debate about gender balance in boardrooms, shows that the gender pay gap is as much about "representation" (i.e. the value of symbolic presence) as it is about individual contribution. When top roles become de facto sinecures, they inevitably reflect wider prejudices. For example, pay disparities in Hollywood reflect the dynamics of the industry. "Stars" are paid proportionate to their ability to put bums on seats. This is why Emma Watson currently earns more than Timothy Spall. Women are at a structural disadvantage in that studios reflect and reinforce societal sexism, because that makes narrow economic sense: they are financially incentivised to be biased, which overrides their "liberal" norms. In contrast, there is little financial incentive to be biased in construction, which is why the gender pay gap is much smaller in that industry despite the assumed innate sexism of builders. Hollywood will be one of the last industries to achieve gender pay equality, despite Patricia Arquette's laudable exhortation.

Wider sexism dictates that watches are usually gender-specific. By making its smartwatch a chunky, feature-rich device, Apple is reinforcing the prejudice that a "tech watch" is a product for chisel-jawed men who do important stuff. In the modern economy, an ostentatious concern with time is significant both in terms of peer status and self-esteem, similar to the concern with never being "out of touch" while travelling or on holiday. Just as a Rolex says "too wealthy to give a toss", so an Apple Watch will say "too important to pay you even cursory attention".

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Death of a Clown

Whether engineered or not, "punchgate" looks like a convenient opportunity for the parting of the ways between Jeremy Clarkson and the BBC. Though still popular with young boys, Top Gear's healthy foreign sales, like Clarkson's increasingly desperate attention-seeking, are a clear sign that the vehicle is now running on fumes. While the Beeb might try and refresh the cast, like Last of the Summer Wine, it might equally just cut to the chase and create an entirely new series where ageing men are set ridiculous challenges in which pratfalls and hilarity ensue, like Last of the Summer Wine. The cast are obviously rich enough to retire, while writing gigs in the Tory press will satisfy the urge to take the ego out for the occasional spin.

In historical terms, Jeremy Clarkson successfully recycled and combined two particular strands of British humour: the casual bigotry of The Comedians, which had provided an "authentic" working-class contrast to the whimsy of middle-class comedy in the 1970s; and the sarcastic tone and overt political content of 1980s alternative comedy, which he repurposed to misanthropic ends long before the graduates of The Comic Strip started moaning about the Mansion Tax. Of course, the comedians of the northern club circuit in the 70s were never truly authentic, in the sense of reflecting their audience. Their reactionary "plain-speaking" reflected the comedians' own position as small businessmen: anti-government, anti-tax, pro-golf etc. Politically, they were less representative of the punters than the lunchtime strippers.

Born to a small businessman and a teacher in Doncaster in 1960, and starting out as a journalist on local newspapers, Clarkson was very much a product of the same milieu, albeit with middle-class pretensions - hence the private schooling. In many respects, he is far more representative of "Middle England" than Nigel Farage. If the UKIP leader is a de haut en bas populist who appeals to the social and geographic margins that regret the end of the twentieth century, Clarkson is a right of centre Tory loyalist who is comfortable with big capital, hierarchy and abroad (the Chipping Norton set are instinctive supremacists, not xenophobes). As an ideologist, Clarkson helped maintain the fiction of political correctness as an external imposition, particularly in the form of health and safety "gone mad", at a time when big capital was pushing for greater regulation as a deliberate strategy for the car industry. We have much safer cars today for the same reason we have fewer manufacturers and more automated factories.

British comedy has traditionally relied on innuendo and puns. This produced a range of styles in the twentieth century as comedy migrated from the stage to radio and TV, from the mock-offended (Frankie Howerd) through the befuddled (Tommy Cooper) to the cynical (Les Dawson). Arguably the most successful variant was the tease, the comedian who threatened to cross the line into outrage but never quite did, its most famous exponent being Max Miller. The basic dynamic of comedy - that "we" can safely laugh at "them" - meant that the jokes became increasingly vicious as the range of acceptable topics broadened and social tensions mounted from the 1960s onward. This was obvious not only in the "blue humour" of the clubs and the casual racism and misogyny of The Comedians, but in the increasing contempt shown by comics in the 70s for organised labour and the Irish.

Alternative comedy was a conscious response to this bigotry, but it was also a class project. Thatcherism allowed liberal middle class comedians who hadn't qualified for Footlights to indirectly patronise the working class for their material aspirations and ignorance. Clarkson took the political position of the 70s comedians and overlayed it with the style of the alternative comedians of the 80s. His persona was a mix of Lennie Bennett and Bill Hicks - including the hair of the former and the dress sense of the latter. His delivery was modelled on the classic tease, but done in a deliberately laconic, louche manner: mouthing the "n-word", employing ambiguity ("slope"), using "gay" as a derogatory term etc. This allowed a wide range of viewers either to imagine that Clarkson secretly shared their own prejudices or to excuse his flirting as ill-judged but essentially harmless.

It might appear odd that the BBC should take a dim view when he acts according to type. After all, they don't pay him handsomely for his opinion on cars but for his entertainment value. And while the essence of Top Gear is three privileged, middle-aged men playing at being kids again, it is clear that the show's popularity has much to do with the tension arising from the expectation that head boy Clarkson will skirt the border of acceptability. But taking a swing at someone during a tantrum is another matter entirely, even if it is behaviour consistent with a spoilt brat. Stepping over the line into physical abuse is not the sort of thing that the post-Savile BBC can take lightly. The question is, did Clarkson actually land a punch, or is this, in the style of a 1970s stripper on a Saturday lunchtime, just another tease?