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Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Technology, Stagnation and Drug Abuse

I've been tracking the "modern technology is rubbish" meme for some years now. It originated as an ironic response to the dotcom bust, as if everyone awoke with a hangover and memories of an embarrassing night out, but really came to the fore after the 2008 crash revealed that the "new economy" owed more to an out-of-control habit of rising household debt than accelerating productivity. The meme was given a further boost by the reintroduction of the idea of secular stagnation to economic debate, but in recent months it has been challenged in the zeitgeist stakes by the emergence of the "eve of war" meme. This might appear to be little more than the product of the Great War centenary, amplified by trouble in Ukraine and the Middle East, however there is also a fear that the continuing ill health of the global economy since 2009 points to another parallel: "The problems created by the first world war were never properly dealt with, and it was only after the Great Depression and a second conflict that policies changed and global institutions were made fit for purpose. There is a real danger of history repeating itself".

There have been two main flavours of the "modern technology is rubbish" meme. "Techno-dammerung" is a variant on the age-old belief that everything is going to the dogs and we reached our peak sometime in the last generation. This is nostalgic not only for old certainties but for old fantasies and ambitions, hence the laments for the non-appearance of jet-packs and flying-cars alongside the misty-eyed recollection of chopper-bikes and school milk. "Trivialisation" holds that we have turned technology to self-indulgent and ultimately foolish ends, such as social media, rather than investing in productivity enhancements. This is a moral critique of decadence that has its roots in earlier theories of the structural deformation of media ("amusing ourselves to death") and is related to the persistent memes of "information overload" and "dumbing down". It's not quite Sodom and Gomorrah, but it's in the same neighbourhood.


The techno-twilight version also finds common cause with the idea, popularised most recently by Thomas Piketty, that the 1945-75 period was an exceptional golden age and that the future promises increasing inequality. In other words, the babyboomer generation was peak social democracy: "My children have the expectation that they won't be as rich as me. They won't have the life chances, they won't have the disposable income. There is an underlying sense that what has gone on might be a secular, long-term change". The meme, in both its flavours, informs the current fear of secular stagnation (persistent low economic growth), though I think the worry over the trivial nature of modern technology may be partly a misunderstanding of the power of software by academics raised in a hardware age. A recent paper rounding up current thinking on "secstag" identified three characteristics, each of which has a technological dimension.

1. Diminished long-run growth potential. This is the structural perspective on stagnation, which points to multiple causes: a lower rate of technological progress; the end of the historic growth in tertiary education (i.e. "peak graduate"); an ageing population; growing inequality; and the unsustainability of public debt. The first two are assumed to depress productivity growth through insufficiently rapid capital-labour substitution and a falling off in the rate at which the workforce composition moves from unskilled to skilled. The last three tend to depress aggregate demand (i.e. current consumption) and boost savings, with the erosion of the welfare state specifically prompting greater precautionary saving.

The rate of technological progress is also influenced by the trend towards monopoly, which discourages innovation, protects incumbents against new market entrants and promotes rent-seeking over investment. This trend is partly an inescapable factor of technological progress (scale economies lead to physical monopolies such as roads, railways and water), the network effects of software (i.e. the value of a common search engine or microblogging platform has led to monopoly not greater competition), and neoliberal practice (in the form of privileged firms being granted government monopolies via privatisation).

2. Persistent GDP gaps. This is essentially the Keynesian analysis. High under- and unemployment at the zero lower bound (i.e. central bank interest rates are at or near zero and can't be pushed lower) makes conventional monetary policy (lowering interest rates to stimulate investment) redundant. Consequently, we may need bubbles to kick-start any sort of growth, and thereby boost employment and wages. But like any drug, the comedown is a kicker. Balance sheet repair (i.e. paying down high household debt after a bubble) discourages spending, so even negative interest rates (penalising saving) or financial repression (keeping interest rates below inflation, as we have done) won't necessarily boost demand. Government-led investment, at a time of very low interest rates, would make a lot of sense, but this is off the agenda while reducing public debt and the deficit are defined as political imperatives.

There have been two major bubbles since 1980: technology and housing. Though the former is seen largely in terms of the dotcom bubble of the late 90s, it was actually the culmination of a longer underlying swell that started in the mid-80s with the introduction of the PC. The problem has been that the growth in IT capital investment since 2000 has slowed, not because of lower activity or trivialisation but because of the compositional shift from hardware to software. Similarly, house prices have been rising since the mid-80s, despite corrections in the early 90s and after 2008, and while the market has been extensively rigged for political reasons (most notably in the UK), there are genuine secular forces at work too, notably growing longevity (leading to later retirement and longer working lives) and increasing female participation in the workforce (which may now be exhausted). Persistently low interest rates will also keep house prices high, relative to income, which brings us to ...

3. Low interest rates. This partly repeats the point about long-run growth potential, namely that demography, inequality and anxiety over public services increases the supply of loanable funds in developed economies. However, it also notes that growth in developing economies, where pensions and healthcare may not be funded via tax, creates a surplus of savings that are exported to developed economies, thus acting to keep interest rates low regardless of domestic policy. On top of this, there has been a decline in the number of safe assets, due to the crash of previously triple-A mortgage-backed securities, while demand for them has increased due to tighter post-crash regulation of banks (i.e. they need more safe assets for their capital buffers), which drives rates even lower.

The compositional change in technology (i.e. more software) may also be lowering demand for loanable funds at the same time that R&D is declining. The latter is due to privatisation (the entrepreneurial state not being fully replaced by the private sector) and financial engineering, which encourages mergers and acquisitions rather than research competition. With technology being insufficiently expensive (or wasteful) as an investment opportunity, and public infrastructure and housing under-resourced, more and more capital is diverted elsewhere. As Larry Elliott has noted of the IMF, "It knows that much of the cash created by central banks has found its way, via the shadow banking system, into emerging markets and developing countries. It knows that investors are complacent about the risks. It knows that in a rush for the exit, many of these investors would be badly burned".


What the "modern technology is rubbish" meme is really telling us is that technology is, in aggregate, cheaper than ever. R&D is very expensive, but the hyper-efficiency of modern hardware and software means that the exploitation of that initial investment requires proportionately less capital than it used to. Historically, capital investment has been risky because it has been vulnerable to catastrophic loss, such as merchant ships sunk at sea, mines and oilfields nationalised by former colonies, and factories bombed to smithereens. The gradual decline of such threats after WW2, combined with the falling price of capital opportunities due to technology, has produced both a surplus of capital and an insane lack of caution (probably exacerbated in some cases by cocaine) among those who manage its investment.

In a stagnant economy, wages aren't going to rise much, if at all, and non-wage income will suffer from low interest rates unless diverted to shares, property or overseas markets. Meanwhile, capital continues to accumulate, which inevitably forces politicians to consider moving towards increased taxes on assets over income and profit, no matter how much they may publicly denigrate "mansion taxes" and seek to preserve inheritance. In fact, what we need are the "unrealistic" confiscatory taxes advocated by Piketty, not simply to redistribute income and narrow inequality, but to take large amounts of capital out of private sector circulation where it gives rise to systemic risk. This expropriated capital should be used to repair the public fabric, but some of it could also be used to pay down public debt, though investing it in productive capital formation to increase tax revenues is ultimately a more efficient way of paying down the debt and evaporating the deficit.

What the "eve of war" meme is telling us is that policy-makers increasingly doubt that the current situation can persist for much longer, though they'll attempt to sit on their hands as long as they can. As they showed in the aftermath of 2008, the only priority is the preservation of accumulated wealth. We don't know how this will play out, though a capital crisis in an emerging economy that wreaks havoc in the shadow banking sector currently looks more likely than a sovereign default or a run on a regulated bank. It is also possible that policymakers might let the hedge funds and their ilk crash and burn, sacrificing some of the rich for the benefit of the rest, and that contagion of the regulated banking sector could be prevented, but that would be a peculiarly inefficient way of letting air out of the system. For all his alleged utopianism, Thomas Piketty's suggestion that we cut to the chase and confiscate the stash makes increasing sense macroeconomically as well as socially.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Mancunian Friend

I was tempted to watch BBC1's The Driver by memories of the 1978 Walter Hill film of the same name. I've always been a sucker for films, like Scorcese's Taxi Driver and the recent Ryan Gosling vehicle Drive, that use driving as a metaphor for alienation and the role of the skilled worker, even though I'm no petrolhead and I find the reality of being behind the wheel closer to Alan Partridge. The obvious problem with a British setting for a classic US genre is the relative mundanity of driving here, particularly in a rain-drenched Manchester, which the series tackled head-on (so to speak) with a high-energy car chase in the opening minutes. By the end of the three-part series I was reminded more of Wim Wenders The American Friend, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game, a far superior meditation on free will and obligation with a little driving along the way.


The car chase was utterly implausible. The police appeared to have been reduced by cuts to a squad of just two bobbies in one car, unable to call up reinforcements to block the narrow streets of central Manchester. Neither of them appeared able to note the registration number of Vince's BMW, which he later left in an open-air car-park with CCTV. The Beamer was a mid-life crisis on wheels, and Vince's dexterity in handling it after a career driving a crappy people-carrier went unexplained. With this red herring out of the way, the character of Vince, well played by David Morrissey, was drawn as more of a Travis Bickle than a cool specialist, though one reduced to washing the vomit off his minicab mats rather than the scum off the streets. Much of the first episode resembled the trials of Job, as everything that could go wrong did go wrong, culminating in Vince getting mugged by two pissed-up teenage girls. In truth, this just showed him to be an idiot, albeit a sympathetic one, and nothing subsequently suggested an alternative reading.

Browned off with his life, Vince meets up with his boyhood pal Colin, played by an excellent Ian Hart, who has just got out of prison. Improbably, no one has told Col that his ex (who does not appear to have moved house) had shacked up with his twin brother and was now pregnant. That might be plausible in a Thomas Hardy novel but jarred in a programme where mobile phones were ubiquitous and the impossibility of keeping secrets was central to the plot. Col introduces Vince to The Horse (I was half expecting him to introduce a partner, The Cart), the local criminal mastermind, who suggests a few driving jobs. Again, Vince displays his idiocy by taking him at his word - just driving. To cut a long story short, it all starts to go horribly wrong as Vince is dragged deeper into criminality while trying to save his marriage and family from disintegration. He finally agrees to be wired-up by the police to entrap the gang, though the "wire" turns out to be a small stud (technically nonsense - you can't transmit without a power source) that Vince accidentally loses behind a sink (the man's hopeless).

As well as implausibilities and improbable coincidences, such as phonecalls occurring at the worst possible moment, the plot was riddled with soft misogyny. The central idea seemed to be that men go off the rails when not properly looked after by women. Vince is neglected by his wife, Ros (Claudie Blakley), who is distracted by her job (woman, know your limits!) and her passion for marathons (she's running away!) He is treated with contempt by his selfish daughter who dates a knobhead and later insists she can't enter the witness protection programme because she has 500 friends on Facebook (all over the land, millions of disgruntled men are simultaneously exclaiming "she needs a good slap, that one!"). Colin's mum is summed up as "if it doesn't come with ice and lemon, she's not interested". Even Vince's cabbie mate, who has left his wife and now indulges in Internet hookups, is literally "sorely used" by women, though he brings the blessing of a proper shag into their dull married lives. Apparently.

Women routinely appear as figures of authority and constraint: a doctor, who judges Vince insufficiently depressed for pills, and a warder at the local nick. Ros's sister is unsympathetic towards her brother-in-law (itself a dramatic cliché) and encourages her to desert him. His son has run away to some sort of cult, apparently under the influence of a girlfriend ("she needs a good slap, that one!"). When Vince attempts to extricate him, he is baffled by the non-violent men and women of the commune who marginalise him as the boy's "birth father" (echoes of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys). In the final episode, the police warn him that if he doesn't cooperate he will do 10 years inside, during which his wife will "take up with another man" (because apparently they all do - just ask Col). Vince sees the witness protection programme as a way of re-establishing a happy family, a fresh start. Perhaps crime does pay.

The underworld milieu features standard tropes (card games, wads of cash, the flirting moll), but is humorously undermined in the first episode through a bathetic tea ceremony, The Horse's philosophical pretensions, and a moronic dialogue on the geography of Hartlepool (the influence of Tarantino is felt throughout). But the key feature is that this is a male world where masculinity can at least defend itself through violence. Though this is shown to be problematic, and Vince comes to appreciate the value of an "ordinary life", it is still representative of a life that is fully alive (that small existential flicker in Vince's psyche). By the third episode, the gang's characterisation has been reduced to the one-dimensional, the humour replaced by formulaic thuggery and stupidity. Though Colm Meaney's Horse increasingly views Vince through narrowed, suspicious eyes, he still goes ahead with the climactic robbery, even though Col disappears at the eleventh hour, tipped-off by Vince about the police surveillance.

With the gang arrested in the act, the series ends with Vince reunited with his son, driving off to find his wife and daughter, suggesting that the two men may be able to reconstruct the family, standing up to the demands of the womenfolk on the one side and a hostile world on the other. Perhaps they'll head for the Australian Outback or the Canadian Rockies, stocking up on guns and tins of corned beef along the way. In The American Friend, the central character, having driven off and left his troubles behind, drops dead at this point, which would have made a lot more sense for Vince too. The loose end is Col, the Mancunian friend (though like Morrissey, Hart occasionally lapses into Scouse). Does he use the cash that Vince gifts him to head off to an ordinary life, or does he become a working class Tom Ripley?

Monday, 6 October 2014

Know Your Product

The popularity of the Green Party, and environmentalism more generally, is always a bad sign for the left. This is not because support for the Greens is inversely correlated to the electoral popularity of centre-left parties like Labour, though there is an element of ebb and flow between them, but because it remains a fundamentally conservative project, despite the delusions of self-proclaimed progressives, and thus a pointer to the temper of the times. The addition of 2,000 new members to the Scottish Green Party post-referendum does not presage a radical tidal wave at the 2015 general election, any more than the yes campaign revealed a social democratic nation north of the border. Support for the Greens tends to rise during periods of anxiety, such as the 1980s (recession, nuclear war) and now (recession, climate change), but that support remains centred on small capitalists and the professional middle classes, hence their greater threat to the LibDems (who are now facing a perfect storm in 2015).

The reactionary roots of environmental philosophy are well-known: the valorisation of the indigenous, of stewardship and sustainability (all of which privilege incumbency); the preservation of pre-industrial custom (with its roots in the ethnographic divide and rule of imperialism); the belief in a natural order and harmony that we challenge at our peril (Gaia and similar mysticism); and the tendency to respect most animals more than some people. The tap root of this ideology is the idea of man - historically Western, Christian man - as the image of god and thus god-like in his power. While man is undoubtedly a menace to himself and all other species, and anthropogenic climate change is real, his impact on the planet is akin to fleas on a dog. Man is not "the destroyer of worlds" (Oppenheimer's quote in respect of nuclear destruction is seminal to ecological thinking). He remains a weak and feeble lifeform in an obscure corner of a lesser galaxy. "Befouler of nest" would be more accurate, but less poetic.

Starting in the 1970s, and heavily influenced by the success of anti-nuclear and anti-NATO protests in Germany and elsewhere, Green thinking sought to marry this conservative tradition with radical left concerns such as social justice and participatory democracy, leading to a red-green alliance in many continental countries that appeared to place the Greens firmly on the left of the political spectrum. In reality, this development (and "rainbow coalitions" generally) masked the fragmentation of both left and right radicals around consumption and lifestyle preferences (cycling, craft beer, gay marriage etc), which was actually a testament to the hegemony of market-inflected libertarian thinking. By the turn of the century, Silicon Valley capitalists and chancers like Richard Branson were promoting themselves as green champions.


In the UK, the lack of proportional representation stymied a red-green alliance, as radical left activists either knuckled-down in the Labour Party or joined the Judean People's Popular Front, which has left the Greens fluttering their eyelids at LibDems uncomfortable with the neoliberalism of their Orange Book establishment (in this respect, they are in direct competition with Labour). Since 2008, being anti-neoliberal has become a way for the Greens to present themselves as attractive to both frustrated socialists and anxious conservatives, even to the point of being positioned by some media commentators as the "UKIP of the left". This is not as paradoxical as it might appear at first sight, as the psychological dynamic of both parties depends on a belief in an imminent threat to a settled order, not to mention the psephological waywardness of seaside towns.

The Greens continue to burnish their egalitarian credentials with their support for ostensibly radical policies like a citizens' basic income, without explaining how this could be achieved through economic policies that eschew growth for sustainability. A basic income is simply a mechanism that can be implemented in either a progressive or a regressive way. Without a radical reordering of society (i.e. who owns what), or a progressive distribution of the fruits of future growth (i.e. where the poorest benefit disproportionately), it will inevitably entrench existing inequalities and poverty. A basic income plus sustainability sounds radical, but its practical results would be remarkably similar to Tory policy, namely wage stagnation for the many and an increase in the social power of patrimonial wealth.

The meta-narrative of current political journalism is that the major parties are in decline, eaten away on all sides by fringe parties grabbing market share from voters disenchanted with the Westminster elite (the analogy with the supermarket sector reinforces the trope of politics as a consumption preference). The secular trend has been a decline in each of the two main parties' electoral support from 45-50% in 1945 to 30-35% in 2010. However, another way of looking at this is that varieties of neoliberalism now enjoy over 90% of the vote, if you include the LibDems and SNP. As per its standard modus operandi, fictitious competition has been introduced to a rigged market, with each brand selling the same ingredients in slightly different combinations. If UKIP have (irony of ironies) been positioned as the Aldi and Lidl of political insurgency, the Green Party is trying to be a hybrid of Waitrose and the Co-op.

Friday, 3 October 2014

A Bill of Goods

David Cameron has promised that a Conservative majority government will abolish the 1998 Human Rights Act and introduce "a new British Bill of Rights, passed in our Parliament, rooted in our values". For good measure he added "This is the country that wrote Magna Carta" and "We do not require instruction on this from judges in Strasbourg". This "pledge" has predictably been interpreted by the rightwing press as a welcome rejection of Europe, continuing the deliberate confusion of the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights (actually a triumph of conservative British jurisprudence) with all things Brussels. Critics also forget that the 1998 Act was passed in order to "bring rights home" by incorporating the Convention into statute and making UK courts the chief adjudicator of breaches, thus minimising the need for recourse to the Strasbourg court.

The Tories' outline proposal focuses on three changes: repealing the 1998 Act, incorporating the original text of the 1953 Convention into primary legislation, and "clarifying" the Convention rights to "reflect a proper balance between rights and responsibilities". The first two are a wash. The significant change is the introduction of the dubious notion that rights entail responsibilities. Much the same rhetoric was employed by New Labour, indicating its centrality to neoliberal ideology: the contractual nature of citizenship. The justification of these changes combines an appeal to tradition and a rejection of continental rationalism in favour of British pragmatism, which is captured in the proposal's opening paragraph: "Britain has a long history of protecting human rights at home and standing up for those values abroad. From Magna Carta in 1215, to the Bill of Rights and the Claim of Right in 1689, and over the centuries through our Common Law tradition, the UK’s protection of human rights has always been grounded in real circumstance, rather than simply being a matter of abstract principle".

According to a leaked version of an imminent Tory press release, the new bill will provide "a proper balance between the rights of citizens and their responsibilities in our society, and in particular to limit the ability of those who threaten British citizens or society to use human rights laws to protect their interests at the expense of the victims or potential victims". This hints at the true British tradition, which is that some people's rights are superior to the rights of others. In other words, rights are privileges and thus a species of property. The press release includes various tabloid-friendly examples of what the changes will mean, focusing on foreign criminals and illegal immigrants, but the supportive quotes from Tory worthies are more substantial, highlighting "restoring parliamentary sovereignty" and restoring "common sense". The appeal to "restoration" is obviously a theme with an impeccable pedigree, going all the way back to the Norman barons' claims to be restoring the ancient rights of the Anglo-Saxons.


Magna Carta was a contract of privileges between the King and landed magnates. Far from being uniquely English, this was common practice across the continent. Its significant innovation was a clause that empowered a committee of barons to over-rule the King if he breached the terms of charter. It was this that would give the document its symbolic value in the 17th century struggle between Crown and Parliament. There are only 3 clauses that have not been subsequently repealed. These confirm the liberties (i.e. property rights) of the Church of England, the liberties and customs of the City of London, and the right of freemen (farmers with freehold rights) to legal due process. As Gerrard Winstanley would later put it: "Clergy and Gentry have got their freedom, but the common people still are, and have been left servants to work for them".

Like Magna Carta, much of the 1689 Bill of Rights has either been repealed or fallen into disuse, such as the prohibition on a standing army or the right of Protestants to bear arms. The key provisions concern the independence of judges from royal interference and the veto of Parliament on all new taxes. The Bill also established freedom of speech, but in the limited sense of speech within Parliament (i.e. what we now know as Parliamentary privilege) and the publication of debates. This was a bill of rights for the few, not for the many. As with so much of the British constitution, it is held up as a symbol of principles (our ancient freedoms) but is devoid of principle in practice. This is the elevation of the terms and conditions of a commercial contract to the status of philosophy.

The appeals to "common sense" and the notion of "balance" are intended to suggest that absolute, unqualified rights are not for us. In fact, the rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights are already qualified, in part because they were heavily influenced by English jurisprudence. For example, free expression (article 10) "may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary". A British Home Secretary could hardly ask for more.

Compare and contrast to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances". The dominance of the US model in popular culture leads most people to think of human rights in absolute, non-negotiable terms, but this approach is the exception rather than the rule, not least because it is often found to be impractical - e.g. the passage of time can make certain rights problematic, such as the right to carry a rifle up to the gates of a school, or the White House.

The postwar European tradition, influenced by British legal practice (did I already mention that?) as much as Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, tries to steer a middle course between absolute principle and pragmatism, treating rights as general principles that are qualified in practice, and can thus evolve over time, with an emphasis on the rule of law as the ultimate guarantor of "common sense" and "balance". The British tradition is a variant on this, with the general principles obscured by the mirage of "traditional rights" that evaporate under scrutiny, and qualifications developed through case law as much as statute. This both entrenches existing privilege, through the conservatism of the legal system, and allows for the flexibility to adapt under pressure without triggering a constitutional crisis.

If history is any guide, the new Bill of Rights will be remarkably similar to the European Convention on Human Rights, and thus the 1998 Act, but with some tacked-on nonsense about mad mullahs not being entitled to NHS treatment and the UK Supreme Court being, well, supreme. In reality, there is little chance of this becoming law, not just because an outright Tory majority in 2015 isn't looking likely, but because the more they big it up as a constitutional moment, the more they risk stimulating popular campaigns for more extensive and radical rights, such as the right to an affordable education or housing. The chief lesson of the Scottish referendum is that if you let the people think they might have a decisive say, you'll only encourage them to get involved. File under guff.

Monday, 29 September 2014

The Tragedy of the Subaltern

Freedom of expression is essentially a property right. This isn't a particularly contentious statement, as it is broadly accepted across the political spectrum. The left draws attention to the way that free speech is conditioned by wealth: no money, no voice. The right believes that all rights are ultimately property rights, deriving from ownership of one's own person: the one, irreducible human right. The left's view is cynical (in the original and non-pejorative sense of that word), recognising the reality of power in the world. The right's view is cynical (in the pejorative sense), being a self-serving defence of existing privilege. The irony is that the former accepts the non-perfectibility of man, while the latter insists on a universal human right. This cuts across the traditional view of the left as the inheritors of the Enlightenment's secularisation of religious perfectibility and the right as the repository of skepticism and the preference for practice over theory.

In practice, what I have characterised as the left view is usually relegated to the margins by the liberal shibboleth of freedom of expression as a universal human right independent of social context. This liberal orthodoxy reveals its true, pro-property colours when it is challenged explicitly as a property right. A current example of this is the early closure of Brett Bailey's Exhibit B art installation at the Barbican. I should say at this point that that the campaign to boycott the work is neither politically insightful nor engaged with the piece as art, but that is precisely where the power of its objection lies. This is a dispute over property, not a critique of the artist's worldview or technique. I've not seen the work, but then what interests me is the argument it has stimulated, which is a joint production of the artist, the gallery, his liberal supporters and the protestors.

Predictably, the protestors have been criticised as "bullies" and "freelance censors", and absurdly equated with Mary Whitehouse (of The Romans in Britain fame) and the prosecuting counsel in the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Whitehouse and traditional censorship were examples of propriety: the idea that certain things are so unpleasant that they must not be expressed or acknowledged publicly (though they can be indulged privately, particularly among "responsible" social elites). This is not the same as the totalitarian instinct to thoroughly erase heterodox views, to the point of rewriting history and reengineering language as in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is also not the same as the insistence in respect of Exhibit B that "the Black community refuses to have racism defined for them by wealthy, white liberals". This is a contest over rights, not a refusal or rejection of them.

If this had been an installation on a similar theme by Steve McQueen, say tableaux vivant from 12 Years a Slave, it is hard to imagine there would have been the same protest, but then it would not have been the same piece of work because McQueen, both as an artist and an actor on the political stage, is not the same as Bailey. That said, there is an interesting parallel between the works. The key scene of the film is the moment when Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon slowly turns to the camera and holds our gaze. Similarly, the key device of Exhibit B appears to be "the steely stare that each performer locks on to the spectator". The difference is the way that cinema heightens the confrontation: you cannot break his gaze and must endure the long take. In a gallery, you can look down at your shoes or your exhibition guide and move on. Though the installation aspires to "lock" the spectator, I suspect it suffers the same fate as any living history re-enactment -  i.e. superficial engagement or embarrassed avoidance by much of the audience.

As far as I can tell from the various reviews, both of the Barbican show and its earlier incarnation at Edinburgh, Bailey sought to confront the audience with the living, breathing reality of the institution of slavery, the subsequent colonial commoditisation and ethnographic control of subject races, and the continuity of this with current attitudes to immigration and asylum. Bailey's defence of the piece ("The listed components of each installation includes spectators – it is only complete with an audience") suggests that the work is not for a black audience, but is designed to be consumed by a comfortable white audience primed for liberal guilt, some of whose ancestors will no doubt have been slavers and colonial administrators. Given the demographics of gallery-going, this is both reasonable and lazy.


The central plank of the boycott is the belief that, as a white South African, Bailey has no right to appropriate black history, even for anti-racist ends, rather than distaste over his artistic method. This is essentially a dispute over rights to the property of history, hence the protestors repeated reference to their "ancestors". In contrast, method (e.g. the depiction of anal rape) was central to the motivation of Mary Whitehouse (unless I'm much mistaken, she did not hold strong views on the historiography of Roman Britain). What is common to both the artist (in his asssumptions about his audience) and the protestors is the idea that they are tied to their ancestors through the inheritance of rights and obligations. This is a fundamentally conservative philosophy.

The treatment of black history, or any marginalised community's history, as a property in which only certain people have copyright has been common to both art and cultural analysis since the rise of subaltern studies in the 1970s. Originating in a post-structural reinterpretation of Antonio Gramsci's theory of cultural hegemony, this provided a handy framework for emergent identity politics in the 1980s, which meant it was contaminated by commoditisation from the off. Its focus on expression ("Can the subaltern speak?") was quickly exploited on the right as evidence of "political correctness", while liberals reduced it to the fatuous "giving voice to the voiceless" (the key word is the verb give, suggesting a donation).

This conservative tone can be seen in the way that defence of such property rights quickly comes to rely on exclusion. For example, some of the Exhibit B protestors implicitly criticise black arists who participated in the installation as Uncle Toms: "Black artists have a dubious track record of appearing in and supporting racist art in the past, for example the black and white minstrel shows" (as if they were making an error of judgement rather than making a living). The implication is that being a member of the community does not guarantee property rights, which reminds you that property is ultimately held solely by right of possession. Similarly, when you hear someone deride those who would contest property rights as "bullies", you know you are listening to someone who is already in possession. It's worth noting that much of the liberal critique of the protest has employed the same condescending tropes (violence, intolerance, stupidity) used against "flying pickets", the original Irish boycotters and other ne'er do wells.

The wider significance of this minor cultural kerfuffle is the way that the principle of free expression has been polluted over the last 40 years by the development of property rights as the chief means of enforcing social and political exclusion. This was a deliberate shift in elite strategy following the failure of traditional group rights under the onslaught first of democracy and then civil rights over the preceding 50 years. From the 70s onwards, class prejudice and racial discrimination were diverted into an abrasive, selfish ideology that David Simon accurately describes as "Fuck 'em I got mine". The tragedy of the subaltern is that equal rights have been replaced by exclusive property rights, while the "lost voices of history" have been recuperated as commodities.

There is no better illustration of the political dominance of property rights than George Osborne's recently-announced plan to abolish tax on inherited pension pots - the privileging of the beneficiaries of unearned wealth - which furthers his wholehearted support for patrimonial capitalism. There is no better illustration of the social dominance of property rights than the way that we struggle to debate the operation of the Internet in any other terms, with "free speech" and "privacy" reduced to matters of copyright and reputation management. Exhibit B will live on as an artwork, with the copyright invested in Brett Bailey, while the protestors will continue to insist on their right to manage the reputation of their ancestors. George Osborne is still in tune with the times.