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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.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

What is the Question?

The West Lothian Question is actually a paradox, not a question, which is why there is no obvious answer. This is not necessarily a problem - we live with many paradoxes - but if you insist on an answer, then you must first refashion it as a question. The catchphrase "English votes for English laws" isn't a question either, but we might be able to reverse-engineer one (or three) if we take it as a description of the desired state that an answer might produce, i.e. a continuity between MPs and the matters that they legislate on. I will leave to one side the crass "English home rule" meme that appears to have caught the media's fancy (presumably because they want to flip the constitutional moment into an anti-Brussels campaign).

First question: if an MP represents an area of the country that has devolved powers for certain matters, should that MP be disqualified from voting on comparable matters affecting areas where those powers have not been devolved? This sounds like the closest approximation of the current issue - e.g. Scots MPs voting on health and education matters affecting England. However, if this is an issue of general principle, then it also applies to London, which has powers devolved to the Greater London Assembly. For example, should a London MP be able to vote on matters affecting transport outside London when a Birmingham MP has less authority over transport within London? We might call this the West Hampstead Question.

You could counter that this doesn't arise because the MP's scope would be based on his nation, not his constituency, but this suggests a national continuity that is more apparent than real. Tyneside MPs are no better qualified to vote on matters affecting Portsmouth (say the closure of a naval dockyard) than Clydeside MPs. It also suggests that national identity should be primary, which can only serve to weaken the union. Qualifying an MP's authority based on his nation means accommodating the variations in the devolved powers between Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For example, policing is devolved in Scotland but not in Wales. Each bloc of MPs would have a different list of topics that they were unable to scrutinise or vote on, which would "balkanise" Westminster and reinforce the idea that MPs are mere lobby fodder.

Second question: should an MP's scope of authority be limited to her constituents' interests? This is a variation on the question of an MP's obligations, which was famously addressed by Edmund Burke: "Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole". Though Burke was arguing for an MP's right of independence from mandates and instructions, his logic also suggests that MPs should be free to vote on any topic before Parliament.

If this were not so, then MPs would have to regularly disqualify themselves from voting on matters that didn't directly affect their constituents. MPs of land-locked constituencies could not vote on maritime matters, nor urban MPs on rural matters. This would be absurd and chaotic. You might as well have expected Tory MPs who didn't have coal mines in their constituencies to have avoided commenting on the 1984 miners' strike (the current Tory position perhaps reflects a subliminal memory of flying pickets: you bussed-in Scots have no business here). This question also suggests that the Tory enthusiasm for "English votes for English laws" is poorly thought through and actually cuts against the grain of conservativism in the traditions of Burke and Oakeshott. Of course, if you're in competition with UKIP, then sounding like a dumb authoritarian is an occupational hazard.

Third question: should there be different classes of MP? Specifically, two classes: those with no restrictions on their scope of authority (what we might call the "Full English") and those with qualified rights. Arguably, we already have two classes of MP because the non-English have less authority, in terms of influence over policy that affects their constituents, precisely because certain powers have been devolved from Westminster to the regional assemblies. Given the structural advantage in power of English MPs (including a built-in majority of the House), it takes some cheek for Tories to claim that England is suffering a disadvantage relative to Scotland, which can only be addressed by further limiting the rights of Scottish MPs, but it takes world-class chutzpah for the Prime Minister to make this claim hours after the the Scottish people voted to maintain the union. David Cameron's message to the prodigal Scots appears to be "Welcome home - your bed's in the shed".

If we would prefer that MPs should have equivalent powers, then logically we must either reverse devolution or devolve similar powers to an English Assembly and make devolution consistent everywhere. Getting the English subset of the Commons to double-up would not be strictly equivalent, as this would create "double-strength" MPs, and it would also deny English voters the opportunity to discriminate tactically between regional and national elections, as the Scots and others do today. The objection that creating a new elected English Assembly would mean increased costs and an additional layer of government could be easily countered if it were to wholly replace the House of Lords.

What these three questions suggest is that advancing "English votes for English laws" risks weakening Parliament, restricting the independence of MPs, and accentuating divisions along national lines. Naturally, I am not the slightest bit surprised that Michael Gove, who took such a personal interest in the history curriculum and who is never shy in voicing his admiration for The Glorious Revolution and The Mother of Parliaments, should now be banging this particular drum. The problem with the Tories is that they remain, above all else, the stupid party. Labour, on the other hand, remain in thrall to focus groups and PR advisers. They are perfectly well aware of the idiocy of the Tories' position but terrified of criticising anything with the word "English" in it. This makes for an interesting contrast with the loose cannon that was Tam Dalyell.

The eccentric Dalyell was no stranger to pomposity. Though the term "West Lothian Question" was actually coined by Enoch Powell - another maverick with a lack of self-awareness - its currency owed much to the sarcasm with which the phrase, with its grandiloquent echoes of the Schleswig-Holstein Question, was deployed by backbenchers and political journalists in the late 70s. The gradual growth in the popularity and significance of devolution, and Dalyell's subsequent fame as a principled opponent of Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War, retrospectively dignified his pedantic worry, but it still remains as much a joke as a constitutional conundrum.

Some source the theme of Dalyell's 1977 intervention in the debate on the Scotland Bill (which would lead to the 1979 referendum on a devolved assembly) to Gladstone's comments in respect of the First Irish Home Rule Bill in 1886: "if Ireland is to have a domestic Legislature, Irish Peers and Irish Representatives cannot come here to control English and Scotch affairs". However this misses the point that Gladstone wasn't proposing a half-way house of partial devolution but genuine "devo max" (only defence, foreign affairs and customs and excise were to be reserved by the Imperial Parliament), for which the loss of MPs at Westminster was both a quid pro quo and a clear indication that an Irish parliament would be "subordinate" rather than "coordinate" (in the words of Parnell). Gladstone thought this would be enough to secure majority support. In the event he lost the vote and split the Liberal Party, with the Liberal Unionists eventually merging into the Conservative Party.

David Cameron's announcement should remind us that making the non-English clearly subordinate, and rubbing their noses in it, is instinctive to the Tories. Gladstone's failure should remind us that independence has an inexorable logic and that constitutional conundrums are just the noise of shearing metal as the machinery of government buckles under the strain. The more intriguing parallel is that Cameron may well be taking as many inadvertent risks with party unity as Gladstone did. But whereas old mutton chops felt he had a moral obligation to Ireland, Cameron seems motivated by nothing other than a self-interested fear of Nigel Farage.

Monday, 22 September 2014

A More Perfect Union

I wasn't surprised the Scottish referendum produced a "no" result, because I never bought the idea that Scotland was a social democratic nation. It's by no means the whole story, but I suspect it was the determination of pensioners and rentiers to protect their assets that produced the larger than anticipated margin of victory, which suggests an instrumental continuity with the original "parcel of rogues". Ironically, the deindustrialisation that has stimulated independence has also undermined it by exporting the more progressive young and leaving the country older and more cautious. The politically pivotal cohort throughout the union has been the modest middle class, not the more demographically fluid working class of the industrial belt. Salmond has resigned because he knows the Labour voters successfully attracted to yes were outnumbered by the SNP voters who quietly chose no.

The opportunism of the Tories in flipping the debate on devolution to party advantage was as predictable as Labour's confusion, but it has at least served to marginalise liberal fantasies of federalism and an elected senate. Timothy Garton Ash is already pleading "Let's not fear the F-word". Like most liberal historians, he prefers myth to reality: "In crafting our new federal kingdom, we will have a lot of international experience to draw on. One of the many peculiarities of Britain is that, while repeatedly spurning federalism, it has both left behind numerous federations across the English-speaking world (Canada, Australia, India) and currently exists inside a European Union which contains many federal countries and itself has federal elements. Britain is like a man who has left a trail of puddles behind him, and lives at sea, but keeps insisting that he doesn’t like water".

Far from "spurning federalism", the UK (or whatever it's called this week) has tried various forms of constitutional federation since the Parliament of the Lordship of Ireland in 1297, and the results have not been edifying. The key point to bear in mind is that federalism has nothing to do with democracy: it is a compromise with geography and local elite interests. Protestant Ireland had its own parliament till the "union of the kingdoms" in 1800, while Northern Ireland enjoyed home rule at Stormont from 1921 till the imposition of direct rule in 1972 (and a degree of autonomy in excess of devo-max, including control of a paramilitary police). Though Scotland lost its parliament in 1707, it retained autonomy over law, the church and education, which made up a large part of government's domestic concerns in the age before income tax and welfare spending.

The gift of federalism "across the English-speaking world" is the legacy of empire and the need for an intermediate layer of government to coordinate regional security. The original 13 colonies of America were federated to the UK and, despite the self-serving myth of "salutary neglect", were politically cohesive with the mother country until the Seven Year's War eliminated the French and Spanish threats. The vainglory of the organic emergence of federalism in 1776, with its legitimation through appeals to Republican Rome, Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution, was in reality an aggressive management buy-out. The common theme in this history is the design of regional authority to entrench sectarian and elite privileges, which can either be achieved in concert with or in opposition to the centre. The Scottish swithering between independence and union, and the role that elite financial interests played in the campaign, is typical.

The creation of a formal four-state federation for the UK would be problematic because of the 800 pound English gorilla, which again highlights the inconsistency of federalism and democracy. The demand for a "fair" settlement of legislative authority and public spending (aka the West Lothian Question and the Barnett Formula) would mean a relative diminution of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which would make the federation divisive from day one. A sub-division of England into regions has some administrative merit, but is unlikely to happen due to Tory suspicion of the "interventionist state" being recreated at regional level, the reservations of Labour centralists and Whitehall civil servants, and the distraction of antiquarianism (the dubious case for Yorkshire, Cornwall, Wessex etc).

The fundamental imbalance of the UK is about capital not current expenditure. The disadvantage of the North of England is not in higher deprivation and welfare spending, which is symptomatic, but in capital formation. This is probably visible in a street near you. Over 30 years, we have recycled national capital from the regions into property and other assets that have predominantly benefited the South East. Related to this imbalance in physical capital, the period has also seen a redistribution of human capital to London and its immediate hinterland (the Head of Transport for London chooses this moment to tell us that we must invest more or risk riots). As in Scotland, this has made the other regions of the UK relatively older and more conservative. While this has produced a bleak and reactionary temper in the marginal towns that UKIP now targets, it has also encouraged a bland conformism in much of the North outside self-consciously "buzzing" city centres.

Some Labour neoliberals are sincere in wanting to reverse this process, but are incapable of thinking beyond the managerialist poetry of "the larger cities and their travel-to-work areas". Principles such as autonomy are submerged beneath integrated transport strategies and local enterprise partnerships. This willingness to promote devolution after three decades of aggressive centralisation does not reflect a democratic counter movement. Rather it indicates the completion of the neoliberal project, which was to knit business and government so closely together that they could not be separated. For all the talk of civic pride and "regional powerhouses", modern devolution means CEO-style mayors, unelected "leadership boards" and the continued privatisation of services. A devolution plan that does not centrally address the City of London is just a bid for an enhanced dole.

The Tories have a preference for an English parliament over regional devolution, largely because this would maximise an assumed conservative majority in England and entrench English dominance within the union. But rather than create a new tier of government, that assembly would simply be a subset of the national parliament with the lesser breeds periodically excluded. Even without my sarcasm it has a patronising tone to it, not least because it is being advanced by the likes of John Redwood, a former colonial governor of Wales. The language employed over the West Lothian Question - the appeal to "fairness" - is that of a petulant narcissist. The decisive votes on all matters at Westminster are those of English MPs. There is no democratic deficit. In truth, an English parliament is less a serious proposal than a means of keeping UKIP at bay and Labour flustered.

Libertarian rightists like Daniel Hannan are as susceptible to fantasy as Timothy Garton Ash, imagining devolution as anti-government: "We could have pluralism at local level, with the freedom to innovate, to trial new ideas, to copy best practice. We could have tax competition, leading to downward pressure on rates. We could restore honour and purpose to local democracy, attracting a higher calibre of candidate. And then – a delicious bonus – we could let the House of Commons become a part-time assembly of citizen legislators, meeting for no more than 40 days a year, its MPs compensated for their time rather than paid salaries". This is reactionary ancestor worship: full-steam ahead to 1776.

What the last few weeks have shown is that the British constitution is contingent and plastic. This should not come as a surprise, given that it is unwritten and few citizens have even a vague idea of the contents of the 1689 Bill of Rights. This also reminds us that the role of the monarchy is to provide a veneer of stability and the mythos of traditional continuity where too often we have a profitable vacuum (Kate's bump will soon edge Scotland off the front pages). Cameron's Friday morning announcement briefly revealed the cynical calculation and jockeying that is normally obscured by this spectacle, but what it also suggested is that we're some way off a "constitutional moment" and that revolution isn't imminent. No wonder share prices bounced up.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

We Are Devo

A number of commentators on the left have been thrilled by the flowering of democratic practice during the Scottish referendum debate. Paul Mason talks of "a sustained and substantial glimpse of a grassroots campaign in which politicians are secondary and street-magic primary". To ensure you don't think he's hankering after our very own Tahrir Square, he then advocates the "non-strident" and quiet Britishness of George Orwell, which is apparently now embodied by Dan Snow and Eddie Izzard (national broadcasting may be the kernel of persistent identity here, now the empire is no more and the welfare state ailing). On the right, the desperation to find something in a hollowed-out state to provide the glue of nationalism, other than wet weather and the English language, reduces Tim Stanley to gibberish: "the healthy nation state can only be healthy when populated by moral people".

Many now foresee a new constitutional settlement for the UK, whatever the outcome of Thursday's vote, though predictably more along the lines of an elected Lords than the abolition of the Corporation of the City of London. Phil BC says "We need a politics that is accessible and as close to the electorate as possible to overcome the rancid legacy of anti-politics, a system that does not disenfranchise massive numbers because they happen to live in safe seats, and a settlement that encourages and rewards an active citizenry". This is nostalgia for the more politically engaged and literate electorate of yore. The reality is that engagement for the majority only occurs under exceptional circumstances, such as in 1945, while an interest in politics is viewed suspiciously by both the state and society. For the most part, people do not want to be "bothered" by politics and will happily forgo engagement until their own interests are directly threatened (the Scots will regress to the mean). This is why governments pick off minorities one by one, and why the national media treat solidarity as abnormal and suspicious ("trouble-makers", "outside agitators" etc).

There is an obvious paradox in the voguish belief that greater devolution and localism will lead to greater solidarity. This confusion is also on display in Pride, a social comedy (more in the tradition of Ealing Studios than Boulting Brothers) about a London LGBT group raising funds for Welsh miners in 1984, in which being disliked by the Tory government is sufficient grounds for mutual support. It's a very entertaining film, that cleverly shows how identity politics substitutes a culture of hedonistic consumption for one of traditional self-restraint and denial, but it ultimately depicts solidarity as a triumph over difference rather than the recognition of shared economic interests. In fact, the film suggests the chief act of solidarity was getting so many star names to take supporting parts or make brief cameos. Luvvies united.

Pride is an example of the continuing recuperation of the miners strike as a sentimental commodity, regretting the human cost but insisting the outcome was inevitable and thus desirable. The film has been roundly praised by the same conservative press that monstered the miners and gays in the 80s (they also appear to have missed its celebration of multiculturalism, presumably because the cast are all-white). The process started with the 1996 film Brassed Off, in which the inescapable death of the industry is symbolised by Pete Postlethwaite's black lung, community is reduced to nostalgic music (Pride indulges in tearful singing), and hope means the young and talented heading for London. Billy Elliott in 2000 accentuated these themes, with the dad reduced to scabbing in order that the boy might be saved from obscurity through ballet. Jeremy Deller's 2001 work, The Battle of Orgreave, explicitly addressed this recuperation, as well as bringing out the civil war echoes, but had little impact outside the art world. In all cases, the economics of coal and the agency of government are off-screen.

The subtext of the inevitability and desirability of coal's eclipse finds a parallel in the modern assumption that regional devolution will help address the imbalance of Britain. However, this assumption ignores the basis of the imbalance and, to judge from the "pledge" recently issued in respect of Scotland, is biased towards fiscal distribution over capital investment (the latter massively favours London). The UK is not like Germany, where there are multiple lander that are net contributors (via nationally-set taxes) to federal equalisation. Nor is it like Spain or Italy, where autonomist movements are strongest in rich areas, such as Catalonia and Lombardy, and derive much of their support from resentment over the flow of revenues to the "parasitical" centre.

Fiscally-oriented devo max (i.e. focused on limited variations to national tax and spend norms) would actually entrench the power of "Greater Greater London" as the subsidies would be largely one way. Every region outside London, the South East and (marginally) the East of England would likely run a deficit. This risks creating bantustans under the control of local elites playing the anti-London card while accommodating City interests through regulatory arbitrage (the SNP's commitment to lower corporation tax is textbook). The more fiscal power is devolved to the regions, the more regional government will matter and conceivably the more engaged the electorate will be. But this also means the power of London to indirectly influence affairs will be maintained while its responsibility for bad policy will be reduced. Of course, the metonym "London" refers not to the South East but to the City and Westminster.

Localism, whether in the form of rebarbative nationalism or pro-social devolution, is an understandable attempt to achieve self-determination in the face of post-democratic neoliberalism, but it risks substituting petty solidarities for class consciousness, which is why big capital will happily accommodate itself to "self-rule" in Edinburgh just as small capital will advance the same in Clacton. Resistance to globalisation is made difficult not just by explicit anti-union measures but by the practical difficulties of organising industrial and political action across borders. In Pride, the LGBT van gets lost in the Welsh valleys. Today, you'd simply pull up Google Maps on your smartphone. The final paradox is that the Internet, which did so much to turbo-boost globalisation, may be doing more to atomise and diffuse solidarity today than to promote it, despite the theatre of Tahrir, Syntagma and Maidan.

Monday, 15 September 2014

How would you like to pay for that?

The consensus on Apple's recent product launch is that its electronic payment system may ultimately be more significant than the much-trailed iPhone-slaved watch. This is partly explained by the underwhelming nature of smartwatches, but it also has to do with the idea of Apple as a market-maker: "In a way, the company is now doing to the card payment business what it did to the music business with the iTunes store". Some have even gone so far as to claim that Apple is now a bank, and that this is a good thing: "Consumers will have more rights from Apple than we were given by the bankers and their Washington cronies". Well, obviously.

First reactions are notoriously unreliable, but even so, the reception for Apple Pay has produced some amusing conflicts in interpretation. Some espy the decline of hardware: "this week’s announcements showed that Apple’s future will be less about hardware and more about its 'ecosystem' - a combination of software, services, data and a plethora of partners." Others see the continuing importance of hardware: "Other mobile wallets exist across multiple hardware platforms, with no consistency to support biometrics or other verification aspects such as location information. With Apple Pay, Apple controls both the hardware and the software". Apple Pay is both revolutionary - "a classic Apple moment of simplification and integration" - and not disruptive but complementary - "Apple has now successfully injected itself into this market and may gain a foothold". As William Goldman said about the hype mechanics of the film industry, "Nobody knows anything".

The ability to pay - to express a preference - has long been dependent on the provision of status-oriented credentials rather than just broad money, despite the neutrality claimed by economics textbooks. This led to the habit of the rich employing distinct denominations for the valuing of property, such as the livre in the France of Balzac and the guinea in the UK of Austen. The latter persisted for over 150 years as the denomination of wealth, from houses to professional fees, and it was still common to see guinea price tags in "posh" furniture shops and tailors in the late-60s. The denomination disappeared following decimalisation in 1971, but its use had started to decline with the launch of credit and charge cards in the preceding decade, which provided statements in pounds, shillings and pence.

The introduction of the credit card as an elite token, with its associated credit rating, also marks the point at which the democratic claim "My money is as good as anybody else's" began to lose its social power, to be replaced by the condescending "I'm afraid your card has been refused". We have now reached the stage, with contactless payment that depends on an expensive phone or watch, where mere cards, like cash and cheques before them, have become a sign of inferiority (London Transport's dropping of cash, combined with the Apple Pay announcement, shows how the window of acceptable methods is inexorably shifting).

Some have tried to sell this as egalitarian - "cash imposes its highest transaction costs on the poor" - in much the same way that the punitive interest rates of payday lenders are excused as a flexible service that suits its knowledgeable consumers. Some even seem more concerned about the effects that it will have on the well-off: "Apple Pay and similar technologies will make the experience of spending more abstract, and thus easier, than ever before." In fact, the same technology will offer to rescue you from this anxiety of financial promiscuity, providing greater control over your balances and credit rating. After all, you're worth it.

Many have praised the security architecture of Apple Pay, particularly the way it uses tokenisation to avoiding storing card details on the phone or revealing them to merchants. This might appear like timely good news after the unfortunate business of Jennifer Lawrence's photos and the presumed iCloud hack, but what it reveals is Apple's ambition not to disintermediate card providers or banks but to extend the zone of protection that is implicit in all their "closed" products. Industry observers would talk of Steve Jobs's reality distortion field, but this witticism ignored the truth that the basis of Apple's worldview has always centred on the provision of a protective force field for the status anxious. Apple Pay is not revolutionary but deeply comforting.