Monday, 16 January 2017

Brexit: From Three-legged Stool to Pogo-stick

Part of the problem we face in defining Brexit is that we were never wholly sure what the EU was. Jacques Delors' memorable phrase, "an unidentified political object", reflected its uncertainty as much as its novelty. The ultimate goals were deliberately ambiguous ("ever closer union") while the many treaties and directives were varied by derogations and far more national customisations than the popular story of "diktats" from Brussels would suggest. The certainty of the EU, like the extent of the Commission's powers, was vastly over-stated by politicians (both pro and anti) and amplified by newspapers structurally averse to subtlety. For ardent leavers and remainers alike, the EU was a "phantastic object", serving to reflect respectively a nostalgic past and a utopian future. If we are to understand Brexit, let alone manage it optimally, we need to first understand the actual historic relationship of the UK and the EU and what might therefore be possible in the future.

While some leavers like to define Brexit in positive terms, such as "taking back control", the reality is negative in the sense that Brexit is what is left after we subtract certain things, such as the single market and free movement. The negotiations will be politically fraught because they will centre on those existing advantages that we lose outright, which will upset remainers, and the concessions and compromises that we will be obliged to make to retain other advantages, particularly for the City and big business, which will upset leavers. There is nothing of real substance to be "gained", though plenty of scope for gestures in the theatrical arenas of "border security" and "meddling judges", which is why a "hard Brexit", with its resignations from the Customs Union and the European Court of Justice, is politically attractive. The government will seek to downplay or even hide the concessions, given that most of its supporters are leavers, while the lost advantages will be dismissed as the selfish privileges of metropolitan elites.

Some leavers are likely to be disappointed simply because many of the burdens of modernity added over the last 40 years were coincident to, but not consequential on, membership of the EU. Though the European Union was a key enabler of neoliberalism, it was merely the regional coordinator of global tendencies. Not only can we not go back to a status quo ante, but we will find that the world outside the EU looks remarkably similar to the EU. While we have been diverging, the rest of the world has been converging. As a result, Brexit may be as hard as some leavers would like, but it won't be as clean as they expect. This might suggest a transitional deal would be in everyone's interest, but that would mean the UK agreeing to initially continue as-is (same tariffs, same regulations, same contributions) but with the only immediate change being exclusion from decision-making, which would disappoint both leavers and remainers. Political necessity requires substance, which inescapably means a formal end to free movement. Anything less would be an existential threat to May's administration.

The shape of Brexit is unlikely to surprise. As Stephen Bush remarked, "It’s crystal clear what not being subject to the free movement of people and leaving the ECJ means: a hard Brexit, with no continuing membership of the single market. And it’s equally clear that the government’s hope is that it can use its status as a major contributor to the EU budget to buy a measure of the access it needs in order to keep the banks sweet and Nissan chugging out cars in Sunderland". The vexed relationship of free movement and the single market is above all a domestic political problem. As John Curtice notes, "To many in the EU, the British public’s apparent desire to retain free trade while no longer granting freedom of movement will seem like a wish to have their cake and eat it. An alternative view, however, is that many people in the UK – including some who voted ‘Remain’ – reject the EU’s recipe for baking the cake in the first place. For them, freedom of movement as currently implemented in the EU is not a necessary concomitant to free trade".

Curtice's interpretation implies a continuity in attitudes - pro-free trade and anti-free movement - not just since 1991 but going back to the 1970s, but this lacks nuance. When the UK joined the EEC, the cake and the eating thereof were considered to be unrelated: concern over immigration was focused on the New Commonwealth while free trade was seen largely in terms of goods, with only a few sophisticates considering services, never mind labour. The free movement envisaged by the Delors Commission in the 1980s was essentially middle-class - the routine transfer of corporate workers and professionals to aid big business - rather than working class, the continental movements of the latter seen in the 50s and 60s having tailed off by the late-70s. It was the accession of East European states, a move championed by the UK in part as a way of slowing down integration, that revived working class migration, though this didn't have a visible impact on British society until the mid-00s.

What occurred in the 90s in the UK was the rhetorical linking of trade and movement, with foreign (and largely non-EU) labour and asylum-seekers being cast as examples of "unfair trade". This was at root a cross-party attempt to deflect attention from the failure of neoliberalism to revive deindustrialised areas, in which globalisation was characterised as a problem of the movement of labour rather than the movement of capital. It was this idea of "unfairness", which was emotionalised through stories of "benefit tourism" (foreigners are lazy) and wage-undercutting (foreigners work too hard), that helps explain why some Brits have been simultaneously in favour of UK citizens having the right to live and work anywhere in the EU while denying reciprocal rights to other EU citizens. This isn't the persistence of arrogant imperialism but a popular belief that we were doing Europe a favour, by exporting our skilled professionals and setting up retirement colonies in impoverished areas of Spain, while they were taking advantage of our hospitality.

Dominic Cummings made some interesting remarks about this in his recent brain-dump about the referendum campaign: "In 2000, focus groups were already unhappy with immigration but did not regard it as a problem caused by the EU. By 2015, the EU was blamed substantially for the immigration/asylum crisis and this was entangled with years of news stories about ‘European courts’ limiting action against terrorists and criminals". This reinforces two points: that the "immigration crisis" took its modern narrative form in the mid-to-late 1990s, essentially as result of party political calculations; and that its framing, both as "problematic labour" and an assault on sovereignty, owed much to a press unwilling to blame capital for globalisation's discontents. The latter was exacerbated as media organisations themselves became increasingly global following the relaxation of ownership rules and the growth of the Internet, but Murdoch only explains so much. The real shame lies with the Tory and Labour administrations that facilitated business-friendly immigration rules while publicly decrying the social consequences between 1990 and 2009.

The British political establishment never expected to quit the EU. The assumption was that euro-scepticism, which was instrumentally cultivated in weak form by many pro-EU politicians, could be used to keep the UK in an advantageously hybrid relationship: in the EU but not the Eurozone; equidistant between the US and the EU in foreign policy; and preserving the City's dual role as the world's leading offshore gateway and the EU's premier financial centre. The problem with this strategy is that, like a three-legged stool, its stability depends on the presence of all three legs and that in turn depends on the tacit indulgence of both the US and the rest of the EU. This became increasingly difficult with the push for greater integration in the 80s (supported by the US) and then German reunification. While 2016 has been quickly written-up as David Cameron's folly, a more sober view is that the stool was always going to collapse at some point. It just happened on his watch. In retrospect, the departure from the ERM in 1992 was when the rot set in, even though this helped preserve one leg of the stool (i.e. by heading off British involvement in monetary union) in the short-term.

The referendum might not have happened had it not been for the Liberal Democrats' decision to enter coalition in 2010. The knowledge that the government would not lose a vote on whether to hold a referendum on EU membership, coupled with the feeling that this was being denied by the junior coalition partner, boosted the Conservative rebellion against the government's three-line whip on the subject in 2011. A quarter of Tory MPs voted for a referendum and at least as many voted with the government reluctantly. At that moment it became clear that the Tories would have to eventually accede to the call for a popular vote or face a split. Cameron's miscalculation was to believe that 2015 would produce another hung parliament and thus an excuse to defer the issue again. Theresa May's calculation appears to be that in securing an end to free movement she will earn sufficient popular credit to offset the compromises and contributions necessary to secure the privileged access of the City and big business to EU markets. This isn't as risky a strategy as it might at first look.

The EU isn't interested in knocking the City of London off its perch. Apart from the short-term risks to financial stability that any radical change would entail, it is in the EU27's long-term interest to keep systemic risk in global financial markets safely quarantined in London, where it has been since the late-80s. In the event of another 2008 and the failure of major banks, they would rather the UK bear the brunt of any bailouts. It is hard to believe that after years of imposing austerity on the periphery to reduce the exposure of German and French banks to bad property loans the EU core will blithely take on even greater risk. It is for the same reason that they were always sanguine about the UK not adopting the euro, as this would have potentially spread the liability for a systemic bailout to the rest of the EU via the ECB. While there will be attempts by Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt to prise low-risk business away from the City, this will be a gradual erosion of London's market share, not a smash-and-grab.

Similarly, it is in the interest of the EU for London to remain a centre for dirty money and a gateway for offshore tax avoidance, which provides a benefit to many rich Europeans who in turn make donations to political parties. While they will seek to regulate (rather than wholly prevent) domestic access to London's wealth management facilities, they have no interest in providing a competitive concierge service for Russian oligarchs or Chinese princelings. Far better that the money is first laundered in London before some of it is spent on the continent. What this means is that Theresa May will probably be able to preserve the high finance leg of the stool - the privileges of the City of London - and may also be able to secure mutually-beneficial deals for the larger capitals (probably motor manufacturers and possibly pharma). In contrast, the geopolitical leg is crumbling fast. Since 1989, the value of the UK to the US has been as a proxy within the EU. That role is now a dead letter, while the election of Trump means that EU leaders will be unlikely to treat the UK as an honest broker in any approaches to Washington: the Europhile Foreign Office will be seen as irrelevant while Trump's British fans will be seen as unreliable.

Brexit means that financial services will once more be promoted as an engine of national growth amid assurances that the prudential lessons of 2008 have been learnt - something Theresa May and Philip Hammond should be able to find common ground on with Mark Carney. The determinant of relative success will be the absence of a major Sterling crisis, which will further amplify the influence of the City on political decisions (so don't expect austerity / sound money to go out of fashion) and lead not to stability but volatility. Our one-legged stool will be more like a pogo-stick. The irony of Brexit is that it isn't taking us back to the early 1970s so much as the early 1990s. Euroscepticism then was driven not merely by a wariness towards "social Europe" and the prospect of German hegemony but by a sincere belief that the Thatcher "revolution" had positively altered the nation's economic prospects and that it could thrive as an independent power in the new global order. It proved to be an illusion that was ultimately shattered on Black Wednesday.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Eclipse of Reason

The recent revival of interest in The Frankfurt School deserves some thought. The first point to make is that it isn't really being revived, having never actually gone out of fashion, despite clumsy attempts on the right to recast it as the covert and marginal conspiracy of "cultural Marxism" (deliciously parodied in the Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar!, which went meta when critics lamented the lack of a plot despite the centrality of a gigantic plot). The Frankfurt School's persistence reflects its ambition. It sought to synthesise positivist and idealist strands in philosophy with an explicit focus on the institutions and cultural artefacts of modern capitalism: what became known as Critical Theory. In other words, it was vast in scope, employed popular critical tools, from psychoanalysis to the deconstruction of commodities, and was sufficiently non-dogmatic and sceptical to provide bed and board for many lodgers, from Walter Benjamin to Frederic Jameson. The overlaps with both modernism and postmodernism mean that we could legitimately describe it as a theory of the Western twentieth century.

As an approach to sociology and politics it had an enormous influence on the counterculture of the late-60s and early-70s, from "admass" to environmentalism. Along with the rediscovery of Antonio Gramsci, it was an important factor in the euro-communist and post-Fordist shift of the left in the 70s and 80s (notably the "retreat from class" critiqued by Ellen Meiksins Wood). Since the 80s, it has provided invaluable insights in the study of neoliberalism, particularly in respect of the marketisation of institutions and the intersection of politics and media. Even before it lost its capitalisation and became simply shorthand for modern thought, Critical Theory was so capacious a subject as to make it difficult to fully define, but there are three characteristics that are worth highlighting with regard to its current modishness: pessimism about the revolutionary potential of the working class; the importance of communication and thus media to rationality, which lives on in Jurgen Habermas's emphasis on the public sphere; and the concept of instrumental reason detailed by Max Horkheimer in Eclipse of Reason.

Some of the fresh interest can be explained by 2008 and the end of "the end of history". This is partly a desire to pick up the thread of a historically situated theory of politics, which also prompted the brief resurgence of interest in Marx, but it also owes much to the "black swan" shock of the global financial crisis. This didn't just damage the reputation  of economics in practice (and point up the absurdity of its physics-envy), it also called into question its normative theory, notably the emphasis on quantification and utility - i.e. the notion of aggregate good based on a common, mathematical scale of happiness that starts with Bentham's "felicific calculus". While the narrow definition of reality as that which can be calculated lives on, not least among our tech overlords, the contemporary popular mood is open to the idea of a wider, more humane reality, including the recognition that reason may be biased by interests, e.g. the fashion for behavioural economics, and the yearning for eternal verities, e.g. the fashion for pop-philosophy.

These two examples reflect respectively the concepts of subjective (i.e. self-interested) reason and objective (i.e. timeless) reason, which Horkheimer contrasted to instrumental reason. The latter, which becomes hegemonic with the Enlightenment, seeks domination over nature and the self, thereby producing capitalism, self-repression and ultimately Fascism (Horkheimer was writing in the mid-40s). In its relegation of the ethical basis of goals ("what is good?") in favour of the efficiency of means ("what works?"), instrumental reason builds on Max Weber's concept of rationality to provide an acute critique of the unregulated markets and managerialism of neoliberalism avant la lettre. The idea was placed in a historical context by Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment: "Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology". The point of this apercu is not just that there wasn't a sudden jump from one stage of history to another, i.e. from a world of myth to one of science, but that modern rationality inescapably contains its own irrationality just as ancient superstition was often rational.

This irrationality is not a remnant of the past but the newly-minted product of progress, leading to Adorno and Horkheimer's pessimistic conclusion that we face the inevitable "regression of reason". While there is an obvious conservative timbre to this (and you can clearly see its influence on the work of John Gray et al), it also serves a liberal purpose in allowing the idea of progress to be preserved as a possibility while setbacks, such as the UK's EU referendum result and the US election of Trump, can be treated as temporary spasms of irrationality. Less is heard today of Horkheimer's belief that solidarity through suffering is the key to human emancipation, essentially because modern liberal solidarity is primarily a financial transaction, whether in the form of debates about an extra penny in tax for the NHS or the calls for donations to charity. The focus is not the need for collective action, but the need for the collective support of liberal gatekeepers who can address occasional market failures.

The Frankfurt School's scepticism towards Marxist teleology and its disillusion with the proletariat long ago made it acceptable to the liberal establishment. During the 1980s and 90s, its emphasis on the construction of rationality through communication (Habermas's "dialogic democracy") fed into the notion of a "stakeholder society" organised around the "vital centre" and reinforced the self-regard of liberal commentators as the dominant facilitators of public conversation in the golden era between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the arrival of the Web. Starting in the 00s, as the tech companies began to eat their lunch, traditional liberal media rediscovered the value of the Frankfurt School's critique of commodity capitalism's corruption of the public sphere. Now, with the supposed tidal surge of "fake news", the concept of instrumental reason provides a ready-made buttress for think-pieces decrying our collapse into unreality and anger.

Much of the instrumental revival of the Frankfurt School is simply a beef about the shifting power of media ownership. In The New Yorker in December, Alex Ross made this explicit: "From the start, Silicon Valley monopolies have taken a hands-off, ideologically vacant attitude toward the upwelling of ugliness on the Internet. A defining moment was the turn-of-the-century wave of music piracy, which did lasting damage to the idea of intellectual property. Fake news is an extension of the same phenomenon, and, as in the Napster era, no one is taking responsibility. Traffic trumps ethics". Given that "fake news" is a monetisable commodity, the equivalence with file-sharing, which temporarily de-commoditised music (and has now been superseded by the monetisable commodity of streaming), is absurd. Ross opens his piece with an image of a house (Thomas Mann's villa in Los Angeles) saved from destruction, which simply reinforces the suspicion that this is about the preservation of certain forms of capital and intellectual property, not the search for truth.

The Frankfurt School offers a fruitful source of critical theory that can be repurposed to serve liberal interests, which is ironic given the originators' scepticism about liberal society. The idea of the "regression of reason" offers a convenient (if misleading) equivalence of modern politics with Weimar Germany. The importance of communication to rationality gives a heroic role to the media as guardians of the public sphere, and a way of characterising new media as a mix of instrumental stupidity ("Traffic trumps ethics") and the malign exploitation of base human instincts (Trump traffic). Inevitably, there is a degree of compensation going on here, with tributes to the prescience of the Frankfurt School allowing outlets like The Guardian and The New Yorker to increasingly rely on conservative rhetoric in their defence of the old media dispensation. What is unchanged in this worldview is that the working class remains resolutely off-stage, incapable of acting as the motor of progress and prey to the easy charm of demagogues.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Liberalism and Labour

There are two popular theories to explain the media eclipse of Labour since Jeremy Corbyn's re-election as party leader last September. The unfriendly view is that the leadership lacks both the intellectual and organisational competence to formulate and advance a compelling narrative. Exhibit A for the prosecution is the absence of a coherent Brexit plan, though this rather ignores that no party has a credible plan at present. The friendly view is that the party right has adopted a strategy of defeatism - MPs are working to rule while media outriders are reading the last rites - in the expectation-cum-hope of a salutary reverse in the next general election. There's probably a little truth in both. Corbyn is arguably the weakest party leader ever, though this reflects his history as a marginal if energetic figure in the labour movement and the success of the neoliberal "inner party" since the 1990s rather than his personal failings. A more charismatic and cunning leader emerging from the left would have faced the same difficulties. There is also ample evidence that his critics have decided to blank him and his supporters recently, which explains why the great antisemitism hue-and-cry has fallen silent.

However, these are both superficial arguments, focused on Parliamentary practice and the capture of the commanding heights of the press, which gives rise to some unintentionally hilarious guff. Just before Christmas, yet another report produced from "focus groups with Ukip-leaning Labour voters" recommended that "moderate Labour MPs should develop their own lines on controversial issues, such as freedom of movement, a narrative which has emerged in recent weeks among some former Miliband shadow cabinet ministers including Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham". Leaving aside the implied oxymoron of a controversial moderate, you'd struggle to spot substance in anything the named three have come up with (the use of the word "line" reveals the persistence of New Labour's media-management). This week, Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian spun her disdain for Corbyn as nostalgia for the bickering past: "It's almost as if the fight were the only thing keeping Labour alive, or at any rate in the headlines" (you've surely got to find the lack of self-reflection in that statement funny).

What the minor media occlusion of Corbyn points to is the broader reconfiguration of politics post-2008, which is obviously not a development limited to the UK. Seen in this light there is an equally revealing weak focus on the internal dynamics of the Tory party in the media, despite there being a higher probability of a split on the right than on the left over the next few years. Brexit has the potential to sunder the Tories' conservative and liberal wings, whereas Labour is far less divided than it was in 1981: the space between Umunna and McDonnell is much narrower than that between Jenkins and Benn. You can also sense reconfiguration in the febrile attempts to resuscitate the Liberal Democrats, though the sunny optimism is inevitably undermined by terrifying flashbacks: "to go into government with an austerity-driven rightwing Conservative government was a brand-destroying catastrophe" ... but we can still revive the brand! We are, in other words, once more in a Gramscian interregnum. Morbid symptoms other than Tim Farron include the painfully public death of the Foreign Office, the emergence of authoritarian Keynesianism, and the liberal turn against democracy.

Among the British political science crowd, there is a tendency to keep banging the same old drums fashioned during the 2008-16 period, notably the Kipper threat to Labour outlined by Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin in Revolt on the Right in 2013. Their thesis - that Labour is electorally vulnerable to UKIP because of a cultural division among its supporters and a disconnect between the working class and the party - has been repeatedly disproved in practice. Even before the supposedly pivotal Oldham West by-election in 2015, Geoffrey Evans & Jon Mellon at the LSE found not only scant evidence for large-scale Labour desertions to UKIP but evidence of more significant movement from both Conservatives and the LibDems and greater potential for future desertion among Tory voters: "support for UKIP is even higher among the self-employed and business owners than the working class, and ... quite high even in the professional & managerial classes, who because [of] their substantial numbers actually provide the biggest bloc of UKIP’s class-based support. For all of these reasons the Conservatives, not Labour, have most to fear from UKIP".

That might change under Paul Nuttall, but I doubt it. The Kippers' "achievement" in coming second in various Northern seats means that working class Tory voters have shifted to them from the Conservatives, not that Labour is haemorrhaging votes. The idea that UKIP could supplant Labour only makes sense if you assume that the vast majority of the latter's supporters are open to switching to a party that is not only xenophobic but pro-capital and iffy about the NHS. The underlying premise of a class-oriented cleavage between "the left behind" white working class and metropolitan liberal middle class (which is presented as a phenomenon across all developed nations) has been given a second wind by Brexit, not to mention Trump. According to Goodwin, "This tension between working-class, struggling, Eurosceptic and anti-immigration, and more financially secure, middle class, pro-EU and cosmopolitan wings poses strategic dilemmas for Labour and provides opportunities for its main rivals". Mutatis mutandis, the same tension between working class and middle class supporters has been there since the party's foundation. I'd even go so far as to say that this is not a bug but a feature.

Electoral alliances always look fragile, even unnatural, if you assume homogeneous voting blocs with consistent attitudes and characteristics. If you think the working class are narrow-minded bigots while the middle class are broad-minded sophisticates, you'll inevitably struggle to imagine how chalk and cheese could be combined behind a common manifesto. If they're honest, conservatives will admit they don't really believe in culture wars because they see culture as innate and ineradicable. The phrase "white genocide" is ironic on the non-neo-Nazi right as much as the left. Conservatives see the struggle in society as being over who holds the whip, not what the whip should be made of (bull's pizzle or rhino hide?). The true culture warriors are liberals, essentially because they believe in personal ascendance through the adoption of "right thinking" and the instrumental use of commoditised identities, a transformation aimed at the supersession of class (i.e. "we're all middle class now", "the end of history" etc).

Labour is the party of labour in two senses: the parliamentary representative of organised labour and the electoral alliance of all those who are not capitalists. Liberals have always been comfortable with the former, despite the anti-union rhetoric, because it was open to negotiation and could be bought off (and labourites were prepared to put up with the inevitable liberal lectures as a quid pro quo). They have always disliked the latter because the prospect of a class "for itself", not just "in itself", presents an existential threat to capitalism, not to mention a rejection of the liberal's pedagogic role. The liberal attitude towards Labour is therefore a duality: an exasperation with the party's failure to be sufficiently "progressive" (in middle class terms) with a determined refusal to address Labour voters as a progressive class. This results in a history of social progress in which the roles of organised labour and autonomous working class movements are downplayed in favour of parliamentary reform and polite civic activism.

It also gives rise to a nostalgia for a Labour party defined by regional and cultural identities, such as John Harris (formerly of Wilmslow, now the Cotswolds) advocating a Burnham-led "Northern Labour" (which sounds like the germ of an idea for a Fast Show catchphrase). This determination to avoid class as a social-economic reality rather than as a matter of culture also explains why liberals have always been alternately fascinated and repelled by the idea of false consciousness, either deploying it for liberal ends, such as in the recent "fake news" panic, or rejecting it as the patronising delusion of a left incapable of acknowledging individual agency. Meanwhile, frustrated that the cultural turn to mawkish nationalism has ironically left Blue Labour high and dry, Maurice Glasman appears to be going quietly mad: "To renew our tradition and ideology around the centrality of family, place and work. To renew our covenant with the working poor and build a coalition that can defeat fascism, resist the domination of capitalism, and deepen our democratic way of life".

The economist John Kay recently made the point that the "demise of practical socialism" in the 1980s didn't just reform the parties of the left but weakened the parties of the right. This was because the latter "were uneasy coalitions of those who had most to fear from socialism: business and the rich, liberal individualists, social conservatives, religious groups." Despite its accommodation with neoliberalism, conservatism remains a defensive project, fundamentally intent on preserving inequality and privilege. After 1989, its chief antagonist was redefined as social liberalism (with a bit part for "cultural Marxism"), and much of the antipathy towards the EU arose from it being an ideal embodiment of this "Big Other": alien, patronising, overly-solicitous to the disadvantaged (the small other) etc. This shift reflected not only the eclipse of socialism but a positive desire to re-establish a conservative order based on inheritance and status rather than the liberal market. In other words, the instrumental use of neoliberalism by conservatives has now come to an end (a long drawn-out process that began at Maastricht in 1992), allowing them to promote reactionary and discriminatory policies on nationalist and cultural grounds.

One of the distinctive features of the neoliberal era has been the way that class consciousness has been dissolved by modernity, as much through geographical mobility as the decline of the unions and other collective institutions, while class performance and appropriation has thrived through commoditisation and cultural homogenisation. We have less class and more classes. But with the defection of conservatives from the principles of openness and deregulation, Liberals find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. Criticising the populist right requires not only a rejection of their lies and hypocrisy, which merely gets you a hearing, but an explanation of how our contemporary society has come about, and that demands an acknowledgement both of the unequal power relations and systemic biases that neoliberalism has exploited and the common class interests of non-capitalists. To put it in practical terms, if you want to counter calls to restrict the free movement of labour, you not only need to address media ownership, you need to talk more about the free movement of capital.

As yet, there is little sign of this happening. Instead, we've had the usual pointless pleas for an electoral alliance with the SNP, LibDems and Greens. Labour is in direct competition with the SNP in Scotland, and agreeing to stand down (the SNP wouldn't split seats) would spell the end of its claim to be a British party, while the other two simply haven't enough to bring to the table ahead of an election (and the LibDems in particular are toxic to Labour party members due to their history not only in coalition with the Tories nationally but locally). Apart from this impossible proposal, there is little on offer from the "radical centre" beyond the absurdities of bare-knuckle liberalism and a "moderate insurgency" (a trope that Corbyn's re-election should have killed for good). What these ideas indicate is that liberalism is now powerless in practice because it has lost its grip both within Labour and the Conservatives. This can be seen as the ironic consequence of the neoliberal "reform" of traditional political parties (as outlined by Colin Crouch and Peter Mair).

Torn between petulance and a determination to act, liberalism is struggling because it remains incapable of challenging the primacy of markets, which is an echo of the bind it found itself in a century ago when the focus of political economy shifted from capital to labour. The Liberal Party created the foundations of the welfare state, but had to cede control as its champion because it couldn't reconcile the needs of management with its antipathy towards activist government. Neoliberalism partially resolved this bind through managerialism and technocracy, but its subservience of the state to the market during the era of globalisation left it vulnerable to the revival of national activist government. While that has taken an authoritarian turn in most countries (reflecting the existing dominance of the political right), and some of the new regimes are clearly led by opportunist charlatans, what's key is the popular demand for state intervention against the market.

Most socialists know that to turn the tide will require an informal alliance between liberals and the left (as ever), but centred on an explicit compromise over the limits of the market. Despite the poor polling figures - which are not necessarily insightful, being geared to old paradigms like "economic trust" - parties like Labour under Corbyn can offer credibility when it comes to restraining the market and advancing national economic interest. Given the likelihood that the Tories are heading towards another spectacular example of executive incompetence over Brexit, greater than the 1992 ERM debacle and on a par with the gold standard goof of 1925, what matters is not Labour's current standing but its ability to offer a credible alternative when the Tories screw-up. That comes down both to the Party's ability to build the infrastructure of a mass movement in difficult times and the willingness of the centre to accommodate (and yes, inevitably dilute) Corbyn rather than blackballing him.

In this regard, the US is more mature than the UK. The American left have no illusions about the need for compromise while the decision to advance the candidacy of Bernie Sanders through the rotten and dysfunctional Democratic Party machine, rather than stand as an independent, was a clear rebuke to the fastidious decorum that has long disfigured the political centre and alienated it from the mass of voters. Corbyn and McDonnell's policy ambitions do not go much beyond a programme of domestic social democracy that would largely find favour with Polly Toynbee and a foreign policy that would irritate Natalie Nougayr├Ęde but please most people. Their more contentious objective is to ensure a left legacy within the party, though liberals would be wise to concede this as a tactical necessity given that unseating the Tories will require mass mobilisation and that will be only achieved by motivated activists, not by sniffy editorials.

Much of the angst of contemporary liberalism is being projected onto the Labour Party, from the sense of bewilderment to the crippling ennui. For example, the title of the recent Fabian Society report, Stuck: how Labour is too weak to win and too strong to die, provides a more accurate description of "living dead liberalism": hegemonic but enervated. Hinsliff's Guardian piece closed with this apt pen-portrait: "There’s something eerie about the stillness now; not calm, but stagnant". Anyone who thinks the current political scene, whether in part or in whole, is stagnant really needs to get out more. This denial reinforces the point that the liberal crisis can only be resolved in the UK by embracing a Corbyn-led Labour Party, while the liberal media huff suggests that this is being resisted until the possibility of an early general election is definitively ruled out (repeating the error of the SDP and Alliance years). If I were Theresa May, I'd abolish the Fixed-term Parliaments Act now and leave everyone guessing.

Monday, 2 January 2017

A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever

The halfway mark of the season finds Arsenal in third, with 40 points from 19 games. A straight extrapolation would see us finish the season on 80, which would be 1 point short of the number that secured the title for Leicester last year. The ominous form of Chelsea suggests the winning total could be over 90 this time round, with 10 less being perhaps only enough to bag third or fourth place. Broken down into thirds, we managed 25 points over the first 12 games, which was one less than we achieved last season. Our problem wasn't the opening day home defeat to Liverpool, when we at least scored 3 times, so much as the four bore draws, against Leicester, Middlesbrough, Manure and the Spuds, which produced only 2 goals. Over the next 7 games we secured 15 points (two better than last season), a tally undermined by the recent away defeats at Everton and Citeh.

Our defence hasn't been sufficiently parsimonious and we haven't compensated by scoring enough (football really is a simple game). We are third best in both categories: we've conceded 19 versus Chelsea's 13 and the Spuds' 14, and we've scored 41 compared to Liverpool's 46 and Chelsea's 42. That said, our scoring rate has improved, producing 2.2 goals per game versus an average of 1.8 over the last 3 seasons, while we are conceding at the same rate of 1.0. If Wenger has a specific strategy for this season, it looks like scoring more goals, which sounds straightforward but isn't. That we've managed to up the rate without conceding more is no mean achievement, and reflects well on our defence. It's also worth noting the screening contributions of Coquelin and Elneny and the greater willingness of our wide players to track back (Walcott's been praised in a dog-walking-upright sort of way, but I was struck by Perez initiating the move that led to Giroud's goal yesterday, showing this is down to Wenger's coaching not Theo's self-examination).

In a nutshell, we still haven't got the balance right. While many have praised Wenger's deployment of Sanchez as a centre forward, and the greater contribution of goals by other attackers, notably Ozil and Walcott, we remain a team heavily reliant on inspiration and improvisation. As a fan of efficiency, you can understand Wenger's admiration for Conte's work at Chelsea. Goals such as Ozil's away at Ludgorets and Giroud's at home against Crystal Palace will live long in the memory, but we really need more tap-ins (not to mention on-target strikes from the edge of the area), which means finding a way through massed defences. Interestingly, excluding Giroud's half-scorpion, 2 of our last 3 goals were headers, and even Ozil has managed to score with his bonce, suggesting a conscious effort to vary our attacks. Arsenal remain easy on the eye, but they rarely give the impression that they can hold a 1-0 lead while they still struggle to secure the comfort of a second goal early enough in the game to depress the opposition.

As ever, the squad struggles with injuries and the knock-on effects of summer tournaments, but we look to have greater strength in depth now that some of the newer acquisitions have bedded in. Granit Xhaka gets better by the game and can clearly offer an alternative to Cazorla's craft, while Mustafi'a arrival has perhaps allowed Gabriel to find a comfortable level as number three in the centre-back pecking order (I doubt Mertesacker will dislodge him on his return, and may even find himself behind Rob Holding). We look well-stocked at full-back, though it's hard to believe we won't lose a couple during the transfer window, while the mix of Ramsey, Elneny and Coquelin provide plenty of options in midfield to complement Xhaka and Cazorla. In attack, the return of Welbeck will provide a boost by adding both pace and power, while Iwobi looks like he can deputise for Ozil and Lucas Perez can fill a Sanchez-shaped hole if need be, albeit without the same level of creativity.

My prediction for the season is that Chelsea will win the title (I'm going out on a limb here). The change to a 3-man defence after their 3-0 defeat by us has caught the rest of the league off-guard. Though I expect teams to work out how to nullify their threat and score against them (Stoke's brace yesterday being a sign of this), they probably have enough momentum and points, not to mention a lack of midweek distractions, to see them through till May, though I reckon they'll fall a little short of the 90-point mark. Liverpool will probably run out of steam in the final furlong (not for the first time), while Citeh look too inconsistent to put a long-enough winning run together. Tottenham will make all the right noises, particularly if they get a result against Chelsea this week, but I suspect they have already secretly reconciled themselves to targeting fourth. Manure are perhaps flattered by their current position in 6th, but they'll probably up their poor scoring rate (only 1.5 so far) and guarantee another visit to the Europa League.

I reckon Arsenal will finish third, though we could pip Liverpool for second, particularly if we beat them at Anfield in early March. The only problem is that this fixture comes a few days before the return leg against Bayern Munich in the Champions League, which presents the sort of attitude and selection dilemma that Wenger has not always managed well down the years (e.g. various psychologically damaging cup defeats against Manure when ahead in the league). For once, I'm optimistic that the growing squad depth, and the greater cohesion we can expect by the start of the final third of the season, will give him the options necessary to win both games. Of course, that may still see us exit the Champions League if we failed to get a result in Munich in February, but that in turn might be enough to prompt an above-par domestic performance over the season run-in, which could see us finish at around 85 points.

However, I suspect we're too far behind Chelsea now to make up the ground in full. In retrospect, Williams' late winning goal at Goodison Park was probably the pivotal moment of the season for us, not least because such a deflating loss clearly contributed to the poor display against Man City. This was unfortunate for Ozil, who has predictably taken a lot of stick for failing to block Williams, but I suspect there are more Mesut moments of magic to come that might well turn our fortunes upwards. There remains an outside chance that we could snatch the title, though it requires an improbable alignment: that Chelsea lose key games (we go to Stamford Bridge in early February), we push our scoring rate up to 2.5, and our concession rate drops to 0.8 or below. I can see one or even two of those occurring, but not all three. Progress this season will be getting 80 points, and perhaps besting Bayern.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

A Savage Servility

Over the coming days, you can expect sage media heads to nod, whistle and admit that whatever it was, 2016 was certainly memorable. Popular historians will be tempted to confirm that the year was pivotal while its embers still glow red. Personally, I doubt it will prove to be either. It is more likely to mark a messy interregnum between phases of a continuing trajectory. Whatever the outcome of Brexit (which hasn't happened yet) and a Trump presidency (ditto), the long-run results are unlikely to diverge massively from what we could have expected to happen anyway. The UK will be poorer and more fractious outside the EU, but this is merely the exacerbation of a process that began in the late-70s. Staying in the EU was never of itself going to rebalance the economy or address widening inequality. Likewise, the US will appear more venal and corrupt, but that will simply highlight the degree to which Obama exerted a reality distortion field in which his performative probity and tolerance masked a continuing slide in public morality and a growing disenchantment with the Republic.

But if the year won't be pivotal, in the manner of 1989 or 2001, that isn't to say that stuff didn't happen. So, in the seasonal spirit, here is my (slightly premature) annual roundup, which I've decided to approach obliquely through media tropes: some old, some new. In the latter category, the pacesetter was the Celebrity Death Epidemic, which has now run the gamut from A Rickman to ZZ Gabor (see what it did there?). Statistically, it was just another year, but the coincidental departure of pop culture luminaries such as David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen unleashed a tidal wave of solipsistic blather from middle-aged journalists. This has been coming for a while. There was already a noticeable tendency towards overkill in the reporting of the death of John Peel in 2004, despite the best efforts of Mark E Smith on Newsnight (5' in). Obituaries traditionally enjoyed a high status among journalists because they provided a rare opportunity for reflection among the ceaseless reportage. Today, in a sea of witless opinion and promos masquerading as "long reads", a celebrity death provides cheap filler and reliable clickbait.

Though the return of political economy was predictable after 2008, it is fair to say that it most definitely arrived on the scene this year, in no small part because the political establishment failed to measure up to the challenge from 2010 onwards. Whatever else they prove, the EU referendum in the UK and the Presidential election in the US show that the current economic dispensation isn't working for enough people to provide social and political stability. As yet, no one is offering much in the way of a cogent solution, which is why the hit-and-hope of Brexit and Trump have proved attractive. The underlying problem is neither fake news nor the irrationality of the masses but the persistence of TINA (there is no alternative) as the bedrock of neoliberal narrative. In this sense, modern populism - as an anti-elite discourse - is a rational response, even if it has been hijacked by right-wing loons. That this has happened is largely because elites insist that the true danger is the cuddly social democracy of Corbyn and Sanders and the "militancy" of striking workers. One positive development is that the rise of the alt-right, and the threat of Le Pen, has made the liberal claims of left antisemitism look even more ridiculous.

Let us now take a turn behind the scenes, to look at some of the structural changes afoot. We start with the trivia of commodities that no one really needs. If you think of the Tech-augmented Human in terms of wearables, 2016 has been a bit of a disappointment, with the damp squib that was the Apple Watch and the likes of Fitbit running (if you'll pardon the pun) into a brick wall as far as expanded functionality is concerned (there are only so many bio-metrics the average non-hypochondriac can worry about). Meanwhile, blockchain-based distributed applications, phone-based payment systems (which are conceptually on a road between a chip embedded in a plastic card and one embedded in your body) and home device controllers (i.e. secure hubs for the Internet of Things) continue to inch forward. This slow progress has inevitably fed into the Modern Technology is Rubbish trope, but that shouldn't distract us from the interesting change in the discourse from complaints of deficiency - that new tech is not as good as advertised or that it has failed to live up to expectations - to the charge of outright malignancy.

While fretting about AI and mass surveillance has remained popular, the big change in the realm of the malign is that the fears of Matrix-style machines draining our vital bodily fluids or the NSA and GCHQ reading our emails have given way in the popular imagination to robots "stealing our jobs". This meme of dispossession has replaced the earlier "they took er jerbs" trope in which the people casually branded "globalisation's losers" supposedly pointed the finger at poorly-paid Mexican and Chinese assembly workers. What is noticeable (and is clearly worrying a number of people in Silicon Valley) is that this is shifting the focus of popular ire away from foreign labour to domestic capital. Of course, that capital is only evident as such if we recognise that robots are simply plant and machinery. The imputation of malignancy is intended to anthropomorphise the machines, much as the earlier Luddite trope claimed that weavers were driven by an irrational animosity towards power-looms rather than mill-owners.

This shift reflects the growing salience of reshoring and full automation as global production chains are shortened to increase profits. It also heralds a change in financial flows as capital is increasingly repatriated for investment in mature economies. Though a lot of Transatlantic attention is being given to the promise of a Trump-led infrastructure investment programme, the more significant change under the new administration is likely to be a reduction in the taxes levied on overseas profits when brought back to the US, which will encourage the likes of Apple and Amazon to invest their offshore funds in domestic projects. Given their interests and capabilities, this is more likely to be in the area of automation (which is job-reducing) rather than infrastructure (which is job-expanding). In other words, there will be rapid advances in autonomous vehicles while US roads may get a few potholes filled in.

Given the amount of capital flooding into Driverless Cars and the necessity of profitable returns in the medium term (assuming Trump is serious about inflation and interest rates in the 2-4% range), we may shortly see legislation to enable the creation of AV (autonomous vehicle)-only areas. These will most likely be in high-value city centres where there are sufficient rich people (who will be able to afford to buy the first generation of AVs) and young professionals (who will be able to afford driverless Ubers everywhere). Given the wealth bias, this won't just be limited to the US, which raises the prospect that legislation to allow autonomous vehicles may be passed in Saudi Arabia before legislation to allow autonomous women. This should remind us that the idea that technology is revolutionary, in the sense of socially progressive and personally liberating, is ideological. In many ways modern digital technology, with its focus on surveillance and control, and its incidental delight in public shaming, is highly conservative. The rise of the reactionary alt-right in this milieu should not come as a shock.

Equally unsurprising is that the debate on Basic Income has seen a drift away from the ideal of human flourishing towards the necessity of a dole in the face of technological unemployment. While voices on the left imagine a hopeful post-capitalism ("Demand full automation! Demand the future!"), the political centre, which is where any practical consensus will coalesce, is increasingly attracted to basic income as a new route to the old goal of "welfare reform". This is recognition of two secular trends. First, the twinned growth in precarious employment and income inequality is making welfare systems based on payroll contributions increasingly problematic. As the majority of payers can afford to contribute less and less, and as demographic ageing shrinks the working population, per capita contributions decline. The obvious solution - to increase taxes on the well-off over-and-above payroll contributions - is politically unpalatable to centrists, particularly as more of the wealthy opt-out of public services and political parties rely more on wealthy donors.

The second trend is that the privatisation and financialisation of public services is increasing the unit costs of public goods - a fact only obscured by Procrustean cuts in service provision to fit those goods into reduced budgets. While this might cause some politicians to question the foundational claims of privatisation, most are resigned to accepting the neoliberal order (TINA) and "managing" it better. In practice, this means capping expenditure. While some services, like the NHS, will remain free at the point of use, at least for a sizeable segment of the population, others are likely to become optional. This may take the form of citizens having to choose a subset from a list (an idea already trialled in the realm of corporate benefits), with "over-use" being chargeable, or it may lead to a basic income that is meant to cover not only the bare necessities but limited public (chargeable) goods as well: effectively a revival of the old idea of vouchers.

My prediction for 2017 is therefore more of the same, which is always a relatively safe call. Technology will continue to be under-estimated because it is already hyper-commoditised; driverless cars and basic income really are on the way, but the manner of their implementation will be punitive and discriminatory; and centrist politicians will continue to funk the challenge of inequality and economic power, providing easy ammunition for the far-right. Paradoxically perhaps, the geopolitical situation will probably stay relatively calm, despite plenty of cheap talk, because the modern generation of authoritarians are more interested in money than metaphysics. As the Republican Party and Silicon Valley are proving in the US, conservatives and liberals can do business with such authoritarians. In the UK, the reality of "taking back control", and the lack of consequentiality for lies (Katie Hopkins paying damages is the exception that proves the rule), have entrenched a sullen cynicism. Rupert Murdoch's bid for Sky plc seems well-timed. I recall a line from Robert's Lowell's For the Union Deada savage servility slides by on grease.