Thursday, 8 October 2015

Loosening the Girdle

The London green belt was originally envisaged in the late 19th century as an amenity for city-dwellers rather than a cordon sanitaire to protect the rural. Though the Ringstrasse of Vienna and the parkways of Washington are sometimes cited as inspirations, the "green girdle" proposed for London was to be placed much further out, beyond the working class districts, rather than between the elite-dominated centre and the peripheral industrial areas. The aim was to improve the health of the working classes, rather than isolate them, through access to fresh-air and exercise, and was given political impetus when recruitment during the Boer War revealed poor levels of fitness among the urban poor, prompting a Parliamentary Committee on Physical Deterioration in 1903. This reinforced existing concerns over national decline (arising from the advance of the USA and Germany) and would provide a background hum to the Liberal government's welfare reforms after 1906, including the Housing, Town Planning, &c. Act 1909, which banned "back-to-backs" and required local authorities to draw up town plans.

The green belt was a progressive cause, but one more influenced by the eugenic concerns of the Fabians (improve labour) than the bucolic socialism of William Morris (improve life). It also found common cause with conservatives worried more about "racial decay" than rural preservation. As a practical policy it went hand-in-hand with slum clearance and quality public housing, hence it was championed by the likes of Herbert Morrison's LCC in the interwar years, leading to the Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act 1938, which empowered local authorities to buy land to be kept free from development. This public health focus was reinforced in the 1940s by a renewed desire, occasioned by wartime rationing, to maintain agricultural land close to the city to provide fresh food. However, this also marks the transition in the concept of the green belt from an urban resource to a strategic resource in its own right. Green belts were formalised nationally in  the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which also provided the foundation for the modern system of planning controls.

From the 50s through the 70s, urban populations were partially decanted to new towns as the old city slums were cleared, with the green belt providing a way of ensuring that the likes of Harlow and Stevenage developed as distinct centres rather than just exurban sprawl in the US manner. It is during this postwar period that the idea of the green belt as a restraint, rather than an urban amenity, takes hold, both in the sense of containing the social ills of inner-cities (increasingly associated in the popular imagination with Commonwealth immigrants) and isolating the decanted working classes in the often under-equipped new towns. The implementation of green belts became government policy (i.e. a central push rather than a local authority pull) in 1955 under the Conservatives, marking the inflexion point in attitude. The era also saw a significant improvement in urban health, due to the clean air acts and the spread of indoor plumbing, while mechanisation reduced the population of farm-workers. These developments replaced the old social dichotomy of unhealthy city and healthy countryside, embodied in the pasty-faced street urchin and the ruddy-cheeked farmer's child, with an aesthetic distinction of the built environment: the glass and concrete city and the increasingly faux-rural exurbs.

In the 1980s, the value of the green belt as an urban "lung" continued to decline as deindustrialisation reduced pollution, while the growth of imported foodstuffs reduced the land's agricultural utility (if not its market value). As the health and recreational justifications of old lost their weight, the cause of environmental protection gained prominence, encouraging the idea that as the green belt was a good in itself it should be expanded where possible. In fact, much green belt land is of no more ecological value than an urban brownfield site (and sometimes less). The consequence is that the land designated as green belt has more than doubled in size since 1979 and now accounts for 13% of the total land in England. In contrast, only 10% of land is developed (which includes roads and urban green spaces), while national parks account for 9%. That the last 30 years have seen persistent political pressure to expand the green belt (and simultaneously improve transport links) indicates that its main purpose had become that of a low-density housing zone for wealthier urban workers and the site of a growing professional services economy.

The London green belt is now over 5,000 square kilometres in size, which means that it is three times as big as the urban area it surrounds. This is enough space to build as many homes as already exist in the entirety of the UK at current densities: around 27 million. 7% of the London green belt is made up of golf courses, which means that surrendering half of them would provide enough land for 1 million new homes. It is estimated that there is enough developable land within 1 mile of existing railway and Tube stations, and within 60 minutes journey time of Central London (a radius of 90km), to build 2.5 million new homes. 22% of the land within the GLA boundaries is green belt, which constitutes an area large enough to support 1.4 million additional homes. Having declined from 8.2 million to 6.6 million between 1951 and 1981, the population of the capital bounced back to 8.2 million in 2011 and is expected to exceed 9 million by the time of the next census in 2021.

The idea of the green belt as an "interzone" between city and country has long gone. Improvements in transport have pushed the commutable boundary much further afield (Crossrail is designed to serve the green belt as much as the metropolis). At the same time, improvements in communication have amplified the value of agglomeration in city centres, leading to the growth of global hubs, such as the City. The consequence in London is the emergence of concentric rings of wealth, the inner boroughs and the green belt, sandwiching a ring of outer boroughs with an increasingly low-paid "service" population. The Tory plan to extend right-to-buy to housing associations, and require further council sales to fund the promised discounts, will exacerbate this by reducing the remaining pockets of social housing in the inner boroughs. The inner city is increasingly the inner-outer city, to be found in Mitcham and Leyton rather than Brixton or Bethnal Green. Gradually, London is replicating the social geography seen in New York and Paris.

The historic irony is that a legacy of early nineteenth century pro-social reform and mid-century central planning became a key tool for the protection of class interests antagonistic to the poor and the state. This is nowhere more obvious than west of London, specifically the area bounded by Reading, Slough, Heathrow and Bracknell. One objection to the expansion of Heathrow Airport is that it would take a nibble out of the green belt. A more ambitious plan would see the entire area developed, centring on the corridor of the M4. Of course, this would mean development around Windsor and Eton, which appears to be a no-go for some strange reason (maybe something to do with Legoland). Compare and contrast with the long-standing government encouragement for development east of London, the so-called Thames Gateway, which covers an area of significantly greater ecological value along the banks of the Thames estuary.

The obvious conclusion is that not all parts of the green belt are equal, which appears to be the position of its modern defenders to judge by their willingness to countenance land-swaps. According to Simon Jenkins: "Those of minimal amenity value would be released in favour of belt extension elsewhere. It is stupid to guard a muddy suburban field while building over the flanks of the Pennines". Despite the reference to ancient limestone, this attitude clearly reflects on the social value of land as a commodity rather than the intrinsic value of the natural environment, hence the paradigm of trade and stock management. By "amenity" I suspect Jenkins means the outdoor pursuits of the middle-classes, though he probably has fell-walking and horse-riding in mind rather than paint-balling or golf, which is an echo of the "improving" visions of the Edwardians who rhapsodised about Sunday school trips to a bluebell wood.

Jenkins has long insisted that the UK's housing crisis is a problem of poor urban resource management, and thus implicitly of selfish townees. There is some truth in this, however it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the solution to an urban problem lies within the urban area, and to in turn assume that "urban" and "green belt" are mutually-exclusive. This is to continue the thinking of the late twentieth century and see the green belt as a check on the ill-discipline of the city. For example, under-occupancy is often discussed as a urban issue, in the context of the bedroom tax and foreign investors, but empty rooms are more common in owner-occupied properties in the green belt. The structural causes of the under-provision of housing are not limited to cities, let alone London: regressive property and inheritance taxation; high land prices and no penalties on under-use (which leads to land-banking); and a cartel of private builders with insufficient competition from local authorities.

The solution to the housing crisis, particularly in London, requires us to return to a view of the green belt as a resource for the city, not a restraint. This doesn't mean throwing up a couple of million homes willy-nilly around the M25, but expansion along the axial transport corridors that already exist to Reading, Crawley, Luton and Southend. This would be a return to the development pattern that predated the postwar green belt, with houses and light industry following first the railways and then the new arterial roads. The green belt also provides the opportunity to build a high-speed orbital rail line linking London's airports and reducing traffic through the city centre, but given the political trouble that relatively small-scale incursions into the green belt like Heathrow and HS2 have produced, the suspicion is that wholesale reform will continue to nestle in the long grass. That both leading candidates for the London mayoralty, Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith, are on record as considering the green belt "sacrosanct" is not encouraging. We're not protecting nature, we're merely privileging property.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Big Red Button

It is a cliché that the UK's independent nuclear deterrent is neither independent nor a deterrent. It is de facto a part of the US nuclear arsenal and a symbol of the UK's status as a protectorate, which has been obvious since the commitment to Polaris in 1962. The deterrent to any possible enemies today or in the future is not Trident but the likelihood that an attack will prompt immediate retaliation by the US. This effectively puts us in the same category as those states who "share" American nuclear weapons as part of NATO's operational deployment (i.e. they possess missiles and bombs that can only be armed by the US), namely Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Italy and Turkey. We could not unilaterally use our nuclear weapons, for fear of an American countermand that would reveal our dependence (i.e. Suez all over again), while the idea of taking a raincheck in the event of a nuclear war involving the US is ruled out by membership of NATO. This means that Trident is militarily worthless - we can't use it when we wish and when we do it will be marginal to a larger conflict - which is why some of the system's most trenchant critics are to be found among the upper echelons of the army and airforce.

Any debate about Trident renewal or the prospect of unilateral nuclear disarmament is therefore a political debate, not a technical argument about the best way of ensuring national security. Just as weapons systems have always been ideological, from the property qualifications of hoplites to the concentration of capital of aircraft carriers, they also reflect the historically-conditioned concerns of elites. The maritime nature of the UK's nuclear strikeforce is a case in point. The fact that we are the only nuclear state wholly dependent on a submarine-based missile system is the product of a fear of the people rather than an eccentric belief that we should "rule the waves". Britain has traditionally minimised its standing army at "home", reflecting a suspicion of agitators and a fear of coups that originated in the seventeenth century. Periodic crises, such as the Napoleonic Wars, would be met by the recruitment of volunteer units (yeomanry, fencibles etc) under gentry control - which produced its own problems in Ireland and America - culminating in Kitchener's Army.

In contrast, the Royal Navy grew proportionately in scale and importance with the expansion of empire, accounting for 60% of defence spending by 1912. The need to "patrol the seas", the frequency of small conflicts across the globe, and the lead times involved in commissioning capital ships meant a permanent commitment of funds that created its own institutional momentum (e.g. the way that naval estimates in parliamentary debate became excuses for jingoism). The modern-day "jobs argument" in respect of Barrow-in-Furness et al has a long pedigree, reflecting the extent to which the political management of the British military has predominantly been a matter of iron rather than blood, with the armaments industry having a significant influence on policy. Over the course of the twentieth century, the navy's role declined as the empire was dismantled, mirroring a parallel decline in the merchant marine and domestic shipbuilding. With the RAF taking on the main role in home defence, and the army maintaining its position through NATO deployments in Germany after WW2, the senior service might have expected to become the poor relation.

In the event, it secured control of our nuclear capability through the submarine fleet (the last airborne nuclear missiles were retired in 1998). This was not merely adroit inter-service manoeuvring, but a reflection of the elite preference for the nuclear deterrent to be independent of possible domestic interference, which could be better guaranteed at sea, particularly in a submarine cut off from the outside world for months at a time. In other words, the Radio 4 anecdote (that its absence from the airwaves would justify a nuclear strike), like the armed forces formal loyalty to the monarch, tells us that power ultimately lies beyond democratic control. For this reason, the question asked of Jeremy Corbyn is otiose: no British PM has ever had his or her finger exclusively on the button, so their ethical preferences are irrelevant. The decision to deploy a Trident missile would actually require the approval of both the US President and the UK Chief of the Defence Staff (who is appointed by the monarch); and if the PM refused a US request to fire British missiles, he or she could expect to be bypassed through an appeal to the head of state.

One of the chief arguments for retention of the bomb is that without it we couldn't justify our permanent seat on the UN Security Council, though it is obvious that what would really jeopardise our membership would not be unilateral nuclear disarmament but the insistence on pursuing an independent line from the US. Given the persistent (and growing) demands for the permanent membership to reflect current realities in terms of the possession of nuclear weapons (e.g. India) and geopolitical significance (e.g. Japan and Germany), we cannot assume that the UK will always have a seat, particularly if a Brexit left France as the default EU representative and expansion brought on more US allies. Even if we did retain a seat in an enlarged council, we might find ourselves marginalised: reduced to merely echoing the opinion of others and largely ignored (so no change there then). Trident represents a determination to keep us at the "top table", but largely to satisfy the egos of government and diplomatic elites, rather than to provide a lever for policy.

The media coverage of the military - from the the sentimentality of sacrifice, through the nostalgia of cap-badges, to minor royals roleplaying Top-Gun - reflects an ambivalence over elite pretensions that can be traced all the way back to the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (i.e. the era of actual and potential military dictators, from Cromwell to Marlborough). On the one hand there's an admiration for near-feudal levels of fealty, dressed up in the romanticism by which Walter Scott subsequently recuperated rebellion as a conservative virtue; while on the other hand there is a suspicion of authority (assumed to be heartless) and a belief that the only soldier worth celebrating is a cripple (because both harmless and deserving). This ambivalence is often diverted into the trope of military madness, particularly in post-WW2 cinema (cf. The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Dr. Strangelove - the last as much a British as an American vision). In what other country would an anonymous general threatening a coup be laughed off as mere blimpishness? Indeed, in what other country would Colonel Blimp be an object of both derision and affection.

That Corbyn's honesty has been so quickly spun as evidence of his unfitness for office tells you much about the way that elite priorities have been internalised by the media. While overt threats of coups will be dismissed as infra dig - the sort of silliness that only hot-blooded Latin-types get up to - the reality is that Corbyn wouldn't be allowed anywhere near the "button", simply because there isn't one. The power of the deep state (i.e. those permanent interests in Whitehall and the military-industrial complex), and the power of the shallow state (i.e. those temporary interests in political parties and the media), depends not on the emperor's new clothes of the independent nuclear deterrent but on the belief in an emperor: the assumption that whether we do or don't have nuclear weapons we can still throw our weight around. The truth is that Britain only just managed to beat an incompetent Argentina in 1982 (a fight that we would almost certainly lose if it were re-run today) and since then have limited our military prowess to either playing Tonto to the US, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, or face-punching collapsing states, like Libya.

Ironically, in saying that he wouldn't press the button, Jeremy Corbyn is insisting on the independence of the UK's nuclear arsenal and thus the exclusive control of it by the head of a democratically elected government. That makes him potentially the most belligerent British Leader, from a transatlantic perspective, since Churchill in 1945. His statement is a clear signal to the US that a Corbyn-led government would pursue a more independent foreign policy, however we shouldn't automatically assume that this will cause furrowed brows in Washington. Given the gradual pivot in US focus away from Eurasia towards the Pacific, and the emergence of a Germany-dominated EU, this is something that future US administrations might well contemplate with equanimity, particularly if the membership of the Security Council is revised. The reality is that the UK's nuclear missiles neither significantly add to nor subtract from the global balance of power, and the US's future interests in Europe may be better served by a special relationship with Germany than with "Airstrip One". The threat that Corbyn poses to our elites is that he takes the myth of British military power seriously.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Popular Struggle and Doctrinal Battles

The TV news coverage of the Labour Party Conference has been so clumsily antagonistic that I momentarily wondered on Monday if it wasn't a plot by "sleeper pinkos" to force a reverse-ferret through the power of irony. It's more likely that 20 years of Blairite conditioning has left them incapable of asking probing questions of an interviewee who, for once, is willing to open-up rather than close-down a debate. For all their bleats about politicians' spin, the reality is that TV's political "heavyweights" are now far more comfortable with the cosmetic than the substantive, including the comedy turns of Michael Crick, showing how much the incestuous relations of the "caste" have coarsened democracy. Laura "sneer" Kuenssberg of the BBC asking John McDonnell why he isn't overthrowing capitalism might be dismissed as a lack of imagination, but Jon "skunk" Snow of Channel 4 demanding to know what he would do on "day one" (i.e. a Friday in late May 2020) is no more evidence of intelligent life than Martian brine-stains.

In contrast, it looks like the neoliberal fightback has begun in earnest in the print media, and this is nowhere more evident than in the New Statesman. Peter Kellner's warning that Corbyn's opponents (that's "modernisers" not Tories, obvs) are "running out of road" is the centrepiece. Having already produced some comical propaganda via his YouGov opinion-formation machine (I did a fisk here), he attempts to divorce the new party leader from the history of social democracy, continuing a theme launched last week by Martin Kettle in the Guardian. For Kellner, the "Corbyn insurgency" has "opened up a doctrinal chasm on the left" between those who think "the best way to build a good society is for workers and elected politicians, not company shareholders, to take the big decisions in the business world" and the vast bulk of Labour MPs who are pro-capitalism: "They like its dynamism. They regard it as the best way to invent, develop and supply most goods and services. They have no wish to replace it, even as a long-term objective". This "proper spheres of influence" cartoon (which has nothing to say about business people interfering in education or politics, natch) suggests that the neoliberal revanche currently lacks intellectual subtlety.

In amongst the tosh, including a lament that Clause IV was replaced with pabulum rather than a full-throated commitment to capitalism, Kellner makes the valuable point that Labour's original constitution advocated common ownership (a capacious term that covers everything from a workers' collective to the BBC), not nationalisation specifically. For him this is evidence of the pragmatic ambiguity of a Fabian-managed party that "owes more to Merthodism than Marxism" (as an aside, more party members will have read the Communist Manifesto than Wesley's Sermons, and the cultural impact of Catholicism has been just as great - the phrase survives because of alliteration, not insight). The Attlee administration is damned with faint praise (a Blairite trope): "True, his government nationalised the mines and the railways; but given how badly these had been run before the war, one could make a perfectly pragmatic, non-ideological case for taking them over". It seems to escape Kellner that Corbyn is making a similarly pragmatic case in respect of railways, energy companies and banks today. John McDonnell's insistence that Labour are not deficit-deniers, that they will pursue balanced budgets, and that "People's QE" is a tactic for abnormal times all point to the pragmatic basis of the emerging Corbyn programme, and thus its social democratic credentials.

This tour through Labour's history serves to tee up Kellner's central argument about the consequences of pragmatism and creative ambiguity: "Thinking with the wisdom of hindsight, we should not be surprised that the anti-capitalist left has revived. The hard truth is that it was never defeated because it was never properly engaged. It was simply thrust to the margins, where it bided its time ... Could things have worked out differently? Could Labour have done more than hold the left at bay: could it have won a head-on doctrinal battle?" (You'll notice that this "left" is, by definition, alien to Labour). It might appear odd that a man who earns a living by offering supposedly neutral and empirically-based opinion polling should be such a determined idealist, but this simply reveals the Manichean basis of much neoliberal thinking, particularly in its Blairite incarnation. While Corbyn preaches a plurality of opinion and respect for nonconformism, Kellner insists on the one true church, and a church militant at that (I could make some laboured jokes here about apostolic succession and the Inquisition, but I think you get the point).

To elaborate his thesis, Kellner turns to the history of the German SPD and specifically the pivot in 1959 towards support for the social market economy. For Kellner, this process was the continuation of an older project: "In a way, the SPD in the 1950s applied the tenets of the Enlightenment to itself. It approached its problems empirically. It pondered the evidence and concluded that Marxist socialism did not work, while properly regulated market capitalism did. Labour has never engaged in any such Enlightenment-style debate." Amusingly, Tuesday's Guardian carried a long piece by John Harris which indirectly confirmed that Marxism Today was the site of that debate, though it turned out to be an exchange in which neoliberalism successfully colonised and neutered a left that had become fascinated by the opportunities of post-Fordism and postmodernism (there was a Maoist masochism to the MT that led many of its leading lights to become state apparatchiks or propagandists in later life). The appeal to the Enlightenment serves to distract from the historic situation of the SPD during the Wirtschaftswunder years. The "pondering" of 1959 was not the result of some dispassionate search for knowledge but the need to adjust once the Marshall Plan and Allied political support for conservative politicians had neutralised the postwar economic critique of the SPD and embedded Ordoliberalism in German political culture.

The key passage on the economy that Kellner quotes from the SPD's Godesberg Program makes the Ordoliberal influence clear: "The autonomy of trade unions and employers' associations in collective bargaining is an important feature of a free society. Totalitarian control of the economy destroys freedom. The Social Democratic Party therefore favours a free market wherever free competition really exists. Where a market is dominated by individuals or groups, however, all manner of steps must be taken to protect freedom in the economic sphere. As much competition as possible – as much planning as necessary." The economic divergence of the two Germanys during the 50s, and the Federal Republic's integration into the nascent EEC, also undermined the policy of the SPD for reunification as a neutral state (the CDU/CSU were insistent on remaining in NATO, putting the kybosh on unification), which required it to flex its stance on international relations as much as on the economy. Oddly, Kellner passes up the opportunity to cast Ostpolitik, the policy championed by the later SPD administration under Willy Brandt of a rapprochement with the GDR combined with fealty to NATO and the EEC, as proto-triangulation.

Kellner is urging doctrinal struggle by the mass of MPs who "think Corbyn’s politics are bonkers", but ... "I fear that the quiet life will win the day, that Corbyn will become entrenched, and that a head-on doctrinal dispute will, as always, be avoided. For a century, fudging the issue has occasionally allowed Labour to build an election-winning, big-tent coalition of progressive voters. Today, that approach guarantees disaster. It will leave Corbyn free to promote his electorally toxic and economically destructive brand of left-wing politics. If that is what happens, Labour’s tent will become a lot smaller and the party will cease to be fit for purpose." The irony is that the Godesberg Program signalled the moment at which the SPD decided to turn away from doctrinal struggle and instead appeal to the electorate on an ethical basis, thereby cleaving to the more pragmatic tradition that Kellner bemoans in respect of Labour. The SPD also accepted the hegemony of Ordoliberalism, much as the self-aware Gramscians at Marxism Today ended up accepting neoliberalism's "liberation theology" as an antidote to the venom of Thatcherism.

In contrast to Kellner, Nick Pearce of the IPPR, writing about Labour's "valley of death", is intellectually honest enough to concede that Blairism is a busted flush, leaving the party "trapped between hollowed-out centrist technocracy and revanchist state socialism". However, he continues the project to put clear blue water between Corbyn and social democracy: "While his campaign tapped into discontent with the decrepit state of mainstream Labour politics, it did not give birth to a new social movement, rooted in popular struggle, like those that have sprung up in southern Europe. His improbable leadership of the Labour Party is another symptom of the crisis of social democracy, not the incubator of its future". In 2003 the "modernisers" ignored millions on the street; now they consider the absence of popular struggle as evidence of a lack of legitimacy. Hegemony is characterised not only by shameless contradiction (the emperor's new clothes) but by the sense of outrage when the impermissible (or "improbable") enters the public domain. This is emotionalism, not empiricism.

Unlike Kellner, Pearce is prepared to draw a line under the Blairite phase: "The last time the death notices of social democracy were written in the early 1990s, a wave of Third Way revisionism brought it back to life ... Today, it is clear that Third Way modernisation relied on historical circumstances that cannot be repeated now: principally a long wave of growth, in which a build-up of household debt and government transfers maintained living standards, despite rising asset inequality and the sundering of the link between productivity increases and wages". What he is less prepared to concede is that these economic trends, which were plain for all to see at the time, meant that Blairism was always doomed to fail once growth was interrupted and capital inequality had passed a point of no (easy) return. Far from being empirically-based or even ethically-grounded, Blairism was distinguished by nothing more than whistling to keep one's spirits up ("Things can only get better", indeed).

John Gray is not a neoliberal but a pessimistic conservative who considers Corbyn's optimism to be pernicious. As such he categorises it under "the delusions of progress" arsing from Enlightenment thinking, in pointed contrast to Kellner. What they (and Pearce) share is an expectation of catastrophe. Gray at least has some credentials in this department because he was one of those who spotted the direction of travel in the 80s and 90s (notably in False Dawn): "Looking back, it becomes clear that Corbyn is one of the by-products of a project of marketisation, begun in Britain by Thatcher and continued during the era of New Labour, which has been pursued in different forms in many countries. Corbyn is one of the unintended consequences of this project and its recurrent crises ... the social disruption that goes with the spread of the market has actually produced a plethora of illiberal and fundamentalist movements." Despite the Spenglerian hell-in-a-handcart vibe, Gray does have some sensible things to say and is a notably better reader of postwar German history than Kellner: "Ordoliberals have in common with neoliberals a commitment to placing economic policy beyond the reach of democratic politics ... The effect of imposing this German ideology on the eurozone has been to cede popular legitimacy to radical new movements".

But Gray's tendency to view the world through the grim prism of Schopenhauer means that his writings often spiral off into gloomy hyperbole: "The ruling ideology on the bien-pensant left was a version of what George Orwell in 1945 called catastrophic gradualism – the theory that nothing can be achieved in politics without bloodshed, tyranny, lies and injustice; the only way to a better future is by sacrificing the current generation of human beings. This was never the predominant view in the Labour Party, but for many years something like it permeated the left intelligentsia". From this Gray proceeds to accuse "sections of the left" of association with "groups that harbour active terrorists, homophobes and Holocaust deniers". From there it is a short walk to the conclusion that "For the first time in its history, a serious question must be asked as to whether Labour can be trusted to promote civilised values". And you thought Corbyn was just being criticised for not singing God Save the Queen. For the record, Nelson Mandela was an active terrorist, many current Tories are homophobes, and Corbyn is not a Holocaust denier.

To cap it all, "In its shift towards becoming an extra-parliamentary party, Labour may already have ceased to be a party of government. By electing Corbyn, Labour may have passed a point from which it will be unable to return". If an "extra-parliamentary" Labour party (the "social movement" that Nick Pearce claims does not exist) is now unelectable, does that mean the progressive cause in 2020 will be taken up by the reinvigorated Liberal Democrats or a post-referendum UKIP? Labour will still be the only realistic challenger to the Tories in 5 years time, and the party's chances of success will depend largely on Tory errors and the popular mood, rather than doctrinal matters, which is why Corbyn & co are emphasising dull reliability and common decency now. The modest reality of "new old Labour" was revealed by the makeup of its economic advisory committee. Accepting that this is perhaps as much gestural as practical, the names are hardly radical: Stiglitz, Piketty, Pettifor, Nesvetailova, Wren-Lewis, Mazzucato, Blanchflower. These are mainstream, Keynesian economists who only look unorthodox if you believe that "expansionary fiscal contraction" is common sense.

A paradox of media bias is that the near invisibility of Corbyn and McDonnell over the years means that the average voter is currently open-minded about them. The crude caricatures about wanting to abolish the army aren't meant to convince so much as fill a void. More sophisticated attacks will emerge, once developing policy can be spun as internally-divisive, irresponsible or an attack on our hallowed liberties. For the moment, the hysteria of the "quality press" reflects the lack of a substantive basis for a critique, obliging them to fall back on ad hominem attacks and lurid predictions of doctrinal terror. For all the efforts of Kettle, Kellner and Pearce, Corbyn and McDonnell are doing a better job of reclaiming social democracy than the Blairite remnants; and for all the media shouts of "chaos", they have done more to challenge popular perceptions about the Labour Party in two weeks than Ed Miliband managed over 5 years.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Historical Piketty

The lasting significance of Thomas Piketty was recently proven when Morgan Stanley issued a research paper, co-authored by the economist Charles Goodhart, with the media-friendly quote: "Is Piketty history? We think so". This was predictably broadcast to an expectant world by the usual suspects, including the BBC where Duncan Weldon appears to have been fully assimilated by the neoliberal Borg. If 2014 saw a steady progression through the stages of the Kubler-Ross model - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - we have now arrived at the start of a new cycle in which Piketty is dismissed with the airy claim "It doesn't matter anyway, coz". Weldon sets the scene: "The last three decades have seen huge changes in the global economy. Three trends have dominated: falling interest rates, weak wage growth and rising inequality. Documenting the last of these trends made the French economist Thomas Piketty an unlikely best-seller. But might these trends be about to reverse? Is Piketty wrong to worry about rising inequality?"

The Morgan Stanley theory (outlined in the FT) is that demography - specifically a rising dependency ratio: the number of young and old relative to the working population - will lead to rising interest rates, strong wage growth and thus falling inequality. There are two parts to this. First, an ageing population is expected to lead to an unwinding of the global "savings glut" that developed on the back of the rapid expansion of the labour supply after 1990. This will serve to increase consumption relative to saving and thus drive up interest rates. Second, the fall in the working population relative to the total will bid up wages. This will further fuel inflation (because those wages will be spent), leading to further upward pressure on interest rates. The authors consider some mitigations in developed economies - that more old people will continue working, that immigration will expand the labour supply, and that fertility rates may pick up - but dismiss them as marginal at best.

This is a welcome message for many. Not only does it suggest we needn't worry about inequality, because it will right itself over time, but it also promises a return to healthy interest rates that will benefit both savers and bankers. Given that OAPs are assumed to be running down their savings in this new model, the term "savers" can be taken as a proxy for "the rich" - those with surplus income. As Morgan Stanley put it: "Piketty is history, not the ineluctable future. If these global demographic trends, as we argue below, drove inequality higher, then their reversal could lower inequality too. Labour had lost much of its power to command higher wages between 1980 and 2010. Now labour will become increasingly scarce. The labour share of income, having trended down in most DM [developed market] economies since 1970, is now likely to rebound." You'll notice that no distinction is made within the category of labour, such as between the top 1% of earners and the rest, which even some sympathetic observers have noted remains an issue, and one that the Frenchman explicitly addressed.

The pun is clearly deliberate. What is significant is not merely the suggestion that the Piketty storm has passed, but that history can be safely ignored - it is not a reliable guide to the future. This echoes the "marxisant" criticism of Piketty's claims last year, namely that rising inequality is no more inevitable than the tendential fall in the rate of profit proposed by Marx. Of course, this original critique and its current iteration both ignore the Frenchman's specific point that history does not show an inexorable, linear progression but an oscillation in the mid-twentieth century, which contradicted the assumption of Simon Kuznets. In Piketty's view - which was backed by solid historical data - rising inequality was a reversion to a historical norm that was potentially incompatible with democracy (this political dimension continues to be sidestepped by the right). The focus on the capital/labour share of income (i.e. wages) ignores Piketty's more fundamental point about the accumulation of capital over time due to the rate of return being higher than growth (r > g). Claiming that this is no longer relevant massively misses Piketty's point: patrimonial capital is a legacy of history that affects society today. We don't reset the wealth counters each morning.

I haven't read the Morgan Stanley paper (it doesn't appear to be online and I'm not going to buy it), so my understanding is based on selective quotations and second-hand synopses, but there is clearly a problem with their claim that an ageing population will lead to higher interest rates. Conventional wisdom suggests that too much saving (which increases with age) is deflationary, but a recent BIS (Bank of International Settlements) statistical study (quoted by the Morgan Stanley paper) suggests the opposite: "a larger share of dependents (ie young and old) is correlated with higher inflation, while a larger share of working age cohorts is correlated with lower inflation." The study authors suggest a possible explanation: "those cohorts which consume more goods and services than they produce (ie the dependents) could exert an inflationary pressure through excess demand while those who produce more than what they consume (ie the working age cohorts) could exert a disinflationary pressure through excess supply".

While this turns the standard theory on its head, the idea is not unreasonable; though it's worth noting in passing that it is at odds with the traditional claim that wage demands - particularly by young workers - drove inflation in the 60s and 70s. If the BIS study authors' supposition is true, this would suggest that high levels of underlying inflation (i.e. ignoring shocks like the 1973 oil crisis) were the product of the family, not of social factors such as trade unions, which would be an amusing historical irony. That said, my issue is not with the BIS study, which has plenty of caveats and calls for further research, but the way that it has been interpreted in the Morgan Stanley paper. Specifically, they have taken a study of 22 advanced economies (16 of them in Western Europe) and assumed that the observed correlation will hold good for developing nations as well. This ignores cultural and social differences between the West and the rest, and in particular the role of the welfare state.

It is reasonable to believe that the growth of state spending in advanced economies over the twentieth century redistributed money from workers to dependents - via health and social care, education and pensions - and that this in turn reduced precautionary saving and fuelled inflation (because more money was being spent), which combined to drive up interest rates. It is also reasonable to assume that globalisation (the increase in labour supply) put downward pressure on median wages at a time when political pressure to reduce state spending was also deflationary, thus leading to lower inflation and falling interest rates in the early-90s. The problem is that China is not the UK. Without similar mechanisms, we cannot necessarily expect the same dynamics. For example, without the creation of a Chinese NHS and the provision of decent state pensions (rather than reliance on family and limited private provision), an increase in the dependency ratio may encourage further precautionary saving as a percentage of GDP, not less.

A second issue with the Morgan Stanley paper is that while it makes great play of the anticipated fall in the working-age population as a percentage of the total, it has little to say about its compositional calibre. It is a mistake to think that labour is fungible - i.e. that anyone can do anyone else's job - and that a falling supply of brain surgeons will therefore drive up the wages of bin-men. The expansion of education in the developed world - which has run for 150 years and has been accelerating over the last 50, with little sign of letting up (e.g. we're now mandating education to 18 in the UK) - is being repeated in the developing world. This will rapidly increase the cohort of labour capable of cognitive work (graduate under-employment shows that this is already a reality in the West), so the downward pressure on wages may still persist even if robots don't make inroads into whitecollar roles as quickly as expected. Meanwhile, we can be confident that automation will continue to reduce the demand for manual labour (or force down wages as an alternative to capital/labour substitution), because that is a process that has been observable for decades now, despite the increase in the global labour supply.

The Morgan Stanley analysis is inadequate and popular for the same reason: it explains contemporary dilemmas away by appeal to a single factor, demography, which now appears to be heading in a benign direction (benign, that is, for bankers if not the NHS). This is the invisible hand at work: inequality will decline as the market reaches equilibrium; no state intervention is needed. The thesis is also attractive to those for whom generational conflict is a more palatable explanation for rising inequality than class conflict, and those reluctant to acknowledge that global imbalances in savings and investment reflect geography (and thus international politics) more than demography. The most striking feature of the analysis and the admiring media reception is the complete absence of any reference to the welfare state. It's not just that an "ageing population" is now being recast as the solution to some of our problems, but that the phrase - with all its negative connotations - has become divorced from the NHS for the first time in decades. History has been wiped clean.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Bore's Head

Even if the allegation is completely untrue, David Cameron will now forever more be known as a pig-fucker. This is partly because the other revelations in the unauthorised biography by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakshott are trivial, but mainly because the image of a decapitated porker coming into contact with the PM's pork sword is so powerful that it blinds us to the rest of the portrait. In Ashcroft's hands, Cameron comes across as casual, reluctant to think (which appears to be the criticism coming from the military), and louche, but probably no more than the average for his social "set". There is an inescapable air of middle-class moralising by the ex-grammar schoolboy about the privileged Old Etonian, which is why the serialisation was a good fit for the Daily Mail. There is no real story here, but there is an endless source of jokes and puns.

The pig's head has long been a rich symbol. As a hunted animal, the wild boar was admired for its willingness to fight, and also had associations in mythology with the underworld (all that rooting about), death and winter. The Boar's Head Feast, which lives on in the modern Christmas ham, is clearly a solstice celebration in which the cooked boar symbolises the death of the darkest season, though it's not entirely clear what the apple (or orange or lemon) in the mouth represents, if anything (it's surely just an unfortunate coincidence that it looks like a bondage ball-gag). The oldest extant English ceremony is found (coincidentally) at Queen's College, Oxford, which legend has it originated when a student, attacked by a wild boar, choked the animal by stuffing a volume of Aristotle down its throat. This obviously symbolises the triumph of learning over the feral, and thus the wider victory of civilisation over nature, but it also provides a pun on the traditional herbal accompaniment: he "fairly choked the savage with the sage".

As a representative of the dark side, the wild boar has often been seen as evil or possessed (e.g. the Gadarene swine), hence the common belief that pigs are unclean. Even where they are eaten and have been domesticated, they remain a metaphor for human uncouthness: the swinish multitude. In the modern era, the pig's head has become a threat of violence (easier to buy and manoeuvre than a severed horse's head), often deployed as a conscious act of pollution, hence its frequent appearance hurled at the doors of police stations, synagogues and mosques. Back in 1978, I saw Angelic Upstarts at Newcastle Poly kicking a fresh pig's head around the stage to accompany their debut single, The Murder of Liddle Towers. The song referred to a local hardnut who was found kicked to death after a night in the police cells. I even remember the chorus: "Who killed Liddle? The police killed Liddle; police killed Liddle Towers". Naturally, the police tried to nick them for this provocation.

Though a pig's head can be a tasty dish, and could therefore be considered a good thing, it still retains that unmistakable message of contempt even when cooked, hence the cochinillo, or suckling pig, that was famously thrown at Luis Figo when he returned to the Camp Nou as a Real Madrid player in 2002. The association of the pig's head and sport, or male-bonding more generally, is not accidental. It is a fairly common prop of rugby club night-outs and stag-dos, and occasionally to be found hidden as a surprise present in changing room lockers. Perhaps this carries an echo of the ancient hunt, from which most sports derive. Or perhaps the pig's head is just a handy piece of ickiness in a world where we rarely see the reality of factory-farming and meat production. A packet of Walls' sausages does not have quite the same impact.

Quite a few people have drawn a parallel between the Cameron tale and The Lord of the Flies, the eponymous boar's head and totem that symbolises innate human evil in the book by William Golding, but this too obviously seeks to emphasise the debauchery and amorality of a groups of unsupervised schoolboys. The Piers Gaveston Society, which dates from the early Thatcher years, was probably more influenced by Brideshead Revisited and the Cambridge Apostles (the sex and sarcasm more than the philosophising or spying). As was evident in the sociology of the Bullingdon Club, what matters is the sense of entitlement and the associated licence to display contempt towards outsiders and social inferiors; a heady brew for conformist teenagers. In this context, the choice of a pig's head does not appear to be particularly significant.

What would turn the merriment into full-blown disgust - and thereby prove the Piers Gaveston Society to be true provocateurs rather than poseurs, while simultaneously condemning Cameron down the ages - would be to discover that the ceremony was a sort of black-mass in which the initiate cursed and defiled an embodiment of the Empress of Blandings, the noble beast who appeared in no less than ten P G Wodehouse stories. Morrissey's call for the prime Minister to resign if the allegation is true could quickly become the defining social media campaign of our time. Jeremy Corbyn ought to ask a question in the House. It's surely what the nation wants.