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Tuesday, 29 January 2013

New Metropolitan Line

If you were building a high-speed railway out of London, you'd logically terminate it at the other end of the country, perhaps Newcastle (280 miles) or Edinburgh (405 miles). The point of higher speed is to shrink distance, to make the far near, and incidentally to encourage passengers to prefer rail over air travel. This is why the French TGV runs from Paris to Lyon (290 miles) and Marseilles (480 miles), and Japanese bullet trains from Tokyo to Osaka (320 miles) and beyond. Conventional trains currently do around 250 mph, so 300 miles looks like a logical benchmark, given likely future improvements in speed, for the first major stop on the line.

So why is HS2 being run to Birmingham, which is little over 100 miles from London? The suggestion that this will bring economic benefits to the West Midlands is piffle. 150 years ago railways were revolutionary because they allowed the faster movement of freight. The mainline to Birmingham allowed manufactured goods to be transported to markets in London and beyond more cheaply and quickly than the canals. Since the coming of modern roads and lorries, railways have largely been about passenger movement, which means that in economic terms their value is chiefly down to commuters. Occasional business travellers are no more significant in numbers than OAPs or tourists. The dominance of commuters means that the largest benefit of any line accrues to the larger destination, both through the increased centralisation of economic activity and by allowing employers to recruit from further afield. The key benefit to commuters is that they can take advantage of cheaper housing further out. The main benefit to the other end of the line is that more metropolitan wages are spent locally, so the real boost to the West Midlands economy will be in services and consumption (hairdressers and garden centres), not industrial regeneration.

The purpose of HS2 is to provide a shorter commute for people who work in London and wish to live in large(r) properties in Solihull. At present, and allowing for transfer time at either end, such a commute takes almost 2 hours. Post-HS2, it will drop to around 1 hour and 10 minutes, which puts it on a par with stops on the fringes of the Underground, such as Amersham. We're expanding the commuter belt further into the hinterland, not linking up previously isolated regions. The announcement of the clumsily-named phase 2 of HS2, which will extend the line to Manchester and Leeds, should be taken with a pinch of salt. I doubt these lines will ever be built because they won't be sufficiently attractive to London commuters, even if George Osborne wangles a station in his Tatton constituency. The unreality of the claims that this will benefit the North can be seen in the anticipated change in journey times. Newcastle will now be just over 2 hours away from London, which happens to be the current journey time to Liverpool. So all the prosperity Merseyside has enjoyed over the last 30 years will now be extended to the North East.

If we were serious about a high-speed rail link to the North, we'd use the existing M1 transport corridor (and the A1 corridor north of Leeds). This would not only be more direct, it would have less of an impact on the environment and existing housing, obviate the need for extensive (and expensive) tunnelling, and allow for greater use of Luton Airport to serve London, conceivably avoiding the need for a third runway at Heathrow. The only downside is that it wouldn't be as attractive to London commuters as a line through the Chilterns to the Forest of Arden. There aren't that many who would welcome a 1 hour commute just so they could live on Tyneside.

Our romantic obsession with railways, and the thrilling idea of high-speed travel, blinds us to the reality that trains are essentially commuter transport systems. The strategic investment in high-speed trains to bind a country together, as in Japan and France, should not distract from the fact that such networks ultimately serve the metropolis. Paris and Tokyo are dominant capital cities because of high-speed trains, not in spite of them. To believe that such a network in the UK will move economic activity out of the capital and into the regions is naive. HS2 phase 1 at least has the virtue that it makes this reality plain for all to see. They should just have renamed it the New Metropolitan line and had done with it.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Subversive Black Camp

I've just seen Django Unchained and it's a hoot, combining comedy and terror, like a Jacobean tragedy directed by Mel Brooks. In the opening scene, a slave trader is left pinned beneath his horse after the latter is shot through the head, echoing the scene in Blazing Saddles when Mongo punches a horse unconscious. The scene ends when the freed slaves take a shotgun and blast the trader's head off, producing a blood-filled waterbomb effect that you know will be a recurring motif. At the film's end, the first credit assures us that no horses were injured in the making of it. I laughed like a drain.

Superficially the film is a comedy of manners. The precise diction of Christoph Walz's German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz, is contrasted with the ornate speechifying of the slave owners. Despite being German, Schulz is clearly a representative of the North. His liberal values, including an aversion to slavery, do not detract from his hard-headed capitalism: he kills men for money. Calvin Candie (the owner of the Candieland plantation, played by Leonardo Di Caprio) represents not just the South, but a bad capitalist. He is unworthy of his prudent forename. He destroys his wealth by killing his slaves through staged fights and vicious punishment. He is waste personified, an Ancien Regime fop, yet his pretensions to French culture only serve to highlight his incompetence (he is unaware that Alexandre Dumas was part black). The other featured plantation owner, Don Johnson's Big Daddy, is a hypocrite motivated by money. A whited sepulchre in his linen (Miami Vice-style) suit.

Manners were central to the ideology of the Old South, not to mention the post-bellum zombie of the Lost Cause, expressed through the notions of hospitality and gentility and the sexually-fraught idolisation of women. This suited both apologists for slavery and their opponents. The apologists could point to the gulf between white and black cultures as evidence that the races were irreconcilable, much as Candie uses phrenology in his attempt to prove the negro's innate servility. The opponents could point to hyper-sensibility and psychotic decorum as a metaphor for denial and the corruption within, much as the superficially pretty Candie's stained teeth hint at halitosis and perhaps worse (syphilis can ruin your teeth, and Candie is clearly a regular user of bed-slaves). He repeatedly kisses his sister, who is obliged to wear the perma-smile of the southern belle, one time full on the lips. Di Caprio's turn is so good you can almost smell him.

The film's central plot device is the location and exploitation of commodities, both criminal bounties (though historically this is a post-Civil War business) and slaves (tracking escaped slaves, as well as trading them, is shown as central to the economy of the South). Tarantino's films are full of commodities, themselves made hyper-real either as mysterious McGuffins (the suitcase in Pulp Fiction), improbable props (the meerschaum pipe in Inglorious Basterds), or by the use of his own invented brands, like the Big Kahuna Burger. This is a postmodern take on alienation in which an obsessive interest in the commodity ("a Royale with cheese") represents anxiety and usually heralds violence. Weapons are often personalised craft objects, hence the reverence for the Japanese katana sword in Kill Bill and oddities like the baseball bat in Inglorious Basterds. In Django Unchained, a spring-loaded hidden hand pistol features prominently, while the titular hero naturally does the classic learning how to shoot with bottles routine, but this time inserted into an obliging snowman.

Tarantino's films rely heavily on distancing devices: comic book violence, heightened language and discursive dialogue, anachronism, non-linear narrative, improbable coincidence, an ironic soundtrack and blatant invention (Hitler's been burnt to a crisp!). All stress the artificiality of what you're seeing. The influence of Brecht, via Godard and the French New Wave, is obvious (as it is in Blazing Saddles' hilarious breaking of the fourth wall), but the needs of modern PR mean that popular criticism generally struggles to get beyond the n-word-count and the precise volume of fake blood. The criticism from Spike Lee and others is that the film trivialises the historic black experience of slavery. Some even see Django, played by Jamie Foxx, as a reductive symbol of black violence, Shaft avant la lettre (Django's wife's name is, of course, Broomhilda Von Shaft - pure nominative determinism). This ignores two salient features, one of the film and one of Tarantino's work more generally.

The people most caricatured in Django Unchained are the poor whites. If language and verbal felicity is a badge of virtue in Tarantino's films, their inarticulacy is a massive flaw. From the slave traders who don't like fancy talk ("speak English" they demand of Schultz when his greater vocabulary confounds them) to the incomprehensible trackers (one of whom sounds like the Gimp out of Pulp Fiction), this is a depiction of idiot rednecks common from Tobacco Road through Who Kills a Mockingbird to Deliverance. Even the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company employees, who are a step or two up from white trash, display their stupidity through a confusion of accents (Tarantino's, in his obligatory cameo, shifts unsteadily between Aussie, South African and Cockney. His decision to drop acting and take up screenwriting/directing has been a win-win).

Tarantino's themes are invariably betrayal and vengeance: the hunt for the traitor in Reservoir Dogs, the double-cross of Jackie Brown, the wronged woman (who just happens to be an assassin) in Kill Bill, the Jewish death squad exterminating Nazis in Inglorious BasterdsDjango Unchained is explicitly about financial transactions for people, both dead (bounties) and alive (slaves), and its dramatic centrepiece is a negotiation that is actually a betrayal, which in turn triggers the final cycle of vengeance. Schultz and Django attempt to con Candie into cheaply selling Broomhilda, Django's wife, as a side deal while negotiating a too-high price for a fighting slave, a deal they have no intention of following through on. Stephen, the malevolent black major domo, spots the sting and briefs his master in a scene that shows their true power relationship. They meet in the library (normally barred to slaves), where Stephen sits in a chair cupping a brandy he's helped himself to, for all the world like the chairman of the board explaining the ways of the world to a naive executive. Candie has his revenge, using the simple threat of asset destruction - killing Broomhilda - to persuade Schultz and Django to pay the excessive price for Broomhilda alone. His insistence on Southern manners, a handshake to seal the deal, which is an attempt to rub Schultz's nose in the dirt, directly leads to his own death. The last example of his incompetence.

Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen is the pivot of the film. His intervention sets in train the destruction of Candieland. The facial prosthetics give him the look of a blank, terrifying African mask. He isn't an Uncle Tom so much as a criminal overlord - a point made clear in the library scene's debt to The Godfather, itself an influence on blaxploitation films of the mid-70s. He is introduced to us in a scene where he questions the propriety of Django riding a horse. This was obviously a no-no at the time, even for a freed slave, because it meant a black man being physically superior to a standing white man. In the negotiation scene, where the white characters are seated at the dinner table, the rules are inverted. The standing of the black servants signals their subservience, while Stephen modifies his position by leaning in on Candie, both eminence grise and Greek chorus (faithfully repeating his master's words and commenting on the action). When Django is later trussed and hanging upside down, saved at the last moment from being castrated (a parallel in some ways with the infamous ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs), Stephen sits down so that their heads are nearly level, the better to tell Django that his fate will not be a quick death but the slow torture of being worked to death by the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company. Stephen explains that this is his idea, the whites being too stupid to think of anything beyond a lynching or a maiming. Stephen is a connoisseur, and not just of brandy.

The Renaissance literary critic Jonathan Dollimore, writing of Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy, a key work of Jacobean theatre, asserts the play is best understood as “subversive black camp” insofar as it “celebrates the artificial and the delinquent; it delights in a play full of innuendo, perversity and subversion ... through parody it declares itself radically skeptical of ideological policing though not independent of the social reality which such skepticism simultaneously discloses". The use of the adjective "black" here is obviously different, but it remains a summary that would apply just as well to Django Unchained. And as for camp, you just need to see Django at the end of the film, following the mass bloodletting among the classical architecture of Candieland (echoing Greek as well as Jacobean  tragedy). Dressed in his newly-looted burgundy duds, with dark glasses and cheroot, looking for all the world like AndrĂ© 3000 on a night out, he playfully puts his horse through some dressage steps (perhaps a sly dig at Mitt Romney).

Where Django Unchained ultimately reconnects with Blazing Saddles (with which it also shares a love of deliberate anachronism, absurd names and fatal shots to the groin) is that tragedy is avoided by a tacked-on and frankly incredible happy ending. Like most westerns there is death, and many people are sacrificed along the way, but American optimism survives European cynicism and the hero and his true love ride off toward the far horizon and a better tomorrow. Blazing Saddles was a bit gayer, not to mention mixed-race, but that's progress for you.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Others Must Fail

That Millwall have brought forward their FA Cup tie against Aston Villa from Saturday to tonight, to avoid a clash with tomorrow's planned march and demo against the closure of the A&E unit at Lewisham hospital, is no surprise. The club have long made a virtue of their community links, while protests against hospital consolidations have long since supplanted protests against pit and steel mill closures in the repertoire of public solidarity. But there is a lesson here, in the zero-sum nature of a football match, that illuminates the current issues around not just hospitals but public services generally.

The physical organisation of the NHS has always reflected the ideology of the time and thus had a wider political resonance. The 1948 design was a triumph of the central planning that had proven effective during the war, but it remained an essentially liberal scheme in its focus on patching up current workers and improving the quality of future workers (i.e. children). In other words, the NHS was seen as an investment in labour, hence the relatively low priority afforded to geriatric and chronic care. This led to inevitable tension as the public pressed for services to be extended to areas of health lacking an obvious return on investment, hence the compromises over charges for dentures, spectacles and prescriptions (while a failure to take your medicine might aggravate an illness and result in lost work days, a prescription is by definition issued to the walking wounded). The centrality of the general hospital partly reflected the contemporary industrial paradigm of the massive industrial "works", surrounded by the "light engineering" of cottage hospitals, and partly the inadequacy of GPs and primary health care facilities (with a few exceptions, such as the Peckham experiment).

The district general hospital model reached its peak in the early 1960s, coincident with the waning of the associated industrial paradigm. Thereafter, it came under increasing pressure due to the closure of mental health institutions, the increase in treatment costs (due to advances in medical technology), and the growth in demand for geriatric care as the population started to age. Successive governments have committed to a reformed structure that combines better primary care (larger GP practices and neighbourhood clinics) and greater specialisation, which means more concentration of A&E, maternity and acute services, and fewer district general hospitals. This has largely been supported by doctors and consultants, for whom specialist units entail greater professional status and better working conditions. The isolation of service elements into specialist units also facilitates privatisation, in terms of economies of scale, de facto monopolisation, and a simpler interface to commissioning and referral bodies, but it would be wrong to think that this has been the main driver. General hospitals made sense in a society centred on an industrial proletariat. A more fragmented and subtle model is inevitable in a more fragmented and subtle economy.

Economics are at the heart of the health industry, but public discourse tends towards an interpretation seen through the emotional prism of "care". Thus closing a local hospital ward or A&E unit is seen as evidence that administrators care more about costs than patients, while personal horror stories focus on uncaring nurses and the resulting squalor or preventable accidents. An example of this reluctance to discuss health beyond the vocabulary of care is the current state of antibiotics. Research and development have been underfunded for years now, largely because Big Pharma realises it can make more money out of palliative products, such as cancer drugs (maintenance is more profitable than cure as it guarantees a future revenue stream). When the inevitable antibiotic crisis arrives, the price of a solution will go up and resources will then be shifted to take advantage, but too late for many. It is easy to point to this as proof that central planning can do a better job than a free market, however another way to look at it is as the conscious engineering of a failure that in turn creates opportunities for new profit.

Failure is central to capitalism. The more the destruction, the more the creativity. However, this does not lead to an overall raising of standards, but to their stretching. The very good co-exists with the very bad. In other words, greater inequality. A good example of this is the recent fuss over horse meat in burgers. The real point is not adulteration, i.e. swindling by unscrupulous manufacturers, but that economic necessity obliges many to eat crap (but cheap) food. Naturally, some will attempt to shift the blame onto the poor themselves, to cite personal agency and choice, but this simply ignores the question: why is there a market for food so cheap it obviously cannot be healthy?

There is a parallel example of this in education, where the government seems determined to categorise more schools as failing. Some will interpret this as a tactic to justify imposing academy status and Whitehall control, but I think this is strategic and about the insistence that a marketised service must exhibit one of the chief features of a true market, namely a variety in quality between the options, even if this is often artificial (the investment of modern schools in branding and ethos is telling). Where price has yet to intervene, parents require visible signals to enable meaningful choice, hence the primacy of league tables and the Ofsted inspection regime. Nick Clegg on LBC this week admitted that he may send his son to a private school rather than one of the state schools in Putney. The ideological sleight-of-hand here is to treat state and private as part of a single market, a common set of options, despite the absence of a level playing field between providers and the inaccessibility of choice for most parents (i.e. the unaffordability of private education and the fact that "good" state schools bias towards middle class entry). The point is that "failing" state schools are the necessary justification for choosing the private sector. "I just want the best for my child", says Westminster School alumnus Clegg. Without the excuse of failure, the choice of a private school looks more like naked self-interest.

As with schools, so with hospitals. The persistent theme of public services since the 1980s has been one of relative failure. Failure is the corollary of choice. This contrasts with the theme from the 1950s through the 1970s, which was the perils of uniformity, symbolised by Hattie Jacques's hectoring matron as a sort of hospital sergeant-major. This is why the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is happy to paint a bleak picture of poor care across many NHS hospitals, to the point of talking about a "normalisation of cruelty". Such language is absurd, but it suits his purpose which is to advance privatisation: the failures of the NHS have obliged me to take action. As Gore Vidal said: "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail". That is the romance of cup football: there must be a winner, and there must be a loser.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Outlaw Captain Wales

The British papers today were predictably dominated by the news that Prince Hal has killed for his country, though I don't imagine this involved hand-to-hand combat. As a fully-paid-up hearty, I suspect he fancies himself as a cross between Jason Bourne and Jonny Wilkinson (with killer thumbs, honed by Xbox), but as was made plain by the previous decision not to allow him anywhere near Iraq, the consequences of him being killed or captured by an enemy are simply too great to allow him to be put in any real danger. It's also safe to assume that for all the banter about "my guys", the average grunt sees him as a bomb magnet and would be keen to keep their distance. Of course, the guys he is actually spending most of his time with are the royal protection squad, not other helicopter crew members. Given the prevalence of suicide attacks by renegade Afghan soldiers and police, you can bet he's not been anywhere near the locals either. Afghanistan has probably been no more dangerous than a Scottish grouse moor in August.

The happy coincidence of the prince being scrambled midway through a TV interview, with press photographers handily placed to snap him sprinting towards his helicopter, does not appear to have prompted any scepticism (why would you schedule an interview while on standby, i.e. in the middle of a work shift, when you could do it off-shift?) The coincidence of the release of the upbeat interview and the downbeat announcement of more defence cuts seems to have been ignored as well. It should be obvious that the event was as stage-managed and artificial as the entire "tour of duty". That last phrase pretty well sums up the propaganda purpose. The prince is there to boost morale and to provide justification for the folks back home, though the "sell" doesn't rise above the traditional appeal to team loyalty: "If there's people trying to do bad stuff to our guys, then we'll take them out of the game, I suppose ... Take a life to save a life". That last comment opens up questions about the equivalence of different lives, though no journalist appears keen to engage the prince in moral debate.

The media have generally trod carefully. This is understandable, not just in terms of the rules of the embedded game, which have been well-established since the first Iraq war, but in light of Leveson and the prince's own what-happens-in-Vegas moment (he amusingly says "I probably let myself down, I let my family down, I let other people down", as if he were repeating the classic headmaster's dressing down after the rugger team's antics got out of hand). There is probably also some residual guilt at work here, though not much, based on the media's contribution to the death of his mother. The salutary truth is that royals are more at risk of dying through the attentions of the press and their subcontractors than they are at the hands of the Taliban.

In decoding this spectacle, the real importance, I think, is the nature of the military role and hardware that has been allotted to the prince. From the Glorious Revolution to the Victorian era, the royals typically served (nominally) in the socially elite regiments of the army. Starting with the future George V, the younger royals took commissions in the navy, which reflected the strategic importance of that service during the peak years of empire and the Dreadnought arms race with Germany before WW1. The Royal Navy continued to be the service of choice during the 20th century, influenced by Prince Philip, who saw real action before joining the family firm, though the post-WW2 shift to air power was reflected in the hybrid "careers" of both Charles and Andrew, both of whom ended up flying helicopters. Ships were also ideal propaganda vehicles in the era of total war, the microcosm of society thrown together in common purpose of In Which We Serve and The Cruel Sea.

Helicopters are the ideal setting for a modern royal. You can indulge your Apocalypse Now and Top Gun fantasies (those aviator shades), while also implying your job is mainly search and rescue missions, even selfless civilian support. Helicopters are fluffier than jet fighters and bombers, which tend to deliver death-from-above more bluntly. Royals don't get the latest and greatest hardware, because that tends to be more obviously about killing people efficiently. Thus Harry isn't going to remotely fly drones from an airfield in East Anglia any more than Charles or Andrew got to serve on nuclear submarines. The ideological purpose of the royal as warrior is both to link the interest of the nation with the pursuit of war, in an era when wars are politically calculated interventions rather than the necessary defence of the realm, and to justify the pretensions of the royal family to be servants of the nation, willing to sacrifice life and limb in return for nothing but glory and a place on the Civil List.

The irony is that Captain Wales's kinda-sorta admission that he's killed Talibani is rather infra dig as far as the Royals in uniform charade goes. You're not meant to draw attention to the fact that the key job responsibility of a soldier is killing people. You get the whiff of man-child bravado and perhaps a desire to be considered the edgier royal, the rogue operator. For all his claims to the contrary, I suspect he is pleased about Vegas, which sealed his reputation among his peers as a "top bloke". There's clearly a desire to not look like a wuss in manly company, hence the guff about adrenaline and the visible contempt for the (civilian) hacks, but there's also the suspicion that he struggles to distinguish between shooting at the natives below and zapping the bad guys on screen ("The game's afoot", as an earlier Prince Hal said). Given the need to both humour him and keep him out of harm's way, it may be that the damage he has done has been slighter than he'd care to admit, though you can forgive him for assuming more when every fusillade from his gunship is probably met with "Good shot, sir".

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Magic Mountain

The World Economic Forum at Davos, which starts this week, is probably best thought of as an "exercise in corporate speed-dating", but its delusions of significance mean that it is routinely used as an emblem of the global order both by participants and critics. The choice of Davos in Switzerland, the basis for the fictional location of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, feeds this idea of omniscient Olympians above the fray. In Mann's novel, the contrast is between the high idealism of the nineteenth century and the imminent barbarism of World War One in the flatlands below. The irony is that these bourgeois mountaineers are consumptives in a sanatorium, not masters of the universe. The sickness is everywhere.

In today's Observer, Will Hutton fingers Davos man as a symbol of the widening inequality of the neoliberal era. He quotes an IMF working paper that shows how widening inequality and financial liberalisation have led to increased current account deficits (more imports than exports), as workers buying power in the West has been propped up by debt, ultimately funded by surpluses in developing nations such as China. The paper proposes corrective measures that include more progressive income tax (i.e. higher rates for the rich) and taxes on rents (i.e. land, natural resources and financial investments), but Hutton focuses on their vaguer nostrums around increasing the bargaining power of labour. This is not to say that he has suddenly become an advocate for stronger trades unions. He quickly resorts to the old carthorse stereotype, noting their "stupidity" in resisting co-determination (workers on company boards) in the 1970s (the report of the Bullock Committee). "We need wage bargainers with more clout, but ones who behave rationally – pushing for more when it is genuinely there, but cutting deals and giving ground when the firms they work for have their backs to the wall." In effect, he continues to advocate the ordoliberal model of Germany.

Hutton also ignores the caveat of the IMF team, who correctly note the difficulty of strengthening unions due to international competition. In other words, globalisation and the dismantling of capital controls means that capital operates increasingly at a supra-national level while unions are obliged to continue operating at a national level. One of the chief reasons why unions rejected board membership in the 1970s was that this would undermine free collective bargaining, i.e. unions negotiating a common deal with employers across an entire industry. In other words, unions were reluctant to move from exercising power at a national level to a company level. It should be obvious that such a move, at a time when capital was about to spread its wings, would have severely restricted the bargaining power of unions. To call this "stupid" is to see the 70s through the prism of old prejudices.

Co-determination, despite the advocacy of liberals like Hutton, does not lead to less inequality and greater union bargaining power. The workers of Germany have seen their wages stagnate due to the same global forces that have affected other developed economies. Their system gives workers representation on a supervisory board that has a majority of shareholders. This board then elects the management board, which actually runs the business. Having members on a supervisory board has probably helped preserve jobs and avoid strikes, but it has not prevented the growth of low-paid and part-time jobs, in no small part because the law only applies to companies with more than 2000 employees (there's a lesser version for companies with over 500). It's worth remembering that the industrialists on the Bullock Committee put forward a minority proposal advocating this same two-board model, though even that was rejected by the CBI.

There are those who believe that Davos man has had his day, and that a combination of 9-11 and the crash of 2008 has sounded the death-knell for "libertarian globalisation". One of the ideological triumphs of neoliberliasm has been its ability to yoke those two words together in what should be an unstable mix. The change over the last decade has actually been the migration of the libertarian ideal from big to small capital, from a focus on deregulation and the primacy of shareholder value to protectionism and a distaste for government. Culturally, it has shifted from the positive and revolutionary to the negative and reactionary. The libertarian idea was basically co-opted by big capital (i.e. Davos man in his day job) in the 70s, on the back of the intellectual spadework of the neoclassical economists and postwar liberal philosophers, who helped shift the concept from the left of the political spectrum (where it peaked in the 60s) to the right, without losing its progressive tone.

Libertarianism has served its purpose. Davos man now adopts more traditional and conservative colours: from the sound money of austerity to the new discretion over personal wealth. The theme of this year's conference is resilient dynamism. This might sound like management drivel, or perhaps a nod to the bleedin-obvious concept of antifragility being pushed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (in some ways an archetypal Davos man), but the important ideological freight is the idea of preservation incorporated in resilience allied to the promise of a return to the ceaseless progress contained in dynamism. Davos man does not think the party is over, just having a break in the chillout room.

Samuel Huntington, who coined the phrase "Davos man", said that they "have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that are thankfully vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations." The point is that they see government as a tool, a means to an end, not as the intrinsic evil of Tea Party fantasy. They have an instrumental view of the nation state, unpolluted by sentimental loyalty. Davos man wants government to adopt a hands-off approach to international trade, capital flows and the financial sector, but he remains a strong supporter of the nation state as the fundamental boundary of public life. After all, if everything operates at a national level and only big capital operates at a global level, it's not hard to see where the advantage lies.

It is for this reason that Will Hutton is naive, though he is in good company. The historical period of globalisation has been littered with predictions of the demise of the nation state, while the post-2008 period has been notable for predictions of its resurgence at the expense of globalisation (the current EU debate in the UK includes elements of this). In reality, globalisation is utterly dependent on the existence of the nation state. Globalisation is an elite network, much as the treaties of nation states were agreements between elites, but those elites are in government as well as in business (and there's a revolving door between the two). Horses for courses: plead "global realities" to challenge national opponents, and "national sovereignty" to challenge global opponents.

Globalisation will not be undone, despite the doom-mongering about rising protectionism and xenophobia, simply because it has already gone too far. The bargaining power of labour cannot be restored to the levels it enjoyed in the 1970s short of the creation of global trades unions, and that isn't going to happen until wages in Manchester are on a par with Mumbai. Hutton's advocacy of co-determination is an argument for greater collaboration between labour and capital, but without a shred of evidence that this will lessen inequality.

One Year Later

It's just over a year since I started this blog, so now is an obvious time to see how it's developed. I didn't set out to achieve a particular goal, so there is no measure of success to refer to, but the passage of time does allow for a then-and-now contrast.

The most obvious visual difference is that the posts, and incidentally the paragraphs, have got longer. I think when I started I was subconsciously worried about boring the reader and consequently aimed for Hemingwayesque brevity. Over the months, I've eased up and allowed my thoughts to develop their own momentum, which has meant more subordinate clauses and discursive paragraphs (and parentheses). Related to this (I think), the frequency has dropped slightly, from around 17 posts a month to around 10 now. I'm conscious that I've settled into the assumption that every 3 days is about right for a new post, so I suspect it will stay around that level.

The most frequently used tags have been politics (91) and economics (65). History and spectacle are in the 30s, while Arsenal, technology and film & TV are in the 20s. Books and London make the teens, while music and SF are still in single figures. From arse to elbow can therefore been seen as the description of a normal distribution, with power and money at the peak of the topical curve.

There have been 9,675 pageviews to date (which excludes my own activity), so I should breast the 10k tape sometime in the next few weeks. It's hardly earth-shattering, but it's a milestone nonetheless. The top five countries of origin are:

United Kingdom   5050
United States1869
Russia639
Germany165
France135

I'm guessing here, but I suspect the Russians are mainly bots, though there might be a few Lermontov fans. The current rule of thumb is that around half of all Web traffic is non-human, though this average hides a wide variation across sites. Popular sites tend to attract a disproportionate amount of bot traffic for three reasons: bots follow links (and inbound links are the primary measure of popularity); spam comments target popular sites, for obvious reasons; and scrapers (those that nick content) focus on high-activity sites where the content regularly changes. Personal blog sites tend to attract fewer bots, so I suspect "real" pageviews are around the 6 to 7k mark.

The main referrers are, unsurprisingly, Google (searches for "fromarsetoelbow"), Typepad (where I have a profile so comments by me on other sites link back here), and Twitter (t.co link shorteners - these are tweets by others - I don't have an account). I've also had a fair few links via Boffy's Blog (which kindly includes me in its blog feed), which means I've been categorised as a Marxist Northern Soul fan by association. The top Google search keywords are variations on arse and elbow, though I'm also popular when it comes to Mordor, David Graeber and abusive sex (I confess the last was a bit of a conscious experiment).

Windows is the dominant operating system (72%), with Internet Explorer the most popular browser at 38%, ahead of Firefox on 28% and Chrome and Safari each on 12%. Mobile (phones and tablets) makes up about 12% of pageviews. I infer from this data that most of my readers are probably at work and that I am a welcome distraction (yeah, stick it to the man!)

There have been 72 genuine comments and 5 spam. With 167 posts to date, this means an average of 0.43 comments per post. That might appear to indicate that I'm largely talking to myself, but I like to think that it reflects the unimprovability of my arguments. Looking on the bright side, I don't have to worry about trolls.

I've found the Blogger software to be pretty decent overall. Injecting custom site code is a bit of a fiddle, but manageable. The post editor lets you toggle between WYSIWYG and HTML, though it does tend to auto-mangle the latter on occasions. The stats could do with a time-of-day historical breakdown (it only shows today at this granularity), and also a breakdown of referrers by post. The spellchecker is mad. It doesn't recognise "blog" and insists "practice" must be "practise".

I'll stop now. This post is getting worryingly long.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Bob the Code-Builder

The story of the US programmer ("Bob") who outsourced his own job to a Chinese firm, so he could spend his day on social media, sounds too good to be true, so it probably isn't. Like all urban myths it depends on plausibility rather than probability. That the story originates with a company selling network security services, and that the embellishments are barely credible (such as the claim that he was simultaneously running the same scam at multiple companies and that he kept copies of the Chinese firm's invoices on his work computer), should be enough to prompt scepticism. The popularity of the story reflects our collective delight at the inversion of the natural order and the undertone of revenge (the script treatment brewing in Hollywood as we speak is probably entitled "Outsource this, sucka!")

Some commentators have treated the tale as a species of worker resistance, like the passivity of Bartleby the Scrivener, but this misses the crucial point that Bob was actually exceeding his employers expectations, apparently producing the best work in the building. As any programmer knows, outsourced code is usually riddled with errors due to a lack of tacit knowledge. Unless Bob was spending more of his time on quality assurance (i.e. reviewing and correcting the code) than watching cat videos, it's hard to see how such high quality could have been achieved (this obviously opens up the fairytale narrative of a coding genius somewhere in China who will now be plucked from obscurity and given a job at the Googleplex).


The ideological significance of the story concerns our assumption that Bob is not free to dispose of his labour. The firm can choose to outsource his job, so making Bob redundant, but he cannot unilaterally decide to sub-contract the work. This might appear natural in the case of a permanent employee, but in practice many programmers are contractors (the claim that Bob has a "relatively long tenure with the company" is statistically improbable in an industry where even perm jobs average only 2 to 3 years).

One of the distinguishing characteristics of a contractor, as distinct from a temporary worker subject to payroll taxes, is the principle of substitutability. A service provider is meant to be able to replace a specific worker, should they become unavailable due to illness or be rejected due to incompetence, in order to fulfil the contract. In reality, the service provider is a personal services company (PSC) with only one employee, so the substitute is provided by the staffing agency (it's a three-party contract) by means of another PSC. This fiction allows the worker to avail themselves of the tax advantages of a corporate entity, while the hiring company can avoid deemed employment liabilities (i.e. the rights of employees to paid holidays, parental leave and redundancy pay).

The privileging of business over workers, which includes the hybrid case of skilled workers acquiring the advantages of a business, is at the heart of the Tories' current difficulty over Europe. The fundamental split is between big capital and small capital, and their different strategies for growing business profits. Big capital is the champion of globalisation and the regulatory harmonisation that facilitates it. Small capital preaches free trade but is instinctively protectionist. It's the same division that underpinned the struggle over the Corn Laws, tariff reform and imperial preference. The emergence of UKIP, as small capital "ultras", is indicative of the current dominance of small capital within the Conservative party's ranks. The priority given by the party leadership to protecting the interests of the City of London indicates that big capital remains in charge.

The recent manifesto by the Fresh Start group of Tory MPs is typical of the compromise view: renegotiation rather than exit, combining a veto on financial services legislation and repatriation of powers over employment legislation. The latter is the key small capital demand. Small capital seeks to grow profit through wage repression, protection and rent-seeking. Dismantling employee rights, along with health and safety obligations, reduces costs and eases pressure on low-productivity businesses. Big capital seeks to grow profit through automation and more efficient supply chains (outsourcing and globalisation). It is more interested in the benefits of harmonisation and increased productivity, and knows it can offset higher social costs through tax avoidance.

The parable of Bob the code-builder is amusing because it shows a small capitalist hoodwinking a big capitalist by using the latter's techniques. Of course, Bob's initiative in becoming a small capitalist breaks an unwritten rule, which leads to his downfall. You cannot unilaterally transform yourself into a service provider. Economically an employee may be a type of commodity, but socially an employee is a type of serf. On that capital big and small agree.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

High Street Not Dead, Just Resting

The failure of HMV has produced a wave of nostalgia about 7-inch singles and given another airing to the lament for the death of the high street. Even those who celebrate the creative destruction of capitalism can't help confusing administration with the loss of life. The personification of the high street, and the search for its killers, has been a persistent trope for some years now. We mourn the passing of a shop like that of an aged relative (an incontinent and senile relative, in the case of Woolworths). We individualise it, focusing on a specific branch, even though what we are often mourning is the end of a corporate chain, a form of shop that we simultaneously criticise as soulless when it elbows out independents. Recent TV series, such as The Paradise and Mr. Selfridge, have allowed us to combine nostalgia for pre-chain shops of character (i.e. exclusive and not open to the hoi-polloi) with the modern sentiment of shops as mini-communities with an identity and culture of their own (more Championship Vinyl than Grace Brothers).

Over the last 50 years, shops gradually became the locus of sentimental community as the older sites of communal action were emptied or undermined. Before the 1960s, when music and clothes shops became "counter-cultural", department stores were where you went to escape your community - to be exposed to possibilities beyond your immediate horizon. The hollowing-out of places of community applied to both traditional and hierarchical forms, such as churches and pubs (the class distinction between lounge and public bars), as well as autonomous and progressive forms, such as public libraries and social clubs. While these still live on, social interaction has been relegated as cash transactions have come to the fore. The primary activity of pubs used to be talking, not drinking. The introduction of juke-boxes, one-armed bandits and then food all served to make talk secondary to spending money. It is no coincidence that beer became stronger over the last 50 years, with lagers displacing bitter and mild, as higher alcohol stimulates impulse buying. Ironically, some brewers are now watering down their beer as austerity (and nostalgia for "authentic" ales) pushes people back to lower strength and cheaper drinks.

Proposals to save the high street are uniformly nostalgic, unrealistic and patronising. They tend to advocate either niche (i.e. expensive, middle-class) vendors, retail as a (middle-class) leisure experience (arthouse cinemas and authentic coffee shops), or the introduction of social functions such as health centres (nostalgia for the golden age of the welfare state). Wayne Hemmingway wants empty shops given over to quirky startups, as if everywhere could become Camden Market, while Richard Sennett and others want vibrant mixed-use high streets with creches, day-care centres and pop-up art galleries. No one is pushing for fast food outlets or bookies, or welcoming the growth in charity shops. Apart from the obvious class bias, these "free enterprise" and "pro-social" positions also share a common view of the high street as a good in itself, as if its preservation was to be welcomed by any means. The village green preservation society has given way to the high street taskforce.

This ignores the reality of what a high street is. It's a concentration of shops, and shops are just a concentration of products. The high street exists simply because it was the most efficient means of bringing buyers and goods together, much as market squares were the most efficient means in an earlier era when all goods were either perishable or had to be easily transportable at the end of each day. The high street is the result of the introduction of canning and railways in the 19th century, which made bulk purchasing by retailers attractive and necessitated on-site storage. Its modern incarnation is the result of widespread car ownership and the shift of bulk purchases to out-of-town retail parks and supermarkets. Its current transformation is the result of the Internet and the commodity deflation brought about by globalisation (which further advantaged superstores and home delivery). The high street will become more dispersed and more fragmented, because there is still convenience in a physical store but less desire to travel distance to reach it. The high street will cease to be a feature of the town or borough and become a feature of the neighbourhood. The replacement of main street with multiple suburban malls and convenience stores is well-advanced in the US and elsewhere. Britain will be no different.

The nostalgia for older forms of shopping focuses on incidental detail, the resonant smells and eccentric assistants, and ignores this base reality. Despite the foregrounding of the "retail experience", and the propaganda of luxurious cornucopia, shops were just stores. Literally places to store goods. Supermarkets, for all their air of modernity, replicate the form and organisation of the factory, with your amble down the aisles (the same route every week) a production line. You are the labour that pushes round the trolley, loads it with goods, transfers it to bags and transports it by car or bus. Increasingly you man the checkout. It is no secret that online delivery and click-and-collect are problematic because they transfer the cost of this labour (estimated at £15-20 a load) back onto the supermarket. Inflation at the till is only partly down to higher commodity prices. Supermarkets need to maintain margins as they transition towards the pure warehousing of "dark stores", where costs can be recouped by sacrificing the customer space. It is likely that robots will shortly replace the human "pickers", with the supermarket then nothing more than a sorting centre for the flow of goods from suppliers to customers. As presence technology improves (i.e. the virtual fitting room), this model will extend to clothes and other goods. Already today, you'd be hard pressed to spot the difference inside the fulfilment centres of Tesco, Amazon and Royal Mail.

When we sigh about the slow death of the high street we're actually lamenting the disappearance of common spaces where different classes mixed. The social significance of Woolies in its heyday was that it was used by doctor's wives and dockers, who'd also use the same public transport to get there and back. The modern utopia of mixed-use, of yummy mummies sipping cappuccinos next to OAPs keeping warm in a daycare centre, is an attempt to recreate that shared experience and social solidarity. The flaw in the plan is that the coffee shops will gravitate towards the "better" end of the street, while the daycare centre will be shunted round the corner. The map of the future high street will reflect the realities of property segregation as much as the change in the means of production, distribution and exchange.

Monday, 14 January 2013

The Price of Success

The game against Man City on Sunday proved more memorable for events on the pitch than the much-hyped protest of away fans refusing to shell out £62 for a ticket. Given that this was the first time City had won at Arsenal since 1975 you could be forgiven for thinking that ten times the national minimum hourly wage was a reasonable price to pay to witness such a rare occurrence. The suspicion is that their next victory will not be as long in coming, not because of Arsenal's current failings but because of City's accession to the game's financial elite. The point about the original complaint over ticket prices is that City's achievement in winning the League has promoted them to category A status at the Emirates Stadium. In other words, £62 is literally the price of success. Man United and Liverpool have been paying top-whack for years.

It's worth remembering that there was no actual protest by City fans, no coordinated action or "stand taken", merely an inability of the club to sell their allocation. The "protest" was entirely a construction of the media, assisted by the quote-ready representatives of supporters clubs. I was amused to see the Telegraph claiming that City possess "one of the most devoted away followings in the country", despite the failure to take up the full allocation proving precisely the opposite. The most devoted away fans I've seen at the Emirates this season were those of Schalke 04. As all British football fans know, Germans pay practically nothing to watch a game and get a free wurst and a stein thrown in (actually, they pay 15 Euros to stand and seats are in the range of 26-52 Euros.) Schlepping over to uber-expensive North London was surely a sign of real devotion.

Failing to take up a full away allocation is not that unusual and, while the increase in prices due to recategorisation may have given them pause, City fans are no less capable of finding the funds than anybody else (the idea that they are all either impoverished Moss Side scallies or the Gallagher brothers entourage is just a lazy stereotype). The media coverage has completely ignored what this says about the fragility of Man City's support, though some have at least acknowledged that the relentless increase in prices has been fuelled in large part by the "financial doping" of rich benefactors like Abramovich and Mansour. The author of that particular phrase, Arsene Wenger, has also pointed out the simple truth that Arsenal's ability to compete with City in terms of resources depends on maximising revenue. It's either high ticket prices (i.e. the self-sufficient model) or become the plaything of a rich man.

Arsenal's prices are high, though not as exorbitant as routinely claimed. Most clubs' season tickets cover 19 Premier League games. Arsenal include an additional 7 Champions League and FA Cup credits, so a total of 26 games. Consequently, the cheapest season ticket costs less per game than those at Liverpool or Spurs, while the cheapest single match ticket is less than that charged at Man United and the same as Man City. Arsenal's real money-making capability comes with the higher ceiling and larger capacity at the top-end of the price range, which explains why so many clubs would love to replicate their strategy in moving to a new, purpose-built ground. Price comparisons tend to focus on the bottom and top prices, even though this is statistically meaningless if you're trying to gauge average costs per game.

The cliche of Germany's pro-social football culture featured in Will Hutton's lament that the beautiful game embodies everything that's bad about Britain. Hutton is a social democrat who wants to save capitalism from its moral failings. He treats modern football as an analogue of the free market in which there are insufficient rules to prevent clubs being taken over by "looters" or run with disregard for the interests of the fans. The reality is that the free-market in football ended with the formation of the FA (who imposed rules) and the creation of the Football League (who controlled access to the market and the trade in players). Football is a successful example of central planning. Hutton is right that football suffers from rent-seeking, but primarily in the form of rents extracted by players, agents, officials and administrators, and such rents are pretty much the same in Germany as in England. Value extraction by owners is largely a non-issue outside of a few exceptions like Man United. The really serious capital accumulation occurs through the commoditisation of football as media content. Rupert Murdoch has made far more money out of football than Roman Abramovich has invested in it.

There is something distasteful in the sight of media organisations, including self-appointed moral arbiters like the BBC and the Guardian/Observer, talking about "the people's game" and the need not to price fans out. The expansion of media means that far more people experience football today than ever had a chance to do so in the past, even if that experience is via a TV screen or smartphone. Attendance at live matches has become a "premium product", but that very fact points to the vast expansion of the overall population of consumers, many of whom are busy consuming the football-related products of the BBC and the Guardian. It is obviously hypocritical when the same sources that lambast Arsenal for not buying (or retaining) the best players criticise them for high prices, but it is more profoundly hypocritical when they accuse the game of being exploitative while feeding off it themselves.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

A Career in Cool

The unheralded release of David Bowie's first single in a decade has unleashed a tsunami of self-regarding bloke-love in the form of free advertorials. Prominent among the flotsam was a front-page piece by Jonathan Ross in today's Guardian in which the great broadcaster spent many column inches establishing his credentials: he's the biggest Bowie fan on the planet, he used to have a long-running radio show, he might expect to meet Bowie socially, he knows his son slightly, he has enjoyed chats with Morrissey, and just to reassure any reader intimidated by proximity to such stardom that he's still an ordinary bloke, he caught the norovirus bug over the holidays.

Unlike Ross, Bowie is generally regarded as an astute manipulator of his own image, the creator of a brand based on permanent reinvention, a performance artist in whose trail imitators like Madonna look derivative and uninspired. In fact, his career has been far more a matter of chance than corporate strategy, let alone artistic integrity, a point made by his biographer Paul Trynka (on Newsnight) who doubted the new album had been long in gestation. Bowie's one-time employment of cut-up techniques in his lyrics was simultaneously emblematic of artistic pretension (a homage to William Burroughs), vapid fashion (the 70s vogue for the occult), and his own arbitrary impulses (he should have attempted a rock opera based on Luke Rhinehart's The Dice Man). Perhaps the new album is just a random emission.

The new single, Where Are We Now?, is a wistful recollection of his time in Berlin in the late 70s. This period produced Low, Heroes and The Lodger, the three albums that will ultimately define his career, along with his contributions on Iggy Pop's The Idiot and Lust for Life, despite the claims made for the earlier run of LPs from Ziggy Stardust to Station to Station. Bowie fled to Berlin not just to avoid the fallout from the ill-judged Fascist flirtation of his Thin White Duke persona, but (with Eno) to feed off the musical zeitgeist inspired by Krautrock and the fashion for Weimar-style decadence that also influenced Lou Reed and punk. The irony is that foremost among the latter crowd were the Bromley contingent, hailing from the South East London 'burb where David Jones had spent most of his childhood. Members of the contingent would go on to form Siouxsie and the Banshees, arguably the most Bowie-inspired group in the punk firmament, though shortly to be overwhelmed by the wave of post-punk and electronic bands inspired by his Berlin work, notably Ultravox (before Midge Ure) and Simple Minds.

In the era of the individual song download, the best guarantee of a high-margin sale is the box-set with previously unreleased material. I bought the missus Simple Minds' X5 for Xmas, which includes their first five albums and no less than 19 "bonus tracks". The first three albums were patchy, as they found their metier (you could do worse than buy the Arista compilation, Celebration, which is a decent cherry-pick), but the double-album Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call and New Gold Dream are the real deal. Simple Minds were never a cool band (Scots bands can do truculent, edgy or nostalgic, but not cool), but they produced some seriously cool music for about 3 years. My other recent purchases (as opposed to free downloads) have also biased towards compilations and gap-fillers, including My Bloody Valentine's EPs 1988-91 and Sonic Youth's Hits are for Squares.

There is a saying in football, "Form is temporary, but class is permanent". It's utter cobblers, as anyone watching a former maestro try to keep up with the game will acknowledge. It is even less true in music where the temporary intersection of talent, place and luck produce that most unpredictable thing, cool. Despite the best endeavours of the music industry, this does not translate into lasting class and thus a permanent asset. The Rolling Stones are no longer cool, and certainly not worth hauling your arse out to see play for a small fortune. They were cool once, but primarily as a live band, which is why they are condemned to spend their dotage trying to recapture that spirit on stage. Bowie, like Simple Minds, was actually better on vinyl, despite his theatrical pretensions and the shock and awe of his later tours. When only hardened fans still give Sticky Fingers a spin, you can expect to hear tracks from Low crop up all over the place.

Paul Trynka's 2011 biography of Bowie includes a comment in the epilogue: "In 2012, his back catalog will be available for license once more, and many fans hope to see what is thought to be the most intriguing set of unreleased recordings of audio and video outtakes of any major recording artist." In other words, the surprise new release may be the harbinger of a massive retrospective of Bowie's career, now that we've safely forgotten all the crud from the 80s and 90s. If it includes previously unreleased work from his Berlin oeuvre, I might be tempted.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

I Walk the Line

The talking point of the third round of the FA Cup has been Luis Suarez's handball against Mansfield Town, with two denied penalty claims against Liverpool players for handling rubbing salt into the wound. Opinion has been divided. The match commentator, John Champion, has been reprimanded for calling Suarez a cheat, though oddly enough his employer, ESPN, have claimed that their "editorial policy is for commentators to be unbiased and honest, to call things as they see them". Given that is what Champion did, why the ticking-off?

In the ITV highlights programme Gordon Strachan employed a tortuous analogy about parking tickets in order to say that everyone is entitled to get away with minor offences. Suarez clearly gained an advantage, and while he may not have run half the length of the pitch with a single-minded determination to punch the ball into the net, he didn't simply stop playing when he realised he'd handled. The standard justification for this is to "play to the whistle": if the referee hasn't stopped the game, then the advantage is there for you to take. It's not quite as morally adrift as "I was only following orders", but it operates without an ethical foundation: if the crime wasn't spotted, then no crime took place. Alan Hansen even goes so far as to claim that no professional could be expected to voluntarily confess an infringement, though he undermines his own case by mentioning Robbie Fowler's on-pitch admission during a match against Arsenal in 1997 that he'd dived to win a penalty. Hansen then wheels out one of the classic cliches employed on these occasions: "where do you draw the line?" He asks if fans outraged by Suarez will "tell their own side next weekend to admit every handball, every shirt tug and every wrongly flagged offside that benefits their own team?", though this ignores the crucial presence of a goal in the equation.

The same cliche, in a slightly different form, is found in Cameron Sharpe's comment: "But if winning is the sole concern when it comes to football matches and the manner of achieving it is irrelevant, surely we tread a dangerous line." Methinks he hasn't seen Corinithian Casuals play much of late. Sharpe considers the indulgent treatment of Suarez hypocritical compared to the monstering Thierry Henry got over the handball that led to Ireland losing the World Cup play-off against France in 2009. The real difference is that there are a lot more Liverpool fans than supporters of Mansfield around, just as there were many more part-time fans of Ireland in 2009 (the handball incident caused little comment outside Ireland and the UK). The outrage (or lack of same) reflects partisan support.

The focus on Suarez's ethics is irrelevant, though given his previous exploits (the racist jibes at Patrice Evra and his handball against Ghana in the 2010 World Cup) you can see why this is catnip for journalists and talk-radio. There is no ethical "line" between lesser and greater infringements, between what a referee decides to ignore or penalise. The real line is between unsporting behaviour (which Suarez's use of the hand qualifies as) and simple bad luck. In other words, between human volition and arbitrary fate. In 1999, Arsenal offered to replay a fifth round FA Cup tie with Sheffield United because the winning goal had been scored after Kanu picked up the ball from a United throw-in and played on. The lanky Nigerian had failed to appreciate that the ball was deliberately put out of play to allow an injured United player treatment and that convention, though not the laws of the game, required possession to be returned to the opposition. This was an "honest mistake", though as I recall from the game, Marc Overmars, who scored from Kanu's cross, was more clearly playing to the whistle.

According to Arsene Wenger, the justification for the replay (which Arsenal won) was that "We feel that we didn't win the game like we want to win our games". The sympathy for the Blades reflected their misfortune, not opprobrium for cheating by Arsenal. Liverpool will not have to offer Mansfield Town a replay because most people consider that they have been the recipients of good fortune, that they have "got away with it", rather than that Mansfield Town have been the victims of outrageous misfortune. That said, If I were Luis Suarez, I'd make sure I never get caught parking illegally.

Friday, 4 January 2013

A Free Uniform With Every Job

In an obvious bid to cover itself against the charge of being soft on "scroungers", ahead of its opposition to the government bill to limit benefit increases to below inflation, Labour has recommitted itself to the idea of workfare, specifically extending the current cheap labour programme for 18-24 year olds to those over 25. According to cuddly Ed Balls, "those who can work must be required to take up jobs or lose benefits as a result – no ifs or buts". Meanwhile the less cuddly Liam Byrne says "If you haven't got a job, you need to be working and training, not claiming".

According to the Grauniad, "Labour says the £1bn cost of subsidising the jobs, mainly in the private sector, would come from reducing tax relief on pension contributions for people earning more than £150,000 a year to 20%, instead of the 45% proposed by the government in the autumn statement". This is, of course, a £1bn subsidy to business. While the targeting of pension contributions makes sense in its own right (abolishing tax relief on contributions over a set amount per year would make more sense), the idea of a fiscal transfer between the well-off and business is smoke and mirrors as there is a fairly close correlation between the well-off and the beneficiaries of business profits.

This could just be dismissed as New Labour triangulation, but what I think is more concerning is the ideological anxiety it betrays. There is a sense of desperation in the language used, the idea that everyone must be feverishly "working and training", while the unemployed "must be required to take up jobs" (my emphasis). This echoes the neoliberal tenet that everyone who wants to work can find a job, assuming that the state steps back (or intervenes, depending on which neoliberal wing you adhere to) to "make work pay" (i.e. price labour to the satisfaction of capital). But the last 4 years have started to erode the basis of this belief. Not only are we seeing persistent structural unemployment due to long-run technological change (notably automation), but the growing reliance on part-time work, precarious self-employment and in-work benefits all point to an economy where work and wages are increasingly rationed. This shifts the ideological focus more towards divide and rule: convince the poorly-paid that their problems are the fault of the unwaged. Balls (if not Byrne) is less obviously as vindictive as Ian Duncan Smith, but his core message is the same: people who don't work are the problem.

I also think that politicians have started to work out the implications of the very high rates of unemployment (circa 30%) seen in Greece and Spain and the fact that their societies have not imploded, despite obvious strains. The cynical conclusion of the European austerity experiment is that we can accommodate high levels of unemployment, particularly if the effects are ameliorated by part-time work and the black economy, and if the consequent wage repression is ameliorated by in-work benefits (i.e. fiscal transfers from some workers to others). The result is an increasing concentration of wealth at the top (and an aversion to taxes on property) and an increasing diffusion of work (and wages) at the bottom. In such a society, it becomes critical to ensure that everyone buys into the idea that you must work, and work relentlessly hard, even if your work adds little real value. What cannot be tolerated is people opting out of the labour market, which is what a "skiver" is doing, as that would put upward pressure on the price of workers and hand leverage back to organised labour.

This neoliberal anxiety appears to have infected most of the Labour party. Diane Abbot, "one of the Labour party's most senior leftwing figures", according to the wilfully dim Patrick Wintour, has decided that we need to clamp down on fried chicken shops, brand materialism and Internet porn, all of which are apparently undermining stable families. Harrumph. Abbot is a middle-class conservative who has long traded on her supposed radical roots as a black feminist in the 1980s, though she subsequently lost a lot of credibility by sending her son to a private school ("As a young leftwinger I never thought I would see the point of school uniform, but you get less of that pressure to have this designer brand or the other" - she seems to have forgotten the economic and cultural significance of costly school uniforms in the history of selective education). I particularly loved her comment that "For too many children, fast food is not a treat but a dietary staple". Presumably she thinks fish and chip shops are a modern invention, only patronised on high days and holidays.

Then consider this: "There are these young mums that do not necessarily read to their children, they do not take them to the library, but they think they are good mums because their children are dressed in brand names from top to bottom, and that is because their narrative for being a good mum comes from the media". Abbott obviously does not mean to include those media that eulogise reading and campaign against library closures, i.e. the media she consumes. Her comments are a straightforward class attack - you can easily imagine them coming out of the mouth of a Tory. Among the working class it remains true that clothes are a key expression of relative wealth and being well turned out is still seen as virtuous. It is only the better off who habitually wear "distressed" clothes, because they have enough other signifiers to indicate status. But the real message here is about uniformity, how school uniforms prepare you for the bland uniform of work, and how that uniformity in turn narrows your horizons. It is a middle class trope that fashion brands are the antithesis of individuality, but it's a working class experience that the acquisition (and repurposing) of brands is empowering. The relentless attack on "chavs" a few years ago for appropriating Burberry was an example of these two worldviews colliding in naked class hatred.

It's unrealistic to expect Labour to start questioning the basis of work and its allocation across society when their electoral prospects are still so dependent on the uniformed masses of "alarm clock Britain", but it's surely not too much to ask "leftwingers" to stop talking bollocks.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

No Big Deal

We're just over halfway through the football season, so now is a good time to review Arsenal's progress. Yesterday's draw away at Southampton has swung the emotional pendulum back, from the joy of beating the Mags 7-3, to despondency, though in the cold light of day we are in 5th spot with a game in hand on the Spuds (5 points ahead and likely to be our chief rivals for that coveted 4th spot trophy). Given that we tend to do better in the second half of the season, while they tend to do worse, this is a reasonable position and certainly not the disaster that many are claiming. Both fans and media have an obvious fondness for hyperbole, but the latter's abhorrence of a vacuum has led many of the former to misread "average" for "unacceptable". The half-term report should read: promising, but let down by inconsistency and wayward finishing.

A look at the table shows that that we have played 9 games at home and 11 away - the cancelled Boxing Day fixture against West Ham would have made the former 10. In contrast, Spurs have played 11 at home and 10 away. We have a superior goal difference and have lost only 4 games to their 6. The fundamental difference between the two teams, apart from their extra game played and the slight bias in terms of home advantage, is that they have avoided draws on their travels, 6 wins and 4 defeats yielding 18 points from 10. In contrast, we've won 4, drawn 5 and lost only 2, yielding 17 points from 11 games. If 3 of those games (say Villa, Everton and Southampton) had been won, we'd be a point ahead with a game in hand. If we'd also beaten Fulham at home and drawn with Swansea (both of which we could have done), we'd be hovering over Man City's shoulder. My point is not that we're hard done by, but that small margins on the field can have a dramatic impact on the table. Over a season, such fluctuations even out, which is why I remain confident we'll finish in 4th, with a chance of 3rd if Chelsea relapse.

Predictably, the January transfer window is being talked up as the solution to our "problems". While I think the squad needs strengthening, what I mainly think we need is playing time for the first 11 to become a well-oiled machine. It's easy to forget how many players are new to each other, though Jack Wilshere made precisely this point on his return from long-term injury. A group of talented players can produce great performances off the cuff, but they can also stutter and stumble. A pass goes astray because the intended recipient didn't make the expected run, while another run creates a dangerous gap because the player in possession didn't spot the runner and then gave the ball away. If you've watched Arsenal this season, that will sound very familiar. When managers bang on about the need for consistency, they're talking about a quality that can neither be bought nor coached, which is why they sound so frustrated. It can only be acquired through habit and a settled team. Wenger's decision to marginalise players like Arshavin and Chamakh is presumably recognition that they aren't going to be part of the core squad, so giving them playing time would just distract the others.

Will we buy? The official squad limit is 25, of whom 8 must be home-grown (with the club for 36 months before the age of 21), plus an unlimited number of under-21 players. Arsenal have a squad of 23 (16+7), with four U21 players in realistic contention for league games (Jenkinson, Coquelin, Frimpong and Oxlade-Chamberlain). This means we could only buy a single over-21 player, unless surplus squad members like Arshavin, Squillaci or Chamakh can be moved on. It's more likely they'd move over the summer, so I suspect our January dealings will be restricted to one incomer at most. The calls for 3 or 4 new players are just unrealistic. While Arsene is not averse to buying in the winter sales, Arshavin being a case in point, I don't see any obvious opportunities, i.e. available players who would augment the squad, beyond (maybe) David Villa on loan. If I had to put my money on it, I'd bet on nothing happening very noisily for the next four weeks.