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Monday, 29 September 2014

The Tragedy of the Subaltern

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

What is the Question?

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

Monday, 22 September 2014

A More Perfect Union

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

We Are Devo

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Monday, 15 September 2014

How would you like to pay for that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Scottish Play

Whichever way the vote on Scottish independence goes, the margin of victory will probably be small. This means either a democratic mandate or a moral obligation to change the status quo. "Do nothing" is the one outcome that now seems unlikely. Given that a victorious yes campaign would inevitably compromise on a lot of specifics, actual independence would perhaps not be that much different to devo max in the short-term, beyond the symbolism of flags and names, and in the event of a no victory, devo max would probably evolve into de facto independence in the long-term. Indeed, considering the major concessions floated by Gordon Brown and others this week, we may find pressure for Scottish independence building rapidly in a disgruntled England and Wales if the Scots themselves get cold feet.

The focus of the political and media caste on the implications of independence for British party leaders, Westminster elections and the EU indicates that the no camp (with some exceptions) remains more interested in London today than Edinburgh tomorrow. This is interpreted as English condescension by the yes campaign, but it would be more accurate to see it as the unthinking metropolitan bias of neoliberal hegemony. David Cameron's fleeting visit this week was to the Scottish Widows office in Edinburgh: an enclave of the City of London in an otherwise hostile environment. I doubt we'll see George Osborne, in hard hat and high-vis jacket, visiting Clydeside any time soon.

On both the left and right, Scotland is treated as an off-stage development, hence the degree to which the media debate is progressed by "noises off" such as opinion polls, the crude blackmail of business leaders (the only thing keeping us here is the goodwill of London) and the usual background hum of leaks and spin (it's Cameron's fault, it's Miliband's fault). In Scotland, the debate is taking place in the street, church halls and pubs, rather than being mediated by TV, which is probably why the late surge in support for independence, despite the best efforts of "project fear", has caught many by surprise. This very act of empowerment and engagement is likely to boost turnout, and may well boost the optimistic yes vote as a taster of self-determination. Just as the decision to not provide a devo max option on the ballot paper now looks like the unionists' first error of judgement, the lack of serious debate in England and Wales about the ramifications of independence (leaving the field to narcissistic "love bombing" by slebs) looks like having the unintended consequence of convincing the Scots that they should be the masters of their own fate.

Talking of unintended consequences, I recently saw King Charles III, the play that imagines constitutional turmoil following the queen's death (available only in London at present, if you're reading this "in the wings", so to speak). The Shakespearian influence extends from the blank verse to the plot, with knowing references to Macbeth and King Lear. The agonising and witless new king refuses royal assent to a bill on press regulation and dissolves Parliament on a point of misguided principle. The monarchy is saved from abolition only by persuading him to abdicate in favour of the more compliant (and scheming) William and Mary - sorry, Kate. The echoes of 1688 are rather loud. Though the play is funny, up-to-the-minute and dramatically (if not politically) convincing, it ignores Scotland (as it does Wales, Cornwall and all the other areas where the royals own land). I felt all it lacked was a flunkey wandering onstage to announce, Hamlet-like, "George Robertson and Annabel Goldie are dead".


This metropolitan bias has led to some illogical thinking. Consider the following from John Aziz: "Scotland has no real leverage to negotiate favourable terms other than the result of the referendum and a few vague gestures about Britain's currency being underpinned by North Sea oil. The UK is the one with the army, the NATO and EU memberships and the nuclear submarines. Alex Salmond can hand-wave and pontificate as much as he likes, but he will have to accept independence on terms dictated to him by Westminster. His desired formal currency union, off the table. British military bases including Trident in Scotland, irremovable from it." This combines economism's trivialisation of democracy (a vote does not constitute leverage), childish petulance (that's my ball, army and nuclear subs), and a startling failure to appreciate that the short-term immovability of Faslane and Coulport provides the Scots with major leverage in any negotiations (they're holding our nuclear subs hostage and demanding a currency union in exchange!)

The sudden lurch this week into emotionalism has also produced some top-grade nonsense, particularly among Tories. According to the Spectator, "The Prime Minister should not need speech-writers to extol the merits of Britain. He can just consider our history: in 1707 England was a hive of religious intolerance while impoverished Scotland was beset with feudal warfare. Within decades Great Britain had become the first industrial nation and led the world in scientific discovery". Though 1688 and 1701 enshrined anti-Catholic bias in law, this actually represented the last knockings of religious intolerance as the wellspring of politics (compare and contrast with 100 years prior); and while Scotland was certainly impoverished, due to economic depression and a run of famines in the 1690s, it was not beset by "feudal warfare" (this is just anti-Jacobite propaganda) so much as a stultifying aristocracy of absentee landlords. Finally, though the Scots were major contributors to scientific and technological advances, both before and after 1707, this was not decisive in producing the industrial revolution. Correlation is not causation.

One Conservative thinker who has better understood the risks that separation entails is Peter Oborne, who notes that the role of the monarch will inevitably be up for debate. The current silence of the Queen (on her hols at Balmoral, natch) is not just formal neutrality, but circumspection over the constitutional opportunities that Scottish independence would create. Though the monarchy would probably survive, there will surely be pressure to abolish the House of Lords. Scottish peers would have to quit Westminster, and I doubt an independent Scotland would create an unelected Scottish Lords, so why not boot the lot out? There would also be a resurgent clamour to adopt a constitution, or at least pass an updated Bill of Rights, which would provide a field day for Europhobes as well as civil libertarians.

To date the English and Welsh left have largely focused on an independent Scotland's role as a pathfinder for greater regional devolution, the abandonment of nuclear weapons, and the refoundation of the welfare state. Much of this is gestural - like admiring Scandinavian social democracy. More pessimistically, some fear that independence will guarantee Tory governments in perpetuity. This is nonsense. Labour would have secured outright majorities in the general elections of 1997, 2001 and even 2005 (despite Iraq) without the bloc of Scottish MPs. What few seem to be thinking of is the constitutional opportunities that the result will give rise to, whichever way Scotland votes. Typically, Londoners get it, noting that the Great Wen will benefit whatever the outcome, and that ultimately independence may be a pragmatic strategy for the capital itself.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Back to the Future

The graphic representation of the Islamic State area of control as a series of "spreading cracks", or the welts raised by a whipping, is presumably meant to question the state's stability and hint at its malignancy, but it also echoes the idea of a state that is constituted by caravan routes and oases, rather than the straight lines and blocks of colour on a map beloved of Sykes and Picot. This in turn points at both the anachronistic, medieval style of the caliphate (in the eyes of the West) and its exceptional nature - i.e. it's not a "normal" state and therefore not subject to the normal rules of inter-state relations (much as Cuba was deemed "abnormal" to justify the CIA's plans to assassinate Fidel Castro).


This visual trope is nostalgic, in much the same way that the Islamic State's choreographed beheadings are: the longing for a cleaner, simpler more decisive way of living among conflicted young men trapped between tradition and modernity. This antique framing finds a parallel in the Western nostalgia for city states that thrive through trade and innovation, which is undergoing a periodic revival. The trope has been around for a couple of centuries, since the Romantics compensated for their nationalism by sentimentalising the high medieval. The historic movement from the rural to the urban, and the massive growth of cities that this gave rise to, was ideologically smoothed by reference to vigorous city-state epitom├ęs, such as Classical Athens and Venice, much as bourgeois norms were sourced to pious burghers rather than progressive aristocrats and early state bureaucracy. The city state is part of the foundation myth of the capitalist economy.

According to Izabella Kaminska in the FT: "You can feel the sentiment in the air is changing. From Scotland’s Independence vote and talk of London getting its own interest rate to Peter Thiel’s seasteading ambitions and Elon Musk’s desire to colonise Mars. The idea is that we are entering an age that transcends borders and sovereign identity, and instead becomes focused on shared values, interests and code". In an earlier piece, she looked backward rather than forward: "Which begs the question: are super-city states about to disrupt our current concept of the old fashioned sovereign state? You know, a la the return of the Hanseatic league of Northern Europe during the Middle Ages?"

I'm sure Kaminska is partly having a laugh here, but the idea that city-states are the future is not limited to the well-paid apologists for Singapore and Dubai. Since the onset of the Eurozone crisis it has been fashionable in some quarters (such as the Wall Street Journal) to claim that the problems of Italy and Greece stem from unification and that they'd have been better off remaining a patchwork, as if Renaissance Florence was a template for the 21st century, and as if Greece had not been unified under the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. The ideology concerns the preservation of wealth. As the WSJ summarises it, the city-state depends upon "Regional competition, the necessity of private property, entrepreneurial freedom, the leadership of visionaries and of conservative economic practices".

The tendency for futurism to be built on a reactionary dream of the past is well known. Peter Thiel, whom Kaminska includes in her zeitgeist checklist, is famously curmudgeonly about the crapness of modern technology, despite having made a mint out of PayPal: "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters". His misanthropy, libertarianism and love of expensive hardware is of a piece with a disappointed worldview. As the New Yorker noted, "He looks back to the fifties and sixties, the heyday of popularized science and technology in this country, as a time when visions of a radically different future were commonplace". More worrying, you can spot some nasty thinking emerging around the technological augmentation of humanity: "Speciation might well happen, but instead of class, I think it'll be much more driven by culture. You might get a country that decides it wants to bring down its healthcare budget by subsidising an upgrade that makes people healthier. The end result might be that the Singaporeans become their own species". City-state 2.0.

The real target of all this is inter-regional fiscal transfers within the nation state. The trope of the medieval city-state or kingdom is simultaneously used to justify regional autonomy, as in Catalonia and Bavaria, and to discredit transfers to poorer areas. Thus the Lega Nord consciously evokes the memory of the Lombard League in its desire to curtail subsidies to Southern Italy (aka "Africa"). Historically, regional investment has become salient not at unification, but at the point when universal suffrage has been introduced. For example, the "southern question" was addressed after Italian Unification through state repression, which did much to establish the mafia, while under Fascism investment was biased towards the North and Centre. Major state investment in the South only started with the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno in 1950. An assault on fiscal transfers is usually an assault on democracy dressed up as a plea for "fairness".

Austerity works to reduce transfers, both through direct cuts in regional expenditure and the associated shift in tax regimes from income and assets to consumption, which has a disproportionate impact on poorer areas. The consequence, as should be obvious in the case of Scotland, is a greater desire to "go it alone" and at least be the master of your own fate. But the corollary of this is not greater cohesion in the rump nation state, but a more acute division as the city-state becomes proportionately more powerful. As CRESC noted in 2011, "The political outcome of financial crisis in the UK has paradoxically consolidated the power of London as a kind of ‘City State’ within the national economy and with its own internal inequality. The politics of austerity in the UK brings us closer to the end of the national, if by the national we mean a space of social redistribution and negotiated political compromise." If Scotland quits the union, the resulting reconfiguration of UK fiscal distributions is unlikely to lead to more investment in Newcastle or Leeds.

The direction of travel points to the paradox of a more atomised polity in a more globalised and interconnected world. It would be foolish to oversell this - the nation state will continue, at least as a cultural market and a monopoly of violence - but the idea that megacities will increasingly operate as independent global powers is not far-fetched. This won't be because they cast off from the nation state, but because they become essentially coterminus with it, a process we can see all too clearly in London.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Taxi Driver

The media coverage of the Jay report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham has focused on political correctness ("a vile, perverted ideology which is wrecking our society and ruining the lives of the innocent"), and the related evils of anti-racism (a "dogma") and multiculturalism ("we no longer have a universal moral code or national identity, and the consequences can be seen all around us, whether in the rise of home-grown Islamic extremism or in the failure of too many migrant groups to learn even basic English"). The religious flavour of this language, and the apocalyptic image of social breakdown, cannot distract from the all-too-obvious bigotry. The salient fact for most commentators is that the perpetrators were Pakistani and the victims white.

Some, such as Allison Pearson, have tried to obscure this by paying lip-service to other aspects: "Powerless white working-class girls were caught between a hateful, imported culture of vicious misogyny on the one hand, and on the other a culture of chauvinism among the police, who regarded them as worthless slags" (class, immigration, sexism, bingo!). Even professional liberals, like Yasmin Alibhai Brown, have found themselves talking nonsense: "White experts and officers have for too long been reluctant to confront serious offences committed by black and Asian people" (which presumably explains the pitifully small number of them in prison).

That levels of misogyny vary between different communities is hardly a surprise, nor that it should be more prevalent in a conservative community like British Pakistanis. People in Clacton are more bigoted than people in London, essentially because the big city attracts the unconventional and progressive, and because proximity and variety encourages tolerance. This does not mean that Clacton has "questions to answer", any more than the Pakistani community has. Similarly, that the police belittle crimes against women and the poor is hardly news. The police service is a conservative institution and the structural bias of the legal system means it privileges crimes against property and social order.

Dan Hodges, who passes as a "lefty" in the eyes of Daily Telegraph readers, says "we cannot ignore that race played a part in these crimes", however he never gets round to explaining the part that race played. This is because his reasoning can only lead to either crude racism (Pakistanis have a greater propensity to abuse) or obvious nonsense (the terrified police were intimidated by the all-powerful Pakistani community). As a consequence, his rant explodes under the pressure of its own frustration in a fit of hyperbole: "A major British town was turned into a rape camp". Really?

Organised crime depends on networks of influence and opportunity. It is inescapably social, which means the community is inevitably compromised, if only through a desire to "mind its own business". That said, the dominant factors are usually material and reflect circumstance. A salient yet widely-ignored feature of the Rotherham case (like Rochdale before it) is the involvement of minicabs (the Jay report notes: "One of the common threads running through child sexual exploitation across England has been the prominent role of taxi drivers in being directly linked to children who were abused"). The significance of ethnicity is that Pakistanis are disproportionately represented in this employment sector (providing greater opportunity and scope for collusion), not that Pakistanis are more likely to be sex abusers due to arranged marriages or Islam.


For the right, political correctness is simply "cultural Marxism", which they source to the Frankfurt School, Antonio Gramsci and the "correct party line" tradition of Communism. However, though the left has undoubtedly played its part, modern "PC" is largely an invention of reactionaries appalled at the advance of civil rights in the US in the 60s and the emergence of identity politics in the UK and elsewhere in the 70s. From the early 80s it was routinely attributed to the "loony left", famously in the case of the GLC and often on the basis of nothing more than myth (Baa Baa White Sheep etc). This worked well enough during the Thatcher era, but it gradually lost its credibility after the rise of New Labour (according to Google Ngram, the phrase "loony left" peaked in 1995).

Thereafter the focus shifted from "loony" to "craven", with an emphasis on the assumed cowardice of local government and public corporations in "standing up" to the greedy and arrogant demands of immigrants and special interest groups (mad mullahs gradually took over the role previously played by lippy rastas and boiler-suited lesbians). For Daniel Hannan it is always the happy time of Thatcherism ("Labour's rotten boroughs ... remain stuck in the early Eighties"). Even self-styled "liberal lefties" like Denis McShane appear to have internalised this narrative, excusing their wilful blindness as the result of brainwashing by The Guardian. Though PC is now assumed to infect all areas of public behaviour, from hands-tied police to conniving councillors, it remains at heart a matter of language: what words are permissible. The deployment of the phrase "Pakistani heritage" in the context of Rotherham clearly hints at a desire to use blunter terms.

Contrary to the myth of a communist conspiracy, political correctness originates in the 18th century idea of politeness (politesse). Like reason, the sublime and the sentimental, this was a key concept of the Enlightenment, amplified through the broader cultural norms of civility and manners. Whereas previous styles of language were deployed as class and status identifiers (courtly love, Renaissance classicism, French imports), now "right language" was seen to express "right behaviour" and "right thinking" and thus to be an ethical aspiration for all rather than merely a badge of membership for the few. This built on the earlier development of "plain speech" through the translation of the Bible, which was a rejection of "fancy" (and implicitly Catholic) aristocratic forms as much as the vulgar demotic.

Politeness meant moderating language. The original Spectator talked of its mission to "enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality". This points up the impeccably bourgeois credentials of the idea that society could be improved by improving its speech. This would in turn lead to the 19th century belief that language is the repository of national spirit (notably among German Romantics) and thus a common endeavour. While this encouraged some to see language as a plastic medium for moulding a national revolution, it also suggested that language itself was a site of political struggle. What was common to both left and right was the Enlightenment idea that language was universal within the polity, which fed the nineteenth century mania for standardised vocabulary, grammatical rectitude and an antipathy towards dialect and "backward" tongues.


In the 20th century, the "linguistic turn" in philosophy and the emergence of structuralism led to the realisation that the control of language was a means to control society, which is where Gramsci, the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory came in. This reached its logical conclusion in Orwell's 1984 with Newspeak. The negative implications of this were an important contribution to the postwar enthusiasm for recovering marginalised languages (Gaelic, Welsh etc) in the 50s and 60s and the new-found vigour of dialect (notably in poetry) during the 60s and 70s. While these developments were often seen as progressive by the left because of their anticolonial and autonomist credentials, they were actually conservative.

The purpose of this trot through the history of political correctness is not just to point out that it has been employed for conservative and reactionary ends as much as progressive ones, but to note that control is central to its practice: it is people in positions of power that promote politically correct language and thinking. The rightwing critique of PC depends on the belief that Marxists and craven fellow-travellers are in control of major cultural institutions, such as the BBC, as well as local government and the bits of education still in state hands. In reality, the local government left (which was never extensive or entrenched) was systematically disempowered after 1979, education was homogenised through the national curriculum and changes to university funding, and the arts and media were infected by managerialism and neoliberal deference. If PC has grown over the last 35 years, it isn't down to the tireless work of Marxist academics or gay social workers.

But this doesn't mean that political correctness is simply a fabrication. It does exist and it exists for a reason. The perp was big business, which recognised as early as the 1960s that discriminating against ethnic minorities, women and gays was counter-productive, mainly because it limited the pool of talent for recruitment and alienated potential customers (Gary Becker's The Economics of Discrimination was the key validation of this change in thinking). This shift led to business jargon absorbing notions such as "diversity" and "equal opportunities" at the same time as it expanded under the dual impact of modern management theory and the spillover of the terminology of financial engineering.

The incursion of business jargon into the public sector after 1979 was mainly driven through privatisation and outsourcing, but even where these didn't occur, public sector managers were under pressure from central government (advised by consultancies) to adopt private sector practices and vocabulary. Left to its own devices, local government (as institutionally conservative as the police) would probably still be as cautious in embracing cultural sensitivity as it was in the 1970s (it is worth remembering that the "loony left" was largely a generational reaction to a fossilised and often intolerant Labourism). As the Jay report makes clear, Rotherham Council was not an enthusiastic champion of multiculturalism, rather it saw the Pakistani community as a problem to be avoided.

The focus on political correctness by the rightwing media is a psychological projection: attributing to their opponents (the nebulous left) their own desire for social engineering, i.e. the creation of the "universal moral code" and "national identity" beloved of The Daily Mail. The problem for the right is that capitalism works to undermine both of these because its is motivated primarily by profit. That is why we have Internet porn and offshoring. As Adam Smith put it, "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest".

The lesson of Rotherham is that too many people did not see it as being in their interest to enquire into the sexual exploitation of children in local authority care, or to pursue the ample evidence of an organised criminal network centred on minicab firms. The best way to prevent a repetition is not to sack individual local authority workers or members of the police years after the event, or to demand that the Pakistani community explains its "failure", but to make it in the interest of the relevant authorities to give a shit.