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Thursday, 26 March 2015

The Singapore Grip

The eulogies for Lee Kwan Yew highlight the gap that exists between domestic political theory and international practice. This is not just a matter of "realism" - i.e. accepting that we don't have a right to automatically project our values onto others - but a recognition that a nation's international dealings, and its attitude to foreign exemplars, are usually more indicative of the political elite's actual priorities and beliefs than its domestic practice is. This is because there is no effective democratic constraint and public opinion is relatively weak. Indeed, domestic public opinion is more likely to be outraged when we do attempt to project our values (e.g. Iraq) than when we routinely connive in the abuses of foreign governments (e.g. Saudi Arabia).

Beyond the polite praise for his "nation-building" in an ethnically heterogeneous city state, what foreign elites most admired about Lee Kwan Yew was his long monopoly of power, which enabled this "strategist" and "statesman" to deliver the "stability" (i.e. predictability of government policy and absence of economic dissent) that capital prizes above all else. As Henry Kissinger put it, "A world needing to distill order from incipient chaos will miss his leadership". In fact, Lee's role beyond the confines of Singapore island owed more to Jeremy Clarkson than Clemens von Metternich, being that of a "politically incorrect" iconoclast: "I’m not intellectually convinced that one-man, one-vote is the best ... we would have a better system if we gave every man over the age of 40 who has a family two votes because he’s likely to be more careful".

Lee was unwavering in his contempt for democracy and pluralism: "In the East the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms. This freedom can only exist in an ordered state and not in a natural state of contention and anarchy". While the long list of offences defining the boundaries of freedom in Singapore became notorious, what Western commentators usually ignored, amidst the condign punishments for chewing gum and littering, was that the "maximum enjoyment of his freedoms" is a concept imported from Utilitarianism. The East Asian model is less a departure from capitalism than a reprise of its classic form (complete with coal mines, manufacturing and merchant banking) but without the concession of democracy occasioned by World War One. Singapore was a better yesterday, and not just for Empire nostalgists in the long bar of the Raffles Hotel.

East Asian countries (and China in particular) are often "explained" in the West by a supposed Confucian reverence for order and a concomitant fear of chaos. This is ahistorical and superficial, like claiming that you can get the inside track on Syriza by reading Plato. While the "ancients" can still provide ethical insights, they are not sociologists or contemporary political scientists. East Asian politicians have long exploited the cultural legacy of Confucius to justify authoritarianism, social conservatism and the seizure of power (the "Mandate of Heaven"), in the same way that we invoke Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. Lee himself was clearly enamoured of the Confucian idea of the Junzi, the leader whose personal integrity is an example to all, which partly explains why he became a poster-boy for more compromised Western politicians, but this ignores the debt of the Cambridge-trained lawyer to Classical Liberalism, and it also ignores the obvious nepotism and cronyism at the heart of the Singapore state.


Rather than the iron will of Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore's prosperity over the last 50 years was down to its favoured geographical location as an entrepot, its convenience as a financial bolt-hole, and the growth in global business services. The emphasis placed by Lee's government on commercial probity and low levels of state graft was entirely pragmatic, much like similar claims made around trust and privacy in the pre-80s City of London and Switzerland. Surrounded by corrupt authoritarian regimes, both communist and anti-communist, and with a riskier Hong Kong as its chief competitor as a service centre and manufacturing base, Singapore's USP in the region was to be both authoritarian (and thus discreet) and honest (and thus a safe haven for money). Its spectacular growth was based on a rapid expansion of the population and low corporate taxes. That model is now under strain as the population plateaus and foreign direct investment finds more lucrative opportunities elsewhere in the region.

The response to Lee's death abroad has been comically revealing. In their eulogies, most other East Asian leaders have gamely emphasised cooperation, friendship and respect. Lee didn't suffer fools, didn't appreciate criticism, and was instinctively arrogant rather than diplomatic. Obama and Bush II noted his profuse "advice", which is ironic given his tendency to opine on what he saw as moral decline in the US ("there’s already a backlash in America against failed social policies that have resulted in people urinating in public, in aggressive begging in the streets, in social breakdown"). Vladimir Putin notes that "he earned his compatriots' sincere love and respect and won the highest international influence", which is perhaps an insight into the Russian's current state of mind rather than an assessment of Lee. In contrast, what are we to make of Francois Hollande's pathetic "France has lost a friend" and David Cameron's rueful "His place in history is assured"?

In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the totalitarian state of Eastasia's ruling ideology is "called by a Chinese name usually translated as Death-worship, but perhaps better rendered as 'Obliteration of the Self'". I suspect that this was one of the few intentional (if obscure) jokes in the book, satirising the tendency of the British to treat Asians as a mass of ant-like workers lacking individuality. As a former policeman in Burma, Orwell was well acquainted with imperial racism and the dehumanisation of the native population. The idea that East Asians are happiest when they sublimate their ambitions into the good of the wider community is not just a cynical justification for foreign authoritarianism; it's held up as an example for domestic audiences by the very same elites that bang on about our hallowed liberties. As Max Hastings has it, "A hang 'em and flog 'em despot - but golly, we can learn from the man who made Singapore stinking rich".

A more humorous book, and one centred on Lee Kwan Yew's backyard, was J G Farrell's 1978 novel, The Singapore Grip, which tells the tale of the city's fall to the Japanese in 1942 and lays bare the structural failings that will bring about the end of the British Empire in the East, notably snobbish conservatism, cupidity and a contempt for independent thought. One of the characters retails an anecdote about William of Orange being ferried across the river after the Battle of the Boyne. The boatman asks the (new) King how went the day. King Billy replies, "What's it to you? You'll still be a boatman". I'm sure both Lee Kwan Yew and Max Hastings would understand.

Monday, 23 March 2015

The Legacy of Blair

Blairism lives on north of the border, not in the person of Jim Murphy, as you might imagine, but in the person of Nicola Sturgeon. During the 1980s, the 79 Group (which included Alex Salmond) attempted to shift the SNP to the left, mirroring a similar generational struggle in the Labour party, and were temporarily expelled for their pains. In the 1990s, again mirroring developments in Labour, the SNP combined neoliberal economic policies with superficially progressive social policies. But where New Labour "triangulated" from centre-left to centre-right, the SNP moved in the opposite direction, pitching themselves as a more principled opposition to the anglocentric Tories than Labour, hence the emblematic importance of nuclear disarmament and (later) opposition to the Iraq War.

Salmond was probably a more genuine socialist than Blair in the 80s, but his (and others) more recent claim that Scotland is a fundamentally social democratic country is self-serving. The conservative interest in Scotland did not simply evaporate under Thatcher, nor did it shift to Labour. It migrated to both the LibDems and the SNP, once the latter made clear its acceptance of the neoliberal order and its willingness to engage with limited devolution. This is why the result of the independence referendum was all too predictable. The Labour voters that Salmond attracted to "yes" were outweighed by the middle-class SNP voters who quietly chose "no" to protect their economic interests as sterling-based pensioners and rentiers.

Centre-left English observers continue to kid themselves that the SNP is keeping alive the social democratic flame. Commenting on the new Scottish Government Economic Strategy document, Owen Jones cheerfully claims "they have abandoned their flirtation with Osbornomics by dropping their pledge to cut corporation tax", when all they've done is replace a "blanket" cut with a more "targeted" approach. They are still keen on "tax competition" (i.e. regulatory arbitrage) as a means of attracting foreign investment, which means capital-friendly taxation. They're not proposing to increase corporation tax, capital gains tax or the tax on dividends; while their preference for cuts in VAT is to reduce the rate for tourism (i.e. a business-friendly stimulus) rather than the daily goods that Scots buy. It takes a heroic disregard for the facts to characterise the SNP as social democratic.

A better gauge of the party's attitude is the frequency of the word "competitiveness" in the executive summary of the strategy document. With all the usual buzzwords about "human capital investment", "innovation" and "inclusive growth", this is indistinguishable from the output of a New Labour thinktank. "Internationalisation" occurs a lot; "nationalisation" is conspicuous by its absence. The focus of investment is "SMEs with high growth potential", which is a fool's errand. The SNP's instincts remain centrist and opportunistic, eliding tricky subjects such as the strategic prospects of the oil industry or the over-dependence on the financial sector. As Martin Kettle notes, they are as likely to ostentatiously hold their noses, plead the "national interest of Scotland", and support a minority Tory government after May as a Labour one, though he fails to spell out that this is because the SNP have emulated his hero Blair: "make your compromises in advance by broadening your party tent".

Since devolution in 1999, the Scots have voted differently in Scottish and UK elections. Tactical voting has become habitual. The oscillation in the popular vote has seen Labour gain a bonus of around 10% in general elections relative to its share in elections to the Scottish Parliament. Some of this comes at the expense of the SNP, but some also comes from the "others" - Socialists, Greens and independents - who have accounted for between 11% and 22% in Scottish elections (compared to under 5% in general elections). The Lib Dems have also gained a bonus, though a more variable one of between 4% and 11%. This is more likely to be predominantly SNP voters. The Tories' share of the popular vote saw negligible movement between Scottish and UK elections (indicating a hard-core of about 16%) until 2010 when the bonus was just under 3%, suggesting that the SNP had attracted 2-3% from the Tories in the Scottish election of 2007, increasing to 3-4% in 2011 (i.e. about a fifth of the Tory core vote shifts to the SNP in Holyrood elections).


As the SNP vote in elections to the Scottish Parliament has grown, so their discount in UK elections (i.e. the amount of the total vote that then deserts them) has increased, reaching 9% in 2010. The question is whether 2015 will "break the mould", shrinking this discount and keeping SNP support above 40%. I think this is unlikely. Despite the post-referendum bounce and Labour's troubles, I doubt the Scottish electorate will dispense with tactical voting altogether. This is still likely to produce a discount, even if the SNP benefits from greater tactical voting by former LibDems. The 44% secured by the SNP in 2011 looks like a high-water mark; and a proxy for the "yes" vote in 2014, with "no" voting SNPers offset by "yes" voting Labourites.

Though Labour's vote in Scotland will be down, I suspect it will be closer to 33% than the current prediction of 27%. Jim Murphy hasn't been parachuted in because he is attractive to Scottish voters, but because he has the tactical and organisational nous to engineer a late surge and get the vote out. The SNP share of the popular vote will probably be closer to 38% than the current, frothy 46%. If Murphy can "do a Netanyahu" and get the Labour vote up to 35%, the higher concentration of Labour votes in urban constituencies may mean the shift in seats to the SNP will be less dramatic than the pollsters predict, and Labour could still be the largest party at Westminster.

A lot of the anecdotal evidence of the turn against Labour points to the disgust of long-time supporters seeing the party share a platform with the Tories during the referendum. Some of this will dissipate come the ballot, not least because the UK-wide campaign will heighten the antipathy between Labour and the Conservatives and accentuate the material policy differences. If emotion can drive supporters away, it can also attract them back. The more anti-working class the Tories are seen to be during the general election campaign, the more likely that Scottish working class voters will cleave to Labour. It is anti-Tory middle class Scottish voters who are likely to cleave to the SNP, which is why the LibDems in Scotland face a greater existential threat than Labour.

There also appears to be a belief that as Labour has abandoned "socialism", which for many Scots simply means being pro-working class, there is little to be lost in voting for the SNP. Though the nationalists may be less "left" than they advertise, they will be sensitive to local demands and might hold Labour's feet to the fire in a coalition (the Tory posters suggesting that a vote for the SNP will result in a Labour-led coalition may be counter-productive). This belief combines both emotion and calculation - the underlying assumption being that most Scottish voters want a Labour-SNP coalition - but I suspect it's a minority view, and largely the product of media speculation. Labour's bigger worry is deserters rather than turn-coats, in other words their chances depend on getting out the vote.

Some English and Welsh voters, seduced by the myth of a social democratic SNP, may find the idea of a Labour-SNP coalition attractive, even though their assumption that the nationalists would act as an egalitarian conscience isn't consistent with either the party's neoliberal policies or its likely strategy. As an anti-UK party, they aren't going to be seduced into formal coalition like the LibDems: ministerial Daimlers would not go down well in Scotland. Instead, they will achieve more by offering vote-by-vote support in return for a series of staggered concessions throughout the Parliament. Ironically, a Labour administration dependent on the SNP could find itself edging leftwards in order to create some space between it and the nationalists, but don't bet on it. Insofar as Ed Miliband has a project, it is to put a kinder face on an already compromised neoliberal order, which post-2008 looks unimaginative at best and craven at worst. Without an outright majority, he is unlikely to commit to anything braver.


The chance of a longer-term recovery for Labour in Scotland depends on flushing out the SNP as the real heirs of Blair, but that can only happen if Labour in England makes a clean break with the Blairite past. Until then, the SNP have the luxury of being able to punt a neoliberal agenda, with suitably progressive adornments such as the cancellation of Trident, while attacking Labour for the legacy of their multimillionaire former leader. Assuming the LibDems implode in May, Labour could confront the Blairites confident that a centrist breakaway, a la the SDP, is an empty threat, but if the party fails to secure a majority, the Blairites will be emboldened. We could then end up with a post-Blair but still neoliberal Labour party in England and Wales and a noticeably similar SNP in Scotland. This could even become a fixture of the political landscape, like the CDU and CSU in Germany. The prospect of a less (or post-) neoliberal Labour party depends on an outright majority in May. The chief threat to that is the relative success of the "social democratic" SNP in Scotland, and the extent to which the turn against Labour that it has championed influences sentiment in the North of England.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Height of Impudence

The suggestion that the Greek government might seize the Goethe Institute in Athens, as part of its efforts to secure war reparations it considers it is owed by Germany, has a symbolic value far greater than any real estate gain. Paul Mason hopes it might encourage a German volte-face, much as Goethe changed his mind about the Greek struggle for independence, if only because a Grexit would weaken Europe's southern border and potentially embolden Russia, to US chagrin. I suspect that this is wishful thinking and that Washington is currently more concerned by rhetoric in Tel Aviv than in Athens.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has a significance in respect of the current friction between Greece and Germany, but less in terms of his philhellenism than in the idea of Germany as a beacon of European civilisation. This liberal conception, in which bourgeois culture is assumed to be independent of the state and a force for peace, is one of the twin strands that runs through the political culture of postwar Germany. The other strand is the Rechtsstaat, or just state, which sees the rule of law as the foundation of good government. The intellectual roots of this are Immanuel Kant's belief that there are universal principles that constitute a higher moral law: "The constitution of a state is eventually based on the morals of its citizens, which, in its turn, is based on the goodness of this constitution". These two strands are central to capitalist ideology in Germany (i.e. Ordoliberalism), but they are also increasingly central to EU policy as that becomes ever more Germanic.

The irony is that this should be working itself out through a focus on Greece, whose classical history was attractive to Goethe and other Germans partly because of its high regard for ethically-based law. The other irony is that the chief legal theorist of the Rechtsstaat in the twentieth century was Carl Schmitt, an academic jurist who acted as counsel to the Reich government of von Papen in 1932 when it dismissed the elected centre-left government of Prussia. This was a key step in the manoeuvrings of German conservatives that would culminate in their miscalculation of tactical support for Hitler. Schmitt became a member of the Nazi party in 1933 and an active anti-semite, though he was marginalised within a few years as unreliable. He remained an influential thinker in the postwar period because of his theories of state sovereignty and dictatorship and his critique of liberal democracy.


The presumption of the Rechtsstaat is that your own house is in order, while the legacy of Goethe is that Germany - despite the wrong turns of the twentieth century - has a legitimate claim to be a civic exemplar for Europe. This is not "Prussian arrogance" so much as bourgeois smugness, but a smugness founded on a diligent respect for law and human rights. In Britain, we observe the former and dismiss it as officiousness, ignoring the sincerity of the latter. Unlike the American model, where the Constitution sets boundaries and the Supreme Court is only brought into play in extremis, the Rechtsstaat pervades all aspects of law from the parish upwards. In the UK, sovereignty is believed to reside in Parliament (however farcical that may be in reality), while in France it resides in the people (which legitimises revolutions). In Germany, sovereignty resides in the Basic Law, which binds the executive, legislature and judiciary at state and federal levels.

The twin strands can be seen clearly in the person of Wofgang Schauble, the German Finance Minister. According to Der Spiegel, "Schäuble takes laws, treaties and agreements very seriously because he considers rule of law to be a fundamental trait of Western democracy and civilization. The casualness with which his newly elected Greek colleagues want to run roughshod over EU agreements is deeply abhorrent to Schäuble ... The German finance minister regards Europe as an educational project, one for which the past seven decades has been about civilizing the Europeans and educating them about peace and democracy ... Athens' revolt is reminiscent of a teenager who doesn't want to accept the limits to personal freedom that living in a mutually dependent collective necessitates -- moreover, in a collective designed by his predecessors".

In contrast to the media presentation of the purse-lipped, realistic Schauble appalled by the gobby Varoufakis and his mad ideas, this portrait shows the German Finance Minister to be an idealist and Syriza to be pragmatists, despite the snidery about irresponsibility and immaturity. The tussle over wording in the various communiques this year has been presented as a slippery Greece seeking to big up small (or nonexistent) gains and a pedantic Germany insistent on undermining those claims. In fact, what this shows is Greece doing what EU politicians have traditionally done - i.e. fudge and seek interpretative latitude - while it is Germany that is departing from EU tradition in refusing to make allowances for domestic political pressure. This suggests that the EU core, led by Germany, sees austerity as a one-time opportunity to "rectify" Greece, and perhaps even an opportunity to prepare for euro 2.0.


According to Der Spiegel, "For Yanis Varoufakis, the euro is a defective currency. For Schäuble, it is his legacy" (the former is unarguable, the latter debatable). For over twenty years, Schauble has been a proponent of tighter integration for a "hard core" of EU states, centred on a Franco-German axis. He expressed scepticism about the readiness of peripheral nations like Greece to join the euro in the 90s, and has repeatedly worried about the political drag caused by the anti-federalism and opportunism of the UK. For him, the danger of the EU project being compromised is greater than the danger of a Grexit or a two-speed Europe. The emerging danger for the European "periphery" is not that the euro is a new "cross of gold", but that some of its architects would prefer it to be more like the bed of Procrustes. In other words, simple pain may give way to more radical surgery.

While the concern for executive integrity is expressed in terms of the EU, or at least its core, the roots of Schauble's obduracy lie in the Schmittian belief that the authority of the state to act in the interests of the community is fundamental, and that the state must resist being beleaguered by group interests. Schauble sees the periphery as a set of group interests unwilling to fully integrate - i.e. to accept the rules of "a collective designed by [their] predecessors". Domestically, this is echoed by his view on immigration which is favourable (for pragmatic reasons, anticipating Germany's demographic decline) but unyielding in its demand for complete commitment to the community: "Integration: yes — double citizenship: no". While he isn't going to emulate the "Prussian coup" of 1932 and demand a change of government in Athens, the suspicion is that Schauble (if not Merkel) would be willing to amputate the "gangrenous" limb of Greece.

If Schauble's stance towards Greece is heavily informed by Ordoliberalism, in its concern with state (i.e. core EU) integrity as much as fiscal rectitude, it also echoes earlier classical liberal views on responsibility and the mission of civilisation, hence the language characterising the Greeks as "foolishly naive" and untrustworthy and mendacious for questioning the logic of austerity. This is where Schauble starts to sound less like Goethe and more like Charles Trevelyan, the UK Treasury official (and joint-architect of the British Civil Service) who considered the Irish Famine of 1845-52 to be "the judgement of God on an indolent and unself-reliant people, and as God has sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated: the selfish and indolent must learn their lesson so that a new and improved state of affairs must arise".


This is not to suggest an imperialist mindset in Berlin. Rather the similarities concern the conflict of "progressive" and "backward" forms of capital. It needs to be remembered that the racism of the Victorian establishment, which strikes us as offensive now, was unremarkable in the nineteenth century. Far more significant was the belief of the Whigs (in government 1846-52) that Irish landowners, many of whom were absentee Tories, were failing to properly develop Irish agriculture - i.e. to invest in larger farms and improvements - which was a continuation of their critique of the Corn Laws, whose repeal in 1846 had brought them to office. The modern parallel is the disdain of North European big capital for the oligarchic capital of Greece - the diaplekomenoi, or "entangled ones" - which it believes is as much of a hindrance to the necessary "restructuring" of the Greek economy as the "bloated" public sector.

The UK government provided £7m in famine relief to Ireland in the form of workhouse support, soup-kitchens and pointless public works (deliberately unproductive to avoid damaging private enterprise). In contrast, it compensated West Indian slave-owners to the tune of £20m in the 1830s (you can think of this "superior" claim as equivalent to the bailout of European banks). The Irish Poor Law Extension Act of 1847 shifted the responsibility for relief funds wholly onto Irish ratepayers (i.e. landlords and tenant farmers) in the spirit of liberal self-reliance. This exacerbated the famine because the sums raised were inadequate; because the requirement that landlords pay the rates of small tenants triggered mass evictions to consolidate tenancies; and because tenants holding more than a quarter of an acre were barred from assistance, prompting many to abandon their holdings. A private sector failure was transformed into a public sector crisis.

In the circumstances, the suggestion by Declan Costello, of the European Commission Directorate, that the Greek government should not unilaterally pass its "humanitarian crisis" bill to alleviate poverty looks obtuse. Fortunately, Costello is not representative of Europe as a whole, any more than Schauble is representative of all Germans. On the issue of wartime reparations, Gesine Schwan of the SPD notes: "It would be good for us Germans to sweep up after ourselves in terms of our history. Victims and descendants have longer memories than perpetrators and descendants". If Schauble doubts this, he could perhaps ask Declan Costello how Charles Trevelyan is still viewed in Ireland.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Time is Money

The news that the Apple Watch will cost between £300 and £700, depending on features (iPhone not included), confirms that it is being positioned as an elite "want" rather than a mass-market "need". The announcement of a £13k limited release gold and sapphire model seems rather superfluous in the circumstances. Though the coming ubiquity of the quantified self is real, and smartwatches will be part of it, Apple has no intention of stepping beyond its target demographic of the well-heeled. It also looks determined to launch the device primarily as a toy for boys. This association of time with gender and class is emblematic of the modern economy.


One of the revolutionary achievements of neoliberalism has been the breaking of ranks in respect of the fixed working week, with precarious employees scrabbling to secure minimum hours and many executives and professionals expected to be "available 24x7". Of course, plenty of people still work a 40-hour week, but they are not ideologically exemplary, so they don't get the media coverage. The key difference between the two extremes of "not enough" and "too much" is autonomy. Though executives complain about their busy schedules, they actually have a high degree of control over their own time (not to mention the time of others), while the low-paid are at the "text and call" of zero-hour employers. This is no different to the class divisions of the past when workers were subject to the regime of the workplace clock (and daily "picks" if casualised) while owners and managers had their own fob-watches (they literally possessed their own time).

The overwork of the "cash-rich, time-poor" is not the product of modern technology, as is often claimed, but a cultural choice: the architecture of email is not realtime and the marginal increase in accessibility brought by mobile phones is exaggerated. "Busyness" is performative. The cultural origins of this lie in America (with roots going back to the nineteenth century), reflecting the global spread of US corporate practices in the 60s and 70s. In the 90s, this was reinforced first by BPR (business processing reengineering) and outsourcing, which normalised the idea of management as a series of ongoing projects and organisational changes, and then by the spread of US "new economy" norms, such as working stupid hours in the expectation of an IPO or building a portfolio career (i.e. precarious, multiple part-time jobs).

One theory for the growth in hours worked by the highly-paid is that as wage inequality increases so the rewards for marginal hours become greater, encouraging more work. Though they aren't paid an hourly rate, "putting in the hours" is a way of indicating loyalty and implying productivity, which may lead to greater remuneration. This has a superficial plausibility, but there is an obvious flaw. In the majority of roles, the most productive workers are those that minimise their time, not those who maximise it. An alternative explanation is that presenteeism is thought to morally justify outsize rewards for those not on an hourly rate. In other words, it is partly motivated by social embarrassment and can be seen as a form of visible penance. What is significant is that both views see time not as a commodity that is exchanged for cash, but as a claim against a de facto rent.

Rent-seeking is not just a case of executive looting, such as university vice-chancellors adopting CEO norms, but also occurs through the creation of supernumerary roles. This may be endogenous, in the form of roles created to build and reinforce internal power structures, or exogenous, in the form of socially-mandated roles whereby elites take a cut from businesses or state bodies, such as non-executive directors or the members of quangos. The growth of whitecollar jobs relative to bluecollar has long been seen a sign of increasing human capital and thus aggregate productivity, but this ignores the greater scope for rent-seeking as jobs become less measurable in terms of individual output. Parallel to this, the growing demand for regulation and oversight (and thus responsibility) increases supervisory overheads. The drama of a Parliamentary committee, whether interrogating bankers or spooks, reflects the growth of software and automation, which in turn is feeding the growth in supernumerary roles.

Increasing inequality in pay is as much about the inequality in hours as it is in hourly rates. The need to "get the hours" drives behaviour at the bottom of the income scale, such as taking on a second job, and at the top, such as collecting non-executive gigs. This has a negative impact on productivity: at the bottom, it leads to soldiering in order to justify overtime, as well as labour-capital substitution; at the top it leads to superficiality - i.e. having insufficient bandwidth or expertise to be effective. The affront of various senior bankers and non-execs at HSBC that they couldn't be expected to know what was going on in their own organisation is not mere disingenuousness. Rona Fairhead, like her fellow HSBC non-execs, is paid to adorn a committee. She is not expected to actually do any work beyond read an audit report, sit through a meeting and nod assent.


Fairhead's understanding of her role, and the continuing debate about gender balance in boardrooms, shows that the gender pay gap is as much about "representation" (i.e. the value of symbolic presence) as it is about individual contribution. When top roles become de facto sinecures, they inevitably reflect wider prejudices. For example, pay disparities in Hollywood reflect the dynamics of the industry. "Stars" are paid proportionate to their ability to put bums on seats. This is why Emma Watson currently earns more than Timothy Spall. Women are at a structural disadvantage in that studios reflect and reinforce societal sexism, because that makes narrow economic sense: they are financially incentivised to be biased, which overrides their "liberal" norms. In contrast, there is little financial incentive to be biased in construction, which is why the gender pay gap is much smaller in that industry despite the assumed innate sexism of builders. Hollywood will be one of the last industries to achieve gender pay equality, despite Patricia Arquette's laudable exhortation.

Wider sexism dictates that watches are usually gender-specific. By making its smartwatch a chunky, feature-rich device, Apple is reinforcing the prejudice that a "tech watch" is a product for chisel-jawed men who do important stuff. In the modern economy, an ostentatious concern with time is significant both in terms of peer status and self-esteem, similar to the concern with never being "out of touch" while travelling or on holiday. Just as a Rolex says "too wealthy to give a toss", so an Apple Watch will say "too important to pay you even cursory attention".

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Death of a Clown

Whether engineered or not, "punchgate" looks like a convenient opportunity for the parting of the ways between Jeremy Clarkson and the BBC. Though still popular with young boys, Top Gear's healthy foreign sales, like Clarkson's increasingly desperate attention-seeking, are a clear sign that the vehicle is now running on fumes. While the Beeb might try and refresh the cast, like Last of the Summer Wine, it might equally just cut to the chase and create an entirely new series where ageing men are set ridiculous challenges in which pratfalls and hilarity ensue, like Last of the Summer Wine. The cast are obviously rich enough to retire, while writing gigs in the Tory press will satisfy the urge to take the ego out for the occasional spin.


In historical terms, Jeremy Clarkson successfully recycled and combined two particular strands of British humour: the casual bigotry of The Comedians, which had provided an "authentic" working-class contrast to the whimsy of middle-class comedy in the 1970s; and the sarcastic tone and overt political content of 1980s alternative comedy, which he repurposed to misanthropic ends long before the graduates of The Comic Strip started moaning about the Mansion Tax. Of course, the comedians of the northern club circuit in the 70s were never truly authentic, in the sense of reflecting their audience. Their reactionary "plain-speaking" reflected the comedians' own position as small businessmen: anti-government, anti-tax, pro-golf etc. Politically, they were less representative of the punters than the lunchtime strippers.

Born to a small businessman and a teacher in Doncaster in 1960, and starting out as a journalist on local newspapers, Clarkson was very much a product of the same milieu, albeit with middle-class pretensions - hence the private schooling. In many respects, he is far more representative of "Middle England" than Nigel Farage. If the UKIP leader is a de haut en bas populist who appeals to the social and geographic margins that regret the end of the twentieth century, Clarkson is a right of centre Tory loyalist who is comfortable with big capital, hierarchy and abroad (the Chipping Norton set are instinctive supremacists, not xenophobes). As an ideologist, Clarkson helped maintain the fiction of political correctness as an external imposition, particularly in the form of health and safety "gone mad", at a time when big capital was pushing for greater regulation as a deliberate strategy for the car industry. We have much safer cars today for the same reason we have fewer manufacturers and more automated factories.

British comedy has traditionally relied on innuendo and puns. This produced a range of styles in the twentieth century as comedy migrated from the stage to radio and TV, from the mock-offended (Frankie Howerd) through the befuddled (Tommy Cooper) to the cynical (Les Dawson). Arguably the most successful variant was the tease, the comedian who threatened to cross the line into outrage but never quite did, its most famous exponent being Max Miller. The basic dynamic of comedy - that "we" can safely laugh at "them" - meant that the jokes became increasingly vicious as the range of acceptable topics broadened and social tensions mounted from the 1960s onward. This was obvious not only in the "blue humour" of the clubs and the casual racism and misogyny of The Comedians, but in the increasing contempt shown by comics in the 70s for organised labour and the Irish.

Alternative comedy was a conscious response to this bigotry, but it was also a class project. Thatcherism allowed liberal middle class comedians who hadn't qualified for Footlights to indirectly patronise the working class for their material aspirations and ignorance. Clarkson took the political position of the 70s comedians and overlayed it with the style of the alternative comedians of the 80s. His persona was a mix of Lennie Bennett and Bill Hicks - including the hair of the former and the dress sense of the latter. His delivery was modelled on the classic tease, but done in a deliberately laconic, louche manner: mouthing the "n-word", employing ambiguity ("slope"), using "gay" as a derogatory term etc. This allowed a wide range of viewers either to imagine that Clarkson secretly shared their own prejudices or to excuse his flirting as ill-judged but essentially harmless.


It might appear odd that the BBC should take a dim view when he acts according to type. After all, they don't pay him handsomely for his opinion on cars but for his entertainment value. And while the essence of Top Gear is three privileged, middle-aged men playing at being kids again, it is clear that the show's popularity has much to do with the tension arising from the expectation that head boy Clarkson will skirt the border of acceptability. But taking a swing at someone during a tantrum is another matter entirely, even if it is behaviour consistent with a spoilt brat. Stepping over the line into physical abuse is not the sort of thing that the post-Savile BBC can take lightly. The question is, did Clarkson actually land a punch, or is this, in the style of a 1970s stripper on a Saturday lunchtime, just another tease?

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Passport to Pimlico

Wandsworth Borough Council is pushing ahead with plans for a new cycle and pedestrian bridge across the River Thames, connecting Nine Elms to Pimlico. A number of crossing points are being considered, but the most likely is between the under-construction US Embassy on the south bank and Dolphin Square on the north bank. The new embassy is a shiny cube that looks like a next-generation games console and is expected to act as the seed for a new diplomatic quarter as other national missions seek respite from the high rents of Belgravia. Dolphin Square is currently in the news as the alleged scene of murderous sex parties involving MPs in the 1970s (coincidentally, my paternal grandfather, a peripatetic Irishman, worked there as a porter between 1947 and 1956).


The bridge will intersect with Cycle Superhighway 8 (currently just blue paint), which runs from Ram Street in Wandsworth to Millbank in Westminster via Chelsea Bridge. Ram Street takes its name from the Ram Brewery, on the east bank of the Wandle River, which was owned by Youngs from 1831 to 2006. There has been brewing on the site since the 16th century, and Youngs still used horse-drawn drays for local deliveries until the eruption of road-rage in the 1990s. The brewery is currently being redeveloped into a 36-storey block of flats and various retail opportunities, though it will retain a brewing museum and a "micro-brewery". In contrast, Millbank is the gateway to the central "government district", bounded by Pimlico, Victoria and Charing Cross. Back when Youngs shipped their first cask, it was the site of the original "National Penitentiary" until superseded by Pentonville. The CS8 runs straight from beer to prison.

The bridge is symbolic in creating an umbilical link between the Conservative's traditional flagship councils in London, Westminster and Wandsworth, both of which enjoyed covert government financial support under Thatcher and Major following the introduction of the Poll Tax and later the Council Tax. However, the ruling Conservatives on Westminster Council do not appear keen on the proposal, presumably because there are few obvious benefits for their residents. There are only so many times you can find an excuse to pop into the US Embassy. The Transport for London feasibility study is lukewarm, noting that the height clearance needed for the bridge will necessitate stairs, ramps or possibly lifts that may make it less attractive to the key users, namely cyclists who want to avoid vehicle traffic on Chelsea and Vauxhall bridges.

The public consultation for the Nine Elms to Pimlico bridge (or "NEP Bridge", as we are urged to call it in ironically Bolshevik style) included a short exhibition of the competition entries (just concept art, really) held first on the north and then on the south bank. I attended the latter showing, in a community centre on the Patmore Estate between Battersea Park and the New Covent Garden fruit & veg market. It is unlikely many of the estate's residents, or those from the social housing along the Wandsworth Road, will use the new bridge, simply because the railway viaducts between Vauxhall and Queenstown Road, buttressed by the bulk of New Covent Garden, makes access to the riverside difficult. Most people simply get the bus to Vauxhall and cross the river from there. In reality, the Nine Elms development is creating an enclave of Central London (or international capital, if you prefer) south of the river, not unlike an enclave of Burgundy in Pimlico.


The major transport upgrade in the area will be the Northern Line extension, which will create a new Nine Elms station on Wandsworth Road next to the current Sainsbury's and a new terminus at Battersea Power Station (the two new stations will be either side of the tracks and clearly serving different communities). For residents of the infamous new flats being built around the old power station, this will mean a pleasantly short Tube journey to either the City or the West End. For those heading to Westminster, it's a 30 minute walk via Vauxhall Bridge. The new foot and cycle bridge might shave 5 minutes off this time. Despite the meagre benefit, the TfL feasibility study heroically assumes that the economic dividend accruing from this will more than pay for the £40m bridge over a 60-year lifetime.

Given that the distance is too short to make a local bike journey worthwhile for the lycra crowd, and that cyclists on the longer CS8 route will continue to use Chelsea Bridge, this looks wildly optimistic. Unless the bridge is a destination in its own right, which means it will probably cost a lot more than £40m to achieve the wow-effect, I doubt it will be much of a draw for pedestrians either. No doubt it will be a lovely stroll to work if you are an embassy understrapper and can afford a flat in Dolphin Square, but half the attraction of this pleasant commute will be its exclusivity. I suspect TfL are unconvinced by their own case (they are far more focused on the Tube extension) but have come under pressure from Ravi Govindia, the Wandsworth Council Leader, and his Tory chum at City Hall. For the Mayor, this is PR catnip: artistically-inclined civil engineering, urban regeneration waffle and cycle lanes.

The redevelopment of Battersea Power Station and Nine Elms is a continuation of Wandsworth Council's strategy of piling up expensive blocks of flats along the riverside. This has made the borough top-heavy, entrenching the Tory majority (Labour last held power in 1978). Most of the Labour voters are clustered in the south of the borough around Tooting, or in the west in Roehampton, with isolated pockets in the old council estates hemmed in by the new flats in Wandsworth Town and Battersea. The middle of the borough is a solid swathe of Tory wards from Putney Hill through Southfields, Earlsfield and Wandsworth Common to Clapham Common. Though the council isn't aggressively driving its tenants out of the borough, beyond pushing the "cash-in" of right-to-buy, the refurbishment of existing council housing stock often involves squeezing in new private builds (e.g. the Winstanley Estate at Clapham Junction), which exacerbates the cheek-by-jowl social polarisation.


This is planned immigration, but in a manner peculiar to London, which emphasises how fundamentally different to the rest of the country the capital has become. Long before the Battersea Power Station development was marketed off-plan in Hong Kong, the new flats along the riverside were being bought by buy-to-let investors and rented-out to young professionals, drawn to the capital from all four corners of the UK and the globe. There are signs that this is getting out of control and degrading the social fabric in ways that affect all classes, not just the poor. Enoteca Turi, one of best Italian restaurants in London, is currently under pressure from a landlord who wants to build more boxy flats behind Putney High Steet. Ten primary schools have been sold off to property developers since 1990, leading to the current lack of places in the borough (you can now rent a flat in the Old School Yard development at Eltringham Street for £2k a month). Battersea Sports Centre is to be replaced by affordable housing that everyone knows will be unaffordable for most.

The impact of this change is most obvious during the weekday commute, when the Tube and rail lines are heaving. The evolving plans for Crossrail 2 have been heavily influenced by the increased demand on Clapham Junction, Wandsworth Town and Earlsfield, in addition to the perennial pressure on the Wimbledon branch of the District Line (partially eased recently by new higher-capacity trains). There is even talk of further extending the Northern Line to Clapham Junction. In the circumstances, a foot and cycle bridge across the Thames, linking the US Embassy and an exclusive block of flats patronised by MPs, looks like a folie de grandeur on the part of Wandsworth Council. £40m would cover the construction costs of 5 new primary schools, and there'd be few doubts about the return on investment.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Home Improvement

Home improvement is considered a bellwether of confidence by economists. If you're thinking about selling your home (and doing so for positive reasons, i.e trading-up), there is a good chance you'll invest some time and money to spruce it up first. Similarly, if you're not planning to move but have found your wages now go a little further, you may decide to invest the surplus in a lick of paint. Not only does this make you feel happier in your surroundings (increased utility, in economese) but it represents a form of saving because you are investing in an asset (in reality, paint adds nothing to a valuation, but we'll let that pass). So, how are we to interpret the uncertainty at Westminster as to whether they should repair the leaking roof and fix the dodgy wiring? If the economy really is looking up, surely George Osborne should be circulating swatches by now?

John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, reckons that it may cost £3bn to renovate and modernise the Palace of Westminster, and that decanting the Commons and the Lords may be unavoidable in achieving this. Some MPs espy bitter sarcasm in Bercow's claim, arising from their rejection of his nominee as Clerk of the Commons last year (he is pitching for both "management of the very highest quality and a not inconsequential sum of public money"), a highly amusing spat that was illuminated by the recent documentary series Inside the Commons. The implicit message is that the Palace faces a major challenge requiring project and change management expertise, rather than just an intimate knowledge of Erskine May and the ability to wear a periwig the right way round. He may well be right.

The Northern Powerhouse (TM) crowd see this as an opportunity to temporarily (or even permanently) relocate the chamber of the Commons to Manchester Town Hall, with this very act of displacement magically reviving democracy and causing our legislators to become sensitive to the needs of the hinterland. This ignores the fact that the Parliamentary Estate includes a number of other large buildings, notably Portcullis House and the two Norman Shaw buildings on Victoria Embankment, that are used as offices for MPs, support staff and select committees. You're going to need more than one spare Victorian debating chamber in the North, and you're also going to need temporary tenants for those other London buildings to defray their costs.

There is also the small matter of the executive, i.e. the ministry buildings along Whitehall, Victoria Street and Millbank. It would be impractical to have ministers shuttling to-and-fro on the West Coast line, and video-links would lead to the marginalisation of backbenchers and the select committees, so splitting the executive and the legislature looks unlikely to be acceptable to anyone. Given the cost and disruption, moving the entire government is a non-starter, no matter how much spare office space there may be at Salford Quays. In short, a move out of London simply isn't going to happen, which is probably why it's a favourite with media-chunterers. The preferred approach of the 2012 Parliamentary study on the issue would be for the Palace to be renovated in stages, with the core stage requiring a "decant" of the two chambers to nearby temporary facilities, such as the Methodist Central Hall or the QE2 Conference Centre.


The great unmentionable in all this is that roughly half of the Palace's space is dedicated to the House of Lords (or Peers, to be pedantic) and its various ancillary facilities, such as libraries, dining rooms and bars. There are roughly 800 peers (some are "on leave"), compared to 650 MPs. Though they attend less frequently than members of the Commons, and many do not have dedicated offices, the peers take up a lot of real estate. One solution to the problem would be to abolish the House of Lords. Though I'm not in favour of a second chamber, you could leave this open and suggest that a new body, however finally constituted, should be established elsewhere. Both Tamworth and Kenilworth have a certain historical plausibility, and an institution based in the Midlands would be one in the eye for the Northern Powerhouse (TM).

With the Lords gone, the decanting of the Commons would be a lot more straightforward. The entire Palace of Westminster could then be renovated. More importantly, it could also be remodelled. The issue with the building is not just that it needs to be patched up, but that it needs to be repurposed for the 21st century. One obvious improvement would be to move the Commons to the larger and even more venerable Westminster Hall, currently used for joint sessions and the occasional lying-in-state, which would mean that all 650 MPs could get a seat (the current chamber can only seat 427, though this could probably be increased if they knocked through the voting lobbies that flank the chamber and employed electronic voting instead). It's worth remembering that the chamber has moved before, having previously occupied the area of St Stephen's Hall (the current entrance corridor to the Central Hall) before the fire of 1834.

I don't claim to be an expert on the intricacies of the building and therefore what would be either feasible or most desirable, but it strikes me that the current Commons and Peers chambers (plus lobbies) could be converted to libraries, with the current libraries (which face South over the Thameside terrace) converted to offices. Of course, there is an argument that libraries full of old books that few people actually refer to are an indulgence (a Gigabit LAN would be of more value to MPs and their assistants), but I suspect the desire for some visibly antique "tradition", along the lines of the Bodleian or Trinity College, would win out. Alternatively, the chambers could be used for the more high-profile select committees (I'm sure Keith Vaz would love to lord it over the former Lords), or they could be given over to the commercial functions that seem to be increasingly central (and emblematic) to the Palace's purpose.

There is also an argument for converting the private chambers of both the Speaker and the Lord Chancellor to offices for MPs and committees. The Lord Chancellor is the "chairman" of the Lords, so would have no site-specific purpose post-abolition. The Speaker's chambers include an official residence. Though there is a rationale for being on-site - the speaker or deputy has to be in attendance at every session - I suspect a suitable bunk-up could be found somewhere else in the Borough of Westminster. Alternatively, if we went the full hog and abolished the Monarchy, I'm sure a grace-and-favour apartment in Buck House could be arranged.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

The Rise and Fall of the Geek Empire

The unmasking of Jihadi John as Mohammed Emwazi, a Computer Science graduate from the University of Westminster, has revived the question of why so many Islamic terrorists are engineers of one sort or another. The key academic study is a 2007 paper, by the sociologists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, entitled Engineers of Jihad. This found that "a disproportionate share of engineers seems to have a mindset that inclines them to entertain the quintessential right-wing features of 'monism' – 'why argue when there is one best solution' – and of 'simplism' – 'if only people were rational, remedies would be simple'". When combined with religious belief, this also leads to 'preservatism', a desire "to restore a lost, often mythical order of privileges and authority, ... [that] emerges as a backlash against displacement or status deprivation in a period of sharp social change".

The study also finds some evidence for "field socialisation". As engineering jobs tend to be more closely associated with business (i.e. private rather than public sector), the normative values of engineering professions tend to be conservative: you get on in your career by echoing the orthodoxy. There is also evidence that the over-production of engineering graduates in the Middle East in the 1970s and after (driven by the oil boom and state investment in infrastructure) may have produced increased graduate disaffection after the oil price drop in the 1980s led to curtailed investment and a dearth of jobs. This was exacerbated by corruption, whereby jobs were secured through connections rather than ability, which offended the meritocratic sensibilities of engineers. The over-supply of graduates also reflected the attraction of engineering as an apolitical discipline in societies where challenging authority was not encouraged.

Though the paper's focus was on Jihadis, and the particular intersection of a conservative worldview with the moral certainties of Islamic fundamentalism, its findings in respect of engineers were much broader. Studies of American academics in the late 1960s found that engineers "were disproportionately Republicans and voted disproportionately for Nixon, the only academics to do so more than the average population. They were also the strongest supporters of both the Vietnam war and of classified weapons research on campus". Significantly, this bias was also found among students (i.e. it isn't just the result of institutionalisation): "engineering students are more conservative than students in any other subject. This obtains for both ‘un-socialised’ students in the first four semesters as it does for those in subsequent semesters". Over and above field socialisation and structural or socio-economic factors, this suggests that engineering attracts students already primed for a conservative worldview.


In the case of a minority, this mindset can develop into Manichean extremism: the belief that any means are justified in an all-out war between good and evil. Many politicians have referred to ISIS as "nihilistic", and some commentators have even revived the phrase "propaganda of the deed" in respect of the group's atrocity videos. Islamic jihadis are the polar opposite of nihilists. To put it in binary terms, monists believe in 1, nihilists believe in 0 (and pluralists believe in n). As Walter says in the Big Lebowski: "Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos". ISIS clearly have an ethos. Similarly, the propaganda of the deed (as originally conceived) was a tactic to reveal the artificiality of power. Regicide proved that kingship was merely a human convention, not divinely-appointed. Dynamiting a police station was meant to show that the power of the state was resistible and vulnerable. Decapitating a helpless prisoner proves nothing. One reason why ISIS invest so much effort into the quality of their media output is because their deeds have no persuasive power in themselves.

Gambetta and Hertog make an interesting observation: "Friedrich von Hayek, in 1952, made a strong case for the peculiarity of the engineering mentality, which in his view is the result of an education which does not train them to understand individuals and their world as the outcome of a social process in which spontaneous behaviours and interactions play a significant part. ... this would make them on the one hand less adept at dealing with the confusing causality of the social and political realms and the compromise and circumspection that these entail, and on the other hand inclined to think that societies should operate orderly akin to well-functioning machines". The irony is that Hayek was criticising the delusions of central planning. His fear was that the engineering mindset advanced socialism. A further irony is that Hayek-influenced libertarians who have used the Internet to abjure government have usually ended up creating authoritarian fiefdoms to address problems of social trust.

The sociology of Silicon Valley has long focused on the apparently paradoxical hybrid of market economics and social liberalism. Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, in an influential 1995 essay, explained that "the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies". This view is based on the assumption that the new technology industries arose when "West Coast radicals became involved in developing new information technologies for the alternative press, community radio stations, home-brew computer clubs and video collectives". In fact, the roots of the new economy were to be found in the early interpenetration of academia, business and government (notably defence), which had a historic locus in California that long-predated Haight-Ashbury. The subsequent cultural focus on libertarianism and "crazy individualists" distracts from this conformist and compromised reality (Inherent Vice is a better guide than Atlas Shrugged).


Where Barbrook and Cameron were more insightful was in seeing the reactionary delusions that lay behind "technological emancipation". The vision of transhumance and the singularity, like the dream of robot butlers and virtual reality, is a narcissistic desire to escape the reality of class relations: the dependence on the coerced labour of inferior others that has been the achilles heel of libertarian thought since Thomas Jefferson's slave apartments. "If only some people have access to the new information technologies, Jeffersonian democracy can become a hi-tech version of the plantation economy of the Old South. Reflecting its deep ambiguity, the Californian Ideology's technological determinism is not simply optimistic and emancipatory. It is simultaneously a deeply pessimistic and repressive vision of the future."

What Hayek was characterising was a personality type that combines social autism with a reverence for machine-like order. This is what we would subsequently call a "nerd", a word which appears to have been coined at about the same time that Hayek was writing. Initially, nerd had connotations of the conventional as well as the awkward, a synonym for "square". Its association with scientifically-minded earnestness reflected the priorities of the time: the father of the nerd was the absent-minded professor. Despite recent efforts to lionise the privately-educated misfit (Zuckerberg, Turing, Hawking et al), the popularisation of the concept - embodied in the spectacle-wearing kid who was good at maths and got thumped for his pains - reflected the expansion of universal secondary education and optometry after 1945. The era of the nerd was the Atomic Age, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1990s (the de facto end of nuclear testing). As a historical phenomenon, the nerd reflected the postwar compromise of social-democracy and conservativism: "the white-heat of technology" meets Dungeons & Dragons.

From the mid-90s the word nerd starts to be gradually supplanted by "geek", though they are not strictly synonymous. The distinction between the geek and the nerd is essentially one of capital and labour: "Geeks are fans, and fans collect stuff. Nerds are practitioners, and practitioners play with ideas". In other words, accumulating versus making. If the nerd was a product of secondary education, the geek appears to have been the result of the growth in tertiary education, particularly in the practical sciences such as engineering and IT. In a sense, geekiness was an ironic recuperation of nerdiness through commodities by 20-year olds looking back at their 15-year old selves. The ascent of the geek was driven by the spread of the Web, a product of the tertiary education sector with a strong "cataloguing" paradigm, while the wider diffusion and dilution of the term after 2000, to the point where it has come to mean little more than "enthusiast" (i.e. consumer), was the result of social media and competitive sharing. The shifting balance between the terms reflects the pivotal commercialisation of the Internet in the mid-90s.


Since then, the terms geek and nerd have become largely interchangeable in the world of work and consumption, though there is still a sense of geek/enthusiast and nerd/expert being overlapping rather than coterminus. Culturally, the prevalence of both terms is part of the wider "kidult" phenomenon by which youth culture is recommodified for adults, but it also reflects the increasing age of the self-appointed (male) guardians of the Internet, the "Dads of Tech". One reason for the wider popularity of geekdom as a positive style may be the appeal of its inherent prescriptiveness: best-of lists, the certainty of collectibles, the "right way" of doing things (from software to baking). It may offer a sense of security and identity persistence in the face of churning modernity and increasingly precarious employment.

The geek collectible is an extreme form of the idea that we achieve actualisation through commodities. Where once the hobbyist created value through their own labour (a tendency that still lives on among "makers"), or subversively invested trivial commodities with significance (stamp-collecting, train-spotting), now we see the exemplar geek as an "entrepreneur of himself" who judiciously invests money as well as time: buying and trading comics, buying and watching box-sets, buying and recording experiences. Part of the traditional fan trope was the contrast between the day job and the leisure interest: the compartmentalisation between the accountant and the Civil War re-enactor. As the formal boundary between work and play has eroded, so the identification offered by cultural capital has become more important to workplace self-esteem. In parallel, cultural capital has been democratised by the incursion of fandom (recall the emblematic crossover of Nessun dorma and football in 1990), which has in turn fed conservative fears about dilution and dumbing-down.

A consequence of this tension has been the increasing status anxiety of expertise. Before anyone is "entitled" to an opinion, they have to prove their credentials. Maintaining a geek identity is exhausting: collecting a complete set, watching an entire series, attending every convention etc. The paranoia this engenders is not just the result of the profusion of commodities (the fear of missing out), but the fear of being deemed inferior because of a lack of commitment. This leads to the tendency to express fandom as grievance ("we no longer know how to enjoy art without enjoying it against others") and the monstering of those thought to be "phonies". The latter has been spectacularly misogynistic, for example Gamergate and the fake-geek-girl meme (a male geek is a male - a female geek is a category error).


The geek is the ironic "new man" of the ironic new economy. He (and it's usually a he) is presented as economically triumphant, hence the emblematic importance of various tech entrepreneurs and their Ozymandias-like ambition, but the reality is that the new economy is creating fewer well-paid jobs due to the network effects of software. We over-estimate the size of the geek cohort (in the sense of employed engineers and techies) because of the overlap with funded hipsterdom, job title inflation (data analysis is often just poorly-paid clerical work), and the adoption of geek style along with the expansion of IT into existing distributive sectors of the economy (media, creative, marketing etc). At a time when the original nerds are retired, and The Big Bang Theory is a leading sitcom (i.e. the realm of nostalgia), the idea that Mary Berry is considered a geek hero surely indicates that we have well and truly passed "peak geek". The down-slope may not be pretty.

Just as economic stagnation in the Middle East in the 80s led to a surplus of engineering graduates, so we are now seeing a surplus of computer scientists in the West as the neoliberal fetishisation of tertiary education collides with secular stagnation. Predictably, it is graduates from less privileged backgrounds who are most likely to be unemployed and consequently disaffected. In that sense, Mohammed Emwazi is all too typical. But it would be wrong to imagine that this combination of an engineering mindset and conservatism is peculiar to Islam, or even that it is peculiar to graduates (see Anders Breivik). It goes all the way back to the source, so it should come as no surprise that in recent years, as the dream of the IPO has receded and technology companies have became ever more entwined with the state, disgruntled Silicon Valley libertarians have lurched towards the neoreactionary howlings of the Dark Enlightenment.

In the circumstances, politicians demanding the reinstatement of control orders to "combat terrorism", or the carte blanche extension of surveillance technology, are not just reinforcing the authoritarian tenor of the times, but are also "performing nerd": insisting that there is a ready solution, that technology can cure our ills, and that we can restore a lost order. But these are recycled prescriptions, less credible today than they were a decade ago. We are in a period of stagnation, not just in respect of the economy, but in terms of political and cultural ideas. We shore up the shattered edifices of banks, political parties and failed states. We recyle fashions, we substitute diet for ethics, we exhaust the superhero mine. As Edward Gibbon said in respect of the Roman Empire, "All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance". The geek is decadent.