Search

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Syria from my Armchair

The armchair generals of the British media are unanimous that we must drop bombs on Syria, though none are able to justify it in terms of military utility. When killing foreigners as a political gesture is under discussion, there are generally two approaches you can take: claim that its a regrettable but necessary component of a bigger plan, or admit it is a cynical calculation to satisfy an ulterior motive. Natalie Nougayrède goes for the former, because the Guardian doesn't do cynical (though it does do bigotry: she claims "The Middle East is spewing out its violence on to our continent"). Her plan is to persuade Russia to execute a "strategic shift", laying off the anti-Assad rebels and concentrating fire on Daesh: "If those [moderate] rebels can be 'freed' from having to fight on that front (located in the west of Syria), they would become available to move against Isis (mostly in the east)".

She does not explain why rebels in Western Syria, many of whom are defending their own local communities, would wish to fight in the east, thus leaving their homes vulnerable to the Assad regime. Perhaps she imagines Putin can provide guarantees. To put this in perspective, there were relatively few in Western Ukraine prepared to trudge over to the Donbass or Crimea last year (many Ukrainians thought they were well-shot of ethnic Russians), so why would we expect this strategy to work in a state that is an ethnic and religious patchwork? Like David Cameron's 70,000-strong phantom army, this is an example of the sort of magical thinking that led the US and its allies to imagine that destroying the institutions of the Iraqi state in 2003 would prompt an efflorescence of civic-minded democracy and "freedom-loving".

Janet Daley in the Telegraph attempts a more nuanced position (I never thought I'd find myself writing that), combining both a cunning plan and a cynical calculation, in which she deploys both internationalist and isolationist tropes (incidentally illustrating my point from the previous post). But first, Daley must vent her spleen against the unknowable other, both Arab and Russian: "What we are faced with is a virulent and highly contagious madness, a hysterical death cult which has, almost by accident, fallen on the fertile ground of global circumstances: chaos in the Middle East, confusion and lack of resolve in the West and the awakening of a ruthless, opportunistic power base in the East." It sounds a bit like Tolkien fan-fiction, though I'm still struggling to understand what she means by "almost by accident".


Her cunning plan is another coalition (fellowship?) of the willing: "But there is no time any more for international recriminations or parochial introspection. The old enmities and suspicions – between the West and Russia, Turkey and the Kurds – are going to have to be put aside in the name of one unified, relentless effort to stamp out an epidemic of murderous lunacy." Short of a genuine existential threat, which Daesh is not, it is hard to see why these old enmities would be so easily put aside. Her ulterior motive is to chip away at the EU as we simultaneously cleave to France, one of its main props: "Europe will have, paradoxically, to be both more united and less convergent. If the Schengen agreement – the sacred principle of 'open borders' – was already in question because of the flood of migrants from precisely the region which is spawning this movement, it must now be regarded as outrageously dangerous."

The wholly cynical position is outlined by Fraser Nelson, also in the Telegraph: "This is a political mission more than a military one. For years, Britain has been haemorrhaging influence in Washington – diplomats there have been shocked to hear France being mentioned as America’s most reliable European partner. Our absence from the Syria campaign stands out – and sends worrying signals about our reliability as a partner. With our troop numbers being cut back, we need partnerships. And this means stepping up to join alliances when the time comes." What Nelson is perhaps too coy to mention is that standing shoulder to shoulder with the French now will also put credit in the bank ahead of the negotiations over EU reform. The risks to Britain of air-strikes are small, assuming we steer clear of Turkish air-space, while the political capital to be gained is significant if not great. The possibility of collateral damage, i.e. dead civilians, is a marginal consideration.

The central failure of the media in its coverage of Daesh has been the reluctance to discuss the geopolitical balance of the Middle East in anything but the most cartoonish of terms: evil Daesh, slightly less evil Assad, a bunch of other people we know little about, and those crazy Russkis. The region centred on Baghdad (draw a circle with a radius of 550 miles) is the confluence of continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. The Northern half of the circle is dominated by what was traditionally referred to as the "fertile crescent", or the "cradle of civilisation" (ironic in the current context), which runs from the lower Nile via Syria to the Persian Gulf. The area has always been a contested, volatile melting-pot, and the site of imperial ambitions from the Assyrians through Alexander the Great to the Ottoman Turks. The current religious, ethnic and cultural patchwork that is Syria is the product of millennia, not just centuries. Janet Daley's "accident" has been a long time in the making, and enmity and suspicion remains the norm.


The contemptuous references by Daesh to "crusaders", like the predictions of an apocalyptic battle near Dabiq (which echoes the historical role of many earlier "decisive" battles in the region, such as Guagamela, Yarmouk and Manzikert), points to the degree to which the organisation's ideology is dependent on the necessity of foreign, and specifically Western, intervention. It is also a back-handed compliment as the medieval crusaders considered the region, and specifically Jerusalem, to be the centre of the world (graphically displayed on the Mappa Mundi). The public image of Daesh is a postmodern performance of ironic Orientalism, often by Western recruits who know little of the region, in which the traditional slurs against Arabs (cruelty, sexual excess, slavery etc) are adopted as badges of distinction for all Muslims (the vast majority of whom are not merely appalled by it but baffled). This theatre obscures the geopolitical contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which transcends theology, and allows Western powers to justify their intervention on "civilisational" grounds.

The danger posed by Daesh to the West is objectively trivial, just as was the threat of al-Qaeda after 9/11. This is not a glib point about peanut allergies killing more people than terrorism, but a recognition that asymmetric warfare does not pose an existential threat to foreign states. Just as the Viet-Cong did not defeat the USA, nor the IRA defeat the UK, so Daesh will not defeat any country, let alone NATO. At best it will make its own extirpation so costly that its enemies will be drawn to the negotiating table. The reason why Daesh will fail is because it cannot credibly negotiate without compromising its USP in the eyes of Sunnis - i.e. the implacability performed in its videos. Given that it is engaged in a long suicide mission, and assuming that the Sunni tribes that currently support it in Syria and Iraq have no desire for self-destruction, the best hope for Daesh's opponents is an internal revolt.

The chief impediment to that is not the strength of Daesh (or its paranoid culling of local Sunnis deemed traitors or apostate), or even the fear that a freed Eastern Syria would be reabsorbed by the Assad regime, but the reluctance of Saudi Arabia to risk any action that might benefit Iran. A revolt by the Sunni tribes in the areas now controlled by Daesh could provide a pretext for the Iranians to intervene directly in Syria, and that is a risk that the Saudis do not want to run. Contrary to the claims of Natalie Nougayrède and David Cameron, the only military force in the region capable of decisive intervention on the ground is Iran. Given a free hand, it could eliminate Daesh within a few weeks, with or without Russian or NATO air support, but the blow to Saudi prestige would potentially trigger further Shia advances from Yemen through the Gulf to Lebanon. The nightmare scenario in Riyadh is a new crescent of Shia ascendancy stretching from Iran through Northern Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean, adding to their existing worries over Yemen and Bahrain.


It is worth remembering that the current presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Iraq is the long-run result of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, a conflict triggered partly by fears of a wider Shia resurgence following the Iranian revolution of 1979, and in which Saudi Arabia and the US both actively supported Saddam Hussein's regime. Viewed over the long term, the Western invasion of Iraq in 2003 was merely another miscalculation in the ongoing strategy of containing Iran, in which the attempt to decapitate an unreliable buffer (Saddam) simply led to the trashing of Iraq and the extension of Iran's influence to Baghdad. Arguably, you can trace the roots of this strategy back a further 50 years to the US and UK-engineered 1953 coup d'etat against the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh, who had nationalised the previously British-controlled oil industry in Iran (the Anglo-Persian Oil Company subsequently evolved into BP). The US was initially reluctant, considering the UK policy to be hell-bent on "rule-or-ruin", but came round when the Brits suggested Mossadegh would cosy-up to the USSR (familiar attitudes, familiar players).

With Saudi Arabia itself a fragile state, corrupt and facing falling oil revenues, there is the possibility of a populist Salafi coup against the monarchy in the event of a Shia advance, which means that the "really existing Caliphate" might simply transplant itself to the Arabian Peninsula and look to proactively protect Sunnis not only in Syria and Iraq but in Jordan and Palestine, leading to a wider conflagration. The bind for the West is that Saudi Arabia remains the chief source of Sunni-Shia antagonism, and thus the fuel for clerical conservativism in Iran and Afghanistan, but its nature as a kleptocracy, dependent on artificially-maintained antique social relations, means that it cannot reform without the risk of turning overnight into a failed state. Saudi Arabia is an unexploded bomb that cannot be defused.

At present, the Western calculation is that propping up the House of Saud is the least-worst option, much as they calculate that indulging settlement expansion is an acceptable price to pay for Israel's covert role in keeping Saudia Arabia stable and supporting its constraint on Iranian ambitions. The Arab-Persian conflict, manifested in the Sunni-Shia schism, is ultimately the reason for the limbo of Palestine and the failure of Syria. This has led to tacit Western backing for the Saudi policy of doing nothing and letting Syria burn. In this context, more Western bombs or drones really don't help. Indeed, a cynic would suggest that neither Hollande nor Cameron expect the air-strikes to do more than satisfy domestic blood-lust until the first Syrian hospital or school is hit and public opinion turns. By then the armchair generals will no doubt be blaming the phantom army for failing to turn up.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Our Island Story

The chief division in British politics is between isolationism and internationalism: our island story. Being fundamental, this cuts across political parties, though the relative waxing and waning of the tendencies within each organisation tells us much about changes in long-term class interests, and short-term political calculation.  Britain has always had to combine the two, essentially because a truly isolationist approach is not feasible unless you are continental scale, like the USA, Russia or China. Being "open to the world" is a boast that British politicians can easily make because the opposite, being closed to the world, is frankly incredible. The ability to straddle these two horses is often the ability most admired in domestic politicians, from Gladstone through Churchill to Nicola Sturgeon.

The British Empire was a form of internationalism that required a strong isolationist stance: we would not get involved in continental entanglements because we were busy on the other side of the globe. Similarly, the transition from empire to the European Union has been marked by an instrumental use of isolationist tropes ("our money", "our demands") while advancing greater integration (Maastricht etc). Even now, advocates of Brexit talk about how "leaving" will allow us to forge closer ties with other parts of the world. Not even UKIP is suggesting that we emulate the Japanese era of Sakoku and quarantine ourselves from foreign influence. British elites are adroit at playing these two chords, advancing sectional interests (most notably the City) by first stressing one and then stressing the other.

The chief problem this gives rise to is not manifest in domestic politics, given that both tendencies are found in varying degrees inside all parties, but in international relations. Though you'd never know it from the British media, the foreign perception of the UK remains heavily influenced by l'Albion perfide. This is most striking in the hyperbolic realm of sport, which is why comically corrupt outfits like FIFA still see mileage in playing the hypocrite/sour-grapes card in response to British (or more often English) criticism, and why we in turn are prone to assume that the English FA's performance is best explained by blazered incompetence rather than cupidity or malice. No doubt Seb Coe's fall from grace, if it comes, will be excused at home as "poor judgement" or "naivety", rather than an over-fondness for money and status perks.


When foreigners, particularly our bezzies in Western Europe, talk about the "British sense of fair play", they are often being ironic. There is a genuine admiration for popular British attitudes, i.e. the habits and values of the people, witness the number of foreign managers and players who rave about our football culture (but, let's be honest, you don't rock up on day one and tell your employers their game is "shit on a stick", as Jorge Valdano memorably did from a distance). But there is also a belief that the UK is unprincipled and unreliable in the sphere of international affairs, hence our sports administrators are treated with suspicion abroad, particularly when they pontificate about ethical standards. In other words, foreign observers are often more acute in distinguishing between the people and national elites than the natives are.

The continental media coverage of the marital infidelities of the British royal family, which we largely ignored until the 1980s, despite the ample evidence, was also emblematic of this perceived unreliability and hypocrisy. So, in reverse, was the longstanding British belief that our public servants and commercial institutions were peculiarly free of the corruption that plagued other countries. The last 30 years have revealed corruption on an industrial scale in the City, not to mention among the police, local government and politicians, yet we still cling to the myth of "bad apples", or slyly suggest that the misbehaviour arose from precipitously advancing the "wrong sort", from working class traders to ethnic-minority council officials, due to misguided "political correctness".

The current friction in the Parliamentary Labour Party can easily be framed as pacifism vs belligerence, and thus shunted into the meaningless siding of "national security", but this is to miss the underlying conflict between isolationism and internationalism, which has traditionally manifested itself in Labour as socialism in one country versus European social democracy. There are very few principled pacifists, just as there are few people who think we should pile into every fight going, so it is misleading to harp on about Jeremy Corbyn's personal preferences. The idea that he might resign "on principle" if the PLP votes to bomb Syria strikes me as far-fetched, not to mention an over-determination of the parallels with George Lansbury.

It is easy to forget that Lansbury's pacifism was part of a wider internationalist strain that arose during the interwar years that actively pursued multilateral solutions, especially through the League of Nations, and which was social democratic in its domestic policies (it's worth remembering that Lansbury's greatest modern admirer is John Cruddas). His departure from the leadership in 1935 was due to the shift in internationalist sympathy within the party in the early 30s away from peace towards resistance against Fascism. One thing we know about Corbyn is that he enjoys strong support among party members and there has been no major shift in their attitudes yet. The key moment in 1935 was Ernest Bevin's denunciation of Lansbury at the annual party conference over the latter's opposition to League sanctions (and potential force) against Italy in respect of Abyssinia.

However, it should not be forgotten that Bevin was also instrumental in ensuring TUC and Labour Party support for non-intervention in Spain, after the outbreak of civil war in 1936, until shopfloor and constituency party pressure prompted a volte-face in 1937. In other words, the process by which the historically isolationist TUC leadership and the right of the Labour Party became actively internationalist took 15 years, following the 1931 split, and was only cemented by the exigencies of war, American pressure and the realisation that the UK's future influence would largely depend on keeping the US onside. Isolationism still lived on, hence the reluctance to get involved in the embryonic moves towards European unity and the continued support for the Sterling area, but multilateral internationalism, in the form of NATO, was the bedrock of postwar foreign policy.


The socialist left went through a comparable transformation, though moving in the opposite direction and over a later period, from roughly 1940 to 1956. The start of this shift was marked by the Battle of Britain ("Very well, alone"), boosted by the achievements of the Attlee administration (often assumed, wrongly, to be unique), and closed with the Russian invasion of Hungary. The left sought to combine this isolationist stance with a continued commitment to multilateral solutions (notably via the UN) and support for the oppressed abroad, reflecting the rank-and-file's instinctive internationalism. It resolved the apparent contradiction by promoting a romantic British exceptionalism (hence the renewed interest in the 17th century and the roots of domestic socialism among Marxist historians) along with a commitment to economic unilateralism that would culminate in the Alternative Economic Strategy and the campaign to quit the EEC.

That the two wings of the party should have swapped clothes like this is not so remarkable. While pacifism may be a point of principle for some, the competing sirens of isolationism and internationalism are treated pragmatically by most. British politics is constantly debating the merits of free trade versus protectionism, and multilateralism versus unilateralism. While the French have a historic bias towards protectionism because of the centralised state, and the Germans a recent abhorrence of unilateralism due to Nazism, the British are happily two-faced. The attraction of unilateral nuclear disarmament for many socialists has always been the unilateralism, not the disarmament (remember that Michael Foot, despite being a supporter of CND, was a vocal advocate of war with Argentina).

Though some historians have claimed that Labour's reconciliation with the EU in the late 80s and early 90s was due to a desire to employ social legislation as a defence against Thatcherism, this ignores both the facts on the ground (the Social Chapter did not prevent the erosion of worker rights and living standards in the UK any more than it did in Germany) and the persistent strength of internationalist feeling among the party membership. As the Tories became more isolationist and fractious over the EU, the Labour Party became more comfortably internationalist simply because this was a pragmatic oppositional manoeuvre. There was an attractive space it could happily move into. However this did not mean that its own isolationism dwindled, merely that it went underground.

It resurfaced when Tony Blair twisted the evidence of Iraqi WMD to fulfil a promise to the Americans. This was an affront to sovereignty: our ability to unilaterally decide what was in the country's best interests (you may recall that Blair's sole unilateral intervention, in Sierra Leone, did not generate significant criticism). Inasmuch as Labour currently has a policy over the absurdity that is "shoot to kill", it is unilateral. Saying "we shouldn't automatically shoot" doesn't mean we won't shoot, merely that we reserve the right to decide for ourselves when and if we shoot. Similarly, refusing to join the posse to bomb Syria is less an expression of pacifism and more an expression of independence (and a reasonable scepticism about military and political utility), even if wrapped in a commitment to multilateral negotiation.

In this light, the PLP's failure to support Corbyn is less about their fear that he is iffy on national security or the summary execution of terrorists and more about the fear that he wishes to pursue a more isolationist and unilateral foreign policy. There are a lot of careers in the Labour Party that started with a stint in the Berlaymont in Brussels and benefited from a trip to Washington. Even though John McDonnell's emerging economic policy is mild social democracy, it represents a shift towards a more unilateral approach in rejecting the prevailing political orthodoxy in Europe (and is thus ironically closer to economic orthodoxy and US policy). What we're witnessing is the latest turn in the dynamic tension between isolationism and internationalism. The moment of crisis will come not over Syria, let alone the operational mandate of armed police units, but over the EU referendum.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Decline of Scepticism

More than in the January attacks, which focused on sites that were representative of self-identifying minorities (satirists and Jews), the recent Paris assaults featured sites that could be identified with by most people - restaurants, a football ground, a concert hall - as well as a random selection of victims that was an approximation of society at large. This allowed last week to be characterised as an attack on Paris en tout, and by extension on the enlightenment values that the City of Light is held to represent. Not just free speech and the right to be annoying, but personal liberty and cultural diversity: vive la difference. There was little scepticism about whether Paris really can claim to be such an exemplar of tolerance and integration, even when the action moved from the café terraces of the 11th arrondissement beyond the Périphérique to the chicken shops of Saint-Denis.


The celebration of the dead as martyrs to a collective cause, regardless of their personal beliefs or circumstances, is a common response. For example, Ken Livingston's reaction to the July 2005 bombings was to describe London as "our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another", which was a suitably multicultural update on the Blitz Spirit and "London can take it". This is understandable, not least as a way of expressing solidarity - an attack on you is an attack on us - but it quickly turns a set of personal tragedies into a catechism of values, intended to divide "us" from "them". Even the criticism of the terrorists' binary worldview, their rejection of the "greyzone", becomes a dividing line in the hands of a media.

The claim that the assault on the Bataclan Theatre was an attack on civilisation is not merely patronising to the Middle East, it seeks to conscript the entire French population - the "civilians" who embody this civilisation - into a total war. Just as the hyperbole after the January attack led many to say "Je ne suis pas Charlie", so there will be many now who will question what this "civilisation" is and why they should risk their lives for it. Unsurprisingly, this leads some to seek more eternal values, above the political fray and the pressure to pick sides, hence perhaps the popularity of Antoine Leiris's eulogy to his murdered wife, which evoked the Catholic ideal of the Holy Family: madonna, child and a stoic husband.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo did not lead to a greater respect for free speech or cultural sensitivity, merely a standoff between absolutists and relativists, the vast majority of whom were uninterested in the context of the magazine or the role of gouaille in French history. The attack on the Jewish supermarket prompted Benjamin Netanyahu to opportunistically advocate voluntary repatriation to Israel at a time when French secularists were demanding greater integration by Muslims. In all its dimensions, the "debate" arising around the January attacks was sterile and incoherent. It's early days, but the current debate does not look like it will be much better. France may have "declared war" on Daesh, but its objectives in respect of Syria are no clearer now than they were last month while the objection to random murder hardly needs emphasising.

The state response to last Friday's attacks does not look particularly enlightened, featuring limits on the freedom of movement, demands for greater communications surveillance, and the advocacy of a "shoot to kill policy", despite the lack of evidence that any of these measures would have changed the outcome had they been in place in France, and despite the sorry precedent of shoot-to-kill in Northern Ireland. The desire to find proof of both refugee involvement and the use of encrypted comms shows the extent to which the media agenda is now being driven by government briefings. If migration is once more in the mix in the UK, this is because Number 10 has decided to foreground it, not Nigel Farage. What was notable about the media response, particularly on TV, was not the stupidity or partisan bias but the lack of scepticism. That lack can be traced back to both the fall of the Berlin Wall and the development of the Internet.


The distrust of government that emerged in Western media between 1956 and 1976 (All the President's Men marked the apogee) was a paradoxical product of the Cold War: a realisation that liberal values had to be reflexive and sincere if they were to be preserved and ultimately prevail against Soviet communism. The fall of Richard Nixon was as encouraging to dissident morale in Eastern Europe as the Helsinki Accords. This critical stance meant the erosion of lingering pre-liberal norms, such as deference, and the revival of classical liberal attitudes to personal liberty, hence the renewed popularity of John Stuart Mill. The instrumentality of this in preparing the ground for neoliberalism, and the right-libertarian attack on democratic government, would only become apparent later.

While paying lip-service to classical liberal norms, the conservative reaction under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher sought to restore the authority of the state in its dealings with the media. This explains both the pragmatic importance placed on advancing the commercial interests of supporters like Rupert Murdoch, notably in his acquisition of The Times, and the self-conscious attempt to restore a sense of dignity to official pronouncements, which became increasingly absurd as the years rolled by, e.g. Thatcher's "We have become a grandmother". The period also saw the start of the growing stranglehold of journalism and public policy debate by the Oxbridge/LSE elite, which narrowed the emotional distance between government and its frontline critics and normalised a metropolitan and upper middle-class agenda.

Though Reagan and Thatcher's neoliberal inheritors, Clinton and Blair, were often criticised for being overly sensitive to the media, this ignores the real dynamic. Media management did exactly what it said on the tin. Despite the increasing diversity of channels and the falling cost of content-generation, the coverage of politics was increasingly dominated by the fixed agenda of the "grid". Not only did the commentariat happily attack the contingent opponents of government, from the NUM to Brussels, they increasingly preferred to beast marginal social groups rather than risk antagonising powerful interests. Before 2008 it was rare to see any suggestion that business leaders might be incompetent chancers. Today, you are more likely to read a diatribe against the student transsexual enemies of free speech than the corruption of university vice-chancellors.

The commercial strategy for contemporary media is to stimulate a reaction that prompts consumers to cascade the content, and thus the advertising. This goes beyond mere trolling by opinion-mongers to provocatively calling the integrity of a news story into question. Circulating dubious claims (they were Syrian refugees) and government briefings (this is why we need more powers) triggers a crowd-sourced scepticism via the filter of social media, which saves the journalists effort and stimulates engagement. In their desire to generate clicks and retweets, journalists are outsourcing their quality control, but they are thereby losing the habit of scepticism. The problem is that social media are structurally incapable of advancing beyond scepticism to patient investigation. There's no Woodward or Bernstein out there, just evanescent trends.


What passes for investigative journalism these days relies on the heavy lifting of others (e.g. Wikileaks) or the Captain Renault-like archaeology of scandals that were in plain sight all along (Kids Company, TalkTalk etc). As the recently-published report into HBOS shows, this is a golden age for not holding the powerful to account. In the circumstances, the sight of Laura Kuennsberg berating Jeremy Corbyn for his lack of enthusiasm for summary executions is about more than partisan bias. For any journalist to use the phrase "shoot to kill policy" without acknowledging that it might not necessarily be a good thing reflects not only a lack of historical understanding, but a lack of scepticism about the operation of power.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

All Your Pop are Belong to Us

The chief interest of Dominic Sandbrook's Let Us Entertain You is in determining who he means by those first and second persons plural. It gradually becomes clear that "us" means the aspirational middle class, while "you" is a patriotic, deferential mass that hankers after a cheerful conservativism. This is a rummage through the cultural second-hand shop that marginalises working class autonomy and the pretensions of intellectuals. It is relentlessly middlebrow, mildly xenophobic, and obsessed with big houses and private education. Give him a Union Jack waistcoat and Sandbrook would make an excellent John Bull, or perhaps a Toby jug. In the spirit of the series, the following sneer is based on only the first two episodes and I have carefully selected the most amusing tropes and misrepresentations for best effect.

The thesis of the Daily Mail's resident social historian is "that our modern cultural success is rooted in the experience of the Victorian period". To illustrate this, we start with Tony Iommi quitting a Birmingham metal-bashing factory, after losing a couple of finger-ends, to help invent Heavy Metal with Black Sabbath. The new music's roots apparently lay in the "forges and foundries of our industrial past", rather than the Mississippi Delta. This autochthonous creation myth neatly sidestepped the debate over the Americanisation of British popular culture and is the first (but not the last) occasion on which Sandbrook passes up the obvious cue to introduce George Orwell. In the circumstances, it is no surprise that the influence of Django Reinhardt on Iommi (working class lad impressed by continental Jazz) is not mentioned.


Sandbrook's theme is the continuity of social values beneath the change in material forms, from Matthew Boulton and James Watt to Elton John and Grand Theft Auto. Equating the two eras in terms of creativity and entrepreneurialism allows the cultural economy to be presented as inventive, rather than parasitical, and the industrial revolution to be eulogised without reference to its social costs. The serial structure of this conventional narrative - we used to make steam engines, now we make music - also downplays the longstanding commoditisation of class, from the Gothic Revival to Queen Victoria's Jubilee mugs. Sandbrook sees this continuity as self-evidently a good thing rather than the persistence of unequal social relations and the resilience of ideology.

J Arthur Rank is presented as a bridge between the old and the new: an industrialist who treated British cinema as an industry, British history as a commodity, and Britishness as a brand (though Sandbrook fails to note his contribution to the demotic as a euphemism for masturbation). The reaction to the conservatism of Rank's films, namely the social realism of British cinema and theatre in the late 50s and early 60s, is blithely ignored, presumably because of its problematic focus on working-class aspiration and its criticism of conservative values after Suez. Despite the supposed emphasis on Victorian roots, the lasting legacy of music hall in British culture isn't mentioned. There is no Joan Littlewood, no Shelagh Delaney.


In fact, there are no women outside royalty. This is a great man history in which Sandbrook praises white, middle-class "entrepreneurs", such as Brian Epstein, Chris Blackwell, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Charles Saatchi. Their commercial nous is elided with creativity, suggesting that culture should be thought of largely in terms of units shifted. Epstein's genius is dressing the Beatles in tailored suits and wangling OBEs for their contribution to exports; the continuity between the exploitation of sugar and reggae in Blackwell's family history is delicately passed over; Saatchi is praised for creating a market for modern art - the creativity of money; while tales of Lloyd-Webber's first night anxiety fail to elicit sympathy when you remember his recent role in voting for tax credit cuts.

In the second episode, Sandbrook uses a 1960s drug-bust at Keith Richards' Sussex manor to ram home his continuity message: rebel buys posh house at earliest opportunity. This vignette of the louche and the conventional, like Chipping Norton avant la lettre, reveals Sandbrook's fascination with property, which he proceeds to indulge in a tour that takes in Castle Howard (the "star" of Brideshead Revisited) and Highclere (the set for Downton Abbey). This is a view of history that reduces the subtlety of class identifiers to mere possessions. For example, Sandbrook's celebration of the" aristocratic" James Bond confuses Ian Fleming's festishisation of commodities with status. He fails to appreciate that Fleming, as the scion of a banking family, was looked down on by landowning aristos who preferred shabby-chic to an obsession with tailoring and cocktails.


The tour of stately homes allows Sandbrook to transport us back to Edwardian times and imply that gracious living reflected right moral values. TH White's The Sword in the Stone is held up as evidence of a persistent popular appetite for these values into the 20th century, including a sympathy with the travails of monarchy (The King's Speech gets an airing). This reading ignores White's pacifism and misrepresents his ecological concerns (Camelot has echoes of the League of Nations, Wart is repeatedly metamorphosed into animals who find man's cruelty baffling). White's romantic conservativism is closer to Jeremy Corbyn than Boris Johnson. Merlin and Arthur's embodiment of the elderly tutor/young student trope is used to establish a link to the present in the form of Dumbledore and Harry Potter. In fact, White's themes of might versus right and family dysfunction find a better echo in Obi Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker. Star Wars is excluded because it isn't British and because it doesn't feature an impressive rural pile.

The visit to Hogwarts allows Sandbrook to delve back even further in time to the Victorian roots of public schools. Rugby, Eton, Harrow et al are held up as inculcators of right values. Their historic role in moulding the administrators of empire is finessed with the comic interlude of Harry Flashman: a variation on the now-traditional "absent-minded" defence of exploitation. The public school system's role in moulding the social attitudes that undermined British industry during the interwar years isn't mentioned, nor its baleful influence on postwar grammar schools and today's free schools. Again, Sandbrook misses the obvious cue: Orwell's experience as an ex-public schoolboy enforcing the systemic cruelty of empire in Burma, and his experience of the social and economic waste inflicted on the industrial towns of the North in the 1930s.


In the book that accompanies and expands on the TV series, The Great British Dream Factory, Sandbrook finally engages Orwell, but only to criticise the Old Etonian's antipathy to the schooldays stories of Frank Richards. Despite his modern appropriation by neoliberals and neocons, Orwell remains problematic for the right, both because of his unpicking of the ideology of class and his distaste for Americanisation. Where he can't wholly ignore a subject, Sandbrook belittles it: postwar satire is written off as ineffective, other than in undermining respect for politicians (he ignores pre-Victorian levels of contempt); Punk is dismissed as merely "aesthetic" (i.e. by insisting on its lack of significance, which elsewhere is held up as a virtue for pop commodities, he admits its unsettling force); and the Jam's Eton Rifles is misread as showing a secret admiration for Etonians (it's actually about working class cynicism at middle class posturing).

According to Sandbrook, the period from the death of Princess Diana to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee shows royalty's ability to absorb and appropriate popular culture, which glosses over the near-terminal impact of the former event on the institution. The popularity of Elton John's Candle in the Wind is held to prove this resilience, rather than anything as banal as the British public's mawkish rubber-necking. This not only ignores the significance of a eulogy to an American icon being repurposed for a British one, but means Sandbrook fails to note the title comes from TH White's fourth book in The Once and Future King series, where it reflects the fragility of peace. In its way, the song is a perfect emblem of Sandbrook's cultural history: sentimental and superficial, in denial about the adoption of American social mores, and unwilling to accept the diversity and contradictions of British society.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Responsible Diaspora

It was unfortunate timing that Jonathan Freedland should publish an article on Friday evening that began with the words: "Diasporas can be trouble". It's too soon to know the identities or backgrounds of the terrorists in Paris, but it's probably a safe bet that they were mostly locals rather than foreign jihadis, even if they had spent time in the Middle East recently. The alacrity with which the French government moved to seal the borders suggests a fear of incursions from abroad, and the more paranoid parts of the media have been only too happy to suggest that Syrian refugees are the conduit, but there is no lack of potential volunteers in the banlieus of Paris. The whole purpose of "radicalisation" is to sow dragon's teeth and thereby divide communities along sectarian lines. The new danger is that these attacks will be used by governments as an excuse to suspend the Schengen Agreement in order to placate national xenophobes.

Freedland's piece is a plea for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to be influenced by Western Jewish liberals. Despairing at the growing intolerance and mendacity of Netanyahu's government, and convinced that there is "no credible Palestinian partner" (there never is, funnily enough), he looks in hope to the Jewish diaspora to exert a positive influence. The precedent he cites is Northern Ireland and specifically how the "responsible diaspora" of Irish-Americans lobbied both republicans and Bill Clinton to pursue a negotiated peace. The adjective "responsible" does not imply consequentiality, i.e being responsible for one's actions, but rather privilege and legitimacy. This discrimination in turn implies illegitimacy, which in the case of the Palestinians appears to extend to pretty much everyone. There is no mention of a responsible Palestinian diaspora.

This dichotomy of the responsible and irresponsible requires Freedland to mangle history: "Whether it was the German-Americans who agitated to keep the United States out of the war against Hitler, the Irish-Americans who bankrolled the IRA’s 'armed struggle', or the Cuban-Americans who lobbied to keep the US shackled to a pointless embargo of the island, émigré communities have a chequered record when it comes to the influencing of foreign policy." The chief opponents of war with Hitler were not German-Americans but Americans, from disappointed Wilsonian liberals to the America First Committee (supporters included Sinclair Lewis, Walt Disney and a young Gerald Ford). Though a significant source of funds, the IRA was not "bankrolled" by Irish-Americans. It raised far more money in the Irish Republic. The US embargo of Cuba was prompted by the nationalisation of US-owned assets, not by the lobbying of Cuban exiles. Its maintenance has been due to the intransigence of capitalists holding out for compensation, not street demos in Miami.


This notion of continuing engagement with "the old country" leads Freedland to claim that "In the US, foreign policy is domestic politics". This obviously flies in the face of the USA's long-standing parochialism, not to mention the more ridiculous examples of politicians who don't know what pyramids were for or who wear their ignorance of world affairs as a badge of honour, but Freedland is engaged in building the image of the irresponsible diaspora, all the better to create a stark contrast with the responsible. The irresponsible diaspora is marked by "a tendency to be more hawkish than those in the old country, to adopt a dogmatic stance unaltered by day-to-day experience on the ground". Right on cue, Mohammed Emwazi (aka "Jihadi John") gets a topical namecheck, suggesting that Muslims are particularly prone to this dogmatic tendency.

The responsible diaspora, for which Freedland turns to research among British Jews, exhibits a more mature and sophisticated understanding: "Jews are eminently capable of holding two views at the same time that are often – wrongly – held to be contradictory. They are capable of supporting Israel’s right to exist, taking pride in its achievements on the one hand – and lambasting Israeli policy on the other". Freedland doesn't stop to note that those who maintain that these positions are mutually exclusive include not only antisemites but philosemites. In recent years, Netanyahu has been at the forefront in claiming that criticism of Israeli government policy is by definition an existential attack on Israel, and that Arab-Israelis are a categorical threat to the state. This latter stance extends the trope of the irresponsible diaspora to those whom the state is reluctant to even acknowledge as native citizens.

Freedland's search for a responsible diaspora is not unlike the old imperial search for the responsible native, whose continued non-appearance inevitably sets back the date of decolonialisation. The desperation of this search can be seen in his willingness to rehabilitate Tony Blair, Mr Good Friday himself, who has apparently decided to go freelance with "a new initiative of his own, predicated on the belief that the way to make Israeli-Palestinian progress is through a wider regional understanding between Israel and its Arab neighbours". It doesn't seem to occur to Freedland that the former PM might be more interested in leveraging the many contacts he made as "Middle East Peace Envoy" for commercial advantage than to advance a wide-ranging political settlement.


Freedland defines the responsible diaspora thus: "They favour compromise, rejecting the suggestion that concessions should wait until the wider region calms down. They are unimpressed by the Palestinian leadership, blaming it for incitement against Israel, and accepting the view that there is 'no credible Palestinian partner', even as majorities still believe in the two-state solution, still maintain that Israel should give up land for peace, and do not shrink from the fact that Israel is 'an occupying power'". The belief that there is no credible Palestinian partner is absolutist: the exact opposite of someone prepared to compromise. Freedland should revisit his own historic parallel. Were Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness noticeably more "credible" than the PLO or Hamas?

That the Palestinian leadership is deemed "unimpressive" is an ironic position to take when you consider the deeply unimpressive behaviour of Netanyahu. And as far as "incitement" is concerned, how do you describe the approval by successive Israeli governments of further settlement building in the West Bank? Of course, this tit-for-tat should be irrelevant if there is a sincere desire to negotiate: you want to focus on the future, not dwell on the past. The belief that there is a narrow range of acceptable interlocutors, like the attempts to bound negotiations by appeals to loaded values or the insistence on particular behaviours, reflects the aristocratic roots of diplomacy. These are matters than gentlemen should discuss without the interventions of the mob or their "unimpressive" leaders.

The persistence of these forms is due to their value in constraining the future by reference to the past, which is why they are always more pronounced on the side that is expected to make the greater concessions. They are structurally conservative. The "Foreign Office" style of the UK was a characteristic of the era of imperial decline, not the years of aggressive expansion. Freedland's construction of a responsible diaspora appears progressive and liberal, but in its refusal to engage with both Israelis and Palestinians as they actually are, it is typical of the aristocratic contempt that still mars British attitudes to international affairs, something that even the notoriously oblivious Americans are sensitive to. The truth is that we should always negotiate, where we can, because talk is cheap and lives shouldn't be. We don't need a responsible diaspora working quietly behind the scenes, we don't need preconditions and qualifications, we just need a table and some chairs.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The End of Education

The unsurprising news that future government spending will shift further away from education and economic development towards pensions and healthcare highlights the growing antagonism between different fractions of capital in the UK. Though this has mainly been discussed in recent decades in terms of the "demographic timebomb" and its effect on the affordability of welfare, the smarter capitalists are waking up to the potential risks for capital itself. According to the neoliberals at the Resolution Foundation, "This relative growth of state spending on health and old age – and withdrawal from areas such as post-16 education, housing and economic development – also raises big questions about the state's role in supporting productivity growth".

Public spending is unlikely to fall as much as is being claimed, not just because large cuts are difficult to realise outside of major capital-intensive programmes such as housebuilding and defence, but because government is the prime site for rent-extraction. If the economy continues to stutter along, public services where demand is guaranteed to grow in advance of GDP, such as health and elderly care, will become ever more attractive to the sort of businesses who make political donations. The number of public bodies and public sector workers may well decline, but the amount of public money spent on services via commercial providers is likely to grow. This means that total public expenditure, as a percentage of GDP, will probably remain closer to 40% than the supposed target of 35%.

The challenge to other industrial sectors is that this compositional shift undermines public investment in economic resources such as infrastructure and human capital (i.e. education and training). This raises costs for UK capitalists who have, over the last century, relied on state subsidies for these "public goods" financed through general taxation (i.e. predominantly paid for by labour in the form of income tax, VAT, council tax etc). Though the current government is ideologically opposed to formal subsidies for strategic industries, such as steel-making, its welfare spending priorities mean that it is now turning away from the much larger informal subsidies to broad industry. This applies not only in terms of money spent on public infrastructure and education, but money spent subsidising labour costs through working tax credits.


This is consistent with its encouragement of business sponsorship of schools and colleges, where it is pursuing a strategy of privatisation in the true sense of that term - i.e. leaving it to private actors to pursue their own interests rather than pool efforts for the common good. In effect, business is being told to "grow your own" because public provision will continue to decay. While New Labour's academy programme was the thin end of the wedge, we should remember that it was driven by the delusion that "beacons of excellence" would drive up average standards to the benefit of capital generally. The Tory policy, with its emphasis on elitism and reductionist assessment, is the pursuit of a pluralism in which failure is a necessary component. Capitalists are being asked to become discriminating and to treat education as a buyer's market.

In contrast, economic development exhibits a hybrid, multilateral approach, due to the need for local government involvement (which cannot be dispensed with as easily as in the case of education) and the preference of foreign state-level investors for UK government guarantees. But even here the idea of state investment for national resources is being eroded. Instead, subsidies are directed to foreign investors (e.g. Hinkley Point), privileged domestic groups (e.g. private builders), or both (e.g. HS2). Eschewing state-led investment not only allows the government to resist subsidising ailing industries, it also allows FDI to be used to impose "market discipline" on local authorities, obliging them to compromise in order to "win" foreign approval. The problem for industry is that this can lead to lopsided investment and regional inconsistencies - i.e. a lack of the central planning that traditionally benefited big capital.

The news on the evolving shape of the public sector comes hard on the heels of the latest episode of "The Rise of the Robots", in which the social scientists of Bank of America Merrill Lynch report that "robots and artificial intelligence ... could leave up to 35% of all workers in the UK, and 47% of those in the US, at risk of being displaced by technology over the next 20 years". Some of this is just the usual MBA guff. For example, "We are facing a paradigm shift which will change the way we live and work". No. A small number of robot owners (capitalists), and either wage repression or un/under-employment for much of labour, does not constitute a paradigm shift but a reversion to historical norms. What caught my eye was the standard neoliberal hope: "It’s not meant to be a doom and gloom report: one of the ways we think people could help themselves here is through education".


But the idea of education as a way of positively meeting technological change already seems out of date. Citing recent research showing an above-average rise in mortality for the white working-class in the US (and specifically the middle-aged with limited education), Andrew McAfee speculates that this may be the result of structural unemployment: "The boredom and vice that come up when work goes away are dire problems. They are, in fact, a serious public health problem". This might appear to be a liberal plea to consider the human cost of economic dislocation, but it echoes a conservative presumption that the working-class are unsuited to leisure because their only purpose is labour. McAfee doesn't seem too bothered by the prospect of boredom and vice among the idle rich, but more significantly he doesn't even attempt to claim that more education could be the solution for labour.

The chief argument against technological unemployment, apart from the risible Luddite myth, is that progress opens up new economic sectors and creates more new jobs than are lost. The classic example used to support this is the steep decline of agricultural employment, with the surplus of labour trooping off to the new factories. In fact, while there was a massive movement from the countryside to urban areas, this masked a movement of jobs as much as people. For example, a lot of those classified as agricultural workers in the eighteenth century, at a time when transport was labour-intensive and most markets local, were actually engaged in food distribution and retail, not working the land. Others were small-holders or "cottars" who supplemented their income through casual (non-agricultural) labour or craft-work. A lot of the "industry" that sprang up in the emerging towns was activity that had previously been dispersed in villages, hidden under the blanket of the rural economy.

In other words, a lot of "new" jobs were actually old jobs retooled or relocated rather than the result of new demands satisfied. A blacksmith replaced by a car mechanic is categorically different to a ploughman who becomes a cinema projectionist. This distinction is important because future job prospects will depend more on the degree of retooling and relocation than society's ability to invent new personal services. The fear is that we have reached an inflexion point where the replacement rate is now less than 1, both because technology has become more substitutionary than complementary (more autonomous robots than power tools), and because technology has enabled relocation on a global scale (so disadvantaging historic concentrations of labour that enjoyed higher wages).


One symptom of this evolution is the way that previously skilled or rationed roles are now being dispersed by technology across a larger casual workforce, e.g. the so-called "sharing economy". The challenge that Uber drivers present to London cabbies is globalisation on a metropolitan scale. The ideological groundwork for this was laid over recent decades by the vogue for portfolio careers and freelancing, but that in turn placed a greater emphasis on the importance of human capital. In this current phase, the mood music is about the declining returns to education and the importance of contacts: who you know rather than what you know. Social media reflects this transition from "brand me" and unmediated self-expression to insider networking and the clubhouse, with trolling providing the justification for discrimination and horizontalist initiatives drowned out by the cacophony of the privileged.

As the ideological frame shifts away from human capital, state education policy is increasingly attracted to social regulation. Education has always been first and foremost a matter of discipline, the roots of which lie in religious and moral conformity, so it is easy to redirect it to a system geared to separating and socialising children based on their parent's socio-economic status or aspirations. The recent tale of the primary school requiring its pupils to walk with their hands behind their backs is resonant precisely because the justification, that it will "make sure children arrive in class in the best possible frame of mind for learning", is so obviously specious. If anything, the evidence is that children are likely to benefit more from running around, which is what they instinctively try to do. Forcing small kids to comport themselves as if they were in holy orders is education only in the sense of teaching them in-group behaviour.

Though public debate will focus on the increased share for health and the elderly, the real story emerging from the government's public spending priorities is not one of demography or even tactical cuts to other services. It is that we have no expectation that "new high-wage industries" will finally arrive in numbers to replace those shut down since the early-80s, and that consequently we have given up on education as a public, as opposed to a private, good. We're writing off our human capital and asking business to make the best of whatever it can find. This is a high-risk strategy given that a "no" vote in the EU referendum would lead many large firms to conclude that they would be better-off relocating to the continent, particularly if tighter immigration controls made importing human capital difficult. For all its triumphalism and the obliging media coverage, there's an unmistakable whiff of the closing-down sale about the current administration.

Friday, 6 November 2015

It's the Little Things that Matter

The tone of the draft Investigatory Powers Bill debate was set for me when I spotted a story in the Telegraph ("Protecting children from paedophiles trumps your privacy", apparently) illustrated by a picture of a finger pressing a backspace key but captioned: "a person pressing the delete button on a laptop". I suspect this was a MacBook, which doesn't have separate keys, as favoured by the creative types who produce stock photos. My keyboard pedantry might appear excessive, but it highlights the casual imprecision about technology common among politicians and the media. While civil libertarians focus on the legal safeguards of the draft bill and obsess about the mechanics of judicial review (whenever you hear that phrase, just remember Lord Denning), there is a danger that its technical ambition will be under-estimated or misunderstood through plain old ignorance.


The BBC apparently used an image from the same stock photo-shoot in their coverage of the Home Secretary's announcement to the Commons, which reinforced the impression that we're witnessing a large-scale PR exercise that spans the political spectrum. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that the suspension of UK flights to Sharm-el-Sheikh was a piece of opportunism in this regard, but the insistence by Philip Hammond that the UK government had intelligence not available to the Egyptian and Russian authorities was a clear nod to the utility of data interception and surveillance, not to mention a feather in the cap of the spooks. Of course, we'll never know whether this is just the inflation of boastful chatter by wannabes or something more serious, though we can be pretty sure that actual terrorists do not discuss their plans online even with the benefit of encryption and router masking.

Labour's Andy Burnham has come in for criticism for being so accommodating, welcoming the Home Secretary's proposal and dismissing the suggestion that it constitutes a "snooper's charter", though I think his lack of scepticism is more residual Blairism than evidence that Theresa May has compromising photos: "In a world where the threats we face internationally and domestically are growing, parliament cannot sit on its hands and leave blind spots where the authorities can't see". The notion of the "growing" threat, like "blind spots", is a classic securocrat trope, while the elevation of our concern to "the world" is totalising neoliberalism. The draft bill is not informed by any threat analysis that would justify this claim, or at least not one the government feels able to share even in redacted form. This is about maximising potential capability, not minimising anticipated risks.

In her speech, the Home Secretary insisted that law enforcement agencies access to communications data would be tightly controlled. They "would only be able to make a request for the purpose of determining whether someone had for example accessed a communications website, an illegal website or to resolve an IP address." She did not explain how "illegal" websites would be defined, nor why you'd need to access Web logs to resolve an IP address (presumably she's never heard of WHOIS). What this means in practice is the ability to trawl bulk data by IP address, which in turn implies an obligation on the part of ISPs to provide address assignments by device and account. In other words, every end-point will be "on-grid". There will be no more blind-spots.

The draft bill's own blind-spots are much the same as those that were evident in the Anderson Review that reported on the UK's data investigatory powers earlier this year: little concern with the behaviour of business, in terms of its responsibilities to data-providers (i.e. we, the people); no interest in personal data as property or as having inherited human rights (EU privacy judgements are conspicuous by their absence); and an assumption that "additional protections" should be limited to institutional elites (MPs, journalists, lawyers etc). In other words, companies like TalkTalk can continue to have shockingly poor levels of data security, companies like Facebook can continue to expropriate user data in any way they wish, and your "right to privacy" means transparency to others.


As is now traditional, the government have made great play of the difference between "Internet Connection Records" and content, even wheeling out the "itemised phone bill" analogy one more time. The Guide to Powers and Safeguards issued with the draft bill defines them thus: "A kind of communications data, an ICR is a record of the internet services a specific device has connected to, such as a website or instant messaging application. It is captured by the company providing access to the internet. Where available, this data may be acquired from CSPs [communication service providers] by law enforcement and the security and intelligence agencies. An ICR is not a person’s full internet browsing history. It is a record of the services that they have connected to, which can provide vital investigative leads. It would not reveal every web page that they visit or anything that they do on that web page" (section 44-45).

This is disingenuous. The Internet is "stateless", which means that there isn't a persistent connection. Every individual request (i.e. what happens when you click a link or a button) is a separate connection, which means that accessing a single website may produce scores of separate records. In contrast, an analog telephone connection (which is what the deliberately misleading phone-bill metaphor conjures up) is "stateful" in that a fixed connection is maintained for the duration of the call (imagine a manual switchboard and an operator saying "I'll put you through"). The claim that ICRs will only record domain names rather than resources (i.e. specific pages or images to the right of the "/") is dubious, and that's without considering the complication of redirects and aliases. The C/ISP weblogs record the full URL. The idea that commercial operators would go to the trouble of truncating these before providing access to state agencies beggars belief.

The issue of content, like encryption, is a red herring. The security services are interested in network analysis, not reading your emails. Content is overwhelmingly noise and there is simply too much of it. This is why the government can claim there is no "mass surveillance", meaning individual surveillance extended to most people. When they do wish to eavesdrop, which will be on a tiny percentage of the population, full content can be secured through "equipment interference" while encryption can be circumvented by infecting target devices with keyloggers and screen-grabbers (which incidentally means the state has an interest in keeping devices vulnerable to malware). The state has always gathered data in bulk. Without Snowden and the Tempora revelations, the only reason for a bill to regularise this would be to compel business cooperation. As we now know, business is happy to cooperate and willing to support opaque language that keeps the arrangements secret (as was the case with the 1984 Telecommunications Act).

Ostensibly, the draft bill is not about giving the security services more powers, but about providing legal cover for established practice, both to absolve business of responsibility and to protect the state from legal challenge. Where it does seek to extend powers is by future-proofing the security services' surveillance capabilities in respect of the Internet of Things (IoT). Its definition of communication data includes "signals serving either for the impartation of anything between persons, between a person and a thing or between things or for the actuation or control of any apparatus" (section 193.2.b). In other words, if you use a smartphone app to remotely-control your central-heating, that will count as communications data, and so too will a thermostat automatically turning on a boiler. Within your home, a LAN or Wi-Fi constitutes a "private telecommunications system" that would come within the bill's scope (193.14). If it hadn't already been taken by a mobile phone operator, the strapline for this bill could be "Everything, Everywhere".


As more and more of our lives are mediated by networked devices, so more and more of our activities and associations come within the view of both businesses and intelligence agencies. It is this pattern of "entities" and "events", in the language of the draft bill, that constitutes value for both parties in the surveillance economy, not the specifics of our communications. When we talk or write, we are presenting a persona rather than our "true" selves. But what we do, and who we associate with, does not so easily dissemble. The "party animal" who tweets about a mental night out while streaming Netflix to her TV and having ordered a pizza online may be misleading her friends, but she's not misleading the harvesters of bulk data. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the public reaction to the draft bill is the failure to appreciate this imperial ambition: a form of biopolitics that makes George Orwell's 1984 look unimaginative.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Bitcoins, Blockchains and the Grammar of Property

Politically, Bitcoin owes more to the libertarian right than the libertarian left. It has the double attraction of independence from state control and a strictly-enforced limit on the number of coins in circulation, thereby avoiding the possibility of the currency being debauched by a fiscally incontinent sovereign. The advance of bourgeois oligarchy in the Early Modern period is often presented in Whig history as an attempt to restrain monarchical waste and resist the expropriation of private property. In the Modern era, latter-day Whigs have presented democracy as a danger to the public purse - the looting of the treasury - which requires that the better sort step in and manage the process. Regulating the sovereign and regulating the people are two sides of the same coin.

Culturally, Bitcoin owes something of its popularity to its metaphorical near-equivalence to gold, which is most obvious in the role of the "miners" who provide the computing power that simultaneously generates new coins (essentially through trial and error processing and at a fixed rate) and maintains the distributed ledger that obviates the need for a central authority. These miners exhibit all the mistrust and paranoia typical of the stereotype made famous in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, though we shouldn't automatically assume they all have beards and poor personal hygiene. Though "mining pools" (in which miners combine efforts to increase their chances) have arisen, these only work because double-crossing is ruled-out by the distributed controls of Bitcoin itself. This is a trustless network by design ("Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges!").


The real significance of Bitcoin is not its use as a crypto-currency, i.e. reliable money, but the potential of its architecture - specifically the "blockchain" - to create a distributed environment for the management of all types of property claims (money is just one type), and even for the execution of contracts (Ethereum is the poster-boy for this concept). A "contract" in this sense is merely a transaction that can be verified, which means that the blockchain approach (in which blocks of transactions are chained together to create a fully-auditable ledger) can be used to support decentralised applications (or ÐApps) that can run across multiple nodes in a trustless, peer-to-peer network, so avoiding the need for either a logical or physical central authority (i.e. either a master database or server). The blockchain is the bastard offspring of Napster and DRM (digital rights management).

This may be a bit abstruse if, like Dido Harding of TalkTalk, you don't know your arse from your SQL, but the political point is the removal of the central authority. Bitcoin is celebrated on the libertarian right because it potentially does away with central banks specifically, not just banks generally, but the blockchain concept also has the potential to do away with a variety of other authorities and regulators. Though this is usually discussed in terms of property claims, such as title deeds or copyright licences, it could just as easily be extended to something like voting (i.e. to prevent rigging and personation) or national insurance contributions. In other words, this potentially goes well beyond automating the role of notaries. Both the ballot box and the DWP could conceivably be replaced by blockchains.

The challenge this presents is that the algorithms that maintain the blockchain have to be quite rigid otherwise you could compromise the integrity of the ledger as a record of historic transactions. In other words, you cannot easily change the rules of the game once you've started. This has attractions for constitutionalists (i.e. Burkeans who feel the past should trump the future) and those who suspect central banks of always wanting to create too much money. It also sits easily with property rights, where not changing the fundamental rules is the object of the game. The problem comes in respect of pro-social contracts where changing the rules is considered desirable across the political spectrum (e.g. Ian Duncan Smith's introduction of Universal Credit). Blockchains are not suited to pro-social contracts because they do not easily allow for the evolution of social relations.


One vision of the future economy sees corporations becoming increasingly abstract, as technology allows them to replace labour and disperse traditional overheads. In theory, a business providing digital services (e.g. recorded music) could be wholly accommodated within a blockchain, the individual transactions recording not only sales and royalty payments but securely holding the digital products as well. Though this lowers the cost of business, it would be naive to assume that it will in turn diffuse capital - i.e. that it will make it easier for us all to become capitalists. The winner-takes-all dynamic of the digital economy, like the emergence of Bitcoin mining pools, suggest that capital will continue to concentrate whenever possible. Amazon Web Services is still a more likely template for the future than Bitcoin, if only because few of us wish to become miners.

One interesting strand of speculation around decentralised applications is the intersection with the Internet of things (IoT). Hype-merchants like IBM are already eulogising the "democratisation" of blockchains: "Successful decentralization of the IoT, however, will lie not just in being peer-to-peer, but also in being trustless: an environment in which there is no need for participants to be trusted and no centralized, single point of failure ... In our vision of a decentralized IoT, the blockchain is the framework facilitating transaction processing and coordination among interacting devices. Each manages its own roles and behavior, resulting in an 'Internet of Decentralized, Autonomous Things' – and thus the democratization of the digital world".

It is unlikely that the IoT will deliver a single, common network of trustless, peer-to-peer devices simply because of the challenge of scale - i.e. the size of the ledger and the disparate interests of its components. It's more likely that we'll see the creation of self-selecting "communities" based on specific devices (and thus commodities) and social or geographic affinities, probably geared to shared security and maintenance, like a cross between Neighbourhood Watch and the Apple cult. IBM's vision has a dystopian edge: "Rules could also be defined by 51 percent consensus, as in the case of devices agreeing on the safety of peer downloadable software updates or banning a misbehaving participant". Though the blockchain is being heralded as a secure means of maintaining a common agreement among multiple devices, what it also promises is a grammar that would allow property to talk among itself.


If we think of the blockchain as a substitute authority, it may turn out that one of its chief uses will be to control a household, which may in practice be a virtual establishment spanning multiple physical locations. The Internet then is simply a means of extending that household control globally. If the IoT really does proceed to its logical end-point, every distinct thing you own will be recorded in, and aware of, your personal blockchain. This doesn't preclude much wider-scale blockchains, not least because different types of blockchain may be able to inter-communicate, thereby addressing the current scale limitations of the technology, which in turn reinforces the need for a common grammar. This opens up the prospect of a hierarchy developing within the context of a peer-to-peer network, which would be nothing if not ironic.

The jury is out as to whether blockchains can be made to work successfully in this way. Ethereum remains largely proof-of-concept while Bitcoin is already straining against its inherent limits. What is clear is that there is no diminishing of the desire in the technical community to push this concept as far as it will go. What is also clear is the attraction of the distributed ledger for a variety of other financial purposes, from managing share certificates and dividends to clearing. Given the banking sector's exposure in 2008 to the sheer uncertainty of derivatives and liabilities, it should not come as a surprise that the Bank of England, which has a responsibility for financial stability, has taken a keen interest. The final irony of Bitcoin may be that it provides the sovereign with enhanced control not only over the currency but over property more widely.