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Thursday, 31 December 2015

Countering Basic Income

As predicted, basic income is slowly inching into the limelight, with the Finnish government keen to experiment and centrist thinktanks like the RSA pumping out costed "models". The media response to this development has employed a number of traditional techniques, from raising a sceptical eyebrow at the funny ideas of foreigners to outright misrepresentation. In a fine example of the genre, Daniel Boffey in the Observer used a half-hearted Dutch scheme to confuse the basic income concept with the old idea of asset-based egalitarianism: "first proposed by Thomas Paine in his 1797 pamphlet, Agrarian Justice, as a system in which at the 'age of majority' everyone would receive an equal capital grant". This is like comparing a 21st birthday present with free school milk, but it serves to distract from the real justification for a basic income, namely that it is a social dividend and therefore a persistent benefit.

While liberals are uncomfortable discussing it in these terms, as that would raise questions about social power that are only partly alleviated by the sophistry of luck egalitarianism, conservatives are happy to discuss a basic income so long as the word "universal" is replaced by the more selective "guarantee" or "safety net" (like Oliver Letwin's 80s view of discos and drugs, the basic income is a characteristic of "the other"). This has produced the amusing sight of liberal sceptics employing the conservative style of argument first anatomised by Albert O Hirschman in The Rhetoric of Reaction, namely the triple-whammy of perversity, futility and jeopardy. The perversity argument suggests that any attempt at a positive change will be counter-productive and make matters worse; the futility argument suggests that certain changes are impossible and thus a waste of effort; and the jeopardy argument suggests that change will have unintended and negative consequences.


In the context of a universal basic income (UBI), the three arguments have been combined into the trope of the "welfare trap". The need for discretionary (and thus means-tested) payments over-and-above the basic income, such as for housing or disability support, would exacerbate the current problem (perversity) where the rate at which in-work benefits are withdrawn as wages rise means that recipients have little incentive to increase their hours or improve their skills (futility). With a basic income you'd universalise this problem, thus eroding the work ethic (jeopardy). To add to the irony, conservatives sympathetic to a basic income guarantee (BIG), like Jeremy Warner, happily dismiss the moral dimension: "it scarcely seems to matter" (though it's worth noting he can't resist suggesting that an EU country adopting such as scheme "would be swamped by riff-raff").

Though the liberal sceptics have talked in general terms about the incompatibility of a universal, one-size-fits-all income with a welfare system based on variable needs, some have been honest (or naive) enough to focus predominantly on the problem of housing benefit. Indeed, if you take housing out of the equation, the issues around disability and other discretionary benefits look trivial, not least because many of today's features (work fitness tests, marginal financial support) would disappear with a scheme that was universal and more generous than current benefits. Given that the basic income idea is routinely introduced by reference to experiments or debates in other countries, it is notable that discussion of its feasibility so quickly reduces to what might appear a very UK-centric (and even London-centric) concern.

A good example of this was provided by Tim Blackwell in the New Statesman, specifically critiquing the Citizen's Income Trust scheme that provided the basis for the Green Party's botched proposal earlier this year, and which assumed the continuation of housing benefit and council tax support. The problem is that withdrawal rates for these benefits would be as bad as now, giving rise to perversity: "People with inherited property and modest trust funds would do well from the CIT scheme. Lone parent tenants in need of childcare would do very badly". Though dressed in progressive colours, this image of the conflicting interests of a trustafarian and a single mum is our old friend the trope of the shirker and the striver (inherited wealth versus a parent who wants to work).

Blackwell's admission of the necessary adjustment to make the scheme work reeks of futility: "You would need to pay everybody’s rent and council tax in full. Merely retaining housing and council tax support is insufficient. Alternatively, fix the housing system so that everyone has access to well-maintained, secure and affordable housing". In other words, reverse the last three decades of government policy and local authority practice. Given that it originally took 30 years, from 1945 to 1975, to achieve something close to "decent houses for all", a time when housing doesn't "pervert" a basic income looks remote. Having played this trump card, he reduces the basic income to an incremental campaign to ameliorate the uglier aspects of the benefits system: "significantly reducing conditionality is perhaps the most immediately achievable goal".


The problem with the CIT proposal is that in trying to make the scheme revenue neutral (i.e. no increase in the total welfare bill) it entrenches the existing "dole" of £73.10 a week Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA). This represents a fall from 21% of average wages in 1979 (then Unemployment Benefit) to 11% today. Unless we really believe the unemployed in the late-70s were living the life of Riley, this would suggest a basic income closer to £150 a week might be appropriate. A simple rule of thumb to identify pseudo-basic income schemes is to look at the difference between working-age adults and the retired. The RSA scheme proposes a weekly income of £71 for the former and £142 for the latter. This preserves the fiction that the state pension has been earned through NICs rather than being a subsidy by current tax-payers to former tax-payers. A true basic income scheme would euthanise the contributory principle, and it would also do away with any "reduced rate" nonsense for under-25s or the denial of the benefit to prisoners (as emblematic as the denial of their voting rights).

On the right, the withdrawal of benefits is converted from a problem with the scheme's implementation to a core design principle. Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute thinks that: "basic incomes that are not tapered out are a complete waste of money, redistributing lots of money to people on high and middle incomes unnecessarily. It amazes me that this anti-progressive approach seems to be popular among some on the left". The distaste for universality is covert admission that the basic income is merely a dole. Insisting on the division of society into "givers" and "takers" in this way avoids addressing the significance of the basic income as a social dividend, and thus by definition a universal right, and it also reinforces the reactionary idea that tax-payers should be thought of as having superior rights.

The preference on the right is for a flat-rate payment (or negative income tax, a la Milton Friedman) to replace the welfare state in its entirety. This shrinks "incompetent" government, diverts much of the money to the private sector (in the form of a demand for insurance), and institutionalises the moralism of personal responsibility. What it ends is the role of government as the most efficient buyer (due to economies of scale) of certain public services, its role as the protector of those not suited to "standing on their own two feet", and its potential as a counter-cyclical employer/buyer of last resort (you can forget any idea of a job guarantee in such a scenario). This is the end of solidarity, or as a Hayek put it, "a necessary part of the Great Society in which the individual no longer has specific claims on the members of the particular small group into which he was born".

The significance of housing costs isn't just an unfortunate coincidence that if absent would allow a basic income to be considered more feasible. The growth of interest in a basic income goes hand-in-hand with the growing "problem" of housing affordability. The era of affordable homes was also the era of social democracy. In other words, state intervention to regulate labour from "cradle to grave" extended to the provision of housing. Once labour started to become marginally redundant, housing was no longer seen as a public good and became a form of individual capital investment: arguably the most important form of capital in the neoliberal era. This was not a coincidence, let alone the result of an economic boom.


The price of housing, like the easier availability of credit, reflects expectations of future income. The cost of housing is therefore primarily an income issue, not a matter of market supply or planning regulations. It has risen because of longer working lives, more dual-income families and larger disposable incomes (due to deflation in food and commodity costs), exacerbated by a growing population and lower household density. High prices in London owe more to the expectation of future London wage growth, relative to the rest of the UK, than they do to oligarchs or foreign investors. It is demand, rather than a builders' strike, which pushes up prices. Constraint on supply exists to support these higher prices, as does NIMBYism. The latter is an anti-market impetus, which is why further market deregulation, such as relaxing planning laws, is doomed to fail. As Steve Randy Waldman puts it, "Homeowners understand their actions not as monopolizing the housing market but as protecting their homes and neighborhoods from the market".

Basic income sceptics think that housing is a killer issue, but it's simply proof that when we talk about "the housing problem" we're talking about the same issue that underlays the basic income: social protection in a post-social democratic world. The polarisation in housing costs - very high in London, very low in Redcar - reflects the polarisation in jobs and wages. If the economy cannot provide enough well-paid jobs to meet demand, then it will also fail to provide sufficient housing as future income expectations polarise. Free-market conservatives increasingly admit the former, which is why they are interested in the basic income in its parsimonious dole form. Some are even admitting the latter, though their preferred solution is to decant the unemployed, freeing-up social housing in the capital for more "productive" use and turning the regions into economic bantustans. The problem with the basic income debate is that it is being dominated by centrist liberals in denial about the structural inadequacies of capitalism and reluctant to engage with the instrumentalism of the right.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Terrorism

The word terrorism originates in the Terror of 1793-4 in France. Despite its modern use in respect of non-state actors, the idea begins with the organised violence of the state. As Robespierre put it, "Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible". There was nothing novel in state violence as such, even directed against beliefs rather than social or territorial groups (e.g. the religious wars of the 16th century). What was novel was the assumption that the state, rather than the monarch, embodied the will of the nation and that its internal enemies were therefore traitors by definition (you can trace the lineage of this trope down to the First Order of Stars Wars VII). Though the word "terrorist" would come to be applied to those who violently challenged the state, both in the name of the "people" and "national self-determination", the consistent feature was the claim to legitimacy. One consequence of this is that any struggle over political legitimacy is fought in "terrorist" terms, even if the violence is merely rhetorical.


Natalie Nougayrede espies the terrorist mindset in those, of both right and left, who indulge in conspiracy theories: "Dissenting voices will be expelled, and 'traitors' hounded out – all in the name of 'the people'. The French historian François Furet has written about how the genesis of conspiracy theories in Europe was the French revolution: genuine popular aspirations against absolute monarchy veered into a phase of terror and war because some of the leaders believed they not only led but embodied 'the people' – and so were entitled to physically eliminate any obstacle. This is not to say democratic revolutions are poisoned as such – nor to say today’s democracies have no failings. But it points to the dangers when protest movements come with theories of plots that need to be foiled and critics who need to be squeezed out". It should hardly need saying that she is targeting the left more than the right here, with her equivalence of the Front National and Podemos intended to smear the latter by association. The unspoken subtext (this is the Guardian) is that the tweeting Corbynistas are latter-day tricoteuses.

Nougayrede's slippery "veered" ignores that the war of 1792 was the product of Austrian and Prussian hostility as much as French paranoia, and that the armed revolts against the revolution, notably the Vendée in 1793, were genuine existential threats, even if brutally suppressed. Furet's controversial claim (in 1978's Penser la Révolution Française) was that the revolutionary government's response was less circumstantial than an ideological commitment to "man's regeneration" and thus a proto-totalitarian mode of thought. Though Furet sought to establish a link between the Jacobins and Stalin, his purpose was less to advance a reactionary position (though he inevitably did so) than to recuperate liberalism from its bloody birth and dismiss the terror as a perversion by a sanctimonious "left". For Furet, in Perry Anderson's words, the revolution "had been 'blown off course' (dérapée) in 1792 by a series of tragic accidents, destroying the liberal order at which it had originally aimed, and ushering in Jacobin dictatorship and the Terror instead".

The point is that the belief that a particular political caste can legitimately claim to represent the people in its entirety is a liberal construct, not the preserve of the "extremes" that Nougayrede seeks to isolate. The Montagnards (the hardcore Jacobins) no less than the Girondins were economic and social liberals, even if the two groups were antagonistic in terms of contemporary politics, essentially reflecting a stylistic division between bourgeois representatives of Paris and the provinces that historians have found to be as ideologically vague as the Blair-Brown rivalry. Both groups were pro-free trade and enterprise, unwilling to allow women the vote, and highly sentimental. If he were alive today and a British MP, Maximillien Robespierre would be voting to cut working tax credits and bomb Syria.


Coming from the same stable as Nougayrede, Peter Hyman is the latest to insist that the Labour Party may have to split, essentially to preserve the integrity of the revolution, otherwise known as "the project": "There are two strands, two parties if you like, that will never be happy bedfellows even in the broadest of broad church parties. So either the current Corbyn party will at some point need a home outside the Labour party or the mainstream of the Labour party will need to make common cause with others to forge a new party". It takes chutzpah to suggest that the "mainstream" of the Labour party is not represented by Corbyn, particularly as Hyman's position was implicitly endorsed (in the person of Liz Kendall) by less than 5% of party members. What Hyman really means is that the Labour right represents the wider "people", rather than the party membership, which has become a theme of the PLP since September. It's that legitimacy thing again.

Hyman looks to the future: "Today, there is a need more than ever before for a modern, progressive, values-driven party: a new 'project' that does not try to recreate New Labour, because the world has moved on, but learns from it". Despite that grudging "moved on", his policy prescriptions are Blairism 1.0, proving that Labour's neoliberals remain unreconstructed and are as prone to evangelical language as ever: "At its heart would be a renewed sense of moral purpose – a commitment to social mobility – breaking down all barriers to people getting on in life. It would believe in a leaner, more agile, empowering state that supports social entrepreneurs in the building of strong, diverse and democratic communities. This would be in sharp relief to the cuts of the Tories and the big state solutions of the traditional left".

The invocation of "social entrepreneurs" is no more substantive than Robespierre invoking the Supreme Being, while reform of the economy is once more reduced to banalities and the silver bullet of education: "This project would need to come up with fresh thinking about how to shape a growing, creative, greener economy and schools that prepare young people properly with the knowledge, skills and character to thrive in this economy". This is unreflective posturing that ignores the evidence of the last 35 years (a charge routinely levelled at Corbyn & co), insisting that failure requires us to redouble our efforts: "Instead of just attacking the current reforms to welfare, the project would need to champion the overhaul of the welfare state to provide a more modern contributory system and new institutions such as a National Care Service for the elderly to run alongside the NHS".


The central flaw in Hyman's vision is the belief that social mobility is simply a matter of "commitment" and thus a form of positive thinking. The practicalities are reduced to the implication that a few more academies might cause the economy to automatically rebalance (there's some special pleading here as Hyman is now head of a free school). What he seems determined to ignore, with his calls for a "leaner" state, is that the postwar growth of the public sector was a major contributor to the social mobility of the second half of the century. It was the demand for more teachers and doctors, as much as more whitecollar workers, that provided the opportunity for working-class kids to climb the ladder. A decent education (and a full college grant) was an enabler, but the driver was private and public sector demand. What we're seeing now is the reversion to a historic norm in which opportunity is limited as the private sector reinforces nepotism and bias and the public sector constrains headcount.

A consequence is the increasing marginalisation of the redundant working class, caught between the pincer of fewer skilled jobs and less mobility. According to the sociologist Mike Savage, "Until the 1960s most white working-class boys expected to learn manual skills from their older peers, often through apprenticeships or on-the-job training. There was a strong sense of male pride and self-respect, often exemplified in loyal membership of trade unions. And a degree of respect was also accorded more generally to the 'hardy souls of toil'. Coalminers, engine drivers, shipbuilders and the like had a heroic resonance which was recognised – sometimes grudgingly – throughout British society. This was a world in which young white men could feel self-respect and a sense that they were subordinate to no one. Alan Sillitoe’s classic 1950s novels Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner perfectly exemplify this image of a rugged, dogged, cussed – but also resilient – masculinity".

This is liberal romanticism (it's been a week marked by maudlin think-pieces on the death of coal) and thus as much an exercise in imagining the national community as the work of Nougayrede and Hyman. Alan Sillitoe's work was less about working class pride and more about young men chafing against the constraints of society at large, which meant parochial working class culture as much as the boss class. Arthur Seaton and the runner Smith were the awkward squad, not the aristocracy of labour. The social upheaval marked by Sillitoe's work reflected the double-edged nature of social mobility in the postwar years. Thatcherism, in the popular sense of selfish ambition and social climbing, was incipient in the work of the 50s Angry Young Men, most obviously the rightwing John Braine (Room at the Top) but also in more "leftish" writers such as Sillitoe and David Storey.


The claim of popular legitimacy assumes a consistency among the people as much as it assumes the integrity of its representatives. Thus "white working-class boys" can be treated as homogeneous, while rightwing Labour MPs can imagine an army of "moderates" in the country as well as a nest of vipers on Twitter. In other words, the mindset that Furet identified is (contra Nougayrede) as present in the political centre as at the extremes. A paradox of liberalism is that its commitment to personal liberty and plurality translates in practice into narrow-mindedness and conformity. Nougayrede's attempt to suggest that anyone who doesn't cleave to a centrist position is prone to paranoia, conspiracy theories and ultimately terrorism is a silly slur, but it is merely the other side of the coin to Peter Hyman's impossibly pure Blairism in which ideological consistency requires purges and splits.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Box Set News

One of the themes of the last ten years in the media has been the over-indulgence in spectacle by TV news, by which I mean the equivalent of dabbing your hanky in a pool of blood. The coverage of the recent Paris attacks, like the earlier shootings in January, saw TV anchors descend upon the city for no apparent reason beyond a desire to heighten the sense of authenticity: a frisson of proximate danger. This marks a change from the traditional response, which was in place as late as the London bombings in 2005, where reporters on the ground would provide factual bulletins, "experts in the studio" would provide analysis, and the broadsheet press would provide long-form essays for months to come (or even years, in the case of Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens).

Many would ascribe this change to the impact of social media, in particular pointing to the way the Arab Spring "democratised" reportage and raised the value of immediacy and presence. However, I think another factor has been the emergence of the box set mentality, which is ultimately a defensive play by traditional media against the dynamics of the Internet, and can be thought of as the elevation of commitment above promiscuity. The chief characteristic of this mentality is bingeing: more is better, we're on a journey, we've got every angle covered (and other clichés). In TV news this means focusing to the point of excess on certain stories and thus neglecting others (i.e. selection bias), but it also means a reliance on emotion over thought, essentially because only emotion can keep us engaged for long periods, providing both narrative drive and identification with the protagonists.

A decade ago, the US presidential nomination process would have only received blanket media coverage once the first primaries were imminent (Iowa and New Hampshire in January). Now, coverage builds 12 months in advance, as "speculation mounts" regarding who will declare their candidacy, and wall-to-wall analysis kicks in with a full 6 months to go. The problem is that many candidates lack a manifesto that is both sufficiently distinct and comprehensive to handle the increased scrutiny, hence the recourse to issues of character or simple trolling. One factor in Donald Trump's rise has been his indefatigability (to use a Gallowayism). The other candidates are intellectually exhausted - not least because the unresolved tension in Republican politics between the authoritarian and the libertarian leaves them often incoherent - but Trump keeps coming up with novel plot twists, even if they are no more credible that Bobby Ewing's shower scene.

In the UK, the eclipse of Nigel Farage can be explained both by his monotonous politics (the same episode every week) and by the sudden popularity of the rival Labour box-set, a new series in which an old favourite is given a 21st century reboot that has fans at each others' throats. Building on the family conflict of the Miliband years, we now have a full-on "clash of civilisations" that looks like Eastenders reimagined as Star Wars. The result is media coverage almost entirely bereft of politics, in the sense of thought about practical policies. Instead we have lurid emotionalism, with much talk of "betrayal" and threats of face-to-face stabbing. I'm beginning to have a smidgen of sympathy for Tony Blair's irritable appeal for head over heart, though naturally I should point out that he was a master of shrouding unreason in emotion long before any dossier was sexed-up.

The rhetorical violence of modern politics is simultaneously blamed on the degrading effect of social media (everyone's a troll) and political correctness (you can't say nuffink nowadays), but this ignores a more fundamental shift in which symbolic and actual violence has become central to the way in which we see the world. The most emblematic example of this is the mass shooting. Though gun ownership in the US is actually in long-term decline, the coverage of "the massacre of the innocents" has become more prominent over recent years, which both encourages nutters who want to go out in a blaze of publicity but also causes interest to overflow to tangential and hitherto ignored crimes, such as the police killing of unarmed blacks.


According to Tom Engelhardt, mass shootings are "guaranteed to eat any screen and recur so regularly, with uniquely gruesome twists, that covering them has become formulaic". Most people acknowledge the 1963 assassination of John F Kennedy as the moment that TV graduated from mere reportage to a communal experience of tragedy, but I think Engelhardt is right to point to the 1994 O J Simpson car-chase as an equally significant cultural turning-point: the moment when carnage voyeurism became a commodity (something that was explored well in the film Nightcrawler). Engelhardt is also on the money when he notes the paradigm behind these stories: "what passes for the news is often enough closer to a horror movie in which, just around the next corner, another nightmare is readying itself to leap out and scare you to death".

Starting in the 1980s, the mental dramatisation of our fears moved on from the tropes of the war film to the horror film. The bombing campaigns of the second half of the twentieth century owed much to the collective memory of wartime, the idea that death was random and unannounced. This gave rise to a phlegmatic attitude ("If it's got you number on it ...") that pointed to the attritional resilience of modern societies. In contrast, Daesh's modus operandi - spectacular suicide attacks and ceremonies of gore - is straight out of the Hollywood playbook of slasher movies. The anonymous planting of bombs now appears like a throwback, even an anomaly (e.g. the downing of the Russian airplane in Egypt).

It is the face-to-face attack, whether flying a plane into a building or decapitating an off-duty soldier, that is now preferred, essentially because it appears a more terrifying threat in the mind of the populace than sudden death by a bomb, and is more likely to trigger the anti-Muslim backlash that the perpetrators desire. It is more of a spectacle in terms of imaginative anticipation, and it has become more of a spectacle in actuality as a result of TV coverage. In marked contrast, state violence is increasingly oblique, carried out through drones and air-strikes. We are reluctant to commit "boots on the ground", as if coming face-to-face with the enemy were to be avoided at all costs. We talk of the precision and discrimination of our Brimstone missiles in the same antiseptic way that we discuss the latest cancer drug.

As traditional media have adapted to the challenge of new media, they have become more passive and sensational. Terrorists and TV networks now indirectly collude in staging the most compelling dramas. Against this, only the strongest words seem to get through, hence the hyperbole: "Fascists", "stab", "ban Muslims". Thought is suspect as it might lead to uncertainty or even scepticism. The auto-da-fé, in the form of the "I unreservedly condemn ..." soundbite, becomes the subject rather than the thing that is being condemned (or unreservedly praised). In contrast to this inanity, "The Internet, social media, and gaming offer entertainments that are as easy to slip into as is watching TV, but all are more purposeful and often less isolating. Video games, despite the derision aimed at them, are vehicles for achievement of a sort".

The point of that observation is that television has become less purposeful, which incidentally helps explains why interactive TV never really took off. It has also become less social as the profusion of channels means the common agenda (outside sport) has been eroded. The box set is an attempt to mimic purpose (getting through a season is the equivalent of completing a video-game level), but it is one that requires only endurance, not skill or attention. While there is talk of old and new media combining into a fruitful symbiosis, the reality is that TV news is becoming ever more stupid as scepticism migrates to social media and supposedly neutral reporters adopt a partisan style to stimulate clicks and notoriety. Meanwhile, our appetite for carnage is boundless. Donald Trump and Daesh are both stars of box set news.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Empire of the Celts

The British Museum is currently exhibiting the Celts, while Tate Britain offers an exhibition entitled Artist & Empire. The former is subtitled "art and identity" and imagines an informal empire of soft power extending across both space and time. The latter is subtitled "facing Britain's imperial past" and suggests a reevaluation of the propaganda of empire. The two institutions are of course treasure troves of imperial looting and monuments to exploitation, from the Benin bronzes to sugar, and both embody the notion that identity and social relations can be captured in material objects, which is fundamental to the fetishisation of commodities. Though the exhibitions appear to be quite distinct, with only a slight overlap in the history of Ireland, they are essentially about the same thing: British identity. Of course, that's British identity as seen by the upper middle classes who curate exhibitions.

The Celts, as a people without their own written history, have been manipulated for political ends since classical times. Much of what we know from the "sources" is merely the projection of Roman political and social concerns, from the words put into the mouth of Calgacus by Tacitus in his Agricola ("To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace") to Cassius Dio's ventriloquising of Celtic female desire ("we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest"). In recent years we have interpreted these as anecdotes of native pride and sexual equality, back-projecting a "civic nationalism" that is no less romantic than the imaginings of Walter Scott, when they were actually meant to chide the Roman elite for its cupidity and lack of moral fibre - i.e. the failure to be sufficiently Roman, to the point where you could be lectured by barbarians. Victorian Britons got the intended message: "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din".

In the nineteenth century, the Celts were recuperated for nationalism, most notably in France. In 1789 the Gauls were the embodiment of ancient rights that predated the Frankish kings, and then a symbol of national defiance during the counter-revolutionary wars. Gauls and impending war became a recurrent French theme: in 1865 a statue of Vercingetorix was built on the site of ancient Alesia as tensions with Prussia mounted (in 1875 the Prussians built a statue to Hermann the German, aka Arminius, in the Teutoberger Wald in part to celebrate the victory of 1871); in 1910 the Gaulloises brand of cigarettes was launched, with its distinctive (and archaeologically unfounded) winged helmet marque; and Asterix first appeared in 1959 at the height of the Algerian War. Yet parallel to this, Celtic identity was also used to advance regionalism in Brittany against the French state, mirroring similar developments in Wales and Cornwall. Thus the national "Gaul" co-existed with the regional "Celt".


After World War Two, the idea of a common Celtic civilisation, stretching from Ireland to Turkey, became popular not just as a precedent for an emerging cooperative Europe, but as an alternative basis for a shared origin that wiped away the nonsense of Aryanism. While genetic research has shown the idea of a Celtic ethnicity to be nonsense too, the idea of a common culture continued to be popular, particularly as archaeology showed the Celtic peoples to be more sophisticated (i.e. luxury-goods fondlers) and bourgeois (oppida becoming mini-cities) than the caricatures of Caesar's Gallic War. Over the course of two centuries we see the employment of the Celts as symbols for regional identity, national identity and a supra-national identity. All three ideas remain current, which explains the contemporary difficulty in pinning down this elusive "people".

By the late-1980s, the Celt was in danger of becoming the prototypical EU citizen. The I Celti show in Venice in 1991 was apparently "conceived with a mind to the great impending process of the unification of Western Europe" with the Celts "being the first historically documented civilisation on a European scale". Though there has since been a turn away from the idea of the Celts as constituting a unitary civilisation, the idea that they were more technologically advanced than classical writers allowed, and that they were also traders on a continental scale, has continued to grow. The recent BBC series (The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice) advanced the fashionable theory that the Atlantic coast was the backbone of Celtic art, a pre-echo of the epochal shift away from the Mediterranean in the 16th century. The British Museum show makes much of this skill in the crafting and trading of luxury goods, to the point that the exhibition occasionally feels more like an upscale jewellers than an academic discourse, a sense heightened by the Clannad-like ambient music.

The idea of the Celts as a loose federation of traders, peripheral yet highly influential, has obvious ideological resonance in Britain, just as the idea of them as the origin of the nation remains strong in France. What the exhibition doesn't do is reconcile the profusion of wealth with the contemporary and later depictions of Celts as half-naked, blue-painted savages, with barely a pot to piss in. In other words, the economic context of Celtic society is largely absent, even though it is central to the historical records of late Celtdom in Early Medieval Ireland (the point about Brehon law is not its sophistication or recognition of women but its obsession with property and financial dues). The explanation for this is that British ethnography from Elizabethan times onwards emphasised the backwardness of the Celtic fringe to justify empire, while the riches that adorn continental museums were the result of nineteenth century state investment in national archaeology.


Where the exhibition is better is in tracking the employment of different images of the Celt to suit a political purpose, which is neatly encapsulated in the competing Protestant and Catholic narratives of Cu Chulainn: a defender of the Irish against the British, and a defender of Ulster against the rest of Ireland. The Tate Britain exhibition also opens in Ireland, with the siege of Enniskillen Castle in the late 16th century, and includes Marcus Gheeraerts's remarkable portrait of Captain Thomas Lee in which his bare (and rather chilly looking) legs are meant to reference both the Irish "style" and Roman heroic models. This is an early example of the British tendency to see empire as an excuse for dressing-up (or down), part of the wider cultural appropriation that links the 44th Regiment making their last stand at Gundamuck in 1842, attired in their recently-acqured Afghan coats, back to Captain Lee in 1594.

The Celts of the nineteenth century Celtic Revival were an invention whose roots lay not only in the search for a distinct Irish (and Scottish) national identity but in the growing British unease with the nature and course of empire. Like the contemporary fascination with the decline and fall of the Roman imperium, the Celtic Twilight was a projection of British fears as much as Irish hopes, which is why so many of its central figures were Anglo-Irish. Though mercantilism had been successfully laundered through the ideology of free-trade, and the naked economic purpose of colonialism had been obscured by Christianity and the "civilising" mission, there was still a sense that Britain's empire was a temporary role, fortuitously acquired and reluctantly assumed (the white man's burden etc), whose ultimate purpose was to oversee the development of native self-rule at some indeterminate future point.

While Anglo-Saxon history was (and still is) framed in terms of kingdoms and their "forging" into a national whole, Celtic history was seen as essentially tribal and wedded to concepts of familial loyalty and blood revenge (a view that runs from from Rob Roy through The Playboy of the Western World to Braveheart). This was used to both justify empire as a historical necessity in the transition from archaic to modern social forms (the example of the Romans in "birthing" West European kingdoms being stressed) while suggesting, through the persistence of atavistic habits (from cattle-rustling to vendettas), that the tribes were not yet ready for self-determination, and quite possibly never would be. The legacy of this way of thinking can be seen in the fascination with tribal or clan loyalty and honour killing in the popular characterisation of Pakistanis (and Afghans, and Albanians, and Africans etc).


The British Museum Celts exhibition suggests that "Celtic" is essentially a style, synthesised from many European influences and still being refined today, embodied in commodities from prehistoric torcs to modern tattoos. While it recognises the role of nationalism in influencing the style, it ultimately prefers to see it as supra-national, a product of the market for fashionable goods (initially European, now global). This same approach is evident at Tate Britain, where the propaganda of empire is rehabilitated as a collection of ironic commodities or recuperated in self-aware commentaries: keep calm and raise a wry smile. As you leave Artist and Empire, some of the exhibits reappear in the gallery shop in the form of tote-bags and prints. From strong-arm "traders" and expropriators justified by native outrages (the Indian Mutiny looms large as ever in the imagination), we arrive at the cliché of a nation of shopkeepers.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Who Are You Calling a Fascist?

Fascism has been in the news lately, from Hilary Benn's tub-thumping via the Front National's success in French local elections to the furore arising from Donald Trump's latest inanity. This is unfortunate as the word is rapidly being devalued. We need to remember what Fascism means politically, before it simply becomes a euphemism for "murderer" or "arsehole". There's no single, agreed definition of the word, largely because of varieties in practice, but there are four common characteristics concerning the "organising principle" of society and the role of the state, all of which need to be present.


1. Fascism is always nationalist. It assumes a distinct, localised identity and a common interest, represented by the "national idea", which is held to be persistent across generations and latent within older state forms. Though this usually takes on an ethnic dimension, it is the idea of exclusivity that is key: we are different and blessed. In some cases the nationalism can overlay ethnic variety and even appeal to trans-national antecedents (e.g. the Italian Fascist employment of Roman symbolism as a way to counter separatism). It's the nationalism that's defining, not the racism or antisemitism.

2. Fascism exhibits resentment against modernity, a belief in recent national decline (even betrayal), and a paranoia about malign forces. It fears decadence within (the product of liberalism) and barbarians at the gate (destabilisation by foreign elements and the jealousy of lesser breeds). It is reactionary, even though it symbolically trades in revolution (it inherits the pre-1793 meaning of the word as the return to a natural order from a debased present). It glorifies the future, but one in which technology and progress serve the national idea, which is unchanging (so it simultaneously annihilates the future).

3. Fascism is totalitarian in its belief that there is an ideal social order that needs to be imposed from above and coordinated in all aspects of life. Though we think of this in the modern guise of technological surveillance and mass regimentation, it is a recuperation of the pre-Enlightenment concept of an omniscient God. Fascism deifies the spirit of the nation, which is why it tends to be tolerant of established religions so long as they are non-competitive. This totalitarian mindset not only rejects diversity and plurality, it obviates the need for democracy and privacy.

4. Fascism treats economics instrumentally, as a means to impose its preferred order and coordinate society. Consequently, it tends towards corporatist regulation, autarky and protectionism, but it also tends to accommodate the larger capitals so long as they are seen to support the national idea. Despite rhetorical sympathy for the little guy, Fascism usually privileges big business. In practice it entrenches oligopolies and is sanguine about monopolies.

Daesh is not Fascist. It satisfies criteria 2, 3 and 4, but that makes it a brand of extreme religious authoritarianism, not Fascism. Though many commentators have tried to fit the idea of the Muslim "Caliphate" into the form of a nation, there is little evidence that the organisation sees itself in national terms (Islam is held to be superior to ethnicity) while its identification with a particular patch of territory is contingent. There has been no attempt to "perform the nation" through theatrical rallies or the celebration of national (as opposed to religious) symbols. The performance of Daesh in its propaganda videos centres on apostasy and apocalypse. Compare and contrast with the more nationally-minded Iranians, who are usually defined as a theocracy. Islamofascism, as the clumsy yoking of the word indicates, is a category error.


In contrast, the French Front National is Fascist. It satisfies all four citeria. Its Islamophobia and (barely hidden) antisemitism springs from a belief in the need to preserve a mythical French ethnic identity and symbolically revenge the defeat in Algeria. It is anti-modern, declinist and prone to paranoia (something it shares with new best friend Russia). Despite Marine Le Pen's toning down of public intolerance in recent years, the FN remains determined to impose petty restrictions to reorder society, hence the obsession with dress codes and diet. It is institutionally corrupt and dependent on rich backers. That its supporters haven't carried out many terrorist acts lately, as the party pushes for electoral respectability, is irrelevant to its political nature.

In terms of the gradual transformation of the social forces that give rise to Fascism, Britain is more "evolved" than France. The real Fascists, i.e. what remains of the BNP et al, are a tiny minority. UKIP is weakly nationalist (its name is a giveaway), nostalgic and bigoted, but no more so that large swathes of the Conservative Party. It is more libertarian than authoritarian, and its economics are best described as eccentric (hence Farage is closer to Trump than Le Pen). The relative strength of the FN reflects the broad persistence of republican nationalism in France, the greater resilience of reactionary attitudes in la France profonde, the instinctive authoritarianism of the French state, and the continued hankering for a neo-corporatist economy among some wealthy business people.

French history since 1871 has been dominated by anxiety over the country's ability to "keep up", from empire through industry to the military. On the international stage, France's symbolic role often appears to be to prevent the UK looking utterly absurd in its pretensions. The domestic right, from Action Francaise onwards, has been fuelled by a rejectionist exasperation at the compromises necessary to modernise while preserving the idea of French exceptionalism. In the current context of the EU, the success of the FN owes as much to worries over growing German hegemony as the fear of the Muslim "other". France has been fretful for decades, oscillating between a "me too" neoliberalism and a desire for a collective duvet-day. This is the legacy of Francois Mitterand.

Donald Trump is not a Fascist. Though he has flirted with all four categories, he has also proven to be consistently incoherent. Basically, he isn't trying hard enough because he doesn't really care ("I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos"). He is a narcissist, but not a sociopath (though he acts as a lighting rod for many who are). He is a nativist bigot rather than an exclusivist racist; his anti-politics schtick is populist rather than reactionary (i.e. kick the bums out rather than fundamentally change the rules); his social prejudices are opportunistic and contradictory (the flip-flops are legion); and beneath the bluster his economics are driven by self-interest rather than social engineering. The most Fascist thing about him is the Mussolini pout.


Trump doesn't believe in anything other than the brand: "Even when his projects fail – his golf course in Aberdeenshire, to take one example, has lost £3.5 million over the last two years – he makes money through letting other people put his name on their projects: no risk, little work, just a licensing fee upfront or a share of the profits. He doesn’t actually own the Trump Taj Mahal or Trump Palace or Trump Place or Trump Plaza or Trump Park Avenue or Trump Soho, or the many Trump buildings throughout South America, Turkey, South Korea and the Caucasus. Developers buy the use of his name because enough customers believe in it: ‘It’s not even a question of ego. It’s just that my name makes everything more successful,’ he says". The problem for the Republican Party is not Trump, but their misguided "project" to promote a simultaneously authoritarian and anti-government politics.

There is some evidence that Fascism particularly prospers in the wake of financial crises, possibly because a fraction of traditional conservative support becomes disillusioned with establishment parties, however this effect normally seems to tail off after 5 years. The persistence of far-right support in Europe today probably owes more to the self-defeating nature of austerity, which has effectively extended the crisis, than it does to the rise of Daesh or immigration (which is actually at historically low levels). However, this does not mean that conditions are propitious for a Fascist political coup, either in Europe or the USA.

Fascism thrives when conservatives fear outright defeat and expropriation from the left, and are consequently prepared to make political alliances with the far-right. But this scenario should not be confused with conservatives adopting populist rhetoric or nationalist policies, as in Hungary. There is a lot of authoritarian practice in Eastern Europe (with pre-1914 roots) that falls short of Fascism. The neoliberal hegemonic recovery since 2009, as much as the modest ambitions of the modern left, means that Western European conservatives do not feel under threat, despite the concerns over stagnation. If anything, they are actively promoting Fascist or nationalist parties as threats to the left, not as allies on the right. In Britain, the mildness of UKIP's nationalism allows it to be advanced by centrist liberals to a similar end.

As part of the long, withdrawing roar of the nineteenth century reaction, Fascism (like programmatic racism) is historically doomed. The current resurgence of nationalism, which clearly flirts with Fascism in some countries, is a reflection of the success of globalisation and economic liberalism, not its weakness. There is no evidence to believe that we will see a return to widespread economic protectionism, or a Hobbesian war of all against all to secure key resources. The unravelling of Schengen, or even a Brexit, will not break the EU, and the substantive advance of the FN beyond local government appears unlikely (unless Sarkozy miscalculates, which is not impossible). The US and China will not be fighting a war any time soon, not least because they are economically co-dependent. The one country that has the necessary ingredients for a Fascist takeover is probably India, however even there the odds remain long.


Fascism promises struggle. The truth, long acknowledged by the broad socialist movement, is that modern societies do not want struggle, they want ease - i.e. not indolence, but what the Greeks called eudaimonia. What natural disasters in Ullswater and terrorist outrages in Paris teach us is not that our civilisation is fragile and vulnerable, but that the gulf between modernity and the privation required to enable a Fascist regime is now too great to be bridged by rhetoric alone. The point is not that we are "soft", but that heroic self-sacrifice in the national cause (or proletarian revolution) has lost its appeal for all but a tiny minority (which may in part explain why such people are attracted to religious extremism instead). In the neoliberal order, blood, sweat and tears have been commoditised into role-playing video games, gym workouts and confessional media.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

American Sniper

The Labour right has been engaged in a campaign to delegitimise the left for months. By "left" I mean anyone who isn't acceptable to the right, and by "months" I mean years. For all the recent increase in vituperation and outrage, including the tales of Twitter-terrorism and prophecies of a deselection blood-bath, this has been going on since Ed Miliband won the leadership election in 2010. John McTernan's metamorphosis into a walking bile-duct didn't happen overnight. You might even argue that the narcissism of small differences that marked the Blair-Brown feud so raised the base volume that when genuine policy disagreement returned to centre-stage it obliged the right to turn the dial up to 11.


The hysteria of the right's response is ironic, given their insistence that the left is expressive and self-indulgent, but it also points to the degree to which the right and centre of the party, from Miliband to Miliband, have been influenced by American politics since the late-80s.  It's always worth narrowing your eyes when anyone tells you that politics has fundamentally changed, but I think there has unquestionably been an increase in "partisanship" in US politics since the conservative revanche of the late-70s, which long predates the distorting lens of Fox News. This is primarily observed as an increase in policy polarisation, as measured by votes cast in Congress. In other words, "two coherent ideological parties with very little programmatic overlap".

However, looked at from another angle, this is actually evidence of greater hegemony, not division. Issues that once cut across party boundaries, such as civil rights and the war in Vietnam, have waned, while the issue of the role of government in the economy, on which the parties are distinctly aligned, has waxed. But for all the hyperbole and legislative standoffs this has given rise to, the policy divide between the parties has narrowed as the neoliberal consensus has taken root. That Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act was based on a system introduced in New Hampshire by Mitt Romney is typical: more huddling around the poles, but the distance between them is shorter.

The chief paradox of the growth in partisanship is that it has been mirrored by the rise of the idea of politics as a rational consumption preference. This originated in public choice theory in the 1960s, though most commentators date its arrival on the political scene to the 1980s and the intersection of identity politics. According to John Gray, "Looking back, it becomes clear that Corbyn is one of the by-products of a project of marketisation, begun in Britain by Thatcher and continued during the era of New Labour, which has been pursued in different forms in many countries" (in paying £3 to vote Jezza you were cheaply satisfying your ego). The consequences of marketisation are profound: "The new politics may be more volatile; voters are less tribally loyal and more likely to shop around".

This has caused a compensatory heightening of political language in an attempt to instill brand loyalty: "partisan animosity is one of the few forms of discrimination that contemporary American society not only permits but actively encourages". In an era when politics is so heavily mediated, and policy differences often paper-thin, selling the product is frequently reduced to dog-whistles and stereotypes that provide the quick hit of a prejudice confirmed: "If you’re trying to get the largest return from voters, it would make sense for politicians to try to activate social identity rather than focus on policy". This both reflects and reinforces a wider division of society into mutually antagonistic camps that increasingly identify as social movements, with membership (preferably a lifetime subscription) implying acceptance of a basket of signature positions.

A characteristic of the partisan era is that the lack of substantive disagreement in the economic sphere leads to greater intransigence elsewhere. This takes two forms. First, emblematic issues touching on the role of the government in the economy, such as Obamacare, are over-dramatised ("death panels" etc). Second, social issues (marginal to the major economic conflicts) that might feasibly have led to pragmatic bi-partisan action, such as gun control and abortion, become emblematic standoffs. This creates a void in which opportunistic populists like Donald Trump can thrive, running a campaign based on bumper-stickers in which policy impossibilism is a virtue.


In the UK, party politics remains more class-conscious and ideologically varied (even after the neoliberal tide), hence the lesser significance of the culture wars despite the best efforts of the media to make "political correctness" central to our lives. Consequently, the partisan divide is as likely to be found within parties as between them (e.g. unilateral nuclear disarmament or the EU), originating in more fundamental tensions, such as isolationism and internationalism. This leads to regular talk of splits and the prospect of third-party breakthroughs. Roy Greenslade is the latest to claim that Labour is "on the brink of complete disintegration" because "the church is simply too broad and too battered to act any longer as a coherent united party".

This is a refrain that the Guardian has sung for half a century. The novelty is that the "incoherence" is now painted as the product of cultural dissonance rather than economic contradictions. Thus "poncified" London Labour is unable to connect with the bigoted Northern working class. The insistence that opposition to Syrian airstrikes is a matter of bullying and sexism is likewise an attempt to shift the debate from policy to culture. A similar tactic was adopted during the Scottish referendum against the "cybernats". It failed then both because of the incongruity of bruisers from the Labour right presenting themselves as champions of women and the bullied, and because the Scots actually wanted to talk about the substance of independence.

The current irony is that the Labour right is adopting a partisan style while trying to exterminate the social movement that is providing the party with (limited) momentum. While US Democrats sensibly try and absorb these "movement" impetuses (Hillary Clinton has maintained a solid lead over Bernie Sanders in the nomination race by not alienating most party members), the PLP demands the formation of a committee of public safety. The bilious McTernan believes that the expressive sets us on the road to the gulag: "The new politics is a movement politics – and movement politics, for all its avowed inclusivity, is a fuelled by insider/outsider demarcations. Once you understand that then everything else flows from it – stigmatise, isolate, eliminate. Just like the Bolsheviks used to say – fewer but better Russians".

Meanwhile, Nick Cohen continues to stigmatise, isolate and eliminate "the myth of leftwing decency". To this end we are told that "Leftwing men can treat women appallingly" (indeed they can, and so can chiropodists, Fulham fans and the left-handed); and that "Leftists would behave better if they stopped acting like teenage vegetarians and found the honesty to acknowledge their kinship with the rest of compromised humanity". The obligatory Orwell homage (those veggies presumably wear sandals) points to the continuing determination to cast the left as merely expressive, while the criticism of their assumed superiority ("they" think they are better than the rest of us) is textbook partisan.

In adopting a highly aggressive and emotional stance towards the left, the right of the Labour Party is acting partisanly, but in an American style. The problem is that they lack the "movement" necessary to support this. Having alienated the membership through their managerialism as much as their policies, they have come to rely on the patronage of the rightwing media as a proxy for popular backing. Similarly, in their belief that working class voters are itching to desert Labour and join the UKIP bandwagon, they are continuing to push the marketisation of British politics, in particular importing the American trope that the working class of the hinterland are inherently bigoted and resentful and must be placated by "tough" retail policies on security and welfare. It shouldn't come as any surprise then that the vocabulary of the Labour right is beginning to sound a little McCarthyite.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Librarians and Libertarians

Libraries were once a chief means by which capitalists, particularly the predatory sort like Andrew Carnegie, gave back to society and assuaged their guilt ahead of death. They were a socialised form of indulgence, in the original religious sense of that word. As a philanthropic endowment, libraries were ideologically acceptable to capitalists - long before the invention of "human capital" - because they emphasised individual self-betterment and striving rather than collective endeavour. They were social but not socialist. But libraries are Janus-faced. They look to the past as repositories of ancient wisdom, but they are also a tool for empowerment, both individual and collective (the "no talking" rule was a constraint on the natural desire to share intellectual discoveries as much as the legacy of the monastic order). In their focus on the power of information, libraries manage to be both quintessentially conservative and progressive.


Modern philanthropists are less likely to fund facilities for the self-directed development of others, preferring to impose their views on what constitutes right development, from public health through cultural attitudes to physical infrastructure. Where once they funded libraries, concert halls and public parks, they are now more likely to invest in inoculation (biopolitically emblematic as a physical intervention in other people), digital banking and "financial literacy" (often an introduction to debt), and renewable energy (an encouragement to buy commodities). Sanitation and clean water are perhaps the only areas that have remained consistently attractive to philanthropists, and beneficial to their recipients, over the centuries.

There is also a fashion among modern philanthropists to operate as couples (Bill and Melinda, Mark and Priscilla). This is not so much gender equality (plenty of Victorian philanthropists were rich women, either independently wealthy or the wives of rich men), but the desire to frame philanthropy as a "family" activity and therefore a private matter, beyond the purview of the state, rather than as an extension of work. This is the apotheosis of the work-life balance, but one in which family values tend towards the conservative (e.g. the Gates Foundation defunding of abortion). There is little appetite to emulate the Pope and wash the feet of the poor - to do charitable work (i.e. real labour) in public - beyond perhaps a brief photo-op at a seasonal soup-kitchen or some tree-planting. The idea of charity as sustained penance is alien to most modern philanthropists, not least because it offends the "level playing field" premise of libertarianism.

The news that the Chan-Zuckerberg family has decided to put its billions into a private company, rather than a charitable trust, should therefore come as no surprise. According to the philanthropy-friendly Forbes Magazine, "In addition to funding nonprofits, Zuckerberg pointed out that the LLC structure enables him and Priscilla Chan to invest in private (including for profit) companies as well as engage in policy debates—also known as lobbying". Sceptics of this manoeuvre have focused on whether it is right for an individual to decide where the money - which might otherwise have been beneficially recycled through taxation - should be spent, rather than a democratically elected government. This is a social democrat critique of a libertarian ideal.

But this misses a more fundamental point with regard to research, which increasingly dominates philanthropy as the tech-titans seek to apply their "lessons learnt" to the wider problems of the world. The historic shift in charity away from the alleviation of suffering towards investment is well known ("teach a man to fish" etc), and has been frequently criticised for its ideological bias, but the assumption has been that investment is nonetheless a good thing. However, the allocation of funds to research is always a matter of priorities based on belief (and thus desire) rather than empirical evidence. This is why Silicon Valley is more attracted to cryogenics and space travel than antibiotics. These priorities are also ideological, hence when private philanthropists gravitate towards health, it is as a way of helping others without transferring power: we love a grateful cripple.


The state too has a structural bias in respect of R&D. The three areas it has traditionally prioritised are defence, i.e. the maintenance of the integrity of the state (the prime directive); "pure" research - once philosophy and astrology, now astrophysics and maths - that is posited on the search for an underlying order (i.e. a justification of the status quo); and public health - stimulated by urban growth and thus increasing anxiety about public disorder in the face of a catastrophe, which lives on in the zombie plague trope. It will not have escaped your notice that the UK, with its long-established state infrastructure, has been particularly successful in these three areas, nor that our perennial "failure" to turn pure research into monetisable applied technology reflects a reluctance by the state to provide institutional support to industry outside wartime.

Though primary research, and what Joel Mokyr refers to as "macro inventions", depends to a large degree on the state (or what Marianna Mazzucato has rebranded as the "entrepreneurial state", in an effort to combine liberal and social democratic tropes), the rate of innovation in society depends on the wider institutional support for popular curiosity and entrepreneurship. The chief institutional form is the firm, not because of the nurturing nature of capitalism, but because individual workers gain access to material resources and techniques they could otherwise not afford. It is a little acknowledged truth that most startups originate in theft, i.e. the theft of work-time as much as material theft (from half-inched stationery to "borrowed" software).

One of the downsides of the offshoring of technical skills and the continued contraction of manufacturing is that the physical and social infrastructure of skills transfer - people, places, equipment - is attenuated. Likewise, a problem with the shift towards jobs that depend on "social skills", rather than technical skills or the dexterous use of tools, is that they deny workers access to technologies and techniques. They limit agency and reward conformity. Related to this, the increasing close supervision of workers - i.e. the application of surveillance to the workplace - inhibits independent research. Basically, there isn't enough stealing going on in the British workplace. This is constraining innovation and thus economic growth.


Libraries, along with adult education services, were a central prop in the social support for innovation during the social democratic era. As local authority funding has been cut, more social services have been absorbed into the libraries' remit, which has limited their capacity to support innovation. A library may have been fitted-out with PCs, but these are likely to be used to access council services (due to the closure of frontline facilities elsewhere), to conduct job searches (to meet DWP targets), or to support schoolwork. In terms of priorities (mandated by central government), local government is focused on the indoctrination of the young, the physical maintenance of the working population, and the mopping up of the social problems associated with the non-working.

Local authorities have no responsibility for innovation, so libraries are seen primarily as a benefit for school-kids and workers, or (informally) as a sanctuary for the damaged. Self-directed adult R&D gets squeezed. The slow death of public libraries, and the strangling of adult vocational training, is the flipside of the coin to our cultural lionisation of VC-backed (or independently wealthy) hipster libertarians as the drivers of innovation. Far from closing down libraries, or limiting funding to those that are most library-like (i.e. elite institutions centred on rare books), we should be reinventing libraries as public information and innovation facilities. This doesn't just mean adding more PCs, but building an annex with workbenches, a machine room, a chemistry lab and a mini data centre.

This might appear ambitious, but consider the willingness of local authorities to invest in sport and fitness facilities, despite the fact that private enterprise has never been reluctant to provide comparable, if more expensive, services. Why do we consider adding muscle or reducing fat to be of greater personal value that acquiring knowledge or experimenting with materials? Some of this is down to the state bias towards public health, but part is the neoliberal fixation on the biopolitical: "be the best you can be" is a stricture more easily satisfied through physical self-discipline than intellectual or moral development. We need to spend less investing in the body and more investing in the mind. We need more (and more widely-skilled) librarians, not more philanthropic libertarians.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Expressive and Instrumental

One of the persistent, thematic criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party, and the motivation of his supporters among the membership, has been that it is expressive rather than instrumental. In other words, it is about striking intellectually-satisfying poses rather than knuckling down to the hard work - and by implication compromises and securing power - needed to get things done. This was kicked off back in August by Peter Kellner, who ironically trades in the expressive at YouGov, but is obviously a much older trope in politics and one that has been used to attack progressive or reformist policies since the 18th century. It's a false dichotomy. Policy is usually a combination of the two, rather than exclusively one or the other. For example, the abolition of the slave trade was pursued instrumentally (minimising both the economic losses to slave-owners and the empowerment of freed slaves) but publicised expressively.

To paint an individual, let alone a faction or party, as committed to one or the other is simply to dismiss their credibility: you don't care about power because you're a dilettante; you have no ethical scruples so everything you do is suspect. It is far more useful to dissect a policy via these two dimensions. The chief criticism of David Cameron's plan to bomb Daesh in Syria is that it is insufficiently instrumental. Indeed, the evidence of the current bombing campaign in Iraq, which has failed to significantly degrade ISIS, is that the government is attracted to extending the area of operations precisely because it is largely expressive. To take another example in the realm of national security, many senior members of the armed forces consider Trident to be wholly expressive, having no real instrumental value.

The charge of expressive self-indulgence has been taken up by "Bagehot" in the Economist, who reckons that Labour "is increasingly two parties: a moderate, instrumental one and a hard-left, expressive one". What is significant about this analysis is the equivalence of these impulses with positions on the political spectrum, thus continuing the "leftist dreamers" versus "moderate realists" trope of Kellner, which can ultimately be traced all the way back to Edmund Burke. This immediately becomes a source of mirth when Bagehot tries to imagine a positive future: "Mr Corbyn is rapidly ousted; Mr Benn replaces him as a caretaker; the membership churns in moderates' favour; Mr Benn is replaced by a younger, more dynamic and more centrist leader. Labour chance of winning the 2020 election: 40-50%".

The suggestion of a Bennite coup (a meme launched at the weekend by John McTernan in the Telegraph) is funny in itself, but what elevates this scenario to the realm of the surreal is the idea that it would give "Labour’s moderates time and space to recruit thousands of middle-ground members". This conjures up an army that is no less a fantasy than David Cameron's 70,000 Syrian democrats. It also prompts an obvious question: if the policies of the "moderates" in Labour were so attractive, why did party membership halve between 1997 and 2008? The real dichotomy here (i.e. a clear division, not just contrasting tendencies) is between Corbyn's preference for a mass-membership party versus the Blairites preference for a managerialist party in which a self-perpetuating and entitled elite exclude the membership from policy formation.


Tony Blair oversaw a successful recruitment drive in the mid-90s to win power, but that went into reverse due to a combination of neglect once in office and the disappointment of many members at "moderate" policies in action, notably the failure to reverse the marketisation of the NHS and the Tories's anti-union legislation, and the embrace of workfare. The current fear being expressed by the Labour right in the PLP at the bogey of Momentum is not about the return of early-80s entryism and aggressive deselection, but the devolution of power to the CLPs. For all the media coverage of union influence in candidate selection battles, the real change that occurred during the Blair years was the increasing centralisation of the selection process and the parachuting of metropolitan "stars" into safe Labour seats in the North.

The farce of the Oldham West by-election is that a genuinely "moderate" and local candidate is being undermined by the party right through the media in an attempt to damage Corbyn. Bagehot in the Economist talks hopefully of "a by-election that could see Labour's huge majority slashed by the UK Independence Party, which is storming ahead among nationalist, working-class voters horrified by Mr Corbyn's pacifism and unorthodox views on national security". The Guardian has been particularly active on this front, to the point of deliberately trying to revive UKIP's political fortunes. For the increasingly bitter Rafael Behr, "Jeremy Corbyn is just another face of  'poncified' Labour", which just goes to show that an attack on the expressive is usually expressive itself. In trying to paint Corbyn as a centraliser - "another iteration of tin-eared disregard for local sensibilities" - he is not advocating more power to the CLPs, but patronising the constituents of Oldham West as ignorant, parochial bigots who have no common interests with the constituents of Islington North.

The historical irony is that the current Labour leadership is more deserving of the adjective "moderate" than a belligerent, neoliberal right that is still banging on about the need to be business-friendly and to export a narrow interpretation of democracy and western civilisation to other countries. To put it into international perspective, Corbyn and McDonnell's economic policy is Icelandic, their social policy Canadian, and their foreign policy Japanese. It is a measure of how far the Labour party has swung to the right that this social democracy tribute should be seen as radical rather than moderate. What struck me about the backbench response to John McDonnell's ill-judged little red book prop was not the frustration at an advantage literally thrown away, but the visceral hatred. For all the tactical errors of the leadership, there is a noticeable lack of strategic calculation and coolness by the rest of the PLP, which bubbles up in the frothing madness of McTernan and the contempt of Behr.

If we think about this in dynamic terms - the shifting tides of sentiment that flow one way and then the other - the Labour right would be advised to allow the party to tack to the "moderate left" until it could rebuild its own intellectual momentum, but the defining characteristic of the "resistance" to Corbyn has been its intransigence, which has been the chief source of the "chaos" eagerly broadcast by the media. A more rational position would hold party unity to be of greater value than back-seat participation in a Tory-organised drive-by shooting. While this implacability is not quite at the level of Daesh, it is sufficiently disruptive to cause Labour unnecessary problems and give the impression that the right would happily countenance electoral defeat just to be able to say "I told you so". In other words, they are anything but instrumental.