Tuesday, 20 December 2016

A Savage Servility

Over the coming days, you can expect sage media heads to nod, whistle and admit that whatever it was, 2016 was certainly memorable. Popular historians will be tempted to confirm that the year was pivotal while its embers still glow red. Personally, I doubt it will prove to be either. It is more likely to mark a messy interregnum between phases of a continuing trajectory. Whatever the outcome of Brexit (which hasn't happened yet) and a Trump presidency (ditto), the long-run results are unlikely to diverge massively from what we could have expected to happen anyway. The UK will be poorer and more fractious outside the EU, but this is merely the exacerbation of a process that began in the late-70s. Staying in the EU was never of itself going to rebalance the economy or address widening inequality. Likewise, the US will appear more venal and corrupt, but that will simply highlight the degree to which Obama exerted a reality distortion field in which his performative probity and tolerance masked a continuing slide in public morality and a growing disenchantment with the Republic.

But if the year won't be pivotal, in the manner of 1989 or 2001, that isn't to say that stuff didn't happen. So, in the seasonal spirit, here is my (slightly premature) annual roundup, which I've decided to approach obliquely through media tropes: some old, some new. In the latter category, the pacesetter was the Celebrity Death Epidemic, which has now run the gamut from A Rickman to ZZ Gabor (see what it did there?). Statistically, it was just another year, but the coincidental departure of pop culture luminaries such as David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen unleashed a tidal wave of solipsistic blather from middle-aged journalists. This has been coming for a while. There was already a noticeable tendency towards overkill in the reporting of the death of John Peel in 2004, despite the best efforts of Mark E Smith on Newsnight (5' in). Obituaries traditionally enjoyed a high status among journalists because they provided a rare opportunity for reflection among the ceaseless reportage. Today, in a sea of witless opinion and promos masquerading as "long reads", a celebrity death provides cheap filler and reliable clickbait.

Though the return of political economy was predictable after 2008, it is fair to say that it most definitely arrived on the scene this year, in no small part because the political establishment failed to measure up to the challenge from 2010 onwards. Whatever else they prove, the EU referendum in the UK and the Presidential election in the US show that the current economic dispensation isn't working for enough people to provide social and political stability. As yet, no one is offering much in the way of a cogent solution, which is why the hit-and-hope of Brexit and Trump have proved attractive. The underlying problem is neither fake news nor the irrationality of the masses but the persistence of TINA (there is no alternative) as the bedrock of neoliberal narrative. In this sense, modern populism - as an anti-elite discourse - is a rational response, even if it has been hijacked by right-wing loons. That this has happened is largely because elites insist that the true danger is the cuddly social democracy of Corbyn and Sanders and the "militancy" of striking workers. One positive development is that the rise of the alt-right, and the threat of Le Pen, has made the liberal claims of left antisemitism look even more ridiculous.

Let us now take a turn behind the scenes, to look at some of the structural changes afoot. We start with the trivia of commodities that no one really needs. If you think of the Tech-augmented Human in terms of wearables, 2016 has been a bit of a disappointment, with the damp squib that was the Apple Watch and the likes of Fitbit running (if you'll pardon the pun) into a brick wall as far as expanded functionality is concerned (there are only so many bio-metrics the average non-hypochondriac can worry about). Meanwhile, blockchain-based distributed applications, phone-based payment systems (which are conceptually on a road between a chip embedded in a plastic card and one embedded in your body) and home device controllers (i.e. secure hubs for the Internet of Things) continue to inch forward. This slow progress has inevitably fed into the Modern Technology is Rubbish trope, but that shouldn't distract us from the interesting change in the discourse from complaints of deficiency - that new tech is not as good as advertised or that it has failed to live up to expectations - to the charge of outright malignancy.

While fretting about AI and mass surveillance has remained popular, the big change in the realm of the malign is that the fears of Matrix-style machines draining our vital bodily fluids or the NSA and GCHQ reading our emails have given way in the popular imagination to robots "stealing our jobs". This meme of dispossession has replaced the earlier "they took er jerbs" trope in which the people casually branded "globalisation's losers" supposedly pointed the finger at poorly-paid Mexican and Chinese assembly workers. What is noticeable (and is clearly worrying a number of people in Silicon Valley) is that this is shifting the focus of popular ire away from foreign labour to domestic capital. Of course, that capital is only evident as such if we recognise that robots are simply plant and machinery. The imputation of malignancy is intended to anthropomorphise the machines, much as the earlier Luddite trope claimed that weavers were driven by an irrational animosity towards power-looms rather than mill-owners.

This shift reflects the growing salience of reshoring and full automation as global production chains are shortened to increase profits. It also heralds a change in financial flows as capital is increasingly repatriated for investment in mature economies. Though a lot of Transatlantic attention is being given to the promise of a Trump-led infrastructure investment programme, the more significant change under the new administration is likely to be a reduction in the taxes levied on overseas profits when brought back to the US, which will encourage the likes of Apple and Amazon to invest their offshore funds in domestic projects. Given their interests and capabilities, this is more likely to be in the area of automation (which is job-reducing) rather than infrastructure (which is job-expanding). In other words, there will be rapid advances in autonomous vehicles while US roads may get a few potholes filled in.

Given the amount of capital flooding into Driverless Cars and the necessity of profitable returns in the medium term (assuming Trump is serious about inflation and interest rates in the 2-4% range), we may shortly see legislation to enable the creation of AV (autonomous vehicle)-only areas. These will most likely be in high-value city centres where there are sufficient rich people (who will be able to afford to buy the first generation of AVs) and young professionals (who will be able to afford driverless Ubers everywhere). Given the wealth bias, this won't just be limited to the US, which raises the prospect that legislation to allow autonomous vehicles may be passed in Saudi Arabia before legislation to allow autonomous women. This should remind us that the idea that technology is revolutionary, in the sense of socially progressive and personally liberating, is ideological. In many ways modern digital technology, with its focus on surveillance and control, and its incidental delight in public shaming, is highly conservative. The rise of the reactionary alt-right in this milieu should not come as a shock.

Equally unsurprising is that the debate on Basic Income has seen a drift away from the ideal of human flourishing towards the necessity of a dole in the face of technological unemployment. While voices on the left imagine a hopeful post-capitalism ("Demand full automation! Demand the future!"), the political centre, which is where any practical consensus will coalesce, is increasingly attracted to basic income as a new route to the old goal of "welfare reform". This is recognition of two secular trends. First, the twinned growth in precarious employment and income inequality is making welfare systems based on payroll contributions increasingly problematic. As the majority of payers can afford to contribute less and less, and as demographic ageing shrinks the working population, per capita contributions decline. The obvious solution - to increase taxes on the well-off over-and-above payroll contributions - is politically unpalatable to centrists, particularly as more of the wealthy opt-out of public services and political parties rely more on wealthy donors.

The second trend is that the privatisation and financialisation of public services is increasing the unit costs of public goods - a fact only obscured by Procrustean cuts in service provision to fit those goods into reduced budgets. While this might cause some politicians to question the foundational claims of privatisation, most are resigned to accepting the neoliberal order (TINA) and "managing" it better. In practice, this means capping expenditure. While some services, like the NHS, will remain free at the point of use, at least for a sizeable segment of the population, others are likely to become optional. This may take the form of citizens having to choose a subset from a list (an idea already trialled in the realm of corporate benefits), with "over-use" being chargeable, or it may lead to a basic income that is meant to cover not only the bare necessities but limited public (chargeable) goods as well: effectively a revival of the old idea of vouchers.

My prediction for 2017 is therefore more of the same, which is always a relatively safe call. Technology will continue to be under-estimated because it is already hyper-commoditised; driverless cars and basic income really are on the way, but the manner of their implementation will be punitive and discriminatory; and centrist politicians will continue to funk the challenge of inequality and economic power, providing easy ammunition for the far-right. Paradoxically perhaps, the geopolitical situation will probably stay relatively calm, despite plenty of cheap talk, because the modern generation of authoritarians are more interested in money than metaphysics. As the Republican Party and Silicon Valley are proving in the US, conservatives and liberals can do business with such authoritarians. In the UK, the reality of "taking back control", and the lack of consequentiality for lies (Katie Hopkins paying damages is the exception that proves the rule), have entrenched a sullen cynicism. Rupert Murdoch's bid for Sky plc seems well-timed. I recall a line from Robert's Lowell's For the Union Deada savage servility slides by on grease.


  1. I notice that your Crystal Ball has avoided making any predictions about the future of the Labour Party....