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Sunday, 27 March 2016

Not Invented Here

A few weeks ago, Chris Dillow asked in respect of the UK economy: "do we have the right set of institutions to foster the socio-organizational change that beget productivity growth?" Institutions in this context includes markets, the financial system, property rights and state intervention. The premise of Chris's question is that the macro-level institutions that support and regulate the individual or firm have a significant bearing on innovation and thus productivity. The same is true of micro-level institutions, i.e. the components within firms that govern innovation, from product development labs to suggestion boxes. A further assumption is that institutions, in freezing social relations at a particular point in time, can pass their sell-by-date, even to the point of becoming counter-productive. As Marx put it, "From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters". This raises the problem of institutional change. My focus here is not the process of change, or the specific institutions that Chris recommends, but the degree of variety in institutional choice

History has many examples of states that imported institutional models, from Peter the Great to Meji-era Japan, not to mention those who exported their institutions through hostile takeover. Globalisation and neoliberalism, in homogenising organisational and technical best practice, have gradually reduced this diversity in many areas of the economy, though not across all parts of society. One of the delusions of the 90s "end of history" meme was that it would apply to politics as much as finance or law - that liberal democracy was the future for all - but in fact domestic political institutions have proved more resilient, from Havana to Beijing, suggesting that they need to be thought of more as cultural artefacts than the instrumental "executive committee of the bourgeoisie" that Marx described. A similar reduction in diversity can be seen at the micro-level as businesses have focused on their "core competence" and outsourced support services. While there is no shortage of "bullshit jobs" in the typical corporation, there is much less variety among them. Where a large office might once have had an inhouse electrician in blue overalls, a diversity policy officer is (ironically) just another suit.

Once there is no "elsewhere" whose proven tools and refined techniques we can adopt, and assuming aliens don't suddenly appear in our star system, productivity growth will largely depend on endogenous innovation (whose long-term rate has been a little over 1%). This raises the troubling thought that our current relative stagnation may be (at least in part) a result of globalisation in that opportunities for significant catch-up have now been reduced due to the pervasive spread of technologies and techniques. This is not to say that there is no potential for further "institutional arbitrage" between developed and developing nations, but that the rapid growth experienced by the former during les trente glorieuses was partly the consequence of rapid institutional change during the postwar years, much of it state-led and not a little imposed from outside, notably in continental Europe and Japan, and that similar scale opportunities do not exist today. The "opening up" of Cuba is hardly on a par with Deng Xiaoping's reforms in China.

The claim, advanced from the 1970s onwards, that deregulation would liberate market innovation and drive economic growth through higher productivity has been disproved by history. Financial deregulation led to speculation and asset bubbles, not more productive investment, while labour market reforms have produced job polarisation and greater income inequality, rather than the efficient allocation of workers. The recent emergence of labour-capital substitution, through the medium of increased self-employment and limited hours contracts, has actually helped drive productivity down, which should hardly have come as a surprise. When labour is expensive, productivity growth is at a premium, prompting capital investment and factor optimisation. When labour is cheap, productivity growth becomes less important for maintaining or increasing profit margins. Systematically exploiting the workforce, in the manner of Sports Direct, becomes more important.

The counter-argument to deregulation, that innovation and productivity growth depend on state intervention, never went away, however it has undergone a transformation from the idea of the state as a social employer (i.e. nationalisation) to a facilitator with aspirations to be a venture capitalist. What is notable about the institutional forms advanced in support of the "entrepreneurial state" is their lack of novelty - it's the same old mix of academia, centralised investment banks (though with a topical "green" colouring) and golden shares in strategically important businesses. This ignores that much of the success of these institutions was historically-specific, relying not only on the massive financial boost of wartime and postwar reconstruction but also on social values that directed talent to science rather than finance, considered patience a virtue, and compensated modestly paid professionals like researchers with esteem. We live in a different world, one where innovation and productivity is likely to be better served by a basic income than a green bank.

At the micro-level, the term "disruption" conjures up images of young software developers surrounded by half-eaten pizzas, or abrasive companies like Uber cannibalising old industries, but its more typical environment is the modern corporation where it has evolved into a synonym for executive-led change. What tends to get disrupted are not competitors but internal functions, particularly ones that show independence of thought. In many businesses, the fetishisation of innovation is a compensation for the declining return from 80s nostrums such as "adopting best practice", but this is a stylistic evolution not a change in substance. One phrase that hasn't yet gone out of fashion is the sneering "not invented here", applied to those sceptical of the value of imported ideas, despite its apparent contradiction to the ideal of innovation. This is because "innovation" in business-speak doesn't mean endogenous development or uniqueness but buying-in the same components as everyone else. In other words, "adopting best practice".

The influence of business schools and consultancies since the 80s, and the informal spread of ideas through increased job-hopping and executive promiscuity, means that there are few pockets of the large business sector where anything other than "standard best practice" is now followed. Turning round small businesses (where eccentric behaviour is reliably rife and generic problems are tractable) has become a TV genre, reinforcing conventional corporate wisdom about finance, marketing and human resources. Documentaries on larger businesses (as opposed to public services with their human interest angle) are rare because there isn't the variety to engage viewers, while comedies like The Office work because of the generic familiarity. Meanwhile the not-so-new economy of software startups and hipster commerce celebrates over-work and the emotional satisfaction of commodities, completely missing the point of Mad Men. Despite the scooters and informality, the modern office does not represent an institutional advance likely to promote productivity.

The "liberation" of business from state intervention since the 70s has produced not greater institutional variety, as market optimists hoped, but greater conformity. Business process engineering and "the quality revolution" flattened out the kinks in many firms, and unquestionably improved productivity during their initial adoption (along with IT) in the 80s, but in so doing they removed much of the organisational grit that might have produced pearls of innovation. Outsourcing and offshoring exacerbated this in the 90s, reducing the potential for synergies that naturally arose through informal worker collaboration. The growth of the "gig economy" since the millennium means that fewer people are in a position to be innovative in their work, or likely to be motivated to make improvements. It's worth remembering that job security and corporate loyalty are themselves institutional components.

At the macro-level, neoliberal hegemony has fuelled a countervailing appetite for difference, which has been a common theme since the emergence of "antiglobalisation" in the 1990s. There is a thread that runs from the Seattle protests to Donald Trump. His message is that he wants the USA to "invent here": to value homegrown talent and restore the global standing of native genius ("make America great again"). The irony is that he is a perfect emblem of the neoliberal economy in his personal brand franchising and outsourcing. If he ever gets the chance to build his own Great Wall on the Mexican border, you suspect he'll give the job to the Chinese after clinching a "great deal" on the price. In the UK, both supporters and enemies of Corbyn imagine that he and John McDonnell offer a return to the state intervention of yore but with added iPads. What attracts and repels each side is not the specific measures (which means they aren't adequately critiqued) but the determination to offer a national solution rather than accept the global orthodoxy. In other words, to invent it here.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Labour's Jewish Problem

Recently, there has been much talk of the Labour Party's "problem with Jews". This boils down to a belief that the advance of the left under Jeremy Corbyn means greater criticism of Israel, and that this will provide cover for anti-Jewish sentiment. This isn't a claim of institutional anti-semitism, which could be easily refuted, so much as an example of a prejudice ("lefties are prone to anti-semitism coz Palestine") validated by isolated incidents given media prominence. Despite the hype, prejudice against Jews, in the sense of casual bigotry and unthinking stereotypes, is a relatively minor problem in the UK (compared to other countries or compared to other forms of racism) and probably no more or less prevalent among "leftwingers" than society generally, as has been the case throughout the history of organised labour. Systematic anti-semitism, i.e. the belief that all social and economic questions should be seen through the lens of Jewish machinations, remains the preserve of the lunatic fringe and is not a feature of the Labour party (if anyone turns up a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Islington, do let me know).


Despite this, claims that anti-semitism is endemic to the left are increasingly common, as are hysterical over-reactions that suggest the problem is a sudden and recent development. For example, consider the words of Alex Chalmers, who recently quit the Oxford University Labour Club: "the antisemitic incidents I witnessed in OULC are less troubling than the culture which allowed such behaviour to become normalised. It is common to encounter antisemitic individuals in all walks of life, but the mass turning of a blind eye that has come to characterise vast parts of the Left is chilling". Leaving aside the oddity of imagining Oxford to be representative of society, the suggestion that anti-semitism has been normalised, that it is common "in all walks of life", and that it is a characteristic of "vast parts of the Left" doesn't stand up to a moment's scrutiny. The implication that the Labour leadership is aware of the problem but unwilling to address it is demonstrably false (there have been suspensions and formal investigations), while the coverage given to Chalmers by the New Statesman suggests that the "blind eye" may not be as extensive as he thinks.

It is certainly true that some groupuscles to the left of Labour have stepped over the border from unthinking bigotry to systematic anti-semitism by imagining that Western politics can be explained through the lens of "Zionist conspiracies" (and no doubt some individuals who previously articulated these views have migrated back to Labour since the leadership election and will no doubt be expelled), but this shouldn't be taken as grounds to dismiss more reasoned critiques of Israeli policy or the "Jewish lobby" (i.e. Israeli soft-power), any more than the existence of David Icke means that we shouldn't wonder what the soi-disant elite get up to at Davos or at Bilderberg Group meetings. What I'm more interested in is why responsibility for a very real (albeit still relatively small) rise in anti-semitism in the UK since 2000 should be laid primarily at the door of the left. My motivation in this is not to defend the left en masse - my elective affinity does not entail any institutional loyalty - but to understand what this turn tells us about attitudes, both among British Jews and the left's opponents.

Jonathan Freedland has been one of the media commentators most active in promulgating the claim that "Labour and the left have an antisemitism problem". By and large he prefers to ignore the left, in traditional Blairite style, so his focus is very much the Labour Party and its new leader: "I suspect many in Labour and on the wider left dearly wish three things to be true of this problem. That these are just a few bad apples in an otherwise pristine barrel; that these incidents aren’t actually about racism at all but concern only opposition to Israel; and that none of this reflects negatively on Jeremy Corbyn" (I rather suspect that Freedland dearly wishes the opposite to be true in all three cases). The construction of this claim employs a classic trifecta: a reasonable doubt (there are always more rotten apples than anticipated), likely dishonesty (they would say that, wouldn't they), and finally guilt by association. Every Freedland article on this topic appears to end with the words: "No one is suggesting Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite". You get the drift.

Freedland's style is one of exasperated reasonableness, like a disappointed teacher reporting on a dim pupil to an anxious parent, but he occasionally lapses into hyperbole: "what exactly is it about the world’s only Jewish country that convinces its loudest opponents it represents a malignancy greater than any other on the planet?" This obviously begs the question (the answer is anti-semitism) but it is also demonstrably daft. Does the UN, which has passed many resolutions opposing Israel's actions, consider the country to be a greater "malignancy" that climate change? Would the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn consider stopping new settlements on the West Bank to be more important than stopping austerity in the UK? Probably not. Freedland's problem is that a charge of institutional anti-semitism cannot stick against the Labour Party, hence the snidery of the "rotten apples" metaphor that recalls the Met's long journey from Robert Mark to Macpherson's finding of "institutional racism".

If Freedland prefers to ignore the left, Nick Cohen is only too happy to devote the bulk of his energies to it, his attacks on Labour often appearing a mere afterthought, like an 80s Trotskyite denouncing Thatcher after having first worked his way through the entire Labour shadow cabinet. Where Freedland apes the style of a public school housemaster, Cohen prefers that of a street-fighter, employing a provocative rhetoric that makes his regular invocation of George Orwell all the more amusing (by the way, Orwell exhibited the casual anti-semitism of his class and time but was at least self-aware). Cohen's career has been built around castigating the left as useful idiots, but his rants have started to take on a visceral tone. Consider "the antisemitism that has spread so far from the extreme left into the mainstream that it now threatens to poison the Labour party". What's disturbing about this language is the suggestion of the host infected by a foreign virus, which was long a trope used against Jews (at least he doesn't call the left "vermin"). The claim that anti-semitism has spread to the "mainstream" is not merely an exaggeration, it is clearly intended to claim Labour for the centre and to push the left back to the margin.


In Cohen's view, the anti-semite believes "Democracy, an independent judiciary, equal human rights, freedom of speech and publication – all these 'supposed' freedoms – are nothing but swindles that hide the machinations of the secret Jewish rulers of the world". But this subtly misrepresents the original reactionary critique of liberty in which the Jews were just one of a number of convenient enemies of throne and altar, including Protestants and Freemasons. In doing this, Cohen equates attacks on Jews with attacks on the Enlightenment, and thus on modern liberal values. This allows him to segue to those who should be the natural defenders of the Enlightenment project: "But consider how many leftwing activists, institutions or academics would agree with a politer version. Western governments are the main source of the ills of the world. The 'Israel lobby' controls western foreign policy. Israel itself is the 'root cause' of all the terrors of the Middle East, from the Iraq war to Islamic State".

The Israel lobby clearly does not control Western foreign policy, but it does have a disproportionate influence over US foreign policy with regard to the Middle East. And given its own interests and opportunities (the organised diaspora), why wouldn't it seek to achieve and maintain this influence? The more interesting question has always been what the US gets out of this special relationship. Similarly, you have to be obtuse to pretend that there isn't an Israeli dimension to many Middle Eastern issues, from the Saudi-Iran competition to the stability of Lebanon. This isn't about blaming Israel as the "root cause" (most historians would place Ottoman Turkey and Anglo-French interference higher up the list), merely noting that its existence is inescapably significant because of geography and regional power dynamics. To put this in perspective, claiming that Germany was the root cause of European violence during the 20th century is not by definition anti-German.

Some of the "Labour is increasingly anti-semitic" turn is clearly motivated by a desire to delegitimise Corbyn, and some is little more than Tory mischief-making (there are no anti-semites in the Conservative Party), but there are other dimensions to this as well. The angst over the relationship of Jews and Labour predates Corbyn and reflects long-term changes in the politics of both the UK and Israel. The great intellectual sea-change of the last quarter of the twentieth century was the drift from the left to the right and Jewish (and philo-semite) intellectuals and political commentators in the UK were particularly prominent in this migration, possibly influenced by the contemporaneous shift in Israel from social democracy to conservative nationalism. In other words, identification with Israel increasingly required identification with policies traditionally associated with the political right (this has also seen the Israeli left, and leftist members of the Jewish diaspora, increasingly being branded as "traitors" and "self-hating Jews").

Looked at sociologically, one fear that underpins the renewed salience of antisemitism among British Jews is that British Muslims are growing in influence within the Labour Party, which reflects both broader change (i.e. a growing Muslim population) and their greater involvement in politics (i.e. greater integration). In contrast, the Jewish community, though its population has been pretty stable in recent years after a steady decline, has seen a gradual change in its composition that has weakened its political influence across all parties. Emigration to Israel, particularly among politically-engaged retirees whose attitudes were formed in the 60s and 70s (the last great Zionist "revival" around the 1967 and 1973 wars), has been offset by higher birth-rates among the more religious (the Haredi) who often abjure political involvement. The consequence is that Jewish membership of the Labour Party, and by extension influence, is in relative decline for reasons of demography and culture, independent of any alienation of sympathy in recent years.

This uncertainty and sense of relative decline has fuelled a pessimistic turn among secular Jews. At the same time, the widespread adoption of a defensive rightwing mindset (often taken wholesale from the US) has seen the emergence of a paranoid strain of reasoning whose most egregious exponent in the UK is probably Melanie Phillips (another who started on the left). But this affects Jewish thought well beyond the media. In his submission to the 2006 Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism, the historian David Cesarini explained that it was difficult to identify and confront contemporary anti-semitism "because it no longer has any resemblance to classical Nazi-style Jew hatred, because it is masked by or blended inadvertently into anti-Zionism, and because it is often articulated in the language of human rights". Ironically, this emphasis on the insidious and subtle form of the problem, absorbing and corrupting the good, echoes a traditional trope used to explain the difficulty in getting a handle on the "Jewish problem".

Similarly, Ben Cohen sees anti-semitism as a problem embedded in a broader turn against democracy occasioned by the aftermath of 2008: "The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), an outfit known for its sober and dispassionate analysis, says that a 'crisis of democracy' now prevails in a Europe where the voting public feels great remoteness from the political class. ... An important aspect of the threat that Jews in Europe face lies in the fact that they are closely associated with the political class that the EIU says is now in danger". Ironically, this echoes old prejudices about Jews sucking up to elites (the "Court Jew"). Cohen here echoes his namesake, Nick, in tying the fate of Europe's Jews to the Enlightenment project, whose modern incarnation is believed to be found in the EU and Third Way politics, but he reverses the polarity. Where Nick believes the Jews must be saved to save the Enlightenment, Ben believes that European neoliberalism must be saved to save the Jews. Despite the difference in perspective, this indicates that the current concern over Labour's "anti-semitism" is partly motivated by a post-2008 desire to preserve a centrist political space.


One last thought: despite the otherwise striking similarities between Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, there has been little attempt in the US to criticise Sanders or his supporters (who include plenty of tactically-voting leftists and Muslims) for their tolerance of anti-semitism, though Sanders has inevitably been accused of being insufficiently pro-Israel. The obvious explanation is that Sanders is Jewish. In no small part, Labour's "problem" is that its current leader isn't, which is funny when you consider that the last one was. Ed Miliband famously saw his father traduced, as a man who "hated" the country, by a newspaper that today lambasts the party leadership for its failure to combat anti-semitism. Even if "Weird" Ed were in charge today, his modest shift to the centre-left would still have prompted cries of "soft on anti-semitism, soft on the causes of anti-semitism", much as his even-handedness towards Palestine prompted hyperbolic outrage. Labour's "Jewish problem" says more about the anxiety of centrists than it does about anti-semitism.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Social Mobility and Education

The trope of intergenerational fairness implies that wealth does not easily move between generations, despite successive government's efforts since the 1980s to facilitate inheritance and offshore trust funds. In reality, wealth (in the sense of patrimonial capital) has never been more mobile. The real issue is that it struggles to move beyond already wealthy families. This implied "stickiness" between the generations plays to the idea that society is prone to inertia, which appeals both to conservatives, who are only too happy to see this as the natural order, obscuring the constant effort required to maintain social inequities, and to liberals, who can cast inertia as the impersonal condition against which reform must contend. A modern spin on the notion of inertia is the widespread belief in declining social mobility: that society has become less fluid over the last 30 years.

As John Goldthorpe has regularly pointed out, this belief arises from a popular confusion between absolute and relative mobility: "Absolute rates refer to the actual proportions of individuals of given class origins who are mobile to different class destinations, while relative rates compare the chances of individuals of differing class origins arriving at different class destinations and thus indicate the extent of social fluidity". Absolute mobility increased during the middle years of the twentieth century largely because the shift to a service economy and the development of the welfare state created more middle class jobs. Bluecollar parents begot whitecollar children. Relative mobility stayed pretty constant over the century, largely because the mechanisms used to maintain privilege across generations (private education, professional nepotism and business inheritance), and thus limit downward mobility, were not seriously undermined during the social democratic era and were then reinforced after 1979.

A headline conclusion arising from Goldthorpe's analysis is that "Decades of investment in education have not improved social mobility". In fact, this sub-editorial simplicity needs some unpacking. Judged in instrumental terms, as a strategy to provide appropriately trained workers for the economy, the  postwar investment in education was highly successful. Investment since 1979 has delivered a poor return in respect of absolute mobility, but this is a consequence of further structural change in the economy (essentially job polarisation) rather than an over-supply of graduates. In respect of relative mobility, variations in the level of educational investment have made little difference, not just because of the strength of intergenerational privilege but because the channels that facilitate mobility for the highly talented have largely remained open: some kids from comprehensives still get to Oxbridge. The recent angst over the working class being excluded from careers in acting and popular music is simply those sectors reverting to the mean.


The political problem for education is that the historic case for investment emphasised national social mobility (individuals "getting on") as much as national economic benefit. A cynic might argue that this was necessary to secure the electoral support of a working class that might otherwise be unconvinced of the utility of education - a common attitude until the 1960s. In the immediate postwar period, when there were many competing demands on public expenditure and the NHS and pensions figured prominently on most workers' wish-lists, state education required a compelling narrative to secure popular support. A central criticism of the tripartite system introduced by the Butler Act was that such a narrative, i.e. one that worked beyond the parents fortunate enough to get their children through the 11-plus, was lacking. The emerging consensus on comprehensivisation in the 1960s was based on the belief that "life chances" needed to be opened up for an entire generation, not just a select few.

Social mobility thus became a justification for both investment in and reform of education, which in turn encouraged the belief that educational attainment was the primary driver of mobility. The downsides to the fetishisation of education were recognised early on, famously in Michael Young's 1958 dystopia, The Rise of the Meritocracy. Toby's dad (was there ever better evidence that intelligence in not heritable?) early got the measure of Tony Blair's commitment to "education, education, education". More fundamentally, having been an intimate of many of the leading lights of the Labour Party since the 1940s, he was acutely aware of the way that educational deracination served to disempower the labour movement, contributing to the disillusion and alienation of today (it's worth noting in passing that Corbyn's lack of a degree elicits sneers on both sides of the House of Commons).

One implication of Goldthorpe's thesis is that the meritocratic spirit of the postwar era was over-stated. The upward progress of the "baby boomers" owed more to a rising tide than personal talent, let alone the magical properties of grammar schools (post hoc ergo propter hoc, as the latinists would say). Another implication is that structural change will also drive future perception. As automation and job polarisation increasingly displace whitecollar roles, social mobility may come to be seen primarily in terms of the threat of declassment, i.e. movement downwards. Given the high levels of anxiety already associated with education, it is easy to envisage a shift towards greater elitism under cover of academisation, though this might also prompt a reaction by the "marginalised middle", much as comprehensivisation was boosted by middle-class parents whose kids failed the 11-plus.


Goldthorpe's conclusion is that relative social mobility cannot be improved without addressing inequality of condition - i.e. the material and cultural circumstances of families - and that improving absolute mobility requires economic development to create more top-end jobs, meaning "Policies aimed at raising our presently poor level of investment in research and development, at creating a modernised and environmentally friendly infrastructure, and at the progressive upgrading of the quality of all social and other public services". All political parties will sign-up to this in principle, but practical policies will - if recent history is any guide - be wholly inadequate. However, this two-step on Goldthorpe's part means we don't challenge that first assertion: that improving relative social mobility cannot be done through education and that substantive change would require a major reordering of society that (by implication) isn't going to happen any time soon.

But is this true? Are there no changes that can be made in the educational sphere that would help improve relative mobility? Bear in mind that while absolute mobility may depend on historically unusual periods of growth and rapid structural change, relative mobility can be improved regardless of economic performance or job composition. It's about flow rather than stock. Of course, this means accepting increased rates of downward mobility, which is where the political resistance (Goldthorpe emphasises "loss aversion") comes in. But there may be ways of doing this that could be sold as fair and democratic, while also accepting that middle class advantage will not wholly be done away with, which would be necessary to secure broad political support.

An example would be to ration places at top universities across all schools and six-form colleges. In other words, Eton students would get no more Oxbridge places pro-rata than a "bog standard" comprehensive. Of course the chief beneficiary of such a change would actually be the middle class, at the expense of the upper class, but it would probably promote more working class kids as well, much as comprehensivisation and the expansion of further education in the 1960s did. The point is not that this would be a panacea for social mobility, but that our thinking on the relationship of education to relative mobility is constrained by the ideology of education: the hierarchy, the competition, the obsession over "grade inflation" and "gold standards". The irony of Goldthrope's gloomy prognosis is that he doesn't extend his structuralist analysis to education itself.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Crisis of Conservatism

The long assault by capital on labour since the mid-70s has been marked by the political right's adoption of radical tropes: against tradition and the futile resistance of progress, for personal liberty and creative destruction. One school of thought, exemplified by John Gray in the UK, is that true conservatives have actually been marginalised and that neoliberal parties, in their embrace of technocracy and the perfectibility of humanity, are the ideological continuation of Robespierre and Marat. Another school, exemplified by Corey Robin in the US, sees the adoption of progressive tactics as a continuation of the strategy of Burke and de Maistre: the counter-revolution must be revolutionary. One interpretation is romantic and pessimistic (humanity is stupid so we should err on the side of caution), the other cynical but optimistic (revolutionary change is possible).

The two most politically successful tropes employed by the right were the casting of organised labour as "dinosaurs", whose restrictive practices hindered the emergence of the thrusting new economy of the 80s and 90s, and the diagnosis of the welfare state as pathological and in need of "reform" through the injection of market discipline. These radical tropes started to lose momentum around 2000, reflecting the defeat of organised labour and the erosion of the clear distinction between the public and private sectors. The growth of low-wage, insecure work and the periodic financial crises in the health service shifted the narrative. Few people today consider trade union power to be a major issue, while most agree that "sorting out" the NHS is a matter of funding not further reorganisation. Since the millennium we have seen the emergence of two new tropes, which are both a response to the waning power of the older pair and the consequence of new social developments, working class xenophobia (notably in respect of EU migration) and demographic ageing.

The first trope is a revival: the characterisation of the working class as uniform, prone to prejudice and ripe for demagoguery. The mob, in other words. In the US, this is the mood music around the rise of Donald Trump, despite the ample evidence that much of his support, like that of Bernie Sanders, stems from concern over the operation of capitalism (aka "trade" or "Wall Street"). In the UK, this is most obvious in the attempts to "understand people's legitimate fears over immigration". When Justin Welby excuses xenophobia as a response to low-wage jobs and stressed public services, he doesn't turn attention to the root cause (under-provision) but instead legitimises the idea that the working class is only capable of expressing itself in this vulgar way. The salience given to prejudice reflects a belief that the lower orders are incorrigible: their bad habits and worse opinions are innate and no longer amenable to improvement or exhortation. Rather than being reformed, they must be managed.


The traditional view of the poor, from the Reformation to Victoria, was that their moral inadequacy made them incapable of becoming effective workers. In a similar vein, the idle rich were those whose moral shortcomings made them illegitimate custodians of wealth. This idea, that success was dependent on personal virtue, was undermined by the collective sacrifices of the first half of the twentieth century, the Great Depression as much as the two world wars. This socialist turn prompted a further cycle of reaction that crystallised in the 1970s with the belief that ineffective workers were the product of welfare state indulgence and malign trade unions. Personal failings had been replaced by collective shortcomings. The Thatcherite revanche restored the individual as the centre of social policy but treated failure as a symptom of personal economic redundancy rather than moral laxity, despite gestures towards "Victorian values", reflecting the secular shift from the religious to the utilitarian.

Today, Tories castigate British workers as "lazy" rather than as dupes misled by shop stewards, while the popular understanding of "welfare dependency" is shifting from the product of perverse incentives to the result of a congenital inability to integrate into the labour market. Though there is still talk in government of "turning round lives", not to mention a vast industry of self-improvement that has substituted for the religiously-channeled impulses of old, it is becoming increasingly acceptable to express the belief that people are prisoners of their genetic inheritance. This leads not only to antique caricatures of the underclass as "chavs" and reckless breeders, but to a regretful tolerance of reduced social mobility (maybe an Old Etonian really is the best possible Prime Minister) and even a flirtation with eugenics.

The second trope is the recasting of inequality as a matter of intergenerational fairness. Just as the first trope assumes a uniform working class, so the aggregation of the second obscures the variation in wealth within age cohorts. It also prioritises the concerns of the middle-class young, such as student debt and the difficulty of getting a mortgage. Working class concerns, such as employment opportunities and the level of rent, are sidelined in the media by tales of PhDs working as baristas and how difficult it is to save for a mortgage deposit. As part of their week-long focus on the topic, The Guardian reported that "through the 1980s and into the 1990s one in three 16- to 24-year-olds who were household heads were able to afford to buy their own home, compared to one in 10 today". What should surprise us is not the decline but that even 10% of household heads under-25 now own property. Where did they get the money? You have to suspect that many are the children of the well-off, who have been gifted flats or houses "as an investment", rather than precocious entrepreneurs. This is not a poor country.

The idea that the old are living it large ignores the increasing role of property in the composition of nominal wealth. Many people in their 60s and 70s are finding their modest savings inadequate to the task of producing an income in an era of ultra-low interest rates, forcing them to cannibalise their chief asset through equity release (often arranged informally through relatives who will inherit their property), while others have already pledged their homes to meet the anticipated cost of elderly care. The Tory success in securing the OAP vote through the "triple-lock" is effective not because the old are selfish and biddable but because they are fearful that they may be reduced to dependency on the state pension. The generation looking to their buy-to-let investments to provide an income stream in retirement are, if you'll excuse an aggregate simplification, well short of the state pension age.


The two newer tropes overlap in the idea that the elderly working class are the most intolerant and ignorant. This isn't without statistical foundation if you reduce society to intersections on a Venn diagram, but the portrayal, memorably embodied in Gillian Duffy, the woman that Gordon Brown dismissed as a "bigot" who then confounded the media by not voting UKIP, is little more than a non-sweary version of Catherine Tate's Nan. As ever, the problem is an assumption of uniformity. This prejudice led last year to the media's expectation that UKIP would win the Oldham West by-election, the common folk rejecting "poncified" Labour and expressing their limited political nous by voting for a party without a coherent economic policy. Ironically, the chief result of the demand that we "understand" working-class xenophobia (an inversion of the usual conservative demand to understand less and punish more) has been the normalisation of middle-class bigotry: Sayeeda Warsi's "dinner table test". Nigel Farage remains more popular with small business owners than workers.

This year, centrists have been forced to admit that the economy (and specifically jobs, wages, housing and social support) matters a lot more to the majority of working people than the smell of cooking from next door. This doesn't mean that immigration will lose its power as an emblem of anxiety, but that economic issues hitherto judged beyond political debate ("there is no alternative") are now back on the agenda. In the US, this is largely the achievement of the presidential nomination process. Had Bernie Sanders not run, Donald Trump's protectionist rants could more easily have been dismissed as populist rhetoric. That Sanders has made more substantive criticisms of TPP and TTIP, not to mention Wall Street and the corporate degrading of America's manufacturing base, has meant that the issue of the economy could not be neutralised through bromides about high-tech or education.

In the UK, this looks to be a result of the EU referendum campaign shifting attention from government deficits to national capability. While the prima donnas of the leave campaign continue to waffle about sovereignty and border controls, the remain camp have clearly identified their vulnerability to the charge that neoliberalism damaged the country long before 2008 and that the real danger is not bigotry, which is never going to grow beyond its natural constituency, but the siren call of economic nationalism that hasn't been heard since 1975 (it was successfully muted by the media in 1983). This explains why the Labour leadership is suddenly flavour of the month. Despite Corbyn being presented as unpopular and unrepresentative, he must be kept on side by the establishment. If he were to advocate Brexit, he would immediately become both respectable (it would be hilarious to see Johnson and Gove's contortions) and a tribune of the economically marginalised.

It should come as no surprise then that John McDonnell has decided to take this opportunity to advance the case for national investment, and that centrists are grudgingly supportive. In this context, the interventions of Dan Jarvis and Rachel Reeves are comedy gold: "Let’s be frank, New Labour’s approach wasn’t enough. It didn’t get at the root causes. New Labour didn't see with sufficient clarity the downsides of globalisation. They knew it meant cheap consumer goods. But, they didn’t recognise that too often, it meant cheap labour too". I believe the phrase is "laugh my fucking arse off" (English subtitles). Since 1997 we have seen the emergence of a new helot class of the low paid, formalised through a minimum wage and in-work benefits, while property ownership and further education are inexorably evolving into the privileges of the well-off. This wasn't an accident, Dan.


In recent years, the radical tropes employed by conservatives since the 70s have started to blow up in their faces. For example, the street activism of the Tea Party, together with the celebration of disrespect by shock-jocks and Fox News, has destabilised the Republican Party in the US more than the Democrats. This counter-productive turn is incipient in the newer tropes as well. The patronisation of the working class as atavistic and economically illiterate may prompt alienation in the short-term - and there is plenty of evidence that disillusion with politics is greater among the working class - but it might also trigger greater class consciousness in reaction, which is why it makes tactical sense for Labour to shift from the managerialism of Jarvis and Reeves to the creation of the mass movement advocated by Momentum and others.

Intergenerational fairness moves the issue of wealth distribution from the social to the private sphere. Paradoxically, this Thatcherite denial of society places increased stress on that traditional redoubt of conservatism, the family. The fairness of distribution between the generations becomes a point of potential conflict within the home (all too often a literal struggle over property ownership), rather than a social conflict negotiated through politics in which the family's interests are largely common. A likely reaction to this is for more of the older generation to become politicised, in the sense of deliberately pushing the issue of distribution back into the social sphere, as the best means of advancing their offspring's interests without familial grief. It's worth remembering that "baby boomers", as beneficiaries of the welfare state in its heyday, are not repelled by the idea of government intervention.

Presenting anxiety over immigration as an understandable if regrettable response by the unsophisticated to competition over resources, from jobs to hospital beds, is problematic for the right because it suggests that social tensions could be eased through demand stimulus and public investment as much as by reduced immigration. Consequently, this exculpation must be accompanied by an insistence that low wages are actually the fault of "lazy" workers and that the travails of schools and the NHS are the fault of under-performing teachers and junior doctors. But this gives rise to a further problem in that ever broader swathes of society are denigrated as shirkers and inadequates by priviliged individuals who implausibly claim to be fighting against elites. The crisis of conservatism is that it is running out of enemies to shield the rich from popular anger, and increasingly prone to antagonising its peripheral supporters. The belief that it can always rely on the self-interest of pensioners and property owners may prove to be its biggest miscalculation.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Cock and Bull

The coincidence of Bradford's dismay at the loss of its photographic collection to London with the decision of Cambridge University to remove a Benin bronze cockerel from public display reminds us that historic symbols are constantly repurposed and revalued, which paradoxically makes them subversive despite their antique nature. The transfer of the Royal Photography Society's collection from West Yorkshire to the Victoria & Albert Museum is being justified on the grounds that the resource is currently under-utilised and combining it with the V&A's existing collection will be a benefit to scholars and public alike. The more banal explanation is that the National Media Museum is likely to be reorganised and renamed as the Science Museum North, after a decade of commercial under-performance, making the media angle largely redundant.

The political interpretation is that the creation of "regional cultural hubs" during the Blair years, such as Sheffield's ill-starred National Centre for Popular Music and Doncaster's Earth Centre, has now been reversed in favour of metropolitan centralisation. In fact, while lottery-funded initiatives during the New Labour regime dispersed more money to the regions than the Arts Council ever managed, London still benefited disproportionately in terms of per-capita spending, largely because of the demands of the existing cultural "estate". What has happened since 2010 is that government has dropped intervention in favour of market forces, which has accentuated the metropolitan bias. This can be seen not only in the NMM decision but in a "northern powerhouse" that (whether realistic or not) envisages economic growth driving cultural philanthropy through private channels.

The Bradford collection makes for an interesting contrast with the Elgin Marbles, not because it is being shipped to that there London (most of the collection was held in the capital before the move north in 2002, so this is actually a "return"), but because the argument of utility and convenience (i.e. better for academic study and easier to get to) is often wheeled out to explain why Phidias's sculptures would be ill-served by repatriation to a museum on the Acropolis. Meanwhile, the bronze cockerel in Cambridge is being lumped together with Cecil Rhodes at Oxford as a symbol of colonialism, which it undoubtedly is, however a better parallel would be (again) the Elgin Marbles, which is itself a symbol of Britain's informal empire - i.e. the product of economic and diplomatic coercion. The fundamental issue in the three cases other than the Rhodes statue is not display but possession.

When something becomes a component of the imagined national patrimony, which can happen many years after its creation, it stops being a commodity that can be freely traded and thus alienated. One of nationalism's critiques of monarchy was that it couldn't dispose of territories hitherto treated as personal properties. This is why the bronze is categorically different to the statue. The stone Rhodes (great name for a band) has been reinterpreted by students as evidence of a contemporary blitheness towards racism by Oxford University, rather than as the symbol of colonial dispossession presented by a property-obsessed media. Oriel College's decision, that pissing off students would be better than losing donors, rather proves the point. The sensitivity over the cockerel is that restitution, of what is a relatively minor artwork, would set a precedent for the British Museum's extensive collection of Benin bronzes, not to mention those marbles. Cambridge's tactical retreat is intended to take the heat out of the issue: repatriation to Nigeria will be kicked into the long grass.


The "cockerel affair" has been taken up by those, from The Daily Mail to Spiked, who believe that students have been led astray by cultural relativism and the legacy of the Frankfurt School: "this is another example of how students are using history as a morality play to express their own moral superiority in the present" (what, like Macaulay?). They ought to go and see the Coen brothers' new film, Hail! Caesar, which features a hilarious communist plot (in a film otherwise criticised for being plotless) that combines the Red Scare, the Lavendar Scare and Herbert Marcuse reimagined as a cross between Einstein and Yoda (and nicely played by John Bluthal in the spirit of Spike Milligan's Q series rather than The Vicar of Dibley). The film shows that you can be simultaneously sympathetic to a character's historic predicament (studio boss Eddie Mannix trying to reconcile Catholic guilt with commercial amorality and American optimism) and sincerely appreciative of historic forms (from Westerns to musicals) while ripping the piss out of history.

I've mentioned before that the uptick in media coverage of safe spaces and no-platforming - which is not the same as an actual increase in these practices on campus, though the coverage will inevitably create a feedback loop - reflects the increasing commercialisation of further education and the psychological impact of student debt. It's about privilege and property: in-group cultural norms and the currency of historic assets. In that context, the cockerel kerfuffle is a more interesting development than the objection to the statue of Rhodes because it treats the bronze as both an artefact of historic abuse, the plunder of Benin, and as a modern asset whose value potentially constitutes financial reparation as much as aesthetic restitution. No wonder it has disappeared from view. This is subversive because students are embarrassed by the economic basis of their privilege. In contrast, the Rhodes Must Fall movement is a conventional meritocratic demand for equal access to privilege.

I couldn't finish a review of symbols that have suddenly morphed from conservative to subversive without mentioning the Queen. My interest is not simply the report (vehemently denied) of pro-Brexit views, which I suspect is just the latest attempt by Rupert Murdoch to warn Cameron not to employ the royals in the referendum campaign, so much as the royal family's own history as imports from Germany and Denmark. Being an acquisition from afar does not stop something becoming a symbol of free-booting Britishness (tea, bungalows, fish and chips etc), but the pragmatic accession of William and Mary, reinforced by the cynical hiring of the Hanoverians, did require the apotheosis of that peculiarly British abstraction, the crown in parliament, as a substitute for the divine right of kings and the preservation of elite interests. Despite the best efforts of Macaulay and other Whig historians, this has always been potentially unstable.

While other nations replaced the individual body politic with the sovereign people, the UK maintained the institutional obscurity of the monarchy as the basis of state power, which is why attempts to draft a bill "to enshrine parliamentary sovereignty", which would risk letting daylight in, come to nought. Who ultimately commands the military? What are the limits to executive power outside the scrutiny of Parliament? Who has the right to declare a state of exception? These are questions that cannot be satisfactorily answered in the British constitution. At the heart of government is a black hole from which no information escapes. The role of the monarch is to distract attention from this void, but that requires absolute political neutrality. The problem is that the Queen's intervention on the "yes" side in the Scottish independence referendum, however oblique, broke the spell. The risk for the establishment is that the EU vote could yet prompt the constitutional moment that was swerved in 2014.

Friday, 4 March 2016

The Man Who Would be King

The most entertaining, if not necessarily enlightening, criticism is that which combines both a specific distaste and an underlying despair at the gullibility of others. I don't mean the vapid moaning of solipsistic old men at how rubbish modern life is, but the sort of criticism that springs from incredulity that everyone else has been taken in, that they've been suckered. Random examples would be Michael Moorcock's demolition of Tolkien in Epic Pooh or Christopher Hitchens hatchet-job on Mother Theresa. Regardless of the specifics, or even if justified, this is a moral critique of society in which the subject is symptomatic: o tempora o mores. Though this can be progressive, as in the cases of Moorcock and Hitchens, and there is an obvious egalitarian dimension to "cutting someone down to size", this form of criticism is often reactionary and misanthropic, assuming a cultural debasement or moral decline. It is a criticism of popular taste.

This is why the style is rare in politics, except on the fringes where berating the majority for their stupidity or fecklessness never completely goes out of fashion (cue Hitler in bunker video). You can sometimes get away with it in the context of a criticism of party members, though only if you can cast them as out of step with the wider population (as the Labour right are currently trying to do), but the odds are that you will alienate more than persuade, both among the targets of your criticism and the wider population. This presents a particular problem for American conservatism today because the fundamental critique of Donald Trump is that he is being propelled towards the presidential nomination by a psychological reaction to the dumbing-down and instrumentality of US politics that has largely been engineered by the right since the 1970s. As Will Davies puts it, Trump is "a nightmare of the Republican Party’s own making". The need to avoid mentioning this home truth has prompted a number of strategies.

Mitt Romney's belated criticism of Trump, which we can probably assume is representative of the Republican Party establishment, is notable not so much for its frankness in characterising the front-runner as a fraud and an idiot, but in its attempt to cast him as a would-be monarch. This allows Romney to link the party with the Founding Fathers and avoid the need to question its culpability in the normalisation of fraud and idiocy over recent years. For example, Romney notes that The Donald "is the only person in America to whom we have added an article before his name" and that "He inherited his business, he didn’t create it". Conservatives can't criticise actual social elites, and Trump won't be successfully associated with "liberal elites", real or imaginary. Nor can conservatives criticise the power of money in politics or the rights of the successful to demand attention, but they can criticise claims to natural pre-eminence and suggest that Trump's vanity arises from a background of privilege.


This monarchical slant is ironically one that Trump is happy to indulge, from claiming he is so rich that he cannot be bought to insisting that he can personally solve America's problems through sheer force of personality. In recent days he has even been prepared to discuss the size of his penis, conflating his own potency with "making America great again", much like a medieval monarch. Trump loves to talk about "making deals", but more frequent are his wiseguy-like assurances that he can "sort out" one issue or another in an unspecified way. Journalists demanding substance are wasting their breath. What his supporters admire is his demonstration of will (that wall) and his appeal to the id (speak before you think). His narcissism and rudeness are liberating because they question authority, but Trump is no anarchist (though Davies' claim that "As a performance artist, he is a dadaist" is spot on). As a projection of America, he insists he will bow to no one but all will bow to him, but this naked hegemony is unattractive to conservatives because it is arbitrary and personal, leading foreign policy neocons to dismiss him as dictatorial and demand pre-emptive regime change.

Romney's appeal to propriety centres on an image of the president as the embodiment of public manners: "Haven’t we seen before what happens when people in prominent positions fail the basic responsibility of honorable conduct? ... He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president". The problem is that the Republican Party has done little to advance this ideal, either in its instrumental promotion of George W Bush and his brother Jeb or in its persistent undermining of Democratic presidents since Jimmy Carter. While it could just about credibly claim that its attempt to impeach Bill Clinton was driven by a belief in his unsuitability for the highest office, its lack of congressional cooperation with Barack Obama, and its indulgence of "Birthers" and other crypto-racist snidery, was a clear mark of disrespect for the presidency as much as for the individual. The office has been brought into disrepute more under Republican presidents than Democratic ones.

Tom Nichols in The Daily Beast takes a different tack by trying to blame Trump on the political correctness of the left: "By assailing sensible conservatives as sexists, racists, and imbeciles, they paved the way for a jackass who embodies their worst fears". Political correctness was another invention of the right that has subsequently taken on a life of its own, but Nichols insists on sticking to the superficial history in which liberals won the culture war while conservatives won the economic war (the truth is that neoliberals won both). Trump's rise "is happening not because of an overly rightist GOP, but because American liberals, complacently turning away from the excesses of the left and eviscerating their own moderate wing, have damaged the two-party system to the point that an unhinged billionaire demagogue is raking in support from people who are now more afraid of leftists controlling the Justice Department than they are of Putin or ISIS".


To make this charge stick, Nichols must avoid all mention of the influence of money on politics and the conditioning role of partisan media. This despite the fact that Trump's real political achievement so far, in his self-funding and contempt for Fox News, has been to make campaign financing and media bias salient with ordinary voters in a way that must leave intellectual critics of the US system like Lawrence Lessig green with envy. Instead, Nichols must conjure a world dominated by "multiculturalists" in which "brutish leftist tactics radicalized otherwise more centrist people toward Trump not because they care so much about gay marriage or guns or refugees any other issue, but because they’re terrified that they’re losing the basic right to express themselves". This appeal to the First Amendment leads Nichols to claim that Trump's veiled threats towards Black Lives Matter activists is popular with his supporters because of their love of free speech rather than racism.

Among centrists, the chief strategic response to the rise of Trump has been to insist that Hillary Clinton is the nation's only hope, despite poll evidence suggesting Bernie Sanders might do even better in a head-to-head. This is not just about using Trump as a bogeyman to dragoon Democratic voters into the Clinton camp during the nomination race, but to persuade "reasonable republicans" that they should hold their noses and vote for her in the general election. Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker has even gone so far as to draw a parallel with the 2002 French Presidential election when socialists voted overwhelmingly for Jaques Chirac in the second round to deny Jean-Marie Le Pen. Given that the Front National candidate's vote share only rose from 17% in the opening round to 18% in the run-off (Chirac got 20% in the first round), many socialists subsequently concluded that they would have done better to abstain and deny Chirac the benefit of a landslide.

Romney's attempt to cast Trump as a wannabe king looks like it may be part of an emerging strategy to define the New Yorker as unconstitutional, perhaps preparing the way for a procedural coup at the national convention if the party establishment can't turn around the remaining primaries. The problem with this approach, which is illustrated by the Tom Nichols article quoted above, is that thirty years of conservative reinterpretation in the Supreme Court have produced a popular understanding of the constitution that is weighted more to the defence of money and the protection of sectional privileges than the prevention of monarchical ambition. The paranoia of the populist right has been directed for so long towards external enemies, the "PC police" and domestic "moochers" that identifying the chief threat to the republic as a rogue billionaire who rants on TV requires a major shift in perceptions. So long as Trump doesn't come out in favour of greater gun control it is hard to see this working.