Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Who Are These People?

The unreliability of the electorate is a theme of contemporary politics. This extends beyond electoral promiscuity, such as Scots deserting Labour for the SNP, to their reluctance to even vote, which is now the chief concern of the Remain camp in the EU referendum. The conventional wisdom is that this disenchantment is a result of the economic and social strains that have affected developed nations over the last eight years, exacerbated by sleaze and hypocrisy. The political centre has been forced to pursue unpopular but necessary policies like austerity, which has turned many off politics and provided an opportunity for populists promising ponies on both the left and right. A more sophisticated take is that it isn't a new phenomenon but the result of secular changes since the 1980s, fuelled by globalisation and technology, which have led to growing inequality and job polarisation. These have produced a hollowing of the middle class and greater working class consciousness, and so greater disillusion with parties that claim to represent middle class aspiration.

These views are complementary but one emphasises emotion, the other consciousness. The first sees the electorate as skittish and even devious in acknowledging its preferences. The failure of the polls to accurately predict the 2015 UK General Election result has led to efforts to improve accuracy, but centred on working out how much people are lying about their intentions. The second sees the electorate as consciously (if crudely) materialist and thus driven by immediate circumstance. For example, much of the "understanding" that centrists have urged for xenophobic voters assumes that this particular constituency has grown in recent years, a product of EU enlargement since 2004 and various refugee crises, and is thus driven by a false perception of the impact of immigration on wages and public services rather than longstanding bigotry.

I suspect electorates across the world are no more volatile or unreliable today than they have ever been. Consider the US primaries. Donald Trump has succeeded not by mobilising an insurgency but by giving mainstream Republicans their head. He has simply replaced the dog-whistle with a loudspeaker. He hasn't given voice to a hitherto unrepresented bloc of the white working class but to the same reactionary middle class that has always been the bedrock of the party. Hillary Clinton has succeeded by keeping mainstream Democrats onside as Bernie Sanders has brought more independents into the party's tent, including previously disillusioned working class voters and the younger cohorts first mobilised by Obama. Assuming she doesn't alienate them by trying to triangulate too much towards the right during the general election, she has the makings of a substantial majority. There is no revolution here.

While the emotional perspective looks dubious, the idea that there has been a growth in political consciousness is more credible. If the 80s and 90s narrowed political allegiance to a mix of tribal loyalty and selfish calculation, the last decade and a half has seen a revival of the idea of politics as a way of addressing collective action problems, from housebuilding to climate change. Austerity may be bad policy, but it deals in the language of collective responsibility rather than individual ambition. The revival of public ethics, which crystallised around Iraq in 2003, has shifted politics back from "what works" to "what is right". While centrist politicians remain committed to extending the freedom of the market to more areas of life (the reports of neoliberalism's death are exaggerated), voters are increasingly insistent on limits to the market and the re-establishment of popular sovereignty. This can obviously take both progressive and reactionary turns, but the common thread is the growth of class consciousness, whether manifested through the flag of St George or self-identification as a "socialist".

This has been greeted ambivalently by parts of the left (and not just those committed to the primacy of identity politics), because pessimism of the intellect leads to the belief that the working class is no longer able to fulfill a progressive role and that we must therefore embrace more utopian, usually techno-futurist, solutions. David Graeber is typical of those who see irony and perversion in modern class consciousness: "... the historical defeat and humiliation of the British working classes is now the island’s primary export product. By organizing the entire economy around the resultant housing bubble, the Tories have ensured that the bulk of the British population is aware, at least on some tacit level, that it is precisely the global appeal of the English class system, up to and including the contemptuous sneer of the Oxbridge graduates in Parliament chuckling over the impending removal of housing benefits, that is also keeping affordable track shoes, beer, and consumer electronics flowing into the country". The superstructure is all.

In contrast, centrists like Ben Jackson emphasise the base: "Those on the hard left fail to follow their materialist analysis to its logical conclusion: that social conditions make a quest for a more socialist Britain very, very difficult ... The 1945 Labour government worked with the grain of the industrial economy revived by wartime production, inherited from total war an exceptionally wide range of economic controls, faced little challenge from a war-ravaged City of London, and derived its social legitimacy from a large, popular trade union movement and ultimately a numerically dominant industrial working class. ... No matter how adroit Labour's positioning today, the party lacks a comparable set of structural advantages for any socialist economic reform programme". This is addressed less to the Labour leadership than to the young who voted for Jeremy Corbyn. They are suffering from a false consciousness in which they identify with a post-industrial working class that has become reactionary.

If Jackson seeks to cast a radical political programme as anomalous, Paul Mason seeks to re-embed a radical consciousness as the naturally occurring condition of the working class in an economy marked by high employment and good incomes. For him, the long-term unemployment of the 1980s destroyed a "culture based on work, rising wages, strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid ... We have to find a form of economics that – without nostalgia or racism – allows the working population to define, once again, its own values, its own aspirations, its own story ... Without solidarity and knowledge, we are just scum, is the lesson trade unionism and social democracy taught the working-class kids of the 1960s". The truth is somewhere in between. 1945 was certainly unusual, but that doesn't mean a "socialist economic reform programme" is impossible, while the values and aspirations of the working class in the 60s and 70s were not that far removed from the middle class (Mason's lament better describes the 50s), which is one reason for the turn to the right in 1979.

What Graeber, Jackson and Mason share is a tendency to see the working class as broken beyond repair, but they over-emphasise political defeat relative to the simple operation of time. The working class of the social democratic era has largely retired. Today's working class is made up of different people, but they have one thing in common with previous generations and that's their consciousness relative to age. The culture of "unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid" was always enforced by twenty and thirty-somethings, not by the old, even if the latter carried titular authority. The young marrieds were the shock troops of organised labour and the most contemptuous of scabbing, just as they would be the shock troops of Thatcherism and the most contemptuous of the poor. More class conscious than school-leavers and more assertive than the old, the revolutionary class is always defined by its age and its consciousness is a product of both its material condition and its political aspiration.

The twenty years from the general election of 1983 to the Iraq invasion of 2003 were good for this age cohort, even if prosperity depended on growing household debt and dual incomes. But the next generation had it rougher, not just because of stagnant wages and housing under-supply but because the prospect of significant political change was all but ruled-out by the first New Labour government (turnout between the 1997 and 2001 general elections fell by 12%). As Corey Robin observes in a US context, "For the last 40 years, we’ve been preparing for this generation without a future. We’ve weaned and fed them on the idea that life doesn’t get better, that there are no plans to be made, no futures to be had. So that when that reality actually hits, when they inherit the world they’ve now inherited, they’ve been readied for the nothing that lies ahead. There’s no shock of recognition, no violent recoil from the new. There’s just this slow descent into systemic immobility and unreliability".

But this very immobility and unreliability paradoxically creates the conditions for change: what Graeber refers to as "despair fatigue". As Robin notes, "Strangely, this is the generation that is now making the Bernie Sanders moment. Which, whatever else it may be, is a bid on the promise that the future can be better. Radically better. For the millennials, this is not a promise born from any economic experience. It is a purely political promise, distilled from the last decade and a half of failed protest against neoliberalism and austerity, and some strange phantom of socialism conjured from who knows where". It's possible that this may peter-out in the same way that the Occupy movement did, but it's also possible that the turn from self-righteous activism towards party politics heralds a progressive shift in the electorate. Ironically, this is precisely what the neoliberal establishment is hoping for, albeit as a temporary enthusiasm sufficient to secure the UK's continued membership of the European Union and Hillary Clinton's election in the US. It is the establishment's fear that it may not be able to control this turn that explains the trope of unreliability.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

All the Old Dudes

Tyler Cowen asks, "What the hell is going on?", which is always a pertinent question. He explains his dismay: "Donald Trump may get the nuclear suitcase, a cranky 'park bench' socialist took Hillary Clinton to the wire, many countries are becoming less free, and the neo-Nazi party came very close to assuming power in Austria". The sentence opens with a classic comic technique in which people or concepts are diminished by association with mundane objects (suitcase, park bench, pigs-head), and closes with a crescendo of hyperbole. The Austrian Freedom Party isn't neo-Nazi (it's lineage is national-liberal), it was in government during the 2000-05 coalition, and the post of President is largely ceremonial. The ideological payload of the sentence is contained in the middle claim - that there has been a widespread reduction in freedom across the globe - which is unadorned and unsupported by any evidence.

This is not to say that evidence is lacking, but conventional measures of freedom tend to focus on the degree to which countries mirror Western ideals in terms of representative democracy, press regulation and Internet access. High profile slippage in recent years has occured in places like Mexico, Turkey and Ukraine. In other words, a decline in freedom is something that we typically expect to see outside of nations such as the USA and Austria. Cowen claims "these bizarre reactions are occurring across a number of countries", but in fact they aren't occurring uniformly. There is no populist insurgency in Japan and neo-Nazis aren't on the brink of power in Canada. The examples Cowen gives do not reflect a common malaise, unless you believe Vladimir Putin is pulling Donald Trump's strings or that Bernie Sanders is a secret neo-Nazi. So why the global hell-in-a-handcart vibe? The purpose is to tee us up for a global explanation.

In Cowen's view, "The contemporary world is not very well built for a large chunk of males. The nature of current service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a feminized culture allergic to most forms of violence, post-feminist gender relations, and egalitarian semi-cosmopolitanism just don’t sit well with many…what shall I call them? Brutes? [his italics] Quite simply, there are many people who don’t like it when the world becomes nicer. They do less well with nice. And they respond by in turn behaving less nicely, if only in their voting behavior and perhaps their internet harassment as well." Though the Latin root means "heavy", and the word is often a synonym for "animal", "brute" in English has traditionally been a class term, used in reference to the dull stupidity and viciousness of the lower orders. This is about the working class.

Cowen continues: "A lot of men did better psychologically and maybe also economically in a world where America had a greater number of tough manufacturing jobs. They thrived under brutish conditions, including a military draft to crack some of their heads into line". This ignores that most manufacturing jobs were not "tough" even at the height of the industrial revolution, let alone in the 1960s and 70s. They might be tiring, mind-numbing and incidentally fatal, but manning machinery or packing boxes was always more typical than bashing metal, for both men and women. Likewise, there have always been more jobs in services than in manufacturing. The nineteenth century saw a sectoral shift from field to factory but many more workers quit rural idiocy for employment in shops than in foundries.

"Tough" work was given ideological prominence as the quintessence of labour precisely because of its "brutishness" (later recuperated by socialists as "nobility"). This lives on in the nostalgia of manufacturing, which is still held to be more "artless" than services despite its technical sophistication. Jobs in manufacturing have been in decline since the 1920s, with only a temporary pick-up during the 1940s due to the needs of war production (a pick-up that was largely achieved by drafting in women to do "tough" jobs). While a case can be made that the conservative turn in politics in the late-40s and early-50s was partly the result of men seeking to limit female competition in the workplace, a theory that increased conservative voting among males correlates with a decline in manufacturing jobs does not match actual voting patterns. Similarly, harassment has been a feature of the Internet since the get-go, reflecting sexism and bigotry in academia and IT. This is no more attributable to a decline in manufacturing jobs than increased press regulation in Turkey is.

Cowen is chiefly known for his musings on the impact of technology and the rate of innovation (The Great Stagnation, Average is Over) and here echoes Peter Thiel: "perhaps men did better in the age of 'technological progress without globalization' rather than 'globalization without technological progress'". This not only falls into the trap of treating technology as masculine and trade as feminine, but it also suggests that the two are mutually exclusive rather than dependent. Globalisation is the product of transport and communications technology (e.g. shipping containers and email), while technological innovation is highly geared to globalisation because of potential scale effects (e.g. this is why cell-phones rapidly overtook fixed-line phones).

Cowen prefers a gendered theory because it "avoids the weaknesses of purely economic explanations." In other words, forget class: economic redundancy is just Nature's way of telling you you've got a scrotum but insufficient smarts for a college degree. The invocation of Peter Thiel reminds us that much of the turn towards class contempt in modern political discourse originates in Silicon Valley. Though Thiel is an outrider in his open distaste for democracy and support for Donald Trump, he is simply more frank in his opinions than most of the "weird Democrats" bankrolling Hillary Clinton. Similarly, his apparent funding of Hulk Hogan's punitive case against Gawker is merely an amplified form of the censorship and blacklisting that centrists have adopted in recent years in the face of growing criticism. As ever, the insistence on civility is a demand for the enforcement of status.

While Cowen and Thiel are both interesting thinkers, the same cannot be said for Steve Hilton, the former Number 10 policy "guru" who quit the UK in frustration for California in 2012. He has returned to our shores this week to tell us that the EU is "secretive and impenetrable", which is both wrong and irrelevant, and that government is a "technocratic elite", which is ironic given that he runs a tech startup trying to upgrade democracy. He has described Donald Trump as "refreshing" and Jeremy Corbyn as "bullied by the political establishment". He is of course describing himself. He has even tried to pin the label of "disruptor" on the Labour leader: "that kind of impulse of really representing a break with the way things are done is something I really share" (the redundant use of "really" is the hallmark of the bullshitter).

Hilton is a ridiculous figure, but his egotism has the same source as Thiel's angry contempt and Cowen's more jocular snobbery. The overlap between the Californian Ideology and Cowen's theory is not a belief that men are a problem as a gender - we're talking about brutes here, not professors of economics or venture capitalists - but that working class men are an irrelevance and should politely quit the stage. The final irony is that all three of them are either approaching or now into their 50s. In other words, they are at that stage in life when middle class men of the postwar era traditionally expected to be at the peak of their earning potential and their social status. In this sense they, rather than the male working class, represent a dying breed.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

In Defence of Democracy

One of the consequences of 2008 and its aftermath has been the ratcheting-up of centrist criticism of the left, with the traditional patronising dismissal of its lack of "realism" overtaken by a noisy denunciation of its illiberalism and authoritarian tendencies. No longer mad or misguided, the left is now malign, and that malignancy has spread well beyond the indulgence of supposed Islamofacism to encompass misogyny and bigotry. This isn't a new criticism - you can trace the idea of "perversion" back to George Orwell's analysis of leftist self-hatred and Bertrand Russell's fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed - but the current turn is distinguished by a renewed determination to detach the "progressive heritage" of civil and minority rights from the left and claim it exclusively for the political centre. This is most obvious in the increased salience given to democracy and civility in liberal discourse.

Mild-mannered social democrats like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are today characterised by liberals as at best irresponsible and incompetent and at worst as cynically indulgent of racism, sexism and mob violence. Claims that Sanders is harmful or that the Labour Party under Corbyn is institutionally antisemitic are obviously absurd, but their wide circulation provides enough "whataboutery" to enable left criticism of liberals to be drowned-out or dismissed as ill-intentioned. However, what we're witnessing isn't just the use of identity politics to distract from social and economic policy, but part of a wider move to bring social media under control. The revelation that Facebook curates its trending news (and might not be doing a good job due to institutional sexism) is as significant in this regard as the spurious claims of chair-chucking.

The liberal response to 2008 was a focus on morality, in terms that had been rehearsed since the 80s (greed was not good), which was held to explain the corruption of an otherwise beneficial system through misaligned incentives and inadequate regulation. This combined a liberal refusal to consider capitalism as systemically flawed, beyond externalities like climate change that required better regulation, with a conservative insistence on propriety. Before 2008, liberals had largely employed ethics instrumentally, with an emphasis on the transactional: the quid pro quo of rights and responsibilities for the poor, and being relaxed about the rich so long as they paid tax. Despite the attempts to give this philosophical substance through communitarianism (e.g. Tony Blair's infamous "social-ism"), "what's right" was clearly subservient to "what works". In practice, ethics was largely in the shadow of managerialism after 1989.

After 2008, ethical discourse was revived in recognition that capitalism could no longer be defended as self-evidently benign. The idea that capitalism must be buttressed by an ethical code is hardly new, and neoliberal social policy with regard to the poorer strata of society has always been couched in ethical terms appropriated from conservatives, but the reintroduction of this idea after decades in which the middle and upper classes were told that competition was the best arbiter of the good was problematic. How do you construct a popular theory of right behaviour that accommodates a laissez-faire attitude towards personal conduct? The answer was to revive the classic conservative hypocrisy in which public propriety and civility are divorced from private action. You can do what you like in the bedroom, but you cannot call people names in public.

Social media have provided the perfect arena for this ethical performance, combining the ease of virtue-signalling with familiar market mechanisms (likes, polls etc), while also dramatising the value of privacy (i.e. freedom from surveillance) and the liberty of self-definition. The problem for liberals is that social media provide scope for horizontal organisation as much as they atomise society, which is why they quickly became attractive to the left. The emerging liberal strategy, insisting on both the curatorial responsibilities of businesses like Facebook and the communitarian responsibilities of users, is a bid for control. The consequence has been extensive media coverage of trolling, way out of proportion to its incidence or impact, and a hissy-fit over free-speech. These are not contradictory but complementary attempts to define what can be said: "Islamofacist", yes; "fat bitch", no.

Since the 1960s, the liberal prospectus has been based on a combination of pragmatic incrementalism and technocracy, which required the left to be characterised as wedded to policy impossibilism and progress redefined as the outcome of well-regulated business and bureaucracy unrestrained by special interests. Though the neoliberal recovery of 2009 restored the narrative of irresistible economic "realities", this has clearly failed to find popular favour outside the conservative right's promotion of austerity as a necessary purgative. The sorry tale of the LibDems in government, no less than the poor performance of centrists in the Labour leadership election, revealed not only that political liberalism was indistinguishable from managerial conservatism but that it lacked the "vision thing".

In contrast, the left has been distinguished since 2008 by the variety of its utopian thinking, from the 1968-lite of Occupy to the media-friendly speculations of Erik Olin Wright and Paul Mason. In practice, the political left has been both pragmatic to the point of disillusion (Syriza) and starry-eyed about the potential of technology (accelerationism). In other words, the left has struggled to escape the liberal paradigm of the last half-century, which goes a long way to explain why it has defaulted to the revival of social democracy as a proven model. We therefore have an odd situation in which the left simultaneously indulges nostalgia and celebrates emergent modernity while liberals adopt poses of conservative despair in defence of progressive values (meanwhile, the political right is intellectually all over the place and facing damaging schisms).

With the liberal order now difficult to defend in the terms preferred before 2008 - the inevitability of globalisation, the perfection of the market, and the superiority of liberty over equality - centrists have been obliged to plant their flag on terrain that they had hitherto neglected, namely democracy. This has become a defining cause of the centre in recent months, despite its historic origins on the left, allowing both right and left to be grouped together as equivalent threats to the status quo. To achieve this reconfiguration, democracy has had to be reframed as something established rather than in progress (hence the House of Lords is once more an adornment rather than an embarrassment), and the left's claim to be democratic has had to be loudly denied. The neoliberal focus of the 90s was on democratic praxis ("power for a purpose") but the new discourse is concerned with theory: how can democracy be saved from voters (or the "mob", as some right-liberals have started to call them). A perfect example of this was provided last week by Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian.

Though he claims to be analysing "The Age of Trump", it is clear that his concerns are with the UK. He talks of the "rage" harnessed by the likely Republican Presidential nominee: "In almost every case, those voicing it claim to be speaking for the people and for true democracy. But in their most extreme forms they threaten to shade into something darker: a revolt against the norms, the agreed boundaries, that make democracy possible". The sleight of hand is in the last sentence: the suggestion that democracy is only effective when qualified, when it has boundaries (I don't recall "agreeing" what these might be, outside the thumping defeat of the AV referendum in 2011 when Freedland was arguing against those norms). This is essentially a conservative argument that would have found favour with Edmund Burke, particularly because it makes no attempt to question either the origin or legitimacy of the constraints.

Freedland indulges the by-now familiar class contempt of the liberal elite in his analysis of both Trump and Sanders's support: "The group in question is the demographic that was known in the US journalistic shorthand of 20 years ago as the 'angry white males', now more politely referred to as the white working class ... [for whom] the financial squeeze is only one part of a double betrayal. The US has grown steadily more liberal over the last two decades, with a loosening of attitudes to diversity, gender equality and sexuality, a trend that is especially pronounced among the young and well-educated ... For many of those angry white males this is deeply unsettling". This comes close to suggesting that the working class cannot be black, gay or female; or, at the very least, that embracing those identities can only come at the expense of diminished class consciousness and vice versa (he obviously didn't get the memo about intersectionality).

Freedland also ignores the many rich angry white men who have bankrolled Trump, largely because this is asymmetric and thus distracts from his "both houses" schtick - i.e. there aren't many rich angry white dudes financing Sanders, despite the "brocialist" meme. In the liberal worldview, it is the working class that is the primary source of social reaction. This is both a claim that it has failed to succeed in a competitive economy (consider the ambiguous use of the word "losers") and that it never had the progressive role ascribed to it by socialism. For Freedland, this realisation of its own impotence has left the working class vulnerable to demagoguery: "So now we live in an age when fundamental change to the economic system has come to seem all but impossible. No wonder voters turn their ire on democracy instead ... We are not yet living in a post-democratic world. There are still elections and most of them are not being won by populist insurgents – not yet anyway" (the UKIP surge is ever-imminent).

This choice of words seeks to recuperate (i.e bastardise) two strands of leftist criticism: Frederic Jameson's famous quote "it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism"; and Colin Crouch's notion of post-democracy. Jameson's sardonic point was not that change is impossible but that ideology denies that we can talk meaningfully of planned change at the level of the socio-economic system. Hayekian ignorance and "the end of history" meant annihilating the future as a subject of debate outside of the agenda of business and technology. The result is that dystopias (President Trump) are easier to imagine than utopias (postcapitalism). Crouch's thesis is that democracy has been hollowed-out from the centre by neoliberalism and technocracy (including the politico-media "caste" represented by Freedland), not that it has been eroded from the margins by uncivil "haters".

Central to the contemporary liberal critique of the left has been the equivalence between the "far" left and right, which allows the extremism (real or imagined) of the latter to be projected onto the former. This is self-reinforcing as the centre's rhetoric towards the left also encourages its abandonment of restraint in its criticism of the right. Every time Donald Trump is labelled a Fascist, this prepares the ground for a charge of antisemitism against the left, while every accusation of left antisemitism justifies the deployment of the F-word. What we're witnessing is an arms-race of outrage conducted wholly within the political centre. The irony is that this hyperbole undermines the pleas for civility, with the result that Hitler seems to be everywhere these days. The irony disappears when you realise that characterising public discourse as under threat serves the cause of regulation; and regulation, rather than freedom or equality, is the real liberal goal.

Monday, 16 May 2016

This Too Shall Pass

Arsenal's season ended on notes both hilarious and sentimental. It was a Ronnie Corbett sort of ending. As Spurs managed to do what only Spurs can do, losing 5-1 against a 10-man Newcastle that had already been relegated, thereby allowing us to leapfrog them into second place, the Gunners bid a teary farewell to Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini. In truth, few of the tears were shed for the Flamster, which is probably how he'd want it, though I suspect Mesut Ozil may have baked him a cake. In a career that spanned Marseille, Arsenal, Milan and Arsenal again, the man who points furiously at clouds never commanded a transfer fee and is now off to save humanity through the appliance of science. Money has not yet wholly removed eccentricity from the game.

Rosicky and Arteta are lamented as what-ifs. The former's career was repeatedly interrupted by injuries while the latter suffered by taking the low road via Rangers and Everton. A harsher judgement would be that they were A- players (Arteta was kept out of the Barcelona and Spain teams by Xavi and Iniesta) whose quality was appreciated in a period when the club was reduced to a B+ transfer policy by the new stadium debt. There is a sense of an era drawing to a close, but not the Wenger era itself. The current squad is incomplete, notably in attack, but a plan does appear to be taking shape, albeit slowly, since the capture of Mesut Ozil in 2013. For all the criticism about the manager's stubbornness, I see no reason to doubt his claim that the problem has been the limited availability of suitable top players rather than an unwillingness to open the now swollen war-chest.

Wenger's commitment to buy 3 players this summer isn't a tough target, but in publicly stating this he is clearly not engaged in a windup that will see him shell out small change on a trio of French teenagers. While there are concerns that Petr Cech might actually be in decline (too many near-post shots have crept in), I doubt we'll see a new goalkeeper unless both David Ospina and Wojciech Szczesny decide to move on. An additional centre-back is likely, not least because Mertesacker and Koscielny are increasingly injury-prone and Gabriel remains gaffe-prone. An extra midfielder is a near-certainty, given the number of departures in that department, though the promise of Alex Iwobi (and possibly Jon Toral) suggests a single, marquee signing rather than two or three lesser players to make up the numbers.

Where we clearly need new bodies (and a fresh approach) is up-front, particularly now that Danny Welbeck is likely to miss most of next season through injury. The chief criticism of Arsenal's play this season is that it has been too laboured, which can be attributed in part (but not wholly) to Olivier Giroud's lack of pace. Wenger has usually preferred a more mobile striker, in the mould of Henry or van Persie (hence the attempt to buy Luis Suarez), who can drag defenders away to create channels for the midfield, but he hasn't been able to find one on the market and appears to have given up on the idea of converting Theo Walcott. Giroud is excellent at creating half-chances for others but doesn't create enough space to ensure they are nailed-on. Walcott is excellent at hitting space but doesn't work enough off the ball to aid the midfield. The result is our now infamously low conversion rate for chances in the penalty area.

I said Giroud was not wholly to blame because the other way of creating space is through dribbles into the penalty area. Arsenal's problem is that while Alexis Sanchez is a great dribbler, he tends to pick up the ball too deep and is then forced into the middle of the pitch. Cazorla is our most dangerous dribbler since Alexander Hleb, but his move to a deeper position since 2014 has limited his chances of getting into the opposition area, which explains the low number of penalties awarded to us - only 2 compared to Leicester's 13. Giroud ended up 9 goals behind Harry Kane in the scoring chart, but if you exclude penalties the gap is a less impressive 5 (and only 3 to Vardy). We still need an upgrade, but I doubt Giroud will leave and he may find it easier if the burden of expectation shifts elsewhere. An extra 9 goals might have translated into an extra 9 points, but that would still have left us short of Leicester City.

Perhaps more important to the season's outcome was our goals against. We only conceded 11 at home, which was 7 fewer than the Foxes and only bettered by a very negative Man United (8 pending their final game). Our problem was conceding 25 away, which was the worst among the top 5 teams (Leicester conceded 18). This went hand-in-hand with a league-best tally of 34 goals scored on the road, which was the same as Spurs and 1 better than Leicester, so we were certainly entertaining. We failed to win the league because we shipped a total of 17 goals in the 6 away games at Southampton, Liverpool, Manure, Spurs, West Ham and Man City. Better results in those matches would have produced an extra 10 to 14 points and propelled us to the top. Our points breakdown by thirds (26, 22, 23) confirms that we were on target for 80 until we hit our traditional sticky patch in November. The problem was a further sticky patch in January. And then one in March. And then one in April.

That these setbacks all came after Christmas suggests our form took a knock with the midfield injuries in December, notably to Cazorla and Coquelin (and with Wilshere already out) but the bottom line is that we weren't clinical enough against other top-half sides, suggesting that the issue remains psychological as much as anything. Our aggregate score against Leicester City of 8-3 was fun, but a title winning team would have got the same points with an aggregate score of 2-0. That thought is surely reinforced by the two horror-shows against Chelsea, when we allowed ourselves to be suckered into red cards. Too many other teams assume, with some justification, that the Arsenal squad are vulnerable to pressure, whether by fair means or foul. One reason for bringing in some big names is to affect the mentality of the opposition as much as the Arsenal squad itself.

My predictions for the season were that we'd finish second (I assumed behind Man City) on 80 or so points, so I was half right. Our points total dropped from 75 to 71, but that downturn was typical of most of the "big" teams this season bar Spurs. They added 6 to finish on 70 points, though it's worth noting amid all the hype that this is 2 fewer than they got in 2012/13 when they finished 5th under AndrĂ© Villas-Boas. The league is more competitive than a few years ago and that's down to the increased money from TV rights improving mid-table squads, such as Stoke and West Ham. Spurs' problem is that the relative financial constraints of their new stadium project mean they'll do well to improve the squad over the next few years. Their young players provide a solid foundation, but I'm not convinced they're going to get much better as a unit (they may have peaked too soon), while individuals that do shine may well be attracted elsewhere.

One other prediction I got right was that Sam Allardyce would prove himself to be "the English league's current top specialist in failure", saving Sunderland from the drop. This gives me the excuse to mention that Jose Mourinho has been quiet of late. Long may it continue. This has been a season of much frustration, essentially because I, like many Arsenal fans, thought we might just nick the title when Chelski imploded and Citeh went AWOL, and was even deluded enough to believe that the great escape from the Champions' League group stage heralded a change of luck, till we drew Barcelona. Many have noted that this was our best finish since 2005, but I prefer to remember 2001 when we finished second on 70 points. The following season we won the double. At least we have something to keep chuckling about until the start of next season. Thankyou Tottenham.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

The Art of Delay

Imagine that David Duckenfield had fessed-up immediately. Instead of John Motson relaying the lie that a gate had been forced at the Leppings Lane entrance, we would have heard that the police had made a tragic error, opening the gate without first sealing off the tunnel into the central pens. Duckenfield would probably have resigned in ignominy, but we can't be sure he would have been convicted of criminally negligent manslaughter. The central accusation against him was one of incompetence arising from a lack of experience in policing football matches generally and Hillsborough specifically, but showing that he had fallen short of expected standards of behaviour would not be clear-cut given the history of crushes at the ground (as recently as the year before) and the contemporary priority on crowd control over safety.

A number of institutions contributed to the disaster, including the FA, Sheffield Wednesday FC, the local council and the ambulance service, but the chief responsibility undoubtedly lay with South Yorkshire Police. However, it is not clear that they would have faced a charge of corporate manslaughter unless it could be proved that the appointment of Duckenfield was itself reckless. Though there were rumours that he secured the post through Masonic connections, it's difficult to believe this would have stood up in court as sufficient evidence. Given the reluctance of the judiciary to allow corporate manslaughter charges in those years (e.g. against P&O over the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in 1987), and the reluctance of the state to allow public criticism of the police (Thatcher's "Is that for us to welcome?" comment on the draft Taylor Report), it's possible that the only consequence for the SYP might have been a civil suit.

This prompts two thoughts. The first is that Hillsborough might now be distant history, like the Ibrox disaster of 1971 that killed 66, had it not been for the determination of the SYP to avoid culpability for itself and its officers, augmented by the reluctance of the state to countenance the possibility of either police incompetence or corruption. Justice delayed is certainly justice denied, but it also serves to amplify the grievance and spread a reputational poison far and wide. I doubt Bernard Ingham is cheered by the knowledge that his impending obituaries will prominently feature an offhand comment about "tanked-up yobs". The second conclusion is that culpability often fails to settle because of the uncertain relationship between individuals and organisations, which brings us neatly to the long-awaited Chilcott report on the Iraq War, which we are told will now appear in July.

Jackie Ashley nicely (if obliviously) highlights these two points in her plea that the report "shouldn’t be used to pin the blame for Iraq on one man". She's wasting her breath. The reason why Tony Blair is going to get a thoroughly good kicking is because he never admitted his culpability either in conspiring to engineer a war or in neglecting to plan for the consequences (the subsequent "regrets" have been mealy-mouthed and self-serving). In seeking to spread the blame beyond the man, Ashley gets to the heart of the issue concerning the relationship of individuals and organisations in decision-making: "It’s the failure of an over-centralised prime ministerial office, too small to have real intellectual and research heft yet arrogant enough to overrule FCO advisers".

Though she then tries to deflect attention onto the institutional failings of Parliament (which should "challenge the executive boldly when it counts"), the locus of the problem is clearly the "den" at Number 10 where Blair conducted his now infamous "sofa government". The studied informality of neoliberal political practice since the 90s clearly borrows a lot from the corporate world, from naff dressing-down to the overuse of "guys" as a form of address. But this is superficial and fails to appreciate that corporate fashions, like business consultancy buzzwords, come and go. The form is still the "privy counsel" familiar to Machiavelli, in which insiders are expected to adopt a cynical and instrumental attitude. Blair's sofa government was little different to Wilson's kitchen cabinet or Nixon's inner circle.

The popular representation of the political executive is misleading. Whether in the guise of the verbal farce of Yes Minister or the mockumentary of The Thick of It, drama demands antagonism. In reality, antagonism is the enemy of political decision-making (see Blair vs Brown), just as it is the substance of political theatre (see PMQs). Outside the public gaze, the instinct of politicians is always to reduce the circle of power and thus lessen the likelihood of conflict. This has two consequences. First, those who want to gain access to the inner circle know that their best approach is congeniality, which encourages groupthink and conformism. Second, those who find themselves burdened by responsibility seek to deal with the psychological stress through deflection (e.g. invoking God or the spirit of history) or denial. The latter tends not to be a flat contradiction but a process of delay and obfuscation.

Ashley suggests that "What we deserve to see climbing out of the wreckage of this is a reformed Whitehall where civil servants with years of experience feel emboldened to challenge ministers". This is naive. A delay in justice may well amplify the anger against individuals (though the evidence suggests it mainly hardens determination), but it also tends to weaken the demands for reform of organisations because they can claim that their procedures and practices have subsequently changed and are no longer a problem. Organisations do not bear a lifetime moral responsibility in the same way that people do, which is one reason why corporate personhood is asymmetric in terms of rights versus responsibilities.

Though David Crompton recently resigned as Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police in the wake of the inquest verdict, that was because of the behaviour of the force in extending the denial of justice after having admitted responsibility to the Hillsborough Independent Panel in 2012. Any fresh demands for operational reform will be met by the rejoinder that "it's not the same organisation as it was in 1989". I can be confident in making this prediction because four years ago Crompton stated: "South Yorkshire Police is a very different place in 2012 from what it was 23 years ago and we will be fully open and transparent in helping to find answers to the questions posed by the Panel today". Likewise, any recommendations arising from Chilcott will be met with claims of subsequent compliance or a willingness to review at some future point. In other words, "Move along; nothing to see here".

The delay in the publication of the Chilcott Report, which is simply a further extension of the delay entailed by the Hutton Inquiry and the Butler Review, means that the state will be able to absorb any blame through a water-under-the-bridge plea. Blair will carry the bulk of the public obloquy, whether fairly or not, but the intervening years mean that he's had the time to secure his winnings in case his name becomes so badly tainted that even dictators won't employ him any more. David Duckenfield will probably face charges, and there is a good chance that the South Yorkshire Police will face a fresh inquiry into their behaviour at Orgreave, but a more general inquiry into policing in the 80s is unlikely, while the evidence from Green Street on Tuesday night suggests that the police are still prone to confuse crowd control and safety. As you were then.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Reading the Ruins

The overwhelming media reaction to last week's elections was disappointment. Despite furious spinning that Labour should be gaining 200 or more English council seats at this stage, the results did not deliver the negative judgement on Jeremy Corbyn required to justify a coup. While this has been highly amusing, if not surprising (remember the Oldham West by-election), there is a danger that we miss the wider significance of the many and varied votes. The greatest disappointment may well prove to be the failure of the SNP to secure an outright majority in the Scottish Assembly. If they can't do it when all the electoral stars are in alignment, when can they? Similarly, the failure of UKIP to break through (no, Neil Hamilton really doesn't count) during the propitious conditions of the EU referendum campaign suggests that the party is a busted flush as anything other than a xenophobic protest vote.

Zac Goldsmith didn't look too disappointed to lose in the contest to be chosen as London Mayor. Embarrassed would be more like it, given both his crass campaign and evident disinterest in the city and its people. There is already a move afoot by his chums in the media to claim that he was merely a naif fallen among bad men, but that's hardly an endorsement of either Goldsmith or Conservative Party strategists. The truth is that London has been shifting towards Labour for years now, a process completely independent of the Corbyn insurgency, and dissatisfaction with Boris Johnson since 2012 meant the election would be a stiff ask for any Conservative candidate. The Tories have essentially written-off the capital, a fact made plain by The Evening Standard's decision to henceforth marginalise the office of Mayor. This may actually be a good thing if it means less of the solipsistic trivia that Johnson specialised in. Or maybe not ...

The national press and TV insist that Sadiq Khan's victory proves that Labour can only succeed by "broadening its appeal", i.e. adopting right-of-centre policies that show it can be "trusted with the economy" and is "business-friendly". This ignores that the party also did well in the Assembly elections, taking 9 constituency seats to the Tories' 5, and that this improvement is the continuation of a trend that was visible in the Assembly elections of 2012 and the London constituencies in the general election of 2015, i.e. before Khan was ever a candidate for the mayoralty. Given that he was criticised by the press for an uninspired campaign, and that much of the media coverage contributed to this through its focus on Islamophobia and antisemitism, it is hard to believe that this general swing to Labour in London can be exclusively attributed to the personal influence of the MP for Tooting.

The "moderate" narrative also ignores that the major political issues for Labour supporters in London remain housing, transport and inadequate wages, not whether the party is sufficiently accommodating to the City. For all the dog-whistles about race, the subliminal message that cut through was encapsulated in Khan's oft-repeated back-story: brought up in a council flat, dad a bus driver, mum a seamstress. It's hard to believe that this wasn't a sincere promise to tackle the big three issues more energetically than Johnson ever managed. In this light, Goldsmith's decision to endorse a negative campaign looks like an admission that he wasn't capable of building a credible offer in these areas, something that became comically evident in his inability to name Tube stations or identify with the cultural interests of the little people.

One consequence of the increasing unaffordability of Central London, and the boom in new-build flats and buy-to-let conversions in the outer suburbs, is that the Tories' traditional vote-bank in places like Barnet and Ealing is being increasingly offset, something that was visible in last year's General Election. For example, that Merton and Wandsworth swung to Labour was not because the Tory vote fled in disgust at Goldsmith's tactics, or because Labour hoovered up all the votes of Greens or LibDems. In 2008, the Conservatives got 75k votes in the constituency and Labour got just under 49k with another 42k spread among the minor parties. This month, the Conservatives got 73k, Labour got 77k and the rest got 35k. This pattern was repeated across the capital and suggests that net population growth is leading to more Labour voters. Many are immigrants, but from elsewhere in the UK as well as abroad. Wherever they come from, their immediate concerns are housing, transport and inadequate wages.

In Scotland, a 46.5% share of the popular vote looks like the high watermark for the SNP. Though they might have gained sufficient extra seats for a legislative majority with a better distribution of votes, the important point is that there is no popular nationalist majority, and in a proportional representation system that fact guarantees that another independence referendum isn't worth talking about till the end of the decade at the earliest, with the one ironic caveat of a leave vote in the EU referendum. If the vote goes to remain, the SNP will be obliged to develop substantive policies beyond the gestural or hashtag-friendly, and to defend their social and economic record for at least the next 3 years. If they cannot resolve the inherent tensions between their pro-social and fiscally-conservative wings, leading to the kind of timidity they've already displayed over tax, the most likely direction for their popularity is down.

While the media predictably crowed that the Conservatives had overtaken Labour in terms of seats in the Scottish Assembly, their constituency vote share was actually still smaller, at 22% versus 22.6%. It's possible that Labour might fall further and the Tories grow, but it's also possible that this is as low as Labour can get (a credible challenger to the left remains unlikely, as RISE has shown) and that any further Tory (or Lib Dem) gains will largely be at the expense of the SNP. The Scottish Tories have explicitly set out to position themselves as a "strong opposition", distinguished from the Nats wholly on their support for the union. Insofar as they have social or economic policies, they are the usual apple-pie and motherhood: build more homes, defend the NHS, improve schools, be careful with the pennies etc. In other words, don't say anything that might alienate anyone and keep talking about Sterling as your trump card.

As with Nicola Sturgeon's arrival on the UK political scene last year, Ruth Davidson's popularity owes much to a calculated vagueness in the area of fiscal policy (protect spending, look to cut taxes) and a canny promotion of personality (straight out of the Cameron playbook circa 2005). This is further proof that Blairism lives on most successfully north of the border, where the belief in higher powers that cannot be gainsaid, specifically the market and globalisation, dovetails with the SNP's Europhilia and the Tories' unwavering unionism. This suggests that Scottish politics may actually be entering a period of resentful dependency rather than self-confidence (the fall in the oil price has been psychologically damaging), which presents an opportunity for Scottish Labour if it is willing to promote the case of economic nationalism.

But this would require a conditional commitment to independence and a more assertive relationship with the EU (cue joke about Edinburgh as the Athens of the North), possibly appropriating some of the territory marked out by the Radical Independence Campaign. Neither of these departures would be tactically feasible this side of June the 23rd. The period between 2011 and June this year will probably be seen in retrospect as an interregnum between the old Scottish Labour machine and a new formation of the left in Scotland. Assuming that still sits under the Labour banner, the party may find it itself obliged to take its case onto the streets simply because of its limited representation at Holyrood. Running as an anti-establishment mass movement, particularly if the SNP and the Tories collude in a neoliberal stitch-up, looks like the most credible way forward for the next decade. Trying to be more Blairier-than-thou isn't going to work.

Across England and Wales, the council results were neither here nor there, not because there were no big shifts but because we are 4 years out from the next general election. The increasing reliance of the media on opinion polls to set or reinforce the political agenda has led to local elections being treated as a proxy for large-scale national surveys. This has been exacerbated by the disempowerment of local government over recent decades, which leads the media to assume that voters are largely energised by national rather than local issues. In fact, the electorate have delivered a result that appears to reflect local concerns, hence the "oddity" of Labour doing well in parts of the South of England. The broad story is that the advances Labour made in 2012 have largely been maintained, but this is no more significant for the next general election than that previous result was for 2015. The meta-story is that the narrative of ruination remains a Westminster fantasy.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

A Genuinely Interesting Post About Car Insurance

Car insurance is so crushingly dull that it has given us some of the most annoyingly crazee TV adverts in history, from Russian-accented meerkats to Iggy Pop's homunculus. I imagine if you're an advertising executive it must be a dream gig: there is no constraint on your imagination and zero risk that you might inadvertantly sully the reputation of the industry. If Michael Winner couldn't queer the pitch, who could? The japery is intended to convince us that car insurance is a necessary evil, so we may as well laugh about it, and not an extortion racket that amounts to roughly 1% of GDP in developed nations. The insistence that we don't think too hard makes it akin to new technology hype, so stories that combine the two, such as asking if driverless cars will be "the death of the insurance industry", almost write themselves.

That particular apocalypse arises from the premise that driverless cars will reduce accidents. The figure of a 90% reduction is often bandied about, but as I've previously noted, this is as reliable as tobacco industry-funded research showing that cigarettes are good for you. It's frequently elided with the vaguely similar claim that 90% of road traffic accidents are caused by human error, which actually means nothing. No doubt 90% of future robot malfunctions will be traced to human error, just as most smartphone or computer failures can be today. I imagine 120 years ago evangelists for cars were suggesting that they would reduce road fatalities by eliminating the risk of horses bolting. The one reliable statistic in all this is that 90% of what you read or hear about driverless cars is cobblers, quite possibly including this post.

According to The Guardian business pages, "The boss of one big motor insurer confessed privately a few months ago that he was mystified as to why his supposedly long-term shareholders never asked him about the threat that driverless cars present to his industry". This may be because they're not idiots. The fundamental assumption behind the "threat" is that fewer accidents mean lower premiums, but this doesn't represent a problem for the insurance industry because fewer accidents means fewer claims. In other words, turnover may reduce but profit margins can be maintained. In fact, the insurance industry might even experience a period of increased margins if it captures the initial efficiency gains of autonomous systems - i.e. premiums may prove "sticky". But while the prophets of doom may well be wrong, insurance does offer a useful angle to think about some of the impacts of driverless cars.

One promise of the robo-chauffeur is that we can move away from sole ownership towards an on-demand model. This idea is already emergent in car-clubs like ZipCar and hire services like Uber, not to mention leasing deals that cover repairs and allow the car to be replaced at the end of the initial lease term. An on-demand model doesn't just commodify the car as a series of rides, it theoretically reduces the number of cars required per capita and increases their utilisation, which will shorten their effective lives. A reduction in the amortisation period, together with the addition of autonomous systems, is likely to result in more expensive cars, while the increased technical complexity of those systems and the heavier wear and tear on the vehicles (even allowing for smoother handling by your robot Parker) will push up repair costs.

An overnight switch to driverless cars is logistically impossible, so the most likely scenario is a gradual transition, i.e. parallel running of "dual mode" cars with older manual vehicles (it doesn't matter for the moment whether the two types share road space or are segregated, though that would have a bearing on accidents). Given the expectation of lower premiums for driverless cars, this logically suggests two classes of insurance premium. But this class distinction will relate to the car, not the driver. This, together with the growth of on-demand cars, will reinforce the idea that insurance should be associated with the vehicle rather than the person, while the higher servicing costs will encourage the idea that this insurance should be extended to cover no-fault repairs. This has already prompted some insurers to suggest that liability for a driverless car should lie with the manufacturer, not least because this removes any dispute over the contribution of the autonomous systems in the event of a claim.

In other words, the anticipated fall in driver premiums (i.e. third-party cover) may be offset by an increase in repair premiums, and that increase may be folded into the cost of manufacture as a mandatory lifetime premium (in the way that a warranty is factored into the sales price today). Car insurance could simply dissolve into the cost of the car and by extension the pay-as-you-drive service. This trend would be reinforced if the need for regular autonomous system upgrades (a mix of hardware, firmware and software) further reduces the effective life of a car because it's simpler to deploy a newer model than rip out and replace its embedded systems. Though the cost of cars may increase with the addition of autonomous systems, their commercial treatment may paradoxically become more like that of commodities that have seen steady declines in their real cost, such as computers.

A consequence of this shift in the insurance model may be that car repair businesses will prove to be more vulnerable to disruption than insurers, both because technical complexity will drive many low-end operations out of the market and because insurers could negotiate better prices with larger repairers through volume deals. The repair companies best placed to negotiate with the insurers, and to bring expertise and volume to bear on costs, will be the car manufacturers. In other words, a likely consequence of driverless cars will be the disapperance of independent garages. Given the tighter relationship between car-makers and insurers, it may also make sense for large manufacturers to go into the insurance business themselves, much as they've already entered the financing market, extending their current provision of service plans to comprehensive service, breakdown and accident cover. The automotive industry has been shifting from commodities to services for decades, so absorbing insurance broking is a logical next step after absorbing premiums into the ticket price.

Another straw in the wind is the development of user or usage-based insurance (UBI), which uses sensors and telematics to analyse driver behaviour and tailor an insurance premium accordingly. Behaviour may currently be little more than the number of miles driven (i.e. connecting the odometer to the Internet), but it can also be extended to analyse driving style (e.g. frequency and strength of braking) and to adjust expected behaviour based on the outside environment (e.g. speed relative to road type). This is another example of the behavioural surplus of surveillance capitalism and how it can be monetised as a prediction product. While the current focus is on insurers as buyers of that product, there are many other possible applications and therefore buyers, particularly if feedback can be given to a hands-free occupant ("turn off here to buy that thing you want").

Driverless cars introduce data capitalists to the motoring industry, which is why Google and Apple are at the forefront of developments. Despite the hype about its prototype cars, Google's likely strategy is to sell autonomous systems (think of them as "appliances", in tech-speak), together with their superior data assets, to traditional car manufacturers. Apple's history is of a manufacturer that expanded into data, but by the specific strategy of locking-in its customers through proprietary technology. While it may be able to develop an iCar, this will probably be a high-end luxury good but quite possibly inferior to what the car manufacturers can produce themselves through the combination of their own technology and buying in Google's, in which case the iCar may prove to be as niche as the iWatch.

Google's model is egalitarian insofar as it wants everybody to provide it with a behavioural surplus. This means that it has an interest not only in making driverless technology available to as many car manufacturers as possible, but also in lobbying governments to move towards making autonomous systems mandatory. This will be easier to do if more people forgo owning a car in favour of hire services, and that means shifting towards inclusive (car-specific) insurance. Apple's model is elitist insofar as it only wants the behavioural surplus of high-worth users. This means it has an interest in driverless cars being introduced through segregation, i.e. in central urban areas favoured by the rich, but it will also want to monopolise the behavioural surplus by excluding third-party services. To that end, folding third-party insurance into an all-inclusive lifetime warranty (i.e. bumping up the ticket price) makes commercial sense.

In either scenario the motor insurance industry could be absorbed into the car manufacuring industry, but it could just as easily revert to a specialist wholesale service, invisible to the wider public, that pools risk for all car-makers, driverless technology manufacturers and data providers. This would make a lot of sense given that a single failure in future autonomous systems has the potential to produce widespread chaos and consequently very large claims (think of the Toyota and VW scandals of recent years). The motor insurance industry isn't going to disappear because of driverless cars, but it is likely to change radically. However this plays out, the one thing that would probably disappear (though this may just be my bias talking) would be those annoying TV adverts. Huzzah for technology.