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Tuesday, 20 December 2016

A Savage Servility

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Parental Advisory

Though they are routinely yoked together as two of the horsemen of the post-truth Apocalypse, the leave campaign in the UK's EU referendum and Donald Trump's campaign in the US Presidential election were very different in terms of the means they used to circulate "fake news". In the UK, the standout moments in the propaganda war involved media that have been around for over a century: newspaper headlines ("Queen backs Brexit", varieties of "millions more migrants on the way"), billboard posters ("Breaking Point"), and even a big red bus assuring us that £350 million could be diverted weekly to the NHS. In the US, attention focused on the new media of the Internet, notably Trump's Twitter account, Facebook's inadvertent creation of neo-Nazi safe spaces, and (though their importance has been over-stated) out-and-out black propaganda sites like Breitbart News. This led to the odd sight of US cable TV, which was once the new kid on the media block, misjudging the popular mood and being artlessly played by Trump.

The sense of the two countries inhabiting different centuries - possibly the 19th and the 21st - was obscured by the commonality of the "mainstream media" doing a poor job in countering the nonsense or interrogating (rather than witlessly amplifying) popular "concerns". This might not appear to reflect particularly well on the UK, but it actually points to a greater resilience, or at least inertia, in the institutions of British politics. We still have a career politician in Number 10, UKIP aspires to be a party just like the others, and the judiciary doesn't seem minded to rubber-stamp the will of the executive. While institutional rot affects both countries, it looks to have spread further in the US, accelerated by the removal of restraints on political financing and the strategic vandalism of the Republican Party in Congress since the mid-90s.

This cultural difference goes some way to explain why the Guardian Media Group (GMG) appears to be far more worried about the impact of the Internet than most other UK news organisations. Having consciously set out to be the global liberal's trusted source, it has invested heavily in both online and the US, and is acutely aware of the power of the Internet giants to dominate advertising budgets. It has become simultaneously more American (and thus prudish) in style and more fretful about market imperfections. This has led to an increasingly moralistic critique of both individuals (e.g. the prominence given to online harassment and the defensive focus on identity politics) and organisations deemed to be eroding journalistic values. This often produces hyperbole. For example, Facebook's filter bubble is presented as tantamount to a system of mind control when it is essentially just confirmation bias.

Despite the high profile given to its ability to amplify dodgy news, Facebook's chief feature is that it reinforces existing mainstream media preferences through sorting. If you're a teacher in Hackney whose mates are mostly teachers, you'll see plenty of Grauniad articles. This makes it a poor channel to grow readership beyond already saturated groups. In contrast, Google can provide much wider exposure, particularly if you can appear in "natural" search results rather than via Ad Words. While adverts of any sort have a low return, the benefit to a news provider of appearing in a self-directed search is considerable. If it is going to grow its global audience, GMG probably needs to rely more on Google than on Facebook, but the lack of predictability inherent in search produces anxiety: "New platforms have put a bomb under the financial model – advertising – resources are shrinking, traffic is increasingly dependent on them, and publishers have no access, no insight at all, into what these platforms are doing in their headquarters, their labs".


That statement featured in what appears to be a planned campaign, launched in The Observer this month by Carole Cadwalladr,  to warn us that "tech-savvy rightwingers" are "gaming" the Google algorithm. The gaming of Google for political rather than commercial ends is not new. The Google bomb dates from the late-90s, and was made famous by the association of "miserable failure" with George W Bush, while the autocomplete function of Google Search has been around since 2004. For years Google has been editing both search rankings and autocomplete predictions to remove objectionable results, though it keeps this quiet because the system's credibility depends on its comprehensiveness - i.e. reflecting what users in aggregate are searching for and which pages the Internet as a community of content-providers considers most authoritative on any given topic.

Cadwalladr's article conflates two separate issues: autocomplete and search result rankings, though this is forgivable since Google launched Instant Search in 2010, which presents cached results based on predicted search terms. Autocomplete tells you what other people are searching for. If you enter "are jews" and this produces "are jews [evil]", then that is a reflection of actual usage (which is also changing, so don't expect the same results each time), not of gaming. Neither does it reflect an upsurge in antisemitism. The word "Jews" is likely to produce negative stereotypes in autocomplete predictions because while antisemites tend to bandy it about, most people tend to be sensitive to the charge of inadvertent antisemitism and are therefore circumspect in using it. To put this in context, consider some leading autocomplete predictions for a variety of other groups: are the french [rude]; are lawyers [rich]; are man utd fans [glory hunters]; are the japanese [a cruel race] (autocomplete is also localised, so this may reflect heavy usage by Daily Mail readers in my neck of the woods).

Another example reported in The Observer a week later was "did the hol[ocaust really happen]". It is easy to mistake the salience of certain terms in autocomplete as evidence of a conspiracy, but the mundane truth is that predictability largely depends on the probability of alternatives. "Did the hol[e in the wall gang really exist]" or did the "hol[iday inn invent holidays]" are questions that are rarely asked. "Did the hol" is not a commonly used prefix, even among members of the Hollies fan club. This means that the number of searches required to feature in the autocomplete top four may be quite small, certainly compared to something like "the cheapest price for". It is also likely that many of the (possibly few) people who entered the predicted search are already primed to question the reality of the Holocaust. We regularly use search engines to validate existing beliefs or confirm prejudices, not just to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, hence the idea of Google as a "prosthetic memory".

While there are plenty of ignorant people in the world, it would be wrong to assume that they are empty vessels that will be filled by the first propaganda they encounter. That is a reactionary prejudice with a long history, combining a contempt for the common sort and the demonisation of malign forces set on undermining our cherished social order. To put this in the terms of an earlier technology, it is like the debate over whether public libraries should stock copies of Mein Kampf, or whether certain "dangerous" literature should be held under lock and key and only be made available to responsible persons bearing a letter signed by a bishop. Significantly, Wikipedia, as an edited content platform, is not seen as a problem, just as the Encyclopaedia Britannica wasn't, though a case can be made that both are riddled with errors and dubious editorial judgements. Of course, Wikipedia is not in the business of providing news, so it is not a competitor in the eyes of media organisations like GMG.


In demanding that certain search terms be curated the liberal media is exercising its own bias. Nobody seems too bothered that the term "was Hitler" produces: a socialist; married; German; a dictator (the last of these leads to a result set that uniformly confirms that he was and that this was a bad thing). The insistence on curation goes beyond autocomplete predictions to actual search results, which is the main prize for the likes of GMG. The top-ranking result for "did the holocaust happen" is a comment thread on the site of Stormfront, a neo-Nazi group, in which a convinced denier recycles various myths. The reason for its prominence is the form of words used in the search. If Hannah Arendt had chosen that phrase as her title instead of Eichmann in Jerusalem, the first result today would probably link to her book on Amazon, no matter how much "gaming" white supremacists got up to. If you search for just "holocaust", you'll get Wikipedia first. On a lighter note, the first page of results for "are jews evil" currently includes articles about the Observer story and Google's response. Irritatingly for all at GMG, the top link is to a report in The Telegraph.

Cadwalladr makes the relationship between the Internet and democracy explicit, casting Google in the role of a privileged interest that must be restrained by the people: "Are Jews evil? How do you want that question answered? This is our internet. Not Google’s. Not Facebook’s. Not rightwing propagandists. And we’re the only ones who can reclaim it". Though this sounds like a clarion call to liberty and the defence of the commons, what GMG is demanding is that Google be obliged to exercise editorial control. Their practical hope is that this will give greater prominence to traditional media businesses in search results, while their ideological aim is to reinforce the gatekeeper model central to the liberal notion of civic responsibility. I'm not one for giving Google a free ride - their claim that they merely reflect the wisdom (or stupidity) of the crowd is disingenuous - but the value of a near-universal search engine with minimal editorial direction far outweighs the downside of a bunch of muppets at Stormfront denying the Holocaust.

There is a lack of logic in insisting on editorial control without addressing the question of ownership, which is particularly obvious in a week when Rupert Murdoch revived his bid for Sky plc (something you can be sure he wouldn't be doing unless he had already squared the government). The nutter who recently turned up with a gun in a Washington pizza parlour looking for Hillary Clinton's child sex ring was primed not just by far-right websites but by the longstanding virulence displayed towards both Clinton and paedophiles by cable TV, radio and tabloid newspapers. The press coverage of paedophilia changed in the 1980s, with Murdoch's outlets very much to the fore, with the trope of an organised conspiracy to target children overtaking the traditional image of the seedy loner. This was fed not just by "ritual satanic abuse" panics and government campaigns against the "promotion of homosexuality" in schools (both in the context of an assault on the public sector), but by bonkers claims that drug dealers thought kids a more lucrative market than adults ("just say no") and rock groups were urging teenage suicide in backmasked recordings.

At times, Cadwalladr sounds like Tipper Gore, whose objection to Prince's Little Nikki famously led to the introduction of Parental Advisory stickers. Consider the emotional register of the following: "The right is on the rise everywhere. And that includes on the internet. It is creating more content that is travelling wider and further. It has changed both the questions being asked – did the Holocaust actually happen? Are Jews evil? Should Islam be destroyed – and answered. It is in the process of remaking the world, rewriting history, rewiring minds, changing the conversation, reframing the questions and answers. It’s our world. Our internet. Our history. And we have to wake up to what is happening right now on the laptop on our desk, the phone in our pocket, the tablet in our children’s bedrooms. This is our choice: do something. Or accept the truth according to Google. That six million didn’t die. That the Holocaust never happened. That we didn’t care enough to remember."


Friday, 9 December 2016

A Song From Under the Floorboards

The spat between UKIP donor Aaron Banks and media celebrity Mary Beard over the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire (which produced an epic piss-take by Left Outside that, inter alia, correctly noted there was no single cause because there was no single fall) has once again raised the spectre of a new dark age of unreason. What has struck me about this meme over the course of 2016 is the thoughtless way in which the term "expert" has been bandied about, not just as a rhetorical slur by the likes of Michael Gove but as the epitome of beleaguered rationality by liberals. Banks's claim that historians don't have a monopoly on history is a classic populist manoeuvre, which Beard was wise enough to agree with, but I also suspect he knew that questioning the value of expertise was the sort of thing that would reliably wind up her liberal supporters, many of whom appear to consider the knowledgeable and qualified, from climate scientists to Supreme Court judges, as a persecuted minority in need of protection and solidarity. I'm surprised there hasn't been a campaign to adopt an expert for Christmas.

In fact, we're all experts to a degree, in the sense of having access to local or tacit knowledge. The problem with institutionalised expertise is that it suggests a categorical difference - an epistemological class system, if you will - and one that is made through the narrow and flawed mechanism of formal qualification. You'll note that I didn't introduce Beard as a professor of Roman history, the point being that she can also legitimately claim a degree of expertise in the ways of the media (something that she is quite well aware of). Similarly, the introduction of Banks as a "donor", rather than an expert in commercial insurance, recycles a media trope in which the funding of politics outside the narrow centre, and particularly by the nouveau riches, is deemed suspiciously transactional or destabilising. Among the cheerleaders of first the SDP and then New Labour, David Sainsbury was more likely to be introduced as a thinker, though his money has had a greater indirect impact on British lives than his negligible "thought".

The idea that experts are an endangered species - that we are likely to see their euthanasia before than of the rentier - is absurd, but no less ridiculous that the hyperbolic claim that we have entered an era of "post-truth politics". Like the voguish concern over "fake news", this suggests a remarkable ignorance of the history of both politics and the mass media. The promotion of feeling over facts is as old as the Enlightenment itself, while we really didn't need to rediscover the Frankfurt School to recognise that politics deals in imagined communities and symbolic discourses. To my mind, what is most depressing about the post-Brexit / post-Trump angst is the degree of emotionalism displayed by liberals as they loudly insist on the virtues of reason while confessing themselves appalled by the irrational behaviour of the common sort. To Paul Krugman's confusion we should now add Martin Kettle's condescension: "People who once carried our hopes have increasingly embraced other causes". The bastards.

Pankaj Mishra has often been sceptical of liberal claims, but he is also a friendly critic who has long earned a crust in the liberal media. In a long (and rather confused) essay for The Guardian, entitled "Welcome to the Age of Anger", he exhibited this liberal fascination with emotion and the unknowability it gives rise to: "we cannot understand this crisis because our dominant intellectual concepts and categories seem unable to process an explosion of uncontrolled forces". Mishra taps into the liberal fear, crystallised at the turn of the twentieth century, that democracy gives voice to atavistic desires and hatreds that are as incomprehensible as they are uncontrollable: "It is a moment for thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, who warned in 1915 that the 'primitive, savage and evil impulses of mankind have not vanished in any individual', but are simply waiting for the opportunity to show themselves again. Certainly, the current conflagration has brought to the surface what Friedrich Nietzsche called 'ressentiment' – 'a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts'".


The connection he makes between the liberal worries of a century ago and today is evident even in those aspects of social life, such as the ubiquity of the market, that we can confidently say are more recent: "Today, the society of entrepreneurial individuals competing in the rational market reveals unplumbed depths of misery and despair; it spawns a nihilistic rebellion against order itself". Here you see the more modern language of Foucault yoked to that of Dostoyevsky. Homo oeconomicus meets the Underground Man (which is not a bad synopsis of the film Taxi Driver). Mishra's turn to the literature of a century ago is a rebuke both to the post-1989 delusions of globalised liberal democracy and to the neoliberal notion of the rational utility maximiser that came to the fore in the 1970s, but it is also an attempt to reframe contemporary events in the language of classical liberal anxiety, which first and foremost means occluding the working class (the Freudian pathologising of Trump - the imputation of incestuous lust, the coprophagy, the "Daddy will save us" meme - is another example of this turn away from rational engagement to the delights of disgust).

Ressentiment, as originally theorised by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, was a response to the destabilising impact of industrial modernity on the marginal bourgeoisie, not the proletariat. It is a condition associated with the socially insecure and the declassé, such as the penurious ex-civil servants and thwarted students of Dostoyevsky's 1860s. Mishra goes further back to Alexis de Tocqueville's 1830s criticism of American "meritocracy", which is a thinly-disguised fear of universal suffrage: "The rage for equality is conjoined with the pursuit of prosperity mandated by the global consumer economy, aggravating tensions and contradictions in inner lives that are then played out in the public sphere". What is notable here is not the commonplace observation that capitalism is destabilising, nor that this effect is amplified by globalisation, but the suggestion that a popular "rage for equality" is also to blame. If right-populism seeks to constrain globalisation and equality, and if left-populism seeks to restrain capitalism and globalisation, liberalism believes that all three must be restrained (i.e. scrupulously managed) by the qualified.

Mishra is astute on the failings of the liberal establishment: "Our political and intellectual elites midwifed the new 'irrationalism' through a studied indifference to the emotional dislocation and economic suffering induced by modern capitalism. Not surprisingly, they are now unable to explain its rise". He is also right to dismiss the voguish calls for a centrist nationalism, and its associated disavowal of identity politics, as nostalgia for a "time when paternalistic white liberals occupied the vital centre, little disturbed by the needs and desires of history's forgotten, humiliated and silenced people". But his diagnosis ultimately dribbles away in a wishy-washy call for "a richer and more varied picture of human experience and needs" based on a "greater precision in matters of the soul". Given his reliance on late 19th century thought, I half feared he was about to recommend Theosophy. This inconclusive end should be a clue that surrendering to the dark force of unreason is a dead end, even if it offers the erogenous pleasure of victimhood in the manner of Mary Beard's supporters.

To understand shifts in the popular mood it is always wise to first proceed on the assumption that they are rational. The fact that liberals are so easily spooked suggests that their own faith in rationality is fragile, though perhaps this is because they secretly believe that only a chosen few are really capable of rational judgement. It also means that they fail to appreciate just how hegemonic liberalism is, notably the idea of progress. It is the fear that progress, in the sense of "getting on", is over - that our children and grandchildren will lead poorer lives - that animates much of the current dissatisfaction. It is in this ironic sense that many people have understood the phrase "the end of history". Martin Kettle says "The most important political lesson of my lifetime still feels to me to be the fall of the Soviet Union". What he and many other liberals cannot seem to get is that for most working class people in the West this was one of the less significant events of the last 30 years.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

The Politics of Identity

One of the early consequences of Donald Trump's election has been the questioning of the role of identity politics. Initially this foregrounded a longstanding theme of the left - that the Democratic establishment had promoted sectional rights to occlude discussion of economic power - but it was quickly hijacked by liberals who claimed that the real problem was that identity politics had created the seedbed for Trump's demagoguery, not least by legitimising the claims of the white working class to be an aggrieved minority. This wasn't an overnight conversion, but it did signal a change in tone from a critique of self-indulgence and other-worldliness to one of pernicious decay. It continues the liberal criticism of political correctness (echoing conservative tropes) that hit its stride after 2001, and which was bound up with the longstanding assault on the left's "intellectual cowardice" that liberal commentators like Jonathan Chait in the US and Nick Cohen in the UK have built a career on. What this has done is to marginalise the case of the left that identity politics is insufficient ("not good enough", as Bernie Sanders put it), replacing it with the quest for a new progressive super-identity that further relegates class. It also misdiagnoses the decay of democracy by a focus on actors rather than institutions.

This about-turn was crystallised in a much circulated opinion piece by Mark Lilla in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago. After paying lip-service to the beauty of diversity, Lilla insists that "the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end" because it "has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life". The piece is itself comically narcissistic in its use of personal anecdotes: "Recently I performed a little experiment during a sabbatical in France: For a full year I read only European publications, not American ones". It also makes daft historical claims, such as that "identity politics ... never wins elections" (the same liberals argued the opposite in respect of the Obama coalition), and that "the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan" (Lilla is a professor of humanities at Columbia but appears to be unaware of the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s - did he not see Scorsese's Gangs of New York?).

The piece ends with an epiphany as Lilla and a mixed ethnic group listen to a recording of Franklin D Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech from 1941. What he is summoning here is a common national identity that is above sectional interests. But just as FDR's four freedoms avoided any mention of economic power, Lilla omits to mention that Roosevelt's winning coalition depended on the racist Democratic party machine of the South. The corollary of this appeal is that some in society must forgo pursuing their sectional interests for the common good: "We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale".


Beyond the giveaway emphasis on decorum in that last sentence, what's striking about this rhetoric is that it isn't a million miles away from that of Trump himself ("Make America great again"), absent the gratuitous insults and rambling non sequitors. It is a patriotic appeal to Americanism that urges caution in the area of social reform and offers nothing in the realm of economics beyond civic sympathy. Though he cites the 1940s, it sounds more like the 1950s, which suggests that it may require the creation of a scapegoat to act as a binding agent. It doesn't take a genius to work out that this will probably be "Muslim terrorists". What's also noticeable is the palpable sense of release: that members of the liberal elite have managed to throw off the shackles and speak the truth, which echoes the same trope of repression and self-pity cultivated by the conservative elite since the 1960s. As Adam Johnson noted of Lilla and others, "Every one of the above pundits who is blaming identity politics and political correctness for Trump, it can’t be stressed enough, hated identity politics to begin with, and would have regardless of who won".

Even those liberals who have taken issue with Lilla from the position of "we need to do identity politics better" have tended to frame this conservative nostalgia as "left of centre" when it is anything but. Their objection tends to be pragmatic rather than principled - "There is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics", as Matt Yglesias puts it - and is clearly motivated by a desire to continue using this vector, along with economic liberalisation and technocracy, to constrain the sort of class-based politics that would offend rich donors. This instrumentalism finds an interesting echo on the right where identity has shown itself to be increasingly divorced from any normative values or strategic principles, hence evangelical Christians have embraced the profane Trump while GOP luminaries who once warned of The Donald's monarchical ambitions have raced to court in order to bend the knee. It appears everything is negotiable, which means that identity - in the eyes of liberals and conservatives alike - is a matter of style not of substance.

What this points to is the gradual evolution of identity from biological destiny to a question of culture, or even a consumption preference (Rachel Dolezal may by a figure of ridicule, but the media fascination with her metamorphosis is as telling as their obsession with diets). While some of this is simply a way of legitimising bigotry through hypocritical appeals to tolerance, for example accusing Muslims of being misogynists or homophobes, it has the consequence of suggesting that identity is a matter of choice. In this regard, the political utility of Islam (compared to other religions) owes a lot to its framing in terms of choice. "Strict" Muslims are deemed to have consciously rejected integration, hence wearing a veil is interpreted as a provocation. Converts to Islam are regarded as vulnerable and possibly deluded, which partly reflects the secular belief that any strong religious feeling, beyond some commercialised "spirituality", is tantamount to membership of a cult. The trope of "radicalisation" suggests a perversion of individuation and socialisation and thus another kind of failure of choice.


The opportunity (and ability) to chose one's identity was once the preserve of a small minority of outsiders, from mythic heroes to mountebanks. Though the industrial revolution and emigration changed the material circumstances of many over the course of the nineteenth century, this was accompanied by a determination to preserve cultural identity as a social stabiliser, which remained the norm up until the late 1940s (in the UK, the NHS was the last great "reform" in this lineage). The post-war era saw identity become more fluid under the impact of social mobility and increased consumption (which fed the advance of civil rights in the US), but this was nothing compared to the acceleration after 1980, not just because settled communities were fragmented by deindustrialisation but because the new imperative of human capital encouraged wholesale reinvention of the self. Racial bigotry hasn't disappeared, but the modern resentments delineated by Brexit and Trump owe more to optional identity (cities vs small towns, graduates vs non-graduates, cosmopolitans vs localists) than they do to ethnicity. In fact, the current "nativist" turn shows how race is in decline as an organising principle as first-generation Asian immigrants vote to leave the EU in protest at Polish migrants and Latinos vote for Trump in the hope of economic prosperity.

The frothing of the alt-right does not herald a revival of "scientific racism" any more than it does "sacred monarchy", which is why Republican grandees have found it easy to drop their supposedly principled objections at the first whiff of power. Conservative elites routinely absorb new entrants who buy into the club rules (well hello, Kate Middleton), giving the lie to the idea that they are firm believers in genetic destiny. They make a fetish of inheritance and nobility, but this is largely an ideological justification for the preservation of wealth and privilege. What the liberal turn against identity politics in the US suggests is a similar instrumentality. Having created a market in which multiple identities compete for institutional influence through the Democratic Party, the intention now appears to be to create a bland national identity that is capacious enough to accommodate all those interests that will be alienated by Trumpism in action. In other words, this is a strategy of neutrality that hopes to profit from Trump's divisiveness and executive incompetence.

The danger with this approach is that conservatives are no slouches when it comes to crafting a national identity, and divide and rule can prosper if it makes the beneficiaries even more fearful of loss. It is also ahistorical to imagine that a progressive national identity can be forged without a commitment to state intervention (i.e. protection from the market), particularly in the areas of the economy and welfare. For all the iniquities of Jim Crow, FDR's broad coalition in the 1930s and 40s was popular because it offered both tangible opportunity and realistic hope to most sections of society, not because it was patriotic or deified "freedom". A similar broad coalition today would require liberals to accept that the white working class is neither irredeemably racist nor stupid, that economic management should prioritise production and productivity (i.e. wages) over financialisation, and that identity politics only becomes divisive when it is turned into a competition for privilege. The ready dismissal of women and minorities by privileged white liberal males, on top of their prior dismissal of the working class en masse, suggests that this isn't about to happen.