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Saturday, 23 September 2017

Basic Income and Social Democracy

2017 may prove to be the year when the discussion of universal basic income moved from the realm of technocratic speculation to that of political feasibility. Though UBI fans continue to get excited about limited trials, trade unions and political parties are beginning to debate the idea in the broader context of a post-neoliberal social model. Instead of obsessing about specific amounts of money and levels of taxation (as the UK Greens notoriously did in 2015), the focus has shifted towards the ethical, including such aspects as personal dignity, the distribution of the fruits of growth, and the social relations of capital and labour. Though there are many historical strands and contemporary perspectives informing this debate, from autonomism to automation, it is notable that many of the UBI sceptics in the UK have engaged with the concept in terms of its impact on labourism and social democracy. This has in turn opened up a more intelligent debate about the potential of UBI beyond its value in alleviating poverty or "reforming" welfare.

A recent paper by three LSE researchers, Fred Pitts, Lorena Lombardozi and Neil Warner, entitled Beyond Basic Income: Overcoming the Crisis of Social Democracy?, provides a good example of this fruitful collision, positioning UBI in the context of three inter-related crises: of the society of work, of social reproduction and of social democracy itself (you can read a summary here). The first of these crises concerns the power of labour within a capitalist society: "The political expediency of the traditional labour theory of value has led the left to emphasise the power to resist capital that workers are granted by the material ability to provide or withdraw labour". The concern they articulate is that a UBI might actually weaken labour's power in the workplace, essentially by eroding the solidarity that has historically been the corollary of necessity. When defeat meant destitution or worse, you had a reason to fight. If you can afford to walk away from a job, why bother striking to improve your or your fellow workers' lot?

The argument has a superficial plausibility, but it is based on the belief that there is a marketplace for labour and that the UBI constitutes a means of removing "market frictions" - i.e. allowing market participants to make better-informed and less coerced choices. One could just as plausibly argue that a UBI would make workers more likely to withdraw their labour or work to rule, given that it effectively provides a reliable strike-fund that couldn't be interrupted by an employer's legal action or sequestered by a hostile state. The key error in the "labour market" vision is the assumption that the UBI constitutes a strategic alternative to work, rather than a tactical advantage in negotiation. The individuals who are likely to casually drift in and out of work in response to employer provocations are the ones who were never likely to be militant, so the belief that a UBI would somehow be debilitating to organised labour looks like pessimism about the sincerity and reliability of the working class as a whole, which echoes older fears of embourgeoisement and sails close to simple class prejudice.



As Karl Polanyi long ago pointed out, labour is a fictitious commodity so the concept of a market is clearly ideological. Ironically, it is a model that is shared by both labourism and neoliberalism. The difference is that the former believes the market is best negotiated through collective action while the latter emphasises individual preference. In this context, the UBI biases towards the neoliberal by empowering the individual utility maximiser. In recent years there has been a tendency among centre-left politicians to voice increased support for trade unions (though more in theory than practice), essentially as a way to redress the power imbalance that has led to stagnant wage growth and greater inequality, an attitude that reflects the neoliberal conviction that union weakness is the consequence of regulation as much as material circumstance. This modest revival of labourism has been one of the drivers of scepticism towards a UBI on the left, which is ironic given that the UBI ostensibly steers clear of any idea of seizing control of the means of production, an aversion it shares with labourism.

The LSE authors also flag the potential of a basic income to empower bosses: "Moreover, there are well‐established reservations about the UBI concerning the possibility the measure becomes no more than state subsidy for employers to maintain and proliferate forms of precarious low‐wage employment". This sounds more like a critique of current in-work tax credit schemes. These have the disadvantage that they protect employers from the effect of unilaterally depressing wages. Workers are deterred from moving to another employer offering better pay (because income support is clawed back) or from quitting the labour market altogether (because of delays consequent on making a fresh claim). This helps preserve bad employers that would otherwise be competed out of business (a "market friction", no less). In contrast, the universal scope of a basic income means that no single employer can gain an advantage over another by having the state provide a contingent subsidy. If the UBI is a subsidy for employment, it is a subsidy for all jobs, so it isn't clear how this would privilege "precarious low‐wage employment" in particular.

The charge that a UBI would encourage precarity is also central to the July 2017 report prepared for the TUC by the Fabian Society: "A UBI-based tax/benefit system responds automatically as people cycle in and out of work or change their hours. This is one of the main advantages of the policy. It also provides better rewards for working short hours, so it could increase the numbers in precarious work, at the same time as making their lives a little less precarious". It says something about the ideological ideal of the stable, well-paid job for life that the flexibility offered by the UBI to workers should be couched in such negative terms. Predictably, the Fabians reckon that a properly designed universal credit scheme would better support work, revealing their assumption that flexibility should be a privilege of capital, not of labour. That said, they are right to emphasise the continuing "role of universal entitlements within a multi-layered tax/benefit system designed for the changing labour market", though they are guilty of constructing a strawman when they claim that UBI proponents on the left (as opposed to the right) see it as a single payment that would obviate all other benefits. It cannot be stressed enough that to constsitute an ethical advance, the UBI must be "in addition to" not "instead of".

The second crisis that Pitts, Lombardozi and Warner describe is that of social reproduction - i.e. the way in whch labour is reproduced through the social support of public health, education and care. Neoliberalism has simultaneously encouraged women into the world of work and eroded the capacity of the welfare state to support social reproduction, thus creating a greater pressure on women outside of work - i.e. they must increasingly both be breadwinners and make up the shortfall in state support for child-rearing and elderly care. Some states have addressed this by encouraging capital into the sphere of social reproduction - the privatisation of health and care - but this has exacerbated inequality and social exclusion. The UBI potentially alleviates this situation both by providing income support to women and allowing men to devote more non-working hours to their families, however this in itself does not address the erosion of the welfare state and the commoditisation of social reproduction.


Furthermore, a UBI may lead to the revival of older forms of family management if the cost of social reproduction exceeds the scope of the basic income. Quoting Kathi Weeks, the authors note that a UBI might serve "simply to offer more support for the traditional heteropatriarchal family's gender division of productive and reproductive labour, with more men participating in waged work and more women working in the home". Given that a UBI is likely to be extended at a reduced rate to children, it could end up being little different in practice to traditional child support. Central to the authors' case is "the unity of production and consumption in the crisis of social reproduction". In other words, a standalone UBI risks addressing underconsumption (stagnant demand) at the cost of ignoring production, which may produce such retrograde outcomes as increased gender inequality. The need to address the two in tandem opens up the possibility of a revival of the social democratic state, which means that the UBI might be the thin end of a larger wedge.

As the authors put it, "In this the role of the State is still fundamental. UBI should not, therefore, be perceived as an alternative and an opportunity for the withdrawal of the welfare state from its tasks and or from its direct accountability in these areas towards citizens ... For UBI to be successful it would need to be part of a wider systematic project to change society and alter existing power relations and not a sticking plaster in a continuing neoliberal erosion of welfare and workers’ rights". But though the UBI offers the potential to revive the social democratic state, it also presents a fiscal threat to its preservation: "The need to find a means to pay for UBI becomes more pressing and more difficult in the context we assume in our model – that it would facilitate a move towards a system of lower work hours, lower growth and an end to dependence on waged labour". But these are questionable assumptions. Previous UBI experiments (e.g. the Canadian Mincome scheme in the 1970s) suggest that the reduction in hours would be marginal, and may well be offset by improved productivity.

The idea that UBI is necessarily a drag on growth ignores the possibility that people are driven not just by the need for a minimum level of subsidence (wages) but by the potential offered through free-time (reduced work hours). Once subsistence is less pressing, workers may well be incentivised to focus on productivity improvements as the means of securing greater free-time as much as greater income. One explanation for poor productivity growth in recent years is that workers realise that they will capture little of any gain, the lion's share going to employers in the form of increased profit margins (this is currently evident in the way that sterling devaluation has not led to greater exports as firms have simply maintained foreign market prices to widen margins). If productivity is seen less in terms of money and more in terms of time, workers might be more confident of improving their lot. Ironically, the erosion of union power under neoliberalism - which is more about the globalisation and deconsolidation of capital than anti-union laws - might be reversed if workers come to believe that they hold the key to productivity growth, and basic income could be the psychological enabler of that transformation.

Capital's ability to control productivity growth depends on the investment of retained profits, but the current system of rentier interests and executive rewards, along with the opportunities presented by global capital mobility since the 1980s, works against this. It is also the case that the production offshoring option, whereby stagnant or even falling productivity is offset by reduced labour costs through international relocation, is becoming less feasible as developing nations pursue both higher wages and high-skill investment, while the impact of IT on business operations, which peaked around the millennium, is now dissipating. The low-hanging fruit of productivity growth are suddenly in short supply. Securing future growth predominantly through increased labour productivity might, if the rewards are more equally distributed, be a maximising strategy for both labour and capital in developed economies. For this reason, the more enlightened fractions of capital may consider UBI as an acceptable state intervention to boost productivity and thereby support profit growth.


Given the suspicion that the stagnation of productivity growth in economies like the UK is now systemic, rather than a global condition or a temporary phase, the opportunity arises for social democrats to sell UBI as a capital-friendly complement to the welfare state, not as a replacement for it (this is what we might call the left-neoliberal interpretation, as opposed to the right-neoliberal view propounded by Silicon Valley libertarians and others). But this also contains the seed of a more revolutionary outcome. Historically, workers have been relatively blind as to the financial state of their employer, hence wage demands have tended to be geared to industry norms or to outside factors such as inflation. If the struggle of labour and capital is more concerned with time, this will encourage labour to acquire a more detailed knowledge of internal productivity (a move ironically facilitated by the shift towards greater process management and data analysis) and ultimately more say in production management, which will perhaps revive interest in workers' control.

Operating within the social democratic paradigm, the LSE authors struggle to reconcile a decline in the exploitation of labour with the ongoing funding of welfare: "A reduction in the amount of work hours in the economy and in the proportion of wages in people's incomes would inevitably also imply a reduction in the amount of labour income available for taxation. Additional means of funding would therefore need to be found, outside of the labour taxes and growth‐dependent financing upon which the fiscal system of modern industrial states has relied". Momentarily leaving aside the questionable assumption of the first sentence - that reduced work hours are incompatible with increased productivity - the coyness of the second suggests that neoliberal shibboleths about wealth are dominating the radical potential that a UBI presents for tax reform. If we think of the UBI as a social dividend, and thus the product of historic accumulation within a society, it should be obvious that its funding must be geared to wealth (capital) and the natural resources available to that society (land).

This inability to imagine a society in which working hours are steadily reduced while labour productivity steadily increases, despite the clear correlation of the two between the early 18th and late 20th centuries, is a notable blindspot. It highlights the suspicion of the working class that is to be found at the heart of social democratic theory. This is not infrequently voiced in moralising and sentimental terms, such as the vocabulary of Blue Labour. Citing Jon Cruddas and Tom Kibasi in Prospect, the LSE authors note that "Social democratic opponents of the UBI have also expressed concern about the loss of dignity and identity through work and the erosion of a contributory principle contained in the sense of receiving something for nothing". Dignity and identity here sound suspiciously like knowing your place in an ossified social hierarchy, while the contributory principle has long been a divisive trope that demonised the "feckless" and the immigrant. As many have noted, welfare reforms under social democracy are usually designed with at least the tacit support of capital, not in opposition to it. In other words, if social democracy is to embrace basic income, it will be with the encouragement of capital.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Force is Strong With This One

Andrew Adonis has come in for some criticism over a tweet on Saturday suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn cannot win the next general election.


As many have pointed out, British political history has seen plenty of party leaders who have first lost and then won a general election, starting with Robert Peel at the dawn of modern political parties. Adonis attempted to excuse his dodgy claim in a subsequent tweet through a combination of qualification and counterfactual: "No UK leader since Attlee has lost a 1st election but won a 2nd - & he wd have lost 2nd had 1940 election not been cancelled" (ignoring the non-existent 1940 poll, Churchill lost his first two elections as party leader, in 1945 and 1950, before finally winning a Commons majority in 1951). When it was pointed out that Ted Heath lost his first election as party leader in 1966 and then won his second in 1970, precisely contradicting the good lord's claim, Adonis was reduced to grudging concession. Perhaps his wonky recall reflects the modern tendency of party leaders to resign after defeat and even retire from politics altogether, in the manner of David Cameron. But as a man with a doctorate in British history, you'd expect Adonis to know that this is a relatively novel development.

In the nineteenth century both Gladstone and Salisbury had intermittent stints as Prime Minister, as did Baldwin, Churchill and Wilson in the twentieth. In his determination to hang on as Labour Party leader after the 1987 defeat, Neil Kinnock was pretty old-school in this regard. The shift in the political culture appears to have happened in the Blair years, not just because the Labour leader won at the first attempt and would eventually retire unbeaten and relatively youthful, but because both the Tories and LibDems started to more regularly rotate leaders in their search for the magic ingredient of electoral success. This reinforced the idea that the popular vote was heavily determined by the personal popularity of the leader, with the inevitable corollary that electoral defeat required the sacrifice of that tainted individual. Though Blair set the tone, the roots of this attitude probably lay in the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, with both the extreme personality cult of the post-Falklands years and the ruthlessness of her eventual removal by the Conservative Party when electoral defeat seemed imminent.

The purpose of Adonis's tweet appears to have been to advertise a rambling article he has just published in Prospect magazine, with the clumsy title: Forget ideas—do the maths, and it’s clear political leadership always comes down to character. Given that "character" is a difficult concept to define at the best of times, and that the mechanism by which superior leadership translates into electoral success isn't explained by Adonis (how could Roy Jenkins possibly fail?), it should come as no surprise that his maths is laughably subjective: "To test my thesis more systematically, we need to be specific about the leadership qualities which matter in electoral politics. They should, I suggest, be assessed on two dimensions. There are the quintessential abilities—charisma, confidence, acumen, empathy. ... But there is also the ability to embody and express the 'spirit of the time', which can sometimes propel men and women of more modest leadership attributes to the front because of their almost intrinsic ability in keeping with the zeitgeist". In passing, Adonis claims that "Justin Trudeau is presently giving a leadership masterclass in Canada", which I think is Yoda for "The force is strong with this one".

Adonis proceeds to award points to the two main party leaders in each UK and US general election since 1944, with the quintessential accounting for 2/3rds of the score. This weighting is itself dubious, begging the question by suggesting that personality always outguns the zeitgeist, but it allows him to attribute Labour's victory in 1997 to his Blairness, rather than popular disillusion with the Tories after Black Wednesday and sleaze, and also attribute the party's loss in 2010 to Gordon Brown's personality flaws, rather than popular disillusion with New Labour's programme. The post hoc zeitgeist score invariably reflects the result, but its under-weighting requires some transparent tweaking to give Attlee a narrow one point lead over Churchill in 1945, which hardly reflects Labour's landslide victory. The ultimate purpose of this ridiculous exercise is to claim that Jeremy Corbyn cannot win the next general election unless the Tories are mad enough to field either a wounded Theresa May or a suicidally inappropriate Jacob Rees-Mogg. 

What's particularly funny about this is the employment of a "table" at a time when Adonis is loudly criticising university vice-chancellors for paying themselves on a par with private sector CEOs. The VCs have insisted that they are part of a global market for talent, which itself reflects the league table of academic institutions through such impeccably neoliberal mechanisms as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the Times Higher Education rankings. While Adonis now claims that the current tuition fee scheme is a "Frankenstein monster", he still insists on the good sense and sincerity of the original marketisation reforms that he helped progress as an unelected minister. As ever, the problem is not the creation of an artificial market, with subjective metrics acting as price proxies and in which privileged actors are incentivised to extract rents, but the political abuse of the market by a cynical government, here bent on reducing state support for higher education. That Adonis should proceed to invent a leadership metric based on criteria lacking any empirical validity does not appear to have struck him as ironic.

Though he distinguishes two dimensions in his assessment of political leadership, both are essentially metaphysical, centring as they do on the nebulous concepts of charisma and zeitgeist. The idea of the leader as a vessel for a higher power, whether the Holy Ghost or the spirit of the nation, is hardly new, though I would be guilty of shooting fish in a barrel if I were to dismiss Adonis's scheme as of a class with divine right and the Führerprinzip. What Adonis is really about is promoting the idea that leadership can extricate us from political paralysis, like Alexander cutting the Gordian Knot. The metaphorical knot, you'll not be surprised to learn, is Brexit. Tony Blair has re-entered the stage once more, this time to suggest that we can avoid leaving the EU by introducing tougher restrictions on immigration. Adonis himself has pushed this obviously concerted plan by suggesting that Merkel and Macron are open to a compromise on freedom of movement, though he provides no evidence in support of this claim beyond the latter's talk of reforming the posted workers directive, which the EU27 sees as a technical matter independent of the principles of the single market.

There may well be some wriggle-room, simply because the UK has not hitherto availed itself of all the controls on movement available to members, but it is naive to believe either that the eurozone core (where freedom of movement remains popular) will reverse the historic trend towards greater integration or that essentially cosmetic changes will satisfy UK public opinion. The weakness of Blair's case is shown in his recourse to patriotism in his closing words: "At this moment which will define Britain’s future, all our MPs should behave as if they are the leader of our nation, with the responsibility to put country above Party". Right on cue, Nick Cohen produces one of his conflicted diatribes in which he manages to reject scoundrel patriotism while marginalising anyone who doesn't feel the pull of the volk: "All of us feel the power of nationalism. By definition, if you are concerned about public life, you are concerned about your nation and its future. ... In the next few months, as the sense of futility grows, cornered Conservatives will lash out and accuse everyone who crosses them of hating Britain. The only proper response is to say that if we truly hated our country we would not care about the wreck the right is making of it".

This turn to the cadences of Orwell's The Lion and the Unicorn (subtitled Socialism and the English Genius, lest we forget) is no surprise from Cohen, who has built a career on the détournement of the ethical strain of English socialism as a critique of, well, English socialism. What is more unusual is to see unrepentant centrists like Blair and Adonis attempt to adopt this rhetorical style. I suspect the latter's "populist" attacks on fat-cats is part of this manoeuvre, even if his choice of university vice-chancellors leaves many people nonplussed. After all, he could have garnered more popular support if, as a former transport minister, he'd ripped into Richard Branson's extortion of the public treasury. His pride over HS2, like his pride over academies, has perhaps biased him towards attacking a sector that he feels has never fully appreciated his genius (the call to take up the post of warden of an Oxford college has yet to come). I fear his fast and loose attitude to historical facts will not help his cause. As for Blair, his latest intervention will simply have hardened hearts: the force isn't what it was. So much for quintessential abilities.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

A New Korea in a New Town

The hostile use of a single nuclear weapon by North Korea (aka the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) would obviously spell the immediate end of the Kim regime, probably care of a military coup orchestrated by China. For this reason incompetence, such as the failure of a guidance system causing an unarmed missile to crash on Hokkaido, is currently a greater risk than a miscalculation in brinkmanship. It makes sense for the North to be operating at the bleeding edge of its technical capability, but that amplifies the risk of a mistake. The world would be a safer place if North Korea had better missile systems. The odds of the regime doing something that could entail massive consequential damage, such firing an armed missile, are close to zero. Proving that they've got a H-bomb and a long-range missile is sufficient, even if there remains scepticism about their ability to use the one with the other. There just needs to be a realistic possibility of this for the other regional players to update their strategies.

That said, the Chinese would only decapitate the regime in extremis. Toppling the Kim dynasty would set a bad precedent for Xi and the CPC domestically, even if they could engineer it in such a way that North Korea implemented a more Chinese-like regime. In reality, a centralised party and an economic oligarchy based on existing military and security elites is pretty much what Kim Jong-Un wants anyway, so there is nothing to be gained by China in accelerating the regime's demise. Mutatis mutandis, North Korea seeks to take the same road as Russia and China in "normalising" the economy while preserving an authoritarian state. The success of China and Vietnam has convinced Kim that economic liberalisation does not axiomatically produce social and political liberalisation, while the varieties of national capitalism in East Asia, from Singapore to Siberia, suggest that there is enough latitude to accommodate a distinctive North Korean flavour.


The continuation of the Kim regime requires not only the development of nuclear weapons as leverage with the Chinese, who ultimately remain a greater existential threat than the distant US or the historic enemy, Japan, but the diversion of much of the DPRK's conventional military expenditure to other sectors of the economy. This is needed not just to improve general living standards but to buy-off increasingly disgruntled elites who are well aware of the wealth of their peers in China. The scale of the North's defence spending, which amounts to a staggering 23% of GDP, reflects the possibility of an invasion from the South (aka the Republic of Korea, or RoK), with which it is still technically at war. Though the "economic exhaustion" model was overplayed in the post-91 Western narrative of the eclipse of the USSR (Soviet military expenditure was about 9% of GDP, comparable to Israel or Saudi Arabia today), it is undoubtedly central to a society that has been on a permanent war footing since the 1953 armistice.

While the South spends only about 2.6% of its GDP on defence, that translates into an absolute expenditure that is many times greater than the North and ranks as the 10th largest globally. The technology gap between the two is much wider than it was in the early-50s, when the North was being supplied with WW2-era weaponry by the USSR. Most military analysts reckon the North's current capabilities are equivalent to the US in the era of the Vietnam war, which means they would be hugely outclassed in a straight fight with the South. It should also be noted that South Korea is much less dependent on the US today, not least because of the rapid growth of its domestic defence industry (which is expected to overtake China as the leading regional arms exporter by 2020). While Seoul's proximity to the border means the South would suffer terrible damage in any conflict, it is highly likely that it would prevail over the North within a matter of weeks. For this reason, the DPRK has long sought to develop chemical and nuclear weapons, along with sabotage and terror tactics (e.g. a dirty bomb in Seoul), to protect against the possibility of a first-strike by the RoK.

As a result, Seoul has long sought to reassure Pyongyang that it has no intention of invading the North, even in the event of a humanitarian disaster beyond the DMZ (as occurred during the 1994-8 famine). The RoK's preference is for a bloodless reunification in the manner of Germany, hence it is willing to patiently wait (or "appease", as Trump ignorantly described its strategy). The presence of US troops on the peninsula is less to provide crucial military support to the South than to ensure sufficient collateral damage in the event of a massive first-strike by the North. In other words, the US is providing de facto hostages as an insurance policy for the South. This is not dissimilar to the arrangement in the Federal Republic of Germany during the Cold War, where forward US troops could have expected to be quickly "expended" in any Soviet attack. There are also obvious parallels between the US deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea today and Pershing cruise missiles in Western Europe in the 1980s, down to the local political opposition it has prompted.


There is little evidence that Kim Jong-Un is either mad or reckless, and the tales of his ruthlessness appear designed to emphasise that he is rational and decisive, not paranoid or arbitrary. Assuming that the preservation of the regime is paramount, his strategic goals are obvious: the DPRK to remain an independent, sovereign state and the peninsula to remain partitioned. What he wants over and above that status quo is the winding-down of the North's conventional military expenditure and the opening-up of its economy to foreign capital, probably via state-licensed combines (modelled on the South Korean chaebol) that would be controlled by the current elite. Achieving this requires both a formal peace treaty and the de facto acceptance of a DPRK nuclear capability. The latter does not have to be large, but it does need to be sufficient to make the cost of regime change prohibitive for any foreign power. The RoK is probably open to this, both because of its growing military strength and self-reliance and because it recognises that opening up the North is the only realistic path to an ultimate, peaceful reunification of the peninsula. The evolution of the RoK as an economic power is as relevant to the current standoff as the DPRK's ambitions.

Many have noted that Kim has learnt the lesson of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, namely that without WMD you are vulnerable, though this logic fails to note that Iraq and Libya were only trashed once they stopped being useful - in the geopolitical containment of Iran and the covert control/exploitation of terrorism respectively - and instead became threats to Western interests. North Korea's geography and isolation places it in an altogether different category. It isn't doing a job for the West, so there is no chance of it being regarded as traitorous, while its threat to Western interests in the region is in reality negligible. Saddam appears to have thought the US would stay neutral in an Arab-on-Arab conflict when he invaded Kuwait, but Kim can have no such illusions. Gaddafi was only dropped by the West and attacked when his regime was clearly on its last legs. The internal strength of the DPRK state - the antithesis of the rickety Libyan setup - makes it unlikely that a similar opportunity will arise. North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons has not come about because the threat of regime change has increased, but because the cost of maintaining its conventional deterrent has become an obstacle to its domestic development.

A less remarked upon parallel is that North Korea is essentially pursuing a nuclear weapons programme for the same reasons as the UK: to provide international status and the cover necessary to reduce expenditure on conventional arms. To this end, both the UK and the DPRK emphasise the importance of their nuclear arms programmes as an expression of national sovereignty. The vox-poppers of Pyongyang who talk triumphantly of defying America are no different to the British button-fondlers who thought we could take down the Soviet Union in the 80s and who imagine the UK is still the world's policeman today when it isn't even the world's hobby-bobby. In other words, the weapons are chiefly symbolic, which is why a unilateral strike by North Korea is unlikely. Where the two countries differ is that the DPRK's system also has a specific utility as a deterrent against regime change. This is quite different to other states that have sought to join the nuclear club in recent decades, such as Israel, India or Pakistan, where the motive is more obviously antagonistic and where status is a secondary consideration.


The prudent course for the West would simply be to ignore the DPRK's "provocations" and encourage talks between North and South, but that is easier said than done when the US media (both neocon and liberal) sees North Korea as a "challenge". Centrists who imagine that Hillary Clinton would have been a safer pair of hands than Donald Trump are deluding themselves. Previous negotiations have involved a 6-party group, including the USA, China, Russia and Japan. As the two Koreas have a common interest in co-existence, and both are in effect committed to a "strong Korea" policy, the key to achieving a modus vivendi depends on not upsetting the balance of perceived influence and status between the other four powers. The strategic objective for China is less the continuation of partition and more the prevention of nuclear proliferation, particularly to Japan. In the short run, they need to prevent the South either acquiring nuclear weapons or allowing US deployments on its soil. In the long run, they would probably insist on the nuclear disarmament of Korea as the price for reunification. What's not clear is whether they will seek to nip the DPRK's nuclear ambitions in the bud now or try to mollify the RoK and Japan through limitation and inspection.

Russia's interest, echoing British policy of old, is to ensure that no other power becomes dominant. While they would be happy to see US influence in Korea decline, they don't want America to quit the region as that would strengthen China and potentially lead to a more assertive Japan. Getting the US to accept a DPRK nuclear arsenal as a fact of life is probably the limit of their ambition. Japan, for its part, remains ambivalent and some politicians are even now in denial about its historic crimes on the peninsula. It would prefer to maintain the status quo but it knows that a reunified and potentially assertive Korea is likely at some point in the future. This will encourage those on the political right who doubt the US's long-term commitment and who believe that Japan should develop its own nuclear capability and expand its conventional forces. A resolution of the Korea problem probably depends on a meeting of minds between Japan and China, centred on arms limitation and the economic opening of the DPRK in the short term, and disramament linked to reunification in the long-term. In this context, the US is an unhelpful wedding-crasher, and would be even if the occupant of the White House were not a loudmouthed ignoramus.

Monday, 4 September 2017

The Discourse Lovers

Some pundits have sought to link the "Tower Hamlets fostering row" with Sarah Champion's comments on the disproportionate involvement of British Pakistani men in child sexual abuse rings. The snide implication is that vulnerable children are made more vulnerable when they are exposed to Muslims. You'd expect this sort of bigotry from the right, and even the clichéd fictions about crucifixes and pork ("barred from eating carbonara", no less), but the equivalence has also proved popular among muscular liberals such as Keenan Malik who fretted in The Guardian that "The Rotherham and Tower Hamlets cases, and the debate around them, reveal the polarised ways in which Muslims are discussed in Britain. It is a discussion too often trapped between hostility towards Muslims and a fear of creating such hostility or of offending Muslims". The latter is our old friend, "misplaced political correctness", which was given a lead role in the media coverage of Rotherham and other child sex exploitation (CSE) cases involving Asian men, despite the various official inquiries finding zero evidence that it was anything other than background noise (see chapter 11 of the Jay Report). It's also worth remembering that it's a noise produced in the general culture, and largely by the media, rather that a peculiarity of local government.

Malik seemed to be blithely unaware that his article was an example of the rhetorical polarisation he complained of, not to mention that his crude dichotomy denied space to the argument that there was no meaningful equivalence between Rotherham (hundreds of girls abused over decades by a criminal gang) and Tower Hamlets (one girl denied her favourite pasta). Malik finished by framing the issue as one of discourse: "More than simply bigotry, this failure to find an adequate language through which to discuss Muslims and Islam bedevils public debate". You don't have to be the ghost of Edward Said to see that treating Islam as a subject of discourse is patronising, or that the idea there is a "Muslim problem" (as Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun put it) that must be solved by public debate has echoes of the "Jewish problem" of old. Malik's article was written after key facts emerged that showed the Times and Daily Mail had severely misrepresented the Tower Hamlets case, but this simply allowed him to regretfully note the disparity in journalistic "care" displayed by Andrew Norfolk, the Times reporter who both broke the fostering story and won an Orwell Prize for his coverage of Rotherham. Malik did not see fit to question why this disparity occurred.

Not only was this not a story about a Christian girl forced into the care of Islamic fundamentalists, as suggested by some tabloids, but the actions of the council appear to have been reasonable and conscientious, with no evidence that "political correctness" played any role whatsoever. This didn't suit Malik's purpose, which is presumably why he expended so much effort linking Tower Hamlets back to Rotherham, where PC at least had a walk-on part. Thus: "The controversy over the Rotherham MP Sarah Champion, who resigned last month as shadow equalities minister, after writing an article in the Sun claiming that 'Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls', reveals the continued difficulties liberals have in knowing how to discuss the issue". In fact, the controversy over Sarah Champion revolved around a) her stereotyping of Pakistani men, b) her use of language that she must have known would be exploited by racists, and c) her willingness to take the Murdoch shilling (an offence compounded when she went on to give an interview to the Times in which she slagged off her Labour colleagues). Champion is in odium on the left because she seeks to inherit the mantle of Simon Danczuk, not because liberals have an inadequate vocabulary.

The Tower Hamlets case was fuelled not only by dishonest journalism (notably the doctoring of a stock photo by the Mail) but by the ready availability of Tory MPs willing to provide an opinion during the parliamentary recess. There was a sense of bored rent-a-gobs going through the motions and a particularly dog-eared template being employed, with the incompetence and malevolence of the local authority as predictable as the cultural incompatibility of Muslims. Champion herself employed a different but no less predictable template in berating what she described as "floppy liberals" - i.e. a metropolitan middle-class that has little understanding of the northern working class - though she scored an own-goal by claiming that Yorkshire folk were uniformly "blunt", which some affronted natives of God's own county considered a euphemism for "unsophisticated" if not "outright racist". It doesn't seem to occur to people like Champion and Malik that a reluctance to pile in on "the issue" of "British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls", might simply be an appreciation of the difference between a criminal sub-culture and a wider community defined by ethnicity or religion. Ultimately, the reductive caricatures of politics and the press jar with the lived reality of complex communities and overlapping identities.


The corollary of the "difficulty in discussing" trope is the claim that those who do say the unsayable, like Champion, struggle to be heard, despite their extensive media exposure (you have to laugh at press articles bemoaning "the shutting down of debate"). This claim depends on the idea that there is an amorphous PC lobby dedicated to controlling discourse. It's a reactionary myth that combines elements of liberalism (the valorisation of free-thinking), anti-establishment conspiracy ("they" seek to control your mind) and the old trope of the ill-advised monarch (in this case the sovereign being a people who are poorly-served by the "mainstream"). Muscular liberals have adopted much of this, but with an additional layer of lunacy in which the "far left" (rather than George Soros) have disproportionate power. For example, Malik claims that "Progressive critics of Islam are often attacked as 'Islamophobes' for challenging homophobia or misogyny within Muslim communities". This is as much a misrepresentation as anything the media published on the Tower Hamlets case, implying that self-styled progressives can't be Islamophobic, when there's no incompatibility between being a bigot and a liberal, and that homophobia and misogyny within Muslim communities go otherwise unchallenged. That some on the left excuse religious nut-jobs as anti-imperialists does not mean that all leftists are useful idiots.

What Malik's article highlights is that the supposed division between a fact-free political right and left and a fact-respecting centre is as bogus as the claim that Nazis are socialists. Liberals who deprecate Islam are just as happy to abuse facts as conservatives, even if they do prefer a more sophisticated approach in which their contempt is directed towards the "fellow-travelling left" (this is, of course, a variation on the old trope of a credulous native population misled by alien trouble-makers, highlighting once more the interchangeability of liberal and reactionary rhetoric in the modern era). Malik's emphasis on discourse allows the absence of evidence, or the presence of inconvenient facts, to be elided. Despite a large industry devoted to Islamophobia, no one has been able to prove that the religion authorises the rape of children, while its inherent homophobia and misogyny is scripturally no different to that of Judaism or Christianity. As conservative institutions that seek to arrest modernity, all religions are retrograde. The idea that some are ethically "worse" than others is simply ahistorical.

Meanwhile, the actual evidence from the various inquiries into CSE involving Muslim-heritage gangs points to the institutional contempt for working-class girls, primarily by the police and social services, as being the root problem that allows such abuse to become systematic and persistent. To give her her due, Sarah Champion has always been clear on the importance of this dimension, however her recent comments have helped shift attention from institutional failure to the behaviour of the perpetrators, which has allowed the usual suspects to reframe the issue as the "problem of some Muslim men's disdain for white working-class girls", as if society at large were otherwise respectful of them. The suspicion must be that this rhetorical turn indicates that institutional reform may now be running out of steam, even as CSE cases still come to court. In this light, commentators like Keenan Malik are not confronting uncomfortable truths but simply helping to divert public debate back into the dead-end of the "clash of civilisations" and "culture wars" that have marred politics since the 1990s.

The reasons for this turn, which is most visible in the UK and the US, are not hard to find. America now knows that it is facing 4 years of precisely fuck-all, with a ratings-obsessed White House indulging in grotesque gestures while an intellectually-bereft Congress spins its wheels. In the UK, the distraction of Brexit and the fear of the consequences mean that institutional reform of any sort is now in abeyance. In such an environment, the left can secure a hearing with relatively modest political propositions, hence the success of Labour in the UK and the advancing popularity of single-payer healthcare in the US. Without policy substance, both rightwing and centrist political rhetoric will increasingly oscillate between the divisive and the inclusive, with ever more groups demonised as problematic or condemned as illegitimate, from Muslims to "antifa". In contrast, the EU looks in better health, which appears to reflect institutional as much as economic confidence. Macron may be unpopular and Merkel has had her wobbles, but this reflects domestic differences of opinion over policy, not just the antagonisms of discourse. What the UK needs is fewer MPs and pundits chatting shit.