Saturday, 31 August 2013

Declinism and Bipolar Britain

The Commons vote against intervention in Syria is being cast as a pivotal moment. For some, this marks the end of post-imperial delusion: "a long-delayed acceptance that Britain is less powerful and poorer than it was, weary of wars and no longer proud to punch above its weight". For others, this is the baleful legacy of 2003: "The Iraq war scarred the reputation of one prime minister – and now it has poisoned the authority of another". What these two views, the one optimistic (or at least self-consciously realistic) and the other pessimistic, share is the belief that the dominant theme of modern British history is decline. For the centre and left, we have perhaps reached the trough and can now look upwards ("No more pretending, no more posturing"), while for the right, this marks a further diminution (Obama referring to France as the US's "oldest ally" must be exquisitely painful to Atlanticists).

The pessimism of the right might appear odd given the claim, much trumpeted in April, that Margaret Thatcher had arrested the postwar decline in Britain's standing, both at home and abroad. The explanation for this can be glimpsed in George Osborne's comments linking an activist foreign policy to free trade and economic growth: "I think there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system, be that a big open and trading nation that I'd like us to be or whether we turn our back on that". This indicates that there are bigger battles yet to come, notably over the EU, in the tussle between neoliberal big capital and isolationist small capital (UKIP are resolutely against intervention).

"Declinism" has been central to British politics, historiography and literature for well over a century. As the first nation to industrialise, and having acquired the largest mercantile empire ever known, relative decline was inevitable from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, and had become obvious to many by the 1870s - i.e. the aftermath of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, which highlighted the inexorable economic and geo-political "catch up" of the USA and Germany. The 1920s and 30s were a period of particular angst, as the growing dominance of America pointed to the coming post-colonial world and the exhaustion/fear of war fuelled self-doubt (Evelyn Waugh was perhaps the key "declinist" writer of the time). In reality, Britain continued to progress throughout the twentieth century in absolute terms, and even in relative terms was nowhere near the bottom half of the field in the "global race". The narrative of decline has always been politically inspired, and much historical debate has centred on the refutation of the more lurid claims of how the country has gone to the dogs.

A famous example of this was the trilogy of works by Correlli Barnett (The Collapse of British Power, The Audit of War and The Lost Victory) that aimed to show how the investment in the postwar welfare state diverted key resources away from economic growth and condemned us to fall behind the rest of Europe, notably Germany. Barnett traced the cause of this error to a change in the values of the governing elite during the nineteenth century - essentially a surfeit of Christian charity replaced the hard-headed pragmatism and expedience of the builders of empire and industry. A variant on this was provided by Martin Wiener (English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980), who identified the problem as the continued social pre-eminence of aristocratic values (anti-industrial and anti-mercantile), which then infected the emerging middle class through gentrification. These are essentially narratives of decadence, and as such have an obvious progenitor in Edward Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Economic histories have tended to oscillate between considerations of Britain's social capability (culture, institutions, skills etc) and growth potential (material conditions, international competition etc). This has led to a variety of claims for the chief cause of decline, ranging from conservative trades unions and poor management, through inappropriate education and the shortcomings of The City and banks. Against this, revisionist historians have shown how Britain remained a leader in technology and innovation, and how postwar welfare spending was actually in line with leading competitors. The truth is that a mono-causal explanation is neat but implausible, and that factors beyond our control (European reconstruction, decolonisation, North Sea oil etc) probably had a greater impact on economic performance than any change in moral sentiment or industrial organisation. We should also remember that political economy trumps macroeconomics, and that vested interests will happily accommodate decline if it protects absolute wealth and relative power.

The finger of blame is often pointed at a cause that reveals contemporary anxieties, thus "union militancy" is in the frame for the 1970s (the oil crisis of 1973 is barely a footnote in the popular tale) and the "bloated public sector" and "skivers" are fingered today. A persistent theme throughout modern British history has been anxiety over education ("declining standards"), which is a proxy for anxiety over social class and the defence of privilege. Another worry has been the physical condition of the poor, though this has shifted from the eugenicist fear of stunted cannon-fodder 100 years ago to the modern class contempt disguised as "healthy eating" advice. Though declinism is a naturally occurring tendency among reactionaries and conservatives, who assume that the world gets worse by the day, it can be found across the political spectrum. Thus the left has adopted much of the vocabulary of declinism in respect of the collapse in wage growth, the erosion of working class solidarity, and the wider fraying of social capital.

Declinism has heavily influenced the tropes of current politics. The right claim that the last government trashed the economy, that we are living beyond our means, and that Britain is "broken". The left claim that over-reliance on finance has left us with a lopsided economy, that under-investment has led to the "decline of manufacturing", and that a government of toffs is incapable of taking us forward (Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall features the Bollinger Club, a thinly disguised satire of the Bullingdon Club). Much of the political reporting of the Syrian vote has been cast explicitly in terms of the decline of Cameron's authority and Miliband's success in arresting his own recent decline. In contrast, when times are good, we swing to the other pole: "cool Britannia" and the "innovation nation". For a supposedly reserved people, we appear to be somewhat bipolar.

The belief in catastrophic decline, and that this was a "sickness" that could be cured (albeit with great difficulty), was particularly prevalent in the late 70s (the diplomat Nicholas Henderson gave a famous valediction in 1979) and helped provide much of the justificatory context for both the Thatcher "revolution" and the eventual neoliberal takeover of Labour. And this highlights an interesting truth, which is that the British have never generally lapsed into defeatism, accepting decline as inescapable and voting for parties that promised to handle it better. The idea that there was ever a policy of "managed decline" is a myth, traceable back to Barnett. The lesson for Cameron and Miliband is that "don't let Labour ruin it" and "a commitment to fiscal responsibility" are equally negative and uninspiring. As Sarah Palin inadvertently revealed, electors like the "hopey, changey thing".

I suspect the Syrian vote will not prove pivotal after all. There is little reason to believe that Labour has given up on intervention in principle, and every reason to believe that the Tory party will rediscover its taste for riding shortgun for the US in practice. Despite making eyes at Hollande, Obama isn't about to transfer the NSA outsource contract from GCHQ to the DGSE. I also suspect that declinism has some mileage yet in the UK as it remains a powerful ideological tool for neoliberalism, justifying the simultaneous shrinking of the state and the privileging of business. As we showed with the bipolar Olympics ("it will be a disaster", "it was a triumph"), what we enjoy most is a damn fine afterglow.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Rich Bloke Bewildered by the Poor

Jamie Oliver has attracted criticism for bemoaning the tendency of the British poor to spend their money on big TVs rather than fresh produce. The remarks were made while promoting his new TV show, so they can be dismissed as Clarksonesque provocation for the purposes of publicity, but the words of the mockney meal-merchant are interesting nonetheless, though more for their style than their substance (not unlike some of his dishes).

The cherubic chef paints a picture: "You might remember that scene in Ministry of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive fucking TV. It just didn't weigh up". Leaving aside the jarring use of "weigh" rather than "add", which I'll assume is some sort of cook's demotic, the fact that his source for this anecdata is his own TV show, which will have selected that particular emblematic shot with care, means that his critique is akin to Hitler citing Mein Kampf as a source for his evidence of the evil of the Jews. When you further consider that to benefit from his new series, Jamie's Money Saving Meals, the paups will need access to a TV, then he is either a hypocrite or appalled simply by the size of their choice - a "massive fucking" set, as opposed to a more modest one suitable to their circumstances (though drizzled olive oil looks so much better in high definition). Many of his target audience (this is a no-holds-barred interview with The Radio Times) will be shocked/thrilled by the gratuitous swearing. Personally, I'm struck by the symbolism of Styrofoam: evil petrochemical products and a contempt for crockery.

He continues: "I meet people who say, 'You don't understand what it's like.' I just want to hug them and teleport them to the Sicilian street cleaner who has 25 mussels, 10 cherry tomatoes, and a packet of spaghetti for 60 pence, and knocks out the most amazing pasta. You go to Italy or Spain and they eat well on not much money. We've missed out on that in Britain, somehow". Try buying that list of ingredients for 60p in Sainsbury's (who paid him over a million a year during his advertising stint with them), and you'll start to appreciate why his bafflement is misguided. What caught my eye is the desire to "teleport" these random peeps. What's wrong with just "transporting" them? The teleporter implies a fleeting visit, rather than the full cultural immersion of a month-long villa holiday. You may look, but you may not touch.

To be fair to the geezer, Oliver has more recently been a critic of supermarkets (having finished the Sainsbury's gig) and an advocate for local markets, which are cheaper, but he remains inside a middle-class bubble if he thinks that this is a viable alternative for most people. He also ignores the reality that "buying on the day" is itself characteristic either of a time-rich lifestyle or the recent spread of (relatively expensive) convenience stores. "If you're going past a market, you can just grab 10 mange tout for dinner that night, and you don't waste anything". Why only 10 mange tout? That's hardly a meal for a family of five. The reality envisaged by the Essex chubster is a young professional popping into a Sainsbury's Local on the way home from work to pick up something "fresh".

A more profound explanation for the poor diet of the British working class over the last two centuries is industrialisation, both in terms of the constraints on access to fresh food in cities and the application of industrial practices and commoditisation to agriculture. In this historic context, those nasty big supermarkets actually helped improve the quality and variety of food over the last 50 years, though that in turn was dependent on the introduction of affordable fridges and freezers. Buying on the day was a necessity when you couldn't store perishable food, and was only possible because so many women were housewives and singletons still lived with their parents. White goods freed up women to work, and the demands of work led to the development of the weekly shop and the big store.

In contrast, Italy and Spain remain more rural today because they had more limited and later industrial development, though crap food is now plentiful in urban areas (breakfasting on Nutella and Lipton's tea is not uncommon). The irony is that the vibrant culinary tradition of the Mediterranean is a legacy of rural poverty. The salient point about the Sicilian street cleaner is not their exquisite taste, but that they only have 60p to spend on a meal. Similarly, the long-standing British fondness for fast food is the legacy of urban poverty and limited choice. Long before Styrofoam blighted our lives, we were indulging our love of carbs, fat and protein with fish and chips and pie and mash.

The different attitude and circumstances of the poor in Britain and Italy should be enough to suggest that sweeping judgements are dangerous, and that environment plays a larger part than individual moral worth, but Oliver's unthinking comments have been catnip to the media during the dog days, a time when journos are still rhapsodising over that wonderful rustic pizzeria they chanced upon in Emilia Romagna. The subtext is not merely that the British poor are feckless and make bad decisions, but that they lack taste, unlike the cultured poor of Italy, presumably. The implication is that the massive TV is tuned to sport or The X Factor rather than BBC4 or The Great British Bake Off, and has probably been paid for with benefits. Meanwhile, the poor of Italy hand-roll their pasta as they watch one of Berlusconi's tit-and-bum shows on an ageing black and white box. So charming, so authentic. Just like a D&G advert.

And finally: "The fascinating thing for me is that seven times out of 10, the poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families. The ready meals, the convenience foods". I have no idea where the stat comes from, but it is obviously nonsense. The "most expensive way" to feed your family would be to take them to a restaurant, or buy Duchy Originals in Waitrose, not buy frozen pizzas in Iceland. The reality for many is the "reduced to clear" shelf at the supermarket and the growing number of foodbanks. When you're poor, you eat what you can get, and you prioritise the filling and "tasty" over the nutritious.

Oliver is not merely indulging in victim-blaming, he is stereotyping the poor, both in Britain and in Italy, on the basis of dubious anecdotes. Just as not every Sicilian knows how to cook, so not every British pauper has a massive TV and a total ignorance of the value of polenta. I suspect the target demographic for the new show may not be the poor but the smug.

Friday, 23 August 2013

The Next Big Thing

The macroeconomic mood is increasingly skittish, despite the insistence (and general desire to believe) that recovery is underway. There are a number of reasons for this, chiefly the fear that the emerging economies are decelerating, that the end of quantitative easing and other government bond-buying schemes could trigger higher interest rates in the US and UK, and that this in turn could result in currency crises in vulnerable economies (such as India), as capital decamps, and possibly recession in economies over-dependent on natural resources (such as Australia). On the domestic front, no one is seriously claiming that the UK recovery is anything other than a reversion to type, i.e. increased household debt to fuel consumption plus all-new sub-prime mortgages, and will do well not to fizzle out before the 2015 election.

The mood has also infected the technology sector, where the NSA/GCHQ revelations are (allegedly) leading to less sharing of personal data and suspicions about US cloud providers, thus undermining the potential value of the Big Data asset. In terms of the hype-cycle, Big Data is now entering the "questions are being asked" phase, specifically: is the failure to massively monetise the sucker simply the time-delay of new technology, or is there just not enough value substance? To a sceptical observer, Big Data looks like a speculative bubble: it's fashionable, it isn't widely understood, there isn't even agreement among "experts" on what it is, and ridiculous claims are routinely made for it as a panacea.

Of course, bubbles are rarely without substance altogether. There was a market for tulips in the seventeenth century, the potential of the South Seas was real (fortunes were later made in copra and palm oil), and every housing bubble is predicated on the basic need for shelter. The analysis of very large datasets undoubtedly offers enormous potential across many industries, not to mention its value in "evidence-based policy-making" (though that seems to be going out of fashion politically), but it is better thought of as a mode of approach (and a specific application of existing technologies) rather than the "new oil".

This eulogisation of Big Data as a new asset class has been undermined by the recent concerns over privacy, which could in turn accelerate the bursting of the bubble. This is prompting a fight-back, an example of which is Polly Toynbee's atypical praise for David Willetts facilitating the creation of an NHS dataset of clinical data for commercial exploitation. Toynbee bigs-up the research potential (which is valid), downplays the paranoia about personal data (which is sound, though she does fail to understand how anonymised data can be easily de-anonymised), and considers the economic benefits to be incidental: "If, as David Cameron asserts, it aids economic growth too, that's to the good".

As a social democrat, she sees this valuable dataset as a justification for the NHS (this would not be possible in the fragmented US health system, though Obamacare may eventually change that), but fails to spot the neoliberal characteristic of an asset created by the people, owned by the state and exploited by business. We're not anonymising our personal data for the public good so much as for private gain.

Toynbee echoes some of the voodoo beliefs of the Big Data evangelists: "the NHS's electronic surveys could be more effective than randomised control trials". That phrase may be the work of a sub-editor (it's in the article sub-title), but it still implies that Toynbee doesn't understand what a randomised control trial is. Big Data will not abolish the need for RCTs any more than it will abolish testing on animals.

What it will (potentially) do is boost NHS productivity by identifying inefficiencies, accelerating decision-making, and isolating best practice. This will please government, by bending down the previously inexorably rising trend in per capita costs (though a moratorium on reorganisations would achieve the same result), and will also please business, by providing increased profit margins and new revenue streams. However, this may ultimately prove illusory, as real productivity gains are wasted through excessive rent extraction and privatisation overheads, but for now the hype-cycle is still in a positive phase.

The underlying story here is the age-old search for value. i.e. the desire of investors to find an asset that will handsomely beat inflation and deliver capital appreciation. Given the long-term dearth of investment opportunities due to technological advance (declining surplus value due to automation plus commodity deflation), and the huge amount of "hot" funds swilling around the international financial system due to the money creation of the last 5 years, this looks tailor-made for the creation of an even newer asset class, so investors have a hedge in case Big Data sputters out. If I were a con man, I'd be printing prospectuses now (the government's enthusiasm for fracking has a certain je ne sais quoi). I have no idea what this next big thing might be. I just know that something will, of necessity, "bubble" up. It probably won't be a smart-watch.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Ancient and Modern

I was never a train spotter, and I don't pine for the age of steam (more accurately the age of soot), but I have always been interested in railways, first as engineering problems and second because of their unusual capacity to be simultaneous metaphors for modernity and tradition. This dual role was in evidence on either side of the pond this week with the announcement of UK fare increases prompting calls for the renationalisation of the railways, while Elon Musk (the man behind PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX) proposed a futuristic high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Not since John Major sold the modernity of British Rail privatisation as the return of the golden age of the railways have the two been so amusingly juxtaposed.

Musk's proposed Hyperloop is utterly barking, but that's what makes it so interesting. He claims it is a wholly new mode of transport, "a fifth mode after planes, trains, cars and boats", though it fundamentally boils down to a collection of already established technologies. It is "new" in the sense that no one has hitherto been able to make the combination work. The Hyperloop is essentially a low pressure tube on pylons, with the train propelled by electromagnetic pulses and resistance reduced by sucking in and expelling the forward air to provide a cushion on which the train glides. In theory, such a system could travel at just below the speed of sound, around 760 mph, which hasn't stopped some media outlets rounding it up to 800 mph. In practice, speeds would be lower due to excessive heat and stress, so it would probably match a standard jet aeroplane, say 500 mph. It also couldn't maintain this speed for long, due to the need for lengthy acceleration and deceleration at either end. This is partly a product of greater G-force, but mainly due to the likelihood that the rail corridor would not be arrow-straight in urban and suburban areas. As we saw recently in Galicia, high-speed and curves don't go together.

The normal advantages that a train has over a plane, the ability to terminate in the city centre and quick embarkation, would not apply. Such a system, even one built on pylons and partly reusing existing track routes, would necessitate creating new urban corridors, which would be hideously expensive. The proposal is vague on the actual termini. Musk has also admitted that the risks posed by a small bomb in a pressurised system would require security equivalent to that at airports. Safety is an obvious concern, not least because the LA-SF route parallels the San Andreas fault. The point here is less the system's resilience in the event of a major earthquake - it would be no more vulnerable that a road or bridge (i.e. highly vulnerable) - but its ability to accommodate minor tremors, subsidence and high winds. It might not suffer from leaves on the tracks, but any kink or loose matter in the tube would bring trains to a halt.

The system design favours a small carriage: a reduced circumference to minimise forward resistance and a short length to maximise thrust. The proposal talks of "pods" of 28 passengers departing every two minutes and thus giving a capacity of 840 passengers per hour. In practice, the need for safe intervening distances (you could not brake too quickly without killing passengers) and the cumbersome logistics of embarkation mean that 10 to 15 minute gaps would be more likely, so capacity would be nearer 150 passengers per hour. This is actually the giveaway in terms of Musk's thinking. Just as with his SpaceX Dragon rocket, this is not a rapid transit system designed for the mass of the people, but a Pullman service designed for the wealthy who want to whizz between downtown LA and Nob Hill (or possibly Bel Air and Palo Alto). It is aspirational, hence Musk has already said he's just floating an idea and expects others to pick it up. In reality, California is already committed to a new high-speed (220 mph) rail network, the more conventional HSR, so the Hyperloop looks unlikely to leave the realm of the speculative any time soon.

Such fanciful imagination is lacking in the UK, where our attitude towards railways has long tended towards tradition rather than modernity. Thus the Metropolitan line extension (aka HS2), which for all the nimby opposition is reassuringly Betjemanesque, is preferred to a genuine high-speed link between London and t'North. Where once "modern" meant breaking the speed record between London and Edinburgh, now it is merely a synonym for "European" and "clean". In recent years, the dichotomy of ancient and modern has centred on the merits of renationalisation, with the pro-social role of railways allowing us to indulge in social democratic nostalgia. While I share the irritation of those who criticise the unthinking calls to "bring back British Rail", as if there were ever a time when British railways were well run or adequately funded, the contrary attempts to hail the achievements of privatisation strike me as ridiculous. This tends to be a combination of an ideological refusal to accept that there are such things as natural monopolies ("the ambition to introduce competition and private capital was sound") and a simple abuse of the facts ("we have the safest railways on the continent" ... yes, as a result of the partial unwinding of privatisation following the disasters at Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar).

The historian Tony Judt noted that the coming of the railways in the nineteenth century was revolutionary because of the wider impact it had through timetables and the standardisation of time, the formalisation of classes according to bourgeois norms, and the building of large stations (the terminus "anchoring" the city). I think this materialist lens is useful when considering modern railway plans. Musk's Hyperloop proposal isn't serious (there's a clue in the name), not least because it cannot envisage its real world impact beyond "faster" and "cooler". LA and the Bay Area are not about to be reconfigured, any more than the State of California is about to invest in a rail system that directly competes with Lear jets and is irrelevant for suburban commuters. The technical audacity of the concept and the improbable cheapness of the project are intended to grab eyeballs as part of the continuing campaign of our new tech overlords to convince us that private enterprise gets things done while government delivers mediocrity.

Meanwhile in the UK we whine about fare increases without stopping to note how successive governments have privileged middle class commuters through house price bubbles, tax cuts and selective investment (of which HS2 is just the latest example). I favour nationalisation simply because I think the rail network is one area where central planning works, but I am under no illusions about the cost. Railways cannot break-even, let alone make a profit, without a large public subsidy, which means higher taxes. The only debate is who bears the burden. The gradual shift from direct to indirect taxation over recent decades, plus the privileged treatment of capital gains and dividends relative to income, means that the less well-off have had to pick up a proportionately larger share of the tab. In this regard, HS2 actually has a lot in common with the Hyperloop. In answer to the question "qui bono?", the answer for most people is "not me".

Friday, 2 August 2013

What Money Can't Buy

One of the residual joys of the offline newspaper is the sardonic juxtaposition, when one article subtly comments on another through close proximity. A fine example in today's Guardian was the news that the UK government has blocked the export of Jane Austen's ring, bought by an American sleb, which butted up against the hindquarters of a 3-page expose on the USA's funding of GCHQ. The supposition is that our domestic spooks have gone beyond providing a tap on the Atlantic fibre and are now carrying out analyses of American citizens' online data in order to get round the legal constraints on the NSA and other US agencies. But, despite being kissing-cousins, we draw the line at letting them buy our heirlooms.

Doughnut   Ring

It shouldn't come as a surprise that CGHQ, along with the rest of the public sector, has been infected by the ideology that requires them to "build revenue streams" and "seek commercial partnerships", even if they're understandably reluctant to hawk their wares on the open market. The asymmetrical relationship between the British and American secret services after WW2 meant that there were few actual intelligence assets of any value in British hands by the time that Harold Macmillan talked of "selling off the family silver" (in respect of Thatcherite privatisation) in 1985. The assets today are a mixture of the legacy of empire (listening posts in the UK, Cyprus and Ascension Island) and an apparent willingness to act as subcontractors on a no-questions-asked basis. The opening lines of Pride and Prejudice, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife", seem apposite.

Austen is a still-relevant guide to privacy and secrecy. Her plots often hinge on communication and misunderstanding; secrets are regularly imparted, held and sometimes revealed; while the milieu is one in which propriety and due process coexist with the callous abuse of rights, notably of virtuous but poor relations. In Northanger Abbey, she describes the country as one "where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies", which sounds almost East German. But her real value as an observer is her tendency to reveal the financial basis of the action, how the "possession [or lack] of a good fortune" determines plot and character. For this reason, she has more in common with Balzac than with Dickens.

The other event of the week that is worth viewing through Austen's sardonic prism is the announcement of new peerages. Despite using Doreen Lawrence as cover, it is clear that this is a largely financial transaction, where donations buy consideration for businessmen and the slavish loyalty of party hacks (and a willingness to do the graveyard shift on Newsnight) is rewarded. As the number of peers in the House of Lords heads towards 800 (there are 650 MPs in the Commons), some observers fear that growth may continue unchecked. This is blamed on the convention of seeking a party-affiliation split that broadly reflects the vote at the last general election, but this is disingenuous. A peerage is nothing more than a means of bypassing democracy and rewarding services rendered. It has become commodified, hence turnover has increased.

The current system is one of pure patronage, with a dash of human interest for the headline writers, and would have been readily understood by Jane Austen and her contemporaries. I've been reading about Austen recently in the context of Vladimir Nabokov's Lectures on Literature. I've now moved on to volume two, his Lectures on Russian Literature, and specifically Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, which triggered another topical connection with the news that the dead have been voting en masse in Zimbabwe.

The richer appreciation of politics enabled by art was the theme of an article today by Martin Kettle, lamenting that while Angela Merkel attends the Wagner festival at Bayreuth, "In Britain too many politicians are philistines" and this is "a sign of a failed society and a failed culture". Naturally, he included a gratuitous dig at Lenin along the way (Angela will have been pleased). The idea that Britain is going to the dogs is the sort of nonsense you expect in August from newspaper commentators planning a month in Tuscany or the Dordogne. The caricature of self-satisfied stupidity is eternal and can be found from Aeschylus through Austen to Amis. Gogol's masterpiece is a sustained satire on the Russian flavour, known as poshlost.

Perhaps Kettle's despair is emerging guilt for his part in pushing the neoliberal hegemony during the Blair years (but then again, perhaps not). The point that Kettle is reluctant to concede is that in a society where the market is the default mechanism, and therefore everything has its price, we should not be surprised if politics becomes transactional. Cursing philistinism, as a stand-in for venality, is a dangerous tactic that can lead to an anti-democratic and elitist misanthropy. Keep doing that and you'll end up in the House of Lords.