Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Revival of Liberal Italy

Last Friday, Emily Maitlis suggested on Newsnight that a coalition between Italy's M5S (5-Star) and La Lega (formerly the Lega Nord) would be the equivalent of Momentum and UKIP tying the knot. Assuming Maitlis imagines Momentum to be far-left (though it isn't), this makes no sense. In terms of ideology and policy, M5S would be closer to the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps she just meant they were both good at social media. Likewise, La Lega has more in common ideologically with Tory "modernisers" than it does with the remnants of UKIP. It's programme for tighter immigration controls, which seems to have prompted the parallel, is little more than Theresa May's commitment to a hostile environment and a vigorous programme of deportations. You could dismiss this as simply more evidence of the British (or more precisely English) media's ignorance of foreign politics (consider its current inability to address Ireland except through the prism of Brexit), or even of a post-70s tendency to project domestic anxieties onto a country seen as a close economic comparator, but I think it also points to a more particular failing among centrists (who are well-represented on Newsnight) to acknowledge that both M5S and La Lega are part of the tradition of Italian liberalism.

Consolidating nationally in the wake of unification, Italian liberalism in the late 19th century was anti-democratic and cynical. It was particularly notable for the practice of Traformismo (transformism), under which liberal politicians like Agostino Depretis and Giovanni Giolitti (popularly characterised as a "chameleon") sought election on progressive manifestos and then adopted conservative polices in office in order to guarantee centrist stability. The result was a politics that valued deals over principle, leading to significant corruption and clientelism. Along with a restricted franchise and the legacy of Piedmontese court politics under Cavour, this worked against the establishment of formal political parties with power instead shifting between relatively fluid factions. While this made liberalism hegemonic in the short-term, it also meant that it was quickly marginalised once universal male suffrage arrived after World War One as voters gravitated left and right to the Socialist Party and the People's Party (the forerunner of the Christian Democrats), both of which had a more institutionalised social base. The liberals, in a last gasp for Traformismo, allied with the newly-emergent Fascists in the elections of 1921 and 1924, only to be abolished for their pains by Mussolini in 1925.

The historiography of the liberal tradition, and in particular its role in the rise of Fascism, was long dominated by the competing views of Antonio Gramsci and Benedetto Croce. The former saw Risorgimento as an incomplete bourgeois revolution - a failure in that class's historic task - leading to the preservation of feudal forms, a lack of popular legitimacy for the state, and a consequent reliance on coercion and corruption. The latter saw the Italian state in much more positive terms, essentially in contrast to the backward smaller states of the era before unification. Subsequent revisionist histories have tended to either dismiss Gramsci's view as part of a more general turn against the very idea of bourgeois revolution (e.g. the revaluation of 1789 in France), or have supported Croce's view but placed Italy's development within the context of a general advance in the state's capabilities across Western Europe in the 1870-1914 period. In effect, both approaches have normalised Italian political history, dismissing the idea that Italy was either deviant or peculiar (the ideological role of this revisionism, during the high period of ever-closer European union, should be obvious).

Italian liberalism in the years leading up to the Great War combined both authoritarian and progressive elements, but it's unwillingness to define itself positively - preferring to emphasise its opposition to socialism on the left and clericalism on the right - meant that it was chiefly characterised by contemporaries as a self-interested elite. Though the liberals of the late 19th century were intensely patriotic, to the point of imperial folly in Libya, their instrumental approach to government meant that they did not seek to cultivate pride in the state itself but instead emphasised both the macro-ideal of the nation and the micro-ideal of local civic culture (the latter being an important reason for the continuing importance of regionalism). This would be exploited by the Fascists, who amplified the nationalism and additionally offered the novelty of an interventionist state that resolved social conflicts through corporatism and obedience. Scepticism towards the state after World War Two was not just a reaction to the excesses of Fascism, but a revival of that older tradition in which the state is seen to be divorced from society: the "legal" as opposed to the "real" Italy. In other words, the roots of modern Italian populism are to be found in the mainstream liberal tradition, not at the margins of left or right.

Though La Lega has most often entered into alliance with the centre-right at both national and local levels, it has also negotiated with the centre-left nationally and went into alliance with it in some local administrations. It has advanced a number of liberal reforms in the context of its opposition to the centralised state, such as deregulation, while adopting traditional social democratic positions in respects of workers' rights and pensions. While it's policies on immigration and citizenship have gravitated to the right in recent years under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, some of this positioning appears to be opportunistic. In its early years, it's xenophobia was focused on Italian migrants from the South to the North. It's greater focus on immigrants from abroad, like its name change, is clearly about establishing itself as a national party rather than just a regional one. In terms of demographics, La Lega has a much broader base than UKIP, including younger voters and plenty from the professional classes. This means it is actually fishing in much the same pool as M5S, with the distribution of votes in the 2018 general election between the two reflecting regional dominance: La Lega in the North and M5S in the Centre and South.

While La Lega's focus on immigration has squeezed the parties of the right, M5S's proposal for a basic income has squeezed the centre-left Democratic Party, boosting the insurgent party's vote in poorer areas in the South and among the unemployed nationally. These are the sort of policies that political analysts too-readily categorise as "populist", but which would be better understood as popular social protection in the face of an unsympathetic state. What matters in this formulation is the latter as much as the former. That might appear like splitting hairs, but it is important in the context of Italian political history. It is the idea of a state that is self-absorbed and uninterested in the everyday problems of "ordinary people" that has helped make both immigration and basic income salient. With the clientelism of the DC/PSI/PCI era long-consigned to history, with the technocratic condescension of the PD and traditional centrist parties now out of fashion, and with even Berlusconi reduced to adopting M5S and La Lega policies to gain traction with his shrinking base, the Italian political scene is now dominated by fundamental questions about the nature of the state, which is as much a consequence of the evolution of the EU as it is the persistent appetite for regional fiscal autonomy. But this is neither necessarily a threat to democracy nor to liberal values.

Ironically, there are already signs that both of the parties now negotiating a coalition are reverting to liberal type. Luigi Di Maio, the M5S leader, has described his party as "post-ideological" and insists that any governing coalition will be based on a shared approach to issues (i.e. pragmatic horse-trading), while Salvini, who insists that La Lega is "neither of the right nor the left", has already made a volte-face on EU membership and the euro. While centrists in the UK and elsewhere are reluctant to draw the obvious parallels with the UK coalition government of 2010-15, or the success of Emmanuel Macron in France, it looks like Italy is about to witness the emergence of a "radical centre" that has finally reconciled the illiberal tradition of Italian Liberalism with the demands of popular democracy, essentially by projecting the elitism of the state onto both the left and the right. Though M5S is the larger of the two parties, its weak record in local government and the questionable calibre of its MPs suggest that the more established La Lega may end up with the greater electoral benefit from a period in office, though that marginal gain is simply likely to confirm the current four-way split of party politics and thus the new liberal hegemony. Emily Maitlis really doesn't need to worry.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Don't Be Mean to Conservatives

The lasting political legacy of May 1968 is to be found in language: the re-energising of rhetoric and the greater scrutiny of discourse that was embryonic in the slogans of the Situationists. What subsequent attacks on postmodern "mumbo-jumbo" and the strawman of po-faced "political correctness" ignored was the degree of irreverence and mockery that characterised this turn. 1968, at least in Western democracies, wasn't a revolution so much as a wind-up. This jeering spirit was quickly forced underground in the early-70s, not least by those who had appointed themselves the curators of the collective memory of the 60s, though it would periodically emerge on the cultural margins, as in Punk in the late-70s or the more confrontational strands of comedy in the early-80s. Though the "new reality" of the later 1980s and 90s appeared to have consigned this disrespectful tradition to history, or at least replaced it with a jaded cynicism and a vogue for nostalgic commodities such as Situationist t-shirts, the growth of first the Internet and then social media allowed it to seep back into mainstream political culture. The culmination of this is the hilarious sight of the British media debating whether "gammon" is a racial slur.

Though the right have predictably talked up the anti-white connotations and claimed that it is also an insult directed towards the Brexit-voting working class, so establishing a connection with the white van man trope that gave Ed Miliband such trouble, it is the efforts of liberals to arbitrate on what they consider to be the acceptable vocabulary of the left that has ensured the word's media prominence. The liberal case, outlined by Suzanne Moore, is an appeal to both principle ("If kindness is not part of the socialist vocabulary, count me out") and pragmatism (instead of alienating them, try "Persuading former Tories to vote Labour"). The counter-arguments are equally principled and pragmatic. Kindness is an attractive personal characteristic, but what matters in politics is policy. For example, the much-lauded Tessa Jowell was responsible for some very nasty policies in her time in office. That she had a better bedside manner than Theresa "hostile" May is irrelevant. As to winning over the reactionary petit bourgeois, as Matt Zarb-Cousin correctly notes, "despite their over-representation on TV programmes, the gammon block vote is not enough to swing an election, and most of them are found in safe Conservative seats in the home counties anyway".

US liberals have even got on the case: "It’s like calling a Jew a k**e or mocking African Americans for eating fried chicken. It’s like calling poor white Americans trailer trash. So much of this sounds like American culture wars transported, horribly and no doubt eternally, to England." Leaving aside the irritating equation of England with the UK (a very gammon move), the sleight of hand in this analysis is the conflation of social identities with political affinities, suggesting that the US culture wars are driven by bigotry rather than political disagreement. This conflation is necessary to make the charge that "gammon" is bigoted stick, even though the fact that you could call your own father a gammon if he showed an unhealthy interest in Trident suggests it is a matter of belief and behaviour rather than skin tone. Likewise, you could call your own son a "centrist dad" if he started quoting A C Grayling at you. Labelling a particular politics with a mocking term is hardly unusual, either in the UK or the US. Consider the term "Tory", which comes from the Irish for outlaw, or the way that the "Know Nothings" nickname of the American Nativist Party was repurposed as an insult.

Though this might appear to be just another example of liberal propriety seeking to delegitimise the left, on this occasion the pragmatic (a concern for the future action of right-wing voters) is more significant than the principle (a commitment to a particular style of discourse). Suggesting that the gammon tendency should and could be won over to Labour is strategically daft, so presumably something else is going on when people like Moore advance the idea. Interestingly, a similar manoeuvre is visible across the pond where centrist liberals have taken to blaming the left, and in particular its rhetoric, for fuelling bigotry on the right. Writing in defence of Bari Weiss's now infamous response to criticism of her New York Times piece on "The Intellectual Dark Web", Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic suggested that the left was hypocritical, accepting Obama's view that the violent extremism of ISIS shouldn't be labelled "Islamic" as this would alienate law-abiding Muslims, while blithely associating the centre-right with the alt-right, thereby alienating moderate conservatives and driving them to the extreme.

But this only makes sense if you see the world in terms of multiple political and cultural continuums, which is foundational to liberalism's self-image as the rational centre. The explicit assumption is that ISIS is way past most Muslims on this particular continuum, while the implicit assumption is that "we" (whoever that non-Muslim grouping might be) are to be found in the opposite direction. Ironically, this is an example of soft bigotry, which assumes that moderate Muslims are more vulnerable to being radicalised because they start from a position closer to the extreme. In fact, there is no continuum. To put this in analogous terms, despite the sociological basis of their support in the Catholic community, the IRA were not extreme Catholics, which is why it made no sense to label them as such. They were extreme republicans, but applying that label did not delegitimise republicanism. The reason why ISIS shouldn't be labelled as Islamic terrorists (though Islamist is legitimate) is that what they seek cannot be considered co-terminus with Islam, any more than the IRA's ambitions and strategy were co-terminus with those of the Pope or the Republic of Ireland.

Friedersdorf reveals the real worry when he quotes Claire Lehmann: "When you collapse the distinction between thoughtful classical liberals & centrists with those who openly advocate for a white ethnostate not only do you insult your readers, but you reward racists with prestige they don't deserve". The concern is not that the moderate right is being traduced but that centrists are under attack from the left. The "don't be mean to conservatives" line is actually self-defence, and an acknowledgement that their resistance to Trump has morphed into an attempt to win over the right by moving right, hence their sensitivity to attacks by the left on articles like Weiss's indulgent profile of the "IDW". Claiming that the left is responsible for the advance of the right is nothing more than a projection of their own guilt for decades of "legitimate concerns" and "bipartisanship". The conclusion must be that US centrists have rejected the idea of building a coalition out towards the left, despite the positive lessons of the primaries and the presidential election, precisely because they would be more comfortable with a government led by Jeb Bush than with one led by Bernie Sanders.

The idea of the political continuum is front and centre in the latest New York Magazine piece by Jonathan Chait, which is more explicit than articles like Friedersdorf's in pointing the finger not at a notional broad left that includes Hillary Clinton but very precisely at the radical left - i.e. those who didn't enthusiastically support Hillary. More than impropriety, Chait accuses the radical left (which he describes as "leftists and socialists") of a contempt for American democracy and its associated norms of behaviour: "they see Trump as the symptom of a deeper crisis of capitalism. The democracy movement is attempting to preserve a system that is being swept away." This is not only an overtly conservative vision, but one that considers norms and propriety to be constitutive of democracy itself, which is in fact deeply anti-democratic. As Jed Purdey, whom Chait misrepresents, notes: "A political science fixated on norms fits easily with a political ethics based on virtue, and the crisis-of-democracy literature really, really wants us to be better, more grateful citizens".

Ironically, the most insightful comment on the current vogue for left-bashing came from Jordan Peterson, though I should point out that this was inadvertent on his part. In a very entertaining profile (he comes across as a complete dick), the tech writer Nellie Bowles notes that "he was radicalized, he says, because the 'radical left' wants to eliminate hierarchies". This manages to capture in a short sentence the entirety of Corey Robin's book on conservative theory, The Reactionary Mind (though I'd still recommend reading the longer work). It's all about the preservation of hierarchies, and that desire is as evident in liberal as in conservative discourse. The "thoughtful classical liberals & centrists" who normalise the Intellectual Dark Web aren't giving space to iconoclasts and rebels, they are simply facilitating propaganda that preserves economic, racial, and gender hierarchies. Likewise, the offence contained in the term "gammon" is the derision directed at men (and women) of a certain (mental) age and social standing who believe that their views should automatically command respect. The centrist commentariat fear that we're actually talking about them.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

It's clear that the defence of the hostile environment for illegal immigration has been successful. While special measures are being taken to address the Windrush "anomalies", and some of the more unpopular features - such as hospital checks on nationality - are being watered-down, the basic policy remains intact. Some of its defenders are even taking the battle to the opposition, insisting that now is the time to revisit the merits of a national ID card. This may well be an idea whose time has finally come, after the half-baked 2006 Identity Cards Act was repealed by the coalition government in 2010. The heart of this successful defence is the acceptance that "some kind of 'hostile environment' for illegal immigrants is inevitable". I think we can question that on two counts: first, it repeats the error evident in the Windrush cases in assuming that the definition of "illegal" is clear cut; and second, it  ignores that overt hostility is a political choice and therefore not inevitable at all. However, whether you consider immigration a matter of rights rather than criminality, or if you imagine that hostility is the only viable strategy, the common conclusion of either approach is likely to be the adoption of a national identity register.

Chris Bertram has suggested that "There’s no such legal category as 'illegal immigration', rather there are people who have the legal right to be in the country and, perhaps, to do certain things like work or study. And then there are people who may lack the legal right to be present and to do those things." If we think about immigration in terms of rights, the first thing we need to consider is how rights are assigned. Contrary to popular belief, being born in the UK does not automatically make you a citizen, while the state also has the power to revoke citizenship (though it is bound by international treaty not to make people stateless, it can get round this if you also have the right of citizenship elsewhere - e.g. through parentage). The right of abode in the UK is therefore a conditional right, which can be extended (along with the right to work or study) in qualified form to non-citizens. The Windrush scandal did not occur because the Home Office is incompetent or racially biased (though both will have coloured operational decisions), but because the default assumption is that no one has an incontestable right to remain in the UK. The emotional power of the incident (our empathy) arises from the sudden realisation that everyone's status is contingent.

If living in the UK is a right, then logically the people we describe as "illegal immigrants" are simply those who lack this right, or who have exceeded any limits set on a qualified right. While people-smuggling does happen, the majority of people in the UK who lack the right of abode are actually individuals who are on licence and who have breached their terms, e.g. overstaying a student or tourist visa. If there is an argument for ID cards, it isn't that everyone who has the right of abode in the UK should have one, so that we can identify "illegals" by a process of elimination, which would be ridiculously inefficient, but that those on licence should have them so that they can prove their qualified rights. In fact, these already exist for non-EU citizens in the form of visas and biometric residence permit (BRP) cards. The Home Office may need to do a better job of tracking the status of licence-holders, but it does not need to extend surveillance to the entire population, not least because even the most thorough system would still fail to catch those who decided to go off-grid. Though there is growing public support for ID cards, after the low of the late 2000s, it's unlikely that there is much support for roadblocks or the mass inspection of buses and trains during the daily commute.

Having civil society - in the form of hospitals, schools and landlords -  patrol our borders at a remove, by asking for proof of the right of abode and to work, is clumsy and often arbitrary, not to mention a prompt for racial discrimination and the petty abuse of power. Clearly the real purpose is not to improve the effectiveness of the enforcement regime but to make the hostile environment visible to the domestic audience for political reasons. Those famous 'Go Home' vans were a photo opportunity on wheels rather than a rational tactic for increasing deportations. Involving civil society is propaganda rather than subcontracting, and part of the propaganda is performative intolerance. In this regime, unfairness and collateral damage are features not bugs. As Chris Bertram goes on to note, "The UK government has deliberately built a zero tolerance system with the inevitable consequence of inflicting injustice on people by denying their rights. Unless that system is changed, the problem will continue: the fevered tabloid-driven hunt for 'illegal immigrants' will catch many people who are not, even by the standards of those politicians using this language."

One way of thinking about the Windrush scandal is that the hostile environment is not a means to an end so much as an end in itself: essentially a compensation for the impossibility of hitting the "tens of thousands" target that successive Tory Prime Ministers have committed to for net migration. Given that the target is both practically unachievable and politically sacrosanct, this means the hostile environment must be maintained for as long as immigration remains a popular concern. While it's entirely possible that the level of concern might wane, particularly relative to the state of the economy, as it has done in the past, it's hard to imagine it happening in the context of a post-Brexit UK. Not only will we still be saddled by a xenophobic press looking for enemies and saboteurs, but the Tories (assuming they are still in government) may find that "taking control of our borders" is pretty much the only substantive achievement they can point to, and that may well be a hollow victory for some leavers if the termination agreement with the EU preserves the rights of its citizens, currently in the UK, to live and work here indefinitely.

The worse the economic situation becomes after 2019, the less likely Brexiteers will be to admit any link between immigration and growth. Ironically, the best hope for the demise of the hostile environment is if the UK is obliged to agree trade deals with other countries and blocs (such as the EU) who insist on greater mobility. While some libertarian free-traders would be happy with this quid pro quo, they are clearly in a minority within the Brexit camp. The more likely outcome is that the UK will turn down certain trade gains in order to avoid ceding "too much" on freedom of movement. Protectionism will trump free trade because most leave supporters are either ambivalent about the latter or see it purely in terms of goods. In this scenario, the pressure will be on to further intensify the hostile environment as a sign of political virility, and as compensation for an increasingly hostile international scene in which the UK lacks influence and is regarded as the new sick man of Europe. It is likely that the government will then move towards national ID cards simply because there will be few other substantive actions it can take to further harden the environment.

A more optimistic scenario would see a UK government junk the targets for net inflow and flex immigration policy specifically to drive economic growth, which would mean a bias towards skilled migrants. This would apparently be acceptable to most people (though class-inflected opinions of this sort need to be taken with a pinch of salt), and could still be sold as "taking back control". Were this to happen, we would probably revert to the older model of a less hostile environment for immigrants. This wouldn't mean an end to hostility as such, but would probably just shift the appetite for the punitive back towards the native unemployed and other benefit claimants who were deemed to be free-loading or holding back the new, vibrant UK economy. In other words, it would be a bit New Labour, even if enacted by the Tories. Were this to happen, the combination of the need for more sophisticated controls on migration and the general anxiety arising from the Windrush scandal over the fragility of the right of abode in the UK would probably lead to growing support for the adoption of mandatory ID cards, which has long been the Holy Grail of the Home Office.

The political stars appear to be aligning. The final agreement with the EU on citizens' rights is likely to massively extend the BRP regime, while the promise of both greater control over immigration and formalisation of long-term residents' rights will encourage popular acceptance of a national identity register. The Tories, no longer constrained by the Liberal Democrats' civil liberties concerns in coalition, will probably support a scheme that notionally protects against another Windrush (though of course it won't) while preserving the hostile environment. The authoritarian centre in the media will overplay their hand as usual, with much harrumphing about the additional benefits in combating crime, terrorism and welfare fraud, but this will simply allow a narrower scheme with "safeguards" to pass muster. The Labour right are already on-board and the left, while wary about surveillance and operational bias, will probably come round if the scheme can be crafted in terms of access to entitlements (notably the NHS) rather than state invigilation, and if police powers in particular can be restrained (to avoid a new stop and search). This could be the final legacy of New Labour.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

The Public Intellectual

Chris Dillow reckons that Britain is suffering an intellectual decline, specifically the loss of public intellectuals. What distinguishes this from the usual tales of "dumbing down" is that he correctly identifies the role of political culture (among a number of other factors) in creating this impression: "On both front benches today there are pitifully few people one could call intellectuals (as distinct from intelligent): Jesse Norman and Barry Gardiner are the only ones I can think of immediately. The 60s and 70s, however, gave us Crosland, Foot, Jenkins and Crossman among others. And although Thatcher was considered no great intellectual in her time, she peppered her speeches with references to Hayek, Friedman or Popper". Where I diverge from Chris is that I don't believe the intellectual stuntedness of the contemporary political class is a reflection of a society-wide decline. Rather I would suggest that society is no less intellectual than its has ever been but that political culture has killed off the public intellectual as a role. Before I explain my reasoning, a few words on the trope of declinism, which has traditionally been deployed in respect of economic and geopolitical status.

The narrative of British decline divides into two broad tendencies: those who see it as cultural in origin and those who see it as a product of economic change. In practice, these are often hard to tell apart. For example, the Marxist critique of Perry Andersen and Tom Nairn that the bias towards finance after 1870 was the product of an incomplete bourgeois revolution is not that different to Martin Weiner's famous claim that the persistence of aristocratic values, and their adoption by the new upper-middle class, led to a hostility towards entrepreneurialism. The one sees the problem in the interrupted transmission from the material base to the superstructure, the other in the resilience of the superstructure (i.e. cultural norms) to changes in the base. One way that these two tendencies have been synthesised is in a focus on institutions, such as the City and Whitehall, though this has the obvious flaw that it flips the transmission between base and superstructure to the point where establishment conspiracies start to appear on the horizon.

I have long been sceptical of declinism, seeing it largely as a construct that usefully allows politicians to reconcile the nostalgia of restoration with the great leap forward of reform. Since the late-1970s, this has allowed the Conservative Party to push neoliberal shock treatment while claiming to represent tradition, and it has allowed the Labour Party to make a fetish of the NHS while insisting that the role of reform is to create a dynamic economy (viewed through the prism of declinism, the difference between Blair and Corbyn is slight). The most successful political exponent of declinism was Margaret Thatcher, both in her claims that the UK had been brought low by the postwar consensus (which ignored the relative decline over the preceding century) and that this degradation had been reversed during her time in office. The contradictions inherent in this were obvious in her policy towards Europe: active integration at the economic level and an insistence on exceptionalism at the political. The unreasonable expectations this gave rise to led directly to Brexit.

Chris Dillow's survey of intellectual torpor employs some of the features of British declinism in that it isolates a variety of structural and cultural causes, from changes in academic life to the trivialisation prompted by media outlets chasing consumers. Like many declinist narratives, it also tends to ignore the wider world, assuming there is something peculiarly British about the phenomenon, not least in the centrality given to the BBC (e.g. his contrast of the recent Civilisations series with Kenneth Clark's Civilisation). The disappearance of public intellectuals is just as pronounced in the USA or France, and just as much a topic for anxious debate. My own view is that their disappearance is largely the result of changes in political practice, common to all developed nations in the neoliberal era, with structural factors elsewhere in society playing a marginal role at best. Despite "reforms" and relentless newspaper hostility, the BBC and higher education are both strong enough and capacious enough to accommodate profound thinkers, though there are grounds to believe that they are more wary of supporting unorthodox ones nowadays (i.e. genuinely unorthodox, not the idiot contrarians advocated by self-styled free speech champions).

Simple logic tells us that there is no lump of intelligence in society, but it also tells us that the number of individual intellectual titans must be greater now than in the 70s because of population growth. While cultural change may have encouraged more to swerve an academic career for the riches of the private sector, as Chris suggests (echoing Weiner in reverse), this shouldn't preclude them from becoming public intellectuals. After all, many of the intellectuals of yore were artists or even journalists, like Albert Camus and George Orwell, while today we are not short of tech billionaires whose opinion is sought on everything from public health to the future of democracy. Camus and Orwell also remind us that the role of the public intellectual wasn't merely to challenge the public with unorthodox ideas but to act as a tribune on behalf of the public in challenging politicians (that today's Orwell fanboys are happiest attacking politicians who diverge from the orthodoxy is certainly a symptom of decline). But that was only possible when there was a degree of intellectual equality between the public intellectuals and the politicians and a willingness on the part of the latter to engage in serious debates that they might well lose.

The lack of genuine intellectuals in the House of Commons today isn't so much a mirror of society as the consequence of the professionalisation of political practice since the 1990s, which has reduced the room for variety in political theory just as it has made it harder for a politician to maintain the cultural "hinterland" that Denis Healey made much of. Politics increasingly selects not for intellectual heft or social empathy (the don or the miner) but for ideological flexibility and managerial compliance (consider Tristram Hunt, a don whose political career was marked by the utter absence of original thought). This narrowing of perspective, allied to the relentless "management" of  the news-grid, has been willingly reflected in the editorial choices of programmes such as Today and Question Time, giving the impression that both politicians and public are thick. When a Newsnight presenter announces that they can't get a minister to appear, the "theatrical moment" isn't about political cowardice, or the lack of consequentiality for non-cooperation, but the programme's ongoing struggle to imagine politics outside the Westminster frame.

To return to the trope of declinism, the public intellectual was a historically-specific feature of political practice, and thus part of the analogous base, rather than an expression of cultural values and thus a phenomenon of the analogous superstructure. Her disappearance does not indicate a general decline in society's intellect but her redundancy within the political field. Where once politicians looked to culture for inspiration and a bracing scepticism, they now see photo opportunities and a "world-leading industry" (another exemplar of decline supposedly reversed). The years between Britpop and the 2012 Olympics were when the public intellectual became extinct. Rather than intellectuals arguing on behalf of the public, politicians prefer "thought-leaders" or "solutioneers" who can diagnose the failings of society and suggest technocratic remedies. The fundamental problem is that politics has become too powerful in determining the public intellectual climate. Insofar as we are witnessing dumbing-down, it is in the sense that political discourse has been reduced to managerialist pabulum and too much of the media are supportively echoing its degraded vocabulary.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

The Good, the Bad and the Irregular

The news that the British Film Institute appears to have created a hostile environment for laughing, ejecting a young woman for over-enthusiastically responding to Serio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, could easily be put down to the po-faced seriousness of its members (I'm one, so I should know), but this was the sort of contretemps that you could expect to witness in any multiplex. What made it news is that the young woman, Tamsin Parker, has Asperger's Syndrome. Of course, having such a condition and being a pain in the arse are not mutually exclusive, so we shouldn't automatically assume that the other members of the audience who complained (some abusively), and the management at the National Film Theatre who removed the young woman, are necessarily in the wrong. What I am interested in is not who was in the right in this particular Mexican standoff but the way that people reacted. While getting ejected from a cinema is obviously not on a par with being deported, there are questions here about tolerance, norms of behaviour and our relationship with authority that have a topical political resonance.

For example, just as "I've got Asperger's" doesn't automatically make you an innocent, so "I'm of Pakistani heritage" doesn't necessarily mean that you will operate a less callous immigration regime. That Sajid Javid could imagine his own family being subject to the unreasonable behaviour of the Home Office may suggest an improvement in ministerial empathy, but he is still a Thatcherite, Ayn Rand-reading ex-banker, so it would be premature to assume that the new "compliant environment" will represent more than a change in language. My guess, buttressed by his underwhelming performance as minister for housing, is that the Iron Lady will be a greater influence on his future actions than his family background. What few political commentators seem to have addressed, distracted as they are by his ethnicity and position on Brexit, is the peculiarity of a nominal libertarian occupying an office of state that is designed for an authoritarian. While it is conceivable that Javid and May will clash over immigration, with the former perhaps wanting a more business-friendly approach to visas, the greater clash might come over surveillance. If it doesn't, you'll know that Javid is just another Randian bullshitter.

All the indications are that the government has no intention of fundamentally changing the immigration regime instituted by Theresa May as Home Secretary between 2010 and 2016. This is not because she is stubborn, but because there is little evidence that voters want a change: they simply want the hostility to be more accurately directed. This explains why the Tories have been robust in insisting that de facto hostility to illegal immigration must remain the order of the day. Labour's insistence that the Windrush cases have nothing to do with illegality is correct, however it also means they are implicitly accepting that there is no need to fundamentally reconsider the nature of immigration controls and are therefore subscribing to the idea that what matters is fairness (those Miliband-era mugs are still at the back of the cupboard). Getting rid of the counter-productive target for net migration and addressing the evident abuses in detention centres like Yarl's Wood is probably the limit of Labour's policy ambition this side of the next general election. Labour's position, which can be summarised as "a bad system, badly planned", only differs from the Tory claim that operational failings are the fault of civil servants in that it extends the blame to ministers, which is the least that you would expect of the opposition. What both parties continue to share, along with much of the public, is a belief that we can be reliably discriminate between "good" and "bad" immigrants, despite history suggesting that we can't.

Another Windrush parallel with the BFI fracas is that cinema management don't routinely police the auditorium nowadays: the usherette and the projectionist are long gone. As a result, antisocial behaviour has to be policed by patrons. This isn't a legal obligation, in the way that policing immigration status has become for landlords and hospital administrators, but it is a responsibility that many people find stressful, essentially because most of us hope that someone else will step in when trouble arises. This isn't simple cowardice (though that is present) but social embarrassment, often expressed by the evasive phrase "I don't want to get involved". When circumstance forces us to step forward, whether to defend our own rights or to protest injustice against others, there is a tendency to over-compensate in order to justify the psychological investment. Molehills quickly become mountains. If the press get involved, then this is further amplified, with predictable spin. The Guardian quoted a witness on "naked intolerance in the middle of London", The Daily Mail emphasised the "fury" that the incident gave rise to, while The Sun characterised the BFI as "snobbish". Given that the young woman's mother is a theatre director, I feel there is a state of the nation play waiting to emerge from the chrysalis of this little drama.

One of the paradoxes of public opinion on immigration is that most people think that it is too high nationally but not locally: it's a problem of anywhere rather than somewhere, to coin a phrase. A related paradox is that concern over immigration tends to be higher in areas with fewer immigrants. This tendency to compartmentalise social topics between the local and the national is also seen in respect of the economy, famously the paradox of thrift and the false equivalence of the national accounts with a household. Today, more people think Brexit will negatively affect the economy as a whole than will affect their personal circumstances. That the public are more accepting of skilled than unskilled immigrants suggests a understanding of aggregate impacts, yet this is the same public that believes we must all tighten our belts to pay down debt. The critics of democracy, from appalled remainers to the advocates of epistocracy, often point to this apparent cognitive dissonance in social and economic affairs as evidence that most people simply lack the knowledge to properly influence public policy. I'm not convinced by this argument, and I think there are at least two other credible explanations for the publics contradictory views.

The first is that people tell white lies both to themselves and to others. Claiming that immigration isn't a worry in your locality may reflect a desire to keep the peace; a social obligation that you don't necessarily feel at the abstract level of the nation. In this pessimistic reading, the concept of "illegal immigration" is important precisely because it provides legitimation for a hostile attitude that carefully excludes your neighbours. While cultural bigotry hasn't gone out of fashion (see Islamophobia), there has been a shift in the discourse since the days of Enoch Powell, with a demand for rigorous bureaucratic compliance replacing overt xenophobia. Paradoxically, the troubles of the Windrush generation have arisen because of the declining public acceptability of informal racial prejudice and the concomitant increase in the formal acknowledgement and classification of rights. As the history of persecuted minorities has repeatedly shown, it is the organised and systematic prejudice of the state that presents the greatest dangers. In the UK, this trend has increased the vulnerability of society's irregulars.

The second possible explanation is that people see the national sphere less as a reality and more as a projection of social ideals. In this optimistic reading, attitudes are often altruistic in that they reflect what we imagine the consensus view to be - e.g. "I'm not fussed about immigration personally, but I think cutting it would be good for the country". This isn't the "I'm not racist, but ..." excuse for bigotry so much as a tendency to trust the wisdom of crowds as presented by the media in its construction of the public sphere. That anxiety over immigration has clearly fluctuated in response to press coverage does not mean that we are pliable and credulous but that many of us are prepared to adjust our expressed beliefs to conform to what we imagine the social consensus to be, which holds out the hope that immigration will become less of a concern in time. We don't want to stand out from the crowd; we don't want to be irregulars. One lesson of Eastern Europe between 1949 and 1989 was that people do not become brainwashed - they simply keep their heads down ("I don't want to get involved"). They will voice the orthodoxy but reserve their true beliefs. It has always struck me as odd that Western politicians and commentators have rarely drawn the obvious conclusion about domestic public opinion.

Having Asperger's Syndrome means being irregular; an involuntary member of the awkward squad. I don't say that to belittle the condition or its sufferers in any way, but to situate it in its social context. Unless you are knowledgeable about it, then it will always be easy to mistake some of its manifestations for unruly behaviour or rudeness. But just as the lack of a degree in economics shouldn't preclude you from having the vote, so this ignorance shouldn't preclude you from telling someone to "shut up" in the cinema. I am not defending the right to be offensive here, which is too often just the right of powerful establishment shills like Rod Liddle to punch down, because I don't see it as a positive right (or freedom to). What matters is that you do not have the right to stop me being offensive, even when I am in the wrong or proceeding from ignorance, which is a negative right (or freedom from). The conclusion of my parallel is not that Tamsin Parker is equivalent to the Windrush generation because of the unsympathetic and harsh treatment she suffered, but that the guy who called her a bitch and was also ejected has just as much claim to be considered so, precisely because we don't know his name and his fault was ignorance.