Saturday, 20 December 2014

Who Moved My Fucking Cheese?

The chief implausibility of Channel 4's Babylon was the suggestion that the Metropolitan Police have a powerful, if somewhat dysfunctional, PR department, central to every decision and constantly evaluating the impact of every statement by the Chief Commissioner. This was made clear when Bernard Hogan-Howe chose to issue a business-plan-cum-manifesto that looked like a marketing spoof tie-in with the culmination of the TV series. While a number of UK Chief Constables have taken to the air this week to insist that Theresa May's austerity plans may endanger the public, Hogan-Howe was making a slightly different pitch, as befits Copper Number One. "Cuts without reform put the public at risk" is about advancing his case for greater authority as the quid pro quo for not downing tools and standing by as Foot Locker is looted.

Central to his argument is the neoliberal spin on stakeholding: the idea that the obligation of the powerful to all affected parties should be replaced by the responsibilities of those parties to support the powerful: ""Public safety isn’t just a challenge for policing. A range of partners is involved: emergency services, criminal justice, local authorities, the third sector, business and, critically, the public itself ". I doubt that he has in mind improved burglar alarms when he thinks of "business" in this context. "Our partners face their own cost pressures, and the big concern is that if we don’t work together, with a shared view of the risks, public safety will suffer ...  Take CCTV. A factor in falling crime rates has been good video coverage of much of London. But most of these cameras are funded by local authorities. As they face more cuts there is active discussion about whether they can afford to keep CCTV going".

Despite decades of use, there is no evidence that CCTV prevents crime, hence Hogan-Howe's use of the weaselly "factor". It certainly doesn't stop drunken brawls in city centres, as the routine news footage - often culled from CCTV - proves, and career criminals have been wearing masks since Dick Turpin's day. What most studies have found is that it improves conviction rates - because of the increased likelihood of a positive ID - and thus reduces court costs through plea-bargaining. In fact, cost appears to be the chief reason for the police's enthusiasm, both because CCTV (along with cheaper PCSOs) can allow for more efficient rapid response, so reducing the need for high-cost specialists, and because so much of the cost can be transferred to local government budgets.

Hogan-Howe's case is dressed up in the usual cost-benefit garb: "We must be open about these risks [to public safety] with the public, politicians and the media, so we can together make informed choices about our priorities. We should share support services where possible, and make them as efficient as the best of the private sector. That means opening up all but core policing functions to competition". Of course, informed choice does not extend to questioning the exemplary role of the private sector or the value of competition or shared services. The Commissioner, in a contribution worthy of the scriptwriters of Babylon, then proceeds to display his grasp of technology: "We need a common infrastructure and to utilise cloud memory rather than serried ranks of hard drives". As any fule kno', cloud memory is just serried ranks of hard drives. This is followed by the age-old delusion that the apparatus of the state could be made self-financing: "A policing faculty that included cyber-security could access a commercial income stream wider than the £12bn presently spent on policing". Ker-ching.

Babylon was not only acerbically funny about the corporate ambitions of the police, and the authoritarian ambitions of corporations, but managed to take the piss out of British dramatic culture from Shakespeare (the finale was a mashup of Macbeth, Coriolanus and Much Ado About Nothing) to soaps. My personal favourite was the foul-mouthed Welsh copper who was more of an anarchist than anyone you'd encounter at a Black Bloc demo. The careful negation of ethnic and gender bias in the characters and casting brought the class boundaries - between the different species of copper as much as the politicians and the frontline - into sharper focus: the communications staff terrified of meeting the public ("can I just stay in the office and do Twitter?"), the flat-foots wondering which side of the barricade they should be on ("I will not take a bullet for a bookcase"), and the stress-addled marksmen who know they are pawns rather than knights.

One trope the series did accept at face-value for dramatic convenience was the "lone gunman". This is such a fixture of our culture that the news of the Sydney café siege was promptly met by David Cameron warning that we face more "lone wolf" attacks, though by definition there cannot be much of a causal link between a now-dead loner on the other side of the world and public order here. The idea of the individual who threatens society through terror, as opposed to treachery, dates from early modern times and is essentially a product of urbanisation and its ills. Just as roving bands of brigands gave way in the collective imagination to the urban mob, so the evildoer as outsider shifted from the rural witch to the deracinated ne'er do well of the town. Where the former was the scapegoat for the property obsessions and sexual jealousies of the countryside, the latter was an emblem of the thwarted ambitions and godless immorality that the city was thought to breed.

This idea of the human "timebomb", who will one day explode and wreak havoc on innocent neighbours, increasingly has an analogue in the realm of cyberspace, notably the "rogue line of code" that was supposed to have crashed the UK's air-traffic control system. The facts behind this incident are opaque, to say the least, but the limited information provided by NATS suggests this may either have been a procedural (i.e. human) error in managing transition from standby to live, or the consequence of a change control failure (i.e. new software not adequately tested). The claim by the NATS CEO that this was the product of a single faulty line of code buried among millions is disingenuous. If a line of code fails, it will fail every time it is run, so either this is redundant code that has never been run before, or its "faultiness" has never previously been consequential, which implies an omission elsewhere. The implication that a few million lines of code is a lot, and therefore difficult to manage, is patronising (to give you some sense of scale, Microsoft Office 2013 has over 44 million lines of code). Most software is written by, managed by and tested by software. If you're worried about Skynet, it arrived with the first compiler.

This corporate failure has seen the usual political distancing. Vince Cable got his retaliation in early by claiming it was due to historic under-investment, with the obliging media reporting that NATS is using software that dates from the 1960s. Unlike hardware, software does not wear out, so its vintage is immaterial. I doubt they're still running it on the same hardware, so Cable is either revealing his ignorance or his contempt for the public's understanding. If there has been under-investment, this probably relates to the lack of full fault-tolerance. The reasonable inference is that this has previously been kyboshed by government as the cost (effectively doubling-up) does not justify the inconvenience (a few days of bad headlines). We shouldn't be surprised by this hypocrisy, certainly not in the week that saw the death of Mandy Rice-Davies.

What her history revealed is that the misbehaviour of the establishment is always known about, but that knowledge is strictly limited to elite circles. Of course, the idea of the "elite conspiracy" (currently being aired in respect of historic child abuse) is as much a trope as the "lone wolf". Just as individuals do occasionally commit sociopathic crimes, so elites do conspire and sometimes for criminal ends. But just as the media use the loner as a scapegoat for wider anxieties (e.g. Christopher Jefferies), so they use the suspicion that the powerful are unfairly protected to advance one elite faction at the expense of another (a theme of Babylon, where the media and PR bods are slow to realise who is being manipulated). In the UK, business is currently besting politics (it's election fundraising time), which explains the focus on the sex-crimes of dead MPs and Vince Cable's testiness. In the US, the boot is on the other foot.

We like to imagine that in the era of the Internet there are no secrets, hence the Sony hack, but this ignores the standard modus operandi of power, which is not to hide the truth but to obscure it with noise, such as the trivial opinions of Hollywood producers and naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence (let the entertainment industry entertain us). What the Sony hack purports to reveal is that corporations are ethically spineless, because they are concerned only with profit, and that big government must intervene to protect free speech. Obama's careful distancing ("they should have talked to me") is not evidence of a gulf between state and business (Hollywood is thoroughly penetrated by the agencies, and not just in the charmingly amateurish way outlined in Argo), but a reminder that business is subservient to the state in the realm of international relations, where the government must act in the interest of the mass of capital, not just a particular industry. The renewed focus on North Korea precisely balances the defocus on Cuba this week and should thus be read as part of the ongoing "pivot to Asia".

Similarly, the ambition of Bernard Hogan-Howe to transform the Met into a super-force, able to charge councils and businesses in the rich South East for its services and monopolising cyber-security in the UK, is simply a continuation of the force's historic determination to be top dog. There was never a realistic chance that the government would welcome such a proposal ahead of next year's general election, and every reason to believe that they will continue to be reluctant to support large-scale mergers thereafter, not because they value local accountability, but because they fear the cost and risks associated with such a change, much as they do with NATS. As Babylon showed, changing an organisation is not something to be embarked upon lightly.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Limited Liability

In a week when the Tories were accused of wanting to shrink the state back to a size not seen since the 1930s, the Guardian ran a series of articles on "taming corporate power". These initiatives might appear to spring from opposite directions politically, but restraining the state and restraining corporations are two sides of the same neoliberal coin. Both assume that the object of their disaffection is tractable (the managerialist fallacy), even though the "size of the state" (meaning public expenditure as a share of GDP) is largely determined by factors outside government control, such as economic growth, and corporations are already constrained by law. For all their rhetorical radicalism, both are blind to the nature of the neoliberal state.

History suggests that the state will remain much the same size as it has been over the last 60 years, even if its benefits are more unequally shared in future. The 35% figure projected by the OBR on the basis of George Osborne's "plan" could be briefly achieved through rapid economic growth, as occurred in the late-90s, but it can't realistically be achieved through cuts in a depressed economy. All developed economies spend around 40% of GDP on public services, with variations from this mean reflecting fluctuations in the economic cycle and differences in accounting treatment (e.g. whether healthcare is categorised as public or private) more than policy. Advocates of the shrunken state are deluding themselves when they hopefully imagine that "we would be closer to the United States than we are to much of Europe". While the theory of "trickle down" has been comprehensively disproved by the passage of time, the theory of "crowding out" persists because it cannot be tested in a Western democracy without provoking social breakdown (cf Chile under Pinochet for an experiment in a developing economy).

The demand that we tame corporate power ignores the gradual increase in the state's control over corporate activity in developed economies since WW2. To suggest that corporations are beyond the control of society, and that this requires that we reinforce the state, both exempts the state from responsibility for corporate abuses and supports its insatiable demand for more authority. There is an echo here of the myth of the oblivious king, who would restrain his evil ministers if only he could be made aware of the people's suffering. Though the vulgar interpretation of neoliberalism equates it with free markets and deregulation (which suits its advocates as much as its enemies), the myth of untramelled corporate power distracts from the reality, which is the increasing interdependence of business and the state. The focus on a moralistic explanation - that the problems of the modern economy are the work of evildoers in suits (or chinos) - also distracts from the realities of class power. Naturally there is no suggestion in the Guardian's campaign that taming corporations will entail questioning the allotted roles of capital and labour.

The Guardian series kicked off with a thundering denunciation from the pulpit by George Monbiot: "Do you wonder why ... parties of the left seem incapable of offering effective opposition to market fundamentalism, let alone proposing coherent alternatives?" (The word "coherent" is Guardian house-style, much beloved of Martin Kettle, suggesting a reasonable centre some way short of the left). The Reverend points the finger: "If so, you have encountered corporate power – the corrupting influence that prevents parties from connecting with the public, distorts spending and tax decisions, and limits the scope of democracy". Among the usual hippy-dippy madness ("we need a directly elected world parliament"), Monbiot suggested that limited liability should be reformed: "It socialises the risks that would otherwise be carried by a company’s owners and directors, exempting them from the costs of the debts they incur or the disasters they cause, and encouraging them to engage in the kind of reckless behaviour that caused the financial crisis" (limited liability was introduced in 1855, so a causal link to 2007 is stretching it).

The somewhat more sane Larry Elliott drew parallels between today's corporations and the trade unions of the 70s (a classic manoeuvre of "third way" triangulation): "So what is the difference between the trade unions in the 1970s and the big corporations today? If anything, the banks, the multinational tech companies and the giants of the energy sector are even more powerful than the unions were four decades ago" (lest we forget, corporations were also more powerful than unions in the 70s). His remedies ranged from the sensible (mandating country reporting of revenue and tax), through the ideological (the managerial state), to the amusingly quaint (re-reading the 1977 Bullock report on industrial "co-determination", which remains a dreamy pin-up for many social democrats). The patronising background to this last recommendation was revealed in the editorial that summarised the series, which sought to broaden the reform campaign through "the activities of the better trade unions" [my emphasis]. I hope they wipe their feet before they come in.

Elliott also banged the same company law drum as Monbiot: "But limited liability is a privilege not a right, and in return for granting it society should get something back in return". Limited liability reflects the company's role as a distributor of wealth, not its creator. Though it might encourage more entrepreneurialism (i.e. risk-taking), there is little actual evidence for this (you can still personally lose everything if you make a bad business decision). The chief protection it provides is for stockholders (the providers of capital) against the incompetence or dereliction of managers (the agency problem). The case against limited liability does not propose an alternative but insists rather on a fairer distribution of gains in return for the dispersal of risk. In practice, this is the same as levying more corporation tax, a point made explicit by Will Hutton in the Observer. The subtext of the Guardian series is that limited liability is a "perk" whose threatened reform might be used as a lever to implement a more effective transnational tax system, and to generally encourage greater tax morale. There is no change in power: capitalists will still own capital, managers will still manage, workers will still work (if they're lucky).

The same theme of rights entailing responsibilities (a classic neoliberal vector for reform) was continued by Prem Sikka: "We face a decision: we can have democracy and accountability, or rampant corporate power with enormous private wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a few business executives – but we can’t have both". This is a false dichotomy. Though not everyone has the power of a firm, and individual firms differ hugely in the scale of their power, the multiplicity of firms within an economy (which is a consequence of technological variety and functional specialisation) produces a plurality that is as "democratic" as the stage-managed practice of electoral representation. This plurality obviously shades towards oligarchy in economies dominated by a particular sector (including the "resource curse" of financial services in the UK), and its ideology is essentially hierarchic and authoritarian, but it remains one of the few institutional forms that hinders the anti-democratic impulses of the state.

Where there is a real tension between the firm and democracy is not at the societal level but within the firm itself. A central paradox of liberalism is that it promotes the multiplication of mini-dictatorships in the cause of freedom. The liberal criticises corporate power for wiping out the "little battalions" (the independent bookshop, the self-employed artist), but routinely ignores the case for workers' control (an alternative that is definitely not "coherent" in Guardian-speak) outside of mimsy cooperatives and nostalgia over episodes now safely consigned to history, like the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in. Coincidentally, the week also saw the announcement of Alan Rusbridger's retirement from the role of Guardian editor, with many articles noting the need for his successor to pass an "advisory" staff vote (only advisory to avoid "the historic chaos that dogged journalist rule at Le Monde", according to Peter Preston). As Peter Wilby noted, this exercise in democracy is skin-deep: "the notion that a proletarian uprising could derail a carefully planned corporate strategy is for the birds".

A head of steam is clearly building around the issue of corporate tax avoidance: Ireland's abandonment of the "double Irish" dodge under EU pressure, Osborne's announcement of the "Google tax" (which Hutton correctly noted is a name-and-shame manoeuvre to get CFOs to restrain egregious avoidance), the criticism of Jean-Claude Juncker etc. Cynics might assume that some of this is just convenient misdirection to obscure the passage of TTIP, but there is also a broader recognition that unpopular abuse by US corporations must be tackled by the EU to avoid tariff protection becoming a populist vehicle for the nationalist right. As part of the Guardian series, Nesrine Malik advocated "single sales factor apportionment" (i.e. unitary taxation), but this doesn't address IP (intellectual property), which is increasingly central to tax dodging and the accumulation of wealth (IP is a more important aspect of TTIP than the much-maligned ISDS, which is in danger of being hyped to the level of paranoid fantasy). Once again the purpose is not to challenge the power dynamic, but to increase the price of social tolerance.

Aditya Chakrabortty made the transactional relationship of the corporation and society clear: "no more something for nothing", which generalises the more specific point about limited liability and the implication that "privilege" is justified if there is a social benefit, a quid pro quo. He also advocated the "social licensing" approach proposed by CRESC in The End of the Experiment. The Mancunians' analysis starts from a clear-eyed appreciation of the neoliberal state's history: "The free market experiment ... created an environment [of] ... large companies calcifying around the apparatus of the state, lobbying hard for the release of ever more low return but safe public activities". Unfortunately, it then starts to get a bit teary-eyed and emotional: "business and community are in a relation of mutual dependence because all business exists under a social contract whereby the corporation should offer responsible behaviour in return for the privileges which allow market access and secure profit taking. This is especially so in the foundational economy where the privileged business gains a local monopoly on the household spend of an immobile population in communities and user groups".

The foundational economy is those sectors where natural monopolies predominate (railways, comms infrastructure etc) or where there are legislated monopsonies, such as local government. This is nostalgia for the high era of public ownership (but more British Rail than British Leyland) and assertive municipalism, even if there is logic in the distinction: "we argue that a large part of the economy (more than one third) is sheltered from competition; while growth and jobs are socially meaningless objectives when the income gains from growth are captured by the top 10% of households by earnings and because low wage jobs spread welfare dependence". The problem is that this approach reinforces the neoliberal ideology that sees the relationship of society and business as a transaction between distinct entities, rather than a class relationship, in which rights always entail responsibilities and you can abuse us if you pay sufficient weregild.

Central to this ideological frame is the idea of corporate personhood, which has become a "thing" in recent years despite having been established in principle since the mid-nineteenth century. The libertarian right are happy to advocate it as a corrective to state power, while the centre and soft left are happy to accentuate its perils as a contrast to the benevolence of government. This has reached a pitch of lunacy with the response to the US Supreme Court's recent judgements extending constitutional rights to corporations, with the speculation that if firms can enjoy first amendment rights to free speech and religious belief, they might soon lobby for second amendment rights - i.e. bearing arms. Given that the police and military already do a fine job of cowing workers and imposing favourable trading terms abroad, I can't really see the case for private armies outside of the specialist "contractors" who do the state's dirty work in torture chambers.

In fact, the prominence of corporate personhood shows that in the era of globalisation firms remain embedded within societies. Though we fear them becoming stateless and beyond the law, this independence is a legal fiction used to protect their owners' privileges within a territorial jurisdiction. Similarly, limited liability is better understood as the socialisation of risk - i.e. dispersing the cost of failure among other firms and ultimately consumers in a given society - rather than a global get out of jail free card for bad guys. Without the nation state there is neither corporate personhood nor limited liability. In other words, these "grants" are attributes of the state. The Guardian ("a privilege not a right") wants to put up the price for the sale of these "liberties". In advancing its case, it paints a picture of rapacious corporate power, with the state as a victim of "encroachment" and "capture", when the reality is closer to an elephant impassively supporting a swarm of ticks. This hyperbole ignores the centrality of the state in neoliberal practice and gives credence to the claims of the right that it is possible to "shrink" it.

In theory neoliberalism privileges competition, markets, freedom and entrepreneurialism. In practice it delivers monopolies, commercial secrecy, regulation and rent-seeking, all of which depend upon the power and agency of the state. Increasingly, this is what the French sociologist Loic Wacquant has termed a "centaur state", a liberal head on an authoritarian body: "the ongoing capitalist 'revolution from above', commonly called neoliberalism, entails the enlargement and exaltation of the penal sector of the bureaucratic field, so that the state may check the social reverberations caused by the diffusion of social insecurity in the lower rungs of the class and ethnic hierarchy as well as assuage popular discontent over the dereliction of its traditional economic and social duties". In this context, our failure as a society to move beyond vicious hatred and internecine conflict is less a reflection of man's fallen state than the necessary modus operandi of advanced capitalism. In other words, UKIP and the Front National are simultaneously unwanted (because destabilising) and convenient (because normalising) symptoms of authoritarian drift.

According to Wacquant, "the penalization of poverty splinters citizenship along class lines", which explains the continuing centrality of class (and immigration as a proxy for class) in political debate. Thus "neoliberalism is constitutively corrosive of democracy", in the sense that it undermines the classic liberal belief that democracy can reconcile competing class interests. This corrosion of democracy does not arise from the depredations of untamed corporate power, which is merely symptomatic, but from the operation of the state. The neoliberal era has not just seen the enormous growth of the penal sector, but the relentless socialisation of self-discipline, the expansion of surveillance, and the use of exaggerated threats (paedophiles, drugs, Islamists) to justify ever greater authoritarian control. A disturbing aspect of the last decade of state torture is that it was done semi-publicly and thus gradually normalised. Abu Ghraib and Wikileaks were evidence of insufficient state regard for concealment, more than the conscience of whistleblowers. Just as the Snowden revelations did not lead to outrage, so this week's Senate report on CIA torture has prompted just another shoulder-shrug. We have been dulled, in part by our acceptance of commercial surveillance, from cookies to CCTV (for our "convenience and protection").

In this light, the approach of the Guardian's writers is misguided, ignoring the role of the neoliberal state and suggesting that if we can just get corporations to recognise their social responsibilities all will be well. But there is no basis for believing that corporations, as entities whose sole raison d'etre is profit-making, actually have social responsibilities, beyond obeying the law (which includes paying tax). If it has any meaning, "social responsibility" concerns the reconciliation of the interests of the individual (including the corporate "person") and the collective, which is a matter of politics. The corruption of democracy is being driven by the state, not by corporations. The latter are beneficiaries and willing helpers, but their approach is purely instrumental. Real existing corporate power (tax avoidance, privatisation, rigged markets etc) is the product of the state, not some nerd genius in Silicon Valley or a smooth lawyer in The City.

The true believers in the inadequacy of democracy are in Whitehall and Westminster and their cause is essentially one of class interest. As Benjamin Selwyn noted: "Neoliberalism is about re-shaping society so that there is no input by workers' organisations into democratic or economic decision-making. Crises and austerity may not be intentionally sought by most state leaders and central bank governors, but they do contribute significantly towards pursuing such ends". Their ideological confreres in the media present the world through a national lens, which applies as much to the internationalists at the Guardian (forever publishing global league tables) as the xenophobes at the Express. As Selwyn continued, "The problem for these commentators is that their economic analysis takes as its starting point the national economy, rather than class relations". Taming corporate power is not the same as taming capital, but then the latter is strictly off the agenda.

In hegemonic political debate, the state - as the container of the nation - is a given, with talk of its shrinking largely limited to "discretionary" expenditure on the working class. Even the occasional grumble about the cost of Trident or mortgage interest relief is a distraction from the real questions that should be asked about the extent of state power and its symbiotic relationship with business. As capitalism seeks to commodify more and more of life, so the state intrudes more and more on privacy and interposes itself more and more in social relations. The working class remains characterised as unreliable and incoherent, whether in the form of union militants or UKIP bigots. Amoral corporations are presented as immoral delinquents who need to undergo a Scrooge-like transformation of sentiment. They must be made better "persons" through state management. The problem is not the limited liability of corporations, or even the limited liability of bankers, but the limited liability of the state.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Memories Are Made of This

A lot of the frustration of last season among Arsenal fans stemmed from an excellent first half: we were top after 19 games but slumped back to our habitual fourth place by season-end. Despite the not-inconsiderable consolation of an FA Cup, there was a sense of an opportunity missed. Consequently, there was optimism that this season we would push on, reinforced by the acquisition of new players in the summer. We currently sit sixth and the all-too-predictable defeat at Stoke has prompted the sort of vitriol aimed at Arsene Wenger that is normally reserved for Alan Pardew. Next Saturday we host the Toon, fresh from their defeat of Chelsea and level on points with us. Personally, I think the season is looking quite promising, and will continue to do so whatever the result against the barcodes.

Leaving aside paranoid theories about our susceptibility to injuries, the charge-sheet against Wenger is that he didn't reinforce the defence and midfield sufficiently; that his faith in the team's ability to respond to tactical challenges on the field is misplaced; and that we lack experience in the squad. The first charge is justified, but it is perverse to imagine that this was a deliberate ploy by Wenger, determined to prove you can win the league without defenders or a defensive midfielder. The truth, as he repeatedly states, is that there were few players of the required quality available and none ready to do a deal.

Just as his critics imagine that there is a never-ending supply of top-class managers who could replace him (and do so in January), so the assumption is that a club with Arsenal's resources must be able to buy whatever it wants. This is to confuse the market in players with Tesco. The reason why top players cost so much is because they are as rare as old masters. The better metaphor is Sotheby's. To put this into perspective, Chelsea only have three top-quality centre-backs: Cahill, Terry and Ivanovic. After these, you're looking at the 20-year old Kurt Zouma and a couple of teenagers. Our relative shallowness can be over-stated.

The second charge, of tactical naivety, has grown from a criticism of Wenger ("no plan B") to encompass the entire team. There is no secret that Wenger prizes adaptability and initiative on the pitch, rather than relying on a standard formation and predictable moves dictated from the technical area. This isn't because he missed the tactics module when he did his coaching badges, nor is it an aesthetically-driven desire for beautiful football, but a pragmatic decision to maximise the squad's strengths. If a galactico strategy is beyond your means, and if playing like Stoke means you finish where Stoke normally do, then a possession-based game with a fluid attacking line is likely to optimise your points tally over a season where most of your opponents will sit back for 90 minutes. This obviously makes you vulnerable to counter-attacks, and can result in the odd spanking when the team has an off day, but it makes sense over the long-term as Wenger's final standings prove.

If Arsenal are suffering tactically at present, this is more because the midfield, with the exception of Cazorla, has lacked its usual vim, which in turn is as much to do with the gradual integration of Sanchez as the wayward passing of Ramsey or the stop-start season of Wilshere. In fact, Sanchez's destabilising influence, whose positive results have been goals aplenty, indicates that Arsenal are not the amorphous tag-cloud of talent that popular opinion suggests. Watching in the flesh, I've noted not only the expected misunderstandings (which partly explains the waywardness of Ramsey, who is often looking to release Sanchez on the turn), but frequent occasions when the Chilean almost collides with Oxlade-Chamberlain or Welbeck when running off the ball. This will improve with familiarity, plus the return of Walcott should stretch opposing defences and open more channels.

The third charge has some basis in fact, in the sense that we are fielding some novice players, but the appearance of the likes of Martinez and Bellerin is due to circumstance rather than policy, with both starting the season as third choice in their positions. Much of the "experience" gripe is just misplaced nostalgia for the days of Adams, Vieira and other "leaders on the pitch". The very best sides in Europe do not have a single figure of authority because the game is no longer played in a way that can accommodate them. Pressing, high defensive lines and the speed of counter-attacks means that all "departments" of the team have to be able to make decisions independently. Arsenal's experience problem this season is the product of the gradual integration of new players (Chambers, Welbeck, Sanchez), post-World Cup demotivation (Mertesacker, Ozil), patchy form (Ramsey, Wilshere, Szczesny), and a bad run of injuries (too many to list).

My expectation is that all of these will ease, even the level of injuries (a lot are fatigue-related, such as Ozil and Giroud). While last season saw a good autumn, a poor winter and a spring redeemed at Wembley, this season could see real improvement after Christmas. We're through to the second round of the Champions League, and while we could face Bayern or Real Madrid, we could also face PSG or Porto, and I'd fancy our chances there. Whether we buy a centre-back and a defensive midfielder during the coming transfer window is moot. There are unlikely to be many players (if any) of the required calibre available before the summer, and Wenger isn't going to make a political signing just to appease the fans. This could well depend on which teams finish third in the Champions League groups.

What fans want is for Arsenal to employ the best, most experienced players in the world, and for Wenger to be able to dictate the outcome of games from the bench. This is obviously barking mad. Some managers, notably Mourinho, like to give the impression that they can control matches through thorough preparation, clever gameplans and astute substitutions, but the truth (and the beauty of the game) is that their impact is marginal. Results are largely the product of the combined effects of wealth (i.e. squad quality), a team's success in negating their opponents' strengths, the fluctuating form of players, and luck (personified as refereeing decisions). Most of these are outside the direct control of the manager.

The difference between Wenger and Mourinho is that while the Chelsea manager is a "negator" (i.e. Sam Allardyce with a better squad), Wenger has always been a "creator", in the sense of coaching his players to improve what they are good at rather than worrying about the opposition. This is why he commands the personal loyalty of so many of his ex-players, but also why players formed in an earlier, dictatorial era, like Stewart Robson, are less enamoured ("sort it out!"). What Wenger's approach requires is patience. However, that is in increasingly short supply, not just because of the growing intolerance of fans, egged on by the media, but because of the creeping ennui associated with the longevity of his reign.

This is the real message behind the now famous "Thanks for the memories" banner. Contrary to the myth that the Emirates is packed with middle-aged fans (still smarting from the memory of Lee Chapman) or opera-goers who defected from Sadler's Wells, the vocal dissafection mostly comes from younger fans who have been oppressed by the second-hand memory of the Invincibles. Every new book that comes out, and the accompanying media puff-pieces, simply rubs in the feeling that they are in danger of missing out on "their" memories. Rationally, fans know that Arsenal are punching at their weight, but irrationally they want to believe that the club can leapfrog Chelsea and Man City (and Bayern and Real Madrid) through sheer force of will. This is why a "passionate" manager like Jurgen Klopp is attracting admiring glances.

I doubt Wenger intends to stay beyond the end of his current contract in 2017, but I also doubt he'll be forced out before then, not least because I expect the team to improve over the course of this season. My punt is third place in the league, just edging out Manure, and (with a bit of luck in the draw) last eight in Europe. We might even get back to Wembley in the FA Cup. It still won't satisfy the angry crew, but then short of signing Vincent Kompany and Nemanja Matic in January, I'm not sure anything would.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

We're All Skinheads Now

Now that the Autumn Statement has blown away the remaining froth from the Rochester and Strood by-election, it's worth taking a look one more time at Emily Thornberry's iconic photo. Though immigration will remain a lightening rod for social angst up to the general election, it is clear that the most sensitive issue in British politics remains class. This can be seen not only in the panto of Plebgate and David Mellor's "do you know who you've got in the back of your cab?" tantrum, but also in George Osborne's vision of a society of rentiers and patronised, cheap labour. Thornberry's snap was from the same school: a melange of clichéd symbols that would have looked like overkill in a TV sketch show. What these collectively indicate is that class, as understood and "performed" by politicians and the media, is beyond caricature.

While discussion of the Thornberry photo as an image has largely focused on the white van and St George's flags, equally significant in any reading is the West Ham United flag. This, in what should logically be Gillingham territory, suggests "white flight" from the East End and thus speaks directly to the UKIP agenda. Nobody mentioned Alf Garnett, but I'm sure a lot of people thought of him. Another lesser remarked feature was the lonely Doric column of the porch. This became a symbol of aspiration in the 80s due to Dallas's Southfork, itself an echo of Gone with the Wind's Tara (reminding us of the link of property and slavery). It's even worth noting the brick-paved drive, which has become a symbol of cash-in-hand entrepreneurialism over the last couple of decades. In fact, given the way the image packs in so much of Britain's recent history, you can see why it struck Thornberry as notable. Grayson Perry would have had a field day - and a lot less grief.

All flags are lies; or, as Arundhati Roy put it, "Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people's brains and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead". Prior to Euro 96, displays of the England flag were rare. Similarly, football club flags were an oddity before the 90s (though an established tradition on the continent) when the Premier League ushered in a more tolerant attitude by clubs towards displays in the ground (tolerant in the sense that TV wanted more visual colour). In fact, before the replica kit market took off in the 80s, with the introduction of polyester shirts, club crests had relatively little public exposure. What most people identified with were the team colours. Thornberry's snap was entirely made up of recently invented traditions.

The key element of the photo was of course the one that was missing, Dan the white van man himself. That he should so perfectly espouse the manifesto of The Sun (lower taxes, more roads, bring back the cane, reduce benefits, deport immigrants, jail poppy-burners etc) should not come as a surprise, any more than than he should turn up at Emily Thornberry's Islington mansion for a photo-op with a St George's flag bearing the Sun logo. The cabbie that David Mellor insulted also passed his story to Rupert Murdoch's finest, as did the police officers that Andrew Mitchell patronised. The moment that Ed Miliband insisted that the sight of a white van or a flag-draped house triggered a feeling of respect in him was the moment that the last dribble of post-Leveson reforming zeal ran into the sand.

Most middle class commentators have insisted on Dan Ware's working class credentials, though as a self-employed car dealer who resents paying tax he is actually "petit bourgeois". When economic status becomes more precarious, the importance of taste as an act of social positioning (per Pierre Bourdieu) becomes more significant. The power of the image, and the subsequent revelation that Ware is a sometime cage-fighter with a shaved head, arises from our prejudice about his cultural capital. This makes him an object of dread for the middle classes, who fear the "vicious competition" of neoliberalism and the déclassé consequences of job polarisation. The scorn imputed to Emily Thornberry, as the representative of an "Islington elite", is simple transference. And far from being a "hero" to them, many working class people suspect that he's dodgy.

Perhaps the standout feature of Dan Ware in the public gaze is his skinhead cut, a style that has long outlived the subculture that immortalised it (the last knockings in the 80s were retrospectively captured in Shane Meadows' This Is England). Ware is not a skin (he's way too scruffy), but he is assumed to be the modern legacy of skindom: aggressive, uncouth, right-wing. The skinhead has always been a heavily-contested cultural figure, not just in the political dimension of neo-nazis versus 2 Tone, but more broadly as a symbol of working class youth at the peak of its economic power in the 60s and 70s. Significantly, it has been conservative outsiders who have done most to craft and iconify (sometimes accidentally) this dread figure, notably Richard Allen (Skinhead) and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), coincidentally both pseudonyms.

Allen wrote pulp fiction and owed his fame to the post-Chatterley demand for titillating sex and violence (in the 70s, his books vied with the Eastern Front fantasies of Sven Hassel, a sort of paperback Call of Duty, as the teenage boy's preferred bildungsroman). Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in 1961 for quick money, when he thought he was terminally ill, and was responding to media panics over late 50s "juvenile delinquency", but Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation (and Malcolm McDowell's mesmeric performance) left the book inseparably linked to the skinheads and suedeheads of the early 70s. The common theme between the two works is socialisation. Skinhead offers the traditional, reactionary template in which communal violence and abusive misogyny are the induction ceremonies of the young adult male. A Clockwork Orange parodies the attempts of the state and "do-gooders" to control human nature, noting (in a final chapter that Kubrick's film omits) that youthful violence and "settling down" are the natural course of things.

A notable feature of Skinhead is the depiction of London as fragmented and under threat: "Every section of the sprawling city had its claims to fame. South of the Thames the niggers rode cock-a-hoop in Brixton, the Irish held Shepherd’s Bush with an iron fist; and the Jews predominated around Hampstead and Golder’s Green. The Cockney had lost control of his London. Even the porno shops were having their difficulties with the parasitic influx of outside talent". These are not really the sentiments of the 70s teenage protagonist (the gangs of Hampstead?) but the nostalgic lament of the author, the Canadian-born James Moffat. This voice lives on among the UKIP-voting pensioner exiles of the coastal towns, demanding their country back and insisting that they're lifelong Hammers fans. Dan Ware characterises a younger generation, uprooted by their parents in the 70s and 80s and bequeathed a culture in which affiliations like football and ersatz traditions like St George's flags attempt to fill the void of meaning left by homogenised houses, sleb-led TV and shopping.

A meme of the New Labour years was that "we're all middle class now". In fact, class divisions are probably more acute than they have been at any time since the 50s. The rising tide of prosperity in the 60s did not blend the classes but enabled a greater autonomy and fragmentation as class consciousness was substituted by consumption preferences. Class became less salient because economic power was diffused through the growth of the public sector and professions, the strength of trade unions, and the historically high demand for labour. Since 1979, class has returned as a key discriminator for access to economic power, a shift that was initially "performed" through the theatre of fogies and sloanes. In denial, New Labour bought the neoliberal con that we could somehow rise above class through education and meritocracy. Now we have an Old Etonian government.

With the traditional working class Tory under threat due to the contraction of manufacturing, the privatisation of public services, and the undermining of trade hierarchies in the name of flexibility, a new ideal of the conservative working class was created in the 80s. Much of this was the work of that other conservative outsider, Kelvin McKenzie. The white van man was male, self-employed, anti-tax and benefits, Southern, anti-intellectual, and anti-politics. This recuperated the destabilising autonomy embodied in the skinhead into maudlin patriotism and a resentment of middle-class, liberal do-gooders (now upgraded to "the PC crowd"). The sense of independence and power has gone, just as the Sta-Prest and the polished Hawkins boots have been replaced by track-pants and Reeboks. All we have left is middle-aged, balding blokes choosing a number 1 cut.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Brute Force Attack

Malcolm Rifkind may not appear to have much in common with fiancé-of-the-moment Benedict Cumberbatch, but they have both contributed to the debate on surveillance this week. There should be no surprise that the Intelligence and Security Committee, chaired by Rifkind, should have decided in its Report on the intelligence relating to the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby that the "intelligence community" were blameless while taking the opportunity to criticise Internet companies' inadequate support for state surveillance. This might look like crude deflection, but the spooks are clearly playing a double game in which Rifkind and his fellow stooges (Hazel Blears, Robin Butler, Mark Field et al) are taking the role of the bad cop. The good cop is sympathetic to the Internet companies' plight and is keen to find a solution.

The committee's conclusion is that our boys in the shadows, whose job it is to monitor threats and who were well aware of Lee Rigby's killers, did not fail in their duties. Facebook, which is a commercial operation that monitors its users' data only to the extent that it can monetise it, did fail in its duties to alert the state when one of the suspects posted a comment boasting of his desire to kill a soldier. The committee even went so far as to accuse it of providing a "safe haven for terrorists", echoing the intemperate words of the head of GCHQ recently. If you substitute the word "trolls" for "terrorists" you'd be more accurate, but that's not going to garner the headlines. The committee obviously feels that Facebook should be capable of discriminating between the threats of potential terrorists and the somewhat larger crowd of muppets who routinely threaten murder and rape against people they slightly dislike.

The focus on Facebook's "negligence" not only continues the power struggle between state and business over the control of personal data, but it conveniently deflects attention from the secret services' modus operandi, which often requires it to allow crimes to be committed in order to advance intelligence-gathering. While there is no evidence the spooks knew Lee Rigby was going to be murdered, let alone that they would have countenanced it, they clearly knew the killers were active in radical Islamist circles and were happy to keep half an eye on them as low-value targets. They were a lot more aware of the potential threat than Facebook, so the committee's conclusion is perverse.

The agencies' aversion to rounding up all suspects, as the tabloids would urge, is practical, not the product of a keen respect for human rights. The justification for this approach is central to The Intelligence Game, which tells the now famous story of Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and the breaking of the Enigma code. In order to prevent the Germans realising the boffins at Bletchley Park had cracked it, the Brits had to exploit the intel in such a way as to not arouse suspicions. Dramatically, this is shown as accepting the sacrifice of one of the code-breakers' brothers on an Atlantic convoy. Reality has here been compressed to the point of implausibility - plotting the courses of U-boats would have been done by naval intel analysts not code-breakers - but the essential truth remains: the secret services rarely foil plots because that is not their job.

The film is a highly conventional mixture of tropes: autistic genius, team bonding, the vulnerability of sexuality, plucky gel, Rattigan-like public school pathos etc. Much of the plot is factually incorrect and often nonsensical - e.g. the anachronistic use of Tipp-Ex and the casual security at Bletchley Park. What is significant is that we never see the enemy, other than in the form of newsreel interludes. Insofar as there are baddies on stage, they are the dunderheaded military (Charles Dance, clearly having a laugh) and the cynical face of MI6, played by Mark Strong who also featured in the 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. What the new film shares with the work of John le Carré (such as the recent adaptation of A Most Wanted Man) is the focus on deception and betrayal on "our side", which is prompted by decisions on the value of information and its carriers.

While much of this is a metaphor for Britain's diminished postwar status (particularly in respect of the US) and the tensions of class (John Cairncross, the Soviet mole in The Imitation Game, is most definitely below the salt), it also reflects the ethical dilemma of the agencies. Lying and sacrificing the innocent are seen as evils; sometimes necessary, sometimes not, but always a matter for judgement. Where le Carré is now outdated is in embodying information as people, i.e. informants, double-agents etc. Human intel is still important, but the core work is data analysis: Turing's legacy. Despite its title, the committee's report is not about the unwitting sacrifice of one soldier's life, but about the sacrifice of communications privacy for everyone.

The key recommendation (page 146 of the report) is the following: "We note that several of the companies ascribed their failure to review suspicious content to the volume of material on their systems. Whilst there may be practical difficulties involved, the companies should accept they have a responsibility to notify the relevant authorities when an automatic trigger indicating terrorism is activated and allow the authorities, whether US or UK, to take the next step. We further note that several of the companies attributed the lack of monitoring to the need to protect their users' privacy. However, where there is a possibility that a terrorist atrocity is being planned, that argument should not be allowed to prevail".

An "automatic trigger" would be words (and conceivably images) or associations (likes, friends etc) considered of interest by the agencies. As this would be constantly changing, and as there would be a lot of false positives (i.e. probably over 99%), it would be impractical to expect the Internet companies to keep on top of this and manage it as an exceptional process. This is the point being helpfully made by the "good cop". As some analysis would be retrospective, rather than real-time, it would also make more sense for GCHQ to simply syphon off the data and analyse it in parallel, much as the Brits transcribed every coded German message in WW2. Over time, this parallel dataset would expand to the point where it became easier to simply mirror the original rather that attempt any selection - i.e. the automatic trigger is all-encompassing. But there is an emerging problem.

According to MI5 testimony to the committee, "one of the effects of the Snowden disclosures has been to accelerate the use of default encryption by the internet companies… which was coming anyway, but I think that’s why I’m underlining the word 'accelerate' ...". The Internet companies know they have to introduce encryption to stay in business. While most users won't shift provider if they can help it, the "winner takes all" nature of the online market (i.e. one dominant social network, one search provider, one smartphone microblogger etc) means that incumbents are highly vulnerable to new entrants. If you go out of fashion online, you can be commercially dead in a matter of months. For a new entrant to the market, encryption could be enough of a USP to build momentum. The incumbents need to mitigate that risk, just as Facebook mitigated Instagram (by buying it) and Apple mitigated Spotify (by buying Beats).

What the agencies want is to circumvent the encryption. They know they cannot backdoor the encryption itself (because, duh, maths), just as Turing realised that Enigma could not be decoded by human cleverness (the crossword-solving angle). What it took was a brute-force attack. At Bletchley Park, this meant building a mechanical program that could work through billions of combinations, much as modern cracker programs work through billions of hash values to decrypt stolen passwords. Given the volume of data and the number of different keys (i.e. one per user), this is simply not going to be feasible on a mass scale if full, end-to-end encryption is widely implemented.

But is full encryption really coming? The user's data will still be open, not only to whoever they are communicating with (i.e. privacy of choice) but more broadly to the Internet companies themselves. After all, their business model is based on targeted advertising, which ideally means "reading" all the data, and a move to a fully secure, ad-free, paid-for service would be commercial suicide. The question then is whether the companies will continue to provide the agencies with largely unhindered access to the data, which is a PR issue rather a technical one.

Most secrecy is circumvented via social engineering, e.g. tricking people into revealing passwords, or tricking them into thinking they are not being surveilled. Unless you utilise an independent, end-to-end encryption tool, you will remain dependent on the Internet companies' interpretation of privacy, and that isn't going to be an interpretation that will jeopardise the revenue they earn from the users' data assets. The report by Malcom Rifkind and company is part of the ongoing campaign by the state to insist that business continues to provide the security agencies with a "cut" of these valuable assets. It's a different form of brute force attack in which a dead soldier is used to batter down a door.