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Monday, 28 November 2016

Varieties of Nostalgia

It sounds like Branko Milanovic, former lead economist at the World Bank, didn't have time to proof-read when he wrote the following, but you can just about get his point: "In a very symmetrical way, the arrival of Utopia to power that began in glacial Petrograd in November 1917 ended with the death of its last actual, physical, proponent, in a far-away Caribbean nation, in November 2016". This was part of a confused blog post that recycled various tired tropes (communism as millenarian religion, capitalism as the end of history) in an attempt to finally dismiss the old spectre on the occasion of Fidel Castro's death. Not only did the piece do violence to history as well as language, but it lapsed into the surreally comic: "Communism could not innovate in practically anything that required for success acquiescence of consumers.  It thus provided tanks but no ball-point pens, spacecraft but no toilet paper". It was fortunate that the defeat of the Wehrmacht depended more on T-34s than bog rolls, but I'm still baffled as to how they got fountain pens to work in space.

What struck me about this was the nostalgia for a time of certainty, when communist manufacture meant Soviet tractors rather than Chinese smartphones and the denial of private property went hand-in-hand with the denial of human rights. Long before 1989, most historians recognised that the actually existing varieties of communism were essentially political projects to build nation states in which Marxism was largely instrumental or contingent, hence Deng Xiaoping's eager conversion to "getting rich" and the reappearance of ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia. Cuba was another example of this. Castro started out as a radical nationalist in the American tradition of Bolivar, San Martin and Marti, who adopted communist rhetoric for convenience and remained wedded to permanent revolution (to the benefit of liberation movements in Africa) because that was what he was good at. The crippling of the Cuban economy owed much to the US embargo and the hostility of other Central and South American states, but it also owed something to the institutionalisation of a guerrilla campaign: strong on coercion, health and education; weak on production, innovation and plurality.


Milanovic is the author not only of the well-known "elephant chart", which puts the stagnation of developed nation median wages in the context of the advance of the Chinese "middle class" and the global one percent, he is also the author of this year's Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalisation (whose chief arguments are summarised here), which has been hailed as a subtle riposte to Thomas Piketty's Capital. Milanovic has suggested that fluctuations in national inequality are periodic, with succeeding waves of growth and decline set within the wider context of a global convergence. In this reading, far from being a historical exception caused by two world wars and the post-1945 reconstruction, les trente glorieuses was just one iteration of a decline in inequality and we can expect a similar turn in the future rather than the inexorably increasing inequality theorised by Piketty. However, these cycles ("Kuznets waves") are driven not just by benign secular forces but also by malign ones that build during the upswing of inequality, such as the increased bellicosity and financial crises of unequal societies (one irony is that his explanation for WW1 - growing inequality led to the export of capital, which led to empire and then war - is pure Lenin).

In other words, we may be facing more trouble in the years ahead, of which the xenophobic nationalism of Brexit and the plutocratic populism of Trump are harbingers, before things take a turn for the better. Milanovic does suggest a number of benign forces and developments that could reduce national inequality without too much pain, such as the positive impact of ageing on wages, but most of his policy prescriptions are well within the bounds of neoliberal orthodoxy, such as capital pre-distribution (e.g. employee share-ownership) and higher inheritance tax rather than increased income tax. He is pessimistic about social democracy (i.e. welfare states) because of the mobility of capital and skilled labour, and thinks that economic migration (which he sees as globally beneficial) can be reconciled with nativist concerns by recognising that citizenship is a rent (your wealth and opportunity largely reflects where you were born, not your personal talent), so differential citizenship (i.e. a premium) could make natives more accepting of immigrants. This could range from having to show your passport at a hospital to a citizens' basic income.

I'm not going to dwell on the problems in Milanovic's diagnosis, or the wishful-thinking in his prescriptions, so much as the "eve of war" vibe that has been knocking around since 2008 and has, I think I can say without fear of contradiction, gone up a notch or two this year. Another example of this was provided last week by George Monbiot, channelling Cassandra in The Guardian: "Eventually the anger that cannot be assuaged through policy will be turned outwards, towards other nations. Faced with a choice between hard truths and easy lies, politicians and their supporters in the media will discover that foreign aggression is among the few options for political survival. I now believe that we will see war between the major powers within my lifetime. Which ones it will involve, and on what apparent cause, remains far from clear. But something that once seemed remote now looks probable". At least he didn't say the lights are going out all over Europe. This gloomy prognosis revives the old idea that nationalism necessarily leads to war, because it fails to resolve domestic social and economic conflicts while providing an organising principle to externalise tensions.


The idea that nations export their inner turmoil originates in the French Revolutionary Wars. Prior to 1792, and with the notable exception of the off-stage American Revolution, European conflict was largely a series of "cabinet wars", relatively small-scale conflicts engineered by absolute monarchies for marginal gains, which in turn represented an advance on the bloody sectarian conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries. In other words, wars that originate in the passions of the people tend towards cruelty and excess, unlike the wars of calculation made by elites. The problem with this theory is that while national fragmentation often leads to wars of liberation and unification, increased national homogeneity doesn't. This is why Nazi Germany was more aggressive beyond its borders than Fascist Italy or Francoist Spain. While it is conceivable that Russia might seek to "protect" its fellow Russians in the Baltic states, as it did in Crimea, the likelihood of it risking war with NATO (and the mass-expropriation of oligarchic assets abroad) is slight. Likewise, climate change may well trigger conflict, but this is most likely to happen in developing countries, not among what Monbiot refers to quaintly as "the major powers".

This apocalyptic vision has roots closer to home in the automation of jobs: "At lower risk is work that requires negotiation, persuasion, originality and creativity. The management and business jobs that demand these skills are comparatively safe from automation; so are those of lawyers, teachers, researchers, doctors, journalists, actors and artists. The jobs that demand the highest educational attainment are the least susceptible to computerisation". What the tales of Macedonian youth creating fake news for pennies points to is the increased commoditisation of news (we've always had fakes). Much of it is already produced by software and "free" opinion is ubiquitous, which makes the inclusion of journalists in the list of "safe" professions look like nostalgia. The fear of the liberal press that it may be talking to itself reflects a suspicion that "originality and creativity" are over-rated. While Monbiot has a distinctive voice, it would take little to write a program that could randomly generate think-pieces by Polly Toynbee or Julia Hartley-Brewer. Indeed, Monbiot's often comical battiness is all that stands between him and redundancy. Perhaps Branko Milanovic is aiming for the same effect.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Asymmetric Stupidity

Paul Krugman asked an interesting question about objectivity and subjectivity in politics the other day, though I doubt he saw it in those terms. Here are his original words, as tweeted:

There are two parts to this: the unreasonable suspicion that liberals despise "ordinary folk" for their ignorance and the tendency of the working class to ignore or discount collective insults levelled at it by conservatives. In fact, this behaviour is quite rational, if subject to cognitive bias. The first thing to note is that the ruling ideology, shared by liberals and conservatives, equates intelligence with the possession of qualifications. If you have a college degree, you are assumed to be more intelligent than someone with only high-school certificates, and if you have no formal qualifications, you are assumed to be probably less intelligent. In aggregate this isn't unreasonable, but at the level of the individual it is obviously problematic. We've all met people, usually from a working class background, who left school with no qualifications and enjoyed subsequent success, and most of us have probably met an upper-class idiot with a degree.

As the owner of not only a PhD but a Nobel Prize, Krugman is perhaps a little obtuse on this point. I don't get the sense that he is a condescending snob, but from the perspective of a working class Midwesterner who couldn't afford college, Krugman is part of the coastal elite and therefore more likely to be a snob. It might be personally unfair, but it is no worse a "rule of thumb" than assuming the unqualified are unintelligent. This prejudice also reflects a pragmatic recognition of the narrowness of "book-learning" - that there are more types of intelligence than are recognised by formal qualifications - and that certain types of high-status education are designed to be exclusionary. It's also worth noting that working class people don't undervalue education, as is often claimed, they simply have a greater pessimism that their possession of qualifications will translate into economic power. In other words, they understand that class bias (differential access to top colleges, the leverage of social networks etc.) works to devalue qualifications. There is a lot of rationality at work here.

Educational qualifications are tokens. You either have them or you don't. In contrast, there are no qualifications handed out for industriousness. What we do have are social cues, but these are notoriously unreliable: "curtains drawn in the daytime" can suggest indolence, but it's just as likely to indicate shift-work or illness. Subjective bias means that few of us will readily admit to being lazy (and even those few that do may actually be hinting at other problems that deserve sympathy), but we're only too ready to suspect laziness in others, and that includes friends and family members as much as casual acquaintances or strangers. When the "Britannia Unchained" group of Tory MPs announced a few years ago that UK workers were idlers, there weren't many people who replied "They've got a point, I'm always swinging the lead", but there were plenty who said "They've got a point, next-door is a right shirker".

Dividing society into virtuous sheep and vicious goats is the foundation of conservative rhetoric. Since the rise of democracy, the trick has been to avoid defining the two groups in objective terms but to instead rely on subjective virtues that the majority believe they already possess or can justifiably aspire to. You can tell a lot about the current government's naivety in the coining of the acronym "JAMs". Most political commentators have wearily greeted the "just about managing" as simply this year's version of "hard-working families" or "alarm-clock Britain", but this misses the point that by defining the group in terms of its economic power (i.e. income), the government is dangerously close to admitting that what divides us is output (wages) rather than input (labour). They'll no doubt try and emphasise the appropriate behaviours over the coming weeks, but what has lodged in the public mind is "managing", which is a matter of resources rather than virtue.

So the answer to Paul Krugman's questions is quite simple. On the one hand, the population with no or limited educational qualifications reason that liberal elites look down on them because of the neoliberal insistence on the primacy of formal education in the economy. On the other, they tend to assume that conservative rhetoric about lazy proles, particularly if presented in the lurid terms of dissolute crackers and chavs, is directed at other people. To put it another way, liberals make explicit the idea that society is a contest, but do so in a manner that immediately condemns a large part of the population to the category of losers. Conservatives suggest an even more unforgiving struggle, with the hint that a lack of virtue is congenital, but they allow most of the population to imagine they are in the category of current or future winners. The failure of liberals to see this asymmetry explains much of their bewilderment in the face of "post-truth" politics.

Since the 1990s, conservative rhetoric has modified its vocabulary but it has remained largely unchanged in its focus on virtue. Race-inflected terms like "welfare queens" and "super-predators" have given way to "takers" and "skivers", but they are still recognisably the goats of old. In contrast, the correlation between education and inequality has become ever more pronounced, leading to class becoming increasingly associated with qualifications. The "haves" and the "have nots" obviously referred to material circumstances, but the voguish dichotomy of "cosmopolitans" and "left behinds" clearly implies different social capital. This in turn winds up the non-graduate, suburban middle-class who are economically secure but status-anxious. If Fascism in the 20th century got its oomph from the precarious petit bourgeoisie rather than the immiserated proletariat, conservative authoritarianism today relies on the financially comfortable rather than the downwardly mobile "white working class".

The traditional liberal or left attitude towards education was that it was an enabler of social mobility and aggregate growth, but that it wasn't the only route out of poverty or the only contributor to social advance. Becoming a skilled mechanic or nurse was good for you and good for society, and of course there were many in the working class who considered education a good in itself rather than just a ticket to prosperity. During the neoliberal era, education came to be seen as the sine qua non of economic growth, but this happened at the same time as the field of education became socially narrower. The varied ecosystem of the social democratic era, from polytechnics through apprenticeships to the WEA, has been flattened. We have many more colleges now, but they're all doing fundamentally the same thing. Many more kids go through further education today, but they usually end up with interchangeable degrees that get them clerical jobs. Education has become a transactional marketplace and that has amplified the role of qualifications as a class identifier.

This development has also reduced heterogeneity in the normative role of education. In other words, there is less plurality of values, which partly explains the perception of a "closing of minds" on campuses. One value that does remain dominant is the virtuousness of education. It isn't hard to see how this encourages elitism and a sense of privileged entitlement among the beneficiaries, and resentment and a sense of being looked down upon among the rest. There are two lessons here for liberals. First, stop over-determining education as a fundamental social divide. Analyses that claim educational differences explain Brexit and Trump are useless unless the plan is to disenfranchise non-graduates. All they do is reinforce the idea that unqualified equals stupid. What's needed is a sociological understanding of what education represents. Second, understand the difference between insult and identification. Christian Parenti writing in Jacobin put this particularly well.

At almost every turn the liberal pundits misunderstood, or did not hear, what Trump was saying. After his win in the Nevada caucus Trump said: “We won with highly educated, we won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated! We’re the smartest people, we’re the most loyal people.” Liberals lampooned him, assuming that he had insulted part of his base.

A different interpretation translates those comments as: “Trump understands that it’s not all my fault that I couldn’t get an education. He understands that even people who don’t have advanced degrees can make good decisions and are worthy of respect.”
Paul Krugman isn't stupid, but he exists in an elite bubble that encourages a lazy intellectualism in which liberals and conservatives are reduced to homogeneous tribes or personality types in the manner of Jonathan Haidt. Consider this from a column he wrote in April, 2014: "People want to believe what suits their preconceptions, so why the big difference between left and right on the extent to which this desire trumps facts? One possible answer would be that liberals and conservatives are very different kinds of people — that liberalism goes along with a skeptical, doubting — even self-doubting — frame of mind; 'a liberal is someone who won’t take his own side in an argument'." What he fails to see is that most people without college degrees are each a mix of liberal and conservative but that they are asymmetric in their scepticism. They are more suspicious of liberals because liberals have given them grounds to be. Krugman's column piece was entitled: Asymmetric Stupidity.

Monday, 21 November 2016

The South

The best film I saw this summer was Victor Erice's 1983 masterpiece, The South (El Sur), which belatedly received a UK theatrical release in September as part of a favourites list chosen for the BFI by Pedro Almodovar. I confidently use the word "masterpiece" because not only is the film very good, it is one of only 3 full-length features that Erice has made over a long career, the others being The Spirit of the Beehive (El Espíritu de la Colmena) in 1973 and The Quince Tree Sun (El Sol del Membrillo) in 1992. Less is evidently more. Erice's approach certainly suggests the work of a master painter, not just in the visual debt owed to Caravaggio and Vermeer, but in his patience and attention to detail. The Quince Tree Sun, a documentary about the artist Antonio Lopez Garcia, is partly a meditation on his own craft, but Erice is more than a painterly director, obsessed with the play of light and colour. He is also more than the reverential cinephile suggested by his reference to other films, such as James Whale's Frankenstein and Alfred Hitchcock's The Shadow of a Doubt.

For me, Erice is first and foremost a literary film-maker, inspired to render the shifting intellectual moods captured in a novel, particularly one that plots the moral and aesthetic growth of a young mind - what used to be known as a bildungsroman. In this sense, The South can be thought of as a portrait of the artist as a young girl. I chose those words because the author with whom Erice appears to have a particular affinity is James Joyce, another whose oeuvre was limited to a handful of masterpieces. If The Spirit of the Beehive has parallels with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - a dawning childhood awareness of adult hypocrisy leading to aesthetic rebellion and emotional exile - The South has clear thematic links to Ulysses, though it also freely borrows from the rest of Joyce's work. While Erice adds postmodern irony in his concern with truth and fiction (not least through the motifs of film and writing), this is at heart a modernist tale that contrasts an emerging consciousness with the inability to fully comprehend the motivations of others.

The consciousness belongs to Estrella, a child growing up in 1950s Spain, whose middle-class parents have reluctantly moved from Seville to a chilly, unnamed town in the North. This is the era when the Franco regime was at its most secure: forgiven its Fascism as an anti-communist bulwark, and yet to be economically and culturally marginalised by the rest of Western Europe in the 1960s. The film starts with a word repeatedly shouted in the night, a scene that will turn out to be the end of the film and which echoes the circularity and verbal emphasis ("yes!") of Joyce's Ulysses. The narrated story (a tale within a tale) opens with Estrella's father, Agustin, holding a divining pendulum over her mother, Julia's, swollen belly, predicting the sex of the unborn child and giving her a name. As Estrella's voiceover admits, "It is a very intense image that in fact I made up": an origin tale presented as a tableau of the Holy Family. This points to Estrella's determination to situate herself in the narrative, to understand her own life, but also to understand her enigmatic father, whose death by suicide will be revealed as both the start and end-point of the story.


We do not know if Agustin was exiled to the North because of Civil War politics, an unhappy love affair or a simple falling out with his own father. All are alluded to. Why does a man of science - her father is a doctor at the town's hospital - rely on the occult power of a pendulum? What exactly is being handed over, or let go, when Agustin leaves it under Estrella's pillow (on the same bed on which she imagined her naming) on the night of his death? We learn that Estrella's mother was a teacher in the South, but no longer teaches in the North, so perhaps it was she who was exiled for political reasons and Agustin who was obliged to follow. Estrella sees no mystery in her mother and even when she discovers, through an old letter, that her father had a previous love for whom he still pines, she shows more interest in the off-stage Laura, an actress who adopted the stage name Irene Rios, than she does in her mother's attitude to her father. Despite this, it is Julia, along with a number of other female characters, who gradually educates Estrella in the ways of the human heart.

El Sur is based on the novella of the same name by Adelaida Garcia Morales, who was Erice's then partner. The novella features many of the neo-gothic tropes that provided a rich seam for Spanish film-makers exploring the legacy of Franco's dictatorship: an isolated house, death, a mystery, a journey, family retainers etc. Famous examples include Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive, Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth , Alejandro Amenebar's The Others and much of the work of Pedro Almodovar (Volver, The Skin I Live In, Julieta etc). Where the film achieves a depth greater than the original story is in the amplification provided by a classical mythos accessed through Joyce. Agustin is another version of Odysseus, but one who ultimately fails to return from exile because he is finally rejected by a Penelope who demands ownership of her own life and fate (in political terms, this is a post-Franco Spain rejecting the emotional weight of the Civil War). In this reading Seville is Ithaca, Laura is Penelope and Julia is Calypso.

The role of Estrella is perhaps that of the young Nausicaa. In Homer's telling, she is both a symbol of unrequited love and motherhood - her saving of Odysseus prompts her to say, "Never forget me, for I gave you life", which parallels the way that Estrella's tale brings Agustin back to life through posthumous narrative, and also echoes the creation of life in the Frankenstein theme of The Spirit of the Beehive. If The South is also the story of the narrator's life, of an emerging consciousness, it is one that doesn't reach full maturity (the film was meant to have a second part, where Estrella finally visits the South, but funding ran out), however I think that much of its power comes from the fact that illusions are never fully shattered or truths wholly revealed. The beauty of the work comes in the quivering moments of realisation and doubt, not in the satisfactory resolution of a narrative arc. If gothic tales, like cinema thrillers, cleave to the melodramatic seriality of crisis and resolution, what distinguishes Erice's work is a classical sense of simultaneity. As Joyce put it, "There is not past, no future; everything flows in an eternal present".


Agustin's slow, final crisis is triggered by seeing Irene Rios in a fictional Spanish film, Flor en la Sombra (Flower in the Shade), a black and white thriller in which Rios's character is killed by a jealous lover. This prompts Agustin to write to Laura, which in turn leads to Laura's response in which she both finally rejects Agustin and her life as Irene Rios. We cannot be sure that this actually happens, as what we see is Estrella looking covertly in through a café window as her father reads a letter, while Laura is heard as a voiceover. Could this simply be the romantic projection of an adolescent girl? The cinema that showed the fictional Spanish b-movie now carries lobby-cards for Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. For Spanish cinema, Hitchcock was as heavy a presence as his contemporary Franco, reflecting both his prominence as a "supra-political" (and therefore uncensored) artist and the resonance of his themes of unreliability and deceit. It's also worth noting in passing that James Joyce was, for a short while, the manager of the first dedicated cinema in Dublin.

The South has always stood for potential in European thought - the direction of the warming sun and the exotica of empire - and the notion of potential is central to marginal societies ambivalent about tradition and struggling to achieve modernity, such as Ireland or Spain in the early 20th century. Were it not for the language spoken on screen, you could easily mistake the wet, green hills and the dark town by the reed-fringed river for Athlone or Galway. The air of conservative solemnity in Franco's Spain, which has an obvious analogue in the Ireland of the half-Spanish de Valera, is occasionally punctuated by ceremonies of hope. Estrella's first communion is followed by a family party at which she dances with her father for the first time, to an Andalusian pasodoble that appears to evoke memories for Agustin, and which marks her transition from child to girl. Years later, as they meet for lunch in a hotel restaurant, the two will overhear the same song playing at a wedding party in an adjoining room. This will prove to be Estrella's last meeting with her father, and the point at which she stops being a girl and becomes a woman.

For Agustin, the song provokes a sense of irretrievable history and one's own insignificance in the thoughts of others. This reminds us of Gabriel Conroy in The Dead, the final story in Joyce's Dubliners, who experiences a similar epiphany as his wife tells him how a song sung at a dinner party recalled to her a youthful sweetheart who she believes died for love, singing outside her window in the cold and wet when already ill. Where the two stories diverge is that Gabriel overcomes his dismay at his ignorance of his wife and comes to realise that we are all fated to become nothing more than memories in the minds of others. In contrast, Agustin seems unable to reconcile himself to this humanist thought, which leads to his suicide. In this sense, the narrative of Estrella is an attempt to preserve Agustin's memory more fully than he was able to preserve his own memory of the South or of Laura. The South, which preserves the youthful Estrella through her narrative, is both Erice's sardonic meditation on the unreliability of memory and an affirmation of the ability of film to capture time.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Meet the Leader of the Opposition

The US media reaction to the Trumpageddon has been predictably solipsistic, ranging from angst over the misinterpretation of polling data to pessimism over the regressive sociology of newspapers. While John Cassidy's polite "Media Culpa" and Thomas Frank's polemic against "The media’s extermination of Bernie Sanders" might not seem to have much in common, they both spring from an American belief in the institutional importance of the press as a pillar of democratic practice. Cassidy is painstaking in his attempts to prove that the media were sincere and diligent in their pre-election analysis, to the point of blaming deceitful voters who misled pollsters. In other words, "they" didn't play by the rules. Frank, whose 2004 book, What's The Matter With Kansas? helped construct the contemporary trope of a coastal elite in conflict with a small town middle-class, suggests that newspapers (The Washington Post in particular) have been captured since the 1970s by Ivy League graduates compromised through their social links with politicians and lobbyists.

Frank is accurate about the structural forces (the Ivy League takeover is real while the economics of the press have promoted opinion-mongering and clickbait to the exclusion of sober reportage) but he cannot resist conjuring a golden age situated somewhere around the pre-Internet era of All The President's Men: "The boom years of journalistic professionalization are long over. Newspapers are museum pieces ... no group knows the story of the dying middle class more intimately than journalists. So why do the people at the very top of this profession identify themselves with the smug, the satisfied, the powerful? ... This is a field, after all, that has embraced the forces that are killing it to an almost pathological degree. No institution has a greater appetite for trendy internet thinkers than journalism schools". While the sociology is on the money, it is shot through with nostalgia. Establishment newspapers have always preferred to support the powerful rather than hold them to account. Frank's claim that "every pundit and every would-be pundit identifies upward, always upward" applies to every era.

While similar claims for the institutional importance of the press can be heard in the UK, these tend to have less popular traction because of the dominant role of the BBC. Even before the Murdoch takeover of The Times, British broadsheets were seen as partisan. This in turn explains the near-hysteria that greeted Andrew Marr's decision to broadcast an interview with Marine Le Pen yesterday. Some liberals have criticised the decision to do this on Remembrance Sunday, which leads cynical old me to suspect a distraction: on any other Sunday the focus would be solely on the politics, not the appropriateness. In contrast, conservatives have insisted that "squeamishness should not be allowed to forestall a necessary debate". This is not just another example of how the concept of propriety has migrated from the right to the left, it's evidence of how the word "debate" has been corrupted to mean providing a platform. I can think of any number of people who would have been more effective than Andrew Marr at actually debating Le Pen's propaganda, and none of them are journalists. Frankly, Danny Dyer could have done a better job.

What this points to is both the systemic bias of the BBC's culture and the structural bias that arises from its claim to be the national broadcaster. Of the two, the latter is more problematic at present. The former is visible not just in the disproportionate coverage routinely accorded to business and professional elites but in the tendency to situate the middle of the political spectrum to the right of centre. This bias arises from BBC senior staff often being recruited through the same social channels at their preferred subjects: Oxbridge, journalism, politics etc. Though it is derided as cosmopolitan and liberal, this culture is actually just metropolitan and conservative. The bias is recognised in abstract terms by the BBC, but its attempts to mitigate this through "awareness" and positive discrimination are always going to be inadequate so long as senior roles at the corporation provide access to that elite milieu. Le Pen's appearance was made inevitable more by her speech to the Oxford Union last year than by Question Time's invitation to Nick Griffin in 2009.


The structural bias of the BBC is often reduced to the notion of "balance". In fact, the problem is not the corporation's tendency to give airtime to climate-change deniers, but its curation of a narrow political spectrum. This arises because it believes there are diminishing returns at the margins, which means debates are typically framed as a struggle between two positions in the centre. This is not a new tendency, even if it has been amplified by the economic and political pressures placed on the BBC since the 1980s. It made a lot of sense after 1945 shifted the political centre leftwards and 90% of the electorate identified with the two main parties, though its worth recalling that before the war the BBC, like most of the media, sought to marginalise Labour by preserving the traditional Conservative-Liberal duopoly long past the Liberal Party's sell-by date. In other words, it reflects the history of the UK Parliamentary system.

Now, at a time when the political centre is intellectually weak but the political left is barely tolerated by the establishment, this structural bias provides an opportunity for the far-right to intrude, essentially by recasting the centre as more "liberal" than it really is and by connecting small-c conservative elites, such as journalists and judges, with a network of more shadowy forces. Le Pen's remark to Marr that "Trump’s victory is an additional stone in the building of a new world which will replace the old one" hints both at the far-right's ambition (the totalitarian gloss of "a new world") and the complacent acceptance by the BBC of the suggested frame of "old" versus "new". For Marr, reflecting the BBC's own editorial values, the substantive issues were the Front National's electoral prospects and its propriety. Le Pen pere's dismissal of the Holocaust as "a detail of history" was predictably raised, and just as predictably dismissed by his daughter with practised ease.

One of the characteristics of the media's treatment of the far-right (from populists through nationalists to real Fascists) is the way that it abandons its usual critical tactics, such as the insistence on fiscal transparency. Few pressed Trump to put a cost on his wall and fewer still asked him how the US would fund it, knowing full well Mexico wouldn't. Farage was up-front ahead of the EU referendum in admitting that he'd rather the UK be poorer but with fewer migrants, but no one really pressed him on the implications, such as that an increase in relative poverty would not be evenly distributed across society. When Marine Le Pen rejected further Muslim immigration with "we're full up", and insisted her Islamophobia was a defence of secular values, Marr didn't ask how many Muslims France could continue to accommodate, nor how religion could fail to be a means of discrimination against existing citizens if Islam was defined as being at variance with French values.

One reason why establishment media like the BBC have traditionally done a poor job at challenging the far-right is that they simply don't believe that they are a threat. "How would you pay for that policy?" is what you ask a party you think might win an election. The approach has been to give the far-right a little airtime, to emphasise plurality and free-speech, but in the expectation that this modest rope will be more than enough to hang them, as Nick Griffin proved on Question Time. But that is no longer a credible explanation. If Marine Le Pen really could be the next French President, as Marr suggested, then his performance - the appearance of rigour and the total absence of pressure - was simply craven. The worry is that the structural bias of the BBC, which you can date from its behaviour in the 1926 General Strike, has become so much a part of the wider institutional fabric that it is now acquiescing in the normalisation of the far-right as the official opposition. And no - you can't blame that on Jeremy Corbyn.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Institutional Rot

If we think of Brexit and Trump as of an ilk, then a notable characteristic of this "illiberal tide" is that it has succeeded first in states with the longest established liberal political systems. Despite facing greater economic pain and social disruption in the wake of 2008, countries with relatively recent experience of Fascism and conservative authoritarianism, such as Spain and Greece, have not succumbed. The parties of the liberal centre have often been rejected, and even obliterated in some cases, but the far-right has not come close to power, and doesn't look likely to (e.g. Golden Dawn polls around 9%). Where it might is in next year's French Presidential election. However, while Marine Le Pen may do better than her father did in 2002, the most likely outcome remains defeat to a centre-right candidate, probably Alain Juppé, with a vote of around 30%. This is a worrying increase on the elder Le Pen's 18%, but it doesn't herald the end of the Fifth Republic. What Brexit and Trump point to is the failure of the political centre, not the resurgence of the anti-democratic right.

While progressive reform over the years has done much to alter the dispensations of 1689 and 1789, the UK and the USA both retain institutional features that embody a bourgeois democracy suspicious of universal suffrage (e.g. the US Electoral College), sympathetic to personality-driven factionalism, and dedicated above all to the preservation of property rights. Whether you consider it be-suited Fascism, know-nothing populism or ethno-nationalist authoritarianism, the current rightist insurgency is clearly directed at a liberal establishment. In most cases it is adopting a constitutional form, which is typical of populism, so the "threat to democracy" remains mostly hyperbole, and in many cases it is advancing classical (if not neo) liberal policies. Even parties like the Front National that consider democracy irrelevant to the "nation's will" know that challenging the liberal establishment is best done by claiming to be defending the constitution and secular rights, notably from "reactionary" Islam, not by advocating their overthrow.

The ascent to power of Fascism in Italy, Germany and Spain in the first half of the 20th century depended on three things: the dissatisfaction of conservatives with the extension of democracy (and the boost this gave to socialism); a general bourgeois fear of Bolshevism (which led to centrist toleration of the "state of exception"); and the liberal encouragement of ethno-nationalism at Versailles and after. You might be able to find faint echoes of each in contemporary politics, if you listen hard enough, though it's often liberals who are most dissatisfied with democratic practice while the great terror for centrists appears to be the mild social democracy advocated by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Ethno-nationalism is alive and kicking globally, but the fractious borders of the former Yugoslavia remain an exception in Europe, while the US is still a society divided by racial claims to property rather than ethnic claims to territory. What is consistent between the two eras is the fragility of liberal institutions: then because of their relative youth in Continental Europe; now because of their senility in the Anglosphere.


On election eve, The Economist caught the scent of this: "It can seem overwrought to warn about the risk of fascism in the context of proud old democracies like America and Britain. And in truth, neither is about to see brownshirts in the streets or the complete domination of government and society by autocrats. At the same time, it is important to understand that liberal society is not immutable. There is not much holding it up apart from the institutions we build, which themselves rest on a fine balance of costs and benefits. Mess around with those costs and benefits enough, and the thing can come crashing down." Though the piece was straplined "Democracy in danger" and opened with the observation that "Liberal democracies, while not exactly on the brink of a descent into fascism, are facing a period of crisis", the key point is that the hegemony of liberal norms depends upon the effectiveness of liberal institutions, and they have been in decay in the US and UK since the late 1970s.

Many people are confused by the distinction between liberal (meaning classical liberal) and neoliberal, assuming the latter is just the former in skinny jeans. While the theory remains fundamentally consistent, particularly in its privileging of private interest, there is a significant difference in practice, namely that the neoliberal extension of the market from commerce to all spheres of society has eroded both the normative authority of liberal institutions and their practical effectiveness. The institutions that developed in the 17th and 18th centuries were focused on protecting landed and bourgeois interests against autocracy, hence the division of powers, the constraints on prerogative and the focus on property rights. Those that developed over the course of the 19th century were more geared to managing contending interests thrown up by the industrial revolution and the growth of nationalism - i.e. the "social question" and issues of ethnic identity.

The success of Anglophone democracy in the 20th century owed something to luck, but it also owed something to the greater capability of its first-wave political institutions, first displayed by their resilience in the face of nationalism and then by their greater adaptability in the face of demands for universal suffrage and social reform over the course of the 19th century. Evolution, rather than the periodic revolution to be seen in Continental Europe, seemed to be more effective, but this gave rise to a smug superiority that in turn produced fussy constitutionalism, the preservation of antique forms and a self-satisfied civil service. This initial foundation was buttressed by the growth of civil society institutions, such as trade unions and local government, the adoption of claims to institutional roles by private enterprises like newspapers (the "fourth estate"), and the subsequent expansion of the welfare state. In the UK, for example, the BBC and NHS took on quasi-state roles in respect of normative values: truth, equality, solidarity etc. The problem arose when neoliberalism insisted that these auxiliary institutions, like the state itself, should respect only one value: the wisdom of the market.

As the varied institutions of civil society were gradually eviscerated or colonised by the market after 1980, more and more social demands were consequently directed towards the political institutions of the state. This was problematic both because of the neoliberal state's retreat from hitherto key areas of public life, such as responsibility for full employment and market regulation, and because the remaining antique forms were increasingly incapable of satisfying those demands. The regular call for public inquiries in the UK nowadays, which are by definition exceptions to the institutional norm (and are often decried by centrists for that reason), reflects the failure of the liberal state to efficiently respond to popular concern, much as the original concession of the EU referendum did. Every time a liberal commentator insists that only the House of Lords is defending our liberties against an aggressive government (and in the face of an incompetent opposition), you are witnessing an implicit admission that the institutions of liberal democracy are in crisis. Of course, liberals would prefer (as ever) to blame "mismanaged" democracy itself, or even cut to the chase and blame the mob.


Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, provides a good example of this transatlantic tendency when trying (ahead of yesterday's vote) to understand what motivates Trump's supporters and what liberals can do about it: "His followers are not, shall we say, there to root on their favored libertarian in his pursuit of free-market solutions to vexing social problems; they are there to scream insults and cry havoc on their (mostly imaginary) enemies" (given that Trump has got out the usual Republican vote, another way of reading this is that GOP supporters were never that bothered by free-market solutions). This leads Gopnik to liberal pessimism: "The more tragic truth is that the Trumpian view of the world is the default view of mankind. Bigotry, fanaticism, xenophobia are the norms of human life—the question is not what causes them but what uncauses them, what happens in the rare extended moments that allow them to be put aside, when secular values of toleration and pluralism replace them". The answer, of course, is that toleration and pluralism must be practised at an institutional level to become normative in society.

It would be easy to point at the multiple failings of the media in this regard, from the lies and vitriol of British tabloids and US cable TV, to the stupidity of the BBC's "balance" and the liberal media's indulgence of outrage (they need the clicks too), but the media has been partisan, bigoted and condescending since the advent of mass literacy. The real institutional rot has occurred elsewhere: in the performative cruelty of the "reformed" welfare state; the destruction of organised labour and the atomisation of the gig economy; and the denigration of any social solidarities outside the shared experience of a cultural commodity, like the Great British Bake-Off or the latest Netflix must-watch. Brexit was sold in terms of sovereignty and "taking back control", but the immediate result is that the UK's impending departure from the EU has placed intolerable stresses on the already rickety institutions of the liberal state. These have become attenuated not because of a lack of match-practice since 1972, but because the embrace of the EU allowed us to preserve antique forms long past their 1960s sell-by date.

So what can we forsee for the USA? Donald Trump's "movement" remains organisationally weak and ideologically inchoate. In the manner of many of his previous business ventures, the "brand" will be quickly absorbed by the Republican Party. Though he ended up running against the GOP establishment as much as the Democrats, Trump's lack of any emotional party affiliation means that he will pragmatically accept their support rather than seek to build a new organisation, though he'll no doubt indulge far-right fan-fic as well. The eclipse of the Bush dynasty, and Trump's likely appointment of people like Stephen Bannon of Breitbart fame, will see an ethical realignment all down the line. There will be a willingness, as in the UK, to interpret the "will of the people" in the harshest terms. Trumpism will simply be right-wing Republicanism largely unconstrained by the institutions of the Republic. Very soon, Trump will be the establishment, even if he continues to claim otherwise. Psychologically, he wants the luxury of being the ultimate outsider-insider.

His domestic priorities will most likely turn out to be tax-cuts and removing restraints on business, rather than building walls or quitting the WTO, even if he uses executive orders to make early eye-catching gestures and turns up in Nogales with a trowel. Digital economy companies like Apple and Amazon, who were solidly behind Clinton, will probably cut a deal on tax (they'll pay a bit more) in return for greater help for the security services (i.e. more surveillance). Obamacare may be formally repealed, but it will live on in diminished form: half a step forward, a quarter step back (Barack Obama will become the new Jimmy Carter). More illegal immigrants will be deported and Muslims will face higher hurdles to get in, but the bigger "homeland security" issue will be the steadily worsening relations between the police and working-class black Americans. The vote will be taken as a sign on both sides of the divide that black lives really don't matter that much.


Abroad, Trump will cleave to the usual positions, simply because US foreign policy rarely moves outside narrow bounds regardless of who is in the White House. With a compliant Congress and the prospect of a more right-wing Supreme Court, he will not need look to foreign affairs to compensate for gridlock at home. If his previous comments on Europe mean anything, it is that foreign policy isn't an area of real interest to him, not that the US is going to abandon NATO. After the liberal interventionism of the 90s and the neocon adventurism of the 00s, the pendulum had already swung back towards instrumental realism, which in practice means geostrategic caution and a disinterest in human rights. Extra money will flow to the military, but Trump's comments to date suggest he is more interested in spectacle and rhetoric - from drones to nuclear missiles - than boots on the ground.

What will ultimately distinguish Trump's tenure is institutional rot. The credibility of the Supreme Court has been dribbling away for years and this is likely to accelerate with further conservative appointments. The end of Congressional gridlock, combined with the opportunities for directing military and other infrastructural spending, will lead to a great flowering of pork-barrel politics and corruption. Trump's inability to control his own appetites or temper will lead to an excessive use of executive orders and the brokering of favours for buddies. The Federal Reserve will be bullied into line. The calibre of the civil service will plummet. I'd put the chance of him surviving four years at 50% (jail being a bigger risk than a bullet), and the chance of a second term at zero. Meanwhile, liberals, who today are already trying to love-bomb Trump into respectability, will bleat "I told you so, the man is deplorable", completely missing the point that they made him possible by rejecting pluralism and social conscience for the divisiveness and winner-takes-all mentality of the market.

In the UK, which suddenly looks almost comically parochial in comparison, there appears little likelihood the institutional rot will be reversed. Theresa May's commitment to an activist government, and the insistence on the social responsibility of business, will mean nothing without the rebuilding of the institutional infrastructure degraded since Margaret Thatcher bustled into Number 10. This is not only too big a task (Brexit provides the excuse to avoid a lot of hard choices), but it's one that might open up the pandora's box of constitutional reform, which would threaten too many vested interests. It will be far easier to focus the Home Office and Justice Secretary on keeping the tabloids sweet, which means beasting the poor and repelling immigrants, while Crown prerogative is exploited at every opportunity. The one hopeful sign in the UK is that some in the Commons looks like they're up for a fight with the executive. The worry is that the politico-media caste that has overseen Parliament's recent decay, from the evasions of Iraq to the cowardice of welfare reform, remain very much in situ and more concerned with social media proprieties and factional plotting.