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Saturday, 30 April 2016

Anger Management

The coincidence of the Hillsborough inquest verdict and the latest chapter in "Labour's antisemitism problem" offers an interesting comparison in anger management. The 27-year long campaign for justice for the 96 victims has been characterised by solidarity, dignity and a relentless commitment to due process. In contrast, the media fuss over the Labour Party has been characterised by division, hysteria and the inflation of scant evidence. I can't be the only person disappointed that the exposure given to the latter has now occluded the former. We could be debating the police oath: whether we should replace the words "I will well and truly serve the Queen" (i.e. the establishment) with something that recognises that the people are the sole source of authority; in other words, make "policing by consent" more than a weaselly phrase. Instead we are subjected to an absurd debate about Hitler.

Over the years, the anger of grieving relatives and a sickened city has been restrained - their most aggressive tactic was boycotting The Sun. The emotional response to the verdict, which has been shared well beyond Liverpool, was essentially one of vindication ("we were telling the truth") rather than vengeance. There is a determination that those guilty of negligence and cover-up will be punished, but none of the blood-lust that disfigures campaigns orchestrated by the tabloids. The campaigners were not only "exemplary" in playing by the state's heavily-biased rules of engagement, they exhibited the democratic decency that is often claimed to reside in "Middle England". Conservatives love to quote Chesterton on "the people of England, that never have spoken yet". In the case of Hillsborough, the people were speaking articulately and loudly all along, but they were callously ignored, not just by South Yorkshire Police and the Murdoch press but by successive governments.


Chesterton's 1907 poem, The Secret People, from which that famous line comes, is a historical narrative that proceeds from a lament over the destruction of the old social order by the Reformation (he was an ultramontane Catholic), through the Puritan delusions of the Civil War and the disappointments that followed the Napoleonic Wars.
Our patch of glory ended; we never heard guns again.
But the squire seemed struck in the saddle; he was foolish, as if in pain,
He leaned on a staggering lawyer, he clutched a cringing Jew,
He was stricken; it may be, after all, he was stricken at Waterloo
The offhand antisemitism is typical of both conservative and liberal writers of a century ago (Kipling, Eliot, Shaw, Wells etc), but it is worth noting that Chesterton was not an unthinking antisemite but a highly instrumental one. In 1933 he would opine that "Hitlerism is almost entirely of Jewish origin", his motive being to ridicule the idea of a "Chosen Race", whether Jewish or Aryan, in support of his belief that what really mattered was religion (and specifically fealty to Rome) rather than ethnicity. A not dissimilar instrumentalism, in the service of anti-nationalism, has often informed leftist reservations about Zionism. For example, George Orwell wrote: "many Zionist Jews seem to me to be merely antisemites turned upside-down" (context is important, so I'd recommend you read the entire essay, an example of intellectual honesty that can only deepen your contempt for those who claim to be his inheritors).

Which brings us neatly to that other public figure who delights in paradox, Ken Livingstone. I doubt the most famous newt-fancier in Britain is a real antisemite, just as I doubt Boris Johnson has a visceral hatred of Kenyans or Liverpudlians. What both are guilty of is using notional groups of people, essentially defined through media caricatures, as means rather than ends ("the pro-Israel lobby", "whingeing scousers"), which is an occupational hazard for both politicians and journalists. Significantly, both have shown that offensiveness is no bar to becoming Mayor of London. A paradox is that the current contestants for that office seem to doubt this. Zac Goldsmith has been trying to smear Sadiq Khan through a non-existent connection with Islamic extremism, while Khan's prompt condemnation of Livingstone surely reflects a worry over electoral impact as much as genuine dismay.

Goldsmith's tactic, which most observers attribute to the influence of Lynton Crosby, was coming under increasing criticism in recent weeks. The story about Naz Shah's 2-year old Facebook comments, which appeared out of the blue in the Guido Fawkes blog (a well-known conduit for Tory leaks), was providential in the manner of one of Crosby's signature "dead cats". The principle that cock-up is a more likely explanation than conspiracy holds good for most areas of life, but not for the realm of political news management. Whatever the truth of the matter, it has been fascinating to see how, once Livingstone dropped his trousers and helpfully mounted the dead cat in full public view, sentiment has shifted in respect of Naz Shah. She is now being described as the sort of MP that Labour needs more of (she's a centrist who supported Yvette Cooper in the leadership election), who has shown "a genuine engagement with the anti-Semitism that has found a happy home on parts of the left, and a desire to stamp it out". Apparently her re-education is nearing its completion.

The standout feature of l'affaire Shah is the way that politicians and media commentators who are normally critical of political correctness have adopted an attitude, and indulged in theatrical behaviours, that could justifiably be called "political correctness gone mad". This is the irony of myths such as "baa, baa white sheep" and "winterval": the extremism of imagined PC madness stimulates an equally extreme response, to the point that madness becomes institutionalised (that's the history of the US Tea Party in a nutshell). That right-wingers and authoritarians of various stripes are so good at performing political correctness is telling evidence that it is in fact a right-wing invention. In the case of John Mann, with his handy camera crew and Michael Moore-style ambush, it has been raised to the level of performance art. I genuinely think his "Nazi apologist" tirade at Livingstone should be submitted as an entry to this year's Turner Prize.


As a plausible narrative that went with the grain of wider social change, such as increasing tolerance and respect for individual rights, and wider intellectual currents, such as the linguistic turn and postmodernism, various PC tropes were adopted by their targets in the 70s and 80s as a strategy for advancing the social acceptance of minorities, notably a concern with verbal propriety (things that cannot be said) and correct labelling (taxonomy is structurally conservative). This inversion of ideas that were intended to be a source of ridicule highlights a problem with political expressions that depend on codewords and ambiguity, which is that irony is easily missed. People who deprecate "dog whistles" often fail to appreciate that many of the intended audience are functionally deaf, not because they're stupid but because they haven't been taught the codewords (e.g. what "North London" meant in the case of Ed Miliband) or because other associations cause a short-circuit (every time I hear the American phrase "super predator" I can't help thinking of Arnold Schwarzenegger, before remembering that it was a Clintonite euphemism for "violent black").

In the context of Israel, the employment of political correctness is most obvious in the insistence on its "right to exist", with the suggestion that anyone who questions the state's behaviour beyond a conventional agenda (free elections, the rule of law etc) is not just voicing an existential threat to the country but challenging a universal right and thus insulting us all. This is not merely an extension of the traditional ideas of sovereignty or "state's rights", which boil down to a contest over power between different institutions, but part of a wider trend to both raise "rights" to the level of a supreme good and extend them to non-democratic entities, such as corporations. This allows one claim of rights, the Palestinian demand for self-determination, to be countered by another, leading to the inevitable impasse of "irreconcilable rights". Of course, there is no equivalence. People have a right to political self-determination, but no state has a "right" to exist (neither Israel nor Palestine nor the UK) because a state is simply a contingent territorial jurisdiction that may or may not have been established by consent.

The danger for British Jews is that the current focus on antisemitism, whose actual incidence is rare within Labour (hence the very few proven cases and the triviality of much of the evidence), will normalise the idea that it is far more prevalent, to the point of alienating Jews from the party. Similarly, the deliberate conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism is a high-risk strategy as it suggests that Zionism is a matter of faith (or ethnicity) and therefore beyond political debate. There is also a danger that already-primed Muslims interpret the media prioritisation of antisemitism negatively, encouraging "Jew-trolling" as an obstreperous response to islamophobia. This fear is evident in the anxiety of many Jews on the left. The problem is that most British Jews with a high media profile have identified with the Blairites since the 90s, with the result that they are now shackled to a faction bent on confrontation with the elected leadership.

The right of the Labour Party are using antisemitism to advance their project to depose Corbyn with little regard for the collateral damage this causes British Jews. Naturally, the media are only too happy to encourage "We're not welcome, it's time to leave" articles, though they remain coy about asking Blairites why they don't resign if they're that miffed at the left turn. Instead, the Jews must flee (oh dear, I hope Livingstone doesn't spot that historical irony). The influence of the Jewish community within the party is in relative decline for a variety of reasons, but it's hard to imagine that the current nonsense will do anything other than accelerate that trend, which would be a loss both for the community and the party, and for the wider civic life of Britain. As the Hillsborough campaign proved, there is a deep fund of tolerance and decency in the country, but it needs support and celebration, not marginalisation by metropolitan egos.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Uppers and Downers

John Naughton thinks that "The people who want Brexit are passionate in their hatred of the EU. But those who think ... that leaving would be a mistake don’t seem to be able to muster anything like the same passion for their belief. And therein lies the danger: for ... the combination of anger, hatred, xenophobia and illogicality combine to product a powerful narcotic". This is a revealing misuse of the word "narcotic", which is a drug that induces sleep - a downer, in other words. The outers give the impression that they have popped a handful of uppers (perhaps more in Boris Johnson's case), while the inners appear to be on a Mandrax drip-feed, even when they crank up project fear. George Osborne's attempt to make our blood run cold with his prediction of a £4,300 loss per household was naffly reminiscent of Doctor Evil's "One million dollars", while David Miliband's claim that Brexit would be "unilateral political disarmament" was the metaphor of a man pining for the past.

The remainers have a strategic problem with the referendum campaign. Their best argument is essentially conservatism - don't change anything because change is risky - but this may induce apathy among the voters, and so suppress turnout, which would disproportionately favour the more committed leavers. The consequence is a campaign that tries to combine flattery and fear, but with the exception of Barack Obama's intervention (this year's David Bowie moment), the result is often dissonant. It's an approach that worked for the Scottish independence referendum, but that had the advantage of the threat to shrivel pensions and savings overnight by confiscating the currency. The problem for the remain campaign is that many people suspect it may not matter how we vote because the threats relate to issues that are indeterminate, such as future trade terms, or don't connect at a personal level (the official case in noticeably light on workers' right).

This points to a significant change over time. The great nineteenth century debate on protection versus free trade centred on the price of food, notably the ability of ordinary folk to avoid malnutrition by buying cheaper imported grain. This evolved by the end of the century into the campaign for imperial preference, in which UK manufactures would be exchanged for dominion foodstuffs to mutual advantage. While "Buy Empire" gradually give way to "I'm Backing Britain" over the course of the twentieth century, the price of food remained a prominent issue in the 1975 referendum campaign, not least because of fears that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) might prove to be the Corn Laws writ large - i.e. a return to higher profits for landowners at the cost of more expensive shopping baskets for working people.


The last 40 years have seen a fall in the cost of food as a percentage of income (steadily down in the first 30 years, then slightly up over the last decade), which is largely attributable to globalisation and increased productivity, much of which has been coordinated at the EU-level both through trade deals and regulation (standardisation tends to increase productivity). The CAP has lost its resonance for most people while supermarket monopsony in the UK (e.g. driving down the price of milk to the disadvantage of smaller dairy farmers) is now more likely to evoke popular anger than subsidies to agribusiness. This is one reason why newspaper tropes have shifted from the price support and waste of butter mountains to the bureaucratic myths of straight bananas. The government case for remain does note the risk of higher food prices outside the EU but associates this with a falling pound, rather than tariffs, which would be beneficial in other respects.

It is remarkable that the out campaign, despite a quarter of a century of thinking time (the Bruges Group was founded in 1989, UKIP in 1993), has presented an economic case for Brexit that is incoherent and arguments on sovereignty that are delusional. There is no clarity on what an optimum post-EU industrial policy would be and even less clarity on the future status of the UK's devolved governments, particularly in the event of a different vote result between England and Scotland. Some critics see this as evidence of the impossibility of the leave case, but that only shows the limit of their imagination, while others are perhaps closer to the mark in seeing it as evidence of the opportunism of leading Brexiteers. Personally, I think it is because the arguments for leaving have predominantly been developed by newspapers, for whom consistency and empirical foundations are not priorities.

There are two reasons for this. First, the EU has provided a means by which the papers have sought to discipline the Tory party since the 1980s (it's worth remembering that the press was overwhelmingly pro-EU in 1975), filling an instrumental gap left by the government's retreat from direct control of financial markets (particularly after 1992). A well-known paradox of right-wing newspapers is that they demand the retreat of the state at the same time that they demand a strong and decisive state. As neoliberal governments have ceded more to the market, areas that the state cannot easily divest, such as security and foreign affairs, have become more significant to the assessment of their performance and led to more demands for "action". The second factor is framing politics in the idiom of "national interest", which means a teen-like tendency to divide the world into friends and enemies, an obsession with international league tables, and a periodic rediscovery of strategic interests (e.g. steel).


This is a structural bias that arises from the nature of newspapers as much as from the dynamics of politics. Since the 19th century, the national project has been pursued through the standardisation of language in parallel with the building of a political consensus, hence articles on grammar remain as popular with the press as articles about social etiquette or property prices. In addition, nationalism creates a common market for the press, so there is a strong commercial imperative to align ideologically with the imagined nation, and thus be coterminus with the market, hence the easy recourse to xenophobia and the celebration of national tradition, no matter how spurious. But this also leads to a positive desire for integration by immigrants into the market, hence the emphasis on their need to learn English. Newspapers, as a language product, are structurally nationalist but not necessarily racist.

Newspapers that promote internationalism, like The Guardian, are consciously identifying themselves as a progressive fraction within society, but they don't fundamentally challenge national or class boundaries. Their cause is free trade and globalisation rather than social reform, which depends on the institutional protection provided by the nation state. They identify with the supranationalism of capital and the language of international business, so their grammar articles tend towards pragmatism rather than prescription and they have an appetite for American loan-words (e.g. "movie" versus "film"). They approach domestic nationalism through cultural goods, particularly those with international appeal, such as Shakespeare, and by evoking imagined national characteristics such as "tolerance" that emphasise accommodation and interchange.
 
It is no coincidence that the leading lights of the leave campaign have been newspapermen, that is politicians whose thinking has been formed by working for newspapers and whose political careers (and bank balances) are heavily dependent on favourable coverage and access to the opinion pages, such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan. Their prominence is not merely a reflection of the poor intellectual quality of other Brexiteers, such as Chris Grayling or Nigel Farage, but a sign that the Brexit discourse has more to do with a particular form of rhetoric than political or economic calculation. Its incoherence owes much to the leavers being the spiritual descendants of the Tariff Reform League but employing the language of free trade.


The limitations of this rhetoric can be seen in the way that the leavers have passed up opportunities to turn the remainers' threats to their advantage. For example, a fall in inward foreign direct investment, as a result of foreign businesses relocating to elsewhere in the EU, might increase unemployment in the short term but it would help our balance of payments in the longer term (monetary flows are increasingly more significant than trade to this balance). Similarly, the absence of trade deals is an irrelevance for those increasingly dominant parts of the export sector that deliver goods and services within the UK (e.g. concierge services in London) or online. These aren't killer arguments, but they aren't irrelevant either. The reason they don't feature is that they don't fit the newspaper narrative of an industrious "UK Plc" or the image of heavily-laden cargo ships.

The referendum contest is a classic non-meeting of minds in which one side presents feelings and the other side presents facts. One is not superior to the other, though over a long campaign the slow accretion of facts (no matter how individually dubious) tends to leave the latter side looking more substantial if not conclusive. In this it is simply an acute form of the perennial debate over immigration. It is interesting to note the contrast with the 1975 contest, when there was a mix of rhetoric and calculation on both sides. Roy Jenkins was just as high as Peter Shore, largely because both sides felt they could offer a vision of a better future. Today's Brexiteers may look like they're about to trip over into frothing psychosis, but that reflects their dependence on newspapers and their addiction to the synthetic drug of nationalism.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Hayek's Ignorance

A feature common to economics and sci-fi is abstraction, from the homogeneity of types (aliens, like utility maximisers, are usually representative rather than idiosyncratic) to the monocausal nature of change (the rule of ceteris paribus is usually only broken in sci-fi for comic effect, such as when an entire alien battle fleet is swallowed by a small dog following a terrible miscalculation of scale). This claim might appear questionable in hard sci-fi, where the writer delights in the scientific rigour and plausibility of her imaginings, but it is impossible to completely describe a speculative world within the confines of a single book, or even a series. The map is selective and approximate to the territory. The choices the author makes about which features to describe and which to ignore reflect not only the needs of the plot but her interests in the imaginary world. Much the same can be said of economists, hence the old joke, assume a can opener.

Price is not merely an efficient mechanism for the allocation of scarce resources but an abstraction that allows us to maintain a distance from the world. As Friedrich Hayek put it, in his 1945 essay The Use of Knowledge in Society, "The most significant fact about this system is the economy of knowledge with which it operates, or how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action. In abbreviated form, by a kind of symbol, only the most essential information is passed on and passed on only to those concerned. It is more than a metaphor to describe the price system as a kind of machinery for registering change, or a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement".

What's interesting about this is not just the prescient idea that price is "a system of telecommunications" but that obscurity ("how little the individual participants need to know"), rather than clarity, is its defining characteristic. Ignorance is a feature, not a bug. Hayek describes a world of "dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess". This dispersal, together with the fact that we cannot know who all the relevant individuals are in the composition of any given price, makes it impossible to gather and collate the underlying knowledge. Its meaning arises not through its aggregation but through its abstraction, "the movement of a few pointers". But where the metaphor breaks down is that we cannot reverse-engineer the mechanism, discovering and replicating the inputs that drove the needles on the dials. We have to take the output on trust. It's not too far-fetched to describe this as an occult theory of information.

The parallels between Hayek's system and a computer are obvious, if ultimately misleading: individually "dumb" calculations, massively-parallel processing, dynamic feedback and error-correction. In recommending the price system, he approvingly quoted Alfred North Whitehead from 1911: "Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them". The relevance of that to recent developments in automation and AI hardly needs to be stressed. But Hayek's system was driven by its lack of self-understanding, the absence of a coherent underlying intelligence as much as a central coordinator, not just its tolerance of incomplete information: "The problem is precisely how to extend the span of our utilization of resources beyond the span of the control of any one mind; and therefore, how to dispense with the need of conscious control, and how to provide inducements which will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do" [my italics].


The advance of IT since the 1970s has increasingly called into question Hayek's assumptions about what is possible, let alone desirable. Consider this: "Even the single controlling mind, in possession of all the data for some small, self-contained economic system, would not—every time some small adjustment in the allocation of resources had to be made—go explicitly through all the relations between ends and means which might possibly be affected". What seemed impractical in 1945 is now merely an electronic spreadsheet. Though social media have recently popularised the idea of "living our lives online", the dispersed knowledge that underpins price has been migrating to the digital realm (and thus becoming more consolidated and visible) since before Hayek picked up his Nobel Prize in 1974, not just in the growth of corporate resource planning and finance systems but in the spread of personal bank accounts, credit cards and so on.

While this has prompted some to speculate (with no little irony) that central planning might have been an idea ahead of its time (e.g. the debate around Francis Spufford's Red Plenty), most commentators on the intersection of IT and economics are dazzled by the promise of "big data" to reveal new opportunities for profit by isolating hitherto unknown signals in the vastly expanded noise. Some on the right have expressed unease at the potential challenge that big data presents to the Hayekian model of dispersed and fragmentary knowledge, but most have resolved this by accepting that data omniscience, like central planning itself, is fine as long as it occurs within a private firm operating in a competitive market. It's only a problem when done by the state, apparently.

But this ignores Hayek's crucial point that the justification for private action is ignorance not superior knowledge. As he put it in The Constitution of Liberty, "If there were omniscient men, if we could know not only all that affects the attainment of our present wishes but also our future wants and desires, there would be little case for liberty". Today, the impetus towards omniscience comes not only in the form of the state's appetite for mass surveillance but in the "imperial ambitions" of companies (working in tandem with the state) that seek to "organise the world's information" for profit. This desire has given rise to a business model in which information-rich services are offered for free (i.e. cross-subsidised to promote growth), which consequently inverts Hayek's system: greater visibility of preferences and the ability to infer expectations (i.e. knowledge) combined with price signals that are increasingly unrepresentative of "true cost".

Isabella Kaminska notes, "we are reverting to a world where a technocratic elite makes economic planning and allocation decisions based on their subjective interpretations of personal behaviours, status and privilege, who it’s fair to overprice and who it’s fair to subsidise, rather than clearcut at cost price signals from the market". Even technologies like blockchains, that seek to democratise information by avoing the "walled gardens" of the tech-titans as much as the central authority of the state, tend to do so by dispersing large datasets that are in regular communication with each other, to the point where we can reasonably talk of a distributed intelligence in which price is merely one property of a growing number of information classes. The desire to exploit that underlying intelligence is increasingly compromising the value of the price signal, which ironically makes Hayek's point that the power of price is a product of ignorance.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Brics Made of Straw

The survival of Germany's lese majesté law, under which a comedian is to be prosecuted for insulting the President of Turkey, is a reminder both of Germany's legalistic rigour and the way that the postwar occupying powers, specifically the UK, influenced the institutions of the Federal Republic. The irony is that desuetude, the customary ignoring of obsolete laws that allows the UK to resolve the conflict of past and present with a blithe "whateva", is alien to the more prescriptive German tradition of the Rechsstaat and the country's postwar commitment to constitutional propriety. What this tale reveals is not merely that German-Turkish relations are at a delicate point, but that institutional legacies are often the result of the historic interplay of internal and external forces. The British experience, in which institutions are the product of organic growth and the reconciliation of domestic interests, even when we import foreign monarchs, is atypical.

In many countries, the dominant factor in institutional design is importation, either through executive fiat or conquest, while in others it is the reaction and resistance to foreign imports that is crucial. This is particularly notable in the case of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), a group of countries whose varied institutional histories were blended (and blanded) for the consumption of international investors during the 00s, but whose differences have once more become matters of concern for the global economy since 2010, though even now the pessimistic view still tends to accentuate the similarities: "A common factor for all Brics countries as they struggle economically is institutional weakness, in particular a lack (or in some cases, a total absence) of democratic accountability, transparency in public life, and independent media scrutiny of official behaviour" (this assessment appears perverse considering Brazil's current turmoil).


The history of graft in Brazil cannot be understood without reference to the continuing power of landowners, descendants of the original Portuguese colonialists, who were major beneficiaries of the commodities boom of the 90s and 00s. Their historic dominance of society long-hampered the growth of a native middle class that wasn't dependent on their patronage. When that independent middle class started to emerge in the 1990s, facilitated in no small part by Lula's compromise with neoliberalism, there was a predictable turn against establishment corruption. Though the current protests (and those before the 2014 World Cup) are directed at the governing Workers Party, the salience of graft in the debate actually reflects the declining power of the landowning elite as the economy develops and diversifies. The problem is that the institutions of the Brazilian state are still geared to colonial extraction and influence-peddling, largely because of the lasting influence of that elite and its institutional embedding during the military dictatorship of 1964-85.

Before the early 70s, the economy of the Soviet Union was growing at rates comparable to the West. The ensuing "era of stagnation" is variously attributed to the flaws of central planning, gerontocracy, and bad choices in computer architecture. The more straightforward explanation is that the economy turned away from a potentially "inclusive" path towards a more "extractive" one, in the terminology used by Acemoglu and Robinson in Why Nations Fail, as a result of the combination of rising oil prices and over-capacity in heavy industry. This in turn reflected an institutional bias towards war-preparedness, which was the paranoid (if understandable) legacy of the 1940s. The shock-treatment of the Yeltsin years abandoned this (Putin's national revival is militarily cheapskate) and imported the institutions of extractive capitalism as the quickest route to solvency (and the transformation of the nomenklatura into oligarchs). Russia's problem since Peter the Great has been a tendency to import institutions (the revolution was a prime example) that don't fit together well, leaving gaps that encourage corruption and instability.

India continues to suffer from the legacy of the Raj. We Brits forget that the colonial government of India was wholly unlike its UK equivalent, despite the shared ceremonial features, having repurposed institutional forms established by the East India Company, many of which had been adapted from earlier Mughal forms, particularly in respect of land tenure and agricultural production. This is how "a tiny sliver of British soldiers and administrators somehow managed to govern a subcontinent populated by roughly 250 million subjects" (i.e. they subcontracted to local elites). While there was considerable reform once direct rule was established after the rebellion of 1857, there was also much continuity, as there would be after 1947. Imported "national" institutions, such as the civil service, the railways and cricket, which remain popular with BBC documentary-makers keen to show the positive side of the British legacy, obscure the enormous social and cultural fragmentation of the Indian state.


China is often read in terms of the traditional motifs of chaos versus order: the mandate of heaven, the rule of the emperor, the fear of dissent (Michael Wood's recent BBC documentary series was a decent survey of its history but too reliant on these motifs). The story of repeated invasion, destruction and absorption (actually no worse than the history of many European countries) tends to downplay the institutional resilience of China, outside the tropes of culture and Confucianism, instead implying a decadence and other-worldliness that was originally theorised as part of the justification for the incursion of Western powers in the nineteenth century (the British characterisation of the Chinese as debauched opium-addicts was particularly ironic). The chief institution in Chinese society has always been the extended family and its setting within the wider clan or lineage group, and the overlap of this with economic units. In institutional terms, China is one of the most robust nations on the planet, but this has little to do with the state apparatus.

In South Africa, the symbolism of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee encouraged a changing of the guard with insufficient attention to institutional reform. Much of the corruption visible today is the continuation of practices established during the latter years of minority rule, often ironically stimulated by Western sanctions. Apartheid was always presented internationally as a perversion of an otherwise "civilised" polity based on the British model. This was a consequence of the institutional continuity between the old Cape Colony and the Republic of South Africa. Consequently, there was insufficient appetite to reform the state and legal system beyond making it "colour-blind". While this continuity has provided stability (despite the high profile of social violence, political violence has been relatively rare), it has also allowed the preservation of essentially colonial institutions, a point made by the original Rhodes Must Fall movement.

There are many institutional similarities between South America and Southern Africa. Brazil and South Africa remain essentially colonial states with society divided along racial lines and the lack of significant land reform a running sore. Old elites retain extensive power and influence, while official politics places an increasing emphasis on the "new middle class" as the arbiters of democracy. Russia struggles to escape its history as the world's institutional laboratory (much of Putin's attraction domestically was a promise to stop the experiments), while the Chinese state, having failed to conquer the institutional base of society during the Cultural Revolution, is gradually producing an increasingly fractious ancien regime. India is a cohesive nation only insofar as it hangs on to antiquated British institutions and the shared bogeyman of a nuclear Pakistan. The eclipse of the Congress Party by the BJP suggests that the tensions arising from variable economic growth are becoming acute.


States that transition to democracy initially suffer institutional weakness because of the legacy of pre-democratic institutions. Even if a new broom approach is adopted, the "remnants" of the previous regime still exert considerable influence, and attempts to sweep away the old order in its entirety are often counter-productive, as in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. The idea that the introduction of the "free market" will accelerate institutional development, like the idea that it will naturally spawn democratic practice, is misguided. The problem of the commercial firm as an institution is that the law is considered secondary to business norms, even in established democracies (CSR is no substitute for civics). This is why a company like Mossack Fonseca is not a pariah, why UK-based banks can shrug off convictions for money-laundering, and why whistleblowers are routinely treated as traitors.

Germany will no doubt repeal its law of lese majesté in time, and will pat itself on the back both for its constitutional diligence and cultural progress. The evolution of the Brics is less certain. The national institutions of India and China are more fragile than their postwar politics implies, though this is less surprising when viewed in the context of a history of division. Brazil and South Africa will shrug off their colonial legacies eventually, but it is hard to predict the manner in which this will happen and what the outcomes will be. Russia is currently indulging a nostalgia for popular institutional forms of the past, notably the "little father" in the Kremlin and the "elite" army, but this looks like an indulgent distraction from an institutionalised kleptocracy. What we can say with certainty is that the western homogenisation of the Brics as an investment portfolio is a delusion that can be safely consigned to the dustbin of history.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The Filth and the Fury

The Guardian has got its knickers in a twist over the Interwebs. Being a newspaper, it cannot resist the temptation to invoke biblical parallels from the pulpit: "In the beginning was the web. A playful, creative and open space, where anyone could connect, and every assumption, every hierarchy, could be challenged. ... but along with online camaraderie, the vituperative modes of interaction took hold: bullying, shaming and intimidation". From Eden despoiled we segue to original sin: "For some, it is simply human nature, the inescapably nasty and brutish ways of the world finding electronic expression. Others ... point to problems with the rules of engagement, with some suggesting that the freedom to invent a new identity is, like Plato’s ring of Gyges, taken as a freedom to slip free of all morality". You can see where this is going: freedom (like everything) has a price, rights entail responsibilities, and can we have your home address for marketing purposes?


You'll also note the chronological shift from the legends of ancient Israel to the philosophy of ancient Greece, which reminds us that history is progressive: "Physical chastisement of women at home was once unexceptional, racist name-calling 'a bit of fun', and bottom-pinching at work an everyday occurrence, something to be endured, because it was not going to change. Slowly but surely, though, time was called on such shoulder-shrugging indifference, and the world changed". You don't have to subscribe to the optimism of Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature to recognise that in aggregate we live in a more tolerant and considerate world, which means that offensive social media ought to be welcomed on the principle that sticks and stones are better than broken bones. But liberals are not libertarians. Freedom is conditional and easily corrupted by the persistence of atavistic evil: "much of this new online abuse works to reinforce ancient prejudices". The work of progress is never done.

The media obsession with "hyper-terrorism" is being used by authoritarians to advance mass surveillance and the conditional suspension of rights. Likewise, the reported rise in antisemitism and misogyny on the left is being used by liberals to differentiate themselves and fill the policy vacuum caused by the redundancy of Third Way politics. The right have occupied the fiscally-conservative / socially-liberal space, while the "new new" left have revived social democracy. Centrists are left with the narrow terrain of identity politics in which ontological security has given way to full-blown paranoia: trolls to the left of me, trolls to the right. However tragic terrorism may be for an individual, or however horrible online abuse may be for its target, our current hysteria is disproportionate and obscures the real agenda: "Are there changes to the law that could ensure better protection and policing of this shared space? What responsibility lies with platforms like Facebook; and then, what responsibility lies with publishers such as the Guardian?" This is not just a plea to restore the social gatekeeper role of newspapers but an insistence that businesses are central to policing social rules. Neoliberalism isn't dead yet.

Humanity is becoming more tolerant and considerate in large part because of increased communication, but this process is messy. All new media witness initial abuse, simply because opportunity initially exceeds learned self-control (when I got my first cassette tape recorder in the late-70s, I'm pretty sure my test recording went something like "fuck, shit, bollocks, cunt"). This is followed by the gradual imposition of new norms of behaviour. The media can be thought of as a spotlight (or window, a la Overton) that reveals subjects and language deemed acceptable and appropriate to public discourse. Social media has expanded the area of illumination, but it has not created attitudes that previously didn't exist. The Guardian initiative is part of the process of formalising the boundaries of this new area, and as such it is following tradition in justifying censorship through the avoidance of damage. Where once we would ban seditious pamphlets for fear of public disorder and the destruction of property, now we privilege the mental health and right to be heard of the victimised lesbian columnist while marginalising the mental distress and limited voice of the angy white male troll.

Even those who welcome the horizontal potential of new media are susceptible to this moralism. Thus Paul Mason shies away from censorship but advocates education, which is just a progressive form of discrimination (i.e. reject that, embrace this): "Wherever the internet is not censored it is awash with anger, stereotypes and prejudice. ... ultimately what defeats genocidal racism is solidarity backed by logic, education and struggle. The left’s most effective weapon against antisemitism in the mid-20th century was the ability to trace the evils of the world to their true root cause: injustice, privilege and national oppression generated by an economic model designed to make the rich richer". This is still censorship because it constructs a hierarchy of value: antisemitism is not a legitimate way of understanding and negotiating the world while materialism and class struggle is. I might agree, but the point is that free speech entails the freedom to be wrong.

Mason's concern is ultimately one of seriousness: a fear that the masses are too easily distracted and misled to address what really matters. At root this is an old religious prejudice, filtered through the Enlightenment, that suspects the mob of a predilection for disorder and vice: "a culture that sees offensive speech as a source of amusement and the ability to publish racist insults as a human right". Even when the criticism is directed at those who profit from this - the modern equivalent of the moneylenders in the temple - the implicit criticism is of the weakness of the people. Thus Peter Preston: "So the bleak charge is that, for all its bright promise and sundry achievements, the net we have and the net we’ll get swamp tolerance, obliterate thinking time, fill minds with instant gratification and hatred. They play a role in undermining traditional party structures. They let demagogues loose. And they do it in a manufactured quest for clicks and cash" (just as an aside, how did this grammar-mangler ever get to edit a newspaper?)


Despite the oft-repeated claims, the Internet is not awash with hate-speech and profanity. Most people's Facebook timelines are dominated by the mundane and the silly. There are more cat videos than Daesh snuff movies because there are more cat-lovers in the world than terrorists, there are probably more Downfall parodies than genuine Nazis, and what has multiplied most are adverts, which is why the unit cost of advertising has fallen. Up till the late-80s, it was routine to hear misogynistic, racist and homophobic remarks in casual conversation. Our sensitivity is quite recent. If you went in to a public bar, a typical topic of conversation would be that cunt they've got at right-back. The coverage of football by newspapers, whether broadsheet or tabloid, was narrow and unimaginative, and only distinguished from the bar in its avoidance of swearing. The growth of football fanzines was driven by a desire to broaden and improve discussion in all dimensions. This included the denigration of various people, but taking the piss out of Ken Bates for his Thatcherite conceits was actually a step up on simply dismissing a right-back out of hand.

It has become convenient for journalists to claim that the decline in trust in institutions, notably newspapers and TV news, but also in politics as a chief subject of "respectable" media, reflects the impact of the Internet, despite ample evidence that declining trust in institutions is a long-term trend that starts in the 1970s and reflects the neoliberal shift from collectivism to individualism: "The beginning of political and economic liberalism is distrust" (in the sense of a wariness about state intervention). This points to a division in the meaning of "trust" between social relations (respect and authority) and a market signal (trustworthiness as a commodity). The problem for traditional media is that structural changes - the proliferation of channels, free content and the amplification of social media - have diluted the former and made the latter more clamorous. That's a problem for them but it doesn't mean that the Internet is eroding democracy. If anywhere, the finger of blame should be pointed towards neoliberalism.

Racist, homophobic and misogynistic trolling is clearly reactionary, reflecting changes in the workplace and society that make groups that once enjoyed relative privilege, such as working and middle-class white men, defensive and resentful. But this means that it marks a defeat, not a triumph. Indeed, the highpoint of trolling may well have already passed. In this light it is worth considering porn. The normalisation of hardcore pornography (i.e. images of acts that are themselves legal) by the Internet has not led to the collapse of society, essentially because it reinforced an existing trend towards more liberal attitudes to sex that arose from wider social changes. The point is not that trolling will be normalised and even more prevalent, but that baiting someone over their race or gender will eventually become as passé as being censorious about their legal sexual interests. This won't happen overnight, because gender and race prejudice are hardwired into our socio-economic system, but it will happen in time.

The recently-reported story of John Whittingdale's relationship with a woman who worked as a prostitute is illuminating in this regard. Formerly as chair of the Commons select committee on the media and now as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Whittingdale has been consistently supportive of the press and reluctant to implement the full recommendations of the Leveson inquiry. The decision by four papers to spike a story that was otherwise catnip (Norman Lamont got it in the neck just for having a dominatrix as a tenant) looks like a supportive gesture towards an ally. This highlights the discrimination of the press - willing to attack perceived enemies while indulging their friends - which is the real political issue. What was incidentally revealing was the lack of comment about Whittingdale's unashamed use of match.com, indicating the degree to which "hook-up" apps have become normalised. We've come a long way from the swimming pool at Cliveden.