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Sunday, 14 July 2019

The Mandate of Heaven

Just as the Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven was used to justify both the authority of the emperor and the right of the people to overthrow him, so the concept of totalitarianism has been employed both to advocate democracy and to excuse authoritarian restraints upon it. In a review of Kai Strittmatter's We Have Been Harmonised, which looks at the way technology is being used for social control in China, John Naughton draws a distinction between networked authoritarianism and networked totalitarianism: "An authoritarian regime is relatively limited in its objectives: there may be elections, but they are generally carefully managed; individual freedoms are subordinate to the state; there is no constitutional accountability and no rule of law in any meaningful sense. Totalitarianism, in contrast, prohibits opposition parties, restricts opposition to the state and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life." If Putin's Russia is the pre-eminent authoritarian regime in this definition, then Xi Jinping's China is the pre-eminent totalitarian one (North Korea is eliminated on the technicality of not being "networked").

But it's not at all clear that there is a meaningful distinction to be made between authoritarianism and totalitarianism beyond the specific - and for most people largely irrelevant - point about legal political parties. Viewed from the perspective of a worker or peasant, there was little to no practical difference between the two during the twentieth century, the chances of being shot or starved to death notwithstanding. A dividing line can be drawn around Nazi Germany, the Stalin-era Soviet Union and Mao-era China on the basis of body-counts, but the theory of totalitarianism developed by Hannah Arendt and others was essentially about social control rather than murderous practice, and there are plenty of authoritarians with bloody hands. A cynic might suggest that an authoritarian regime in the twentieth century was simply one that the middle-classes were prepared to tolerate in the interests of restricting democracy and preserving private property. Despite its investment in the technology of social control and the privileged position of the CCP, China may just be another authoritarian regime.


That's certainly one way of reading Tyler Cowen's claim that democracy is not coming to China anytime soon: "If you belong to the Chinese upper class or even middle class along the eastern coast, you may end up asking yourself the following question: Who is more likely to protect my basic economic interests, the current Chinese Communist Party, or a democratic representative of Chinese rural interests? … One recent study has shown that Communist Party members are more likely to have progressive views on issues of gender equality, political pluralism and openness to international exchange than do the Chinese public at large. Again, if you are an elite among the Chinese citizenry, it is not a sure thing that you will do better with democracy than under the Communist Party." That democracy jeopardises vested interests is hardly an insight, but it's still a surprise to see an advocate of free markets admit that it isn't the inevitable product of economic reform.

Unlike Cowen, Naughton isn't prepared to concede that authoritarianism might in fact be the natural outcome of capitalism when unconstrained by organised labour -  in other words, that the emergence of democracy in Western Europe and North America was highly contingent - but this means identifying an additional factor that can explain China's peculiar path. That factor is digital technology: "We thought that if the Chinese wanted to modernise, they would have to have capitalism. And if they had capitalism, they would have to have democracy. And if they wanted to have the internet (and they did), they would have to have openness, which would eventually lead to democracy. All of which turned out to be baloney. Essentially, the CCP decided that they could have their cake and eat it – and they have succeeded. They have embraced digital technology and used its intrinsic affordance of comprehensive surveillance to construct a successful, powerful, growing, networked totalitarian state with global ambitions."

The implication is that the mass surveillance enabled by the Internet has allowed the CCP to prevent capitalism's magic from fostering democracy and a free press. This dovetails with the now dominant belief in the media that the Internet may be a threat to established democracies as well, although paradoxically as much through its lack of restraint (incivility) as through the abuse of bad actors (fake news). Behind this spectre of a disruptive and antisocial technology lies the Cold War-era image of a totalitarian society in which everyone is closely monitored and fearful. One of the revelations of the 1990s was that the USSR had not been anywhere near as totalitarian as the propaganda maintained (revisionist historians had been making this point since the 1970s, but it only came to public consciousness after 1989). The Brezhnev years, now nostalgically recalled by many ex-Soviet citizens because of their stability and modest sufficiency, were marked less by Orwellian fear than Hancockian boredom. What most people were hankering for were better commodities, not a free press. The irony is that the arrival of those commodities has led to more pervasive surveillance in the form of the commercial Internet.


The West has long created imaginary "others" at the level of society as a way of speculating on changes that might be adopted domestically, both benign and malign, from political systems to sexual habits. Though we nowadays think of the Orientalist tradition as a justification for imperialism, it was marked in its earliest phases by an admiring assessment of the strengths of the Ottoman state, an approach that has its modern echoes in newspaper articles praising the achievements of Singapore or indeed China. Much of the positive style of this speculation shifted towards the realm of science fiction in the twentieth century, though its "real world" application lived on in the romantic appreciation of national liberation movements. The negative style was dominated by its political utility, notably in the 1940s literature of totalitarianism and the 1950s to 1980s literature of the Cold War.

Much of the Western speculation about China's "Great Firewall" and the emerging technology of "hyper-surveillance" seeks to recreate that imagined environment of paranoia and intrusiveness, but it is questionable whether there is any more substance to it today than there ever was. The world depicted in 1984 was no more credible, either technologically or socially, than the one depicted by The Martian Chronicles, though its likely that Ray Bradbury was more conscious of the fact that he was really writing about the Mid-West than George Orwell was conscious that he was writing about Eton. Likewise, the tales of China's social-credit system, CCTV networks and facial-recognition software sound scary until you remember that the same technology is already being used extensively or trialled in the West. In terms of remote and automated surveillance at street level, Beijing and London are pretty similar.

Naughton recognises one oddity of our current geopolitical focus: "China’s modernisation means that bipolarity has returned and a formidable alternative to our system has materialised. Yet we remain obsessed with Russia – which is a nuisance rather than an existential threat – and not with China." Perhaps the truth is that we don't want to let go of the dystopia of the USSR. In an age of limited communication and restricted travel, it had the advantage of being obscure and impenetrable, like the mysterious Orient of old. In contrast, modern China is relatively open, highly-visible and for all practical purposes little different to other East Asian states. It's clearly not as "free" as Japan (though that is a de facto one-party state, incidentally), but it's also not as satisfyingly totalitarian as the imaginary Soviet Union of the 1970s.


To make up for this, we have to imagine that the Chinese use of surveillance technology is both more technically advanced and socially pervasive than it is in the West. The Cold War paradigm is no longer appropriate, but the trope of the cunning oriental never goes out of fashion, so there is a ready market for tales of nefarious practice and totalising ambition, as Huawei has found to its cost. Rebecca MacKinnon, who coined the term "networked authoritarianism", has made the point that it is a model of social control that is dependent more on legal coercion, commercial cooperation and warrantless surveillance than on traditional censorship or blunt service denial. In other words, it is about the intersection of the state and the market - they are complementary rather than antagonistic. One reason for the emergence of the term "networked totalitarianism" is that MacKinnon's characterisation applies equally well to Western countries, particularly after the various surveillance scandals of the last decade. We need something stronger to put the Chinese into a class of their own.

A decade ago Yevgeny Morozov noted how US technology could be employed by authoritarian regimes: "Can the Internet empower dissidents and pro-democracy activists? Yes. But it can also strengthen existing dictatorships and facilitate the control of their populations. Washington's utopian plan to liberate the world one tweet at a time could also turn American innovation into a tool for the world's subjugation." Today, the belief is that China may be closer to realising the potential of AI for social control than the West, but this is as much an expression of envy as of fear and at times seems more informed by the speculative fiction of Isaac Asimov's "psychohistory" than by any technical reality. Once more, China is being held up as an example for the West, or more accurately for authoritarian tendencies within Western political establishments: "Even some foreign observers, watching from afar, may be tempted to wonder if such data-driven governance offers a viable alternative to the increasingly dysfunctional-looking electoral model." When people start talking about a totalitarian "threat", the restraint of democracy never seems to be far away.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Normalising Extremism

One the axioms of twentieth century political history is that the far-right can only come to power with the support and facilitation of the establishment right. The most famous example is Hitler's promotion by Hindenberg and von Papen in Germany in 1933, at a time when the Nazis enjoyed little more than a third of the electorate's support and appeared to be losing ground. The same pattern was visible in the rise of Mussolini and Franco, suggesting a widespread determination by the right to ally with radical reactionaries rather than cede any ground to the left, whether Bolshevik or not. Much of the contemporary liberal angst over the rightward drift of establishment parties like the US Republicans reflects this history. According to taste, flirting with the far-right is the result either of conceited miscalculation ("We will box him in", as von Papen said of Hitler) or simple stupidity. While such interpretations appeal to our appetite for tales of hubris and human fallibility, they ignore structural imperatives and the extent to which conservatives are fully aware of what they are doing. The current "populist moment" is perhaps a good opportunity to consider these other perspectives.

An example of a structural imperative can be seen in the normalisation of the far-right by the BBC. While it would be easy to assume the Corporation is over-run with sympathisers, or perhaps just reckless poshos who have ignored the warning from history, a better explanation for this can perhaps be found in the concept of balance. The biggest change to the political practice of the BBC since the 1980s has been its willingness to allow the press to drive the current affairs agenda, a development exacerbated by the Birtian reforms and made visible in the amount of political coverage now devoted to opinion. As the press's position has typically been further to the right than the Conservative party leadership, finding advocates for this agenda - in order to present a "balanced" argument - has led to a greater reliance on both media provocateurs and far-right organisations, from "insurgent" political parties to opaquely-funded think-tanks and lobby groups. The problem this gives rise to is that the fulcrum of debate in the BBC is then much further to the right of its actual location among the general population (as evidenced by the widespread support for Labour's policies).

This bias to the right is apparent not just in the subjects the BBC picks for debate, or in the personnel it selects to provide commentary, but also in the speed by which fringe opinions become acceptable within mainstream discourse. For example, in three years Brexit has gone from a debate over whether we should leave the EU, in which advocates of departure assured us that this would mean exiting the "political project" but not the single market or customs union, to one in which the debate pivots on the relative merits of walking away without a deal on future trade. This "all we need are WTO terms" extremism has been mirrored by the emergence of the "hard remain" position - revoking Article 50 and thereby annulling the 2016 referendum - which has allowed the BBC to present a "balance" comprised largely of two positions that are supported by only small minorities of the population.


The normalisation of the far-right has, as Simon Wren-Lewis points out, gone hand-in-hand with the demonisation of the current Labour leadership. This isn't coincidence but the result of an attempt to redefine the boundaries of acceptable political opinion. Labour is now "too far left", while Nigel Farage and the vague but menacing Brexit party are "not so far to the right" when contrasted to the remnants of UKIP, Tommy Robinson and crypto-Fascist imports such as Generation Identity, though equally dubious individuals and groups, like Steve Bannon and Turning Point, are still considered to be just about on the acceptable side of the outer boundary. The heavy work in achieving this reframing of acceptable politics has been done not so much by the established right as by the centre, which is where ideologically the BBC assumes that it sits. The "if both sides criticise us, we must be doing something right" defence is not just smug self-satisfaction, it accepts a polarisation that centrism supposedly deplores.

But where I disagree with Wren-Lewis is in his attribution of the Conservative party's connivance in this rightwards drift to miscalculation (or "overreach"), specifically pursuing policies such as immigration targets, an EU referendum and austerity for short-term gain, with insufficient heed to the trouble they were storing up and the encouragement they provided to the far-right. It is important to remember that the party's fetishisation of immigration targets was not just done at the behest of the press and lobby groups such as Migration Watch, but also in response to the strong feelings of its own backbench MPs and membership. Though the targets were always likely to be unachievable, Cameron accepted their political necessity as a signal of intent. The problem was not that the party was duped into adopting an extreme position by the far-right, but that too many party members and MPs were sincere in their desire to radically reduce net immigration, not least the then Home Secretary, Theresa May.

The folklore around the EU referendum decision has focused on Cameron's de haut en bas reluctance and his expectation that coalition with the Liberal Democrats would provide an excuse to drop any commitment to a public vote. But again this ignores the strength of feeling within the Conservative party. While the Bruges Group and latterly the ERG have always been a minority interest in Parliament, they were clearly much more in tune with the views of the party membership, not to mention significant parts of the press. Cameron couldn't put the referendum off for ever, and it's likely that in a counterfactual where he completed his term in office without conceding one, the subsequent leadership contest would have been dominated by the issue, as has in fact been the case now on two separate occasions. The one thing that has united all the contenders in the current contest is the belief that Brexit must be "put to bed". A failure to do so would represent an existential threat to the Conservative party, not because it would lose voters to the Brexit Party but because it would lose MPs and members.


Likewise, austerity should be seen less as a clever manoeuvre by George Osborne to blame Labour for the financial crisis and more as a conscious strategy, in line with a consensus elsewhere in Europe and the developed economies (what Wolfgang Streeck referred to in Buying Time as the "consolidation state"), to rehabilitate a policy framework ("expansionary fiscal contraction") that had been in bad odour since the 1930s. That the policy has continued to be rigorously pursued despite both the evidence of its practical failings and the embarrassment of it theoretical case (the infamous Reinhart-Rogoff spreadsheet error) tells us that it is more than an electoral tactic. The aim is not merely to shrink the state or hive off more public services to the private sector, it is to re-establish a sound money convention strong enough to constrain any future administration (a trap the pre-2016 Labour leadership foolishly walked into). Osborne's austerity was about ruling out a future Labour government, not just using a former one as a scapegoat for capitalism's ills.

A common element that runs through this analysis is the role of the press in pushing political discourse to the right - shifting the so-called Overton Window (Joseph P. Overton, who developed the concept, was in the business of advocating free market policies initially deemed radical or even unacceptable by public opinion) - whether done directly through slanted news and partisan comment or indirectly through pressure on the BBC. Boris Johnson's march to the leadership of the Conservative party and Number 10 Downing Street has been emblematically marked by a revival in the power of newspapers. The initial sidelining of TV debates was explained as Johnson's "fear" of being shown up as a charlatan, but a better explanation is simply that he is consciously cultivating the press, first as a more reliable medium for securing the votes of party members and second as a critical future support for his administration when the shit inevitably hits the fan. He has been predictably well-served by the Telegraph and, with the response to his "domestic" in which the neighbours have been vilified, the other papers that might have given Hunt a sympathetic hearing, such as the Times and Daily Mail, have fallen into line.

This revival is not limited to the papers that habitually support the Conservative party. The Guardian broke the Camberwell story and remains committed to inserting Johnson into its long-running saga on Steve Bannon and Russia. It has also done its bit to shift the discourse rightwards, running positive articles on Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart, and even trying to see the merits of Jeremy Hunt. Again, that the Guardian and Observer have become even more critical of Jeremy Corbyn over the last six weeks is not a coincidence. As the media once more tries to define the likes of Philip Hammond and David Gauke as the sensible centre-ground, so it is necessary to recalibrate the toxicity of the left. The revival of the Liberal Democrats is down to a number of contingent factors, but the chief one is the failure of the Independent Group aka Change UK to provide a new vehicle for the liberal media's hopes. Following that damp squib, the party whose performance in coalition with the Conservatives caused so much lasting damage (from austerity through the Fixed Term Parliaments Act to facilitating tax evasion) must now be rehabilitated. It is not just the extremists of the far-right who are being actively normalised by the press.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Surveillance Capitalism

Shoshana Zuboff's The Age of Surveillance Capitalism has been widely criticised for being too apocalyptic about surveillance and too apologetic about capitalism, but this hasn't hindered its success. This week she chided Nick Clegg, Facebook's inhouse apologist, for placing the burden of improving corporate practice on the democratic state, despite this being precisely her own remedy for the ills that she diagnoses. Her thesis comes in two parts: the digital surplus extracted from users by companies like Google and Facebook has moved beyond "improving customer experience" to the creation of "prediction markets"; and these predictions extend beyond targeted advertising to the modification of behaviour. In her own words, "it has become clear that the most predictive data comes from intervening in our lives to tune and herd our behaviour towards the most profitable outcomes." Though this is a criticism of capitalist practice, it is one that admires the ignorance that Hayek postulated and also shares his fear, outlined in The Road to Serfdom, that corporations would embrace "socialist planning" out of self-interest. In other words, this is an analysis that should appeal to an Orange Booker like Clegg.

The chief criticism of her thesis from the left is that she is simply describing capitalist ideology and how it reinforces itself through social processes, particularly consumerism. Her expectation of, and response to, such criticism has emphasised the epochal change as she sees it between a capitalism of mass society - the twentieth century model of social marketing and the commodification of taste - and a capitalism of the individual where corporate risk is mitigated by subtle, personalised coercion: "Data scientists describe this as a shift from monitoring to actuation. The idea is not only to know our behaviour but also to shape it in ways that can turn predictions into guarantees. It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us." The irony is that Hayek's praise of "how little the individual participants need to know" for the price system to operate is matched by his praise of its ability "to provide inducements which will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do".

There is clearly a large gap between the reality of surveillance capitalism's "prediction products" and Zuboff's totalitarian vision, which can be seen in examples as varied as AdChoices' monomania and the failure of Google Flu Trends. Likewise, there is no obvious theoretical mechanism, let alone empirical evidence, to support the claim that "Surveillance capitalism, run as the code for everyday life, erases both free will and free markets". This rhetoric not only employs the worst kind of Silicon Valley techno-babble (if there is an operating system for everyday life, I would have thought it more likely to be DNA than Google's search history), it also makes a none too subtle attempt to equate free markets with free will, though it's not clear whether Zuboff thinks free will will atrophy if markets are increasingly directed (the Hayekian position) or whether she thinks that the lack of exercise of free will make a mockery of the free market (which is dangerously close to the socialist critique that free will is a mockery if you are poor and socially powerless).


Zuboff is very much in the "saving capitalism from itself" camp, hence the need to present current developments as a perversion of the system rather than as the inevitable and not particularly radical evolution of the capitalist dynamic. This means ignoring much of the social history of surveillance and commercial coercion, from Edward Bernays through Mass Observation to The Hidden Persuaders. Instead, her historical focus is first on the generational break caused by the widespread adoption of information technology, which she sees as having created a fork in the road at the end of the era of Fordist managerialism; and second on the contingent coincidence in the early years of this millennium of the need for Google to monetise its technology, the erosion of the state's caution towards mass surveillance after 9/11, and the favourable environment created by two decades of neoliberal deregulation. In her telling, this combination of factors has encouraged the dominance of surveillance capitalism instead of an "advocacy-oriented" capitalism embedded in political and social institutions (the road not taken).

Where she does rely on social history is more in prognosis than diagnosis: "Surveillance capitalism thrives in the absence of law. In a way, this is good news. We have not failed to rein in this rogue capitalism; we’ve not yet tried. More good news: our societies successfully confronted destructive forms of capitalism in the past, asserting new laws that tethered capitalism to the real needs of people. Democracy ended the Gilded Age. We have every reason to believe that we can be successful again." This is the classic liberal dichotomy of unrestrained capitalism and technocratic regulation. In reality, the restraint of one by the other does not presume democracy: the original UK Factory Acts long-predated universal suffrage. Even in the context of the USA, the boast that democracy ended the Gilded Age ignores the role played in the Progressive Era by competing fractions of capital. The resistance to the encroachment of the market does not necessarily take a political form, even in a democracy, and the idea that laws tether capitalism to the needs of the people, rather than vice versa, is obviously naïve.

Not content with this hyperbole, Zuboff proceeds to cast surveillance capitalism as a threat to our very humanity: "What is abrogated here is our right to the future tense, which is the essence of free will, the idea that I can project myself into the future and thus make it a meaningful aspect of my present. This is the essence of autonomy and human agency. Surveillance capitalism’s 'means of behavioral modification' at scale erodes democracy from within because, without autonomy in action and in thought, we have little capacity for the moral judgement and critical thinking necessary for a democratic society." At root, this is a classic argument against democracy: the mass of people (in modern discourse this is usually reduced to a problematic minority - e.g. "the white working class") lack the judgement and capability necessary to make decisions about the management of the state. This is straight out of Plato's Republic, even if it's embellished with fashionable nods to the Frankfurt School (autonomy, critical thinking).


So, what is to be done? Zuboff is sceptical of personal data ownership as a solution, but her reasoning is that you cannot establish a link between an individual's data and the ultimately valuable predictions that it feeds into. "One example [of a solution] is privacy law’s call for 'data ownership'. It’s a misleading notion because it legitimates the unilateral taking of human experience – your face, your phone, your refrigerator, your emotions – for translation into data in the first place. Even if we achieve 'ownership' of the data we have provided to a company like Facebook, we will not achieve 'ownership' of the predictions gleaned from it, or the fate of those products in its prediction markets." One obvious retort to this problem of identification is common ownership. In other words, treating that aggregate data as a social resource. This idea, advocated by thinkers such as Evgeny Morozov, does not necessarily imply the creation of a nationalised data infrastructure. It could simply mean the effective taxation of the commercial data aggregators.

Zuboff's preferred solution is liberal regulation in which propriety and civic virtue are as important as technocratic diligence. "This means, at the front end, outlawing the secret theft of private experience. At the back end, we can disrupt revenues by outlawing markets that trade in human futures knowing that their imperatives are fundamentally anti-democratic. We already outlaw markets that traffic in slavery or human organs." The problem here is that most of this "theft" at the front end isn't at all secret. We willingly tick the end-user licence agreement because we (rightly) imagine the value of our digital exhaust to be negligible in isolation, and so the investment of time to actually read those voluminous T&Cs simply isn't worth it. We know that its true value is largely in an anonymised aggregate. The parallel with slavery or the sale of organs in this context is ridiculous.

The hunt for the responsible capitalist continues: "We need laws and regulation designed to advantage companies that want to break with surveillance capitalism. Competitors that align themselves with the actual needs of people and the norms of a market democracy are likely to attract just about every person on Earth as their customer." The idea that virtue is attractive is hardly borne out by the reality of the Internet (cf porn, clickbait, cat videos etc), while the idea that the state can encourage and reward good behaviour among "enlightened" firms, though central to conceptions of capitalism from the social democracy of Ed Miliband to the entrepreneurialism of Jeremy Hunt, is not supported by history. Firms are driven by capitalist competition to respond to incentives in an amoral fashion. If aligning with the needs of people conflicts with making a profit, then profit will typically win out.


Zuboff also has a tendency, long-standing in her work, to accept certain firms at their own virtuous estimation, most notably the counter-cultural rhetoric of Apple. This goes hand-in-hand with an over-estimation of the willingness of the state to restrain capitalism for the public good, as opposed to the preservation of property rights: "lawmakers will need to support new forms of collective action, just as nearly a century ago workers won legal protection for their rights to organise, to bargain collectively and to strike. Lawmakers need citizen support, and citizens need the leadership of their elected officials." This potted history ignores that lawmakers have spent most of their time trying to frustrate the rights of workers. Rights were won through struggle against the political system. That this story segues to a vision of a supportive citizenry and an enlightened leadership suggests that Zuboff doubts the unprecedented threat of surveillance capitalism will produce any discernible evolution in our politics, which is odd to say the least.

Evgeny Morozov, in an excellent long essay on Zuboff's intellectual development that places her ideas within the context of American industrial sociology, makes a key observation: "Zuboff’s definition of surveillance capitalism hinges upon whether behavioral surplus is used to modify behavior, not whether data extraction is visible." In other words, her thesis of the pernicious nature of surveillance capitalism rest on the proof that it is effective in its own terms - that it does modify behaviour in a profitable way for capitalists - rather than by virtue of it being pervasive. Given how cheap it is to harvest our data exhaust, compared to pre-digital methods of gathering consumer feedback and preferences, it is possible for capitalists to justify this "surveillance" purely on the grounds of reduced cost even if leads to no, or only marginal, improvements in the effective direction of consumer behaviour. Surveillance capitalism is just a more refined form of capitalism, and the real risk that surveillance technology poses is not to individual autonomy but to collective action against the state.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Selectorate Theory

Robert Saunders has a bee in his bonnet about the Conservative party leadership contest: "On taxation, public spending and, above all, on Brexit, the whole programme of government is being rewritten to suit the preferences of 160,000 anonymous party members. Not since the days of the rotten boroughs, before the Reform Act of 1832, have a few thousand people held such extraordinary, undemocratic power". After his recent essay on the Tory party's intellectual decline, he has turned his attention to its institutional corruption. But this is not a critique he limits to the Conservatives. For Saunders, the issue is a wider structural flaw in which representative democracy is put at risk by parties that allow the membership to determine policy and personnel: what he describes as the "pay-for-access democracies of the Big Two". The issue then is about Labour as much as the Tories and, if you were a cynic, you might be inclined to believe that he is in part using the latter as a proxy for the former. That his article appears in the New Statesman doesn't diminish the suspicion.

The obvious omission in the evidence that Saunders presents for the problematic nature of British political parties is that of the Liberal Democrats, who are arguably the most activist of the lot in their commitment to conference-mandated policy and membership elections. Saunders can choose to ignore the party, despite the current contest between Ed Davey and Jo Swinson, because it is unlikely to be in power, though you could reasonably argue that a leadership election during the coalition years might have had a significant impact on government policy. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that he is making assumptions about the type of person who is a member of the "Big Two", and in particular that the Tories have become more extreme in recent years. Just as "mass entryism" has always been a myth, so we should be sceptical of the idea that the attitudes of party members are volatile. One of Nick Clegg's achievements was to change the perception of his party members from sandal-wearing obsessives to be-suited sensibles, but the personnel and their beliefs didn't actually change that much.

Saunders also ignores the non-English parties, such as the SNP and DUP, but this seems to be part of a wider disregard for the international dimension. Despite the neoliberal encouragement of a homogeneous culture of professional politicians and managerialist parties, there remains a wide variety of organisational types across the globe, reflecting the social role of parties and the constraints of local political systems. This ranges from the Chinese Communist Party, where membership is often a career necessity but actual influence on policy is negligible, to US open primaries, where anyone can vote to select party representatives. On this spectrum the British party system is pretty much middle-of-the-road. What is eccentric is the British parliament, which in some ways still operates as if parties had yet to be invented. Saunders' focus is on the tension between British political parties and the parliamentary system, and he is clearly more enamoured of the latter than the former, hence his belief that MPs alone should select party leaders when such an appointment leads to a new Prime Minister.

As Saunders doesn't wish to present Conservative party members as frothing loons, and so reduce his reasoned case to plain bigotry, he employs a critique of virtue: that privilege bought by money is illegitimate. But the idea that party subscriptions constitute "buying influence" is bizarre. It's a small amount of money and it secures you a correspondingly small say. There can't be many party members who view their subs in purely transactional terms, and most activists are motivated more by altruism than a lust for power, even if it can come across as arrogant "do-goodery". The language of influence-buying is odd when you consider that Saunders does not mention the role of rich donors, though their growing influence over both the main parties is perhaps the single greatest institutional change seen over the last quarter of a century, as trade unions have been marginalised and the Conservative party membership has shrunk. The key to Boris Johnson's likely victory in the Tory leadership contest is his popularity with the "inner party" of donors and careerists as much as his popularity with the base.


The Labour party's membership has always been a site of ideological contest, not just in the struggle for influence and office within constituency parties and on the National Executive Committee, but in the valorisation of "ordinary party members" as both a collective conscience (the preferred image of the left) and a restraining influence (the preferred image of the right). This embodiment of Labour values in the membership is what you would expect from a democratic and egalitarian party (the Tories prefer embodiment in the party elite), but it means that ideological battles are framed as the party hierarchy "leaving" the membership (the right's preferred trope) or "betraying" it (the left's preferred trope), rather than as a division within the membership itself. It also leads to a desire to circumscribe acceptable beliefs and behaviours among the members, producing a disciplinary system where the demand for purges and auto-da-fés, in order to preserve the integrity of the "true" membership, is in obvious tension with natural justice.

In contrast, the Conservative party's membership has always been relatively opaque, contributing to the anthropological approach of much contemporary political science. Where Labour's herbivorous membership is routinely misrepresented - apparently rightwing under New Labour and leftwing today - the carnivorous nature of the Tory membership has generally been politely ignored, as if Enoch Powell always spoke to empty rooms and Norman Tebbit was an embarrassment. This opacity is reflected in a disciplinary system that appears to have been modelled on a golf club, where institutional solidarity means that you have to go a long way to sufficiently blot your copybook to face expulsion. It is only in the last few years, largely as a result of social media exposure, that individual members have come under sustained scrutiny. The reluctance of the party to expel Islamophobes and bigots is less a reflection of a secret sympathy and more a distaste for disciplinary action against fellow "club members".

Saunders, in my opinion, fails to make his case. Having the Prime Minister chosen by a party's members is no less democratic than restricting the choice to MPs, given that the same membership selected those MPs as candidates for Parliament and could likewise deselect them. Pleading that MPs must be able to ignore their party membership because of a responsibility to the full electorate or their own Burkean judgement is self-serving guff. The idea that a Prime Minister must enjoy the confidence of his or her party's MPs is no different to the argument that a party leader should do so, and I suspect this is really Saunders' point (that Corbyn is nowhere named in the article is the tell). But it is disingenuous to suggest that the Tory leadership contest, in which Boris Johnson has already received the votes of a majority of his party's MPs (160 out of 317), and in which the membership vote is likely to simply endorse this selection, is an affront to democracy. The greater challenges to fair representation lie within Parliament, not within the parties.

Friday, 14 June 2019

Tory Thought

The Conservative party leadership contest is being fought and analysed almost wholly in terms of personality, from the high-wire act that is Boris Johnson's attempt to restrain his sociopathy until he is over the line to the centrist love-in for Rory Stewart's small-bore noblesse oblige. Policy debate has largely been limited to precisely how loudly we will bang the door on the way out of the EU at the end of October. Beyond gestures to the right-wing membership on issues such as abortion and foreign aid, the substantive differences between the candidates are slight. The proposed tax cuts have the feel of a weary obligation - placating the household gods - while the dull rhetoric has been a mix of the platitudinous and the embrace-the-future management-speak of the 1990s (that Matt Hancock referred to himself as "the candidate of the future" in his withdrawal from the race was pure parody). Fundamentally, the Tories have run out of politics.


This isn't a new development. Critics on both the left and right have noted the intellectual barrenness of the Conservatives for some years now, and many of the political obituaries for David Cameron concluded that the party had failed to renew itself beyond the cosmetic during his tenure, remaining intellectually subservient to its Thatcherite heyday and opportunistic in its embrace of Blairite policies and practices. My own view is that there hasn't been a conservative ideology worthy of the name since the introduction of universal suffrage and that most of the policy innovations championed by the Tories over the last one hundred years were simply the adoption of elements of liberalism, from free trade to gay marriage. Attempts to define a conservative philosophy underpinning this opportunism have not succeeded. While thinkers such as Michael Oakeshott emphasised a preference for practice over theory, in reality they were simply trying to provide a coherent frame for a set of prejudices, rooted in social structures and property relations, that were often contradictory in practice.

The fundamental dichotomy in British politics is between liberalism and socialism: capital and labour. The parliamentary party formations do not precisely map to these because of electoral pragmatism. The Labour party is an uneasy coalition of the two, while the Conservative party has sought to fuse liberalism with the anti-intellectual conservatism of its base. The reason why the contemporary Conservative party appears to be a roiling mess of atavistic impulses and wishful-thinking is because that base has become dominant, and the reason for that dominance was the intellectual failure of liberalism a decade ago. On the left, socialism is likewise enjoying a revival, albeit in the form of the cautious social democracy of Corbyn and McDonnell, while a decadent liberalism has retreated to an obsession with virtue and a promiscuous hunt for electoral relevance, producing such morbid symptoms as Chuka Umunna's political trajectory. On the right, the eclipse of liberalism has allowed the Tory id to master its ego.

It is in this context that I think we should read the historian Robert Saunders' essay in the New Statesman, 'The Closing of the Conservative Mind' (a title that echoes Alan Bloom's reactionary jeremiad against modernity). This is a liberal critique of the Tories' intellectual funk that studiously avoids mentioning the crisis of liberalism, casting the party's poor state as the result of cerebral exhaustion rather than decapitation. For Saunders, the change has been nonetheless dramatic: "A party that once set the agenda of British politics – birthing such big ideas as 'Tory democracy', 'One Nation' and 'the property-owning democracy' – seems worn out intellectually. A tradition that was once cautious of change – that distrusted what the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott called 'the jump-to-glory style of politics' – rushes eagerly towards the unknown; a party that once preached scepticism calls its disciples to 'believe in Brexit', and to the conduct of policy 'by faith alone'".

A glance at the history, from Churchill's calamitous decision to return to the gold standard in 1925 via Suez in 1956 to Thatcher's faith in monetarism in the early 1980s, should be enough to disabuse anyone of the idea that the Tories were habitually cautious and sceptical. It is one of the wonders of political framing that the conventional perception of the Conservative party is so wholly at variance with its record in office. The insouciance of Cameron in gambling on a referendum and the subsequent incompetence of Theresa May were both typical of Tory government, not some erratic diversion from a history of careful judgement and skilful management. In surveying the history of Tory thought Saunders mentions both Keith Joseph and Enoch Powell, but it doesn't seem to occur to him that their emblematic value lies less in their undoubted intellectual rigour and more in their susceptibility to obsessional madness.

Saunders is a good enough historian to recognise that Tory thought has largely been shop-bought rather than home-made: "Its most important inspirations have been borrowed from other traditions: Edmund Burke was a Whig, Joseph Chamberlain a Radical, and Friedrich Hayek, one of the patron saints of Thatcherism, published an essay explaining 'Why I am not a Conservative'". But what he doesn't do is note that Hayek self-identified as a classical liberal and that it was this liberalism, with its emphasis on self-reliance and entrepreneurialism, that attracted Margaret Thatcher. Though he describes her as fiercely intelligent but no intellectual, he fails to appreciate that her radicalism arose from a serious engagement with liberal thought, rather than just being the organic product of her Methodist, small shop-keeping background. It appears she is still suffering from Whiggish condescension.

Saunders treats the history of Tory thought largely in isolation from other intellectual currents, thereby giving it the coherence and narrative thread of a distinct tradition, despite appearances to the contrary: "Conservatism, then, has historically been a tradition of ideas; yet it has also cultivated a reputation for anti-intellectualism. That was partly strategic. It has always suited the Conservative Party to present its ideas not as preferences that might be debated, but as simple common sense: a set of truths about the world, rather than prescriptions for it". This textbook description of hegemony explains how an ideology can present itself as non-ideological, but it doesn't help us understand precisely what that ideology is. Where Saunders comes closest to doing so is in his brief critique of "market liberalism", under which "no institution has been spared the cleansing fire of the market". The contemporary crisis of conservatism is fundamentally a crisis of liberalism.


Boris Johnson is likely to be the next Conservative party leader, and in all probability Prime Minister, because he is opportunistic enough to flex his liberal instincts to suit a conservative, illiberal base. This lack of virtue may appal liberal commentators in the media, but it is liberalism's best hope of keeping the Conservative party together, even if it comes at the cost of leaving the EU. While a split into a Farage-friendly nationalist party and a liberal centre-right party would enthuse those commentators, many of whom are already fantasising about their "dream teams" in respect of the latter, they know full well that this would lead to a Labour government and all the risks for capital that that would entail. Until liberalism can stage its own intellectual comeback, it must rely on whatever comes to hand to maintain capital's political dominance. If it cannot recapture the Labour party, then it must preserve the Conservative party. Johnson is the tool.