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Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Force is Strong With This One

Andrew Adonis has come in for some criticism over a tweet on Saturday suggesting that Jeremy Corbyn cannot win the next general election.


As many have pointed out, British political history has seen plenty of party leaders who have first lost and then won a general election, starting with Robert Peel at the dawn of modern political parties. Adonis attempted to excuse his dodgy claim in a subsequent tweet through a combination of qualification and counterfactual: "No UK leader since Attlee has lost a 1st election but won a 2nd - & he wd have lost 2nd had 1940 election not been cancelled" (ignoring the non-existent 1940 poll, Churchill lost his first two elections as party leader, in 1945 and 1950, before finally winning a Commons majority in 1951). When it was pointed out that Ted Heath lost his first election as party leader in 1966 and then won his second in 1970, precisely contradicting the good lord's claim, Adonis was reduced to grudging concession. Perhaps his wonky recall reflects the modern tendency of party leaders to resign after defeat and even retire from politics altogether, in the manner of David Cameron. But as a man with a doctorate in British history, you'd expect Adonis to know that this is a relatively novel development.

In the nineteenth century both Gladstone and Salisbury had intermittent stints as Prime Minister, as did Baldwin, Churchill and Wilson in the twentieth. In his determination to hang on as Labour Party leader after the 1987 defeat, Neil Kinnock was pretty old-school in this regard. The shift in the political culture appears to have happened in the Blair years, not just because the Labour leader won at the first attempt and would eventually retire unbeaten and relatively youthful, but because both the Tories and LibDems started to more regularly rotate leaders in their search for the magic ingredient of electoral success. This reinforced the idea that the popular vote was heavily determined by the personal popularity of the leader, with the inevitable corollary that electoral defeat required the sacrifice of that tainted individual. Though Blair set the tone, the roots of this attitude probably lay in the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, with both the extreme personality cult of the post-Falklands years and the ruthlessness of her eventual removal by the Conservative Party when electoral defeat seemed imminent.

The purpose of Adonis's tweet appears to have been to advertise a rambling article he has just published in Prospect magazine, with the clumsy title: Forget ideas—do the maths, and it’s clear political leadership always comes down to character. Given that "character" is a difficult concept to define at the best of times, and that the mechanism by which superior leadership translates into electoral success isn't explained by Adonis (how could Roy Jenkins possibly fail?), it should come as no surprise that his maths is laughably subjective: "To test my thesis more systematically, we need to be specific about the leadership qualities which matter in electoral politics. They should, I suggest, be assessed on two dimensions. There are the quintessential abilities—charisma, confidence, acumen, empathy. ... But there is also the ability to embody and express the 'spirit of the time', which can sometimes propel men and women of more modest leadership attributes to the front because of their almost intrinsic ability in keeping with the zeitgeist". In passing, Adonis claims that "Justin Trudeau is presently giving a leadership masterclass in Canada", which I think is Yoda for "The force is strong with this one".

Adonis proceeds to award points to the two main party leaders in each UK and US general election since 1944, with the quintessential accounting for 2/3rds of the score. This weighting is itself dubious, begging the question by suggesting that personality always outguns the zeitgeist, but it allows him to attribute Labour's victory in 1997 to his Blairness, rather than popular disillusion with the Tories after Black Wednesday and sleaze, and also attribute the party's loss in 2010 to Gordon Brown's personality flaws, rather than popular disillusion with New Labour's programme. The post hoc zeitgeist score invariably reflects the result, but its under-weighting requires some transparent tweaking to give Attlee a narrow one point lead over Churchill in 1945, which hardly reflects Labour's landslide victory. The ultimate purpose of this ridiculous exercise is to claim that Jeremy Corbyn cannot win the next general election unless the Tories are mad enough to field either a wounded Theresa May or a suicidally inappropriate Jacob Rees-Mogg. 

What's particularly funny about this is the employment of a "table" at a time when Adonis is loudly criticising university vice-chancellors for paying themselves on a par with private sector CEOs. The VCs have insisted that they are part of a global market for talent, which itself reflects the league table of academic institutions through such impeccably neoliberal mechanisms as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the Times Higher Education rankings. While Adonis now claims that the current tuition fee scheme is a "Frankenstein monster", he still insists on the good sense and sincerity of the original marketisation reforms that he helped progress as an unelected minister. As ever, the problem is not the creation of an artificial market, with subjective metrics acting as price proxies and in which privileged actors are incentivised to extract rents, but the political abuse of the market by a cynical government, here bent on reducing state support for higher education. That Adonis should proceed to invent a leadership metric based on criteria lacking any empirical validity does not appear to have struck him as ironic.

Though he distinguishes two dimensions in his assessment of political leadership, both are essentially metaphysical, centring as they do on the nebulous concepts of charisma and zeitgeist. The idea of the leader as a vessel for a higher power, whether the Holy Ghost or the spirit of the nation, is hardly new, though I would be guilty of shooting fish in a barrel if I were to dismiss Adonis's scheme as of a class with divine right and the Führerprinzip. What Adonis is really about is promoting the idea that leadership can extricate us from political paralysis, like Alexander cutting the Gordian Knot. The metaphorical knot, you'll not be surprised to learn, is Brexit. Tony Blair has re-entered the stage once more, this time to suggest that we can avoid leaving the EU by introducing tougher restrictions on immigration. Adonis himself has pushed this obviously concerted plan by suggesting that Merkel and Macron are open to a compromise on freedom of movement, though he provides no evidence in support of this claim beyond the latter's talk of reforming the posted workers directive, which the EU27 sees as a technical matter independent of the principles of the single market.

There may well be some wriggle-room, simply because the UK has not hitherto availed itself of all the controls on movement available to members, but it is naive to believe either that the eurozone core (where freedom of movement remains popular) will reverse the historic trend towards greater integration or that essentially cosmetic changes will satisfy UK public opinion. The weakness of Blair's case is shown in his recourse to patriotism in his closing words: "At this moment which will define Britain’s future, all our MPs should behave as if they are the leader of our nation, with the responsibility to put country above Party". Right on cue, Nick Cohen produces one of his conflicted diatribes in which he manages to reject scoundrel patriotism while marginalising anyone who doesn't feel the pull of the volk: "All of us feel the power of nationalism. By definition, if you are concerned about public life, you are concerned about your nation and its future. ... In the next few months, as the sense of futility grows, cornered Conservatives will lash out and accuse everyone who crosses them of hating Britain. The only proper response is to say that if we truly hated our country we would not care about the wreck the right is making of it".

This turn to the cadences of Orwell's The Lion and the Unicorn (subtitled Socialism and the English Genius, lest we forget) is no surprise from Cohen, who has built a career on the détournement of the ethical strain of English socialism as a critique of, well, English socialism. What is more unusual is to see unrepentant centrists like Blair and Adonis attempt to adopt this rhetorical style. I suspect the latter's "populist" attacks on fat-cats is part of this manoeuvre, even if his choice of university vice-chancellors leaves many people nonplussed. After all, he could have garnered more popular support if, as a former transport minister, he'd ripped into Richard Branson's extortion of the public treasury. His pride over HS2, like his pride over academies, has perhaps biased him towards attacking a sector that he feels has never fully appreciated his genius (the call to take up the post of warden of an Oxford college has yet to come). I fear his fast and loose attitude to historical facts will not help his cause. As for Blair, his latest intervention will simply have hardened hearts: the force isn't what it was. So much for quintessential abilities.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

A New Korea in a New Town

The hostile use of a single nuclear weapon by North Korea (aka the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK) would obviously spell the immediate end of the Kim regime, probably care of a military coup orchestrated by China. For this reason incompetence, such as the failure of a guidance system causing an unarmed missile to crash on Hokkaido, is currently a greater risk than a miscalculation in brinkmanship. It makes sense for the North to be operating at the bleeding edge of its technical capability, but that amplifies the risk of a mistake. The world would be a safer place if North Korea had better missile systems. The odds of the regime doing something that could entail massive consequential damage, such firing an armed missile, are close to zero. Proving that they've got a H-bomb and a long-range missile is sufficient, even if there remains scepticism about their ability to use the one with the other. There just needs to be a realistic possibility of this for the other regional players to update their strategies.

That said, the Chinese would only decapitate the regime in extremis. Toppling the Kim dynasty would set a bad precedent for Xi and the CPC domestically, even if they could engineer it in such a way that North Korea implemented a more Chinese-like regime. In reality, a centralised party and an economic oligarchy based on existing military and security elites is pretty much what Kim Jong-Un wants anyway, so there is nothing to be gained by China in accelerating the regime's demise. Mutatis mutandis, North Korea seeks to take the same road as Russia and China in "normalising" the economy while preserving an authoritarian state. The success of China and Vietnam has convinced Kim that economic liberalisation does not axiomatically produce social and political liberalisation, while the varieties of national capitalism in East Asia, from Singapore to Siberia, suggest that there is enough latitude to accommodate a distinctive North Korean flavour.


The continuation of the Kim regime requires not only the development of nuclear weapons as leverage with the Chinese, who ultimately remain a greater existential threat than the distant US or the historic enemy, Japan, but the diversion of much of the DPRK's conventional military expenditure to other sectors of the economy. This is needed not just to improve general living standards but to buy-off increasingly disgruntled elites who are well aware of the wealth of their peers in China. The scale of the North's defence spending, which amounts to a staggering 23% of GDP, reflects the possibility of an invasion from the South (aka the Republic of Korea, or RoK), with which it is still technically at war. Though the "economic exhaustion" model was overplayed in the post-91 Western narrative of the eclipse of the USSR (Soviet military expenditure was about 9% of GDP, comparable to Israel or Saudi Arabia today), it is undoubtedly central to a society that has been on a permanent war footing since the 1953 armistice.

While the South spends only about 2.6% of its GDP on defence, that translates into an absolute expenditure that is many times greater than the North and ranks as the 10th largest globally. The technology gap between the two is much wider than it was in the early-50s, when the North was being supplied with WW2-era weaponry by the USSR. Most military analysts reckon the North's current capabilities are equivalent to the US in the era of the Vietnam war, which means they would be hugely outclassed in a straight fight with the South. It should also be noted that South Korea is much less dependent on the US today, not least because of the rapid growth of its domestic defence industry (which is expected to overtake China as the leading regional arms exporter by 2020). While Seoul's proximity to the border means the South would suffer terrible damage in any conflict, it is highly likely that it would prevail over the North within a matter of weeks. For this reason, the DPRK has long sought to develop chemical and nuclear weapons, along with sabotage and terror tactics (e.g. a dirty bomb in Seoul), to protect against the possibility of a first-strike by the RoK.

As a result, Seoul has long sought to reassure Pyongyang that it has no intention of invading the North, even in the event of a humanitarian disaster beyond the DMZ (as occurred during the 1994-8 famine). The RoK's preference is for a bloodless reunification in the manner of Germany, hence it is willing to patiently wait (or "appease", as Trump ignorantly described its strategy). The presence of US troops on the peninsula is less to provide crucial military support to the South than to ensure sufficient collateral damage in the event of a massive first-strike by the North. In other words, the US is providing de facto hostages as an insurance policy for the South. This is not dissimilar to the arrangement in the Federal Republic of Germany during the Cold War, where forward US troops could have expected to be quickly "expended" in any Soviet attack. There are also obvious parallels between the US deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea today and Pershing cruise missiles in Western Europe in the 1980s, down to the local political opposition it has prompted.


There is little evidence that Kim Jong-Un is either mad or reckless, and the tales of his ruthlessness appear designed to emphasise that he is rational and decisive, not paranoid or arbitrary. Assuming that the preservation of the regime is paramount, his strategic goals are obvious: the DPRK to remain an independent, sovereign state and the peninsula to remain partitioned. What he wants over and above that status quo is the winding-down of the North's conventional military expenditure and the opening-up of its economy to foreign capital, probably via state-licensed combines (modelled on the South Korean chaebol) that would be controlled by the current elite. Achieving this requires both a formal peace treaty and the de facto acceptance of a DPRK nuclear capability. The latter does not have to be large, but it does need to be sufficient to make the cost of regime change prohibitive for any foreign power. The RoK is probably open to this, both because of its growing military strength and self-reliance and because it recognises that opening up the North is the only realistic path to an ultimate, peaceful reunification of the peninsula. The evolution of the RoK as an economic power is as relevant to the current standoff as the DPRK's ambitions.

Many have noted that Kim has learnt the lesson of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, namely that without WMD you are vulnerable, though this logic fails to note that Iraq and Libya were only trashed once they stopped being useful - in the geopolitical containment of Iran and the covert control/exploitation of terrorism respectively - and instead became threats to Western interests. North Korea's geography and isolation places it in an altogether different category. It isn't doing a job for the West, so there is no chance of it being regarded as traitorous, while its threat to Western interests in the region is in reality negligible. Saddam appears to have thought the US would stay neutral in an Arab-on-Arab conflict when he invaded Kuwait, but Kim can have no such illusions. Gaddafi was only dropped by the West and attacked when his regime was clearly on its last legs. The internal strength of the DPRK state - the antithesis of the rickety Libyan setup - makes it unlikely that a similar opportunity will arise. North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons has not come about because the threat of regime change has increased, but because the cost of maintaining its conventional deterrent has become an obstacle to its domestic development.

A less remarked upon parallel is that North Korea is essentially pursuing a nuclear weapons programme for the same reasons as the UK: to provide international status and the cover necessary to reduce expenditure on conventional arms. To this end, both the UK and the DPRK emphasise the importance of their nuclear arms programmes as an expression of national sovereignty. The vox-poppers of Pyongyang who talk triumphantly of defying America are no different to the British button-fondlers who thought we could take down the Soviet Union in the 80s and who imagine the UK is still the world's policeman today when it isn't even the world's hobby-bobby. In other words, the weapons are chiefly symbolic, which is why a unilateral strike by North Korea is unlikely. Where the two countries differ is that the DPRK's system also has a specific utility as a deterrent against regime change. This is quite different to other states that have sought to join the nuclear club in recent decades, such as Israel, India or Pakistan, where the motive is more obviously antagonistic and where status is a secondary consideration.


The prudent course for the West would simply be to ignore the DPRK's "provocations" and encourage talks between North and South, but that is easier said than done when the US media (both neocon and liberal) sees North Korea as a "challenge". Centrists who imagine that Hillary Clinton would have been a safer pair of hands than Donald Trump are deluding themselves. Previous negotiations have involved a 6-party group, including the USA, China, Russia and Japan. As the two Koreas have a common interest in co-existence, and both are in effect committed to a "strong Korea" policy, the key to achieving a modus vivendi depends on not upsetting the balance of perceived influence and status between the other four powers. The strategic objective for China is less the continuation of partition and more the prevention of nuclear proliferation, particularly to Japan. In the short run, they need to prevent the South either acquiring nuclear weapons or allowing US deployments on its soil. In the long run, they would probably insist on the nuclear disarmament of Korea as the price for reunification. What's not clear is whether they will seek to nip the DPRK's nuclear ambitions in the bud now or try to mollify the RoK and Japan through limitation and inspection.

Russia's interest, echoing British policy of old, is to ensure that no other power becomes dominant. While they would be happy to see US influence in Korea decline, they don't want America to quit the region as that would strengthen China and potentially lead to a more assertive Japan. Getting the US to accept a DPRK nuclear arsenal as a fact of life is probably the limit of their ambition. Japan, for its part, remains ambivalent and some politicians are even now in denial about its historic crimes on the peninsula. It would prefer to maintain the status quo but it knows that a reunified and potentially assertive Korea is likely at some point in the future. This will encourage those on the political right who doubt the US's long-term commitment and who believe that Japan should develop its own nuclear capability and expand its conventional forces. A resolution of the Korea problem probably depends on a meeting of minds between Japan and China, centred on arms limitation and the economic opening of the DPRK in the short term, and disramament linked to reunification in the long-term. In this context, the US is an unhelpful wedding-crasher, and would be even if the occupant of the White House were not a loudmouthed ignoramus.

Monday, 4 September 2017

The Discourse Lovers

Some pundits have sought to link the "Tower Hamlets fostering row" with Sarah Champion's comments on the disproportionate involvement of British Pakistani men in child sexual abuse rings. The snide implication is that vulnerable children are made more vulnerable when they are exposed to Muslims. You'd expect this sort of bigotry from the right, and even the clichéd fictions about crucifixes and pork ("barred from eating carbonara", no less), but the equivalence has also proved popular among muscular liberals such as Keenan Malik who fretted in The Guardian that "The Rotherham and Tower Hamlets cases, and the debate around them, reveal the polarised ways in which Muslims are discussed in Britain. It is a discussion too often trapped between hostility towards Muslims and a fear of creating such hostility or of offending Muslims". The latter is our old friend, "misplaced political correctness", which was given a lead role in the media coverage of Rotherham and other child sex exploitation (CSE) cases involving Asian men, despite the various official inquiries finding zero evidence that it was anything other than background noise (see chapter 11 of the Jay Report). It's also worth remembering that it's a noise produced in the general culture, and largely by the media, rather that a peculiarity of local government.

Malik seemed to be blithely unaware that his article was an example of the rhetorical polarisation he complained of, not to mention that his crude dichotomy denied space to the argument that there was no meaningful equivalence between Rotherham (hundreds of girls abused over decades by a criminal gang) and Tower Hamlets (one girl denied her favourite pasta). Malik finished by framing the issue as one of discourse: "More than simply bigotry, this failure to find an adequate language through which to discuss Muslims and Islam bedevils public debate". You don't have to be the ghost of Edward Said to see that treating Islam as a subject of discourse is patronising, or that the idea there is a "Muslim problem" (as Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun put it) that must be solved by public debate has echoes of the "Jewish problem" of old. Malik's article was written after key facts emerged that showed the Times and Daily Mail had severely misrepresented the Tower Hamlets case, but this simply allowed him to regretfully note the disparity in journalistic "care" displayed by Andrew Norfolk, the Times reporter who both broke the fostering story and won an Orwell Prize for his coverage of Rotherham. Malik did not see fit to question why this disparity occurred.

Not only was this not a story about a Christian girl forced into the care of Islamic fundamentalists, as suggested by some tabloids, but the actions of the council appear to have been reasonable and conscientious, with no evidence that "political correctness" played any role whatsoever. This didn't suit Malik's purpose, which is presumably why he expended so much effort linking Tower Hamlets back to Rotherham, where PC at least had a walk-on part. Thus: "The controversy over the Rotherham MP Sarah Champion, who resigned last month as shadow equalities minister, after writing an article in the Sun claiming that 'Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls', reveals the continued difficulties liberals have in knowing how to discuss the issue". In fact, the controversy over Sarah Champion revolved around a) her stereotyping of Pakistani men, b) her use of language that she must have known would be exploited by racists, and c) her willingness to take the Murdoch shilling (an offence compounded when she went on to give an interview to the Times in which she slagged off her Labour colleagues). Champion is in odium on the left because she seeks to inherit the mantle of Simon Danczuk, not because liberals have an inadequate vocabulary.

The Tower Hamlets case was fuelled not only by dishonest journalism (notably the doctoring of a stock photo by the Mail) but by the ready availability of Tory MPs willing to provide an opinion during the parliamentary recess. There was a sense of bored rent-a-gobs going through the motions and a particularly dog-eared template being employed, with the incompetence and malevolence of the local authority as predictable as the cultural incompatibility of Muslims. Champion herself employed a different but no less predictable template in berating what she described as "floppy liberals" - i.e. a metropolitan middle-class that has little understanding of the northern working class - though she scored an own-goal by claiming that Yorkshire folk were uniformly "blunt", which some affronted natives of God's own county considered a euphemism for "unsophisticated" if not "outright racist". It doesn't seem to occur to people like Champion and Malik that a reluctance to pile in on "the issue" of "British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls", might simply be an appreciation of the difference between a criminal sub-culture and a wider community defined by ethnicity or religion. Ultimately, the reductive caricatures of politics and the press jar with the lived reality of complex communities and overlapping identities.


The corollary of the "difficulty in discussing" trope is the claim that those who do say the unsayable, like Champion, struggle to be heard, despite their extensive media exposure (you have to laugh at press articles bemoaning "the shutting down of debate"). This claim depends on the idea that there is an amorphous PC lobby dedicated to controlling discourse. It's a reactionary myth that combines elements of liberalism (the valorisation of free-thinking), anti-establishment conspiracy ("they" seek to control your mind) and the old trope of the ill-advised monarch (in this case the sovereign being a people who are poorly-served by the "mainstream"). Muscular liberals have adopted much of this, but with an additional layer of lunacy in which the "far left" (rather than George Soros) have disproportionate power. For example, Malik claims that "Progressive critics of Islam are often attacked as 'Islamophobes' for challenging homophobia or misogyny within Muslim communities". This is as much a misrepresentation as anything the media published on the Tower Hamlets case, implying that self-styled progressives can't be Islamophobic, when there's no incompatibility between being a bigot and a liberal, and that homophobia and misogyny within Muslim communities go otherwise unchallenged. That some on the left excuse religious nut-jobs as anti-imperialists does not mean that all leftists are useful idiots.

What Malik's article highlights is that the supposed division between a fact-free political right and left and a fact-respecting centre is as bogus as the claim that Nazis are socialists. Liberals who deprecate Islam are just as happy to abuse facts as conservatives, even if they do prefer a more sophisticated approach in which their contempt is directed towards the "fellow-travelling left" (this is, of course, a variation on the old trope of a credulous native population misled by alien trouble-makers, highlighting once more the interchangeability of liberal and reactionary rhetoric in the modern era). Malik's emphasis on discourse allows the absence of evidence, or the presence of inconvenient facts, to be elided. Despite a large industry devoted to Islamophobia, no one has been able to prove that the religion authorises the rape of children, while its inherent homophobia and misogyny is scripturally no different to that of Judaism or Christianity. As conservative institutions that seek to arrest modernity, all religions are retrograde. The idea that some are ethically "worse" than others is simply ahistorical.

Meanwhile, the actual evidence from the various inquiries into CSE involving Muslim-heritage gangs points to the institutional contempt for working-class girls, primarily by the police and social services, as being the root problem that allows such abuse to become systematic and persistent. To give her her due, Sarah Champion has always been clear on the importance of this dimension, however her recent comments have helped shift attention from institutional failure to the behaviour of the perpetrators, which has allowed the usual suspects to reframe the issue as the "problem of some Muslim men's disdain for white working-class girls", as if society at large were otherwise respectful of them. The suspicion must be that this rhetorical turn indicates that institutional reform may now be running out of steam, even as CSE cases still come to court. In this light, commentators like Keenan Malik are not confronting uncomfortable truths but simply helping to divert public debate back into the dead-end of the "clash of civilisations" and "culture wars" that have marred politics since the 1990s.

The reasons for this turn, which is most visible in the UK and the US, are not hard to find. America now knows that it is facing 4 years of precisely fuck-all, with a ratings-obsessed White House indulging in grotesque gestures while an intellectually-bereft Congress spins its wheels. In the UK, the distraction of Brexit and the fear of the consequences mean that institutional reform of any sort is now in abeyance. In such an environment, the left can secure a hearing with relatively modest political propositions, hence the success of Labour in the UK and the advancing popularity of single-payer healthcare in the US. Without policy substance, both rightwing and centrist political rhetoric will increasingly oscillate between the divisive and the inclusive, with ever more more groups demonised as problematic or condemned as illegitimate, from Muslims to "antifa". In contrast, the EU looks in better health, which appears to reflect institutional as much as economic confidence. Macron may be unpopular and Merkel has had her wobbles, but this reflects domestic differences of opinion over policy, not just the antagonisms of discourse. What the UK needs is fewer MPs and pundits chatting shit.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Memories Are Made of This

Simon Schama's 1989 history of the French Revolution, Citizens, memorably opens with a description of the monumental plaster elephant that stood in the Place de la Bastille between 1814 and 1846. It was a temporary structure erected on the order of Napoleon as a celebration of his victories and intended to be replaced by one cast in bronze from captured cannon. It long-outlived its purpose and was eventually eclipsed by the current monument, a column memorialising the dead of the 1830 July Revolution. Schama uses the increasingly decrepit elephant as a metaphor both for the obliteration of the 1789 revolution's history after the Thermidorian Reaction and the ultimate vanity of the revolutionaries' hopes, though their true monument was surely the dismantling of the Bastille Prison - i.e. the creative absence you still feel in the square as you circle the July Column. If Schama ideologically followed Francois Furet in seeing the Revolution as on-the-whole a bad thing (essentially liberalism perverted by the totalitarian left), then he followed the method of Furet's brother-in-law, Pierre Nora, the author of the monumental Les Lieux de Mémoire, in seeking to tell the story of the Revolution through its rhetorical expressions, from pamphlets to pageants.


Nora's even more comprehensive approach to French historiography (which ironically recuperated techniques pioneered by Debord and Foucault) would inspire the genre of popular world histories seen through the prism of a commodity: salt, pepper, the chronometer etc. It would also provide a background to the post-1989 debates on the removal of statues in Eastern Europe and the memorialising of resistance to Communist rule (the Gdansk shipyard gates, the site of Jan Palach's self-immolation in Prague etc). Unfortunately, this approach encouraged the idea that retiring some configurations of metal and marble and erecting others was sufficient in itself, which would eventually lead to the orgy of statue-toppling that obscured the far more damaging destruction of the institutions of the state in Iraq in 2003. What the focus on the symbolic in Eastern Europe hinted at was the high degree of continuity at the institutional level. This wasn't merely because democracy was adopted as a cover for existing networks by elites, though this clearly played a part, but because those states had institutions that were largely accepted as legitimate by the population. The two exceptions to this were East Germany and Russia: the one "taken over" by another institutional culture (to no little resentment), the other weakened by the fragmentation of the institutions of the USSR, which empowered now-private actors in state industries to entrench an oligarchy.

While many have drawn a parallel between Eastern Europe's monumental hygiene and the recent clashes over the memorials to white supremacy in the US, this equivalence tends to ignore the institutional dimension. Toppling statues is a perfectly reasonable activity, but it looks a lot like displacement unless there is an obvious symbolic value in a specific monument, like the notoriously near-empty Bastille. While some historians have rightly pointed out that most of the monuments to Confederate soldiers in the US were actually erected as symbols of the triumph of post-1890 "Jim Crow" laws, or resistance to civil rights in the 1960s, rather than memorials to the Civil War, this simply encourages the left to claim that these statues represent contemporary racism. That's obviously true in part, but it neglects the institutional basis to the persistence of that racism: the state house, the local sherrif, the conservative judiciary etc. The civil rights movement targeted institutions, not monuments. Donald Trump showed a better understanding of power, not to mention an appreciation of the idea that lieux des mémoire are more than just statues, when he pardoned the notorious former Arizonan sherrif, Joe Arpaio, for his abuse of the Constitution. That he also wants to rescind a lot of the National Monuments decreed by Barack Obama and previous presidents, specifically for the benefit of industry, should come as no surprise.

There appears to be an unconscious admission among centrists in the US that institutions are off limits, though whether this is due to a lack of imagination, or a fear that they are so far gone that the slightest pressure might lead to the complete collapse of the state, is hard to say. Much of the US "resistance" to Trump has been vapid and entitled precisely because it has focused on issues and symbols that are either marginal to popular concerns or seen as part of the establishment, such as quibbles over travel expenditure or insults directed at TV hosts. Though there is no shortage of popular delusion in the US, from the reality of angels to the intangibility of Obama's birth certificate, Democrats cannot attribute Hillary Clinton's failure solely to the lies over "Pizzagate" and her emails. Those tall tales merely reinforced an existing suspicion that she was untrustworthy and lacking in sympathy for ordinary people. Now, at a time when they should be challenging the institutional decay that has given rise to Trump, the Democrats remain wedded to old forms and familiar symbols, meaning that the defence of democracy against its presumed threats looks like the self-interested defence of institutions and norms that are anything but democratic (including the Democratic Party itself).

If the French have a wider symbolic vocabulary than Americans it is not down to any difference in their institutional resilience but to a greater anxiety over cultural cohesion. The French state has consciously sought to "make Frenchmen" since 1789 and many of its contemporary social frictions arise from that legacy, not least because it suffers a surfeit of lieux de mémoire and a constant demand to recognise more, particularly those that acknowledge the state's darker deeds in living memory, such as the Vel' d'Hiv and the Pont Saint-Michel. This debate around memory is ultimately a good thing, being a popular recognition of the state as a shared endeavour, even if it does lend an overly-theatrical air to proceedings. Macron's concern with symbolism, not to mention his expenditure on cosmetics, might strike many as ridiculous, but he is employing a conventional political grammar. In contrast, the US has a tradition of defining its sense of community in opposition: to native Americans, the British, Mexicans, subsequent waves of non-Protestant immigrants and, most obviously, blacks. Much of the current populism (i.e. anti-elitism) and distrust of Washington springs from this "agin-ness". The consequence is that identity is reduced to a handful of possessive symbols that anyone might own, such as the lawn flag, the handgun or the car, which encourages a defensive intransigence ("when you take it from my cold, dead hands") rather than an engagement with the federal public realm.

This explains the paradox of Americans as chauvinists who mistrust the nation state. Attempts to inculcate a more expansive patriotism in the French manner (one nation under a flag) have often struggled to get beyond the superficiality of performative patriotism: the hand on the heart, the stars-and-stripes pin on the lapel. It also suggests why the end of the American superlative after the 1970s (the best this, the best that) has been more disconcerting than the earlier relative decline in Britain. While the US moved from the hope of "It's morning again in America" to the petulance of "Make America great again", Britain settled down to watch It Ain't Alf Hot Mum and Only Fools and Horses, suggesting our admiration for entrepreneurialism was no more profound than our regret over empire. Britain has no shortage of chauvinists, but there would be few takers for a torchlight procession to defend the statue of Edward Colston. The irony of the current wave of American statue-bothering is that many of these monuments lost their resonance years ago, particularly since post-60s racism moved its symbolic focus to the spectre of race-inflected violence: "three strikes", concealed carry, Sheriff Joe etc. The compounding irony is that attempts by the "alt-right" to defend the statues have highlighted their irrelevance and inappropriateness, which is now accelerating their removal.


The turn to the symbolic in American political discourse suggests a renewed engagement by the general population with its history. This isn't peculiar to the one country: a similar tendency is to be seen across developed nations, perhaps because the contingency of the state has become more apparent under globalisation and so settled national narratives have come in for more interrogation. That neoliberalism has stimulated an interest in family history, essentially as a defence against fragmentation and the loss of memory, is self-evident, but it has also encouraged an appreciation of history as the product of many individual decisions and experiences (an ironic echo of Hayek's theory of dispersed knowledge). But if this engagement is limited to statuary, it will be no more fruitful that the occupation of Zuccotti Park. Democratic renewal in the US requires institutional reform, and that is only going to come through party reform. The problem is that the Democrats remain in denial about their own need for renewal, insisting that the plaster elephant of the Republican Party must surely crumble under the weight of its own decay and so leave the field to them. As Parisians could remind them, sometimes it takes a revolution to clear away the rubbish.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Fragmented Family

Much of the critical literature on neoliberalism has focused on its effect on the state, in particular the way that aspects of public policy are put beyond democratic control through marketisation and privatisation, and the manner in which policy is suborned to commercial interests through regulatory capture and the "revolving door". Less attention has been paid to the impact of neoliberalism on the family. This doesn't mean that the family is ignored so much as it is viewed as a permanent fixture that is buffeted and stressed by neoliberalism - for example the way in which the erosion of the welfare state has driven the growth in household debt - rather than as a subject that is transformed. There is no conception of the neoliberal family to match the idealisation of homo economicus, the neoliberal individual, and thus little attempt to historicise it. This seems odd given the wealth of twentieth century analysis into the changing formation of kinship groups, from historical studies of the early modern period to sociological studies of the contemporary nuclear family, not to mention current debates on the "varieties of family" occasioned by feminism and same-sex marriage.

Sociology has certainly not neglected the impact that neoliberalism has had on the family as a unit, from its increasing dependence on working mothers to the frictions arising from growing intergenerational inequality, but it hasn't ventured a theory of the neoliberal family in the way that the nuclear family was defined as the logical kinship formation of modern industrial society. This is partly a disciplinary problem, reflecting both the divorce of sociology from economics that occurred under neoliberalism (a process that some sociologists, like Wolfgang Streeck, seek to reverse) and the revived interest in Karl Polanyi and the idea of the family as a site of resistance to the market. Both treat the family as anterior to and independent of the economy (the one oblivious, the other antagonistic) rather than as a social result of economic power. But it is also a political problem, reflecting the success of the right in reconciling neoliberalism with traditional conservative theory through an emphasis on both the family's pre-eminent role as the source of social assistance (replacing the welfare state) and on its exemplary role as the foundation of property rights (which in the US has heavily influenced the debates around abortion and gun control).

The result is that even those studies that focus explicitly on the relationship of neoliberalism and the family tend to see the latter as a site in which power struggles take place rather than as the product of socio-economic dynamics. This perspective is reinforced both by feminism, with its emphasis on individual emancipation and historic abuse, and by readings that seek to excavate the reactionary roots of modern conservatives' instrumental use of the family. The consequence is the all-too-familiar friction between the demands for social and economic justice that divide the contemporary left (identity politics versus "brocialists") and a tendency to treat "conventional" family forms as inherently suspect. For example, in separate reviews of Melinda Cooper's Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, Angela McRobbie brackets the regret expressed over the loss of the family wage by "European leftist social scientists", such as Zygmunt Bauman and Streeck, with the Chicago School economist Gary Becker, while James Chappel expands the bracket far back into the past: "Scratch the surface of the most hardheaded economic rationalist—Thomas Malthus in the nineteenth century, Gary Becker in the twentieth—and you will find that the apparent commitment to rugged individualism is more accurately a commitment to family altruism and private relations of dependence".

Cooper's fundamental and correct point - that neoliberalism works through the agency of the family despite its rhetorical emphasis on personal utility - shouldn't come as a surprise. That neoliberalism requires a strong (even authoritarian) state, despite its ostensible commitment to reducing the burden of government and increasing the freedom of the individual, is now well known. Only the naive would still claim that the promise of neoliberal politicians to "shrink the state" is sincere. Similarly, neoliberalism sees the family as critical to its success, not merely as a substitute for welfare but as a more reliable asset for financialisation (people in family units are less likely to renege on debts than people on their own, and more likely to have assets to call on). But there is no doubt that the neoliberal state is a significantly different animal to the social democratic state of les trente glorieuses, from its valorisation of markets to its deficit obsession. By the same token, we should expect the family under neoliberalism to exhibit similarly distinct characteristics. To identify these, we need first to establish the baseline: the characteristics of the typical family in the years before neoliberalism started to seriously affect social relations, i.e. around the 1980s.


In the 1950s and 60s, some children would move beyond the area where they were brought up by their early-twenties, but the majority would stay in (or within walking distance of) the parental home, sometimes beyond marriage. The arrival of children (i.e. grandchildren) was often the point at which young adults would finally move out of their parent's immediate orbit, particularly after the growth of the postwar suburbs and the appearance of affordable cars. The Sunday lunch ritual - being driven to the grandparents for meat and two veg - was a thing by the 1970s. By the 1990s, "empty nest syndrome" had become a thing. The post-millennium "boomerang" effect, of young adults moving back home after a few years of independence due to low-wages or housing shortages, might have been expected to ameliorate this sense of estrangement but it actually exacerbated it by leaving both children and parents in limbo. The former were often resentful at their "failure to launch" while the latter were unable to properly process their anticipated "loss". Uncertainty about the stability of family groups is now common and anxiety over future inheritance conflicts (i.e. liquidating the chief asset means someone may lose their home) is growing. The nostalgia that underpins TV programmes like Back in Time for Dinner is for predictability not Angel Delight.

This doesn't just affect "traditional" family groups - i.e. married parents with two or more children - but other formations too: unmarried parents with kids, re-marriages with step-children, same-sex couples with adoptees etc. All family models have been affected by broader social changes: the reduction in family sizes in the 1970s and the subsequent growth in childlessness; deindustrialisation in the 1980s, causing young adults to move often long distances in search of work; and the expansion of tertiary education starting in the 1990s, which meant more children moving away (at least temporarily) and acquiring different values earlier. While intergenerational conflict is often deployed as a distraction from wealth inequality, the relative reduction in life chances for the young (social mobility, home ownership etc) is real. The chief characteristic of the neoliberal family then is fragmentation and a loosening of bonds in multiple dimensions: spatial, generational and cultural (the intra-family frictions over Brexit are typical of this). In this light, the alliance of neoliberalism and conservatism starts to look less like a happy marriage that advances both household indebtedness and traditional family values and more like an attempt to mitigate the disruptive effects of the one by an appeal to the coercive normativity of the other.

The tension in this marriage was obvious from the beginning. For example, 1981 in the UK was the first full year of right-to-buy and also the year that Norman Tebbitt gave his notorious "get on your bike" speech at the Conservative Party annual conference. The one policy encouraged the encumbrance of a mortgage and the fixity of place while the other advocated the mobility of labour. Renting would actually have been an optimal social policy for industrial capital, particularly in a period of massive reorganisation, but the interests of finance capital (more so than simple electoral calculation) were decisive. The fading away of the vision of a "property-owning democracy" was always inevitable, and while some conservatives seem to appreciate the problem, they appear unable to address it because of their conflicting interests. The crisis of conservatism is a set of contradictions arising not simply from material changes in the economy and society but from antagonistic policies enacted by conservatives themselves. These antagonisms are increasingly located within the family, giving the impression that conservative political parties are losing their touch despite their family-friendly rhetoric (the Tories' "dementia tax" being a recent example).

The popular culture of the 60s and 70s often focused on the idea of escape from the constraints of family, and in particular the limitations of working class life, but this imagined the family background as at worst conservative and timid. For all its failings, it was a launchpad for social progression. In retrospect, this looks like early period neoliberalism with the emphasis on individual freedom and potential. The modern equivalent of the "traditional" family has been reduced to scenarios of individual rebellion against the socially retrograde, such as gay kids fleeing homophobia or Muslim girls fleeing arranged marriages. The ideal of escape is now tinged with fear and desperation (the recent film Get Out took this to hilarious extremes). The idealised neoliberal family today is not just socially tolerant, in a predictably middle-class way, but its members oscillate between atomised indifference and competitive support, which reflects the contradiction at its heart. Parents as much as children are highly individual, to the point of rebellious eccentricity, but with a sense of collective obligation. TV sitcoms like My Family, Outnumbered and Cuckoo, with their tropes of permanent exhaustion and barely suppressed resentment, suggest that neoliberalism has entered a late, decadent phase.