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Saturday, 16 March 2019

Anti-capitalism and Antisemitism

The centre-right Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh's recent admission that she believes anti-capitalism is akin to antisemitism shouldn't surprise us. The idea that the two are linked has been building for a while, as part of a wider tendency that also treats philosemitism as a narrow political identifier and associates antisemitism with political attitudes far beyond the confines of the Israel/Palestine issue. Morbid symptoms of this include Americans like the TV anchor Meghan McCain (daughter of the late John McCain) claiming a superior empathy with Jews and Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian suggesting that in trying to understand 2008 we instinctively reached for "the archetype of the avaricious Jew". There's a degree of projection in evidence here, with traditional antisemitic tropes being liberally used by the right to characterise anti-Semites as malevolent and traitorous, in particular anti-Zionist Jews, but there is also a sense of centrists seeking to defend capitalism not on its merits but by discrediting its critics.

Ironically, the roots of this latter strain of thinking are to be found on the political left, not in the centre or on the right, and they go back decades. The linking of anti-capitalism and antisemitism originates among Marxists of the New Left who deplored the rigidity of the Stalinist "Two Campism" of the post-war era, and who more recently criticised the lack of a sufficiently structural approach by the anti-globalisation movement in the 1990s and the Occupy movement after 2008. Their essential argument was that a failure to treat capitalism as a system of social relations led to a moralising focus on "bad actors" that left itself vulnerable to conspiracy theories. One of the central thinkers in this tradition was the Canadian academic Moishe Postone, who espied a thread of "vulgar anti-capitalism" overlapping with antisemitism running from the Boer War through the Nazis to the contemporary era: "Anti-Semitism is a revolt against global capital, misrecognized as the Jews."


Postone's 1986 essay on Anti-Semitism and National Socialism saw the centrality of the former to the latter as intimately bound up with its anti-capitalist utility: "Anti-Semitism so understood allows one to grasp an essential moment of Nazism as a foreshortened anti-capitalist movement, one characterized by a hatred of the abstract, a hypostatization of the existing concrete and by a single-minded, ruthless—but not necessarily hate-filled—mission: to rid the world of the source of all evil." Of course, this theory runs up against a number of well-known problems: Hitler wasn't a socialist and adopted the term opportunistically ("We might have called ourselves the Liberal Party", he said of the name); he purged the Strasserites, who were certainly vulgar anti-capitalists; he forged a close alliance with German capital both when building the Nazi Party and once in power (and pioneered privatisation along the way); and his antisemitism was "classical" in its focus on ethnicity and its hatred. There is also the small matter of the characterisation of Eastern Jews as verminous sub-humans and "Judaeo-Bolsheviks", rather than an exclusive focus on the haute-bourgeois Jews of Western Europe.

Postone attempts to explain the Nazis' equivocal attitude to capital through the Marxian distinction of value (i.e. money) and use-value: they objected to the abstract, "rootless" former (biologized as the Jews), not to the concrete, "organic" latter (biologized as Aryan labour): "According to this interpretation, the Jews were identified not merely with money, with the sphere of circulation, but with capitalism itself. However, because of its fetishized form, capitalism did not appear to include industry and technology. Capitalism appeared to be only its manifest abstract dimension which, in turn, was responsible for the whole range of concrete social and cultural changes associated with the rapid development of modern industrial capitalism. The Jews were not seen merely as representatives of capital (in which case antisemitic attacks would have been much more class-specific). They became the personifications of the intangible, destructive, immensely powerful, and international domination of capital as an alienated social form".

Postone wasn't responsible for the popularity of the "Nazis were socialists" meme on the right. His point was a more subtle one about an affinity between anti-capitalism and antisemitism as responses to the confusion and abstraction of late-nineteenth century modernity ("the rapid development of industrial capitalism, with all its social ramifications, is personified and identified as the Jew"), but that still provided a handy brush for neoliberals keen to paint the anti-capitalism of the last thirty years as essentially reactionary, despite the very different social contexts of those eras. While Postone provided insights into the theory and practice of Nazi antisemitism, he didn't argue that anti-capitalism tout court is necessarily antisemitic, but too many who have used his work subsequently have been prepared to make that generalisation, ignoring his distinction between a Marxist critique of capitalism and a vulgar anti-capitalism that sought emancipation from an "other" in the form of bankers or a global elite.

In Postone's telling, the synergy of anti-capitalism and antisemitism was furthered after the war by the Soviet Union, which had junked the structuralism of Marxism in the 1930s for a crude anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism, and had then instrumentalised antisemitism in the 1940s and 50s (the Doctors' Plot, the Slansky trial etc) as part of Stalin's repression of dissent within the Communist Party and among the satellite states of the Warsaw Pact. According to Postone, "This strand of anti-semitic anti-Zionism was imported into the Middle East during the Cold War, in part by the intelligence services of countries like East Germany. A form of anti-semitism was introduced into the Middle East that was 'legitimate' for the Left, and was called anti-Zionism." Again, it's important to emphasise that Postone wasn't insisting that anti-Zionism was necessarily antisemitic, but that the culture of anti-Zionism on the left (which was actually pre-war Jewish in origin) was corrupted by Soviet influence.


Postone's leading epigones in the UK are probably Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, who published Corbynism: A Critical Approach last year. For them, "Corbynism" is characterised by "a national-populist platform of economic protectionism, twinned with a crude 'two campist' isolationist foreign policy". Following Postone, the first is framed as a vulgar anti-capitalism (hence the emphasis on its "populism") in which the system is explained by the actions of an elite (the few not the many), while the second serves to frame Corbyn's foreign policy as an antiquated anti-Americanism that subscribes to an anti-Zionism that is inherently antisemitic (as an aside, the regular press snark about the influence of "Stalinists" in Corbyn's "immediate circle" alludes to this narrative while ironically employing a conspiracist trope). What is important is the "twinning": an antipathy towards Israel (inferred from a left anti-Zionism that is presumed to have been corrupted) is taken as corroborating evidence that Corbyn's anti-capitalism is tainted by antisemitism and must therefore be illegitimate (i.e. vulgar). The aim is not to characterise Corbyn as an antisemite so much as a naïve anti-capitalist.

Just as Postone semi-detached Hitler from a long tradition of cultural and ethnic antisemitic thought, so Bolton and Pitts obscure the English socialist tradition that Jeremy Corbyn is the inheritor of. If the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marx, then Corbyn owes even more to the Quakers and the ethical internationalism (which actually has its roots in 19th century Liberalism) exemplified by individuals like George Lansbury and groups like the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Ignoring the intellectual history of the Labour left in this way is all the odder given the effort they expend in linking John McDonnell's economic thinking back to Tony Benn and the Alternative Economic Strategy of the 1980s (essentially to rubbish it as old wine in old bottles). Corbyn's emphasis on a system rigged for "the few" is wholly within the ethical socialist tradition. While that was no more free of the risk of antisemitism than any other tradition - the "socialism of fools" is a real thing, after all - it cannot be written off in its entirety any more than Adam Smith can be dismissed as a conspiracist for claiming that "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices".

Conspiracy is as central to Bolton and Pitts's analysis as populism: "A critique of capitalism based on the need to eradicate 'globalism' is politically ambiguous at best, able to be utilised by the far-right as easily as the left. What this lapse from critical to conspiracy theory suggests is that the antisemitic tropes which pervade the Corbyn-supporting 'alt-media' and activist base, as well as Corbyn’s own dubious brand of 'anti-Zionism' and 'anti-imperialism', are not mere contingencies, but the logical outcome of the movement’s morally-charged, personalised critique of capitalism as conspiracy." That the anti-capitalism of the last twenty years has often been simplistic is not much of an insight. That a focus on the "1%" or the "global elite" sails dangerously close to conspiracy theory and thus the employment of traditional antisemitic tropes is true enough, but this is not sufficient to damn the rhetoric let alone equate anti-capitalism with antisemitism. It also fails to show that Corbynism is peculiarly conspiracist (The Canary or Chris Williamson are not persuasive evidence), in much the same way that centrists have failed to show that it is peculiarly populist.

Though their utility in the media obviously depends on their willingness to say disobliging things about Corbyn and McDonnell, and even if it is the charge of accidental antisemitism that sells rather than that of deviationism, Bolton and Pitts are not shy in advancing an explicitly Marxist analysis: "Our critique stems from a fundamentally different understanding of capitalism. In our view, capitalism is not a monolithic system consciously designed and covertly imposed by one group — be it the 'capitalist class', the 'bourgeoisie' or the 'elite' — upon another, whether that is the 'workers' or 'the people'. Capitalism is a specific historical form taken by human social relations. It compels everyone — rich and poor — to behave in certain ways in order to survive, even whilst one group benefits at the other’s expense." But what they don't prove is that the Labour leadership actually disagrees with this analysis. Corbyn and McDonnell are operating within an antagonistic political system in which an appeal to a common interest over vested interests is perfectly normal (try a structuralist approach on BBC Question Time and see where it gets you). That the shared preferences of the owners and managers of the larger capitals are a product of the system of capitalism, rather than their collusion, doesn't mean that they are not a coherent interest group that can be distinguished for rhetorical effect.


Many politicians who wouldn't be considered antisemitic have employed populist rhetoric and questionable tropes, from Margaret Thatcher's characterisation of trade union leaders as an unelected elite frustrating "the people" to Theresa May's "citizens of nowhere" remark, so attacking the "few" or the "1%" proves little on its own. Likewise, favouring a more "national" economy over a "rigged" one isn't compelling evidence of antisemitism, unless every British party leader from Attlee to Callaghan is to be so condemned. To make the charge stick requires the addition of the international dimension and in particular a critical attitude towards both the USA and Israel. As Bolton and Pitts put it: "This often comes combined with a mechanical 'anti-imperialism' which regards the foreign policy of the US and its allies, particularly Israel, as bearing responsibility for the negative effects of capitalist development around the world." For them, it is the absence of this half of the combination that exempts post-war administrations, and it is its presence that is characteristic of Corbynism. The argument is that a suspect anti-Zionism is amplified by a vulgar anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism, thereby encouraging antisemitism.

In reality, economic Corbynism - specifically in the statements of John McDonnell - doesn't amount to much more than mild social democracy, while the foreign policy outlined to date would have found favour with Robin Cook, Tony Blair's first Foreign Secretary (that Blair wanted a more right-wing policy, which he got with Jack Straw, is not in dispute - the point is that Cook's attempt at an "ethical" approach was mainstream in the eyes of the public, if not the establishment). This suggests that the issue really does boil down to Israel. The implication is that Corbyn might, if he came to power, push for a more explicitly anti-Zionist policy by the UK, or at least an implicit one in the form of a questioning of the viability of the moribund two-state solution. This idea - that Corbyn has raised the risk of antisemitism gaining purchase within Labour precisely because he is neither a Zionist nor conventionally agnostic on the subject (i.e. conservative) - was made explicit by John Harris recently: "Corbyn’s lifelong interest in Israel-Palestine, and his associations with – and I’m being polite here – some of that conflict’s more controversial elements, have played a part in pushing this narrative somewhere grim."

We have then a particular strand of Marxist thought that espies "the socialism of fools" in modern anti-capitalist and anti-globalist movements, essentially because their lack of a structural approach makes them vulnerable to conspiracism. Where this intersects with anti-Zionism, antisemitism is likely to flourish both because of that conspiracism and also because of the historic corruption of left anti-Zionism by Stalinism. This is obviously a rather patronising (even snobbish) view, which not only marginalises Jewish anti-Zionism but dismisses naïve anti-capitalism for being unschooled, but it's perhaps not surprising to find this given the notorious factionalism and long memories of the left. What is unusual is the recent prominence of an argument that can be traced back to the 1960s and whose revival can't be explained by the supposedly "antique" nature of Corbynism. I suspect its salience has little to do with the idea that capitalism needs defending with any weapon that comes to hand, despite its intellectual cringe since 2008. Capitalism didn't collapse a decade ago and the system has accommodated itself to both stagnation and a more discreet hegemony. Corbynism isn't an existential threat to it.

It's more likely that the argument's contemporary utility arises from anxiety over Israel and in particular that country's drift towards both an exclusionary nationalism and an aggressive, anti-social capitalism during the Netanyahu years. Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, but if you accept that anti-capitalism is inherently antisemitic, then given that Israel is demonstrably capitalist and is increasingly happy to identify with the broader ideology of the American right, the space for a socialist anti-Zionism that is not antisemitic disappears. Indeed, even a Zionist socialism begins to look like a category error. The corollary of that is a tendency by those who support Israel to attribute criticism of it not to its own domestic choices but to a wider attack on "the West", whether in the religious form of "Judaeo-Christian values" or the secular form of liberal capitalism. Siobhain McDonagh isn't ironically presenting a Marxist critique, or even exhibiting philo-semitism, so much as continuing the fine old Labour centre-right tradition of philo-Americanism.



A stylistic note: I have got so irritated by the inconsistency of auto-corrections across the various platforms I use that I have decided to try and apply a simple rule to spelling in this post. Antisemitism is one word (no hyphen, no capital S) because there is no proper noun Semitism (the IHRA agree). Ditto philosemitism. Conversely, anti-capitalism deserves a hyphen because capitalism is a thing in its own right, while anti-Zionism is also fine because Zionism is both a thing and a proper noun (being derived from Zion).

Friday, 8 March 2019

Turf Wars

We have become so used to the ineptness and tone-deafness of the Prime Minister that when she makes a correct statement there is scepticism about both her grasp of the facts and her motives. The recent increase in fatal knife attacks is not the direct result of cuts in police numbers and Theresa May isn't simply trying to defend her time as Home Secretary by saying so. Given that the role of the police is primarily to respond to crime rather than prevent it, and given the often random nature of violence, attempts to reduce it through more bobbies on the beat or more stop-and-search are likely to prove fruitless. In reality, greater police numbers rarely leads to a reduction in offences (if anything, it tends to produce an increase in offences recorded). Secular declines in crime, such as the one experienced since the 1990s, reflect complex and multi-variate changes in society. Despite the fact that none of this is a mystery, the media coverage of crime - which largely defines the popular perception of what are actually rare acts - inevitably bends towards "something must be done".

One of the arguments presented to support the idea that there is a correlation between police numbers and crime levels is a variant on the logic of the Laffer Curve. This assumes that a extreme level of policing - literally a police state - would minimise crime, while a complete absence of police - effective anarchy - would maximise crime. This appears to accord with common sense and leads to the assumption that there is a straightforward relationship between crime and police headcount, yet a moment's thought reveals it to be mistaken. Totalitarian regimes do not lack for "common-or-garden" crime as well as thought-crime, while under-policed communities do not necessarily descend into a permanent state of savagery. This reveals two truths: that levels of crime are often determined more by what the state decides to criminalise than by any innate quantum of human evil, and that left to their own devices most people do not consider riotous looting or banditry to be a viable way of life. The Hobbesian nightmare (man is a wolf to man) is just that: a scare-story required to justify the state.

In practice, policing is always disproportionately focused on sections of the urban population (because policing is fundamentally a product of urbanity) considered to be problematic by the state: the poor, immigrants, racial or religious minorities, the sexually deviant etc (one reason for the persistence of police corruption is that officers have a greater commonality of background and present milieu with career criminals). The focus on marginal communities is not because they have a greater propensity to do wrong but because they are an objectified "other" that helps define the societal norm. Policing validates their problematic status and therefore their inferiority to the imagined community of the "law-abiding". Where particular characteristics of a community intersect with criminality for structural reasons, this allows crimes that are actually common across society to be mentally situated on the fringe. For example, the contemporary Turkish and Albanian involvement in the drugs trade, which is the product of geography and family ties (echoing that of the Chinese in the past), or the Pakistani involvement in the night-time economy and its overlap with "grooming".

That both drug offences and sexual abuse are more likely to be committed by "white natives" in the UK is obvious enough, but this is elided by a focus on the idea of crime as something alien and infectious that has been introduced from abroad. This belief about the nature of crime is fundamental to the self-conception of the state and is reflected in its organisation. There is no compelling reason why the same government department (the Home Office) should be responsible for both domestic crime and border security. Equally, there would be obvious operational advantages to combining border security with customs and excise (which is part of the Treasury), something that Brexit has brought into sharp relief. That refugees are seen as potential if not actual criminals is one inevitable consequence of this wonky mindset. If Theresa May's time as Home Secretary is vulnerable to criticism, it is over her championing of the "hostile environment" to immigrants and asylum-seekers, not her reforms of the police.


Beyond the boundary of institutionalised crime (i.e. what the criminal justice system concerns itself with), we find the grey area of anti-social behaviour. Central to the disciplinary turn of neoliberalism has been the idea that previously informal sanctions, such as public opprobrium, should be formalised through new "instruments" (such as ASBOs) and by state regulators (the EHRC being a topical example). Whereas moral panics in the past would lead to demands for new laws or more vigorous policing, contemporary panics are more likely to lead to demands to extend the use of existing sanctions (ASBOs for Drill musicians), to extend the definition of rights (which may in practice mean justifying penalties, e.g. excluding trans-sexuals from women-only spaces) or to beef-up state regulation (the recent "Momo challenge" hoax was enabled by an ironically self-regulating press that wants independent control of social media). What this highlights is that the criminal justice system is actually in retreat as the disciplinary state expands. Consider the way that benefit sanctions have supplanted the magistrates court in popular lore as the face of a punitive and unsympathetic state. This shifting of the boundary has been one of the major reasons why police headcount has been reduced (and also why legal aid has been cut).

One logical trend in the future would be for the police to become ever more focused on what Americans refer to as "homeland security". The extension of police powers in respect of surveillance and cyber-security, along with the heavy investment in counter-terrorism and increased militarisation, certainly suggests this, but we should also acknowledge the corollary, which is that the police will continue to retreat from their traditional beat in the frontline of social control. As anyone who has dealt with the police in recent years over "minor" offences like burglary or theft will know, this retreat is already well underway. This doesn't mean that the wider security state is shrinking, but that more and more of it has been transferred to other disciplinary functions or outsourced to corporations serving the state apparatus, while the arena of non-violent crimes against the person has been increasingly left to the individual to address through insurance or private security.

In this context, the upsurge in knife crime (which is still low in historic terms) is emblematic of much that the police are gradually leaving behind. Framing it as a "black" problem, when that isn't the case in most of the UK, or an issue of "gangs", when the vast majority of offences are not gang-related, is not simply a case of the institutional bias of the media and renta-quote politicians. It is a form of nostalgia (the demands to reinstate stop-and-search make this explicit) and therefore a subconscious expression of dissatisfaction with the performance of the disciplinary state (i.e. that it hasn't been coercive enough). The political problem is that insisting we treat knife crime as a public health issue (which is sensible), or insisting that austerity is more to blame than fewer coppers (which is probably right), risks advocating a policy approach that funnels more resources into that disciplinary state at the same time that it restores public services. The knife crime "wave" will eventually subside, but the evolution of the police into a gendarmerie and the greater policing of society by public bodies are linked trends that look likely to continue.

Friday, 1 March 2019

A Vote For What?

It has always been unlikely that the current Parliament would agree to hold a second referendum, both because the government has committed to an exit from the EU on the 29th of March and because any Tory rebellion would be offset by Labour rebels insistent that the first referendum result must be honoured. Despite this being obvious since the Article 50 process was triggered in early 2017, we have seen the remain cause monopolised by the demand for a "People's Vote". What that campaign did get right was that a second referendum would ultimately be in the gift of the Labour Party, but what it wilfully ignored was that the best prospect of a fresh ballot would be via the election of a Labour government. In practice, continuity remain has shown that it considered the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10 to be too great a price to pay to achieve its goal, hence it has dissipated its energies between attacking the Labour leadership, vainly trying to rehabilitate the political establishment that lost the first vote, and encouraging business to repeat the errors of "project fear".

Labour's announcement this week that a Commons move to secure a second referendum is imminent has been presented as a concession by the leadership, despite it being simply the steady working out of the policy agreed at the party's conference last year. Though it is non-news, it has prompted speculation about the practicalities of a second vote, which has in turn allowed many to voice their frustrations with the strategists of the remain camp. But suggesting that the campaign should keep its distance from the likes of Blair, Mandelson and Campbell, while tactically sensible, is not in itself a strategy for winning. The problem for the remain camp is that almost three years after its original, clearly-flawed and ineptly-run campaign, it has failed to come up with any sort of coherent narrative to secure popular support. No "story" of the EU has emerged that comes anywhere near "take back control" in its visceral and intellectual power. The most obvious consequence of this is that "project fear" has continued to fill the media void by default, with tales of disinvestment and potential chaos prompting both despair and cynicism.

Attempts at defining a new strategy for remain have generally been negative. The trope of "legitimate concerns" in this context, whether directed at immigration or austerity, seeks to shift the blame for perceived or actual social ills away from the EU: we can limit freedom of movement under the current rules; we can bypass state aid regulations to invest in the public sector. This is not just uninspiring ("It's not as bad as you thought!"), it fails to address the attraction of unilateralism - the ability to exercise choice without restraint - which is what most people understood by the concept of sovereignty. Likewise, calls to extend the franchise, whether to 16 year-olds or EU27 nationals, speaks of a desire to erase the actual electorate of June 2016, in much the same way the claim that leave voters are "dying-off" does. Perhaps the most egregious example of this negativity is the insistence that "this time" we must ensure there is no outside interference by meddlesome Russians or dark money from the US right, despite the fact that a decisive influence by either on the 2016 result remains unproven and despite the patronising sub-text that treats leave voters as gullible fools.


Long lists of negatives, from chlorinated chicken to unavailable isotopes, aren't going to win over former leave voters in significant numbers, even if they can help raise doubts about the costs and benefits of leaving. Insofar as we can discern a shift towards remain in popular sentiment (and bearing in mind that this is not a reliable guide to what would happen were a second referendum to occur), it appears to be driven by dissatisfaction with the negotiation process and the realisation that the sunny uplands of freedom may prove illusory. This doesn't necessarily mean that people have slowly come to realise that they were conned. It may simply mean that they doubt the ability of the political class to secure the fruits of victory. Though people may be increasingly cynical, grudging acceptance of the status quo ante is not a reliable base on which to build a persuasive campaign. If anything, it risks inciting destructive bloody-mindedness, as the mooted "tell them again" slogan suggests.

Attempts from the left to make a principled case for remain have tended to be more positive than those originating in the political centre, but they have also displayed a weakness for rhetoric over narrative - notably in the guise of "remain and reform", which is definite about the former but vague about the latter. The attempts to reform the EU in the 1980s towards greater social responsibility, spearheaded by the likes of Jaques Delors, were popular at the time but the historic moment has passed. The shift towards neoliberalism that was championed by the UK, from Thatcher to Blair and Brown, and the increasing influence of Germany's ordoliberalism, have together led to an institutional stolidity and a bourgeois democratic hegemony that will frustrate any substantive reform in a social democratic direction for fear that it might revive continental socialism. That doesn't mean that reform is impossible, but it would require a genuine constitutional crisis in the form of a standoff between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. With the former dominated by the centre-right and nationalists constituting a bloc keen to restrain any growth in its powers, this is unlikely.

A feature of the left is its epochal historical perspective: it's expectation that change may be a long time coming. This is not just making a virtue of necessity, but an acknowledgement of the importance of hegemony ("the long march through the institutions"). One downside of this realism is an unrealistic belief that keeping the flame alight is sufficient to the moment. In the case of the EU, this means holding onto the prospect of reform without being specific as what that reform looks like or how it might be brought about (the main left remain campaign group, Another Europe is Possible, manages to capture this perfectly in its name). In many respects, this left position is merely a continuation of traditional internationalism, with its emphasis on pious hope and insubstantial solidarity. The problem with this tradition is that it feels obliged to dismiss any left sovereigntist arguments, damning them as the folly of "socialism in one country" or associating them with reactionary impulses like Blue Labour. But this means rejecting one of the positive arguments for leave voters to switch sides: that we have more potential power inside the EU than outside, both because we have ceded little sovereignty in reality (many of the supposed constraints placed upon us were the work of UK governments) and because membership gives us real leverage in areas like trade.


Ultimately, Brexit is a dispute over sovereignty and therefore power. If a second referendum were to be called before the conclusion of the Article 50 process, or were a future government to seek an explicit mandate for re-accession to the European Union, the arguments for and against would still centre on sovereignty. That the subject has been so little explored in Parliament, relative to the attention lavished on immigration and the economy, and that what limited debate has occurred has rarely risen above the superficiality of "meddling Brussels" or the faux-tradition of our glorious history, suggests that politicians either lack the intellectual tools needed to tackle it or (more likely) that they are reluctant to stir the hornet's nest of power and call into question the parliamentary sovereignty that unites both leave and remain MPs (as a side note, the new Independent Group of MPs are an almost parodic embodiment of the entitlement that parliamentary sovereignty gives rise to). To a significant degree, the tragedy of Brexit is the struggle of the political establishment to reconcile the implacable discipline of global markets and the imperatives of national sovereignty.

It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that a remain campaign might win a second vote on a combination of negativity and pious hope, particularly if the reactionaries who were persuaded to vote for the first time in years (or ever) in 2016 are persuaded to abstain on the grounds that the betrayal of Brexit is inevitable, though that would obviously risk stoking the far-right and a variety of hate-crimes. To be sure of winning, remain needs to present a positive story for the EU. That could be a centrist narrative that emphasises the real sovereignty that we actually enjoy as members and the benefits of our hybrid relationship (in the EU but out of the eurozone), but this would be a difficult case to make against decades of propaganda and the fear that ever closer union would be irresistible. The left's case is well-meaning and principled, e.g. in advocating both the free movement of people and Europe-wide employment and social rights, but it is unpersuasive about the future trajectory of the EU and the potential for reform, and ignores that the leavers it needs to win over are no keener on social democracy than they are on EU membership.

Arguably, a more convincing story might be one that recognises the necessity and value of pooled sovereignty. Presenting the EU as a bulwark against domestic socialism, and also advocating the benefits of a common European military in the face of Russia's "threat", might stand a better chance of swinging the pivotal middle-class voters who helped get leave over the line in the Home Counties and the Midlands. The mistake that "project fear" made was in assuming that people's chief worry was economic disruption, an error that arose from the Tories' emphasis on the risk of fiscal ruin in 2010 and which was compounded by the apparently pivotal role that the possible loss of sterling had on the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. In fact, the real fear is not the devaluation of the pound or recession but the threat to property rights, while if the gammon interlude of 2017 told us anything it was that the fundamental existential anxiety of national security remains a vote-winner among conservatives. Remain lost in 2016 because it was too centrist. It needed to win on the right. That the remain camp remains fragmented between left, centre and right, and without a positive narrative that can unite them, suggests it is in no better position to win another vote today.

Friday, 22 February 2019

A Declaration of Independence

I'm not convinced that the "Independent Group" will form a fully-fledged political party. As the name suggests, this is a opportunistic creation that bears an unflattering resemblance to the kind of volatile, minor formations you see in legislatures based on proportional representation. Their insistence on "policies that are evidence-based, not led by ideology, taking a long-term perspective to the challenges of the 21st century in the national interest, rather than locked in the old politics of the 20th century in the party’s interests" is Blairite boilerplate at its worst, suggesting that the original seven who quit the Labour whip on Monday have invested little time in developing a policy platform beyond the usual shibboleths around national security, business-friendliness and individual responsibility, despite their departure being long in the making. They are obviously centrist and establishment-minded, but nostalgia for the coalition years isn't a growth market. Attempts to fill in the gaps by their media chums have led either to ridiculous claims that the two main parties are intellectual voids or to the revival of ideas that have proved unpopular and tin-eared in the past, such as identity cards and conditional benefits.

One feature that is evident in their thinking is that an active party membership, beyond the contribution of canvassing and funding, would not be welcome. Chris Leslie, who for want of an alternative must be considered the new group's chief ideologue, has rejected Corbyn's legitimacy as Labour leader by dismissing party members: "Everybody has genuflected to membership, but that membership is a tiny fraction of the public at large… MPs have to, by the nature of our constitution, have confidence in their leader." This, together with the hoary references by their media supporters to Burke's independently-minded representative, suggests a reluctance to constitute a formal party in the modern British tradition, with a preference for a looser social association (i.e. focused on fund-raising in the American manner) and an appeal directly to the electorate via press and TV. That might work in a presidential system, as it did for Emmanuel Macron in France, but it stands no chance in the UK's system of first-past-the-post constituencies and an executive formed by the legislature. More generally, it is hard to see the "business-firm party model" thriving in a political culture that still values tribalism and mass-membership despite the scolding of centrist commentators.

The parallels with Macron and En Marche are misleading but still instructive. While he promised social liberalism and pain-free economic modernisation on the campaign trail, in office he has exhibited a haughty authoritarianism and pursued a stale neoliberalism that has borne down on the working class while privileging the rich. His unpopularity is hardly surprising. His success was entirely due to the existence of a presidential system and a relatively even distribution of first-round support among the four leading candidates that allowed him to qualify for the run-off with only 24%, and additionally gave him an "anyone but" opponent in Marine Le Pen. Apart from these structural advantages, the most obvious difference between the UK and France is that the new group does not have a charismatic individual to coalesce around, and the early indications are that there is no consensus among its members as to who might act as leader. The idea that David Miliband might return in glory strikes me as implausible, because he is no more charismatic or intellectually coherent than Anna Soubry, while the notion of a "clean skin" in the manner of Macron seems too alien for Britain's political culture to easily absorb. That bookies are offering 5/2 on Tony Blair becoming leader isn't a good sign.


In theory, the group could be market-testing under a placeholder name with a view to forming a party later this year, but that seems unnecessary. There has been no lack of polling and focus-grouping by rich donors keen to create a centrist party over the last three years, and no lack of media commentators running up dummy manifestos. But all the evidence of that polling suggests that the centre of the political spectrum may not be as heavily-populated as is usually assumed. While it is true that both Labour and the Conservatives have shifted left and right respectively in terms of their programmes, this appears to reflect the long-standing views of the population rather than a sudden shift engineered by "entryists". Cameron's modernisation project failed to take either party members or electors with it, hence the long-running sore over Europe and the difficulty in securing a majority, while Labour's membership and electoral support has always been more to the left than the PLP. Both Cameron and Blair were supported under sufferance by many, hence the steady decline in turnout since 1997. The true centrist bloc of voters is little bigger than the Liberal Democrats' core support, and they obviously won't welcome the competition unless there is an electoral pact in the mode of the 1980s Liberal-SDP Alliance.

It is not at all clear why the original seven decided that mid-February was the optimum time to launch, though the growing hostility of their constituency parties might be a factor. Even the decision of the three Tories and two other Labour MPs to join forces (very loosely in the case of Ian Austin), which was obviously triggered by Monday's announcement, seems oddly-timed. They are not going to stop Brexit and, however slow and halting, Labour has begun to take action against anti-Semitism in its ranks. Of course, nothing that the current Labour leadership might do in regard to either issue will ever satisfy its critics, and the formation of this group means that there will now be an irreconcilable and noisy anti-Corbyn claque for the duration of the Parliament, but that paradoxically is bad news for its ostensible causes. Achieving a Commons majority to either prevent no-deal or secure a second referendum has now got marginally harder, while the charges of anti-Semitism against Labour will increasingly look politically-motivated, particularly if the same energy isn't devoted to calling our the various "tinges" of racism within the Conservative Party.

For the nine Labour defectors, their fundamental motivation is presumably to act as a goad and spoiler for their former colleagues. This was made plain by the decision of the Labour Friends of Israel group to keep Joan Ryan as its Parliamentary chair, a move that defies logic unless you see the Independent Group as the Labour Party in exile. Indeed, the addition of ex-Tories to their ranks is probably unhelpful insofar as it disrupts their media strategy by diverting attention away from Labour and Corbyn. For this reason, it strikes me as more likely that the group will remain a loose association rather than constitute a formal party and thus be faced with the challenge of developing a shared platform. While it isn't difficult to find common ground between Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry on most topics, their joint position would be hard to distinguish from the Conservatives in areas such as the economy and social policy. As these are the areas that ultimately determine elections, rather than essentially supra-party issues like Brexit and racism, it is likely that a new centre party would come to be seen as just another expression of conservative establishment politics, as happened to the LibDems in the coalition years. The early comments of the group have done little to dispel this belief.


One thing that is already clear is that the three ex-Tories have no intention of voting against the government on a confidence motion, and I suspect the ex-Labour MPs would probably abstain on the grounds that they wouldn't do anything to advance the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn entering Number 10. There is even the suggestion that they would prop up May's administration if she promised a second referendum, which in turn suggests they might settle for a more modest quid pro quo post-Brexit and compete for business with the DUP. Though I wondered initially if the original seven moved this week because they thought a snap general election was imminent, and calculated that this would be the best way of damaging Labour's chances and so forcing Corbyn out as leader in the aftermath of a clear Conservative victory, I now think they intend to hang on grimly until 2022, sniping from the sidelines and cluttering up TV studios. They remain unreconciled to the leftward shift of Labour, but dismissing party democracy (and refusing to submit to by-elections) isn't going to garner widespread support so they are obliged to claim victimhood. The problem is that the aggrieved divorcee look quickly palls in the eyes of the electorate, if not commissioning editors.

Brexit may well be a done deal in six weeks time, and while re-accession to the EU could be a viable basis for a new party in the medium-term (though I imagine the Liberal Democrats will seek to monopolise that cause), it is not going to provide an agenda in the short-term if the Article 50 process completes. A policy of close integration with the EU post-Brexit would be indistinguishable from Labour's current position and probably that of the Lib Dems after March as well. Anti-antisemitism isn't a viable basis for a mass party, or for any hope of significant electoral success, not least because in those constituencies with a significant Jewish population the Tories will not welcome a split in the anti-Labour vote (the exception that proves the rule being Enfield, where Joan Ryan is the incumbent). That said, it would be amusing to see how the likes of Stephen Pollard might react should Luciana Berger decide to stand in Barnet. Ignoring Brexit and antisemitism, is there a viable space in British politics for a new centrist party? There has been plenty of talk about a realignment along a values dimension of "open" versus "closed" mindsets, but a more careful consideration of the evidence suggests that the untapped potential of the electorate is still largely to the left of the centre imagined by the Independent Group.

There is no evidence that the new group are particularly socially liberal, and some to the contrary when you consider their voting records and public statements. On economic matters they are clearly right-of-centre, which puts them at odds with public opinion. Praising austerity, as both Anna Soubry and Chris Leslie have done, is a bad look at the best of times, while Angela Smith's cheerleading for water privatisation isn't popular anywhere outside of the City of London. Viewed through the perspective of class interests, the Independent Group is not only a regressive attempt to return to the "happy days" of the late-90s, but a defence of the privileges of a professional and managerial elite that has lost the grudging public tolerance it enjoyed before 2008. Ironically, the interests of the wider managerial and professional class that the group ultimately represents are more likely to be served after Brexit by a Labour victory that leads to a revival in the public sector, investment in domestic industry and substantive action over housing and inequality. The paradox of this declaration of independence is that it shows an inability to break free from the grip of the past.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

The Expectations Gap

Last month, the CEO of Grant Thornton, the auditors of Patisserie Valerie, told MPs on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee that "We're not looking for fraud", a comment that was taken to be representative of auditors in general. With high-profile failures such as the cake chain and Carillion dominating the media in recent years, this comment sparked some incredulity, thereby highlighting what has come to be referred to as the "expectations gap" in the public understanding of the role of auditors. The purpose of an audit is to independently verify that a company's accounts give a true and accurate picture of its trading status and financial viability, essentially to assure shareholders and debtors (e.g. banks providing financing) that they can rely upon the statutory accounts to accurately gauge risk. This does not extend to assessing the quality of its business - so a firm that is a going concern could still go bankrupt if legitimately anticipated revenue failed to turn up - nor does it include an opinion on a firm's ethical behaviour beyond the conventions of accounting.


The concerns over the audit industry that have emerged since the Enron scandal in 2001 revolve around risk rather than ethics, reflecting a fear among large investors and financial institutions that they are being increasingly exposed by the limitations of the traditional audit. The focus is on firms of the scale of Carillion, not small-fry like Patisserie Valerie, and in particular on businesses with complex intercompany structures that span both the private and public sectors, raising the linked issues of implicit state guarantees and regulatory arbitrage. The expectations gap between what the public expects auditors to be responsible for and what they actually do is not a reflection of popular ignorance but a demand for a more socially-focused role. Though auditors are just business service providers, they are perceived by the public as carrying out a quasi-state function: ensuring that firms are not merely legally-observant in their accounting practices but they are not conducting their business in a manner that might prove damaging to society in the various forms of customers, suppliers and employees.

These two tendencies - the increasing complexity of modern capitalism and the demands for social responsibility - are at root driven by the same trend: the increasing socialisation of capital in the form of firms dependent on institutional shareholdings. The demand for higher ethical standards has long been addressed, if inadequately, by the pabulum of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The demand for greater managerial oversight by institutional investors has been met by legislation on corporate governance, and it is within the latter's ambit that the issue of audit is now being addressed. This means that one problem of the current audit regime, the role of non-executive directors (NEDs) in leading audit committees, is unlikely to be resolved. NEDs have to be clubbable and not ruffle feathers if they are to acquire multiple directorships, with the result that there is little incentive to be hard on either the business or its auditors. Nationalising audit, or at least putting it under the direct control of a state regulator, runs into the problem that it would reduce the power of NEDs and thus call into question the corporate governance regime.

Over and above this there are the traditional objections that a national audit service would represent an excessive incursion by the state into the private sphere, and that the application of a common ethical framework would constrain innovation and enterprise (CSR is optional, after all). More modest calls (e.g. by Labour) for the breakup of the "big four" and the insistence that audit firms should be specialists, rather than loss-leaders used as a platform for upselling, stand a better chance of success, but only if the focus remains on risk management and if state oversight is little more than another "watchdog". What will not be conceded short of nationalisation, and perhaps not even then, is the idea that auditors should assess a firm's social responsibilities. That business should be subject to ethical scrutiny has always been, and remains, anathema. This doesn't mean that ethics will be ignored, but that it will be diverted into the spectacle of personal behaviour, such as "fit and proper persons" tests and disgust at CEO incivility. The Philip Greens and Michael O'Learys of this world will continue to strut the stage, distracting from the theatre itself.

This might all seem a bit dry, but the question of the purpose and organisation of company audits is relevant to the emerging debate over the future management of artificial intelligence, which is nothing is not sexy, at least in its media coverage. This is because both employ the rhetoric of social responsibility but do so in order to preserve established interests. In today's Observer, Will Hutton, who knows a fair bit about capitalist practice but not much about technology, argues for a "smart response" to guard against the sinister abuse of AI. He has a list of measures: "Three seem crucial: maximal transparency and accountability embodied in regulatory oversight and a new Companies Act; methods and digital processes to ensure you own your data and its use; and fast and effective regulation of content. Put another way, we need every organisation deploying digital data to be open and accountable; we need new public interest digital platforms where we can hold our data based on the presumption we own it; and we need another Leveson – a fast and effective mechanism to ensure digital information is not misinformation". This is the classic liberal trifecta: transparency among an elite, secure ownership and civilised censorship.

What is missing in Hutton's analysis is any real understanding of the social context of the technology (this has been a longstanding blind-spot in his oeuvre). For example, he claims that "AI allows the individualisation of your drug treatment and fast and cheap diagnoses of whatever illness you are suffering, along with likely cures". This is nonsense, not least because it is genetic sequencing that might allow such individualisation, not AI, but the wider error here is to fail to see the social reality. Medical research is skewed to the interests of the rich because they have the money to pay for expensive screening and treatments. The idea that AI will produce cheap diagnoses and cures, thereby disrupting a pharmaceuticals industry based on fat profit margins, is naïve. After a gratuitous insult aimed at the Labour Party, which now seems to be obligatory in all Observer comment pieces, Hutton ends with a call to arms that perfectly echoes the fears of an earlier generation of liberals faced with the prospect of universal suffrage: "The task is not to throw up our hands warning that the machines are coming – it is to design a world in which we are their master, not their servant".


The liberal demand that AI be regulated and managed is not motivated primarily by a desire to defend society from its disruptive and destabilising potential, no matter how many times its advocates cite Karl Polanyi, but from the self-interest of existing business sectors. In quoting Shoshana Zuboff's concept of "surveillance capitalism" (a term that is rightly being criticised for having little to do with capitalism), Hutton conflates two completely unrelated technologies. Trawling your Facebook posts to determine what adverts to present you with is not AI, but it is a technique of data personalisation that is eating the lunch of newspapers dependent on advertising. Likewise, claiming that social media is destroying the fabric of civilised life and undermining our politics only makes sense if you cannot imagine either civilisation or politics beyond the frame of elite convention. Both the optimism and pessimism associated with AI reflect expectations of profit more than social benefit. Similarly, the debate over the future of audit is not about preventing fraud or social damage, but mitigating risks to capital.