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Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Just and the Unjust

Over the long arc of history, behavioural economics will be seen as an attempt to explain the difference between the theories of rational expectations and efficient markets on the one hand, and messy reality on the other. It does not challenge the premises of neoclassical or neoliberal economics but seeks to explain how these are warped by cognitive biases. While these biases are real, there is signficantly no unified behavioural theory despite the formalisation of behavioural economics as a sub-discipline. Like the addition of "happiness" to the calculation of social policy, and the anthropological turn in the study of financial markets after 2008, it is a form of apologetics focused on necessary adjustment and auxiliary support. That it should have become so prominent, to the point that Richard Thaler was this month awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, might suggest that neoliberalism is on the defensive, but a better interpretation is that it reflects the intellectual ossification of neoliberal theory since the 1980s and the shift of its practice towards an increasingly conservative register, a shift that was already well advanced when Daniel Kahneman was awarded the prize in 2002.

It's no accident that the application of behavioural economics, such as the idea of the "nudge" (popularised in the book of that name by Richard Thaler and fellow-economist Cass Sunstein), has tended towards the service of socially conservative ends, despite the claims made for "libertarian paternalism". In the case of the UK government's Behavioural Insights Team (aka "the nudge unit"), established in 2010 by the Conservative-Liberal coalition, the focus was on improving rates of small-scale tax collection and the payment of fines among the general population at a time when HMRC was revealed to be cutting sweetheart deals with multinational businesses and rich individuals. It is also revealing that examples of successful "nudges" tend to be either the repackaging of time-worn wisdom - e.g. that inertia makes an opt-out a better approach than an opt-in - or trivialities that make for amusing stories, such as the famous urinal flies. The question ought to be not whether nudging works but whether significant aggregate benefits arise from nudging that wouldn't otherwise accrue from a simple default setting (or better design, in the case of urinals). In other words, is a nudge any better than a shove?

Henry Farrell has made the point that nudging typically neglects the need for self-correction, which in the context of social policy usually means the absence of any democratic mechanism that would allow flaws to be addressed. Given the tendency of social policy nudges to focus on the majority of the population, rather than problematic but identifiable minorities, this lack of a channel for popular feedback seems perverse. This is not simply a result of technocracy (i.e. the belief that experts know best), but the application of a behavioural approach that presumes we don't really know our own minds (or are simply lazy and unthinking). Farrell also makes the point that nudging is the flipside of commercial practices that seek to hinder customer choice ("hassles"), such as making it difficult to unsubscribe from a service or terminate a contract (in fact, some nudges are simply the result of removing commercial practices thoughtlessly extended to public services, such as the clutter of advertising). As such, nudging is part of the "hidden persuaders" tradition of marketing and public relations that goes back to Edward Bernays a century ago (it is worth noting in passing that the most marketing-oriented US President in history is currently trying to undermine Obamacare through a series of "hassles").

At this point you might wonder what distinguishes the libertarian paternalism of Thaler and Sunstein from benign dictatorship or even the social democratic model in which elected representatives commission and oversee technocrats who make choices for society at large. The answer is that while nudging seeks to influence the behaviour of the majority it avoids imposing itself on the well-informed minority - i.e. those with the intellectual capacity or pre-existing social capital sufficient to make optimal choices in respect of their personal utility. To put it another way, nudging is for the herd and laissez-faire is for the elite. This reflects the truth, long obscured by the neoliberal rhetoric of choice as a right, that what wealth entails is freedom from the pain of choice. When you have enough money, you don't have to make so many hard choices and the cost of bad choices can usually be more easily mitigated. The "choice architectures" promoted by the behaviourists focus on those with less agency for whom the risks of a bad choice (and thus the indirect cost to society at large) are greater, such as workers reluctant to participate in private pension schemes or the mass of the population who thoughtlessly fail to volunteer their organs for transplant on death. For the wealthy and powerful, the language of incentives and just rewards (i.e. positive discrimination) remains dominant.


A central plank of market theory, and a key driver behind the idea of deregulation, is Coase's Theorem. This holds that participants in a negotiation over social costs (what are known as "externalities") have an equal interest in an optimal outcome, but that this can be made sub-optimal by state intervention (which creates additional "transaction costs"). For example, a community affected by a local factory's pollution might prefer financial compensation to regulation that seeks to prevent it. However, this assumes that the participants also have an equal capacity to negotiate, which ignores informational asymmetry and raw power (e.g. the community may not know the full health risks of the pollution or the factory may threaten local workers with redundancy). Behavioural economics concedes the general point of asymmetry, but it does so by emphasising the personal factor of cognitive bias while occluding the social factor of power (it is, fittingly perhaps, biased). By doing this it divides society into the enlightened and the unenlightened, rather than the powerful and the powerless. The former (the choice architects) can then support the latter to behave in a rational, utility-maximising manner, without questioning the basis of their superior capacity.

Behavioural economics is also an upgrade on the permanent self-improvement advocated by neoliberalism since the 1970s: the idea that you can become whoever you want to be and that all your limiting beliefs and incapacities can be addressed through the disciplining of the intellect, body and emotions. On the face of it, the idea that our choices are warped by cognitive biases suggests that we are slaves to our human natures and might as well just accept that perfection is beyond us, but central to behavioural economics is the idea that not only are these biases simple to understand for a general audience (their treatment in the literature often relies on parables) but that they can be positively offset by individual effort, hence Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow has become as important a self-help manual in this decade as Jane Fonda's Workout was in the 1980s. What hasn't changed is the linked ideas that you remain personally responsible and that inequalities of social and economic power are irrelevant to your circumstances. In other words, behavioural economics shares the lineage of Protestantism that has conditioned neoliberalism. Despite its accessible style, it tends towards a Calvinist scepticism about free will.

Though behavioural economics questions the efficiency of "choice", it does not challenge the a priori claim that choice is a fundamental good that should be extended where possible, nor does it suggest that bad choices are inevitable. The central idea of "nudge" is that the quality of aggregate choice can be improved without challenging Hayek's idea of dispersed and fragmentary knowledge or undermining the value of cognitive diversity. In one sense this is merely choice theatre (e.g. the constructed market for energy supplier switching), so you might ask why we don't just cut to the chase (nationalise the utilities), but this would mean an ideological retreat from choice: more shove than nudge. The aim of behavioural economics is not to redraw the line between the realms of market and society but to suggest that we can ameliorate market imperfections through the structural guidance of expert choice architects who operate independently of society. In Polanyian terms, behavioural economics is a pseudo-double movement.

The purist libertarian position holds that people have a right to make bad choices. This is rationalised by the idea that in aggregate we still arrive at the best outcome for society because many more people make good choices: the irrational is crowded out by the rational. Behavioural economics suggests that this might not be true because the irrational may, in certain circumstances, outweigh the rational or at least significantly compromise optimality. In other words, there aren't enough smart people to offset the stupidity of the mass, which again points to the conservative timbre distinguishable in the background music of this style of reasoning. Randian libertarians and reactionaries don't have a problem with this pessimistic analysis, being solipsistic misanthropes in the main, but you can see why it might make conventional liberals uncomfortable, and consequently why the emergence of behavioural economics has coincided with the revival of ideas such as epistocracy - i.e. rule by experts - that seek to ameliorate the "flaws" of democracy. In short, behavioural economics continues to separate humanity into the just and the unjust, the elect and the damned.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

More Human Than Human

Some have wondered if Blade Runner 2049 has a "woman problem", on the grounds that it objectifies the female form (it does, but it's far from gratuitous), or that it lacks female characters with real agency (it doesn't, though it raises a wry smile to remember that the Bechdel Test arrived shortly after the Voight-Kampff Test of the 1982 film). Perhaps a better question might be, Is this a film that addresses female concerns? I think the answer is yes, though the results are ambiguous. The notional theme of the series is what it means to be human, but the new generation of empathetic replicants are so close to human that the distinction is irrelevant, hence their otherwise pointless sex drives (do not dwell on the incongruities - this is SciFi). Though these androids are presented as a mirror image of humanity, and the new film makes clear references to the artificial divisions of race and class, the fundamental dichotomy is that of gender, hence the central importance of childbirth and the control of the means of reproduction. The "problematic" is a woman's right to choose. A major difference between Philip K Dick's 1968 book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and the first film is that the novel's Rick Deckard is not only human but has a wife, Iran, depressed by her post-apocalyptic life. In Blade Runner Deckard's wife is an off-screen ex-wife, and perhaps only an implanted memory. The decision to cut the character, along with the book's concept of Mercerism, a quasi-religion that focuses on the importance of empathy, seemed questionable in the first film, but these absences are cleverly addressed in the second.

Much of the criticism of the sequel centres on the relationship of the blade runner K, played by Ryan Gosling, and his holographic PA cum emotional support, played by Ana de Armas. After a hard day retiring early-model replicants, K returns home to be greeted by Joi who flits, at the touch of a button, between the visual but insubstantial roles of housewife and sex kitten. I don't think this sad scene is about the satisfaction of male fantasies but the all-too-obvious gap between sexist cliché and reality. From K pouring two glasses of booze and drinking both to the visual overlay of steak and chips on a bowl of grubs, what we see is an attempt to assuage despair rather than a guy living a 1950s suburban ideal. This role-play is softened by Joi and K's mutual consideration - he clearly needs someone or something to care about - which may be synthetic but is emotionally convincing. In a later scene, Joi employs Mariette, a "basic pleasure model" played by Mackenzie Davis, to provide a physical presence so she can take her and K's relationship to the next level, giving a whole new meaning to "threesome". This is not simply a satisfaction of physical desire but an uncertain encounter in which identity is fluid, which oddly reminded me of the film Performance. It's closer to psychosis than troilism. As will become apparent, K's identity is no more stable than Joi's.

Though both the original film and the sequel reduce women to their instrumental value as sex-bots or breeders, much the same approach applies to the men, who are either mere muscle or killers. In this context, the iconic "I've seen things you people would never believe" speech by Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty in the first film was an act of rebellion, albeit a Luciferian expression of pride by a psychopath. In the new film the equivalent is Sapper Morton, played by Dave Bautista, an older generation replicant hiding-out as a farmer of protein grubs, saying "You've never seen a miracle" before he is retired with extreme prejudice by K. The discovery of the buried bones of a woman who died in childbirth on Morton's farm many years ago explains his meaning and provides the engine of the plot when K and Joshi realise that she was a replicant and thus supposedly incapable of bearing a child. This turns out to be Rachael, played by Sean Young in the original film as a new model of replicant with implanted human memories and empathy, while the father of the child is subsequently revealed to be Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford in both films. While the sex of the child is uncertain, we can now see the Holy Family coming into focus. The French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is on record as pro-choice, but much of his work displays a Catholic concern with the emblematic role of birth.


The bad guy of the new film is the industrialist Niander Wallace, played by Jared Leto, who is assisted by his replicant henchwoman Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks. She appears to have retained some of the psychopathic traits of the older generation, while occasionally squeezing out a tear. Wallace is motivated by the dream of birth (he's definitely "pro-life" and not in favour of anyone else's right to choose), specifically rediscovering the secret of self-reproducing replicants that Eldon Tyrell had (perhaps accidentally) achieved with Rachael, but which was lost in the "blackout" that creates a convenient disjuncture between 2019 (the year of the first film's setting) and 2049. Wallace's goal is a "disposable labour force" for the expansion of the off-world colonies. Though the newer generations of replicants are not limited to the 4-year lifespan of the first film's models, and there doesn't appear to be any shortage of them, self-reproduction offers the potential of exponential growth in their number. While this is standard megalomania, with top notes of Miltonic hubris ("storming Eden") and Silicon Valley transhumanism, there's also an echo here of the historic shift of the plantation economy of the US South from imported black slaves who were worked to death (on average after 7 years) to the reproduction of slaves through breeding following the abolition of the slave trade in the early nineteenth century.

The two characters who instrumentally pursue the death of others, i.e. killing for what they imagine to be the greater good, rather than just doing a job, are both women: the police lieutenant Joshi, played by Robin Wright, and the replicant rebel leader Freysa, played by Hiam Abbass. Joshi wants Rachael's child terminated as she fears a war would be triggered if replicants suspect their destiny is not fixed, while Freysa is prepared to sacrifice Deckard to preserve the security of his and Rachael's offspring and thereby maintain the hope of future independence for the replicants (there's a bit of The Matrix in this focus on the saviour child). Joshi sees the relationship of replicants ("skin-jobs") and humans in terms of segregation, which echoes old race politics: "The world is built on a wall that separates kind. Tell each side there's no wall, you bought a war or a slaughter". The social importance placed on empathy has led to newer androids that are near-indistinguishable from humans and thus paradoxically more dangerous than the older models. Freysa sees the relationship more in terms of class, the new generation of replicants having been uneasily integrated into terrestrial society as workers rather than kept off-world as helots. She seeks to raise the consciousness of these "proles", who are supposedly programmed to obey but appear more than capable of autonomous thought and action. The "new hope" of this film is the replicants' emergent ability to choose.

Though set in our relative future, the film reflects an alternate historical timeline that appears to start in 1948, the year that George Orwell wrote 1984. The choice of future date may have something to do with 1948 + 101 (the interrogation scene between Wallace and Deckard, with Luv in attendance, echoes that between O'Brien and Smith in room 101 of the Ministry of Love, while the manufacture and unreliability of memory is central to both stories). Though some thought the prominence of the Atari brand in the first film reflected early-80s US anxieties over Japanese economic strength, rather than just commercial product placement, which would prove prescient when Sony acquired Columbia Pictures (co-producers of the sequel), another theory is that the first film resides in the alternate timeline of Dick's The Man in the High Castle in which the Axis powers won the Second World War, hence the Asiatic flavour of Los Angeles. The new film includes some pointed Russian references, not only the Cyrillic script on Sapper Morton's farm buildings but a "CCCP Soviet Happy" holographic advert. I think this is less about contemporary concerns over Russian meddling in US politics, or even an attempt to scotch the earlier alternate history theory, and more a harking back to the Cold War. This is a film that at times recalls a chilly East Berlin as much as the arid Nevada desert.


Blade Runner 2049 is a literate film. The scene of Mister Cotton (played by Lennie James) and his sweatshop kids owes more to Dickens than Dick, while Deckard, isolated in a ruined Las Vegas, quotes Treasure Island explicitly and Robinson Crusoe implicitly. We even get a cameo appearance by Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, a book about gestation and uncertain identity, as a discussion topic for K and Joi. The film's art direction, which is surely Oscar-bound, includes nods to Tarkovsky's Stalker, Kubrick's The Shining and Gilliam's Brazil, as well as Ridley Scott's original, which went meta with its subsequent "generations". Villeneuve's vision of the Wallace Corporation owes a stylistic debt to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, as did the 1982 film's Tyrell Corporation, but he adds to the layers by additionally citing Welles' adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial. In a separate scene, Joi decides to give K the name Joe, i.e. Joseph K, after he suspects that he may, like Pinnochio, have become a "real boy". This occurs after K discovers the whittled wooden horse that featured in his memory, which he had hitherto assumed to be implanted, leading him to imagine he might be the lost child. K finds it buried among the ashes of an old furnace, like a reverse Rosebud.

Though the film plays with religious themes, formal religion remains an absence in its universe. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Mercerism was a technologically-enabled quasi-religion with near-universal adherence. It was centred on empathy with living things, having arisen after World War Terminus made both humans and animals a rarity on Earth. Though there were elements of parody in this, notably of Christian suffering and tele-evangelism (the "empathy box"), Dick's point was that empathy was the characteristic that distinguished the human from the replicant (or the dehumanised human), hence the Voight-Kampff test. The novel's emphasis on animals as the ultimate status symbol, both artificial (those electric sheep) and real, which only survived in the first film's mechanical owl, is revived in the second film. This is not just in the incidental detail of Deckard's old dog or the offer of a goat by the trader Doc Badger (played by Barkhad Abdi), but in the very concept of Joi. That might appear to support the claim that the film is sexist - placing a synthetic woman on a par with a pet - but the point is that animals provide existential meaning in the original story - someone, or something, to care about - not just a means of personal gratification. This emotional investment in mainly artificial animals reflected the absence of terrestrial human childbirth, due to radiation poisoning, and the reluctance to invest emotionally in androids (in the film's radiocative Las Vegas, Deckard plays Frank Sinatra on a jukebox singing "One For My Baby").

If there is a contemporary relevance in this it might be the performative empathy (and anger) of social media. Consider the fun we all now have trying to distinguish bots from humans on Twitter and Facebook (and consider also whether Donald Trump or Katie Hopkins could pass the Voight-Kampff test). Significantly, the future envisaged in Blade Runner 2049 does not feature smartphones, and I don't think that's just because it's a projection of 1948 or 1982 vintage Sci-Fi. Its world is technologically implausible (if we ever make androids, they'll be easily distinguishable as such), which is why the objectification that clutters the surface of the film should be taken with a pinch of salt, but it is one in which emotional contact is enormously powerful, a point made concrete in the physical isolation of Rachael and Deckard's now-adult child, Ana Stelline, played by Carla Juri. Ana spends her life in a large glass womb, a sterile environment necessary to protect her inadequate immune system, passing her time manufacturing memories to be implanted into replicants. She is eternal child, virgin and mother all rolled into one. The penultimate scene sees Deckard, who has made being an absent father a lifelong mission, reunited with his daughter, though they remain separated by glass. As K dies outside in the snow, having sacrificed his "life" but perhaps found his "soul", we're still not sure whether Ana represents a dead-end or the start of a revolution. What is sure is that the future is female.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Political Classics

On Sunday, The Observer published a supplement on "100 Political Classics That Shaped the Modern World". I'd normally ignore such marketing fluff, but what caught my eye was this one's subdivision into 11 sections, which is itself a political act. As a product of the classical tradition of philosophy, political theory is fundamentally categorical, so pigeonholing is central to the simplified manner in which it is presented in the media. Even meta-political concepts such as the Overton Window promote the idea of "framing". Likewise, cooperation may be more common than competition in most human affairs, but the latter is the dominant feature within the narrower bounds of political practice, which is ultimately the struggle over scarce social resources. As a result, the epiphenomena of politics tend to reflect the compulsion towards comparison and ranking. Boris Johnson is just an extreme case.

The first section is entitled 'The Founding Works', a phrase that defines politics as an essentially literary and canonical discipline. There is no place here for other media, most strikingly cinema and TV. The Observer's list finds space for Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now but not for Mr Smith Goes to Washington or The Thick of It. The first book is Plato's Republic, which is advocated because of its concern with timeless "forms". This immediately presents the problem of idealism. Do we make our politics, both consciously and unconsciously, or are we subject to natural laws? That history has seen a slow shift to an acceptance that politics is man-made and contingent, rather than based on some cosmic order, might suggest that a re-evaluation of the relevance of Plato is overdue. Of the ancient Greeks, Thucydides is probably more read today outside of academic circles, precisely because he is concerned with realpolitik and human motivation rather than ideal forms.


The Wealth of Nations qualifies as a founding work in the Observer scheme, though on the peculiar grounds that while it is "Not, strictly speaking, a political work, Smith's great treatise continues to shape modern politics". This logic does not extend to the inclusion of Das Kapital, which over-and-above its economic theory was responsible for introducing many of the foundational concepts of modern political science, such as the distinction of base and superstructure and the role of ideology. For its influence on the socialist tradition alone, you would have expected Karl Marx's big book to be included, but apparently its analysis of capitalism as a problematic economic system that gives rise to material contradictions and political manifestations is of questionable value, while Adam Smith's idealised market mechanisms, most famously the metaphysical "invisible hand", are not.

To give Marx and Engels their due, The Communist Manifesto features in the second section, 'Manifestos and Tracts', though this also includes George Orwell's Animal Farm, which is actually a parable on the corruption of power, suggesting a rather loose interpretation of "tract". Orwell's overtly political writings, such as A Homage to Catalonia and his essays, are ignored. According to Will Hutton, who chose this particular section, Animal Farm was "paradigm-changing", but this just seems to be mean that it "snuffed out any realistic chance the British communist party had of becoming a major political force", which makes you wonder why he didn't include the collected interviews of Paul Nuttall, which did much the same for UKIP. No actual electoral manifestos are included, but the Beveridge Report of 1942 is. This continues the attempt to claim the welfare state for liberalism, ignoring that the 1945 Labour Party Manifesto took a very different line to Beveridge in key areas, notably state control of the NHS. What remains of the welfare state is due to 1945, not 1942.


The third section is 'Politics in Fiction', which seems confused both by political importance and literary merit. Beyond "Novelists can hold a mirror to the virtues and vices of an age", there is no attempt to define what constitutes a political novel. If you're going to include dystopias, choosing Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale over Orwell's 1984 looks like a reflection of contemporary prominence rather than an assessment of historic influence, while the inclusion of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, presumably on the basis of US sales rather than how many people managed to read the entirety of its turgid, misanthropic nonsense, is the equivalent of putting Yes's Tales From Topographic Oceans in your top 10 albums of the 1970s. The inclusion of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and George Eliot's Middlemarch looks like an attempt to leaven the worthy with "teeming narratives" in which politicians figure as walk-on characters. Despite the inclusion of Achebe and Hasek, this is a highly anglocentric selection: no Camus, no Lampedusa, no Grass.

The fourth section, 'First Person', focuses on diaries. The prominent position these occupy in politics is a peculiarity of anglophone culture, which probably dates from the time of Pepys and Evelyn when political allegiances were mutable and truth occult. In the democratic era, political diaries have tended to be gossipy and solipsistic, though the revelations are rarely eyebrow-raising, with the possible exception of Alan Clark's sex-life. The tenor of the list is set by the inclusion of two New Labour apparatchiks, Oona King and Alistair Campbell. One has nothing original to say about politics and the other has been eclipsed by Malcolm Tucker. The inclusion of Chris Mullin and Tony Benn, who both have their merits but were moulded by circumstance into the Mr Pooter and Barbara Cartland of postwar political diarists, doesn't help. I'm only surprised that Jess Philips didn't make the cut. Related to this, the 10th section, 'Public Lives', covers biographies. These are of little interest to anyone concerned with political theory, both because publishers demand anecdotes rather than the history of an intellect's development and because the lived life is often a theoretical (if entertaining) mess.


'Feminism' (section 5) and 'Black Consciousness' (section 9) are set in splendid isolation, suggesting that there is politics and then there is the politics of the other. In the 'Black Consciousness' section, David Olusoga rebelliously says of Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic, "Gilroy demonstrates that black culture is both local and global and cannot be constrained within any single national culture". The Observer didn't take the hint. Section 6, 'International Struggle', claims it "offers the difficult aftermath of empire in 10 books", which might lead you to expect works on Palestine and Ireland. There are none. In fact the list has little sense of unity, with reportage on Chinese factories and polemics about human rights mixed in with straight history. The dominant (and famously antagonistic) presences on the list are Edward Said's Orientalism and Bernard Lewis's Islam and the West. One is a work of cultural theory, the other of comparative political practice. The former is the more important in the history of ideas, but the latter is the more explicitly political. Basically, the section is all over the place.

The 7th section, 'British Politics', includes works by Will Hutton (who curated section 2), Andrew Rawnsley (who wrote the overall introduction) and Guardian stalwart Polly Toynbee. Politics involves a lot of self-regard and back-scratching, so this is entirely appropriate. The over-riding sense in this section is of the paucity of original thinking since the early 1980s, Stuart Hall's The Politics of Thatcherism being the last work of real note, which results in the most recently published book being a manifesto by the Britannia Unchained group of Tory MPs (the artists latterly known as Brexit Unhinged). The 11th section, 'The Here and Now', has an obvious overlap with section 7, but this just emphasises the degree to which the liberal commentariat has been spellbound by poorly-argued nonsense on the rise of the right, hence the "classics" here include Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin's Revolt on the Right, J D Vance's Hillbilly Elegy and David Goodhart's The Road to Somewhere


Ta-Nehisi Coates also appears in section 11 but his Between the World and Me is more a work of literature than politics, being about the general position of blacks in US society and the conditions under which a distinct black consciousness arises. By this logic, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which after all includes a substantive argument about Parnell, is a political work. Coates is sometimes an explicitly political writer - witness his fine essay on reparations - but this inclusion looks like a belief that black experience should be limited to identity politics. Though the section includes more systematically political works, such as the political economy of Thomas Piketty (Capital) and the political sociology of Wolfgang Streeck (How Will Capitalism End?), it also displays the persistent British taste for egotistical trivialisation, so Yanis Varoufakis's self-exculpatory tale of his "battle with Europe's deep establishment" also appears.

Section 8, 'Plays', is curated by Robert McCrum. Shakespeare gets an obligatory mention, but it's the aristocratic conflict of Richard III rather than the class-conscious politics of Julius Caesar or Coriolanus. Perhaps a future list of political classics that extends to film and TV will include Game of Thrones rather than I, Daniel Blake. McCrum's justification for his choice is the way that the play was used to legitimise the Tudors, but that suggests we should value outright propaganda, so perhaps that future list of political cinema will include Triumph of the Will. In avoiding a classically-inspired play, McCrum misses the opportunity to note the influence of Plutarch and other ancient writers on English drama and rhetoric in the 16th century, and thus the way that Shakespeare knits together Plato with Hobbes and Locke in the 'Founding Works'. This lack of overall coherence, as much as the inconsistency within sections, does at least reflect the British approach to politics. My first instinct was right: I really shouldn't have bothered.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Rentiers and Natives

Centre-right thinkers are becoming increasingly concerned by what they see as the intellectual barrenness of the Tories, however this assumes that the Conservative Party has only recently lost its way, with some attributing it to the cynicism of the Cameron/Osborne years and others to the derangement of Brexit. In fact, conservativism has been intellectually adrift since the 1950s and the Churchillian afterglow, with all subsequent attempts at policy modernisation - under Heath, Thatcher and Cameron - being inspired more by liberalism of one shade or another than philosophical conservativism (hence in part the relative fortunes of Oakeshott and Hayek). Indeed, a case can be made that beyond the programmatic paternalism developed as a response to democracy, the Tories have lacked a truly conservative temperament since they were converted to the cause of empire by Disraeli. Their subsequent electoral success owed much to their absorption of successive liberal factions, notably the Liberal Unionists who split over Home Rule in 1886 and the National Liberals of the 1930s. As the current deal with the DUP should remind us, the Conservative Party is fundamentally opportunistic. For this reason, I am less inclined to believe that their current dearth of ideas (or their indulgence of eccentrics like Jacob Rees-Mogg) signals a terminal crisis.

In his conference speech this week, Philip Hammond contrasted the Conservatives to Labour: "The Party that looks outward, while they are turned inward; The Party which embraces the future, while they yearn for the past; The Party which welcomes and manages change – while they want to resist it, and tax it, and fight it. The Party that makes a clear commitment to the next generation – that they be better off than us; and that their children will be better off again than them. That is the Conservative definition of progress". Beyond the rhetorical nod to Edmund Burke's intergenerational contract, this is a progressive vision more than a conservative one: our goal is to make the future better than the present rather than to ensure it will be no worse. Indeed, it looks like the Tories are not just adopting Ed Miliband's modest policy initiatives for "responsible capitalism" but the very concept of a "British Promise" (which also riffed on Burke). Hammond's problem is that the offer, that the next generation will be better off, is not one that he can plausibly make, not just because the young are obviously worse off after a decade of Tory rule but because the negative impacts of Brexit, which will disproportionately affect the young, can only be deferred (as he has personally sought through an extended transition period) not avoided.


One consequence of the current intellectual confusion in the Conservative Party is a tendency, as even some of their own supporters recognise, to "praise capitalism without even understanding it", leading to mixed messages about the efficacy of markets (such as energy and housing) and an emphasis on capitalism as simply the antithesis to the "Marxism" of the 1970s. This difficulty isn't just due to global economic stagnation, or even the uncertainty that Brexit has given rise to, it is the inevitable consequence of a near-40 year hegemony geared to advancing and protecting the interests of asset-holders. The Tories are now chained to the Thatcherite legacy, which is not the spirit of free enterprise but the preservation of accumulated wealth. Margaret Thatcher was able to successfully reconcile conservative instincts and liberal economics politically because her own prejudices made her oblivious to the contradictions of a programme that encompassed both social repression and personal liberty. In the event, the conservative half of that programme was a near-chaotic mixture of populism (crushing unions), luck (the Falklands War) and stupidity (the Poll Tax). The liberal half was more successful, notably in the emergence of New Labour to protect capital from electoral risk, but this simply accentuated the contradictions that would eventually lead both to politically toxic inequality and the emotional spasm of Brexit.

Central to these contradictions is the concept of sovereignty. The British Election Study produced a notable finding in its July 2017 report, What mattered most to you when deciding how to vote in the EU referendum?: "The clear picture we get from this analysis is that leavers are concerned primarily about sovereignty and immigration. In fact reading responses shows that many respondents mention both sovereignty and immigration together, showing that these two issues were closely linked in the minds of British voters". This suggests that sovereignty has come to be seen, at least by leavers, as a matter of social control, hence the apparent lack of concern over the remarkable erosion of parliamentary sovereignty that has occurred since the vote last year. The popular expectation for post-Brexit trade deals isn't as delusional as that of Tory ultras - most people seem to know we'll be worse off but hope the effect is marginal - but it is still pretty blithe, suggesting that trade isn't decisive in most people's calculations and remains a matter of symbolic power rather than a pressing material concern (hence a compromise on the customs union is more likely than one on the single market). In other words, sovereignty is less about democratic principle or the ability to independently negotiate and more about preserving a cultural ideal. This is not so much racist (though that's obviously a factor for some) as categorical: formalising the "otherness" of immigrants and thereby protecting the integrity of an assumed national community.

In contrast, the BES analysis of remainer concerns finds a different priority: "On the remain side, economic reasons are by far the largest single category, with other respondents split fairly evenly across other categories. These included people who felt European and didn’t want to be 'little Englanders' and people who worried that Britain's influence in the world would decline". This suggests that remainers see identity and national standing largely in terms of the esteem of relative economic performance and formal international cooperation (which is predominantly economic). While this suggests a relegation of the cultural chauvinism of classical liberalism, it is perhaps more accurate to see it in terms of the creation of the supranational liberal identity and global norms that have helped fuel the antagonisms encompassed by the phrase "culture wars". It also implies that adherence to the economic rules is ultimately more important than democracy (as the EU has long insisted in practice) and that international relations should still be subject to historic privilege and institutional influence (i.e. the patronising bullying known as "soft power"). Remainers are essentially Whigs, which goes a long way to explain the prominence of A C Grayling and his ilk.


The British political establishment assumed that the EU referendum would be decided on material interests, hence both "Project Fear" on the one side and outlandish claims about NHS funding and the potential of free trade agreements on the other. When it dawned on the political class that the result was more reflective of a cultural divide, this was quickly reduced to a concern with immigration, which allowed remainers to demonise the majority of voters as xenophobes or nostalgists while most leavers insisted that taking back control was all about border security and obscure product regulations rather than bank reform or capital mobility. The two sides have more in common than they are prepared to admit, not least because both Whigs and Tories treat immigration as a matter of national advantage. The liberal justification for immigration often employs the contemporary arguments made for the rehabilitation of colonialism. For example, we are told that while there may be negative effects for some low-skill workers the aggregate benefits for society are positive. Likewise, much emotional emphasis is placed on the incidental positives that arise from cultural exchange, from more varied cuisine to Mo Farah's gold medals. We even see arguments focused on the calibre of the national "stock", such as that the relative youth of immigrants can offset an ageing society, which would not have been out of place at a meeting of Edwardian eugenicists.

These tropes should remind us that the liberal defence of immigration is no less instrumental than the liberal defence of colonialism a century ago and its defence of anticommunism half a century ago. The US fucked up in Vietnam because a more intelligent policy from the late-1940s would have accelerated the domestic civil rights movement to the 1950s. In the event, the loss of blood and treasure, not to mention international goodwill, merely delayed domestic reform by a decade. Likewise, the UK political establishment's refusal to address the social and economic fallout of 2008, which was reflected in Ed Balls' deficit fetishism as much as the Tories' austerity, led not only to Brexit but may well lead to a Labour government committed to reversing many of the neoliberal institutional reforms of the last 35 years. That Labour is now challenging the imperatives of capital explains why the Tories are keen to defend them, but this requires that they fight a battle on ground that is not of their own choosing - i.e. in the shadow of the economy's poor delivery over recent years and with mounting evidence that for most Conservative Party members capitalism is a synonym for rentier interests and sovereignty a synonym for native privilege. The suspicion is that the electoral limits of the former will push them towards the latter by necessity, making the failure of the negotiations with the EU27 that much likelier.

Monday, 2 October 2017

The Legacy of Anticommunism

There were two thematic ommissions in the opening chapters of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's new documentary series, The Vietnam War. The first was the relationship of capitalism and colonialism, and the second was the relationship of race and anticommunism. The components all made an appearance, but the links drawn were the conventional ones between anticommunism and capitalism and race and colonialism. What prompted this line of thought was an unrelated squall of outrage that blew up around the political scientist Bruce Gilley's 'The Case for Colonialism', which was published recently in Third World Quarterly. What initially appears to be Swiftian satire turns out to be a sincere desire to rehabilitate colonial practice. This is not just the banal accountancy made popular by the likes of Niall Ferguson, in which property law and Shakespeare are held to outweigh genocide and engineered famine, but an attempt to make the case that colonialism is a suitable solution to contemporary problems in national development: "Colonialism can be recovered by weak and fragile states today in three ways: by reclaiming colonial modes of governance; by recolonising some areas; and by creating new Western colonies from scratch".

Gilley's justification is utilitarian: "Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found, using realistic measures of those concepts. The countries that embraced their colonial inheritance, by and large, did better than those that spurned it". The words "most" and "by and large" are doing a lot of work here. Even if we accept that some good can incidentally arise from colonialism, there is no way of predicting what this might be or where and when it might occur, so the precautionary principle is sufficient to rule out all colonial ventures in advance. What we can say from the historical record is that colonialism invariably produced evils, from mass murder and exploitation to the more subtle psychological damage of subaltern societies and the warping of economies to suit foreign interests. Arguments that seek to balance these endemic evils with the benefits of imposed industrial development and the importation of "superior" culture rely on counterfactuals in which uncolonised native societies are incapable of autonomous development or even trade and exchange. Colonialism is thus presented as progressive, which is one reason why it has often been promoted more vigorously by liberals than conservatives.

The argument for colonialism that Gilley makes is actually an argument for capitalism and market liberalism, hence his central contention is that inequality and other evils are justified by aggregate gains. His case studies of new colonial practice turn out to be instances of transnational privatisation or the importation of management expertise (e.g. Indonesia employing the Swiss to reform its corrupt customs service). The problem with this approach is twofold. First, it ignores the historic antagonism between colonialism and free trade; and second, it ignores the existence of social constraints on capital and markets that ameliorate their evils within the metropole: the "double movement" of Karl Polanyi. These constraints can influence colonial administrations as well. In the case of white settler colonies they can be imported wholesale (as in Australia and Canada), and even exploitative colonies with majority non-white populations may import some constraints and progressive norms (formal colonialism was a step up in the Belgian Congo, for example). But, "as a general rule", colonialism prefers self-regulation (its purpose is exploitation) and lacks structural incentives (most obviously the imperative of democracy) to promote either social protection or competitive markets. This is why the "civilising mission" rarely lives up to its billing and why colonialism tends in practice to be abusive and protectionist and thus never the "best" of capitalism.


Gilley's central error, which ironically echoes Lenin on the subject, is to assume that colonialism is really just capitalism and that it can be applied uniformly across the globe. Unlike Lenin, he fails to understand colonialism in its historical context - specifically that it cannot replicate metropolitan society - and also fails to address the inherent conflict between capitalism and free markets that is accentuated in the colonial setting. What interests me about his argument is not the dubious cost-benefit analysis, which has been thoroughly fisked by others, but the centrality of anti-colonialism to his case: "It is hard to overstate the pernicious effects of global anti-colonialism on domestic and international affairs since the end of World War II. Anti-colonialism ravaged countries as nationalist elites mobilised illiterate populations with appeals to destroy the market economies, pluralistic and constitutional polities, and rational policy processes of European colonisers". If anticolonialism is so bad then colonialism must be good, right? This is reactionary boilerplate, but what's striking about it is that anti-colonialism here occupies the rhetorical role previously held by communism as the chief global threat to capitalism. That the "merits of colonialism" school should have arisen in the quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall - a period marked by the abject failure of actual neo-colonial projects, such as the invasion of Iraq - is surely no coincidence.

As a documentary, The Vietnam War is little different in form to the 1970s' The World at War: extensive archive footage interspersed with personal testimony presented in recall, all marshalled by a sonorous voiceover (Laurence Olivier then, Peter Coyote now). Given the US audience, it is no surprise that the history of French colonialism in Indo-China is dispatched within the first episode, while the UK's contemporary struggles in Malaya and the postcolonial history of Indonesia get only a passing mention. It's arguably more of an omission that the history of US intervention in Cuba and The Philippines is ignored. What the opener does emphasise is that the Viet Minh was primarily anticolonial and even pro-US in the immediate postwar years, later becoming dominated by communists largely through American neglect. This strategic mistake is attributed to Washington's anticommunist obsession and specifically the "domino theory". What this narrative underplays is the way that anticommunism was employed instrumentally by Britain and France to defend colonial regimes in the face of US criticism, which in turn provided the template for later nationalist authoritarians to secure US support. The question that Burns doesn't ask is why the US was peculiarly susceptible to this manipulation. The standard answer, that anticommunism led to policy derangement, is a statement of fact rather than an explanation.

While American anticommunism formally dates from the Red Scare of 1919, it was not a novel reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution but a continuation of the nativist and racist ideologies that had developed over the course of the nineteenth century, hence its acute concern with outside agitators suborning blacks and immigrant labour, which would be a central feature of the reporting of the "Red Summer" race riots of that year. Though the foundation story of the USA produced a sentimental attachment to anticolonialism (ignoring the subjection of Native Americans and imported slaves), this had evolved into an expression of competitive distaste for the UK and other European powers by the early twentieth century. As US power grew after World War Two, its own interests were often served by anticolonial interventions, such as over Suez in 1956, but this was pragmatic rather than principled. In practice, the US preferred the informal, finance-led colonialism that it had pioneered in Central and South America (following British precedents), together with the covert colonialism of its "unincorporated territories" such as Puerto Rico (as an aside, Gilley criticises anticolonialism for its default attitude of "victimhood and entitlement", which finds a contemporary echo in Donald Trump's criticism of the Mayor of San Juan as a "politically motivated ingrate").


In the immediate postwar years, American progressives sought to establish a link between anti-colonialism and anticommunism, arguing that support for national liberation would halt the spread of Soviet and Chinese influence, but this also implied that communism might best be resisted domestically through the expansion of civil rights, an argument that found little political support in the early years of the Cold War. The significance of the 1947 Truman Doctrine, which committed the US to confront communism internationally, was its decision to prefer the status quo over risky reform: "to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures". Coming hard on the heels of the Marshall Plan, which had provided aid to colonial powers, this marked the point at which American anticommunism globalised its reactionary stance. Though it would remain ostensibly committed to anticolonialism, for example in the 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine's guarantee of the independence of Middle Eastern states, democracy was clearly subservient to anticommunism.

In Burns' narrative, the coincidental consciousness-raising of the 1960s Civil Rights movement is a key factor in the emerging domestic opposition to the war in Vietnam, leading to participants drawing the inevitable connection between antiracism and anticolonialism. In a separate interview, he emphasises the importance of Muhammad Ali's crack that "no Viet Cong ever called me 'nigger'" and also highlights how domestic injustice and inequality were replicated within the US armed forces in Vietnam. But he doesn't explore (at least explicitly) the possibility of a causal relationship between the two: that the near-hysterical pitch of anticommunism by the early-60s may have been the product of resistance to civil rights reform in the 1940s and 50s as much as a reasoned response to Soviet and Chinese foreign policy, and that this helped propel the US into an unwinnable foreign conflict. In other words, that the "derangement" of anticommunism reflected domestic anxieties over race and white privilege, and that the escalating commitment of troops to Vietnam was partly a compensation for the grudging "surrender" to the civil rights movement at home. Indeed, I'd go further and suggest that the American commitment to violence, both in terms of military folly ("fire and fury") and the symbolism of gun ownership, reflects the inadequate grammar of its politics.

A notable feature of black American writing on US history and politics in recent years is the growing acceptance that the "original sin" of white supremacy requires what amounts to a second American Revolution, albeit one that preserves much of the liberal spirit of the first. Where Malcolm X and others turned the weapons of white supremacy around as a form of theatrical antagonism in the sphere of citizenship (segregation was recuperated by the Nation of Islam, blacks were urged to exercise their constitutional right to bear arms etc), contemporary black activists seek to supersede white supremacy through a focus on assets (reparations for slavery) and consumer rights (Black Lives Matter is a critique of unequal provision). This reflects the spread of neoliberal and even libertarian norms within the black community since the 1980s: progressive regulation, choice as a human right, the centrality of property. That the liberal reformism of Bernie Sanders is characterised as "socialist" is not just a gleeful windup by leftists, it reflects a genuine belief among many Americans that any social programme that disproportionately benefits blacks (as any proper "accounting" must do) is by definition a threat to their way of life. While historians and political scientists argue about the legacy of colonialism, and while black American writers muse on the legacy of slavery, not enough people seem concerned about the baleful legacy of anticommunism.