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Sunday, 1 March 2015

The Rise and Fall of the Geek Empire

The unmasking of Jihadi John as Mohammed Emwazi, a Computer Science graduate from the University of Westminster, has revived the question of why so many Islamic terrorists are engineers of one sort or another. The key academic study is a 2007 paper, by the sociologists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, entitled Engineers of Jihad. This found that "a disproportionate share of engineers seems to have a mindset that inclines them to entertain the quintessential right-wing features of 'monism' – 'why argue when there is one best solution' – and of 'simplism' – 'if only people were rational, remedies would be simple'". When combined with religious belief, this also leads to 'preservatism', a desire "to restore a lost, often mythical order of privileges and authority, ... [that] emerges as a backlash against displacement or status deprivation in a period of sharp social change".

The study also finds some evidence for "field socialisation". As engineering jobs tend to be more closely associated with business (i.e. private rather than public sector), the normative values of engineering professions tend to be conservative: you get on in your career by echoing the orthodoxy. There is also evidence that the over-production of engineering graduates in the Middle East in the 1970s and after (driven by the oil boom and state investment in infrastructure) may have produced increased graduate disaffection after the oil price drop in the 1980s led to curtailed investment and a dearth of jobs. This was exacerbated by corruption, whereby jobs were secured through connections rather than ability, which offended the meritocratic sensibilities of engineers. The over-supply of graduates also reflected the attraction of engineering as an apolitical discipline in societies where challenging authority was not encouraged.

Though the paper's focus was on Jihadis, and the particular intersection of a conservative worldview with the moral certainties of Islamic fundamentalism, its findings in respect of engineers were much broader. Studies of American academics in the late 1960s found that engineers "were disproportionately Republicans and voted disproportionately for Nixon, the only academics to do so more than the average population. They were also the strongest supporters of both the Vietnam war and of classified weapons research on campus". Significantly, this bias was also found among students (i.e. it isn't just the result of institutionalisation): "engineering students are more conservative than students in any other subject. This obtains for both ‘un-socialised’ students in the first four semesters as it does for those in subsequent semesters". Over and above field socialisation and structural or socio-economic factors, this suggests that engineering attracts students already primed for a conservative worldview.


In the case of a minority, this mindset can develop into Manichean extremism: the belief that any means are justified in an all-out war between good and evil. Many politicians have referred to ISIS as "nihilistic", and some commentators have even revived the phrase "propaganda of the deed" in respect of the group's atrocity videos. Islamic jihadis are the polar opposite of nihilists. To put it in binary terms, monists believe in 1, nihilists believe in 0 (and pluralists believe in n). As Walter says in the Big Lebowski: "Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos". ISIS clearly have an ethos. Similarly, the propaganda of the deed (as originally conceived) was a tactic to reveal the artificiality of power. Regicide proved that kingship was merely a human convention, not divinely-appointed. Dynamiting a police station was meant to show that the power of the state was resistible and vulnerable. Decapitating a helpless prisoner proves nothing. One reason why ISIS invest so much effort into the quality of their media output is because their deeds have no persuasive power in themselves.

Gambetta and Hertog make an interesting observation: "Friedrich von Hayek, in 1952, made a strong case for the peculiarity of the engineering mentality, which in his view is the result of an education which does not train them to understand individuals and their world as the outcome of a social process in which spontaneous behaviours and interactions play a significant part. ... this would make them on the one hand less adept at dealing with the confusing causality of the social and political realms and the compromise and circumspection that these entail, and on the other hand inclined to think that societies should operate orderly akin to well-functioning machines". The irony is that Hayek was criticising the delusions of central planning. His fear was that the engineering mindset advanced socialism. A further irony is that Hayek-influenced libertarians who have used the Internet to abjure government have usually ended up creating authoritarian fiefdoms to address problems of social trust.

The sociology of Silicon Valley has long focused on the apparently paradoxical hybrid of market economics and social liberalism. Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, in an influential 1995 essay, explained that "the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies". This view is based on the assumption that the new technology industries arose when "West Coast radicals became involved in developing new information technologies for the alternative press, community radio stations, home-brew computer clubs and video collectives". In fact, the roots of the new economy were to be found in the early interpenetration of academia, business and government (notably defence), which had a historic locus in California that long-predated Haight-Ashbury. The subsequent cultural focus on libertarianism and "crazy individualists" distracts from this conformist and compromised reality (Inherent Vice is a better guide than Atlas Shrugged).


Where Barbrook and Cameron were more insightful was in seeing the reactionary delusions that lay behind "technological emancipation". The vision of transhumance and the singularity, like the dream of robot butlers and virtual reality, is a narcissistic desire to escape the reality of class relations: the dependence on the coerced labour of inferior others that has been the achilles heel of libertarian thought since Thomas Jefferson's slave apartments. "If only some people have access to the new information technologies, Jeffersonian democracy can become a hi-tech version of the plantation economy of the Old South. Reflecting its deep ambiguity, the Californian Ideology's technological determinism is not simply optimistic and emancipatory. It is simultaneously a deeply pessimistic and repressive vision of the future."

What Hayek was characterising was a personality type that combines social autism with a reverence for machine-like order. This is what we would subsequently call a "nerd", a word which appears to have been coined at about the same time that Hayek was writing. Initially, nerd had connotations of the conventional as well as the awkward, a synonym for "square". Its association with scientifically-minded earnestness reflected the priorities of the time: the father of the nerd was the absent-minded professor. Despite recent efforts to lionise the privately-educated misfit (Zuckerberg, Turing, Hawking et al), the popularisation of the concept - embodied in the spectacle-wearing kid who was good at maths and got thumped for his pains - reflected the expansion of universal secondary education and optometry after 1945. The era of the nerd was the Atomic Age, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1990s (the de facto end of nuclear testing). As a historical phenomenon, the nerd reflected the postwar compromise of social-democracy and conservativism: "the white-heat of technology" meets Dungeons & Dragons.

From the mid-90s the word nerd starts to be gradually supplanted by "geek", though they are not strictly synonymous. The distinction between the geek and the nerd is essentially one of capital and labour: "Geeks are fans, and fans collect stuff. Nerds are practitioners, and practitioners play with ideas". In other words, accumulating versus making. If the nerd was a product of secondary education, the geek appears to have been the result of the growth in tertiary education, particularly in the practical sciences such as engineering and IT. In a sense, geekiness was an ironic recuperation of nerdiness through commodities by 20-year olds looking back at their 15-year old selves. The ascent of the geek was driven by the spread of the Web, a product of the tertiary education sector with a strong "cataloguing" paradigm, while the wider diffusion and dilution of the term after 2000, to the point where it has come to mean little more than "enthusiast" (i.e. consumer), was the result of social media and competitive sharing. The shifting balance between the terms reflects the pivotal commercialisation of the Internet in the mid-90s.


Since then, the terms geek and nerd have become largely interchangeable in the world of work and consumption, though there is still a sense of geek/enthusiast and nerd/expert being overlapping rather than coterminus. Culturally, the prevalence of both terms is part of the wider "kidult" phenomenon by which youth culture is recommodified for adults, but it also reflects the increasing age of the self-appointed (male) guardians of the Internet, the "Dads of Tech". One reason for the wider popularity of geekdom as a positive style may be the appeal of its inherent prescriptiveness: best-of lists, the certainty of collectibles, the "right way" of doing things (from software to baking). It may offer a sense of security and identity persistence in the face of churning modernity and increasingly precarious employment.

The geek collectible is an extreme form of the idea that we achieve actualisation through commodities. Where once the hobbyist created value through their own labour (a tendency that still lives on among "makers"), or subversively invested trivial commodities with significance (stamp-collecting, train-spotting), now we see the exemplar geek as an "entrepreneur of himself" who judiciously invests money as well as time: buying and trading comics, buying and watching box-sets, buying and recording experiences. Part of the traditional fan trope was the contrast between the day job and the leisure interest: the compartmentalisation between the accountant and the Civil War re-enactor. As the formal boundary between work and play has eroded, so the identification offered by cultural capital has become more important to workplace self-esteem. In parallel, cultural capital has been democratised by the incursion of fandom (recall the emblematic crossover of Nessun dorma and football in 1990), which has in turn fed conservative fears about dilution and dumbing-down.

A consequence of this tension has been the increasing status anxiety of expertise. Before anyone is "entitled" to an opinion, they have to prove their credentials. Maintaining a geek identity is exhausting: collecting a complete set, watching an entire series, attending every convention etc. The paranoia this engenders is not just the result of the profusion of commodities (the fear of missing out), but the fear of being deemed inferior because of a lack of commitment. This leads to the tendency to express fandom as grievance ("we no longer know how to enjoy art without enjoying it against others") and the monstering of those thought to be "phonies". The latter has been spectacularly misogynistic, for example Gamergate and the fake-geek-girl meme (a male geek is a male - a female geek is a category error).


The geek is the ironic "new man" of the ironic new economy. He (and it's usually a he) is presented as economically triumphant, hence the emblematic importance of various tech entrepreneurs and their Ozymandias-like ambition, but the reality is that the new economy is creating fewer well-paid jobs due to the network effects of software. We over-estimate the size of the geek cohort (in the sense of employed engineers and techies) because of the overlap with funded hipsterdom, job title inflation (data analysis is often just poorly-paid clerical work), and the adoption of geek style along with the expansion of IT into existing distributive sectors of the economy (media, creative, marketing etc). At a time when the original nerds are retired, and The Big Bang Theory is a leading sitcom (i.e. the realm of nostalgia), the idea that Mary Berry is considered a geek hero surely indicates that we have well and truly passed "peak geek". The down-slope may not be pretty.

Just as economic stagnation in the Middle East in the 80s led to a surplus of engineering graduates, so we are now seeing a surplus of computer scientists in the West as the neoliberal fetishisation of tertiary education collides with secular stagnation. Predictably, it is graduates from less privileged backgrounds who are most likely to be unemployed and consequently disaffected. In that sense, Mohammed Emwazi is all too typical. But it would be wrong to imagine that this combination of an engineering mindset and conservatism is peculiar to Islam, or even that it is peculiar to graduates (see Anders Breivik). It goes all the way back to the source, so it should come as no surprise that in recent years, as the dream of the IPO has receded and technology companies have became ever more entwined with the state, disgruntled Silicon Valley libertarians have lurched towards the neoreactionary howlings of the Dark Enlightenment.

In the circumstances, politicians demanding the reinstatement of control orders to "combat terrorism", or the carte blanche extension of surveillance technology, are not just reinforcing the authoritarian tenor of the times, but are also "performing nerd": insisting that there is a ready solution, that technology can cure our ills, and that we can restore a lost order. But these are recycled prescriptions, less credible today than they were a decade ago. We are in a period of stagnation, not just in respect of the economy, but in terms of political and cultural ideas. We shore up the shattered edifices of banks, political parties and failed states. We recyle fashions, we substitute diet for ethics, we exhaust the superhero mine. As Edward Gibbon said in respect of the Roman Empire, "All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance". The geek is decadent.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Wolf Hall Gift Shop

Anne Boleyn has left the building. In pieces. Wolf Hall has been a moderately engaging TV series, but the effusiveness of the reviews and the cultural reception has been way over the top. I shall try to provide a corrective. Some of this Mantel-mania is probably nostalgia for the half-remembered BBC costume dramas of the 1970s (a sexed-up Poldark is also in the offing), some is just National Trust lust (everything was suspiciously clean), and some may be the assumption that we are in the presence of Acting (sic).


I've not read Hilary Mantel's books, but I did see the two stage adaptations last summer, which made for an interesting contrast. Portraits of Thomas Cromwell show a bruiser in the mould of Ed Balls. Though leaner, Ben Miles was closer to this, with a loose-limbed gait and accent that suggested both the commoner and the soldier. In contrast, Mark Rylance was too feline, though the screenplay made the most of this in scenes where he quietly watches events, sometimes concealed or paused on the threshold, acting furiously with just his eyes. The moments when he threatened violence were unconvincing. Similarly Nathaniel Parker was a more robust and humorous Henry (like a psycho Sid James, though without the cackle), but Damian Lewis was better at conveying the frustration and capriciousness of the king through tightened lips and flared nostrils.

Though Mantel's tale is built on the manoeuvrings of men, the key theme is the constraints placed on women. Some of this is presented in the form of traditional tropes, such as the treatment of women as pawns in male power plays. In one scene, Anne is physically coerced on a chessboard-like dancefloor by her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. At her coronation, she is manipulated like a mannequin. When arrested, she is at a loss how to proceed until instructed by Cromwell. This lack of physical agency is sharpened by contrast with the trope of girls learning to read (the daughters of Cromwell and Thomas More), which represents female empowerment and self-worth. It also suggests the latent power of the next generation of women, which will see first Mary and then Elizabeth, Anne's flame-haired daughter, on the throne.

A second traditional trope is the idea of women's sexuality as destabilising and malevolent: Anne as a witch, Henry "undone" by her wiles, the final accusation of incest etc. Mantel introduces a third, more modern, trope: the sexually autonomous woman. Examples are Johane's initiative to take Thomas to her bed, Mary Boleyn's flirtation with him, and the frisson between Thomas and Anne. Cromwell is shown as attractive and congenial in the company of women, though there is no historical evidence for this. The irony is that the real-life Cromwell's lack of sensitivity to sexual attraction, specifically Henry's dissatisfaction with Anne of Cleves ("She is nothing so fair as she hath been reported"), led to his downfall.

Female sexuality, and particularly its association with blood, is centre-stage: the weak joke that Prince Arthur "had spent the whole night in Spain" brings to mind Catherine of Aragon's vagina; her daughter Mary cannot stand due to her period and is offered a chair by Cromwell (historically improbable - as a royal princess she would have sat anyway); Anne clothed only in a shift on her bed displays her first pregnancy to Cromwell (again, improbable), and her second pregnancy ends with the blood of miscarriage on the floor. On the scaffold, the hands of Anne's female attendants are smeared with her blood as they put her dismembered corpse in the coffin.


As heritage TV, it was inevitable that the series would be used to draw political parallels with the present day, thus continuing a postwar tradition. Geoffrey Elton's 1953 history, The Tudor Revolution in Government, cast Cromwell as a bureaucratic reformer and loyal monarchist, which suited the Butskelite consensus of the 1950s. The reign of ER2 has been marked by a fascination with the Tudors, largely because they are seen as the progenitors of the British Empire (the conquest of Ireland, the Navy Royal, the American colonies), and thus the other book-end. In the 1960s, Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons portrayed Cromwell as a scheming and unprincipled parvenu, in contrast to the conscientious and anti-authoritarian Thomas More, which reflected both liberal shibboleths and the unspoken fear of social mobility among the upper middle-class. Bolt's More was cast in the mould of Dietrich Boehoeffer and Martin Niemoller: establishment anti-Nazis.

Today, Martin Kettle see's Mantel's Cromwell as a Machiavellian "fixer", a proto-Blairite navigating a middle road between the "pedestrians" and the "madmen" (it's worth recalling that the original third way, the via media, was the English solution to the conflict of Catholicism and Protestantism - i.e. the Anglican Church). The idea of Thomas More as a man of conscience also lives on, despite Mantel's less sympathetic depiction of him as a prig and a torturer. Trendy vicar Giles Fraser bizarrely claims "when More was declared a saint in 1935, it was partially a powerful and deliberate witness to German Christians to do the same" (i.e. defy power). It was not. More was canonised en masse with 53 other Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation. As the process of canonisation takes decades, the idea that this was a gesture of solidarity in the face of Hitler's ascent to power in 1933 is ridiculous.

Even more bizarre was Larry Elliott attempts to explain the Eurozone crisis by quoting the economic historian David Landes: "The Protestant Reformation changed the rules. It gave a big boost to literacy, spawned dissents and heresies, and promoted the scepticism and refusal of authority that is at the heart of scientific endeavour. The Catholic countries, instead of meeting the challenge, responded by closure and censure". As Elliott sees it, "Northern and southern Europe started to go their own ways in the 16th century. They had different beliefs, different ways of doing things, different cultures. Half a millennium later this gulf has yet to be bridged: witness the strong sense of protestantism that informs Germany’s attitude towards Greece." Not only does this simplification ignore the common beliefs and methods of contemporaries like Kepler and Galileo, but it also ignores the lasting predominance of Catholics in Bavaria and the Rhineland, the economically most advanced areas of Germany.

In fact, there is ample evidence that the structural differences between Northern and Southern Europe were already entrenched long before the Reformation.  As Comin, Easterly and Gong conclude: "Technology in 1500 AD is associated with the wealth of nations today". As Fernand Braudel pointed out, the major determinant in European history has been the differences between the geography of the North European plain (which includes the bulk of England and Southern Scandinavia) and the North Mediterranean littoral. One could argue that the value-system we call Protestantism grew out of and reflected the economic advantages this geography bestowed - i.e. it was ideological - but to suggest that the wealth of London, Amsterdam and Hamburg arose from their rejection of transubstantiation, rather than their access to sea-lanes, would be nonsense.


Elliott continues: "But these were not the only changes happening. The voyages of discovery by Columbus and Magellan meant the known world was expanding. It was an era of globalisation, with new products available for import and fresh markets opening up". You may have spotted that these voyages were funded by closed and censorious Catholic Spain. The two hundred years between 1400 and 1600 saw the centre of the global economy shift from the Eastern Mediterranean to North Western Europe. The latter was not only best placed for Atlantic trade, but provided access to the Baltic and to Northern European coasts and rivers. This benefited England and The Netherlands most, not just because of their ideal position but because they did not divert significant resources to the now less-rewarding Mediterranean, unlike Spain and France.

Elliott, echoing Landes, believes the mechanism for this bifurcation in economic performance was literacy, as a result of the spread of bible-reading, rather than any intrinsic Protestant work ethic. This is a variation on the human capital theory of economic progress and so reflects modern assumptions. In fact, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that mass-literacy became a factor in economic growth, hence the introduction of universal elementary education in the UK in 1870. From the 16th to the 19th century, few jobs required reading skills and those that did were adequately supplied by the "middling sort" (e.g. Grammar school boys like William Shakespeare). If you were a land-labourer or a mill-worker, being able to read conferred little economic advantage.

Now into his stride, Elliott cannot stop seeing parallels: "Rather like the privatisation programme of the 1980s, the main reason for the assault on the monasteries was financial: Henry was short of money and wanted the funds to fight his expensive wars". Despite his fondness for the joust, Henry was not particularly martial, with wars restricted to short periods at the start and end of his reign. Though these stressed the treasury, this was because of the already high level of expenditure by the spendthrift king on his bloated court and palaces. The dissolution of the monasteries dates to the mid-1530s and was triggered by the Act of Supremacy and Henry's subsequent excommunication by the Pope. There was no pressing military need for cash at the time, though later dissolutions would help fund his 1542-4 campaign in France. The pressure for "privatisation" came from the aristocracy, who wanted to acquire monastic land, and from wealthier merchants seeking social status through the purchase of manorial estates.

The goal of privatisation during the first two Thatcher administrations was not to raise cash - supposedly to pay for unemployment and the Falklands War - but to give the private sector a free-hand in rationalising industries such as steel, shipbuilding and car manufacture (unemployment was paid for by higher tax, chiefly VAT). This changed after the 1987 election as financialisation started to influence policy. During the 1990s there was a clearer parallel with the dissolution of the monasteries as utilities, such as water, energy and the railways, were privatised. This is because the utilities provided guaranteed economic rents, in the same way that land did in the 16th century. The earlier 1980s programme was more akin to asset-stripping, hence the sensitivity of the "selling off the family silver" jibe by Harold Macmillan.


As a tale of sexual and power politics, Wolf Hall (on stage and small-screen) is little more than a superior version of The Tudors. The sense of profound historical change, such as the social ramifications of the dissolution of the monasteries or the economic and geopolitical pivot from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, is entirely absent from the confined world of the court. History is reduced to the conservative notion of inter-generational debt: Cromwell's filial-like loyalty to Wolsey and his paternal concern for Gregory are contrasted favourably with the dynastic instrumentalism of the aristocracy. The hint of a Hobbesian cynicism - man is a wolf to man - is reduced to a tale of justified revenge (against Wolsey's persecutors) and the king's increasingly dangerous delusions. The attempt to draw parallels with modern government and economics, to find significance in the drama of jealousy and ambition, is just a way of excusing a secret pleasure. It's the costumes and the candlelight and the tapestries that we'll remember. And the blood. It's the bling and the terror of power.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Wants and Needs

The question on many people's lips is "What does Vladimir Putin want?", but an equally pertinent question is "What does Roman Abramovich want?" Following the incident on the Paris Metro, when a group of Chelsea fans physically and verbally bullied a black commuter, Jose Mourinho said: "I felt ashamed when I found out but these supporters do not represent the club". Chelsea famously backed club captain John Terry, a player found guilty of racial abuse by the FA, who is nothing if not representative. The club clearly did not regard his behaviour as unacceptable, otherwise they would have sacked him, which has led to some fans now claiming that the Metro chant was in support of the player (the song was originally a response to the fans of opposing teams singing "John Terry, you know what you are" when he was cleared of criminal charges, but it has taken on a life of its own since then). Does the club bear some responsibility for that warped logic?

The words used - "We're racist, we're racist; and that's the way we like it, we like it" - are a claim of authenticity: this is our true nature and we are real Chelsea fans. But "real" here does not mean "representative", in the sense that Mourinho uses that word - i.e. typical, rather it suggests that the true essence of the club is racist (among other things) and that this should be defiantly professed in the face of a hostile world, which includes other, less hardcore Chelsea fans. Stamford Bridge was not a noticeably racist crowd until it was targeted by neo-Nazis in the late 70s and early 80s, and I doubt the crowd are different to the general population now. The problem is that while the sieg-heils and ultra-violence have disappeared, the vocal intimidation and general arseholery have been recuperated by private school-educated dicks pretending they're Cockney geezers. What the reported association with UKIP points to is gentrification as much as bigotry. It's toytown racism.


Let us turn from little blue men in Paris to little green men in Eastern Ukraine. A common view is that "Putin wants to be the man that tears up the post-Cold War settlement a victorious NATO imposed on a pitifully weak Russia". This is an interpretation found across the political spectrum. Many on the left buy in to the idea of "national humiliation" and the psychodrama of the leader striving to restore a people's dignity. This trope (which has already infected commentary on Alex Tsipras and Greece) can be traced back via Castro, Chavez and others to Bolivarism, which in turn has its roots in Bonapartism. Not a good precedent, really. The view from the political centre is that the Russian economy is weak and that Putin's strategy of opportunistic adventurism is intended to shore up domestic support. On the right, conservative "realists" see the half-hearted expansion of NATO as a strategic error by the West: the US should either back off and respect Russia's spheres of interest in its "near abroad" or robustly intervene, not fall between two stools.

Underpinning much of this analysis is the assumption of Russia's innate expansionism. The nineteenth century was marked by the fear of the Bear seizing Istanbul and the Bosphorus, becoming the dominant power in the Balkans, and threatening Britain's position in the Middle East and India (they were expansionist, we were just protecting our interests). The twentieth century was marked by Soviet advances in Eastern and Central Europe, the fear of communist insurgencies worldwide, and the ill-advised gamble in Afghanistan. The subsequent "frozen conflicts" of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are modest in comparison. The question is whether the Eastern Donbass will go the same way, semi-absorbed into Russia's rust-belt, or whether Putin sees it as a lever for greater control: "The evidence so far is that what Russia actually wants is indirect influence over the whole of Ukraine, and for the West to pay for it". A less cynical view is that "If it holds, the Minsk agreement offers Russia a dignified way of accepting Ukraine's post-Soviet emergence as an independent state."

What most of these views share is a close identification of Putin the person with Russia the state actor. The emphasis on "dignity" is also revealing. In geopolitics, the term is routinely applied in relation to countries whose sense of self-esteem is deemed to exceed economic or military capability. The hegemon tends not to worry about dignity, having the reassurance of power, so setbacks (no matter how disastrous) are marginalised as "embarrassments". The extreme form of this conceit is to find dignity in our defeats (John Rambo was just a latterday Mrs Miniver, but with more troubled hair, while American Sniper is Taxi Driver wrapped in the flag and drained of irony). The belief that others are prey to insecurity leads to the idea that Putin is acting like a truculent teenager who isn't sure what he wants, but knows he needs something to boost his ego. The extreme form of this remote psychoanalysis is the suggestion that Putin might have Asperger's syndrome or be a paedophile, which is from the same stable as Hitler's monorchism. This is calculated disrespect, much like Wolfgang Schauble's patronisation of Syriza.

As the corruption of the Putin regime and its failure to reform the post-90s economy has become ever more apparent domestically, it has been increasingly important to control the media. Short of a North Korean strategy of isolation and paranoia, this requires a narrative to explain foreign bias and hostility. The obvious one is national exceptionalism: Russia is unique and blessed by God, the West is jealous and wants to control Russia's resources, our immediate neighbours are unreliable and ungrateful for everything we've done for them in the past, and domestic critics are working for "them". While the Western media tropes frame this as a reversion to Soviet or Tsarist times, the template is actually modern US exceptionalism. The only real difference is the American delusion that "freedom" is a domestic natural resource more abundant than oil. The important point is that this "nationalism" is focused on influence, not territorial expansion. Today, Russia is no more likely to invade Lithuania than the US is to invade Cuba.


Painting Putin as malevolent and manipulative, together with the claim that Russia is using "hybrid" tactics (i.e. "subversion by a number of means, both military and non-military"), is convenient in discrediting domestic critics in the West, recycling the traditional smears of "Moscow gold" and "useful idiots", a charge broad enough to encompass the Front National, Syriza, various NGOs, and campaigners against fracking and TTIP. This continues the binary basis of Western attitudes to Russia, whereby we simultaneously deride them for their backwardness while attributing great powers of state-sanctioned mischief. The Kremlin's soft power is characterised as a "slick operation", much as the Comintern and KGB were in days of yore, while we assume their economy is so fragile and dependent on primary industries that the oil price fall must cause immense damage, unlike the resilient economies of the US and UK (though a minor chord here is the assumption that Scotland is notionally bankrupt).

Though Russia would obviously prefer NATO to stay the other side of Belarus and Ukraine, and to not expand to Georgia, there is no existential fear. Few think that US or German tanks are going to move East any time soon. Similarly, Russia's intentions  in its "near abroad" look modest. Its policy in the Baltic is focused on neutralising any threat to the Kaliningrad enclave and the Baltic Fleet HQ. In the South West, the fraught relations between Russia and Ukraine originate in the division of the Soviet Black Sea fleet in 1997 and the extension of the Sevastopol base lease. The annexation of Crimea can be framed as righting a historic wrong or simple opportunism, however it is better seen as Russia trying to prevent the erosion of its military position rather than revanchism or expanding its sphere of control. The balance of power in the Black Sea has not fundamentally changed since Turkey joined NATO in 1952, and despite its naval base at Tartus in Syria, Russia is in no position to challenge NATO in the Mediterranean. However the conflict in Ukraine pans out, Russia will be no stronger regionally than it was twenty five years ago.

The period since 1989 has been marked by a series of conflicts that arose due to local or regional instability, some occasioned by the dismantling of Communism (e.g. the Balkans), some by the de-escalation of superpower rivalry (e.g. the civil wars in Somalia and Afghanistan in the 90s), and some by superpower proxies stepping out of line (e.g. Iraq). Arguably, the geostrategic retreat of Russia also played a part in enabling the Arab Spring. The US chose not to support clients such as Mubarak to the hilt (ditto France and Ben Ali in Tunisia), and was repaid by a noticeable lack of anti-Americanism among Egypt's revolutionaries, while Gaddafi's isolation clearly emboldened his enemies before NATO's pivotal intervention. From a Russian perspective, its retreat from the world stage has been destabilising (this can be seen in the tone of exasperation in its statements on Syria and US policy). It therefore seems illogical to assume that Russia is motivated by an opposite goal, i.e. to foster instability in Ukraine.

Despite this wider context of retreat, leavened by noisy but relatively low-risk interventions in the "near abroad", Russia has been described by too many in the West in terms that inevitably (and irrelevantly) call to mind Hitler and appeasement: "Today it is an authoritarian state, with expansionist ambitions, that does not consider itself bound by international treaties and norms. To secure his power at home, Putin has decided to test its limits abroad. Whether it is in Ukraine, or elsewhere, one day we will have to stop him." This is absurd. Russia does not intend to ethnically-cleanse Eastern Europe; it does not plan to annex the Baltic states and so trigger a war with NATO that it knows it would lose; it has no intention of jeopardising the capital assets of its oligarchs in the West; and I'm pretty sure Vladimir Putin has two testicles. Russia may want respect on the international stage, and continued influence in Ukraine, but the last thing it needs is another Cold War and persistent impediments to economic growth, let alone a hotter conflict.


I have no evidence that Roman Abramovich is a racist, but nor have I seen any sign that he is actively anti-racist or that he gives a toss about the issue. Chelsea will go through the necessary motions of condemning racism and banning the Paris Metro supporters and others guilty of racist behaviour, and many Chelsea employees will no doubt be sincere in upholding anti-racist practices, but this is ultimately just "protecting the brand". In this, I'm not suggesting that Arsenal or any other club would have finer motives or a cleaner record, merely noting that there is a clear difference for club owners between wants (win trophies, patronise competitors, preen for your peers) and needs (avoid reputational damage, avoid sanctions by the authorities, expand global commercial operations).

The decision to support John Terry was a pragmatic calculation that his value as a playing asset exceeded the brand damage caused by his retention as club captain. In contrast, the little blue men, like the little green men, are expendable. Chelsea will do all the right things for the return-leg with PSG, the fuss will die down, and Terry will get his testimonial in due course. The fighting in Ukraine will rumble on until either the US ships arms to Kiev or Russia winds back its support for the rebels. A political compromise will either redraw the border and accelerate Ukraine into NATO (probably Kiev's preference) or leave it a confederated and bickering buffer (probably Moscow's preference). Putin will be able to turn either outcome to his account. Abramovich will have no comment.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Institutionalisation

The breakdown of the state in Libya and the BBC documentary Inside the Commons remind us of the central role of institutions in politics. There is a lesson here for the Greek "crisis". In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi sought to entrench his position by abolishing the already weak institutions of the post-colonial state and replacing them with tribal theatrics and empty slogans about direct democracy (the colonel was a strange cross between a Mafia don and Prince Charles). Oil revenues allowed Gaddafi to maintain control by buying-off or undermining opposition and by substituting engineering projects for visible government. The Libyan state collapsed after Gaddafi's death because of the institutional vacuum he created. Still smarting from the mess they made trying to airlift democractic institutions into Iraq, and not forgetting Somalia, the NATO powers now seem happy to keep their distance from a failed state and rely on Egypt to stamp out ISIS.

Michael Cockerell's documentary reveals Parliament to be an ornate stage for bumptious egotists, a workplace in which office politics is work, and an anti-democratic farce that fills MPs' time with absurdly arcane and wasteful procedure. Though he wheels out the usual cliché about the finest club in London, the more obvious template is a leading public school, like the one in Lindsay Anderson's If ... but without the Bren gun. To suggest that this milieu is simply reproduced by the disproportionately public school-educated MPs themselves is to ignore the way that the institution enforces it through physical discipline (rushing, queueing, the narrow corridors), class division (pecking orders, uniforms, insignia), and the competition for privilege (a seat, a better office, an early draw in a ballot). This also reminds us that the prime directive of all institutions is self-preservation.


Much of the form and ritual of the Commons records the historic struggle between Crown and Parliament, thus dignifying MPs, but it also serves to distract attention from the modern exercise of state power, which largely happens elsewhere, and to belittle the subsequent advance of democracy. Calling Jacob Rees-Mogg "the member for the eighteenth century" is more than just a joke. The growth of select committees since 1979 is often presented as a reassertion of backbench power against the executive, but it can also be seen as a triumph of neoliberal managerialism (akin to non-executive directors) in its emphasis on episodic and post-hoc inspection and the extension of its remit to the interrogation of society at large. Confronting industry bigwigs and civil servants after a cock-up or institutional scandal makes good TV, but there is little evidence it leads to better laws.

After an initial flurry of excitement over Yanis Varoufakis's costume, the Greek drama has taken on the familiar shape of a contest between national stereotypes. This is misleading. Though European power struggles are still mediated through councils of national ministers, an institutional form that dates back to the Congress of Vienna, this obscures the real actors. As Michael Pettis notes, "European nationalists have successfully convinced us, against all logic, that the European crisis is a conflict among nations, and not among economic sectors ... The financial crisis in Europe, like all financial crises, is ultimately a struggle about how the costs of the adjustment will be allocated, either to workers and middle class savers or to bankers, owners of real and financial assets, and the business elite". The institutions of the EU clearly privilege the latter, which necessitates a narrative of national immorality to justify austerity to the former.

The flattening of borrowing rates occasioned by monetary union led to large flows of capital to the periphery. The scale of this was due to the high rate of corporate and household savings in the core (the product of low wage growth inflating profits and low consumption by savers) and high demand for property investment at the edges. The institutional weakness has often been characterised as a lack of fiscal union to match monetary union, but it would be more accurate to say that what was missing was adequate capital controls, the common feature of all financial crises since the 1980s. To blame this on an individual nation is meaningless. As Pettis notes, "As long as a country has a large number of individuals, households, and business entities, it does not require uniform irresponsibility, or even majority irresponsibility, for the economy to misuse unlimited credit at excessively low interest rates".

Sovereign states that faced a debt crisis after 2009 did so because the public sector bailed out the private sector, i.e. the government nationalised regional and national bank losses, following local property market busts and write-offs due to the global banking crisis of 2008. This applied across the EU (notably the UK) and not just within the Eurozone. Greece was atypical because it had an excessive level of public debt before monetary union, as a result of historic institutional corruption, and because that same institutional failure prevented the scale of the debt being revealed until 2009. Just as the institutional failure of the banks was transformed into an issue of public debt and the need for austerity at the national level, so the institutional failure of Greece became a justification for enforced "structural reforms" across the Eurozone.

Paradoxically, the EU's chief ally for thoroughgoing structural reform in Greece is Syriza. The Greek government are not about to implement a socialist command economy, and have further emphasised their pragmatism by nominating a former New Democracy minister as president. The dispute (and thus the basis of a deal) is over the type and sequence of structural reform. While both sides will be keen to improve tax-collection and root out corruption, the Troika also want to push ahead with measures to open up the Greek economy to international big capital. Syriza's push back against this reform may actually make a lot of sense if the institutional capability isn't in place to support privatisation and deregulation without widespread abuse. This is precisely the lesson learnt from Russia in the 1990s. In other words, the Troika's policy may be contradictory if it seeks to simultaneously reduce the power of oligarchs and advance the transfer of assets from the public to the private sector.

Though the Greek state is notorious for feather-bedding and backhanders, it would be wrong to imagine that it has not improved over the last three decades through exposure to EU norms. Like Spain and Portugal, Greece has been engaged in a gradual evolution of the state since the end of military rule in 1974, an endeavour that advances one coffin at a time (it is worth remembering that it took 40 years to extirpate the institutional remnants of Nazism in Germany). The European goal in respect of Greece should not be the paying-down of its debt (which nobody believes can happen in full, at least not this century), nor the deregulation of its economy (which would happen gradually anyway), but the normalisation of its institutions. In effect, Greece's "institutionalisation" within the EU.

As Thomas Piketty notes, "Institutions do not arise out of harmonious societies populated by representative agents; they arise out of unequal societies and out of conflict." This suggests that now is the ideal time to achieve genuine institutional reform in Greece, not just because of the obvious need but because Syriza is probably best placed to effect reforms given its lack of institutional baggage and its appetite for conflict with Greek elites. The Troika's insistence on premature structural reforms that favour big capital and financial interests, such as privatisation and market deregulation, is probably the biggest threat to achieving that reform.

I don't subscribe to the view that the EU wants to impose a Carthaginian peace on Greece, pour encourager les autres, so I remain optimistic about a deal that would both ease austerity and advance institutional reform, but I also recognise that there will be no admission that austerity was a false prospectus so we can expect the rhetoric about national responsibility to continue. The irony of the years since 2009 is that the institutional bias of the EU towards the interests of bankers, big capital and the asset-rich has, through the instrumentality of fiscal austerity, boosted national identity. This in turn has created political space for the far right and Europhobes more generally, and thereby put the cause of "ever closer union" back a generation. Austerity at least makes the EU's priorities clear.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Raging Bull

In terms of the Overton Window, the idea of a basic income has moved from unthinkable to radical in recent years. Though Natalie "Turbine" Bennett fumbled the chance to push it towards acceptable in her notorious bout with Andrew "Slugger" Neil, it would be wrong to see this as a setback. The basic income was always going to be treated as a risible undercard before the big election fight, and the socio-economic forces driving it aren't going away. Where the Greens went wrong was in proposing a revenue-neutral scheme that matched the current cost of selective benefits (in this they were influenced by the Citizens Income Trust's 2013 proposal for a £71 weekly income). This means starting the debate from the wrong place, both because existing benefits may not be adequate or well-targeted and because a benefit-substitute case ignores the wider role of the basic income in society and the economy.


The Greens' proposed weekly basic income of £72 is equivalent to the current adult income support and JSA rates. Since 1980, unemployment benefit has been up-rated in line with prices, excluding housing costs, rather than earnings. While median wage growth has been stagnant, this obscures two countervailing trends: the increase in real housing costs and the fall in real commodity prices. The end result is that the ratio of benefits to wages has roughly halved from 20% in 1970 to 10% now. The Greens' proposed basic income is little more than the minimum deemed necessary to avoid destitution, rather than the basis for a flourishing life, and thus the principle of less eligibility in modern guise. A scheme that merely substitutes for inadequate benefits is not worthy of the name. A universal basic income must be driven by human dignity, not administrative efficiency or parsimony.

The decline of unemployment benefit since 1980 also emphasises the importance of the uprating mechanism chosen for the basic income, a topic on which the Greens have been notably quiet. The level of income must be sufficient not only to avoid poverty but to enable a minimum of self-respect (e.g. buying new clothes occasionally and yes, a flat-screen TV and some booze), which means closer to £150. If the basic income were to be tied to prices (excluding housing), then its value relative to wages would progressively decline. Linking it to median wages would be better, however continuing job polarisation means that median wages will grow more slowly than average wages (because of higher growth at the top of the wage scale), so a basic income will not reduce inequality beyond the initial recalibration.

Unlike organised labour or universal suffrage, a basic income cannot address the social relations of capital and labour, in the sense that it provides no mechanism for the democratic control of capital. In particular it provides no mechanism to control the "social dividend" of economic growth - i.e. how productivity gains are divided between capital (profit), labour (wages) and society at large (the basic income plus pro-social taxation). If the basic income is to escape the straitjacket of "welfare", it needs to directly address the issue of uprating and thus the question of how we divide the fruits of growth. Given their growth-averse principles, you can see why the Greens might be shy on this point.

Instead of following the sterile lead of the mainstream media and quibbling about whether a particular scheme would be "affordable", it is worth looking at the wider arguments in favour of a basic income in light of these three key aspects: personal dignity, the distribution of the fruits of growth, and the social relations of capital and labour. Here are ten arguments that I think are worth thinking through. A basic income would ...

1. Allow us to "rethink how and why we work" and "reward unpaid contributions" --- This is essentially an argument focused on self-actualisation and esteem, which assumes that basic needs (food, shelter, safety etc) are taken care of. It tends to be people of independent means who can afford to rethink how and why they work. On £72 a week, you probably can't afford the travel costs and incidentals to do much volunteering, let alone buy a converted windmill in Suffolk and set yourself up as an artisan baker. That said, this is not a bad argument, but it might be better reformulated as: a basic income would reduce anxiety and depression and help raise levels of life satisfaction. This might have a greater positive impact on the NHS than any mangerial reform.

2. Make workers more choosy --- There's an ethical argument for giving everyone sufficient power to choose their circumstances, but we should recognise that for most people this is a matter of being able to desert a shitty employer rather than give up work altogether (there is much truth in the maxim that people don't leave jobs, people leave people). Just as most of us don't want to be entrepreneurs, so few of us want to be lonely potters or unappreciated watercolourists. A basic income would encourage employers to either improve conditions or invest in automation, both of which would boost productivity. Ironically, the greater resilience of workers between periods of employment might also allow for more labour market flexibility - i.e. we might see easier hiring and firing as well as greater labour bargaining power. It may not sound like much, but allowing workers to be "more choosy" might have a profoundly energising impact on the economy.

3. Enable lifelong learning --- This presumes that sufficient course places are available and can be provided for free (or near-free). It is unlikely that enough teachers would volunteer to run such courses for no pay, and there would still be the cost of facilities to cover, so this seems like wishful-thinking. In practice, this would bias heavily towards MOOCs (massively open online courses), which means a lot of this learning would be on a par with watching Countdown. I'm not being dismissive in saying this, merely noting that we can't all sign up for tutorials with Mary Beard. I suspect the reality would be a combination of self-study and volunteer-led symposia (so pretty much like a book club). Again, the biggest benefit might be seen in health and happiness.

4. Encourage education and training --- The "human capital" argument assumes that a more educated society will lead to a higher-skilled economy and thus higher wages and tax revenues, however the evidence of recent years is that the returns to education (outside of elite institutions) are declining. What a basic income might do is enable more workers to go part-time in order to pursue skills training. With more eighteen years olds prepared to opt for a gap-decade, start a business, or acquire a degree in parallel with work, a basic income might help redress the traditional imbalance between vocational and academic education. The outcome might be a lot more disruptive of the higher education sector than MOOCs.

5. Reduce bureaucracy and benefit fraud --- Given the number of means-tested benefits that would remain, such as for children, housing and disability, it isn't obvious that a basic income would reduce either substantially. Income support, JSA and pension credit (which would be replaced by a basic income) together account for 37% of all benefit fraud. The big-ticket item is housing benefit (27%), which is only going to be reduced through building a lot more homes (to push down rents) and/or by providing rent-free social housing. As a rule, arguments for a basic income should focus on effectiveness rather than efficiency.

6. Redistribute the fruits of technological progress --- The argument for this is a variation on the "standing on the shoulders of giants" meme, but with the added recognition that every innovator depends not only on his or her intellectual predecessors but on the contribution made by contemporary society as a whole to innovation (e.g. taxes invested in education and infrastructure). This is also an argument that addresses the classic problem of luck - i.e. the idea that financial rewards may only be partially attributable to the recipient's talent or hard work and that a portion is down to "right place, right time". By redistributing some of the rewards through the social dividend of a basic income, everybody gets to share in that luck, which is another way of saying that we ameliorate bad luck or disadvantage.

7. Encourage entrepreneurialism and innovation --- A basic income de-risks the choice of the individual to start a business or develop an innovation. It should be stressed that this is less about providing "seed corn" (£150 a week won't go far) than instilling confidence. Conversely, a basic income might help prolong the life of inefficient micro-businesses that would otherwise go to the wall. On balance, the trivial sums make this a trivial issue. The greater benefit is likely to be the support provided to innovation. With the cost of research and development in many areas falling due to the impact of software and the advance of "maker" technologies, the basic income could lead to a significant expansion of the "garage" sector of the economy. Though only a small fraction of these innovations will be successful, the aggregate impact could be large.

8. Encourage social cohesion and strengthen democracy --- Social cohesion is an argument for a universal, unconditional flat-rate basic income scheme, as opposed to either a narrow substitute for benefits (i.e. a dole) or a negative income tax that tapers the basic income to zero for higher incomes (and thereby divides society into classes). The negative income tax approach is favoured by the right and is bound up with lower tax and greater self-reliance, i.e. severely curtailed public services. There is a danger that the basic income could weaken democracy, specifically if an increase in taxation on higher-paid workers leads to support for the right-wing claim that those who pay tax should have greater rights over fiscal policy than those who depend solely on the basic income ("no representation without taxation").

9. Provide a fiscal stimulus --- The higher marginal propensity to spend of those on lower incomes means that a basic income would probably increase aggregate demand, but only if it distributes from rich to poor. An income neutral scheme, such as the Green Party's proposal, wouldn't. A persistent increase in aggregate demand means lower income inequality, and the basic income is just one way of achieving this. The problem with the stimulus argument is that there are (arguably easier) alternatives means to the same end, such as increasing the value of benefits, which would keep us stuck in the paradigm of welfare.

10. Reduce inequality --- Beyond any initial redistribution through the introduction of a basic income and the reform of the tax code, a basic income could be redistributive via two uprating mechanisms. First, if the combined growth dividend for the basic income and for wages exceeds the dividend for profits, this will gradually shift the balance from capital to labour (in this definition, "labour" includes the basic income and workers gain the combined benefit). Second, the growth dividend for wages could be split between cash (to cover price inflation) and reduced working time. Combined with a maximum working week that was gradually reduced (thus encouraging further productivity growth), this would progressively narrow the spread in income between the bottom and top deciles of the income scale.


A basic income worth fighting for would be one that increases personal dignity, progressively distributes the fruits of growth across society, and redresses the current imbalance in power between capital and labour. Insofar as the details have been worked through, the Green Party proposal does none of these things. Advocating a revenue-neutral scheme without any progressive uprating mechanism entrenches poverty, undermines the social benefits of a basic income, and leaves the proposal vulnerable to potentially pernicious alternatives such as a negative income tax. If nothing else, this should make the conservative roots of Green policy even more obvious. Just as a basic income scheme cannot be designed in isolation from the wider tax system, so it is naive to imagine it is unrelated to working hours and housing affordability. A basic income must be transformative, not apologetic. Seconds out; round two.