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Friday, 3 July 2015

Visions of EU

The decision of the EU hardcore to make Sunday's Greek referendum a vote on the euro focuses on one vision of Europe: monetary union, stability and the necessity of austerity. Syriza is presenting an alternative vision based on solidarity, autonomy and dignity, insisting that the referendum is an expression of popular will. Given the ECB-triggered capital controls, the coordinated political coercion of the group of 18, and a Greek media primed for "project fear", it is hard to imagine anything other than a reluctant 'Yes' vote. The hardcore deal in that most tangible intangible, money, while Syriza deal in aspirations. The reason for the latter is not the "immaturity" decried by the Troika, but that the Greek government has no economic cards in its hand. However, that assessment in turn ignores the symbolic role of Syriza and why aspirations matter in Greece. I want to look at two things in this post: the structural constraints of the Greek economy and the role of Europe as an ideal of modernity and unity. First, the economy.

Land reform began in the 1830s with the break-up of holdings expropriated from Muslim landowners following the War of Independence. This converted a serf population into a new class of subsistence small-holders, which was considered a progressive development at the time. 20 acres was the average holding by the 1870s, and that has only marginally grown in the century and a half since. Many urban Greeks still have a rural smallholding, often sub-divided over the years through inheritance, hence the ready recourse to "the vegetable plot" in hard times. Many have also founded their modern wealth on selling all or part of their land for tourist development. The present zealous faith in the euro is less a reflection on the despised drachma than a recognition that the new currency has taken over the traditional role of land as the ultimate safe store of value.

The persistence of rural smallholdings, allied to the Greek terrain, made the growth of large-scale agriculture difficult outside the plains (only about 20% of the land area). The geography of Greece also made inland communications challenging (hence the city-states and reliance on ships of the Ancient Greeks), which inhibited the growth of industry in the late nineteenth century, with the notable exception of shipbuilding. Without the magnetic draw of towns, and with low agricultural yields, the resulting surplus in the rural population led to emigration, not just to new territories such as the USA and Australia, but to the traditional "colonies" around the Mediterranean such as Alexandria, Marseilles and the coast of Asia Minor (Anatolia).


The Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22 reversed this as over 2 million Greeks fled from Anatolia, while half a million Turks fled Macedonia and Thrace. This net immigration boosted the Greek population and aggregate commercial activity, particularly in Athens and Thessaloniki, but it also helped depress wages in the 1920s and 30s, leading to low levels of investment in industry and manufacturing. World War Two was particularly damaging for Greece, not just because of German financial extortions and reprisals for partisan activity, but because the forced export of agricultural produce led to famine, contributing to a 7% drop in the population. The parlous state of the country was then compounded by the ensuing Civil War (1946-49), which depleted both capital stock and the population further.

The Greek "economic miracle" of the 50s and 60s owed much to increasing international demand in the sectors of shipping, building materials and agricultural produce, but was most significantly boosted by the growth of tourism. By 2008 this was responsible for 18% of GDP and 19% of jobs (indirectly, it probably accounts for a third of all employment). This dominance is problematic because of seasonality, structural limits to productivity, and low wages. Over the course of the 80s and 90s, the Greek service sector expanded rapidly, mirroring developments elsewhere in Southern Europe, however it is worth noting that the sector was relatively under-capitalised and prone to restrictive practices, hence it remains distinguished by an excess of small firms. Greek SMEs account for 86% of all employees and 72% of turnover - the EU averages are 67% and 58% respectively - which partly explains the higher-than-average rates of tax evasion. Microbusinesses account for 55% of employees and 33% of turnover. Many of these are subsistence concerns and thus produce little income tax let alone corporation tax.

This points to another structural issue with the Greek economy, which is the high-level of self-employment (many of the microbusinesses are sole traders and partnerships), which in 2013 was running at 32% against an EU average of 15%. This share will probably have increased since then due to the continued growth in unwilling self-employment. The Greek economy today still bears similarities to the nineteenth century, with low levels of capital investment, low productivity and an over-dependence on shipping for foreign earnings. It's also worth noting that shipping (at 6% of GDP) is problematic because of low corporate tax yields (a large part of the Greek merchant marine is registered in low-tax Cyprus). While some commentators continue to insist that tax evasion is rooted in resistance to the Ottomans, it is actually structural and modern: too many small businesses, too much self-employment, and the few large private businesses enjoy too many tax exemptions.


We now turn to politics and the role of Europe. Greek social history for almost the entire course of the twentieth century was marked by the "national schism" (Ethnikos Dikhasmos) that arose around World War One when the pro-Allied bourgeois liberal government of Venizelos clashed with King Constantine I, who was thought to harbour German sympathies. Though this was framed as a progressive/reactionary face-off, it's worth noting that Venizelos was an irredentist whose adventurism led to the Anatolian disaster in the early 20s, while the king's preference was for neutrality. But in the context of the time, Venizelos was a "liberal democrat" and seen to be in tune with the victorious powers of Europe (he was keen to join the British at Gallipoli), while Constantine was married to the Kaiser's sister and iffy about democracy.

The schism became a central feature of modern Greek politics and civic society. It would mutate over the course of the century as it adopted contemporary fashions and adjusted to wider geopolitical tensions. It became a more clear-cut clash between democracy and authoritarianism during the crypto-facist dictatorship of Metaxas in the 30s, it reflected Big Power rivalries during the Civil War, while the 1967-74 military junta (the "Colonels") saw much harrumphing about Communist subversion and long hair. After the restoration of democracy, government spending did a lot of the work of social peace-keeping, leading to high levels of public debt. Some of this was due to the clientelistic nature of the schismatic state, as the Nea Demokratia/PASOK duopoly rewarded supporters and tolerated generous payoffs to opponents; some was the result of persistently high defence spending, intended to buy off the military; while the poor record in tackling corruption and tax evasion can be sourced to a reluctance to antagonise either powerful oligarchs or other vocal economic interests, such as middle-class professionals.

Given the living legacy of both the Colonels and the Civil War, it should come as no surprise that the contemporary anticapitalist left (i.e. beyond Syriza) and Golden Dawn both see society in "schismatic" terms, while the broad centre of ND, PASOK and To Potami (the current neoliberal darlings) see the idea of "Europe" as a way of superseding the schism, with both conservatives and progressives cherry-picking those aspects that appeal to their priors ("stability", "modernity" etc). In this context, it is important to understand that Syriza - which is a dynamic social movement that has only recently coalesced - is actually closer to the centrist position, in the sense of wanting to bridge the divide. The party might appear to be on the progressive side of the schism, but they have been careful to present themselves domestically as a broad church: hence the focus on national dignity and the willingness to include ANEL in the government.


The problem is that their platform - an end to austerity while remaining in the euro - is considered to be a logical impossibility by the hardcore. As a result, the historic divide of Greek society is once more aligning with wider expectations. Despite the schismatic stylings (demos, posters, shouting) and the weight of history, the divisions in Greek society are the same as those across Europe as a whole: between the beneficiaries of modern capitalism and those who have been asked to make ever greater sacrifices in terms of wage stagnation, flexible working and restricted public services. It has suited both sides to paint this struggle at times in moralistic and nationalist colours - lazy Mediterraneans, unrepentant Nazis etc - while many are happy to use it as evidence of the EU's inherent flaws, but the fundamental antagonism reflects the increasing inefficiency of capitalism as a generator of growth and the ineffectiveness (or unwillingness) of the state to mitigate the inevitable increase of inequality that arises from the concentration of capital.

Syriza were the best prospect for the progressive cause in Greece, and thus the necessary structural reforms to the economy and society, because they were able to bridge the schism. The EU's antipathy to Syriza - like its delusion that a media confection like To Potami can be transformed into a neoliberal election-winning machine - is naive, as it ignores the reality of the schism. Tsipras's accusation that the EU is "conservative" is spot on. His error is to imagine that the idea of Europe still means what it did in the 80s/90s, an era still current in Greece in many ways, namely solidarity, progress and reform. His dawning realisation is that it has become a fearful and negative project, dedicated to counter-revolution, the defence of capital and the primacy of financial interests. This is now a clash of visions for the EU, suggesting that the schism has graduated from a specific of Greece (left versus right) to a generality of Europe (authority versus democracy).

Evidence for this "promotion" is readily available in the British press. For example, Rafael Behr lumps the British "hard left" with UKIP as enemies of an EU that "is meant to aggregate the power of national governments in response to global forces that might otherwise be beyond the capacity of individual states: climate change, energy security, terrorism, and strategic parity with the US, China, India and Russia. Part of that function is political mediation in the borderless realm of financial globalisation" (that "meant" is a bit of a giveaway). This is the conventional centrist view of Europe. It uses residual nationalism as a threat to stability, while insisting that regional strength is a necessity in a competitive world, and casts EU governance as protective and benign, rather than the coordination of supranational class interests. The claim that the EU uses its "combined authority to moderate international capitalism" looks odd when you consider the Troika's recent negotiating position: an insistence on austerity combined with an aversion to an increase in corporate taxes. Jean-Claude Juncker's historic hypocrisy over corporate tax-dodging just rubs salt in the wounds.


Paul Mason indirectly suggests one reason why the group of 18 are unwilling to further negotiate (let alone sanction a deal) before Sunday, regardless of further concessions by Tsipras: "Paradoxically, a 'Yes' vote recommended by Tsipras would simultaneously close off the Grexit route and obviate the need to create a pro-Euro coalition with the centrist parties". In other words, if regime-change is a priority, and it looks like it is, then they only want Tsipras to win if he advocates a 'No'. This would be no worse than a 'Yes' victory (where Tsipras would fall on his sword), as the hardcore simply aren't going to budge regardless of what the Greek people may want. If they were sensitive to popular opinion in Greece, they would have accepted Syriza's mandate from day one.

As luck would have it, I'm flying to Athens on Friday for a social visit, so I'll be in a position to gauge the mood somewhat better than relying largely on the media, but I don't expect to find a united people. It's been clear since Tuesday that the Greeks remain divided, and that the old schismatic paradigm has simply assumed a new form. Syriza's only real hope since their election in January has been to break that paradigm, but they needed the cooperation of the other members of the Eurozone to do so - i.e. solidarity. The tragedy (and I mean as much for Europe as for Greece) has been the clear preference of the establishment for schism: for strivers versus skivers, for the industrial North versus the indolent South, for the honourable rich versus the dishonourable poor. What we'll be witnessing on Sunday is the death of a European dream.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Flip a Coin

On the same day that Greece introduces capital controls, we learn that UK banks want the government to relax regulation of the financial sector. The latter is couched in the somewhat mimsy terms of "reducing the cost of regulatory compliance", but it's obvious that this simply means a quantum reduction in regulation and not an improvement in productivity. Pedants might argue that there is no equivalence here, as capital controls restrict civilians while regulations govern bankers, but that is to misunderstand that significant international movements of capital are initiated within bank backoffices, not via ATMs. The financial crash of 2008 was converted into a sovereign debt crisis across the Eurozone periphery essentially to protect core area banks and shift the cost of the ensuing recession from capital to labour. The latest turn in Greece sees the drama return to its source in the banks.

The UK financial sector continues to bleat about the iniquities of the bank levy, the possible introduction of criminal sanctions for executives, and the regulatory "red tape" that prevents them making larger profits. Some of this is just industry lobbying ahead of George Osborne's July budget statement, which many observers anticipate being a Lawson-like landmark now that the constraints of coalition have gone, but it also sits within a wider narrative about the centrality of financial services to the UK's economy and how this should influence David Cameron's negotiations with the EU. Just as you cannot understand Greece without appreciating the dominant economic role of tourism and shipping (and how these impact on seasonality, self-employment and tax receipts), so the UK government's manoeuvrings invariably reflect the interests and concerns of the City.

A hallmark tactic of the rightward turn across Europe since 2009 has been historical revisionism, from the claims of Labour's "profligacy" in the UK to the recasting of Eurozone history as a conflict between strivers and skivers. Another example of this revisionism was the claim in May, by Philip Booth of the Institute of Economic Affairs, that the deregulation of the City under Margaret Thatcher was a myth: "It is unambiguously the case that statutory regulation of financial markets increased under the Thatcher government. Furthermore, it is clear that markets are able to develop comprehensive systems of regulation when left to themselves. Indeed, it was these systems of regulation that the government prohibited because of competition policy concerns about restrictive practices that were operating within the market". In other words, the desire to increase competition, by the removal restrictive practices, led to greater state interference in the market.


Booth has been banging this drum for a while, partly because he is a market fundamentalist, and thus averse to state interference whatever the stripe of government, but also because it allows him to claim that the disaster of 2008 was the result of state mismanagement, with the happy accident that much of the blame can be laid at Gordon Brown's door, even though the Labour Chancellor was arguably more sympathetic to Booth's preferred self-regulation and institutional independence that his Tory predecessors. In reviewing Thatcher's record, Booth recognises a key point usually ignored by her supporters, namely that she was an instinctive centraliser. For all her harping on about The Road to Serfdom, her fundamental issue with the postwar state was not its dirgisme (consider her record as Education Secretary) but that the "wrong sort" had taken charge. Her famous phrase "not one of us" reflected her social snobbery as much as her ideological convictions.

Booth's plea for self-regulation ignores the nature of the institutional and cultural changes that occurred in the City in the 1980s. Much of the tacit regulation of the old City arose from the institutional separation of stock jobbers and brokers, which served to make certain conflicts of interest difficult, if not impossible. Likewise the separation of merchant and retail banking. This could only be done away with - thereby opening up new commercial opportunities - by substituting new regulations to prevent abuse. Similarly, the cultural norms, which depended on personal ties and class identity ("my word is my bond"), could not survive globalisation. Structural regulation and convention was formalised as part of the harmonisation demanded by the new global financial markets. This highlights the role of the neoliberal state in the era of globalisation, namely to act as an agent for class interests and negotiate across national boundaries. This is a role that is often tacitly supported by the regulated entities themselves, as it helps create barriers to entry and thus privileges incumbents.

Booth warmed to the theme in his criticism of the 79 economists who recently pooh-poohed George Osborne's proposal to outlaw deficits. In doing so, he made a case for the deliberate restraint of government: "There is plenty of economic theory that suggests that a government tying its own hands increases credibility and thereby lowers borrowing costs." This is essentially the "confidence fairy" nonsense that has been comprehensively disproved by continuing low interest rates in recent years (hence Booth's use of the word "theory" rather than "data"). Credibility in the eyes of the lenders is determined by a government's ability to meet interest payments, not by the size of its debt or its current deficit. The situation in Greece is proof of that, with the immediate trigger for the escalation of the crisis being the June repayment to the IMF. That Greece's debt is unpayable has been clear since 2010, but that has been an irrelevance to the bailout negotiations. Similarly, the last UK government's failure to eliminate the deficit by 2015 as promised has not noticeably dented confidence among creditors.


The ideological consistency between Booth's two positions - the government should be restrained, the market shouldn't - is the belief that private markets are better-suited to designing and managing regulation because of dispersed and tacit knowledge (i.e. the Hayek insight), while governments are poorly-suited because of central planning and vested interests (i.e. public choice theory). The problem with this view is that it must ignore the reality of vested interests in the private sector (or seek to mitigate them by appeals to ever more "competition"), despite the ample evidence of the failure of self-regulation in the City, while denying the capability of government to ever gather information efficiently, despite the historical evidence to the contrary and the fact that the private sector is dominated by large, bureaucratic organisations that mimic government at its undemocratic worst. As Paul Krugman rightly noted, "We may live in a market sea, but most of us live on pretty big command-and-control islands ... most of us are living in the world of Dilbert."

The broader context of Booth's revisionism and the UK finance sector's many complaints is the fear that the new Tory government may be tempted to compromise on EU financial market regulation in return for political concessions. In other words, they will settle for marginal gestures around sovereignty and immigration that please eurosceptics. George Osborne, as he has shown with the enhanced powers of the Bank of England and the extension of anti-abuse safeguards following the LIBOR scandal, is happy to regulate the market when it is politically expedient. What the financial sector and its academic and media-outriders like Booth want, is for the government to prioritise the independence of the British state in determining financial regulations (i.e. subsidiarity), on the basis that this can then be biased towards a "light-touch" regime, ideally centred on self-regulation. The paradox is that while the UK remains within the EU, the City's interests are best served by an interventionist state.

Today's coordinated response by the Eurozone hardcore, to the Greek government's decision to call a referendum on the current bailout terms, has been to frame the vote as a choice between the euro and the drachma, with the former entailing unqualified acceptance of the terms dictated by the "group of 18" and thus the delegitimising (and presumably removal from power) of Syriza. If they were keen to keep Greece in the Eurozone, they would not be proceeding in this fashion, regardless of their distaste for a "leftist" government, because of the risk that their intervention might antagonise the Greek people. They seem determined on pushing Greece out (despite the crocodile tears of France and Italy), which might (ironically) allow them to write-off some of the country's debts in a way that is domestically palatable (i.e. by "washing their hands" of the Greeks), leaving the management of Greece's remaining debts in the hands of those nice people from the IMF.


One bystander who must be feeling a little queasy at the sight of this is David Cameron. Neither a democratically-elected government nor an explicit referendum appears to cut much ice with the hardcore, so why should he imagine that he will get any concessions? Just as the choice facing the Greek people on Sunday may be unpalatable, because either outcome is likely to lead to a worsening standard of living, so the choice facing British electors at a date yet to be determined may be inconsequential. Ironically, and contrary to the City's worst fears, Cameron may actually need substantive concessions in the area of EU financial regulation to obscure the limited concessions elsewhere. While the Greeks are faced with "heads they win, tails you lose", Cameron is hoping that a deal that doesn't have an adverse impact on the euro will be cynically accepted as a double-sided coin by an EU hardcore that now cares for little else.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Boy's Own History

Andrew Roberts' three-part TV series Napoleon was a distillation of his 2014 book, Napoleon the Great. The heroic nature of the undertaking is obvious from the title of the more substantial work. What the TV adaptation provided, with the British historian outlining his case in rooms done out in First Empire bling, was a life-story with plenty of ormolu knobs on. What was fitfully entertaining was seeing a classic French narrative delivered in high Tory style, though the conservative admiration for Boney shouldn't surprise us too much. Winston Churchill surely learned as much from the career of the Corsican Ogre as he did from that of the first Duke of Marlborough, while Nigel Farage clearly owes more to bonapartisme than the political theory of Wellington. Roberts is an unapologetic apologist for the great man theory of history. Though he was frank in his admissions of Bonaparte's war crimes and egotism, the series was essentially a defence of enlightened despotism, in which Roberts brimmed with glee when Bonaparte was shown to be sculpting history to his will.

Historians are much taken with military metaphors: they marshal facts, they survey the field, they call up reinforcements. If most historians are experts in patient siegecraft, or the concentration of overwhelming force on the enemy's weak points, there remains a strand of historiography whose "dash" recalls the swift manoeuvring and daring gambles of the early Napoleonic era. This cavalier approach has a particular attraction to Thatcherite Tory historians, such as Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson, which stands in contrast to the more pessimistic and puritan tone of an earlier generation of Tories, such as Corelli Barnett, for whom all was decline, wasted opportunity and the vulgarity of the modern. Barnett wrote a particularly scathing biography of Bonaparte in 1978, which emphasised his opportunism, luck and the indulgence of a Mafia-like family of grasping relatives (there were odd echoes of Anthony Burgess's 1974 novel, Napoleon Symphony, with its ironically quotidien take on Bonaparte's story).


Roberts is a far better historian than Ferguson, both in print and on screen, being less manipulative with the facts and motivated by boyish enthusiasm (he was much taken with Napoleonic military fashions) rather than partisan contempt, but he does share the Scot's weakness for the counterfactual, with much fretting over where Bonaparte "went wrong". This reflects the Tory view that history is advanced by pivotal decisions taken by key individuals, rather than the interplay of class interests, which under-estimates the constraints on choice - i.e. determinism - whether economic, geographical or cultural. But this emphasis on choice is a double-edged sword. Roberts bemoans that Bonaparte failed to take his generals advice at Borodino and after, and that at Waterloo he lacked enough experienced marshals to offer any. This could be taken as evidence that the genius of Napoleon in the field was a more collegiate affair than history has hitherto allowed, which rather undermines Roberts' own thesis, or it could be taken as evidence that the enemy had learnt from their defeats and were now narrowing the options for the French, suggesting that Bonaparte's "edge" was significantly determined by his opponents inadequacies over the decade between 1799 and 1809.

Bonaparte's military genius was built on foundations bequeathed first by the Ancien Regime, notably the advances in artillery under Gribeauval, and then by the Revolution, particularly the levée en masse and the creation of large, conscript armies. In the early 1790s, a French artillery officer with a pragmatic political stance and contacts in the National Convention was in sweet spot. Both improved field artillery and conscript armies would be gradually adopted by France's continental enemies, narrowing the military gap and leading to the strategic reverses after 1812 (Bonaparte's first battlefield defeat was at Asper-Essling in 1809). The adoption of the Corps d'Armée system was a major advance for which Bonaparte can take credit, but it was also an inevitable consequence of the expansion in the size of armies in the field. Though Bonaparte was undoubtedly a general with a genius for outflanking, it's easy to forget that many of his battles were won by throwing large numbers of troops into frontal assaults ("toujours l'attaque") after the enemy had been manoeuvred into a vulnerable position and then battered with cannon - e.g. at Austerlitz and Wagram.

The later carnage at Borodino and Leipzig was a logical extension of the tactics employed at Austerlitz, Bonaparte's most famous victory, where the enemy centre collapsed and French casualties were light. The difference was that the enemy was now more adroit at manoeuvring, thus denying Bonaparte the opportunity to outflank, resistant to feints, and better able to mass large armies in the field and wear the French down. Russia's scorched earth retreat in 1812 and the initially defensive and then offensive manoeuvring of the Allied forces ahead of Waterloo were examples of the maturity of Bonaparte's opponents, but they also highlighted the limits of the French Emperor's imagination: he had no plan B. Though it was fought a century later, the Somme was in many ways a typical Napoleonic battle. Just as the German success in the East at Tannenberg recalled the rapid manoeuvring and outflanking of Bonaparte, the stalemate on the Western Front was reminiscent of the bloody attrition of Leipzig and Waterloo.

There was a strong element of contemporary propaganda in Roberts' language, with much ahistorical talk of "meritocracy", "hard work" and "strivers", which will have pleased his mate in Number 10, though he failed to spot the contradiction in his dismissal of Bonaparte's incompetent brothers, plonked on various petty thrones across Europe, and his praise for the promotion of able generals from humble origins. Roberts correctly noted that Bonaparte's political constituency centred on the bourgeois who had secured property and economic rights through the dispossession of the church and aristocracy, but he was guilty of accepting Bonaparte's own propaganda about preserving the gains of the Revolution. What the period after the coup of 18 Brumaire meant in practice was the consolidation of a bourgeois reaction, the establishment of a new nobility, the suppression of democracy, and the reversal of gains by workers, women and West Indian slaves.


Napoleon (the historical icon, as opposed to the mundane Bonaparte) was a "new type of man", hence his emblematic importance in art and philosophy, from Beethoven's Eroica to Nietzsche's Ubermensch. A key element of his novelty was the belief, popularised by Rousseau, that talent could be found at any level of the social order. This was a profoundly destabilising idea for a society with so much invested in hierarchy - and the France of the First Empire was just as minutely obsessed with grades and status as the Ancien Regime - but it could be controlled if that talent was seen to be rare: a biological "sport" that required reclassification and absorption into the hierarchy. The persistent nineteenth century trope of the madman claiming to be Napoleon reflected the psychological ambivalence of this attitude: the exceptional was simultaneously possible and impossible.

The strategy of co-option required an emphasis on the exceptional nature of talent, to emphasise that a general reordering of society through a true "meritocracy" was not on the cards: the elevation of a man, not mankind. The tension in this idea - the frontal assault of individual ambition on an initially resistant but finally surrendering society - would provide fertile soil for early nineteenth century literature, most notably Stendahl and Balzac in France, but extending also to Thackeray and Dickens in England and many others across the continent. The idea lives on today in debased form, in national lotteries and TV talent shows. Though the common soldier might have had a marshal's baton in his knapsack, the primacy of military "gloire" reflected the continuation of an aristocratic ideology and thus served to contain the revolutionary implications of Bonaparte's apercu. Roberts did mention the Code Napoleon and various other administrative reforms enacted under the Empire - they could hardly be ignored given their longevity and influence - but he was reluctant to dwell on Bonaparte the bureaucrat. He preferred the man of action - the adventurer finally and tragically reduced to boredom on Saint Helena. This was a Boy's Own history.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Guns and Racists

One immediate result of the Charleston massacre has been the welcome eclipse of Rachel Dolezal. Race in America has reverted from a narcissistic preference to implacable destiny, with much "centuries in the making" chin-stroking by the commentariat. According to Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian, "Race and guns are the birth defects of the American republic, their distorting presence visible in the US constitution itself." This is ahistorical nonsense. While the USA was certainly founded as a racist state, and the right to bear arms was defined as a constitutional right, contemporary problems with race relations and guns have little to do with these "birth defects". The shootings in Charleston this week, like the police execution of Walter Scott in April, cannot be sourced to the 1780s or the 1860s. Though we do not make the world anew every day - so the past certainly continues to influence the present - it is nothing more than Burkean nostalgia to imagine that the present is inescapably determined by the past, that current social failures are the result of ineradicable policy blunders made centuries ago. Progressives who bemoan the tyranny of the US constitution are humming a conservative tune.

The US attitude to guns was broadly similar to that of other developed nations during the early twentieth century, with largely unfettered ownership tolerated but actual use dwindling as a consequence of the secular move of the population from the countryside to towns and cities. The one exception, enacted at state level, was to restrict the rights of blacks as part of the Jim Crow system. To put this in context, the UK only introduced limitations on the sale of firearms in 1903, with a focus on excluding minors and the insane. Controls were extended after WW1, in part due to unease over the mass-arming of the working class during the war and the worrying example of Bolshevik Russia, and gradually tightened over subsequent years. In contrast, the US National Firearms Act of 1934 was triggered by public anxiety over criminal activity during the prohibition era. Despite the high profile of gangsters, gun-ownership was in slow decline in America throughout the century, just as it was elsewhere. The popularity of gun clubs and the fetishisation of hunting were the products of urban modernity, not the persistence of ancient customs, with the legal indulgence of "sporting" guns and the distaste for cheap "Saturday night specials" reflecting a class and race bias.

The new salience of gun ownership as a political issue in America, and specifically as something admirable and emblematic of "liberty", was a response to the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s and the subsequent reframing of white fears about the advance of blacks as a more generalised anxiety about social breakdown. The psychopathy and gang-wars of White Heat and Little Caesar had given way to the muggings, rapes and drug-fuelled craziness of Dirty Harry and Death Wish. This increased antagonism was fuelled by both white resentment and black assertiveness, but it also reflected underlying changes in the economy and demography, similar to those happening in other developed countries over the course of the 60s and 70s. This was reflected in an across the board increase in violence - criminal, domestic and political - and specifically an increase in deaths due to assault in the US. However, it is worth emphasising that levels of gun ownership in America continued to slowly fall.


The rapid escalation in assault deaths that had started in the early 60s ran out of steam in the late 70s, during the early years of the Carter administration, when ownership rates were still falling. It was only in the Reagan years (so more Escape from New York and Fort Apache The Bronx) that the decline in gun ownership was arrested, and then only temporarily. The downward trend picked up again in the 90s during the Clinton presidency, while the rate of assault deaths also continued to fall. During the Bush II years, rates of gun-ownership flatlined, despite the war on terror and the focus on homeland security. The long-term trend is clear, with the percentage of US homes owning guns falling from 50% in 1977 to 31% in 2014. Meanwhile assault deaths have continued to fall, though there remains some way to go before the US is line with other developed nations. The data suggest two things: more guns in society means more violent deaths, but the level of carnage is amplified by social tensions. In other words - and contrary to simplistic liberal propaganda - the mere presence of guns does not solely determine the level of mayhem, even if there is a broad correlation between the prevalence of guns and rates of homicide.

What is also clear from the US data is that gun fatalities tends to be greater in areas with larger (and long-established) black populations. Leaving aside atypical big cities such as LA and New York, the most deadly areas of the USA are the core southern states: Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Some on the right claim that this is because of black-on-black crime, with the implication being that blacks are innately more murderous, but this is to ignore two facts: first, that most murderers know their victims, so murders tend to be intra-racial in societies where integration is weak; and second, that murder rates correlate with socio-economic class - the poor commit more murders than the rich, and they tend to murder other poor people. We also know that blacks are far less likely to own guns than whites in the US, though this rarely leads right-wingers to advocate that blacks acquire more guns in self-defence.

The recent spate of killings of unarmed black men by white policemen (a "spate" that may just be the more comprehensive publicising of a mundane fact) might suggest a white fear of violent blacks, but what you see is white over-reaction and a callous disregard for black lives. The murder rate is a social pathology, which in the US is amplified by the availability of weapons. Gun ownership is a reflection of racial tension, but largely since the 1960s, and its slow decline is a sign of increasing integration and dwindling prejudice. Though the conservative reaction of the 70s and 80s slowed this decline, the gun-lobby is clearly fighting a rearguard action in the face of steady social change: a sophisticated black president, a scion of the house of Bush who is Catholic and has a Hispanic wife. The root cause of America's "gun problem" is the social division of the races, but this is a contemporary reality, not an ancient legacy, and one that looks increasingly at odds with the wider public mood. Gun rights will, like smoking in bars and restaurants, eventually give way and people will then look back and wonder how they could have put up with such legalised insanity.


The reluctance to acknowledge the racial background to the growth in homicides in the 60s and 70s and the related valorisation of gun ownership in the 80s led to a number of attempts at historical legitimation for gun rights, as part of the wider conservative turn, from "faith" in the Founding Fathers' wisdom to the extolling of the frontier spirit as a characteristic of American exceptionalism. These appeals to history ignored the fact that the Second Amendment was concerned with the maintenance of a militia, a collective right, not the personal use of firearms, and that very few Americans in history had ever experienced "the frontier", let alone been on the receiving end of aboriginal hostility. What is strikingly evident to most non-Americans (and many frustrated Americans too) is the absurdity of the justifications put forward for lax gun control. It's obvious, from the smirking demeanour of gun-lobbyists and the irrationality of their case ("the pastor should have allowed his parishoners to carry concealed weapons"), that these justifications are euphemistic and insincere.

Freedland's article is a good example of the way that these two issues - race and gun violence - are treated as parallel failings, with their inter-relationship limited to mere coincidence: "the damage guns and racism inflict both separately and when they collide". This is an approach common to liberals and the more polite conservatives. In fact, America's gun laws, at both state and federal level, have always been a discourse about the competing rights of racial minorities and the white majority, from the pre-Civil War period up to today. Guns are an emblematic form of property. Like cars, the possession of a gun is not merely a statement of power and privilege, it also signals assertive membership of civic society, which is why acquiring guns was a performative tactic of black activists during the 60s, from Martin Luther King to Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.

A black man openly carrying a gun was seen as an affront by whites in exactly the same way as having a white woman on your arm was (the woman being another species of property). The reaction against gun control that became hegemonic during the Reagan years was part of a wider movement of symbolic white, middle-class empowerment; with the restoration of guns, as emblems of power and possession, acting as a proxy for the "taking back" of the country from its presumed domestic and foreign enemies. But though this conservative turn bellowed about national strength and religious certainty, it was marked by a particularly tearful strain of patriotism, galloping paranoia (perversely recuperating the 60s leftist fear of the state, famously parodied by The Illuminatus! Trilogy), and a belief that violence was the default solution to most problems. The logical conclusion was the apotheosis of the heroic killer - with his superior whiteman's gun, like a cross between Leatherstocking and Jesus Christ - seen most recently in American Sniper.


Racism in America is a modern phenomenon arising from socio-economic conflicts and their manifestation in political and institutional corruption. It's about contemporary wants and needs, not tradition. The belief that the value of white homes would decline once blacks moved into a hitherto exclusive area ("there goes the neighborhood") was not merely an assumption that a racially-mixed population would make a property less attractive to prospective buyers, but a belief that blacks choosing such homes intrinsically devalued them: if you like this, then I don't. "White flight" is a modern condition (or at least a condition of the second-half of the twentieth century), not the baleful legacy of slavery, which is why it wasn't limited to the USA. Segregation depends not on physical separation, which is always doomed to fail in a world where geography is dictated by wealth rather than race, but on not wanting the same things. Ultimately, those wants are a product of economic power and cultural capital, which is why the gun re-emerged as a consumer totem and status identifier during the 70s.

The southern states of the US could only have maintained segregation by crippling their economy in the 50s and 60s, much as they had done under slavery in the early nineteenth century. Wisely, they accepted the economic logic, which eventually led to the revival of the "New South" as part of the wider demographic growth of the "Sun Belt". This change in the economy naturally produced social dislocations, including the undermining of established groups and greater class and geographical mobility. In the South, this saw a growing black middle class leapfrog an increasingly "left behind" section of the white working class and lower-middle class. This in turn produced a resistance at the ideological level, hence the edgy (and often overtly racist) nostalgia for all things antebellum and the revived sentimentality of the "Lost Cause". Like all nostalgia, this is driven by regret for a past that never actually existed and must therefore be retrospectively created, like a Civil War battle re-enactment.

There can be nothing more obviously and deliberately insulting than flying the Confederate flag beside South Carolina's statehouse, but it is not widely appreciated that this is an affectation that only dates from 1961, a year that happened to be the centenary of the declaration of the Confederacy. This was not a time-hallowed tradition but the invention of a relic for contemporary political purposes, namely the defiance of equal civil rights for blacks. It has no more integrity than Rachel Dolezal's "transracial" hair or Dylann Roof's conceit in styling himself the "last Rhodesian". Contrary to the belief of liberal apologists like Jonathan Freedland, Roof's crimes are a modern manifestation of contemporary racism, fuelled by Internet crazies and conniving right-wing media, not some chronic symptom of an unalterable past.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Head in the Sand

Last week saw the publication of the review into the UK's data investigatory powers by David Anderson QC, who labours under the title of the "Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation". The media response predictably focused (with some helpful nudges by government sources) on whether ministers should be able to unilaterally issue interception warrants without judicial oversight, framing it as a contest between different powers within the traditional state and thus an issue of checks and balances - an interpretation that all sides (i.e. insiders) feel comfortable with. The question of the rights of citizens (let alone the rights of non-citizens) and the related question over the nature of online data were both marginalised. We continue to fail to adequately address the management of the haystack (the bulk-collection of data), fussing instead over the correct protocol for extracting needles.

The key principles that inform Anderson's recommendations are "minimise no-go areas" and "limited powers". In other words, the state should be able to harvest whatever commercial data companies gather, but within a legal framework, which is essentially the status quo. The special safeguards to be made for privileged groups - such as journalists, MPs and lawyers (section 12.60-67) - is an example of the "judicious" approach that assumes surveillance is targeted, should be proportionate, and treats subjects as specific "persons of interest". It thereby also flatters the named groups. This is an operational model that has been out of date since at least the mid-90s and arguably since the arrival of digital phone switches in the 1970s. When someone like Piers Morgan knows how to hack a mobile phone, what this highlights is not just systemic corruption and a crisis of ethics within a privileged sector, but that data storage and communication is wide open to abuse.

The sophisticated neoliberal commentariat, with the lofty Martin Kettle to the fore, offer an alternative dichotomy of competing interests in the form of securocrats versus libertarians. The fundamental assumption remains the same: we require a compromise and fortunately there are men and women of good will on both sides (they probably went to college together) so a middle way can surely be found that serves the "public good", an ideal that is best determined by ignoring the public. The idea that the interests of each and every individual citizen would be safe in the hands of judges, and that this represent a categorical improvement on ministerial oversight, is predictably naive, but that pales beside this choice Kettlism: "The champions of online privacy have often been unwilling to concede, sometimes even as a matter of principle, the claims of the guardians of the state for necessary powers of intrusion to protect the public." That's often, not always, but the slur serves to characterise the opponents of the state as absolutist and unreasonable, as if they intended to abolish the police into the bargain.


In fact, the contest that the review reveals is one between those who wish to exploit the new asset of "big data", the Internet companies and the state, and the basis of their dispute is purely financial: who pays for the infrastructure of surveillance? The interests of society, the source of that data, are treated as irrelevant. Anderson fails to consider that the activities of data companies may constitute a threat, his analysis (section 3) instead biasing towards "national security" and "good order/public safety". Instead, he separately concedes the concerns of critics only insofar as they can be expressed as a quid pro quo, and therefore a commercial exchange, quoting Bruce Schneier thus: "The bargain you make, again and again, with various companies is surveillance in exchange for free service". Schneier's choice of words was unfortunate, as "bargain" suggests an arrangement freely entered into, but we know that few people fully understand the terms of the deal, even if they trouble to read the EULA.

If he wants to treat the relationship of the individual and Internet businesses wholly in terms of a commercial exchange, Anderson needs to bear in mind that consumer law isn't limited to caveat emptor. The state has enacted a wide range of protections. So why is it reluctant to do the same in respect of online data? The answer can be found when Anderson directly addresses private sector activity (8.65-106) and concludes: "(a) It may legitimately be asked, if activity of a particular kind is widespread in the private sector, why it should not also be permitted (subject to proper supervision) to public authorities. (b) The extent to which we think it normal to share personal information with private sector providers will in any event tend to condition the terms in which we think about what it is acceptable to allow the state to do on our behalf." Clearly the state is neither disinterested nor independent when it comes to online data.

Historically, a mixture of self-interest (e.g. capital's incentive to keep Labour healthy) and democracy (i.e. the demand for universal rights) has encouraged government to regulate commercial practices. Though we can see the regulation of commodities and the development of consumer protection as an extension of biopolitics, i.e. techniques for the control of the population, we shouldn't ignore the extent to which it was also brought about by democratic pressure: the people demanding the right not to be bilked or endangered. That same pressure exists in respect of online activity, however it is being diverted in the UK through the false dichotomies of minister/judge and securocrat/libertarian, while in the US it is being diverted by the equally false dichotomy of citizen/non-citizen. While the weight of recent history makes other developed nations cautious in the area of surveillance, in the anglosphere there has been a distinct ideological turn towards treating advocates of "privacy rights" as shrill, marginal and even (horror of horrors) anti-business.


Anderson's treatment of what is "widespread" and "normal" in the private sector as intrinsically right also tells us that the "free at the point of use" model of the Internet has normalised the belief that the state should have unfettered access to citizens' data. Had the early commercial Internet in the 90s adopted a system based on micropayments, as many advocated, this would not necessarily have been the case. It is possible that an assumption of privacy and the restricted use of data would have become the norm, and while that would have limited the development of some (parasitical) applications, it would probably have enrichened datasets and thus created other opportunities. Of course, it's also possible that even with a viable micropayments infrastructure we'd still have ended up in exactly the same situation as we find ourselves in today, as savvy providers offered free service in return for unfettered data exploitation. The world will be bought up, one way or another.

Anderson's view on bulk personal data collection by the state (8.26-29), including GCHQ's harvesting of public sector datasets, is that this is a "powerful tool" and "entirely useful and rational". You can almost hear the panting. He continues the disingenuous distinction between content and metadata that the government and intelligence services have been pushing for years: "GCHQ has therefore suggested that there should be a new power to intercept only this information [i.e. metadata] rather than, as at present, all content as well. It points out that such an approach would intrude less into privacy" (10.28). He is obliged to separately note that there are many among "civil society" who question this interpretation (12.27). This is a classic example of British judiciousness: on the one hand this, and on the other hand that. The choice will be left to the politicians who commissioned the review, but it is clear enough what the establishment position is.

The review is what you would expect from a QC: a discussion about the balance of powers between privileged parties (ministers and judges) and an assumption that the law is a wholly adequate means to provide both executive control and safeguards to allay public concerns. There is no real acknowledgement of the nature of data as property, while the contrasting idea that data is an extension of the person (and thereby inherits rights) is limited by the assumption that its management is the proper and exclusive concern of the state. The historic shift, over the course of the twentieth century, from a society predominantly based on manual labour to one based on "knowledge work" has moved the emphasis of biopolitical control from the physical and categorical (i.e. the intrinsic value of individuals as units of production) to the cognitive and relational (i.e. the contingent value of the activities of fragmented individuals and groups). While opportunism and institutional paranoia plays its part, the state's eager interest in data surveillance fundamentally reflects this evolution: from the attempt to control what we do, to the attempt to control what we think.