Wednesday, 27 February 2013

A New Strategy of Tension

The Italian election results have been described as a "shambolic outcome" that makes Italy look "ungovernable". In other words, the sort of nonsense that could have been (and was) written about any number of Italian elections over the last 60 years. Parliamentary factionalism, coalition and short-run governments have been common features throughout. Despite this, Italy enjoyed better economic growth than the UK from the 1950s up until the 1990s. By then there was even a cynical belief that institutional gridlock might be a positive contributor to growth, by preventing either left or right from deviating from a demand management consensus, though the spectacular growth rates of the 50s and 60s clearly owed more to the stimulus of postwar rebuilding and the arrival of mass-consumption.

In recent decades the two economies have been nip-and-tuck in terms of size, with Italy jumping ahead during "il sorpasso" in the mid-80s, the UK coming back strongly in the mid-90s, Italy briefly nosing in front as it suffered less contraction in 2008/9, and then ceding to the UK as it suffered greater contraction thereafter. Both economies have structural weaknesses. The UK's over-reliance on financial services, a weak manufacturing sector, and regional redistribution (to the North) via public expenditure are well-known. Italy suffers from an over-reliance on small and medium businesses (lower capital stock means lower productivity), a weak services sector (big domestically but a poor contributor to exports outside of tourism), and regional redistribution (to the South) via public expenditure. If we could combine the better features of the two economies, we might be onto a winner, though we'd also need to extirpate two flaws: the corruption of a rigged property market in the UK and the corruption of clientelism (i.e. mafia) in Italy.

Italy has a large public debt, but its annual deficits are relatively small (a mass sell-off of sovereign bonds would be a crisis, but the ECB could step in and buy them up). The problem is that interest payments are large and growing, so limiting funds for stimulus. In contrast, the UK has a modest debt by international standards (despite the government's claims to the contrary), but is struggling to get its deficit under control. Austerity has killed growth in both countries, though Italian growth rates had been anaemic since the 90s. The UK is seeing the gain of public expenditure cuts eroded by falling tax receipts, hence the date at which we "pay off the credit card" is receding into the distance. Italy under the Monti administration has broadly balanced the books, but the absence of growth means it isn't generating the surpluses necessary to eat away at the debt pile. Both economies are essentially stagnating. Though they take different forms, the underlying problem is a weak productive base. The Euro has exacerbated Italy's declining productivity, though removing the option of devaluation and making Eurozone capital cheaper are part of the structural reform package. The independence of Sterling (devalued by roughly a third against the Euro since 2007) has partially offset the UK's declining productivity, but at the expense of growing inflation.

The success of Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement (M5S) is being held up as evidence that Italian's have had enough (basta!) of the Italian political system, as well as evidence of the emergence of a new politics based on social media. Both these views strike me as dubious. Italy has a long tradition of extra-parliamentary activism and iconoclastic mavericks, from Mussolini to the Red Brigades and Antonio Di Pietro (in the UK we had the more ridiculous Oswald Mosley, the Angry Brigade and Martin Bell). In this context, M5S look positively fluffy. They are, after all, contesting parliamentary elections. The fears of demagoguery and hidden agenda seem to owe as much to the medium as the message, though it is clear that the "new" doesn't extend much beyond tight Twitter management and competent online marketing. Grillo has hogged the limelight to date, but his ineligibility for parliament (he's debarred due to a conviction) means that others will soon come to the fore, toning down the invective.

Journalists in particular seem fixated by the potential of media technology to change the game. I suspect this reflects their anxiety about the very real threat posed to print. There was a bizarre example of this earlier in the week that attempted to explain the shift from earnestness to irony in the late 80s by reference to the Web: "The Google search gave us a way in which we could skate over the surface of cultural and political life, slickly knowing a little about a lot of things." The very real change in moral sentiment occurred during the Lawson Boom of 1986-8, when the country (or the South East at least) decided to forget about the social costs of deindustrialisation and start worrying about personal enrichment. This was the era of privatisation, endowment-based mortgages, the City big-bang, and the triumph of Thatcherism in the 1987 general election. The Web did not graduate from an esoteric interest until the arrival of Netscape Navigator and IE3 in the mid-90s, while Google was only incorporated in 1998. You could perhaps argue that the subsequent takeup of the Web was in part because we had already become superficial and ironic, but the idea that the 80s sea-change was caused by developments over 15 years later is as bonkers as homeopathy. Social media may have revolutionised newspapers, but they haven't revolutionised politics and I seriously doubt they have had much influence on public ethics.

What Italians have voted for is a similar mix to that found on the British political spectrum, but in a different party formation. The social democratic left (Partido Democratico) are offering moderation in all things: less painful austerity but continued structural adjustments and more progressive taxation. The initial stock market reaction indicates that big capital was hoping for a centre-left coalition with Monti, much as they would prefer a Lib-Lab pact in the UK if the Tories decided to quit the EU. M5S's electoral support centres on a left-of-centre coalition of unemployed graduates and older independents (in UK terms, the sort of voters who drift between Labour and the LibDems, with some right-libertarians and xenophobes thrown in). They predominantly reflect a popular left reaction to the compromised position of the parliamentary left, but it would be naive to think that big capital and M5S are essentially at odds. The structural reform of the Italian state and economy is a common "progressive" agenda: root out public sector graft (so costs can be reduced and services privatised), encourage more female workforce participation and education (so family incomes can grow as individual wages flatten), stem youth emigration (to avoid exacerbating an ageing population and falling tax receipts), reform the legal system (with a focus on quick resolution of commercial disputes), and implement environmental protection (which benefits capital-intensive businesses) and social liberal policies.

Berlusconi represents the existing centre-right alliance of small capital, rentiers and public sector rent-seekers. His current appeal is based on anti-tax policies and the defence of existing privileges. Though many commentators criticised him for failing to reform Italy during the 00s, with sleaze ultimately acting as the lighting rod for wider frustration, preventing structural reform was his not-so-hidden agenda. Outside of Italy, he is routinely derided as a venal and lecherous buffoon, which leads to bafflement when Italians vote for him. This was exemplified in a documentary on BBC4 last night, Good Italy, Bad Italy: Girlfriend in a Coma, presented by Bill Emmott, a former editor of The Economist. As you would expect with such a pedigree, it was a straight big capital analysis. Mario Monti was sympathetically interviewed, while a shifty Berlusconi refused to appear. The CEOs of Fiat, Ferrero and Vodafone Italia featured prominently, as did anti-mafia campaigners like Roberto Saviano, female academics complaining about objectification (despite the film's own patronising subtitle), subsidised culture wallahs, and artisan foodies. What this failed to get across is that the archetypal Berlusconi supporter is neither a mafioso nor a fashion designer, but a small-town pharmacist whose brother works for the council.

In UK terms, Berlusconi represents an alliance between UKIP and the Eurosceptic, small capital Tory majority. Were it not for his vulgarity, he'd be a Daily Mail hero. Though he trades on a different image (more Bertie Wooster than Del-Boy Trotter), the closest UK equivalent would be Boris Johnson. Johnson is a finance capital man, which means he will talk tough about Europe but ultimately seek a compromise with pro-EU big capital. Berlusconi has flirted with an anti-Euro stance, largely to satisfy small capitalists struggling with high interest rates, but he would be unlikely to trigger an exit. Though devaluation would temporarily improve competitiveness, this wouldn't fix the structural weaknesses of the economy and would import high inflation to the detriment of rentiers. The Euro was enthusiastically adopted by Italy precisely because of the monetary stability it brought. Berlusconi is yesterday's man but there remains a large constituency of pensioners, unambitious small business owners and petty bureaucrats that will only gradually lose its influence.

Emmott's film employed as a framing device a series of quotations from Dante (sonorously intoned by Benedict Cumberbatch) illustrated by Commedia dell'Arte-style animations. Modern Italy was equated with the circles of hell, which is a trifle over the top even as satire. The film's last section was a sideswipe at the Catholic church, held responsible for the hypocrisy and cynicism of  Italian public life. The claim is that the confessional allows corruption to be routinely and insincerely absolved, a criticism that dates back to the Reformation. This ignores the fact that very few Italians even go to mass any more, let alone confession. The film then moved on to praise the supposed Protestant virtues of Mazzini, Cavour and Garibaldi, which would have come as a surprise to the named gents. Be more North European in business and politics seemed to be the message. The real weakness of the film was the good/bad dichotomy, implying that the one could be advanced at the expense of the other. This is a classic neoliberal failing, which we are reminded of by the coincidence of the ten-year anniversary of the decision to invade Iraq. Just as you cannot bomb people into democracy, you cannot shame them into reform.

The most likely outcome now looks like a minority centre-left government supported on a case-by-case basis by M5S. Pier Luigi Bersani, the PD leader, could opt for another election to secure a decisive mandate, but the current electoral momentum does not appear to be in his favour. While this would lead to much noise about "market uncertainty", "systemic instability" and "political tension", such a co-habitation would be perfectly acceptable to big capital, social democrats and other shades of progressive. Though many commentators see the election as a victory for anti-austerity, which is really just a tactical matter, the historical judgement may well be that it was a strategic victory for progressive (i.e. non-small capital) forces. The value of M5S is that it has provided a home for centrists reluctant to vote for either the left or for Monti, who might otherwise have held their noses and voted for the centre-right. Despite the claims of a resurrection, this probably marks the beginning of the end for Berlusconi, which would cheer up The Economist at least.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Robot Wars

An editorial in today's Observer claims: "Conflicts are defined, in large part, by how they are fought and their technologies. The First World War we associate with gas and tanks and the earliest use of airpower; the Second World War with strategic bombing and the first use of nuclear weapons". The listed WW1 weapons were emergent technologies that had minimal impact on the war itself. Many soldiers will have survived the trenches without witnessing any of them. The key technology was the railway, which allowed the concentration of massive amounts of men and material (AJP Taylor famously argued that the outbreak of the war was the result of rigid mobilisation schemes dependent on railway timetables). The lack of a knockout blow on the Western Front was due to an even balance of this technology.

Strategic bombing in WW2 was an oxymoron. It was ground battles that defeated the Axis powers, not thousand bomber raids. The point about the Blitz was not that Britain was unique in its ability to "take it", but that it proved any society could weather mass bombing. Its value was tactical at best (the other new weapon lauded in the 30s, parachutists, turned out to be a damp squib). While the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki curtailed the war, the Japanese military had already been beaten and a surrender was simply a matter of time. Wars are usually won by mature technologies, which in the case of WW2 meant tanks and motorised artillery on land and heavy warships and aircraft carriers at sea. The former enabled the early German victories in Europe and then led to the Soviet defeat of Germany once the production lines beyond the Urals outbuilt the Nazi war machine. After Midway, the war in the Pacific was a slow grind in which the US Navy brought massive firepower to bear on one island after another.

It's worth remembering this when the topic of new technologies in warfare is raised. For example, drones (or UAVs - unmanned aerial vehicles) are not new. The Nazi V-1 (the Doodlebug) was an early example and the US Air Force first used UAVs in combat during the Vietnam War. The more recent developments, in terms of the variety of vehicle and capability, reflect technological maturity in the areas of miniaturisation, telemetry and datacoms. Despite this mundane reality, popular discussion on weaponry tends towards the "killer robot" trope. This is unfortunate as it distracts from the real change in the prosecution of war, which is ironically better understood as a return to 19th century practices rather than the coming of cyborg armies.

One of the features of modern warfare is that it isn't always clear when you are at war as opposed to peace. How will we known when the "war on terror" has concluded? In the past, the transition from one state to another would be marked by high ceremony. WW1 is remembered in terms of a shot in Sarajevo, followed by various telegrams making formal demands, and by the abrupt end at the 11th hour of the 11th day of November 1918. WW2 started to blur the boundaries, with the start coming somewhere between 1936 and 1939, depending on which national history you read, and the end marked by two separate victory days in 1945. The post and neo-colonial conflicts of the second half of the twentieth century shifted uneasily between "policing" operations (Malaya, Cyprus) and outright war (Indo-China, Falklands). The breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s saw a series of rolling conflicts and the normalisation of the idea of great power intervention on a periodic and selective basis. The two Gulf Wars against Iraq were essentially a single, discontinuous operation to restrain and ultimately overthrow the Saddam regime, with the "war on terror" providing a bogus pretext for the second intervention. The long-running policing operation in Afghanistan is just a mess.

This pattern of asymmetric conflict, open-ended intervention and selectivity is a return to the small-scale wars of the 19th century. The UAV is the modern equivalent of the gun-boat - a relatively mature technology that supports remote coercion and discipline. The Royal Navy enabled Britain to project power globally, to protect trade and impose advantageous commercial terms, and to avoid the need for an expensive land army. All this fell apart in the 20th century as the technical edge of the Navy was eroded, costs spiralled due to the arms race (from Dreadnoughts to nuclear submarines), two world wars necessitated huge land army expenditure, and independence ended the commercial benefits of the Empire. The US now faces the same challenges: conventional weaponry is ineffective against asymmetric attacks such as 9/11, the costs of the military have ballooned the fiscal deficit, and globalisation has led to a trade deficit. UAVs offer the US (and the UK) both a potentially cheaper arsenal and a more flexible means of intervening abroad.

The danger of such a discriminating approach to war is that the threshold for intervention gradually drops. Air-strikes are envisaged where "boots on the ground" are not. This doesn't make ground intervention less likely, it simply makes air-strikes more likely. Military operations become wars of choice not necessity, and after a while they become routine. The chief argument against ground troops is not that they are expensive per se (a trained human will be cheaper than an effective cyborg for a long time to come), but that they are rarely used. The cost of a standing army is mostly wasted on standing, so there is always a desire to get "value for money", to "use it or lose it". Our chief protection against this mentality is prohibitive expense. Ironically, spending money on a Trident replacement is likely to limit the enthusiasm of future British government's for foreign adventures.

A couple of weeks ago, Gary Younge accused Barack Obama of lacking moral authority and ethical consistency for supporting tougher domestic gun laws while approving drone-strikes. There is no inconsistency here. Both proceed from a belief in the benefit of the state's monopoly of violence. History is on Obama's side. Where the state does not monopolise violence, the people tend to be more vulnerable to assault and death. This is not just the Hobbesian war of all against all in a society lacking an effective state (which lives on in popular culture through the zombie trope), but the acceptance of low-level and persistent conflict as a proper feature of society, from the defence of the nation's honour to the defence of family honour. Drones and gun control are quite consistent.

The popular fear associated with the state's monopoly of violence is that the state will use this to repress the people (the black helicopter trope). In fact, what matters is not the state's monopolisation of violence but the monopolisation of the state itself (compare Churchill and Hitler). The practice of democracy is a better guarantee of liberty than the individual's right to bear arms. This legitimate fear of a coup d'etat is present in the debates around robot weapons, where the suspicion is that the computers will eventually tire of us puny humans and take control, a la Skynet. This is a projection of our fears onto an external enemy (our robot overlords) and into the metaphysical (the singularity). In reality, the abuse of the state's monopoly of violence is far more likely to originate with commercial interests, as Eisenhower recognised in his warnings about the military-industrial complex. Despite red herrings about the Red Army, it's pretty obvious that the Chinese tolerance of hacking is more about industrial espionage than cyber-warfare.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Here come the Thickos

The dismissal of the jury in the Vicky Pryce trial means that R. vs. Pryce is likely to feature in the legal textbooks long after anyone can remember who Chris Huhne was (a satisfactory form of revenge, even if Ms. Pryce is eventually convicted). This is because of the unusual plea of "marital coercion", though you'd be forgiven for thinking the issue was the poor calibre of jurors to judge from the many calls to reform, or even abolish, trial by jury. On last night's Question Time, Peter Hitchens suggested that only the educated should be allowed to be jurors (this being a "better" solution that simply reverting to a property qualification), while today Simon Jenkins suggests that juries should go the way of ducking stools and vestry duty, and Melanie Phillips advocates IQ tests (which seem to be language tests, i.e. tests of how foreign you are).

The coverage of the decision to order a retrial, and in particular the list of questions the jury asked of the judge, has generally implied that the jury were thick (though the Daily Mail naturally got to the point by doing a black and Muslim headcount). This was influenced by the judge's direction that they suffered "absolutely fundamental deficits in understanding". Any speculation on why they asked these questions, and what that indicated about the internal dynamics of the jury or their level of understanding, can only reflect prejudices, hence the way the QT debate quickly morphed into one about English language competence (amusingly, even the DM ruefully reported that none of the jurors "appeared to struggle" with the English-language oath, though I'm sure the Phillips test would weed them out). Jenkins aired the popular suspicion when he offered an anecdote from his own jury service (hardly a statistically significant sample) in which he criticised a Nigerian immigrant for her poor English and limited grasp of the law, before admitting that she was one of the few whose view on the guilt of the defendant matched his own. Right for all the wrong reasons.

Melanie Phillips' logic is as nasty as ever, claiming that unless we restrict juries to the qualified we risk losing the jury system altogether: anti-democracy offered as the defence against authoritarianism. Simon Jenkins' rant is standard Tory misanthropy, accusing the justice system of being a racket, beholden to the vested interests of the legal profession, and jurors of being vulgar gawpers, googling the background of the defendant and witnesses. He quotes Professor Cheryl Thomas of UCL to this effect, giving the impression she may share his contempt for all and sundry, which is amusing as she pops up elsewhere in the same edition of the Guardian to say: "More than 99% of the time juries reach a verdict. A hung jury is extremely rare. There are very few lessons from this case ... All the evidence I have from a decade of research is that the overwhelming majority take their job very seriously".

The issue that this episode highlights is the over-dependence of the jury on the direction of the judge. The purpose of a jury is to provide a counter-weight to the procedural monopoly of the legal agents, i.e. the judge and barristers, and by extension the wider justice system, i.e. the police. If you disempower juries, you necessarily increase the power of the other actors. This is a real danger. In 1975, the direction of the judge in the original Birmingham Six trial, specifically in relation to the forensic evidence, was crucial in securing a guilty verdict. In 1980, Lord Denning famously refused the Birmingham Six leave to appeal, and thus secure a fresh jury trial, on the grounds that their success would show the police to be guilty of perjury and violence. A couple of years later, in respect of a trial relating to the St. Pauls riots in Bristol, he suggested that some members of the black community were unfit to serve on juries, which led to his eventual resignation. There are many forms of thickness.

While the debate over the R. vs. Pryce jury's questions has focused on general knowledge no-brainers, such as what does "beyond reasonable doubt" mean, less attention has been given to the primary question of what constitutes "marital coercion", a defence available only to a wife. This is because the term is arcane and anachronistic. It dates back to an era when the balance of power between a husband and wife was such that a woman could face real danger if she disobeyed, from being committed to an asylum, having all her property estranged, or being beaten and raped (rape within marriage was only made illegal in England in 1991). The question of law, which is likely to recur even with a jury made up exclusively of PhDs, is whether marital coercion still exists in any meaningful sense, or whether the gradual equalisation of rights means that a wife today is no more likely to be coerced than a husband is.

The point that Hitchens failed to make, in his thumbnail sketch of the history of English juries, is that a property qualification was rational (if not fair) when the law was largely concerned with crimes against property. A jury, now as then, has to empathise with the victim of the crime, as much as they need to imaginatively sympathise with the accused. The move to democratise juries (women were admitted after 1919) reflected the gradual shift in the concern of the law from crimes against property to crimes against the person. This exactly mirrored the gradual reform of the franchise.

The structure and practice of the justice system reflects social and economic power. In the medieval era, when the Church was effectively a para-state co-existing with the Crown, clerics could only be tried in separate church courts. The subordination of the Church in England was played out in the gradual disempowering of ecclesiastical courts as much as in the sudden dispossession of the monasteries. The move to drop trial by jury for complex fraud cases, which was defeated in the House of Lords in 2007, reflected an era in which the complexity of finance was a given, with the corollary that this justified superior rewards and sympathetic regulatory oversight. Since that unfortunate business in 2008, the idea has been quietly dropped, despite the ostensible grounds for reform, that such trials often run into the sand, being as relevant as ever.

Peter Hitchens' suggestion of an educational qualification (and a higher age limit) is a bad idea for three reasons. The first is the class bias of education, i.e. the middle classes and above will be disproportionately represented. Hitchens didn't specify the level of educational attainment he considered adequate, though the related suggestion of an age limit of 21 might imply degree-level. However, as a Daily Mail columnist, I suspect he'd plump for GCSEs in English and perhaps Govian History, though he might push for the "gold standard" of A-levels. The higher the level, the more class bias this would entail - something that is likely to get worse as tuition fees rise and the attraction of further education for poorer kids declines. Even with greater social mobility, we should recognise that education inevitably inculcates middle class values, which is probably the attraction of such a qualification for Hitchens. In other words, imaginative sympathy with working class defendants is likely to suffer.

The second reason is that class bias is inevitably a property bias too. It is natural to feel more sympathy with people you identify with, hence in a case involving a middle class victim and a working class defendant, tried before a middle class jury, a guilty verdict would be more likely than if the roles were reversed. But bias is also likely to show at an aggregate level in respect of the type of crime, i.e. the propensity to convict, over and above the social class of the participants. Just as the historical shift to democratic juries reflected a growing belief that people were more important than property, so the attempt to reverse this trend reflects a belief that property deserves more respect. The demonisation of those on benefits is a species of this, in which public property (taxpayers' money) trumps sympathy for the poor.

The third reason is that qualifications for jury service tend to change in step with qualifications for voting. Ceding our right to sit on a jury is the thin end of the wedge. If someone is deemed to be unqualified to determine guilt in a court of law, then it is only a matter of time before they are deemed unqualified to determine who their local councillor or MP should be. In this regard it's worth noting that the "no representation without taxation" meme is quite open in the equation of rights with property. While Hitchens currently rejects the old-style property qualification (not finally abolished till 1972) in favour of educational attainment, I suspect he'd accept "being an income taxpayer" as a compromise.

The threat to trial by jury does not come from the dim, or first-generation immigrants with an accent, nor from religious nutters or the uneducated. As the history of the assault on jury trials for fraud before 2008 indicates, it comes from those who believe there are spheres of public life and justice that cannot be trusted to the hoi polloi. In their different ways, this is an elitist view that Peter Hitchens, Simon Jenkins and Melanie Phillips all share. Talk about thick.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Dominant Narratives

Arsene Wenger's behaviour at the Monday press conference, following the home defeat to Blackburn in the FA Cup, was tetchy, but it was hardly the "meltdown" claimed in the papers. Wenger was entitled to question why The Sun chose to run a claim that he was negotiating a contract extension with the club. This was obviously a windup, intended to goad Arsenal fans to question the manager's tenure. As any fule kno', Wenger has always allowed his contracts to fully wind down before starting fresh negotiations - "I always honour my contract" is his mantra. This has allowed the press to periodically claim that his head is being turned by Real Madrid or PSG, despite the fact that he then signs a new Arsenal contract. Which he has done repeatedly. Over 16 years. You expect this kind of mindless shit-stirring from the tabloids, but even the soi-disant quality press are happy to go along with it.

What we're witnessing is the relentlessness of the "dominant narrative", the chief reason why so much mainstream media reporting on football is column-padding bereft of insight. In the case of Arsenal, the dominant narrative is "x years since their last trophy", which legitimises speculation about the manager's job, the need for our best players to leave if they want to win trophies (apparently Barcelona "fancy" Wilshere, wouldn't you know it), and the squad's lack of bottle (Wilshere excepted). Before anyone suggests that the mislaid trophy cabinet key is simply a reflection of Wenger's declining powers, remember that the same narrative was wheeled out in the 50s, the 60s, the 70s and the 80s (and even the mid-90s). Arsenal have not managed to dominate silverware, and specifically win back-to-back league titles, since the 30s.

Meanwhile, Manure are apparently "on for another treble". This is a variant of their dominant narrative, which is "they don't know when they're beaten". The United mythology is largely founded on the Busby Babes and Munich, the combination of irrepressible youth and resilience. In reality, their success over the years has been based on generating and spending a lot of money. Most press coverage of their doings, in particular the flattery of Ferguson (who routinely acts like a thug in press conferences without shocking journalists), is simply the worship of power. This is not to say that these narratives are without foundation, such as the triumph of the "you'll not win anything with kids" United team in 1996 and their comeback in the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern, but popular history inevitably promotes those events that support the narrative and relegates those, like the 1979 FA Cup final, that suggest an alternative. A morbid symptom of this is anxiety at the prospect of the post-Ferguson era, which is coloured by memories of the post-Busby decline and Liverpool's ascension to the perch.

The narrative also colours expectations, not just on the part of fans and media but also on the part of players. Despite being footloose mercenaries, footballers are team-players who consciously accommodate themselves to the club culture, hence the continuing competitiveness of derby matches when few of the players are local. Nothing will endear a new signing to Arsenal fans quicker than relishing the next match against Spurs (expect a Nacho Monreal exclusive shortly). Of course, this can backfire. Blackburn's single stroke of tactical genius last Saturday, other than 11 behind the ball, was to get David Bentley to warm-up in front of the Arsenal singing section. At a time when the crowd needed to lift the team out of its torpor, we ended up abusing the prodigal. "Even Tottenham think you're shit" may be funny, but it's best saved for when you're 3-0 up.

Other sightings of the dominant narrative in recent days can be seen in the "dressing room rift" trope at Chelsea and the "Mancini may be sacked" speculation at Man City. The latter is particularly odd if you consider that the Abu Dhabi Group have only sacked one manager, Mark Hughes (whom they inherited), in almost 5 years of control. These two clubs currently have the same underlying narrative, which is "more money than sense". It is assumed that money corrupts judgement, leading to impatient and callous firing (Mancini has spent longer at City than he did at either Fiorentina or Lazio, and is close to the 4 years he spent at Inter). In the case of Chelsea, strife in the dressing room is held up as both a chief cause of managerial turnover (in reality this churn is just an inability to secure and keep their preferred candidates post-Mourinho) and as evidence of the greed and egoism of the players.

Narratives can evolve if circumstances change. The Chelsea and City ones are newly-minted, for obvious reasons, which gives even their long-standing fans (as opposed to glory-hunters) a queasy sense of shifting sands. The climax to last season saw City's traditional narrative, the ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, threaten to make an all-conquering return, but this will gradually fade as long as the money continues to flow. Chelsea's old narrative, a seedy club off the pitch and flaky entertainers on it, lies six feet under the Bates motel. John Terry is the last link with both the knuckle-dragging Shed mentality of the 80s and the raffish off-field habits of the 70s. With the anodyne "Lucky" Lamps on his way out, and Ashley Cole planning to join a Trappist order, the last vestiges of "colour" will disappear when Terry is finally rendered down for burger meat. Chelsea will then presumably relocate to Monaco.

A good example of the malleability of narrative was the treatment of Mario Balotelli. When he started his career in Italy, a country where the evolution of racial sensitivity is about 30 years behind Britain, the domestic press coverage tended to focus on race and the immaturity of his response to goading, which was reminiscent of sheepskin-coated British managers criticising black players for their "lack of discipline" back in the early 80s. The coverage of Balotelli at Man City by the British media has veered between the challenges of his upbringing (i.e. a more sensitive appreciation of race) and his tendency to spunk money: cars written off, cash handed out to strangers, fireworks in the bathroom etc. The subliminal message was that here was a troubled young man with too much cash, which was emblematic of what City had become. On cue, Balotelli's return to Italy was greeted by Berlusconi's brother using a racial epithet. It's not quite a Ron Atkinson moment, but give it time.

With Arsenal facing an uphill struggle to over-turn a deficit from last night's first leg against Bayern Munich, it would be easy to subscribe once more to the dominant narrative and start wailing "how much longer?" But that would be foolish, and a bit like Spurs fans perennial susceptibility to the belief that "this is going to be our year". Success and trophies will broadly reflect club economics. While Chelsea enjoyed luck in winning the Champions League last year, it was only a matter of time before Abramovich's billions paid off. Arsenal are the 4th richest club in England, so we typically finish 3rd or 4th in the league. Wenger is justified in feeling irked by the insistence of the press that silverware, which is always in part a lottery, is somehow a greater achievement. The point is not that we don't want to win a cup, of course we do, but that the press slant is clearly mischievous. The "potless" narrative has served, off and on, for half a century. Why change a winning formula?

According to the Deloitte list, Arsenal are the 6th richest club in Europe by revenue, but this ignores wealth in the form of dubious sponsorship deals, the writing off of debts, and general financial "doping" by rich owners. There is no agreed ranking for club wealth, as it obviously comes down to the willingness of owners to pump in cash on demand, but I suspect the current "sustainable" model  would put Arsenal closer to 10th or 12th position (PSG don't even make Deloitte's top twenty). Wealth is a better guide to the ability of clubs to buy players, and if you look at squad value, Arsenal's league position has outperformed that value for some time now, which is a pretty clear indication of the value-added of Wenger and the club infrastructure. It is hardly a surprise then if we typically end up going out of the Champions League around the last 16 or last 8. Our relative under-performance in the FA and League Cups is real enough, but this is probably more down to bad luck than bad players (see Birmingham in 2011). Though it would be welcome, I suspect a cup win would do no more than change the narrative to "x years since winning the league", something that Liverpool fans have long since had to get used to.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Fantasy Island

Neoliberalism is a reactionary project in radical guise. You'd think that this became glaringly obvious to most people over the last decade, as "liberal interventionism" in Iraq and "free markets" in finance were revealed as bullying vandalism and shameless looting, but you'll still catch sight of old-skool neoliberal insurgency, claiming to advance liberty against entrenched privilege. Thus Niall Ferguson presents himself as a champion of the fact-hungry "kids" against the "pompous" Oxbridge dons who have had the temerity to criticise Michael Gove's attempt to convert the teaching of history in schools to a nationalist catechism.

Ferguson is a better polemicist than a historian, and in recent years he has been repeatedly called-out on his dodgy method and right-wing bias. Where Eric Hobsbawm, who spent formative years in the hollow shell of Hapsburg Vienna, once called him a "nostalgist for empire", his critics are now more likely to describe him as an outright apologist. A better criticism is that he takes a utilitarian attitude to empire, i.e. the belief that it does more good than harm, which is underpinned by the geopolitical assumption that empires are inevitable and all we can do is support the "good" (anglophone) against the "bad" (everyone else). This accounting depends both on an uncritical assessment of the "killer apps" (a laughably misused metaphor, by the way) that the British Empire bequeathed the natives, such as property rights and the Protestant work ethic, and on unprovable assumptions about the ills that would have occurred otherwise. The ideological purpose is to justify the neocon fantasy of America as a "force-for-good" empire, with the UK playing Tonto to the USA's Lone Ranger.

His habitual use of counterfactuals tends to be less "what if" and more "if only", a fantasy founded on a prejudice. For example, his belief that Britain staying out of WW1 would have been to the benefit of Europe (a victorious Germany would have accelerated the EU and prevented the rise of Fascism and Communism) and to the benefit of Britain (which would have diverted its resources to reform of the Empire and reinforced its natural alliance with the USA) is nothing more than an attempt to construct an alternative universe more congenial to free-market Atlanticists (you can guess his stance on UK membership of the EU).

Ferguson and Gove are trying to colonise the space of historical debate, to plant provocative ideas like bowling greens in Boston or cricket pitches in Bengal. It is not that they are attempting to undo modern historiography and reinstate Our Island Story as a set textbook, but rather that they are unapologetic supporters of the ideological purpose of such books: history as national propaganda. What they really dislike is plurality, the idea that there may be many simultaneous histories, over-lapping but often in conflict, rather than an orthodoxy. There are, I think, three ways of thinking about this (I'm practising plurality here). The first is to view it as conservative nostalgia, an attempt to return classrooms to some halcyon fantasy of the 1950s. This has informed a lot of the criticism of the proposed curriculum, but I think it's a weak argument. Gove's purpose clearly goes beyond just pleasing the Daily Mail.

The second perspective is to see this as ideological support for modern capitalism. The idolisation of the architects of the Glorious Revolution (the climax of key stage 2) is certainly a form of ancestor worship, but the emphasis on narratives that equate liberty with property serves a contemporary purpose. The "Enlightenment in England" gives prominence to John Locke and Adam Smith (the Enlightenment in Scotland is absorbed), with only a passing reference to "other European thinkers" (presumably Voltaire, Rousseau etc). The chronology proceeds right up to the election of Thatcher, following the "economic change and crisis" of the 1970s ("what crisis?" as Jim Callaghan didn't say), with a detour forward to the fall of the Berlin Wall - aka "the end of history".

The third view is that Gove and Ferguson are engaged in a reactionary endeavour, in the sense of a counter-movement to earlier changes. It's rolling back the revolution and restoring privilege. In the case of history in schools, that revolution is the opening up of the curriculum to global and minority history since the 1960s, popularly symbolised as Hitler and Civil Rights. The restored privilege is less about the caricature of "posh white blokes" and more about the centrality and superiority of the United Kingdom. It's Little Englander history: fog in the Channel, Europe isolated.

The times certainly have a reactionary feel. Workfare and the growth of in-work benefits look like a return to the Speenhamland system, with the poor coerced into crap jobs and public funds used to subsidise low-wage employers. The housing benefit cap is likely to drive more poor families out of London to declining towns in the regions, a reversal of the historic flow of native labour. The rise in poorly-paid self-employment and part-time work looks like a return to odd-jobbing, casualisation and seasonal work (the "portfolio career" of old). The increasing cost of further education, and the growth of online alternatives, points to a return to a two-tier system of elite institutions for the rich and correspondence courses and night-school for the rest. Welfare is being recast as the right of the poor worker, not of the citizen, just as the old poor laws discriminated between the able-bodied and the idle. Much of politics is a conscious discourse with the past, witness Milliband's proposed 10p rate and mansion tax, and reform is as likely to be presented as restoration as progress. While a shift in tax from income to wealth is to be welcomed, I suspect the call to revisit the idea of a property qualification for local elections will not be far behind.

Another feature of the times is the growing dominance of private corporations in the provision of public services. The shrinking of the public sector is self-consciously defined by the right as a return to the nightwatchman state of laissez faire Victorian Britain, but the manner of it looks more like a return to the monopoly corporations and royal warrants of the 17th and 18th centuries, with all its attendant corruption and cronyism. Privatisation is essentially enclosure and rent-seeking. I suspect the inclusion of Clive of India in the curriculum will focus more on the happy expansion of empire rather than the rapacious operations of the East India Company or his drug habit.

As more of its functions are privatised, government loses its capacity to do things and becomes more dependent on commercial agents. This leads to an ever closer identification and overlap between politicians and business people. Party politicians in the "post-democratic" age are obliged to simultaneously admit their powerlessness, accepting that whole swathes of life must be "left to the market", while trumpeting their ability to correct market abuse and bring wrongdoers to justice. Fingers are wagged at amoral bankers and newspaper proprietors, but the end result is the same squalid compromise of self-policing and light-touch regulation. The chief integrity failure of recent years was not the expenses scandal but the revelation that so many MPs are available for corporate hire. That politicians increasingly see themselves as the representatives of commercial interests, rather than as public servants, has a distinctly Hogarthian whiff. A consequence of the narrowing of the field of political action is a temptation to focus more on those areas reserved to government, such as foreign affairs and war, or on exhortation and moralising directed at the public. The Tories twin obsessions with the EU and gay marriage are perhaps partly compensatory.

The proposed history curriculum normalises the belief that Britain has a right, even a duty, to intervene abroad, that it should pursue policy solely in terms of narrow self-interest, and that private property is the source of liberty and wealth. That said, it is unlikely to be anywhere near as radical in practice as the Education Secretary hopes, simply because teachers will have a lot of latitude over interpretation. Like Ferguson, Gove has a weakness for fantasy, a belief that he can conjure up a parallel world where dutiful schoolkids in neat blazers, all looking a little bit like a young Michael Gove, listen in rapt attention to tales of William of Orange landing at Torbay and Wolfe expiring on the Heights of Abraham.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Culture Show

The last couple of weeks have seen much waffling about organisational culture. Following the Francis report on the Mid Staffordshire Trust, all and sundry were calling for a change in the culture of the NHS. This week we've had further calls for a change in the culture of banks, following the LIBOR rate-fixing fallout. What unites these two is the assumption that culture is the product of leadership, hence the focus on the suitability of David Nicholson and quibbles about Stephen Hester's bonus. Today we've seen the Health Secretary simultaneously claim that compassion cannot be "commanded from on high either by regulators or politicians" while using the example of "failing schools" to advocate "super-heads". This is the classic neoliberal mix of independence from the state and all power to the CEO. Liberty and autocracy.

Some of the fashion for cultural change stems from the popular confusion of culture with operating practice, such as the failure to distinguish between a value and an operating procedure ("care" is a value, while changing patients soiled sheets is an operating procedure). There is also a confusion between culture and power - the belief that culture is a manifestation of authority. Thus a "strong" culture is assumed to reflect a well-led organisation. This in turn reflects the belief in the efficacy of leaders, able to make an organisation turn on a sixpence and improve results overnight, which has long been the ideological cover for executive looting.

The turn to culture as the panacea for the NHS's problems follows on from the failure of targets (i.e. scientific management), which were placed centre-stage by New Labour as a managerialist substitute for prices when they decided to retain the internal market. Just as prices can be rigged (see LIBOR), so targets can be corrupted and lead to undesirable consequences (see Mid Staffs). The lamentation over culture, which is an even more complex and recalcitrant area than process management, looks like desperation and may mark the last hurrah for the NHS before the privatisation of core services. Similarly, the plea for a change in the culture of banks looks like an acceptance that the regulatory environment is inadequate and likely to remain so.

Actually existing culture, in the sense of shared values and normative behaviour, arises organically over long periods of time. Revolutions are possible, but only insofar as they legitimise values or behaviours that have been latent. You can no more change an organisation's culture quickly than you can change an individual's personality. Given the stratification and hierarchy of most organisations, there is rarely a single culture, certainly not in organisations of the scale of the NHS or a global bank. Instead, there tend to be multiple, overlapping subcultures. At the lowest levels, an organisation's culture is indistinguishable from that of the wider society. Among temporary staff, the organisation's culture usually extends no further than a logo on a building pass.

The further up the hierarchy you go, the more the culture is consciously independent of both the organisation and society, adhering to the values and norms of professional bodies or industry disciplines. Ironically, affiliation to an external culture is often strongest among those whose day job involves managing the organisation's culture (or at least curating its artefacts). The acme of this is the global culture of the executive class, which is highly conformist and pathologically averse to acknowledging cultural plurality (as distinct from "diversity", which is just CSR wibble). The paradox of culture is that top-down design and deployment inevitably bathes all organisations in the same weak solution, flavoured by business school nostrums and HR anodynes.

Starting in the 1930s, there was a vogue for forward-thinking organisations to bring in sociologists to analyse and report on the inhouse culture. This became formalised as "industrial sociology" by the 1960s, the analysis of large and complex organisations, with a focus on the informal mediation of hierarchies and the use of tacit knowledge (i.e. getting the job done while ignoring your manager). The underlying paradigm was anthropological.  This was the "social" dimension of management that complemented the "scientific" dimension, focusing on processes, that ran from Taylorism through Japanese post-war practice to BPR. As the last of these was increasingly used to provide both method and cover for the dismemberment of Fordist businesses in the face of globalisation, the practice of organisational culture shifted from a reflective analysis of "is" to an assertive imposition of "to be". This also resulted in the practitioners of organisational culture being increasingly drawn from the ranks of business consultancy and training, rather than the social sciences. A "cultural change manager" today is likely to be a HR functionary.

The history of this evolution can be seen in the current interpretative division between culture as an attribute (something an organisation has - i.e. an asset) and culture as a metaphor (a way of describing the totality of the organisation). The former view sees culture in instrumental terms as something that can be manipulated or even imported wholesale. The latter view sees culture as a medium by which the fundamental nature of the organisation is revealed, with no assumption that it can necessarily be changed. As you might suspect, the "attribute" school of thought privileges leadership and the purchase of culture (in the form of change management). Though the "metaphor" school has its roots in industrial sociology, it's as likely to be found today among consultancies pitching to undertake "cultural audits". Culture has become just another commodity.

Culture is partly a caricature, as it is selective in what it celebrates and publicly exhibits, but stereotypes are an effective shorthand for norms while symbols can be powerful tools for reinforcing values. We all know what is meant by the call for the NHS to "bring back matron" or for bankers to be more like Captain Mainwaring. The popularity of the film Boiler Room among City traders before the 2008 crash, and the current popularity of NHS nostalgia like Call the Midwife, are telling in their different ways. The NHS and banks share a common characteristic in that their culture is heavily influenced by their corporate structure. In other words (and taking a "metaphor" approach), the culture reflects the organisation. In brief, you can only radically change the culture if you fundamentally change the structure of the organisation.

The NHS has struggled to evolve from the industrial paradigm of 1948. The half-way house of the internal market was doomed to fail because the NHS was, and essentially still is, a command economy. Paradoxically, the centralisation of the NHS leaves it vulnerable to repeated government initiatives for top-down change. A more diffuse and locally-accountable structure would limit this, though that would mean acknowledging a plurality of cultures. Instead of parachuting in bullying CEOs, the NHS would benefit from bottom-up change. In other words, democracy. This has long been the elephant in the room, both in terms of healthcare workers and patients. Workplace democracy is unattractive to professional bodies, such as the BMA and RCN, that command subculture allegiance, while patient democracy is unattractive to health managers who fear that it is incompatible with rationing and would lead to an explosion in costs. The tragedy of the NHS is that these vested interests may ultimately accept privatisation as a lesser evil. Assuming services were broken down into many separate contracts (as the private providers wish), this would fragment the NHS into multiple cultures. Ironically, this would reinforce the subcultural allegiance of professionals to their external bodies, which would obviously remain monopolies.

Banking remains unstable because it combines antipathetic elements: the high street bank, which many customers still think of as closer to a para-state utility than a retailer, and high finance. The growth of financial services (such as credit cards and mortgages) led, via the deregulation of the City (and the importation of US banking practices) in the 80s, to the merger of high street and investment banking. The former got infected by upselling and commission schemes, the latter got access to very large deposits that could be leveraged for trading. The banks may now be insisting that they've mended their ways, but this is like an alcoholic insisting that the best way for him to stay sober is to carry a full hip-flask. The temptation will always be there. There is no secret that cultural change in UK banking would best be effected by fully splitting retail and investment, but equally there is no doubt that this would severely disadvantage the City unless other countries did likewise, hence the flimsy ringfence. Ultimately, a City that is "less proud" may be the only chance we have of rebalancing the UK economy, but there are too many vested interests to believe it will happen unless forced upon us.

The calls for cultural change in both the NHS and UK banking are misguided. If you want to change the culture, you must change the structure of the organisation: democratise the NHS and split retail and investment banking. The idea that cultural change is dependent on strong leadership indicates a complete failure to understand what culture really is.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Lincoln and the Hats

Watching Lincoln reminds us that all government is driven by the exchange of favours, and that hats used to be a lot more important than they are today. In his attempt to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed in the House of Representatives, this icon of probity is obliged to buy the votes of various congressmen through the promise of government jobs controlling the collection of taxes or monopolies such as Federal post offices. The modern fashion for conspiracy and political scandal (sex and drugs but strangely little rock and roll), which distracts us from the institutional nature of corruption, means that we easily forget how much government has always been (and continues to be) about rents and the privatisation of tax revenues.

The film is being lauded as one of Spielberg's finest, though I think it is too reverential to be remembered for its direction. What sticks in the mind is the quality of the lighting. In a film of muted tones, the washed-out greys, blues and browns reflect the drained and exhausted state of the nation. The use of windows to illuminate interiors, and moonlight exteriors, is quite striking and makes the sodium glow of the theatre in the last act all the more artificial (this is where Spielberg makes his one real joke, as it turns out to be a different theatre to the one where John Wilkes Booth is making an appearance). Unfortunately, Spielberg gives in to raw emotion in the rather trite coda that shows Lincoln on his death-bed bathed in a golden glow as the famous words "Now he belongs to the ages" are intoned. Though Lincoln went out with a bang, the film ends with a whimper.

Structurally, the inherently dull story of the reading and passage of a piece of legislation is broken up by three recurring tropes. The most obvious punctuation is the President's regular disputes with his wife over the sacrifice of his family to public office. Despite Sally Field's adroit negotiation of the emotional scale, this is just the melodrama of a soap opera with pretensions to Greek tragedy. The second trope is Lincoln's fondness for an anecdote at crucial moments. This is both an opportunity to leaven the film with humour and to show the human side of Lincoln as his listeners increasingly balk at the prospect of another slow-bowled "joke". Daniel Day-Lewis is at his most convincing in these scenes. Overall, his mannered style suits a film that is essentially rhetoric from start to finish (the opening scene is a toe-curling barbershop quartet rendition of the Gettysburg Address).

The key trope, which provides the backbone of the story, is the petitioning of interested parties for Presidential favour and the use of public office to secure votes: the buying and selling of power. This is initially played for laughs, around the vexed issue of an obscure toll-booth, as an example of the selfishness and lack of principle of the ordinary voter (there is contemporary edge in the satire of fiscal hypocrisy: we want the benefit, but we don't want to pay the price). It evolves through the cynical comedy of vote-buying, though this is played with greater concern for the modern proprieties of discretion and deniability than would have occurred at the time. However, it does reflect the transactional nature of politics (this is the West Wing strand). In one scene a Lincoln fixer, played by a sybaritic James Spader, blithely ratchets up the size of the role as the biddable congressmen gets cold feet.

The trope reaches its ultimate form in the negotiations with the Confederate representatives over the ending of the war, where Lincoln's strategy of making the abolition of slavery a fait accompli is shown to be the decisive argument for stopping the slaughter. Historians would quibble that Lincoln's strategy was more about maintaining the unity of the Union side and heading off demands for a more radical post-war settlement (particularly in terms of land ownership), rather than pursuing a point of principle, but you can see the yearning here for the assumed modern incarnation of Lincoln, i.e. Barack Obama (another former Senator of Illinois), to show some balls.

The three tropes display an ascending class hierarchy. We start with the petty concerns of the common people, move on to the deal-making of the professional classes and vested interests, and finally reach the strategic negotiations of society's great powers. For all Lincoln and Grant's formal insistence that the "rebs" aren't an equal nation, this is clearly a negotiation between antipathetic but peer economies: the established plantocracy of the South and the industrial plutocracy of the North (the wardrobe and cigars of Secretary of State Seward, played by David Strathairn, are highly suggestive, echoing Brunel and global trade).

The conscience of the film is the Radical leader, Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones as if auditioning for Mount Rushmore (the film's best performance). He believes in votes for women and blacks, not just emancipation, but curbs his ambitions in the interest of compromise (an Obama theme). His final scene sees him exhausted but contentedly in bed with his part-black housekeeper as she reads the text of the amendment. The key motif of this scene is Stevens' removal of his cumbersome wig, to become fully himself, which echoes Lincoln's regular doffing of his stovepipe hat (one time to retrieve a speech) and Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee's doffing of hats at the signing of the surrender. The variety of military hats, from kepi to slouch, is a testament to the thoroughness of the production, but the real message is that it's time to take them off, to stop dressing up and killing each other.

Inevitably, the last scene with Lincoln alive sees him putting on his hat before setting off to the theatre, while characteristically forgetting his gloves. Glovelessness is a symbol of democracy: the willingness to touch skin rather than interpose a leather barrier. The stovepipe hat is a symbol, a weighty and ridiculous symbol, of duty and thus fate. Lincoln's first memorable words in the film concern his unruly hair. The comment on its curliness is meant to emphasise his common humanity with the two black soldiers he is speaking to (presumably none of them used product), but the really telling movement, which you only realise later, is the doffing of the hat. The hats are gone from modern politics, but the privatisation of tax revenues, not to mention straightforward buying of favours, remains. If you want to get ahead, get a sinecure.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Digging up the Bones

Hard on the heels of the disinterment of Richard III we had the sight of Michael Gove rattling the bones of Antonio Gramsci and Jade Goody this week. The juxtaposition of an early twentieth century Italian Marxist and a reality TV star is meant to catch the attention of the media, something both engaged with closely in their different ways. The Education Secretary cited them as the twin inspirations of his radical-traditionalist policies in a speech entitled "The Progressive Betrayal". This was the usual evidence-lite diatribe against the strawman of progressive education, topped off with the claim that Labour is conspiring to keep the proles stupid and pliable, presumably by insisting they learn about Martin Luther King rather than the achievements of the British Empire.

Goody and Gramsci are deployed here as icons, not as real people. What do Jade Goody and Antonio Gramsci have in common? Well, one spent a long time locked up under the watchful eye of Big Brother, while the other had her own brand of perfume. If you think that's a poor joke, Gove's message that these apparent opposites, chav icon and bien pensant pinup, shared a belief that "traditional" education is best for the lower orders is even worse. The choice of icons is intended to wind up middle-class lefties who, Gove believes, look down on Goody as vulgar and look up to Gramsci as a secular saint. In Gove's mind, "progressive teaching" and "lefty" are synonymous. He naturally ignores the role of previous Tory education secretaries, such as Thatcher and Baker, in the development of modern educational practice.

Gove paints Goody as a victim not of her pathological craving for fame, or the exploitative nature of modern media, but of progressive education. He cites her ignorance of the location of Cambridge and Rio de Janeiro as "not her fault but the education system's". It's not often you hear a Tory dismiss personal agency and insist the system is wholly to blame. Unless he thinks a conspiracy of teachers denied her access to an atlas for a decade, you have to suspect some portion of responsibility should rest with Goody herself. He claims that "there was no doubt that Jade was intelligent. She exploited the notoriety she had earned to make herself a ubiquitous television and magazine presence, earning huge sums in the process and becoming in due course far wealthier than most of her detractors". This is cobblers, as well as a crude attempt to equate wealth with virtue. The brains behind the monetisation of her fame was Max Clifford. Gove's establishment of her credentials serves a predictable purpose: "Jade knew that the most precious thing she could bequeath her children was not money but knowledge ... she used her money to send them to the most traditional, academically demanding prep school she could find". Strangely, her respect for knowledge ("the most precious thing") did not stimulate her curiosity about geography or cause her to sign up for an adult education class. If anything, Goody's investment reveals a pragmatic understanding of education as a positional good. You buy it as a means to an end, not because you appreciate it as an end in itself. Ironically, Goody lifts the veil.

Gove's use of Gramsci is both mischievous and anachronistic. The Italian's views have to be seen in the context of his times (he was jailed by Mussolini in 1926 and died in 1937). As Gove notes, the Fascists were interested in "progressive" practices in education, but this was part of their conscious rejection of the traditional enlightenment curriculum which they saw as being complicit in the degeneracy of democracy. Fascism was reactionary in intent but revolutionary in practice. The "national revolution" in education allowed for the rejection of whole chunks of the established canon, notably anything tainted by free-thinking or socialism or (in Germany) Jewishness. He may be a democrat, but there is a whiff of the totalising and prescriptive in Gove's approach to the curriculum. It is also necessary to understand that Gramsci saw liberal bourgeois education in early 20th century Italy as historically progressive relative to working class education (which he referred to as "medieval").

Gramsci was the developer of the idea of cultural hegemony, i.e. class rule by means other than physical force or economic coercion, though the origin of the idea lies with Marx's observation that "the ruling ideas in any society are always the ideas of the ruling class". Hegemony operates through cultural institutions such as education, organised religion, the press and entertainment. It involves the articulation of values and mores that reinforce the dominance of the ruling class (e.g. equating wealth with virtue). Education is crucial both as a particular medium and as a paradigm for all cultural media (consider how "serious" TV tends towards the form of the lecture or demonstration, or newspaper editorials the form of the essay). As Gramsci said: "every relationship of hegemony is necessarily a pedagogical relationship". In other words, it seeks to persuade and indoctrinate.

If education is hegemonic, then the education system of the last 50 years (Gove sees the rot setting in with the Plowden report of 1967) has presumably been biased to maintain certain interests. Gove casts this in terms of an antagonism between Labour and the progressive educationalists on one side and working class kids on the other: "Labour, under their current leadership, want to be the Downton Abbey party when it comes to educational opportunity. They think working class children should stick to the station in life they were born into – they should be happy to be recognised for being good with their hands and not presume to get above themselves". This is a hard claim to make stick when you consider the historic expansion of post-16 education numbers under the last Labour government, a trend now thrown into reverse by the abolition of EMA and the introduction of prohibitive tuition fees. The most significant feature of the UK system, the division into private and public sectors, is the one that Gove fails to address beyond promoting the private option as a proxy for excellence (while snarkily highlighting the "choice" of private schools made by various self-identifying lefties for their own kids).

Gove references Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes to show "the appetite for intellectual improvement that existed among working people". He fails to note that autodidacts (and institutions like the Workers' Education Association) were examples of the DIY reaction to the poverty of education when most working class children were condemned to elementary schools. The relative decline in this culture of self-improvement after WW2 was not the result of nasty lefty teachers convincing working class kids to accept their lot, but the consequence of first the Butler Act and then comprehensive education providing access to knowledge and a path to further education (supported by full grants), with the Open University providing a backstop for mature students.

Gove's push for traditional subjects and teaching methods for all is expressed in consciously radical language, such as "the government's liberation theology". This could just be dismissed as an example of the arch style that arose after Vince Cable labelled the Tories "Maoist" a while back, but there is truth in the claim that some elements (with Gove to the fore) really are ideological true-believers and are consciously revolutionary in style and practice. He says: "I think the things we need to protect and enhance ... are all better protected if we make them as universal as possible". This is clearly about making an educational ideology universal, i.e. hegemonic, it's not about democratising education and ensuring that every state school has the material advantages of Eton. But the real significance is the totalising ambition. Gove is not just seeking to impose a Tory curriculum, or to open education to the market, he is engaged in a cultural revolution that aims to colonise the aspirational working class with middle class values. A continuation of Thatcherism by other means, with the Kings James Bible instead of a little red book.

Like Gove, Gramsci had little sympathy for the idea that the working class have a distinct culture worth valuing, dismissing it as a pre-industrial relic overlaid with false consciousness (i.e. the product of a cultural hegemony that encouraged the masses to know their place). He believed that a true proletarian culture had to be created in order to achieve class consciousness and thereby revolution. It is for this reason that the paradox of Gramsci arises: why would a Marxist revolutionary advance traditional forms of education? Quite simply, he saw the traditional curriculum as a tool for exercising power and felt that workers should seize it and put it to their own use. This is expropriation, not the exaltation of tradition. The same instrumental view can be seen in the educational practices of communist regimes in the twentieth century. The USSR was hardly known for its "progressive" methods, beyond dropping RE and doubling science.

The real irony of all this is that, despite Gove's attempted triangulation, he and Gramsci have far more in common with each other than either does with Goody. Not because they're both swots, but because of a shared mistrust of variety and the organic. The popular lauding of Goody as "bubbly", "guileless" and "natural" was a recognition that she represented a chaotic force, temporarily tamed. Without that sense of fragility and danger, she would have been dismissed as a gobby fool. Gove's pedantry, his precise diction, and his relentlessly polite manner while delivering snide propaganda, all serve to give the impression of a fastidious man. But his ideological perfectionisim leads to avoidable mistakes, such as the school building programme fiasco and this week's EBC reverse. A paradox of revolution since Robespierre is that it's often the fastidious who contrive to unleash chaos.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Shoegazing and the Cloud

I have been trying, off and on since yesterday, to download the new My Bloody Valentine album (mbv) but their card payment interface appears to be banjaxed and I refuse to sign up to PayPal. You can only download it from the band's own website, which is one in the eye for tax-dodgers like Amazon but a bit pointless if it doesn't actual work. I've even emailed their support address, but given they've taken 22 years to deliver this follow-up to Loveless, I'm not expecting a swift reply. Fortunately, they've also stuck the lot up on YouTube. I highly recommend "only tomorrow", "new you" and "in another way".

The experience has not just reminded me that the Internet doesn't always work, dammit, but also that we (or at least I) remain wedded to the joys of owning stuff. Even though I can quite happily stream it online I want the download and am seriously considering buying the vinyl when it appears in a few weeks (it's an analogue recording, so this is not just vinyl collector's completitis). This reminded me of Steve Wozniak's rant a few months ago about the dangers of cloud computing. Wozniak, if you didn't know, was the original engineering brains behind Apple who was marginalised because he wasn't as pretty or as psychopathic as his partner, Steve Jobs (think Chewbacca to Han Solo, only shorter). According to The Woz, "With the cloud, you don't own anything. You already signed it away. I want to feel that I own things".

With the recent demise of HMV, it's hard to argue with the proposition implicit in Wozniak's plea: in the future we will have access to much more, but we will own much less. For most people in the developed world, the twentieth century can be characterised in terms of increasing property ownership. I don't just mean in the narrow sense of owning a house, but in the wider sense of acquiring more and more goods and chattels, from furniture to toys, from cars to CDs. While the rich obviously maintained a monopoly on certain types of property, the material prosperity of capitalism, the sheer profusion of commodities, meant that our lives were increasingly organised around the making, buying and using of stuff.

Since the introduction of the iPod in 2001, which coincided with the peak in UK property ownership, this process has taken a new direction. It's not in-yer-face obvious, as we are surrounded by a lifetime's collection of books, videos, DVDs and CDs, but the future is clearly the "weightlessness" of content on demand. Even the historic growth of user devices is misleading, both because commodity deflation means they account for proportionately less of our expenditure and because there is a limit to the number of dedicated devices we can practically use (we probably peaked with e-readers). Though Apple are obviously keen on high-margin devices, and pitch them as status symbols, the general trend is towards commoditisation and disposability. The commercial model of mobile phones, and the quickening pace of obsolescence, means that we're increasingly open to the idea that we acquire our devices as part of a contract for service access and content. We're renting more, and this applies to cultural products as much as homes. Just as the growth of buy-to-let means that property ownership is concentrating, so cloud computing is leading to a concentration of massive providers such as Amazon, Google and Apple.

There are two paradoxes here. The first is that openness and choice may be leading to homogenisation and oligopoly. The second is that the demands of cloud interoperability and the environmental costs of data centres may lead to the minimisation of data and the maximisation of access - e.g. a single copy of an MP3 file (allowing for backups and mirrors) that is accessible to everyone. This is the optimal rent model: the greatest revenue from the smallest asset.

The "move to the cloud" is central to business too. For some years now, the concept of IT as a utility has been pushed both as a desirable goal ("you don't have to think about it") and a practical service delivery model ("just plug in"). In fact, cloud computing bears little resemblance to a utility. Despite the contrived appearance of multiple providers in a free market, most public utilities are physical monopolies at the sharp end: one electricity cable, one water mains, one sewer etc. The characteristics of a utility are those of a natural monopoly. Unlike utilities, IT cloud services are neither consistent nor easily substituted between providers. and Google Apps are not interchangeable. The utility trope is primarily a sales pitch, but it is also subtly ideological in that it hints at semi-official status (every accounts payable function knows you pay the utility bills first). There is also the semi-conscious derogation of "hard" IT, i.e. the equating of infrastructure roles with utility workers, which leads to the perception that cloud computing facilitates a shift from blue to white-collar jobs in IT (there is little expectation of net job reductions and some belief that the aggregate impact is an increase in roles).

The real commonality between a utility and the cloud is that the service cost includes an element of rent (in the economist's sense - i.e. a royalty). Despite the loud claims made by utility companies about their investment in infrastructure and labour (water pipes and engineers), the gross profit of a utility such as water is largely rent (the exploitation of a natural resource) rather than the surplus value of labour. Though the cloud may provide access to differentiated applications, which are ultimately the product of labour, in practice a large part of the fee you are paying is rent (hence pricing tends towards per-user rather than per-transaction models). The very opaqueness and indeterminacy of the cloud (notice it's "the" not "a") makes this difficult to see, though you get a hint of the role that rent plays in modern capitalism in the cross-charging of IP royalties by multinationals, such as Amazon.

Cloud computing consolidates capital with the cloud service providers. This not only gives rise to economies of scale for them, it also means that the businesses that use the cloud are increasingly capital light. This is good insofar as it lowers the cost of business entry and avoids the need for periodic loans or share issues to raise capital, but it also reduces the scope for internal productivity gains (e.g. by upgrading equipment) and makes process innovation dependent on onerous supplier management (this is a feature of outsourcing generally and not just cloud computing). In effect, we're seeing the centralisation of capital in fewer hands. This does not mean that cloud-using businesses are less profitable, but that profits are more likely to be recycled as bonuses and share buybacks rather than capital investment. This is the nature of the "weightless economy". The weight doesn't disappear, it simply moves to one end of the corporate spectrum.

It's early days, but the trend this century appears to be towards an economy in which the elite owns an even more disproportionate share of property than today while the majority of the population pays rent to make use of it. We will have access to more stuff, so we will feel materially richer than we did in the twentieth century, but we will own less of it. One by-product of this shift from property to rent will be the need to continue earning longer or face greater relative poverty in old age, when you typically seek to rely more on assets built up over your working life. The extending of the retirement age may prove to be about more than just a shortfall in pension contributions.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Weaselly Pop

David Hepworth recently asked: "When did pop become the dominant culture?" This begs the question by assuming that "pop" is a historically specific development that has displaced an earlier form. Presumably he means the musical styles that first came to prominence between the end of the Chatterley ban and you know what. The word dominant implies hegemony, the idea that pop is now the cultural orthodoxy, not merely the form that shifts the most units. As becomes clear in his piece, pop has expanded beyond music to encompass other forms as well: "Pop is now culture's default position. It's unimaginable that a new arts programme or supplement could be launched today without an interview with Damon Albarn or a think piece about Scandinavian detectives. It wasn't always like this." Indeed. Once upon a time we'd have had interviews with Charles Dickens, banging on about his latest release, or some smartarse like George Orwell trying to decode the social meaning of seaside postcards.

Hepworth seems strangely oblivious to the class dimension of culture (Albarn and Scandi crime are middle class identifiers) even as he quotes the claim by Liz Forgan, outgoing chair of The Arts Council, that politicians prefer to be seen at rock festivals rather than the opera in order to avoid the charge of elitism. This is just self-serving propaganda by someone whose job it was to persuade politicians to spend more money on opera. The cultural products that are dominant (in the sense of most visible) in a capitalist society are always going to be the ones where the largest amount of money can be made through their production and exchange. Opera is a luxury item: low volume, high price. In a world where exclusivity (aka "excellence") is seen as the antithesis of "dumbing down", you can bet there are plenty of politicians happy to be associated with it. Pop may be dominant in terms of sales, but it is not hegemonic in terms of culture.

When Hepworth draws a distinction between "serious" and "pop" he is guilty of categorising culture into rigid and competing blocs. This leads to the trope of conflict: "About fifteen years ago I realised there had been a war between serious culture and pop culture. It had ended and Pop had won. Clearly. Trouble is I have no memory of that war taking place." Such categorisation inevitably reflects existing social divisions, hence the ready identification of culture and class. Snobbery, masked as aesthetic judgement, is not far behind (consider how Miranda is indulged by TV critics while Mrs. Brown's Boys is sneered at). Hepworth's bemusement is the perspective of a former editor of Smash Hits realising that the counter culture of his youth is the mainstream of his middle age.

The artificiality of these boundaries is highlighted by the way that certain cultural products cross them. Thus football, which was once a working class identifier, is now seen (and criticised) as increasingly middle class. In practice, most mass spectator sports have always been cross-class. Just as some brickies have always loved Beethoven, so doctors and lawyers have watched Arsenal since the Plumstead days. What has changed is the media treatment, from the demonisation of football fans as representatives of the violent labouring class to the idolisation of them as a vanishing tribe being priced out of the game. The Liverpool fans who unveiled a banner at the Emirates this week, querying whether football was still a working class sport, were complicit in this sentimentalisation. They are entirely right to question the price of a ticket, but to imply that football is categorically working class is weaselly.

David Hepworth's fundamental error is to assume that there is a definable entity called "pop", with clear boundaries and characteristics, and that this is mutually exclusive to "serious culture". In reality, there is stuff that sells. All the rest is ideology.