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.

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