Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Great American Songbook

The standard reaction to the death of anyone famous divides into two parts: the attempt to neatly fit them into the historical record, with authoritative claims about their significance and legacy; and personal reminiscence, with precious first-hand anecdotes trumping "what he/she meant to me" solipsism. The passing of Lou Reed has been an object case study.

Most media outlets have wheeled out Brian Eno's quote to the effect that everyone who bought the first Velvet's album formed a band. The quote dates from 1982, and was apparently based on Reed claiming that sales were only 30,000 in the first 5 years (1967-72). In fact, it is likely the record sold nearer 60,000 in the first couple of years after release, may have reached six figures in the early 70s, and has probably topped a million since then. My own personal recollection (I warned you) from the mid-70s is that the Velvet Underground and solo Lou Reed were as familiar to rock fans as Jethro Tull or The Byrds, and this owed relatively little to the personal recommendation of David Bowie.

I also recall buying the NME C81 mixtape in 1981. A running joke in the booklet that accompanied it was how every band had been influenced by the Velvets, which was perfectly credible when you consider the album included Cabaret Voltaire, DAF, Scritti Politti, the Buzzcocks and Orange Juice, among others. In other words, Eno was reflecting the widespread and longstanding influence of the Velvets (which had reached the point of parody) while insisting that this was still an interest limited to discerning avant-gardists like himself. What a knob.

The band catalyst trope has fought for top billing with tales of Reed's obnoxiousness in interviews, which are just opportunities for saddo journalists to try and filch some stardust. Some have seen this as the careful creation of a brand ("just showbusiness"), directly influenced by uber-commoditiser Andy Warhol, though the more thoughtful see determined authenticity. Others interpret it as the deliberate evasion of an "unknowable and contrary" man who valued privacy. The claim that it was an act has the ring of truth to it. You're not likely to have a lasting relationship with an artist and musician of the stature of Laurie Anderson if you're an irascible and selfish egotist in private too. Reed's confrontational stance and unwillingness to play the PR game owe much to his own romantic notions of the role of the artist (historical record bit coming up).

Reed's love of the marginal and despised has its roots in late nineteenth century decadence (which explains his interest in Frank Wedekind's Lulu). The template for his provocative public persona can be found in the original enfant terrible, the French poet and all-round reprobate Arthur Rimbaud, whose Une Saison en Enfer was translated by another poet, Delmore Schwartz, with whom Reed studied in the early 60s. A feature of the New York music scene, from the Beats and jazz experimentalists to Sonic Youth, has been the centrality of poetry and the role of the poet as critic/outsider. In this regard, French and American poetry have a lot more in common than either has with the British variety.

Poetry was a marginal taste in the UK music scene up to the late 70s (and tended towards the fey), where the Glam avant garde, exemplified by David Bowie and Roxy Music, was more influenced by visual art and theatre (hence the Ramones had a bigger impact here than Patti Smith, despite supportive media coverage for the "punk poet queen"). But the influence of Reed & co on provincial post-punk bands, like the Postcard stable and The Smiths, changed all that, reasserting the primacy of the heartfelt lyric after years of London irony and cut-up mannerisms. The major legacy of the Velvet Underground in the UK is landfill indie.

Bowie and Reed shared an interest in Berlin and the Weimar era, and both identified in their own ways with Isherwood's observer: "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking". But while Bowie (like Eno) was influenced by post-war German music, from Stockhausen to Krautrock, Reed remained more sonically conservative and essentially American (Perfect Day could have been sung by Doris Day), despite his best efforts on Metal Machine Music to prove otherwise. In the original Velvets mix, Reed provided the pop and John Cale the experimentation. For all his literary ambitions, Reed never deserted Tin Pan Alley.

The C81 joke worked because the modern bands, though different from each other, could be harnessed to a specific song or period in the Velvet Underground's back catalogue. This was a testament to the range and mutability (and even instability) of the original band: their naive enthusiasm for trying something different as much as their artistic pretensions. It was this range and unpredictability that Reed carried forward into his solo years, though his finest releases would be the "classic" pop songs of Transformer and the Velvet's out-take compilation, VU. In truth, he was just doodling from the mid-70s onwards.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Russell Brand, Boris Johnson and Jesus all walk into a pub ...

Russell Brand has a new tour to promote (the "Messiah Complex World Tour", no less), and the New Statesman has found guest editors to be linkbait fairy dust, so it was predictable that the self-styled Essex Trickster should find himself treading in the footsteps of Jemima Khan, Rowan Williams and Ai Weiwei to one of the most highly sought-after, unpaid internships in the media. To add fuel to the fire, he also did an interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, where he called for the overthrow of the political system. Before anyone could point out the uncanny similarity in style and lack of substance with Boris Johnson (who has made the comic two-hander with Paxman a speciality), Brand made the connection himself, so reassuring Jezza that this would be harmless, knockabout fun. There was even a beard joke.

Brand's position can be summed up by Billy Connolly's crack about politicians: "Don’t vote, it just encourages them". He justifies his boycott thus: "Like most people I regard politicians as frauds and liars and the current political system as nothing more than a bureaucratic means for furthering the augmentation and advantages of economic elites". Given that every political system can be defined as the medium by which economic interests negotiate power, this is a bit like complaining that rain is wet. Brand has been widely pilloried by those who earn a crust pillorying, but his provocative style and rambling essay in the NS (the sub-editors clearly didn't fancy a fight) has also triggered some more interesting observations by the ideologically partisan and those willing to wade through the overflow of his fecund mind.

Uber-free-marketeer Tim Worstall takes him to task for misunderstanding that profit (a "filthy word", according to Brand) "is simply the proof that value is being created", and is therefore a good thing. Of course, this equivalence of profit with value is disingenuous, as profit is actually surplus value, not all value, and politics is about the struggle for control of that surplus. Brand, like Worstall, makes the mistake of investing profit with an ethical dimension (not unlike the popular trope about "good" and "bad" capitalism), which is of a piece with his religiose outlook (he talks of the "implicit spiritual principles" of the left) and weakness for hippy shibboleths (a "revolution in consciousness" inevitably wanders on stage).

From the left, Neil Schofield espies proto-fascism in Brand's cocktail of spiritual reconnection, organic community and love of the land: "his views are profoundly reactionary and, in the literal sense of the word, decadent". And that's without picking up on Brand's routine sexism (confessing to being a womaniser, like admitting heroin addiction, does not give you licence). Nick Cohen spotted the same fascist roots, but spoilt his analysis by indulging in the "each as bad as the other" vice that he accuses Brand of: "the similarities between far left and far right are more striking than their differences" (Cohen writes in the "democracy and liberty under threat from all directions" tradition of Orwell and Hitchens, so this sort of language is almost obligatory).

Cohen's chief criticism of Brand is that he is dangerously frivolous: "Today's crisis has left Europe in a pre-revolutionary situation ... Unfortunately for Brand, who sees himself a radical leftist of some sort, apparently, the greatest beneficiary of the nihilism he promotes is the radical right. Many people are surprised that the rightwing and neo-fascist movements have benefited most from a banking crash brought [about] by the most overpaid people on the planet ... Classic fascism movements borrowed from the left, and today's neo- or post-fascist movements follow suit. Mussolini emphasised that fascism was a third way between capitalism and socialism".

Fascism was reaction clothed in revolution. Cohen is essentially right in his critique of Brand's frivolity (the man's a paid entertainer, after all), but he misses the point that the encouragement of the "radical right" comes not from Brand's "nihilism" but from the establishment's flirtation with the politics of hate. It can never be repeated too often that Mussolini and Hitler came to power due to the manoeuvrings of conservative politicians and the (minority) support of reactionary voters stressed by economic change. The danger today comes from the divisive assault on the welfare state, growing inequality, and the emergence of populist chancers like Johnson and Farage. Brand is not a harbinger of fascism, he's just a very naughty boy.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Go with the Flow

There has been predictable chuntering, from both right and left, about the the government's decision to award the Hinkley C contract to a consortium of nationalised industries. A hyperventilating Allister Heath spies the dark legacy of corporatism, while John Harris wonders at the paradox of Tories, who decry the erosion of sovereignty by the EU, encouraging French and Chinese state ownership of British infrastructure.

Heath seems to genuinely believe that a free market in energy is possible, particularly if a "capitalist approach" is adopted - i.e. abolish renewable subsidies, ignore carbon reduction targets and go large on shale gas. Leaving aside the possibility that the last of these might prove disappointing (new sources of energy are always over-hyped, e.g. nuclear), his heroic vision assumes that the invisible hand will do its stuff: "This would allow prices to fall, improve customer service and allow innovation: at some stage, for example, solar panels could become so cheap that they genuinely make renewables competitive". You might wonder how falling electricity prices (presumably shale gas-generated) would trigger the innovation required to make solar panels as cheap as chips. History suggests that innovation will be stimulated by rising prices, not falling ones. The Jevons Paradox suggests we'll just leave the lights on and sod the planet.

The central flaw in Heath's argument is that a truly competitive energy market is impossible. This is because: a) the commodity is a basic need, which we all require for survival, so consumers have limited powers of market exit in protest at high prices (wearing an extra jumper is not a solution); b) the barriers to market entry limit suppliers (you can't easily start an energy business in your garage); and c) there is limited substitutability, i.e. most of us are not in a position to forage for wood any longer. Many commodities have one or two of these features, but few have all three. Where this occurs, you're looking at a natural monopoly. Energy, like its fellow utility water, is a natural monopoly cloaked by a fictitious market. There has not been a true competitive market in the energy sector since coal was delivered in sacks.

Heath proposes to "make it easier for companies to develop infrastructure", but the key infrastructure for retail is the "local loop", i.e. the pipe or cable into your home or office, which will always be a monopoly unless someone fancies investing in massive redundancy. In such an environment, ensuring there are half a dozen retail suppliers means the de facto creation of a cartel. This does not meet secretly each month in a bunker to fix prices, because it don't have to. The "conspiracy against the public", as Adam Smith called it, is quite open. The government will always underwrite wholesale prices because of energy's strategic importance (you can't have hospitals and factories closing due to a price bump), and the cartel will always inflate margins as far as it can. Energy company profits are in part economic rents.

In contrast, Harris avoids indulging in an alternative fantasy (if you ignore the implicit nostalgia for nationalised industries), but he also fails to point out why the apparent paradox of the Tories' antipathy to government intervention is limited to the British state. The answer is that Cameron, Osborne and Johnson owe their primary allegiance to finance capital, which means that the flow of foreign money into the UK, whether for large infrastructure projects or Central London property, is good in and of itself, regardless of whether it originates with a sovereign wealth fund or a rich individual. The movement of capital, and the opportunities it gives rise to for fees, speculation and leverage, is what matters to the City. For this reason, Cameron & co are equally happy for UK funds to be invested in nationalised industries abroad. They love doing business with the Chinese, not just because of the scale of the opportunities, but because an economic dictatorship is a reliable business partner, one that can better guarantee fees and returns without worries over regulatory restraint or market volatility.

The City is comfortable with nationalised industries and state planning where it can interpose as the facilitator for cross-border capital funding and other financial services. The one thing it does not like is state direction of capital domestically, as this diminishes its role as middle-man. The growth of the City as a global financial centre since the 1970s means that its fortunes are no longer largely dependent on the domestic capital market, but that market remains highly attractive in the areas of government-underwritten infrastructure and property due to the combination of high yields and low risk, the product in turn of privatised natural monopolies and, in the case of housing, induced scarcity.

Hinkley C, Royal Mail, HS2, mortgage subsidies and the continuing hostility to controls on City activity are all of a piece. It is all about maximising the flow of money, not the "march of the makers". While the Tory party will continue to champion deregulation, low wages and tax cuts for its small capitalist base, if only to drown out the siren call of UKIP, the cause of economic nationalism died with Margaret Thatcher and her obsession with British Airways' livery.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

No News is not Good News

The news that Glenn Greenwald, the journalist behind the Snowden revelations, is leaving the Guardian to join a startup news service funded by Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, has been greeted with the usual mix of self-absorbed journo-jingo ("independent, ferocious, investigative journalism") and tech-titan hagiography (Omidyar's "tech background and his focus on communities should prove an invaluable asset to the new company").

Omidyar's thinking can be summed up in three quotes: "Companies in Silicon Valley invest a lot in understanding their users and what drives user engagement" (i.e. editorial policy should be driven by Big Data); "I have always been of the opinion that the right kind of journalism is a critical part of our democracy" (note right kind); and he has a "rising concern about press freedoms in the United States and around the world" (i.e. get government off our backs). Mutatis mutandis, these sentiments could have been expressed by Paul Dacre.

The published specifics of the new venture are few, which probably reflects a lack of actual development rather than an embargo. This is clearly vapourware at present. What we do know is that it will be digital-only and broad-based - i.e. the usual melange of human interest, sport and "the puffery of wares" masquerading as news, as well as in-depth current affairs (a liberal cliché) and investigative journalism. One characteristic is the foregrounding of established "brands" such as Greenwald, which is hardly a novel development. I confidently predict personalised news and advertising, which won't look too different to the Guardian online. As Christian Christensen has noted, Omidyar isn't just buying Greenwald, he is buying the left-leaning, educated demographic in the US (those liberals spend plenty big).

Coincidentally, a more sceptical review of Omidyar's business dealings was provided recently by Tom Slee, who noted that "Ven­ture cap­i­tal dam­ages commons-based shar­ing, and one name appears time and time again ..." Slee has also written a fine essay on the inherent pitfalls of Internet reputation systems, such as eBay, which has relevance to the wider topic of "citizen journalism" and how the Internet has impacted on news organisations. As the Huffington Post and other Web-based outlets have shown, journalism is becoming increasingly polarised: a few well-paid "superstars" at one end and a large reserve army of low-paid also-rans and blogtastic wannabes at the other. A return to the ecosystem of the nineteenth century and New Grub Street. It's just business.

This is part of a wider process of deprofessionalisation, also affecting sectors like teaching and nursing, which stems in part from automation and labour surplus, but also from the longstanding tendency of capital to commoditise labour and dilute craft skills. In such a situation, those who are vulnerable to being downgraded (the declassé) tend to insist more on the social respect that they feel is their due, hence the emblematic importance of investigative journalism and the nostalgia for the halcyon days of Woodward and Bernstein.

Meanwhile, John Naughton remains "baffled" by public indifference to the NSA/GCHQ affair and, more pointedly, the lack of concern from fellow journalists who "seem to have succumbed either to a weird kind of spiteful envy, or to a desire to act as the unpaid stenographers to the security services and their political masters". There is a bit of academic de haut en bas here, given that most journos have mortgages to pay and are as likely to keep their heads down as any other group. I've not kept a tally, but I suspect that NUJ strike action in recent years has largely focused on defending jobs and pension rights, not advancing civil rights.

Omidyar's initiative will be sold as pro-freedom and (implicitly) anti-state, but as with his involvement with the "open data movement", it is about privatising state assets and limiting the influence of government on business (but not vice versa). The Greenwald/Snowden revelations ultimately boil down to "you should not let the state access your data", but they say little about the rights of business to access and harvest that data for commercial profit. Greenwald is probably making a shrewd judgement that his interests will be better served by a rich patron in the US, rather than a fussy newspaper in a UK that has taken to victimising his nearest and dearest.

With the news that some sensible chaps will take a hard look at what GCHQ have been up to, we can now safely move on. Press regulation will once more become the bigger issue, though we will naturally avoid any vulgar reference to ownership. Meanwhile, the future of investigative journalism will depend on the indulgence of billionaires. It's hardly news, let alone progress.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Hartlepool no more, Hull no more

The Economist has suggested that the old industrial towns and smaller cities of the North should be allowed to decline, instead of being "propped up on piles of public money". This is in equal parts a free-market critique of government intervention, a dig at the fiscal transfer policy of the last Labour administration, and a recapitulation of the old trope of "managed decline". The analysis is a little more rigorous than that of David Howell (frack the lot), insofar as it distinguishes between vibrant regional service centres like Manchester and Newcastle on the one hand and "urban ghosts" like Hull and Hartlepool on the other. The solution: "Governments should not try to rescue failing towns. Instead, they should support the people who live in them. That means helping them to commute or move to places where there are jobs—and giving them the skills to get those jobs". 

The Economist was founded in 1843 to campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws and economic liberalism more generally. As such, it was part of the industrial capitalist consensus that had earlier led to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and the introduction of workhouses. While popular history has understandably focused on the human cost of this system, notably the callous principle of "less eligibility" and the lurid example of Oliver Twist, it is important to understand the economic calculation of the scheme's authors, which relates directly to the Economist's current concern.

The problem faced by capital in the early nineteenth century was a lack of labour in the growing industrial towns and a surplus of labour in the countryside, following the productivity improvements (enclosures, new technology) of the agricultural revolution in the eighteenth century. Many labourers willingly migrated from "rural idiocy" to the new towns to seek work, but found that the nascent factory system and commodity markets were volatile, leading to alternating periods of employment and unemployment. As many of the new towns were not even incorporated at this time, the local parish-based relief was inadequate to the task of feeding the growing population during periods of inactivity (wages were too low to allow saving). The consequence was that people drifted back to the villages, a challenge both to the rural poor law commissioners and to the urban industrialists who faced labour shortages once business picked up.

The solution to this problem was the workhouse, which meant that labour could be "warehoused" in the new towns during downturns, with the (minimised) cost being shared by all manufacturers (i.e. ratepayers). There is a direct thread from this pragmatic public provision to the support of the NHS (which inherited many of the workhouses) by industrial capital during the post-WW2 social democratic heyday. 1834 was the point, as Karl Polanyi noted in The Great Transformation, when the treatment of labour as a (fictitious) commodity crystallised. Whereas David Howell sees the North essentially in terms of its natural resource capability (i.e. land), the Economist sees it as a source of labour, which shows you that not much has changed. The problem then is a purely practical one of the transfer of the young and fit, with the old towns left as warehouses for the elderly and infirm.

Coincidentally, there has been a corresponding ripple of interest in the prospect that the centre of our large (and thriving) cities, notably London, may be evolving into a "dark inventory" (shades of Jean Luc Godard's Alphaville), with property increasingly bought up by absentee (i.e. foreign) owners. As many of them seek capital appreciation and a hassle-free asset, the attraction of renting the property out declines, leading to city centres populated largely by house-sitters and modern-day levites in the temples of capital.

There is an element of ahistorical nonsense about this dystopian vision. The foreign wealthy have been buying up central London property for centuries (Greek tax-dodgers are following in the footsteps of French ancien regime emigrés), while Mayfair and the like has always had a semi-resident population (in town for the season, in the country for the rest). That said, the idea that the use of high-value property as a safe asset is bad for both the city and the economy is incontestable. Townhouses are not a productive asset and a market that discourages their utilisation is not healthy. The problem is not that the centre of London is going to become deserted any time soon, but that capital is there rather than in Hartlepool or Hull.

The establishment response to this is not to question the mysterious ways of capital but to suggest that the fault lies in us, the people, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is surely obvious that once the idea of "work for your benefits" becomes fully established, the next logical step will be enforced relocation. Unlike the international migration of old, which was informally (and inefficiently) driven by land clearances and starvation wages, this will be an era of national directed labour (emulating Chinese best practice), with the surplus of the North being used to undercut low-wage, migrant labour in the South. Instead of a letter from America, you can expect a text from a relative gutting chickens in Norfolk or (assuming they've got a degree) serving coffee to yummy mummies in Kensington.

PS: The title of this post was inspired by seeing the film Sunshine on Leith the other day. Though "a Scottish Mama Mia by the Edinburgh Tourist Board" or the "anti-Trainspotting" does not immediately sound enticing, it was actually rather good. Well worth a decko.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Access of Evil

John Naughton notes that one of the consequences of l'affaire Snowden is the realisation that the technology that runs the Internet has been compromised at the lowest level, i.e. hardware as well as firmware and software. This is hardly a shocker to the techno-literate (it's been underway since the 90s), but it causes the normally droll Irishman to lapse into the classic vocabulary of the securocrats. After a week in which MI5 and its media claque claimed the NSA/GCHQ revelations were the "greatest damage to western security in history", it is depressing to see one of the more sane technology observers talking like this (my italics):
The reason this is so scary is because virtually every bit of kit that runs the internet – the machine on which you compose your emails, the tablet or smartphone with which you browse the net, the routers that pass on the data packets that comprise your email or your web search, everything – is a computer. So the thought that all this stuff might covertly be compromised in ways that are impossible to detect is terrifying.
This is the language of integrity and betrayal (the common ideological currency of the security state) in the context of a classic revelation of the totality of a threat: everything is at risk, everybody is suspect. By aping this style, Naughton is in danger of driving an agenda through fear, which is never a good idea. The fact that he is elsewhere even-handed, correctly noting that we have as much to "fear" from the US as China, does not excuse the paranoia.

What started as a debate about the relationship of the state and big business has now subsided into the comforting familiarity of a stand-off between the liberal and authoritarian wings of the party of power, pitching the individualist concern about civil rights against the men from the ministry. Meanwhile, the technology companies have (largely) avoided difficult questions about their motivation and ethics, insisting that they are on the side of the good guys against government while furthering their state-endorsed power (the fact that the notoriously unprofitable Twitter can even think about an IPO is an indication that the market has priced in future monopolistic rents).

To be fair to Naughton, this fearful language is everywhere. In the same issue of the Observer, you can find stories about the "invasion" of Britain by killer slugs, which is just a liberal transference of xenophobic prejudice from alien people to alien animals (nature has no ethical basis - let alone a social or economic motivation - it does what it can and what it must). In a delightful juxtaposition, you could also find tales of the modern trend for "rewilding", in this case allowing urban rivers to return to their natural course. This is driven by Romantic guilt (we have brutally tamed the tautology of "wild nature" and now fear the consequences), which ultimately stems from a reactionary desire to stop the march of time.

The roots of this language go back to the pre-democratic era, when the body of the monarch was identified with the body of the state. A threat to the crown, to the bodily integrity of the king, was the ultimate treachery, which in turn justified the surveillance (and torture) of the king's subjects, who were ultimately his property to dispose of. This idea of corporeal integrity was inherited along with "sovereignty" by the nation state (via Hobbes and Montesquieu), with predictable results in the institutionalisation of xenophobia and racism. But perhaps the most pernicious manifestation of it was the idea that a single breach, like the stab of a poniard or the sting of a hornet, could be fatal, an idea amplified by the discovery of microbes in the 17th century and kept alive since by the media-friendly spectre of the lone traitor, from Conrad's Secret Agent to "free radicals" like Manning and Snowden.

The irony here is that the Internet was designed to be resilient, to not fail due to the compromise of a single node or device and to survive a breach of network integrity. It is this very capability that has allowed the development of the "dark Internet" and (semi-)secure tools such as Tor. This is not to suggest that we should be complacent about the extent of surveillance, and the determination of those who would know our interests better than we do ourselves to protect us from our folly, but I would suggest that a reliance on such emotive language is counter-productive. There are two things to remember here: first, the secret services (like the police) are nowhere near as competent as they would like us to believe; and second, the technological development of surveillance will always be driven primarily by the interests of business, not by the state.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

All your base are belong to us

The Daily Hate has decided that the Guardian is guilty of the "greatest damage to western security in history", which is rather belittling towards Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs, to mention but a few. Glancing at the front-page headline, you might assume this was direct testimony by the head of MI5, Andrew Parker. On closer examination, it turns out that this quote comes from "Whitehall insiders", which is the usual euphemism for government press officers. Along the way, the paper that loves Britain notes that the Grauniad has produced a "handbook for terrorists" (according to an unnamed "government official"), that editor Alan Rusbridger was born in Zambia (aha!), and that he looks a lot like Edward Snowden (you never see them in the same room, do you?)

Meanwhile, the Torygraph berates the Beeb: "BBC reports MI5's warning about terrorists and Snowden leaks. Not one mention of the Guardian". Hilariously, the paper provides the full text of Parker's speech, which does not mention either Snowden or the Guardian by name, suggesting that the BBC may have been guilty of unforgivable accuracy. It's probably safe to assume that this hysteria largely reflects the overheated atmosphere of the industry ahead of the decision on press regulation, with perhaps some opportunistic misdirection by the Mail after the Miliband battering (and revenge for Steve Bell's hilarious "Daily Downfall" cartoon strip this week - "Get aus von mein bonker!" is genius).

Before you assume I am about to praise the Guardian, I'm not (except for publishing Bell). I'm actually going to highlight the commonality between its position and that of the Mail, which is that both remain unable to fully address the NSA/GCHQ affair due to their respective ideologies. The Mail's is perhaps the more obvious, though illogical and contradictory in its manifestations: the agents of the state must not be questioned, except when they try to regulate the press; and our national security is so fragile that admitting the secret services can eavesdrop on phone or email conversations (which many of us took as read) puts us all at risk.

The ideology of the Guardian was nicely illustrated last week in an extended essay by John Lanchester. This started with bemusement at the lack of outrage over the surveillance revelations: "And yet nobody, at least in Britain, seems to care. In the UK there has been an extraordinary disconnect between the scale and seriousness of what Snowden has revealed, and the scale and seriousness of the response. One of the main reasons for that, I think, is that while some countries are interested in rights, in Britain we are more focused on wrongs". This is a classic liberal interpretation - we lack constitutional rights and thus we fail to defend abstract principles; our polity is advanced by case law - we wait for a "wrong" to occur so that we can establish a precedent.

Lanchester does identify the guilty parties and their totalising ambition - "To put it crudely, Google doesn't just know you're gay before you tell your mum; it knows you're gay before you do. And now GCHQ does too" - but he fails to tease out the significance of this symbiotic relationship. In other words, the desire of the security services to cherry-pick this vast store of data results in business receiving a near carte blanche from the state to gather as much as it can for commercial purposes.

This in turn means he fails to spot that the interests of both parties are served by the internalised control of society - i.e. a system in which we willingly submit to surveillance and inspection. The commercial rationale is the quid pro quo of privacy for utility: you give a little up to get a lot in return. The state rationale is the defence of the realm and personal safety, hence the importance of stories about child abuse, porn and cyber-bullying, which makes the threat (usually to our kids) personal. This blindness comes out in his treatment of Foucault's use of the Panopticon metaphor, which is worth quoting in full.
"The prospect this presents is something like the 'panopticon' which Enlightenment philosophers advocated as a design for the ideal prison in the 18th century, and about which the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote in his book Discipline and Punish. 'He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relations in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.' 
When I first read Foucault's account of the panopticon, where the individual at the centre can simultaneously see and judge a whole multitude of other individuals, I thought it was brilliant but overheated. Now, it actually seems like somebody's plan. That's what we risk becoming: a society which is in crucial respects a giant panopticon, where the people with access to our secrets can see, hear, intercept and monitor everything."
This is quite stunning in the way that Lanchester flips Foucault's "he", the prisoner who has accepted the responsibility of self-repression, to the "individual at the centre" (i.e. the warder in an actual Panopticon) who monitors all the prisoners. In doing so, we shift from the pathology of the observed to the power of the observer. Lanchester makes this switch despite earlier noting that the UK is the most heavily CCTVed nation on Earth - perhaps there might be a link between this and the lack of public outrage. His analysis is a comforting liberal trope, in which free individuals are menaced by an intrusive state and where regulation and civil rights are the appropriate tools to restrain the latter. It ignores the hegemonic relationship of the state and business, which becomes obvious if you update the metaphor to modern times: a private prison run for profit stands in for the Internet companies.

A counter to the claims of Andrew Parker (not to mention the hyperbolic right-wing press) was provided in the Guardian this week by Yochai Benkler, the US law academic who coined the term "commons-based peer-production" (he is an advocate of software that is free to produce, rather than free to buy).  Benkler considers the NSA program to bulk-gather telephony metadata to be unjustified. There is "nothing to support the proposition that the program works at all, much less that its marginal contribution is significant enough to justify its enormous costs in money, freedom, and destabilization of internet security. No rational cost-benefit analysis could justify such a leap of faith".

Again, this fails to note that the state harvesting of telephony metadata is a byproduct of a commercial process, and that presumably the latter has a positive cost-benefit. To argue what is essentially the software engineering maxim of YAGNI ("you aren't going to need it"), in respect of state harvesting, does not mean that the data will not continue to be gathered by the telcos and others and that it will remain an irresistible temptation for the state. If one surveilled phone call leads to the arrest of one terrorist, then the whole programme will be considered justified. What price a few billion dollars on surveillance if the avoided cost is another 9/11?

Being the home of dissenting opinion, the Guardian group does at least allow some space to those who see a little more clearly, notably John Naughton. In last Sunday's Observer he noted how the "predictive analytics" of Big Data can produce valuable information, based on personal data, who's ownership is alienated by business, and also how errors and structural biases can cause that information to become authoritative despite being misleading, i.e. the confusion of a model with reality.

But Naughton's critique is also partial (and classically liberal), treating privacy and reputation as species of personal property. Though business is correctly identified as the key agent here (they are interested in you, the state is not), the trope assumes a one-way process in which independent people, who probably read the liberal press and are protective of their rights, are denied ownership of their rightful property. In fact, the process is two-way: business is moulding our behaviour and thoughts in a manner that even the state has hitherto not aspired to do, though once the capability is there, you can be confident it will eventually be used.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The King of Winter

FIFA, having concluded that air-conditioned stadia might not be entirely feasible (something to do with being open to the elements, apparently), has now decided that the vexed issue of the 2022 Qatar World Cup might be best addressed by Project Winter Wonderland. I guess it was either that or advocating localised climate change, which might be an insensitivity too far even for Sepp Blatter.

It is easy to assume, as Marina Hyde does, that the "weather thing" has been foregrounded in order to distract from Qatar's reliance on indentured servitude, but this ignores the fact that FIFA started musing on the advisability of shifting the tournament to the winter within days of the decision, in December 2010, to award the shindig to the baking-hot Gulf emirate. In other words, this was always on the cards. Say what you like about Sepp Blatter, but he always plays a long game (I suspect a Genevan bank vault holds contingency plans for geo-engineering).

The abuse of workers will be toned down, as this would otherwise be bad PR for both FIFA and the Qataris. Reducing the rate of building site deaths to an "acceptable" norm can be achieved at relatively little cost (and quietly reversed in 2023), and incidentally provides plenty of scope for the photoshoots of paternalistic concern that absolute monarchs and FIFA executives specialise in. Reforms to the kafala system will be discussed, and then sidelined. I wouldn't be surprised if Blatter has the chutzpah to claim that the light shone on this regrettable practice shows the progressive role of FIFA in advancing human rights globally.

The no-doubt sincere concerns expressed by Michel Platini of UEFA about the abuse of migrant workers is serving to subordinate the question of when the World Cup should take place, which actually makes a calendar change more likely. This from David Bond of the BBC is telling: "For once, Fifa president Sepp Blatter seems to agree with him. On the eve of Friday's talks on Qatar, Fifa officials were briefing that the 'slave labour' scandal had eclipsed the row over scheduling". The thought that Blatter was happy to authorise the use of such a term simply to shift focus is depressing.

Much of the debate about 2022 assumes that FIFA are prepared to monkey with the traditional calendar simply because Qatar has made it worth their while, but I suspect Blatter & co have larger ambitions than just another fat envelope. The last few decades have seen the proliferation of international tournaments in the (northern hemisphere) summer, with the Confederations Cup, the Women's World Cup, the U-17 and U-20 World Cups, and even the Futsal World Cup, augmenting the expanded regional tournaments of the European Championships and the African Cup of Nations. The next step is surely to advance from the beach-head of the interlull and fully colonise the winter.

The shifting of the World Cup to January/February would obviously require adjustment by the European leagues, but on the continent this would only mean extending an existing winter break by a few weeks. The big change would be in England (and to a lesser extent Scotland) where carving out two months might mean reducing the Premier League to 18 teams. This opens up the thought that we may be moving towards a common global calendar in which the northern hemisphere winter is reserved for international tournaments, played mid-season rather than in the summer close-season, or perhaps the year will be divided into unequal quarters, with internationals confined to June/July and January/February, and World Cups alternating between northern and southern hemispheres.

The Premier League is opposing the shift for 2022, warning that this will lead to chaos and affect the domestic seasons either side of the Qatar tournament, but this is based on the assumption that the event will be shoe-horned into the existing calendar and that future World Cups will revert to the summer. I suspect the real concern is that the normalisation of winter tournaments in addition to summer ones will inevitably lead to the permanent reduction in size of the Premier League, not to mention finally killing-off the 39th game, and thus a step down in potential revenues. While other domestic leagues might not be affected as much, I doubt the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich would be happy if lucrative close-season tours were curtailed. This, rather than labour solidarity, is what will ultimately determine UEFA's stance.

I think there is a very real chance of the Qatar award being subsequently rescinded if FIFA insist on a shift to the winter and UEFA dig in their heels, despite the assurances of Blatter that the choice is irreversible. This is not a battle over a point in space, i.e. Qatar, but a bid for the ownership of time.

Friday, 4 October 2013

From Kronstadt With Love

The contested history of Ralph Miliband almost managed to knock the Tory Party conference off the front pages this week, which is either a horrendous error of judgement by the Blackshirts' Friend or a brilliant bit of Judo-style shroud-waving by "Red Ed". While we should be grateful for less coverage of Boris Johnson at all times, the "alien Marxist hater" spat is nothing more than pre-election jockeying. That the Daily Mail isn't going to back Labour is no more of a surprise than that it remains iffy about Jews (I wonder how Melanie Phillips feels about that now), while Ed Miliband decided a couple of years ago that there were more votes to be gained in standing up to the press barons than deferring to their interests. As you were, then.

The keen-eyed connoisseur of ideological nuance (with top-notes of anti-Marxist hysteria) will have been more taken with the widely-reported speech of Tim Hands, head of Magdalen College School in Oxford and now chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. This is fascinating both for the varied way in which it was reported, reflecting the divergent interests of different newspapers, and for the general failure to acknowledge what the man was really banging on about.

The headline in the Guardian was "Love has disappeared from state education, says private school leader". Hands was quoted extensively: "The story of the last 50 years is, I suggest, the intrusion of government and the disappearance of the child. More radically put, it is the intrusion of the state, and the disappearance of love." This is obviously consistent with the paper's own fretting about the turn away from child-centred learning and the lack of local autonomy. Hand's fear, that education "is increasingly in the grip of central government and, worse, increasingly at the mercy of much-favoured commercial providers who would like to expand their operations", was music to the paper's liberal ears, as was his concern with "the flawed mechanics of league tables" and the "increasing obsession with the curriculum, and especially a curriculum which is prescriptive not liberal; functionalist, not humanist".

What the paper failed to adequately note was that Hands' appeal to liberal nostrums was intended to inexorably lead the audience towards an acceptance that the villain of the piece is the state: "Children and childhood are too precious to be abandoned to the anonymous and impersonal guardianship of the state. The state is not currently suitable to direct education unaided or unchallenged because it does not understand the child". You could find the same criticism, along with claims about denying children the opportunity to earn a living, being made in 1870 (the introduction of elementary education to age 12), 1918 (the raising of the school-leaving age to 14), and 1944 (the introduction of the tripartite system and raising of the school leaving age to 15). Hands does not explain who, if not the state, will provide an education for those unable to afford private school fees.

In contrast, the Daily Telegraph highlighted Hands' anguish at the treatment of those who choose the independent sector: "Parents 'feel like social lepers' for choosing private schools". Naturally, the anti-state message was also foregrounded: "The long interfering arm and dead restraining hands of government has emasculated the education system of this country and deprived children of their long-accumulated heritage." That sentence looks like it was penned specifically with the Torygraph in mind, employing many of their beloved figurative devices, such as the dead hand of government, emasculation, and heritage. You can almost picture their ideal reader, clasping his 12-bore shotgun in one hand and his bollocks in the other.

The Daily Mail, perhaps distracted by their corpse-kicking exertions, weren't quite sure what to think, headlining with "Happiness of state pupils is being sacrificed in obsessive race for exam results, says leading headteacher". This was dangerously close to the pitch of their arch-enemy, the BBC, which combined Hands' speech with a report on a letter to The Times by academics and writers: "'Childhood damaged' by over-testing, says poet laureate". The Forgers' Gazette managed to restore what passes for sanity in Middle England by finishing with some stock scaremongering about the increasing unaffordability of school fees (surely the married tax allowance will defray this?)

Meanwhile, the Evening Standard decided on a more positive spin: "Private schools better for social mobility, says leading headmaster". According to Hands, "Social mobility, as I understand it, means the ability for the individual to alter their economic and other kinds of status, and, in the current debate, to do so as a result of a high quality education. Social mobility is the founding principle and the historic and enduring specialism of many of our schools and a principle to which we all adhere". You can see the attraction for the discerning oligarch, who, having altered his economic status and transplanted to London, has decided to send little Sergei to Westminster School.

Out of the same stable, the Independent went with "Headmaster rails against 'social leprosy' stigma of private school education", and used the story as an excuse to trot out well-worn examples of perceived "public school prejudice" and to repeat the scandalised-old-maid claim of Anthony Seldon that discrimination against public school pupils had become "the hatred that dare not speak its name" (it doesn't say much for the English public school system when its leading lights come up with such cretinous phrases).

Despite some amusing cracks by Hands (the Department for Education as "the office of the Supreme Goviet" is quite good), this is not an attack on Tory education policy so much as an (ultimately helpful) attack on the principle of state control. Michael Gove will no doubt respond that the growth of academies and free schools means that more schools will have the independence and child-focus, not to mention love, that Hands desires.

What Gove won't acknowledge, though the dawning fear perhaps explains the Daily Mail's uncertainty, is that the method of his revolution - centralising the control of schools in Whitehall - means that a new Labour government would have the ability to impose a curriculum that would please the ghost of Ralph Miliband more than the flesh-and-blood Niall Ferguson.

In reality, it is by no means certain that Labour would diverge far from the cross-party (neoliberal) consensus established over the last 15 years: the erosion of local democratic control; the introduction of commercial sponsors and for-profit providers; the focus on national standards and riggable league tables; and an increasingly prescriptive and business-friendly curriculum (less love and free enquiry, more compliant drones).

For all his egomania and traditionalist posturing, Gove has been an exemplary neoliberal education secretary. Hands' criticism is essentially a conservative critique of neoliberal policy, not a Kronstadt rebellion against the Bolsheviks of Whitehall. What he is arguing for is the further extension of the academy and free school programme, but with greater devolution of authority (to the right sort of school) and less favouritism in selecting suppliers. By the same token, the speech to the HHC by Michael Wilshaw, the Head of Oftsed, was a neoliberal call for private schools to exert more influence over state schools, dressed up as an oblique tax demand ("Education should not be a scarce resource hoarded by those lucky enough to possess it").

The ultimate aim of Hands and the HHC is to blur the boundary between the state and independent sectors sufficiently to preserve and strengthen the privileges of the latter. In this, they are at one with Gove and Wilshaw, for whom the aspirational independent sector is central to their envisioned tripartite system. Instead of grammars, technical colleges and secondary moderns, this evolving system spans both the independent and state sectors, based on an upper class of private schools, a middle class of academies and free schools (the direct descendants of grammar and grant-maintained schools), and a lower class of state comprehensives.

To judge from media reports, you might think there was a right old ding-dong going on between the independent sector and the government, with the fulcrum of debate being the degree of state control and the associated obligations of private schools, but this is just a pretend fight in the playground. Both sides want to reinforce the non-state educational establishment and open up commercial opportunities for private providers in the rump state sector. For all the waffle about "love" and "social leprosy", this is just reactionaries and neoliberals squabbling over the spoils.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Really the Blues

Woody Allen's new film, Blue Jasmine, tells the story of a high society wife, with no discernible talent and a planet-sized sense of entitlement, thrown on hard times when her husband is revealed as a Bernie Madoff-like crook. The pivotal moment comes late in the film, when we realise that Jasmine has turned Hal in to the FBI after discovering (or admitting what seemed to be common knowledge) that he had also been unfaithful with a sizeable proportion of the female population of Manhattan. Hal subsequently hangs himself in prison (Jasmine helpfully explains that this breaks the neck instantly, unlike the slow death of strangulation). Her stepson Danny flees Harvard and New York, appalled to discover his parents were phonies all along. Having lost all her money, and with only her Louis Vuitton luggage to console her, Jasmine jets off to crash with her sister, Ginger, in San Francisco, much to the inconvenience of Ginger's new beau, Chili.

The plot has a number of gaps and illogicalities (how did Hal manage to hang himself in a cell with a rope?), perhaps reflecting Jasmine's increasingly frayed state of mind. This is also reflected in the editing, which interleaves the contemporaneous and serial scenes in San Francisco with the remembered but jumbled scenes of life in New York and the Hamptons. Jasmine insists she knew nothing of Hal's schemes, despite being a signatory on various company documents, which suggests she only escaped prison due to a combination of a plea-bargain and her poor mental health (presumably patched-up in an expensive clinic). She is in denial and adrift. She took jobs in high-fashion stores to make ends meet, but the shame of seeing former friends and party guests became too great. You suspect she was fired for being flaky, rather than that she walked of her own accord.

The film isn't a simple retelling of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, but it does lift much of the plot and characters wholesale, from the lazy equivalence of the main character's name (Jasmine French/Blanche DuBois), through her fondness for a cleansing shower and a drink, to the chorus role of Chili/Stanley's drinking buddies. There are structural differences: unlike Stella, Ginger has two kids and works her way through three men; while the Mitch role in Streetcar (played by Karl Malden in Elia Kazan's 1951 film of the play) is now split between a socially-inpet dentist (Dr Flicker) and an improbable State Department hunk (Dwight) with a thing about interior decor and plans to run for congress (we get no insight into his political beliefs, which is revealing in its way).

Music is used as a leitmotif for memory (Blue Moon versus Streetcar's polka) and as an all-purpose symbol of a better world: it's central to Ginger's affair with soundman Al (who proves not to be so sound after all) and the salvation of stepson Danny, who has fled New York in shame and started a new life in San Francisco selling musical instruments. Blues dominate the soundtrack. Colour is also important: Jasmine's ambition to retrain as an interior decorator is justified by her "eye for colour", while her sentimental love of Blue Moon contrasts with her distaste for the blue-collar. This symbolic vocabulary is similar to Williams' approach in Streetcar. (An in-joke is that Alec Baldwin played Stanley Kowlaski in the 1995 film version of Streetcar, while Cate Blanchett has played Blanche DuBois on stage; while an even more recherche joke was Woody Allen and Diane Keaton's skit on the play in Sleeper, in which the gender roles were reversed).

The extensive borrowings from Streetcar have partly obscured Allen's other references to American literature, which are habitual. The suggestive name of Ginger's ex-husband is Augie, echoing the everyman of Saul Bellow's The Adventure of Augie March. His speech towards the end, which serves to open Dwight's eyes to Jasmine's dishonesty, has a Bellovian nobility about it (Allen has been called "the popular culture analogue to Saul Bellow" and used the author as a deadpan talking-head in Zelig, that parable of American reinvention and Jewish assimilation). The use of the emblematic word "phony", by both Danny and Chili, is a clear reference to J D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Danny is a Holden Caulfield who actually did quit New York and went west. The alternation of the New York scenes between Manhattan and the summer house on Long Island, not to mention the dodgy source of Hal's money, echoes F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, though Jasmine is as much the delusional Jay Gatsby as she is the insensitive Daisy Buchanan.

There are repeated references to genes and how Jasmine's were "better" than Ginger's (both were adopted). This hints at the actual belief of many Americans in the genetic destiny of class and race, which stands in ironic counterpoint to the ideology of reinvention and "making it". As Jasmine's material position crumbles, accelerated by her spendthrift habits and punctuated by one-percenter rants about how the government "took everything", her financial instability bubbles up into mental instability. This gets to the dark heart of the film, which is that we do not have the degree of control over our lives that we think we deserve, something that Blanche DuBois recognised while Stanley and Stella Kowalski were still subscribing to the American Dream.

Allen's traditional tropes are present too. Europe is still held up as the acme of culture, with Jasmine rhapsodising about Paris and Vienna and how San Francisco is "the most European city" (just as the New Orleans of Streetcar is the most French). The Bay Area is shown in muted, almost bleached, tones, in contrast to the more sanguinary New York. Some have criticised Allen's San Francisco for being too much like New York transplanted, with the characters of Chili and Augie being pure Bronx, but this misses the point that none of his portrayals of cities are anything less than fantasies. His supposed mastery of New York on-screen (largely the result of Annie Hall and the monochrome Manhattan) is simply because his vision matches our own, common fantasy. New York is defined by celluloid in a way that Paris, London and Barcelona aren't.

The other trope is his appalled fascination with solipsistic and borderline-unhinged women (or what he has variously called "kamikaze women" and "emotional and sarcastic and flamboyant" types), which has become stronger over the years as his muse migrated from Diane Keaton through Dianne Wiest and Mia Farrow. Cate Blanchett's Jasmine is as close as he's yet come to full-on termagant, unless you count Penelope Cruz's caricature in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (in a parallel universe he'd have directed The Iron Lady). Allen describes the key moment, when Jasmine phones the FBI in a rage at Hal's infidelity, as a "temper tantrum". Allen sees Jasmine as the representative of a class of woman that has not been changed (or challenged) by feminism, "Guys are more used to the business of making their own lives", yet she is propelled by the self-reinvention (changing her name from Jeanette) and flight from responsibility of the classic American male protagonist, from Hawkeye to Rabbit Angstrom (Allen also changed his name, from Allan Konigsberg, and has been accused of irresponsibility in his personal life).

This tension, between the troubles of the rich and self-determination, stops the film being blatantly misogynistic, though the way that both Jasmine and Ginger look to men for salvation rather tries one's patience (when Al admits to Ginger that he is married, you rather hope she'll trash his car, or at least his iPod speakers). That said, Allen does ratchet up his equal-opportunities misanthropy to the point of near-sadism and the suggestion that we are watching the opening scenes of a longer descent into destitution and madness: Jasmine's gradual transformation into a bag-lady.

Blue Jasmine is being lauded as a masterpiece of "late style Woody Allen". It's very good, but it falls short of greatness. The skill of the film and the acting are worthy of gongs, but the moral equivocation is disappointing. Allen is not a political film-maker, but when you deal with such a subject - the encouragement society offers white-collar crooks and the vicious antipathy of the classes in "anyone can make it" America - you need to do more than express regret and pass by on the other side. The saddest scene of the film is the last, where a distressed Jasmine starts compulsively talking to herself on a park bench as another women sidles away to avoid the loon. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche is carted off to an asylum in an ambulance, a concrete symbol of society providing care for the defeated. In the modern world it appears there is no one there to help. Just as high society has abandoned Jasmine, there is no wider society visible that seeks to pick up the pieces of her shattered mind.

A couple of years ago Woody Allen listed his top five favourite books. This highlighted both his admiration for The Catcher in the Rye and the importance to him of Streetcar and the director Elia Kazan. He also expressed a fondness for the 1946 memoir of jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, Really the Blues. Mezzrow was a teller of tall tales, a dealer in marijuana, and self-described "honorary negro". According to Allen, "The story, while probably just a lot of junk, was compelling for me because it was about many musicians whose work I knew and admired and the ins and outs of jazz joints that I knew about and the legendary songs that were played in the legendary nightclubs ... But I know it's not a very good or even a very honest book." Allen admires the style and the context, the mise en scene, but doesn't mind the void at the heart of the work. He's probably quite pleased with his new film.