Wednesday, 17 September 2014

We Are Devo

A number of commentators on the left have been thrilled by the flowering of democratic practice during the Scottish referendum debate. Paul Mason talks of "a sustained and substantial glimpse of a grassroots campaign in which politicians are secondary and street-magic primary". To ensure you don't think he's hankering after our very own Tahrir Square, he then advocates the "non-strident" and quiet Britishness of George Orwell, which is apparently now embodied by Dan Snow and Eddie Izzard (national broadcasting may be the kernel of persistent identity here, now the empire is no more and the welfare state ailing). On the right, the desperation to find something in a hollowed-out state to provide the glue of nationalism, other than wet weather and the English language, reduces Tim Stanley to gibberish: "the healthy nation state can only be healthy when populated by moral people".

Many now foresee a new constitutional settlement for the UK, whatever the outcome of Thursday's vote, though predictably more along the lines of an elected Lords than the abolition of the Corporation of the City of London. Phil BC says "We need a politics that is accessible and as close to the electorate as possible to overcome the rancid legacy of anti-politics, a system that does not disenfranchise massive numbers because they happen to live in safe seats, and a settlement that encourages and rewards an active citizenry". This is nostalgia for the more politically engaged and literate electorate of yore. The reality is that engagement for the majority only occurs under exceptional circumstances, such as in 1945, while an interest in politics is viewed suspiciously by both the state and society. For the most part, people do not want to be "bothered" by politics and will happily forgo engagement until their own interests are directly threatened (the Scots will regress to the mean). This is why governments pick off minorities one by one, and why the national media treat solidarity as abnormal and suspicious ("trouble-makers", "outside agitators" etc).

There is an obvious paradox in the voguish belief that greater devolution and localism will lead to greater solidarity. This confusion is also on display in Pride, a social comedy (more in the tradition of Ealing Studios than Boulting Brothers) about a London LGBT group raising funds for Welsh miners in 1984, in which being disliked by the Tory government is sufficient grounds for mutual support. It's a very entertaining film, that cleverly shows how identity politics substitutes a culture of hedonistic consumption for one of traditional self-restraint and denial, but it ultimately depicts solidarity as a triumph over difference rather than the recognition of shared economic interests. In fact, the film suggests the chief act of solidarity was getting so many star names to take supporting parts or make brief cameos. Luvvies united.

Pride is an example of the continuing recuperation of the miners strike as a sentimental commodity, regretting the human cost but insisting the outcome was inevitable and thus desirable. The film has been roundly praised by the same conservative press that monstered the miners and gays in the 80s (they also appear to have missed its celebration of multiculturalism, presumably because the cast are all-white). The process started with the 1996 film Brassed Off, in which the inescapable death of the industry is symbolised by Pete Postlethwaite's black lung, community is reduced to nostalgic music (Pride indulges in tearful singing), and hope means the young and talented heading for London. Billy Elliott in 2000 accentuated these themes, with the dad reduced to scabbing in order that the boy might be saved from obscurity through ballet. Jeremy Deller's 2001 work, The Battle of Orgreave, explicitly addressed this recuperation, as well as bringing out the civil war echoes, but had little impact outside the art world. In all cases, the economics of coal and the agency of government are off-screen.

The subtext of the inevitability and desirability of coal's eclipse finds a parallel in the modern assumption that regional devolution will help address the imbalance of Britain. However, this assumption ignores the basis of the imbalance and, to judge from the "pledge" recently issued in respect of Scotland, is biased towards fiscal distribution over capital investment (the latter massively favours London). The UK is not like Germany, where there are multiple lander that are net contributors (via nationally-set taxes) to federal equalisation. Nor is it like Spain or Italy, where autonomist movements are strongest in rich areas, such as Catalonia and Lombardy, and derive much of their support from resentment over the flow of revenues to the "parasitical" centre.

Fiscally-oriented devo max (i.e. focused on limited variations to national tax and spend norms) would actually entrench the power of "Greater Greater London" as the subsidies would be largely one way. Every region outside London, the South East and (marginally) the East of England would likely run a deficit. This risks creating bantustans under the control of local elites playing the anti-London card while accommodating City interests through regulatory arbitrage (the SNP's commitment to lower corporation tax is textbook). The more fiscal power is devolved to the regions, the more regional government will matter and conceivably the more engaged the electorate will be. But this also means the power of London to indirectly influence affairs will be maintained while its responsibility for bad policy will be reduced. Of course, the metonym "London" refers not to the South East but to the City and Westminster.

Localism, whether in the form of rebarbative nationalism or pro-social devolution, is an understandable attempt to achieve self-determination in the face of post-democratic neoliberalism, but it risks substituting petty solidarities for class consciousness, which is why big capital will happily accommodate itself to "self-rule" in Edinburgh just as small capital will advance the same in Clacton. Resistance to globalisation is made difficult not just by explicit anti-union measures but by the practical difficulties of organising industrial and political action across borders. In Pride, the LGBT van gets lost in the Welsh valleys. Today, you'd simply pull up Google Maps on your smartphone. The final paradox is that the Internet, which did so much to turbo-boost globalisation, may be doing more to atomise and diffuse solidarity today than to promote it, despite the theatre of Tahrir, Syntagma and Maidan.

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