Monday, 31 August 2015

Beyond Chapter Two

Andrew Haigh's new film, 45 Years, is based on a David Constantine short story, In Another Country, which was included in the 2005 collection, Under The Dam. The story's title is a nod to Christopher Marlowe's oft-quoted The Jew of Malta - "but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead" - which has served as a recurrent motif of alienation and relativism from T S Eliot's Portrait of a Lady, through James Baldwin's 1962 novel to Julian Mitchell's 1981 play about Guy Burgess. The dam of the collection title is the central metaphor of Constantine's story, a glacier holding back a huge body of melted ice-water that global warming will eventually release and "anything human in the way of it will be wiped out". Among the rocks and mud will be the corpse of a young woman: the past returned to haunt the present. Haigh's previous work as a director has focused on gay themes (Greek Pete, Weekend), and this new film could as easily have been about the destabilising revelation of youthful homosexuality for a settled heterosexual marriage, in the manner of 1961's The Victim. It is a tale of inter-generational conflict that largely avoids the young.

The 11-page short story has been skillfully expanded into a film, though it would have worked just as well as a half-hour radio play. A comfortably retired, childless couple, Geoff and Kate Mercer, about to celebrate their sapphire wedding anniversary, are disturbed when he receives an official letter from Switzerland confirming the discovery of the body of his ex-girlfriend, Katya, who fell into a glacier fissure in 1962. Her corpse has been revealed frozen in the ice, as the covering of snow has gradually melted, still as fresh and young as the that day she died. The film coolly watches as Geoff and Kate come to terms with this eruption of the past. Its quality is in the timing and phrasing of the leads, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, though both are also excellent at subtle visual communication: Courtenay's whole body oscillating between tragedy and comedy; Rampling's face a dark pool of emotion. There are essentially only two and half characters, with Lena, played by Geraldine James, acting as a rather cursory sounding board for Kate's concerns. This is a very British two-hander, in which silences and mutually-assured restraint create space for fears to grow and hopes to curdle.

The alternately grumpy and meek Geoff, who suffered a heart bypass 5 years previously (thus causing the cancellation of their ruby wedding anniversary), becomes loquacious and even poetic as he recalls the events of over 50 years ago when he and Katya walked south to Italy, posing as man and wife for social convenience. His language takes on the cadences of D H Lawrence, particularly of his poetry in Look! We Have Come Through!, a work that partly celebrated Lawrences' own southward Alpine crossing with Frieda Weekley, a woman temporarily estranged from her children by his love, just before the Great War. Geoff rhapsodises a violet flower that sprang up amid the snow (Constantine's story mentions blue gentians as well, an explicit reference to Lawrence's poem, Bavarian Gentians), emphasising how alive the young couple were, with no purpose beyond looking for food and a place to sleep, while the wider world grappled with the Cuban missile crisis and the erection of the Berlin Wall (in the story, set some 17 years earlier, the surroundings were more menacing: "with Hitler where they'd come from and Mussolini where they were going to").

The film has an undercurrent of class antagonism that is absent from the story. Kate was a respected teacher, with perfect upper-middle class diction; Geoff was an engineer, who worked his way up from the shopfloor to management and regrets the decline of the unions (his regret over a lost past is a key theme). She corrects his placing of Tollund (he's referring to the ancient bodies preserved in peat) from Sweden to Denmark ("I had to teach it"), and cheerfully derides his three attempts to tackle Kierkegaard ("you've got three copies of that book and you've never got beyond chapter two" - We never learn which book, but the Dane's concerns with choice and anxiety are suggestive). He generally responds with patient silence, not unlike a cowed schoolboy, but notes her father's dislike of him as a suitor in his speech at the wedding anniversary party: a small revenge. She is a model of structure and habit: walk the dog, drink a glass of water, pop into town. When their shared life appears to be on the brink of unravelling, she cleaves to routine: he'll take his pills, they'll eat their meal, they'll go to bed, and tomorrow they'll go on. But this is more a determination to discipline the imagination than Beckettian resignation.

Their world is flat. The film is set is rural Norfolk, with bustling Norwich serving as a backdrop for Kate's increasing alienation and a rather obvious visual link between weddings and Switzerland by way of a jewellers. Their home is bleached, rustic and comfortingly middle class: the Roberts radio, the grey Skoda, the cream Aga. Kate on screen is far less severe and unsympathetic than on the page, where the couple are only ever Mr and Mrs - only Katya has a first name in the story. The promotion to cinema has also upgraded their material circumstances. In the original, they live in a small house ("nowhere to pace") with a flagstone garden on a dull estate in North Wales (Mrs Mercer takes day-trips to Prestatyn and Horseshoe Pass). Evenings are spent watching TV, rather than listening to classical music, and the books mostly come from the library. What's consistent is the inverted fissure of the loft, a glacier-like deep storage from which troubling mementoes emerge.

In the story, Katya is revealed to be a Jewish orphan and her death occurs in late wartime (what Mr Mercer is doing in Switzerland is unclear). The revelation of Katya's pregnancy comes directly from Geoff, not, as in the film, when Kate discovers old photographic slides. He says they were "heedless", but admits to himself that their certainty that they wanted a child and to go on living together was anything but. In the film this becomes the admission that they would have married, that Katya would have become Mrs Mercer, had she survived. For the actual Mrs Mercer in Constantine's tale, "All she wanted was to be able to say it hasn't been nothing, it hasn't been a waste of time, the fifty years, that they amount to something, if not a child". The story ends with Mr Mercer setting off on a probably abortive attempt to get to Switzerland. In the film he eschews any such mad idea, settles for social conformity and does the right thing at the celebratory party - he toasts Kate as the best decision he ever made and blubs, as Lena confidently predicted he would.

With little visual exuberance - the flat Norfolk Broads are a blunt contrast to the unseen Alps, though they do allow for references to digging - the film over-invests in music as a symbol of the Mercer's shared history, with ironic if unsubtle pointers to their contemporary pain. The Platters' Smoke Gets in You Eyes bookends the film (Kate hums it as Geoff opens the fateful letter, and it is the first number they dance to at the party), but hearing "when an old flame dies" repeatedly is bathetic. A distracted Kate, prompted over the phone for the party playlist, runs out of steam and ends with "Oh, and The Moody Blues". Are you trying to tell us something, dearie? When Gary Puckett & The Union Gap's Young Girl comes on the radio in the car while she is travelling with Lena, Kate promptly turns it off. A more realistic response would have been a sour joke about Jimmy Savile.

Where the film works better is in its suggestive elisions, such as the "big decisions" that Kate now fears Geoff regrets, the key one presumably being the decision not to have children (explicit in the story). Her angst stems from the fear that this was a decision made with Katya in mind more than her. At the anniversary party, Lena presents the couple with a collage of photos, a summary of the view that others have had of them over the years, a moment that is both chilling and warm, and reminiscent of the surveillance trope in that great film of bourgeois guilt, Michael Haneke's Caché. They see how young they were, how dogs substituted for children, and Kate suddenly realises how little all this has meant. Where Geoff at least has had substantial regrets to cosset, she has too easily accommodated herself to limits and lack - making a virtue of placid emptiness. Perhaps Kate's final realisation, superbly rendered on Rampling's haunted face amid the party crowd, is that she has never got beyond chapter two either, and her chance to do so has now gone. Geoff at least repeatedly tried.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Do You Want Notes?

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's Mistress America is that rare thing: a grown-up film that owes a debt to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. This is not to say that Mark Twain's books haven't inspired adult films, but this has often been done indirectly via other novels, such as The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye. As Hemmingway said of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "All American writing comes from that". In cinema, the direct influence of Twain's imaginary America has been more obvious in comedy-action films, from the Indiana Jones franchise to Bill and Ted's various adventures. What is doubly remarkable is that Mistress America changes both gender and perspective, with the younger Tom (Tracy, played by Lola Kirke) documenting the adventures of the older Huck (Brooke, played by co-writer Gerwig). What remains constant is the trouble that the two characters delusions, a love of stories and adventure respectively, spawn in their lives.

The film is structured into three acts and an epilogue - a "chapter the last", in Twain's formulation - and a fitting epigraph might have been taken from among Huck's last words, "if I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it and ain't agoing to no more". This is a story about the contrasting and conflicting difficulties of living and writing. The first act is the setup - an episodic collage that introduces Tracy, a straight-outta-suburbia freshman student at New York's Barnard College and aspiring writer. Her assigned roommate is a black hole of negativity and her classmates are patronising dicks or social losers. Like her. Her ambition is to be accepted into the exclusive Mobius Literary Society, a clique of talentless snobs. She is rejected by them, and then by fellow rejected scribbler Tony, who chooses the possessive Nicolette as his girlfriend instead. This is a parody of the prematurely middle-aged that will find an echo in the ambition, materialism and vindictiveness of the third act. The influence of Woody Allen is front and centre. The mood is sour, wry and the visual palette is mostly brown and grey.

The middle act is the womance, a conscious escape from her empty life, in which the younger Tracy hooks up with Brooke (frequently referred to as "Bro"), her soon-to-be-stepsister-by-remarriage. Tracy is entertained and fascinated by the 30-year-old technicolor Brooke, much as Nick Carraway was by the slow-motion train-wreck of Jay Gatsby. New York itself is most visible as a character in this section, but despite the clichéd tour of contemporary hipsterdom (there's a cameo by the Dirty Projectors), it's the fragments that echo earlier gleaming visions, from Breakfast at Tiffany's via Desperately Seeking Susan to Sex and the City, that catch the eye. Brooke has a portfolio career, relentlessly "curated" online, that combines being an under-employed interior designer, spin class leader and home tutor with grand plans to open a restaurant in Williamsburg with her absent Greek boyfriend, Stavros. In other words, she has been vainly trying to monetise her personality for over a decade. She is clued-up, highly-networked and going nowhere.

Her home is a loft space zoned as commercial - i.e. it's illegal. Her world soon falls apart as Stavros dumps her and the restaurant and she is locked-out of the apartment. In the key scene of the act, an old school contemporary of Brooke upbraids her for her historic cruelty - she sarcastically accused others of being bitter - which highlights both Brooke's own contemporary bitterness and her tendency to confuse an unwillingness to confront the consequences of her actions with largeness of spirit. After visiting a wry medium ("you must listen to spirit"), who fulfils the role reserved for psychoanalysts in the Woody Allen canon, her anger is redirected towards Mamie-Claire, a former friend who apparently stole Brooke's earlier boyfriend, Dylan, her two cats and the idea for a t-shirt design that was sold to J.Crew (Mamie-Claire will later justify the cats through investment - "I paid the vet bills so I own them" - and the theft of intellectual capital through superior exploitation - Brooke was incapable of monetising the idea). Brooke and Tracy set off to confront this "nemesis", who now lives a comfortable life in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Despite the nods to screwball comedy (rapid-fire repartee, the country house setting, unexpected guests etc), the third act is a gloriously stagey farce whose increasingly surreal plot and rhetoric owe more to Bunuel, Renoir and Godard than Hawks, Cukor or Sturges. The visual style is Le Corbusier off-white. It's the most European part of the film, which perhaps explains why some American critics seem uncomfortable with it. Brooke seeks restitution from Mamie-Claire and Dylan in the form of investment in her restaurant. Dylan offers to pay off her debts, but insists on dropping the restaurant idea, the implication being that he expects her to become his mistress. Brooke refuses. The possessive Nicollette, convinced that Tracy is trying to steal Tony (the two have been roped-in by Tracy and Brooke for the trip because Tony has a car), finds Tracy's short story about Brooke, Mistress America, reads it and then denounces Tracy to Brooke and the rest as a monster of self-regard. The ensemble, including Mamie-Claire's pregnant tax lawyer friend, Karen, and a resentful paediatrician neighbour, Harold (played by the film's co-composer, Dean Wareham), interrogate and judge Tracy.

A European film would end at this point, but Noah Baumbach reveals his larger, optimistic purpose by adding an extended epilogue in which Tracy and Brooke are reconciled, Brooke reveals she has paid off her debts and will finally go to college (funded by a pay-off from Mamie-Claire, who is desperate to save her marriage to Dylan), and that she is lighting out for the new territory and promise of LA, somewhere that may suit her personality better. Tracy finally eulogises her friend's spirit, despite the self-deceit and failure to follow-through on plans (it's worth noting that Brooke could probably have secured the pay-out earlier, but it took Tracy's prompting to make it happen), because she is a refreshing contrast to the narrow calculation and selfishness of others: "she was the bonfire to their matches". In this she echoes Nick Carraway's celebration of Jay Gatsby for the sincerity of his shallow beliefs. The visual tone of the epilogue starts with the muted browns of the first act, but finishes with the warmer colours of the second.

There are a number of interesting motifs in the film, showing a degree of care that most reviews have skipped over. As the film itself makes clear, we live in an era when social media requires opinion to be cut down to the punch of a tweet. "Must we document ourselves all the time", Brooke faux-naively asks at one point, and then goes on to insist there is a huge difference between parasitically tweeting someone else's bon mots and using their character as the basis for a work of fiction. The entr'actes feature glass: the cracked glass of a smartphone screen, when Tracy decides to call Brooke for the first time; the crystal ball of the medium, which sets Brooke and Tracy off to Connecticut; the dirty windows Tracy peers through when she seeks out Brooke for their reconciliation. The epilogue ends with a view from the street, through glass, into a restaurant where the two are laughing. Like the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, the film is also marked by absent and unreliable men: Brooke's dad is only ever heard on the phone; her boyfriend Stavros is only heard from second-hand; pregnant Karen waits vainly for her husband to pick her up in the third act.

The film is parodically postmodern: it even critiques its own title. Brooke is asked to make her business pitch to Dylan and Mamie-Claire on their "media-stage", fluffs her opening speech and makes a weak visual joke about rewinding, finally producing the hilarious line: "It’s a restaurant, but also where you cut hair". The Mobius Literary Society is a transplant from a pre-email age, requiring short-stories to be submitted on onion-skin paper and deposited in a drop-box in full view of its members. At one point Brooke pines for the class certainties of feudalism. Inter-textuality is rife. The third act interrupts Mamie-Claire's reading group of pregnant Stepford wives discussing Faulkner's The Hamlet and a "slim biography of Derrida". There is a recurrent trope of critical feedback ("do you want notes?"), which allows the writers to neutralise the potential criticism that they have created female characters who are vicious and amoral by having Mamie-Claire critique Tracy's story on similar grounds. But despite this Old World sophistication, the film remains a paean to New World optimism: second chances, reinvention, the limitless opportunity out West. And its got lots of jokes.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Zombies and Luddites

One of the defining features of political economy since 2008 has been the persistence of ideas that were discredited by the global financial crisis. Paul Krugman popularised the term "zombie" to describe them, prompting the title of John Quiggin's 2012 book, Zombie Economics, which examined "how market liberalism depends on ideas that have failed", such as the Great Moderation, the Efficient Markets Hypothesis and DSGE. Quiggin starts by acknowledging both Krugman and Keynes, which shows that the zombie trope has a long pedigree. His epigraph is one of Keynes's more famous quotes: "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back".

It's worth extending the quote, as Keynes then defines the problem more mundanely in terms of institutional conservatism - i.e. people in positions of power are usually middle-aged and have adopted much of the existing orthodoxy during their ascent: "I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil". The coda suggests that good ideas will triumph in the end, which in turn implies that vested interests have little staying-power (Keynes ended up in the House of Lords, which suggests otherwise). Paul Krugman is essentially battling to reinstate ideas that came to the fore as far back as the 1930s (e.g. the Hicks-Hansen IS-LM Model), so he appears to be up against more than just a generational lag.

Insofar as wrong ideas live on until they are refuted, the high percentage of zombies in the field of economics reflects the nature of a social science whose theories are not easily falsifiable. Much the same is true of history, though there the zombies tend to be myths, which are perhaps better thought of as ghosts - i.e. claims that are easily disproved but survive because we like a good story. A real zombie idea in history is usually a claim about process that can be abstracted as a general rule from a specific historical event. For example, in a routine bleat about the ethical decline occasioned by social media, Rafael Behr claims: "It has been said many times that the communications revolution we are experiencing is analogous to the disruption of old European authorities caused by the invention of the printing press. The capacity to knock out thousands of pamphlets in vernacular German and English broke the monopoly of the Latin-writing class on interpretations of scripture and law". In other words, technology directly triggers social upheaval, which is naive determinism.

The suggestion that Latin went into decline among the clergy and lawyers after the mid-15th century is obviously nonsense, as is the implication that the vernacular was excluded from political life before then. English supplanted Latin (and more importantly French) in most areas of public life a hundred years prior to the first printing press. Chaucer preceded Caxton. It was the Renaissance that saw the wider adoption of Latin as a technical and literary language, a process that was accelerated by the dissemination of classical texts in printed form. Behr is pushing the zombie idea that the Reformation was essentially the product of the printing of vernacular bibles, though he is using the idea to emphasise the distorting power of technology as a caution against the enthusiasms of social media (i.e. Corbyn-mania). He ignores both the possibility that the Reformation may have had other causes and the role of vernacular printing in the Counter-Reformation.

Zombie ideas are not merely myths, or the sort of pseudo-science favoured by dictatorships, such as Lysenkoism, far less the tenacious conspiracy theories that mutate over time from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to black helicopters. A prime-cut zombie idea has the flavour of a natural law, and is often supported by explanatory parables. Thus naive technological determinism (which ignores the social determination of technological development and assumes that progress is the uniform advance of knowledge) is proven by the printing press dethroning Latin. The persistence of a zombie idea, in the sense of it being taken seriously and having an influence on public policy, is the product of the ruling ideology. This is why most zombie ideas appear to emanate from the political right. For example, the Laffer Curve is obviously a reflection of the interests of the elite, even down to the story that Art Laffer sketched it on a napkin, proving both its simplicity and revealing its social context (rich people enjoying lunch).

In fact, Zombie ideas are to be found across the political spectrum. An example of a lefty zombie in mainstream economics would be the job guarantee, an idea that should have been buried in the 1970s as structural unemployment took hold. The idea is kept alive mainly by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) advocates, who believe that the state can employ a "buffer-stock" of workers to control rates of both unemployment and inflation. Jeremy Corbyn's proposal for "People's QE", whereby the Bank of England buys the bonds of a national investment bank that in turn funds infrastructure projects, is a variant on this. The most persistent zombies are those that are commonly advanced by both left (i.e. respectable centre-left) and right (i.e. non-lunatic right). Naive technological determinism is one example, which in turn reflects the breadth of neoliberal ideology and the power of its supporting parables of progress, disinterested science and the marketplace for ideas. A classic ecumenical zombie, that never appears to lose it charm, is the Lump of Labour Fallacy and in particular its supporting parable, the Luddite Fallacy.

Katie Allen in the Guardian gave us a textbook run-through this week in an article entitled "Technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed, says 140 years of data". This turns out to be the work of "economists at Deloitte" who have analysed the job titles reported in UK census data since 1871. There are some obvious methodological issues with this, chief being that the normalised index of occupations encodes assumptions and that these change over time. The modern era has seen not only job title inflation (e.g. "manager") but occupational ambiguity (e.g. the application of "analyst" to a raft of clerical roles). Allen starts with the stock parable: "In the 1800s it was the Luddites smashing weaving machines. These days retail staff worry about automatic checkouts. Sooner or later taxi drivers will be fretting over self-driving cars. The battle between man and machines goes back centuries. Are they taking our jobs? Or are they merely easing our workload?"

The Luddites did not fear that they would be replaced by weaving machines, but that the new technology would be used to de-skill their job and thus force down wages. They were motivated by the falling returns to skill rather than technophobia. The broader imputation is that workers instinctively subscribe to the Lump of Labour Fallacy, the belief that there is a fixed amount of work in the economy, so that if technology (capital) directly substitutes for labour, this will reduce the demand for workers. Both the Lump of Labour Fallacy and the Luddite Fallacy are strawmen - i.e. their critics are many while their advocates are largely mythical. Ironically, the true believers in the idea of a fixed amount of work were the proto-capitalists of the 17th century, who were influenced by both mercantilism (the idea that there is a fixed amount of trade in the world, justifying state power to seize and secure it) and the debates on poor relief that started after the dissolution of the monasteries (notably the fear that outdoor relief would deprive others of work, which lives on today in that other zombie, the public sector "crowding out" the private sector).

By the late nineteenth century, the Lump of Labour Fallacy had been refashioned to resist demands for a reduction in working hours, the new strawman being the claim that a general reduction in work-time would require more workers to be employed. In fact, the agitation for reduced hours reflected the understanding of workers that increases in productivity both justified and were a consequence of reduced hours. Pressure for a reduction in work hours continued through the twentieth century, but by the 1960s the priority of organised labour was increased wages (and overtime), which reflected the profusion of commodities. During the neoliberal era, debt has increasingly substituted for wages and systemic under-employment (i.e. involuntary reductions in work hours) has grown. The strawmen have now been repositioned in support of creative destruction and technological disruption: the robots will do the shit jobs and we'll be freed up for creative and caring roles. The common feature throughout this history is the reluctance to address what the changing composition of roles means in terms of power, and specifically the impact on wages - the Luddites original concern.

Allen exhibited the ability to hold (or at least report) conflicting views on the subject the following day, when she penned a piece on the falling returns to education: "UK graduates are wasting degrees in lower-skilled jobs - Over-qualification has reached saturation point". Larry Elliott helpfully glossed this with a reference to the economics canon: "So much for Say's Law. The expansion of higher education in Britain has been based on the law espoused by the famous French economist that supply creates its own demand. So increasing the number of graduates should increase the jobs that need a degree". This implies that there is a fixed number of graduate jobs, which is no less daft than supposing that the total number of jobs in the economy is fixed. This is an example of (to borrow Keynes's term) a vested interest. The middle classes are conditioned to believe that society and economy are inescapably constrained, necessitating competition and sharp elbows for limited school places and nice homes. This constraint now extends to graduate jobs, with scare stories about unpaid internships jostling in the media with the trusty standby of property prices.

While the tribunes of the middle classes would never concede the lump of labour theory for the economy as a whole (they'll still insist the poor should accept that crap wages and insufficient hours are the price we must pay for progress, while the unemployed will be told that there is always work to do), they will accept that there is a fixed amount of material success in society and this should be reserved for those who have invested in their human capital. The concern over "graduate saturation" looks like a harbinger of a further shift in the political wind towards the pricing-out of lower class students (to "maintain standards"), which will probably be effected by fully commercialising student debts, limiting means-tested state support, and allowing universities to balance the books by removing the cap on course fees. In other words, we'll end up much like the USA. To judge from the steeply rising cost of student digs, this process is already well under way. The zombie shuffles on.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Social Entrepreneurs

As the likelihood of Jeremy Corbyn being elected leader of the Labour Party has increased, the parallels with former leaders have come thick and fast, with Michael Foot being the default option. The message of doom is unmistakable but misleading, not least because there is no alternative contender of the calibre of Denis Healey today and because everyone seems to have forgotten that Foot was the compromise candidate between the Bennite left and the right. What Foot offered was clumsy unity, exemplified by the decision that the 1983 manifesto (immortalised as "the longest suicide note in history" by Gerald Kaufman) would reflect all conference resolutions, no matter how aspirational or gestural. Corbyn is no less of a party man than Foot, but has already shown himself more pragmatic by focusing his campaign on policies that capture the imagination of both party members and different segments of the wider electorate, from anti-austerity through public ownership of the railways to scrapping Trident. Ironically, the New Labour evisceration of conference has allowed him to be both more specific than the other contenders and less hobbled by unpopular policies, such as Harriet Harman's misjudgement over the Benefits Bill.

Some commentators have shown a little more historical awareness by referencing George Lansbury, who led the party between 1932 and 1935. "Good old George" was a hugely popular figure, which reflected his humble background and personal integrity as much as his politics. He was a Christian pacifist, a longstanding supporter of women's suffrage and largely devoid of personal ambition, though his saintliness irritated some. Official history has cast him as a romantic naif because of his pacifism in the 30s and the revelations of covert Bolshevik funding for the Daily Herald, the newspaper he had helped establish in 1912 (it was reinvented in the 1960s as the Sun, before being bought by Rupert Murdoch). He was famously accused by Ernest Bevin (then TGWU General Secretary) at the 1935 annual conference, when his pacifist principles were in conflict with the party's demand for economic sanctions against Italy over Abyssinia, of "hawking your conscience round from body to body asking to be told what to do with it". He resigned shortly afterwards and was succeeded by Clement Attlee, another product of East End local government.

What this legacy has obscured was Lansbury's crucial role in rebuilding the party after the MacDonald split in 1931, which required a none-too-common mix of organisational talent and motivation, not to mention his achievements in local government, notably the Poplar Rates Rebellion of 1921, his visionary contribution to Poor Law reform, and the role of the Daily Herald both in the wider advance of the labour movement and as a critic of official propaganda during WW1 and after. He was also a highly effective Parliamentarian, both as a backbencher in the 1920s and as leader of the opposition to the National government of MacDonald. Though he died in 1940, he helped lay the foundations for the victory of 1945. This is no mean record, and is perhaps an unflattering contrast to Jeremy Corbyn, who for all his integrity and decency has had little tangible impact during his political career either at a London or a national level. Where the parallel is stronger is in the desire of the media to use foreign policy and security (Hamas, NATO etc) as a wedge between Corbyn and Labour supporters; and in the chuntering about a possible coup, though this time emanating from the PLP rather than the trade unions.

The contemporary parallels with the Islington North MP have tended to frame Lansbury as an "admirable but unworldly pacifist" (Michael White in the Guardian) and "the most left-wing leader Labour has ever had" (Andy McSmith in the Independent). It's worth noting that Lansbury's left-wing policies included old-age pensions and a national minimum wage, and that his pacifism was instrumental, focused on multilateral agreement (notably via the League of Nations), rather than merely expressive. During the Ed Miliband era, Jon Cruddas (one of Corbyn's nominators) sought to rehabilitate Lansbury as a leading light of the One Nation/Blue Labour/English tradition of the party, emphasising his virtue and inspiration in a direct appeal to the heart: "Politics is always first and foremost poetic because if it lacks the spirit to transform people and give them hope for a better life then it will fail to tackle the fundamental power relations that keep them in their place, however many policies it has lined up". Cruddas continues to push his radical/conservative schtick ("the electorate in England and Wales is both economically radical and fiscally conservative"), some of which can be seen reflected in Corbyn's policies. For example, the call for a "people's QE" is clever politics but incoherent economics, which marginalises genuinely radical alternatives like "helicopter money".

If Cruddas remains in a bind over the correct combination of heart and head, the Labour party establishment has no doubts that pragmatism is the supreme virtue, exemplified by Gordon Brown's insistence on "power for a purpose". The problem is that the New Labour record suggests that Brown failed to understand the true purpose of some of his cherished policies, from light-touch financial regulation to the capital-subsidies of tax credits, while the suspicion is that Blair was only too well aware of the real agenda, from Iraq to the indulgence of the rich. In a contest with the bland and the compromised, a candidate who appears "genuine" and "principled" inevitably looks attractive. As Obama proved in 2008, a "cleanskin" offering vague hope is a perfectly conventional neoliberal platform, as indeed was Blair in 1997, so it is amusing to see critics of Corbyn denigrate choosing the expressive over the instrumental. Campaigns based on hope tend to attract the previously marginalised, or re-attract the previously disillusioned. That Corbyn may be tapping into the mass of the disenchanted and disenfranchised is bewildering to candidates committed to a transactional model that welcomes the alienation of the electorate from an increasingly professionalised and arcane politics. Paradoxically, Labour needs to get over government if it is to become a government again, and Corbyn may offer the quickest route to that eventual outcome even if, like Lansbury, he won't be along for much of the ride.

It might appear odd at this point to put Lansbury aside and compare Corbyn with a media creation such as Michelle Mone, the "lingerie mogul" who has been appointed the government's "entrepreneurship tsar", however there are two interesting parallels. The first is the emphasis on embodiment: the qualities of the person rather than the institution. The popularity of Corbyn does not reflect an expectation that Labour will form the next government, while the choice of Mone does not suggest confidence that government of any stripe can summon up a wave of entrepreneurship. Her brief is a "review of obstacles faced by people in disadvantaged areas when it comes to setting up their own businesses". The exercise has been commissioned by Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, rather than by the Chancellor or the Business Secretary, which suggests a rather narrow definition of entrepreneurship. According to a government spokesbot, the review "will have a particular focus on disadvantaged groups including benefit claimants, women, young and disabled people and ex-offenders". In other words, this has nothing to do with incubating disruptive startups, negotiating the hurdles of international trade, or networking with venture capitalists. This is clearly an exercise aimed at encouraging more JSA claimants into subsidised self-employment.

There is scepticism about the choice of Michelle Mone for the job, which is inevitably tinged with sexism (she "pulled herself up by her bra-straps") and not a little jealousy: "Because she is flogging bras and knickers she gets models, and she gets PR way ahead of anything she should get". This rather misses the point that a government "tsar" is by definition a PR role. The question is: what is signified by the choice of the signifier? Mone's backstory is straight out of Samuel Smiles - overcoming humble origins and tragedy through sheer will and effort - but with the modern addition of success defined as a life of glamour rather than probity and charity. She is exemplary. In the same way that George Lansbury and Jeremy Corbyn are taken to embody integrity and decency, she is taken to embody the spirit of enterprise and personal empowerment. Whereas some previous tsars (like Mary Portas) thought their advice was actually being sought, and were miffed when it was ignored, I suspect Michelle Mone knows her job is simply to be. Where she and Corbyn differ is that he is a vessel for varied and even inchoate hopes, many of which he is fated to disappoint, whereas she is a role-model for "right behaviour": not relying on the state for support, seeing the market as a solution to all ills, and constant personal striving.

Most politicians, including Corbyn, think we should encourage small businesses and entrepreneurship. The harsh facts are that SMEs don't usually create jobs beyond the founders, and few will produce any significant levels of turnover. Most are distributive rather than productive, which means little gain to national GDP and thus average wages. Though startups can force older and less efficient businesses out of the market, thus raising aggregate productivity, they can also simply depress revenue levels and thus inhibit necessary investment. This is particularly the case with lifestyle businesses where incumbents may be prepared to accept a fall in income to preserve their independence. Most startups are shops or marginal service providers whose relative success depends on the carrying capacity of their local market rather than their innate talent. As FlipChartRick notes, "Encouraging people in poor areas to set up new businesses will simply shift them from one form of poverty to another and may well shunt some of their neighbours who are currently running businesses back into unemployment".

As an industrial or employment strategy, investing en masse in individually under-capitalised startups is daft. You'd get a far better return investing in infrastructure, encouraging foreign direct investment, or simply "picking winners" in key industries, which is closer to Corbyn's traditionalist strategy. The mundane reality of his soundbite about a "people's QE" would probably be a sensible increase in government debt (at historically low interest rates) to fund investment. This would undoubtedly benefit many more UK citizens than the Bank of England's QE exercise, which boosted share prices to the advantage of the rich, but it is hard to characterise this as "empowering" unless you cleave to the traditional social democratic view that the state is the people. The second parallel with Michelle Mone then is the assumption that the state, whether in the form of the DWP or a national investment bank, should intervene. Where they differ is that Mone seeks to discipline labour, fragmenting solidarity through ceaseless competition and recasting precarious self-employment as success, while Corbyn seeks to discipline capital, directing it to pro-social ends.

What's missing from Corbyn's politics (like Gordon Brown's) is an understanding that the nature of capital has changed since he entered Parliament in 1983, and that the future need is for its democratic distribution, not its further concentration, no matter how estimable the purpose to which the state puts it. This requires a radical programme beyond a more progressive tax system. Entrepreneurship needs to be recast as giving people the power to create their own meaningful purpose rather than vainly emulating a narrow model of glamourous success that is unachievable for the vast majority. Small businesses need to be seen as the consequence of a healthy economy, not its spluttering engine or a form of outdoor relief. Capital needs to be seen as today's productive opportunity, not tomorrow's exclusionary inheritance. A modern-day George Lansbury might be advocating withdrawal from NATO and unilateral nuclear disarmament, but he might also be advocating a citizens' basic income.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Terms of Trade

The recent scenes at Calais, of queues of goods lorries and desperate migrants, remind us that migration and trade are intimately linked, but this is a truth that we spend a lot of time glossing. Even those sympathetic to migration on humanitarian grounds can be delicate about the economic realities. For example, FlipChartRick has pointed out that Theresa May's proposal to "help African countries to develop economic and social opportunities so that people want to stay" will actually stimulate greater migrant flows because, as incomes converge, more Africans will have the wherewithal to pay for transport across the Mediterranean. This is right but incomplete. The relative cost of getting to Europe for an African migrant is a factor both of her wealth and the price of transport (whether an airline seat or a cramped bench in an open boat). Trade lowers transport costs, both because of economies of scale and the impetus to productivity improvements. In other words, the dynamic is equal parts push and pull.

Rick is essentially employing the "rising expectations" theory of social change, which dates back to Alexis de Tocqueville's L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution of 1856. As people's expectations rise (represented here by disposable income), so they become restless and ambitious. There is a similarly antique flavour to much of the other material that Rick quotes in his post. For example, a Wall Street Journal article on rural Senegal: "Flat screen TVs and, increasingly, cars—mostly purchased with money wired home by villagers working in Europe—have reshaped what was once a settlement of mud huts. The wealth has plugged this isolated landscape of peanut farms and baobab trees into the global economy and won respect for the men who sent it". Mutatis mutandis, a similar article could have been written about Sicily in 1900 (feel the respect) or Ireland in 1960. This is a trope in which labour is exchanged internationally for commodities, thereby introducing the market economy into hitherto backward areas (mud huts, no less). It's the cousin of the gift of civilisation trope, in which the intrepid explorer takes a gramophone into the jungle to introduce the benighted natives to Caruso.

Another quote from South Africa's Mail & Guardian has a similar sense of the bleedin' obvious being rediscovered: "One of the more intriguing nuggets about the Africa emigration story is that far from fleeing poverty, migrants out of the continent are likely to be relatively well off, and are rarely from the most destitute families". Migrants tend to be younger, fitter, better-educated and more qualified than the norm in their home country. Twas ever thus. This applies both to economic migrants and refugees, with the latter tending to be relatively better off but persecuted groups rather than the poorest segments of society or marginalised minorities. For example, there are more urban Christian refugees (often middle-class) than rural Yazidis fleeing Syria. The chief difference between economic migrants and refugees is that the former tend to be more optimistic, essentially because they are leaving of their own free will. They literally have the "get up and go" spirit that Norman Tebbit so admired. It is this optimism that in turn fuels their willingness to take risks, jumping trains or trying to walk the length of the Channel tunnel.

My favourite quote in Rick's post comes from a Nairobi-based NGO: "Modern mobility is also empowered and inspired by unprecedented levels of connectivity – particularly through email and social media – and the virtual proximity of a seemingly obtainable better life. Immeasurable though it may be, we cannot underestimate the force of aspirations, dreams and adventurism of many young people stuck in what they regard as politically restrictive, socioeconomic backwaters". If you substituted "the postal service and cinema" for the contemporary wonders of technology you'd find yourself with boilerplate that could have been used at any point over the last one hundred years. You'd also be able to use it in the context of intra-national migration: "stuck in what they regard as politically restrictive, socioeconomic backwaters" could have come from the synopsis of most provincial UK novels published in the 50s and 60s (think Keith Waterhouse, Stan Barstow et al).

Where once we blamed racy novels and Hollywood for filling our young peoples' heads with dreams, now we blame satellite TV and Facebook. To assume that "unprecedented levels of connectivity" have produced a sudden awakening of aspiration and therefore a boost to migration is ahistorical. I had a childhood friend who emigrated to Canada in the late-60s, who was equally excited by Jack London's White Fang and Walt Disney's True-Life Adventures. His family returned after a couple of years, having failed to settle (his souvenirs included a genuine parka and a 6" Bowie knife). The point is that they could afford to do so, the cost of transport having fallen over time, so emigration was no longer a one-way ticket. The 70s saw the end of assisted migration schemes like the Australian Ten Pound Poms programme, and also the increase in repatriation by migrant pensioners, notably to the West Indies and Ireland. All of this was driven by falling transport costs which were in turn a reflection of the early stages of globalisation.

Rick could also have pointed out that as a nation develops, more of its workers will have tradable skills, a fact that the NHS is relying on over the coming decades. The dependence of the health service on migrant labour is often deployed by pro-immigration advocates as if the pro-social nature of the job should make a difference (it's the forgivable counterpoint to media tales of "foreign criminal gangs"), though it strikes me as a risky strategy because this reminds people of infection. The fear of migrants is not just simple xenophobia but a rational appreciation, based on solid history, that you cannot trade without the risk of spreading disease, hence our continuing fascination with flu outbreaks and spiders in bananas. But we over-estimate the probability of infection, and the prevalence of social ills, partly because we project our ambivalence about trade (exploitation, food-miles, the loss of domestic jobs) onto migrants. While it is certainly wrong-headed to see migrants as economic competitors in aggregate, the bigger cognitive failure is to imagine that we can have the benefits of global free trade, from kiwi fruit to Spotify, without an increase in international labour mobility.

This gets to the nub of the issue, which is that nations with complex economies are inevitably driven to greater trade in order to maximise their absolute and comparative advantages (a fact recognised since the days of Adam Smith and David Ricardo), hence the secular trend towards larger free trade areas like the EU and multilateral treaties such as TTIP. This applies to factors of production as well as products and services, something which the EU's "four freedoms" (goods, services, capital and labour) explicitly acknowledge. The era of globalisation is the era of migration, from the Mediterranean to the Rio Grande, from the Baltic to South Africa. In the UK, successive governments have struggled with the contradiction of a neoliberal commitment to free trade and a conservative prejudice against incomers, producing a variety of faux-pas from Gordon Brown's "bigot" to David Cameron's "swarm". This reaches a pitch of inanity in the UKIP claim that "Outside of the EU we could control our borders whilst ensuring that free trade continues without free movement of people".

It is no coincidence that the UK's pre-eminence as a trading nation coincided with its openness to migrants, famously including Karl Marx among the many undesirables, nor that it started to introduce immigration controls (the Aliens Act of 1905) at a time when it was facing growing market challenges from the US and Germany and consequently attracted to protectionism (the Tariff Reform League was founded in 1903). The last large-scale attempt to expand trade while minimising migration was the clumsy arrangements negotiated between the European Community and Comecon in the late-80s, which were little more than disguised aid. What advocates like Nigel Farage are really after is free trade for the City and an impossible blend of pro-SME import substitution and favoured multinational brands for the rest of the country. In contrast, Donald Trump's plan to slap tariffs on Chinese imports to the US and build a wall to keep out Mexican migrants is a model of internal consistency.