Friday, 29 January 2016

Perfect is the Enemy of Good

Though the subject of basic income has been introduced to mainstream media debate in recent years, the political dimensions have largely been ignored, with most discussions on the subject adopting a technocratic and utilitarian approach. Among other things, this means prominence is given to the dubious potential for shrinking the state (the illusion of "less bureaucracy"), the institutionalisation of the "precariat" (justifying further labour market deregulation), and overdue recognition of "homemakers" and carers (diverting the issue of inequality from class to gender and age). The debate is already ideological, and this will only intensify once the political dimensions come into focus.

To get a sense of how this may develop, it is worth considering the treatment of basic income by the "radical left", not because its proposals might gain traction in mainstream debate, but because its approach to framing the discussion might well be hijacked. A good example is Shannon Ikebe's "The wrong kind of UBI", published in Jacobin, in which he highlights that the core political issue of the basic income is that there are potentially "good" and "bad" versions. To this end he constructs a dichotomy between a "livable ... and a non-livable basic income". The former is emancipatory, in the sense of allowing workers to continually refuse shit jobs or to invest their labour in non-waged work. The latter is parsimonious but politically achievable, not least because it chimes with rightwing advocates of negative income tax. In any contest between maximising and satisficing, it is the latter that will win simply because that is the utilitarian premise of the dichotomy. The question is whether such a dichotomy exists in the case of basic income.

In adopting this approach, Ikebe is trying to undermine the notion that there is a "good enough" UBI, which is necessary because most centrist-friendly schemes (such as that proposed by the Greens last year) are parsimonious: "The fundamental dilemma of a basic income is that the more achievable version — in which basic needs go unmet without supplementary paid employment — leaves out what makes it potentially emancipatory in the first place. Indeed, many commentaries cite basic income experiments to argue it does not significantly reduce work incentives". Ikebe's point is that when basic income supporters claim there would be no substantial drop in work hours, usually citing the Canadian Mincome experiment of the 1970s as evidence, they are implicitly advocating a non-livable model. A drop in hours is actually what we should want and expect.

This is true, but it ignores two features of a basic income: time preference and wage bargaining. The first is the flexibility to temporarily stop working or to defer taking an unattractive job until a better one is available. The second is the availability of an "unconditional and inexhaustible strike fund". While these may not be emancipatory, they potentially increase labour's leverage with capital. The result may not be a reduction in aggregate hours worked, but a better distribution of those hours and wages across the population. Assuming the removal of any welfare trap, so marginal hours are not undervalued, one paradoxical result of a non-livable basic income may be a reduction in the percentage of the population who do no work at all. Once the penny drops, you can expect this to be a key selling point across the political spectrum.

What this shows is that Ikebe's dichotomy is false: he is merely flipping the usual dynamic to argue for a maximising outcome rather than a satisficing one. In doing so he is essentially rejecting the social democratic or ameliorative features of basic income, which he associates with the non-livable version. For him, the livable version (the LBI) is attractive not because it is emancipatory but because it is revolutionary: "The dramatic strengthening of working-class power under a robust LBI would sooner or later lead to capital disinvestment and flight, since capital can only make profits through exploitation and won’t invest unless it can make a profit". In other words, an LBI would prompt a crisis of capital that would necessitate the socialisation of the means of production. In fact, this doesn't necessarily follow.

Strengthening working-class power can lead to capital flight, particularly if it is seen as the precursor to expropriation, but normally it leads to greater investment in an effort to increase capital composition at the expense of labour. That was the story of the 60s and 70s in most developed economies, e.g. the USA, Japan, Germany, France etc. In the UK, "decline" was the result of inadequate investment (relative to our peers) in the face of increasing labour costs. Rising wages were the product of a global trend, rather than local militancy, that was transmitted via trade - hence the regular balance of payments crises. This under-investment, which was heavily-influenced by a City that historically preferred foreign to domestic opportunities and speculation to patience, manifested itself in low productivity growth and declining profits. Despite the "retooling" of industry in the 1980s, the underlying trend continues.

Over and above the desire to increase profit through capital investment, the bidding-up of wages by an LBI would cause the relative price of capital to fall, stimulating further investment. We can already see this in action. The offshoring of labour in the 80s and 90s to increase profit rates gave way to capital investment in emerging markets in the 90s and 00s as developing nation labour costs rose. The current fears of a "hard landing" in China reflect a falling off in the rate of capital investment, not a reduction in consumer demand (consumption is growing vigorously). Similarly, the reshoring of some production in developed countries in recent years shows that distribution costs are becoming a more significant element in profit margins as global labour costs equalise.

Ikebe concludes: "Supporting any plan that seems politically attainable and bears the name 'basic income' isn’t a strategy for winning radical change. In the end, there is no feasible way to achieve a free society, or even one close to it, without challenging the power of private capital." This is undeniable. A basic income can be progressive, if it effects income redistribution and locks-in a future social dividend (i.e. progressive uprating of the income level), but it does not in itself change social relations because it does not address the ownership of capital. However, that doesn't mean that we should reject a basic income scheme that is less than maximal. The danger is that a simplistic dichotomy of the sort that Ikebe employs - the LBI versus the NLBI - will frame future discussion as utopian/generous versus achievable/parsimonious, and it should be obvious whose interests that will serve.

This framing is already apparent in the current US debate over Bernie Sanders' single-payer healthcare proposal (he wants to upgrade the US system to something closer to the Canadian model, if not the NHS). Centrist Democrats like Ezra Klein and Paul Krugman are criticising this as politically unfeasible, preferring the more modest (to the point of evanescent) proposals of Hillary Clinton, and even dismissing Sanders' supporters in a manner all too familiar to Corbynites. This is because Sanders, as an orthodox politician, has produced a costed plan rather than a campaign based on the single-payer principle and a commitment to work towards it. It is better to be criticised for a lack of detail if you have a persuasive objective than to have the principle drowned by charges of impracticality. Likewise, the political discussion of basic income needs to expand from a focus on the level of income, which I agree should be generous, to the principles of distributive justice and the social dividend, which are truly transformative.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Words Fail Me

Why does free-speech feature so prominently in modern debate, from Charlie Hebdo to "safe spaces" at universities? Though the global spread of democracy and the decline of formal censorship are imperfect measures, I suspect most people would consider there to be fewer restrictions on free expression today than 30 years ago, if only because of the proliferation of modern media, yet we are assured that free speech is under threat everywhere. The murders at the French magazine were not "an attack on free speech", which is a universal principle, but a highly-specific attack on perceived "enemies of Islam" by self-appointed guardians of the faith. Terrorists rarely attack principles: they attack people and property. Similarly, the campus debate over "no platform" concerns competing privileges, not great principles, hence the lack of interest by most people. Some of this prominence is down to the structural bias of traditional print and TV media, but that can't explain it all.

The persistence of the topic looks like a sign of liberal decadence in an era of growing state and commercial surveillance, so it should come as little surprise that the tropes of criticism have a musty air about them. For example, accusing the academic left of being anti-liberal and supportive of religious obscurantism, in the form of campus Islamic societies, is an obvious re-run of the liberal critique of academia in the 19th century in which Islam has substituted for the Church of England and Rome. This is reinforced by nostalgia for a "traditional liberalism" that supposedly never compromised its principles, unlike the weaselly progressive sort of today, and the characterisation of social media as an arena both risky (those horrid trolls) and at risk (the PC brigade). The solution appears to be traditional liberal propriety, which in practice means demanding that corporations act as social referees and individuals cultivate self-restraint.

Why do we associate colleges in particular with free speech? Traditional universities started out as Medieval madrasas: places of religious indoctrination. Their reinvention as a site of free expression is a product of the Enlightenment, but it is important to remember that historically this meant "free enquiry" more than "free speech", i.e. the extension of the curriculum to the new technical and social subjects required by an emerging industrial society. This instrumentalism meant that many subjects excluded topics and expressions antithetical to national and bourgeois interests. For example, the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford is a legacy of an era when the teaching of history was euro-centric, geography was a catalogue of resources for imperial exploitation, and moral philosophy struggled to escape the conceit expressed by Rhodes himself: "Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life".

The "right to say anything you please" on campus was a product of the social democratic era, and more specifically the expansion of further education that started in the 1960s. It coincided with the arrival of relativism and cultural theory, i.e. the right to think anything you please. In other words, free-speech on campus is relatively recent and inseparable from a questioning of canonical authority. This would prompt a conservative backlash in the 1980s, exemplified by Roger Scruton's Thinkers of the New Left and Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, that would define leftist thought not merely as wrong or misguided but as fraudulent and anti-intellectual, echoing from a rightist perspective Julien Benda's 1927 criticism of the nationalist infection of early 20th century French thought in La Trahison des Clercs. This repurposing of an anti-establishment trope (the free-thinker who sells out) was a feature of the anticommunist era, from George Orwell to Alain Finkielkraut.

Political correctness originates outside academia in the US conservative backlash to civil rights. Though the term had been employed ironically on the left in the 60s and 70s (harking back to the "correct party line" cliché of the 30s and 40s), essentially as a defence of the awkward squad ("I'm not being politically correct"), it was the right that would insist on the existence of an abstract "political correctness" from the 1960s onwards, using it as as way of attacking minorities and anti-establishment groups while ostentatiously claiming victimhood for itself. You couldn't accuse blacks of being "uppity", but you could accuse them of being overly-sensitive or paranoid, and thus "the problem" in a new form. The subsequent spread of unironic PC to the left reflects its success in providing a grammar for neoliberal identity politics that marginalised the older grammar of class.

The conservative academic backlash of the 80s popularised the phrase, but it also did two others things. First, it provided a link via the hate-object of cultural theory to the "cultural Marxism" of the Frankfurt School, suggesting that the communist threat lived on after the fall of the Soviet Union among the deluded left. Second, the impression of sides being taken by academics allowed the right to claim that PC was a "movement", both pervasive and covert, which revived old McCarthyite tropes (ironic, given that the "PC brigade" are also the "new McCarthyites"). By the early-90s the use of the phrase had left the academy and become widespread on the political right and in the media, in part filling the void left by the redundancy of anticommunism. In populist right rhetoric today, political correctness is a "scourge".

The rise of political correctness has parallelled the evolution of "workplace correctness" exemplified by the proliferation of corporate HR policies. While some will insist the latter is a social consequence of the former, the historical evidence points in the other direction. Businesses have long been insistent on managing worker behaviour, both inside and outside the workplace, and have always demanded that the education system prepares labour accordingly. The turn of HR policies towards diversity and sensitivity, like the focus on talent management, is the consequence of changes in the economy: the need to extend markets to previously marginalised groups, the demand for greater "choice" and personalisation in commodities, and the rising cost of higher skills. The disciplinary turn on campus, like the emergence of identity politics, is a wider social phenomenon, not an academic fashion.

Where the two forms of correctness intersect is the modern tech campus, the emblematic workplace of the new economy: "Such offices symbolise not just the future of work in the public mind, but also a new, utopian age with aspirations beyond the workplace. The dream is a place at once comfortable and entrepreneurial, where personal growth aligns with profit growth, and where work looks like play". But despite its utopian and Sci-Fi styling, the tech campus has obvious echoes of universities and company towns, and even of the scientific institutes of the Soviet Union, which points to its essential nostalgia. What is particularly retrograde is its concentration of labour, like an updated New Lanark, which reveals the desire to be isolated from the wider community (and which finds an analog in a reluctance to pay tax), but also reflects a shift in the power-balance from employees to employers.

In the traditional factory setting, the struggle was over time and thus the surplus value of labour. In the knowledge economy, staff are increasingly seen more as a natural resource, like land: "The resources that managers and businesses are trying to extract from workers are in some ways very personal to the worker. Their imagination, their dynamism, their levels of energy – all these sorts of things". The Matrix, in which people are milked of their essence (a variant on our old friend the vampire trope), is the key metaphor. In a knowledge economy, it makes sense to try and capture a eureka moment of inspiration at work, where it can be promptly and securely IP-stamped and absorbed by the corporation, particularly in an age when new business ideas often require minimal capital to start up and the threat of your workers going solo is ever-present.

This explains the stunted growth of teleworking. While mobility and constant contact remain characteristics of the professional and executive classes, working at home (or precariously from a coffee-shop or shared office space) is increasingly a sign of economic marginality rather than a perk. This is not to say that a dispersed workforce isn't coming, but that it will probably do so via the medium of virtual reality. VR could make a company campus infinitely scalable, circumventing physical costs, accessing cheaper digital peons in developing nations, and hindering independent labour organisation. Gamification may be the harbinger of a more profound shift in what we mean by the workplace and a working life. The 24-hour office, and workers willing to commit hours previously lost to commuting and recreation to further labour, is already a reality.

The tech campus is therefore not just a particular architectural form, it also mimics the intense form of labour familiar from college, where education and socialisation are blurred into one. In the neoliberal era, the college has come to occupy a similar cultural role to the gym: one a means of improving the value of the body, the other the value of the mind. It is competitive, but increasingly the competition takes place within the individual rather than within a class or cohort. This creates a sense of atomised identity in which the boundary of a still-forming personality is vulnerable to "micro-aggressions". Being "safe" from offence on campus is like wearing earphones in the gym. This combination of the utilitarian and the sensitive encourages an attitude that is both transactional and solipsistic, so students expect their higher fees to deliver both better teaching and a comfortable environment. Likewise, in the safe space of the tech campus, superior workplace conditions demand superior labour commitment.

The claim of student unions is not "You can't say that" but "You can't say that here", which is the same claim of privilege that you'll hear at the Garrick Club. For all the insistence that they are protecting minority interests, student unions are demanding property rights. They are also treating words as commodities. This is a consequence of the 20th century linguistic turn in philosophy. No longer labels, words were now things in their own right, having their own histories and being subject to competing forces in the definition of their meanings. This relativism allowed neoliberalism to reconcile two conflicting beliefs. Orwell's critique of totalitarian language, and Hayek's elevation of "dispersed knowledge" above the wisdom of central planning, made us suspicious of political rhetoric and the claims of the state: words were dangerous. At the same time, rational preference required us to deny the ability of language to influence choice: words weren't dangerous. We recoiled from the horror of Newspeak while simultaneously dismissing the manipulative power of advertising.

The paradoxical consequence of the Orwellian tradition has not been a search for clarity and truth in political language but a knowing, postmodern separation of words and deeds. This was exemplified in the 1980s both by the fantastic nature of political rhetoric ("Evil empire" etc) and by the vogue for revisionist histories of the French Revolution that blamed rhetorical excess, rather than any material forces, for the eruption of violence. Where classical liberal history saw words and deeds as tightly-coupled, from republican proclamations to parliamentary debates, and liberal society placed a social value on sincere language ("my word is my bond"), neoliberal thinkers have treated language as contingent and distinct from action, revealing them to be influenced by post-structuralism as much as classical liberalism. The aim in this was not to find common ground with cultural theory but to marginalise language. When "choice" (i.e. action) is modelled, it is done using maths.

When you can say anything, you largely end up saying nothing, hence our modern "free speech battles" centre on insults and offence, while words intended to prompt action ("Workers of the World unite!") are neutralised as slogans on commodities. This doesn't mean that meaningful and influential statements are impossible, but that they are drowned out by the cacophony of the banal: the profusion of language as a commodity. When we regret our words ("I mis-spoke", "I was misinterpreted") we accuse them of being inadequate to the task, as if we bought the wrong items, made the wrong choice. Just as words have become commoditised, so the discourse of free-speech has become a commodity. In the West, this has given rise to a heritage sector centred on 19th century tropes, from securalism and religion locking horns in self-important debate to commercially-driven universities being promoted as arenas of challenging thought. It's a growth market.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016


The first era of globalisation is considered to have run from 1850 to 1914. The former date is a convenience, though many historians consider the Great Exhibition of 1851 to be an emblematic (and reassuringly UK-centric) starting point. A better date might be 1863, the foundation of The Football Association. Within 30 years, the newly-codified (and from 1885 professionalised) game had been spread by British workers and expats around the world, testifying both to the growth of trade and the spread of industry. As the appearance of the game in South America and Japan in the 1870s indicates, this was much more than the consequence of imperial expansion and performative Britishness (that was more the tale of cricket). The rapid spread of the game, and the enthusiasm it generated, was a socio-cultural phenomenon that heralded modernity.

This is hardly an original observation. The idea of football as a metaphor for globalisation has been doing the rounds since Italia 90, with David Goldblatt's The Ball is Round of 2006 being perhaps the final word of the pre-2008 phase that excavated the 19th century roots of the "global game". Football is attractive to social historians because it is relatively discrete (there isn't too much original source material to deal with and it's usually well-archived), it can be made to reflect wider social theory (the collectivist crowds of the late-40s, hooligans in the 70s etc), and it serves as a focal point for economic history and geography because it is both an easily-understood industry and highly localised (Goldblatt's 2015 The Game of Our Lives provides a more rueful history of the game's recent evolution: itself a testament to football as a flexible theme).

That Alastair Campbell has taken to sharing his thoughts by equating the Labour Party and Manchester United should therefore come as no surprise. The synopsis is hilarious: "The two great institutions have much in common. After more than a decade of success under strong, charismatic leaders, they have struggled to maintain their winning ways. The thing they botched was the succession". As a trope, this associates "success" and "winning" with the "strong, charismatic leader", which would find favour with old Nazis, while the "botched succession" speaks of the chief fear that besets all monarchies, from the house of Apple to the house of Windsor. This is a perfectly reasonable template for someone planning a new career in motivational speaking ("great men I have known and to whom I was indispensable"), but it barely qualifies as political analysis.

Let us consider some alternative parallels. Just as Campbell has ignored the views of Labour Party members, so he appears to be oblivious to the criticisms voiced by many United fans, both before and after old red-nose's departure, namely that the squad had been progressively weakened by the Glazers for financial reasons with Ferguson's connivance. Labour Party membership halved between 1997 and 2007 as policy-formation was centralised, increasingly in the hands of unelected apparatchiks like Campbell. In other words, the "great institution" was gently collapsing from within due to the excessive managerialism and democratic neglect of the Blair years, just as United was suffering from the Glazers' financialisation. It's players on the pitch who win games, not the management or supporters, and likewise a political party needs members on the ground to win an election, particularly if it cannot count on a supportive media.

Campbell's tale is that of a courtier, with many amusing personal anecdotes showing the humanity of great men and his own centrality to events. This is most obvious in the discussion of the manoeuvring around the succession to the Sun King, where Tony Blair's reluctance to knife Gordon Brown and everyone else's focus on "winning for Labour" is presented as a Shakespearean tragedy of honourable men. He seems to forget that David Miliband failed to secure the leadership in 2010 because he didn't convince the wider membership (including those pesky trade unionists), not because he had been insufficiently groomed (as I read this, I had a surreal vision of The Prisoner of Zenda in which Campbell and Mandelson persuade David to secretly replace Ed - the plot's all wrong, but the mise-en-scene is convincing).

Perhaps the most amusing parallel is not between Ferguson and Blair but the Govan Gobshite and Jeremy Corbyn. Ferguson spent his first 3 years in Manchester, from 1986 to 1989, failing in the eyes of both fans and neutrals alike, culminating in the famous "Three years of excuses and it's still crap ... ta-ra Fergie" banner. This makes Campbell's judgement on Corbyn - "After four months, however, it does feel that what was once a winning machine is being turned into a losing one" - seem a tad premature. Ferguson eventually turned United's fortunes around, winning the FA Cup in 1990, the Cup Winners Cup in 1991, and finally the League in 1993 after the crucial purchase of Eric Cantona. In other words, it took him 4 seasons to win any silverware and 7 to land the big one. Corbyn didn't even have 7 hours before the Blairites were scrawling on bed-sheets with their flipchart markers.

What's depressingly predictable about this is not just Campbell's continuing failure to think about why most long-standing party members (and not just the 3-pounders) voted for Jeremy Corbyn, let alone his blindness to the historically-specific nature of the "third way" and why it cannot be revived now, but his commitment to a monarchical model of politics, from "charismatic leaders" to a "botched succession". It appears the lasting contribution of Blairism to British politics is an idolisation of managers coupled with a contempt for the crowd outside their contribution as consumers. The word "democracy" does not appear once in this Guardian "Long Read". Campbell may be "proud" of the head-tennis session he organised between Blair and Kevin Keegan, but he shows a greater affinity for the thinking of Mike Ashley than that of the perma-haired former Magpies manager.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Europe and the Multitude

The year has started with gloomy predictions about the economic slowdown in China, the fragility of emerging markets, the unsustainability of household debt, and the overvaluation of equities. "Sell everything" and "head for the hills" seems to pretty much capture the mood (on the other hand, Arsenal are still top of the league). Oddly, the EU appears to have taken something of a back seat behind these four horsemen, which probably reflects ennui more than anything. It has been near the top of the gloom charts for so long that perhaps we've all subconsciously decided to change the record. The one aspect of Europe's manifold problems that still gets attention is the twinned issue of refugees and internal migration, the latter courtesy of the UK's "crusade" to reform Europe so a Polish pig farmer can't debauch the NHS.

Looked at over the long-term, Europe has historically been marked more by emigration than immigration, certainly since 1500 (we can safely ignore historically illiterate attempts to equate Syrian asylum-seekers with the fall of the Roman Empire). This process began to change after the First World War, less because of labour shortages occasioned by fatalities than the wider reversal of the preceding era of globalisation. Many European industrialists of the 1920s were worried that the continent might be squeezed between a vibrant America and a potentially vibrant Soviet Union, but attempts to coordinate production and standardise the market (e.g. the International Steel Cartel of 1926) were stymied by the political shift to the right and the protectionist policies of the 1930s. Consequently, labour mobility was largely intra-state rather than inter-state, particularly after the onset of the Depression. At a European level, emigration slowed but immigration did not yet pick up.

The Second World War was marked by large labour migrations during the period of conflict, both within states and between them, notably the forced labour imported to Germany to backfill manpower at the front and expand armaments production, but it was also marked by extensive ethnic cleansing at its end, notably the expulsion of Germans in Eastern Europe and the "rationalisation" of the region under Soviet direction. The period immediately after 1945 was one of atypical national homogeneity, ironic given the aims of the Axis powers, even if this didn't appear obvious in Western European states whose borders and peoples hadn't moved as much as those in the East. Paradoxically, it meant a population normalised to the idea of labour mobility, both within and between states.

From the 1950s onwards, the European economic model assumed the need for industrial consolidation and scale in the centre, continuing the concerns of capitalists in the interwar years, hence the European Coal and Steel Community that birthed the EEC. German and other refugees from the East helped fuel the early stages of the Wirtschaftswunder of the late-40s and 50s, but by the 60s Germany was obliged to import Gastarbeiter, part of a general trend across North-Western Europe. In most countries, unskilled migrant labour came from both the European periphery (e.g. Italy and Portugal) and beyond (e.g. Turkey and North Africa). The UK was unusual in that migrants from distant former colonies predominated, with the European periphery being less significant (the exception being the influx of Greek Cypriots in the 60s).

This pattern meant that migrant labour was conceptually separated into two categories, European and non-European, with the latter having limited rights, which preserved the notion of national homogeneity despite the reality on the ground. By the 1980s, the demand in the centre had shifted from unskilled to skilled labour as deindustrialisation advanced and the service sector expanded. The accession of Greece, Spain and Portugal did not dramatically change labour flows, both because those countries had been providing the centre with Gastarbeiter for some time (and at increasingly higher skill levels), and because capital flows to the periphery had an offsetting effect through the nearshoring of lower-skilled jobs and the expansion of tourism. By the time the 1992 Single European Act enshrined the free movement of citizens, labour mobility was not seen as problematic.

What changed this was not the expansion of the EU to the East after 2000, despite the popular salience in Britain of Polish plumbers, but the refugee crises of the last 25 years, from the Balkans to Syria, which in practice dissolved the legal distinction between European and non-European migrants. The irritation displayed towards migrants in public discourse, whether in terms of "benefit tourism" or "bogus asylum-seeking", uses the same deserving/undeserving dichotomy employed by politicians in the domestic sphere. The point is not to indulge bigotry, but to normalise discrimination between good and bad labour. The utilitarian argument of people like Jonathan Portes, emphasising the aggregate economic benefits of immigration, is not categorically different from David Cameron praising Ugandan Asian entrepreneurs while criticising Muslim women who don't speak English. They're both employing the language of trade: value and compliance.

The shift towards skills and asset-based immigration criteria reflects the transformation of the economy. Theresa May's proposal that immigrants should have assets of at least £35,000 is not intended to privilege oligarchs over workers but merely a reflection of the going-rate in London for a skilled job. The workers we want to attract will have £35k, or a business sponsor who can guarantee it. Similarly, the Swiss and Danish proposals to expropriate asylum-seekers might appear to be targeting the asset-rich, but the actual impact will be to dissuade the lower-skilled, not the higher-skilled. In the neoliberal era, economic migrants are just another commodity, so we shouldn't be surprised at the appearance of tariffs and levies. This might be unethical, but it's not "unhelpful" from the perspective of national capital.

The nation state is necessary for capital formation, but it also creates a constraint on capital expansion and mobility through borders, languages and jurisdictions. There have been various waves of globalisation in history driven by the need for capital to overcome these constraints, from mercantilism through colonialism and state-led imperialism to the Washington Consensus. For all the noise about integration and federalism, the EU remains a project to reconcile capital's goals with national sensitivities, not a covert plan to dispense with the nation state. What drives the bureaucrats of Brussels is not the belief that we should all be speaking Esperanto but the desire of supra-national capital to exploit a Europe-wide market. It is easy to forget in a period of general dissatisfaction with the EU that it remains the most advanced supranational organisation in the world and arguably the most advanced form of state capital.

The current angst over the "movement of peoples" should be thought of in terms of long-run changes to the economy and the demand for labour rather than short-run "crises", and in this light not much has changed since the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The core still needs to import labour (if more skilled), though now just to stand still in terms of GDP growth as the working-age population shrinks, while there remains plenty of scope for further nearshoring in the South and East of the continent as wages are adjusted downwards through internal devaluation, i.e. austerity. Germany's generosity towards refugees does not reflect greater moral awareness but demographic self-interest. Unaccompanied young men may present social problems, as in Cologne, but they are an economic asset for an ageing population. Any "reform" of free movement and refugee policy will be towards greater discrimination, not curtailment.

The process of globalisation has both undermined state authority and increasingly framed the demands of the post-proletarian "multitude" (in the term employed by Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri in 2000's Empire) in terms of economic migration, both intra and inter-state (in this regard, "social mobility" is often a euphemism for intra-state migration). The demand for work permits and citizenship rights - "Papiers pour tous!" - appears to address the nation state but is in fact a demand for the abolition of borders. This is, ironically, a perfect example of the neoliberal ideal, a world of free-floating factors of production in perfect equilibrium, suggesting that the multitude remain the unconscious agents of capital rather than self-conscious labour. What Hardt and Negri are pointing towards is the continuing collapse of the distinction between the European and non-European that started in the 1990s, which is at the root of the crisis of confidence in EU identity.

If protectionism and autarky in the 1920s and 30s marked the temporary retreat of globalisation, the current nationalist turn (or isolationist turn, in British terms) appears to be far more of a defensive response towards the continuing strength of globalisation rather than the eruption of atavistic forces in a vacuum. Unless I missed it, Donald Trump isn't advocating capital controls, and those that do, like Marine Le Pen, are categorically different to the "extremes" of left and right (i.e. social democrats and social conservatives) that so terrify modern liberals. This doesn't mean that a "Financial Crisis II" isn't going to happen, but that the new normal may be periodic financial busts, in which case it definitely is. In other words, the economic engine is back-firing, not broken, and the movement of people - whatever the immediate cause and wherever their origin - is a sign of health rather than malaise.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

The Entrepreneur of Himself

I hadn't planned to write a full piece on David Bowie, limiting myself to reviving some older thoughts from 2013 on the nature of "cool" via Twitter, and slipping a couple of references into Monday's post on the impact that social media norms have had on the BBC's institutional bias, but I ended up pretty much writing one in disjointed comments elsewhere. So, in the spirit of the man himself, I have decided to rework the material: something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.

Bowie wasn't musically innovative, but he knew a good thing when he heard it. His breakthrough came with Glam, an essentially reactionary form that revived Rock & Roll and conservative affectations in the post-1968 era. If you couldn't stand James Taylor and liked saxophones, Glam was where it was at. As with any cultural fashion, there were multiple strands at play, from Roxy Music's art-school irony via T-Tex's non-nonsense boogie to Sweet's Carry-On Popping. Bowie happily nicked ideas from all of them. Despite the retrospective claims of revolution, his theatrical "gender-bending" caused less of a fuss at the time than Marc Bolan wearing high heels with jeans (long before Eddie Izzard appropriated the look), while The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was, as the title suggests, an unimaginative concept album in an era of unimaginative concept albums that was saved by some great standalone songs.

Following the peak of Ziggy-mania, Bowie's mid-70s albums were patchy, still obsessed with daft concepts (Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs) and increasingly short of ideas (Station to Station delivered 6 tracks painfully stretched out to 38 minutes). Everyone agrees that his move to Berlin, supposedly to kick drugs but more to get off the US stadium treadmill, marked a creative renaissance, but this was less about the right time and place and more about the right people, specifically the melding of indirect influences via Iggy Pop (proto-punk), Brian Eno (German electronic music) and Robert Fripp (avant-garde noodlings). If Bowie brought anything to the party himself it was his love of Soul. His real talent was that of an impresario: a manager more than collaborator, with a shrewd assessment of others. He was a Diaghilev, not a Nijinsky.

After the Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes, Lodger), Bowie reverted to form with patchy albums, fewer tracks and some less assured collaborations, but there were always a few gems to keep you interested until the mid-80s slough (a period he later dismissed as the "Phil Collins years"). As he turned 40, he also began to excavate his own past, both through the exploration of youthful memories (Let's Dance and Absolute Beginners) and the reworking of older songs, both his own and others, such as China Girl and Wild is the Wind. For all the emphasis of his fans on the Ziggy years (or later on Heroes the single), Bowie never lost his fascination for the music of his formative years in the late 50s and early 60s, nor his weakness for ballrooms and cocktail bar chic (it's funny to recall that Saturday Night Fever and Young Americans were both originally inspired by the dance-halls of London, not New York).

The last 30 years of his life saw little of real artistic note, though his marketing skill meant that any new release stimulated a brief frisson of hope. In the late-90s, he got aboard the zeitgeist train, launching his own Internet business and issuing Bowie Bonds. He even developed a reputation as a new media guru, correctly forecasting the impact of digital downloads on the music business: "'Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity ... You'd better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's really the only unique situation that's going to be left". Of course, not all his predictions were sound ("I'm fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years"), while his forays into politics or wider social issues (e.g. his inadvertent role in founding Rock Against Racism) were foolish even by the standards of a very foolish time, but then his career was a triumph of the brand over inconsistent product releases.

As a cultural figure, you cannot discuss Bowie without mentioning his emblematic role as neoliberal man, best captured in Michel Foucault's definition in The Birth of Biopolitics: "In practice, the stake in all neo-liberal analysis is the replacement every time of homo oeconomicus as a partner of exchange with homo oeconomicus as entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings". As well as his pioneering work with IP securities, Bowie would eventually turn his old dressing-up box into a highly successful exhibition at the V&A, proving that nothing was beyond the realm of monetisation. But his real contribution to neoliberalism was the twin concept that you could be whoever you wanted to be and that achieving this was down to your own efforts. Society was just a backdrop, a thought that would chime with Margaret Thatcher.

But where Bowie diverged from the Iron Lady was that he didn't change his persona from year to year like a new coat, rather he suggested there was no base persona to begin with. In the 1970s, when the counter-culture had ossified into a new conservatism, this essentially postmodern attitude was as welcome to a Northern kid struggling with his sexuality as a London Bohemian looking for novelty. Morrisey and Vivienne Westwood, despite the difference in age, were both children of Bowie. Nicolas Roeg's film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, captured this sense of wide potential. Despite the tragic story arc, what remains in the memory is not Thomas Newton's paranoia or dissolution, but his physical construction (false eyes and nipples) and his ability to become the fabulously rich CEO of a technology business despite being socially autistic. Whenever I see a modern tech-titan posing near a space rocket, I imagine he is trying to smuggle water off the planet.

Bowie's appearances on film were rarely satisfying, apart from The Man Who Fell to Earth, largely because his emotional range was narrow outside the pressure-cooker of a song and his non-singing presence owed much to a stillness that few directors managed to successfully capture (an exception was his appearance as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige). Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence is an acquired taste, while Labyrinth is best approached as panto. Despite this, Bowie always seemed to be in demand by film-makers, which probably reflected their own youthful memories or the projection of fantasies triggered by Bowie's personae. What a lot of them discovered was that he really was a blank slate and that beneath the public image lay a polite, well-mannered, lower-middle class South Londoner.

When we mourn the passing of a public figure we are often mourning our own past through the prism of that figure's history, hence the "what he meant to me" spin of many of the Bowie eulogies. That's narcissistic, but it's also a feature of modernity. When collective memory has been globalised, and when we have been exposed to so much of a particular personality's "output" over the years, we inevitably feel a greater sense of involvement than a nineteenth century peasant hearing about the death of a distant monarch. Berating others for ostentatious mourning, or berating those doing the berating for a lack of humanity, are two sides of the same me-coin. To an extent we also resent this strength of feeling, much as we resent the emotional investment in a football team when they concede a 90th minute equaliser. A tribute connects us to the deceased, but it also means we get the last word.

As a creative artist, Bowie was an exemplary narcissist because he had the courage to selfishly pursue his desires, despite the collateral damage it caused to others. In contrast, most of us compromise with the world. I've sensed in some of the Bowie tributes a relief that he went quietly at the end and apparently without regrets, that he didn't turn into a bitter old man hectoring the media about the shortcomings of electronic dance music or the threat posed to the nation by Jeremy Corbyn, which meant the belief that "He gave me the courage to be myself" wasn't compromised. Our collective response has been narcissistic because its what he would have wanted. We are merely holding up a mirror to Bowie's now breathless face.

Monday, 11 January 2016

The Man Who Fell to Earth

The Labour Party has formally complained to the BBC over bias in its handling of the resignation last week of Stephen Doughty as Shadow Foreign Minister (not as impressive as it sounds), while Twitter is apparently thinking of removing the 140 character limit on tweets (not as impressive as it sounds). These events are connected by more than their underwhelming nature. But first, let's wind back a bit. The profusion of TV channels, starting in the US in the 1970s and in the UK in the 1980s, was a key emblem of the wider concept of "choice" ushered in during the neoliberal era, but the exercise of that choice was initially viewed ambiguously by many committed to its delivery, such as advertisers concerned by channel-hopping and cultural commentators worried by superficiality and short attention spans.

The explosion in interest in the media potential of the Internet in the 1990s owed much to the promise of deeper engagement, hence the subsequent vogue for "stickiness" and "eyeballs". Before anyone had started to demand opt-outs, the media were getting excited by a level of opt-in that would dwarf the puny efforts of Ceefax and Teletext. Marshall McLuhan famously said "the medium is the message", meaning that form was as instructive as content. The shift from broadcast media consumed passively to narrowcast media consumed interactively meant that the message - the instruction - could extend to the process of interaction itself. The crossover between old and new media, e.g. TV programmes encouraging tweets on-air, has meant that the desire for interaction has come to influence editorial choices across the board.

At the heart of the complaint from Seumas Milne, the Labour Party's Executive Director of Strategy and Communications, is the claim that the BBC staged Stephen Doughty's resignation on-air for "maximum impact", something that the corporation does not deny but excuses as being within its journalistic remit and consistent with its values. This is disingenuous because its practice and values have clearly changed over the years. The Daily Politics programme is routinely theatrical and objectionable, but this is down to its desire to set the Twitter agenda for the day, just as Newsnight aims to deliver the fatal thrust (the BBC's coverage of politics aspires to a day-long corrida). The decision to have Doughty resign on-air was more about self-promotion than anti-Labour prejudice, even if the latter was present in the treatment. That said, it would be foolish to ignore the structural bias of the BBC, which is undoubtedly both anti-labour and anti-Labour.

Due to its size and role as the national broadcaster, the BBC is inescapably part of the establishment. Its domination of the media landscape and its social grounding in the upper middle-class mean that it exerts a gravitational pull on those who seek entry to, or advancement within, that establishment. For all its many diversity initiatives, its chief recruitment milieu (Oxbridge, the intersection of corporations and public service, other media organisations) is atypical of the nation as a whole, which is why the "metropolitan elite" jibe has substance. This would be enough to ensure an overlap with the political caste, but the corporation's reliance on the licence fee and charter renewal also gives it an incentive to flatter politicians with coverage while it encourages the politicians in turn to believe that they have a reasonable expectation of respectful treatment.

These structural flaws - dominance, elitism and a symbiotic relationship with politicians - do not cause the Beeb much anguish, any more than does the criticism of its often absurd commitment to notional "balance", because they are the inevitable characteristics of a national broadcaster designed to have operational independence from government while being a para-state institution. So long as both main parties complain of bias (short of the outrageous), and the smaller parties complain of neglect, the impression is given that the corporation is "somewhere in the middle", which is itself a subtle form of bias (the equation of impartiality with a median position). In this light, the SNP's essential criticism of the Beeb is that it does not reflect a Scottish establishment, which is as much an attempt to conjure such a thing into existence as a complaint that a distinctly Scottish viewpoint is being ignored.

Where the corporation is vulnerable is the charge of selection bias, in which it reflects the prejudices of the establishment. Objectively, the BBC is politically centre-right, which means it does display a slight conservative bias relative to the population as a whole, though not one as pronounced as that exhibited by the print media (the dynamic between the two is important, allowing a centre-right stance to be presented as distinct from the right and thus essentially centrist). More pertinently, it displays a very large bias in respect of privileged interests, notably the City of London. The latter bias is more pernicious than the former, as could be seen in the salience of anxiety over government debt in 2009, which undoubtedly helped the Tory narrative in the 2010 election, and the lack of scepticism over the coalition government's justification for austerity thereafter, which helped corrupt its journalistic practice.

One of the chief ways that the interests of the financial sector are promoted by the BBC is in the implicit acceptance that what is good for the City is good for the UK, despite a wealth of academic analysis suggesting otherwise. It is easy to forget that until the late-80s, the BBC (like most newspapers) had "Labour and Industrial Correspondents". While these were hardly trades union propagandists, they did offer an alternative view to the business lobby. Now we have "Business Editors" who simply report the City's views. This is an extension of the corporation's role in defining the institutional "furniture" of the state, from the monarchy to London-based arts organisations (its annual holiday jaunts to Glastonbury and Edinburgh notwithstanding). Its decision on what to send to the Siberia of Salford a few years ago (sport, breakfast, children), and what to keep in London (politics, business, arts), was hugely symbolic despite the logistical justifications.

It is also vulnerable to the charge that it allows the news agenda to be set by partisan newspapers and favoured thinktanks, though this reflects journalistic convenience more than a terror of the Daily Mail or the Institute for Economic Affairs. As an arm of the establishment, it will always give a voice to those it finds congenial, thus coverage of housing is dominated by building firms and estate agents, coverage of industry biases towards interviews with owners and executives rather than workers, and coverage of developing nations disproportionately features NGOs. As a supposedly apolitical arena, science gets a lot of coverage, while social science gets little and that small amount is often hostile. History and philosophy in the context of current affairs are treated either as entertainment (Niall Ferguson and Slavoj Zizek fulfill similar roles), or a tutorial for particularly dim undergraduates (Tristram Hunt's long exposure on Newsnight before he became an MP being illustrative).

Seumas Milne's complaint is an example of establishment theatre in which the party expresses affront ("you're being unfair") while the corporation rebuts the charge by invoking its constitution and values. This reinforces the image of Auntie as the long-suffering guardian of ungrateful kids ("we treat you all equally"). Though Milne needed to cover his arse for not having neutralised Doughty (Alistair Campbell would have had him man-marked), the complaint gives the impression that Labour cares more about the reporting of its internal procedures than the poor quality of the corporation's coverage of economic affairs. A more cunning Labour press officer would threaten to publicly praise the corporation as a bastion of progressive, liberal values.

Twitter is planning to remove the 140 character limit on tweets that it has had since it launched as "SMS for the Internet". The news is hardly earth-shattering, and the reality is simply an attempt to generate more advertising revenue, but it has been interesting to see the upswell in chatter - mostly on Twitter, unsurprisingly. A feature of social media is the interest that users take in the evolution of the platform and their willingness to proffer advice. This is partly consumer feedback, but it also has shades of the proprietorial, showing how services like Twitter have become central to people's self-image and daily routine. This means that when a change threatens users' beliefs about the integrity of the service, e.g. the 2014 news that Facebook was experimenting with "mood manipulation", the reaction is emotional rather than cynical.

While no one would look to a newspaper in the expectation of true impartiality, there is an assumption that national broadcasters should make an effort in this direction. But why should the same assumption be extended to supra-national commercial concerns like Twitter or Facebook? I think part of the answer is that people have taken the "social" adjective seriously, in the sense of believing that the platform is both unmediated and inclusive, and thus an approximation of "society" or even "democracy", despite sponsored messages and the self-selection bubble. Of course, these ideals - the unmediated and inclusive - do not necessarily sit well together, hence the noise over trolling and "free speech", but that noise in turn is taken as evidence of the integrity of the platform, if not that of the controlling company.

The ability of users to distinguish between the platforms and the organisations that provide them is reminiscent of the traditional attitude towards public services. But where it parts company is that complaining is no longer a democratic right, emphasing public ownership ("I pay your wages, mate"), but instead an expression of selfish interest. Many people responded to the Twitter news by saying "I won't like it" without wondering if the change would even be noticeable (consensus: no), let alone whether it might be of benefit to anyone else. This highlights the narcissism inherent to social media platforms that have elevated administrative procedures such as following and blocking to ethical judgements. The consequence is a heightened sensitivity, where many feel uncomfortable following anyone they might disagree with, while others routinely update all their followers when they block a troll.

Underlying this is a reinterpretation of "social" to mean individual, a neoliberal strand of thought that proceeds from the anti-totalitarian 1940s, through cybernetics and the counter-culture, to the Californian Ideology of the Internet. The bias of the BBC is not just in its establishment prejudices but in its wholehearted embrace of the "expressive" politics this has helped foster, from the idiot-fest of Question Time to the confessional exclusives of the Daily Politics. Andrew Neill's dismissive contempt and Laura Kuenssberg's arch snidery are a way of plugging into the spirit of the times short of full-blown Fox News-style partisanship. This move to the expressive is obviously ironic in light of the habitual criticism of the left by the Labour Party right.

Given the success of Jeremy Corbyn in bypassing the BBC and exploiting social media during the leadership contest, it seems odd that his chief communications officer should be determined to engage the establishment on such unfavourable terrain. Equally strange is his near-disappearance from Twitter since he got the job late last year, perhaps suggesting ethical scruples rather than an excessive workload. Maybe Seumas Milne, as the son of the former BBC Director General, Alisdair Milne, is genuinely shocked by the corporation's behaviour, suggesting that he remains more a product of the establishment than he cares to admit. Perhaps he could yet be in line for a reshuffle.

Friday, 8 January 2016

The Centre Cannot Hold

It occurred to me the other day that Jeremy Corbyn's reshuffle was actually an exercise in HR best practice: lots of discussion and listening; a willingness to negotiate within limits; performance improvement plans for some; written warnings for others; and a decisive removal of the mood-hoovers. Despite most journalists presumably being familiar with performance appraisals and key job responsibilities, this approach was presented in the media as chaotic and further evidence that the "new politics" (a phrase now treated with outright contempt by many commentators) is both hypocritical and misguided. What I think it highlights is a crisis at the heart of neoliberal practice.

Will Davies recently made the observation that neoliberalism has been far more successful ideologically than economically: "One way of understanding it is as an effort to anchor modernity in the market, that is, to make economics the main measure of progress and reason ... Today, we inhabit a post-1960s common sense, in which self-respect and individual taste are our defining ethical commitments. These then become tangible via the exercise of economic choices". In other words, neoliberal paradigms and metaphors have colonised areas of life well beyond the purely economic, from people management through informal social interactions to personal improvement. It's the hegemony, stupid.

The problem is that the failure of neoliberalism to deliver within the economic sphere (historically weak growth, greater inequality, structural unemployment etc) calls into question its normative role in society, i.e. it's justification as a universal set of techniques that can also be applied to relationships and the care of the self. Davies concludes, "If I am right, and neoliberalism represents a perspective on modernity, and not only on the economy, then the challenge of abandoning or replacing neoliberalism comes to appear far greater than previously thought". This is not just because of neoliberalism's ideological tenacity, but because technology has expanded the sphere of the economic into the private realm. As Ursula Huws puts it, "The new economy makes it harder than ever to untangle capitalism from our daily lives".

This is primarily a problem for the political centre, including the Labour right, which cleaved to the market in the 80s and 90s, and can be seen in their anxiety over the revival of nationalist and sectarian politics as a substitute "organising principle" for society. For the left, not just in the UK but across Europe and North America, the solution has been to revive the notion of "trust in the people", expressed through popular democracy, agitation and self-help. This provides a universal narrative ("the people have been disempowered by the market") that not only unites disparate strands on the left (including ones that were antagonistic in the 80s) but has the potential to be attractive to centrist voters worried over market dysfunction in areas such as housing and public services. Though much of this is consciously anti-market, it preserves many neoliberal practices through its adoption of managerialist norms and its reliance on social media. Jeremy Corbyn "crowdsourcing" PMQs is as revealing as his approach to HR.

The intellectual failure of neoliberalism presents little challenge to conservatives who can simply revert to a more traditional advocacy of the market inflected by national and sectional priorities, dropping the happiness-index along with the "green crap". The Tories' rehabilitation of the City of London would have proceeded quicker but for the coalition, but it still moved at a rapid enough pace. The coming EU referendum campaign, taking a leaf out of the Scottish Independence playbook, will clearly focus on the risks and losses of exit, rather than the potential of the single market or the modernity of Europe, leading to some liberals cynically signing up to "project fear". In areas like education, housing and the environment, the Tories make little attempt to pretend they are doing anything other than looking after their own.

Their appeal is that they are self-interested, but that their self-interest is congruent with that of key voting groups (pensioners, rentiers etc), which is a return to Thatcherism but without the lofty principle. Neither Cameron nor Osborne sound convincing when they talk of making Britain great again, and social engineering is clearly passé, to judge from Oliver Letwin's transformation and Ian Duncan Smith's increasing eccentricity. If Donald Trump combines an anti-establishment vibe with the promise of an activist government (that wall won't build itself), which is rhetorically reconciled by an appeal to "trust the nation", David Cameron is asking us to "trust the establishment". No wonder he appears increasingly at ease in his Old Etonian skin. A couple more years of this and he'll look like Nicholas Soames.

The traditional response of the centre would be to advocate "trust the state", both as a restraint on market abuses and as means of managing society in the collective interest. The problem is that the ideological success of neoliberalism makes the former politically difficult (consider the painfully modest moves in this direction by Ed Miliband), while the sociological embedding of neoliberalism leaves the latter open to the charge of reviving the "nanny state" and curtailing personal liberty. The centre needs to rethink the activist state, which means substantive policies in the areas of housing (e.g. re-empowering councils), economic security (e.g. a basic income), and the NHS (e.g. reversing marketisation). The current hyperventilating of the Labour right, which reflects its own anxiety rather than any particular Corbynist outrage, is the result of its intellectual timidity since 2009.

The need is pressing. As Paul Mason notes, "With rightwing nationalism and social conservatism achieving, in many countries, about 25%, and the radical left pushing close to the same, there may not be room for more than one pro-global, pro-market centrist force in between the two". Though he's making a point about Spain and Greece, it clearly has a resonance in the UK as well. The LibDem wipeout may have led the Labour right to assume the centre ground was there for the taking, and some no doubt believe they're only being held back now by the self-indulgence of party members who voted for Corbyn, but the evidence from both the general election and the one by-election to date is that electors are heading away from the centre, not towards it, while the Tories appropriation of traditional centrist policies, such as the minimum wage, makes a distinct and persuasive offer more difficult.

I think the "hysteria of the moderates" owes more to a fear that politics is entering a phase of greater polarisation than a frustration with the management skills of the Labour leader or sensitivity to the machinations of the paper tiger that is Momentum. Of equal psychological import is the growing despair among those of a similar vintage to Corbyn, such as Polly Toynbee, at the realisation that the scruffy upstart has a better claim to embody their nostalgic social democracy than the besuited PLP, and that the latter are now so flaky that you couldn't rule out a "Reg Prentice" or two. Again, the Labour right's revival of the spectre of 80s-style internecine warfare, like its retreat to the laager of national security and tabloid patriotism, reflects a fundamental lack of imagination about what a future Labour government would do. The flip-flopping over tax credit cuts in the summer will take on a huge significance when the political histories are written.

So why the policy vacuum? The neoliberal paradox was to promise choice in society but a monopoly in governance. Third Way politics, as envisaged by Anthony Giddens, assumed that there was no alternative to capitalism and that modernity had eroded the class basis of political action, replacing it with a "dialogic democracy", in Jurgen Habermas's phrase, centred on lifestyle choices. As such, concepts such as "left" and "right" were increasingly meaningless and progress required a "radical centre" that would provide the focal point for dialogue and coalesce the technocratic talents needed for a "post-historical" state. The years since 2008 have undermined the appeal of technocracy, not just in the revelations of the malign intersection of finance and government, but in the anti-democratic fumblings of the EU and the intellectual exhaustion of the "caste" in key states such as France.

Much of the current angst of centrists can be traced to a fear that Giddens' analysis was wrong, not just in its "end of history" delusions but more importantly in its assumption that a politics of lifestyle would bias towards the cautious ("ontological security"), the rational (utility maximisation), and the primacy of the market (choice as liberation rather than anxiety). The charge that the left are indulging in "expressive" politics is reminiscent of the dawning realisation of Frankenstein that he had created a monster in his own image. As such, it reveals the underlying reactionary temper of the "radical centre", the fear that the mob are trivial and stupid and must always be manipulated, which famously came to the surface in 2003.

So what is stopping the Labour right from filling the void? Ultimately, the fragmentation of the centre arises from globalisation and the consequent accentuation of the isolationist/internationalist dynamic that exists in all societies, but which is particularly acute in the UK because of its geography and multi-national history. Social democracy provided the outlet for both a soft nationalism and principled internationalism (a combination today rebranded as "civic nationalism"), while traditional conservatism started from a nationalist base but conceded the necessity for international engagement through a variety of strategies from post-imperial noblesse oblige to realpolitik. Both were essentially centripetal, in the sense that the political cost of moving towards the centre was low.

Neoliberalism led to a huddling in the middle ground, but the structural changes it effected in the global economy then worked to hollow-out the centre as a viable political space. The nation was progressively disempowered by free capital movement and the opportunism of multinational corporations, while supra-national institutions that promised to moderate them, such as the EU, revealed themselves to be complicit in the process and lacking in democratic legitimacy. At the same time, national governments increasingly ceded control of domestic public services to the private sector and confessed themselves powerless (and even admiring of the fact) in the face of the market.

Well before 2008, the once-novel pitch of sleek modernity and global integration left people feeling isolated and beleaguered through neoliberalism's insistence on self-reliance and the rejection of traditional solidarities. Where social democracy and conservatism offered coping strategies in the face of capitalism, neoliberalism demanded unconditional surrender. It cannot provide adequate social protection in the face of globalisation and financialisation (despite the Labour Party's hopes in the 80s and 90s for private-public partnerships and the EU), while it tends to erode the wider social base of traditional conservatism even as it reinforces the privileges of wealth.

The division in the Tory party over Europe, as much as the "ideological schism" in Labour, is a symptom of the way that neoliberalism has sharpened the isolationist/internationalist tension. Largely by accident, the only party that has managed to develop a coping strategy is the SNP, but their success is built on shaky foundations. The emblematic "our oil" has been undermined by the operation of a global market, while the "Nordic model" that supposedly reconciles free enterprise with generous welfare is already history. Consequently, both the SNP and the Tories now have a joint interest in maintaining a low-level antagonism between Scotland and England, providing a "loyalty" appeal that substitutes for eroded solidarities and diverts attention from the continuation of failed neoliberal economics.

The Labour right (and by extension the broader centre in British politics) can only revive itself by moving on from neoliberalism, but that in turn requires it to define a distinctive position on the isolationist/internationalist spectrum, and it cannot do that this side of the EU referendum. The centre needs to win the vote to stay in, which means reciting the neoliberal catechism and pursuing "project fear" in the meantime, but then needs to tack hard towards a more isolationist stance (in terms of greater national control over the economy) to secure domestic support. The problem is that Cameron's Tories are trying to carry out the same manoeuvre while Corbyn's Labour has a more convincing offer when it comes to economic self-determination, even if it is being drowned out by a pro-EU media ahead of the vote. Unfortunately, the morbid symptom of weeping Blairites will be with us for some months yet.

Sunday, 3 January 2016


It's just past the halfway point of the season and we sit top, which is nice. 39 points from 19 games means, if we accept the conventional wisdom that we'll improve over the second half, that we should creep beyond the 80-point line by the end of the campaign. I was sceptical at the quarter mark that this would be enough to clinch the title, but the continuing inconsistency of others, notably Man City, suggests that perhaps it might. The further 3 points gained in yesterday's victory over Newcastle United is being cited as evidence that Arsenal can win when they're not at their best (the "mark of champions", don'tcha know), but I think it is more a reflection on the Magpies' striking inadequacies. With only 19 goals after 20 games, they have scored only 3 more than Aston Villa.

If we break the season into thirds (12, 13 and 13 games), Arsenal managed 26 points over the first period, which was the same as Citeh. So far, we've secured 16 points from a further 8 games, despite a "dodgy patch" in November, which would extrapolate to a middle third of 26 points as well. I'm hopeful we can improve that to 28, and achieve a similar number in the final stretch (last season we managed 28 and 30 points respectively), which would land us a final tally of 82. This is slightly below the usual optimum to challenge for the title (an average of 29 points per third), but the greater "equality" of the league this season means that it's likely to be enough to keep us interested until the final weekend.

Though Mesut Ozil is a worthy contender for Premier League player of the season, I suspect the club accolade may go to Petr Cech. I wouldn't normally consider anything that came out of John Terry's mouth to be worth listening to (apart from "guilty, m'lud"), but his estimate that the big stopper would guarantee Arsenal an extra 12-15 points looks remarkably prescient for a dimwit. 12 points on top of last season's 75 would produce a total of 87, usually the form of champions, though I think the eventual winner this season will do well to get over 85. You could suggest that Cech's eye-catching displays are due to a leakier defence in front of him, but the average number of goals conceded per game at 0.9 (18 in 20) compares well with last season's average of 0.947 (36 in 38), so this is a net improvement (pun intended) not just a compensation.

At the other end we're scoring 1.7 per game (34 in 20), which is down on last season's 1.92 (73 in 38), suggesting that our need for another striker remains more pressing than the need for another centre-back (though I suspect we'll be after a replacement for Mertesacker come the summer, and I wouldn't be surprised if both Debuchy and Monreal move on). We've only managed to score more than 3 goals in a game once, in the 5-2 away victory at Leicester, a match that now looks pivotal. Citeh, with 39 goals, are the only team with a better average than 1.9 (38), which is why I wouldn't write them off for the title. They've recently started to score late on in games, which is often a sign of a decent run brewing. Leicester seem likely to unconsciously ease up now they've achieved their relegation-proof target of 40 points, while the Spuds look a good bet for a top-four finish. So long as we finish higher, I'll live with that.

Though they're out of the title race, Chelski may well prove to be king-makers this season. We face them at home on the 24th of January, while they host Citeh on the 16th of April and Spurs on the 30th of the same month. On balance, I reckon we have the advantage in playing them earlier, as well as being at home, meaning the "derailment" potential is greater for the other two challengers. West London's newest club also host Leicester on the final weekend in mid-May, but I suspect that might be of interest only to those chasing a Europa Cup slot. Manure have been poor all season and appear to have lost the knack for nicking undeserved victories, the win over Swansea yesterday notwithstanding, so I doubt they'll be significant, even if they continue to hog the headlines.

Villa look doomed and Fat Sam, the great specialist in arresting failure, will do well to get Sunderland out of the mire. Newcastle United, to judge from yesterday, have enough in the squad to escape relegation, but it will probably require Mike Ashley to buy a striker in the January sales who can deliver 8-10 goals against lower-half teams over the remainder of the season (so he'll try to get Patrick Bamford on loan from Chelski instead). Swansea need a new manager (he won't be interested, but they'd benefit from being terrified into shape by Mourinho), while Bournemouth need a bit of luck. It being an unforgiving business, I suspect the Cherries will slip down with either Swansea or Sunderland in Villa's wake.

Despite sitting pretty, Arsenal still look a little fragile at times (e.g. Southampton away), though their flexibility in the face of the injuries to Cazorla, Coquelin and Sanchez does suggest growing resilience as a squad. Giroud, Walcott and Sanchez are a complementary package: each extremely good at a limited number of things but dependent on Ozil (and to a lesser extent Cazorla and Ramsay) to orchestrate their combinations. This means that there is a lot of responsibility on the German's shoulders, though it is a pleasure to see his insouciance in accepting the burden. However, as in season's past, that means we're only one nasty "reducer" away from being knocked off course, particularly if Flamini picks up a straight red for retaliation. That said, Ozil has a peculiar "antifragile" quality which means that while your mum could knock him off the ball, he could probably also cause Ryan Shawcross to herniate himself.

Sadly, were the worst to happen, I doubt Tomas Rosicky would be able to step into the creative breach and Wilshere will be lucky to return before Easter. Oxlade-Chamberlain continues to look like a player furiously seeking a role, though an interruption to Ozil's fine run in the team might paradoxically be the making of him. At the back, Bellerin is looking mentally shattered even if his legs are willing. If Mertesacker gets injured, the young Spaniard might struggle without his on-field mentor, despite Gabriel's technical competence. More positively, the return of Sanchez and Coquelin should provide a psychological boost as much as shoring up the team in the period leading to Easter. If we can get Cazorla back for the last 8 games, that could make a big difference.

On balance, it's been a frustrating season so far. Despite the results, we've rarely played as well as we can, though when we have it has come against the "bigger" teams in key games: Leicester, Manure and Citeh. Recent matches have seen too many unforced errors, though that is likely to be down to fatigue as much as personnel changes, which should now ease. I suspect Wenger will gamble with more young players in the FA Cup (I also hope he recalls Serge Gnabry from his loan-hell with Tony Pulis), and will probably not be too bothered if we succumb again to Barcelona in the Champions League, which is one reason why I perversely think we'll squeak through. We still look like a very good cup team, but also have the proven ability to put together the sort of winning run over the second half of the season worthy of league champions.

The dominant media narrative has evolved from "no trophies" into "Arsenal's best chance in a decade", which is just a variant on the same theme that gets around those pesky FA Cup victories in recent years. I suppose it beats being patronised like plucky Leicester. We've definitely got a good chance of clinching the league title, but I suspect we'll need some luck on the injury (or avoiding injuries) front, not to mention needing Chelski to do us a favour or two against other top-four teams in the run-in. Typically, the bastards will probably let us down, much as Spurs always used to do against Manure. You can take the bastard out of the club (ta-ra, José), but not the club out of the realm of bastardy. Or something. Here's hoping for an antifragile 2016.