Saturday, 27 May 2017

Live at the Witch Trials

The Institute for Fiscal Studies' judgement on the Conservative and Labour manifestos could be summed up as "a plague on both your houses", which rather neatly echoed the coincidental news that a GCSE exam paper managed to confuse Montagues and Capulets. There is no mistaking the parties however, with the Tories accused of underfunding public services and Labour accused of over-estimating future tax revenues. This has been the think-tank's stock take over the course of its history, so few will have been surprised by the outcome. The idea of policy-costing, like the IFS itself, is a product of neoliberal hegemony, now institutionalised in the poacher-turned-gamekeeper that is the Office for Budget Responsibility. The ideological thrust is an aversion to higher taxes combined with a demand that social provision should be increasingly met by private insurance markets. Had the IFS been founded a quarter of a century earlier than it was, you can imagine the withering assessment it would have delivered on Labour's 1945 manifesto. Today, the "honesty" they demand of the Tories is an admission that a smaller state means reduced public provision, while the honesty they demand of Labour is an admission that increased public services funded by taxation can only be achieved through a greater burden on median and lower earners.

Unsurprisingly for a body created by City interests, the IFS considers that the Tories' planned reduction in immigration will be economically damaging, while Labour's plans for higher taxes on "faceless corporations and the rich" will curtail private sector investment. Both parties are accused of ignoring the long-term challenges of an ageing population. Given its fiscal focus, the IFS has been at the forefront of the campaign of doom, insisting that we must either cut services or increase taxes to cope with a surfeit of the elderly, with the result that they have underplayed the more fundamental problems of the UK economy: poor productivity, under-investment (even when taxes were cut) and a worsening balance of payments. While demographic change clearly has an impact, this is by its nature transitory and its effect on the economy tends to be primarily a stagnation in expectations and confidence, as seen in Japan since the 1990s, rather than a fiscal crisis. This suggests that Keynesian demand-management might actually be helpful. Shifting to a greater reliance on private pensions and insurance might well help the public exchequer, but it is unlikely to aid British industry if the financial flows are managed by a City of London that has historically been reluctant to invest domestically.

The modern role of the IFS as the UK's fiscal "umpire" highlights the shift from the primacy of macroeconomic to microeconomic concerns that first took hold in public consciousness in the 1980s. House prices replaced the balance of trade as a barometer of broader economic health while the impact on representative households ("winners and losers") crowded out debate about the balance of taxation (and the gains from growth) between capital and labour. Though the IFS has been among those arguing for increased taxes on property and inherited wealth, essentially treating both as VAT-able, it has also argued consistently for lower taxes on corporate capital, a regressive shift of public taxation from income to consumption, and a "simplification" of welfare to encourage low-paid work and restrain any future growth in benefits. While the emergence of a low-wage, high-employment economy since 2008 has seen the future "threat" move from skivers to pensioners, the fundamental premise remains the same: labour (current and historic) is the problem, big capital is the solution.

Given its relative novelty, the tradition of an IFS election judgement highlights the historical amnesia of political coverage. This extends well beyond the fiscal sphere. For example, the Tory condemnation of Corbyn's statement this week that "the war on terror isn't working" is concerned with form (appearing to say the right thing in the right way) rather than content, with the predictable result that Michael Fallon was made to look a chump when Channel 4's Krishnan Guru-Murthy anonymously quoted Boris Johnson's mild 2005 comments acknowledging the reality of blowback from intervention in the Middle East. While this could be dismissed as the result of Fallon's habitual parroting of stock phrases, or as another tiresome gotcha by a journalist trying to be edgy, what it really shows is the vacuous nature of most political debate. Corbyn's real solecism in the eyes of the political class was to venture an opinion (shared by much of the electorate) that diverged from received wisdom. Predictably, this led to pompous criticism not only from unthinking Tories but from fatuous liberals like Jonathan Freedland.

The Tory claim, that terrorist acts committed on British soil are the sole fault of evil individuals who hate us and are in no way connected to our military interventions, is not just implausible but easily disproved by history. After all, the IRA were quite clear that their mainland bombing campaign was undertaken to "bring home" the cost of the UK's presence in Northern Ireland to the British electorate. In this light, the government's current stance is merely a continuation of the strategy of criminalisation fruitlessly pursued during the 70s and 80s, hence the continuing emblematic importance of Corbyn's dealings with Sinn Fein. One obvious byproduct of this approach in the 70s was the misrepresentation of the Irish community in the UK as untrustworthy and inherently malign, leading to the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six miscarriages of justice and a host of petty acts of anti-Irish abuse. The same stance now leads to the charge that there must be something wrong with Islam as a religion, or that Mulsim communities are somehow less law-abiding or humane than the rest of us, which legitimises the programmatic bigotry of UKIP and others.

Clearly foreign policy is consequential. If it wasn't, there'd be no point in having a Foreign Office. But though terrorist activities broadly correlate with the perceived involvement of states, they are also opportunistic, hence the Islamist attacks in recent years in Germany and Sweden, countries with little direct responsibility for state-trashing in the Middle East. Though this truth is used in turn by xenophobes to reject our moral obligations to refugees, what it really highlights is the increasing normality of migration and the way this acts as a vector in spreading conflict, both in actuality and rhetoric. This isn't new, and nor should it be taken as an argument against immigration: consider the IRA's support by sections of expatriate Irish communities in the USA. The globalisation of Middle Eastern conflicts certainly owes much to the push of clumsy foreign intervention, but it also owes much to the pull of economic demand and the way this has created new spaces for those antagonisms to be played out. The 1970s were marked not just by Palestinians applying the old technique of piracy to the new technology of mass air travel, but by simmering tensions between Turkish and Kurdish gastarbeiter that would culminate in violence on German streets during the early-90s.

The superficial sociology of Islamic terrorism notes how volunteers are often religious illiterates, or have a history of indulging in a "Western lifestyle" that has been reduced to little more than drinking and partying, but few suggest that their turn to an implacable and intolerant interpretation of their parents' faith reflects a desire to stop being an "anywhere" and become a "somewhere", to borrow the terminology of David Goodhart. In other words, these are often uprooted or confused individuals seeking the homogeneous and cohesive community that all societies claim to value as they pursue an economic orthodoxy that inevitably undermines it. They are, to employ the language of an earlier conservative ideologue, people who having "got on their bike" have decided to reject modernity for the nostalgia of an Umma no less fantastic than the Middle England conjured up by Paul Dacre. During the era of globalisation, economic imperatives have been far more significant in stimulating movement - and the deracination this gives rise to - than war, famine or failed states, and have thus contributed more to the spread of terrorism than any other single factor.

The historic amnesia of politicians extends well beyond foreign or fiscal policy, but there is little downside to their ignorance. The Fallon gotcha was possible because journalists rarely work forward from a historic base, preferring to work backwards from a contemporary prejudice. After the Paris shootings in November 2015, the Beeb's Laura Kuenssberg wanted Jeremy Corbyn to commit to a shoot-to-kill policy, which was not merely a silly incitement but an example of crass insensitivity for a national broadcaster supposedly serving the whole of Northern Ireland. Likewise, the BBC's coverage of fiscal policy remains hamstrung by a foolish deference to bodies like the IFS that promote a particular agenda. Across the broader media landscape these habits are partly the product of structural change - the need for gotchas to boost ratings and the shallow expertise produced by frenetic competition - but they also reflect the way that neoliberal ideology erases history. Just as mobile labour is meant to slough off its past and absorb a bland reduction of the dominant culture (aka "integration"), so media are encouraged to live in an eternal present in which historic causality is demoted in favour of personal malignancy, which is essentially the dynamic of the witch trial. No wonder the trope of household finances took hold. I'm just surprised that Jeremy Corbyn hasn't been accused of spoiling milk.


  1. That Freedland column was both bizarre and feeble. By about halfway through he'd argued himself into agreeing with what Corbyn actually said, so he had to devote the rest of the column to being terribly stern and grown-up about what Corbyn might have said if he'd said something different. This also involved the interesting claim that the Manchester bomber was an anti-Gaddafi militant, so he might have been just as angry with Britain if we hadn't overthrown Gaddafi. Not sure how to argue with that one.

    1. His "we're damned if we do, and damned if we don't" reminds me very much of Blair. It provides the justification for "well we'll do what we wanted to do anyway, because we know it's right".

  2. Herbie Destroys the Environment29 May 2017 at 09:25

    “One of the distinctive peculiarities of capitalism is the way it inverts the logic of scarcity and abundance. That is, it tries to impose scarcity where none need exist, while at the same time treating truly scarce things as though they are actually unlimited.”

    Peter Frase

    “Not sure how to argue with that one.”

    I would call that the insane ramblings of a mind raddled with Israeli apologism. After all you can’t actually address that argument in a serious way. If we are in a world where people will attack us for not bombing we really have arrived at the Armageddon moment! I am trying to imagine how that would work. This guy sits back and says they invaded Iraq but they won’t invade Libya, therefore they are my enemy! WTF! But even then we can blame the Iraq war!

    Islamism is a real, rational and concrete response to neo liberalism and more particularly its aggressive imperialist supremacist tactics. Islamism is every bit as part of the world capitalist system as ben and jerry's or Tinder.

    The most likely story in relation to the Manchester attacker is that this individual was used in some way, or people he knew were used, by Britain to carry out their supremacist dirty work in Libya. And if anyone knows about Libya what happened next probably tells us why this individual decided to blow himself up and many others, once these Islamists had been used by the British state to carry out their dirty work they were sidelined and within Libya gradually suppressed, harassed and they realised all their work had not been in the service of Islam but what they actually did was replace Gadaffi with something more brutal, rapacious and ‘ungodly’. There are a lot of pissed off radicals in Libya! I would say to them, why do you fall for it every time, allow the imperialists to use you for their dirty work, don’t you idiots ever learn?!

    The most risible idea is that these individuals are just mad or evil or the lowest of the low, this imagines a perfect world that is just upset now and again by these funny looking people. This shows the delusion of those in the grip of the Western lifestyle, my response to the Western Lifestyle is that it needs to get out more.

    Those who do not see the politics in these events are the high priests of delusion, in their delusional world everyone gets a fair crack of the whip, you make your own luck, the cream rises to the top and everyone gets their just deserts. No need for Utopia as we have arrived, ladies and gentlemen, behold the perfect world.

    This nonsense can only come from a prolonged exposure to Western Lifestyle where the carbon footprint is exponentially higher than the world average, where food expenditure as a % of overall income is less than 35%, where shortages are a relic of the past, where global warming means nothing more you can grow your own grapes.

    You put Western Lifestyle in quotes; you should have put it in the headline, because that is the biggest problem in the world today.

    1. "Islamism is a real, rational and concrete response to neo liberalism and more particularly its aggressive imperialist supremacist tactics."

      I wouldn't deny that Islam contains some good ideas: for instance Thomas Piketty would no doubt approve of zakat (which amounts to an annual 2.5% tax on wealth). Replacing debt-based financing of home purchase with equity-based financing would deprive the big rentiers of their current human shield (recent homebuyers fearful of negative equity), and there is also a clear pragmatic case for Sharia-based legal systems in Muslim-majority societies in that it corresponds to the will of the majority (the history of the Turkish republic shows how difficult it can be to reconcile secularism and democracy in a Muslim-majority country). Nevertheless I still don't see political Islam as any kind of solution to the Middle East's woes.

      As I see it the main reason why the Middle East is such a hellhole today is not Western imperialism, but that its population has quadrupled in the last 60 years, while its water supply if anything has declined to climate change. Religion (in general -- this criticism is certainly not specific to Islam) must be a part of this, as traditional religions are pro-natalist as the evolved back in the bad old days of high infant mortality. Life expectancy at birth in the medieval Caliphate was only about 36 years, and in most other pre-20th century societies it was even lower. Modern medicine combined with traditional pro-natalist values to cause a ruinous increase in population: that the West didn't suffer from this so badly largely because it could resettle its excess population in a New World conveniently depopulated by European diseases, while this opportunity was largely closed to Muslims. (The often-lamented decline of Christianity in the Middle East owes more to emigration to the opportunities of the New World than it does to Muslim persecution.)

      Another serious problem in Islamic society is that the prohibition of sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage, plus the toleration of polygamy, creates an environment of hyper-intensive male competition for women (which the Islamic modest dress only partly mitigates against). This competition is at the root of honour killings, and young men deprived of a sexual partner are fertile ground for extremist recruitment (and not just among Muslims: look at the so-called "men's rights activists" and their influence on the larger alt-right milieu).

    2. "This nonsense can only come from a prolonged exposure to Western Lifestyle where the carbon footprint is exponentially higher than the world average, where food expenditure as a % of overall income is less than 35%, where shortages are a relic of the past, where global warming means nothing more you can grow your own grapes."

      Interesting that you condemn the "Western Lifestyle" when some of the world's worst energy gluttons (per capita) are Gulf Arab states!

      More seriously though, condemning industrial-scale energy usage in and of itself though is a dead end unless you're willing to condemn over two-thirds of humanity to death (those whose sustenance depends on fertilizers produced using the Haber-Bosch process) as well as condemning over 90% of the survivors to the miserable existence of the subsistence farmer! The problem is not our usage of energy, but our dependence on fossil fuels for this energy, which is largely because the only current scalable alternative (nuclear fission) has been sabotaged by an environmentalist movement captured by laundered fossil fuel money. Leading climate scientist James Hansen has begged leading green groups to drop their opposition to nuclear energy, and the reply of those groups was essentially "we can't support nuclear energy because if we did our sugar daddies would cut us off". I could also name at least three major politicians who could be branded "anti-nuclear traitors" (in that they oppose nuclear because they have a vested interest in imported fossil fuels): former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (who sold out his country to Gazprom), former Italian prime minister Bettino Craxi (who sold out his country to North African gas interests, using Chernobyl as an excuse), and US Senator Ed Markey (whose constituency hosts one of the largest terminals in the United States for importing LNG).

  3. The IFS relentlessly tells us that the Government should spend less money.

    Where does the IFS get its money?

    The latest accounts available from companies house are for 2015. From page 12.

    "The Institute attempts to raise its research funds from a range of organisations so that it is not dependent upon a single source of funding. Although 55% was provided by the Economic and Social Research council (54% in 2014)..."

    The Economic and Social Research council is UK Government money. The IFS spent about £7.5m in 2015 so that 55% is about £4m.

    So the UK Government gave the IFS £4m in 2015 to receive the relentless message it should spend less money.