Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Lifting the Spell

Despite the current prominence of the DUP deal and the SNP retreat over indyref2, there is little doubt that we're witnessing a revival of two-party politics in the UK. For many commentators this suggests the abandonment of the political centre and even the death of liberalism, terms that some are using interchangeably. This strikes me as both a category error - the "centre" is a term of political praxis while "liberalism" is a term of political theory - and a misunderstanding of the political dynamic that emerged in the wake of the 2016 EU referendum. Liberalism remains hegemonic across all developed societies, making it the most successful political philosophy in history. While it's essential menace - the unfettered operation of capitalist markets - has become ever more obvious during the neoliberal era, its progressive gains, in the form of social tolerance and pluralism, continue to pile up. What was noticeable about the new age of austerity ushered in during 2009-10 was that it was initiated by pragmatic liberals (which includes Cameron and Osborne), not by ideological conservatives, and that the advance of social liberalism continued without a pause.

The rightwing upsurge detected in the middle years of this decade, which culminated in Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US, was not only a more complex phenomenon of dissent and resentment than the cartoon characterisation of the media allowed, but it was clearly ideologically inconsistent, combining demands for both a smaller and a more activist state, not to mention both protection and freer trade, and so bound to crumble as soon as it tasted power. Casting this as a generational conflict (Brexit as the final legacy of the baby-boomers) or as the emergence of a new dominant paradigm (somewheres versus nowheres) were all-too obvious attempts to deflect attention from socio-economic realities. Insofar as we are now in an era two-party politics it is one in which the "dividing line" is once more between the haves and have-nots, hence the emblematic importance of property rights and the way that centrists have found themselves out of tune with wider society as they chunter about the evils of state requisitioning in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

The inconsolable hysteria of the likes of Nick Cohen and John Rentoul does not reflect a defeat of liberal thought (which makes their talk of internal exile and keeping the faith all the more hilarious), but the failure of centrist practice. Indeed, as many have noted, the greatest contemporary threat to social liberalism comes not from the right but from Third Way ultras determined to sacrifice substance for the preservation of empty forms. You might think that centrists would be galvanised by Macron's victory in France, and there has certainly been no shortage of gushing profiles before and after his ascension (largely ignoring the limited enthusiasm displayed by the French electorate), but most intelligent British liberals quickly appreciated that what France is about to witness is not a classic Third Way administration in the mould of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair, that could serve as a new epitome across the West, but a revival of traditional French dirigisme and chauvinism that will be both less sympathetic to the UK over Brexit and more offputting to a British audience.

If we think of the Third Way as the culmination of the reformist strand of postwar social democracy, whose long march through the political institutions started in the late-1950s with Tony Crosland's The Future of Socialism, then the post-1980 wave was marked less by its attitude towards markets or consumerism than by its focus on managerialism. While the fundamentals of property and the means of production were ruled out of bounds ("There is no alternative"), all else was tractable, from school performance to personal fitness, giving rise to a sometimes manic solutionism (that Bob the Builder ran for most of the New Labour years, with his mantra "Can we fix it? Yes we Can!", was apt). I would argue that the Third Way has been in decline as theory since 2000, having served its purpose as a vector for the political consolidation of neoliberalism in the 1990s. Though New Labour would continue to win elections and Barack Obama would pick up the baton of Bill Clinton, the growing disenchantment of voters in the UK and the persistence of popular "hope" in Obama's charisma were indications that the Third Way was running on little more than fumes by 2008. 

Practice tends to live on after theory has crumbled, simply because of inertia. In the case of the Third Way, this has been a lingering decline marked by pigheadedness. As Emmett Rensin summed it up, "The most significant development in the past 30 years of liberal self-conception was the replacement of politics understood as an ideological conflict with politics understood as a struggle against idiots unwilling to recognize liberalism’s monopoly on empirical reason". The point is not just the formal obsession with fact-checking and the appeal to authority but the substantive contempt. While liberalism has become socially hegemonic and thus expansive, its self-declared political practitioners have become intolerant and insistent on a narrow definition of plurality. Centrists are increasingly illiberal. This can be seen not only in the increasingly silly equivalence of its enemies (Corbyn routinely namechecked in tandem with Trump) but in an obsession with decorum dressed up as principle and applied in trivial circumstances, hence the insistence that free-speech must be defended first on campus and that anti-semitism must be stopped first in the Labour Party. Meanwhile, in the real world ...

Perhaps the most ironic example of centrist blindness in the UK this year was the failure to appreciate that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were actively triangulating Labour to absorb the centre from the left. It has been amusing to see centrists attempt to rationalise this after the fact with wonkish guff about "rival conceptions of what politics is supposed to look like ... a contrast between a voluntary-activist mode and a professional-operator mode". This blindness probably owed much to the liberal misunderstanding of the working class that fuelled the narrative around UKIP. As any fule kno', the appeal of the Kippers to working people in the North and Midlands was limited, regardless of the natives' attitude towards the EU. UKIP's focus on Islam in the general election and its predictable desertion by voters showed it had nothing to offer working people. As the song said, "It says nothing to me about my life". The media mischaracterisation of social reactionaries (often comfortably-off retirees) as the "left-behind" played a part in this, despite the obvious inconsistency of the claims that the "traditional working class" is both practically extinct and politically pivotal.

Just as important was the inability to appreciate that the EU is actually quite a marginal issue for many voters, and even more so now that the question of membership has been settled in the eyes of most, hence the centrist surprise that Brexit wasn't the centrepiece of the general election and that the Lib Dems failed to increase their vote. Ignorance is not necessarily the result of stupidity: attention is a limited resource and there is no shortage of issues, from NHS funding to housing, that seem more immediate to people than the possible consequences of Brexit that might transpire at some point in the future. While the deliberate cultivation of ignorance by the rightwing media was undoubtedly a factor in forming opinions over the last 30 years, the liberal failure to critically engage with the EU in a national discourse (compare and contrast with Syriza's efforts in different circumstances and over a much shorter period) meant there was no positive message that could form the foundation of the remain campaign come 2016, hence the centrist decision to support Project Fear. This was not a crisis of liberalism but of centrist compromise and managerialism. Compromise wasn't possible (who even remembers Cameron's "deal"?) and the EU sovereign debt crisis revealed the naked power dynamics behind the technocratic veil.

In retrospect, British centrist timidity can be traced to an ongoing reluctance to align the UK's geopolitics with its capabilities in the wake of the Falklands War, which would eventually culminate in the error of Iraq, and to spell out the likely consequences of globalisation beyond the need for education and reskilling, which would contribute to the phenomenon of the left-behind. In this setting, the EU became an almost covert operation to ameliorate the effects of marketisation while reforming the economy along more rational, continental lines. But, as often with progressive politics, the dreams of the future were pale echoes of the past that were quickly overtaken by events. In reality, the lasting social change was happening in the realm of housing and personal debt while the economy was being twisted into a shape that suited the City and corporate London. These were domestic or global initiatives that (rightly or wrongly) were not seen as consequential on the EU. The evacuation of the political centre is rooted in the crisis of 2008 and the subsequent failure of austerity, but it also represents a final rejection of Third Way politics. In the US, this was trigerred by the Democrats' catastrophic choice of Hillary Clinton as their Presidential candidate. In the UK, it was trigerred by the "lifting of the spell" of the EU in 2016. The ironies are many.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Running Out of Road

The "Uber endgame" is an increasingly ironic term used to describe how the San Francisco behemoth is expected to finally become profitable. This has evolved over time from simplistic stories of disruption (Uber will undercut traditional taxi firms because it has a cool app), through the promise of monopoly (having killed the competition, Uber will then jack up prices), to expansion into other transportation markets such as mass transit (UberPool reinvents the bus) and home deliveries. In its latest and possibly final incarnation, the phrase refers to the plan to start using autonomous vehicles (AVs), the expectation being that removing the cost of labour will finally allow the service to move from the red into the black. After the evidence of imperial overreach in its retreat from China last year (it sold its operations to the more successful native business Didi Chuxing in return for a 20% stake), and now the sidelining of its CEO Travis Kalanick for being a douchebag, there are hints that the company may in fact be facing an existential endgame. If it cannot crack autonomous vehicles, there are doubts that it can ever turn a profit and little evidence that it could spin another story to satisfy both investors and the tech media.

For all his evident faults, Kalanick had the chops to convince many people that Uber's ascent to global domination was inevitable and the chutzpah to finesse the repeated delay in reaching that goal. Just as the con-man relies upon the mark's credulity, so Kalanick deployed stories that dovetailed with wider claims about the economy, from the efficient exploitation of otherwise underutilised assets (the story that puts Uber and AirBnB in tandem) to the tendency of the modern economy towards monopoly (the one that equates Uber with Google). Even those sceptical of the company's potential see its CEO's fall as a representative story: "Kalanick’s management culture, while repulsive on many levels, was actually brilliantly aligned with its business strategy and its investors’ objectives. Companies that can make money in competitive markets by creating real economic value do not have to create ruthless, hyper-competitive cultures where there are no constraints on management behavior as long as they are totally loyal to the CEO’s vision and can rapidly capture share from more efficient competitors. None of Uber’s bad behavior was aberrant—it was a completely integral part of its business strategy. Without this culture, Uber would have never grown as rapidly as it has, and would have never had any hope of industry dominance".

Though Uber and AirBnB are often cited together in articles about the birth-pangs of the sharing economy they are quite different. AirBnB earns an agent's fee that depends on limited and immobile supply (property in prime locations) and the avoidance of regulatory overheads. Its real "users" are landlords sweating capital and avoiding tax. Its exploitation of labour is indirect, the result of traditional hoteliers under competitive pressure pushing down on employee wages and conditions, while its plans to evolve into a travel services business are likely to be complementary to those hoteliers. Uber's real users are not its "riders" but its drivers, who are labour in search of an income, and it is the company rather than the users that gains most of the benefit of regulatory arbitrage. Whereas traditional taxi firms would lease the cars to the drivers, giving themselves a fixed revenue while the drivers got the upside/downside on fares, Uber requires the drivers to provide the capital (the car) and then proceeds to take a cut on all fares. Uber's problem is that it has no real economies of scale. Indeed, it actually relies on the inefficient use of capital - i.e. the spare capacity of its drivers' cars. If that inefficiency were ever to be lessened it would have to increase prices or cut margins to attract drivers.

The just-so story of the sharing economy imagines an exchange between equals, but the reality is typically unequal when viewed in terms of capital and labour. The recent observation of Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, that we are seeing the return of conditions familiar from the era before the industrial revolution, characterised by weak labour rights and flat wage growth, has much truth to it, but the near-bucolic emphasis on "artisanal, task-based, divisible" work elides the role of capital. An Uber driver who owns (or leases) his own car is comparable to a weaver who owned (or leased) a hand-loom under the pre-factory putting-out system. While the weaver had a degree of control over his working hours, he was also at the mercy of fluctuating piece-rates and required to advance cash deposits for materials. The "weightless economy" is not one in which capital has evaporated but one that no longer requires the concentration of capital and labour together. In practice, this means that as labour is atomised capital becomes ever more globally concentrated but also less visible (think of Google's data centres). The key to understanding Uber's endgame is as much about its potential concentration of capital as the atomisation of labour.

If you think of Uber's business model as parasitical - i.e. taking a cut of other businesses' revenue (the fares paid to self-employed drivers) by controlling prices and marginalising competitor intermediaries through market-flooding - then the current "endgame" looks surprisingly risky. Not so much because it alienates drivers but because it requires a capital-light company to become capital-heavy by owning autonomous vehicles. Up until now, the Uber value proposition has centred on capital gains through a future flotation and the promise of dividend yields should monopoly pricing ever arrive. The $13bn raised among investors to date was valued at $68bn earlier this year but has already slipped on the secondary market to $50bn. While a public offering is still likely, if only to raise the capital needed to buy all those robot cars, the focus of investors is shifting towards the longer-term return on capital post-IPO. Given that Uber isn't delivering a unique product and can't charge a premium for its basic service, this will mean raising the rate of capital exploitation. In practical terms, that means increasing the number of revenue-generating hours on the road.

The problem is that while customer demand can fluctuate up, a fact that Uber has exploited with surge-pricing, it can also fluctuate down. Up until now, Uber has been able to offload that "downtime" cost onto the drivers, but the AV endgame means it must absorb any under-utilisation itself, hence the diversification into moving goods (logically, when people are not travelling they are more likely to be receptive to deliveries). A further problem is that Uber can do relatively little to shift capacity to meet demand. While AVs will be more mobile than human drivers, it would be impractical to roam far as the transfer time would be revenue-negative. This points to the wider issue: Uber's lack of economies of scale that it can feasibly exploit. Indeed, if it shifts to being a capital-heavy company based on AVs its realistic leverage will be limited to lowering the cost of capital, probably through exclusive deals with selected motor manufacturers, however they may in turn push for a leasing arrangement that raises their own return on capital.

The AV endgame also requires a company that has been arrogant in its dealing with metropolitan authorities and state regulators to change its ways. It is one thing to bend the rules on taxis and ride-hailing, which will be seen by many as advantageous to paying customers and disadvantageous to often unpopular incumbents, but it is quite another to bend rules on passenger and pedestrian safety. Given the logistical challenges involved in the introduction of autonomous vehicles in urban areas, any firm that plans to operate a fleet of robo-cars in a city will need a good relationship with both the local authority and transport regulators. One way to achieve this might be to bid to provide mass-transit services, but the resulting conflict of interest between public and private provision could prove difficult to reconcile. The safest route would be to work with local government on AV systems that help moderate urban congestion. Kalanick's fall from grace may well signal a cultural shift at Uber but it is more likely that this is being driven by pragmatic concerns over future relationships with external parties not by any principled awakening to internal abuses.

I'm inclined to take a pessimistic view of Uber's future prospects. The AV nirvana may not arrive quickly enough, and at sufficient scale, to stop the business running through its cash pile, IPO or not. Even if it did, Uber isn't a technology leader and the most plausible scenario for future AV dominance is a tie-up between a business with leading data and sensor capabilities, such as Google, and an established motor manufacturer with advanced engineering capabilities, of which there are a number. Given that the ride-hailing sector remains competitive (see Lyft et al), it seems unlikely Uber can ever achieve a monopoly position and so dictate terms, and it is only maintaining its current market-leader position by heavily subsidising fares and drivers in a manner that is ultimately unsustainable. Indeed, it may already have peaked and the realisation may be dawning on many that it is essentially a bubble fuelled by a limited app and a well-known (if increasingly tarnished) brand. Assuming Google sees its future in selling smarts to car manufacturers, and further assuming that the future motor industry concentrates capital through AVs and an all-in rental model, then the smart move might be for a motor business (say Daimler) to buy Uber once its value drops far enough and so guarantee a large slice of the global market for its products. Uber looks like it is running out of road.

Friday, 16 June 2017

It's the Property, Stupid

One of the more irritating sub-plots of the response to the Grenfell Tower disaster has been the suggestion that Jeremy Corbyn's call to requisition empty properties to rehouse the homeless would mean "seizing luxury homes" and "giving them" to the survivors (the increasingly tired language of state coercion and undeserved handouts). Given that Labour has emphasised that the residents' chief fear is that they would be moved from the immediate area in North Kensington, thus breaking up the community, the idea that they would be decanted to penthouses as far south as Chelsea Harbour (3 miles away - the borough is long and thin) is hardly believable, even before you factor in the logistical practicalities (e.g. bussing kids to the same schools), let alone the high cost of compensation through compulsory purchase of some of the most expensive buildings in the country. Mind you, requisitioning Kensington Palace, or perhaps the Daily Mail building just off Kensington High Street (conveniently close to the town hall), wouldn't be a bad idea as a purely temporary measure. That the media see this in terms of property and the defence of the rights of the rich, rather than in terms of the preservation of community, is telling.

The left is often accused of social engineering, of wanting to change attitudes and thus political affiliations through state intervention. In fact, the greatest exercises in social engineering have always been carried out by the right through the vector of property law, such as the Enclosure Acts, or through land reform that, since the French Revolution, has been designed to create conservative smallholders committed to the sanctity of property and social stability. If you think of British council housing as a reconstitution of the commons, and thus a delayed response to enclosure, Thatcher's right-to-buy programme can be seen as a further counter-movement that repeated enclosure's transfer of assets from the public to the private realm while ironically posing as an assault on the country's largest landlord, the state. As with the earlier land grant programmes in other countries, which often coincided with the advance of suffrage, for example in Ireland, this aligned the interests of a new property-owning class with the conservative establishment and created a bulwark against the enfranchised working class.

The Tory manifesto plan to include house values in the calculation of social care funding (the so-called "dementia tax"), with its expectation that property would have to be liquidated at death, is important not so much for what it tells us about now-defunct "Mayism" than for its historic context. The generation that first mounted the property ladder during the Thatcher years, and who were thereafter favoured by both Conservative and Labour governments, depended not only on the positive right-to-buy but on the negative moratorium on council house building. The latter was ultimately the more significant as it helped inflate the value of all housing stock, not just ex-council. Someone born in the middle of the postwar baby-boom, say 1950, would probably already have either gotten on the property ladder in the 1970s or secured a relatively new-build council house that they were then able to buy at a discount in the 1980s. That same person is now facing retirement, hence the political salience of the pensions triple-lock, and presumably starting to think about their future care needs and what might be left as a legacy for children. What the Tory manifesto was saying, in its clumsy way, is that it's now time to start paying back. In other words, the free-money giveaway wasn't for keeps after all.

What Grenfell Tower has brought into sharp relief is that the major division in society is not one of age but of property. Age is simply a proxy for property-ownership, just as educational attainment is a reflection of the changes in opportunity and thus a proxy for age. Likewise, the weaking correlation between socioeconomic class and voting seen in the general election doesn't mean that the Tories are attracting workers and Labour becoming more middle class through an appeal to cultural values, even if there is a correlation on the authoritarian-libertarian axis. Not only is the venerable NRS scheme increasingly meaningless, given that many B and C1 jobs are lower-paid than C2 roles, but it fails to reflect differences in property tenure. There are increasing numbers of people in the A and B grades who are obliged to rent and have little immediate prospect of ownership, while the lowest grade, E, includes many pensioners and thus a high percentage of home-owners. The starkest finding from the initial demographic analysis of voting patterns is that Labour won among all working groups. This, I suspect, is because all working groups are now subject to the same pressures over property.

The refusal to acknowledge the dominant role of property in forming contemporary political attitudes goes a long way to explain the failure of the commentariat to see the general election result coming. The well-paid pundits of national newspapers and TV tend to be of an age that means they own valuable property, often in London, and are exposed to the current realities (if at all) through young-adult children negotiating the private rented sector. For them, preserving capital gains is not only a natural feature of the liberal order but a necessity for giving their offspring the wherewithal to secure a deposit on a flat. They consider property inequality a problem, but they cannot see that property is becoming the dividing line in society and thus the defence of unconditional property rights is increasingly incompatible with a progressive agenda. The media's narrowing of the policy spectrum - the Overton Window - makes it vulnerable to being blindsided by a flanking manoeuvre. If you have benefited from the property market, and have experienced austerity only in the abstract, you may easily underestimate how attractive credible promises on housing and public services are. For the liberal commentariat, Corbyn is by definition extreme, even if the reality is that he and Labour's manifesto are both seen as mainstream by many voters.

Opinion broadly comes in two forms: criticism and prediction. The register of the former ranges from nostalgia, such as Ian Jack gently lamenting how cheap old Victorian houses once were in Islington, to bitter vituperation, such as Nick Cohen furiously dismissing most of his paper's readership as "fucking fools". The evidential base tends towards personal experience and anecdata, often buttressed by selective lessons from history. This approach can give a rich and subtle impression, but it needs space and time (the 2012 BBC documentary series, The Secret History of Our Streets, which devoted an hour to the social divide of Portland Road, just to the south of Notting Dale, was exemplary). You can't achieve this in a punchy, one-off newspaper column. Cohen's now infamous piece was routine in its construction: nostalgically quoting Robert Conquest, dismissing the Overton Window as mere "jargon", and turning the invective dial up to 11. If criticism tends towards a biased view of reality, a prediction seeks to create reality through invocation. It is an act of magic, rather than reason, and thus not much advance on inspecting the entrails of dead beasts. But criticising it for this is to miss the point. Gut-feeling is not in competition with logically derived probabilities. Both have entertainment value.

A good example of this was BBC Newsnight's eve-of-poll predictions. The tired format of the 3-party panel was given a shot in the arm by the obvious mutual loathing of Paul Mason and Iain Dale (the otiose LibDem was utterly forgettable), giving the whole exercise the air of a fairground stall where a fight was about to break out. This was not only entertaining, but Mason's gut even managed to call the result right. In contrast, Chris Cook's analysis of the seats visited by the party leaders, which turned out to be as insightful as casting runes, was not only duller but no more scientific despite its claims to empiricism. For example, he offered no evidence from past elections to show that his method would produce meaningful results even though the theory was obviously testable. The demand for prediction, allied to the lack of caution that is encouraged by the mode of criticism, means that pundits will make many more predictions than are justified by the data, which in turn means that they'll get more wrong. But being wrong (and usually unapologetic) is part of the entertainment too. The mea culpas in the liberal media this last week are a simple commercial acknowledgment that they misjudged their consumers, not that they misjudged Jeremy Corbyn.

Many are attributing the supposed "youthquake" to the declining reach of newspapers and TV and the growing power of social media. Some on the left are even suggesting that this is evidence of the emergence of the networked worker and the general intellect. That might be ever-so-slightly over the top, but what it does suggest is that the political consequence will be the intensification of two complementary trends: the growing dissatisfaction with the power of money over online political advertising - e.g. the concern over "fake news" and sinister data anlaytics; and the growing demand for greater control of online activity deemed a threat to the social order. While both of these have a progressive spin, what they reflect is the regulatory contest of different fractions of capital: old media companies versus the tech titans. The political centre isn't seeking to curtail the power of money so much as insist on plural representation - i.e. liberal safe-spaces - while intolerance towards a loosely-defined "abuse" is as prominent as foiling terrorism in the discussions on gatekeeping. That this was one of the few areas of common agreement between Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron this week should come as no surprise. Like the humble pie adjustment, this is transparent neoliberalism in action: we must refine our regulation.

The political mood of the UK probably hasn't shifted that much in the last two decades (that many former UKIP voters reverted to Labour is perhaps indicative of this). What has changed is the level of engagement, though even that can be exaggerated: turnout in the general election was only up by a little over 2% on 2015, though it has grown by over 9% since the postwar low in the annus mirabilis of 1997. The sense I get is that another general election now would actually see a further increase in turnout, despite the complaints of Brenda from Bristol, essentially because many people think we have reached a watershed, not just with the poll last week but with the varied evidence this week of government incompetence and a society that has lost its ethical bearings through a slavish worship of property. I might well be wrong, but it feels like we are living through a change in public perception if not in underlying belief. Another way of putting it is that a more socially concerned attitude, which was always latent, has been emboldened by the 8th of June. I don't get the feeling that the liberal commentariat fully get this, while the self-declared liberals that now effectively prop up the right, like Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch, remain in furious denial.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Waiting for God Knows What

Well that was fun, wasn't it? I don't about you, but I'm still chortling. It may not make up for the disappointment of the 2015 general election result, let alone the catastrophe of 2016's referendum, but this year's national poll has at least cheered Labour, confounded the centrist commentariat and confirmed that the Conservatives remain the stupid party. That said, Labour lost again, Theresa May is still in Number 10 and the hitherto unnamable representatives of the DUP have slouched towards Parliamentary relevance. A mixed bag indeed. A sound rule of politics is that what a party most harps on about tends to reveal its anxieties as much as its assumed strength. Labour's festishisation of the NHS stems not only from its achievement in founding the institution but from its guilt over repeatedly undermining it, from the proposed introduction of prescription charges in 1951 through the failure to reverse marketisation after 1997. Likewise, the Tories' festishisation of Trident stems from their vulnerability on defence (they still get shivers at the thought of the 1983 Franks Report) as much as their opponents' division on the subject of whether pushing the button at the first hint of trouble from North Korea is a sign of strength or not.

The Conservative Party's persistent Achilles Heel is its lack of executive competence, which is seen in economic mismanagement (famously the return to the gold standard and the ERM debacle) but also extends to misjudgements in foreign affairs (Suez, Libya) and even cock-ups of basic political management. Ted Heath's miscalculation of the popular mood in 1974 ("Who governs Britain?" - "Not you, chum") has now been eclipsed by the errors of David Cameron in calling the EU referendum and Theresa May in calling last week's general election (the congregation will now stand and intone, "The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce"). The need to balance this embarrassing record of incompetence prompts the media (both conservative and liberal) to search for equivalent Labour misjudgements, though many of these are either myths ("Crisis? What crisis?") or unprovable counterfactuals, such as Gordon Brown's supposed mistake in not calling an election in 2007. When Labour does go badly wrong (e.g. the embrace of austerity in 1931 or Blair's unconditional support for the Iraq War), it is invariably the result of adopting establishment (i.e. Conservative) thinking.

The media coverage of the election result has been heavily inflected by voguish demography, hence too much attention has already been paid to the "youth surge" and we can expect plenty of "war of the generations" think-pieces once detailed breakdowns are available. The increase in the Labour vote from 9.3 to 12.9 million cannot be attributed solely or even mainly to greater turnout among the young. There are only about 3 and a half million registered electors in the 18-24 age-group, so even a pronounced swing away from the Tories or a significant pickup in registrations would only add around half a million votes at most. My own guess is that the additional 3 million was spread much more evenly across the age spectrum. There will be a bias in this distribution towards younger age-groups, but not as pronounced as the media narrative would suggest. While a segmental analysis of the vote does have practical value, we should be cautious about the ideological role that demography plays in politics. One purpose, at least since public choice theory came to prominence in the 1960s, is to insist that we are all self-interested buyers of retail policies, hence the young were accused this time round of voting solely for free tuition and other fruits from the magic money tree while the old were assumed to be spooked by the loss of their winter fuel allowance and the pensions triple-lock as much as a possible dementia tax.

An even older ideological purpose, dating from the introduction of universal suffrage, is to undermine the fundamental claim of the left, namely that it represents the many (those who work for a living) against the few (those who live off the labour of others). The distraction from class has usually taken two complementary forms: the claim that the left seeks to represent self-interested minority groups while the party of the right represents "the national interest". In contemporary politics, students play a rhetorical role similar to ethnic minorities (and trade unions in the past) as symbols of indolence and parasitism, but with the added advantage that they are easier to publicly insult. Much of the criticism made by liberals and the "centre-left" has revolved around these two forms, from the suggestion that the white working class has been ignored as a result of excessive political correctness to the idea that Labour needs to adopt a more patriotic stance to win votes. This framing isn't about to disappear, certainly not among Northern MPs who saw a swing to the Tories, but part of the public glee at the election outcome (even among people who didn't vote Labour) surely arises from the realisation that we can more generally discount these pessimistic views. Hope had a better election than hate.

Perhaps the most striking feature of  the vote has been the return of two-party politics, with a combined Conservative and Labour share of 82% (the highest since 1970). I thought the share would be high, but that the Tory margin would be greater (45% vs 35%). I did expect the smaller parties to go sharply backwards, and that Tory gains from UKIP would be diluted, but I under-estimated how low the smaller parties would go and how much the increased turnout would benefit Labour. The Tories added 2.3 million votes while Labour gained 3.5 million. UKIP was down 3.3 million. If we assume the ex-Kippers broke roughly 2:1 in favour of the Tories, this implies that Labour gained almost all of the increased turnout of 1.5 million, plus a further 1 million from the other small parties. Interestingly, this seems to have come more from the Greens (who lost over half a  million votes) than the Lib Dems or the SNP. Despite adding seats, the Lib Dems have seen their vote erode further, from 7.9% to 7.4%, which is fractionally worse than the 7.5% they got in 1970. On that occasion they won only 6 seats (I predicted 5 or fewer this time round). Their higher return of 12 seats this year looks to have been due to a combination of narrow targeting and their ability to come through the middle, notably in Scotland where there is now a four-way fight. Just as the plan for a new centrist party looks dead, the Lib Dems are likely to remain marginalised while their post-Brexit future - shorn of the EU as an organising principle - looks bleak.

The SNP was always going to struggle to hold onto its 2015 gains, but the underlying story from Scotland is a return to an older pattern of voting and a drop in turnout that disproportionately hit the Nationalists, suggesting the post-indyref hangover has kicked in. The Tories have re-established themselves in the better-off south and north east of the country while Labour has regained a presence in the Central Belt. With a second independence referendum off the agenda for the foreseeable future, even in the event of a Hard Brexit, and with the locus of the struggle over social and economic policy shifting back from Holyrood to Westminster, the suspicion is that the SNP vote will erode further but that gains in the next general election are likely to skew more to Labour than to the Tories, largely because of the greater potential in seats along the M8 corridor between Glasgow and Edinburgh, which means this could be Ruth Davidson's finest hour. The Tories actually secured a lower vote share in Scotland than they did in Wales, but it was the movement in seats that caught the media's eye - the one up, the other down. Of more historic significance was that the Liberals failed to win a single seat in the principality for the first time since 1859.

The story in Northern Ireland was the electoral eclipse of both the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. There is now an entrenched stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Fein and little prospect of a Chuckle Brothers mark 2 (Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster are closer to Vladimir and Estragon, though I doubt O'Neill has ever worn a bowler). In the circumstances, it is obvious folly for the Tory party to effectively take sides in order to secure a working majority at Westminster, even if they do avoid formal coalition and limit the price to cash rather than contentious policy. The danger is that any arrangement with London potentially becomes more valuable to the DUP than the restoration of power-sharing at Stormont, so the de facto impact of a confidence deal is to place the peace process on ice if not in jeopardy. I suspect the not-so-cunning Tory plan is for this to be a temporary arrangement until such time as Theresa May can be eased out and another general election called, presumably at an opportune moment in the Brexit negotiations. That the latter will now be flexed for short-term party gain should not come as a surprise. That has been the Tory dynamic for the last quarter of a century, much to the evident frustration of the rest of the EU who now seem determined to call time.

Some liberals are hopeful that a reduced majority and the DUP's preference for an open border with the Republic will encourage a softer Brexit. This strikes me as naive. The DUP has appealed to business interests in its long campaign to supplant the UUP, but this pragmatism did not lead it to support remain in the EU referendum, despite the obvious benefits that membership brings to Northern Ireland. Its existential purpose is first to rule out any possibility of a united Ireland - and the EU has always been seen as a backdoor threat in that regard - and second to preserve the social dominance of a narrow Protestantism embodied in the Orange Order and the Free Presbyterian Church. Despite some obvious ideological overlaps, most mainland Tories actually have little sympathy for the DUP, which they regard as even more infra dig than UKIP, hence Ruth Davidson's evident discomfort, while the DUP zealots assume that all Tories are ultimately posh traitors if not active homosexuals. Boris Johnson might get away with calling UKIP a "lost Tory tribe", but he's not stupid enough to make the same claim about the Democratic Unionists.

The story in England was also of a return to more traditional voting patterns with the Tories gaining share in the North East and East Midlands, where there is no shortage of social reactionaries and a tradition of working class Toryism quite distinct from the gobby, Southern form advanced by Kelvin McKenzie in his pomp at The Sun. This revival, largely fuelled by ex-Kippers, wasn't enough to pick up more than a handful of seats, and there seems little likelihood it will increase much further in the future, short of Corbyn declaring that he's in a gay relationship with Gerry Adams (and even that might not prove enough). In contrast, Labour put on votes and won seats more widely across England, from Keighley to Kensington, reinforcing the suspicion that this was down to monopolising the increased turnout at a national level rather than the fruits of a more Blue Labour pitch to Kippers by MPs from the right of the party. In London, Labour continues to prosper, so much so that the remaining Tory presence is beginning to look anomalous, though this strength appears to be driven more by concerns over inequality and housing than remainer pique, hence Kate Hoey still managed to increase her vote in Vauxhall.

The meta-story across the country is the return of substantive social and economic policy to the heart of political debate - i.e. the manifestos did their job for once, for good or ill - replacing the obsession with deliberately misleading symbols such as the deficit or Trident and the infantile guff produced by focus groups (if you think pollsters had a bad election, spare a thought for the think-tanks and vox-poppers who seemed incapable of locating Labour voters before last Thursday). In this regard, the reactionary ambition of the now-departed Nick Timothy, which was evident in the ill-considered dementia tax, is as significant as John McDonnell's rehabilitation of mild Keynsianism. In terms of policy, the election result suggests that austerity will be demoted from a comprehensive programme to an opportunistic bias, if only because the current incumbent of Number 10 is unlikely to be facing judgement on the state of the deficit in 5 years time. This doesn't mean that welfare and public sector cuts will be reversed or the NHS properly funded - the not-so covert strategic goals haven't changed - but it probably means that the fetish of targets will be binned and clamorous interests will be bought off to avoid rebellions in the Commons. The transactional nature of the deal with the DUP will set the tone for what remains of Theresa May's premiership. Now is a good time to take to the streets.

Though the demand in Parliament and the liberal media for a Soft Brexit will grow stronger, I suspect that May's parlous position makes a "no deal is better than a bad deal" flounce even more attractive to the ultras who imagine that a popular majority would coalesce around defiance of Brussels. Her aim was to secure a large enough majority to provide a buffer against rebellions from either leavers or remainers, but the end result is a Mexican standoff in which no one wants to make the first move. Given that May cannot reconcile the competing interests in her own party, she must either agree a Soft Brexit with Labour or follow the ultras off the cliff. The former is clearly unpalatable, effectively ceding control of the government's central business to the opposition, even if pragmatic Tories cite "the national interest", while the latter would likely lead to another snap election and a defeat for the Conservative Party. While there may still be a majority for leave, there has never been a majority for a Hard Brexit and a cards-on-the-table offer by Labour (quit the EU but keep the single market and customs union and compromise on free movement) would probably add at least another 5% to its popular vote, while many non-ultra Tories would probably abstain.

We are clearly in an endgame, or perhaps on the eve of a coup, not least because of the the imminent start of negotiations with the EU27 (though, to be fair, the initial focus will largely be administrative, so the real deadline is nearer Christmas). Despite his proven executive incompetence (his tenure as Mayor of London and that abject leadership bid last year), Boris Johnson probably does have the chutzpah to sell a climbdown over free movement and the single market if he were carried to Downing Street by acclamation, but I suspect most Tory MPs despise him as an opportunist and would rather promote anyone else, though maybe not Michael Gove. A true believer coup, perhaps by David Davis, is a possibility, though I get the sense that most leavers would prefer May to stay, knowing full well that she will stick to the job if she can, while the "releavers" that constitute the majority of Tory MPs would be happy to thwart Davis after his cavalier performance at the despatch box over the last year. When she called this election, May said she had a sense of the country coming together. In fact, the over-riding sense now is of the Conservative and Unionist Party coming apart at the seams. Happy days.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Rise and Fall of Competition

The phrase "data is the new oil" has been around for over a decade. The analogy doesn't really work. The vast majority of data (literally more than 99.99%) is close to worthless, its availability simply reflecting the negligible cost of production, distribution and storage. There is no obvious limit to data, so the idea of "reserves" is meaningless, while its intrinsic value isn't obvious. In contrast, a barrel of crude oil can be refined into a specific set of products with predictable qualities. Data is closer to poor soil than valuable carbon deposits. For this reason, "Big Data" - the promise that hitherto inaccessible potential can be extracted like nuggets of precious ore from a spoil heap - is important in preserving the illusions of the present. The inevitable result is hype, of which two choice examples would be the claims that "The value of data goes up every day AI advances" and "Data will become a currency". The first is the new alchemy, transforming base metal into gold. The sorry tale of IBM's Tay chatbot suggests that training AI with rubbish produces more rubbish. The second claim is even more incredible as data is not consistent and heterogeneous like an actual currency or a precious metal. How many Web cookies exchange for a Fitbit step?

Like Big Data, the Internet of Things (IoT) assumes that there is value in data and that this value will increase the more data we produce. But if the world's existing stores of data are largely worthless crap produced by humans, why would we expect the digital droppings of limited function machines to be any better? The monetisation of the IoT comes from commodifying our own exhaust and selling it back to us, in the form of a premium for a connected device, not from exploiting an otherwise wasted surplus. Scepticism about the IoT is good, but it also carries its own ideological load. For example, in a Guardian essay, Adam Greenfield of UCL divides his critique between "our bodies (where the effort is referred to as the 'quantified self'), our homes ('the smart home') and our public spaces ('the smart city')". Not only does this accept the functional framing of IoT evangelists, but it echoes a view of the world as discrete domains that dates back to Ancient Greece, though a view that originally emphasised the oikos and the polis (or demos) more than the self (true individualism - atomisation - is a product of capitalist modernity). Another way of presenting the tripartite division is in terms of exploitation, competition and public order. That is: the equivalence of a behavioural surplus with labour; the threat of the market intruding into the home; and the politicisation of urban space.

Put like that, you can see how the critique potentially lends itself to a reactionary as much as a progressive interpretation. The quantified self can be seen as either the exploitation of leisure time (i.e. unpaid labour) or as the market over-stepping traditional boundaries (the money-lenders have taken over the temple that is my body). The smart home can be theorised as malign surveillance by intrusive corporations or as the defence of private property against expropriation. The smart city can be imagined as a public space privatised for the benefit of those same corporations, or as a totalitarian dystopia controlled by unelected bureaucrats through unforgiving algorithms. What these contrasting visions share is a belief that data is of great value in aggregate. The algorithms may be intentionally or unintentionally biased, but there is no doubt that they are effective. But what if the data is largely rubbish and these contrasting visions are just fantasies; the one of human value, the other of social control? The popularity of the word "smart" with both liberals and conservatives (consider its regular use by both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump) should give us pause for thought.

A central insight of Marx was that capitalism could not but help create the conditions for its own supersession, essentially by concentrating labour and obliging it to develop as a class for itself: the "revolutionary combination" of the proletariat. But this dialectic, famously outlined in The Communist Manifesto, depends as much on competition between labour as on its association: "The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable."

The standard explanation for the failure of capitalist crises to lead to immiseration and revolution, at least in the developed world (and ignoring the role of imperialism), is that technological innovation has led to an aggregate growth in prosperity that has allowed the needs and desires of the working class to be satisfied by a rising tide of material gain. In this view, liberal democracy, with its corollaries of social mobility and meritocracy, has acted both as a political pressure valve and as an amplifier of entrepreneurial and inventive talent. Central to this is the idea of competition and the marketplace of ideas. In the Early Modern era, competition was still seen as synonymous with conflict and contention (Milton's Satan is the first great competitor as much as the first great rebel), and thus the enemy of harmony and divine order. Under capitalism it was recast first as a virtue and then as the driving force that produces the harmony of equilibrium. If classical liberalism from Locke to Mill emphasised the moral benefits of competition, finding a philosophical and quasi-religious justification for what had hitherto been seen as vicious, modern strains of liberal thought, from the "big staters" of social market liberalism to the "little staters" of Hayekian neoliberalism, have sought an ethical foundation revealed through social science, which has meant an emphasis on data and calculability.

Having transformed from the profane to the sacred, the idea of competition reversed course once more as religion was supplanted by science. This latter transition was mirrored in liberal ideology by a shift from the moral impetus of producers to the amoral preferences of consumers: from Samuel Smiles Self-Help to Helen Gurley-Brown's Having It All. This isn't just a reflection of the expansion of the market economy and the profusion of commodities, but a reframing of all social relations in terms of competition and exchange. Alienation has given way to FOMO, while commodity fetishism has become an unironic way of life. This has been accentuated by information technology since the 1980s, most famously in the form of the Internet meme: the commodification of an idea as an infinitely-replicable image or slogan. If the Internet has extended the association of labour to a global scale, however loosely, what has it done to competition between labour? Objectively, information technology has heightened labour competition, through offshoring and market disruption, which can be seen in the decline in labour's bargaining power and thus wages.

As Jeremy Gilbert put it in The End of the Long 90s: "Capital always needs to find ways of ensuring that that productive potential is channelled exclusively in the direction of producing and circulating marketable commodities, and not in the rather predictable direction of producing new and democratic forms of common life. From this perspective, there’s no contradiction between a techno-cultural revolution which really does, in principle, enhance our collective creative and organisational capacities beyond the wildest dreams of earlier generations of utopians, and a culture in which [we] are constantly admonished to view each other ultimately as competitors". In other words, the "potent collectivities" of the online world, as Gilbert terms them, which have fed the accelerationist and postcapitalist optimism of many on the left, are about extending and normalising competition as much as facilitating association. Subjectively, information technology has made competition (to complete a level, to be the first to comment) a constant in our lives, and that in turn entails the constant fear of failure.

Viewed in this way, much of the liberal criticism of the tech titans, particularly in respect of the supposed subversion of democracy, is simply the age-old defence of private property rights, which means setting limits on the scope of the market. The modern clamour for we, the people to secure ownership of our data might seem an odd cause for The Economist to back, but it is simply the latest chapter in the assault on the feudal order (now reconstituted in Google and Amazon) and a continuation of the thought of John Locke. Likewise, much left criticism of digital political economy is stuck in the past, albeit a more recent twentieth century paradigm, from Evgeny Morozov's plea for a socialised data populism ("Data populists must seize our information – for the benefit of us all") to Paul Mason's autonomist imagining of a tendential fall in the price of capital goods leading to a liberating abundance. "The product is you" was adopted by many on the left as an insight into the nature of the digital economy because it echoed the established idea of the surplus value of labour and its expropriation by capital. But the phrase also obscured the competitive dynamic at the heart of the online. Perhaps the true value of Twitter and Facebook is the competition for esteem, not the supposed insights to be gleaned from their databases and sold to advertisers.

Data isn't the new oil because it isn't a naturally scarce but useful resource whose cost of production is high enough to sustain fat profit margins. The chief characteristic of data is that it can be created by anyone (a comatose patient in a hospital hooked up to a monitor, for example), with the result that it is for all practical purposes ubiquitous and free. The persistence of such a misleading analogy is surely suggestive, particularly when there are far more suitable substitutes for oil's economic and geolpolitical role, such as fresh water in an increasingly climate-challenged world. What I think it points to is the importance of maintaining the fiction that competition is necessary to the operation of the economy and thus to liberal democracy more generally. To this end we have created a social environment in the West of constant, performative competition and have insisted, against all evidence to the contrary, that our endeavours produce a stream of new value. The more our economy is defined by monopoly and the sweating of exhausted assets (hello Sergeant Pepper), the more we must project the ideal of competition onto the trivial and the marginal.