Monday, 26 March 2018

The Public Sphere

Andrew Rawnsley in yesterday's Observer reckons "the internet has created a political ecosystem in which the extreme, the incendiary and the polarising tend to prevail over the considered, the rational and the consensus-seeking". This is nonsense on two counts. First, the political ecosystem didn't suddenly coarsen with the arrival of Twitter. Brexit was fuelled by a decades-long campaign run by the bulk of the British press, while the election of Donald Trump owed more to the groundwork laid since the 1990s by cable news networks like Fox than to Facebook. If anything, social media has led to greater plurality and dissent, hence the strong backlash against both Brexit and Trump. This plurality may constitute a commercial threat to incumbents like the Guardian Media Group, but it doesn't herald the end of politics. Second, the liberal media is itself increasingly prone to the rejection of the "considered and rational" in its pursuit of a smoking-gun that it imagines will annul both the EU referendum and the US Presidential election. What's worth picking out of Rawnsley's hyperbole is his reference to the political "ecosystem", which clearly extends beyond his normal beat of SW1.

The editorial in the same issue suggests that we face the threat of a fragmented polity: "The trend towards micro-targeting risks moving us further away from the democracy of the public forum, towards a fractured, individualised democracy in which 'swing voters' are targeted based on narrow issues, using false claims or under-the-radar dog-whistling that are not subjected to public scrutiny". This exaggerates the potential for targeted messaging. In practice, most people will get the default, and those that might be susceptible to a customised version were probably getting it in the past as well (it's worth recalling Zac Goldsmith's decidedly old-school leaflet, claiming that Sadiq Khan would tax Indian families' jewels, which was issued during the 2016 London Mayoralty election). There won't be millions of messages, there will be closer to a dozen, based around standard demographic dimensions such as age, income and housing tenure. The reference to "the public forum" and the scrutiny it enables, in combination with Rawnsley's "ecosystem", indicates that the true subject of the Observer's concern is the public sphere.

Despite the fact that the UK's laws on political campaigns and donations have long been weak, Rawnsley imagines a golden age not so long ago: "In the analogue political era, we could all read the promises a party put in its manifesto, we could all see the claims a party made on its roadside billboards, and we could all watch the attacks launched on an opponent in a TV broadcast. That made it possible to call out mendacities and expose contradictions and to hold those responsible to account. ... There is not the capacity to apply that invigilation if millions of individualised messages are being micro-targeted at voters on social media". No evidence is offered to support the claim that invigilation is unfeasible today, possibly because the opposite is true: social media has actually made it easier to call-out lies and highlight contradictions, both as a medium and as a record (ironically, the Observer elsewhere went big on a 2012 post by Jeremy Corbyn that appeared to condone an antisemitic mural). Likewise, obliging a party campaign to register all its distinct, automated messages for public scrutiny would be trivial precisely because it's automated. The challenge then is not the technology but the inadequacy of electoral law.

While the regulations around party political campaigning can certainly be tightened, this won't effect the dissemination of propaganda by individuals who aren't formal party representatives and who only need to avoid breaking the laws on incitement or party financing. Lone-wolf political operators quickly learnt that social media could be used to amplify a message through the techniques of viral marketing, and they had long ago learnt from tabloid newspapers that the incendiary and polarising commands more eyeballs than the considered and rational. Liberals struggle to cope with this impudence, not least because of their formal commitment to free speech, hence they tend to emphasise its impropriety. Personal political advocacy is not new, of course. It has long been traditional for newspapers to give prominence to celebrities who urge us to vote a particular way at election time. While these endorsements don't have the clout that they did back in their 1980s heyday, their decline in effectiveness owes more to the general fragmentation of the media landscape and the devaluation of celebrity rather than to the disruption of Instagram. You might imagine that the competitive autonomy of social media would appeal to liberals, but this would be to misunderstand their conception of the public sphere.

The central concern of historical liberalism was the defence of the private sphere, particularly in the forms of private opinion and private property, which came to prominence in the 16th century in Europe in the wake of the Reformation and the end of feudalism. The need for collective action in that defence resulted in the evolution of the concept of the public sphere (and the related concepts of public opinion and public scrutiny) in the 17th century as a constraint on state power. While it had a sociological reality in the 18th century era of small electorates and limited media, it increasingly became an idealised form over the course of the 19th century as the "public" simultaneously expanded and fragmented along class lines. This increase in both scale and the variety of interests meant that the public sphere could no longer operate as a normative assumption among a small section of society but had to be increasingly recreated on a daily basis through the discursive practices of the media. Over and above the commercial power that arose from an expanding audience, this gave the mass media a privileged position as both the facilitators and primary invigilators of political discourse. Inevitably, this shift from bourgeois consensus to discipline proved attractive to authoritarians, hence "public opinion" became increasingly repressive.

The advance of democracy led to an increasing tension within the presentation of the public sphere between the interests of property-owners and propertyless workers, which was alleviated partly by being channelled into cross-class "respectable opinion" (what would become in time the agenda of the tabloids) and partly by appeals to unifying themes such as patriotism (which remains a more acute concern in the media than the population at large). Despite these attempts at unanimity, the public sphere of the first half of the 20th century exhibited the signs of multiple, competing publics, reflected in the emergence of mass-circulation newspapers that were formal extensions of political parties rather than just habitual supporters (this was more evident on the continent than in the UK, but the point still applies). This multi-polarity began to decline with the advance of consumer society in the 1950s as the media in general got with the postwar capitalist programme. While there is much truth in Jurgen Habermas's claim that the public sphere has been progressively "refeudalised", with critical debate replaced by the consumption of appearances, structurally the media landscape of the opening years of the 21st century was little different to what it had been a century before. This has now changed.

Much of the anxiety over social media's supposedly negative effects (e.g. filter bubbles) and its potential for abuse by bad actors (e.g. fake news and targeted misinformation), not to mention its trivialisation and distraction, reflects a fear that it has degraded the public sphere, essentially through the creation of "personal publics", i.e. elective communities like Twitter or egocentric networks like Facebook. But there is no good evidence that the public sphere, however conceptualised, has actually suffered and plenty of evidence that social media have led to a greater diversity of views in public discourse and a wider exposure to challenging views for most users. The liberal media campaign against the tech titans, which was initially driven by competitive concerns over advertising revenues, has taken on a political dimension because of the assumed use of personal data in the misinformation campaigns that may have contributed to Brexit and Trump. Ironically, this is itself a misinformation campaign because it misrepresents what the tech titans are actually doing and exaggerates the political impact of their actions.

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter seek to constrain and channel autonomy and variety by guiding users' choices, which makes them no different to traditional media organisations. This is because they share the same economic imperative - the need to organise consumers in order to sell advertising - and because they are capitalist businesses with the same fundamental objective: to make money (that Facebook is more profitable than Twitter reflects its greater success in organising users). They may be disrupting newspapers and TV as competitors for ad revenue, but they aren't seeking to alter the fundamentals of the liberal public sphere or their role within it. They are just as engaged in supporting traditional discursive practices, hence their willingness to ban objectionable material or suspend users for bad language. That they typically only do this in response to complaints is a reflection of the nature of a platform that has vastly expanded authorship and abolished editorial control. While this might appear problematic in the traditional conception of the public sphere, where judgement and discrimination are paramount and voice is a privilege, it explains why the emergence of social media has been the single biggest advance towards a revival of the critical-rational public debate that Habermas called for. Social media are transforming the public sphere, not threatening it.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Waiting For the Barbarians

In the opening scene of Civilisation, the BBC's original 1969 series, Kenneth Clark says "I can't define civilisation, but I know it when I see it", upon which he turns his gaze towards Notre Dame de Paris. In the new Civilisations series, the absence of authoritative discrimination implied by the plural might have made providing an updated definition a challenge, but Simon Schama neatly sidesteps this by insisting that "we recognise its opposite" over footage of the iconoclasts of Islamic State at work in Palmyra. This immediately suggests that the new production isn't going to pick a bone with the old, but will instead exercise respectful discretion, which is a disappointment. A far more interesting approach would be a direct engagement with Clark's landmark contribution, which has also been made available in full on iPlayer for the purposes of comparison. I don't mean by this a critique that simply mocked Clark's patrician viewpoint and manner, which would be both easy and redundant, but a discussion of the changing view on what constitutes civilisation and how we should approach its study. The new series certainly attempts the former, notably by splitting authorial and presentational duties between Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga, and by expanding its scope beyond Europe, but it does little of the latter.

An example of this is that Clark, in discussing England in the nineteenth century, can both casually dismiss Irish navvies as "ruffians" and sincerely recommend reading Engels, views that would in part or whole irritate a lot of people today. This is the sardonic voice of the nonconformist Tory who lauds humanitarianism while being sceptical of humanity. Schama, as the lead voice of the new series, naturally lauds humanity in the ecumenical way that you would expect, but has little to say about either the relationship of civilisation and political economy (something you could have predicted from his previous academic work, such as The Embarrassment of Riches or Citizens) or the impact of critical theory on cultural studies. If Clark's worldview was essentially antiquarian and anglocentric, and in stark contrast to the new thinking in art history that emerged in the 1960s, Schama's worldview remains heavily influenced by the English and French traditions of social history (which downplayed class) and transatlantic in both politics and style (throughout the new series, he has an annoying habit of pronouncing "mountain" to rhyme with "pain" rather than "pun").

In theory, Beard and Olusoga should provide a diversity of perspective, but the unequal airtime (Schama presents every other programme, from first to last, which means five in total while Beard and Olusoga present two each) means that their minority reports struggle to get beyond setting the scene and asking some obvious questions. To give her her due, Beard does smuggle in one amusing moment when she discusses the iconoclast assault on Ely Cathedral made by Cromwell's troops in the English Civil War, which destroyed the stained glass but illuminated the interior architecture, suggesting that Schama's simple definition by opposition has its flaws. Clark was sophisticated but anti-intellectual, in that classic English manner borne of aristocratic entitlement. He recognised a plurality of opinion, but was patronising because he remained ever the comfortable spectator, not to mention the monopoliser of voice. Schama, who remains a 1950s schoolboy at heart, is enthusiastic, reverent and slightly too emphatic. As he has proved over the years with his political interventions, he favours authority over plurality while claiming to speak to common humanity.

Clark spoke in the shadow of Auschwitz about the resilience of civilisation: high art was evidence of the triumph of good over evil. The plurality of the new series has no comparable moral or historical arc - not even the consolation of a Pinkeresque "things can only get better" - leaving us with little more than a eulogy to humanity's vital spark. What this highlights is an uncertainty in the relationship of civilisation and culture. What we know is that culture is organic and contingent, but that civilisation is discriminatory and programmatic: cultures happen, civilisations are built, albeit the results don't always match the blueprint and there are often competing builders. This should prompt questions about how certain cultural goods are elevated to the status of civilisation, but instead the new series simply (and perhaps unconsciously) reflects, rather than interrogates, the change in discrimination over the last 50 years. For example, the original series was more focused on architecture as an expression of civilisation and the preservation of values, with most of the art being adornments of buildings. The new new series places a greater emphasis on other plastic arts ("we are the art-making animal", according to Schama), but with no discussion as to what this change in emphasis means, or why whole art-forms such as music and cinema are excluded.

Another example would be the changing perception of the heroic artist, which has always been central to the concept of civilisation since the Renaissance. In an anecdote about Michelangelo, Schama emphasises "ars" as physical skill, but the story is part of a profile of "il Divino", featuring tales of his heroic determination, privation and admirable respect for the workers. This is little advance on Vasari's hagiography. In the neoliberal era, the heroic artist of the past has been recast as a "superstar"; his networking for commissions is now entrepreneurialism, his reliance on a studio (i.e. a production line staffed by others following his designs) evidence of a good business brain. For all the lip-service paid to labour, this is a world in which that other C-word, "capitalism", is notable by its conceptual absence. The series ends with Schama ligging with various contemporary artists, but his search for the vital spark means he misses the logistical reality. The Ghanaian artist El Anatsui's use of thousands of flattened bottle tops connects with the past of West African fabrics, but it should also remind us that it takes an industrial process to flatten all those bottle tops. Art is hugely expensive to make (modern studios are increasingly factory-scale), not because expense is unavoidable, but because that is what the elite art market demands of it.

The original series was an interpretation of Western civilisation through the curation historically undertaken by people like Clark himself. This emphasis inevitably gave it a conservative tenor, focused initially on the decline of the Classical world and the defence of its precious legacy against the external threat of "barbarians", the "destructive force of Islam" and the "Dark Ages". As he rhapsodised the early Christian monastic settlement of Skellig Michael, Clark didn't stop to wonder at the civilisation of mainland Ireland that produced the food and other material goods on which those early monks depended. The new series doesn't make the same mistake, not only dethroning Classical Greece as the year-zero of civilisation but casting the net wide to other parts of the globe far beyond the Mediterranean, but it missed a trick in failing to address the role of cinema, not least because it could have used clips from The Last Jedi to show how Skellig Michael might have been less a beleagured outpost of civilisation (the first episode of the 1969 series was entitled The Skin of Our Teeth) and more a bolthole for an early medieval equivalent of ISIS

Clark was a conservative pleading for moderation in the face of modernity. Schama is a liberal pleading for humanity in the face of real people. This evasion avoids the prejudices of Clark, which have been made to look silly by the passage of time, but it means that the new series doesn't advance a theory of civilisation beyond the superlative: the exquisite, the remarkable, the emotionally arresting etc. Mary Beard is much more attuned to the uncertainties of history, operating as she does in a period that lacks the wealth of data available to historians of later periods, like Schama, and she is also more attuned to the social role of art and thus how it reflects struggle and compromise, not least in respect of gender (I'd quite like to see her take on Jordan Peterson's claim that order, and thus culture, is male and that chaos is female). This makes her more willing to pose questions rather than make confident assertions in the manner of Schama, but its also means that she can do little to slow the juggernaut of his conventional art-history.

Her first episode, How Do We Look?, clearly owes much to John Berger's seminal TV series, Ways of Seeing, and to feminist writers like Laura Mulvey, the author of the "male gaze". Her tale of how the works of civilisation can be misinterpreted and yet remain of value because of those misinterpretations, which she illustrates through Roman stories about the statues of Amenhotep III at Karnak, is the closest the series comes to a post-structuralist sensibility and the idea that meaning is never fixed. This suggests that civilisation is just another manifestation of the grand narrative of progress, and so ripe for critique as a social construct, but the limits of the form (i.e. a BBC feelgood series and the scant time afforded her) mean that Beard doesn't press the point. To make matter worse, in her second episode, The Eye of Faith, she concludes by defining civilisation as "an act of faith" - in other words, a secular impulse towards wonder and aesthetic solace that substitutes for religion. This is not just nonsense of the "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" sort, it also collapses civilisation back into the jumble of consolatory art presented by Schama. This is a pretty abject surrender.

While both Schama and Beard dutifully cross the globe to emphasise the heterogeneity of civilisation, David Olusoga is tasked with disentangling it from imperialism and slavery. This doesn't start well. His episode First Contact sounds like an SF trope, centred as it is on exogenous shocks like the Columbus moment and the potential for conflict. He does offset this with the tale of how the Portuguese encounter with West Africa in the 15th century was more a meeting of equals that led to integration through trade (by the early 1500s, 10% of the population of Lisbon was black), but this suggests that the sin of empire was exploitation and that trade was a force for good. To a degree, he has a point. In Radiance, the episode sandwiched between Olusoga's brace, Schama discusses various example of fruitful exchange: the influence of colour in Eastern art on the painters of Venice, the inspiration that Japanese woodcuts provided for the Impressionists, and the debt Matisse owed to Islamic art and design, but it's all unidrectional with Europe extracting and using. What Olusoga does better is to note the tensions and costs involved in this exchange, such as in North America and New Zealand, and how other societies can absorb and repurpose European culture.

In his episode on imperialism, modernity and World War One, The Cult of Progress, Olusoga dwells on the false dichotomy of barbarism or civilisation. While he rightly picks apart eurocentric hypocrisy, from Orientalism to the systematic destruction of native culture, he avoids the question implied in that other well-known phrase, barbarisme ou socialisme. As with the series as a whole, there is an assumption that civilisation exists independently of political economy. The role of trade is conceded, religion and humanism are given their due, and Olusoga in particular spells out the nature of art as a commodity, but there is no attempt to explain civilisation as a theory of society. Instead it is a given, even perhaps an arbitrary gift of the gods, which leads to the very old idea (immediately familiar to Kenneth Clark) that it can be lost through human catastrophe. In other words, civilisation is always under threat from aberrant society, which returns us to the trope of the Dark Ages. This results in Schama brooding on Goya's The Dog, which is held to represent the painter's despair. He explains the metaphor like a GCSE Art teacher: a dog without its master; Spain without its god; humanity without its civilisation.

Schama opens the last episode with the question, What can art do when horror comes calling; when civilisation itself is lost? Theresienstadt is offered not only as an example of that horror but as evidence that art can console, even though the reality was of art being used as propaganda, to delude and distract. Schama sees in art the light from humanity's vital spark and promptly goes looking for it among the superstars of the contemporary art scene. The Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang's use of gunpowder is a process that could have featured in a Joseph Wright of Derby painting, but Schama doesn't see the marriage of technology and industrial production so much as a tribute to Chinese history and persistent ingenuity. In contrast, Ai Weiwei's focus on the refugee crisis is resonant because it challenges the idea that "civilisation assumes a settled city population", and also because it implicitly debunks the idea that migration (as distinct from colonisation) is a threat to civilisation, the framing of the "barbarians" from Gibbon onwards. We are living through the greatest era of migration: from rural to urban areas (albeit mostly to small towns), and from the developing to the developed world (largely to replenish population rather than to flee persecution).

We also live in an age when two-thirds of the global population has a mobile phone and a lot of them have seen at least one Star Wars film. This fluidity and commonality is surely key to any understanding of what civilisation means today. For all the nationalist talk of exceptionalism, should we really be thinking of a single global civilisation, or is that simply another vector of neoliberal hegemony? Schama ends the series with the idea of art as marks made to speak to the future, which makes it enduring and profound. This is romanticism. No one today seriously believes that civilisation retains its original meaning of urbanity, and historians like Beard have long shown that historic civilisations such as Rome were multifarious and the "barbarians" no less cultured. Equally, few would now claim that it is the elite production of a historically-specific culture, though the usual suspects will try (in his rancid Daily Mail review, Quentin Letts revealed his true self by marginalising Olusoga and calling him "Henry"). But surely the idea that civilisation and art are synonymous, and therefore a matter of socially-constructed taste and distinction, is just as ripe for critique? Schama ends on a democratic note - "something for everyone", "our shared humanity" - but the series is dominated by elite art and elite opinion. For all the nods to modern pieties, this isn't much advance on Clark's magnum opus.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Is a Magnitsky Act a Good Idea?

The 2012 US Magnitsky Act cited 18 Russian citizens who were held to be culpable for the death in custody of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian accountant who had been investigating a tax fraud on behalf of the anglo-american financier Bill Browder. The Act prohibited entry to the US and use of its banking system by the named individuals, and also froze their existing US assets. Magnitsky (posthumously) and Browder (in absentia) were tried and convicted in 2013 of tax fraud by the Russian courts, though this was widely seen (even in Russia) as a tit-for-tat political response to the US measures rather than a disinterested criminal prosecution. In 2014, the EU imposed sanctions on an expanded list of 32 Russian citizens. In 2016, the US passed the Global Magnitsky Act, which gave the government general powers to impose visa bans and property sanctions in cases of "gross violations of internationally recognized human rights" or "acts of significant corruption". At the same time the number of Russian citizens subject to bans and seizures in the US was increased to 44.

In the UK, the 2017 Criminal Finances Act was initially touted as an equivalent to the Magnitsky Act, though its focus was on domestic criminal proceeds and the funding of international terrorism. An amendment to the act to freeze the UK assets of human rights violators was seen as weak and non-specific in comparison to the US original and similar laws enacted by Canada and the Baltic states. In the wake of the recent Salisbury incident and the apparent murder of a former Russian citizen in London, the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill (which is currently going through Parliament) is expected to be amended to provide a sharper focus on Russia, however the Labour Party's desire for more wide-ranging powers to investigate and penalise foreign money flowing through the UK banking system is likely to be resisted. The track record of the British government is one of delay and dilution in respect of anything that might imperil the status of those Russian (or indeed any other nation's) oligarchs who have substantial assets in the UK.

This pusillanimity reflects not just the leverage that certain oligarchs have achieved through party donations and longstanding relations with politicians, but an institutional reluctance to question the source of wealth too closely, which long predates the dissolution of the Soviet Union and is really an extension of the circumspection applied to the native rich from the earliest days of industrial and imperial exploitation; a delicacy that was famously raised to the level of art by Jane Austen. The unspoken rule has always been that questions won't be asked so long as foreigners, including state actors, conduct themselves with discretion while on British soil, a hypocritical convention whose compensatory anxiety can be found in much late 19th and early 20th century literature, from Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent to John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps. In the late 20th century, this indulgence was variously justified (unconvincingly) as the unavoidable corollary of globalisation (being "open for business"), an existential necessity for the City of London, or simply as the chief prop of top-end property prices in the capital.

The hoo-ha over Corbyn's reluctance to find Putin personally guilty on the say-so of various retired MI5 officers has obviously been promoted to avoid criticism of the government's past tardiness in confronting Russia, notably in the case of the Litvinenko murder when Theresa May was Home Secretary. Likewise, the claim that the Labour leader's stance is driven by Seamus Milne's unreformed Stalinism, rather than an objectively justified scepticism about Britain's secret services, is clearly just the latest round in the attritional campaign still being run by the party's right wing. The national security laager will remain the last redoubt of opposition to Corbyn because it allows his party critics to plead the higher cause of patriotism to justify their disloyalty while Tories can guarantee favourable media coverage thanks to the muscle memory of the press. But to suggest in response to this nonsense that Labour's calls for a Magnitsky law mean that it is more robust than the Tories in the defence of British interests would be to fall into the trap of assuming that sanctions against named foreign nationals are actually a worthwhile policy.

State-level economic sanctions are generally ineffective, either because they tend to be relatively modest or because most states are resilient enough to either weather them or flexible enough to circumvent them. Given that the objective of sanctions is usually to satisfy domestic demand that "something be done", or to signal solidarity in international relations, most countries have tended towards the gestural in recent decades. Sanctions against named individuals are trivial, but their very personalisation means they make good copy for the press: we name the guilty men etc. As globalisation has integrated more economies we might have anticipated that state-level sanctions would have more bite, but paradoxically this process has led to their weakening, in no small part because they now inconvenience multinationals and global investors with clout. The disinvestment campaign against South Africa in the 1980s - arguably a tactical hangover from the days of capital controls - would be much more difficult to implement nowadays (the ineffective BDS campaign against Israel is illustrative). The move towards personalised sanctions, such as the Magnitsky Act, is therefore partly a structural shift, reflecting both the increased global mobility of personal wealth and the opaqueness of cross-border business financing.

A sanction is an act of discipline. It should therefore come as no surprise that ever since the Athenian measures against Megara ahead of the Peloponnesian War, sanctions have tended to be imperialistic, with larger powers seeking to coerce smaller powers within their perceived sphere of influence short of military intervention. The US sanctions against Cuba are perhaps the most famous example in recent history, and also stand as a testament to the pointlessness of the tactic: they may have damaged the Cuban economy but they actually reduced the potential for regime change by encouraging critics to emigrate. Even when the asymmetry is reversed, sanctions are still part of an imperial narrative. For example, the Magnitsky laws passed by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were clearly intended to broadcast the independence of the Baltic States from Russian influence (and thus reassure foreign investors). The shift to personal sanctions and the seizure of foreign assets has often been justified on the grounds of rooting out corruption, however this has also provided an opportunity for states to discipline their own financial institutions, which again reflects the pressures of globalisation. For example, the French moves against Teodorin Obiang, which did little to improve the lot of the people of Equatorial Guinea, were notable for the reprimands issued against French banks.

In many ways sanctions against named individuals are the flipside of actions taken to penalise foreigners who have the temerity to "interfere" in domestic affairs, such as the Russian actions against Bill Browder and foreign NGOs or Hungary's demonisation of George Soros. That such actions in Russia have been more substantial than those in Hungary reflects differences in the pliability of the legal system to fulfilling political objectives, and specifically that Hungary as an EU member is subject to the European Court of Justice. This highlights a problem with sanctions against individuals: the burden of proof is likely to be lower than it would be in a court of law (the difference between probability and proof beyond reasonable doubt was exemplified by the responses of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn respectively this week). For example, the US Magnitsky Act, which is essentially a judgement of guilt, was the product of political lobbying, not a trial by jury, and there is no possibility of appeal. That the number of Russians cited by the US grew over time from 18 to 44 might suggest a dogged pursuit of the facts, but it might also suggest an increasing generosity of interpretation.

A second problem is that the individuals are rarely "names". Tribunals judging state-sponsored crimes, such as the Nuremberg trials and the International Criminal Court, have tended to focus on the most egregious offenders and make notorious examples of them. In contrast, the sanctioning of named individuals has tended to cast the net as wide as possible. Just as the expulsion of spies masquerading as diplomats may catch a few innocent trade delegates to make up the numbers, so the effectiveness of sanctions becomes a question of volume. A third, related problem is that the distinction between private sector rent-seekers (who exploit the state) and corrupt apparatchiks (who exploit their position within the state) is often vague. The American-born Bill Browder, who became a UK citizen partly to avoid paying US taxes, may not have been guilty of the fraud for which he was convicted by Russia in 2013, but he did make money out of the privatisation of Russian state assets in the late 1990s. He may not personally have beeen corrupt, but he probably dealt with corrupt people. Drawing the line can be tricky.

A better approach would be to apply tougher laws on transparency and taxation universally, rather than trying to make a special case for individuals who abuse the apparatus of foreign states, but that would mean giving UK authorities the forensic powers to investigate and potentially penalise the financial affairs of its own citizens. The British government's insistence that its powers should be focused on criminal proceeds (and thus only evasion in the case of tax) or the financing of terrorism is a plea to leave the rich in obscurity. Ultimately, it is the protection of domestic wealth that has provided the cover for Russian oligarchs and others to shelter their gains (whether ill-gotten or not) in the City of London. With the death of Boris Berezovsky after his failure to successfully sue Roman Abramovich, and the tortuously slow progress in the Litvinenko murder case, it looks like the Russian state considers the UK to be an essentially friendly territory. Given the gestural nature of the British government's response to the attacks on the Skripals, and its alacrity in shifting the domestic debate away from money power towards patriotism, they are probably justified in thinking this.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Neoliberal Corbynism

Recent opinion polls have put Labour and the Conservatives roughly neck and neck in the low-40s. With the LibDems lacking sympathetic media coverage, not least because so much of the available space is taken up with centrist criticisms of Labour, and UKIP suffering as it implodes in comical fashion, it is hard to envisage the political scene shifting away from this familiar duality any time soon. With the exception of Scotland's three-way split, we are back to the two-party model of British politics that characterised the quarter century between 1945 and 1970. In terms of rhetoric, however, we are back to the early 1980s, with the Labour leader cast as politically illegitimate: at best a naif, at worst a traitor. Of course, the persistent under-estimation of Corbyn suggests that the naivety is more likely to be found among his critics. For example, his response to the likely involvement of Russia in the Skripal case - a demand for practical action on oligarch money in British politics - will probably turn out to be a shrewd move once the hyperventilating ceases and the UK government's proposed sanctions turn out to be underwhelming, particularly if the Tories continue to drag their feet on the issue of donations.

While there are substantial differences between the parties in areas such as public ownership and housing, and there may even prove to be a clean dividing line in respect of Brexit, the gap between the two is not that large when viewed historically. Though many people recall the "longest suicide note in history" crack about Labour's 1983 manifesto, it is worth remembering that the Tory programme at the time was no less radical in its commitment to root-and-branch "reform" of society and the economy. It was the gap between the two that provided the imagined space for the launch of the Social Democratic Party, though the SDP-Liberal Alliance manifesto of 1983 was in reality a pick-and-mix from the other two rather than a distinctive third way: that would have to wait on the social reordering accomplished by Thatcher in the 80s and the advances of financialisation and globalisation in the 90s, whose political manifestation would be New Labour. The relative narrowness of the political choice today, despite Labour's clear (and ongoing) shift to the left, shows the extent to which the neoliberal norms established in the 80s and 90s still dominate.

The common understanding of neoliberalism centres on the intensification of pre-existing practices and modes of thought, such as free markets and laissez-faire, hence it is often described as simply "late capitalism". The more sophisticated view is that neoliberalism is essentially biopolitical. In this reading the ideological core of neoliberalism is the translation of labour from a class both in and for itself (as described by Karl Marx) to a field of atomised individuals, each pursuing their own utility preferences. Workers are no longer the objects of collective state discipline in the service of capital but notionally autonomous subjects actively involved in self-discipline. There are some obvious paradoxes here - what Michel Foucault described as crises of govermentality - such as that "freedom" necessitates state coercion (e.g. anti-union laws); that individualism is achieved through the pursuit of common goals and metrics, such as property-ownership and financial wealth; and that political expression becomes increasingly narrow (i.e anti-plural) through ideological constraints such as TINA ("there is no alternative") and technocracy. But a less obvious paradox is that while this erodes faith in politics, when a clear alternative is presented, as was the case with the EU referendum, traditional party affiliations are found to be a weaker defence against radicalism.

What the biopolitical view tends to neglect is the transformative impact of neoliberalism on the institutions of the state. Over and above the re-engineering of those institutions to achieve particular social and economic goals, the fabric and culture of government itself is effected through feedback from an established neoliberal society. In other words, a focus on governmentality can obscure the historical evolution of government. To take an example from the para-state, the excessive pay awarded to university vice-chancellors is not merely the result of a conscious programme of marketisation in the higher education sector, it also reflects the common expectations of CEOs across the economy in respect of their relative remuneration - i.e. it should be a high multiple of average employee salaries and generous pension contributions are matters of executive esteem as much as simple avarice. The same processes are at work within the apparatus of central government, both as a result of the "revolving door" with the business world and the programmatic adoption of business practices and modern managerialism within institutions such as the Civil Service.

While there have been compositional shifts in the state due to secular changes since 1945, such as the declining demands of defence and the increase in elderly welfare, the only substantive retreat by government attributable to policy has been in the area of house-building. Privatisation did little to change the nature of the state because most nationalised industries were operated at arms-length: the man from the ministry was a nominal presence hence there was little feedback that affected the ministry itself. What has changed is the commercialisation of both public service delivery and government administration. Despite high-profile failures such as Carillion, the story of government contracting-out has been less one of incompetence than poor value for money. In contrast, the adoption of commercial practices within the state apparatus has reduced its ability to respond to challenges that fall outside the implicit neoliberal "contract". The obvious example of this is Brexit, which has not only monopolised government bandwidth but has highlighted the lack of key expertise within the apparatus. This is not just a matter of the skills that were made redundant by membership of the EU, such as trade agreement negotiation, but of fundamental capabilities such as agility and foresight.

We are faced with an interesting conjuncture: the Labour Party is likely to offer a programme at the next general election that will significantly diverge from neoliberal orthodoxy in certain areas, while the capability of the state apparatus to deliver this programme will be severely constrained. That might sound like a recipe for inhibition and disappointment, but paradoxically it could prove to be the reverse. Just as the apparatus of the state will struggle to operate outside the orthodox neoliberal paradigm, so it will struggle to baffle and constrain a reforming government that ignores the orthodoxy, not least because the bypassing of state institutions by political management has been normalised over recent decades by special advisors, public-private partnerships and the bullying of civil servants (the tonal difference between Yes, Minister and The Thick of It is illustrative: from creative tension to zero-sum coercion). The modern administration is far more vulnerable to political control than was the case when Tony Benn was lamenting the obstruction of civil servants in his diary.

Among organised labour, the cultural changes stimulated by neoliberalism had the greatest impact on skilled workers, which led to a disproportionate decline in the membership and influence of those unions that had traditionally been on the right of the Labour Party. This was exacerbated by structural changes in the economy, such as the continued relative decline of manufacturing, the increase in self-employment and the growth of non-unionised service sectors, all of which disproportionately affected "moderate" unions. Meanwhile, neoliberal initiatives to marketise traditionally non-militant sectors, such as higher education, and the antagonistic attitude towards unions identified with the welfare state, such as in local government and health, have helped to advance more leftwing union leaders and broaden the focus from pay and conditions to structural questions of ownership and social responsibility, many of which hark back to the radical tradition of the 1970s (workers control, UBI etc). The current manoeuvring within the Labour Party between Momentum and the unions is being presented by centrists as evidence of factionalism, but the underlying story is actually one of an increasingly leftist bent that is being driven by both unions and constituency members. Their differences are more tactical than strategic.

The disenchantment of politics by the market was not simply a case of shifting the boundary between the two, with areas of life once under political control now exposed to market forces, but also encompassed the marketisation of political practice itself. Politics was relegated from the ethical oversight of progress to a series of techniques for addressing collective action problems that cannot (yet) be resolved by either competition or technology. A consequence of this was an increased meeting of minds between the state apparatus and the political class, evidenced in the increasingly technocratic approach of the one and the professionalisation of the other. One corollary of this was a decline in cognitive diversity and thus institutional resilience within the apparatus, but another was the increased confidence of politicians in their managerial ability to direct the machinery of state. The prospects for a reforming Labour government (assuming it can get elected) have paradoxically been boosted by three neoliberal developments: the weakening of the civil service as a normatively conservative institution; the advance in public sector trade unions of a left committed to structural change; and an acceptance among even centrist MPs that the state can be transformative.

Friday, 9 March 2018

At Which Point I Emerged Blinking Into the Daylight

The Shape of Water was a worthy winner of the best picture Oscar on Sunday. It was not only deeply engaging and frequently surprising, but it had an attention to both detail and rhythm that fully justified its separate awards for direction, production design and original score, as well as excellent and subversively humorous acting. Sally Hawkins and Oliva Spencer have something of Laurel and Hardy about them, which I most definitely mean as a compliment. As the title makes clear, water is the symbolic heart of the film, but it's a symbol with multiple meanings, from sexual longing and freedom to pollution and destruction. This film is set in the early-1960s, an era that is usually imagined as sunny, if troubled by the possibility of nuclear apocalypse, but here is darkly green-hued and seems on the verge of being drowned rather than burnt to a crisp: the rain on a bus window, a flooded bathroom that leaks into a cinema auditorium, a rising tide that penetrates the city. Though many critics have characterised it as a magical realist homage to classic Hollywood films (itself a cliché in the analysis of Hispanic directors), I think it was inspired more by a mix of European surrealism and American comics, which should hardly come as a surprise given Guillermo del Toro's previous work, from Pan's Labyrinth to Pacific Rim.

If the sombre comic-book feel heightens the sense of heroic tragedy, the everyday surrealism undercuts it with both pathos and bathos (a lurid Key lime pie represents thwarted desire while the ubiquitous pail and mop represents the supporting role of women, forced to clean up the men's various messes). The tension between the tragic and the surreal is particularly evident in the supporting male characters, played by Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg, who each present a compressed and conflicted man as much at odds with the world as the aquatic "Asset". The Amphibian Man is the apotheosis of this type, being both a fish out of water and "some kind of god". In many ways it is a film about the difficulty men have in establishing meaningful relationships, not just with women but with each other. Language is problematic, rituals have become empty forms and violence is always in the air. In contrast, the women communicate so well that they are repeatedly silenced by male authority. Playing a mute, and therefore a woman who is both ideal and subversive, Hawkins must act through her facial expressions and gestures, which called to mind the subtlety of Setsuko Hara in the films of Yasujiro Ozu.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri deservedly won two acting Oscars and I suspect it was a close finish between it and Get Out for the best original screenplay. Martin McDonagh's script has a classical foundation, though it deliberately eschews resolution, centring on the vengeful Hecuba that is Frances McDormand's character (still visible beneath the John Wayne mannerisms) and Woody Harrelson's epistolary, Stoic police chief. Jordan Peele's Get Out similarly avoids predictability and defies genre categorisation as it subverts tropes from American Gothic, police procedurals and modern horror. The denouement, where the black hero doesn't get shot (in the manner of Night of the Living Dead), being a case in point. Critics have compared it to The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby, but I think it would be just as relevant to cite H G Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. The "experiments" are all flawed and unstable, while Daniel Kaluuya's protagonist finds himself travelling through time in a chair and appalled by the reality hidden below ground. Like Richard Mathieson's I Am Legend, Get Out exists fruitfully on the border between horror and science fiction.

Three Billboards has been criticised for allowing a racist character, Sam Rockwell's cop, the opportunity of reform and redemption, while Get Out was given a free pass for essentially endorsing segregation (albeit in self-defence). It would appear that Malcolm X has finally triumphed over Martin Luther King Jr. in the liberal imagination. Many critics have interpreted the latter film as an attack on liberal hypocrisy, but this ignores that the Armitage family are defined less by their progressive cant than by their extensive property holdings. It also suggests that the problem with lying psychopaths is their dishonesty. In fact, the satire in the film largely revolves around black paranoia, a topic most critics scrupulously avoided. In some respects, Three Billboards is the greater satire on liberal pieties precisely because it doesn't resolve that revenge is bad and reform is good. The racist cop is not redeemed and the bereft (and guilt-ridden) mother is not avenged. The lesson to take from both films is that satire is apolitical. In contrast, the least satirical film of the year was Blade Runner: 2049, which made it one of the best political films (this is probably a minority view). The best film about politics - not the same thing - was The Death of Stalin: a cross between Shakespeare and a version of Fawlty Towers in which Sybil dies (I imagine it was this that got it banned in Russia).

The hot Oscars contender that came away empty-handed was Lady Bird, though I can't say that I was surprised. If Three Billboards is dramatically plausible but sociologically improbable, Lady Bird is sociologically convincing but to the point of predictability, which neutralises its limited dramatic tension. This doesn't matter so much because of the comedy and the deft direction, and the knowing enjoyment of the coming-of-age stereotypes (suburban boredom, teenage anxiety, appreciating your family etc), but it leaves the film feeling insubstantial: a pleasant collection of linked short stories whose sense of progress is purely chronological. Despite Saoirse Ronan's strong central performance, some of the film's better moments come when it focuses on the parents, played by Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts, simply because they are more than stereotypes and have dramatic depth. It makes for an interesting contrast with 20th Century Women, which tackled many of the same themes and featured Greta Gerwig in front of the camera, but which had an individualism just the right side of quirky. That under-appreciated 2016 release just missed out on the #MeToo wave and the assertion of the female interest crystallised in McDormand's "inclusion rider", which perhaps propelled Lady Bird to unrealistic levels of expectation. Gerwig will get further opportunities - she is obviously a talented director - but needs to move on from the autobiographical.

One film that missed the 2017 Oscars cut was Black Panther, though I doubt it will have the staying power to bother the 2018 judges. It has understandably enjoyed a lot of goodwill, and is certainly fun, not least in Andy Serkis's over-the-top villain, but it was a pretty conventional addition to the Marvel canon. The idea that Wakanda should have remained a tribal society subject to animism and absolute monarchy despite its urbanism and technological progress is not only absurd but verging on the culturally essentialist. These antique forms do however make it easier for the film to successfully integrate a series of familiar tropes from James Bond, Rider Haggard's She and Lord of the Rings. Tellingly, the villainous Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B Jordan, is a more interesting character than T'Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, while Letitia Wight's Shuri steals most of the scenes she is in. This is because they are the most recognisably modern characters. While The Shape of Water manages to address contemporary pathologies through a fantasy set in the past, Black Panther seems too respectful of heritage and uncomfortable in the present. That it ends with talk of "outreach" suggests that Marvel is now wholly under the sway of corporate lawyers.

Monday, 5 March 2018

It Can't Happen Here

The American economist Tyler Cowen believes that the US is safe from a Fascist takeover of the sort imagined in Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel, It Can't Happen Here: "My argument is pretty simple: American fascism cannot happen anymore because the American government is so large and unwieldy. It is simply too hard for the fascists, or for that matter other radical groups, to seize control of." But Cowen's praise for big government is qualified: "In many Western societies, it is very difficult to get rid of excess bureaucracy and regulation, to the detriment of dynamism and economic growth. Just as we are insulated from a fascist takeover, so are we probably stuck with some of the less efficient features of modern social democracies". The implication is that secular stagnation may be a product of government inertia as much as technological change but that this at least delivers political stability. There is something to be said for this idea. The current populist wave has been exaggerated as a threat to democracy and authoritarian policies have been advanced mainly by established conservatives along well-worn paths. In the US, the Trump moment has revealed itself to be a continuation of modern Republicanism with an added layer of dynastic corruption.

But there are two problems with Cowen's theory. First, it misrepresents the relationship of historic fascism with the state, presenting the former as a dynamic aggressor and the latter as a passive victim. Second, it assumes a continuity in the subjects and modes of state regulation across a century, partly to support the charge of inertia and partly to support the claim that the modern state remains essentially social democratic rather than neoliberal. As a result, Cowen's argument relies heavily on a particular misreading of history: "Surely it ought to give us pause that the major instances of Western fascism came right after a time when government was relatively small, and not too long after the heyday of classical liberalism in Europe, namely the late 19th century". In fact, the heyday of classical liberalism was the middle of the nineteenth century. After 1870, rapid industrialisation, imperialism and the exigencies of World War One combined to rapidly grow the state. If there was a Fascist window of opportunity, according to Cowen's theory, it would have been closer to 1848 than 1922 or 1933.

In lauding the resilience of big government, Cowen can use a critique of libertarian demands for a small state to make a sociological claim about fascists: "Yet the greater focus of the night watchman state, for all its virtues, is part of the reason why it is easy to take over. There is a clearly defined center of power and a clearly defined set of lines of authority; furthermore, the main activity of the state is to enforce property rights through violence or the threat of violence. ... The culture and ethos of such a state is likely to be relatively masculine and also relatively martial and tolerant of a certain amount of risk, and indeed violence." That fascist parties in the 1920s attracted violent misogynists is hardly news, but it is a fallacy of composition to assume that all fascists were young, male and brutal. Much of the electoral backing for fascist parties came from the "respectable" bourgeoisie and older voters, while the history of fascist parties in government was marked by the gradual marginalisation of the street-fighters (most famously the SA in Germany) and opportunistic alliances with established conservative elites in the military, foreign and civil service.

Cowen's fundamental premise is that fascism is exogenous and therefore a larger government will be more resilient: "The history of fascism more generally has been characterized by conflict between party and state, and extreme fascist victories typically have required the ascendancy of party and thus a relatively weak state". This is to ignore the extent to which historic fascism was an endogenous faction (and reaction) within the state apparatus, rather than a populist insurgency by a hitherto excluded and powerless social stratum. Cowen's theory requires us to believe that fascism got in "under the wire" before the expansion of the modern state created a structural bulwark against its advance, but a different reading is that fascism was actually a product of the growth of the state in the 50-year period between 1870 and 1920. Indeed, one could go further and suggest that fascism was an attempt by political nationalism to catch-up with and master the rapid development of the state in that period (e.g. the Nazis' Gleichschaltung). It was reactionary, but it also sought to supersede modernity and thus adopted a revolutionary mode.

It is no coincidence that Fascism and Nazism would arise in those larger Western European countries, Italy and Germany, that saw the creation of a new state apparatus as part of political unification in the nineteenth century. That coming together obviously had many ramifications, from cultural homogenisation to a psychological anxiety about dissolution, but the bureaucratic effect was the association of the state with the "national idea". More established nations, like the UK or France, had a conservative apparatus, but one that was committed to the preservation of the status quo rather than the achievement of any programmatic goal. In contrast, the state apparatus of Germany and Italy was both progressive, in its commitment to a new order, and reactionary, in its distaste for democracy and its fear of socialism. This was evident in the enthusiasm of the apparatchiks. For example, the Nazis enjoyed considerable support among civil servants in the 1920s and 30s (which they repaid with employment bans on first Jews and then married women once they came to power).

In Germany, not only did the Nazi Party not capture the state wholly from without, but defeat in the Second World War and formal de-Nazification did little to change the personnel, not least because the Allied Powers decided that the construction of the new Federal Republic in the face of the Communist challenge required a pragmatic forgetfulness (compare and contrast with the attitude towards the Ba'ath Party in Iraq after 2003). While many individuals claimed that they had only joined the Nazi Party to advance their careers, the high proportion of ex-party members (or "Altnazis") in the civil service, judiciary and university administration - many still espousing far-right and authoritarian views - was a running sore that would become a prime focus for the German student movement in the 1960s. This history is inconvenient for Cowen's theory because it shows both the extent to which the fascist state was already incipient within the apparatus of the Weimar Republic and how fascist elements can still be accommodated within a social democratic state.

In seeking to cast the war as a dividing line between the vulnerable and the resilient state, Cowen notes that German government spending was 36.6% of GDP in 1932, which was "considerably smaller than what the German government would grow to after the de-Nazification following World War II, when government rose to 44 percent of GDP by 1958 and to much more later". This isn't a compelling argument. After all, current US government spending is only 36% of GDP, but Cowen's premise is that this represents a large state that is now invulnerable to fascist takeover. Using government spending as a share of GDP as a proxy for the size of the state is also problematic because of differences in the way that social goods such as healthcare and education are accounted for between the private and public sectors. National accounting data tell us little about the institutional resilience of the state apparatus, which is surely more important when considering its vulnerability to an authoritarian coup d'etat. It also tells us little about the changing composition of government activity: what subjects the money is spent on and what modes are employed in managing that expenditure.

State regulation in the hundred years between 1850 and 1950 was concerned more with people than commodities, reflecting both the initial purpose of the modern state (to manage labour for capital) and limited environmental consciousness. The social democratic era saw a gradual decline in the focus on labour (culminating in labour market deregulation) and an increase in the focus on land, raw materials, and commodities. This was a result not just of material changes, such as the oil crises of the 70s and growing evidence of environmental damage, but of social demand. This demand was exemplified in the early-80s by the growth of the Green movement, protests against nuclear power and weapons proliferation, and consumer boycotts (e.g. against South African fruit). By the 1990s, neoliberalism had fully shifted the focus of the state towards commodities (the EU and WTO rounds to the fore), with the disciplining of labour now largely internalised. The last twenty years have seen a limited revival of more traditional biopolitical forms to deal with the "recalcitrant minority" of labour (workfare etc), as well as a growing social demand for greater control over the movement of people internationally. It is this recent oscillation that has marginally improved the prospects for fascism.

Cowen's claim is that Big Government remains social democratic and that its consequent flaws are unintentionally anti-fascist: "Just as we are insulated from a fascist takeover, so are we probably stuck with some of the less efficient features of modern social democracies. ... We can therefore think of the ongoing evolution and cementing of Big Government, in the social welfare and bureaucratic senses of that term, is an extended exercise in risk aversion" (Cowen's yearning for the US to take more risks - a central theme of his works like The Great Stagnation - here comes close to a flirtation with the fascist aesthetic). The reason why a fascist takeover in the US is unlikely has little to do with the size of government, or the preponderance of paper-shuffling civil servants over heavily-armed border guards, and everything to do with the political configuration. Fascism depends on the opportunistic support of conservative factions and big capital, which in turn assumes a leftwing that is perceived to pose an existential threat. Today, the Republican Party is too well-entrenched within the apparatus (particularly at state - i.e. sub-federal - level), the Democratic Party too compromised by capital, and the American left too weak.