Tuesday, 24 July 2018

The Fetish of Regulation

Since the right lost control of the Labour Party machine, they have turned to demanding independent adjudication of policies and behaviours. Two recent examples are the insistence that the IHRA definition of antisemitism be adopted unqualified, and the claim by John Woodcock and his supporters that the accusations of harassment made against him could only be fairly judged by an independent inquiry. Combining the two themes - policy and behaviour - we can expect the Labour right to insist that Margaret Hodge will be denied a fair hearing if she is disciplined for calling Jeremy Corbyn an "antisemitic racist", essentially because (in their view) the current party leadership is antisemitic, which thereby begs the question. The purpose of this is not just to delegitimise the left but to hobble the party. This realisation may be behind John McDonnell's suggestion that the charges against Hodge be dropped: not because she is in the right, but because it isn't worth making a martyr of her. Although this move within Labour has obviously been occasioned by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader (and more precisely his re-election, which closed off the right's route to power for the foreseeable future), it is notable as part of a wider trend towards independent regulation within politics.

This tendency is neoliberal. It might seem a stretch to compare the role of the Jewish Labour Movement and others in respect of the Labour Party to that of the IMF or the ECB in respect of nation states, but the shift from lobbying on the basis of expertise to regulation on the basis of authority is central to neoliberal practice. Some of the critics of the demand that the IHRA definition be adopted without caveats have questioned the right of its supporters to speak for all Jews, but this makes the mistake of assuming that we're still in the realm of expertise, where qualifications and motives can be questioned and where competing interpretations can be evaluated. In fact, what matters is authority, which is one reason why the sight of Conservative Party supporters like Jonathan Arkush and Stephen Pollard berating Labour prompts little scepticism from the media. Equally absurd is that Labour MPs who two years ago supported the Home Affairs select committee amendment of the IHRA (specifically to avoid criticism of the state of Israel being taken as prima facie evidence of antisemitism) are now appalled that Labour's NEC should propose a similar approach. The difference in the two cases is not the substance of the variations but the imputed authority of the body doing the varying.

There is a more general point here. The systemic failure of the media to question the credentials and bona fides of privileged interlocutors like the Tax Payers' Alliance, the IEA and various climate-change deniers indicates the extent to which the authoritarian turn in politics long predates the election of Donald Trump or the leave victory in the EU referendum. That the political establishment has always abused the powers of the state to undermine and marginalise those it deems "subversive" is hardly news, but the regime also required the recognition and promotion of permissible dissent to preserve the appearance of plurality. What neoliberal ideologues from the Mont Pelerin Society onwards realised was that this managed pluralism could enable a concerted campaign that was actually more subversive of the established order than any extra-parliamentary movement. The neoliberal think-tanks created as part of this soon moved from a claim of expertise validated by the social and economic developments of the 1970s to a claim of authority based on the premise of a socially natural and ethically neutral market. This manoeuvre has now been copied by the nationalist right, elevating a populist conception of "the people's will" to a similar supra-political position. Why does the BBC indulge right-wing chancers like Steve Bannon and Gerald Batten? Because over the years the media have constructed an imaginary populace, centred on an "authentic" electoral bloc that is biologically xenophobic and illiberal, just as they once constructed an imaginary market centred on personal freedom.

The idea of liberal pluralism has been hollowed-out by a combination of repression (the marginalisation of alternative sources of authority such as trade unions, academia and local government) and the domination of media bandwidth (opaquely-funded think-tanks, astro-turfing and the relaxation of the requirement for broadcast impartiality). But while this obviously benefits the political centre and right, the demand for greater independent regulation in politics isn't just targeted at the left. It's structural, so it's a general recourse even if it isn't applied equally. The same impetus lies behind the recent demand for an independent inquiry into Tory Islamophobia, the proposed beefing-up of both the Electoral Commission and Data Commissioner's powers of inquiry and sanction, and the proposal of a new code of behaviour for MPs to prevent bullying and harassment. In the UK, the creation of select committees after 1979 obviously gave momentum to this cultural shift, but equally important has been the increase in independent, judge-led inquiries into the workings of government, from Franks to Chilcott. Where politicians were once the traditional arbiters of the need for an inquiry, they have increasingly become the subject, though not without resistance (for example, the cancellation of Leveson part 2, which would have looked at the relationship of the press and politicians).

Indeed politicians have adopted a more regulatory mode themselves, in keeping with the times. The efforts of both hardcore leavers and remainers to constrain Theresa May's government over Brexit might appear like a continuation of the historic role of the Commons in holding the executive to account, but in fact it is an extension of the legislature's regulation of the executive and thus a shift in the focus of the relationship from the retrospective to the prospective. Between the 18th and 20th centuries, it was accepted that the government had the unilateral power to both initiate military action and negotiate treaties. The Commons would be informed and consulted, but there was no constitutional principle that its active permission ("a meaningful vote") had to be sought. That has gradually changed in this century as a consequence of both successive EU treaties (which angered the right) and the Iraq War (which angered the left). Where "holding to account" presumed that the executive would have the power to first make a mistake, the contemporary aim is to pre-empt errors. In business terms, the emphasis has moved from audit to qualified sign-off (the media focus on select committee confrontations with celebrity or reluctant witnesses is unrepresentative of their work).

Though the impulse to control the executive is sound, it has produced some ironies. The House of Lords has also taken on a greater role in invigilating and constraining the executive rather than just reviewing and amending legislation passed by the Commons; while the ceaseless negotiation in Parliament between backbenchers and the executive over the various Brexit bills has limited the time available for the negotiations with the EU. Another irony is that Brexit, which was long framed as an escape from the burdensome red-tape of Brussels, is going to produce a flowering of new domestic regulation, not so much in the area of commerce and trade, which will probably just replicate EU rules, but in a growth of state functions, quangos and parliamentary committees to take over the invigilation previously carried out by EU bodies. Some people imagine that this will be avoided because the Brexit ultras are committed deregulators, but this ignores two things: first, that the impetus for regulation typically comes from those who are regulated - it is business that lobbies for and designs business regulations; and second, we already know that many of the authorities to be repatriated from the EU will not be cascaded down to devolved assemblies or local government but will be reserved by Whitehall.

Perhaps the greatest irony of this regulatory turn in British politics is that the 2016 EU referendum, which has been widely characterised as the Tories foolishly "outsourcing" a problem of internal division, was actually a plea for independent regulation (by the ultimate authority of the people) in the face of a failure of political formations to align with the issue of EU membership. That so many remainers want another "people's vote" is not just a pragmatic belief that only a second referendum can undo the result of the first but also a vote of no-confidence in those political formations (the desire to make Labour explicitly anti-Brexit is obviously part of this). This shouldn't be taken as evidence that centrists have suddenly been converted to the virtues of participatory democracy. Their enthusiasm for Supreme Court judges indicates where they see authority ultimately residing: the Rechsstaat. Naturally, those Labour MPs who have loudly criticised David Cameron for promoting an issue of party management to a near-existential crisis for the nation see no parallel in their own desire to make Labour subservient to the opinions and rulings of others. This is not just the usual hypocrisy and opportunism of centrists, but evidence that the fetish of regulation remains hegemonic.

1 comment:

  1. Ben Philliskirk25 July 2018 at 09:27

    Evidence that most politicians have actually embraced anti-politics and fully welcome a status as middle management?