Saturday, 29 December 2018

The Progressive Vote

Though it took two goes, Labour's right and centre eventually learnt the lesson of their defeat to Jeremy Corbyn in the battle for the party leadership: they need a mass movement of energised members if they are to marginalise the left. The expulsion of a handful of members on the grounds of antisemitism or bullying isn't going to tip the balance, and a gradual process of disillusionment, reducing the membership to the size it was in the later Blair years, will take as much as a decade to accomplish and presupposes a continual period in frustrated opposition. It is now clear that some on the right and centre of the party see opposition to Brexit, and specifically the call for a second referendum, as a short-cut to their goal of defeating the left, essentially by co-opting the new membership to a "sensible" platform that combines staying in the EU with a programme of redistributive justice and public sector investment (the more fundamental issues of economic power raised by John McDonnell will inevitably be quietly sidelined under this new dispensation). After the failure of Blair 2.0, it's full steam ahead for Kinnock 2.0.

This partly explains the vituperation over Corbyn's relatively anodyne comments on state aid, not to mention the now well-established propaganda that he is really a hardcore Brexiteer, that he is an authoritarian hypocrite ignoring the wishes of party members, and that he is increasingly alienating progressives. The power of this strategy can be seen in the fact that left-leaning remainers are beginning to make arguments that echo these dubious claims, in particular that Labour will lose the votes of the bien pensants and thereby fail to win office. Simon Wren-Lewis sees a warning from 2003: "there have been two major grassroots movements in the last 20 years in the UK that managed to put more than half a million people on the streets of London, and there is a distinct danger that Labour will be on the wrong side of both of them". The purpose of the parallel is to emphasise the strength of feeling rather than the likely outcome (in case you'd forgotten, while Labour lost seats in the 2005 general election, it still won a majority despite the negative impact of its prosecution of the invasion of Iraq).

Wren-Lewis is much taken with this strength of feeling, to the point where he seeks to explain the remainer cause in terms of its righteous fury: "Where does this passion and energy come from? It is obviously a big issue, but would the kind of Brexit favoured by Corbyn and some Labour and Tory MPs (close to BINO) really be such a big deal compared to staying in the EU? On an emotional level I think there are three reasons why it would be. First and foremost is the question of identity. Many people in the UK regard themselves as also European, and any form of Brexit is clearly a way of cutting the UK off from the rest of Europe. Second, I think there is a strong feeling that leaving the EU represents the triumph of ideological over rational argument. Once you let a campaign of the right won by illegal means triumph, you open the doors to more of the same. A third factor is empathy for the position of European migrants in the UK, who are often friends, neighbours or colleagues".

The "question of identity" isn't really a question but a presumption, and one that trivialises actual conflicts of identity in places such Northern Ireland. For all the talk of a divided nation and ruined Christmas dinners, Britons are not being obliged to choose an identity in an environment where the consequences can be fatal. Yes, an MP was assassinated in 2016, but the idea that people are taking their lives in their hands when they mention Brexit in an unfamiliar pub is ridiculous. Regarding yourself as European is an affinity, like being a liberal, rather than a socially-imposed identity, like being brought up as a Catholic or as a native German-speaker. Citizens of the UK will be no less European outside the EU than the citizens of Norway or Switzerland. While the institutions of the EU may be central to the self-image of a fraction of the upper middle class, they play a purely pragmatic role for most people. I appreciate the convenience of using a fast-track passport queue and knowing I have an EHIC card when I go on holiday, but my heart doesn't swell with pride when I see the EU flag, or any flag for that matter. Ironically, Wren-Lewis's claim presupposes what in any other context we would identify as "patriotism", but which for obvious reasons cannot be named as such.

The idea that the EU is non-ideological, that it embodies "rational argument" and implicitly the Enlightenment, is itself pure ideology. It is a particularly odd claim to make when Wren-Lewis has been highly critical of the irrationalism that underlay both the design of the euro and the EU's wider turn to austerity after 2008, the one creating the conditions for a banking crisis and the other recasting that crisis as a problem of unsustainable public debt. While the 2016 EU referendum was hardly an advertisement for rationality in political debate, it clearly wasn't "won" by illegal means, unless you genuinely believe that breaches of spending rules swung the votes of a million people. The greater contribution to the prejudice and ignorance that influenced the outcome must surely be attributed to the decades-long bias against understanding of the media, including the failure of the BBC's ridiculous attempts at "balance", a topic on which Wren-Lewis has again been trenchant in the past. Given the long history of the media's automatic support for the right, it is hyperbole to suggest that Brexit will inevitably lead to more "illegal triumphs", as if the 2016 vote were a watershed of the order of the Reichstag Fire Decree.

Wren-Lewis's last point - empathy for EU migrants - probably counts a lot for a small number of people with direct personal involvement or a strong sense of ethical obligation, but it isn't a priority for most voters for whom empathy with Latvians is no more salient than empathy with Laotians. This doesn't make them xenophobic or callous, it merely reflects their personal circumstances and their mental ranking of the factors that will determine their vote. Many people are unhappy with the anticipated future treatment of EU migrants, just as they are unhappy with the proliferation of foodbanks, but it doesn't follow that either would cause them to ignore all other issues when it comes to a general election. To claim that empathy with migrants is a major motive is to make the classic error of assuming that what matters to activists is necessarily representative of broader social movements, ironically a criticism routinely levelled at the left. Together with the emphasis on EU patriotism, it also suggests that remainers are driven more by emotion than rational calculation, which makes Wren-Lewis's case self-contradictory.

While Simon has a starry-eyed view of what motivates remainers, elevating attractive principle over pragmatism, Chris Bertram has a more cynical view both of the Labour leadership's calculations and the likely response of remain voters. In his reading, Corbyn & co imagine they can triangulate to secure the votes of both the pro-social, leave-supporting working class and the pro-redistribution, remain-supporting middle class. But Bertram fears that the bad feeling of Brexit will lead those middle class voters to desert Corbyn's Labour, fatally undermining its purpose. As he puts it: "A redistributionist politics needs the support of millions of middle-class 'liberal' Remain voters to succeed". This is a powerful argument because that statement is objectively true - Labour can't win without middle-class votes - but also because it reflects a persistent antipathy within Labour's electoral coalition. As Bertram says of his own feelings: "I confess that I myself have had some ugly thoughts as a result of the Brexit experience: why should I pay taxes to bail out a bunch of racist idiots in Sunderland or Stoke? What do I care if some elderly xenophobe can’t find a nurse or a doctor because too few EU nationals have stayed to look after the people who voted to take their rights away?"

But where Bertram goes wrong is first in assuming that the progressive middle class is composed of remain die-hards, and second in assuming that its contempt for the working class is a novelty spawned by Brexit. That first assumption ignores that many progressive middle class voters will have been luke-warm remainers, while the second leads him to attribute class contempt to the malign work of the Blue Labour/ethnic self-interest crowd: "A staple of Blue Labour/Goodhartian thought is that immigration and increasing ethnic diversity has made it hard to sustain social trust and that this risks undermining support for welfare-state institutions. ... But by fighting a culture-war against immigration and the 'liberal elite' in order to secure Brexit, those Blue Labour types have succeeded in destroying the illusion of an inclusive national community. They have produced two hostile camps, ranged against one another, who will be unwilling to make the payments those very leftists think are necessary". This interpretation generously credits the likes of Maurice Glasman and David Goodhart with greater influence over the decay of social capital than forty years of neoliberalism. It also misunderstands the self-interest of fiscal policy. I don't pay tax to bail out racist idiots, nor do I support the NHS because I love elderly xenophobes. I do it because a society dedicated to everyman-for-himself would be harsher for me as much as for others.

The shared premise of Wren-Lewis and Bertram is that support for remaining in the EU is so fundamental to the identity of progressive middle class voters that a large number of them will withdraw their support from Labour unless it commits (at a minimum) to a second referendum with remain on the ballot. Wren-Lewis's argument is essentially emotional and thus a public shaming: being pro-remain is a litmus test for how progressive you are. Bertram's argument is essentially transactional and thus a threat: if you don't support remain you can forget about any kind of redistributive justice. Both are manipulative, both assume that there is nothing creditable in Labour's attempts to bridge the Brexit divide, and both rest on the presumption that the party leadership is guilty of bad faith. More fundamentally, both assume a largely homogenous progressive middle class straight out of a Private Eye parody. The reality is that pro-European rationalists, and even soi-disant "progressives", are as likely to vote Conservative as Labour. It's also likely that the number of progressives who will boycott Labour in the next election over Brexit is going to be no greater than the number who always manage to find a good reason to vote Liberal Democrat or Green.

One interesting dimension of this argument is the idea that Brexit might prove an existential crisis for the Labour Party, which ironically echoes those Blue Labour types that Bertram is rightly dismissive of. Implicit in Wren-Lewis's argument is the spectre of middle class voter disillusion keeping Labour out of power for many years, perhaps for good. In contrast, Bertram is bluntly explicit: "I think the Tories (or maybe right-wing anti-redistributionist politics more generally) will do rather well out of Brexit – if it goes ahead – and it will be the end of Labour". I think both claims are dubious: cutting off your nose to spite your face on the one hand, and imagining that the Tories will escape unscathed on the other. What neither seem willing to entertain are the twin thoughts that Brexit is already a marginal issue for many voters and that it is being used to pursue an anti-left strategy by centrists within the Labour Party. In other words, the usual politics continues beyond the Brexit bubble. In denying this reality, left-leaning remainers are as guilty of delusion as any Brexiteer burbling about Singapore or advantageous trade deals with the USA.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Endless Infowar

At a time when US politics is generally believed to be highly partisan, it might come as a surprise that the Senate Intelligence Committee has managed to reach apparent unanimity on the issue of Russian online disinformation. The conclusion of the independent reports it issued this week is that there was a lot of it, both during and after the 2016 Presidential election, and that it benefited the Republicans. That one of the reports, from Oxford University, emphasised that the chief goal was to foment polarisation makes this bipartisanship all the more ironic. The headline claim is that Russia targeted African-Americans in 2016 with a view to encouraging abstention. One reason why the Republicans are happy to subscribe to this is that it shifts the focus away from their efforts at systematic voter suppression. The impact of social media disinformation is unpredictable and probably trivial: there's no shortage of evidence that African-Americans were disenchanted with the Democrats after the failures of the Obama years and many hadn't forgiven Hillary Clinton for her "super predators" remark. On the other hand, the impact of voter suppression through gerrymandering and impediments to registration and the ballot box is proven, both in terms of its effectiveness and its increased scale in recent years.

Another reason for the bipartisan consensus is that the American national security establishment, which encompasses both parties, wants to see an increase in funding for counter-measures and "proactive engagement" - i.e. US online disinformation. Just as we once had a "missile gap" (which turned out to be fake news, incidentally) so now it is variously suggested that the West is playing catch-up in respect of disinformation, that it is at a disadvantage to Russia in "asymmetric warfare", and that it is particularly vulnerable to new technology like AI-enabled deep-fake video. All three are specious claims. The US has been a pioneer in disinformation and covert propaganda since the 1940s and it has been leveraging its home advantage in the Internet since the 1970s, something that was made all too clear by Edward Snowden's revelations. The idea that disinformation is a "weapon of the weak", and that the US has paradoxically suffered due to its conventional military strength, is a recycling of excuses first minted in Vietnam. The claim that deep fake videos will lead to "a world in which there is no truth and no trust" is the most ideologically telling, combining as it does a suspicion of technology with a contempt for the gullibility of the masses, both of which are traditional features of conservative thought.

The emerging panic over "deep fakes" ignores that the technology to produce convincing moving images has been around for over a century and has taught us two things. First, that truth doesn't collapse, largely because most people understand the nature of illusion and quickly adjust to new forms of it on exposure (the tale of viewers terrified by the Lumiere brothers' oncoming train is likely an urban myth). Second, that the technology to identify fake imagery has advanced in lock-step since the move from video to digital CGI, essentially because it is the same technology reverse-engineered. For many doom-mongers, AI is the magic new ingredient because it suggests not so much an artificial intelligence as an independent one that escapes this constraint: "Because the algorithms that generate the fakes continuously learn how to more effectively replicate the appearance of reality, deep fakes cannot easily be detected by other algorithms — indeed, in the case of generative adversarial networks, the algorithm works by getting really good at fooling itself". This mistakes the brute force trial-and-error of a GAN for the subtlety of a con-man. The personalisation ("itself") is doing a lot of work here.

The US is at the forefront of AI research but this is seen as problematic because it is driven by the private sector (the traditional conservative suspicion of the market is still to be found in the arena of national security). The fear is that an irresponsible search for profit will allow foreign powers to exploit commercially-available AI tools to spread disinformation, just as it allowed them to leverage the automated advertising systems of social media platforms in recent years. What the state wants is greater control. As the Republican chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee said "one of the most important things we can do is increase information sharing between the social media companies who can identify disinformation campaigns and the third-party experts who can analyze them." Given that those third-party experts will be government-funded, this looks like a push to institutionalise a nexus between technology platforms and the state. That's not unusual - the same nexus has long existed between the state and the media - but it's worth noting that new media doesn't temper this cosy relationship with an invigilatory role over government in the way that old media does. The "platform not publisher" argument is presented as irresponsible in the current struggle, but what it really boils down to is an unwillingness to antagonise the government, indeed any government. As old and new media inevitably converge, that conservative tenor will become dominant.

With the global war on terror now winding down, there is obviously a need for a new enemy to justify the national security state. John Naughton, who as an Oxford academic contributes to the research on the Internet and conspiracy theories, characterised the implications of the two US Senate reports as "endless infowar", though he seemed to be thinking primarily in terms of the persistence of the Russian threat. He also quoted Kevin Roose of the New York Times who revealingly talked of social media in language that echoed the neoconservative framing of Afghanistan and Iraq in the early years of this century: "It’s the terrain on which our entire political culture rests, whose peaks and valleys shape our everyday discourse, and whose possibilities for exploitation are nearly endless. And until we either secure that ground or replace it entirely, we should expect many more attacks, each one in a slightly different form". Of course, that sort of language was not restricted to neoconservatives. Plenty of liberals drank the Kool-Aid and whooped and hollered from the sidelines. What's different today is that liberals are leading the campaign while the neocons (many of whom remain "never-Trumps") politely applaud.

Russia cannot credibly play more than a walk-on part in this drama. Inflating its impact by talk of asymmetric warfare and the strength of the weak is unconvincing. Outside of political groups looking for excuses, and newspapers with a vested interest in the restraint of social media, few people think that Russia swung either the US Presidential election or the UK's EU referendum. This is not to say that both weren't subject to disinformation and outright lying, but the more impactful sources were probably domestic, notably partisan TV and newspapers that had been pursuing a systematic campaign of disinformation for decades. A feature of the case against social media is the belief that it is much more effective than traditional media in influencing voters, even if there is scant evidence for this and the claim requires careful framing. For example, the New York Times conclusion that "In an election decided by a rounding error — fewer than 80,000 voters spread over three states — Russian trolling easily could have made the difference", becomes "Yes, Russian Trolls Helped Elect Trump" in the headline. This is no more justifiable than that infamous 1992 headline, "It's the Sun wot won it".

Given that Russia hasn't let up on its disinformation campaigns in the US, you would have expected the 2018 mid-term elections to have further entrenched the Republicans, but the reverse happened. Indeed, where the Democrats fell short, old fashioned voter suppression by administrative means was the more obvious explanation. Likewise, the investigations into "dirty money" and disinformation around Brexit have not notably influenced public opinion on the issue. Insofar as the polls have moved (slightly), this probably owes more to fears of a damaging no-deal outcome. Naughton is probably right that we face the prospect of a seemingly endless infowar, but the reason for that has less to do with Russian malevolence than the congruence of interest between an increasingly conservative media establishment and an increasingly liberal national security establishment. The former's defence of a supposedly beleaguered liberal order has seen it adopt not just reactionary manners - its obsession with civility and norms - but the paranoid style of anticommunism. The latter's shift away from the raw imperialism of the neocon years has seen it embrace the idea of a market-led projection of soft power, which is really just a revival of Cold War thinking. The response to social media has been nothing if not nostalgic.

Thursday, 13 December 2018


Theresa May's victory in the Conservative Party leadership confidence vote yesterday was typical of the history of Brexit: apparently decisive, but not really. It doesn't change the parliamentary arithmetic for her deal (if anything it makes the scale of opposition to it look more daunting), but it does potentially change her future options, not least because she is now insulated from a leadership challenge until December 2019. That's small comfort but it might have a marginal effect.

One implication is that a no-deal Brexit is now less likely. Various centrist commentators and lawyers (often the same person) have noted that we will automatically exit the EU on the 29th of March unless a Withdrawal Agreement is enacted before that date. Others on the centre-right have taken the pessimistic view that even if May eventually wins the "meaningful vote" with the support of Labour rebels, the actual withdrawal legislation (a set of enabling bills) might still founder due to the flakiness of that support, leading to the same no-deal outcome. Both of these "accidental Brexit" scenarios assume that May wouldn't pull the emergency cord by requesting an extension to the Article 50 notice period. That calculation was based less on her assurances, which have repeatedly been shown to be worthless, than on the premise that to do so would result in a leadership challenge with a high chance of success: she would have failed in her brief to deliver Brexit on schedule and she would have created the opportunity for a new leader to revisit the negotiations, so uniting all Tory factions against her. Getting that challenge out of the way this week means she is now in a better position to pull the cord, though it's by no means certain she could survive the consequences.

Some of the 200 who voted for her last night, and most of the 117 who voted against, are deal sceptics (there can't be many who don't want her as leader but like her plan). Adding in the DUP, this means she is around 140 votes short. Even if she improbably got most of the Tories on side, she would still need to persuade a large chunk of opposition MPs to support the government. While some Labour right-wingers facing disgruntled constituency parties might rebel and burn their boats, there is nowhere near the number she needs. Given the government has announced that the 21st of January is a deadline for the rescheduled meaningful vote, I also suspect that May believes she cannot string this charade out for much longer. She might do determined but she doesn't do collegiate: trying to form a government of national unity with Chuka Umunna is no more her style than being nice to George Osborne. Now she is nominally secure in her party leadership, she has every reason to ask the EU27 for more time, and while they will grumble, they will also want to avoid a damaging no-deal default, so it's hard to imagine them refusing. Ultimately, the EU27 will make the same calculation as British politicians: if Parliament cannot agree a way forward, there will have to be either a general election or a second referendum, and that means more time.

The one thing that hasn't become more likely this week is that second referendum, at least not in the short-term. There isn't a majority in the Commons for one because there isn't a consensus on what the choices would be, and there is little reason to believe that a consensus will emerge before March. If May's deal is finally rejected by the House, then that clarifies matters by removing one option, however it is doubtful that there would then be a majority for a binary choice between remain and no-deal. There are many, both remainers and soft-Brexiteers, reluctant to risk a vote for no-deal while supporters of it are against the need for another referendum. Theresa May herself is unlikely to support such a vote because either outcome would heap odium on her: for having betrayed Brexit or for having driven the country into a ditch. A three-option vote is possible, but Norway+ couldn't be offered unless both EFTA and the EU agreed its terms in advance, while Labour's 6 tests are the opening position for a negotiation rather than a final deal. Realistically, an extension would be required to develop a third option, after which a consensus on a referendum might then emerge.

The likelihood of a snap general election being called by the government before March has increased, despite May's carefully-worded promises this week that she has no "intention" of calling one and won't lead the Tories into the next scheduled election in 2022. This wasn't really a concession. After the trauma of 2017, it was generally accepted that the Conservative Party wouldn't allow her to stay as leader beyond 2020. From May's perspective a snap election is a forbidding prospect, but it also looks like it may be the final throw of the dice for her deal, assuming the EU confirms there will be no real change to the terms of the backstop and there remains no chance of getting it through this parliament. She is obviously not an instinctive gambler, but she may feel that she has no other option, particularly if her own core supporters on the remain wing of the party start to inch towards the humiliation (in her eyes) of Norway+. It would allow her to take her deal to the country as the only outcome that both secures a meaningful Brexit and avoids no-deal. While Labour could counter that pitch by offering to reset the clock and secure a better deal, that would obviously be a more nebulous proposition. May would emphasise the certainty of her deal (that it is anything but certain in its detailed application will largely be lost in the noise).

It would be a high-risk strategy. She couldn't force Tory candidates to campaign in support of her deal, and constituency parties aren't going to deselect no-deal rebels who reflect their members' own views. However, she may calculate that an absolute majority in the Commons would allow her enough room to dump the DUP, though I doubt she'd have either the imagination or inclination to agree an Irish Sea border, thereby removing Great Britain from the constraints of the backstop. With a defeated Labour in the throes of a new leadership contest of its own, she might hope to pick up enough votes from across the aisle to carry the day, but that seems unlikely without a large Tory majority to begin with. Alternatively, Labour might win. Her deal isn't popular and despite the sympathy for her position there are few who consider her to be a good premier. With Labour expanding the campaign to austerity and other issues, she will be at a disadvantage defending her unimpressive record, and attacking Labour on traditional issues such as national security and economic competence might well backfire in the context of a deal considered by many to be either a national betrayal or an embarrassment.

The bottom line is, to coin a phrase: nothing (much) has changed. The threat of a no-deal outcome has always been overblown, as you would expect, both by the EU27 in its negotiations with the UK and in May's negotiations with Parliament. May's deal is almost certain to be rejected by the Commons and a referendum before March remains highly unlikely, whatever the People's Vote campaign claims. Though the odds on a snap general election have shortened a bit, they remain odds-against. What has become more likely is that May will seek an extension to the Article 50 notice period, though ironically it would probably be her last substantive act as Prime Minister. Labour would have grounds to hope that a subsequent motion of no confidence in the government would be supported by enough of the Tory ultras to unseat her, thereby indirectly achieving what the ERG failed to do this week. Per the Fixed Term Parliament Act, the Tories would then have to form a new administration, but by then the momentum for a general election might be unstoppable. Whatever happens, the one thing this week has confirmed is that Theresa May's premiership is on its last legs, though I think we already knew that.

Friday, 7 December 2018

A Charitable Interpretation

The Charity Commissioners recently instructed the Institute of Economic Affairs to take down a pro-Brexit report from its website that they judged "not sufficiently balanced and neutral as required of an educational charity under charity law". The watchdog said that the IEA had "overstepped the line of what is permissible charitable activity" and that it had "been undertaking political activity not in line with the charity's purposes". The Institute has responded robustly and some of its supporters have cited the political activities of Oxfam and Greenpeace in its defence. The law allows charities to engage in public lobbying for political or legal change so long as that change is within the scope of the charity's stated purpose and its approach is non-partisan. For example, Greenpeace can lobby against fracking on the grounds that this serves environmental protection (explicitly allowed by the 2006 Charities Act, which expanded the definition of charitable purpose) but it can't directly oppose the Conservative Party because of the latter's pro-fracking stance. As a charity ostensibly committed to public education and academic research within the field of economics, the IEA promoting a particular course for Brexit that happens to align with the Tory European Research Group is clearly not politically neutral in the current climate.

My own view is that there is no good reason why charities shouldn't be allowed to lobby politically and thus adopt partisan positions, though whether the IEA should be allowed charitable trust status is another matter. Politics is not a separate zone from society, so it makes no sense to claim that there are certain organisations or people who should avoid it as a matter of principle. Saying that charities should not "take sides" is like insisting that the monarchy must be "above politics" or that political matters shouldn't be "brought into" religion or sport. The ideological premise is that there are certain power relations that should not be subject to popular scrutiny, but it's also worth noting the implication that politics is somehow "soiling". This is a reactionary trope that is still common among political commentators, with their wry jokes about sausage-making and the greasy pole. It is a relic of the old aristocratic contempt for representative democracy. In contrast, businesses are not expected to be politically neutral and there are plenty of high-profile executives who are only too happy to offer their thoughts on politics in a partisan fashion.

In reality, most major charities consider it prudent to maintain political neutrality in order to avoid alienating large numbers of their donors, just as most businesses do so to avoid alienating chunks of their customer base, so removing the bar on political campaigning would probably only result in a marginal change. While this might lead to some charities becoming aligned with particular parties or tendencies, it would be naïve to imagine that this informal allegiance doesn't already exist. No one imagines the IEA is anything other than a front for free market interests with close connections to the Conservative Party. Discovering that the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England generally favoured the Tories, or Greenpeace the Greens, would be no more surprising than learning that trade unions favoured Labour. In practice, some charities would also consider it to be in their strategic interest to be politically neutral, even forgetful. For example, the Trussell Trust gladly provides photo-opportunities for MPs of every party, both those who voted for the benefit cuts and Universal Credit system that are causing an increase in the use of its foodbanks and those who opposed them.

Politically-engaged charities might help broaden policy discussion beyond the confines of the traditional parties and the hinterland of thinktanks that act as policy entrepreneurs. Encouraging heterodox political opinions through charitable status would actually be a good way of promoting pluralism, so you'd like to think that liberals at least would be in favour of it. Of course, the danger in making political lobbying tax-deductible is that thinktanks and other organisations that make no pretence of being engaged in education and research would apply for charitable status. Transactional lobbying, where particular interests pay for political access or representation, isn't illegitimate, but it is the business of registered lobbyists who can be assumed to be operating on a for-profit basis and thus should not be allowed charitable status. One way of ensuring that charities do not abuse their status is to insist that they publish in full the names and contributions (above the level of trivial cash collections) of all their donors, which would probably lead to the IEA for one ceasing to be a charity, given its well-known reluctance to reveal who funds it.

With the introduction of a public benefit test for the charitable status of educational institutions, the long-standing abuse in that sector - where fee-paying private schools enjoy tax-breaks - may be drawing to a close as many schools consider it to be more trouble than it's worth. If we follow the neoliberal logic that education is a personal investment in human capital, then there is no guaranteed public benefit, even allowing for positive externalities. The return-on-investment approach also broadens the definition of education, but at the expense of a loss of public credibility: traditionally, charity law has excluded schools for pickpockets and prostitutes, but there is no good reason to object to an educational charity for pole-dancers or estate agents. Organisations that only seek to educate the public on matters of policy do have a role to play in civil society, even if they are partisan or their views unpopular, but it does not follow that foisting your political views on the public is in itself a charitable act. There needs to be a much narrower definition of what an "educational public benefit" is. Teaching safe sex and needle use should qualify, but I'm not convinced that distributing free copies of the works of Friedrich Hayek should, any more than the works of L Ron Hubbard.

The marketisation of the welfare state and the commitment to austerity have increased the demands on charities, particularly those focused on poverty, health and education. Paradoxically, this might be a good moment to question whether charities in their current form can survive. I am not making the trite point that "we shouldn't need charities because the state should provide". No matter how well-funded the welfare state is, there will always be pockets of need that fall outside the scope of provision. Sometimes this is because the state is slow to acknowledge and provide for new needs, other times because social prejudice makes certain provision initially unpopular (cf. the early history of AIDS). But over recent decades we have increasingly seen auxiliary groups plugging gaps within the welfare state itself, from local volunteers in hospitals and libraries to large charities and non-profit social enterprises taking on contracts for outsourced service provision. This is not only blurring the lines between charities and social enterprises, but between the organs of the state and civil society.

What we are witnessing is not the "big society" in action that we were promised by David Cameron, but a return to the fragmented and piecemeal approach to welfare witnessed during the first half of the twentieth century. As such it is a retrograde step and one that risks re-establishing the interwar reputation of charities as condescending and punitive. This obviously isn't the intent of charity workers, but it is the inevitable consequence of being asked to man the frontline when the answer to need will often be "no" or "you don't deserve it". Where charities in the postwar years were expected to augment the welfare state, today they increasingly provide its foot-soldiers, the tax-breaks now simply a way of subsidising labour within the non-profit sector. To extend the military metaphor, if outsource businesses are mercenaries, charities increasingly act like militias. One reason for allowing charities to act politically, as businesses and other social enterprises in the same sectors can, is to retain at least some grit in their relationship with the state. The militia should not be mistaken for the palace guard.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Who Can You Trust?

William Davies recently sought to explain why we stopped trusting elites. My initial response was to wonder when we ever started trusting them, but I appreciate that I might be a member of a unrepresentative minority on that score. The article did feel suspiciously like it had been shoehorned into the Guardian's over-arching narrative on populism, though Will assured me via Twitter (the power of social media) that this was coincidence (trust but verify is my maxim). I haven't yet read his new book, Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World, from which the article's argument is apparently drawn, but I get the sense from reviews that it doesn't quite make the case that we are living in unparalleled times, and anyway I'm naturally sceptical of any work whose subtitle suggests that anything above the microbial has taken over the world. But these are just quibbles about presentation and the unhelpful framing that publishers often insist on. In his essay Davies makes a series of quite subtle points, though these are a little lost amidst the crowd-pleasing numbers about Trump as performative anti-truth and Brexit as the bastard child of the expenses scandal. There are three ideas worth noting.

First, that illiberal democracy is latent within liberal democracy: "Too often, the rise of insurgent political parties and demagogues is viewed as the source of liberalism's problems, rather than as a symptom". Second, that technology has not democratised the data of public affairs so much as displaced its traditional gatekeepers: "Journalists and whistleblowers were instrumental in removing the pressure valve, but from that point on, truth poured out unpredictably". And third, that what we are living through is a regime change: "But what is emerging now is what the social theorist Michel Foucault would have called a new 'regime of truth' – a different way of organising knowledge and trust in society. The advent of experts and government administrators in the 17th century created the platform for a distinctive liberal solution to this problem, which rested on the assumption that knowledge would reside in public records, newspapers, government files and journals. But once the integrity of these people and these instruments is cast into doubt, an opportunity arises for a new class of political figures and technologies to demand trust instead".

If you put all these together, the essential argument is that liberal democracy is reconfiguring itself in response to a combination of pressures - the negative consequences of neoliberalism, the institutional impacts of new technology, resource depletion and war leading to disruptive migration - and that this response includes testing authoritarian shortcuts like populism and limits on dissent as well as more traditional attempts to control the encroachments of the market and re-assert the utility of the state. The question is whether this amounts to a new "regime of truth", replacing an institutionalised paradigm of expertise and bureaucratic competence that dates from the aftermath of the English Civil War, or if it merely marks another reconfiguration of that paradigm and is thus more akin to the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the mid-19th century. While it would be fair to say that the jury is still out, I think there is enough evidence to suggest that the original paradigm is not about to be swept away.

Davies's titular subject is the loss of the public's trust in elites. His opening definition of trust is epistemological: the ability "to believe the same things about reality". I'm not sure that is helpful in this context, essentially because we don't really rely on elites for our fundamental beliefs (cue "Who ya gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes"), but I guess it sets up the citation of Foucault. The argument encompasses "public figures and professionals", but the central characters are politicians: "As the past decade has made clear, nothing turns voters against liberalism more rapidly than the appearance of corruption: the suspicion, valid or otherwise, that politicians are exploiting their power for their own private interest". Given Donald Trump's flagrant venality, I'm not convinced that voters necessarily turn against self-interest in the way that Davies suggests, and nor do I think Trump gets a free-pass because he presents as a "whistle-blower" on corrupt insiders. Corruption may be more damaging for liberal politicians because of the charge of hypocrisy, but it has never been a bar to either electoral success or trust. Indeed, clientelism assumes the two are complementary: you trust your man to advance your interests.

This highlights that there are two types of trust: the transactional (you get what you pay for) and the social (you expect others to act in the public interest). While Davies's argument focuses on the latter, many of the examples of a decline in trust actually relate to the former. The coming to prominence of phrases such as "the British promise" in political rhetoric should be a clue, not to mention the cynicism among the young about the returns on educational investment and the chances of buying property. The growing feeling is that the system is rigged rather than that everybody else is in it for themselves. As the market has advanced into more corners of our lives over the last 30 years it has replaced the social with the transactional. Public figures and institutions thought to embody the values of society, such as MPs, judges and the BBC, may be copping disproportionate blame in a growing climate of mistrust, the causes of which most people find difficult to pin down. Given that Davies has elsewhere described neoliberalism as "the disenchantment of politics by the market", the absence of that word from the article is noteworthy.

The assumed decline of social trust is perhaps a reflection of the decline of the welfare state and specifically the idea of a reciprocal contract. We trust doctors because we assume they have our best interests at heart, and we trust our fellow citizens not to abuse a system of collective insurance. The prominence of stories about hospital abuses and benefit cheats obviously serves an agenda committed to the replacement of welfare with commerce, but it also amplifies the claim that there has been a decline in social trust. As more of our dealings with the state become commercial, or mimic commercial transactions, trust as a presumption of good intentions and social responsibility will inevitably decline. But this reflects a deliberate narrowing of the field of trust between citizen and state rather than a unilateral withdrawal of trust by the former: we are given less opportunity to trust, regardless of our willingness to extend it. As ever, there is a tendency to blame the people for the consequences of a reconfiguration of the state orchestrated by vested interests.

Davies notes that populist practice blurs "the distinctions between different varieties of expertise and authority, with the implication that politicians, journalists, judges, regulators and officials are effectively all working together." There is obvious truth in this observation (the conspiracist charge that "they're all in it together" is almost routine), but I think it also obscures the degree to which the boundaries between different areas of expertise have been deliberately blurred since the 1970s by attacks on the "closed shops" of the professions. Not only has the social authority of these groups been challenged by deregulation but their claims to a local monopoly of expertise have been questioned. The rise of the often opaquely-funded "independent expert" and lobbying groups has been mirrored by a tendency among some professionals, most notably politicians and journalists, to insist that they possess sufficient expertise to encroach on other professions' turf. Michael Gove's famous "experts" quote is important here because the bit that few remember was a specific attack on others, not a blanket rejection of expertise: "I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong". In other words, "trust me".

A starring role in the decline of public trust in politicians is given in Davies' analysis to the 2009 expenses scandal, and a straight line is drawn from this to the 2016 EU referendum. The impression given is that disgust over MPs' snouts in the trough led to a backlash: "One of the decisive (and unexpected) factors in the referendum result was the number of voters who went to the polls for the first time, specifically to vote leave". The problem with this interpretation is that the increased turnout in 2016 was actually a return to turnout levels seen in general elections in the 1990s. In other words, the decisive leave votes were likely to have come from older people who fell out of the habit of voting, not from those who had never voted. 2016 was an anti-political vote, but one that reflected a growing disillusionment with the political establishment since the millennium. I suspect the expenses scandal simply confirmed an already low opinion of the political class. Its prominence in Davies' history owes much to the idea that it "set a template for a decade of elite scandals" based on the leaking of insider data. Key to this model is not just the appearance of a leaked archive but "one that, crucially, does not depend on trusting the secondhand report of a journalist or official".

The idea that the growth of data archives, easily leaked to the public domain and amplified by social media, has eroded public trust is questionable. The number of people with the interest, patience and technical capability to exploit modern digital archives is probably no greater today than it was 50 years ago when such archives were based on paper, magnetic tapes and microfiche. If there is a greater appetite for tales of wrongdoing, that is not the result of new technology. While there is a lot more data today, there does not appear to have been an increase in the shock-value of revelations. In other words, there has been a quantitative growth but not a qualitative one. The WikiLeaks "war logs" of 2010 were less consequential in terms of public opinion and official policy than the leaking of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, while the recent Panama Papers revelations were a pale echo of the original Panama Affair of the 1890s. For the materialist case that digital technology has eroded trust across the board to be proven, you'd have to assume a counterfactual in which the non-appearance of this technology resulted in a static or even increasing level of public trust in the professions. It's surely more likely that trust would have declined anyway, and for reasons to do with broader social change.

One of the earliest examples of technological disruption was the phone-hacking scandal, a case of a rogue elite exploiting a new potential that opened up in the 90s, well before the emergence of WikiLeaks and social media. While mobile phones were accused of encouraging solipsism and anti-social behaviour from the mid-80s onwards, their role in the natural history of trust was limited to tales of call-logs revealing extramarital affairs. It was only with the emergence of the News International phone-hacking scandal in 2011 that trust came to the fore, though the discovery that the Dirty Digger's business was unethical and connived with criminals was hardly a surprise to anyone who had read Private Eye at any point since the 70s. The greater damage to public trust was probably the decision of the government to cancel the second part of the Leveson Inquiry, which was set to look at the relations of the press with politicians and the police. You couldn't have scripted a better denouement to reinforce the popular suspicion that "they're all in it together". In comparison, the revelation that MPs illegitimately claimed expenses for second homes, even when it ran into thousands of pounds, seems comically trivial.

Popular disdain for the cupidity and self-interest of our elected representatives is hardly new, and its encouragement as a positive and healthy sign within the polity is a recurrent feature of populism. But that same disdain is also cast in a negative light as part of the critique advanced by anti-democrats ever since the earliest moves to widen the franchise and representation: the mob lack the virtue necessary for public affairs. That prejudice lives on today in the liberal horror at the lack of decorum and respect exhibited by outsider critics of the establishment, and in the patronising contempt for the supposed gullibility of the masses and their insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories. As Davies freely notes, trust as measured in opinion polls has been in decline for decades. This is a long-term trend, not an inflexion point or sudden step-change that occurred in the last decade, and is likely to reflect a healthy decline in deference as much as an unhealthy decline in social trust. Caution should also be exercised in relying on polls (such as the Edelman Trust Barometer) organised by lobby groups or commercial firms promoting a view of civil society in which business is deemed as potentially more trustworthy than the state.

As regards trust in politicians in particular, the decline started in the UK at least as early as the Profumo affair, and faith in the wider establishment didn't survive the defection of Kim Philby. You could even argue that trust in the establishment has never really recovered from the First World War. It's also worth considering whether the relative fall in trust for a particular group reflects a change in its standing within the establishment, rather than a more general decline. In other words, less the result of an exogenous change in popular regard than an endogenous reconfiguration of power relations or a reflection of underlying material changes specific to a particular profession. For example, the standing of academics is being eroded by propaganda about close-mindedness and obscurantism as part of an ongoing campaign to commercialise the higher education sector, while print journalism is suffering as its commercial base is legitimately disrupted by new technology (the media inevitably projects its own declinist anxieties onto wider society).

I've been quite picky in my critique of Davies' article but I think it remains a solid argument if you sideline the hell-in-a-handcart litany of woes and ignore the anti-populist and anti-technology flourishes. Despite the photos of Farage, Trump and Murdoch (boo, hiss), the key image is Tony Blair and Bill Clinton clasping hands. This is fundamentally a criticism of liberalism's erosion of its own institutional base in pursuit of a market nirvana: "Unless liberal institutions and their defenders are willing to reckon with their own inability to sustain trust, the events of the past decade will remain opaque to them. And unless those institutions can rediscover aspects of the original liberal impulse – to keep different domains of power separate, and put the disinterested pursuit of knowledge before the pursuit of profit – then the present trends will only intensify, and no quantity of facts will be sufficient to resist". Amen to that.