Friday, 26 July 2019

Coup! What a Scorcher

The casual use of the word "coup" by centrist commentators to describe Boris Johnson's entry into Number 10 is not simply an example of journalistic hyperbole. It is also an attempt to redefine the concept so that when the actual coup takes place - the one that sees the "liberal centre" seize back control under the combined leadership of Yvette Cooper, Nicola Strugeon and Jo Swinson - they will be able to claim that it is a category error to call it that. Of course, the chance of this coming to pass before the next general election is as likely as a member of the Independent Group holding their seat after that date, but this won't stem the tide of increasingly baroque fantasies in which 100 Labour MPs defect to the Liberal Democrats or a noble band of good Tories plant a metaphorical bomb under Boris Johnson's map table in the Downing Street Wolfsschanze. The persistence of the idea suggests that centrists believe that such a coup (though we cannot call it a coup) could well happen, but before thinking about how it might be brought about, it's worth clarifying the assumptions behind the early analysis of the Johnson administration.

The claim that Johnson is an illegitimate Prime Minister because he was voted in by "0.13% of the population … roughly the size of a decent football crowd" is specious. He was supported by an absolute majority of Conservative MPs (160 out of 313) in the last round of voting to produce the shortlist of two (Jeremy Hunt got 77 and Michael Gove 75). That he also won the support of two-thirds of the party membership ("160,000 of the most reactionary people in Britain") is incidental. They were only in a position to crown him because MPs put him on the shortlist, and in numbers that made a popular revolt against their recommendation improbable. Those, like Robert Saunders, who insist on the primacy of MPs over party members seem reluctant to acknowledge this, preferring to put the blame on the membership. One reason for this may be that it would otherwise mean admitting that most MPs are venal and biddable while it is party members who are closer to the Burkean ideal, voting on principle and having no expectation of tangible reward. Another reason may be a wish to avoid drawing attention to the nature of British political coups: that they invariably take place in meetings of the 1922 Committee or the PLP.

I have no idea what Boris Johnson's plan is, and I'm not sure that he knows either, despite the apparent decisiveness of his cabinet reshuffle. The appointment of Dominic Cummings and the promotion of the Britannia Unhinged crowd has led some to assume that a general election, run on the slogan "Tell them again" and advocating a no-deal exit from the EU, is in the offing, but it's just as plausible that he and Cummings genuinely believe that they can wrangle a deal out of the EU27 that could command a Commons majority and popular support. To do so would at a stroke mean that Johnson had succeeded where both Cameron and May had failed, and we shouldn't underestimate the extent to which the new Prime Minister is motivated by such point-scoring. By the same token, he might call a general election, should the EU refuse his demand that they reopen the Withdrawal Agreement and drop the Northern Ireland backstop, in the belief that he could succeed where May failed in 2017. What matters in respect of the centrist coup is the widespread expectation that there will have to be a general election, either as a result of the Commons rejecting no-deal or Johnson seizing the initiative.

It is certainly conceivable that an election could be forced upon him if he loses a vote of no confidence, but that assumes a significant number of Conservative MPs committing political seppuku. While there is no shortage of back-benchers who despise Johnson, it's by no means certain that they would defy the party whip. It's also worth bearing in mind that if a Labour motion looks like it might succeed, some on the opposition benches might stay their hand. The clutch of independent MPs will be reluctant to vote themselves out of a job, and it is surely clear to even the most obtuse that the Liberal Democrats' strategy, from "Bollocks to Brexit" to their preemptive refusal to consider coalition with a Corbyn-led Labour, is designed to rebuild the party, and in service of that prime directive they will compromise any principle. They don't want to see Corbyn replaced yet - they see him as an effective recruiting sergeant for them - and are likewise perfectly happy with Johnson remaining in Number 10 until 2022. They actively want British politics to be (or appear to be) polarised so that they can dominate the media-defined "centre ground".

The most likely scenario for a centrist coup is an Autumn general election that produces a hung parliament. Even if Labour has gained seats, it's failure to win an outright majority would then lead to demands for the removal of Jeremy Corbyn in order to enable the formation of a "progressive" coalition in which the PLP is supported by the Liberal Democrats and the SNP. The result would be a coalition agreement that would junk most of the progressive elements of the Labour manifesto. Even if Labour wins a slender majority, there are enough rightwing PLP members to mount a vote of no confidence in Corbyn as Prime Minister (though technically the motion would be no confidence in the government). It's important to remember that if such a vote is lost, a further attempt can be made within 14 days to form a government before a general election needs to be called. It is at this juncture that Yvette Cooper or Keir Starmer would step into the breach and normal service would be resumed. With the Labour left unlikely to abstain on the second vote, even in the sure knowledge that some of them will end up being purged, the centrist coup would be complete.

What might prevent this coming about? Even a landslide Labour victory probably wouldn't be enough because the composition of the PLP won't have changed that much, despite the best efforts of Momentum and other campaigners for greater party democracy, so there will likely still be sufficient rightwing Labour MPs willing to undermine their own government in order to thwart the left. The antisemitism furore has served to slow down the institutional reforms necessary to make Labour more representative. This isn't an ironic byproduct so much as a deliberate aim on the part of many on the right. Paradoxically, the left's long-term interests would best be served by Johnson clinging on past the end of October. Assuming Brexit was then resolved, for good or ill, it would enable the political agenda to shift back to territory more congenial to Labour and would also buy the time necessary for the overdue institutional overhaul and deselections. This means that the chief obstacle to the centrist coup is probably Johnson's appetite for power. The significance of the composition of his new cabinet is not that it is strongly in favour of no-deal, or that it is notably rightwing on social and economic matters, but that it looks like a burning of the boats. Johnson has deserted the centre ground.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Rough Beast

Boris Johnson is a scapegoat. I don't mean that he is an innocent taking the blame for others, but that he is a timely character on whom we can load a lot of different sins. Contrary to the pen-portraits in the media, he is not the product of Eton, Oxford and the right-wing press, but of the collapse of centrist politics. Just as the relentless monstering of Jeremy Corbyn reflects the Labour right's lack of policies sufficient to address either the causes or the aftermath of 2008, so Johnson's elevation reflects the failure of the Conservative party's programme of austerity as much as its internal divisions over Brexit. With nothing to offer the electorate, the centre-right has given way to the sounding brass of Quixotic nationalism while the centre-left has found itself marginalised from the left by the very social democracy that it long claimed to represent. There are obvious differences between quitting the EU without a trade deal and renationalising the railways, but there is also a similarity: both were considered impossible by the centrist consensus of the last twenty five years.

British political history during the democratic era can be crudely divided into periods defined by either antagonists or scapegoats. Wartime obviously falls within the former category, but so too do periods defined by a collective will to address specific problems, such as the "Homes fit for heroes" activism of the 1920s, the investment in the welfare state in the 1940s, and the slum clearances of the 50s and 60s (housing and health are recurrent themes). The periods defined by scapegoats tend to be longer, if only because the intellectual and emotional energy required for low-level hate is easier to maintain than the optimism and exertion demanded by an antagonist. Our current scapegoat period is the longest-running in the democratic era. While social phenomena such as teenage delinquency, unmarried mothers and inter-racial "friction" weren't novel, it was only in the late-60s that they were widely seen as part of a general social malaise rather than as individual or group failings. The inhabitants of borstals were no longer feral individuals who had been inadequately socialised but symptoms of a society-wide breakdown in morality.

This appeared at the time to be a move towards a structural or sociological analysis, and was therefore seen as essentially "leftist", or at least as an attempt to avoid personal responsibility, but in fact much of the critique came from a re-energised political right arguing for free enterprise, self-reliance and the rolling back of a state deemed to be responsible for this illness through misguided "social engineering" (Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange was a good example in literature that caught the mood: a reactionary impulse clothed in a radical sensibility). The drift towards pessimism as the 1970s opened reflected the increasing tension within postwar society as profits were squeezed by labour. Though it is often ignored in today's analysis of populism, when a straight line between the 1930s and contemporary developments is preferred, this was a time of real populist anger in which traditional party politics came under strain and street demonstrations against political and business elites were common.

Though the structural causes of this tension were obvious enough - the ending of the Bretton Woods financial system in 1971, the oil crisis of 1973, the early stages of deindustrialisation - the media preferred to seek scapegoats, from public sector workers to Rastafarians, to channel popular anger at symptoms as diverse as inflation and the gradual breakdown of social homogeneity. Succeeding decades saw the circle of scapegoats widen. The 1980s were marked by "the enemy within" and the emasculation of trade unions, while the 1990s saw the scapegoating of the long-term unemployed, anti-social youth and "bogus" asylum-seekers. Come the 2000s, this scapegoating was further widened to Muslims en masse and welfare recipients in general. By the 2010s it was even extended to the disabled and the long-settled immigrants of the Windrush generation. Politics appeared to be running out of scapegoats. By 2016, the entire country appeared to fall into one scapegoat group or another, from the ignorant bigots of the "white working class" to a patronising "Metropolitan elite" that included pretty much anyone living in London.

A distinction should be drawn here between Conservative and Labour governments during this period, which is reflected in the official framing of scapegoats if not necessarily in their demonisation by the press. Paradoxically, given their focus on individual responsibility, Tories tend to prefer opponents who are deemed collectively illegitimate: they are in the wrong because of who they are, not simply because of what they do. Their antipathy towards trade unions reflects an affront at the presumption of labour in seeking to dictate terms to capital, not simply an irritation at the inconvenience caused by particular strikes. Consequently, membership of a scapegoated group is sufficient to indicate guilt: an attitude that hasn't really changed since the days of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. In contrast, and in a complementary paradox, Labour administrations tend to be moralistic, seeking to justify their discrimination on the grounds of individual culpability, hence the personal focus of ASBOs and programmes such as Sure Start and the Respect Agenda.

In contemporary politics, the right is distinguished by a tendency to invent rhetorical groups that are guilty by definition, from "enemies of the people" to "remoaners". The political centre prefers to blame real world groups and institutions, or to indulge a liberal materialism. For example, in today's Guardian Matthew d'Ancona admits the guilt of the press in the rise to prominence of Boris Johnson, but then shifts the blame to the entertainment industry (recycling the myth that Johnson owes his prominence to Have I Got News For You): "one must acknowledge, without qualification or excuse, the huge role that the media – and not just the rightwing press – has played in Johnson’s rise … Thus indulged by his peers, Johnson was perfectly placed for a cultural shift of prodigious importance that he intuited very early: namely, the colonisation of politics by the entertainment industry." Meanwhile, John Harris first blames technology, from power-looms to robots, and then exonerates it as an ultimately progressive force. Both ignore that these factors - the press, mass entertainment, disruptive technology - have been around for a century or more. What distinguishes the current moment is the political vacuum created by the collapse of centrism.

In considering Boris Johnson's rise to the top, commentators are usually prepared to acknowledge the advantages conferred by Eton and Oxford, and some even note the pivotal decisions of others that could have terminated his career early, such as John Major's reluctant agreement for Johnson to become a Conservative parliamentary candidate, but few are prepared to point the finger at those who consciously helped him, such as David Cameron backing him as the Conservative party's London Mayoral candidate in 2008. It's now lost in the noise, but Theresa May's decision to anoint Johnson as Foreign Secretary in 2016 - an appointment that panned out pretty much the way that any halfway informed person could have predicted - was either a calculated insult to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office or a simple dereliction of duty. Johnson is the Conservative party's man in a more profound sense than Trump is the Republican party's man. One obvious reason for his rise to the top is the fear that the Conservative party's time in power is coming to an end. Johnson is not only a last throw of the populist dice, he is also a tailor-made scapegoat for possible electoral failure.

Jeremy Corbyn is less a scapegoat than a patsy in that he is being fitted-up for an imaginary crime, namely his Harold Shipman-like injection of antisemitism into the party in 2015. The focus on his personal culpability is typical of Labour's approach to scapegoating, giving rise to the bizarre sight of a party supposedly committed to a structural analysis of society being apparently ignorant of what the word "institutional" means. The recent bad faith of the liberal media (the suppression of Simon Wren-Lewis's cogent argument for a Corbyn government by the New Statesman, the misrepresentation of Gloria De Piero's resignation statement by the Guardian as criticism of Corbyn etc) reflects this personalisation and is the flip-side of the continuing hagiography of Tony Blair in certain quarters. But ultimately what is driving the campaign against Corbyn is not just the desire to create a scapegoat in the manner of the Tories, but also the need to flood the discourse and so avoid the necessary debates over social, economic and environmental policies. Centrism has been reduced to militant anti-antisemitism because it has nothing to offer either the Labour party selectorate or the wider electorate. If we get a general election before the end of this year and the leading candidates are Corbyn and Johnson, it will be a choice between politics and anti-politics.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

The Mandate of Heaven

Just as the Chinese concept of the Mandate of Heaven was used to justify both the authority of the emperor and the right of the people to overthrow him, so the concept of totalitarianism has been employed both to advocate democracy and to excuse authoritarian restraints upon it. In a review of Kai Strittmatter's We Have Been Harmonised, which looks at the way technology is being used for social control in China, John Naughton draws a distinction between networked authoritarianism and networked totalitarianism: "An authoritarian regime is relatively limited in its objectives: there may be elections, but they are generally carefully managed; individual freedoms are subordinate to the state; there is no constitutional accountability and no rule of law in any meaningful sense. Totalitarianism, in contrast, prohibits opposition parties, restricts opposition to the state and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life." If Putin's Russia is the pre-eminent authoritarian regime in this definition, then Xi Jinping's China is the pre-eminent totalitarian one (North Korea is eliminated on the technicality of not being "networked").

But it's not at all clear that there is a meaningful distinction to be made between authoritarianism and totalitarianism beyond the specific - and for most people largely irrelevant - point about legal political parties. Viewed from the perspective of a worker or peasant, there was little to no practical difference between the two during the twentieth century, the chances of being shot or starved to death notwithstanding. A dividing line can be drawn around Nazi Germany, the Stalin-era Soviet Union and Mao-era China on the basis of body-counts, but the theory of totalitarianism developed by Hannah Arendt and others was essentially about social control rather than murderous practice, and there are plenty of authoritarians with bloody hands. A cynic might suggest that an authoritarian regime in the twentieth century was simply one that the middle-classes were prepared to tolerate in the interests of restricting democracy and preserving private property. Despite its investment in the technology of social control and the privileged position of the CCP, China may just be another authoritarian regime.

That's certainly one way of reading Tyler Cowen's claim that democracy is not coming to China anytime soon: "If you belong to the Chinese upper class or even middle class along the eastern coast, you may end up asking yourself the following question: Who is more likely to protect my basic economic interests, the current Chinese Communist Party, or a democratic representative of Chinese rural interests? … One recent study has shown that Communist Party members are more likely to have progressive views on issues of gender equality, political pluralism and openness to international exchange than do the Chinese public at large. Again, if you are an elite among the Chinese citizenry, it is not a sure thing that you will do better with democracy than under the Communist Party." That democracy jeopardises vested interests is hardly an insight, but it's still a surprise to see an advocate of free markets admit that it isn't the inevitable product of economic reform.

Unlike Cowen, Naughton isn't prepared to concede that authoritarianism might in fact be the natural outcome of capitalism when unconstrained by organised labour -  in other words, that the emergence of democracy in Western Europe and North America was highly contingent - but this means identifying an additional factor that can explain China's peculiar path. That factor is digital technology: "We thought that if the Chinese wanted to modernise, they would have to have capitalism. And if they had capitalism, they would have to have democracy. And if they wanted to have the internet (and they did), they would have to have openness, which would eventually lead to democracy. All of which turned out to be baloney. Essentially, the CCP decided that they could have their cake and eat it – and they have succeeded. They have embraced digital technology and used its intrinsic affordance of comprehensive surveillance to construct a successful, powerful, growing, networked totalitarian state with global ambitions."

The implication is that the mass surveillance enabled by the Internet has allowed the CCP to prevent capitalism's magic from fostering democracy and a free press. This dovetails with the now dominant belief in the media that the Internet may be a threat to established democracies as well, although paradoxically as much through its lack of restraint (incivility) as through the abuse of bad actors (fake news). Behind this spectre of a disruptive and antisocial technology lies the Cold War-era image of a totalitarian society in which everyone is closely monitored and fearful. One of the revelations of the 1990s was that the USSR had not been anywhere near as totalitarian as the propaganda maintained (revisionist historians had been making this point since the 1970s, but it only came to public consciousness after 1989). The Brezhnev years, now nostalgically recalled by many ex-Soviet citizens because of their stability and modest sufficiency, were marked less by Orwellian fear than Hancockian boredom. What most people were hankering for were better commodities, not a free press. The irony is that the arrival of those commodities has led to more pervasive surveillance in the form of the commercial Internet.

The West has long created imaginary "others" at the level of society as a way of speculating on changes that might be adopted domestically, both benign and malign, from political systems to sexual habits. Though we nowadays think of the Orientalist tradition as a justification for imperialism, it was marked in its earliest phases by an admiring assessment of the strengths of the Ottoman state, an approach that has its modern echoes in newspaper articles praising the achievements of Singapore or indeed China. Much of the positive style of this speculation shifted towards the realm of science fiction in the twentieth century, though its "real world" application lived on in the romantic appreciation of national liberation movements. The negative style was dominated by its political utility, notably in the 1940s literature of totalitarianism and the 1950s to 1980s literature of the Cold War.

Much of the Western speculation about China's "Great Firewall" and the emerging technology of "hyper-surveillance" seeks to recreate that imagined environment of paranoia and intrusiveness, but it is questionable whether there is any more substance to it today than there ever was. The world depicted in 1984 was no more credible, either technologically or socially, than the one depicted by The Martian Chronicles, though its likely that Ray Bradbury was more conscious of the fact that he was really writing about the Mid-West than George Orwell was conscious that he was writing about Eton. Likewise, the tales of China's social-credit system, CCTV networks and facial-recognition software sound scary until you remember that the same technology is already being used extensively or trialled in the West. In terms of remote and automated surveillance at street level, Beijing and London are pretty similar.

Naughton recognises one oddity of our current geopolitical focus: "China’s modernisation means that bipolarity has returned and a formidable alternative to our system has materialised. Yet we remain obsessed with Russia – which is a nuisance rather than an existential threat – and not with China." Perhaps the truth is that we don't want to let go of the dystopia of the USSR. In an age of limited communication and restricted travel, it had the advantage of being obscure and impenetrable, like the mysterious Orient of old. In contrast, modern China is relatively open, highly-visible and for all practical purposes little different to other East Asian states. It's clearly not as "free" as Japan (though that is a de facto one-party state, incidentally), but it's also not as satisfyingly totalitarian as the imaginary Soviet Union of the 1970s.

To make up for this, we have to imagine that the Chinese use of surveillance technology is both more technically advanced and socially pervasive than it is in the West. The Cold War paradigm is no longer appropriate, but the trope of the cunning oriental never goes out of fashion, so there is a ready market for tales of nefarious practice and totalising ambition, as Huawei has found to its cost. Rebecca MacKinnon, who coined the term "networked authoritarianism", has made the point that it is a model of social control that is dependent more on legal coercion, commercial cooperation and warrantless surveillance than on traditional censorship or blunt service denial. In other words, it is about the intersection of the state and the market - they are complementary rather than antagonistic. One reason for the emergence of the term "networked totalitarianism" is that MacKinnon's characterisation applies equally well to Western countries, particularly after the various surveillance scandals of the last decade. We need something stronger to put the Chinese into a class of their own.

A decade ago Yevgeny Morozov noted how US technology could be employed by authoritarian regimes: "Can the Internet empower dissidents and pro-democracy activists? Yes. But it can also strengthen existing dictatorships and facilitate the control of their populations. Washington's utopian plan to liberate the world one tweet at a time could also turn American innovation into a tool for the world's subjugation." Today, the belief is that China may be closer to realising the potential of AI for social control than the West, but this is as much an expression of envy as of fear and at times seems more informed by the speculative fiction of Isaac Asimov's "psychohistory" than by any technical reality. Once more, China is being held up as an example for the West, or more accurately for authoritarian tendencies within Western political establishments: "Even some foreign observers, watching from afar, may be tempted to wonder if such data-driven governance offers a viable alternative to the increasingly dysfunctional-looking electoral model." When people start talking about a totalitarian "threat", the restraint of democracy never seems to be far away.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Normalising Extremism

One the axioms of twentieth century political history is that the far-right can only come to power with the support and facilitation of the establishment right. The most famous example is Hitler's promotion by Hindenberg and von Papen in Germany in 1933, at a time when the Nazis enjoyed little more than a third of the electorate's support and appeared to be losing ground. The same pattern was visible in the rise of Mussolini and Franco, suggesting a widespread determination by the right to ally with radical reactionaries rather than cede any ground to the left, whether Bolshevik or not. Much of the contemporary liberal angst over the rightward drift of establishment parties like the US Republicans reflects this history. According to taste, flirting with the far-right is the result either of conceited miscalculation ("We will box him in", as von Papen said of Hitler) or simple stupidity. While such interpretations appeal to our appetite for tales of hubris and human fallibility, they ignore structural imperatives and the extent to which conservatives are fully aware of what they are doing. The current "populist moment" is perhaps a good opportunity to consider these other perspectives.

An example of a structural imperative can be seen in the normalisation of the far-right by the BBC. While it would be easy to assume the Corporation is over-run with sympathisers, or perhaps just reckless poshos who have ignored the warning from history, a better explanation for this can perhaps be found in the concept of balance. The biggest change to the political practice of the BBC since the 1980s has been its willingness to allow the press to drive the current affairs agenda, a development exacerbated by the Birtian reforms and made visible in the amount of political coverage now devoted to opinion. As the press's position has typically been further to the right than the Conservative party leadership, finding advocates for this agenda - in order to present a "balanced" argument - has led to a greater reliance on both media provocateurs and far-right organisations, from "insurgent" political parties to opaquely-funded think-tanks and lobby groups. The problem this gives rise to is that the fulcrum of debate in the BBC is then much further to the right of its actual location among the general population (as evidenced by the widespread support for Labour's policies).

This bias to the right is apparent not just in the subjects the BBC picks for debate, or in the personnel it selects to provide commentary, but also in the speed by which fringe opinions become acceptable within mainstream discourse. For example, in three years Brexit has gone from a debate over whether we should leave the EU, in which advocates of departure assured us that this would mean exiting the "political project" but not the single market or customs union, to one in which the debate pivots on the relative merits of walking away without a deal on future trade. This "all we need are WTO terms" extremism has been mirrored by the emergence of the "hard remain" position - revoking Article 50 and thereby annulling the 2016 referendum - which has allowed the BBC to present a "balance" comprised largely of two positions that are supported by only small minorities of the population.

The normalisation of the far-right has, as Simon Wren-Lewis points out, gone hand-in-hand with the demonisation of the current Labour leadership. This isn't coincidence but the result of an attempt to redefine the boundaries of acceptable political opinion. Labour is now "too far left", while Nigel Farage and the vague but menacing Brexit party are "not so far to the right" when contrasted to the remnants of UKIP, Tommy Robinson and crypto-Fascist imports such as Generation Identity, though equally dubious individuals and groups, like Steve Bannon and Turning Point, are still considered to be just about on the acceptable side of the outer boundary. The heavy work in achieving this reframing of acceptable politics has been done not so much by the established right as by the centre, which is where ideologically the BBC assumes that it sits. The "if both sides criticise us, we must be doing something right" defence is not just smug self-satisfaction, it accepts a polarisation that centrism supposedly deplores.

But where I disagree with Wren-Lewis is in his attribution of the Conservative party's connivance in this rightwards drift to miscalculation (or "overreach"), specifically pursuing policies such as immigration targets, an EU referendum and austerity for short-term gain, with insufficient heed to the trouble they were storing up and the encouragement they provided to the far-right. It is important to remember that the party's fetishisation of immigration targets was not just done at the behest of the press and lobby groups such as Migration Watch, but also in response to the strong feelings of its own backbench MPs and membership. Though the targets were always likely to be unachievable, Cameron accepted their political necessity as a signal of intent. The problem was not that the party was duped into adopting an extreme position by the far-right, but that too many party members and MPs were sincere in their desire to radically reduce net immigration, not least the then Home Secretary, Theresa May.

The folklore around the EU referendum decision has focused on Cameron's de haut en bas reluctance and his expectation that coalition with the Liberal Democrats would provide an excuse to drop any commitment to a public vote. But again this ignores the strength of feeling within the Conservative party. While the Bruges Group and latterly the ERG have always been a minority interest in Parliament, they were clearly much more in tune with the views of the party membership, not to mention significant parts of the press. Cameron couldn't put the referendum off for ever, and it's likely that in a counterfactual where he completed his term in office without conceding one, the subsequent leadership contest would have been dominated by the issue, as has in fact been the case now on two separate occasions. The one thing that has united all the contenders in the current contest is the belief that Brexit must be "put to bed". A failure to do so would represent an existential threat to the Conservative party, not because it would lose voters to the Brexit Party but because it would lose MPs and members.

Likewise, austerity should be seen less as a clever manoeuvre by George Osborne to blame Labour for the financial crisis and more as a conscious strategy, in line with a consensus elsewhere in Europe and the developed economies (what Wolfgang Streeck referred to in Buying Time as the "consolidation state"), to rehabilitate a policy framework ("expansionary fiscal contraction") that had been in bad odour since the 1930s. That the policy has continued to be rigorously pursued despite both the evidence of its practical failings and the embarrassment of it theoretical case (the infamous Reinhart-Rogoff spreadsheet error) tells us that it is more than an electoral tactic. The aim is not merely to shrink the state or hive off more public services to the private sector, it is to re-establish a sound money convention strong enough to constrain any future administration (a trap the pre-2016 Labour leadership foolishly walked into). Osborne's austerity was about ruling out a future Labour government, not just using a former one as a scapegoat for capitalism's ills.

A common element that runs through this analysis is the role of the press in pushing political discourse to the right - shifting the so-called Overton Window (Joseph P. Overton, who developed the concept, was in the business of advocating free market policies initially deemed radical or even unacceptable by public opinion) - whether done directly through slanted news and partisan comment or indirectly through pressure on the BBC. Boris Johnson's march to the leadership of the Conservative party and Number 10 Downing Street has been emblematically marked by a revival in the power of newspapers. The initial sidelining of TV debates was explained as Johnson's "fear" of being shown up as a charlatan, but a better explanation is simply that he is consciously cultivating the press, first as a more reliable medium for securing the votes of party members and second as a critical future support for his administration when the shit inevitably hits the fan. He has been predictably well-served by the Telegraph and, with the response to his "domestic" in which the neighbours have been vilified, the other papers that might have given Hunt a sympathetic hearing, such as the Times and Daily Mail, have fallen into line.

This revival is not limited to the papers that habitually support the Conservative party. The Guardian broke the Camberwell story and remains committed to inserting Johnson into its long-running saga on Steve Bannon and Russia. It has also done its bit to shift the discourse rightwards, running positive articles on Matt Hancock and Rory Stewart, and even trying to see the merits of Jeremy Hunt. Again, that the Guardian and Observer have become even more critical of Jeremy Corbyn over the last six weeks is not a coincidence. As the media once more tries to define the likes of Philip Hammond and David Gauke as the sensible centre-ground, so it is necessary to recalibrate the toxicity of the left. The revival of the Liberal Democrats is down to a number of contingent factors, but the chief one is the failure of the Independent Group aka Change UK to provide a new vehicle for the liberal media's hopes. Following that damp squib, the party whose performance in coalition with the Conservatives caused so much lasting damage (from austerity through the Fixed Term Parliaments Act to facilitating tax evasion) must now be rehabilitated. It is not just the extremists of the far-right who are being actively normalised by the press.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Surveillance Capitalism

Shoshana Zuboff's The Age of Surveillance Capitalism has been widely criticised for being too apocalyptic about surveillance and too apologetic about capitalism, but this hasn't hindered its success. This week she chided Nick Clegg, Facebook's inhouse apologist, for placing the burden of improving corporate practice on the democratic state, despite this being precisely her own remedy for the ills that she diagnoses. Her thesis comes in two parts: the digital surplus extracted from users by companies like Google and Facebook has moved beyond "improving customer experience" to the creation of "prediction markets"; and these predictions extend beyond targeted advertising to the modification of behaviour. In her own words, "it has become clear that the most predictive data comes from intervening in our lives to tune and herd our behaviour towards the most profitable outcomes." Though this is a criticism of capitalist practice, it is one that admires the ignorance that Hayek postulated and also shares his fear, outlined in The Road to Serfdom, that corporations would embrace "socialist planning" out of self-interest. In other words, this is an analysis that should appeal to an Orange Booker like Clegg.

The chief criticism of her thesis from the left is that she is simply describing capitalist ideology and how it reinforces itself through social processes, particularly consumerism. Her expectation of, and response to, such criticism has emphasised the epochal change as she sees it between a capitalism of mass society - the twentieth century model of social marketing and the commodification of taste - and a capitalism of the individual where corporate risk is mitigated by subtle, personalised coercion: "Data scientists describe this as a shift from monitoring to actuation. The idea is not only to know our behaviour but also to shape it in ways that can turn predictions into guarantees. It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us." The irony is that Hayek's praise of "how little the individual participants need to know" for the price system to operate is matched by his praise of its ability "to provide inducements which will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do".

There is clearly a large gap between the reality of surveillance capitalism's "prediction products" and Zuboff's totalitarian vision, which can be seen in examples as varied as AdChoices' monomania and the failure of Google Flu Trends. Likewise, there is no obvious theoretical mechanism, let alone empirical evidence, to support the claim that "Surveillance capitalism, run as the code for everyday life, erases both free will and free markets". This rhetoric not only employs the worst kind of Silicon Valley techno-babble (if there is an operating system for everyday life, I would have thought it more likely to be DNA than Google's search history), it also makes a none too subtle attempt to equate free markets with free will, though it's not clear whether Zuboff thinks free will will atrophy if markets are increasingly directed (the Hayekian position) or whether she thinks that the lack of exercise of free will make a mockery of the free market (which is dangerously close to the socialist critique that free will is a mockery if you are poor and socially powerless).

Zuboff is very much in the "saving capitalism from itself" camp, hence the need to present current developments as a perversion of the system rather than as the inevitable and not particularly radical evolution of the capitalist dynamic. This means ignoring much of the social history of surveillance and commercial coercion, from Edward Bernays through Mass Observation to The Hidden Persuaders. Instead, her historical focus is first on the generational break caused by the widespread adoption of information technology, which she sees as having created a fork in the road at the end of the era of Fordist managerialism; and second on the contingent coincidence in the early years of this millennium of the need for Google to monetise its technology, the erosion of the state's caution towards mass surveillance after 9/11, and the favourable environment created by two decades of neoliberal deregulation. In her telling, this combination of factors has encouraged the dominance of surveillance capitalism instead of an "advocacy-oriented" capitalism embedded in political and social institutions (the road not taken).

Where she does rely on social history is more in prognosis than diagnosis: "Surveillance capitalism thrives in the absence of law. In a way, this is good news. We have not failed to rein in this rogue capitalism; we’ve not yet tried. More good news: our societies successfully confronted destructive forms of capitalism in the past, asserting new laws that tethered capitalism to the real needs of people. Democracy ended the Gilded Age. We have every reason to believe that we can be successful again." This is the classic liberal dichotomy of unrestrained capitalism and technocratic regulation. In reality, the restraint of one by the other does not presume democracy: the original UK Factory Acts long-predated universal suffrage. Even in the context of the USA, the boast that democracy ended the Gilded Age ignores the role played in the Progressive Era by competing fractions of capital. The resistance to the encroachment of the market does not necessarily take a political form, even in a democracy, and the idea that laws tether capitalism to the needs of the people, rather than vice versa, is obviously na├»ve.

Not content with this hyperbole, Zuboff proceeds to cast surveillance capitalism as a threat to our very humanity: "What is abrogated here is our right to the future tense, which is the essence of free will, the idea that I can project myself into the future and thus make it a meaningful aspect of my present. This is the essence of autonomy and human agency. Surveillance capitalism’s 'means of behavioral modification' at scale erodes democracy from within because, without autonomy in action and in thought, we have little capacity for the moral judgement and critical thinking necessary for a democratic society." At root, this is a classic argument against democracy: the mass of people (in modern discourse this is usually reduced to a problematic minority - e.g. "the white working class") lack the judgement and capability necessary to make decisions about the management of the state. This is straight out of Plato's Republic, even if it's embellished with fashionable nods to the Frankfurt School (autonomy, critical thinking).

So, what is to be done? Zuboff is sceptical of personal data ownership as a solution, but her reasoning is that you cannot establish a link between an individual's data and the ultimately valuable predictions that it feeds into. "One example [of a solution] is privacy law’s call for 'data ownership'. It’s a misleading notion because it legitimates the unilateral taking of human experience – your face, your phone, your refrigerator, your emotions – for translation into data in the first place. Even if we achieve 'ownership' of the data we have provided to a company like Facebook, we will not achieve 'ownership' of the predictions gleaned from it, or the fate of those products in its prediction markets." One obvious retort to this problem of identification is common ownership. In other words, treating that aggregate data as a social resource. This idea, advocated by thinkers such as Evgeny Morozov, does not necessarily imply the creation of a nationalised data infrastructure. It could simply mean the effective taxation of the commercial data aggregators.

Zuboff's preferred solution is liberal regulation in which propriety and civic virtue are as important as technocratic diligence. "This means, at the front end, outlawing the secret theft of private experience. At the back end, we can disrupt revenues by outlawing markets that trade in human futures knowing that their imperatives are fundamentally anti-democratic. We already outlaw markets that traffic in slavery or human organs." The problem here is that most of this "theft" at the front end isn't at all secret. We willingly tick the end-user licence agreement because we (rightly) imagine the value of our digital exhaust to be negligible in isolation, and so the investment of time to actually read those voluminous T&Cs simply isn't worth it. We know that its true value is largely in an anonymised aggregate. The parallel with slavery or the sale of organs in this context is ridiculous.

The hunt for the responsible capitalist continues: "We need laws and regulation designed to advantage companies that want to break with surveillance capitalism. Competitors that align themselves with the actual needs of people and the norms of a market democracy are likely to attract just about every person on Earth as their customer." The idea that virtue is attractive is hardly borne out by the reality of the Internet (cf porn, clickbait, cat videos etc), while the idea that the state can encourage and reward good behaviour among "enlightened" firms, though central to conceptions of capitalism from the social democracy of Ed Miliband to the entrepreneurialism of Jeremy Hunt, is not supported by history. Firms are driven by capitalist competition to respond to incentives in an amoral fashion. If aligning with the needs of people conflicts with making a profit, then profit will typically win out.

Zuboff also has a tendency, long-standing in her work, to accept certain firms at their own virtuous estimation, most notably the counter-cultural rhetoric of Apple. This goes hand-in-hand with an over-estimation of the willingness of the state to restrain capitalism for the public good, as opposed to the preservation of property rights: "lawmakers will need to support new forms of collective action, just as nearly a century ago workers won legal protection for their rights to organise, to bargain collectively and to strike. Lawmakers need citizen support, and citizens need the leadership of their elected officials." This potted history ignores that lawmakers have spent most of their time trying to frustrate the rights of workers. Rights were won through struggle against the political system. That this story segues to a vision of a supportive citizenry and an enlightened leadership suggests that Zuboff doubts the unprecedented threat of surveillance capitalism will produce any discernible evolution in our politics, which is odd to say the least.

Evgeny Morozov, in an excellent long essay on Zuboff's intellectual development that places her ideas within the context of American industrial sociology, makes a key observation: "Zuboff’s definition of surveillance capitalism hinges upon whether behavioral surplus is used to modify behavior, not whether data extraction is visible." In other words, her thesis of the pernicious nature of surveillance capitalism rest on the proof that it is effective in its own terms - that it does modify behaviour in a profitable way for capitalists - rather than by virtue of it being pervasive. Given how cheap it is to harvest our data exhaust, compared to pre-digital methods of gathering consumer feedback and preferences, it is possible for capitalists to justify this "surveillance" purely on the grounds of reduced cost even if leads to no, or only marginal, improvements in the effective direction of consumer behaviour. Surveillance capitalism is just a more refined form of capitalism, and the real risk that surveillance technology poses is not to individual autonomy but to collective action against the state.