Search

Friday, 19 February 2021

Stuck in the Past

Adam Curtis's latest documentary series, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, is subtitled An Emotional History of the Modern World. That adjective is significant both because he has previously criticised emotionalism in public life (even to the point of admiring the sincerity of Enoch Powell) and because it suggests that what he is offering is a personal interpretation. This is an example of Curtis's meta approach to narrative: he is highlighting the importance of the singular ego in a story that revolves around the conflict between individualism and collectivism, but he is also suggesting that this makes the story suspect and that he may be an unreliable narrator. But maybe this particular hall of mirrors (cue archive shot of a hall of mirrors) is just a double-bluff. The criticism that he has faced in recent years - for his patrician omniscience, selectivity and flirtation with the ideas of the libertarian right - has perhaps made him more guarded. Despite this precaution, it is clear from the opening episode that he hasn't abandoned his signature technique of building a narrative around a binary opposition, hence the starring role awarded to Boolean logic. Nor has he eased up on the surprising (but insignificant) connections: thus the final episode reveals that George Boole's great-great-grandson is Geoffrey Hinton, who was central to the development of the use of neural networks in artifical intelligence.

Adam Curtis's worldview lends itself to TV, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that TV selects for the likes of Adam Curtis, but this prompts the question: why aren't there more people doing this sort of thing? It's true that trawling the archives and securing music rights takes up a lot of time and money, so this isn't cheap programming, but as Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon reminds us, crafting a collage of coincidences and bizarre relationships isn't that hard to do. The fact that Curtis is unique (outside of YouTube parodies) merits some thought. I think the answer is that he embodies the BBC as an institution in a way similar to previous figureheads such as Richard Dimbleby (who makes an appearance in the latest series interviewing Anthony Blunt before the latter was publicly unmasked as the "fourth man" in the Cambridge spy-ring). With David Attenborough on his last legs, Curtis increasingly looks like a throwback to an ideal of public service broadcasting, but with a pessimistic and even misanthropic edge. For all his hip music selections and apparently radical reinterpretations of history, Curtis - or more precisely his soothing middle-class voice - is a comforting presence. This is authoritative as much as authored broadcasting, and for that reason it has to be singular.

The relationship of individualism and collectivism is unquestionably a theme central to our understanding of modernity, but what Curtis's approach ignores is that most of us live in the messy space between these two poles. This allows the viewer to remain detached as she watches film of people experiencing the extreme manifestations of one or the other: a transsexual struggling with unsympathetic doctors or Red Guards waving their little red books. Keeping emotions in check is clearly part of Curtis's method, but the purpose appears to have more to do with neutralising empathy than cultivating dispassionate and clear-eyed judgement. Whereas non-diegetic music is traditionally used to prompt an emotional response, here it is used to create a distancing effect. Whereas montage is traditionally used to suggest connections separate from (and even contradictory to) the commentary, here it is used to flatten complexity. As ever, Curtis makes some good and interesting points along the way, but I can't help thinking that what he's really engaged in is essentially a critique of the "dumbing-down" of TV news and current affairs (so this really is personal). 


Central to CGYOMH is the question of the self. In an interview in the New Statesman, Curtis claims "The vision of our time is that individualism would create strong and empowered individuals. But at the same time, many of the human sciences that studied people started to eat away at the idea of the confident self. ... What I’m asking in these films is why in the great age of individualism, which promised empowered individuals, have we ended up with entire societies that are uncertain, anxious and distrustful". Is the self simply "An accessory of the brain that tries to make sense of this incoming chaotic data", imposing a narrative on our impulsive and often irrational behaviour? Daniel Kahneman is presented as a proxy for the essentialist view that false consciousness is the inescapable nature of the human mind. This makes change impossible, a point reinforced by chaos theory - i.e. we cannot anticipate the consequences of our actions, which is why revolutions fail. All we can do is maintain good order. From this follows the idea that society (or the "dreamworld", as Curtis puts it) must be managed for its own good, and that, from the 1970s onwards, has meant mass surveillance.

Writing on the subject of Trump's second impeachment for the LRB, Eli Zaretsky noted how the prosecution case was unusual in putting Trump's action into a wider, historical context: the US constitution, the pathologies of the American right and the fomer president's employment of the "big lie" (the idea that the 2020 election had been stolen). In contrast, "Modern journalism, even before the internet, makes it almost impossible to form a realistic picture of what is going on in the world. It breaks knowledge up into unco-ordinated categories and ignores context and connection, which are the soul of historical understanding. Above all, the news distracts". This could have be written by Curtis, indeed this is essentially his critique in HyperNormalisation (and the abbreviated Oh Dearism films he made for Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe) of the way that the mass media leave us feeling disempowered. But the difference is that Curtis isn't presenting a "wider, historical context". Indeed, his occasional attempts to do so are often ridiculous, such as the idea that Brexit was prompted by nostalgia for a rural idyll, or that this persistent delusion had earlier led Getrude Bell to prefer the rural tribes to the urban middle-class of Iraq after 1918, thereby eventually causing an ISIS army to advance on Baghdad.

In Zaretsky's reading, the history of the democratic era in the capitalist West was the avoidance of revolution by the formalisation of class politics in electoralism and trade unionism. But this was eroded: "in the second half of the 20th century, changes in the socio-economic system weakened and eliminated the class-based identities that had provided this rough stability. This weakening opened new structural faults for politics, such as gender, race and sexuality, but it also precipitated the emergence of the modern masses, the so-called ‘age of the crowd’. While a new politics of identity emerged, so too did large numbers of individuals whose identities were not socially given, or explicit. These individuals served as the social basis for mass psychology." This shares Curtis's view of (and implicit distaste for) the masses, but it proceeds from a structural critique that is lacking in Curtis's work. He tends to start in the realm of pure theory (someone comes up with a startling and unconventional idea) and exhibits a pronounced scepticism about the empirical (not always unjustifiably - e.g. the replicability crisis of behavioural pyschology).


There are four features of an Adam Curtis documentary that I think are worth dwelling on. First, his belief in the power of ideas. This is an idealism that almost completely ignores material factors, allowing him to conflate different movements, with radically different interests and motivations, such as American neonservatives and Islamist jihadis in The Power of Nightmares, or suggest a dubious parallel between the Opium Wars and Oxycontin in CGYOMH. Second, the emphasis on the individual seer, such as Edward Bernays in The Century of the Self, which is ultimately just an eccentric great man theory of history (Jiang Qing features in the latest to help redress the gender balance). As Dan Hancox puts it, Curtis is "fascinated by the intellectuals, and thoroughly bored by the masses". Third, the idea of conspiracy theory as a substitute for our lost grand narratives. Much of CGYOMH is concerned with how conspiracies have been manufactured and concludes with the irony of supposedly objective liberals succumbing to conspiratorial delusions about Brexit and the election of Trump. Fourth, his foreshortened history, which is probably a combination of the constraints of the medium (we have no archive footage of 1789) and his preference for a horzion that doesn't go back much further than living memory.

In combination, these features suggest a radical conservative outlook that can be summarised as follows. What matters are beliefs, rather than material circumstances, and those beliefs spring from the insights of unorthodox individuals. But postmodernism has left people bereft of coherent social narratives while neoliberalism has cultivated an ever more isolated and anxious subject, so undermining belief. This void has increasingly been filled by conspiracy theories, both populist (i.e. against elites) and state-directed (i.e. engineered by elites). Democracy has been corroded by individualism, leading politicians to see themselves as representatives not of the people but of financial and technocratic power (Peter Mair is cited). Curtis appears to see himself as a progressive, but is hazy on what progress would look like beyond a more robust self and a sense of collective purpose. While many critics have associated him with Frank Furedi, and not unfairly, I would pay him the compliment of pointing to Edmund Burke and Friedrich Nietzsche as intellectual influences rather than the idiot messiah of Living Marxism. I'd also suggest that many of his concerns around the self and personhood, whether it is the pliable monad of B.F. Skinner's behaviourism or the robust "entrepreneur of himself" described by Michel Foucault, go back to Hobbes and Locke.

The final word goes to the man himself, from that New Statesman interview: "I make pretentious films arguing that we’re stuck in the past and can’t imagine the future." Despite the self-deprecation, the real misdirection here is the use of "we" rather than "I". David Graeber (who, if he were alive today, would probably have pointed out that the periodic sacking of Mesopotamian towns by rural tribes goes back millennia, something he wrote about in Debt: The First 5000 Years) provided the epigraph and conclusion for Can’t Get You Out of My Head: "The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently". But Graeber famously failed to make it differently when he helped steer the Occupy movement into the dead-end of prefigurative politics: constant debates about decision-making that produced few meaningful decisions. Like him, Curtis offers no vision of what that remade world would look like. In Graeber's case he had the ready excuse of anarchism (not imposing a vision is the point). In Curtis's case I suspect it's because he remains more interested in the failed visions of the past (there's an interesting overlap here with Mark Fisher's nostalgia for lost futures) and is stimulated by imaginary futures only insofar as they reflect that lineage. The immobilisation is personal.

Friday, 12 February 2021

The Red and the Green

Back in late-2014, I suggested that the popularity of the Greens was bad news for Labour because it indicated a conservative turn in politics, even if the immediate effect in the forthcoming general election would be to siphon off votes from the Liberal Democrats after their disastrous period of office in coalition with the Tories. And so it proved. The Greens won almost 1.2 million votes (3.8%) in 2015, a quadrupling of their otherwise decent 2010 showing of 286 thousand (1.0%) and a greater quantum increase than that recorded by the Conservatives (600 thousand). This fell back in 2017 to just over half a million votes (1.6%), showing how much Corbyn succeeded in attracting their more progressive supporters (and probably the younger cohort in particular), but then jumped up again in 2019 to 836 thousand (2.7%). While it was leavers in "Red Wall" seats who largely monopolised the media's attention, with a minor walk-on roll for centrist "spoilers" in constituencies like Kensington, there is no doubt that the Greens now have the potential to split the anti-Tory vote in consituencies nationwide. 

As Phil Burton-Cartledge noted this week, in the context of Keir Starmer's alienation of the left, "Labour does not stand to lose some core support in the big cities as per the calculations in LOTO, what's at risk is its core support everywhere. Which is why the Greens' performance at the 2015 election is instructive. It did not capture huge votes in the big cities, but did do (relatively) well with a thousand votes here, a thousand votes there right across the country". In contrast, while Stephen Bush anticipates that the Greens might squeeze the Liberal Democrats into fourth place, he is not concerned about the potential threat: "Labour will probably be able to use the brutal reality of the electoral system as a pretty effective cudgel at a general election to get the Green vote down to its core where they need to". This strikes me as dangerously complacent, particularly when you consider Labour's performance in Scotland between 2010 and 2015, and also its brief rally in 2017 before crashing again in 2019. There's clearly a tipping-point in general elections (as the Conservatives also found in Scotland in 1997), even if it is often localised. 

In theory, Labour has litle to fear from the Greens because their vote isn't concentrated geographically in the way that the SNP's is, and nor do they appeal to a decisive subset of the party's traditional supporters in specific locales, as the Tories now do in the so-called Red Wall seats. But this is to ignore that their national diffusion means that a strong showing by the Greens could serve to stymie Labour's advances in precisely those same seats because of their marginal nature. This isn't simply a case of the protest vote moving from the Liberal Democrats to the Greens. The former will retain a core of supporters and will still offer an electoral home for the comfortable middle classes whose sense of self depends on being anti-Tory while believing that the coalition was generally on the right track. The latter will increasingly appeal to leftists dismayed by Labour's rightwards turn (the same bloc that boosted the Greens in first 2010 and then 2015). In other words, it's the combination of the Greens and the Liberal Democrats that poses a potentially greater threat to Labour's ability to win back these seats because it offers a broader alternative. Which comes third and which fourth is a minor consideration.

It would be a mistake to assume (as I suspect Bush does to a degree) that Labour-Tory marginals in the North and Midlands are stereotypically ageing and socially conservative. Many, like Bishop Auckland, have substantial middle-class populations and while some have seen many of their youth depart, we shouldn't assume that the environmentally-conscious vote is confined to the young. The Greens exhibit a contradictory ideological mix among their supporters, reflecting their social diversity, with virtue-signalling often being the pragmatic glue that holds them together. The traditional core of the party is a mix of anti-state libertarians, with an emphasis on alternative lifestyles and post-60s ecological angst, and small-state, bucolic conservatives with a tendency towards the misanthropic. But around this core is an outer layer that can accommodate various strains of more worldly progressive, from liberal to communist, many of whom see the state as the only realistic lever for environmental change. Though unstable, this party ecology allows for rapid expansions and contractions in their vote, as the last decade showed.


The Liberal Democrats' popularity during the 2000s was largely down to Labour alienating progressive voters over Iraq and civil liberties, not because of a popular interest in the Orange Book or a burgeoning desire for electoral reform (as the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum proved). With the party eviscerated in 2015 and 2017, and its efforts to monopolise the remainer vote in 2019 successful only in drawing off Labour voters in seats it couldn't win (Kensington, again), it now faces the possibility of political irrelevance as Labour very publicly shifts towards the political centre, albeit in a manner that suggests the party right's historic disregard for natural justice and support for conservative foreign policy has not been ameliorated by electing a "human rights lawyer" as leader. Those civil libertarians and internationalists put off during the first decade of this century may once more be looking for a new electoral home, but it seems that they are increasingly looking towards the Greens rather than the Liberal Democrats. 

Though we saw a return to two-party politics in the 2017 and 2019 elections, the ongoing collapse of the Liberal Democrats and corresponding rise of the Greens actually offers a broader alternative for voters disenchanted with both main parties, albeit one that is likely to produce even fewer MPs due to the first-past-the-post system. As ever, calls for electoral reform can be taken as a proxy for that disenchantment. Such calls may become deafening if the next general election produces a nightmare scenario for Labour: modest gains in target demographics that are more than offset by widespread losses elsewhere leading to the party actually losing even more marginals, resulting in the sort of landslide not seen since 1931 when Labour won 30% of the vote but was rewarded with only 52 seats because its vote was so diffuse. To put this in perspective, Labour won 232 seats on a 30% vote share in 2015 but that outcome was dependent on both holding the Red Wall marginals (it won only 202 seats on a 32% share in 2019) and its actual heartlands in the big cities.

That scenario might seem unlikely today when Labour is polling at around 38% nationally, but it's worth bearing two factors in mind. First, the complacent belief that Labour can afford to lose progressive votes in the cities can encourage those voters to switch, partly in irritation at that complacency and partly in the belief that a protest vote won't let the Tories in. Second, the expectation of a national loss can motivate some people to switch their vote to a protest party on the grounds that it would be less "wasted" by being expressive. This shift in attitude can easily develop a momentum of its own in an era of social media. In other words, there is a tipping-point. If Labour's national polling share drops back to under 35%, while the Tories remain at or above 40%, we may see the emergence of a popular belief that the Conservatives are bound to win the next general election and that there is no point treating Labour as the vehicle for an anti-Tory alliance (that the loudest voices arguing against this pessimism will be those who were calling for a government of national unity in 2019 premised on Jeremy Corbyn being defenestrated won't be the least of the ironies).

Labour's strategic mistake under Starmer may prove to be chasing their old (in both senses) demographic to the exclusion of all else. The complacency about cities also extends to the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. There is an assumption that this has freed-up a centrist voting bloc, which is currently keeping Labour in the high-30s in the polls. This ignores the many former Lib Dem voters who opted for the Tories in 2015 and after (which is why the Tories are at 40%) as well as the progressives who were attracted to the third party because it seemed more left (sic) than Labour in 2010. In neglecting its newer demographics, particularly the progressively-inclined young and the socially-conscious of all ages who find flags an irrelevance, Labour is risking its vote not just in the cities but nationwide. The Greens' core vote in Red Wall seats is small but their prospective vote could be decisive in marginal contests both there and in other parts of the country. Labour's anti-left strategy may work in attracting some in a subset of constituencies that voted Conservative in 2019, but it could equally drive away more of those who boosted the vote in 2017 right across the country. If the May council elections go ahead, the most interesting result might be the progress of the Greens.

Friday, 5 February 2021

Loose or Tight

Contrary to what you might think, the relative effectiveness of countries in handling the pandemic has little to do with government competence, political ideology or even geography (let alone their supposed preparedness). According to the social pyschologist Michele Gelfand, "It turns out Covid’s deadliness depends on something simpler and more profound: cultural differences in our willingness to follow rules." She's been pushing this dubious line since the publication of her 2018 book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World. To date she has managed three Guardian puff-pieces. The first claimed that the Brexit vote and election of Trump could be attributed to a "tight culture" feeling under threat, the second that authoritarian leaders like Trump thrive on fear, while her latest claims that the high Covid-19 death-rate in the US is due to its loose culture and "rule-breaking spirit". She's careful not to claim that one type is superior to the other - America's "maverick spirit" also makes it more creative and innovative - but she's happy to talk of "tight nations" and "loose nations", despite the obvious inconsistency in her reading of the US and UK. 

Gelfand's position - indeed much of the discipline of social pyschology (as opposed to actual sociology) - is premised on stereotypes, both in the sense that the citizens of a particular nation tend to share some fundamental dispositions and that nations are distinct enough to be grouped. That this grouping invariably reduces to a simple dichotomy shows its commonality with theories of society that divide us into two antagonistic camps, from Jonathan Haidt's belief that liberal and conservative temperaments are hardwired rather than socially-determined, to David Goodhart's attempt to explain Brexit through the cultural differences of "somewheres and anywheres". As Gelfand put it in her first puff-piece: "My research across hundreds of communities suggests that the fundamental driver of difference is not ideological, financial or geographical – it’s cultural." While she isn't as overt as Haidt or Goodhart in privileging the conservative worldview, her "fundamental driver of difference" excludes any socioeconomic explanation. 

The Marxist perspective on sociology has long been criticised for reducing social phenomena to the binary of class, but this does at least have an objective reality: you either rely on your capital or your labour (or in a few cases both - homoploutia). The problem with Gelfand's approach is that it lends itself to an abstraction of social behaviour that ignores variation within society, i.e. not only normative differences between class fractions (e.g. middle class versus working class values) but eccentricity and sub-cultures. It also rules out the possibility that adherence to societal norms may exist on a spectrum, rather than being polarised into tight and loose. Consider the following: "All cultures have social norms, or unwritten rules for social behaviour. We adhere to standards of dress, discipline our kids, and don’t elbow our way through crowded subways not because these are legislative codes but because they help our society function. Psychologists have shown that some cultures abide by social norms quite strictly; they’re tight. Others are loose – with a more relaxed attitude toward rule-breakers." 


These are odd examples to pick. Standards of dress have dramatically relaxed in most Western and Asian societies over the last century. Does this mean that the world as a whole has become "looser", or is it down to increased living standards and commodity fashion? Perhaps it's also evidence that the boundary of the domain of norms changes over time. How many pedestrians today would stop walking and face the road to show respect if they saw a hearse go by, let alone doff their hat. But what has changed here: the norm or the fashion for headwear? Or did both change independent of each other? How we discipline our kids has long been a bone of social and political dispute, rather than an agreed norm, and is currently being legislated for in the UK. The reason why we don't barge through crowded subways is that it is counter-productive in a confined space and possibly dangerous. This is a norm, in the sense of a shared standard of behaviour, but it reflects rational calculation and environmental constraints rather than some intrinsic characteristic. 

It is for this reason that platform etiquette and how we behave on trains tends to be common across nations, or more accurately across those metropolitan light rail systems where over-crowding is routine. Breaches of etiquette, e.g. school trippers forming obstructive clumps near the platform entrance or people eating food in a packed carriage, tend to reflect differences in values and behaviours within society more than between nations (the self-absorption of teenagers, how over-work compresses eating and commuting etc). Ironically, the most obvious norm breaking you see on such systems is the behaviour of people who visit the big city only occasionally from elsewhere in the country: the old farmer who offers up his seat to the young female professional to her mild irritation, or the boisterous sports fan who loudly complains that nobody talks to each when they're just trying to block out his tedious singing. If you live in London and visit Tokyo or New York, you'll feel right at home on the subway. If you live in a former pit village in Wales and visit London for the first time, you won't. 

Many social norms are in fact specific to subsets of the nation, and those subsets are largely determined by age, geography and socioeconomic class. This makes obvious sense in that norms arise from the observation of the behaviours of others at key points in our development: they're fundamentally local and generational. The norms we are meant to share as a nation and across all age-groups are often either banal (i.e. we discover other nations share them too, such as saying please and thankyou or avoiding cannibalism) or myths embedded in an often nostalgic media narrative (e.g. the British love of an orderly queue, which was largely a learnt behaviour of the 1940s). In reality, we are all selective about which norms we observe, and the choices we make are often contingent. For example, as David Graeber pointed out in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, whether we return the favour when someone buys us lunch or a drink depends on how inferior or superior we feel to them. Norms not only change over time - new ones arise, old ones mutate or disappear - but they are socially dynamic.


In trying to provide a solid foundation for her claim, Gelfand appeals to both tradition and science: "This distinction, first noticed by Herodotus, is in modern times capable of being quantified by psychologists and anthropologists." In fact Herodotus makes no such distinction between tight and loose cultures, or anything remotely similar. His only collective distinction is between Greek and non-Greek speakers (barbaroi). He certainly compares nations in The Histories, such as the Egyptians and Scythians, but the purpose is to highlight variety not commonality. Herodotus is known both as the father of history and the father of lies, but the latter epithet isn't simply a critique of his honesty or credulity. It means he is the first writer to deal in what today we would call national stereotypes. Gelfand's second claim, that her distinction is quantifiable, is neither here nor there. Not everything that is measurable is meaningful. She needs to explain the mechanism: how social attitudes to rule-breaking have governed the pandemic response.

Her attempt to do so is little more than correlation: "Relative to the US, the UK, Israel, Spain and Italy, countries like Singapore, Japan, China and Austria have been shown to be much tighter. These differences aren’t random. Research in both nation-states and small-scale societies has shown that communities with histories of chronic threat – whether natural disasters, infectious diseases, famines or invasions – develop stricter rules that ensure order and cohesion. It makes good evolutionary sense: following rules helps us survive chaos and crisis. On the flipside, looser groups that have faced fewer threats can afford to be more permissive." This is obviously selective, hence the omission of the nominally "loose" but successful New Zealand. Then there's the claim that Israel isn't a "tight" society despite its conscription, bunkers and military occupation of the West Bank, not to mention the role that "chronic threat" plays in its national identity. The US is famously founded on a story of chronic threat - the slowly expanding frontier of the "Wild West" - but instead of leading to stricter rules to ensure order and cohesion it led to Civil War and loose gun control.

Though published by a liberal newspaper, Gelfand's theory is essentially conservative. It claims that the governments of "loose" countries were slow to act and unwilling to be frank about the dangers of the virus because they feared this would be difficult to sell to their "risk-taking", obstreperous populations (Plato's ship of fools). It also accentuates national stereotypes and so feeds into the growing chauvinist narrative around pandemic management and vaccination. The one suggests that the government was constrained, so it's essentially the fault of the people; the other that the success of Far Eastern countries reflects a more repressive and communal society, so we should be prepared to accept a higher death-toll as the price of our individual liberties. The more mundane truth is that the countries that have done best either already had a relatively well-funded public health infrastructure that had been tested in previous epidemics (not only in Asia but in parts of Africa too), or they took the decison to implement strict measures early in 2020 as a precaution. In other words, it was down to planning and experience or pre-emption. Both of these ultimately reflect political decisions, not broader cultural norms.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Reckless Opportunists

Almost two years ago I wrote a post on the modern establishment, which was triggered by Toby Young's comical failure to wangle himself a bully pulpit at the newly-established Office for Students. Coincidentally, I had read a Guardian article by Aeron Davis of Goldsmith's College on the same subject which I felt didn't diverge sufficiently from the methodology and sociological assumptions established by Anthony Sampson's seminal 1962 work, Anatomy of Britain. The article was a puff-piece for Davis's own slim volume, Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the end of the Establishment, which I've finally got round to reading. This is my belated review. The first point to note is that the Guardian piece was a pretty decent summary of the work, so I don't think I was wrong in my superficial reading. In fact, it's pretty much a straight edit for length of chapter 1, whose conclusion was: "The logics of neoliberalism and unbounded self-interest are as potentially destructive to the Establishment as they are to the rest of society. ... Self-interest and competition has left politicians willing to destroy their parties, civil servants their departments, chief executives their companies, and journalists their publications".

Davis touches on a number of familiar themes that reflect the declining calibre of those managing the state: the increased homogeneity of the establishment, from PPE degrees to promiscuous job-hopping (hence why a journalist could think it realistic to be appointed to the OfS, or even become Prime Minister); the groupthink and reliance on business bullshit that reinforces this homegeneity and excludes the heterodox; the shift from qualitative to quantitative assessment in both the private and public sectors (the primacy of shareholder value, the tyranny of targets); and the way that the UK establishment has become increasingly international due to globalisation, encouraging hyper-mobility and a consequent lack of loyalty to, and even interest in, British society. In a brief review in April 2018, Simon Wren-Lewis summarised Davis: "He suggests the elite have lost coherence: that rather than look after the interests of the network as a whole (and for a conservative therefore the country), they look after the interests of themselves. They have become the reckless opportunists of the book’s title, getting what they can from the chaos they helped create."

What I find interesting is Wren-Lewis's description of a dynamic system, hence the importance of the lack of coherence and the failure to look after the network. Though this critique comes out in the book, Davis has addressed the subject more in terms of the sociology of elites, where the emphasis is on group identification and norms, how people feel and act, rather than historical development - i.e. how and why the system has changed. This is not to say that the latter is neglected, but that the analysis is relatively shallow. For example, neoliberalism is charged with being a corrosive, but without any real explanation as to how it became hegemonic; while the primacy of self-interest is offered as a moral decline and fall (there are the usual nostalgic asides by old City types about the pre-Big Bang days), which ignores the long history of corruption and greed to which the House of Lords stands as a monument. In my view, the establishment has always been essentially political, rather than a field in which different elites, from high finance to the military, coordinate or compete for influence across society as a whole. 


Davis is good on the political milieu, particularly the way that it has become increasingly enmeshed with the media. One of the features of this development, on both sides, is habitual ignorance and a preference for presentation over real expertise. The decline of investigative reporting, along with the increasing social homogeneity of senior media types, appears to have led not only to churnalism but a proprietorial defence of political orthodoxy. The scepticism of power has been replaced by a mixture of sanctimony and sarcasm. Few modern politicians have much of a hinterland beyond machine politics, having often climbed the greasy pole straight from a PPE degree (or a job in PR, like David Cameron) and then struggled with ministerial tenures too short to develop real knowledge, a trend that accelerated during the New Labour years (as Davis notes, domain experts like Frank Field, Chris Smith and Estelle Morris stalled in their careers partly because their expertise was often unhelpful while the glib and media-savvy who lacked independence of thought prospered). 

Another dimension the book brings out well is the way that elites, particularly in politics and business, have come to rely on ever more sophisticated lies to both avoid public scrutiny and salve their own consciences, from an emphasis on "values" and "purpose" to CSR and greenwashing. This has produced a regime of justification in which metrics are routinely gamed, plus a burgeoning industry of thinktanks and academics incentivised to produce helpful research. This in turn has fed the churnalism machine and provided grounds for motivated reasoning, such as the tendentious claims made about "efficient markets" or "threats to security". The consequence is an increasing incidence of catastrophic failures, due to dodgy balance sheets and dodgy dossiers, and a sharp drop in public confidence in both government information and journalism. To bring it up to date, the mix of self-delusion and ignorance has been particularly evident over the last 12 months in the Conservative's serial broken promises and Labour's fear of intellectual engagement.

Where I differ from Davis is that I don't believe that all of these developments have been as stark or as recent as he imagines (the Tories have regularly broken their promises and Labour has always been anti-intellectual). The traditional view of the establishment promoted by Sampson in the 1960s was already out-of-date, being more a picture of the pre-War and immediate post-war world remembered by his interviewees. Likewise, Davis's picture, which he built up over twenty years of interviews, tells us more about Tony Blair's "sofa government" than it does about the cronyism in the award of government contracts seen over the last year. Self-interest has always been at the heart of the establishment, and that heart is the interface of state and commerce. Public service and the interests of "the country" were themselves the self-deluding lies told by earlier generations. Recall that if there was anything that qualified as conventional wisdom among the establishment of the 1930s it was appeasement, which was founded on a desire to preserve the British Empire and avoid the social disruption that total war was expected to bring (the Great War brought democracy and the next was expected to bring socialism, as indeed it partially did).


Likewise, while the structural changes to the City and corporate governance since the 1980s have been profound they haven't produced a notably different commercial culture as far as morality or innovation are concerned. UK business has always tended towards short-termism, financial leverage and asset-stripping, and displayed a perennial suspicion of unorthodox thinking. Indeed, this critique of the commercial establishment is over a century old. If there has been a cultural change in recent decades it originates in New Labour's embrace of wealth-creation as embodied in the City and "superstar" CEOs. It was in the 1990s that the chinese wall between these two rooms of the establishment came down, with the result that they have now effectively merged into one. This is evident not only in the high proportion of bankers and corporate types who become MPs but in the equally high proportion of MPs who then seek second careers in company boardrooms (and not just British ones). The commercial establishment hasn't changed that much but the political has become highly commercialised.

The other significant change in the British establishment over the last twenty years can largely be traced to the disruption of the media. Again the issue is not so much an internal cultural shift among journalists or the structural shift away from reporting to comment and opinion (there's always been plenty of the latter), but rather the merging of the media and political milieus. As Davis notes, quoting Nick Robinson, in an age of 24-hour news Westminster correspondents spend more time with politicians and their competitors in the lobby than they do with other journalists from their own newspaper or TV channel. Now that's probably always been true, but what has changed is that there is no longer as clear a dividing line between the two in terms of background and career. Not only are journalists becoming politicians, but it is student politicians at Oxbridge who increasingly become (privileged) commentators. In other words, the root problem is the wider issue of falling social mobility and the lack of cognitive and cultural diversity this gives rise to.

For all the emphasis on old school ties, the establishment in the social democratic era was still relatively porous and mutable, partly because the expansion of the public sector did open up new paths of meritocratic advance. The marketisation and privatisation of much of the state since 1979 has not only led to greater self-interest and nepotism, it has moved significant operations beyond the conceptual boundary of the British establishment. Fewer people today think of themselves as members of it as opposed to members of a global elite. Increasingly, the establishment has narrowed to politics and those parts of industry and finance, together with privileged elements of the media, with whom they interface for commercial and presentational reasons. I don't think that the establishment is at its "end", as Davis suggests, even if it is more obviously decadent. You can point to the accession of a dishonest journalist to the premiership as evidence of opportunism, but the restoration of Labour's ancien regime under a bureaucratic lawyer suggests that recklessness has its limits. 

Friday, 22 January 2021

The Paradox of Coordination

Though we have far better tools today to allow us to coordinate, notably improved communication (social media) and predictability (data analytics), we struggle to do so outside of the trivial satisfaction of needs (Twitter, Amazon etc). Recent events, from the UK's response to the pandemic to the USA's inability to prevent an invasion of its legislature, suggest that the modern state does not find it as easy to handle either the exceptional or the foreseeable as yesterday's sci-fi envisaged. Not only is the Deep State apparently out to lunch but the formal state appears unable to marshall let alone pre-empt events. And this is not just a feature of liberal democracies. The ineptness and clumsiness of the Russian and Chinese regimes, from hit-and-miss assassinations to preventative mass detention, points to a lack of sophistication and an excess of administrative paranoia, but it also indicates that technological advances haven't delivered either the Orwellian dystopia of thoughtcrime or the Dickian dystopia of precrime. There is little qualitative difference between this and a traditional absolutism, merely an upgrade in technology. Spyware on smartphones has replaced the interception of sealed letters and blanket security laws the carte blanche

We may be surveilled more thoroughly but there is no sense that society is better managed, regardless of how authoritarian the state is. The proferred explanation for this difficulty in coordinating national populations is a mix of individualism and polarisation, which are superficially contradictory. As homo economicus, the neoliberal monad, we pursue our selfish interests, but this should, through the invisible hand, produce an aggregate good. In other words, it is folly to attempt to coordinate society, just as it is to intervene in the market. Obviously events like a global pandemic rather give the lie to that, though there are plenty who will insist that their personal rights should not be infringed for the benefit of public health. At the same time we are told that society is split into two irreducible halves - essentially the liberal and the conservative - whose unchanging values are rivalrous and irreconcilable (you can only be converted or deprogrammed). These homogenous blocs are engaged in a culture war and everyone must pick a side. What individualism and polarisation share is an epistemological perspective. The one believes that solipsistic obliviousness is the key to social wellbeing - i.e. we should focus on knowledge of self -  while the other holds that half the population (the other half, of course) is profoundly ignorant and must be schooled. But for either view to be true, we have to believe that ignorance has grown over time: that we have fallen from an Edenic state of common purpose and empathy.

Despite the tenacious myth of the filter bubble, we are actually far more cognisant and aware of each other than we were in the past, and not just locally or nationally but internationally too. The inhabitants of Stornoway and Penzance share far more of a culture and worldview than their forbears did, but they also share more with the inhabitants of Santiago and Poona. This should make coordination easier at the level of social norms and behaviours, yet we seem to be faced with a determination to fragment into camps built around antagonistic values, even within the highly-localised confines of the nuclear family. This isn't just the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt, not least because those "values" typically stress homogeneity and group identities. Of course much of this is the deliberate construction of a politics that obscures class interests and flattens heterogeneity (the gay OAP, the anti-racist ex-miner etc) in the service of journalistic stereotypes. But it also reflects a narcissism of small differences. The 2020 fuss over whether Last Night of the Proms should include the 18th century classic Rule, Britannia! evoked memories of the contemporaneous Jonathan Swift's reports on the conflict of Lilliput's Big-endians and Little-endians.


This determined obliviousness and wilful ignorance is occasionally remarked upon, but largely in a partisan context. So the supporters of Donald Trump and Brexit have been accused by liberals of closed-mindedness and a belief in fantastic conspiracies, while the political left has been reduced to an inward-looking "cult". Yet the accusers themselves have been guilty of the same, from the idea that free broadband is commie madness to the belief that Russia decisively interfered in a UK referendum and a US Presidential election. And when it comes to cult-like behaviour, the belief that a 78 year-old machine politician with a history of supporting domestic repression and imperial adventure is going to usher in a new age of justice is textbook delusion. For all the valorisation of science and Enlightenment values, there seems to have been a widespread embrace of the irrational and emotional among both liberals and conservatives since the 1990s. In contrast, what has characterised the left since 1989, whether in the form of wry cynicism or optimistic humanism, has been a commitment to the rational and empirical, along with a modesty of ambition. It's almost as if the true inheritors of Spinoza and Voltaire are left shitposters.

I think the emblematic discourse of today is not a dispute over Trumpian "facts", or the schadenfreude as another Brexiteer says "This isn't what I expected", but rather a liberal loudly denouncing a leftist in patronising and deliberately offensive terms. I'm sure you're familiar with the charges and the tone: you lack realism because you are politically immature, you embrace conspiracy because you can't get your own way, your support for socialism proves you are an antisemite etc. Some of this is simple bad faith, and some may even be projection, but what it also points to is how liberalism has increasingly taken on the aura of a religion, demanding auto da fés ("Apologise! Apologise again!") and adherence to a catechism that inevitably breeds schism (the horror of the UK's gender-critical feminists at Biden's executive order on trans rights highlights not only the weirdness of Britain's TERFs but the instability of liberalism more generally). This is annoying enough at the level of the individual, but it becomes acute in a political system built on intra-party coalitions as the demand for ideological purity is self-defeating. This patronising intolerance appears to be particularly afflicting Labour at the moment, neutralising its criticism of the government's competence and alienating significant numbers of the membership ahead of the local elections still scheduled for May.

Political parties have long relied on the domain expertise of marketing and PR folk to improve their communications and media engagement. But they have always insisted that this is auxiliary to their core competence of winning elections, which is firstly a political leadership matter, centred on the offer to the electorate and the critique of the opposing parties, and secondly a party organisation matter, centred on canvassing. Labour's recent decision to employ a management consultancy to advise it on how to win the next election is notable because the remit (insofar as it is known) appears to encroach on this core competence. Some of this will no doubt turn out to be the usual case of consultancy self-promotion, which dovetails with the old trick employed by management whereby measures that are potentially unpopular within the organisation are driven through under cover of the claim that they are only "following third-party advice", but there is also a sense that this goes beyond a return to the technocratic managerialism of the Blair years. Starmer's Labour appears to be unabashed by its own ignorance. In this it appears to be adhering even more tightly to the neoliberal conception of politics as marketing and parties as firms, sensitive only to price signals (focus groups, opinion polls) and resolutely opposed to theory (even of the third way variety - there is no Anthony Giddens in Starmer's coterie).


It was only a year ago that "winning the argument" was roundly dimissed as irrelevant if you can't win the election, and yet here we are being told that the new leadership is so unconfident of its native ability to do the latter that it feels obliged to outsource much of its planning and design. This could be excused as the habitual approach of a leadership whose background owes more to bureaucracy than campaigning, or even as a performative gesture to reassure business that Labour's new management is on the same wave-length, but it doesn't wholly obscure the paradox that the party does not appear to trust itself. That the PLP does not trust the membership beyond its utility as canvassing fodder is hardly news, but this development also suggests that the leadership isn't entirely convinced by the PLP, or even the current front bench. Ironically, this is not that much of a departure from the last year of Corbyn's leadership when the PLP was marginalised in the development of the 2019 manifesto (though understandably so given the efforts of many of its members to undermine the 2017 version). 

Labour failed in 2019 because it was unable to coordinate an effective electoral coalition. The forces arrayed against it were obviously considerable - not only the Conservatives but all of the minor parties, who targeted Labour more than the Tories, plus the media and the then-loudest voices in civil society (the People's Vote campaign, the anti-antisemitism lobby) - but it still failed to do as much as it might have done. This was partly down to personalities and talent, though they weren't much different to 2017, but it also reflected the simple truth that Labour found itself disadvantaged because its position on Brexit didn't coincide with the dominant narrative of a polarised public. It didn't come clearly down on one side or the other. That it has subsequently made the choice, and done so almost casually, simply indicates that it believes that particular axis of polarisation is now redundant. So what has taken its place? It is becoming clear that Keir Starmer doesn't (at least for the moment) see Boris Johnson and the Tories as his chief opponent, let alone the wider forces of capitalism or reaction. That role is held by the left, which means that the polarisation at the heart of the leader's politics is a peculiarly narrow one with little resonance among the wider electorate. 

Combined with his belief in Labour's organisational ignorance, this gives the impression of a party that is both parochial and vacuous, which really doesn't look like a winning formula. The Conservative government has provided ample evidence at the national scale of the shortcomings of the market, from the inept test and trace programme to the way that the selfish interests of many businesses, encouraged by the Chancellor, are undermining public health. It has tried to defray criticism by a new polarisation, between the irresponsible people and the virtuous state (a stretch given the personalities involved in the latter), while the press has discovered a new polarisation between Covid survivors and sceptics. Meanwhile, Starmer's Labour finds itself marginalised: prevented by its commitment to constructive criticism (and its own authoritarian instincts) from properly defending the people from the charge of irresponsibility, and an also-ran in the dismissal of Covid sceptics due to its own mis-steps over school opening and its premature call for an "exit strategy". We have a government that has proven incompetent at coordinating the nation in the face of a major threat to life and health (a crisis of governmentality, no less), and an official opposition that appears to have eschewed the coordination of civil society against that government (a crisis of the counter-movement) in favour of performative outsourcing and factional beef.