Friday, 26 June 2020

A Better Yesterday

Keir Starmer's sacking of Rebecca Long Bailey as Shadow Secretary of State for Education is being applauded as evidence of his zero tolerance for antisemitism, and just as openly celebrated as the start of a constructive purge of the party's left, but Long Bailey's admiration for Maxine Peake, whatever the latter's error in associating US police brutality with Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, is a flimsy excuse. For some, that is evidence of Starmer's strength and daring, but a more jaundiced view is that it confirms both the continued instrumentalism of antisemitism and Starmer's own pettifogging and opportunistic approach to party management. Together with his "constructive opposition" in Parliament, it marks a reversion - after the blip of the Corbyn years - to a leadership that actively marginalises the left and is conservative about policy generation. The return of this style was reinforced by the coincidental and predictable announcement that the party will oppose a second Scottish independence referendum. This is business as usual. However, taken together, these two incidents may provide some pointers to Starmer's plan for winning the next general election. Worryingly, that plan seems to be predicated on a better yesterday, rather than a better tomorrow.

What is telling is that these pointers don't precisely dovetail with the strategy outlined in the recent Labour Together report, which rejected both a Blue Labour approach focused on the "Red Wall" seats and a revived Blairite centrism as inadequate in favour of "a strategy that builds greater public support for a big change economic agenda, that is seen as credible and morally essential, rooted in people’s real lives and communities" (pg 133). The report continues, "This economic agenda would need to sit alongside a robust story of community and national pride, while bridging social and cultural divisions. The message of change would aim to enthuse and mobilise existing support and younger voters while at the same time being grounded in community, place and family, to speak to former 'leave-minded' Labour voters. The bridging approach across divides would need to neutralise cultural and social tensions. Such a strategy could achieve more than 40% vote share, but would require an exceptional leadership team able to navigate building and winning trust of this very diverse voter coalition".

There are a number of questionable assumptions here: the idea that "leave-minded" voters are uniformly socially conservative; that cultural and social tensions can be bridged or at least neutralised; and that achieving more than 40% of the vote requires an exceptional leadership team. Firstly, while it is true that leavers biased conservative, it is also true that a significant number considered themselves liberal. The leave vote in the referendum was 52%, which means it was a coalition of interests, not simply a homogenous reactionary bloc. Secondly, the leave campaign was actually successful in bridging cultural and social tensions, not least between the Southern middle class and the Northern working class, proving that disparate interests can be united around a common purpose. Finally, Labour achieved 40% of the vote in 2017, despite the limitations of Corbyn's leadership and systematic sabotage within the party hierarchy. The lesson of both 2016 and 2019 is that you can win through a relentless focus on a unifying message and a refusal to be distracted by media demands for performative virtue.

But the biggest issue with the Labour Together analysis is the idea that British society divides neatly into two opposing camps and that this division runs down the middle of Labour's electoral coalition. In other words, that the country comprises "two nations that between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets", to quote an earlier Tory Prime Minister. This belief reflects the influence of opinion pollsters and focus-groupers in setting the terms of reference and providing the grammar for policy development. For Labour Together, Datapraxis first grouped the electorate into the usual marketing-style "tribes", such as "Young Insta-progressives" and "Centre-left pragmatists". These carry a lot of ideological freight, from the idea that politics is a consumption preference to the belief that centre-left and pragmatic are near-synonyms. BritainThinks then further refined this down to two groups, of "urban remainers" and "town leavers", for a "coalition-forming exercise". Given the constraints and vocabulary, this was little more than a question-begging exercise.

The economics versus values dichotomy remains remarkably tenacious in political science because it satisfies so many needs. The right can distract attention from the economic and usefully obscure the defence of privilege by appeals to emotion, while centrists can play one off against the other as circumstances require. As Steve Randy Waldman describes the latter manoeuvre in the US context, "Elites can make economic progress when Republicans govern, by deemphasizing the social issues that win the votes and enacting the less popular economic agenda. When Democrats are in power, elites pursue their agenda by emphasizing social progress while disingenuously lamenting constraints that thwart economic progress. Elites use our famous 'peaceful transfers of power' not as signals to change direction, but as the zigs and zags that constitute a tack in their prescribed direction". This helps explain why the programme of the state is often a combination - socially liberal and economically conservative - that has little organic support among the electorate. 

In the UK, the dichotomy was foundational to the voter analytics developed by Philip Gould, Peter Kellner and Deborah Mattinson (of BritainThinks) in the 1990s to justify the normalisation of third way, neoliberal logic. The interplay of the dimensions could be used to construct an abstract electorate cautious on public spending, antipathetic to universal benefits ("something for nothing") but otherwise tolerant and fair-minded. Underpinning this was a paternalistic belief that voters are irrational and selfish: our old friend Plato's beast. As Mattinson described it back in 2010, "Always ready to complain, but unwilling to roll up their own sleeves, the electorate has colluded with the political parties to create a world of Peter Pan politics: where the voter lives in a perpetual childlike state and never grows up". The problem that this dichotomy presented for New Labour was that the values dimension was increasingly dominated by the search for belonging, as the economics dimension was voided of any sense of communal solidarity. Prompted by the barracking of the press over asylum-seekers, this drove the party into a xenophobic cul-de-sac and the rhetorical embarrassment of "British jobs for British workers".

The attempt to escape this trap under Ed Miliband through a more positive patriotism led to the absurdity of Emily Thornberry losing her shadow cabinet role for showing insufficient respect to a St George's flag. That uncertainty over belonging and identity appears to have returned in force, hence the Labour Together report's use of glib phrases like "national pride". As historians such as David Edgerton have noted, the idea of a British nation is pretty much coterminus with the social democratic era, and it is this, rather than the more antique invention of tradition in the 18th and 19th centuries that Linda Colley and Eric Hobsbawm analysed, which has dominated its representation in culture. This is one reason why popular British identity has struggled to stretch further back in the imagination than World War Two, and also why we struggle with the history of empire. In the imaginative realm of the postwar British nation, the empire was always distant history, to be mocked or regretted through the lens of nostalgia and irony. The more recent rise of English nationalism, and its associated Scotophobia and disinterest in Ireland and Wales, is the product of Thatcherism plus New Labour's subsequent neglect of the regions and contempt for any social movements that did not fit neatly into the neoliberal framework.

There remains a suspicion that the rhetoric of "a big change economic agenda" will turn out to be simply a rebranding of the usual neoliberal nostrums, or even just an empty gesture towards the memory of postwar social democracy. The criticism of the 2019 manifesto as too busy is less a tactical assessment than a prejudice in favour of minimal change. There may be some emblematic nationalisations on offer, but there will also be the usual emphasis on human capital, the disciplining of labour and the insistence on benefits reciprocity. At this stage, there seems little reason to believe that Starmer is about to embrace a genuinely emancipatory UBI or advocate workers' control, not least because the increasingly pronounced correlation of party support by age suggests that Labour needs to attract the non-working elderly if it is to win. Equally, the nods to Blue Labour tropes ("community, place and family") suggest nostalgia more than any coherent policy programme. In this light, the sacking of Long Bailey is unlikely to have many ramifications for the party's education policy, though the criticism of her by some Labour MPs for being too close to the teachers' union suggests a return to technocratic managerialism is on the cards. More importantly, her ousting may herald a watering-down of the Green New Deal that she was instrumental in developing.

In Scotland, there is no obvious route to Labour's electoral revival through the centre ground. That territory is now dominated by the SNP who have the added advantage of a popular position on independence, while the Scottish Tories have decided to go all-in on consolidating the unionist vote. Starmer's decision to block indyref2 isn't surprising, but coming on the same day that he defenstrated Long Bailey it suggests that his strategy is to actively win over Tory voters with a combination of performative liberalism, cautious reform, and a commitment to the Union. This is unlikely to deliver a swathe of seats north of the border, but writing off Scotland will be considered an acceptable price if it retrieves the Northern English seats lost in 2019 and allows the party to make inroads into suburban seats in the South. This looks like a strategy to recover the position of 2015 but with the added hope that a majority can be secured if the Tory vote collapses due to post-Brexit blues and disgust with incompetence and sleaze (so a bit of 1997 too). I may be wrong and Starmer will surprise us all with a genuinely bold economic plan, but the dynamics of this potential electoral coalition suggest caution on the economic front, which may leave little more than a tired combination of Blue Labour and Blairism, echoing 2010.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Labour Together?

The Labour Together report into the 2019 general election defeat has been spun by the media as support for its preferred narrative, whether that be Corbyn's personal toxicity or that Labour has no chance of recovering by 2024. Both of these are partisan takes, the one focused on the defeat of the left, the other on propping up a Conservative government that has become a byword for incompetence and dishonesty within months of taking office. Predictably, the Guardian's interpretation has been of the first sort. Amusingly, it has gone so far as to foreground the report's point that Labour's vote decline started 20 years ago (under "serial winner" Tony Blair), but it does so in order to dismiss 2017 as an anomaly. There is much emphasis on the "toxic culture" of the party, with the implication of Corbyn's personal responsibility, but without the report's even-handed qualification that: "Our Party has spent substantial periods of the last five years in conflict with itself resulting in significant strategic and operational dysfunction, resulting in a toxic culture and limiting our ability to work effectively. Responsibility for this rests not wholly with one side or part of our movement".

The report makes clear that Brexit was a bigger issue than Corbyn, but the Guardian reverses the priority in its "key points" analysis, giving the opposite impression: "Jeremy Corbyn was deeply unpopular" trumps "A confused Brexit policy". The report baldly states: "The Tories won the 2019 election primarily by consolidating the Leave vote. In contrast, Labour lost support on all sides". There is also a clear difference of interpretation in the analysis of net vote losses. The Guardian makes it sound as if the losses in different directions were equivalent - "Of those who voted Labour in 2017, the party lost 1.9 million remain voters and 1.8 million leave voters in 2019" - but the report is quite clear that it was the loss of leavers that mattered most: "Compared with 2017, in net terms, Labour lost around 1.7 million Leave voters; and around 1 million Remain voters." The difference (explained on page 61) is that the latter was partially offset by people who didn't vote Labour in 2017 but did in 2019. In other words, Labour attracted some remain voters, though typically in already safe seats.

Labour was clearly unprepared for the general election in December 2019, but this cannot be attributed to incompetence or a resting on the laurels of 2017 alone. The party was wracked by internal division and sabotage, culminating in the Change UK defection, and its policy platform was anything but well-established, partly because of the continuing distraction of Brexit and the pressure of the People's Vote campaign. A crucial factor in the December defeat is that the election timing was the worst possible for the party. Leavers had the incentive of formal Brexit within weeks of the result by voting Conservative, while Labour's policy was still not fully settled (let alone persuasive) in the eyes of most voters, and die-hard remainers had the attraction of the Liberal Democrats' kamikaze promise to annul Brexit altogether. Having hitherto blocked an election until there was a guarantee that no-deal was off the table, the EU27's extension of the process to January boxed Corbyn in while the Liberal Democrat and SNP push for an election generated momentum.

One of the key focus group testimonies, highlighted by both the report and the Guardian's summary, is the sole mention of the even older fella with the beard: "Frightened at the possibility of a Marxist government. Disgusted at Corbyn being a terrorist sympathiser. Most disturbed about plan to nationalise BT as I fear it would allow a Labour government to spy on internet users" (page 60). This is described in the report as a "typical" quote, flagged up by "semantic analysis" (explained by an AI waffle footnote). It's a trifecta of ignorance, slurs and conspiracy, but it probably does reflect at least one strand of popular thought. Of course, this is a classic example of someone rationalising their own actions (voting Tory to get Brexit done) by appeal to prejudice. It's disappointing, but not surprising, that neither the report nor the Guardian see fit to interrogate where these beliefs might have sprung from. One reason for this incuriosity is that these claims are bracketed with the popular canard about the party's poor handling of antisemitism complaints, which is taken as beyond dispute. The reality is that the press provided enough propaganda about Corbyn's exceptional unfitness that voters felt that they had "permission" to break their habits and vote Tory, and the Guardian was as complicit in this as the Sun.

The report repeatedly uses the word "entangled" when discussing the combination of antisemitism, Brexit and party disunity in the decline of Labour's popularity between 2017 and 2019, as if these were categorically similar issues, but it is clear that both the behaviour of continuity remain and the attempts to tar the leadership with the charge of connivance in antisemitism were amplified by that party disunity. Both were issues before Corbyn's election as party leader in 2015 - witness the Jewish press's criticism of Ed Miliband and the long history of Labour's divisions over Europe - but it is now obvious that they were "entangled" with the factional desire to defeat the left and wrest back (or maintain) control of the party machinery after 2017. This entanglement narrative also serves to distract from the report's correct emphasis on the secular trends that have affected Labour's vote since the millennium. The loss of the North had been predicted for a long time, due to the party's embrace of neoliberalism and its complacent attitude to its support, and it was obvious that Brexit would be a wedge issue precisely because it gave voice to both concerns over the economic dispensation of the post-Thatcher years and the resentment of metropolitan arrogance. 

The "individual policies good, manifesto bad" paradox is explained in the report as an issue of overall credibility around Labour's ability to deliver and the perceived potential cost to voters. There's an obvious contradiction in this, but it does highlight the failure of the party to counter the routine claims of fiscal incontinence that the Tory press could be expected to indulge in. John McDonnell mastered the role of the avuncular bank manager, but paradoxically his relative caution meant that he wasn't sufficiently persuasive in building a case for fundamental economic and fiscal reform ahead of the manifesto launch. The report's belief that a bold economic programme with added sobriety offers the basis for a winning electoral coalition between the "Red Wall" and the cities suggests that the legacy of McDonnell may be more lasting than that of Corbyn. However, the abrupt change in tone caused by the manifesto goody-bag wasn't the only problem. Labour certainly made a mistake in not focusing on 2 or 3 key pledges that could be easily contrasted with "Get Brexit done", but it was the media that insisted on skating over the substance of its offer in favour of blanket condemnation or reducing it to the caricature of "broadband communism" and nationalised sausages. 

The media is always going to be unsympathetic, so Labour needs both focus and steady preparation. The 1992-97 period is an object lesson in how to do this (even if circumstances provided an open goal and many of the promises were insincere). But what the early days of New Labour also benefited from was a willingness to present a united front, come what may. The key to Labour's failure in 2019 was disunity and the deliberate policy of wrecking that this gave rise to. Paradoxically, its success in 2017 can also be attributed to this. The party right and centre both assumed an election defeat was a foregone conclusion and so did little in the way of active sabotage. Much of the report's analysis of 2019 focuses on poor management, notably in such areas as the online campaign and ground operations, but it is also clear that much of this was due to the lack of cooperation between the factions. The party didn't lose managerial competence over two years, and if we judge it simply by the popular vote share, Corbyn remained a better "manager" in 2019 than Miliband in 2015 or Brown in 2010. 

The report's recommendations are the usual mixture of the bleedin' obvious and managerialist pabulum, suggesting a desire not to tie Keir Starmer's hands, but the comments on the need for unity are largely pious, though they do serve to avoid the need to condemn the unforgivable sabotage. Labour Together has unfortunate echoes of Better Together, and it's hard to avoid the suspicion that this is a work whose intellectual genesis remains the 2010-15 era of policy caution and technocratic centralisation (the involvement of Deborah Mattinson's BritainThinks isn't encouraging). Unity has always been a fetish for Labourites, but it's functional role as a rallying cry is less about papering over the cracks of policy dispute and more about the need to reconstititute the electoral coalition, recognising that the party's support is actually much more fragile and promiscuous than the reassuring myths of "Always Labour" and family inheritance would suggest. The problem is that this report gets no closer to doing this and is still indulging in the language of "tribes" - the old, socially-conservative northerner versus the diverse, metropolitan youth - that ultimately plays into the hands of a Tory party that needs to open new fronts in the culture war as Brexit passes from the stage.

Friday, 12 June 2020

The Fetish of History

History is a social science. It studies people, their attitudes and their motivations. Because the people are often dead, and first-hand testimony is lacking or unreliable, it is a subject that must be approached obliquely. This is mainly done through source documents, but the built environment and cultural artefacts are also important, increasingly so the further back in time you go. All of these media are subject to propaganda and ideology in their manufacture, so their multiple layers of meaning must be interpreted. This obliqueness entails a risk of fetishisation, particularly in respect of artefacts. In part this is a result of the desire to make the artefact "truthful", to suggest that it is imbued with an essence that can be elicited by examination. Thus the artefact reflects both the prejudices of its maker and those of later generations that have sought to interpret it. In theory, this fetishisation should reduce over time as documentary evidence becomes more plentiful and varied, thus relegating artefacts in importance. But the human desire to make history tangible means that artefacts remain central to popular understanding, hence we must put up with BBC4 history "documentaries" in which some nitwit gets out her dressing-up box to explain the Tudors.

A related problem is that where written records are scanty or absent our understanding of an ancient people may be over-dependent on physical remains, which introduces an obvious structural bias: we see the villa but not the villein. Even where written records exist, the dominance of architecture and works of art in the material record will inevitably colour our understanding. The statue of Ozymandias may be a "colossal wreck", but the point is that "nothing beside remains". Despite the rich documentary evidence and the detailed archaeology of urban life, the Classical era is still essentially an imaginary landscape of nobles and slaves, which was created by antiquarians and collectors (themselves often aristocrats who had invested in the Atlantic slave trade) between the Rennaisance and the 18th century. It was their interpretation of "civilisation" that led to the vogue for statuary in public spaces as a medium of remembrance and collective honour. Prior to that, in the Medieval era, statuary had much the same role as it had in the Classical era, being mainly religious in nature and housed in religious buildings, rather than the public square. This continuity was ignored in an attempt to emulate a Classical past that was largely a fiction.

Most statues in the Classical era would have been hidden from general public view in temples and shrines, or in the private homes and tombs of the rich (particularly the portraiture of ancestors). The statues of deities would have been painted and they would have been regularly dressed and adorned as part of religious ceremonies (the protestors who gave the Churchill statue in Parliament Square a "mohican" a few years ago were unwittingly echoing this practice). Honorific statues of historic figures, such as Greek politicians or Roman emperors, would have been erected in a city's agora or forum, but these were spaces of defined civic function, often tightly controlled by religious custom. Likewise, the siting of statues at city gateways or in cemeteries reflected an invisible network of the sacred, rather than the choice of a location convenient for public regard. While such public spaces can be seen as lieux de mémoire, having the function of preserving civic memory beyond any single lifespan, it is anachronistic to see them as binding the separate spheres of the public and the private, which remained quite distinct in the Classical era. The elevated statue of the monarch or military commander in the quotidian market square, reflecting the power of the state over commerce, is a post-Medieval development. 

Professional historians are generally not fetishists, though archaeologists too often are, hence on the question of pulling down statues they really aren't as evenly divided as the media reports might suggest. In the world of the historian, statues are trivial unless (irony alert) they were the focal point of historical events, as Edward Colston's recently was (if we adopt a Classical attitude and imagine his statue embodied his lasting spirit, then "Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it"). The ultimate historical significance of many monuments is in their destruction, such as the pulling down of the Berlin Wall or the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad. Many of those decrying the removal of Colston's statue in Bristol would have been cheering when Ronald Reagan demanded in West Berlin in 1987, "Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall". In other cases, the significance of a monument is wholly to do with the intention of its erection rather than its realisation, such as the plaster elephant that mouldered on the site of the Bastille between 1814 and 1846, memorably described by Simon Schama in Citizens, or that terrifying bust of Cristiano Ronaldo that (in two versions to date) adorns Madeira Airport.

The claim that statues are invaluable teaching aids is bunk. If Churchill were to be removed from Parliament Square we wouldn't suddenly develop amnesia about his contribution to the Second World War. His boarding-up this week, to prevent further assaults upon his posthumous dignity, is not the equivalent of historical occlusion, let alone Stalinist airbrushing. Since 1989 we have managed to study and develop new understandings of the Bolshevik Revolution without the need for identikit statues of Lenin dotted all over Eastern Europe. The reason why so many statues to objectionable men (it is usually men) remain in situ is not because protestors are too weak or the authorities too strong but because most people have no idea who they are and little interest in finding out. They are simply part of the street furniture. It's also worth noting that the cult of the public statue has led to the misunderstanding of its own history as a form, not just the misremembering of those memorialised. Because the paint on polychromatic Greek and Roman statues and buildings didn't survive, antiquarians and art historians assumed they were intentionally unpainted, thereby inventing a misleading "Classical aesthetic" that remains dominant to this day.

Most statues aren't contemporaneous with their subject. Many are erected decades or even centuries after the people or events they supposedly honour. This means that they aren't artefacts of the times they represent but of the era of their commissioning, and those attitudes are often political statements, such as the various Confederate generals erected in the southern US states at the turn of the twentieth century. That might appear to contradict the "History is written by the winners" axiom, but that is to forget the Jim Crow laws that their erection actually celebrates. The statue of Edward Colston nominally represented the man, but more significantly it illuminated contemporary attitudes at the time of its erection in 1895. It was a statement made at the apogee of the British Empire that celebrated merchant adventure, the philanthropy of the rich and globalisation (the "first age" of which is now considered to be 1870 to 1914, though arguably the Atlantic slave trade was the first real instance of the global capitalist economy). The marginalisation of his role in the slave trade was quite deliberate: it wasn't a secret, it was merely considered an incidental fact that didn't require attention, much as Colston considered the lives of the Africans he transported to be.

But this disregard didn't reflect a failure to appreciate the crime of trading in slaves, which was controversial long before it was criminalised. There was also a financial calculation at work. Many statues, along with public buildings and schools, are the result of blood money: the expiation of guilt through charity and endowments in the hope of heavenly indulgence, or simply an attempt to buy social status and the tolerance of peers. This can easily become institutionalised, so the death of the benefactor does not result in any less complicity in the preservation of the myth, as was the case with Colston. Down to today, the Society of Merchant Venturers has played a conservative role in limiting criticism of the man, marginalising the documentary evidence of his involvement in the slave trade and elevating the buildings and monuments that his wealth helped fund as the "truth" of his story. As such they are arguing for the innocence of inheritance: that present wealth cannot be held responsible for the sins committed in its accumulation, so reparations would be unjust. But many of Colston's modern critics aren't even arguing for reparations, but simply for well-mannered meritocracy. For example, Keir Starmer's insistence that the statue should have been removed years ago implies not an empty plinth but a more deserving choice.

This illuminates a difference in sentiment between conservatives and liberals. The former are not exclusively antiquarians, who argue for preservation without context, nor are they simply pessimists in awe of a monumental past who can see only decline in the present. As the emblem of contemporary conservativism, Boris Johnson's love of novelty in the built environment (particularly when Mayor of London) and his "boosterism" point to a much more critical and cavalier attitude towards the past. Beneath the different approaches to history theorised by writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche lies a more fundamental attitude to wealth and inheritance. For Conservatives, the theoretical underpinning is Edmund Burke's ideas on intergenerational obligation: we owe a debt of respect to the past but must avoid saddling the future with public debt. For Liberals, it is the ideas of generational justice and intergenerational equity theorised by John Rawls and James Tobin, which assume a balance of interests between the present and the future (an ideal that is becoming increasingly untenable as present private property drives future ecological collapse).

The extension of the statues debate beyond slave traders like Edward Colston and Robert Milligan, and imperial exploiters like Robert Clive and Cecil Rhodes, is regrettable, not because figures such as Churchill, Astor and Baden-Powell are beyond criticism, but because it means that the material basis of racism - the fact that slavery was so profitable and theories of racial difference were developed to justify it - is being occluded by another exercise in liberal virtue. Likewise, the liberal insistence on "due process" and the protection of private property obscures the way that racism persists through the fetish of private property: the young black man stopped for driving a "flash" car or the attempts to link Black Lives Matter protestors with opportunistic looting. You can understand why the Tories are keen to fan the flames of a culture war, making statues the new poppy and decrying the "censorship" of old TV sitcoms, not just to distract from the structural causes of racism but to push their inept handling of the pandemic down the news agenda. But the really depressing response has been the almost comically neoliberal commitment of Labour local authorities to "audits" of statues and artworks, as if these fetishised objects were the cause of racism rather than just the symbols of our institutional complacency.

Saturday, 6 June 2020

What Remains of Value in Liberalism?

Neoliberalism isn't the same as liberalism. When we use the term "liberalism" we are generally referring to an ethical outlook concerned as much with individual rights and behaviours as with the management of public affairs. In contrast, we largely use "neoliberalism" to mean an approach to economics and public policy that eschews ethics in favour of efficiency. If we think of the neoliberal subject at all, it is the abstraction of homo economicus. This isn't in conflict with the common understanding of liberalism, but in boiling it down to its essentials it reveals a core truth: liberalism's preference for market logic over democracy. From this arises a theory of the state (it should facilitate markets), a theory of political practice (a marketplace of ideas) and a theory of participation (electors as consumers). It is hardly a narrow or superficial philosophy, but it is one that suggests the liberal concern with ethics and subjectivity is little more than window-dressing. Two consequences of this Jekyll and Hyde relationship are a nostalgia for liberal ethics (not just in the celebration of contemporary icons of virtue but in liberalism's intellectual genealogy) and the claim that neoliberalism doesn't even exist - that it's little more than a figment of the imagination.

What I want to look at in this post is whether there is anything within that outer shell of liberalism that has both survived the neoliberal age and is worth further preservation. To begin with, I need to start with a definition. Liberalism is not canonical: there is no Big Book of Liberalism we can refer to. Of course, the absence of any single tome is regarded as proof of liberalism's commitment to pluralism and its belief in human progress, just as the worship of a single book, whether the Bible or Das Kapital, is taken as evidence of close-mindedness (this is obviously an over-simplification, but it suits the liberal narrative of the contest of ideas). Reducing liberalism to a single idea, such as liberty, is inadequate because the term is usually historically contingent. Liberty for John Locke did not mean the same thing as it did for John Stuart Mill, let alone Jacinda Ardern. The traditional way round this problem for liberalism's champions and opponents (at least on the right) is to define it as praxis rather than theory: an approach to public policy, and a set of associated cultural habits, rather than a distinct body of thought. 

In the eyes of contemporary liberal theorists such as Edmund Fawcett, author of Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, this praxis depends on four core ideas: a belief that conflict is unavoidable but consensus is possible; a distrust of power; faith in human progress; and tolerance and mutual respect. As we're in the realm of the pragmatic (if only rhetorically), one could also add a preference for "what works" and "evidence", an empirical gloss on what remain recognisably Enlightenment ideas. At this point it is worth emphasising that many people who regard the Enlightenment as a good thing have a superficial understanding of the historical reality, which would be offensive to modern eyes in many respects (see Locke once more), and are really talking about liberalism (by the same token, many contemporary anti-enlightenment advocates are actually arguing for a return to the proto or early enlightenment that encompasses Machiavelli and Hobbes, not a revival of Classical virtues or Medieval scholasticism). It is also worth separating out the theme of universalism, which is implicit in most of the core ideas - i.e. the belief that the whole of humanity is the proper domain of liberal practice, which is seen in the commitment to human rights and internationalism.

The problem with this praxis approach is that there are obvious contradictions in the history of actually existing liberalism, particularly in politics. For example, liberals have often been violently averse to consensus if it has required them to actually compromise. In one sense this is a banal point. If your opponent is unwilling to make concessions, you may have to be equally obdurate if you are going to achieve progress (see the history of the British Liberal party in the 19th century). But there have also been many occasions when political liberals have so narrowly defined consensus as to alienate even their own supporters (see the 2010-15 coalition). Likewise, liberals have been no less enthusiatic in centralising power than conservatives or socialists, and have arguably (if we adopt a party-independent definition of "liberal") overseen more of this than either. Their faith in human progress has been tempered by elitism (their instinctive competitiveness means they love winners), while they have always placed narrow boundaries on their tolerance and respect for others (see the attitude of the various shades of liberalism towards Jeremy Corbyn for a recent example).

As regards pragmatism, liberalism has shown itself to be no less prone to delusion and the pursuit of the unattainable than any other worldview. In the form of liberal internationalism, it has often caused greater suffering than the evils that it has sought to address and has produced consensus mainly in the common belief that it is a global menace. Related to this, the commitment to universalism has always been more theoretical than practical, hence it is more likely to appear in the realm of rhetoric than in the fine detail of policy. In reality, liberalism is instinctively discriminatory because it ultimately values individual choice over collective entitlement. Indeed, its commitment to human rights is ultimately a commitment to the singular right of choice ("Choose a life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television"). This bias to choice translates into a preference for equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome, which inexorably leads to means-testing and judgementalism at the operational level (means-testing is not a cost-saving tactic but an exercise in virtue).

From a liberal perspective, these contradictions can be taken as evidence that liberalism is dynamic, but that is akin to Walt Whitman's "I am large, I contain multitudes", which might be witty but it doesn't make liberalism any more coherent (indeed, this lack of consistency is a central concern in liberal philosophy - e.g. John Rawls's use of 'reflective equilibrium'). Critics can reasonably point out that these contradictions actually reveal a more fundamental and questionable set of beliefs than the admirable core ideas laid out by Fawcett. These are: that competition is applicable in all social transactions; that the restraint of power means the restraint of the majority; that social betterment is an oblique strategy so we must have blind faith in progress; and that my privacy and my property are beyond your censure. It would be unfair though to reduce liberalism to selfish individualism. If it has any validity as a moral order it is in the idea that the rights I demand for myself should be extended to others, even if the record suggests a blindness to the common humanity of some of those others (I find I keep returning to Locke). Liberalism's historic challenge has been to champion the value of autonomy while not conceding the necessity of equality, hence justifications such as Rawls's 'difference principle'.

Though it is presented as progressive, political liberalism has always been a strategy of grudging concession. It is easy to misremember the 19th century as purely a long drawn-out contest between die-in-a-ditch conservatives and liberal reformers, ignoring the many self-styled liberals who were at the centre of resistance to reform, from Irish home rule to universal suffrage. Liberalism's struggle to reconcile its principles to the twentieth century, particularly in the face of democracy and the growth of the welfare state, would lead to its political fragmentation, but this was paradoxically a sign of its ideological hegemony: both Labour and the Conservatives have been essentially liberal parties in their upper echelons for the last 100 years and it is liberalism that has dominated both the state and the para-state (the BBC, the broadsheet press, academia etc). In other words, liberalism negotiated the last century by moving beyond the hurly-burly of electoral politics to become the worldview of the state apparatus. As a consequence, changes in government became less significant. In retrospect, watersheds like 1979 or 1997 look less dramatic than 1923.

But this did not mean that liberalism became the champion of the activist state in the twentieth century. Far from it. Instead it imported a pessimism about the state's capabilities and a suspicion about political motives. Yes, Minister was a supremely liberal interpretation of British government. This cynical liberalism captured the state but it did so for essentially defensive reasons: to prevent socialism or nationalism capturing it instead. The manoeuvre involved both a self-denying ordinance, in which government and capitalism were confined to separate spheres, and an approach to welfare that combined noblesse oblige and matronly judgmentalism. These tendencies were eroded by the neoliberal turn in the 1980s, leading to the colonisation of the apparatus by commercial interests and a more shrill and disciplinary regime founded on the concept of human capital. Liberalism's problem in the current century is that the challenges we now face, most notably climate change and galloping inequality, cannot be overcome without a politics that sees the restraint of capitalism and private property as a more urgent priority than the restraint of the state. 

So what is left of ethical liberalism? Or, to put it another way, are there any features of liberal theory that remain in tension with neoliberal praxis? There are certainly many features that have fallen by the wayside, leading to the strange sight of liberals recanting what were once liberal shibboleths. For example, there has been a turn away from universalism to particularism: in practice, an insistence that while rights may be universal, the exercise of those rights is contingent. That may simply be a frank admission of liberalism's true beliefs, but the lack of enthusiasm for mounting even a cursory defence of universalism is notable. This has manifested itself recently in both an uneasiness in the face of calls for solidarity (e.g. the belief that blacks in the UK do not suffer the same prejudice as those in the US) and an insistence on performative solidarity in respect of selected minorities (e.g. the extension of potential residency rights to natives of Hong Kong at a time when immigration from other former colonies is being made more difficult). 

Just as troubling has been the liberal indulgence of moral panics over free-speech. While this is often motivated by petty self-interest - one age cohort defending its privileges against the next - it is clear that many liberals have decided that the civility required for plural discourse should be freely extended to the right but not so freely to the left. This discrimination suggests a nostalgia for a marketplace of ideas dominated by the opposing poles of liberalism and conservativism. The charge that the left is lacking in civility is clearly projection. It is liberals who have increasingly adopted an intemperate attitude to even the most mild challenge from the left. For example, the other day I was struck by a couple of tweets in which John Rentoul and Andrew Adonis decided to smear and deride George Lansbury. In Rentoul's case as an excuse for having a pop at Corbyn, and in Adonis's case in order to puff his upcoming biography of Ernie Bevin. What was notable was not merely the combination of spite and marketing, but the lack of historical nuance or generosity (Lansbury started his political career as a Liberal and remained a politician defined by his liberal Christian ethics). 

The combination of this performative incivility towards the left and the condemnation of the left for its incivility is not just hypocrisy, it suggests that liberalism is losing its bearings. The hegemony of neoliberalism has left political liberalism devoid of meaning beyond the gestural, while liberal internationalism has been revealed to be nothing more than realpolitik plus pious language. Facing this void, liberalism increasingly seeks to define itself against a malicious enemy. The liberal contempt for populism, and the tendency to see it in any and every challenge to the liberal order, is a proxy for its lingering distrust of democracy. While it would never make the mistake of dismissing the popular will as exercised at the ballot box, it will continue to elevate the courts and constitutionalism over electoral politics when it feels its interests are threatened, as was only too obvious during the Brexit saga when the achievable goal of a mildly-left Labour government willing to concede a second referendum was rejected in favour of a judicial deus ex machina that could never do more than delay the inevitable.

What has remained constant in liberalism is its commitment to private property, the restraint of the state and individualism. These are also the elements of liberalism most congenial to the political right, or at least the broad right short of outright Fascism. It is still the legitimating ideology of the bourgeoisie. However, its much vaunted commitment to tolerance and pluralism has not survived into the 21st century, and it is perhaps no coincidence that these are the elements least congenial to the right. In practice, they haven't been marginalised but co-opted by conservatives to define the boundary of the acceptable, blackballing the "intolerant, woke left" and imagining society as a plurality of beleagured constituencies, such as Jews living in fear of antisemitism or Hindus living in fear of jewel thieves. Meanwhile, a more generous tolerance, pluralism and universalism are easily found on the left. The truth is that ethical liberalism long ago became hegemonic in society, just as economic liberalism did. The paradoxical result is that liberalism's victory has produced not consensus but a renewed conflict between the left and the right centred on private property as the emblem of environmental degradation and social inequality. On a weekend of protests against state power, it is the universality of political conflict that remains the most valuable insight of liberalism.

Friday, 29 May 2020

Sovereigns and Scapegoats

A paradox of the Covid-19 crisis is that not much has substantially changed in our lives, despite the vogue for "all is changed, changed utterly" opinion pieces. We are restricted under lockdown, but not unbearably so. I appreciate that I'm speaking from a position of relative privilege and that many vulnerable people are suffering, but the point is that they were vulnerable before the pandemic and already suffering. Just as the prime Minister's suddenly plummeting popularity has shocked a commentariat that had forgotten the level it was at before the "rally round the flag" effect boosted it only two months ago, so we risk forgetting that history is mostly continuity. Covid-19 has exacerbated the situation of the poor and vulnerable, but it has hurled down few of the mighty, which would be a better sign that we were witnessing a catastrophe. Measured in unemployment and lost output, the economy is not markedly worse than it was in previous recessions, such as in the early-80s and early-90s, though a lot is still in the post. The idea that stockbrokers jumped off the ledges of Wall Street in 1929 is a myth, but it did reflect a moment of genuine despair. In reality, the damage arising from the Great Crash was largely the result of bad policy in response rather than the bursting of a stock market bubble.

Though recession is forecast, and increasingly expected to run for many months, particularly if a vaccine is slow in arriving, we should bear in mind that we've experienced anaemic growth for years. The economy may have come to a spluttering halt and even slipped into reverse, but we were only travelling in first gear anyway. A V-shaped recovery is easier to engineer if you don't have to increase speed beyond a crawl. There are reasons to fear a depression, but many of those concern secular trends rather than an adverse shock. Austerity was a foolish policy response in 2010, but it had a less damaging effect than the comparable response in the early 1930s and part of the reason it was pursued was that economists and politicians expected that to be true and thought, correctly as it turned out, that the politics could be managed to maintain public support. The automatic stabilisers of the welfare state, despite the cuts, together with the refusal to move away from the debt-fuelled basis of finance, despite new checks and safeguards, meant that the position of capital could be preserved (and even enhanced through quantitative easing) at a cost to labour that was shown to be tolerable. Democracy in the 1930s threatened capital but it has served to defend it over the last ten years.

One explanation for this combination of economic resilience and minimal social disruption is that productivity long ago reached a point at which growing profits could be guaranteed to capital while subsidising make-work sufficient to create a democratic defence of the system, through a privileged electoral bloc of the in-work who could find common cause with the increasingly privileged bloc of the elderly and rentiers. The "feather-bedded" public sector of yore was mostly myth, but the contemporary equivalent of a corporate class dependent on the better-paid bullshit jobs and technology-enabled distraction is all too real. This has been made obvious by the pandemic, as professionals grapple with Zoom or complain that they're still too busy to clean their own homes. It has also shone a light on where the actual labour exploitation occurs: that is, where the make-work is negligible but wages are depressed through pecarity, zero-hours and a dog-eat-dog labour market. This truth has been partially acknowledged in the media, but it has largely been drowned-out by waffle about sourdough starters and home-schooling, emphasising the solipsism of the "isolated" (but not really isolated) family unit. This, together with the mawkish valorisation of key-workers, has made the child's coloured rainbow drawing the symbol of our collective state of mind: a happy place we can retreat to when we can't bear too much reality.

In the early days of the lockdown, the British media's attitude towards the public swung between the sentimental and the Hobbesian. This isn't new - it's the house style, after all - but the pandemic has allowed these traditional frames to be deployed at a national scale, rather than being limited to minorities or representative individuals. The collective "clap for the NHS" was the supreme example of the sentimental, while the panic-buying of toilet rolls was the chief emblem of the Hobbesian. In reality, relatively few people have consistently done either. Most of us have clapped at some point, usually in the first week or two, but only a minority of the population have kept it up despite the positive social engagement that has become a feature. Likewise, a majority of us bought a little more at the supermarket at the beginning of the pandemic, and rationalised our own actions as prudence, but we've since reverted to normal patterns of buying adjusted to the nature of lockdown. There might have been an uptick in the sale of guns and ammo in the US, but in the UK it's mostly been booze and flour, suggesting our war of all against all will be limited to drunken bakers.

From the tutting of the Guardian to the invective of the Sun and Mail, the assumption in March was that people were untrustworthy, selfish and stupid, with the "covidiot" very much to the fore. As the supermarkets adjusted their supplies, and officious police clamped down on guerilla sunbathing and picnics, unnecessary and self-indulgent travel became the chief spectacle of antisocial behaviour. Of course, this meant focusing on an even smaller minority of the population, literally picked out by police drones in some cases, which led the press to replace its narrative of Hobbesian conflict with the trusty scapegoat: the individual whose egregious disregard for the rules shows contempt for our solidarity and collective sacrifice. Dominic Cummings is a perfect choice for this role, given his combination of privilege and arrogance and the suspicion of hypocrisy that comes with being in the public eye (a suspicion that reflects both popular cynicism and the Hobbesian worldview of the press). What has been funny (at least to me) is that his defence of his actions has been impeccably Lockean, from his insistence on the tolerance of competing beliefs through the justification of selfish reason to the rights of property (that bluebell wood). 

Where Thomas Hobbes and John Locke famously intersect is in the realm of social contract theory. At the heart of this is the question of how much liberty an individual will surrender to the authority of the state in return for social protection and the maintenance of order (in plain English, the protection of property). While Hobbes saw authority (the sovereign) as an inherent necessity of society, Locke saw it more as the collective delegation of self-interested individuals. Both were contractarians, but Locke emphasised the contract as rational rather than essential or instinctive. In this regard, Boris Johnson has proved himself to be a Lockean rather than a Hobbesian, and this as much as anything may explain his sympathy for Cummings. Despite his childhood ambition to be "World King", he is clearly a reluctant sovereign (as an aside, it is amusing to see liberals berate him for being an ineffective dictator). Like David Cameron, the danger he poses to society is largely the product of his class prejudice and intellectual laziness, rather than the megalomania, paranoia or bigotry that have distinguished previous inhabitants of Number 10. Far from imposing his will as if it were justified by divine right, he is currently engaged in trying to make a deal with the British people, just as he did over Brexit.

That deal concerns not only the trade-off of lives for economic health, but the degree of responsibility to be shared in easing the lockdown. Johnson has been obliged by circumstance to act as the sovereign, but he would far rather the people exercise their own judgement - use "good British common sense" - to determine what was appropriate, just as Cummings supposedly did. In this sense he is far more of a dealmaker than the arbitrary sovereign in the White House. His chief adviser is a lightening-rod for those who oppose an early easing of the rules, but he has also become a useful stick for anyone who wishes to beat the government generally or Johnson specifically. Keir Starmer's decision to not join other opposition party leaders in demanding Cummings's resignation is less a cunning plan of sitting back and allowing the Tories to kick lumps out of each other and more an indication that he is understanding of the government's dilemma and supportive of its intent. As such his message is intended for business, not the electorate, and that message is that balancing the needs of the economy and public health is a matter superior to party politics. This is the purest essence of neoliberal thinking, in which loud virtue and the clamour of the mob gives way to rational deliberation among men of property. John Locke would have been proud.