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Friday, 15 October 2021

The Political Centre

If the meta-narrative of American politics since the millennium has been polarisation, the equivalent in Europe has been the dissolution or recomposition of the traditional parties of the centre. First those of the centre-left, the process known as Pasokification, and more recently those of the centre-right, notably in France and now Germany. This had led to much debate about where the political centre now lies, and even whether the centre can be located any more on a left-right economic spectrum or whether it is more determined by the orthogonal axis of cultural values. Is the "median voter", the traditional embodiment of the political centre, now a two-dimensional hybrid? In the UK, this has been interpreted to mean that Labour should compete with, and even outflank, the Conservatives on the axis of cultural values, from welfare authoritarianism through patriotism to the resistance of identity politics. But what does it mean in a country like Germany where the centre-right CDU/CSU was defeated in the recent federal elections and the centre-left, in the form of the SPD's Olaf Scholz, is likely to secure the chancellorship following Angela Merkel's retirement?

Georg Diesz in the New Statesman fears that "German conservatism is imploding". This is a rather incoherent argument that first accuses the centre-right of differentiating itself by indulging in a form of identity politics (a leitkultur, or guiding culture, based on Western, Christian norms) after the SPD embraced neoliberalism in the 1990s but then insists that its subsequent "disconnect from economics" led to a policy of "permanent austerity, via Germany’s balanced budget amendment, the much vaunted Schuldenbremse [debt brake]; and “the market”, in its most reductive and generic form", which sounds remarkably like a party very much wedded to Ordoliberal orthodoxy and a focus on economics. He also claims that Germany's handling of the Euro crisis of 2009-12 was "suffused with a moralism" arising from this identity turn - the jibes about feckless Greeks versus thrifty Germans - even though its policies were clearly driven by a hardnosed desire to protect German banks exposed by negligent loans to the European periphery. 

Even more odd, though perhaps easy to miss among the other bizarre claims, is the suggestion that  "Historically, German conservatism styled itself as a balancing force between the interests of capital and labour". The implication is that it habitually occupied the political centre, resisting both the revolutionary left and the irresponsible right. This is obviously not true. Not only has German conservatism been staunchly pro-capital and anti-labour throughout its history, but it famously responded to the leftward shift in public sentiment in the Weimar years by allying with the far right. That might have been a calamitous miscalculation on the part of German conservatives, but it arose from a fear of organised labour and the left in general and not, as some revisionists have claimed, the Communist Party alone. But Diesz's idea of a pivot between the interests of capital and labour is still a useful way of thinking about politics, both in terms of where public sentiment lies (what we might term the popular locus, if the median voter is too one-dimensional) and the politico-media representation of the political centre (what is commonly understood by "centrism"). It's particularly useful to look at the gap between the two.


On Twitter, the New Statesman's George Eaton heralded Diesz's article with "The centre right is out of power in the US, France, Italy, Canada, New Zealand, every Nordic country and, likely soon, Germany". For this to make sense, we have to categorise Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron and Mario Draghi as centre-left, purely on the grounds that they are not representatives of the traditional parties of the right. But none could be said to even-handed between capital and labour, despite Biden's sentimentality about unions. That Keir Starmer could recently praise business while resisting a £15 minimum wage suggests that the centre-left prefers capital over labour. That this preference should be seen as "centrist" is a perfect illustration of the shift that has occured over the last 40 years. Compare and contrast to the Liberal-SDP manifesto of 1983, which advocated industrial democracy and rejected privatisation of natural monopolies (this was classic triangulation, but it also reflected the status quo bias of centrism). What is notable is that while the political centre has moved right on the economic spectrum, the popular locus has remained pretty much where it was, hence the median voter's support today for higher taxes on wealth, rail nationalisation and a higher minimum wage.

This shift in the political centre has led to the past being recast as more radical than it really was, often to the detriment of the present. Thus Biden's stimulus must live in the shadow of the New Deal and Olaf Scholz's "continuity" will no doubt appear uninspiring compared to Willy Brandt's departure from the CDU's postwar conservatism. But this relativism can be misleading. For example, Roosevelt was never in any doubt that he was saving capitalism from the threat of socialism. His economic intervention might appear bold today, but it was common currency at the time. Similarly, Brandt rode the wave of cultural liberalism in the late-60s after the SPD had dropped its traditional social democracy for the social market in the 1959 Godesberg Program. Though there would remain local differences between their various policy platforms, most European social democratic parties shifted towards a social market model in the late-50s and early-60s. (Only the French socialists held to the principles of common ownership and workers' control, but that reflected their junior position on the left relative to the communists in the 60s and would eventually be abandoned under Mitterand in the 80s.) However, this didn't shift the centre of politics to the right so much as normalise a more profound leftward shift on social reform by neutralising economic issues. 

With nationalisation now a pragmatic tactic rather than principled strategy, and with a general acceptance of higher taxation in return for more extensive and generous welfare, the 1960s were marked by progressive social policies and the early stages of European economic integration. This trade-off was probably always going to lead to a political crisis. At some point capital was bound to resent the higher labour costs and taxation of wealth that the trade-off entailed. Equally, as social reforms highlighted inequities of power, organised labour was likely to return to the issues of workplace democracy and autonomism. The economic crises of the 1970s - the two oil shocks, stagflation and the crisis of profitability as globalisation accelerated - were exogenous events, but they arguably amplified an endogenous tension that could be traced to that historic accommodation by social democracy. As a result of these crises and the slowing of social democracy's progressive impetus, the late-70s and early-80s saw both the popular locus and the political centre shift to the right in the UK and US, a process that would later be echoed elsewhere. This was reflected not only in the clear imbalance between capital and labour expressed in falling union membership, but also in a new social authoritarianism (emblematically, the advance of the religious right in the US and the vogue for "Victorian values" in the UK). 


By the late-80s, centre-left parties across Europe were increasingly siding with capital (and the EU), self-consciously defining this as a centrist "third way" or painting neoliberalism as a progressive acceleration for hitherto under-developed societies, as in Spain and Greece. What should be noted here is that the hegemony of neoliberalism in Europe was very much a product of the centre-left, not the centre-right. While the CDU's Ordoliberalism might have looked like neoliberalism avant la lettre, it was never dominant on the continent, having too many features specific to German politics and history (notably the fear of state capture). The revival of the centre-left's electoral fortunes in the 90s reflected a leftward shift in the popular locus, reacting against the 80s' authoritarianism, but this didn't produce a corresponding shift in the political centre. In many countries, the failure of this counter-movement to occur at the political level contributed to growing electoral disillusion after the millennium, emphasising the widening gap between the locus and the politico-media representation of the political centre (a gap that subsequently helped fuel the rise of social media). While there were renewed gestures towards progressive social reform, policies like Workfare and Working Tax Credits indicated the continuing privileging of capital over labour.

The formal political centre remained static for most of the period of the "great moderation" between the mid-80s and 2007. The differences between centre-left and centre-right were largely tonal, but in many areas there was notable unanimity, such as attitudes towards the finance sector, the privatisation of public services and foreign policy. The 2008 banking crisis and the subsequent Euro debt crisis changed this. Not only was there an upsurge of populist energy but the popular locus took a further step to the left, reflected in the revived interest (however shallow) in Marxism and support not only for traditional socialist policies but more novel ideas such as UBI. This wasn't a passing fad and in many ways it didn't begin to affect the political superstructure for some years. When it came, the adjustment saw many centre-left parties either collapse (typically where proportional representation meant there was already a range of left alternatives) or shift decisively leftwards, as in the case of the Labour Party. But just as fragmentation on the left in countries such as France hindered the realignment of the political centre to reflect the popular locus, so in the UK the resistance of the politico-media class proved enough to stymie the shift at the parliamentary level. 

The idea that the centre-right faces an existential crisis in Germany and that the centre-left has consequently revived is misleading. The SPD has been a junior coalition partner with the CDU/CSU since 2013 (Olaf Scholz is the current Vice Chancellor and Minister of Finance - the epitome of a safe pair of establishment hands). The likely new coalition will see the SPD combine with the Greens, who are distinctly non-radical these days, and the FDP, who remain radical free marketers. In terms of the political centre, it would probably be fair to say it has barely moved and the CDU's collapse owes as much to institutional exhaustion (its new leader, Armin Laschet, proved uninspiring) and regret at Merkel's departure as it does to any shift in the popular locus. Where the centre-left is in power in Europe, for example the PSOE in Spain, this is typically on the basis of a 30% share of the popular vote and the support of the left. It's worth noting at this point that the SPD won 26% of the popular vote in the recent Bundestag election, and will likely lead the next coalition government (excluding Die Linke), while Labour won 32% in the 2019 UK general election, which was widely greeted as a disaster by the soi-disant centre and centre-left.


The next significant European poll is the French Presidential election in April 2022. According to the Guardian, Emmanuel Macron is once more pitching for the centre: "He sought to reconnect with his promise in the previous election to build a 'start-up nation' – deliberately focusing on his favoured topic of the economy in an attempt to contrast with the right and far-right, who are concerned with identity and immigration, while the left is focusing on working hours and salary increases". This highlights how the "culture wars" have allowed the media to redefine the political centre as straightforwardly pro-capital, while the interests of labour have been placed firmly on the left. In 2017, Macron positioned himself as slightly left of centre, capitalising on the collapse of the Parti Socialiste to win 24% of the first round vote and 66% in the second round. His chief opponents were the Front National and Les Republicains, whose candidates polled 21% and 20% respectively in the first round. He won the second round with the votes of not only the grudging left but much of the centre-right. Since then, he has been a consistent champion of business interests. Macron is the centre-right and he needs a far-right candidate, whether Le Pen or possibly Zemmour, to secure the once-more grudging support of voters to his left, in the same way Chirac did in 2002.

In the UK, the politico-media class currently inclines to the view that Boris Johnson, a man not hitherto known for his love of theory or constancy of purpose, is redefining conservatism and thereby dominating the political centre. Though his actions to date, from welfare cuts to the "war on woke", suggest Thatcherite continuity rather than the revival of One Nation Toryism, there is a belief that "levelling up" and the talk of a high-wage economy (despite understandable scepticism) is a move towards the popular locus. This appears to fill the centre-left with something approaching dread, despite their notional support for precisely those outcomes. For pundits like Jonathan Freedland, it is easier to focus on Labour's supposed loss of the working class as it became "increasingly dominated by the concerns of the “hyper-educated” left, concerns not shared by the wider public". Johnson's success can then be painted as the result of Labour's flight from the political centre: "That leaves space for parties of the right to offer themselves as the voice of the mainstream – in tune with the less educated, lower-income voters that used to be beyond their reach". The idea that the 2017 vote was as much an indicator of the popular locus as 2019 will not be entertained.

Following the election of Keir Starmer as Labour leader, all of the political forces are in favour of the status quo, so it strikes me as unlikely that Johnson is going to single-handedly carry through a revolution. He doesn't need to. Labour's attempt to occupy a political centre significantly to the right of the popular locus means that he can adopt a holding pattern for some years to come. Eventually, the gap between his rhetoric and reality will lead to popular disillusion, just as it did after 2000. That New Labour managed to win two subsequent general elections amid dwindling turnout was due to the Conservative Party resolutely remaining not just far beyond the popular locus but beyond even the political centre (the "nasty party" years). The reason Johnson is odds-on to win the next general election is that Labour remains focused on the media-determined political centre, with all its pro-capital assumptions, and interprets the popular locus as an appetite for more social authoritarianism rather than more socialism. In both the economic and values dimension it is trying to position itself on territory occupied by the Conservative Party. It is a strategy that will lead to electoral defeat, but importantly it will preserve the political centre and all the careers invested in it.

Friday, 8 October 2021

The Violence of the State

The fundamental problem with the police force is that it employs the wrong people. I don't mean that it attracts "wrong uns" and is poor at weeding them out. Rather I mean that there is a fundamental difference between the expectations of the majority of the population and the attitude of the state, which for argument's sake we can summarise as "policing by consent" versus "everyone is a suspect". The former is grounded in the assumption of mutual respect, while the latter is clearly asymmetrical. This is evident not just in the police service's institutional prejudice and abuse of power against the working class, ethnic minorities and activists, but in its routine dismissal of the population at large. It may be expressed politely if you're middle-class, but a refusal to investigate a burglary or bike theft on the grounds that they "don't have the resources" is still institutional contempt. In this context, the Prime Minister's rejection of calls for misogyny to be considered a hate crime isn't really a desire to avoid stretching resources but a refusal to accept that crime should be determined by public opinion, whether in respect of violence against women or industrial-scale tax dodging. 

This contempt is not just directed outwards, it also festers internally, hence the racism, sexism and homophobia reported by many who have ended up leaving the police service in frustration. One characteristic of the force is a suspicion of theory, which despite attempts to recruit more graduates remains pronounced. This is not just a conservative favouring of "common sense" or a pragmatic preference for the tried and tested. It reflects a fundamental rejection of epistemology: the idea that the police are in the knowledge business. The fictional image of policing, where a sympathetic detective doggedly sets out to discover the author of a crime, is obviously unrealistic, but it can be read as a popular desire for a style of policing concerned with truth as the prerequisite of justice. The reality is that the police often go out of their way to maintain their ignorance ("In my experience, too many police officers and staff lack investigative professional curiosity", according to one ex-officer). This is often assumed to be motivated by corruption, but that assumption (while not without grounds in some cases) reflects a public bafflement at the idea that the police might not be interested in the truth.

The tension between the ideal of policing and its reality can best be seen in the use of data. Despite decades of investment in IT systems, CCTV and the promotion of "intelligence-led" methods, the effectiveness of the police has not noticeably improved, measured either in raw crime numbers or rates of conviction. This isn't because criminals are cleverer, and nor is it proof that the value of data has been over-sold (see the many breakthroughs due to DNA testing). It is partly explained by incompetence (note the many lost records and compromised evidence in high-profile cases), and partly by systems being undermined in the field (note the racial profiling of stop-and-search), but more fundamentally it suggests that the effectiveness of the police is not highly-correlated with resources and thus the acquisition of data. Overall levels of crime tend to correlate with socio-economic factors, such as poverty and unemployment or the state of the drug market, while fluctuations between different crimes tend to reflect changes in material circumstances and technology.


This combination of a generalised contempt for "civilians" and an anti-intellectualism that verges on the celebration of ignorance isn't particular to any one country or indeed to the police. It is the culture of the state. It is perhaps most pronounced in the police, but it isn't limited to them, and one of the reasons why successive inquiries and reforms have made little progress is precisely because the remit stops at the boundary of the service. To blame the failings of the police on rotten apples is obviously a deflection, but it would also be naive to imagine that the systemic problem is limited to the barrel. "A drastic change that rethinks policing, so as to make it less open to abuses of power but also more effective" sounds radical, but it still assumes the problem is limited to a sub-system of the state and that it can be dealt with in isolation. Even the demand to defund the police suffers from this limiting focus. Diverting funds away from the police to mental health support might well help reduce crime, but mental health has its own problems of institutional neglect and the abuse of power. Perhaps we need to be more ambitious and talk about the failings of the state.

Did the Windrush scandal show that the police were racist? No, it showed that the Home Office was racist. Did the Grenfell tragedy show that the police treated social housing tenants with contempt? No, it showed that the local council did. Did the Hillsborough tragedy show that the police regarded football fans as animals? Yes, but it also showed that the government of the day considered the reputation of the police to be more important than 94 (later 97) deaths. Another "independent review" of the Met's culture and standards, led by a seasoned state apparatchik, won't tell us much that we didn't already know. It is unlikely to inquire too deeply into the intersection of the political and psychosexual that came to tragic prominence in the case of Sarah Everard and in the Met's handling of the subsequent protests, despite the wealth of theory on precisely this dimension and how it can mutate into Fascism (e.g. Klaus Theweleit's Male Fantasies). The distinguishing feature of this culture is not its attraction to pyschopaths and petty tyrants, or its reliance on bigotry as a form of in-group bonding, but its protection and indulgence by the state. A state-led inquiry isn't going to highlight that.

The derisory response of the Met to the conclusion of the Everard case produced an immediate vote of confidence by both the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London in the Commissioner, Cressida Dick. This is consistent. That the Met is institutionally racist was officially established decades ago. Its homophobia and generalised contempt for the working class has never been formally identified, but there is little doubt that it exists. A futher inquiry to establish its institutional misogyny may satisfy some liberal commentators but it won't lead to a change in attitudes, any more than the Macpherson Report in 1999 removed all traces of racist thinking. This is because the police cannot be reformed independently of the state. Though the force is the most overt manifestation of the state's violence, it is merely the tip of the iceberg. The problem then is the violence of the state. It is this that elevates some of the worst people in society to positions of petty tyranny, and corrupts or intimidates others to the point where they acquiesce in the culture of contempt. So what can be done? 


The first thing we have to recognise is that it is an epistemological problem, in the sense of an institutional commitment to social ignorance, rather than a management failing that can be addressed by technocratic means. That might appear an odd claim given the history of the state: the ever-growing appetite for social data, the increased use of biopolitical techniques, the disciplinary demand for greater surveillance. But that secular trend has been an anti-humanist one of abstraction. Indeed, the state's violence can be seen as a resentful refusal to engage with the human as the technical ability to do so has increased. Again, this operates at two levels. For example, ignorance is displayed in both the police's external dealings with the public and in its internal lack of self-reflection (giving someone the nickname "the rapist" should have been pause for thought). The former can be addressed by diversifying hiring, so there are more officers with an understanding of and sympathy towards social diversity, but this is ultimately insufficient if the latter, the canteen culture, remains dominated by the social elitism of those who consider themselves the true nation - i.e. cis, white, male officers. There are two ways in which we can counter this. 

The first is a radical commitment to democracy. In other words, at every opportunity we need to expand the oversight of the public over the state and devolve it to the lowest practicable level. For example, instead of elected Police Commissioners covering huge areas of the country we need accountability at the level of the police station. An insensitive, failed politician seeking a sinecure is no substitute for open engagement with the local community. The second is for the state to become more consciously "woke". That's a provocative way of putting it, but we shouldn't shy away from admitting that "anti-wokeism" is a performative denial of respect and therefore central to the culture of contempt. The problem is that we have a political establishment that dislikes democracy and remains determined to defend established hierarchies and privileges. At present, the two main parties are operating like a tag-team, with Labour looking to stamp out participative democracy and the Tories seeking to reinforce the state through illiberal laws that curtail protest and the public's ability to seek redress against abuses. 

In respect of the police, both are determined to give the force more power and resources while the media remain obsessed with crackdowns on dissent and migrants. So long as that remains the case, the reform of the police will be superficial at best and any attempt to moderate its culture of violence will be undermined by moral panics about threats to the social order. The media will never lose its prurient interest in crime, nor its structural bias to exaggerate its prevalence, so the focus of attention has to be on the politicians, while acknowledging that many are negatively influenced by the media, particularly newspapers. It may appear a bit of a stretch, but one thing that might help prevent another Sarah Everard tragedy would be for some rightwing Labour MPs to be deselected for their bigotry. We need to reform the state before we can properly reform the police, and that inescapably means reforming the Labour Party. Despite advocating increased police numbers, Jeremy Corbyn was seen as a threat precisely because he wasn't prepared to unequivocally endorse the violence of the state. That the party is now led by a former Director of Public Prosecutions isn't a coincidence.

Friday, 1 October 2021

The Road Not Taken

Keir Starmer's recently published pamphlet, The Road Ahead, is notable chiefly for its lack of novelty. There is no new vision here, not even a new frame of reference. It talks of a society that rewards "hard work" and in which the private sector is the engine of progress. It harks back to postwar social mobility and promises to revive the meritocracy from which he himself benefited. It is actually the road already taken, given that absent the genuflections to Blue Labour it is essentially the blueprint outlined by New Labour in the mid-90s: the state's role in promoting and guaranteeing markets, moulding a modern workforce through education and welfare incentives, and disciplining the antisocial and refractory. This is summarised in the pamphlet's foreword in the now somewhat stale language of neoliberal futurism: "It is a future where a modern, efficient government works in partnership with a brilliant, innovative private sector to create good jobs and harness the potential of technology. One where workers can expect more flexibility and fair pay for a fair day’s work. One where we update our public services, education and health for the challenges and opportunities of the future". 

Though the road metaphor is defined as a binary choice between the route he outlines and the Tory alternative, he repeatedly uses the term "crossroads" (five times) rather than "fork" (only once), implying a ghostly road not taken as well. That is presumably the left turn, which now has a big no left turn sign beside it and a no entry sign for good measure. To labour the metaphor, Starmer is proposing that we go straight ahead - the centrist choice - rather than turn right, but the possibility of the "less travelled" road, that might in Robert Frost's words "make all the difference", still haunts his thoughts. This may explain both his determination to continue to withhold the whip from Jeremy Corbyn and to disempower the membership, not only by changing the leadership election rules and making MP deselection more difficult but in explicitly reducing the role of the party conference in determining policy. Presenting the electorate with a clear and consequential choice is what you do at election time, but building your political philosophy on the idea of choice itself, when there are few substantive policy differences between you and your opponent, looks like a concern over which end of a boiled egg you should crack open.

The attempts to place Starmer politically within the spectrum of the Labour Party have always struck me as futile. He has at various times been labelled soft left, centrist and even Fabian. He has employed Blairite rhetoric and Blue Labour themes, but also the tropes of the old Atlanticist right, though without showing much enthusiasm for any of them. I suspect this is less a reflection of his undemonstrative style and more a clue to his worldview. Fundamentally he is a member of the establishment, which means his politics are conservative, his ideological instincts are anti-democratic, and his approach is that traditional mixture of fussy managerialism and anti-intellectualism that characterises the British state. He may well have started out as a trendy lefty and "activist lawyer", but his steady march to the right is hardly unusual for someone formed in the 1980s. He is also much more dangerous than either his opponents or supporters give him credit for. It is clear that he has no sentimental attachment to Labour, despite the dutiful respect paid to 1945 and all that. With his hostility to the idea of a mass movement and preference for the cartel party model, Labour may be heading towards an existential crisis greater than either 1931 or 1983.


Starmer's retelling of Labour history emphasises building and modernisation ("Labour in government has always been about rebuilding and reconstruction") over personal empowerment and social reform. It is a statist, managerialist perspective couched in the language of venture capital: "There are vast resources of untapped potential in our people, our businesses, our towns and our cities". As in modern management theory, the emphasis on assets and potential sits alongside a eulogisation of teamwork and shared goals. But just as the concept of the team obscures the inequality of effort and reward in the workplace, so Starmer emphasises contribution over autonomy: "a society based on contribution: being part of something bigger, playing your part, valuing others not just because of what they can offer you". Where Blair's rights and responsibilities mantra could be reconciled with the neoliberal idealisation of the individual, Starmer's interpretation is closer to the labour battalion. Indeed, he talks of individualism "receding in society's rear-view mirror", which seems a bold claim in the face of history.

In practice, this team effort is just the usual alliance of the state and capital: "In order to put contribution and community at the centre of our efforts, we would build an effective partnership of state and private sector to prioritise the things that we have seen really matter: health, living conditions, working conditions and the environment". There are some obvious echoes in "the contribution society" of the older social democratic tradition of the contributory principle and collective endeavour. Where Starmer departs from that tradition is in his recognition that opportunity and security are lacking in contemporary society, which makes the social compact more difficult to realise. Of course, it would be a remarkable omission for any politician after 2008 to pretend that these weren't pressing issues. The problem is that, beyond airy aspiration, Starmer's solution remains the same duopoly of state and capital, but this time with a bit more of a Blue Labourish emphasis on community ("the ties that bind us all together") and patriotism ("Nationalism is about the casting out of the other; patriotism is about finding common ground"). 

There is no lack of ambition in Starmer's rhetoric when he turns to the future ("A nation remade"), but every gesture towards a genuinely new social order is hampered by the insistence on the dominant role of the state and private sector alliance, even when ostensibly advocating subsidiarity: "That means a new settlement between the government, business and working people. It means completely rethinking where power lies in our country – driving it out of the sclerotic and wasteful parts of a centralized system and into the hands of people and communities across the land". The commitment to localism is partly a way of outflanking the demand for greater devolution, just as his version of patriotism is meant to sidestep Scottish nationalism, but putting real power in the hands of the little platoons necessarily means reducing the power of the state and private sector, and there is little evidence that this is what he intends. Nothing in Starmer's history, from his role as Director of Public Prosecutions to his time as Shadow Brexit Secretary suggests that he is sincere in his desire to put power in the hands of the people.


At heart, Starmer's vision is one in which capital is the dominant interest: "Business is a force for good in society, providing jobs, prosperity and wealth. But business has been let down by a Tory government that has failed to plan for the long term and provide the conditions in which long-term decisions can be made. When I speak to business leaders they are deeply frustrated by this". This reads as naive, but whether it reflects a cynical appreciation of the limits of state power or a genuine belief in the sine qua non of business confidence is unclear. While parallels will be drawn between Starmer and previous Labour leaders, what is absent in his formulation is their even-handedness, balancing the interests of business and society. For example, Wilson's "white heat of technology" line was a criticism of both capital and labour: "The Britain that is going to be formed in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for the restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry". Likewise, Peter Mandelson's famous line that came to characterise New Labour is usually truncated: "We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes". 

What is clear is that he intends to use the state's power to its full extent to manage labour in the service of capital, hence the increasingly authoritarian tone of his statements and of official party policy. This was particularly evident in his conference speech on Wednesday with its paeans to the dignity of work and the importance of education in preparing the young for the workplace. While some observers will pick up on the support for more police, or the slightly cringeworthy attempts to celebrate patriotism, the authoritarian instinct is most clearly seen in the idea that a Labour government should above all focus its energies on disciplining the workforce. Combined with the renewed focus on anti-social behaviour (knife-crime, not asset-stripping), this suggests a return to some of the most coercive aspects of New Labour's programme, in which work never quite pays and those who stand beyond the boundary of the hard-working are repeatedly penalised. It's notable that the word "work", in it various permutations, appears 69 times in the speech, more than "Labour", "people" or "government". 

There were two notable motifs in the speech, the tool and the road. The former was used to fetishise the atomised worker, finding dignity not in himself or through solidarity with others but in his loving care of capital. The latter was again employed as a metaphor of choice: "I see a government lost in the woods with two paths beckoning". The wrong path would lead back to where we came from, but the other path "leads to a future in which a smart government enlists the brilliance of scientific invention to create a prosperous economy and a contribution society in which everyone has their role to play." Scientific invention might appear a relatively neutral term, but his references to specific inventions in the speech once more suggest the care of capital. Those of the eighteenth and nineteenth century - the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny and the power loom - not only drove productivity increases and rapid expansion in the textile industry but also suppressed wages. Those of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries - the personal computer, the Internet and the iPhone - were central to offshoring and now the gig economy, first driving deindustrialisation and then suppressing wages. If capital is his theme, the corollary is wage-restraint. It's hardly surprising he isn't keen on a £15 national minimum.

Friday, 24 September 2021

Binary Rigidity

I made the point on Twitter recently that the debate around trans rights in the Labour Party has started to display parallels with the famous antisemitism flap of 2016-19. For example, the claim that MPs with broad access to the media were being shouted down and even physically threatened by the feral left; the suggestion that there was a particular strain of misogyny that arose from a leftwing milieu and expressed itself through intolerant criticism of the gender-critical (GC); and the demand that the party leadership condemn this misogyny unreservedly and take steps to discipline members guilty of it. There are some differences though. In this scenario, the target of the manoeuvre is not the leadership but its support for trans rights, and in particular support for the reform of the Gender Recognition Act (2004) to allow self-identification and bringing the Equalities Act (2010) in line with that, which could affect the single-sex exemptions of the latter. Behind the lurid GC tales of men claiming to be women so they can hang around female changing rooms is a more fundamental struggle over who gets to define the interests of women. 

Given that trans women are only ever likely to be a tiny proportion of all women, this might appear inconsequential, but for the middle-class women who have long dominated the discourse over womens' rights, often to the disadvantage of working-class or minority ethnic women, this is the thin end of a wedge that potentially undermines their privilege. While the majority of feminists (indeed, the majority of people) are supportive of trans rights and self-identification, the gender-critical enjoy significant press coverage and sympathy, reflecting their disproportionate presence among newspaper columnists and politicians, which in turn reflects the professional, middle-class milieu and the dominance of second wave feminism within it (trans rights being a dividing line for many third wave feminists). That this does not reflect the views of wider society does not cause any pause for thought. As with the Jewish community's widely-reported fear of a Corbyn government, the mere existence of the concern is sufficient to justify its salience in the media. But this is where another difference arises. 

Most people were unable to gauge how credible the Corbyn "threat" to Jews was, not because they suspected he was an antisemite but because they weren't Jews themselves. To dismiss the fears of the Jewish community as overblown or paranoid was to risk displaying a callous disregard for the feelings of others. In contrast, the claim that trans women are a threat to natal women is one that half the population can judge to its own satisfaction. As a result, the "trans threat" has increasingly been framed as an issue of misogyny, which in turn has escalated gender-critical language into blunt transphobia and led to the bizarre sight of reactionary men "GC-washing" their actual misogyny by claiming to be defending womens' rights. As the modern (for which read: young, third wave, intersectional) left tends to be pro-trans rights, that cause has come to be associated not only with leftism but with a particularly disrespectful strain whose emblematic form is a shitposter taking the piss out of Suzanne Moore on Twitter. More troubling than this parallel with the antisemitism flap is the tendency of some on the left to take gender-critical terminology at face-value.


For example, the Labour MP Rosie Duffield claimed she was avoiding the Labour Party conference this year because of threats. Sonia Sodha interpreted that as "left misogyny", despite Duffield having offered no evidence that those threats were both misogynistic and from the left (none were detailed in the Sunday Times article). My observation that Sodha's use of "left misogyny" was a strawman resulted in some people upbraiding me for downplaying misogyny or claiming that it cannot be found on the left. This response echoed the charge of denial when anybody questioned the prevalence of antisemitism on the left during the Corbyn years. Many left commentators - keen to avoid the binary rigidity of "its a problem" / "it's not a problem" - tied themselves in knots in their attempts to balance the acknowledgment of the seriousness of antisemitism with criticism of the amplification of it for factional reasons. As no balance is possible, because the other side is simply not arguing in good faith, this approach proved futile. It is now an article of (bad) faith that there was no exaggeration, hence the continued suspension of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn, while all the comment pieces by Owen Jones and others will be exhumed solely to confirm that the left acknowledges it has a problem with antisemitism.

This is what happens when you allow the debate to take place within the framework of liberal virtue. Jones's behaviour can be excused as the result of being a liberal media careerist, but it is still striking that many on the left appear to be ignorant of the history of this manoeuvre, with the result that they fall for it repeatedly. If you think the reason why Rosie Duffield has decided to skip this year's party conference is leftwing misogyny then you are being played, both by her and the Murdoch press. If you take the bait and seek to bracket left misogyny ("No one is denying there is a problem, of course misogyny is bad" etc) in order to shift the debate towards the substantive issue of her transphobia, you will not only be permanently apologising for left misogyny but you will have accepted the premise that there is a misogyny peculiar to the left. Before you know it, you are conceding "the left has a problem with misogyny" which eventually morphs into "leftism is inherently misogynistic because it valorises a male working class", which is the functional equivalent of "leftism is inherently antisemitic because it arises from vulgar anticapitalism". The only way out of this thicket is to reject the binary of "You're either vocally against X or you are secretly in favour of X".

Though the gender-critical movement is borrowing much from the anti-Corbyn movement's strategy, there are two important tactical differences. First, there is an exclusive focus on the politico-media bubble rather than street politics. There won't be any high-profile demonstrations as there isn't a willing resource such as the Jewish community to provide numbers, and because any counter-demonstration would probably not only be larger but would have the advantage of being positive ("Trans women are women") rather than negative ("It's a scam"). Second, the aim is not to use control of the party bureaucracy to undermine the leadership but rather to leverage the leadership's determination to minimise the role of party members in formulating policy to advance gender-critical positions. Which brings us neatly on to the question: what is Starmer up to? The proposed changes to party rules, including the return of the electoral college in place of one member one vote (OMOV), are clearly intended to insulate Labour against the possibility of another leftwing candidate securing the leadership, but this is clearly just one part of a wider programme.

Starmer's claim that the electoral college is needed to reinforce the influence of trade unions is simple dissembling (were he a more subtle operator, I'd even think it evidence of a sense of humour), coming only weeks after his office celebrated the election of Sharon Graham as Unite General Secretary on the grounds that she would focus on industrial matters rather than the internal politics of the Labour Party. In the event, it looks like the left-leaning unions aren't going to support this, which means that Starmer will need to get his way by first dividing the unions on the matter and hoping that the purges have swung the constituency representatives in his favour. Whatever else this initiative indicates, the manner of its launch and the casual disregard for the unions does not suggest a leader's office in touch with the wider party, and has even dismayed erstwhile Starmer supporters. It's possible this is simply a dead cat manoeuvre, intended to distract from other rule changes, notably making deselection more difficult and minimising conference's say in policy, but that still seems a crass approach. The changes to the thresholds for trigger ballots will please the right of the PLP, but even this looks an unnecessary over-reaction given their limited use in 2019 and the subsequent decline of the left, whether purged or simply disheartened, in many CLPs.


It is sometimes argued that MPs should not be subject to deselection by party members because they are accountable to their constituents: if the electorate think the MP is doing a bad job, they'll be voted out at the next election. This is obviously disingenuous as most electors vote along party lines. Only in exceptional cases will they turf out an underperforming MP, so taking the risk of damaging their preferred party's chances nationally in order to punish the individual, just as they'll rarely vote in an independent. Oddly enough, people who advocate this line - that the MP is a delegate of the constituency - also tend to echo the contradictory Burkean line that an MP should in fact be a trustee, with autonomy of action. They also seem remarkably sanguine about MPs who have failed at the ballot box being promoted to the House of Lords. Unsurprisingly, they tend to be particularly keen on the idea that MPs should have absolute authority when it comes to the selection of party leaders. In reality, MPs can only be made accountable in one of two ways: either by the threat of the withdrawal of the whip in Parliament, or by party members in the constituency deselecting them. The one is accountability to the leadership, the other to the membership. It should be obvious by his actions which Starmer prefers.

The language employed in Starmer's proposal for the NEC refers to MPs as "representatives of the public in Parliament", as distinct from members who are "fee paying supporters of the party". This diminution of the member to a mere supporter is perhaps more significant in revealing Starmer's thinking than the traditional defence of MPs against the membership by appeal to the democratic legitimacy bestowed by the wider electorate. It once more suggests a determination to redefine the membership as a passive resource (here essentially just a financial one) and to rule activism illegitimate. This is characteristic of the cartel party in which the membership is subordinate to the bureaucracy and that in turn is subordinate to the leader. While the opposition to this has coalesced around the vote to confirm David Evans as General Secretary, the chief architect of this shift is clearly Starmer himself. This should give the lie to the somewhat conspiratorial claims that he is a political naif who has been captured by more cunning operators on the party right, and that the reversion to an electoral college is in anticipation of a leadership challenge ahead of the next general election. 

This looks far more like the latest stage of a systematic programme to reverse the halting steps towards greater party democracy undertaken since 2010. But the aim is not to return to the horse-trading between unions, party members and different factions of the PLP that characterised the postwar party, and which was briefly revived under Ed Miliband. Nor is it simply to return to the Praetorian party of the New Labour years, in which the rank and file grew increasingly disillusioned as debate was limited to a gilded circle of advisors and the inner court. More profoundly, Starmer appears determined to end the history of Labour as a mass movement. With the unions marginalised, the membership neutered, and much of the PLP itself disempowered as policy and campaigning are increasingly outsourced, the party begins to look more than ever like a fixture of the establishment. If the membership's push for greater democracy has always been a prefiguration of a wider reform of society, then Starmer's adoption of the cartel model and Evans's disciplinary regime suggests a future of rigid authoritarianism and managed democracy. In that light, the gender-critical have good reason to suppose that their binary rigidity will soon find favour.

Friday, 17 September 2021

Books Do Furnish a Mind

The pop-philosopher Julian Baggini in the Financial Times asks, Why is it so hard to get rid of our books? This might appear a trivial concern in the face of a pandemic and global warming, but the wry discourse of bourgeois unease as commodities climb up our walls reflects on both. Books have long been seen as dangerous, infectious even - a medium that allows ideas to travel not just in space but in time. They are also a very visible example of the stuff that we accumulate, the clutter of a lifetime's "relentless acquisition", as Baggini puts it. Of course we don't actually find it that hard to get rid of some of our books. If we did, you'd never see any at jumble sales or on eBay. But Baggini isn't talking about dog-eared Danielle Steele paperbacks. He is addressing his library, which is of a different class to your haphazard collection of SciFi and football memoirs. Implicit in the question is the suggestion that, in a world of e-books and the epistemic prosthesis of search engines, physical books are no longer neccesary for either entertainment or education, but also implicit is the idea that the book is losing its stature as a work of art in the age of digital reproduction. So perhaps a way of answering the question is to ask another: what do books represent today?

Baggini runs through the usual utilitarian and aesthetic arguments for and against keeping books but his central concern is not with their intrinsic value but the pyschological impact of having to "live under the weight of so many of them". That notion of weight suggests a near-unbearable pressure, but the reality seems to be more about lazy conformity than the crushing of a fragile ego: "The suspicion has to be that for many people, the main reason to keep a house full of books is to show ourselves and others that we are intelligent and well-read. Nothing else can signal this so effectively, or socially acceptably". This is a reductive view of cultural capital that dispenses with the wider social framework (habitus, disposition etc) outlined by Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction. While taste may be socially-determined, it doesn't follow that the "main reason" people acquire books is to show off. To think this is to fall back on an antique caricature of society and culture, such as when the nouveau riches of the nineteenth century would supposedly buy leather-bound volumes by the yard. I suspect the main reason people buy books is to read them.

That books are signalling devices is trivially true, but to imagine the only signal is intelligence is naive. Cultural goods chiefly represent class and status (this was Bourdieu's point), which is why the collected witterings of Prince Charles have a different cachet to the ghostwritten pap of the celebrity book market. The traditional reason for buying books "by the yard" (actually, buying complete libraries) was to display wealth, both in the volumes themselves and in the space (and expensive shelving) needed to display them. As the arrival of cheap paperbacks and the gradual spread of literacy in the nineteenth century democratised reading, class was increasingly performed by a preference for more expensive hardbacks and eventually the weighty coffee table book. Much of the twentieth century criticism of mass media centred on the assumption that the proles would reject literature for the shallow pleasures of radio, cinema and TV - or pornography, according to Orwell in 1984. In the event, people kept on buying and reading books.

In support of the idea that it's all for show, Baggini take aim at a particular modern habit: "Consider also those who have rows and rows of old travel guides. These books quickly go out of date so are not being kept because they will be used again". It simply isn't true to say that travel guides go out of date quickly. They deliberately avoid recommending hotels or restaurants that haven't been well-established, or look like they might not last, so you can rely on a 10-year old guide being at least 90% accurate, while monuments and museums hardly change over decades. Ironically, travel guides often become more valuable over the long haul as when change does happen they offer a means of time travel, not simply the revisiting of our own memories - no one will have experienced every site or establishment mentioned on every page - but the recreation of a historic environment that can be mentally traversed like an open simulation online. The humble travel guide is more than a souvenir, like the sticker on an old steamer trunk or the sewn patch on a rucksack, and people hang on to them for utilitarian as well as sentimental reasons.

Baggini returns to the theme of identity: "We use books to underline our identities when more often than not they undermine them. Most old books are memento mori for distant selves, since the person who read them no longer exists." That "underline" is another value-laden term, which sets up the pay-off of "undermine" (underpin would have been more accurate than underline, but the rhyme demands otherwise). The implication is that we are trapped in our past and can't move on, which sounds more like the observation of a psychoanalyst than a philosopher (though there is perhaps a hint of existentialism). There is also an obvious contradiction in Baggini insisting on the one hand that we must shed our old books to be true to our contemporary selves while on the other hand recommending that we retain a conventional canon - "Now when I look I see only books that are classics" - which is surely more pretentious than keeping hold of all those old Viz annuals. A better question than why is it so hard to get rid of our books is why do we hang on to some in particular? To talk of "classics" is to avoid the personal, which sits oddly with Baggini's claim that books are a mere projection of the ego.

There are two further problems with the idea of a purge. The first is that books may be literal memento mori, inherited from dead parents or others. In the case of a bookish person, they may be the only significant objects they leave behind. Baggini baldly states "we don’t keep old clothing that no longer fits, or beautiful pots and crockery that is unusable" - but in fact we do keep such things, if they connect us to the dead or to our own achievements (that old football shirt, that wedding dress). The second is that this view requires Baggini to ignore that books also project meaning into the future. Many of the books we acquire remain unread for months or even years. This isn't necessarily pretension or the consequence of retail therapy. They are an investment in a future self, an act of faith in self-development. In some cases, particularly non-fiction, the book is an insurance policy against potential future reference. This essentially academic approach to building a collection has itself become a post-Wikipedia conceit: the antilibrary (supposedly inspired by Umberto Eco) in which your collection of books is an expression of your ignorance rather than your knowledge. 


But this is perhaps too systematic an approach, just as weeding your library of old novels or out-of-date travel guides sounds like the literary equivalent of dry January. Indeed, is it even reasonable to refer to the clumps of books dotted around our homes as a library that needs such careful curation? In Baggini's telling it begins to sound like an estate and you wonder if culling his collection of books is a metaphorical hint to his potential heirs not to get their hopes up. Our politics is suffused with inheritance and intergenerational friction, like a Balzac novel. Is the urge to prune our libraries displaced guilt over a property windfall, or maybe just a general desire to erase the past? But our books define our future as well. As a projection into that future, fiction is often closer to a promise than the speculative contingency of non-fiction. We imagine that we will be better able to appreciate Anna Karenina in our 40s or The Old Man and the Sea in our 60s, so we hang on to them expectantly, even if we bought and first read them in our 20s. Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is rarely bought and devoured in one go, like a Sci-Fi or fantasy series, and not just because of its length. It is a commitment to the slow unfolding of future time as much as a languid recapture of the past. Likewise, Joyce's Ulysses must hold the record as the book most often started but not finished, largely because it is approached as a single narrative rather than a collection of experimental novellas that can be read in any order.

The books we hold on to are more likely to be works that defeated us rather than favourites. They remain a challenge. If you're lending a book to a friend, it's probably one you read and enjoyed rather than one you gave up half way through in frustration. In recommending that we lose the books that we never completed, or even started, Baggini is advocating an honesty about our own limits, an admission that our investment in a future self will not pay off: "To get rid of these books requires confronting some uncomfortable truths. It is to admit failure. To concede that our aspiration to become more widely read, more knowledgeable, more well-rounded, has not come to fruition. Worse, it never will". But, again, this ignores that some books represent appointments with ourselves at a time when we think we'll be ready to appreciate them. You don't cancel appointments because they are far in the future. This lifetime perspective is actually a traditional view, embodied in books of consolation in the face of grief or death. Indeed, it was quite normal for gifts of such books in the past to be made in the expectation that they wouldn't be read for many years.

At the heart of Baggini's argument is a very old philosophical stance, dating back to the impermanence of Heraclitus and the Stoic rejection of vanity: "Letting go of such books is as important as accepting that a wonderful holiday, concert or meal has come to an end. The right way to take pleasure is in recognition of its transience. Even knowledge must also be allowed to pass. Holding on to books seems to be a denial that what enters our heads is also destined to exit them". But behind this lurks some very modern attitudes. The idea that you should cull your books, only retaining those of highest value suggests a categorical division between commodities and assets. Baggini happily gets rid of books signed by the authors: "This does require tearing out the front page with the signed dedication, which at first felt like a sacrilegious desecration. But I’ve come to see it differently: the fact that I want to keep that page even when I’ve decided the book should move on honours the author rather than insults them". A more cynical view is that the signature is an asset whose value may well appreciate while the rest of the book was merely a commodity that will probably depreciate. Binning books, or ripping them apart, is surely more revealing of the ego than simply letting them gather dust on the shelves.