Saturday, 17 October 2020

Ukania Delenda

Perry Anderson's latest mega-essay for the New Left Review on "the conjuncture" (Ukania Perpetua) has the air of an elegy. He's 82 and many of his collaborators and critics have now left the stage, notably Edward Thompson, Tom Nairn and Ellen Meiksins Wood. He probably won't be around for much longer and while he remains as acute and acerbic as ever, there is a sense of a life in review, if not an apologia pro vita sua. The essay revisits the Nairn-Anderson thesis, as it came to be known, which attributed the UK's industrial decline in the 1960s to the persistence of an ancien regime following the incomplete bourgeois revolution of the 17th century (which was waylaid by religion) and the absorption of a precocious capitalism by the aristocracy between 1688 and 1832 (I'm massively simplifying, of course). This in turn produced political complacency and mystagogy, a subaltern and conservative labour movement, and an intellectural Philistinism in both academia and public life. The thesis was further elaborated in the late-70s and early-80s (notably in Nairn's The Break-Up of Britain), when the failings of the UK state appeared to herald its dissolution and British capital was deserting what was left of domestic industry.

This narrative of the UK's history is contrasted to the more "normal" development (from a Marxist perspective) seen in continental Europe, archetypically in France after 1789. The classic hallmarks were the sweeping away of feudal remnants, the development of modern bureaucracy, the state direction of industrial strategy, the valorisation of technical education, and the emergence of both a labour movement committed to revolution and a socially-integrated intelligentsia. This contrast was memorably ridiculed by Thompson as "inverted Podsnappery", though the heart of his critique concerns Nairn and Anderson's tendentious domestic history rather than the international comparison. In Thompson's view the UK's peculiar history reflected the success of the aristocracy and gentry in becoming capitalist in practice and stymying monarchical absolutism early. The political struggles of the 18th and early-19th centuries are then primarily factional disputes - largely between those members of the gentry who benefited from Old Corruption and those who didn't - rather than class friction between a landed aristocracy and an urban bourgeoisie. For all the prominence of the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the significant moment was the 1832 Reform Act, which more evenly distributed power within a capitalist class that now spanned the agrarian, industrial and financial sectors.

Thompson's critique was expanded upon by Ellen Meiksins Wood in her 1992 book, The Pristine Culture of Capitalism (excerpted here). In particular, she paid attention to the other side of the comparison, noting the continuity of the ancien regime in bourgeois modernity: "the emergence of these hallmarks in Continental Europe did not signal the maturity of 'bourgeois' or capitalist forces but on the contrary reflected the continuing strength of pre-capitalist social property relations. In fact, the appearance of ideas commonly associated with the advent of the modern state - certain conceptions of indivisible sovereignty and nationhood, for instance - testify as much to the absence of 'modernity', and indeed the absence of a unified sovereignty and nationhood, as to their presence in reality". This, I think, is a potentially fruitful point of departure in analysing the current political situation in the UK, in particular the way that characteristics more familiar from absolutism (a subject addressed in Anderson's Lineages of the Absolutist State, though he doesn't refer to that 1974 book in his new essay) have started to appear, particularly in respect to sovereignty and nationhood. Examples of this are citizenship (which is really a totalising institution birthed under absolutism rather than its democratic antithesis), the symbolic embodiment of the nation, and the role of law as the servant of the state rather than the individual.

Up to the 1980s, the use of "citizens" instead of "subjects" was mostly a leftwing manoeuvre in British political discourse - albeit with wider nationalist connotations in the UK periphery - intended to emphasise both the institutions of the social democratic state and its liberal commitment to civil society. Citizenship had formally replaced the British subject in the 1948 Nationality Act, but it was only after the 1981 Nationality Act that the two were finally divorced. From that point onwards, the term citizen eclipsed that of subject both in official usage and the popular vocabulary. Yet rather than suggesting a growing republicanism, it signalled a shift towards a normative nationalism that would eventually be enshrined in the citizenship test for those seeking naturalisation. For all the ridicule the test continues to prompt, citizenship in political discourse has clearly become a synonym for integration and a cultural catechism in its own right - a view that owes as much to Scottish as English nationalism in recent years. The increased use by the political right of terms like "the people" is not simply an indicator of populism - the opposition of the popular will to a notional elite - but the demand for political homogeneity. Likewise, the Windrush scandal is not simply racial and class prejudice but the inevitable fallout of an attempt to rigidly define the boundaries of that people in the face of messy reality.

A characteristic of the post-Falklands era in Britain has been a growing identification with the military as the embodiment of the nation, and a complementary decline in respect for the no longer irreproachable royal family, the Queen excepted. The contemporary totems of nationalism are the St George's flag and the remembrance poppy; the one a coded rebuke to the supra-national House of Windsor, the other a celebration of popular sacrifice. The emergent national idea is a mix of mangled history (the benefits of empire, licking Hitler), paranoia (the EU, migrants) and a performative loyalty in which the tropes of sporting fandom (theatrical contempt, badge-kissing) have replaced the complacent deference of old. This obviously owes something to the disenchantment of the royal family in an era of mass media, though scandalous behaviour was hardly a novelty in the past. But it also owes something to the erosion of the concept of duty in parallel with the expansion of the market. The armed forces remain one of the few unimpeachable exemplars of "public service" and injured former soldiers are emotive emblems of communal sacrifice in an era of hyper-individualism.

In his NLR essay, Anderson describes the economic prioritisation of the City's globalisation and the willingness to ride shotgun for the US in the postwar period as the "two prongs of Ukanian eversion" - i.e. the maintenance of the state elite by a conscious turning outwards and neglect of the domestic. Just as Brexit represents a rejection of the economic prong, Help for Heroes represents a rejection of the interventionist prong. This isn't a new development, and nor should it be casually bracketed with the chauvinism of the far-right - its antecedents are the original Little Englanders who eschewed imperial adventures in favour of bourgeois industry. Again, it's helpful to compare England with Scotland here, noting the SNP's longstanding objections to Trident and its equivocation over NATO. Unless you imagine the Scots are peculiarly pacific, this suggests that the UK population as a whole is less than keen on foreign wars, which was certainly obvious even in the early days of the Afghanistan and Iraq misadventures. As jingoism has declined, we have perhaps paradoxically become more sentimental about the armed forces.

On the political right, the challenge to the supremacy of the law goes beyond a distaste for the Supreme Court, set up under New Labour, and its supposed championing of the European Courts' "meddling" in UK affairs, to a more general distrust of the judiciary as representative of a liberal, as opposed to conservative, elite. This transformation, which is clearly one of perception rather than reality, is startling when you consider the attitudes towards (and the attitudes of) the higher judiciary in the 1970s and 80s, the heyday of Lords Denning and Donaldson. The parallel denigration of lawyers as self-interested shysters, or metropolitan elitists determined to frustrate the popular will over Brexit and asylum, owes less to any popular shift in sentiment (despite the best efforts of the press) and more to a deliberate policy pursued by the Conservative party to make the courts subservient to executive fiat. Similarly, the government's various attempts to insist it is above the law, whether in its arbitrary prorogation of Parliament or the provisions of the Internal Markets Bill to allow it to renege on international treaties, are the hallmarks of absolutism. Examples of personal impunity are then emblematic of a theory of state rather than a simple lack of virtue.

These changes are significant because all three institutions - the subject, the monarchy, the courts - were central to the success of aristocratic capital in establishing its political hegemony between the 16th and 18th centuries, thereby nullifying the threat of monarchical absolutism in Britain. The notion of the subject - someone with inalienable and ancient rights rather than fedual obligations - supported the claim that the entire nation was present in Parliament, even if most of it had no say in its representation, in contrast to the fragmented polity in pre-revolutionary France. Constitutional royalty was the basis of sovereignty - the Crown in Parliament - but this was designed to exclude the possibility of any sort of democratic sovereignty, once the radicals had been defeated by the grandees during the Civil War (and their inheritors first brutally suppressed at Peterloo and then dismissed with the failure of Chartism). The crown courts were the means by which class power was established at a national level rather than being parcellised through manorial courts and local jurisidictions (in the French manner), protecting the property rights and executing the contract law that were foundational to the emergent agrarian capitalism of the 17th and 18th centuries. So what is driving change in these three areas? The supersession of the subject by the citizen could be attributed to the delayed effects of democratisation, as could the gradual disenchantment of the monarchy, but democracy cannot be fingered for the recent assault on the law, despite invocations of the will of the people.

As Ellen Meiksens-Wood described, the triumph of the bourgeois state in 19th century France was less a violent disjuncture from a feudal past, as the traditional story of 1789 has it, than the fulfilment of the absolutist designs of the 17th and 18th centuries: a centralised state apparatus, the primacy of offices and government perquisites over commerce as the route to advancement, and a nationalism based on cultural homogeneity rather than dynastic fealty (features which persist and are arguably being reinforced under Macron, despite his valorisation of commerce). A paradox of the last 40 years is that while governments of both conservative and liberal temperament have advocated the rolling back of the state, what they have enacted has been a steady centralisation of power. Local government has been neutered as a political rival and its powers of patronage curtailed. Privatisation has been widespread, both in the selling-off of nationalised industries and in the transfer of housing assets from public to private ownership, but the more significant development in respect of the state's character has been the growth of outsourced public services, which has created a state/capital nexus that exhibits many of the characteristics of absolutism, such as privileged access to tax revenues (consider the role of firms like Serco or BCG recently) and richly-rewarded offices within the grant of government (think Dido Harding or the jockeying for the plum role of Chair of the BBC).

Though corporatism was rejected after 1789 in favour of individual rights, it continued to live on during the bourgeois era, being revisited by thinkers such as Mill and Durkheim, before being revived by the Facists in unambiguously absolutist terms: "everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state". While politicians in the social democratic era certainly targeted particular interest groups - mothers, pensioners, young adults etc - this was always within the frame of a class position based on an overall balance between tax and spend. We are now in an era in which high taxation is taken to be in inimical to economic growth and the market has been largely moved beyond the purview of government. As a result, control of expenditure now does most of the heavy lifting in the management of the state's finances. The consequence of this is that parties now compete for votes through promises of preferential treatment, such as the pensions triple-lock or the abolition of tuition fees, rather than through broader promises of tax reductions or spending increases in which specific cases are held to be emblematic of a wider programme (even Labour's 2017 and 2019 manifestoes were cautious in this regard). 

The result is that politics is increasingly framed in corporate terms, in the sense that it deals with distinct and presumably self-interested groups within society, which is reflected in the turn of political science to the (often spurious) sociology of an electorate divided by geography, age and ethnicity more than traditional class consciousness. In this environment, national identity is increasingly associated with intrinsic preferences and dispositions (aka the culture wars), including some that are essentially projections of elite prejudice (e.g. somewheres versus anywheres), rather than the supra-political totems of old. If the social democratic era was marked by the celebration of warm beer and eccentricity, our current era seems to be defined by gentlemen of a certain age "protecting" statues or newspaper columnists demanding a daily hecatomb to assuage the gods of the economy. It would be easy to laugh and miss what's going on here - not a descent into frivolity and spite but the insistence that everything is zero-sum: if you are up then I am down. This is a hallmark of absolutism: a closed system of power in which relative advantage is all.

At a time when the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill now before the Commons seeks a carte blanche for the agencies of the state (in a specific and limited way, of course), and the military are to be given protection against civilian charges of historic abuse, it should be obvious that there is something very wrong in a country that has historically prided itself on the restraint of arbitrary state power and has been wary of showing the military too much respect. Though Perry Anderson has been happy to amend his thinking in light of the criticism of Thompson and others, his failure to mention Meiksins Wood (who was on the NLR's editorial committee for almost a decade) in his new essay strikes me as significant. It is precisely her insights into the absolutist lineaments of the bourgeois state that I think are relevant to the UK's present conjuncture. If I'm right, what we're witnessing is not the delayed completion of the English revolution by a modernising gentry (of which both Johnson and Cummings are representative) but the collapse of British exceptionalism that Anderson long-heralded. The problem is that lacking many of the institutions typical of the "mature" bourgeois state to cushion the blow, the lineaments of absolutism are becoming ever more pronounced. Far from Ukania Perpetua, we may be witnessing Ukania Delenda.

Friday, 9 October 2020

A Menace to Society

What exactly do we mean by "social" in the context of social media? At the simplest level, it suggests communication between people that is not necessarily goal-oriented. In other words, it's not about communicating a specific message, in the manner of a phone-call or text, so much as being sociable: chatting, musing, ranting. But it also implies a broader field of participation: a public rather than private conversation. This in turn means that we see it as a reflection of society, albeit a fragmented and incoherent one. But despite this, we're reluctant to acknowledge that it reflects actual social relations, despite power being front and centre (likes, blocking, pile-ons etc). We might ruefully acknowledge our role as digital peons, providing the content that will be exploited by others, but this is a misleading analogy because none of us are forced to work the digital fields and what we receive in terms of utility is vastly greater than our individual contribution of toil. What we shy away from are the structural assumptions inherent to social media about authority and the degree to which we are complicit in establishing and defending its hierarchy of regard. 

Vulgar technological determinism would have you believe that social media has changed society, and may even have gone so far as to "rewire our brains" (a direct descendant of the belief that travelling in steam trains at 30 mph would physically alter the human body), but in reality it has simply made more obvious what was already there. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer put it in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, "the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest". Consequently, any new technology will reflect existing social relations, even as it reforms historical dispositions of power. Old media firms are replaced by new media firms, but capitalism remains. This is so obvious that it is rarely stated, but it's actually an example of hegemony. If you imagine that capitalism is simply human nature ("hardwired" in our brains), you won't question whether it is historically-contingent and therefore may have temporal limits. A technology that undermined or bypassed capitalism then becomes inconceivable. 

This allows supporters of capitalism to criticise the technology, even to the extent of characterising it as a menace to society (making us stupid, eroding democracy etc), without questioning the fundamental social relations that have given rise to it and which it embeds. As Adorno and Horkheimer put it, talking about the culture industry of the 1940s, "It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself". Lacking any social explanation, this coercion can then be attributed to personal motives, such as greed or partisanship. We're all familiar with the liberal charge-sheet: Facebook manipulates the credulous for financial gain; political bad-guys use social media to foment hate and convince people to vote against their best interests; Twitter empowers mobs and encourages bullying. What tends to be missing from this analysis is any recognition that social media reflects pre-existing conditions: that Facebook is fundamentally no different to General Motors or that Twitter has no more obligation to society than any capitalist business. 

Old media companies are keen that new media companies should be considered publishers not simply because this will require them to accept responsibilities that will help "level the playing field" commercially, but because the distinction reinforces the claim of old media that it faithfully fulfils those responsibilities itself. The counter-claim of social media firms that they are merely platforms is actually a claim that they are genuinely neutral, because disinterested, which casts the old media's commitment to even-handedness and "speaking truth to power" in a less than flattering light. The social media firms' gradual adoption of their duties as gatekeepers is presented by liberal opinion as not simply the rectification of a market imperfection but as a progressive contribution to society. This contribution takes the form of mitigating social ills that have been "thrown up" or "unleashed" by the technology, as if those behaviours and attitudes characterised as ills either didn't exist hitherto or were simply latent.

This tendency to blame the tool inevitably leads to both an over-inflation of the technology's capability and an exaggeration of its harms. We saw a classic case of this during the week when the Information Commissioner's Office published the results of its long-awaited investigation into Cambridge Analytica. Despite the extensive and often breathless reporting on the company and its dealings over the last four years, this passed almost without notice because the ICO unsurprisingly concluded that there really wasn't anything to see here. Cambridge Analytica's actual "crime" was to have over-sold the common technology that enabled its services. The suggestion that the Russians swung the EU referendum and the 2016 US Presidential election was always absurd, yet it was pursued seriously by mainstream journalists (to the point where it became indistinguishable from conspiracy theory in some cases) essentially because they were unwilling to admit that the business model of commercial data analytics is 90% bullshit.

This makes for an interesting contrast with the coincidental tale of Public Health England's Excel spreadsheet, which revealed the messy reality of much technology in practice. After various banking fiascos in recent years, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that mission-critical systems sometimes rely on outdated software, often lashed-up and poorly understood by its minders. This is partly a result of the "If it ain't broke" mentality, but it also suggests a reluctance to risk updating something that works because quite how and why it works isn't fully understood due to poor documentation, inadequate testing and plate-spinning in an organisation where executive priorities are volatile. After decades of outsourcing and austerity, it also shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that the state lacked a modern, thoroughly-tested system for managing a pandemic, despite this being near the top of the list of civil threats. For all its fetishisation of technology (that world-beating app), or perhaps because of it, it is clear that the government is poor at systems-thinking.

The PHE incident also highlighted the extent to which process integrity can be compromised by the needs of executive oversight. From an architectural perspective, not only should centralised test data have been stored in a database, but the dispatching of cases to tracers and the generation of statistics for reporting (for which Excel is a perfectly appropriate tool) should have been handled by discrete systems. The political dimension to this single point of failure is the way the system embedded a Whitehall-centric reporting hierarchy. Though Serco and other third party service providers were blameless in this case, outsourcing is predicated on the ability of the executive to read the "dashboard", not only to ensure service delivery but to assess contract performance. In other words, the system's vulnerabilities arose from the power relations of the participants. 

Social media isn't an epochal change in human culture - it pales in comparison to the invention of moveable type or telephony - and big data isn't the new oil. Though our digital exhaust is evidence of our psychological need for esteem and our innate sociability, it isn't a vector for mind control. Our engagement remains shallow and self-aware rather than addictive. Likewise, we are not reducing our cognitive diversity through filter bubbles and, far from being at the mercy of arch-manipulators like Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey, we continue to find ways to repurpose the technology to meet our actual needs. Social media has brought our commitment to the competition for social esteem into the realm of the market, but that commitment obviously long predates the technology and its commoditisation in popular culture has been a commonplace since the invention of the teenager. The near-ubiquity of social media simply reflects the way that competition has thoroughly colonised society since the 1950s. 

Friday, 2 October 2020

Speech Act

Yesterday saw a mini-celebration of the 35th anniversary of Neil Kinnock's 1985 Labour party conference speech, with various people too young to have heard it first hand claiming to have been inspired. Its current utility is, of course, as an encouragement for Keir Starmer to start purging the contemporary left, though the current leader seems more interested in establishing his credentials as a social conservative and may well feel that the left is unlikely to present a challenge now that the right has successfully recaptured the party apparatus. What everyone remembers about Kinnock's big day in Bournemouth, or thinks they do, was the condemnation of Militant, but the organisation had been proscribed three years earlier so Kinnock didn't even deign to name it. The insults were indirect and coded. The wider context for the speech was Labour's unwillingness to practically support the NUM during the recently-concluded miners' strike and its attempts to distance itself from the "loony left" in local government. The criticism of Liverpool City Council was as much a coded attack on the GLC, while the dismissal of "posturing" was directed at Arthur Scargill as much as Derek Hatton.

The 1985 speech was first a diagnosis of the traumatic 1983 general election defeat and second a prognosis for how Labour could not just beat the Tories but hold off the advance of the SDP Liberal Alliance. That election would prove more pivotal than 1979, extending Thatcher's initially unpopular administration on the back of the Falklands victory and a split anti-Tory vote (the Alliance got 25% compared to Labour's 27%), and establishing the narrative of centrist modernisation that would eventually birth New Labour in the 1990s. For all of Kinnock's passion, the diagnosis turned out to be a tame acceptance of the Thatcherite dispensation with gestures towards greater managerial competence, while the prognosis - essentially that moderation and an appeal to the virtue of the public would restore Labour to power - proved naive during a half-decade that would be marked by contempt for social solidarity, a commitment to personal enrichment and Westminster sleaze. You can draw your own parallels to the present moment.

Kinnock started his speech by criticising the Tories for not living up to their own promises in areas such as law and order, the family, enterprise and freedom. This was an example of his undoubted rhetorical skill, but in highlighting the gap between appearance and reality - the Conservative fixation on "presentation", as he put it - he implicitly accepted many of the Tories' premises. Consider the following: "How is it that the party that promised to roll back the state has arrived at the situation where 1,700,000 more people are entirely dependent on the state because of their poverty during the time the Tories have been in government? ... How does the party of enterprise preside over record bankruptcies? How does the party of tax cuts arrange that the British people now carry the biggest ever burden of taxation in British history?" Kinnock wasn't employing irony but actually agreeing that families shouldn't be dependent on the state, that we should cherish business and that high taxation was a burden.

Central to both Kinnock's diagnosis and prognosis is the idea of change as both a threat and an opportunity, which is worth quoting at length: "We live in a time of rapidly and radically changing technology. We live at a time of shifts in the whole structure of the world economy; we live at a time of new needs among the peoples of the world and new aspirations among young people and among women – late but welcome new aspirations among half of humankind ... Change cannot be left to chance. If it is left to chance, it becomes malicious, it creates terrible victims. It has done so generation in, generation out. Change has to be organised. It has to be shaped to the benefit of a society, deliberately, by those who have democratic power in that society; and the democratic instrument of the people who exist for that purpose is the state – yes, the state. To us that means a particular kind of state – an opportunity state, which exists to assist in nourishing talent and rewarding merit; a productive state, which exists to encourage investment and to help expand output; an enabling state, which is at the disposal of the people instead of being dominant over the people."

For all the prefiguring of Marxism Today's "new times", the idea of the state as an enabler of opportunity, focused on production rather than distribution, wasn't a novel departure in Labour thinking. All of this had been outlined in Anthony Crosland's The Future of Socialism in 1956. Despite habitually citing Aneurin Bevan, Kinnock was signalling his adoption of Gaitskellite "revisionism". Though backward-looking, this had a topicality and urgency in the mid-80s after the decimation of British industry during Thatcher's first administration. But despite the crowd-pleasing gesture towards capital controls in the speech (a remnant of the influence of the Alternative Economic Strategy advanced by the Bennite left), and a dismissal of the Tories' "non-unionised, low wage, tax-dodging, low-tech privatised" vision, this was essentially a plea for the labour movement to facilitate capital's recomposition of the UK economy and hope for the best. It is for that reason that Kinnock nowhere mentions the miners' strike, which had so recently revealed the strategic focus and tactical brutality of British capital in its contemporary guise of Thatcherism.

Though internationalism has become a dividing line between the right and left of Labour since the 1980s, Kinnock was still speaking at a time when support for the global left and Atlanticism were not considered incompatible, hence his speech included rhetorical back-slaps for the anti-apartheid movement, Solidarnosc, Russian dissidents and democracy in Chile and Nicaragua, as well as a crowd-pleasing commitment to both nuclear disarmament and NATO. This was entirely gestural, which is ironic given his condemnation of the "gesture-generals" of the domestic left. The first three recipients of his solidarity turned out to be triumphs for capital, while the debate on what truly constitutes democracy in South America has now moved on to Venezuela and Bolivia. By contrast, Keir Starmer's first conference speech as leader mentioned "abroad" only tangentially, in a criticism of the government's intention to break international law and a promise that "We’re not going to be a party that keeps banging on about Europe", while the word "comrades", which Kinnock used 14 times, was nowhere to be seen (nor was "socialism").

The contentious commitment to nuclear disarmament was, faute de mieux, presented by Kinnock as an example of integrity: "We want to honour our undertakings in full in every area of policy. We want to say what we mean and mean what we say. We want to keep our promises, and because we want to do that it is essential that we don’t make false promises". This provided the segue into the final section of the speech, which begins with explicit electoralism and an implicit criticism of conference for adopting a load of policies that might jib with the "decent values and aims" of the ordinary voter. At this point Kinnock proceeds to damn the left for "slogans" and "implausible promises". The famous attack on Liverpool City Council is not quite the peroration, but it comes around 90% of the way into the speech. It suggests that Kinnock knew full well that only the last section would be of interest to the media, for whom a Labour leader's speech is only a success if it involves berating the party membership for their presumption and foolishness, and he was determined not to disappoint them, hence he even cues the TV cameras at this point ("People say that leaders speak to the television cameras"). 

The smattering of boos amid the applause was clearly anticipated: "Comrades, the voice of the people – not the people here; the voice of the real people with real needs – is louder than all the boos that can be assembled. Understand that, please, comrades. In your socialism, in your commitment to those people, understand it. The people will not, cannot, abide posturing. They cannot respect the gesture-generals or the tendency-tacticians." This distinction between Labour activists and the people was a theme throughout, and culminated in an example of the "elitist left" trope that is such a feature of Tory and Labour right propaganda: "Comrades, it seems to me lately that some of our number become like latter-day public school-boys. It seems it matters not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game." The actual peroration, when it finally arrives, is boilerplate pragmatism: "Principle and power, conviction and accomplishment, going together. We know that power without principle is ruthless and vicious, and hollow and sour. We know that principle without power is na├»ve, idle sterility". 

The media reaction ranged from the rightwing focus on Labour's continuing problems with Militant and the "loony left", with some asides about Kinnock's windbaggery, to liberal glee at the Labour leader's conversion not only to moderation but to modernisation and professionalism, which was emblematically marked that year by the appointment of Peter Mandelson as Labour's Director of Communications. James Naughtie in the Guardian caught the vibe: "Mr Kinnock prompted an ecstatic ovation by telling his party that electoral victory could not be achieved by 'pious faith or by dreams' but by 'working for it, planning for it, organising for it'". The irony here is that Militant had been proscribed in 1982 not for dreaming but for organising. It's also worth noting that Naughtie was not quoting from Kinnock's actual speech but presumably from a separate briefing, indicating the importance that "spin" would come to have in the reporting of Labour politics over the next two decades.

Kinnock's speech is remembered today as the start of the process by which the Labour left were ushered off the stage and the scene set for the arrival of Tony Blair, but this ignores that the left had already been largely sidelined by 1983, not simply through the proscription of the always-marginal Militant but with the more significant defeat of Tony Benn in the Deputy Leadership election of 1981 and his absence from Parliament immediately after the general election, which prevented him running for Leader after Michael Foot's resignation and opened the door for Kinnock to emerge as the "left" candidate. While some Militant stragglers would be expelled by Labour after 1985, the purging of the broad left from positions of power was carried out mainly by the Thatcher government through the abolition of the GLC and the other metropolitan county councils. Kinnock would lead Labour to two general election defeats, though he can claim to have reduced the Liberal Democrats (as they became) from 25% to 17% over 9 years. Blair's victory in 1997 was down to the collapse of the Conservatives after Black Wednesday, when they lost 4.5 million votes of which 2 million shifted to Labour. What mattered in the end was not Labour's moderation or virtue but the Tories' proven incompetence.

Friday, 25 September 2020

The Great Reveal

The first couple of books published on Jeremy Corbyn's tenure as Labour leader have focused on revelations, variously bitchy and exasperated, about the strategic and ethical failings of key individuals. This was inevitable. Books on recent political history, whether autobiographies or eyewitness accounts, need juicy tidbits to garner media coverage just as much as tell-alls about the royals do, or thinly-disguised novels about minor French philosophers. The academic histories that will be written in time may take a more structural approach, but given the habitual bias of British political history towards "character", I wouldn't bet on it. Though Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire's Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn is clearly unsympathetic to the left (the title rather gives it away), while Owen Jones's This Land: The Story of a Movement appears like a classic attempt to salvage the positive from a political episode of hope curtailed, they share a common belief that politics is inseparable from personality.

The press coverage of these two works has tended to delight in the more scathing analysis of Pogrund and Maguire, while Jones has once more been told in no uncertain terms by his journalistic peers that he is unwelcome. My interest here is not in either book (they're unlikely to prove of lasting value), nor in the predictable response of the commentariat. What I'm going to discuss is how revelations about character are treated in political discourse and specifically how this applied to Corbyn. Though journalism presents itself as the first, rough draft of history, it's form and assumptions tend to reflect polished historiographical practice when it comes to political commentary. Pundits aspire to the aphoristic, Olympian judgement of a Michelet or an AJP Taylor (a historian who moonlighted as a journalist) rather than the urgent impressionism of the reporter. There is also a tendency to see politics as drama, reflecting the focus on leading characters, though in the simplistic sense that everything is either a tragedy or a comedy of errors.

Jeremy Corbyn is, it is probably safe to say, fairly set in his ways. Though he may have smartened up his attire on becoming leader of the Labour party in 2015, he didn't transform overnight into a different, steelier character. He was always idealistic, conflict-averse and frankly a bit wet. Despite the attempts to paint him as a tumour in the body politic, he is clearly an inoffensive chap whose main character flaw appears to be peevishness. Few would have expected him to reveal a hitherto-hidden talent for management on his election to the leadership; fewer still a strategic cunning sufficient to the moment of Brexit, a political challenge that brought down two Conservative Prime Ministers in three years and may yet bring down a third within five. And yet the initial dismissal of Corbyn didn't develop into a coherent critique of his shortcomings. While forensic analysis, executive competence and a backstory in managing a large, complex organisation are now considered de rigueur in the leader of the opposition, there was little attempt to criticise Corbyn for the absence of these qualities and qualifications during his early months in office. 

The opposition to him, both within the PLP and among the media, was political. It's interesting to recall that much of the criticism was not about his own beliefs but the company he kept. The accusations of personal antisemitism or Russophilia came later. The essential charge was that he was too leftwing and therefore couldn't unite the party. Of course "party" in this context didn't mean the membership, who returned him with an increased vote after the 2016 leadership challenge, and the unity demanded was simply a euphemism for the continuing dominance of the PLP right. The revival of the antisemitism row after the unexpected 2017 election result, and the emergence of the People's Vote campaign with its emphasis on Corbyn's personal culpability for Brexit, marked the shift from attempts to rule him unacceptable because of his politics to attempts to rule him illegitimate because of his character. But charges of dithering or obliviousness were secondary to the assumption that he was a secret antisemite and Lexiteer. In other words, he was more criminal genius than managerial incompetent.

One thing that has stood out in the recent revelations about Corbyn's time as party leader is how little new material there is, and how little of it rises above office backbiting. For example, that Seumas Milne and Tom Watson were both in their different ways lazy, or that Karie Murphy could be abrasive. Even the claim that Corbyn and McDonnell weren't on speaking terms for a while seems positively innocent, like schoolkids falling out, particularly when you remember the poisonous relations between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The nearest thing to a political revelation in the Pogrund and Maguire book is that Ian Murray bottled joining Change UK at the eleventh hour, which is both unsurprising and ridiculously inconsequential. At the level of salacious gossip, there is nothing to compare with past or recent claims about David Cameron, from the apocryphal pig's head initiation ceremony to the temptation of al fresco adultery. For all that attempts to finally nail Corbyn as an antisemite have come to naught, his critics won't give up trying. Or even seeking to extend the blame to John McDonnell, if only to cement the association of Jew-hatred with the left in the public mind. 

The benchmark for a politician with a disreputable history is, of course, Boris Johnson. A man sacked for lying, not once but twice; who infamously colluded with a friend who wanted to beat up a journalist; and whose extramarital affairs and children have proved difficult to enumerate. But the proper charge against Johnson is not that he is louche or amoral but that he is a lazy chancer who can't cut it in the job. Even conservative commentators and backbenchers are pointing out that his poor performance as Prime Minister was entirely predictable, given his self-indulgent track record as London Mayor and his underwhelming (if brief) stint as Foreign Secretary. They now excuse their prior support with some wibble about him being "a winner", rather than admitting that they were nailed-on to secure a majority in the 2019 general election once Labour fatally committed to a second referendum and the Liberal Democrats and SNP ruled out a Corbyn-led coalition. The Tories could have elected Jacob Rees-Mogg as party leader last year and would probably still have won. 

According to Philip Collins, "The sorry spectacle of Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street is a repeat of the lesson that Gordon Brown and Theresa May ought to have taught us. Nobody ever changes. Office does not transform character: it reveals it". Is everyone a mystery until they get to Number 10? Brown and May were elected party leader by MPs who had already seen their characters revealed in high office, as a resentful Chancellor and an obtuse Home Secretary respectively. Collins's pompous judgement also ignores context: that both Brown and May were constrained by extraordinary events and their own parties. The clamour for austerity in 2010 and the popular disaffection with New Labour that had been building for a decade undid Brown, while the impossibility of Brexit on terms that would unite the Tories short of outright deception (the chickens now coming home to roost) put paid to May. If these events revealed aspects of character, it was Brown's loyalty to New Labour and May's inability to lie convincingly, neither of which really amount to moral deficiencies.

Corbyn was elected leader by the Labour membership not because they thought he would be managerially competent but because they wanted to change the attitude and policies of the party. Everything that has happened since has sprung from that choice by the membership: the delegitimisation of Corbyn, the marginalisation of the PLP left, and the recapture of the party apparatus by the right. Though the members have now opted for Starmer's competence, they did so (however naively) on the basis that he would stick to the same policy platform. Given his willingness to junk the remain cause, I see little reason to believe that he will hesitate to junk his famous 10 pledges, nor that he and David Evans, the new General Secretary, will be cautious in restraining or expelling the left, whether on the back of the EHRC report on antisemitism or any other grounds. This instrumentalism and mutability will be lauded by the press as evidence of statesmanship rather than opportunism or insincerity.

Had Corbyn been tougher, he could plausibly have achieved more in terms of party democracy and policy, from forcing mandatory reselection to resisting a second referendum, but it would almost certainly have come at a greater cost. The Change UK defections would have been larger in number and the rump PLP would still have been divided between remainers and leavers. History may well show that Corbyn's aversion to conflict actually prevented a split even more damaging than that of the SDP in 1981. A more cynical leader might have spotted the threat of the antisemitism charge earlier and headed it off, but nothing short of a conversion to Zionism would have stilled his critics. A more assertive and intellectually confident leader might have built on the 2017 campaign to normalise the policy initiatives that seemed to come as such a shock to so many in 2019, though the timing and focus of the election would likely still have led to a setback, even had the party stuck to its guns on a soft Brexit. Corbyn's limitations probably made little difference to the course of events, and the "chaos" of the leader's office was a symptom of the wider problems inside and outside the party rather than his personal signature.

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Liberal Fear

David Goodhart's career trajectory looks like a classic case of youthful radicalism giving way to mature reaction. From soi-disant "old Etonian Marxist" via the technocratic centrism of Prospect and Demos to the careful rehabilitation of the romantic bigotry of Enoch Powell. I have never read any of his books (and have no intention of starting now, though I have read much of his journalism), not least because his ideas are clearly second-hand and unredeemed by any literary or analytical interest. But he is an interesting case study of the broader phenomenon of the progression from firebrand to fogey, not because he has turned into a conservative but precisely because he remains a liberal. The trigger for this thought is the publication of his latest rumination on the state of the nation, Head Hand Heart, where he laments the decline in esteem for manual labour and the persistent undervaluing of care work, both of which he attributes to the privileging of cognitive work and thus the over-investment in education and valorising of qualifications.

The narrative of time disillusioning youth is obviously ancient, but the political form we are familiar with dates from the early-nineteenth century and specifically the struggle between monarchical reaction and persistent republicanism in restoration France. This tension was reduced to a famous epigram by the French statesman Francois Guizot: "Not to be a republican at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head". Variations on this, with socialism and communism substituted for republicanism, would later be attributed to Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Churchill. The irony of Guizot's claim is that it was his own policies as Prime Minister in 1848, specifically refusing to allow any widening of the franchise beyond the propertied elite, that would lead to the collapse of the monarchy of Louis Phillipe and the creation of the Second Republic. A lot of thirty-somethings rediscovered the attractions of republicanism thanks to Guizot.

The relevance of this historical detour is that Guizot was a constitutional monarchist who saw himself as resisting both right and left. Likewise, David Goodhart identifies as a "post-liberal centrist", and in a more emotional register as a refugee from his "liberal, metropolitan tribe". His use of that noun is intended to suggest that the old formations that historically informed politics and culture are now irrelevant, having been superseded by new "value clusters". Though he has gestured vaguely at transitional "inbetweeners", he sees society as fundamentally divided into two opposing camps: "the educated, mobile people who see the world from 'Anywhere' and who value autonomy and fluidity, versus the more rooted, generally less well-educated people who see the world from 'Somewhere' and prioritise group attachments and security". This was the theme of his 2017 book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. In its typology, it is clearly a rehash of the work of Jonathan Haidt on the intrinsic differences between conservative and liberal temperaments, but given a topical gloss by the geographical and cultural divisions of Brexit.

Goodhart started out on his own road to Damascus (or perhaps Doncaster) with a 2004 essay in Prospect in which he suggested that racial and cultural diversity was eroding the solidarity needed to support the welfare state (this was later expanded into his 2013 book, The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration). I think the timing is significant. Liberalism in practice obviously shifted to the right during the 1990s, but liberal theory also started to lean heavily on communitarianism as a counterweight to the individualism of the neoliberal order. However, lectures about rights and responsibilities remained too abstract for many liberals and the policy consequences, from ASBOS to workfare, too dull and punitive to engender much enthusiasm. What would prove liberating in the wake of 9/11 was the salutary effect of existential fear - the threat to the national community and "our way of life" - hence the many liberal theorists and commentators who talked gushingly about how the attack on the World Trade Center was a clarifying moment.

But that fear was groundless. Al Qaeda proved to be a trivial foe and Saddam Hussein a paper tiger. Later Middle-Eastern iterations, from Muammar al-Gaddafi through ISIS to Bashar al-Assad, have equally failed to live up to their billing. China has little interest in pursuing a new Cold War and the revival of Russia as a threat to the West is risible. Instead, we have gradually turned towards the enemy within, dividing society into hostile and irreconcilable camps, decrying enemies of the people, and inventing phantasms such as elite conspiracies and the woke terror. Though much of this has been presented in the frame of a conservative/liberal dichotomy, it's important to recognise that this anxiety is common to both: QAnon mirrors the belief that Russia engineered both Brexit and Trump; the idea that a metropolitan elite is subverting democracy mirrors the belief that the working class would support a dictatorship. But this equivalence of fear should not mislead us. The kernel of conservativism is not paranoia or mania but the cool and calculating defence of privilege. It is liberal fear that aspires to a universal condition.

The role of race in this landscape is to provide a domestic equivalent for the "clash of civilisations" that we were denied in the early-00s. Goodhart's thesis - that stable societies with generous welfare systems tend to be culturally homogenous and that immigration tends to undermine this and thus citizens' willingness to pay the taxes to support public services - was an example of the importing of a classic conundrum in the sphere of international relations - how can we agree a modus vivendi when our national interests must necessarily differ? - to the field of social policy. There are two obvious problems with this approach. First, in transplanting the "realist" theory that international relations are zero-sum, it assumes that social diversity is destabilising short of full integration (i.e. the subsuming of immigrant identity). Second, it assumes that the native culture was homogenous at the time the welfare state was established and that diversity is a novel challenge that has arisen since. Implicit in this is the belief that the welfare state was largely in place by the 1950s, but this ignores the extension of benefits in the 1960s and the reform and expansion of education in the 1970s. The welfare state continued to grow and develop over time.

We do know that the erosion of tax morale in the UK from the 1970s onwards correlates with increasing immigration, but if this were really causal, you'd expect tax morale to start to erode in the 1950s, after the arrival of the Empire Windrush, and then accelerate during the 1960s. There is no evidence it did. The electoral victories of the Conservatives between 1951 and 1959 were based in large part on a commitment to generous public expenditure, notably preserving the NHS and building more council houses. The 1958 Notting Hill riots, the 1963 Bristol bus boycott and the 1965 and 1968 Race Relations Acts show that race was a salient issue in the 60s, but there was no significant linkage of it to the welfare state. The formal discourse on race concerned civil rights; the informal discourse miscegenation. The increasing reluctance of conservative voters to pay high taxes actually correlates with industrial militancy, squeezed profits (due to international competition as much as wage demands), and the associated inflation of the 1970s. The questioning of the "burden" of welfare then was a class issue. The introduction of a racial dimension is much more recent, dating to the 1990s and the emergence of the "bogus asylum-seeker" in the media.

Having made ethnic diversity the problematic of welfare in The British Dream, Goodhart proceeded to explain Brexit in The Road to Somewhere as an essentially cultural reaction to both the ongoing legacy of that diversity (the desire to defend a rooted identify and ethnic solidarity) and the metropolitan elite's unwillingness to acknowledge the problem. This obviously occludes any material explanation for people voting leave, such as the legacy of deindustrialisation or increasing inequality, unless you imagine that lots of them had read and absorbed the rationale of The British Dream, but it also flattens the motivations of remainers, as if 48% of voters could reasonably be defined as rootless cosmopolitans when even he admits that his definition of "Anywheres" only extends to about 25% of the population. Goodhart isn't crude enough to employ the phrase "race betrayal", but in hitching a dichotomy centred on ethnic solidarity to a referendum, it is pretty clear that this is part of the subtext. If you voted for the EU, you voted against the national community.

One obvious problem with the somewhere/anywhere dichotomy is that most people are a mix of the two. One of Goodhart's favourite stats is that 60% of people have never moved more than 20 miles since they were aged 14, but he fails to note that a large proportion of them are Londoners and other big city-dwellers, including many who would otherwise be viewed in his scheme as anywheres. He also ignores that the inverse - 40% of the population have moved around the country - is not some recent development but reflects a history of significant internal migration since the Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century. The British population has always been relatively mobile, with the ironic exception of the city-born who were less likely to move, or at least only move between boroughs. The people we characterise as somewheres are often themselves migrants or their children. Many "small towns" were created by wholesale transplantation, and often quite recently (e.g. Scottish steelworkers in Corby). 

Of course Goodhart isn't presenting somewhere as simply a synonym of indigenous, but once you acknowledge that the majority of the population combine both somewhere and anywhere tendencies, his dichotomy loses much of its explanatory value unless you assume there is an ethnic correlation. As Jonathan Freedland noted, Goodhart sees ethnic and religious minorities "as the cloud on the Somewheres’ horizon, the blot that has darkened the Somewheres’ previously sunny landscape. It is their arrival that has changed Britain beyond recognition, their presence that has to be dealt with". If the somewhere/anywhere binary is not simply a proxy for native/foreign, is it perhaps just a reductive euphemism for class, with the definition of somewheres serving to unite the otherwise disparate "traditional" working class and comfortable middle-class in a conservative bloc opposed to a "woke" upper middle-class that dominates public life? You'll note that this occludes the actual working class, many of whom happen to be from ethnic minorities, unless of course you believe that a Pakistani-heritage bus driver really is indistinguishable from a BBC producer who went to Harrow.

Goodhart's latest foray, Head Hand Heart, appears to be an attempt to explain why the "Anywheres" were not merely unwilling to acknowledge the problem of diversity but incapable of thinking about it. In effect, he posits a form of false consciousness embedded through the brainwashing of further education. This obviously overlaps with fashionable nonsense about cultural Marxism, but it also means that he provides an excuse for liberal refugees like himself: I was misled by groupthink into supporting liberal shibboleths about the progressive value of multiculturalism. The title suggests a more determined attempt to avoid a crude binary this time round, but his argument is still a simple opposition of graduates and the rest, with the latter subdivided by gendered occupations. This gendering suggests a further step towards conservative orthodoxy, valorising the traditional family and womanly virtues, but Goodhart misunderstands that these ideals were always promoted as being untainted by the market, not a subdivision of it. His is a liberal interpretation of conservativism that strays towards caricature.

That Goodhart doesn't quite get conservatism is evident from some of the reviews. For example, David Willetts, who Goodhart credits with stimulating his original interest in the relationship of diversity and welfare, suggests that universities are far more somewhere than anywhere: "Universities are exceptional among modern institutions in having geographical names. They are somewhere. They stay in the same place for centuries. They are crucial to the local economy and civic life and are the best anchor for a town facing the gales of globalisation. The university is the institution where the tensions Goodhart identifies are most often played out. He worries about students moving out and moving up, but he forgets that the university, with its staff and its services, remains rooted in a town, bringing people in and keeping some of them there. The evidence is clear: universities help towns and cities retain home-grown graduates; cities without a university are least likely to attract back students born there after they have graduated."

Despite his own background, Goodhart appears to have a poor grasp of the sociology of British upper and middle-class life. For all the romance of heritage, landowners have historically been anywheres, owning and moving between multiple properties across often great distances. Speaking a foreign language, wintering abroad and being au fait with international culture were the characteristics of the aristocracy, rather than the middle class, until well into the second half of the twentieth century. The impact of Elizabeth David and Terence Conran on middle class taste was only a little ahead of the exposure of the working class to foreign culture through cheap package holidays to Spain, and most sociologists would agree that there has been greater shared cultural capital between the classes over the last half century. The chasm of sensibility that Goodhart imagines depends on extrapolating the preferences and social capital of a much smaller minority, the actual metropolitan elite, to the larger graduate population, and flattening the heterogeneity and variety of the actual working class (which now includes many graduates).

This highlights the shallowness of Goodhart's thinking and his tendency to ignore actual sociology for the ephemera of opinion polls and journalistic commentary, where anxiety about "white loss of identity" is considered as real as myths about campus assaults on free-speech. That shallowness is also evident in his notion that people (or jobs) can be neatly put into one of three boxes. The vast majority of jobs combine cognitive, manual & social skills, not one to the exclusion of the others. Think of a butcher, a nurse or a car mechanic. The history of industrial relations in the UK is of the refusal of manual workers to be limited by the definition of hand, displaying both head (strikes, go-slows etc) and heart (solidarity) in opposition. The contemporary undervaluing of care work has nothing to do with the dominance of heart in the roles, or the disproportionate employment of women, and everything to do with the exploitative structure of the care sector.

Despite his reactionary gestures, Goodhart hasn't become a conservative and evidence of this is the importance he places on fear. For a true Tory, the strong emotion of fear is very much subordinate to more stable ideas such as hierarchy, duty and caution. Goodhart's pessimistic liberalism is founded on the fear of the other as a threat to enlightenment values and its origins lie in the reaction to 9/11. As Corey Robin put it in Fear: The History of a Political Idea, "At moments of doubt about the ability of positive principles to animate moral perception or inspire public action, fear has seemed an ideal source of political insight and energy". The failure of liberal interventionism in Iraq did not dissipate that fear, it simply redirected it to the domestic sphere in the form of an anxiety about diversity. The failure of neoliberal economics in 2008 did not lead to the triumphant return of material politics, let alone socialism, in part because that simmering fear could be leveraged to divide society along the lines of culture and values. Brexit and Trump are conservative epiphenomena of that debilitating liberal fear.

Though Goodhart presents the welfare state as vulnerable, what he actually fears is not the privatisation of the NHS but the undermining of liberal values. His focus on diversity is not simple bigotry but the belief that multiculturalism entails relativism and that this will ultimately erode those values. In expanding his critique to higher education, he isn't railing against strawmen such as postmodernism or no-platforming but suggesting that the goods of academia can only be preserved if they are rationed and their pursuit limited to those who possess a native sympathy for the enlightenment that underpins them. It is clear that the values Goodhart really wishes to preserve are not those of small town conservatives, just as it is a liberal elite, albeit one that is more sensitive to somewheres, that he still envisages attending Russell Group universities once the former polytechnics are converted back to vocational colleges. In desiring parity of esteem for hand and heart, he is hoping to better preserve the head. Figuratively, he wishes to ensure that the mind of the body politic is focused and self-aware and to that end it must be motivated by a fear of its own dissolution.