Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Popular Struggle and Doctrinal Battles

The TV news coverage of the Labour Party Conference has been so clumsily antagonistic that I momentarily wondered on Monday if it wasn't a plot by "sleeper pinkos" to force a reverse-ferret through the power of irony. It's more likely that 20 years of Blairite conditioning has left them incapable of asking probing questions of an interviewee who, for once, is willing to open-up rather than close-down a debate. For all their bleats about politicians' spin, the reality is that TV's political "heavyweights" are now far more comfortable with the cosmetic than the substantive, including the comedy turns of Michael Crick, showing how much the incestuous relations of the "caste" have coarsened democracy. Laura "sneer" Kuenssberg of the BBC asking John McDonnell why he isn't overthrowing capitalism might be dismissed as a lack of imagination, but Jon "skunk" Snow of Channel 4 demanding to know what he would do on "day one" (i.e. a Friday in late May 2020) is no more evidence of intelligent life than Martian brine-stains.

In contrast, it looks like the neoliberal fightback has begun in earnest in the print media, and this is nowhere more evident than in the New Statesman. Peter Kellner's warning that Corbyn's opponents (that's "modernisers" not Tories, obvs) are "running out of road" is the centrepiece. Having already produced some comical propaganda via his YouGov opinion-formation machine (I did a fisk here), he attempts to divorce the new party leader from the history of social democracy, continuing a theme launched last week by Martin Kettle in the Guardian. For Kellner, the "Corbyn insurgency" has "opened up a doctrinal chasm on the left" between those who think "the best way to build a good society is for workers and elected politicians, not company shareholders, to take the big decisions in the business world" and the vast bulk of Labour MPs who are pro-capitalism: "They like its dynamism. They regard it as the best way to invent, develop and supply most goods and services. They have no wish to replace it, even as a long-term objective". This "proper spheres of influence" cartoon (which has nothing to say about business people interfering in education or politics, natch) suggests that the neoliberal revanche currently lacks intellectual subtlety.

In amongst the tosh, including a lament that Clause IV was replaced with pabulum rather than a full-throated commitment to capitalism, Kellner makes the valuable point that Labour's original constitution advocated common ownership (a capacious term that covers everything from a workers' collective to the BBC), not nationalisation specifically. For him this is evidence of the pragmatic ambiguity of a Fabian-managed party that "owes more to Merthodism than Marxism" (as an aside, more party members will have read the Communist Manifesto than Wesley's Sermons, and the cultural impact of Catholicism has been just as great - the phrase survives because of alliteration, not insight). The Attlee administration is damned with faint praise (a Blairite trope): "True, his government nationalised the mines and the railways; but given how badly these had been run before the war, one could make a perfectly pragmatic, non-ideological case for taking them over". It seems to escape Kellner that Corbyn is making a similarly pragmatic case in respect of railways, energy companies and banks today. John McDonnell's insistence that Labour are not deficit-deniers, that they will pursue balanced budgets, and that "People's QE" is a tactic for abnormal times all point to the pragmatic basis of the emerging Corbyn programme, and thus its social democratic credentials.

This tour through Labour's history serves to tee up Kellner's central argument about the consequences of pragmatism and creative ambiguity: "Thinking with the wisdom of hindsight, we should not be surprised that the anti-capitalist left has revived. The hard truth is that it was never defeated because it was never properly engaged. It was simply thrust to the margins, where it bided its time ... Could things have worked out differently? Could Labour have done more than hold the left at bay: could it have won a head-on doctrinal battle?" (You'll notice that this "left" is, by definition, alien to Labour). It might appear odd that a man who earns a living by offering supposedly neutral and empirically-based opinion polling should be such a determined idealist, but this simply reveals the Manichean basis of much neoliberal thinking, particularly in its Blairite incarnation. While Corbyn preaches a plurality of opinion and respect for nonconformism, Kellner insists on the one true church, and a church militant at that (I could make some laboured jokes here about apostolic succession and the Inquisition, but I think you get the point).

To elaborate his thesis, Kellner turns to the history of the German SPD and specifically the pivot in 1959 towards support for the social market economy. For Kellner, this process was the continuation of an older project: "In a way, the SPD in the 1950s applied the tenets of the Enlightenment to itself. It approached its problems empirically. It pondered the evidence and concluded that Marxist socialism did not work, while properly regulated market capitalism did. Labour has never engaged in any such Enlightenment-style debate." Amusingly, Tuesday's Guardian carried a long piece by John Harris which indirectly confirmed that Marxism Today was the site of that debate, though it turned out to be an exchange in which neoliberalism successfully colonised and neutered a left that had become fascinated by the opportunities of post-Fordism and postmodernism (there was a Maoist masochism to the MT that led many of its leading lights to become state apparatchiks or propagandists in later life). The appeal to the Enlightenment serves to distract from the historic situation of the SPD during the Wirtschaftswunder years. The "pondering" of 1959 was not the result of some dispassionate search for knowledge but the need to adjust once the Marshall Plan and Allied political support for conservative politicians had neutralised the postwar economic critique of the SPD and embedded Ordoliberalism in German political culture.

The key passage on the economy that Kellner quotes from the SPD's Godesberg Program makes the Ordoliberal influence clear: "The autonomy of trade unions and employers' associations in collective bargaining is an important feature of a free society. Totalitarian control of the economy destroys freedom. The Social Democratic Party therefore favours a free market wherever free competition really exists. Where a market is dominated by individuals or groups, however, all manner of steps must be taken to protect freedom in the economic sphere. As much competition as possible – as much planning as necessary." The economic divergence of the two Germanys during the 50s, and the Federal Republic's integration into the nascent EEC, also undermined the policy of the SPD for reunification as a neutral state (the CDU/CSU were insistent on remaining in NATO, putting the kybosh on unification), which required it to flex its stance on international relations as much as on the economy. Oddly, Kellner passes up the opportunity to cast Ostpolitik, the policy championed by the later SPD administration under Willy Brandt of a rapprochement with the GDR combined with fealty to NATO and the EEC, as proto-triangulation.

Kellner is urging doctrinal struggle by the mass of MPs who "think Corbyn’s politics are bonkers", but ... "I fear that the quiet life will win the day, that Corbyn will become entrenched, and that a head-on doctrinal dispute will, as always, be avoided. For a century, fudging the issue has occasionally allowed Labour to build an election-winning, big-tent coalition of progressive voters. Today, that approach guarantees disaster. It will leave Corbyn free to promote his electorally toxic and economically destructive brand of left-wing politics. If that is what happens, Labour’s tent will become a lot smaller and the party will cease to be fit for purpose." The irony is that the Godesberg Program signalled the moment at which the SPD decided to turn away from doctrinal struggle and instead appeal to the electorate on an ethical basis, thereby cleaving to the more pragmatic tradition that Kellner bemoans in respect of Labour. The SPD also accepted the hegemony of Ordoliberalism, much as the self-aware Gramscians at Marxism Today ended up accepting neoliberalism's "liberation theology" as an antidote to the venom of Thatcherism.

In contrast to Kellner, Nick Pearce of the IPPR, writing about Labour's "valley of death", is intellectually honest enough to concede that Blairism is a busted flush, leaving the party "trapped between hollowed-out centrist technocracy and revanchist state socialism". However, he continues the project to put clear blue water between Corbyn and social democracy: "While his campaign tapped into discontent with the decrepit state of mainstream Labour politics, it did not give birth to a new social movement, rooted in popular struggle, like those that have sprung up in southern Europe. His improbable leadership of the Labour Party is another symptom of the crisis of social democracy, not the incubator of its future". In 2003 the "modernisers" ignored millions on the street; now they consider the absence of popular struggle as evidence of a lack of legitimacy. Hegemony is characterised not only by shameless contradiction (the emperor's new clothes) but by the sense of outrage when the impermissible (or "improbable") enters the public domain. This is emotionalism, not empiricism.

Unlike Kellner, Pearce is prepared to draw a line under the Blairite phase: "The last time the death notices of social democracy were written in the early 1990s, a wave of Third Way revisionism brought it back to life ... Today, it is clear that Third Way modernisation relied on historical circumstances that cannot be repeated now: principally a long wave of growth, in which a build-up of household debt and government transfers maintained living standards, despite rising asset inequality and the sundering of the link between productivity increases and wages". What he is less prepared to concede is that these economic trends, which were plain for all to see at the time, meant that Blairism was always doomed to fail once growth was interrupted and capital inequality had passed a point of no (easy) return. Far from being empirically-based or even ethically-grounded, Blairism was distinguished by nothing more than whistling to keep one's spirits up ("Things can only get better", indeed).

John Gray is not a neoliberal but a pessimistic conservative who considers Corbyn's optimism to be pernicious. As such he categorises it under "the delusions of progress" arsing from Enlightenment thinking, in pointed contrast to Kellner. What they (and Pearce) share is an expectation of catastrophe. Gray at least has some credentials in this department because he was one of those who spotted the direction of travel in the 80s and 90s (notably in False Dawn): "Looking back, it becomes clear that Corbyn is one of the by-products of a project of marketisation, begun in Britain by Thatcher and continued during the era of New Labour, which has been pursued in different forms in many countries. Corbyn is one of the unintended consequences of this project and its recurrent crises ... the social disruption that goes with the spread of the market has actually produced a plethora of illiberal and fundamentalist movements." Despite the Spenglerian hell-in-a-handcart vibe, Gray does have some sensible things to say and is a notably better reader of postwar German history than Kellner: "Ordoliberals have in common with neoliberals a commitment to placing economic policy beyond the reach of democratic politics ... The effect of imposing this German ideology on the eurozone has been to cede popular legitimacy to radical new movements".

But Gray's tendency to view the world through the grim prism of Schopenhauer means that his writings often spiral off into gloomy hyperbole: "The ruling ideology on the bien-pensant left was a version of what George Orwell in 1945 called catastrophic gradualism – the theory that nothing can be achieved in politics without bloodshed, tyranny, lies and injustice; the only way to a better future is by sacrificing the current generation of human beings. This was never the predominant view in the Labour Party, but for many years something like it permeated the left intelligentsia". From this Gray proceeds to accuse "sections of the left" of association with "groups that harbour active terrorists, homophobes and Holocaust deniers". From there it is a short walk to the conclusion that "For the first time in its history, a serious question must be asked as to whether Labour can be trusted to promote civilised values". And you thought Corbyn was just being criticised for not singing God Save the Queen. For the record, Nelson Mandela was an active terrorist, many current Tories are homophobes, and Corbyn is not a Holocaust denier.

To cap it all, "In its shift towards becoming an extra-parliamentary party, Labour may already have ceased to be a party of government. By electing Corbyn, Labour may have passed a point from which it will be unable to return". If an "extra-parliamentary" Labour party (the "social movement" that Nick Pearce claims does not exist) is now unelectable, does that mean the progressive cause in 2020 will be taken up by the reinvigorated Liberal Democrats or a post-referendum UKIP? Labour will still be the only realistic challenger to the Tories in 5 years time, and the party's chances of success will depend largely on Tory errors and the popular mood, rather than doctrinal matters, which is why Corbyn & co are emphasising dull reliability and common decency now. The modest reality of "new old Labour" was revealed by the makeup of its economic advisory committee. Accepting that this is perhaps as much gestural as practical, the names are hardly radical: Stiglitz, Piketty, Pettifor, Nesvetailova, Wren-Lewis, Mazzucato, Blanchflower. These are mainstream, Keynesian economists who only look unorthodox if you believe that "expansionary fiscal contraction" is common sense.

A paradox of media bias is that the near invisibility of Corbyn and McDonnell over the years means that the average voter is currently open-minded about them. The crude caricatures about wanting to abolish the army aren't meant to convince so much as fill a void. More sophisticated attacks will emerge, once developing policy can be spun as internally-divisive, irresponsible or an attack on our hallowed liberties. For the moment, the hysteria of the "quality press" reflects the lack of a substantive basis for a critique, obliging them to fall back on ad hominem attacks and lurid predictions of doctrinal terror. For all the efforts of Kettle, Kellner and Pearce, Corbyn and McDonnell are doing a better job of reclaiming social democracy than the Blairite remnants; and for all the media shouts of "chaos", they have done more to challenge popular perceptions about the Labour Party in two weeks than Ed Miliband managed over 5 years.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Historical Piketty

The lasting significance of Thomas Piketty was recently proven when Morgan Stanley issued a research paper, co-authored by the economist Charles Goodhart, with the media-friendly quote: "Is Piketty history? We think so". This was predictably broadcast to an expectant world by the usual suspects, including the BBC where Duncan Weldon appears to have been fully assimilated by the neoliberal Borg [update: he's a bit more sceptical here]. If 2014 saw a steady progression through the stages of the Kubler-Ross model - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - we have now arrived at the start of a new cycle in which Piketty is dismissed with the airy claim "It doesn't matter anyway, coz". Weldon sets the scene: "The last three decades have seen huge changes in the global economy. Three trends have dominated: falling interest rates, weak wage growth and rising inequality. Documenting the last of these trends made the French economist Thomas Piketty an unlikely best-seller. But might these trends be about to reverse? Is Piketty wrong to worry about rising inequality?"

The Morgan Stanley theory (outlined here) is that demography - specifically a rising dependency ratio: the number of young and old relative to the working population - will lead to rising interest rates, strong wage growth and thus falling inequality. There are two parts to this. First, an ageing population is expected to lead to an unwinding of the global "savings glut" that developed on the back of the rapid expansion of the labour supply after 1990. This will serve to increase consumption relative to saving and thus drive up interest rates. Second, the fall in the working population relative to the total will bid up wages. This will further fuel inflation (because those wages will be spent), leading to further upward pressure on interest rates. The authors consider some mitigations in developed economies - that more old people will continue working, that immigration will expand the labour supply, and that fertility rates may pick up - but dismiss them as marginal at best.

This is a welcome message for many. Not only does it suggest we needn't worry about inequality, because it will right itself over time, but it also promises a return to healthy interest rates that will benefit both savers and bankers. Given that OAPs are assumed to be running down their savings in this new model, the term "savers" can be taken as a proxy for "the rich" - those with surplus income. As Morgan Stanley put it: "Piketty is history, not the ineluctable future. If these global demographic trends, as we argue below, drove inequality higher, then their reversal could lower inequality too. Labour had lost much of its power to command higher wages between 1980 and 2010. Now labour will become increasingly scarce. The labour share of income, having trended down in most DM [developed market] economies since 1970, is now likely to rebound." You'll notice that no distinction is made within the category of labour, such as between the top 1% of earners and the rest, which even some sympathetic observers have noted remains an issue, and one that the Frenchman explicitly addressed.

The pun is clearly deliberate. What is significant is not merely the suggestion that the Piketty storm has passed, but that history can be safely ignored - it is not a reliable guide to the future. This echoes the "marxisant" criticism of Piketty's claims last year, namely that rising inequality is no more inevitable than the tendential fall in the rate of profit proposed by Marx. Of course, this original critique and its current iteration both ignore the Frenchman's specific point that history does not show an inexorable, linear progression but an oscillation in the mid-twentieth century, which contradicted the assumption of Simon Kuznets. In Piketty's view - which was backed by solid historical data - rising inequality was a reversion to a historical norm that was potentially incompatible with democracy (this political dimension continues to be sidestepped by the right). The focus on the capital/labour share of income (i.e. wages) ignores Piketty's more fundamental point about the accumulation of capital over time due to the rate of return being higher than growth (r > g). Claiming that this is no longer relevant massively misses Piketty's point: patrimonial capital is a legacy of history that affects society today. We don't reset the wealth counters each morning.

I haven't read the Morgan Stanley paper (a full version doesn't appear to be online [update: the authors provide a summary here] and I'm not going to buy it), so my understanding is based on selective quotations and second-hand synopses, but there is clearly a problem with their claim that an ageing population will lead to higher interest rates. Conventional wisdom suggests that too much saving (which increases with age) is deflationary, but a recent BIS (Bank of International Settlements) statistical study (quoted by the Morgan Stanley paper) suggests the opposite: "a larger share of dependents (ie young and old) is correlated with higher inflation, while a larger share of working age cohorts is correlated with lower inflation." The study authors suggest a possible explanation: "those cohorts which consume more goods and services than they produce (ie the dependents) could exert an inflationary pressure through excess demand while those who produce more than what they consume (ie the working age cohorts) could exert a disinflationary pressure through excess supply".

While this turns the standard theory on its head, the idea is not unreasonable; though it's worth noting in passing that it is at odds with the traditional claim that wage demands - particularly by young workers - drove inflation in the 60s and 70s. If the BIS study authors' supposition is true, this would suggest that high levels of underlying inflation (i.e. ignoring shocks like the 1973 oil crisis) were the product of the family, not of social factors such as trade unions, which would be an amusing historical irony. That said, my issue is not with the BIS study, which has plenty of caveats and calls for further research, but the way that it has been interpreted in the Morgan Stanley paper. Specifically, they have taken a study of 22 advanced economies (16 of them in Western Europe) and assumed that the observed correlation will hold good for developing nations as well. This ignores cultural and social differences between the West and the rest, and in particular the role of the welfare state.

It is reasonable to believe that the growth of state spending in advanced economies over the twentieth century redistributed money from workers to dependents - via health and social care, education and pensions - and that this in turn reduced precautionary saving and fuelled inflation (because more money was being spent), which combined to drive up interest rates. It is also reasonable to assume that globalisation (the increase in labour supply) put downward pressure on median wages at a time when political pressure to reduce state spending was also deflationary, thus leading to lower inflation and falling interest rates in the early-90s. The problem is that China is not the UK. Without similar mechanisms, we cannot necessarily expect the same dynamics. For example, without the creation of a Chinese NHS and the provision of decent state pensions (rather than reliance on family and limited private provision), an increase in the dependency ratio may encourage further precautionary saving as a percentage of GDP, not less.

A second issue with the Morgan Stanley paper is that while it makes great play of the anticipated fall in the working-age population as a percentage of the total, it has little to say about its compositional calibre. It is a mistake to think that labour is fungible - i.e. that anyone can do anyone else's job - and that a falling supply of brain surgeons will therefore drive up the wages of bin-men. The expansion of education in the developed world - which has run for 150 years and has been accelerating over the last 50, with little sign of letting up (e.g. we're now mandating education to 18 in the UK) - is being repeated in the developing world. This will rapidly increase the cohort of labour capable of cognitive work (graduate under-employment shows that this is already a reality in the West), so the downward pressure on wages may still persist even if robots don't make inroads into whitecollar roles as quickly as expected. Meanwhile, we can be confident that automation will continue to reduce the demand for manual labour (or force down wages as an alternative to capital/labour substitution), because that is a process that has been observable for decades now, despite the increase in the global labour supply.

The Morgan Stanley analysis is inadequate and popular for the same reason: it explains contemporary dilemmas away by appeal to a single factor, demography, which now appears to be heading in a benign direction (benign, that is, for bankers if not the NHS). This is the invisible hand at work: inequality will decline as the market reaches equilibrium; no state intervention is needed. The thesis is also attractive to those for whom generational conflict is a more palatable explanation for rising inequality than class conflict, and those reluctant to acknowledge that global imbalances in savings and investment reflect geography (and thus international politics) more than demography. The most striking feature of the analysis and the admiring media reception is the complete absence of any reference to the welfare state. It's not just that an "ageing population" is now being recast as the solution to some of our problems, but that the phrase - with all its negative connotations - has become divorced from the NHS for the first time in decades. History has been wiped clean.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Bore's Head

Even if the allegation is completely untrue, David Cameron will now forever more be known as a pig-fucker. This is partly because the other revelations in the unauthorised biography by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakshott are trivial, but mainly because the image of a decapitated porker coming into contact with the PM's pork sword is so powerful that it blinds us to the rest of the portrait. In Ashcroft's hands, Cameron comes across as casual, reluctant to think (which appears to be the criticism coming from the military), and louche, but probably no more than the average for his social "set". There is an inescapable air of middle-class moralising by the ex-grammar schoolboy about the privileged Old Etonian, which is why the serialisation was a good fit for the Daily Mail. There is no real story here, but there is an endless source of jokes and puns.

The pig's head has long been a rich symbol. As a hunted animal, the wild boar was admired for its willingness to fight, and also had associations in mythology with the underworld (all that rooting about), death and winter. The Boar's Head Feast, which lives on in the modern Christmas ham, is clearly a solstice celebration in which the cooked boar symbolises the death of the darkest season, though it's not entirely clear what the apple (or orange or lemon) in the mouth represents, if anything (it's surely just an unfortunate coincidence that it looks like a bondage ball-gag). The oldest extant English ceremony is found (coincidentally) at Queen's College, Oxford, which legend has it originated when a student, attacked by a wild boar, choked the animal by stuffing a volume of Aristotle down its throat. This obviously symbolises the triumph of learning over the feral, and thus the wider victory of civilisation over nature, but it also provides a pun on the traditional herbal accompaniment: he "fairly choked the savage with the sage".

As a representative of the dark side, the wild boar has often been seen as evil or possessed (e.g. the Gadarene swine), hence the common belief that pigs are unclean. Even where they are eaten and have been domesticated, they remain a metaphor for human uncouthness: the swinish multitude. In the modern era, the pig's head has become a threat of violence (easier to buy and manoeuvre than a severed horse's head), often deployed as a conscious act of pollution, hence its frequent appearance hurled at the doors of police stations, synagogues and mosques. Back in 1978, I saw Angelic Upstarts at Newcastle Poly kicking a fresh pig's head around the stage to accompany their debut single, The Murder of Liddle Towers. The song referred to a local hardnut who was found kicked to death after a night in the police cells. I even remember the chorus: "Who killed Liddle? The police killed Liddle; police killed Liddle Towers". Naturally, the police tried to nick them for this provocation.

Though a pig's head can be a tasty dish, and could therefore be considered a good thing, it still retains that unmistakable message of contempt even when cooked, hence the cochinillo, or suckling pig, that was famously thrown at Luis Figo when he returned to the Camp Nou as a Real Madrid player in 2002. The association of the pig's head and sport, or male-bonding more generally, is not accidental. It is a fairly common prop of rugby club night-outs and stag-dos, and occasionally to be found hidden as a surprise present in changing room lockers. Perhaps this carries an echo of the ancient hunt, from which most sports derive. Or perhaps the pig's head is just a handy piece of ickiness in a world where we rarely see the reality of factory-farming and meat production. A packet of Walls' sausages does not have quite the same impact.

Quite a few people have drawn a parallel between the Cameron tale and The Lord of the Flies, the eponymous boar's head and totem that symbolises innate human evil in the book by William Golding, but this too obviously seeks to emphasise the debauchery and amorality of a groups of unsupervised schoolboys. The Piers Gaveston Society, which dates from the early Thatcher years, was probably more influenced by Brideshead Revisited and the Cambridge Apostles (the sex and sarcasm more than the philosophising or spying). As was evident in the sociology of the Bullingdon Club, what matters is the sense of entitlement and the associated licence to display contempt towards outsiders and social inferiors; a heady brew for conformist teenagers. In this context, the choice of a pig's head does not appear to be particularly significant.

What would turn the merriment into full-blown disgust - and thereby prove the Piers Gaveston Society to be true provocateurs rather than poseurs, while simultaneously condemning Cameron down the ages - would be to discover that the ceremony was a sort of black-mass in which the initiate cursed and defiled an embodiment of the Empress of Blandings, the noble beast who appeared in no less than ten P G Wodehouse stories. Morrissey's call for the prime Minister to resign if the allegation is true could quickly become the defining social media campaign of our time. Jeremy Corbyn ought to ask a question in the House. It's surely what the nation wants.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

A New Hope

Martin Kettle reckons that, like Gaul, the Labour Party is divided into three parts: ethical socialism, labourism, and social democracy. In his view, Jeremy Corbyn represents the combination of the first and second, while most MPs represent the combination of the second and third. For Kettle, the sine qua non of social democracy is to be pro-European (quelle surprise), while the other strands of Labour are deemed respectively sceptical and suspicious (if tractable). This is a travesty of history. The ethical socialist strand has always tended towards internationalism rather than isolationism (unlike labourism), while a reluctance to engage in the early stages of the European project was a distinguishing feature of the Attlee administration, whose social democratic credentials are hardly in dispute. Though Labour came round to the idea of joining the EEC, opposition to this was as strong on the right (e.g. Hugh Gaitskell's warning of "the end of a thousand years of history") as on the left. What's significant about Kettle's pen portrait is not the polite sneering, which has a long history dating to back to caricatures of vegetarians and cart-horses, but the attempt to claim social democracy for continuity Blairism.

It's assumed that the UK's in/out debate has always been about sovereignty, but it's perhaps not so well understood that in the 60s and 70s this was a question of the restraints to be placed on the activist state. In other words, the EEC was seen as potentially inimical to social democracy, rather than its logical extension. The agenda of the "modernisers" of the Labour Party, whether in terms of supporting European integration or advocating the repeal of Clause IV, was usually distinguished by the idea that the state should commit to a self-denying ordinance of reduced intervention; that it should be less an active participant in the economy than a referee seeking to maintain a balance between capital and labour (reflecting the growing neoliberal/ordoliberal influence). This made their nomenclature, from the Campaign for Democratic Socialism in the 60s to the formation of the Social Democratic Party in the 80s, all the more ironic. According to Kettle, "Social democracy’s priority is to fashion achievable compromises between capitalism and social justice. This places the emphasis on governing". Leaving aside the snide implication that not all are capable of governing, this prompts the question: what distinguishes the social democratic state in practice?

Ambivalence over the role of the state has been a theme in the work of Western liberal historians (i.e. those on the broad centre-left, and not just self-identifying social democrats) over the last twenty years. In the 70s and 80s, the foundational arguments against totalitarianism - a prominent issue for academics after the 1975 Helsinki Accords - were extended by the growing acceptance of neoliberalism's critique of central planning. A somewhat rose-tinted view of the daily heroism of Eastern European intellectuals was spliced with the quotidian frustrations of dealing with the likes of BT and the IRS. This transformed an argument about the motives of specific states and their elites into a claim that all states were inherently a menace and that we'd be better off trusting civil society or markets - which were increasingly taken to be much the same thing. Since the early 90s, following the impacts of globalisation and privatisation (and not just in higher education), these historians have come to regret the eclipse of the activist state, and in particular its capacity to act as the agent for social improvements that the market cannot or will not address, from  housebuilding to social mobility (again, acute issues for meritocrats struggling to afford prices in university towns).

This ambivalence has been explicit in the historiography of the social democratic state and les trente glorieuses, but it has also been implicit in the reassessment of the Nazi state and the legacy of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. Examples of the former by British historians include Tony Judt's polemical lament, Ill Fares the Land, and David Kynaston's fine-grained social history, Tales of a New Jerusalem. Examples of the latter, by British and American historians, include Mark Mazower's Hitler's Empire, which examined the differences in Nazi governance between Western and Eastern Europe and traced their roots to imperial attitudes (thus implicating a wider, Western European worldview), and Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which advanced the thesis that the extreme violence in Eastern Europe was the cumulative product of both Soviet and German invasions and their destruction of the state apparatus in the occupied territories (a thesis that was welcomed both by East European advocates of the "double genocide" and American neocons eager to draw parallels between Putin's policy and Stalin's).

Judt's panoptic Postwar combined a history of social democracy's triumph and troubles in Western Europe after 1945 with the slow collapse of the communist states of Eastern Europe following their institutional corruption under Stalin and his successors. Together with the intellectual history of France and modern debates over Israel (between which Judt sees parallels of dishonesty), these were the themes that he returned to in his last major work, Thinking the Twentieth Century, a record of his conversations with Snyder in which he looked back over his career. Mazower, who had earlier made his reputation with works on the multinational polities and civil wars of Greece and the Balkans, also produced Governing the World, which examined the history of attempts at supra-national governance from the Concert of Europe to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Despite the slightly "black helicopters" tone of the title, this was an attempt to recuperate the idea of popular internationalism in the face of the realpolitik that has monopolised multilateral institutions.

The historiography of social democracy is partly a nostalgia that seeks to separate the warm bathwater of indoor plumbing (and other material and social advances) from the baby of stereotyped crisis (over-mighty trade unions, working-class yobbishness, awful fashions etc), and can be seen not only in the positive revaluation of the interventionist state (e.g. Mariana Mazzucato's The Entrepreneurial State) but in the evolution of the "not so grim 70s" pop-cultural trope (e.g. Danny Baker's TV memoir, Cradle to Grave). The ambivalence arises from doubts over whether the "good state" can be reconstructed in the era of globalisation and unfettered capital and a fear that collective action may be impossible in a society of fragmented identity and commoditised expression. Where once pessimism was a specialty of conservative historians (with a particular accent on a decline from past glories), it is now to be found among progressives, many of whom have internalised the "realism" of the neoliberal era ("there is no alternative") while indulging a maudlin and increasingly tedious "baby-boomer" guilt. Of course some of this is just conservatism in liberal guise. I remember being particularly struck by Judt's utter contempt for Punk Rock in Postwar, reflecting his historical situation as a 60s old-fart (he was not impressed by a three-chord tune).

The historiography of the Nazi state (as opposed to the Nazis more broadly or topics such as the Holocaust) was originally a predominantly domestic German concern, divided between an institutional strand, focused on the "failure" of democracy and the transition from the Weimar Republic (e.g. Karl Bracher's The German Dictatorship), and a moral and cultural strand, focused on personal responsibility and collective guilt, which reflected generational conflicts in the postwar years but also engaged with traditional ideas about German exceptionalism and its "special path" (Sonderweg). This highly political debate reached a crescendo in the late-80s with the Historikerstreit ("historian's quarrel"), which centred on the question of equivalence between the crimes of Hitler and Stalin. This development turned attention to the sites of those crimes just in time for the fall of communism to open up the archives of Eastern Europe. From this point forward, the mechanics of the Nazi state, and the related question of German popular knowledge of the occupied territories, became a more international interest, leading to cause celebres such as Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, as well as more judicious syntheses such as Richard Evans's Third Reich trilogy.

Elsewhere, Western Europe saw a greater willingness to discuss domestic collaboration under Nazi rule following the trial of Klaus Barbie in 1987, while Eastern Europe started to excavate (often literally) the history of Soviet atrocities both before and after the Nazi years. These developments combined to promote the discussion of the Nazi state from Germany to occupied Europe, thereby setting up a tension between state activism and state destruction. This was amplified by the recrudescence of ethnic-cleansing during the Balkan wars of the 90s and the emergence of "regime change" as an active Western policy (both being casually linked back to WW2). The latter was initially couched in terms of "humanitarian intervention" (pro) or "gunboat diplomacy" (anti), both of which assumed a quick in-and-out operation. That appeared credible in the Balkans, and even in Kuwait, but the post-millennium occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq looked altogether more mid-twentieth century, particularly when prejudices about the incorrigibility of the natives led to policies more reminiscent of Poland than Vichy France, with the state apparatus trashed and governmental cadres driven into opposition. The lesson that many historians drew was that states must be preserved even at the risk of compromising on regime change, which has obviously informed calculations in respect of Syria.

Timothy Snyder has a new book out, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, in support of which he published a representative essay in the Guardian this week. I've not read the book, but my interest here is more in his attitude towards the state, on which I think the essay is revealing. Relative to Bloodlands, the new work appears to further emphasise the centrality of state destruction to genocide: "Where Germans obliterated conventional states, or annihilated Soviet institutions that had just destroyed conventional states, they created the abyss where racism and politics pulled together towards nothingness". Snyder also sees Hitler's quest for Lebensraum as a misguided response to ecological pressure: the need for land to prevent food shortages, rather than to multiply the racial stock. In noting that Hitler rejected the possibility that science might solve the immediate problem (which it did postwar in what became known as the Green Revolution), he draws a parallel with modern climate change denialism.

He also notes that histories of the Nazis equate genocide with the modern, industrialised state (either as the inevitable product of capitalism or central planning, depending on the historian's priors), but insists that it is the absence of the state that leads to such systematic killing. Observing in passing that "The invasion of Iraq killed at least as many people as did the prior Iraqi regime", he concludes that "When the Holocaust is blamed on the modern state, the weakening of state authority appears salutary. On the political right, the erosion of state power by international capitalism seems natural; on the political left, rudderless revolutions portray themselves as virtuous". Despite this even-handedness, it is clear that his defence of the state is primarily directed at those whose own privileged history means they fail to appreciate the necessity of the Leviathan: "A common American error is to believe that freedom is the absence of state authority". This is Hobbes contra Locke, revealing once more the conservative pessimist beneath the liberal optimist. The point of this detour to Eastern Europe in the early 1940s is that is highlights the extent to which contemporary concerns have led to the intellectual rehabilitation of the strong but plural state.

However, independent of whether you accept either the ecological explanation for Hitler's mania or the counterfactual that the absence of Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe before 1941 might have limited the German genocide (I am unconvinced by both), Snyder's central argument is problematic because there is no reason to believe that a global challenge like climate change is amenable to the actions of individual states, no matter how powerful they are or respectful of science. The only way of resolving this is to believe that strong states, subject to democratic constraint, are the best means of achieving multilateral cooperation. This harks back to the heyday of social democracy (which was both sovereigntist and internationalist) and the initial optimism around institutions such as the UN and the EEC. The problem that liberals face is that this optimism has been eroded: first, by the evidence that state elites will subvert democracy to pursue their own agenda (e.g. Iraq); and second, through the gradual supersession of multilateral institutions by markets and non-democratic regulators (e.g. TTIP). While everyone gripes about the spiralling cost and ineffectiveness of the UN, international governance is being monopolised by business interests increasingly antagonistic towards individual states.

This suggests that the long-anticipated transition from the Westphalian state to a democratic global order is stuck, and will likely remain stuck for the foreseeable future, which in turn opens up the opportunity to revive the activist state as the primary agent of social change. It is worth remembering that the European Parliament is the only democratic supra-national institution in the world, assuming you don't count the Eurovision Song Contest. In other words, the only example of popular internationalism where the will of multiple national communities is directly represented rather than mediated by state elites. Of course, cynicism about its powers and perks means its is increasingly dominated by charlatans and parasites (so not unlike the Eurovision Song Contest). Its sorry history of manipulation, institutional corruption and sidelining (e.g. over TTIP), by both the Commission and the Council of Ministers, doesn't suggest it is a template for the future. Its uniqueness suggests that it may now be little more than a historical curio.

The turn against Europe during the neoliberal era does not represent the revitalisation of the nineteenth or early twentieth century nation state - i.e. the belief in a common ethnic identity and destiny - but the fear that states are increasingly incapable of protecting citizens in a globalised world, and that supra-national structures like the EU are all to often fronts for global interests that undermine nation states. The policies of UKIP may be absurd, but they are activist, in the same way that Donald Trump's threats to build walls are, and it is this that attracts voters as much as the licenced bigotry. Contrary to the claims of those insisting that Labour must "listen to" the concerns of xenophobes who just know that most immigrants are benefit tourists, or idiots who believe that the party caused the financial crash, a more activist (and therefore left-wing) leadership may be precisely what is required to win back working class voters. This appears to be the conclusion of a recent IPPR analysis of the British Election Study's 2015 data, which incidentally provides quantitative support for my own suppositions about executive competence and the pivotal role of the LibDems.

Though it's early days, one thing we can be confident of is that the election of Jeremy Corbyn means that the role of the state - rather than just its size - will return to the heart of political debate. This is a good thing, though I fear that a social democracy tribute act is not what we need at this historical juncture: the debate must focus on the challenges of the twenty-first century, not nostalgia for the twentieth. However - and to show that I don't mind contradicting myself - the familiar form of a rebooted social democratic state may be precisely what's needed to secure the election of a Labour government capable of moving beyond Blairism and reimagining the economy and welfare and thus the future role of the state itself. To answer my original question, the distinguishing feature of the social democratic state in practice is precisely the activism that Corbyn politely promises. This is not the activism of New Labour (the "busy" state haranguing the populace to be more competitive and compliant), nor the trivial activism of Miliband (capping energy prices), but the willingness to intervene in order to influence the game. The state may stop being a referee (and a flagrantly bent one at that, in the case of the Tories) and become a player once more. Time to charge those light-sabres.

Monday, 14 September 2015

The End of New Labour

Like José Mourinho blaming Chelsea's latest defeat on an IT failure, the combination of paranoia and chagrin among Labour MPs in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn's election has been a treat. That various shadow cabinet members have taken it upon themselves to ostentatiously decline to serve is a breath-taking example of their sense of entitlement. And to think that some of these guys get cheap media coverage by criticising FIFA. No doubt some will cite Edmund Burke: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion". This would be to confuse principle (e.g. voting against the party whip on a specific issue like Trident) with institutional loyalty (otherwise advancing the party's general interest rather than undermining it). There is a parallel here with football. As a Chelsea fan, you might refuse to applaud John Terry because you think he is a racist, but you wouldn't refuse to attend matches just because you think he's become a liability on the pitch.

The significance of the result is Corbyn's overwhelming mandate from full party members, nixing the claims made during the campaign that his popularity owed everything to the passing fancy of social media and that this would delegitimise his victory and justify resistance by MPs. Just as Mourinho previously deflected attention from his team's poor performance onto the club's medics, the obsession with entryism has served to distract the media from the gulf between the PLP and the CLPs, which is not just the traditional friction between sectional interests or the institutional conflict of activists and careerists, but reflects the reinterpretation of the role of party members under New Labour. The double movement of neoliberal populism has been to encourage superficial and selfish engagement while insisting on the privileging of a professional elite. The former emphasises a market-oriented vision of political consumers in which politics is limited to a narrow spectrum of material concerns and parties are reduced to expressive brands. The latter assumes a technocratic order that is beyond dispute, with policy debate limited to the state's role in facilitating efficient markets. It's been a while in coming, but "party says no".

One consequence of this double movement was that MPs and media alike focused on the social media phenomenon when the real action was taking place elsewhere. Even the attempts to derail Corbyn, such as trying to create a Twitter-storm over his occasional coincidence with Hamas or insisting his economic policy could be reduced to the word "inflation", betrayed a belief that the election would be decided by a herd of easily-led sheep. Having patronised party activists for 20 years, Blairites made the mistake of assuming that members could be addressed as if they were the wider electorate and vice versa (an error that the Tories made after 1997 and to which Cameron's emollient hypocrisy was the response). This in turn reflects the "heroic" assumption at the heart of the New Labour project: that an individual would lead the party by the nose rather than the party defining the direction of travel and acting as a conscience for its elected representatives. In other words, members would become mere supporters. As football clubs have found, from Man Utd to MK Dons, activism cannot be wished away, while the hyper-commercial model of the modern game encourages "loyal supporters" to believe that their investment entitles them to make intemperate demands.

It's also worth noting that Tom Watson secured 37% of party member first preference votes in the deputy leadership contest, which was almost twice as many as his nearest challenger, Stella Creasy, on 20%. The party appears to have a pretty definite view about the sort of leadership it wants, which the votes of affiliates and registered supporters have merely amplified, and this view is reflected not only in the scale of Corbyn's support among members but in the annihilation of Liz Kendall as the Blairite torch-bearer. Again, the reduction in influence of affiliates (mainly trade unions), which was thought to be the key structural alteration after the election of Ed Miliband, has distracted from the more profound change since 2010, which is that the number of voting party members has almost doubled, from 126,874 to 245,520. In combination with the abolition of the electoral college, this meant that a half-share of party member votes now represented 29% of the total electorate, whereas in 2010 it represented only 16.5%. The Blairites have been hoist by the democracy petard.

The leftward shift of party members, 44% of whom cast first preference votes for David Miliband in 2010, is being attributed to the increase in membership (i.e. entryism) however this only makes sense if you assume that no one who previously voted for Ed Miliband voted for Corbyn and that the latter's vote is therefore entirely down to new members. Clearly, there is as much continuity as change. It's also worth bearing in mind that this increase in party membership (or, more accurately, members who chose to vote) is still quite modest compared to the surge that saw membership increase from just over 250 to 400 thousand in the mid-90s during the New Labour honeymoon, and that the peak periods for the more recent increase were immediately after the general election defeats of 2010 and 2015. If the latter spurred entryism to the benefit of the left, then presumably the former did so to the benefit of the right, which doesn't sound altogether credible. Perhaps the simpler truth is that Labour members have been edging leftwards for well over a decade, though this may actually be a trick of perspective, reflecting the PLP's shuffle to the right during the years of government. Some Labour Party members clearly see Corbyn as a direct successor to John Smith, both in terms of a more traditional policy stance and personal probity.

The echoes of the disloyal behaviour of the Gang of Four in the early-80s are all too clear in the comments of some MPs, but I suspect the chance of another split and the creation of the long-heralded British Democratic Party is slight to non-existent. Though the implosion of the Liberal Democrats might suggest to some that a space has opened up in the centre of politics, the success of the SNP means that the prospects for a UK-wide third force are severely limited for the foreseeable future. While many in the PLP might consider a general election victory under Corbyn improbable, a party schism would almost certainly lead to continuing Tory government and personal defeat for many sitting MPs, not least because the big corporate donors will be preoccupied with keeping the Tories on-side over Europe for the next couple of years and many leading Blairites will themselves be busy on pro-EU advocacy (the contracts have already been signed). "Rescuing" the Labour Party will have to be put on the back-burner for the next two years.

The more calculating Blairites may be hoping that Corbyn makes sufficient anti-EU noises to justify the charge of being out of step with the national mood, assuming a positive referendum result in late 2017 keeps the UK in the EU, thereby preparing the ground for a putsch in early 2018. As his Blairness proved, two years would be sufficient time to carry out a counter-revolution ahead of the 2020 general election. The Blairites' nightmare scenario is that a more sceptical Labour Party might put the referendum result in doubt, or oblige Cameron to secure more pro-social terms to Labour and Corbyn's credit. Countering that can only be achieved from within the party, so big capital would best be served if the Blairites knuckle down and fight their corner, which makes the immediate promises of noncooperation all the more stupid. Neoliberalism's objective is hegemony, and that will not be achieved by pro-market MPs either flouncing off in the manner of David Owen or retreating into a backbench sulk in the manner of Ted Heath.

Though the election of Jeremy Corbyn marks the formal end of New Labour, it certainly doesn't mark the end of neoliberalism within the party, which has been making faltering efforts to reinvigorate itself since 2010 (as Laurie Penny acerbically noted, "The argument that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable is being made by three candidates who can’t even win an election against Jeremy Corbyn"). The judgment of history may be that 2010-2015 marked the decadence of New Labour and a transitional phase, with Corbyn's election being the necessary "kick" to complete the process. The opportunity presented by Corbyn's leadership, and the threat it poses to neoliberalism, is the widening of the Overton Window in terms of permissible or conceivable policy. The question is whether Corbyn is inclined to push this towards more fundamental and imaginative areas, such as a basic income or educational quotas, that would wrongfoot the Blairites as much as the Tories, or whether he will retreat to the comfort of familiar positions and old battles.

I suspect the latter, but this will probably depend less on Corbyn himself than on the people he advances and on the extent to which he is willing to empower them. Ironically, for a man whose Breton cap is routinely mis-identified as a Lenin cap, it is a question of democratic centralism. To add to the irony, if Corbyn is insufficiently Leninist he will be derided by the media for lacking firm leadership and overseeing chaos. The BBC already appear to be adopting this stance, with simpering sympathy for the Blairite "big beasts" relegated to the backbenches. Contrary to the myths of electability, which invariably reduce to conservative notions of restraint and moderation, Labour has historically succeeded either when it proposed policies that captured the imagination of the electorate (1945), or when it offered a fresh alternative after years of Tory misrule (1929, 1964/6, 1997). The calibre of the shadow cabinet has not really mattered. Corbyn isn't the sort to push pabulum like "white heat" and "cool Britannia", or keep mum and rely on a Tory cock-up, so policy is going to make a comeback relative to managerialism. This will potentially make Labour the most interesting (and closely-observed) political party in Europe for the next few years.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Billions Like Us

The announcement that Facebook hit 1 billion users in a single day in August could be the happy coincidence of zeitgeisty PR with the summer news drought; or perhaps it's evidence that people were so bored of the holidays that they were checking out online how many other people they knew were also bored. It might even be proof that, in the developed world, curating our online selves is now as common a daily task as working. The media seem in no doubt that this is epochal, hence articles telling us of the many ways in which Facebook has changed the world and pointing out that it is now bigger than almost every country. Eat you heart out, electricity and the common cold. The explanation for this smooching is that traditional media outlets now rely on Facebook and other online channels for the dissemination of tasty stories that attract clickthrus, plus they can always harvest filler from the he-said-she-said mock outrages that social media give rise to (I can name more Taylor Swift spats than songs). Though there is competition between the different media organisations, the last 5 years have seen them develop a symbiosis based on mutual parasitism and back-scratching.

The achievement of Mark Zuckerberg & co isn't that big a deal. We reached 1 billion motor vehicles in 2010, which represents a far greater impact on the planet and its inhabitants, but there was little fanfare at the time, perhaps because of our ambivalence given the environmental downsides. Similarly, when the number of PCs in use passed a billion in 2008, the news prompted a collective "meh" with analysts claiming the device's days were numbered because of smartphones. You could argue that Facebook's achievement is notable for the speed with which they have reached this figure, but it still looks weedy when you consider that mobile phones in use reached the billion mark in 2001, that the number of SIM cards exceeded the world's population (7 billion) in 2014, and that last year also saw smartphones alone reach the billion mark. Facebook actually got to 1 billion monthly users back in 2012 (it now has 1.5 billion). The significance of this announcement is the simultaneous daily use, as if 1/7th of the World's population were engaged in a common endeavour: an implicit network. If Bill Gates had proudly announced that Windows Explorer had been used by a billion people on one day in 2008, he'd have been rightly ridiculed.

What this highlights is the determination to ascribe a cultural significance to social media on a par with railways or penicillin. But social media is old wine in new bottles: traditional modes of sociability turbo-boosted by genuinely significant general-purpose technologies (computers, cell networks). Facebook is very successful, but it's just an application that rubs along with the human grain. It's cultural significance is closer to Coke or Styrofoam. The company's COO, Sheryl Sandberg, inevitably lathered on the guff: "Look closely, and you'll see more than a number. It's moms and little brothers and cousins and cousins of cousins. There's Sam, Dante, Ingrid and Lawrence. It's camping trips, religion ... there's likes, loves and unfortunately still some hate. Look past the number. You'll find friendships". This is the bog-standard categorisation (and thus monetisation) of human relationships. If you look past the number you might also note the assumption of a particular, conservative social ideal: moms, camping trips, religion; which had me thinking of Alan Sherman's Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.

For all the claims of "Twitter revolutions", the consensus is that social media have mainly boosted "political inactivism", in which the loud denouncing of evils serves as an alternative to change and "liking" becomes a form of free-riding by which solidarity loses out to self-actualisation. This is not to suggest that showing support is without value or always self-indulgent, but that the ease with which that support can now be shown, from retweets to online petitions, lowers the opportunity cost to the individual and thus dilutes the significance of the act as it becomes routinised and commoditised. But we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that this is an unfortunate, accidental byproduct of new technology. We live in an age characterised by managed opinion - customer feedback, performance reviews, opinion polls - while networks are inescapably political because of the choices made in their design. Social applications not only reflect the learned behaviours of opinion giving and taking, they also reflect an underlying paradigm of dispersed knowledge, dynamic routing and negotiation. The "market" is encoded in the Internet.

Social media's bias towards expression has some interesting implications for political organisations, which can be usefully addressed via Albert Hirschman's famous trinity of exit, voice and loyalty. The ideal of mass-membership, to which professionalised parties like Labour pay lip-service but are increasingly wary of, has been channelled into the weak loyalty of "registered supporters" and public "campaigns", an approach intended to keep the mass away from policy formulation and exploit them as social media fodder. This has had two results: it has amplified voice (the expectation that people's opinions matter) and it has cheapened both entry and exit. The first is problematic for party hierarchies committed to being "on message", and implicit in the woolly formulation of "sharing the party's aims and values", which in practice is nothing more than loyalty - i.e. if you ever expressed support for anyone else, yer barred. The second has turned affiliation into a passing fancy. The point of Toby Young's "sabotage" is that no Tory would have bothered to do this in the past because the cost (in terms of time rather than money) was too high. It is only in the age of social media that commitment has become sufficiently throwaway to be the basis of a wind-up.

Resigning your membership of a party was traditionally a high-profile act of protest or disappointment. In reality, most memberships lapsed on the quiet, because disappointment was more often the spur than protest, but even these acts represented a significant choice for the individuals. Now, we see performative exits, in which people dramatise their choice and seek approbation (stylistically, these renunciations are often similar to those of football fans who have decided to give up going to matches: the game has left me etc). A characteristic of cheap entry is that it usually marks the limit of a person's commitment. In years gone by, you knew that joining a party was an implicit agreement to do at least some leafleting and canvassing. Now the expectation is to do little more than follow the party's Twitter account. That constituency Labour parties are having little luck getting the incoming tide of newly-registered supporters to participate beyond the leadership election should come as no surprise. Given that the median monthly charitable donation is about a tenner, £3 looks like a bargain for a premium-class "like" that can be emblazoned across the individual's social media space. The party's problem is not entryist Trots or Tories, but that other T: trivialisation.

As the Urban Dictionary helpfully notes, "Inactivists will often point to the root or cause of a social issue without directing the audience toward a course of action or even a coherent alternative viewpoint". The highlighting of this gap, between the accuracy and insight of the condemnation and the coherence of the proposed solution, is a traditional rhetorical defence of the status quo that goes back to the biblical dichotomy of prophets and kings. It is effective because there may well be substance to the charge - some of Jeremy Corbyn's policy prescriptions are clearly sketchy or unimaginative - but it also serves to support the idea that ruling requires inside knowledge. As that echt insider Tony Blair put it recently, the gap lies between "telling it like it is" and "decision-making in an imperfect world", with the implication that the latter requires an understanding quite different to the former. Inactivism widens the gap because "telling it like it is" becomes easier, due to social media, which paradoxically means that criticism of the gap (i.e. the kingly criticism of the unworldly prophet) becomes more difficult and may even be counterproductive. A vexed Blair described the response as: "Screw you, stop patronising me. I know what I’m doing" (the styling of your critics as self-absorbed teenagers is revealing in itself).

In criticising the "fantasists", the former believer in Iraqi WMD casually lumped Corbyn together with Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Alexis Tsipras. Blair's politics still bear the Manichean imprint of the early 00s: you are either with us or against us, "I only know what I believe" etc. This lack of discrimination is part of a worldview that sees all species of dissent from the status quo as equally illegitimate. You can criticise the coherence of Corbyn's and Sanders' programmes, essentially to avoid addressing their analysis of our current ills, but Trump has at least the virtue of consistency in that both his analysis and platform are "as sounding brass": there is no gap. Tispras can be criticised for converting from prophet to king under pressure from the Eurogroup, but this very act is an admission of the gap and thus the "imperfect world" of which Blair is an intimate. As for Le Pen, fascists may be driven by irrational manias, such as racism or antisemitism, but their political practice is wholly opportunistic. The challenge they present to democracies is a lack of sincerity, and not even his worst enemy would accuse Corbyn of being insincere. What Blair doesn't get is that the real fantasy is to reduce the complexity and messiness of the world to binary simplicity.

Though it appears optimistic, in its belief that a loud-enough clamour will produce action in the real world, inactivism is actually pessimistic in its acceptance of the limits of human knowledge. The "wisdom of the crowd" rests on the belief that individuals have insufficient wisdom and that we'd be better off leaving policy to the data-aggregation abilities of the market. The problem is that the market can disseminate and amplify both errors and facts, something we've known since at least 1841, when George Mackay published Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The frustration of the political caste at Corbynmania is not merely the perception that social media has made such "crazes" more common (it hasn't, it's just made life easier for journalists, giving rise to a new structural bias). It also reflects one of the central contradictions of neoliberalism: that the encouragement of political inactivism (and it has been encouraged), and the associated commoditisation of expression, has given rise to a political consumer who is flighty, obstreperous and unpredictable (that bloody teenager again). Consider the recent volte-face by some old media outlets in respect of migrants: from characterising them as benefit scroungers to eulogising them as martyrs, which clearly reflects a swing in social media sentiment.

The end-game of political inactivism is the further constraint of democracy (there are hints aplenty in the establishment response to Corbyn) in the interests of "good order" and "sensible" policy. Much as the Syriza political programme was ruled out of bounds from day one and its representatives publicly delegitimised by the Eurogroup, the medium-term consequences of the Corbyn insurgency - win or lose - may be the further delegitimisation of socialism. This is not pessimism about the possibility of a leftward shift, merely the suspicion that Corbyn lacks both the strategic imagination and the tactical cunning to bring it about. If he wins, the activism of right-wing MPs seeking to undermine him (with wall-to-wall media support) will probably reverse the very modest shift in the Overton Window that occurred under Miliband. If a centrist wins, the appeals to unity and a "broad church" will drown out anything unorthodox.

For example, Yvette Cooper's proposal to rewrite clause IV of the party's constitution to explicitly target inequality, apparently by reviving Sure Start and "empowering parents" rather than by any nonsense to do with taxation, represents a further move away from principle to retail. Her coincidental criticism of David Cameron over Britain's unwillingness to take more Syrian refugees bears all the hallmarks of political inactivism: an insistence that "something must be done" without being specific about what; a self-regarding claim that "the British way of doing things is to provide help", as if our priority should be to avoid embarrassment through negative comparison with the Germans; and a preference for the street-theatre of voluntary action through "communities, churches and councils" rather than the hostage-to-media-fortune that would be an EU-agreed quota. Perhaps she'll ask Sheryl Sandberg to help craft the wording of the new clause IV. Something about mums and school trips.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Werewolf? There Wolf

The news that the University of Hertfordshire (no, me neither) is to hold a conference on the cultural significance of werewolves provided predictable filler during the dog days of August (that's dog as in sopping wet spaniel). Inevitably, the para-historians of the commentariat couldn't resist the urge to reshape the lycanthrope as an emblem of our times. Despite the original story in the Guardian noting that the legend of the cursed wolf-man goes back to antiquity, Kathryn Hughes followed up in the same paper with the claim that "Werewolves emerged in folklore in medieval Germany at times when a poor harvest meant that both humans and animals were contending with rumbling stomachs". This dubious claim was used to buttress a full-blown socio-economic theory: "Culturally, werewolves have always come to the fore at those historic moments when our most basic resource – food – starts to feel in short supply. And in these jittery days of collapsing capitalism, lycanthropes, or man-wolves (they are nearly always male) are emerging as the archetype around which our contemporary terrors adhere".

Werewolves, as a particular species of "shape-shifter", originate in the pagan practices of sympathetic magic by which shamans and warriors sought to acquire the powers of animals, often by wearing their skins or amulets fashioned from essential elements such as teeth. The purpose was intercession with the spririt world or an aid in hunting or battle. A lucky rabbit's foot and a grenadier's bearksin are both echoes of this, as is the attempt by Hull City's chairman to rename his club the Tigers. During the Christian era, these pagan practices were both absorbed and deprecated, with the positive aspects channelled into the lives of the saints (St Francis of Assisi negotiating with the wolf) and the negative recast as a curse or punishment, showing the influence of classical myths (Ovid's Metamorphoses, the spellbound wolves and pigs of Circe in the Odyssey etc). Hughes's "rumbling stomachs" theory suggests that the recurrent famines and plagues of the spectacularly dreadful 14th century should have been the medieval trigger, but in fact the folkloric werewolf only appears in numbers in the 15th century. It is a creature of the Early Modern period and inseparable from the witch-trials that occurred between the mid-15th and 17th centuries, with charges of wilful lycanthropy overlapping with charges of wolf-charming or the cursing of others.

As an aspect of the European witch-craze, the popularity of werewolves was driven by wider cultural factors: the dissemination of superstitions and lurid tales by printing (new media usually produce an explosion in credulity before knowledge); the religious hysteria of the 16th century and the belief in a proselytising Satan; and the dislocations caused by the end of the medieval social order. Early werewolves were said to prey on cattle and children, which emphasised that they were, like witches who "spoiled milk", both a quotidien nuisance and a useful projection for dealing with unexplained infant mortality (some historians believe that werewolves were occasionally invented to explain localised serial killing sprees). It is also worth remembering that real wolves were still a threat to livestock and even people across much of Europe, not least because the animals could be rabid. As human settlement expanded and the old woods were increasingly reduced or managed as an economic resource, the chances of conflict increased.

The werewolf trope also preserves the historic conflict between settled pastoral communities and hunter-gatherers ("preying on the unguarded boundaries of civilisation", according to the conference blurb). However, this owes more to relatively recent competition for resources, rather than any prehistoric memory, as agriculture and early industry spread to more mountainous areas in Europe during the demographic recovery after the 14th century. The earliest witch-trials, including charges of lycanthropy, are found in the Alpine regions, notably those with a history of heresy such as the Vaud. In other words, persistent tension rather than episodic famine gave context to tales of demonology and lycanthropy, and this was as much about itinerant communities (hence the werewolf's frequent association with Gypsies, who were also routinely accused of harming livestock and children) as the dwindling numbers who eked out a living in the woods.

The idea that werewolf stories come to the fore during times of economic stress is contradicted in the twentieth century by cinema's consistent interest. The first werewolf film is considered to have been made in 1913 (with a Navajo setting, emphasising the animist roots), and while The Werewolf of London appeared in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression, the true classic of the genre, Lon Chaney Jr's turn in The Wolf Man, came out in 1941. Though Hughes references Guy Endore's novel The Werewolf of Paris, published in 1933 and set in the hungry Commune of 1871, she fails to note that the closest cinematic treatment of the book was the 1961 Hammer Horror film, The Curse of the Werewolf. That was no more a reflection of hard times than 1966's Carry On Screaming. Since the late-50s, the werewolf has been a universal trope of alienation, transformation and the beast within, often to parodic effect, such as An American Werewolf in London and Teenwolf. According to Hughes, "This recognition that it really is a dog-eat-dog world has always created a ripe breeding ground for werewolf fantasies ... werewolf stories are all about negotiating our terror over where, come the apocalypse, we stand in the food chain". That would make a lot more sense if you substituted "zombie".

This dubious interpretation of werewolves as a sign of hard times serves to create a particular contrast, suggesting Hughes has spent too many hours watching the Twilight and Underworld series: "For vampires belong to altogether more prosperous times and catalyse an entirely different set of anxieties, mostly to do with sex. They raised their fanged heads in Bram Stoker’s classic novel of 1897, which appeared at the height of fin de siècle jitters about sexual decadence. Two years earlier the Oscar Wilde trials had suggested the possibility that Britain harboured an underground community of homosexuals trying to 'convert' young men by penetrating their bodies, taking them permanently away from everything that was decent and holy". Though naughty, vampires have the saving grace of class: "Vampires are nicely dressed, seductive in their own way, and always remember to say 'please' and 'thank you'. (Count Dracula had lovely manners.) Werewolves, by contrast, display no such finesse". This is another example of the Guardian's class contempt, poking through the arch irony.

"Haemosexuality", the sexual basis of the vampire's blood-lust, has provided an excuse for the exploration of deviant sex and the unshackling of female desire since Freud and Kraft-Ebbing. Homosexuality has only ever been one dimension of this. The coincidence of blood and sex, from ancient fears of menstruation through AIDS, is a commonplace, but so too is the parallel association of blood with the vital force of the body politic, hence the "blood-suckers" trope common to criticism of the state. Though this starts with straightforward complaints about tax collection and decadent, spendthrift rulers in the ancient world, it mutates as money is increasingly seen as a proxy for the élan vital of enterprise and commerce. By the time of Voltaire and Rousseau, the charge of vampirism is routinely levelled against the church and aristocracy, as well as tax-farmers. Karl Marx would famously employ the vampire as a metaphor for dead capital, while the Nazis and others would seek to associate Jews with vampires via the "blood libel". Even today, the compelling image of Goldman Sachs as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money", owes more to the word 'vampire' than 'squid'.

Vampires did not arrive in popular culture with Stoker's novel, but Dracula was innovative in combining a number of separate vampire strands that had developed over the course of the preceding century (well documented in Christopher Frayling's Vampyre): the folkloric vampire, who was usually low-class and often repulsive; the femme fatale, representing a female sexuality freed of bourgeois constraints (that would further evolve into the "vamp" of early cinema); and the outrageous aristocrat (partly modelled on Lord Byron) that originated in John Polidori's tale, The Vampyre, which he wrote in competition with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1816. This last aspect was as much a reflection of economic as sexual decadence, and was clearly influenced by Stoker's Anglo-Irish background: Dracula, who shares neither culture nor religion with the Transylvanian peasantry he parasitically lives off, seeks to become an absentee landlord in England. Stoker's tale adopted the implacable force of Marx's vampire, but refurbished its feudal trappings and obscured the Irish parallels with a whiff of the oriental and the shtetl (popular British fears in 1897 were more focused on Jews and racial degeneracy than homosexuals).

Prior to the Romantic era, vampires had been predominantly associated with the borderlands of South East Europe, roughly from Galicia down to Greece. If werewolves were centred on Eastern France and Southern Germany, vampires were to be found mainly in the mountainous areas of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This reflected a number of factors: the region's economic underdevelopment and the persistence of older religious superstitions; the zealotry and cross-fertilisation arising at the historic interfaces of Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Islam; and the frequency of lawless violence ("blood-feuds") in areas where state power was weak and borders frequently shifted through war. Behind this also lay a folk memory of the arrival of epidemics in Europe, via the Levant and the Balkans, during the Medieval period (the plague ships and rats of films such as Nosferatu have a long pedigree), a memory that has been stirred again by the sight of long lines of refugees marching through Serbia and trucks of corpses lying abandoned in Austria.

Today, the vampire and the werewolf form a binary metaphor for class, appealing in particular to the paranoia of the middling sort, who imagine themselves under simultaneous pressure from above and below. The vampire has been stylised as an indulgent posho toying with his or her sexuality (from Interview with the Vampire to Made in Chelsea), while the werewolf stands for the intermittent eruption of the feral through the veener of civilisation (from Shameless to Broadchurch). As Hughes sees it, werewolves "remind us that, if times really do get bad, there is nothing we wouldn’t do to survive, including quite possibly ripping out our neighbour’s throat". This is a call-to-arms for violent individualism, with an implicit "defence of property" justification. In fact, what actually happens in our cinematic fantasies is that we pick up our pitchforks and hunt down the werewolf/vampire/monster together. Mob violence may not be particularly tolerant, but it is collective action and it proceeds from a rationale appraisal of the community good: kill one to save many. Hughes's bestial vision is that of Thomas Hobbes, homo homini lupus est (man is a wolf to man), that allows the better sort - those well-mannered vampires - to remain safely ensconced in their castles. I wonder what she thinks of Lords reform?

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Straight Outta Chipping Norton

I do enjoy a good newspaper juxtaposition, not least because it isn't always clear whether it's the product of unconscious affinity or subversive editorial humour. Page 5 of today's Guardian carried two stories: one revealing that And Then There Were None, in which various invitees to a mysterious island gathering are serially bumped off, has been voted Agatha Christie's most popular whodunnit; and another revealing Anthony Horowitz's chagrin that his assessment of Idris Elba as "too street" for the potential role of the first black James Bond has caused offence. Ta-Nehisi Coates, the American writer whose newly-published book, Between the World and Me, suggests he is currently in a pessimistic and sensitive place, called-out the Brit thus: "Just be honest and say ‘James Bond’s being white is important to me’ and be done with it ... Elba is ‘too street’ in much the same way that Obama was ‘too foreign,’ and King was ‘too communist". Horowitz insisted on his anti-racist credentials by claiming that he simply preferred the "suave" Adrian Lester for the role. In other words: I'm not racist, I just don't like the rough boys.

Christie's tale was originally published as Ten Little Niggers in the UK in 1939, reflecting the "... and then there were none" rhyme used as a framing device for the plot. The title was changed for the US publication in 1940, an alteration often attributed to the word "nigger" being deemed offensive in America, though this was surely as much about the class connotations for the target audience of white, middle-class readers - i.e. a belief that the term was common and lacking decorum - rather than any incipient sense of interracial solidarity. The US stage adaptation of 1946 would use the title Ten Little Indians, which was also employed for the 1965 film version, at which point the N-word would certainly have been inflammatory. The Native American protests would not start to bite until the 70s, with the last publication of the alternate title being in 1986. The last English-language version to employ the original title was published in the UK in 1977 (oh, how we laughed). NWA's debut album, Straight Outta Compton, which popularised the modern recuperation of "nigga", would be released in 1988. Coincidentally, their group-biopic of the same name came out last week.

What was notable about the Guardian article was that it didn't refer to the significance of the title of Christie's book at all. There's a weird parallel here with Straight Outta Compton. Peter Bradshaw's review of the film briefly acknowledged the group's full title, and their adoption of a "retail-friendly contraction", but the separate assessment of the film's historical accuracy didn't. While it highlighted the group's misogyny (which the film appears to structurally reflect by having no substantial female characters) and antagonistic relationship with the police, it skipped the role of race in NWA's rise and the provocative nature of their name. Equally absent is the "performative capitalism" of gangsta rap - the glorification of abuse and waste that can be read as either an ironic criticism of American society and mores, or as the recuperation of an older conservative social form, modelled equally on the popular culture image of the Italian Mafia and the sexual politics of Blues and Soul, by the growing black middle-class.

Over the years, Christie's work has been repeatedly edited to remove the most objectionable racist and antisemitic phrases, though plenty of casual offence remains, not least because Christie's technique required her to echo contemporary prejudices rather than challenge the reader: women just want husbands, gypsies are malign, foreigners (Belgians excepted) are untrustworthy, and homosexuals are unreliable. Given that her milieu is one of reactionary snobbery and the fetishisation of property, and that she started writing in the 1920s, it would be a surprise if it were otherwise. Though she toned these prejudices down after the Second World War (she would keep writing until 1973), one thing that didn't change with the times was her attitude towards the lower orders, which ran the gamut from patronising to contemptuous. Her only stab at ventriloquising a working class character, in Endless Night in 1967, ends by revealing that the narrator is a money-obsessed homicidal maniac (even this plot-twist is a case of "aping one's betters", as it echoes the earlier and more celebrated The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).

The Guardian's sensitivity to racism, and its assertive championing of gender equality, are good in and of themselves, but this scrupulousness serves to highlight the paper's tone-deafness when it comes to class. This is a wider failing that affects the increasingly segregated  private-school and Oxbridge-educated media and professional elite, rather than the speciality of one newspaper, which - in fairness - they are only too happy to deplore (while not lifting a finger to do anything about - they have to think of the children). A fascinating insight into this, and how it appears to non-Brits, has been provided by the emails recently released by Hillary Clinton. One, from Sidney Blumenthal (a former aide of Bill Clinton), describes Nick Clegg during the coalition as having: "inbred arrogance (from no less a privileged background than Cameron, though seeming less snobbish because he went to Westminster instead of Eton)". Blumenthal is no less of an elitist, but it is significant how much explanatory emphasis he places on Clegg's schooling.

I think it still surprises many Brits to discover just how off-kilter the international understanding of our country is. The gap between image and reality is probably the same for all countries, but the specific direction it takes - where that image sits relative to reality - is perhaps more significant. This in't just a chronological failure to get beyond the Beatles or Maggie Thatcher, nor is it simple ignorance - e.g. the belief that the Queen has a say in government policy, or confusion over which state Northern Ireland is a part of. Rather it is a superficial knowledge, which is both accurate and incomplete, that manages to be insightful because it isn't mediated by our native consoling myths and unstated assumptions. In other words, the common image of the UK as a toff-run bastion of privilege and anachronistic tradition is a case of the emperor's new clothes. While we convince ourselves that declining social mobility is a live issue, rather than the consequence of a battle that ended 30 years ago, and point to poly-dropout Jeremy Corbyn as evidence that all is not lost, the rest of the world sees a state in the hands of a social elite that would not be out of place in a prewar Agatha Christie story.