Friday, 5 February 2016

The Symbolic State

In 1982, the economic historian Sidney Pollard suggested that the weakness of British economic policy was the result of "concentrating first and foremost on symbolic figures and quantities, like prices, exchange rates and balances of payment, to the neglect of real quantities, like goods and services produced and traded". In his book, The Wasting of the British Economy, he claimed that rational planning and investment in the postwar years were "repeatedly sacrificed for the sake of symbols". This argument can be expanded. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, both Conservative and Labour governments pursued foreign and defence policies whose cost exceeded the UK's financial power, largely to keep the symbolic "seat at the top table". They also maintained Sterling as a semi-global reserve currency for symbolic political rather than practical economic reasons.

Pollard's analysis was reinforced at the time that he wrote by the Thatcher government's narrow focus on the money supply as part of its monetarist experiment. The subsequent commitment to the ERM, like the investment in Trident and the need for the Union Jack to fly over Port Stanley, similarly elevated the symbolic over the pragmatic. In retrospect, British political history after 1945 looks like a teenager flitting from one pop-star infatuation to another. Though neoliberalism introduced a managerialist focus on "process" (e.g. supply-side reform), its British incarnation quickly reverted to an obsession with metrics, notably the emblematic targets of the Blair years in health and education (and a tolerance for the massaging of process to meet those targets). Though Pollard's is an analysis that assumes the economy is heavily determined by decisions made in Whitehall, rather than changes in the material base, it remains insightful because macroeconomic management continues to be dominated by the symbolic norms of the Treasury (e.g. the deficit).

You might say that all nations are invested in symbols, so what's so different about the UK? The Force de dissuasion projects French power, and the euro has clearly inherited the cultural significance of the Deutschmark for Germany (if to the frustration of other Eurozone members less wedded to the "black zero"). The point is that these are substantial: the world's third largest nuclear arsenal and an unprecedented multinational currency. What is noticeable about British symbols is that we cling to increasingly empty forms. The point about Jeremy Corbyn's suggestion that we keep our nuclear weapons "in the cupboard under the stairs", like the fact that the value of the pound reflects the cost of London property rather than the health of the economy as a whole, is that it pulls back the curtain to "let daylight in upon the magic" (to borrow Walter Bagehot's phrase about the need to preserve the "mystery" of the monarchy).

In other words, the "signifier" has become so important that we preserve it even when what it represents, the "signified", is redundant. We have become wedded to the idea that national identity is symbolic, hence the constitutional antiquarianism of the monarchy and the House of Lords. The current EU negotiations are symbolic (and thus baffling to other EU members) in the sense that particular metrics, such as net migration, are taken to be indicators of broader social and economic health, despite being wholly inadequate to the task. While defenders of the symbolic realm become ever more absurd (now proposing a bill to enshrine Parliamentary sovereignty), the suspicion grows that not only are these symbols hollow, but that they serve as vectors of corruption and anti-democratic collusion: the defence industry recycles taxes to privileged corporations, the management of the pound is biased towards the interests of the City, and the Lords have become a means by which corporate interests infest Whitehall.

The vacancy of these symbols chimes with the wider (and, it should be said, contested) notion of British decline. In a review of Pollard's book, Arthur Marwick noted that the postwar search for the causes of relative economic decline ranged over a century, from the failure to invest in technical education and technological innovation in the 1880s to "the conservative reaction against austerity in the 1950s". Others traced the malaise to the anti-industrial ethos of the British upper class in the Victorian era or the self-indulgence of the postwar welfare state. What all these theses had in common was a belief in internal decay masked by outward propriety - a "whited sepulchre" - hence the resonance of hypocrisy, woodworm and moral turpitude in postwar culture. Part of the attraction of neoliberalism for UK elites was the promise that these outmoded forms could be superseded through a commitment to the international norms of modern management practice.

Will Davies has defined neoliberalism as the "pursuit of the disenchantment of politics by economics". As Stephen Dunne puts it in his review of Davies' The Limits of Neolioberalism, "it opposed the enigmatic authority of politics, ... proposing the world as depicted by the Austrian School of economics as the less mysterious, more legitimate alternative". This rationality, whether in the form of homo economicus or Coase's theory of corporate efficiency, was undermined not just by the events of 2008 but by the state of emergency that arose from it, specifically the intervention by the government to reset the game through the bailout of the banks, "simply by force of decision" as Davies puts it. However, I think the rot set in much earlier, arguably within months of Tony Blair coming to power in 1997 when the death of Princess Diana showed the residual power of the symbolic, and was certainly confirmed by the decision to preserve the "enchantment" of the House of Lords.

2008 was when the curtain collapsed. It marked a return to arbitrary power after decades in which we were assured that the executive was subject to the same market constraints as all neoliberal actors, thereby ensuring the preservation of democracy and accountability. The consequence has been both the rise of hitherto impermissible political attitudes (both Sanders and Trump are beneficiaries of this emperor's new clothes moment in the US) and the anthropological turn towards behavioural economics and big data. The former has revived the optimistic idea of the state as the agent of democratic will, rather than just another actor subject to the market, while the latter has sought to replace the metaphysical claims of neoliberalism (the panacea of markets) with a return to the pessimistic anthropological management theorised in the early 20th century by the likes of Thorstein Veblen, Wilfred Trotter and Edward Bernays. The one activist, the other atavistic.

Though neoliberalism continues to be hegemonic, its symbols are increasingly viewed as empty forms. This ranges from suspicion over the motives and practices of "superbrands" like Google, to the identification of the "1%" as rentiers rather than wealth-creators. "Technocrat" has become a term of abuse, there is growing cynicism over the beneficial claims of competition, while meritocracy has given way to "generation rent". The divide between ideology and reality leads to the intellectual redundancy of the political centre, prompting politicians to revive moth-eaten symbols centred on sovereignty and security, to which we respond ambivalently. These are superficially revolutionary times. In other words, we may not see the overthrow of capitalism, but we can now envisage the end of the outmoded forms that we neglected to dismantle during the neoliberal years. If we choose the activist over the atavistic, the process that began in 1989 with the retirement of the symbols of communist power may finally arrive in London and Washington.


  1. A bit of Stereolab comes to mind:

    'Look at the symbols, they are alive. They move, evolve, and then they die.'

    You're quite right with this, the malaise has cut deep. In some ways it reminds me of the Major years, just across the whole international political class. Even Blair was intelligent enough to try and create an image and style based on change and modernity, and managed at least the minimum of constitutional reform. At present the negativity is overwhelming. When the choice has come down to reforming away European commitments or getting out altogether, we're really struggling, and how people think things are going to improve when you just target hatred at migrants, Muslims and the poor is beyond me.

    "These are superficially revolutionary times. In other words, we may not see the overthrow of capitalism, but we can now envisage the end of the outmoded forms that we neglected to dismantle during the neoliberal years."

    Exactly, and that's why I wish Corbyn was a bit more assertive and less conciliatory.

  2. Herbie Destroys the Environment9 February 2016 at 17:42

    "the economic historian Sidney Pollard suggested that the weakness of British economic policy was the result of "concentrating first and foremost on symbolic figures and quantities, like prices, exchange rates and balances of payment, to the neglect of real quantities, like goods and services produced and traded"."

    I am tempted to say that this is because capitalism is a for profit system. I.e. It is all about exchange values and NOT use values.