Friday, 26 February 2016

We Are Always Right

The disagreement between David Cameron and Michael Gove over whether the former's EU deal is legally binding is interesting for reasons beyond our relations with the rest of Europe. Gove isn't a trained lawyer (that hasn't been a requirement for the job of Lord Chancellor since 2005), so his legal opinion has no authority, but this hasn't stopped him pontificating ex cathedra, as he has long been wont to do. In his previous job as Education Secretary he routinely dismissed the opinion of educationalists ("the blob") and attempted to sculpt the national curriculum to mirror his own views. This might suggest a consistent disregard on Gove's part for professional expertise (other than that which echoes his own prejudices, of course), but I think it points to a more fundamental, if unintended, achievement of neoliberalism in refashioning the political realm.

New Labour sold us the idea of the managerial state, but much of this was mere theatre that obscured the degree to which power was gradually transferred beyond political control. Publicly, there was a continuity between managerialist politicians, obsessing over targets and league tables, technocrats pursuing social and market optimality through independent regulators, and a corporate sector subject to the discipline of competition. In practice, privileged corporates captured regulators and ran rings around politicians who either lacked managerial competence or had long been absorbed by the neoliberal borg through business consultancies, think-tanks and Brussels internships. 2008 refuted the claims of technocracy - that human complexity could be managed and that markets were self-regulating - but it didn't undermine the central claim of neoliberalism that there was no alternative to markets. 2009 was, in many ways, a technocratic triumph, even if it (briefly) employed Keynesian techniques that were anathema to neoliberalism.

While a generation of Labour politicians still diligently stick to the neoliberal script, despite the sea-change of 2008, the Tories have proved more willing to ad lib and indulge personality in pursuit of popularity, hence the egotism of Boris Johnson ("half man, half Brexit") and the sight of a bumptious Gove admiring his reflection in the shiny buckles of his Lord Chancellor outfit. Together with the serial fibbing of ministers like Jeremy Hunt and Chris Grayling, and the playground quality of debate ("tuck your shirt in", "what my mother would say"), this suggests a further infantilisation of British politics. Though Jeremy Corbyn has received flack over his dress-sense, the most pained criticism has been directed at the party members who elected him, accused of valuing the expressive over the instrumental, of following heart over head, just like stroppy teens.

The worry among centrists is not simply that the electors lack nous but that neoliberal hegemony, in stressing the impotence of politicians in the face of market forces, is paradoxically reducing politics to the expressive rather than creating a homogenised consensus, hence the tendency to treat Corbyn, Trump and Le Pen as "symptoms" of a common problem. Behind this lies an assumption that our globalised world is now too complex for ordinary voters to understand, leading them to hit out at elites or minorities and to indulge "know-nothings". There is a tendency on the part of centrists to dismiss unorthodox policies as either pandering or virtue-signalling. This view derives from the fetishisation of electability: the belief that politicians will either cynically adopt insincere positions to secure votes or will repel voters through adherence to an impractical "ideology". The alternative is presented not merely as a "middle way" between left and right, but a course between the Scylla and Charybdis of populism and impotence.

As unorthodox politicians have come to the fore, centrists have sought to rein them in by a conscious restoration of the credibility of technocrats. This was nicely illustrated in a recent debate over Bernie Sanders. Steve Randy Waldman got the ball rolling with a legitimately expressive pitch: "It is not that I am for Bernie Sanders, but that Bernie Sanders is for me. Bernie Sanders, more than any politician who has ever had a serious shot at the office of United States President, represents my interests and values ... A democratic polity does not elect a technocrat-in-chief, but politicians whose role is to define priorities that must later be translated into well-crafted policy details ... In a democratic polity, wonks are the help. The role of the democratic process is to adjudicate interests and values. Wonks get a vote just like everyone else, but expertise on technocratic matters ought not translate to any deference on interests and values."

This prompted a response by Ezra Klein that sought to both reinforce the role of technocrats and to cast the job of a political leader in managerial terms: "In a democratic polity, wonks are the help. But that only underscores the importance of electing someone good at hiring and managing them. A President Sanders could hire excellent technocrats to help him make policy, but would he want to? A President Sanders could surround himself with experts who know the shortcomings of his ideas, but would he listen to them? A President Sanders could become deeply engaged on foreign policy, but would he decide to?" He then extended this metaphor of the hiring manager to the electorate at large: "Voters are hiring managers, and the presidential campaign is a long, strangely constructed job interview." That the idea of the CEO-politician has once more become mainstream tells you that after its near-death experience, neoliberalism is once more in rude health.

Waldman counters by insisting on the expressive value of Sanders' campaign: "Presidential campaigns are not presidencies. The goals, incentives, and constraints are entirely different. The 'policy process' of a campaign begins first and foremost with the work of a campaign, which is to signal the interests and values of the candidate." But he effectively concedes the ideological match by introducing yet another neoliberal metaphor, namely the idea of politics as selling or deal-making: "Certainly presidents have to sell policies to legislators, so you might argue that the sales job that is an election may not be not entirely alien to the process of governing". The problem with this sort of thinking is that hiring, firing, deal-making and selling are precisely the "skills" (however bogus in reality) that Donald Trump claims to offer as a potential President.

Trump's other characteristic is, quite simply, that he is a character. In other words, he is benefiting both from the expressive turn of politics, which values colourful opinions and synthetic anger, and the valorisation of business, which suggests that any problem can be solved by managerial fiat. These are the conjoined twins of neoliberalism, though the first was unintended and is now proving troublesome. As Mark Schmitt noted: "Trump is a parody not just of Palin-era conservatism but of technocratic managerialism". It is the linkage of the two - expressive and instrumental - that is the winning combo. Though it may not appear immediately obvious, Trump's closest parallel in the UK is not Boris Johnson, let alone Nigel Farage, but Michael Gove. The differences are stylistic - loudmouthed insult versus condescension, braggadocio versus smugness - but the underlying assumptions are the same: we can bend the world to our will and we are always right.


  1. Early this week I heard the Irish prime minister on radio describe a member of his cabinet as "the line minister" - I think it was in health, probably a total Hunt.

    Tarantino seems to take the express/instrument approach to directing - he described doubting his ability to get Reservoir Dogs made then discovering he just needed to assemble the talent without grasping the detail (advice from Scorsese?), plus he promotes through geeky personality.

  2. The Gove phenomenon is one that really puzzles me. I'm not aware that he has much of a clique within the Tory Party, and he's too repulsive to gain wider popular support even with bigots, so I expect he's got where he is now through friendship with Cameron. I've assumed that his belligerent attitude is due to an utter lack of self-awareness. Now that he's stabbed Cameron in the front, I expect that his career will have run its course unless the vote is to leave the EU and PM Johnson gives him a good job.

  3. Re Gove, journalist contacts.

  4. Gove is also the British end of a money chain stretching out to American far-right donors.
    So he has a lot of hidden influence because of that.