Thursday, August 18, 2016

Marriage Guidance

Marriage Guidance

One meta-narrative in politics at the moment is the idea that there is a reconfiguration underway between liberalism and authoritarianism. David Edgar laid this out in the British context: "Conservatism used to be an often uneasy compound of Tory social paternalism and anti-statist economic liberalism; while on the left, an alliance between progressive social liberalism and egalitarianism created the best of postwar Britain, from the welfare state to the social reforms of the 1960s and 1970s". In other words, both left and right were each an uneasy marriage between liberal and authoritarian impulses in which the binding was largely down to the congruence of class interests. On the left, organised labour found common cause with middle class progressives who benefited from the expansion of the welfare state. On the right, economically liberal capitalists found common cause with conservative rentiers and working class Tories obsessed with hierarchy and security.

What the meta-narrative suggests is a realignment in which the two liberal strands increasingly combine in opposition to the two authoritarian strands. As Edgar puts it, "The new fault line splits both alliances in half: allying economic with social liberalism (the coalition that brought you the coalition) on the one side, and economic intervention with social conservatism on the other. As a result, an ever-deepening wedge now divides Labour’s aspirational, liberal, globalised wing from its traditional base. Although good news for the Conservative party, this is best for the populist right, which has rushed to fill the vacuum created". This isn't a new narrative - it underpins much of the Blue Labour and Red Tory guff since 2008 and the various attempts to define a "post-liberalism", not to mention the "UKIP will take the North" trope - but it has a particular salience in the Brexit era because economic nationalism is back on the table along with pessimism about the persistence of xenophobia and other nasty working class habits.

In fact, this fluidity goes back to the 70s when, to pick a topical example, euroscepticism was found mainly on the left as a defence of economic unilateralism. In the 80s it moved to the centre as a liberal response to the perceived drift towards a more socialist Europe under the influence of Jacques Delors (many anti-EU parties, such as UKIP and AfD, started out not on the authoritarian right but in the centre) before being colonised by the traditional nationalist right, ironically after the UK's success in advancing the single market and EU expansion at the expense of "social Europe". Instead of being a defence against globalisation and neoliberalism as many hoped, the EU has come to be seen as the facilitator of those very same forces, which explains popular French euroscepticism (even though the FN has no intention of advancing workers' rights or promoting solidarity, it has been able to exploit this disillusion). In fact, we have been living through an era of ideological confusion for almost 50 years. This "realignment" is simply modernity.


Neoliberalism started combining economic and social liberalism in the early-90s, building on the freedom trope of the 80s. As Flipchart Rick notes of the years since, a paradox is that "this period saw a victory for the social liberalism of the left and the economic liberalism of the right. The trouble is, most voters were never really that keen on either". However, it is worth remembering how Bill Clinton's Democrats and Tony Blair's New Labour were only too happy to indulge authoritarian policies, from military intervention through incarceration to state surveillance, which is why their Republican and Tory successors offered dreams (shrink the state, hug a husky) and then delivered government programmes that were more of the same plus tax cuts for the rich. For many among the working class, McJobs and precarity didn't look like economic liberalism so much as the exploitative practices of classic laissez faire, while social liberalism looked like a glorification of middle-class values: gay marriage but not the decriminalisation of drugs. As with many things, the economic plus social liberal combo was more apparent in the metropolis than the country at large.

Insofar as the binding on the left has frayed, it is largely due to the failure of neoliberalism to satisfy the working class priorities of housing, wages and job security. New Labour sought to advance the interests of vocal fractions of the working class, such as those who could afford mortgages or secure mobility via further education, but this simply pointed up the contrast with the less vocal "left behinds". The marriage on the right has held up better, essentially because the affair that liberal capitalists had with New Labour has run its course (the PLP revolt reeks of the desperation of a spurned lover). The Tories can afford to move towards greater authoritarianism now simply because big capital and finance capital are both constrained post-Brexit. Taking back control is meaningless for most citizens, but it has a real meaning (as a threat) for domestic capital. The state temporarily has an enhanced degree of influence over the rules of the game and it should be obvious that some conservatives intend to use this opportunity to sculpt a more nationalistic dispensation.

We tend to underestimate the degree to which global political ideologies are influenced by nationally-specific ideologies of government and public administration. In other words, there is not a single ideology but multiple, often in contention and persisting for centuries. For example, German Ordoliberalism clearly bears the imprint of Prussian Cameralism, while French corporatism bears the imprint of Colbert and Napoleon as much as De Gaulle. Similarly, US neoliberalism owes more to Locke than Hobbes, while the reverse is true of British neoliberalism (the representative UK neoliberals were Jack Straw and Theresa May, not Gordon Brown or George Osborne). The full economic consequences of Brexit will not be known for decades, but this year clearly marks the end of the zombie neoliberalism that dates from late 2008. This does not mean that neoliberalism itself is dead, merely that it has mutated once more (Simon Wren-Lewis suggests it is intellectually weak but politically strong, though persistence is usually a sign of intellectual tenacity).

I suspect that Will Davies is right in foreseeing a shift of the efficient markets hypothesis from the realm of finance to labour (via the gig economy) and a greater emphasis on the need to sweat personal assets in the new mercantilist age ushered in by Brexit. In other words, neoliberal theory will pragmatically go with the authoritarian flow. The political consequences of the UK leaving the EU will ultimately arise from the economic, but that means we are faced with an interregnum that could last all the way up to a general election in 2020. In this period, the vacuum has initially been filled with self-conscious appeals to history that are more stylised than substantial, such as Theresa May's apparent rediscovery of Rab Butler and Owen Smith's chanelling of Nye Bevan. If Jeremy Corbyn is guilty of looking back to the 70s and 80s, it appears his opponents have even longer memories. These tributes are merely a way of buying time while the political establishment (the civil service as much as government) debates the neogotiating position it will adopt not just towards the EU but towards the various UK capitals.


The prognosis that the left is irretriveably split, that the marriage cannot survive, obviously serves a variety of interests on the political right and centre. This is why the simplistic dichotomy - the division between "Labour's aspirational, liberal, globalised wing" and its "traditional base" - is so patently false. You don't need to look far to find evidence that working class Labour voters aren't racist homophobes who overwhelmingly voted leave, while there is no shortage of evidence that its "aspirational, liberal, globalised wing" is marked by intellectual timidity and middle class bigotry. Similarly, the idea that the Tories are about to institute full-blown central planning or nationalise the railways simply because they have rehabilitated the term "industrial strategy" is delusional. This political realignment remains more an expression of centrist hope in respect of electoral representation than a reality in the economic and social spheres, and the reason for that (which I hinted at in the opening paragraph) is the power of class interests.

Historically, the political advance of the left coincided with a period when the electorate and the workforce were almost perfectly coterminus: the era of social democracy and high levels of employment. Once democracy became unavoidable after WW1, the strategy of the right was to first delay it through appeals to responsibility and then construct an anti-labour majority. Thus fear of female superficiality in the UK's "Flapper Election" of 1929 give way to an ideological emphasis on women's innate caution, financial prudence (their role as consumers antagonistic to producers) and desire for social respectability. By the 1950s, the right was obliged to augment this conservative appeal with pro-labour policies in the areas of housing, education and welfare, or risk electoral annihilation. One Nation Toryism, which is routinely invoked in the name of every new Conservative administration (even Thatcher's in 1979), remains a communitarian gloss for a reactionary and divisive politics.

The conservative revanche of the late-70s required not only the elevation of the market above planning, and the reinterpretation of liberty as financial freedom, but the promotion of management as an intrinsic good in the face of "problematic" labour. This was founded on the idea of human capital, which rebranded workers as valuable but individual resources and managers as stewards rather than exploiters. The marginalisation of the left in the 80s and 90s obviously owed a lot to the defeat of organised labour and the emergence of a professional political caste, but it also owed something to the hegemonic spread of managerialism in both the public sector and service industries. This still provides what passes for a policy platform among centrist politicians, from Labourites talking about "electability" to Democrats dissing Trump's "unfitness for office". Managerialism, not iffyness about gay marriage or a hankering for the death penalty, is the essence of authoritarianism, and that remains hegemonic across both Labour and the Conservatives.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The UK's Achilles Heel

The UK's Achilles Heel

The government's decision to delay approval of the Hinkley C project, more than speeches about inclusiveness and broad hints that austerity is now passé, proves (if proof were needed) that the EU referendum result is a watershed in British history. Though it is being presented as an issue of national security, it is clearly economic in nature. As a symbol of both EU integration (a French energy provider) and the UK's role as the leading conduit for foreign investment in Europe (Chinese money), the project was informally predicated on a remain vote, hence the political capitalise invested in the plan by David Cameron and George Osborne earlier in the year. Even if the final decision is still to proceed, the hesitation signals a moment of doubt, not so much over a project whose technical and economic merits were far from compelling than over the future composition of the UK economy. And that doubt involves a reconsideration of the strategic decisions taken in the early 1980s.


Trade agreements these days are less about tariffs and more about the free movement of financial capital (i.e. the facilitation of foreign direct investment, both by UK institutions abroad and by foreign institutions in the UK), intellectual capital (e.g. IP protection), and human capital (the ability of multinationals to move human resources around the world). The UK industrial sectors that generate the largest export values are business services, finance, wholesale and retail, and transportation and telecoms. It's worth emphasising that much of "retail" involves consumer services and digital products, while much of "transportation" is also consumer services, such as airlines. The export of physical goods is nowhere near dominant in the makeup of the UK's trade flows and unlikely to take up much time in Brexit negotiations (the need for specialist negotiators is a reflection of the contractual complexity of services not commodities).

This is important because the UK's post-Brexit trade deals will inevitably involve trade-offs between the interests of various sectors, most obviously the interests of the City and international business service providers versus the rest. Domestic manufacturers of export goods are likely to be marginalised (though they'll get disproportionate media coverage), but that is not necessarily a problem (some would say, what's new?). In the markets that we export to, notably Europe, import tariffs are generally not a big deal except in areas that are deemed strategically significant (for reasons of domestic politics as much as national capability, like agriculture), or where foreign exporters are deemed to be overly-aggressive in seeking market share at the expense of domestic producers. A current example would be steel, where the EU has just imposed anti-dumping tariffs on China and Russia.

Much of the UK's manufacturing export sector involves specialised equipment (machinery, high-end cars, computers etc), luxury goods, non-substitutable products (e.g. pharmaceuticals protected by patents and intellectual goods protected by copyright), or distinctive cultural products such as food and drink (e.g. biscuits, tea-bags, bottled beer). It's unlikely that British manufacturers will face punitive tariffs, but equally unlikely that the negotiation of new free trade deals with all and sundry will result in a significant boost to exports outside Europe. The UK is never going to be the workshop of the world again, because the particular economic and geopolitical circumstances that allowed this to happen in the 18th and 19th centuries no longer apply. In that sense, there is no going back to before the accelerated deindustrialisation of the 80s, even if that nostalgic desire motivated some leave voters dismayed by the loss of skilled jobs and career security.

The key decision that was taken in the Thatcher years was not the closure of the mines or steelworks but the prioritisation of London as both a financial and business services centre. This has proved to be more socially damaging than the dereliction of former pit villages, largely through the impact on housing of a deliberate policy of property leverage and the impact on wages and job security of precarious employment and deunionisation. The creation of property-backed debt, which both fuelled the economy through consumption and magnified the profits of the City, was only made possible by the abandonment of social housing. Likewise, the growth of business services has led to the capital simultaneously sucking in huge numbers of people from the rest of country (and often the most talented) and huge amounts of money from the rest of the globe (and not always the cleanest), both of which have further amplified the property market.

Though it meant little to most leave voters, London enjoyed an enviable sweet spot as both an offshore front and the dominant provider of services to European businesses, able to leverage the advantages of language and an accommodating legal system. Historically, the EEC/EU has tolerated London's role as an offshore intermediary as a quid pro quo for the wholesale services it offered continental banks (many of which moved into the City in the 80s and 90s), much as it tolerated Switzerland's banking sector as a secrecy jurisdiction at the heart of Europe. Over the last 30 years, the global flows of wealth seeking a reliable return or protection from taxation have ballooned, the product of growing inequality and super-salaries in established economies and the emergence of a new super-rich class in developing economies. With European states facing a growing welfare bill due to ageing, and a shrinking tax base due to structural unemployment and low wages, the focus has turned to increasing the tax-take from both the rich and foreign corporations.

The gradual restrictions introduced on Swiss banking through EU pressure point the way. The future threat is not that Frankfurt will suddenly eat the City's lunch or Dublin take over the business services market, though there will be plenty of noise about anything that touches on the euro or "passporting", but that the EU will seek to impose de facto capital controls (or at least "hindrances") to prevent London syphoning off monies that would otherwise generate tax revenues for EU members, and to limit the ability of foreign corporations to access the single market via London without adequate recompense. The quid pro quo being outlined in the media is access to the single market in return for the free movement of labour, but the actual deal is more likely to come down to the continuation of both (with some minor adjustments for political PR) in return for the City being tolerated as an offshore front and London as an operating platform for non-European capital.


The decision on Hinkley C is being presented as a concern over Chinese influence and specifically the fear that they might "weaponise" the plant in the future, though more in the sense of threatening electricty blackouts than a nuclear meltdown. This is hype. Not only is the Hinkley reactor being designed, built and operated by the French state-owned firms Areva and EDF, but the entailed involvement of the Chinese in a future reactor at Bradwell is years away. The UK has more to fear from its current reliance on Huawei routers in BT's datacoms network. A more credible risk is that the EU (via France) might seek to use the project as leverage during Brexit negotiations. The government's decision to delay looks like a prudent call at a time of uncertainty, but the underlying issue doesn't lie in either Somerset or Beijing but in the City of London. Brexit isn't going to turn the clock back - nothing can - but there is a clear choice ahead: economic nationalism versus the primacy of the City. Theresa May has emphasised the former, but I suspect this is merely a gesture. The EU knows the City is the UK's achilles heel.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Trivial and Insidious Step

A Trivial and Insidious Step

Following the recent terrorist attacks in France, various French news outlets, including Le Monde, La Croix and BFM-TV, decided to stop publicising the identities of the perpetrators in order to avoid their "posthumous glorification". This policy is limited to terrorists who claim allegiance to Daesh/ISIS, and can be read as an act of frustrated resistance in the wake of the apparent failure of the French security services to prevent recent incidents (Le Monde starts from the Hobbesian position that la première des missions que nous déléguons à l’Etat est de nous protéger). There is no suggestion that the policy will be extended to others who seek ostensibly political ends through violence, such as Anders Breivik, or those non-ideological actors motivated by revenge against perceived slights. Not the least of the miscalculations is that this "no platforming" qualitatively distinguishes jihadi terror, which is kind of fame.


The French media's resident idiot-philosope, Bernard Henri Levy has tried to provide an intellectual foundation for this act of self-censorship. He gives three reasons: that publication makes the perpetrators "globally recognised characters in the showbusiness side of this terrorist war, thus fulfilling one of their keenest desires"; that by excavating their personal and social context, such as an unhappy childhood or a sudden radicalisation, "we are taking the shortest route to the banalisation of evil"; and finally that publication creates a copycat effect, "an invitation to vulnerable minds to follow their example and to commit similar acts". These are unoriginal, conservative justifications: the oxygen of publicity; understanding less and condemning more; and the manipulation of the ignorant by outside agitators. You may recall Margaret Thatcher making the same points in the 1980s, variously about the IRA and rioters in British cities.

They are also examples of bad faith. The "showbusiness" of Islamist terrorism has its roots in the sympathetic coverage by Western media of the Muhajideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which was then compounded by the "shock and awe" presentation of the two Iraq wars. A beheading is the principle of asymmetric conflict applied in the realm of video. The "banalisation of evil" is meant to evoke Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann trial, but in doing so Levy misses the point that banality does not arise from misplaced sympathy but from a lack of empathy. As Susan Neiman says about Arendt's analysis (quoted by Corey Robin), "Contemporary dangers begin with trivial and insidious steps". As for the invocation of "vulnerable minds", Levy clearly doesn't consider himself to be among their number, but he gives no clue as to how they are to be distinguished. Presumably the ban will not be extended from the popular press to academia or public policy thinktanks.

What is more interesting (for students of the BHL brand) is his attempt to provide historical context, referencing the anarchist outrages of the late nineteenth century and the urban terrorism of Italy in the 1970s (i.e. the Red Brigades rather than the neofascists). One obvious difference is that these leftwing groups aimed their attacks at the state in the form of institutions and specific office-holders, such as politicians and judges, with few deliberate attacks against "non-combatants" (that was the hallmark of deep-state provocateurs, as at Bologna). Insofar as we can be sure of the strategic objectives of jihadi attacks in Europe, these appear to be driven by a combination of revenge for civilian Sunni deaths in the Middle East and a hope that ensuing state repression might alienate local Muslims. A better parallel would have been the Provisional IRA, whose modus operandi included symbolic assaults on the state (most obviously the Britsih Army), revenge attacks against Protestants, and bombings that killed civilians. Perhaps Levy was uncomfortable with this parallel because the subsequent political trajectory doesn't suit his call for a "total war".

He also avoids any mention of the original "terrorism" of the French Revolution, despite this being a prominent concern of revisionist French thinkers since the 70s, notably in their insistence that Robespierre and Saint-Just inevitably begat Stalin and Mao. This isn't domestic sensitivity so much as a refusal to mix categories. In this liberal view, La Terreur was the result of the state being captured by illegitimate forces, just as the Gulags were a perversion of the state's mission to protect its citizens, but it was state violence nonetheless. Daesh/ISIS is not engaged in a contest to capture the state or force concessions from it, and its claim to independent statehood remains unaccepted, hence it is easier to bracket it with stateless nihilists with whom negotiation is impossible. This partly explains the importance of religion in the Western response to Islamism: it both fills the ideological void and can be taken as evidence that there can be no compromise, even when jihadis turn up with copies of Islam for Dummies.

By focusing on religion and "the clash of civilisations" we can avoid questioning actual politics in the Middle East and North Africa. We avoid naming some things (oil, destabilisation, the suppression of democracy) by talking loudly about other things. Compare and contrast with Northern Ireland where a reluctance to cast the conflict as solely sectarian, and a willingness to discuss the other things (discrimination, resources, gerrymandering), eventually paved the way towards a resolution. This is not to suggest that there is any prospect of encouraging Daesh to the negotiating table, not least because Western policy in the Middle East is not led by France, but that greater engagement with French Muslims (rather than scolding) might make the environment more hostile to Islamist violence. To this end, identifying a terrorist as a citizen is a small contribution towards advocating the pursuit of a political course.

Suppressing a terrorist's identity will have no positive impact. There aren't that many wannabe jihadis in France who read Le Monde, let alone the Catholic paper La Croix. What this tactic does is dehumanise the terrorists, which paradoxically makes them mythical and increases their cachet among those who admire the illicit. Terrorism employs other people, its victims, as means to a propagandistic end. Treating a terrorist in a similar fashion is not a clever response. What is presented as a gesture of defiance by Le Monde looks like an act of pretentious self-importance by a newspaper grieving over the loss of its authority since the rise of the Internet. Denying people their name, reducing them to their initials as Levy suggests, is a step on the way to treating them merely as numbers, and that is ultimately a road that leads to Auschwitz.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Barry Lyndon: A Woman's Tale

Barry Lyndon: A Woman's Tale

The re-release of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, alongside Paul Greengrass's Jason Bourne, is a reminder of the long shadow cast by the politics of the 1970s on cinema. The Bourne series is typical of post-Watergate films in its disgust at the unconstitutional machinations and instrumentality of the state, but wholly contemporary in its paranoia over electronic surveillance and its ambivalent attitude towards hacking. Ultimately, Bourne's is a conservative view of the world in which personal violence preserves virtue and improvisational ingenuity defeats technocracy. What links the two films, otherwise distant in time and genre, is the trope of duelling, with Bourne frequently obliged to defeat goons using little more than a rolled-up magazine or a saucepan. In Barry Lyndon, the duels are scrupulously fair in terms of weapons, but sometimes rigged or subverted by a misplaced sense of honour.

The two protagonists are also engaged in the construction of an identity. The son of poor Irish gentry, Redmond Barry adopts a variety of pseudonyms on his adventures before marriage to the wealthy and newly-widowed Countess of Lyndon enables his reinvention as Barry Lyndon. Jason Bourne famously spends most of the series struggling to discover who he actually is, which in turn means discovering how he came to be and who betrayed him (heritage and treachery, as John Le Carré made clear, are two sides of the same coin). Like Lyndon, whose father dies in the prologue, Bourne struggles with the legacy of an absent father and seeks substitutes in authority. This is less banal Freudianism and more the continued representation of the American polity as an abused and betrayed child, a self-indulgent metaphor that has helped drive the gradual infantilisation of US politics these last 40 years, culminating in the temper tantrum made flesh that is Donald Trump.

The choice of Ryan O'Neal as the anti-hero of Kubrick's film confused many reviewers in 1975, not least because of his wholesome blandness and dodgy Irish accent, but it is now clear that he embodies the USA, a state that comes into existence during the character's lifetime. Redmond Barry is (literally) an innocent abroad who gradually learns the ways of the world, from deceit and theft to hypocrisy. He is corrupted, but he is a willing accomplice in the process. In Kubrick's hands, the hero's snobbish ambition is moderated by braggadocio and a delight in the con (The Sting came out in 1973). The original novel, by William Makepeace Thackeray, was consciously antique when published in 1844 (and typically condescending towards the Irish), aping the style of Smollett and Fielding, but resolutely Victorian in its moral lesson, with the profligate Lyndon dying in Fleet Prison (the debtor's gaol)  rather than finding conjugal happiness or spiritual salvation. In Kubrick's film, obscurity and death are his (and everyone else's) lot: a democratic touch.


Though highly-stylised, the film makes clear that status is always dependent on institutionalised violence, from the horrors of Prussian soldiers "running the gauntlet" (i.e. thrashed repeatedly with ramrods) to Barry's beating of his stepson for insolence (a charge the boy has ironically levelled at a man he considers his social inferior). The duels are merely a polite representation of the violence that runs through society. This is a motif that echoes through much of Kubrick's work, from The Killing via Paths of Glory to Full Metal Jacket. He was fascinated by the absurdity and ritual of violence, both in the systemic lunacy of the state, famously satirised in Dr Strangelove, and the pedantic ultra-violence of the gang, as in A Clockwork Orange. In contrast, the Bourne series insists that the violence of the state is covert, even as the hero leaves a trail of highly-visible wreckage across half the world (in fact, the series routinely flirts with media exposure, from The Guardian to Wikileaks, emphasising its debt to All The Presdient's Men).

Another theme that is prominent in Barry Lyndon is exile, which obviously owed something to Kubrick's own status as an American resident in the UK since 1961. This is reflected not just in Barry's personal estrangement from home, but in the emotional exile of Lady Lyndon, played with glacial poise by Marisa Berenson under a series of increasingly chaotic hairdos that reflect her mental decline. As with any story set in the long era between the end of the religious wars of the 17th century and the coming of democracy in the 20th, the central social motif is property, expressed concretely in beautiful country houses (and beautiful women) and abstractly in the trope of an annual income whose ultimate source is a mystery. The common people are stoic and uncomplaining (even sexually accommodating), while the bourgeoisie are largely absent, though the gaming tables and set-piece duels hint at an underlying economic tension.

The inconsistency in the acting style was one of the reasons why contemporary reviewers found the film disconcerting, though this is arguably a Kubrickian signature (see the emotional restraint of the actors in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which serves to emphasise the personality of HAL 2000). The innocent are affectless and artless, while the worldly and cynical furiously over-act. Leonard Rossiter's Captain Quin is a comic creation that owes much to his contemporary Rigsby in Rising Damp; Murray Melvin's Reverend Runt is a case-study in repressed emotion; Frank Middlemass's barking and choleric Sir Charles Lyndon would not be out of place in a pantomime (that's a compliment); while Steven Berkoff's Lord Ludd is a cameo raised to the level of an award-winning one-man show. Patrick Magee's Chevalier du Balibari (in Thackeray's novel he turns out to be Barry's long-lost uncle) exhibits both styles: the artifice of his makeup, which masks both his role as a spy and his sympathy for Barry, standing in contrast to his self-restraint and pre-poker poker-face (ironic in an actor known for his portrayal of madness and Beckettian angst).


Despite the lukewarm reception by critics, Barry Lyndon was hugely and immediately influential among film-makers, most notably Ridley Scott whose 1977 The Duellists was not only tonally and visually indebted to Kubrick's masterpiece but emblematically employed one of the same actors, Gay Hamilton. Less obviously, Leon Vitali's Lord Bullingdon looks like a partial inspiration for the character of Wolfie Mozart, played by Tom Hulce, in Milos Forman's Amadeus (based on Peter Shaffer's 1979 play). It is also hard to imagine films like Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) getting to the screen without the precedent of Kubrick's three-hour classic, while the views of English country houses set  to emotionally-charged classical music surely influenced Charles Sturridge's 1981 TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisted. Kubrick shouldn't be held responsible for the aristo-philia and fogey kitsch of the early 1980s, any more than the obsession with candlelight and pewter that would overtake Spitalfields, but he did anticipate the way that manners would overtake morality.

Many of the scenes were shot at the golden hour, that moment of clarity and stillness as the sun sets on a clear day. This is, of course, the bathe of nostalgia: the elegiac tone that conjures past glories and eases current regrets. In terms of its emotional register, the film repeatedly employs two major musical themes that slowly entwine around each other: Handel's stately sarabande, Suite No 4 in D Minor, and the Irish song, Women of Ireland, an 18th century poem by Peader O Doirnin (Mná na hÉireann) set to music by Sean O Riada in 1968 (the film uses the Chieftan's instrumental version). The former is insistent, dogmatic but ultimately anxious: a representation of a world heading inexorably towards the shock of 1789. The latter emphasises the real victims of Barry Lyndon's world: the women, reduced to chattels or schemers by property laws, whose best hope is to be promoted to a status object by some man.

Amidst the palatial grounds of his marital home, Barry's mother emphasises his vulnerability as the husband of a titled woman who himself lacks a title. If Lady Lyndon dies, he and his own son by her will be penniless, cast adrift (exiled once more) by his spiteful stepson who considers him a mountebank. This highlights Barry's essentially feminine role, the product of his attractiveness, which no doubt goes some way to explain the lack of sympathy many contemporary (male) critics displayed towards the character. The final irony, for a director pigeon-holed as "manly" and often accused of homoeroticising his subjects (e.g. Spartacus), is that Barry Lyndon is a surprisingly feminist film in which women are intelligent, ambitious and ultimately thwarted by thoughtless men. Compare and contrast the women in the Bourne series, who are only powerful as agents of the state. Bourne wants a daddy and the admiration of other men; Barry finally realises that he depends on women and that the respect of men is worthless.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A Failure to Plan

A Failure to Plan

Brexit proved that the UK doesn't do planning. A popular theory is that David Cameron believed he would not have to honour his EU referendum commitment to his own party after 2015, assuming that the widely-predicted hung parliament would allow him to sacrifice it in coalition negotiations, as he had done with inheritance tax reform in 2010. This suggests that the Tories didn't plan for all eventualities last year, despite the limited number of possible outcomes (win, lose, draw). Part of me is incredulous that any politician would be so careless, but there is ample evidence that the electoral throw of the dice is rarely accompanied by much cunning. For example, there are competing theories as to why Labour was unable to secure LibDem support for a coalition in 2010, but the claim by David Laws that they were "too disorganised or divided even to table clear positions" probably has some truth to it, even if arithmetic, personal distaste and intellectual exhaustion were ultimately more decisive. The last month suggests the PLP hasn't improved much since.

The judgement of the Chilcot Inquiry was that the Iraq war was a failure of planning from beginning to end. The US had a plan well in advance of the conflict, i.e. regime change, but the UK lacked similarly clear goals ("I will be with you, whatever") and never settled on a coherent plan for decision-making domestically. This lack of planning and the consequent reliance on Tony Blair's "belief" system allowed the UK to be manoeuvred into an open-ended commitment without adequate scrutiny of the objectives, the means or the risks. There was, catastrophically, a failure to plan for the aftermath of Saddam's downfall, while the operational planning of the occupying British troops in the south of the country has already become a textbook example of how not to do it. The parallel deployment in Afghanistan was little better, suggesting that trying to "punch above your weight" will usually lead to a bloodied nose at best and being pummelled senseless at worst.

Afghanistan and Iraq were not exceptions. The UK's current military preparedness suggests a persistent lack of adequate planning, from the macro-farce of aircraft carriers without aircraft to the micro-farce of the wrong sort of boots. To show that this isn't a recent development, we only have to recall that 2016 is the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and the culmination of the Dardanelles Campaign. The replacement of Trident is another example of poor planning, not so much in terms of the well-known limitations of a continuous at sea deterrent (CASD), that can only guarantee one boat in the water at any time, but in that we are wholly dependent on the willingness of the US to allow us to pay for and man a small part of their nuclear fleet. Britain's future "independent nuclear deterrent" is whatever the US government decides it is going to be, which means we have abdicated planning authority.


At this point it is worth noting that the particular aspects of planning I'm focusing on are plan design (working out the best course of action to achieve a goal) and adaptation (dealing with contingencies - i.e. "events, dear boy, events"). Planning is actually about how we handle uncertainty, hence the importance of deterministic and probabilistic analysis (what are the relationships, what are the odds). However, the modern understanding of planning is increasingly biased towards the concept of control, i.e. imposing certainty. The obvious example is the pre-2008 belief that risk in financial markets could be managed away, that the unknown (the "Black Swan event") did not need to be considered. At the level of the personal, planning has evolved from the pragmatic and contingent (shopping lists, booking a holiday) to the performative and permanent (wishlists, timelines, activity trackers). The aim is less to reduce uncertainty through foresight (what shall I buy, where shall we go?) than to reduce chance and loss (no surprises, never forget anything, full visibility). Against this, the lack of foresight and casual risk-taking of politicians is remarkable.

The great ideological battle of the twentieth century was between central planning (one big plan) and the use of the price mechanism to distribute planning (lots of plans of varying sizes). In this simplistic history, central planning peaked in the middle decades of the century before the sclerosis of the 70s led to the triumph of the market. In practice, central planning has never been in ruder health. The growth of multinational corporations, amplified by the winner-takes-all dynamics of the digital economy, has created large companies run on a command and control basis whose planning scope and expertise exceeds that of many countries. Stories of businesses that have grown "too big" (Sports Direct), or been ruined by inexpert managers (BHS), are usually evidence of exploitation, not the shortcomings of planning. While government is derided, and publicly-funded academic experts are denigrated, businesses that exhibit the secrecy and dictatorial certainty of the USSR under Stalin receive a market premium.

For all the talk of deregulation and the reality of privatisation, the scope of state planning has continued to expand in areas such as health, education, utilities and transport. This shouldn't come as a surprise. We live in a more interdependent world, which is the product of deliberate and growing specialisation by function as much as technological determinism or ecological consciousness. The state plays a central role in enabling that specialisation by creating markets through legislation, providing complex human resources and physical infrastructure, and coordinating finance capital through guarantees and underwriting. While this is not as overt or formalised as it was in the 1960s, and the suggestion that the state is directing the market remains anathema, the reality is central planning in all but name. As we have recently seen with the new government's embrace of the phrase "industrial strategy", even the language can be changed when circumstances demand.


The postwar era in the UK was marked by planning that was ambitious in scale but sometimes ill-thought out in detail (e.g. social housing), and grandiose projects that betrayed post-imperial over-reach (e.g. Blue Streak). The root problem wasn't a technical failing of planning so much as political delusion, a problem that has got progressively worse since the magical thinking of the 1980s. The two characteristics of a white elephant are uncertainty in the plan design (e.g. the London terminus of HS2) and a lack of contingency planning (e.g. if France pulls out of the Hinkley C project). The Northern Powerhouse is a postmodern example of this planning delusion in which the heroic predictions and sunny visualisations float freely above the tangible but modest reality of enterprise zones and local authority pump-priming. Politicians can associate themselves with the good bits - the vision thing and cutting ribbons - while blaming others for the failure to meet expectations. In such a dishonest environment, even George Osborne's serial failure to meet the targets of his own "long-term economic plan" couldn't prove fatal.

Perhaps the finest recent exponent of postmodern planning has been Boris Johnson, a man who as Mayor of London largely abdicated planning authority when it came to greenlighting office blocks and luxury flats, who claimed the credit for the schemes of others (bikes), and indulged poorly-designed projects solely for their PR value (pointless bridges, an estuarine airport, the rubbish Routemaster revival). The failure to properly plan his way to Number 10 was predictable. His elevation to Foreign Secretary is being treated as a rueful joke by most people, which means we are once more indulging the comic character rather than the really existing shit. Brexit has downgraded the relationship between the UK and the US (always instrumental rather than sentimental), and the corollary of that is a devaluation in the standing of the Foreign Office, which has become little more than a ceremonial adjunct to trade. Despite being a walking insult, Johnson is perhaps well-suited to the role.

Just as Iraq surely ended the UK's delusions of being a military "playa" on the world stage (and has probably set the clock ticking on our membership of the UN Security Council), so Brexit has recalibrated our diplomatic status to better match our future as a medium-sized nation without any major strategic significance (we're much less important to the US now than Japan). What stands out when we look back over the last 15 years, from Blair's zeal to Cameron's insouciance, is the dereliction of strategic planning in the political sphere at a time when tactical planning has been at a premium, from the daily grid of news management through multinational supply chains to the advance of globalisation by regulation and treaty. It's almost as if we've collectively decided to reward politicians who appear to be making it up as they go along because we value spontaneity. While a "man with a plan" can be dangerous, a failure to plan usually means failure.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Phone Home

Phone Home

An ICM poll for British Futures suggests that three-quarters of those who voted leave think that EU nationals already in the UK should be allowed to stay, with only 16% of the total population backing repatriation. While Theresa May has refused to give assurances on the status of EU nationals, her stance is clearly aimed at preserving bargaining chips rather than a determination to "send 'em back" (the infamous Home Office vans on her watch were little more than a PR stunt). That pretty much everyone else has insisted that EU nationals should be reassured (though David Davis has tempered this with talk of future curbs) suggests that politicians think that popular opinion is not as xenophobic as claimed by some shocked remainers, though this then leaves us struggling to explain why immigration was the decisive factor in the referendum.

The poll could be taken to suggest that it is the future expectation of immigration that drove the support for leave (hence the power of the Turkey "threat" and the "breaking point" poster), and is thus a matter of flow rather than stock. I'd personally take that with a pinch of salt, given popular ignorance of the ethnic and foreign-born share of the population. Clearly immigration is an immediate concern, not the calculation of a future discounted utility. We know that anti-immigrant sentiment is highest in areas with low immigration, which means that "pressure on public services" isn't a credible explanation, and we also know the issue is immigration across the board, not just the free movement of EU citizens. The suggestion during the campaign that fewer Polish plumbers would mean more Bangladeshi curry chefs was not what most leavers were hoping to hear.

It would be easy to assume that abstract xenophobia is the driver, or that immigration (like the EU) is a proxy for modernity more generally, standing in for developments as diverse as gay marriage and kale juice. There certainly seems to be evidence that reactionary views, rather than age or education, are the best indicator of whether someone voted leave. Some even espy a cultural divide: "liberal cosmopolitanism versus anti-liberal populism", or a cognitive division between "those who dislike difference – signifying a disordered identity and environment – and those who embrace it", but these look like magazine articles masquerading as academic studies. There are plenty of reactionaries in London and 38% of those who voted in Sunderland opted for remain (I doubt many of them would self-identify as liberal cosmopolitans). I'm going to suggest an alternative thesis: that the concern over immigration is driven in part by internal migration, as experienced by the "left behinds", and related to this, that the antipathy towards the EU incorporates a large dose of resentment towards London.

Much has been written about the impact of commonwealth immigration on old textile towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire during the 1960s and after, but less attention has been paid to the way that internal migration impacted on mono-cultural areas such as the North East and South Wales from the 1980s onwards. In Britain, there has historically been a fundamental difference between the larger industrial conurbations and both the smaller industrial towns (that specialised in sectors such as coal, shipbuilding and steel) and rural towns. The conurbations were populated in the 19th and 20th centuries by immigrants from both the surrounding countryside and further afield (e.g. Irish and Welsh factory-hands in Manchester), while the small towns were often relatively insular with only a small number of skilled immigrants (e.g. Scottish engineers) or itinerant workers who were not encouraged to stick around (e.g. seasonal Irish agricultural workers). What distinguished these in turn from small towns in other countries, like Ireland or Italy, was the absence of regular emigration in the twentieth century.

Though we think of the pivotal shift from manufacturing to services as occurring in the 1980s, it's worth remembering that the UK has been a predominantly service economy for the best part of a century. What changed in the 80s is that service jobs, as well as manufacturing jobs, were lost from small towns to cities as industries like financial services consolidated and as globalised business services expanded. This trend was exacerbated by the development of the digital economy in the 90s. Far from allowing people to work anywhere, the Internet made remote service delivery easier and thus amplified agglomeration in city-based "hubs". This process simultaneously transferred jobs to the larger service centres (i.e. provincial cities as well as London) and accentuated the differential in wages between the metropolis and small towns. To give an example, the Isle of Wight, which voted heavily leave, is poorly-served (many online retailers won't deliver there), wages are low, the economy is overly-dependent on pensioners and the state (prisons), and talented youth head to Southampton or London.

We're familiar with the fact that many old industrial towns in the North have lost both skilled jobs and many of their young, but the same outcome - a reliance on low-wage work and a growing proportion of the elderly - has affected small towns across the South and Midlands as well. Before the 1980s, the worry that the cities would lure away the small-town youth of Britain was largely limited to those families whose children benefited from the expansion of further education in the 1960s - i.e. classic "social mobility" that often entailed geographic mobility. Thatcherism extended this deracination to skilled workers ("get on your bike"), and not just in the North and Wales but across the rest of the UK too. This was then exacerbated by the further expansion of tertiary education in the 1990s, which funnelled teenagers who might otherwise have looked to apprenticeships with local employers into often-distant urban colleges as a stepping-stone to work in the service sector.

In other words, the sense of disturbance captured in the fear of immigration may be more to do with contemporary internal migration, and the negative impact this has on family ties, than the dismantling of industries a quarter of a century ago, let alone the loss of empire. The young quitting Sunderland for London, or York for Leeds, may actually be more significant than migration from Poland (blaming migrants for your town's decline is one way of dealing with guilt over "desertion" by your adult children). In these smaller cities and towns, the average age and the proportion of OAPs has gradually increased, not because retirees are moving in but because the young are moving out. This has led to suggestions that a policy of managed decline should be adopted for some areas, further encouraging the emigration of the young or skilled. This suggestion is typically directed at old industrial towns in the North, but the problem of poor wages and too many pensioners is just as relevant in the South outside London.

If this thesis is correct - that the concern over the arrival of EU nationals during the last decade is actually resentment over the departure of native youth that started in the 80s and accelerated in the 90s - it helps to explain why concern over immigration mounts in the late-90s, 5 years before the accession of East European states to the EU in 2004. The political focus on immigration and asylum that started in the mid-90s certainly validated these as "legitimate public concerns", but its hard to believe that their resulting salience in small towns with minimal exposure to actual immigrants (let alone asylum-seekers) can be fully explained by either the power of the press or an increase in racial prejudice. There appears to be something else at work, and something more tangible and immediate than a cultural divide. "We want our country back" may have been an anguished cry directed at children who rarely phone.

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