Saturday, 27 October 2018

It is at once boring and extraordinary to have to say this: we live in a world of unprecedented and accelerating destruction.

The scale of this destruction is not an accident of nature, not something that ‘would have happened anyway.’ It is the result of clearly identifiable characteristics of the society that we currently inhabit: a social division of labour that places unprecedented power and wealth in the hands of a few. The organisation of social production in this society, based on a principle of existential competition as well as accumulation, allows for an ever more sophisticated level of technical and technological exploitation of both humanity and the planet’s natural resources. 

The name of this society that is structurally compelled to rush continuously forward, ripping apart the foundations of any kind of socially just or ecologically sustainable way of life, is capitalism.

Capitalism gave you the conquest of the Third World, the Atlantic slave trade, the various genocides in the Americas, colonialism, imperialism, the scramble for Africa, Indian famines, the First and Second World Wars, Apartheid, segregation, and climate change. It helps foster the countless fascisms that emerge constantly around the world to crush the socialist movements that attempt to fight it. 

The relative prosperity of a few in the global north is based on the subjugation of the vast majority of the global population. For the rich, the rest of the world, its resources, societies and cultures, exist purely to be used up and exhausted.

The unparalleled destructiveness of the society in which we live is without question. Identifying the cause of this destructiveness is also easy enough: the nature of the competitive, capitalist social relations which necessitate and drive forward expanded accumulation and commodification.

There have been various attempts by mass, working class movements to place an emergency brake on this ceaseless forward movement. The danger of such attempts has been in their inability to build an equally advanced alternative to the supple, adaptive social relations that underpin capitalism’s technological growth. These attempts have often been unsuccessful. They have resulted in crippling economic crisis, political violence, inefficiency and administrative rigidity. But it remains an indisputable fact that these disasters for socialism have been no worse than the alternative. 

None of these disasters affect the fundamental fact that the society we currently live in is rapidly exhausting the possibilities for the majority of people to have a reasonable quality of life.

Yes, capitalism under certain conditions - flanked by an interventionist state and a powerful workers movement - facilitates productivity growth. This is its sole, narrow contribution to human welfare. Everything else is either directly negative or has indirect negative consequences. 

Those who want to claim that there is some essential connection between capitalism and democracy are being proved wrong by the increasing threat to democracy that has spread alongside intensified, global capitalist social relations. Liberal political regimes, constitutionalism, various forms of republicanism and federalism - these forms of government, which emerged in the west with the spread of capitalism, certainly provided an opening to movements led by workers which demanded and helped institute electoral democracy. That is not the only route to democracy and nor is the continued existence of democracy reliant on the economic and social relations of capital. 

There must be an alternative to this for the simple reason that we cannot survive if things go on as they are. The wager that we can build an alternative is based on the diversity of ways people have lived and - in part - on the admitted complexity of social organisation permitted by capitalism. A democratic, socially controlled economy that replaced capitalism would put an end to production for the sake of private accumulation and place it at the service of the vast majority. Yes, there are risks. To continue as we are is worse. 

It cannot de said often enough: capitalism must end - we have no choice. Socialism must win - we have no choice.


  


Wednesday, 24 October 2018

What do the humanities do?

Walter Benjamin: 'Homogeneous, empty time'


I remember once using the toilet at the Sussex University library and seeing, in the cubicle, etched onto a toilet paper dispenser, the legend 'Pull here for humanities degrees.' It even had a helpful arrow to the point where the last sheet of loo roll hung just below the plastic of the dispenser. I remember thinking that this was quite funny, not least because I suspected it had been written by a humanities undergraduate (everyone knows scientists have no sense of humour).

Me and my friends spent a lot of time groaning about the perceived excesses of university humanities courses, again because we all knew them firsthand. There was a lot to be frustrated by. For some of us on literature courses, there was the cold shock of being asked to read Althusser's paper on 'Ideological State Apparatuses' in our first term of undergraduate study. For leftists there was the unceasing abstraction of so much theory; for my centrist, liberal friends there was the seemingly uniform left-wing militancy of the faculty staff to rebel against. I was still politically ill-defined and found a kind of deconstructivist, post-nineties common sense quite amenable to my own lack of serious commitment (not that I had read any Derrida). There was a fairly conservative streak in us - probably a result of an extended adolescence - that felt we were being taught to critique the greats before we had actually read them. I'd like to say I was studiously, cultivatedly lazy, but I was just lazy. One of the myths I endorsed to justify this was that there was no real value to what I was studying. I felt, in a vaguely limp, social-democratic way, that the state had to do some unvaluable things, but value-creation was entirely a function of the private sector. Society had been kind enough to invent this useless thing called the humanities, which was patronised by a benevolent state, and into which I could uselessly slot with very little effort.

There was certainly a smugness to what would now be called the 'campus left'. White people with dreads would lecture other students around campfires on the ills of a commodified culture. The bland anti-advertising sloganeering of Adbusters was a popular read among a certain group of middle-class hippy ravers. Those who had been on gap years made less worldly types - people like me - feel unadventurous, petty-bourgeois, and boring. There was a tendency to denounce all the trappings of modern civilisation and advance only an austere environmentalism in its place (save for the excessive amounts of drugs and alcohol). It probably won't be very persuasive, coming from someone now on the organised left, to say that I think the culture of the left has since improved. But the anti-globalisation left had a lot to say about the wrongness of the world and offered little by way of an alternative. Many who felt estranged by this anti-consumerist moralism felt, rightly or wrongly, that academia itself was doing little to correct this misdirected anger.

Then the financial crash happened. With the recession, applications for humanities courses began to drop. Recently the same trend has been showing in students' A-level choices. The pre-recession 'good times' (the age when top up fees only went as high as £3,000 per year) were not to last. I found myself newly graduated and unable to get a job that would give me regular hours. I was unemployed for a while, then got a part-time job in a pub kitchen and wound up deep in an overdraft that a recently bailed out bank set about trying to claw back off me. The Daily Telegraph intoned its approval of a drop in applications to all courses: universities were, the paper said, 'no longer preparing our children for work.' The especially melodramatic tone and vaguely creepy, proprietary language ('our children') aside, various forms of this argument can be found across the contemporary media. One Guardian contributor recently argued for an outright cap on student numbers. Given that in the same article the author (herself an Oxford PPE graduate) accepts the need for more science students, it's pretty clear which student numbers need to fall. Under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government that took power in the wake of the recession and embarked on a seemingly endless programme of austerity cuts and restructuring of the public sector, Education Secretary Michael Gove made a point of going after history teachers who teach World War I 'through the medium of Blackadder.' This rather baffling non-sequitur was more than just a play on the old Tory myth of a malign, lefty culture in schools. It was based on a philosophy that academic navel-gazing - that introspective and critical approaches to culture and history - were inherently a waste of time. The humanities should, the coalition believed, be put in the service of patriotic duty and national memory-making. Still, these reforms did not spring up out of nowhere. 'Those who can't do, teach,' as I was told by various smirking men when I informed them that my mum was a teacher. That culture of usefulness - which defines usefulness exclusively in terms of what the private sector can value at a certain price - that underlies a great deal of spontaneous common sense in the UK would become a strand of the new rigour of the early 2010s. Everyone was supposed to knuckle down, not get any fancy ideas, and just get through it (whatever it was it never seemed to end).

It is quite clear to me that I have internalised some of this. I have just finished a part-time MA but filled much of it reading macroeconomics and political science and learning German in an attempt to validate what I was doing. During my masters I read a book I didn't like very much called The Romantic Economist. The author is Richard Bronk and he sets out to prove to the world that romanticism - the irrational, the passionate, the emotional and idiosyncratic - has some real use to science. But any attempt to redeem the arts and humanities with reference to science has already failed, already accepted its role as second fiddle. In this synthesis, the critique of rationalism becomes the somewhat reticent compliment to the real stuff of hard, scientific inquiry. It is not hard to imagine economists nodding at such a book and promising to store up some of its value and then promptly shelving it. It is like the King's disagreeable, counterintuitive counsel. Examples of this tendency on the part of philosophy, critical theory and the arts are surprisingly common. Exiled members of the Frankfurt School worked for the precursor to the CIA and later helped US authorities define the 'authoritarian personality'. The surrealists and poets of Britain's Mass-Observation project helped in the domestic propaganda effort of World War II. Paul Ricoeur has provided philosophical tutelage to the likes of Emmanuel Macron. This is not to argue that theory would do better to shield itself from the real world, any more than 'practical men' can avoid the haunting of academic scribblers, to paraphrase Keynes.

The error is rather the view that science is theory-free - or value-free- and that its objectivity is not the result of prior theoretical parsing. But what capital wants is a form of thought without theory. It wants to automatize thinking so that it does not acquire the lumpy, human deviations and deformities of thought. That said, in a world where such a tediously unoriginal politician as Emmanuel Macron can be celebrated as 'philosopher and president', one may be led doubt the value of the label at all. None of this is to say, in the parlance of a much-maligned though rarely endorsed 'postmodernism', that there are no such things as empirical facts. Rather, there are facts and there is a complex, irreducible, objective reality. This is precisely why we need theory - contesting theories - to map it. Moreover, there needs to be some philosophy which is independent and non-commodified, not subject to the utilitarianising impetus of profit (no easy feat when Waterstones markets philosophy as 'Smart Thinking').

For a long time there has been an attempt on the part of the hard sciences to prove the phonyism of the arts. The Sokal affair saw a quantum physicist game the academic publishing industry by inserting a nonsense 'deconstruction of quantum gravity' into a respectable journal. More recently, a group of writers embarked on a year-long campaign to insert ridiculous, 'unscientific' articles - with a weirdly obsessive focus on gender studies - into various academic journals. It was widely agreed by papers like the Wall Street Journal that 'something has gone wrong in the humanities.' The unscientific nature of the hoax aside, it is obviously not the case that literary journals should aim for the same kind of rigour as, say, physics journals. Many of the most damning criticisms directed at the social science journals implicated in the hoax were aimed at its shonky grasp of methodology. The likes of sociology may perhaps suffer from a clumsy over-reliance on dubious empirical research methods to validate its theories. However, fudged data and dodgy research are hardly the preserve of gender studies alone. The economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff famously published a paper which claimed to prove that high government debt slowed growth. The paper played an important role in legitimising the austerity turn of the early 2010s. But it turned out that the economists had fudged their numbers. So, the supposed cold, hard science of neoclassical economics - which prizes itself on its combination of mathematical precision, rationality, and consideration of 'real' economic factors - is not without its profoundly damaging methodological and research scandals.

This is not to say that there aren't major issues with academia. How could there not be? Its ongoing privatisation; the individualisation of study and the restriction of public funding sources; the problematic research-competitive funding structure; the opaque process of research candidate selection; the unrepresentative, very middle class, and white character of most academic staff - all are cause for concern. But the idea that academia can be depoliticised by the implementation of more rigorous research standards is a red herring. First of all, it is clearly a category error to insist that philosophical, cultural or historical studies be held to the same statistical and quantitative research standards as other, more 'scientific' disciplines. But even in the hard and soft sciences, things are not as simple as they might seem. Oversight is clearly deeply important to ensure the greatest neutrality in findings. But analysis and indeed motivation will always have a political edge to it. Making such political motives more transparent is important. But perhaps the best way to ensure a fool-proof system is to make readers more aware of what quality research looks like and to teach them to spot concealed political bias.

Critical theory has lately been subject to another, more physical assault. When the far-right mass murderer Anders Breivik slaughtered 69 adults and children on the Norwegian island of Utoya in 2011, he did so in defence of an image of European whiteness and purity which he believed had been sullied by the influence of so-called 'Cultural Marxism'. The latter is supposed to originate from the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, which was home to Jewish Marxist intellectuals throughout the 20th century. Forced to emigrate to the USA by the rise of Nazism, it is believed by many on the contemporary far right that their advocacy of various 'grievances' (class, race, gender, and so on) was so successful that it infected western societies in a way that would eventually bring about their downfall. It takes a very bizarre leap of the imagination to view the hyper-accelerated consumer culture in which we live - and which the Frankfurt School did so much to critique - as a product of their pointedly abstruse, inaccessible theorising. What a great deal of the far right's conspiracy theorising is based around, however, is a desire to revive a certain kind of macho, unrestrained white heroism that has indeed been overtaken by the constant social convulsions of a restless consumer capitalism. Indeed, Adorno's controversial F-Scale for diagnosing authoritarian personality types has found renewed relevance in today's world.

It may not be a leap too far to suggest that the worship of a certain kind of reified scientific discourse is a sublimated desire for renewed authority. This desire is expressed in the form of an image of an all-consuming, all-encompassing, irresistible force of nature. There is, after all, a popular Facebook page called 'I Fucking Love Science' (it currently has 25 million likes). Could there be a clearer demonstration of the libidinal desire for an all-powerful, unchanging natural will than this? Of course, in this context it would never be enough to say, modestly, 'I respect and appreciate the findings of empirical science' (it wouldn't get the likes for a start). Yet, is the fucking doing some specific discursive work here? Enjoyably for a Freudian, the 'I Fucking Love Science' feed is full of stories about farts, fertility, and faeces. There are copious articles about virility, female orgasms, and successful love lives. Yet its hackneyed glimpses of the natural sublime ('We've finally discovered what it's like at the centre of the Earth') are tempered by an awe at human inventiveness ('Watch as NASA cools down a launch platform with 400,000 tonnes of water'). Science then - the weird, amorphous object that unites studies of penis length with the behaviour of pandas, top tips for professional success with energy policy - is the symbolic quilting point (point de capiton in Lacanian psychoanalysis) which coordinates and directs force per se. Force here can be conceived, obviously, as potency, as will, as a romantic kind of consummating energy. Science is, in this popular discourse, the harnessing of natural force through technique. It's like drinking the magic fertility or - perhaps - virility potion; the key to success and the final authority in human and natural life.

I won't be the first to say that there is something proto-fascistic about this fantasmatic desire for untethered natural force, for the pure will. Of course, you may be convinced by this argument or - as is probably the case - you might suspect me of harbouring my own bizarre perversions. But there can be no doubting the existence of 'perversions', of what Freudians call 'libidinal cathexis' (or investment). Indeed, there can be no understanding of politics without over-identifications and over-determinations, both of which point to a certain interpretive complexity. While evidence for such types of libidinal investments can be captured in statistics, in quantitative as well as qualitative research, they are not simply there. There is a necessary degree of theorisation involved in explicating them that is not the case (for most people) in identifying the presence of an unworn, discarded shoe on the landing floor. The multiple determinations of a particular social phenomenon - by brute materiality, but also by discourse, by unconscious desire, and by reflexive knowledge - come into view here. Value neutrality in the sciences - the claim that facts can be used to test deductive theories and disprove them in a way that does not generate truth claims or involve political motives - is a false idol. There may of course be certain kinds of scientific discourse that exist in a less immediate relationship to the political than, say, sociology or economics. The point, however, is that proximity to the political does not necessarily deligitimise a scientific argument. This is not a call to abandon rigorous research methods in cases where they are appropriate. I am simply saying that an acknowledgement of the always-political character and implications of research can bolster reliability rather than detract from it. Or, to the extent that politics is excluded from research, this gesture is acknowledged for what it is: a simplifying assumption to allow for certain things to be measured and not others.

One of the best things about critical theory is its power to unveil in a new light social things that were previously taken for granted. Memory is one such thing. Perhaps the most widely-read and celebrated of 20th century critical theorists was Walter Benjamin. So we'll take one of Benjamin's own reflections on memory from his autobiographical sketch Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert (Berlin Childhood around 1900). This deeply melancholic reflection on a German-Jewish diasporic youth - irretrievably lost through the destructive rise of Nazism - puts into action Benjamin's philosophical belief that the past could contain the seed of the salvation (Erlösung) of the present. For all the coddling, bourgeois comforts of Benjamin's childhood, it is clear that the loss of prosperity is more than just a material loss. Instead it is the loss of a specific wellspring of familial strength. Benjamin may have been locked in a permanent Freudian war with his prosperous, bourgeois father, yet it is clear that his memoirs are a way of maintaining a not uncritical relation to this vanquished past. In the process, Benjamin sketches a social function of memory. In the occasional, careful detail, Benjamin's memories elaborate the social trappings of the German-Jewish bourgeoisie and the political complacency which allowed it to ignore the rumblings of fascism.

In one vignette we find Benjamin at the age of eight or nine playing in the wilderness of the garden at his family's summer house as one of his maids stands at the gate (eins unserer Mädchen steht noch eine Weile am Gittertor). This static, dreamlike image of the maid - no doubt a servant transported from Berlin to the family's Babelsberg retreat - is cut through with another, even earlier memory, this time of an actual dream. Benjamin had kept the past night's dream secret (geheimnis) all day, perhaps because of the vaguely scandalous content. In the dream a ghostly apparition (ein Gespenst) had appeared in front of him and had stood before an altered version of a corner of the room in which his parents slept. The corner was transfigured from its usual brightness into one of immeasurable darkness and sinister energy. The ghost had found its way to the place where his mother stored a profusion of knick-knacks and minor treasures - an array of silks and fancy dresses and jewellery - and was stealing them. Benjamin, it must be said, was quite obsessed with such objects. They held for him a weird power to unlock the past. Vanquished commodities revealed an image of what people had fleetingly loved and discarded. The meaning of the dream is only revealed the following night. Then, his parents come into his room in order to avoid a many-headed gang (eine vielköpfige Verbrecherbande) that is now robbing the house for real. The house was stripped. The vignette ends with Benjamin implying that the working-class servant girl had let the marauders into the house, while he is left with a sense that his secret damned his family to the robbery.

Benjamin believed that the meaning of the past could sometimes only be revealed by its encounter with the present, or in other words that the significance of past events was not in the events themselves but in their recollection. He argued against a concept of history based on 'homogeneous and empty time' (homogene und leere Zeit) and for one that was fulfilled in the 'here and now' (Jetztzeit). Recovering the past for the purposes of the present was like a 'tiger leap' (Tigersprung) into the past. In the vignettes of his childhood memoirs, Benjamin exercises a series of memory-shifts in order to uncover the past: there are, existing in seeming simultaneity, the evening games outside the summer house; the dream of the ghost; the night of the robbery; and the morning after, all presented at once. And running through it we have the various mysteries of the family's precious objects - the lost commodities - which are now no longer recoverable. If it was Benjamin's ambition to recover the past for the services of the present, that which is unrecoverable - the family's wealth and comfort of the pre-War era - becomes particularly painful. Lurking in the story is the reality of social class, the frail security of commercial wealth, and the looming spectre of a present in which Jewish property could be legally ransacked. This partial recovery of the objects of bourgeois social life - the silks and other trinkets stolen by night - serves as a reminder of the way in which capitalist society gives and takes away with equal speed. What emerges is a world that seems at once secure and permanent - the complacent world of a childhood lived in bourgeois comfort - and terribly transient.

The concept of homogeneous, empty time implies, as if often said, a certain kind of bourgeois linearity. In the context of a text that is partly a critique of progress (Fortschritt) as a destructive force that obliterates the past, it could seem that this is merely a critique of the way in which events are chronologically ordered by Whiggish history. But this is not a Heideggerian elegy for man's thrownness (Dasein) into the world or his alienation from his real being. Rather, a concept of homogeneous, empty time implies not succession but synchronicity in space. It is as if, from the perspective of bourgeois society and bourgeois science specifically, time becomes analogous to space. This is a concept of time that lacks historicity - historical value - at all. In this concept of time, any event could feasibly have taken place at any moment. Each moment is exchangeable for another since in the end the determining factor in human behaviour is not history but nature. Think, for example, of the static equilibria - adapted from an outmoded 19th century physics - of neoclassical economics. In these models, quantitative factors (prices) determine that over the course of time, things will revert to how they were. The market will clear. Prices will adjust to a new set of signals. It is no surprise, then, that the models deployed in neoclassical economics - the IS-LM graph, the Phillips Curve - are spatial rather than temporal models. They represent back and forth shifts in quantities rather than trends over time. What Benjamin is trying to redeem (erlösen) is the singularity of the past, its unrecoverability. In the fact that what happened then could not in fact happen again now, Benjamin offers us a stark reminder that society cannot be reduced to the scientific world of abstract models and behaviour patterns. By recalling the qualitative difference of the past, a qualitatively different - and better - future becomes imaginable.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Aufstehen: Authentocrats on the German Left

In Germany, a precautionary tale: earlier this year, veterans of the German left set up a new, supposedly ‘grassroots’ movement called Aufstehen (Rise Up). Its aim was to bolster the left and to move the national conversation onto Germany’s underlying social issues like low pay, austerity in public services, and inequality. 

‘Aufstehen is a social and democratic movement for renewal (Erneuerungsbewegung),’ its website declares, adopting some of the anti-ideological post-leftish vocabulary of populism. They are not seeking to become a party, but ‘etwas Neues... eine Bewegung für alle, die gemeinsam für unsere Ziele kämpfen wollen.’ That is, something ‘new’ - a movement which collectively can fight for ‘our aims’. These aims are all honourable and trade heavily on what die Linke (hitherto the dominant party of the radical left in Germany) specialises in: a group of themes around ‘soziale Gerechtigkeit’ (roughly, social justice) in the form of better pay, public services, housing, gender and racial equality.

Aufstehen attracted support from leftward intellectuals like the sociologist and economist Wolfgang Streeck, whose public spats with ‘cosmopolitan’ intellectuals like Jurgen Habermas have raised the question of left-euroscepticism in Germany. It was co-founded by the former SPD Finance Minister and ex-Linke leader Oskar Lafontaine, who has participated in debates around the deflationary effect of the euro on the European economy as well as Germany’s own economic imbalances. His ally, Heiner Flassbeck, co-authored a book arguing for the end of the single currency and a revival of national-democratic Keynesianism. There is, to be sure, some promise in the revival of a kind of macroeconomic ambition on the European left that is not afraid to propose far-reaching reforms to the EU. Even better if it can root itself in a mass membership ‘social movement’ (or Sammlungsbewegung as Aufstehen styles itself). 

However, in its desire to short circuit the dynamism of Germany’s far-right, it has made disastrous decisions on the question of migration policy and international solidarity. Lafontaine’s express goal in setting up Aufstehen was to steal votes from the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD). As he put it, he wanted the movement ‘prevent’ (verhindern) further growth of the AfD essentially by foreclosing the issue of migration. How would it do this? Not by insisting on solidarity as an inalienable principle, but calling for a limit to migrant numbers into Germany. Migration, he argued increased competition for wages (Lohn) and rent (Miet). As die Welt put it, ‘Er gehe davon aus, dass die AfD geschwächt werde, wenn der Zuzug beschränkt werde.’ (The AfD would be weakened if the influx was slowed down). 

All of this puts Aufstehen in a peculiar position. By wanting to reach out to the largest swathe of the population, it is triangulating to the right on immigration. The bland language of its website and its supposedly ‘common sense’ approach to the issue of the migrant ‘influx’ suggests more than a hint of cynicism. As has been widely argued, migration has little impact on working class income. Open borders are, even at a purely utilitarian level, good for public budgets. Germany has an ageing population and it needs people to arrive to fill its jobs and skills gaps. The chaos and misery caused by Merkel’s shifting Fluchtlingspolitik (refugee policy) should have been exploited by the German left. Yet, Aufstehen has positioned itself rhetorically to the right of Merkel’s CDU on the issue. 

In its recourse to a revival of the democratic polity against the greed of the markets (drawing distantly on Streeck’s opposition of Staatsvolk and Marktsvolk), Aufstehen has closed off the opportunity for a left populism that would articulate itself around class rather than the nation state. The typical left argument - that working class people have more in common with each other than with national elites, whatever their passport says - if you simply want to defend national democracy. It is a strangely rhetorical positioning: when Lafontaine makes such arguments, it is not clear even he believes what he is saying. Instead it is merely meant to signal ‘toughness’ and ‘understanding’ on borders. Joe Kennedy has called this type of gesture one of ‘authentocracy’. In its attempt to ‘understand’ the ‘concerns’ of ‘real’ people, it reduces the complexities of class society to a simple opposition between authentic, common sense, real life and the inauthentic, exotic, cosmopolitan world of the academic left. 

Die Linke has, it’s true, been struggling in recent years to cut through to the German electorate, despite the woes of the German centre-left SPD. Divides in its leadership over strategy and over message have hampered it. In its pursuit of coalition government with the SPD, it hasn’t been radical enough. Its loss of some votes to the AfD in the former east Germany has propelled the ascent of Sahra Wagenknecht’s anti-migration politics. Precosely when it should be holding the line against racist ‘solutions’ to Germany’s social problems, it is fatally weakened. Aufstehen looks like a symptom of this weakness, an offshoot of its general incapacity to articulate popular discontent to radical ends. It is a worrying example of what an organisation like Momentum could become if it is not held to account by anti-racist groups.

Last week a genuinely large, if inchoate protest hot the streets of Berlin under the slogan Unteilbar (Indivisble). Up to a quarter of a million people demonstrated against racism and the exclusion of migrants and refugees from civic life. The protest was no doubt fuelled by a series of violent mobilisations in Chemnitz by a nascent neo-fascist movement. It came on the back of a series of mobilisations across the country under the slogan ‘Wir send mehr’ (We are more), which attempted to highlight the minority status of far-right opinion in the country. Wagenknecht’s reaction to the huge Unteilbar demonstration was to question the demand issued by some for ‘open borders’. She said: ‘Wenn wir über ,offene Grenzen für alle' reden, ist das eine Forderung, die die meisten Menschen als irreal und völlig weltfremd empfinden und damit ja auch recht haben." Here then was the perfect example of a politician -deeply immersed in the antiracist traditions of the left, no less - treating a huge mobilisation of anti-racist opinion as an extreme, alien, minority hobbyhorse. Most people, she said, would see the talk of open border as ‘unrealistic’ (irreal) and ‘completely unworldly’ (vollig weltfremd). Wagenknecht was seeking to contrast the ‘moderate’, ‘realistic’ view that borders should be strictly policed and migrant numbers forcibly limited with the ‘extreme’, ‘unworldly’ idea that border policy could be humane and welcoming. This, obviously, is a deeply depressing spectacle.


The evidence is also that it won’t pay off. As support for a tired CDU-SPD governing coalition falters, support for the AfD remains undimmed. While the beneficiary of an upsurge of open, tolerant pro-migrant sentiment has not been the left, but the liberal Greens. Polls now shows die Grunen in second place behind the CDU nationally, which is backed up by very impressive results in Munich in the Bavarian local elections in October. The German left has rendered itself incapable of mobilising a similar demographic upswing in its eastern heartlands by triangulating to the right. Where it goes from here depends to some degree on how it taps into the Unteilbar demonstrations. To its credit die Linke itself has been fully supportive. If it wants to avoid further marginalisation, it should make a break with Wagenknecht and the hopeless pursuit of anti-immigrant sentiment. 

Thursday, 18 October 2018

How Rotten Deals Are Done


After the nightmarish Euro Summit talks between the leaders of the Greek government and representatives of its creditors on the 12th July 2015, a seven-page document emerged that outlined the price of Greece’s future as a eurozone member: the Syriza government’s ‘red lines’ on pension, VAT and privatisations would be trashed, deeper austerity would be introduced, and the government would have to create a €50 billion fund which would channel the proceeds of privatisations towards its loan repayments and the recapitalisation of its now-bankrupt banks. The contents were a democratic scandal, especially given the government’s recent victory in a referendum which rejected the creditors’ bailout terms. The Greek authorities were now obliged to ‘legislate without delay’ - and so they did.

Two votes were held in the Greek Parliament – one on 15th and the other on 22nd July – which passed the so-called ‘prior actions’ in full. The government and its creditors had worked quite successfully together to make speed the enemy of dissent. In a total of ten days, the bulk of Greece’s public sector assets had been mandated for privatisation. Moreover, a left-majority parliament had somehow passed the largest austerity commitments in the country’s history. In the two votes, Syriza left-wingers and some moderate dissenters voted against the deal (39 and 36 deputies respectively), but that was not enough to prevent the package passing with opposition support. By holding the votes at the earliest possible date, the government and its creditors had ensured that the measures would receive the least possible scrutiny. The deadlines also left very little time for dissent of either left or right to really organise itself. For their part, the Syriza left were disoriented by the speed with which the successful referendum result had been converted into enthusiastic support for austerity by the Tsipras leadership.

The new laws did eventually split the party, with the Left Platform breaking away from Syriza to form the ill-fated new party, Popular Unity. At exactly the point of the breakaway’s formation, however, Tsipras pulled the same stunt again: not wanting formal opposition to emerge to his left, he called a snap election with just six weeks’ notice. Popular Unity was still-born. Syriza was re-elected on a wave of popular abstention. It was a grim denouement to a tumultuous nine months of ‘radical left’ government.

There are not many similarities between this and the British case: Greece wanted to remain a eurozone member but renegotiate some of its prior bailout commitments. The British government, on the other hand, wants to negotiate exit from the EU on relatively favourable terms. The structural position of the UK is very different to that of Greece, not least in terms of its currency arrangements. The Brexit negotiations now pivot on a matter of geopolitics – the Irish border question – that was entirely absent in the Greek case. Nevertheless, the story of Syriza’s capitulation in 2015 is a good example of how rotten deals are done.

Reports have recently surfaced that Theresa May is hoping to rely on opposition votes to pass her own deal. The bait here is naturally different to that of the Greek deal: some leave-supporting Labour MPs will see May’s deal as the only way to secure Brexit, while some Remainers way even see it as preferable to a hard Brexit. Her gambit is likely to be similar to Tsipras’s: that she can secure an outline of a deal at such a late date, and with a no deal exit looming so close, that many unsympathetic MPs feel obliged to vote with her. If she can rush the vote, she can avoid a protracted build up of opposition on her own benches and avert some defections. The government will be hoping to once again make speed the enemy of dissent. This may sound ironic-bordering-on-the-absurd, given the length of the fruitless negotiations to date, but the key decisions are all yet to happen. The news now is that leaders of the EU27 have decided to shelve the November Brexit summit that was supposed mark a turning point in the negotiations. This may, perversely, work to May’s advantage. The incompetence and failure of the government may not be ‘deliberate’ in any obvious sense, but in the final weeks of the negotiations the lack of progress – of concrete shape to the deal – will be the one card they hold.

If a deal emerges at the last minute, what will it look like? You can expect a ‘fudge’, but that doesn’t tell anyone anything. A fudge will conceal a certain balance of interests. My feeling is that the EU and UK government will reach some kind of ugly last minute compromise on the question of the backstop for Northern Ireland (a way of avoiding trade disruption between Irish Republic and Northern Ireland in the event of stalling transition or a no deal Brexit ). Extensive recourse to legal and technical contortions (‘a backstop to the backstop’) aside, what will it all mean? Right now the DUP doesn’t want any form of backstop or backstop-to-the-backstop that will only apply to Northern Ireland (thus imposing some kind of customs border between NI and the UK). Theresa May doesn’t want that either and needs the DUP’s support. It’s unlikely that the Irish Republic would support the kind of exit that would see a hard border imposed between it and Northern Ireland because of the way it would jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement (which is one of the things that makes a backstop so important). Because of May’s abhorrence of a customs border in the Irish Sea (basically partitioning the UK), she is now seeking temporary customs union membership for the entire UK as an alternative to a NI-only backstop. Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Negotiator, has said he wants to ‘de-dramatise’ the Irish border question by avoiding actual border checks while ensuring that the backstop only applies to Ireland. Tory Brexiters who will be crucial in getting the plan through the Commons don’t want an indefinite commitment to remain in the UK after the transition because Customs Union membership means no new trade deals with states outside the EU. It may be the case that the EU can be persuaded to accept some formal commitment to the temporary UK customs membership ending at an unspecified definite point. It may also be the case that some Brexiters can be bought off by May’s assurances that the UK will definitely leave the Customs Union even if she ultimately gets no formal date. Of particular significance will be May’s few key Leaver allies – people like Michael Gove, who has argued that any deal will be up for some sort of later revision – in encouraging pro-Brexit Tory MPs that this is the only way they can get Brexit done and is only for the short term. It won’t convince everyone, but it may work for some.

If all this sounds confusing, that also works in May’s favour. The very complexity of it means that different interests can take what they want from it. The alternative needs to look just bad enough – and the time to seek an alternative just slim enough – to get a majority to vote for it. Nevertheless, this might not save May. Tsipras got his deal and won his snap election, but at the cost of his party. May would probably not survive even a small Tory defection. She might get the deal through parliament with some opposition support only to be turfed out of office in the ensuing months. That would see either a Tory leadership election or a general election or both. May’s legacy could ultimately be securing a deal to which her successor – whoever that may be – is committed.

For those on the Labour side there is little solace in May’s impending downfall. Most MPs want the softest of all Brexits – Brexit in Name Only – followed, presumably, by re-entry at some later date. The Labour leadership wants a permanent Customs Union. Were it in power, a Labour government would very much be at risk of two outcomes: either being bounced into membership of the EEA (or the Single Market for both goods and services) or being bounced into exactly the kind of backstop for Northern Ireland that the EU would like. In the former case, the few left-wing benefits of Brexit become impossible. EEA membership means accepting neoliberal EU policy on state aid, competition rules and procurement policy. It is better to remain in the EU than wind up in the EEA but without full EU membership. Exit minus the EEA but with a new Customs Union (Labour’s current position) would no doubt require an Irish backstop of the kind proposed by Michel Barnier. There is nothing in principle wrong with that – but imagine the political opposition to a Corbyn government that imposes a border between the UK and Northern Ireland. Corbyn, who has historically supported a united Ireland, would be accused of creating a de facto united Ireland. It is not necessary to be a full-throated Remainer to see that some thought needs to be given to how a workable Brexit agreement can be secured. It is still not entirely clear how Labour would make that work in practice and avoid its own defections. Principled socialist opposition to the EU has rarely coalesced into a meaningful path to exit. This is not to say that Labour should have all the answers by now, but it should at least have grappled with the political realities of it.

In the real world, the Labour leadership is likely to whip its MPs to vote against May’s deal. If it wants to win that vote – essentially by ensuring its MPs actually vote with the whip – it has to make its alternative clear. The more confusing and complex May’s deal looks, the clearer Corbyn’s alternative should be. This means ditching the ambiguity about a People’s Vote and making clear what its deal would look like. Above all, somebody needs to explain what the solution to the Irish border question is.


Sunday, 14 October 2018

A left case for Brexit?

A new book by Philip B. Whyman, Professor of Economics at the University of Central Lancashire, makes the case for the potential benefits of a left (or alternatively ‘progressive’) Brexit. Yet The Left Case for Brexit (2018), published by the think tank Civitas, only makes the deep quandary of Brexit clearer. Whyman is a former researcher and European officer for the USDAW union as well as author of copious studies of UK-EU relations. He is the advocate of the kind of beefy, corporatist Keynesianism favoured by the Nordic economies – one that tends towards euroscepticism of the patriotic, democratic, and socially egalitarian kind. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Whyman begins from broadly Keynesian premises. It is, he argues, government’s job to ensure socially progressive outcomes from seismic events like Brexit. He makes a good point: it is hard to disagree with the view that much of the conversation around Brexit – both on the left and right of politics – has been deeply counterproductive. Whyman defines a left Brexit as one which would be of benefit to ‘all’ – that is, ‘for the many and not just the few’, as the phrase goes. The argument about state policy will be uncontroversial in Keynesian circles: the UK economy is afflicted by deep woes. A productivity crisis means that UK workers are on average 30 percent less efficient than their German counterparts. Chronic underinvestment combines with dampened demand to produce an economy that favours income to capital, rent extraction, social inequality, and stressed living standards. Employment may be high, but the share of income that goes to the working class is stagnating. Insecure, low-paid jobs in the ‘casualised’ or ‘precarious’ sector are the result of decades of economic policy that has favoured ‘supply-side’ reforms (tax cuts and so on) while failing to encourage real productive investment, innovation, productivity growth, and wage increases. Whyman argues that a progressive government should spur domestic consumption by using fiscal policy to boost demand, while avoiding the perils of inflation by boosting productivity and improving the competitiveness of the economy overall. So far, so conventional. 

Whyman believes the UK can easily afford to end austerity – whether it is in the EU or out. The UK is not a member of the eurozone and has its own central bank. Therefore, it has greater room for manoeuvre on fiscal matters than other eurozone states. But he also wants to see a thoroughgoing ‘transformation’ of the UK economy. A strategic industrial policy would target investment projects through a beefed up investment bank, thus incentivising innovation and productivity growth. New decentralised public procurement policies would localise the provision of services and boost spending in crisis-stricken regions.

It is in this area that Whyman’s policy proposals come into conflict with the thrust of EU integration since Maastricht: EU competition laws limit the scope for local authority action on public procurement; its state aid laws make ‘picking winners’ more difficult; the so-called ‘four freedoms’ of capital, goods, labour and services proscribe policies that aim at domestic development and enhancing competitiveness. Controversially, for the ‘progressive’ side of UK politics, Whyman would also like to see an ‘independent’ UK free to levy its own tariffs on imported goods as well as to set its own parameters for inward migration. Naturally, if the UK is to have such ‘independence’ it will need quite a sharp break from the EU. Whyman’s solution is for the UK to seek a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) along the lines of the deal negotiated between Canada and the EU (CETA). 

What precludes closer integration of the UK and the EU? Whyman offers brief but insightful explanations of the various options the UK could pursue. Membership of the European Economic Area (the so-called Norway option) is rejected for familiar reasons: the UK would become a de facto member of the European Free Trade Associationcustoms union and single market, subjecto its rules without a say in determining them. On the other hand, signing up to a new customs union (advocated by the Labour Party) would mean that the UK could not negotiate its own bilateral trade deals, would still have to make a financial contribution to the EU, and would probably have to impose a common external tariff on all non-EU member states in order to avoid ‘tariff-jumping’ (whereby third countries would export to the lower-tariff UK in order to re-export to the EU, thus avoiding the latter’s common external tariffs). A customs partnership or indeed the deal proposed by the current Tory government is unappealing to the EU negotiators precisely because it relies on technical border fixes to the question of external tariffs, mandating that the UK conform to EU goods regulations whilst maintaining the freedom to set its own rules for external trading partners. 

Whyman settles on what he calls a ‘shallow’ free trade deal, one which would cover only goods and some services in its initial negotiations but could be extended in future. Whereas a single market and customs union membershipimply regulatory identity, a free trade deal only stretches to regulatory equivalence (achieving the same outcomes by different means). What this means in practice is that the UK could significantly diverge from EU rules on state aid, competition, procurement, and industrial policy whilst still benefiting from a high degree of access to the EU Single Market. 

The glaring problem with such an arrangement is that it would create a customs border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The May government has rejected a Canada style deal precisely because it would make a hard border unavoidable. The hated Chequers Deal proposed by May executed all kinds of verbal acrobatics to muffle the border issue.  In essence it proposes a ‘common rulebook’ for goods travelling between the EU and UK that would avoid any need for a so-called ‘hard border’ in Ireland. Under May’s Chequers plan the UK would be free to diverge from the EU in some areas while conforming on anything that can cross a physical border. The EU has rejected May’s proposals on the basis that it would undermine the EU Single MarketWhat is presumably meant by this is that the arrangement could lead to ‘tariff jumping’ by third parties seeking to exploit the regulatory alignment between the UK and the Single Market by exporting to a lower-tariff UK before exporting into the EU.Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has long suggested that a Canada style trade deal is the only option if the UK wishes to diverge significantly from the EU. But Barnier knows full well how unpalatable such a deal would be for any government that wishes to preserve the Good Friday Agreement. He has recently suggested that the EU would come forward in talks in October with a new proposal on the border question. Thus far the EU has suggested that Northern Ireland remain within the Customs Union in order to provide a so-called ‘backstop’ to the border question. For the Unionist government in Westminster, such an idea threatens the integrity of the UK itself, imposing a border in the sea between Ireland and the UK. 

Whyman’s own proposal accepts that a de facto border would appear in Ireland, but that so-called ‘smart’ border technology could reduce disruption. The tech-utopian overtones of such a proposal aside, it fails to take account of the complex political economy of Brexit – that is, the balance of interests among the various actors in the negotiations. Even if a technical fix to the border question is theoretically possible, in practice the entrenched positions around the negotiations make such an outcome highly improbable. If a government were to announce its intention to seek a free trade deal, it would immediately raise the spectre of a hard border. While hardline Brexiters and some members of May’s cabinet rally in support of Boris Johnson’s Super Canada’ deal, the Tories’ Parliamentary lifeline, the DUP, have rejected a ‘vague’ sounding free trade dealIt is not clear that there is any kind of Parliamentary majority support for such a distant relationship and it would also seem that large sections of Britain’s capitalist class prefer a softer rather than harder Brexit. Whatever the merits of a free trade deal (and there are obvious reasons why the left should not put its faith in a Tory-government negotiated deal), it remains politically a non-starter.

The central weakness of Whyman’s book – as with so many of the idealist ‘plans for Brexit’ that have circulated since 2016 – is its failure to confront these intractable political obstacles. Without a proper confrontation with the Irish border question, such proposals remain simply utopianAs a Keynesian, Whyman has a tendency to treat the UK economy in isolation – as a single economic unit which must improve its performance relative to the rest of the world. Such propositions will be familiar to anyone who has read Keynes or expended much thought on the nature of Keynesian economic policy. Along with Costas Lapavitsas on the Marxist left, he is a contributor to the revival of national-popular economic sovereignty on the left. There are certainly virtues to such a revival, which provide a corrective to overused and simplistic formulations of ‘globlaisation’. Yet it also has weaknesses. Whyman has a questionable commitment to the view that ending free movement of people will be good for the UK labour market (which he advocates ahead of ending ‘flexible’ working conditions) as it means we can specify the skill sets required. The revival of industrial policy to build about the UK’s economic capacity after Brexit would, if anything, require greater immigration not less. Whyman wants a Brexit that will work for ‘all’ - indeed, this is what his claim to advance a ‘left’ Brexit vision rests on. But there is no such thing as a Brexit that works for all: some classes will benefit more than others. Some groups – the oppressed, the poor, the excluded – are more likely to suffer from one form of Brexit than another. While any left economic policy should focus on the revival of state capacity at the national level, we shouldn’t think this means we need to be more ‘nationalist’ in our thinking. By failing to take account of the diverging political interests at stake in the Brexit negotiations, Whyman risks painting too simplistic a picture of the kind of Brexit that could benefit ‘all’.

Lest Remainers take undue heart at the failure of the Brexit project, there is still no majority either in Parliament or in the country to reverse it. Amid the endless arguments about the vote to leave and its consequences, there are very few voices on the left seriously grappling with the realities of actually leaving. If the likely outcome of the October negotiations is a fudge (on the question of the border and on the degree of future regulatory alignment), then there will be much to argue about even after March 2019. Although no one can predict exactly what is coming, it seems the any government will want to avoid a so-called ‘no deal’ exit. If this remains the case, then a long, protracted war of attrition seems likely. The exact balance of the outcome remains to be determined. Whyman’s book is a first attempt to outline how the UK’s post-Brexit economy could be shaped to left-wing ends. It is inevitably flawed, but it should be taken as a spur to further work.