Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Beyond Identity Politics

January 22, 2017 Leave a comment

In my last blog I made a passing comment about how embracing identity politics had been one of two big errors committed by left and progressive movements. There is a big debate right now between groups arguing that identity politics is more important than ever and those arguing that it has been a mistake. Because of this, and because of the large potential for misunderstanding here, I want to expand on and clarify my own views on this. I’ll say this upfront: I am less sure about the role of identity politics than I am about the causes and consequences of inequality in how we got here. There is considerable room for contestation about this and there are important points to be heard on both side of this debate. But debate we must, and it should be done openly and honestly. Its importance to where we have been, where we are, and where we are heading makes this essential. What follows, then, however inadequate, are my two cents…

In my last years in London I was having a drink with a former colleague who was from an Indian family. I made the observation to him that a lot of Indians were Conservative party supporters. He agreed that this was the case (he himself was not), and asked me why I thought that was. The reason I gave was that as marginalised groups attain a level of acceptance and success they tend to become conservative. Because their new-found security is tenuous, the best strategy to protect themselves is to redirect attention to other vulnerable groups. It is, metaphorically, to close the door behind them, or to kick away the ladder. I suggested in that conversation that in a generation or two we’d see gay people and other groups voting for right-wing parties for the same reason.

In a society where issue politics are fragmented, where the perception is that there is a limited space for them to be resolved and that group claims are competing claims, this strategy of turning to the right makes sense. Such is the logic of scarcity, rational self-interest, and the zero-sum game. This is what makes it identity politics, where politics is understood as collective judgements in the presence of scarcity. What we end up with is Hobbes’s war of all against all.

I want to try now to outline why I think identity politics has played into the hands of the right, and now the far-right, and how the perception of a zero-sum game is false. If I can, I’ll say a little about what I think needs to be done.

Identity politics can boast of many real and important successes. The lives of many African Americans is better for it. Women in many countries have more and better opportunities than in former ages. People of all kinds can now marry in many places. These gains are at best partial and, as I will argue, insecure. But whatever the extent of these gains, they have come at a cost.

First, and most importantly in our current context, the practice of identity politics has accustomed people to think about politics in terms of membership, of groups that they are in and – critically – groups that they are not in. Progressivism has transitioned from a single, majoritarian working class politics (not to be romanticised, of course) into a fragmented and divisive identity politics, losing its unifying characteristic. By their nature, identity groups are numerical minorities (with the possible exception of women). This has left progressivism without a coherent majority.

Second, specific policies like preferential hiring have reinforced the perception of zero-sum politics, that a gain for some group entails a loss for others (even when the actual problems these other groups face are in fact rooted in unrelated causes). (To be clear, I support policies like preferential hiring for many reasons, but as a policy it cannot exist in isolation without further policies that protect the security of other vulnerable groups. This is for another day…)

Together, these problems are mutually reinforcing, leaving the constituents of modern progressivism divided and, under the assumption of zero-sum politics, mutually antagonistic. This renders the real gains both fragile and vulnerable to the politics of the right.

It is a standard strategy of the right, and a defining feature of the far right, to divide people into groups and set them against each other. Divide and conquer is a tactic with ancient pedigree, and history tells us of its remarkable successes. It has been deployed throughout the neoliberal age: us versus them, workers versus parasites, rich versus poor, immigrants versus citizens versus refugees, black versus white, black versus Latino, East versus West, religious group versus religious group, old versus young, and thanks to the magic of the market, worker versus worker.

This is how the practice of identity politics has played into the hands of the right (and now the far right). It has left a fractionalised polity while conveniently leaving the right with a number of self-identifying discrete groups that can be set against each other. Each group can be marginalised, peeled off (or worse yet, bought out) and everyone ultimately loses.

It has even led to paradoxical results. Over the last year I’ve had many conversations where someone would say something like “Trump is wrong on group x and group y, but I really admire his stance on group z”, where the person was in fact a member of group x or y. While Trump’s scattershot strategy of attacking so many disparate groups appears random and clumsy, it is not so hard, I think, to see how this strategy worked and was so successful for him: it is well noted, for instance, how many white women voted for him, despite his obvious misogyny. So long as people feel passionately opposed to one or more of his targets it matters less to them that they were another of his targets. Their need for a target for their outrage combines with a false sense of membership to vote against their own group. In effect, identity politics have divided, and the Trumps of the world have conquered. What we are left with is the danger warned of in Martin Niemöller’s immortal poem.

One might (plausibly) object that, where the far right identifies groups in order to marginalise them, progressives have identified groups to help them. This is true, to a point. But it is not my point. I don’t question the motivations of identity politics, nor the serious issues they embody. My point is that these groups have fundamental important commonalities that have been lost through the practice of identity politics.

At one level, identity groups represent different problems and claims. Their historic sources differ, and the ways to address the problems may also differ. However, at a deeper level they share a common basic foundation: they have much more in common than they are different. Each group represents opposition to bullying, injustice, narrowness. Once we recognise this fundamental commonality, the illusion of zero-sum politics dissolves and the strategy of kicking away the ladder appears for what it is: a self-destructive act.

The point is this: these are not separate issues – they are the same issue. Rather than be for one cause or another, we must be against bullying, against injustice, against narrowness, for this is what unites the perpetrators of each of these issues. If progressive politics is going to survive the next few years it needs a different approach, one that can celebrate difference, but is grounded in our commonality. Yes, we need to respect and understand the specificity of individual causes: we need to push for justice for African Americans, for indigenous groups, for gender equality, for LGBT rights, and for all the other causes. But we cannot achieve justice for any group in isolation exclusively. We must do it together and do it broadly. We must fight for, and with, each other, not against each other. We need to be clear they these are not competing claims where a win for some causes necessitates a loss for others. The growingly numerous Trumps of the world will only be defeated when disparate groups recognise their underlying shared cause, and where these Trumps are presented with a unified opposition. We must move beyond identity politics into a fuller, more potent, humanist politics. This will require that we not only change the way we think about each other but also the way that we think about politics.

I am deeply conscious that as I write these words millions of people around the world are marching in protests for women’s rights following the inauguration of now President Trump. I am also thinking about the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement. So, given what I’ve said above, do I oppose these actions? Am I one of those All Lives Matters guys? Do I want to retort that women matter as much as men? Absolutely not, on all counts. First, these movements involve many people who are not part of the identity group named. This is encouraging. It is still important that groups like this exist, that they raise consciousness of important parts of the broader picture. Single issue activism can act as an anchor around which a broader movement can form. In many respects the civil rights movement had this characteristic (and Martin Luther King understood this need for broad based coalitions that stretch beyond the initial issue). Perhaps the women’s rights protests have that potential. My hope is that these movements will converge and become something new, something that can break the cycle of division. Only by doing so can we begin to hope.

Categories: Politics

2016, In Memoriam

December 26, 2016 1 comment

As a lover of film and music, this year has been a deeply sad one, as the pantheon has been decimated. But for me as a political animal 2016 has been disastrous. It has left me drained, rattled, angry, doubtful and uncharacteristically speechless. I have been trying to write much of what follows below since the US election but the magnitude of it all has had a paralysing effect on me. But here goes…

The events of the year defy cataloguing, but a short list must include the Brexit referendum (and the subsequent and ongoing state of uncertainty that has followed), the US election which was not only a resounding victory for populism but also sees the Republican party seize control of every lever of government including the Supreme Court, a narrowly avoided election of a far-right president in Austria (twice!), rapidly growing discontent across Europe, the related growth in popularity of politically extreme parties and candidates globally, and increasingly unstable political situations in many other places.

In 2016 we entered the full-on Bizarro world of “post-truth politics” and fake news (rapidly weaponised as fake fake news, the next great escalation). Welcome to the cacophony of tomorrow’s social Pravda, wherein facts are privatised and democratised – he who shouts loudest shouts last, and Orwell wept. Reason redefined to make room for its opposite while squeezing out the original; toleration contorted to justify bigotry and silence compassion; being a “social justice warrior” becomes the far-right’s favourite term of condemnation and contempt, as if caring about anyone but yourself, just on the basis of their humanity, were a cardinal moral failure. There is nothing new in this, of course. Media and interested parties have thrived on misleading for as long as they have existed. Some have suggested that post-truthhood is just what we used to call lying. There is something to that. But this misses its main characteristic: beyond the mere purveyance of falsehood, post-truthhood is about receptiveness to the falsehoods, a deep desire to make facts conform to one’s mood, reversing the immortal relationship between world and person. And it’s here that the real danger lies. People want to feel strong, even if it means embracing lies, even if it means embracing monsters.

Progressivism lies in ruins, and much of it is their own fault. After the US election I noted that the Democrats had died from their own smugness. The party elites’ support of Clinton in the primaries, and their incomprehension of the forces driving the election highlights the cognitive distance between the political class and their constituents. And not just the Democrats – there is a malady of elitist incomprehension that pervades modern self-described progressive parties (I’m talking to you, New Labour, but this applies equally in many countries, like my own). For forty years, the political left has failed their constituencies in too many ways, of which I will mention just two. First, they capitulated fully to conservative economic thinking and bought wholesale into the corrosive narrative of free markets and the trickle-down effect (the financial collapse of 2008 was as much a product of decisions by progressive politicians as of the conservatives who they emulated). Second, having lost the unifying body of the working class, they engaged in the divisive and polarising pursuit of identity politics. This is not to say that the various issues of identity politics aren’t important – of course they are. But by focussing on small specific groups, the left has failed to bring it all together into a unifying and inclusive vision. This has made them vulnerable and ineffective, and instead we now face the prospect of a very different and dangerous kind of unified society. The task facing progressive politics is immense.

Through all this, I’ve watched the theory that I’ve been engaged with for so long fail to find a response. For much of this I have watched the political science department at my university look bamboozled by the various outcomes – this just does not make sense, with a quizzical look. They managed to somehow miss the central point: politics is not driven by rational choice – it is driven by emotion, never more so than in times like these. The dominance of rational choice theory is undone, even though it will likely dominate thinking for many years to come (see the failure of economists to adapt, post 2008). Political scientists, like the economists they emulate, are too chained to the mathematical tractability that comes from rationality models. Such are Kuhnian paradigms. More’s the pity, especially if, like me, you view this as an abdication of social responsibility. Meanwhile, well-meaning and intelligent theorists have responded to the year by resurrecting arguments from as far back as Plato to show the impossibility of democracy. Liberal staples such as free speech, especially in forms such as that propounded by John Stuart Mill, are similarly the subject of retreat. These are not unreasonable responses under the circumstances, but I reject their conclusions. In both cases, as I’ve argued for years now, their success is a problem of background conditions – democracy and free speech are only as good as the societies that feature in them. This has been, and remains, the bedrock of my egalitarianism.

All in all, then, a pretty appalling state of affairs. It is a natural emotional response to want to bracket these happenings to the year, and hope for it all to go away as soon as January clocks in. But, of course, political events do not recognise the arbitrary boundaries of the calendar. While the absolute best we can hope for is that 2016 is remembered as an exceptionally bad year for the world, it is more realistic to understand the year as the start of a very bad period (and even as the next evolution of an ongoing period including, at the least, 2008). In any case the year will be remembered in history as a turning point for the worse, with all its attendant historical déjà vu. I’m not a fortune teller but there are some predictions I feel comfortable (even while alarmed) in making. The world is now a much less safe place than it has been in decades. The momentum of the far-right will certainly continue, as it gains courage from its successes. Critical elections next year will decide the future of Europe. Small but dramatic events can easily tip the balance. The world will become, for the time being, a narrower, less open, less tolerant, and more hostile place, and the most vulnerable will bear the worst of this. Fighting back will be harder than ever. We have to struggle with this new reality in which the space of possibility has dramatically contracted. We need to find new ways to move forward.

Which brings me to me. For the better part of a decade, I have engaged deeply with political thought, philosophy, and history. Two things have driven me down this path. The first is the strong suspicion that the economic and social structures that the world has embraced for four decades contains the potential to produce a very ugly and dangerous kind of politics, reminiscent, however different in detail, to world of the 1930s. Those who forget the past etc. Seeing the sharp movements in this direction over the last year has brought me no comfort – and I have to confess here to having thought such things were a long way in the future, an attitude that now seems hopelessly naïve. The second is the belief that reasoned, fact-respecting argument can make a contribution, however small, to averting this future. This belief has taken a firm beating this year as I have had to accept the realities that the post-truth world presents. I am less confident that argumentative rigour will be at all effective in the days to come, and the focus on avoiding the worst no longer feels relevant. Part of me wonders whether the world need to go through the crucible of whatever is to come, however awful it will be, however many people will suffer, in order to find a new and better place to start again (if is that even a possible outcome). But against this is the belief that bad things happen when good people stand on the sidelines. So I will continue doing what I have been doing, no matter how futile, and I will search for new ways to work in this changed world. What else is there?

Categories: Politics

Populism versus the Experts

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the relationship between contradictions within liberalism and the current rise of populism, with an emphasis on the recent Brexit referendum. I want to focus here on a specific aspect of this – the role of experts, in particular social scientists.

Anti-intellectualism, or the rejection of expertise, is the eternal partner of extreme populism. It is something that featured heavily in the Brexit discourse. Responding to expert views of the economic problems predicted to follow from a British secession from the EU, senior Tory politician and Leave campaigner Michael Gove expressed the popular view that people have “had enough” of experts. This anti-expert mood is described by scientist and promoter of science, Brian Cox, as “the road back to the cave”. And he’s surely right. Not all opinions are created equally, nor do they deserve equal respect and attention. There are excellent reasons to respect the views of someone who has committed large parts of their life to understanding something over someone who has put in little effort or is passing on received ideas as truths. Populism rejects this basic truth and opens the door to the contest of crude opinions rather than deep thought.

And yet, there is something plausible about the scepticism directed towards expertise, at least where political economy is concerned. The experts, nearly to a person, failed to predict the economic crisis of 2008. Experts have failed to create durable and broadly acceptable solutions in the post-crisis period. And experts were instrumental in promoting the socially corrosive economic policies of neoliberalism that I have related to the current rise of populism. So why should we trust these experts? This is a huge question that I cannot exhaust. But I want to draw attention to the problem of objectivity in the social sciences.

This is essentially a problem of ethics in the social sciences. At first glance the problem appears to be one of the ethics of applied social science: how should the findings of social science be used by practitioners in, say, government or industry? In this understanding, the ethical problem in the social sciences is analogous to those in the natural sciences. Just as we may ask whether atomic physics should be used to make a bomb we might ask whether, say, a particular economic model should be pursued in policy. But this misreads the problem. The difficulty for the social sciences is a deeper one than that faced in the natural sciences: method and application are not so easily separated. There are two related components: first, how far social science has (or can) isolate itself from ideological and moral concerns; and second, how far social science can isolate themselves from the subject of their study.

I will dispatch with the first problem very briefly. There are underlying and unstated philosophical and ideological beliefs that inform the social sciences. Some have plausibly argued that economics is highly political and ideological (see e.g. (Chang, p. 451)). All sciences simplify in order to create manageable models of the world. But ideological predispositions can affect what the modeller chooses to include and to ignore, greatly affecting the outcome (wealth distribution is one commonly ignored in economic models).

It may be, as I think it is the case, that moral aspects are inherent in the very nature of what the social sciences study. This is not a problem in itself: it is simply part of the problem that these fields address. It raises questions as to the scientific credentials of these fields of study – perhaps they are more like philosophy than natural science? This is important but I set this matter aside. Where it is a problem is when the moral assumptions are tacit, hidden deep beneath the graphs and numbers. This renders the assumptions not only unquestioned but unquestionable. To assess their findings the moral assumptions need to be explicit and widely understood. Only then can we reasonably hope to evaluate the contents of this type of expertise.

The second component is more serious. Economics and political science materially affect the systems that they measure in ways that natural sciences do not. This can be simply understood. Physicists may describe gravity accurately, inaccurately, or simply wrongly. They may even “explain” it. A scientific model of gravity is good insofar as the effects of gravity accord with it. But whatever is the case, gravity gives not a single damn. Whether physicists are right or wrong (whatever that may mean in the context of physics), gravity will do what gravity does – it will never seek the guidance of physicists before dropping that apple to the ground. More formally, the link between the material world and the hard sciences is unidirectional: science observes the world, the world does not watch back.

This is not the case in the most important social sciences. Economists and political scientists are themselves actors in the system they monitor. They are voters, citizens, workers, and consumers. They act closely with the system’s primary actors who consult the scientists and their work for guidance on how to act. In a very real sense, the social sciences have a capacity to shape the societies that they describe. Karl Polanyi, in a little known paper from the 1940s, described this problem: “the social sciences may have enhanced man’s ability to attain his ends”, but, he argues, “they certainly diminished his faculty of knowing what they are”. The social sciences “have a massive influence on man’s wishes and purposes”, and “some assertions tended to be actually question begging in a rather unexpected way, by creating the very phenomena on the existence of which they were insisting” (Polanyi, 2014, pp. 114-5). Assumptions about how people are lead to the creation of institutions that reflect those assumptions, in turn inducing the very behaviour predicted.

Economics is, in this sense, performative. It permeates politic practice (rapidly, and often recklessly). The simplifying assumption that people are rational choice machines leads to the adoption of institutions that suit rational choice machines, creating incentives that cause people to act in accordance with them, and thus validating the original assumption. This drives out other behaviours. Neoliberalism, guided by the advice of economists, has introduced market mechanisms into many areas of life previously governed by non-market norms. This has, in turn, replaced those norms, transforming the interactions of people and the containing cultures alike (Sandel, p. 48; Satz, p. 99). Michael Sandel gives a curious example of one manifestation of this effect. He records the number of times that the word “incentivize” appears in major newspapers over the period of time when governments actively began integrating employing economic “incentivization” into their policies (Sandel, p. 87):

Period Instances
1980s 48
1990s 449
2000s 6159
2010-11 5885

The economist Adair Turner reminds us that:

Ideas matter. They strongly influence the assumptions with which policymakers approach practical policy choices. They define other areas as unsound, not worth considering, taboo. (Turner, 2016, p. 242)

Social science, and economics particularly, are the source of many of these ideas. Definitions of welfare, measured in monetary terms, hide other important human relationships. A deeply-held preference in economics for the logic of “Pareto efficiency” – that a social change can be measured by whether some benefit while others are no worse off – submerges vital discussion about distribution. A fetish for constant exponential economic growth avoids distributional considerations and important questions about work and social roles.

Political scientists have, to a large extent, adopted the methods (and with these, the assumptions) of economists. To give one example, rational choice theory leads to models such as the so-called “median voter theorem” – the idea that politicians will move to the centre of the political spectrum in order to capture the largest number of votes. Vote-seeking politicians, in turn, have taken this as instructive and moved to the centre. It should be unsurprising, therefore, that so many politicians appear identical in policy terms. This, in turn, reduces voting to a beauty contest. Worse, it leaves wholly unexplained where the centre is, or whether it is in a healthy state.

These examples illustrate the broader problem of scientific detachment in the social sciences. These “subject-polluting” effects are hard to reconcile with the social sciences’ self-image as hard objective empirical sciences. Social scientists are left with a possibly intractable task: to identify and employ ways of controlling for their own presence in society. When unexpected consequences occur, such as voter apathy or, as is currently happening, a sharp lurch to the far-right, social science is left without the tools to analyse these new emergent problems.

Social scientists can, then, influence their subject. Likewise, the subject can influence the science. In the social sciences, experts disagree, sometimes enormously. Political and economic opportunism frequently clouds this fact: powerful actors routinely select and promote the experts that suit their already formed views, and public discourse frequently prejudices the matter in favour of the loudest voices. When research itself is held to the test of commercial applicability, the case is prejudged in favour of views that internalise market assumptions. Research in paradigms that suit particular interests can be encouraged and actively promoted in the public discourse while less agreeable insights are neglected. And this, in turn, creates social resources enabling the “successful” actors to further their views. To be sure, this dynamic occurs in the hard sciences too. But it is impossible to understate the impact when this happens in the social sciences.

The problem of political and economic expertise is a huge one. I don’t claim to have any definitive solutions. But a few tentative observatory conclusions are due.

First, it cannot be stated strongly enough that populism is absolutely not a solution, nor will it ever be. Populism is not a constructive force. It is the rule of the mob – a fact that has been argued against democracy for as long as the notion has existed, even as mobs flatter themselves as being “democratic”. But make no mistake – mob-rule is every bit as destructive, and may be more so, than technocracy, the rule of experts.

The astute reader will have noted that in criticising experts I have made reference to other experts. This is important. The way we respond to expertise matters a great deal, and not any old argument will do. It is not sufficient to claim revelation, or to appeal to the number of people that believe otherwise. Expertise matters. It is essential to the social division of labour. How we relate to it is the key issue.

We cannot all be experts, but we can develop our own tools that enable us to both reject charlatanism and assess the merits and demerits of competing arguments. To deal with experts we must simultaneously move towards them while understanding the full nature of their positions – their underlying assumptions and so forth. Something like this is a necessary requirement in healthy democracies. We must account not only our own direct knowledge, but also the sources of our information: the press is particularly important and has a distinct responsibility in this respect (recent events are testimony to what can happen when they do their job poorly). I am not saying we should assess every argument. The peril of populism is that the argument space is flooded with many more bad ideas than good: learning to distinguish between these without being drawn into foolish debates is perhaps the most important skill. More than anything, we need to be aware of disagreements between experts. Experts are not gods, nor are they devils – we should not regard them as such. We should recognise their limitations and come to understand the histories and underlying moralities of their positions. Only then can we reap the benefits of their expertise in the worthy context of democratic participation.


Works Cited

Chang, H.-J., 2014. Economics: The User’s Guide. London: Penguin Group.

Polanyi, K., 2014. How to Make Use of the Social Sciences. In: G. Resta & M. Catanzariti, eds. For A New West: Essays, 1919-1958. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 109-118.

Sandel, M. J., 2012. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. London: Allen Lane.

Satz, D., 2010. Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale – The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Oxford University Press.

Turner, A., 2016. Between Debt and the Devil. Princeton: Princeton University Press.



Categories: Politics

Living in the Last Days of Liberalism

July 4, 2016 1 comment

2016 will go down in history as a major turning point for humanity. And not, I fear, for the better. It is the year that many a chicken has come home to roost. The future, as always, is opaque, but the signs are far from encouraging and there is a good chance that we are entering a dark phase of history. The recently unthinkable is not only now being thought, but is being enacted by opportunists, and cheered on by many, many more. Not in seven decades has there been so much dry tinder in the world: a spark could easily set off a conflagration that will be out of our control. At this moment dozen of major problems are at breaking point, each with the potential to catalyse the others, setting off unpredictable chain reactions. Parties of the far-right are growing in popularity in the UK, US, and in many parts of Europe, while the leader of Russia, nostalgic for the good old days of Pravda and the KGB, looks on in delight. History is absolutely clear on where all of this leads. Pure emotion is driving a lot of the politics right now, and reason is not the currency of discourse. Nevertheless, it is important to try to understand where we are, how we got here, and to look at some of the places current events may take us.

Whatever else they may be, the events of this year represent a long-developing crisis of liberalism. Liberalism means many things – it means human rights, democracy, tolerance, freedom of choice, autonomy, and peaceful cooperation through shared institutions. It has also come to mean free trade, global capitalism, privatisation, deregulation and corporatism. This latter set is seen by its advocates as the perfect manifestation of freedom of choice and autonomy, a moralised vision of markets that free people from the tyranny of government, harking back to liberalism’s Lockean anti-monarchic origins. This strain of liberalism – neoliberalism, or classical liberalism – was strong in the US and UK in the 19th century, diminished in the twentieth century, and has resurged to become globally dominant again since the mid-1970s. Between these visions of liberalism – human rights, tolerance and democracy on the one hand, and capitalism on the other – lie deep contradictions.

The resolution of these contradictions has been in favour of the neoliberal vision. The consequences have been social upheaval, disintegration of communities, economic insecurity, the neutering of democracy, and a massive rise in inequality. Human rights have suffered under the bonfire of deregulation as they came to be seen as intrusions into the rights of property holders, and whose provisions have increasingly been privatised or made subject to voluntarism. Democracy, likewise, has come to be seen as an unwarranted intrusion by the tyranny of the majority on the rights of individuals and the spontaneous free order of the market: nowhere is this clearer than in the current negotiations to institute international trade agreements that give multinational corporations the right to sue governments for any regulations that may harm their business interests.

The most significant effect of the neoliberal era is the extraordinary growth in inequality. Accompanying the anti-government tendencies of neoliberalism is a belief that these inequalities are morally unimportant and that the incentives they create benefit everyone: among the most devout advocates, these inequalities mark out the worthy from the unworthy. The “trickle-down effect” – that unbridled benefits to the best off produce benefits for everyone else – is held as dogma, despite all evidence to the contrary: median wages have remained stagnant where neoliberal policies were most aggressively pursued, with the gains being concentrated in a very small number of hands. These inequalities have translated into democratic inequalities, granting inordinate influence to large corporations and wealthy individuals on regulation which has only served to reinforce both their position and the neoliberal movement itself. Inequality directly undermines democratic decision making while simultaneously transforming citizens into customers of government. It also undermines the underlying conditions of democracy. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau fruitfully observed two-and-a-half centuries ago, inequalities – of power, of opportunities, of resources – breed domination. People who are dominated by forces they feel powerless against redirect their anger against those they can reach, kicking down against those weaker than themselves, ossifying the hierarchy of domination by oppressing the most vulnerable. This creates immediate costs to individuals. They are driven to protect their relative position while at the same time to actively harm others in attempting to do the same in a game where no one, or at best a tiny few, can win. Insecurity, fear, and the fruitless quest for the unobtainable create the conditions for populism and demagoguery to emerge, and for unscrupulous leaders to feed – and feed off – the dissatisfaction of the masses. The individual desire to feel some power results in coalitions that transpose their fears onto other groups: it doesn’t matter much who is in that group – a religious group, or an ethnic group, or a foreign country – just so long as they are more or less powerless to respond. Such a situation, Rousseau predicted, will likely produce war. With the inequalities produced by the market, the twin liberal goals of democracy and tolerance die.

This dynamic that translates economic insecurity into populism played out in Europe in the events leading to the Second World War. The economic sanctions following the First World War created the social conditions for Nazism to rise (so admirably predicted by Keynes). The great depression (that grand failure of the earlier neoliberal experiment) reinforced this, while creating similar conditions in other countries. The result was a war that engulfed the entire world, with tens of millions of deaths and unprecedented suffering.

The astute observer might see a very similar dynamic at play today. Four decades of neoliberal policy culminated in the financial crisis of 2008, plunging the world into economic recession. Nothing substantial has been done to address that crisis, and in many ways it is ongoing. What little has been done has been to the benefit of the best off, with the rest subject to harsh “austerity” programs. We are not yet near war and we may still avoid it. But the stage of populism and demagoguery is very much upon us. In the US, Trump has run a remarkably successful presidential primary campaign based on populist fears and fabrications. Far-right parties are growing rapidly across Europe. Austria very nearly elected a far-right president just weeks ago, and may still do so as the original result has been annulled, requiring the election to be re-run.

A stark example of the Rousseauean dynamic was given a little over a week ago by the UK’s referendum decision to leave the European Union. That the EU is in need of serious reform is undeniable and I return to this below. But for the moment I want to focus on how the UK’s decision played out. The “Brexit” vote has had significant immediate implications. The UK has been hit by economic turmoil with sharp implications for other countries, both major political parties in the UK are engaging in the most Machiavellian kind of politics leaving the country leaderless, there has been a stark increase in racial hate crimes, the UK itself stands in danger of dissolving, and extremists across Europe are using the vote result as rallying cry. The referendum was “advisory” rather than binding on the government and it remains an open question as to whether it will come to pass (not carrying the vote through carries its own set of social dangers). But whether it does so is not the main issue. What matters is what is tells us about the world today.

The UK could have had a serious debate about European reform, and thus led the way. This is not what they did. What in fact happened was a combination of political opportunism by self-interested politicians looking to gain advantage, a fanatical and fact-free campaign, and a press dominated by an oligopoly. When I left the UK three years ago, the government was actively engaged in a rhetoric of divisive scapegoating, at that time of the poor and the unemployed, cheered on by much of the press in what often crossed the line into hate speech – this was one reason I left. The quality of public discourse in the Brexit debate makes that time look like sunshine and goodness. Campaigners on both sides opted instead to simply fabricate facts. In the Remain camp, rather than explain the importance of Europe, they chose to focus on the negative consequences of leaving (some was fantasy but, in fact, many of these predictions now look to be understatements). On the Leave side, the campaign was largely focussed on scapegoating immigrants on the one hand, and appealing to a narrow notion of patriotism on the other. The issues involved are complex and people voted for diverse reasons, but two headline issues were the focus of by the Leave campaign: national sovereignty and immigration. I’ll talk a bit about these.

Reclaiming sovereignty was one major theme in the referendum. This is, at least at first glance, a legitimate concern. But to locate the source of the loss of local control within the EU is a serious mistake. The foundation of the present woes of many Brits is to be found not in Brussels but in Westminster. It is the consequence of deliberate domestic policy over the last four decades. Thatcher’s proclamation that “there is no such thing as society” was less a description than an ambition, one that has been largely realised today, as attested to by the divisions revealed by the referendum. The UK was always a leader on the matter of free trade, deregulation, and privatisation. The neoliberal zeal that is now omnipresent finds its roots there (and in the US): the contagion spread to Europe from the UK, and not the other way around. The Leavers may have reclaimed a limited sort of formal, hollow sovereignty. The UK may be once again be politically autonomous, in a very limited sort of way. But for most people, this just means that they have passed control to a more local group of elites, no more accountable, and perhaps less so, than those they believe they have rejected. The sovereignty they have reclaimed is a hereditary monarchy, an unelected upper house, and a lower house run by Etonians, all of this within a class system that has resurged under neoliberalism’s lead. National sovereignty under these conditions cannot give the personal control over their lives that people desire. It will not give personal security or flourishing. The material and democratic sovereignty that they yearn for was privatised and sold off four decades ago to the lowest bidder, a process that has been enthusiastically reinforced by subsequent governments. With the EU and its pesky and “onerous” regulations out of the way (including worker protections, and protections of human rights), Thatcher’s destructive project can now move to completion.

The jingoistic nationalism pales into insignificance compared to the Leave campaign’s focus on immigration. While obviously many who voted to leave were not driven by racism, the Leave campaign deliberately chose to make this a central issue, tapping into social fears that, one suspects, they barely understood the force of. Whatever may be said of the voters, the campaign itself was overtly racist. It relied heavily on scaremongering about a Muslim invasion coming in from Turkey (which is never going to happen), combined with vibrant imagery of EU citizens, particularly eastern Europeans, queueing up at the border to take away jobs. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, it is said. This is likely to have serious ongoing consequences – for the safety of many people in the UK itself, but also for the ongoing quality of discourse. The demographic breakdown of the vote tells a fascinating story on immigration. Those who voted to leave consistently come from low immigration areas, while remain voters were largely from higher immigration areas. Moreover, UK immigration is relatively low compared to other OECD countries. On the other hand, leave voters were predominantly from areas with economic deprivation and unemployment, residents of those parts of England that were allowed to fall into decay from the 1980s onwards. It is here that we find our story – the disenfranchised who have been subjected to forces outside of their control, and furious at whoever presents a target.

So while the referendum was superficially about issues of immigration and sovereignty, it is clear that these concerns are distracting surface symptoms rather than the underlying problem. Like Trump’s rise in the US, and Austria’s yet-to-be-determined presidential election, the referendum is, more than anything else, a measure of disenfranchisement and dissatisfaction with the status quo. It was a referendum where one question was asked and a set of very different ones answered. A marginalised and voiceless people, finally offered a chance to speak, but with a vocabulary of only two words, spoke with a terrifying roar. The phenomenon of “regrexit”, where people who voted to leave didn’t believe it would happen and used the referendum as a form of protest, attests to the limited voice that people believe they have.

What then of the EU? The union is facing serious existential problems. The Euro currency has been a disaster for many member countries, removing from their control the ability to address their domestic economic problems through interest rates and debt. The fundamental (and very neoliberal) mistake is in failing to recognise that economies are political units. The European Central Bank is loathed by many: a wholly unaccountable body that sets the baseline of so much European interaction (central bank independence being another neoliberal legacy). The lack of fiscal policy to manage differentials between the countries and compensate for the lack of domestic fiscal authority lies at the heart of many of the problems in Europe. Should we conclude that the EU is over? For centuries, Europe was the bloodiest and most bellicose place on Earth. The monarchical and imperial wars of earlier centuries mutated into the most deadly nationalistic wars of the twentieth century. The EU and its predecessor’s first goal was to prevent that ever happening again. Through interdependence would come peace – a very liberal goal. Measured by enduring peace, the European Union has been a remarkable success. Seven decades without war in core Europe, France and Germany coexisting on good terms, and the European satellites of the Soviet Union more recently integrated. But with that peace has come forgetfulness. With forgetfulness has come a yearning for a return to a Europe of petty nationalism, and a return to the risks of the past. It is a serious prospect now that countries like France and Austria might leave the union, and may do so under far-right governments. No sane person would accept this as a desirable outcome. Europe needs serious reform. It needs to resolve its internal liberal contradictions. It was built on states that, with the fresh memory of war and its causes, created social structures to protect the most vulnerable. These structures have been undermined by the overlaying of neoliberalism onto Europe. Political accountability needs urgent attention, done in a way that properly unifies Europe with a true democracy that recognises the voices of the weaker states as much as those of the stronger ones. It needs to become a proper federation and not just another glorified neoliberal trade agreement. The stakes are too high for anything else.

Where to next? The best possible outcome right now is that, free of Britain’s fanatical neoliberal influence, Europe will wake up and embrace the necessary progressive social reforms, reconstructing the essential social frameworks that have been eroded, and move forth in a new chapter of the European project. This seems to me hopelessly unrealistic at the moment. The task of a political reform that accounts for more than individualistic economic concerns is made immeasurably more difficult by the current emotional mood. The cancer of neoliberalism has deep roots in the European establishment. The worst case is that countries like France, Austria, the Netherlands, and Germany hand over their democracies to their far-right politicians, Europe returns to the petty and vicious nationalisms of the past with all the trailing consequences that this implies, and the rest of the world follows down this dark pit. If so, then we are truly living in the last days of liberalism. We cannot predict the future but we should have absolutely no doubt as to where we are right now. The shit, as the saying goes, just got real.

Categories: Politics

Positive and Normative Economics

March 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Hi all,

I have not written here for a long time. Long story short, I have left London to return to Australia, and have started a university degree in politics. This piece is addresses to the students in the introductory microeconomics class that I am taking. But it may be of interest to anyone who is concerned with economics or is affected by the way that economics is taught (that would be all of you)…

I would like to say a few words about something that has been bothering me through these early weeks of the Microeconomics 1 course. This is the distinction between positive and normative economics. This was touched on briefly in the first week and then swiftly left behind which I think is unfortunate as many of the claims in the lectures and the textbooks that appear on the surface to be positive would also appear to have rich normative content. It may also be the case, as I hope to show, that some claims that are labelled “normative” can be subject to positive methods. The ability to distinguish between positive and normative claims, and detect when one is submerged in, or disguised as, the other is one of the most important critical tools in we have in the social sciences. I am not here arguing that any given norm is right or wrong. Indeed, we cannot even begin to approach such questions until the norms are explicit. While I understand that this is an introductory course, the ideas that we are taught at this stage are internalised and can colour the way we see things going forward. If we do not develop critical skills from the first day we may never do so. We may get good grades by memorising the claims, but we risk becoming bad economists. And I fear that the world has enough of these already. I personally don’t want to be an economist but I do want to live in societies where I can trust those that are to do the job. One of the many critiques to emerge after 2008 is the observation that economics as a profession has been quite poor at making this positive / normative distinction. (Another is that economics had become obsessed with its models to the detriment of dealing with the world as it is, further undermining positive claims). These criticisms have come from notable economists as well as many standing on the outside looking in.

The given distinction between positive and normative economics is roughly that between descriptive “is” claims (empirical claims that can, in principle, be tested against the real world) and prescriptive “should” claims (value based and inherently untestable). Of course, making claims with the word “is” is an insufficient condition for positivity (and this is at the heart of my problem with what we are taught). I could say that “economic claims are 90% normative and 10% positive” – this is probably a normative claim rather than the positive claim that is appears to be (I can think of no way to test it, even if I might feel it to be true). We need to develop a richer feeling for this distinction than a simplistic is/ought dichotomy provides. It helps to have a few (non-exhaustive) examples of similar claims to highlight the difficulties.

In one of the textbooks there is a statement about taxation “distorting” incentives. This appears as a positive claim. This really stood out for me, coming so soon after the brief coverage in the text of positive and normative claims. It seems to me that there are many normative implications hidden in this: what sorts of incentives are acceptable? Why is it a “distortion”? This has a value-loaded tone, and has a well-defined meaning implying a negative change away from a given norm (that word again!). (I would consider it a more positive claim if it stated that taxation alters or modifies or affects incentives, which is uncontroversial but inconclusive as taxation can be used as a positive incentive against certain undesirable behaviours). But more than that, this is quite possibly empirically false. Plausible arguments exist that suggest that, at least at higher income levels where material well-being is increasingly irrelevant, incomes are viewed comparatively against a person’s peers as a kind of score-card and that higher taxation rates do not effect incentives to any great degree. Where this becomes problematic is when different tax regimes compete for such people. But this is not a problem of taxation per se. This is to say nothing of zero-sum positional goods and the like. Another argument is that higher incomes are actually a disincentive (I’m thinking here of recent work by Daniel Pink and others) and that there is little correlation between pay and performance at very high levels. All of this is conceivably positively testable once we bring out the hidden normative content.

Another claim that has been made in both lectures and the texts is that higher productivity equates to higher social welfare. A bigger pie is a better pie. Intuitively we can see some immediate problems here. Part of the difficulty is, of course, that the pie is conventionally measured in money and money is not well-being (nor can it buy you love). I, being exceedingly rich compared to you, can bid you out of a market for something that you need and I merely fancy. This is economically efficient but is it really efficient, more broadly conceived? No amount of relativistic scepticism can remove this question. We might argue that “revealed preferences” are not interpersonally comparable, but using money as a proxy does nothing to alleviate this – it merely defers the problem. Common sense and appeals to norms may be useful in such cases. Measured in money, more bread/medical care/housing/etc provided to people can look less efficient than less of the same goods provided at much higher prices. Ability to buy may be as, or more, important than willingness for many goods. (Imagine the choice in a society of 100 people for the body of bakers – do they produce loaves for 100 able buyers at $1 per loaf, or for 50 willing buyers at $2.10 a loaf – a contrived example, to be sure, but one that has many real-world applications). Ignoring distribution is a common and well-documented problem with theories that are rooted in utilitarian and consequentialist approaches. As productivity continues to exceed need distribution becomes an increasingly important factor. The model of supply and demand profoundly shapes and is shaped by distribution. Beneath this ostensibly positive model lie assumptions and judgements about an underlying property model which is both deeply normative and contentious. Beyond this, there are plausible arguments being made that gains to general well-being diminish sharply with economic growth. This has led several prominent economists and social theorists to start asking what we should be measuring instead of the traditional national accounts. Among other accounts, the distribution of wealth is currently being cited as a possibly important factor. One commonly heard argument is that there is a trade-off between “equity” and “efficiency” where it is strongly implied that equity is a normative notion and efficiency is positive. (Closely related to this is the argument that there is a trade-off between liberty and equality, an argument that rests on strongly normative ideas about liberty). But this supposed trade-off has recently come into strong doubt. Economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, and more recently IMF economists, have suggested strong links between market efficiency and equality or equity. What was presented as a normative versus positive dichotomy appears to have a strong positive component, something that is missed when it is assumed that equity resides solely in the normative zone.

Yet another claim that we have heard, and my final example, is that trade is required for specialisation to work its magic. This is not the case if we are to use precise language. There are two distinctions here that are important. The first is between production and distribution, and the second is between free production and non-free production.

We have heard the examples of Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday on their island. They split the work by specialising according to comparative advantage and achieve significantly higher productivity, and hence welfare gains. Imagine instead that Crusoe arrives at the island with a pistol. He quickly figures out the comparative advantages of himself and Friday. He then commands production according to these comparative advantages. Friday must collect coconuts while Crusoe himself gathers fish (or vice versa). This would result in the same economic outcomes as would be the case had they agreed to produce according to comparative advantage. But this is a very different situation: it is now a command economy. Goods are not “traded” in the way that we conventionally understand the term – they are allocated through diktat. Production is the same, distribution differs. The social outcome is different in certain qualities even if not in quantities. It might (tentatively and with many qualifications that delve deep into norms) be the case that an agreement to divide the work up exhibits what I have called “free-production”. It is certainly the case that the command version of the story represents “unfree production”, at least for Friday. A utopian “Marxist” allocative process might involve people producing according to comparative advantage (from each according to their ability), pooling the output and taking what they need (to each according to their need). Or the pool might be divided, by common agreement, in equal portions. I’m not arguing that this would work well – I am simply trying to draw down the important distinction between production (where specialisation occurs) and distribution. This, again, differs from trade as conventionally understood. Stretching the term “trade” to include these scenarios (e.g. by describing these as “trade agreements”) would require us to describe the former Soviet Union as a predominantly market society. Aside from the ideological loss, we lose descriptive power and, with it, an understanding of what we are describing.

Command economies rely on specialisation at least as much as market economies. It might even be argued that they could, in principle, do so more effectively: imagine that a planning bureau (or whatever) had information about comparative advantage it could guarantee that people produced according to their comparative advantage (there is nothing in command economies that says they could not apply comparative advantage as a measure). Granted, missing the pricing mechanism, people may produce more things, but less of what is needed. Conversely, in a “free-market” people may choose not to engage in the activity that is their comparative advantage. They may prefer to pursue something they enjoy but are less comparatively good at, for example. Truly free choice can mean doing things that are not economically optimal. This may well produce sub-optimal (inefficient) market outcomes but may well produce more efficient social outcomes. In one of the textbooks is an example of a household of two people who divide the housework. The exercise is, of course, designed to demonstrate that they can do more by specialising which is unarguably true. But anyone who has lived with other people will know that this may produce a socially inefficient outcome and that letting people do at least something of which they like doing the most may lead to a happier household even if it the household is a bit messier. This can hold true at the societal level as much as that of the household. Perhaps this distinction is what is wrong in a command economy (and in a market economy where some people have few and unenviable choices): again, true choice can be sub-optimal. These are, to an extent, positive claims inasmuch as social welfare can be measured (and we generally know whether we are living in a happy household or not, even if this is trickier at a macro level). Interestingly, development economists sometimes describe comparative advantage as a trap: doing what I am good at now can preclude becoming better at things that will bring long-term advantages. We get better by doing, and we can only do so by at first doing it badly. Many countries have developed by deliberately choosing things that they were not comparatively good at. South Korea is a good example. Without their rejection of the logic of comparative advantage we would not have Samsung, LG, or Hyundai.

There are more examples that we have encountered, and undoubtedly many more to come. But without being alert to the hidden normative content of claims we are less able to draw out these sorts of implications. If we are aware that apparently positive claims can have some or much normative content and that apparently normative claims can be subject to positive methods then we can all be better economists, or at least better citizens.


Categories: Politics

Speaking Ill

April 14, 2013 3 comments

In the last few weeks, the political climate in the UK crossed a line into a darker place. Anyone who has been following me over the last year or so will know my concerns about the trajectory that we are currently following. I recently re-watching this interview with rogue economist Steve Keen, where he talks about the danger of the rise of extremist politics as a result of the economic climate and austerity, and I am reminded that I am not alone in my fears. It is also a reminder that the UK is far from unique in these dangers: while this post will talk about the events of the last two weeks in the UK, readers in Australia, the US and other parts will no doubt recognise these problems in their own current politics.

The Philpott State…

It started off badly enough a couple of weeks ago with Iain Duncan Smith’s absurd comments that he could survive on the £53 a week that some welfare recipients are being subjected to as a result of his policies. This showed Duncan Smith to be nothing more than a school yard bully with a dangerously weak connection to the real world of many people (a more balanced report that I saw puts the figure at around £193 a week – I am fortunate enough to own my home and not pay rent and I would struggle on that amount – IDS’s figure wouldn’t even feed me).

But Duncan Smith’s nonsense – rarely a day goes by when he doesn’t fail a debunking of some sort or another – was just the hors d’ouvres to a more poisonous main course. It really got going with the Philpott trial. This was a man who had killed his numerous children in a house fire. He was also a recipient of state welfare. The Daily Mail, in a coup de grace for the Architecture of Resentment, went front page with a headline stating that the killings were a result of the welfare state – yes good people, you heard it here: welfare makes people kill their children. We need only change the story a little (instead of being a welfare recipient he was, say, Jewish) to see where this kind of politics is located in the course of history. Of course, the Daily Mail is an extremist right-wing paper – during the last election it described Liberal Democrat candidate Nick Clegg as a Nazi (ironic) – and perhaps shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But it is also very widely read and is a useful barometer of the low and more dangerous end in our political discourse. The article in the Daily Mail was shocking and hateful – it illustrates the Architecture of Resentment in the clearest manner possible. It speaks ill of the living and the vulnerable.

So far, so bad. The following day Chancellor George Osborne spoke a sanitised version of the Daily Mail’s hate speech (Prime Minister Cameron’s only contribution was to endorse Osborne’s comments). He said, and I quote, “there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state, and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state, subsidising lifestyles like that.” His words, to be sure, are prettier than those found in the gutter press. But he was making exactly the same generalisation from a specific isolated case. His words evoke the same message, and it is a message that has been repeated endlessly for three and a half decades: the poor choose to be poor; it is a lifestyle choice (which includes, apparently, murdering children); welfare destroys homes (Now with new KILLING!). It is nothing more than the tired rhetoric of welfare dependency. This is the right-wing argument that welfare creates dependency on the state and on taxpayers. Welfare is like a narcotic, addictive and pleasurable to the recipients. The welfare state is nothing more than an opium den: at least as harmful and as undesirable.

Speaking Ill of the Living

To anyone who has ever actually depended on welfare the offensiveness of this kind of talk will be obvious. I grew up within Australia’s state welfare system. It ensured me a home, food, shelter, and an education – primary, secondary, and tertiary. To be sure, growing up within this system was far from perfect – the erosion of the social contract was already well under way even then. But I shudder to think of what my life might have turned into if I had been abandoned to the vagaries of the free market – if I could only have received the health care, shelter, and education that my capacity to buy would allow me. I am grateful for the support I received. I have gone from being a recipient of welfare benefits to paying taxation in the highest brackets, and I do so gladly.

I have proudly watched many good friends grow up within this system of support to become nurses, teachers, software developers, accountants, lawyers, musicians, restaurant owners, and so on – productive and responsible members of society, growing according to their own life plans and through their abilities rather than from whatever bargaining power they inherited. Such cases are not the exception – these are the success stories that are not told often enough. So much of our political space is polluted with fanciful talk of how the welfare state ruins people, with hardly any space to its real-life achievements. (It is curious that the Daily Mail universalises from Philpott but not from J. K. Rowling who wrote the first Harry Potter book while receiving welfare). These are cases where a worse result would certainly have ensued without the supporting social structure. The people in my life are real people, with their own goals and ambitions, hopes, fears, needs and wants. They are no different from the other seven billion people in the world in that respect.

It is certainly true that a lot of people remain within the welfare system (although the degree of intergenerational welfare “dependency” is grossly exaggerated as testified to in this Joseph Rowntree Foundation report). I have no reason whatsoever to believe that their failures are due to the welfare system, and I would hazard that their lives would have been even worse without the existing safety net, and that whatever “burden on society” that they posed would remain regardless, in some form or another.

The “dependency” rhetoric is loaded and deeply misleading, intended, like all Architecture of Resentment talk, to produce a certain result. The truth is that we are all dependents. Each day we depend (quite unknowingly) on the actions and (less recognised but just as important) inactions of many thousands of people. This deep interdependency is greatly expanded by the economics of capitalism. There are those who do depend on state welfare. To claim that they become dependent because of welfare is to get things the wrong way around. I will use the word “rely” instead of the poisoned word “depend”: such people rely on welfare. They do not form a dependency – they have one already that the state fulfils because the market will not or cannot. Some cannot work for reasons of illness, some are unlucky, some made bad choices, in many cases bad choices are forced (the best of a bad lot), and very often vulnerabilities compound each other. Some have been told for too long that they are valued by the market, and the market, finding their value to be zero, marks them as worthless. Some are simple functions of an economic framework that need unemployment to work properly – capitalism does not operate if everyone is employed: new businesses cannot start, new techniques cannot emerge, and, without the example of the destitute job seekers, employed people become unruly and might even start thinking for themselves (shock!); wages would rise and profits disappear. This is simply to say that unemployment is what economists call an “externality” – where one person benefits and another pays the price. If capitalist ideologues were more internally consistent and less expert at managing their spectacular cognitive dissonances, they would have to conclude that those who fulfil the role of being unemployed should be compensated well for the awfulness of their job by those who benefit – the profit takers. The state, in economic terms, should simply create a “perfect market” by forcing the beneficiaries of unemployment to pay for what they get from it. Of course that will never happen – profits uber alles!

Economics aside, what I can say with absolute certainty from my own experience is that welfare recipients have more than enough problems of their own without having to deal with the resentment and prejudice of ignorant people.

Breeding Welfare Scroungers…

One of the most popular welfare myths is that state welfare encourages people to have many children. The “logic” is that they are paid more welfare if they have more children so there is a “moral hazard” built into the system. This was part of the Daily Mail’s story on Philpott, and was also part of what was insinuated as a “lifestyle choice” by Osborne. Discussing Philpott with a friend, she looked at me (exasperated, as usual) and said (it wasn’t a question) “But why else would he have had so many children if not to claim the welfare benefits?” I have this sort of conversation far too often. The odd part is why people should think that this is the one explanation left over when all other candidates have been exhausted. The neighbourhood where I grew up was a government housing area with maybe a thousand families on welfare – I was one, and these are the people I went to school with. Nearly all families had between one and three children. I don’t recall a family with four or more (which is not to say that they did not exist). But I would say that the average was about two. (The number of parents might be more variable – marriage failure and economic insecurity are closely correlated). The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report above corroborates this in present day Britain. The number of children in welfare-receiving families doesn’t differ in any significant way from other families. The real question then is, if there is such a financial incentive for welfare recipients to breed, why are there not more children in welfare families than there are?

In fact, there is a case to be made that a stronger, more generous, social welfare state can reduce the chances of large families (both in and out of the welfare state). We know from studies of different cultures that the main reasons that people have very large families are to compensate for high mortality rates (from malnutrition and so forth) and in very financially insecure environments where parents rely on their children in old age. We also know that more unequal countries and countries with stingy state support tend to have higher rates of teenage pregnancy which, in turn, tends towards larger families. Today in Britain the government has proposed caps to welfare recipients so that they receive no more when they have more than a certain number of children. Using state welfare to shape people’s reproductive choices should make us all very nervous. The whiff of eugenics is deeply disturbing, and quite possibly the thin end of a very fat wedge intended to breed the poor out of existence. Caveat emptor.

Speaking Ill of the Dead

The Philpott story receded quickly, but only because the Tories got an even better opportunity to propagandise: the death last week of Margaret Thatcher. And no writing about welfare vilification and the political manipulation of the people is complete without a mention of her.

I spent (far too) much of the last week furiously arguing with people who claimed that negatively commenting on the legacy of Thatcher in the week of her death was distasteful and wicked, and that the spontaneous street parties and the campaign to top the music charts with that Judy Garland tune were the poorest of all possible forms. One should not speak ill of the dead. I have to disagree. The week has been spent by the Conservatives attempting to rewrite history, sanctifying and sanitising the memory of Thatcher’s legacy. In other words, they want to create a lie. And part of the reason for this is that they see themselves as the inheritors of her ideological project. They are right in that, of course (Blair was also in this lineage). But it is this that makes it wrong for them to try to suppress criticism of Thatcher’s legacy, even in its quirkiest manifestations. So let’s take a look at that legacy…

She was someone who was, by any honest account of public records, homophobic, racist, contemptuous of the unfortunate, an advocate of instigating war to deflect attention from home affairs, and a friend and admirer of a number of the world’s most brutal dictators. With her trans-atlantic partners-in-crime, she was the co-executor of what may be the largest process of social larceny in human history, transferring more wealth up the social ladder than ever before seen. Her economic policies stripped Britain of its public assets, brought about large-scale unemployment, and ultimately led to the financial mess that we face today (Will Hutton gives a good overview of her economic legacy here).

Apologists, of course, reject this, even if it is all on record. Some, for example, in the flurry of revisionism, have suggested that her friendship with Pinochet was a quid pro quo for his help with the Falklands. But her association with him starts well before and goes far beyond that. Pinochet came to power through a CIA-backed coup of September 11, 1973, that evicted the democratically elected Salvador Allende. This was a key stage in the neoliberal project that Thatcher was so central to. Pinochet’s regime marked the first large-scale experiment in free-market fundamentalism and involved the open complicity of many key figures of neoliberalism, including Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, who, like Thatcher later, openly praised Pinochet. This experiment proved conclusively that neoliberalism and liberty are in no way related, and that free-market capitalism is perfectly compatible with torture, rape, and murder – a lesson that I fear we have not learned thoroughly enough. Thatcher didn’t admire Pinochet (or Suharto, or Pol Pot,) despite what he was and did, but because of it. They were ideological kindred.

I attempted a Socratic thought-experiment with someone who was appalled at the street parties. I started with “If Hitler were to die today, would you not celebrate?” The experiment ended immediately with a barrage of “there’s no comparison between Hitler and Thatcher”. Actually, there is always a comparison – comparisons imply ranking, not equality. But never mind. My point was not that she was as bad as Hitler – she wasn’t – but rather to make the (what I thought was obvious) point that Hitler should not be the threshold of evil only beyond which criticism is valid. Had the experiment continued I would have moved down the scale through less evil men and women, trying to find the point where criticism becomes distasteful. Mussolini was arguably less evil than Hitler, for example, but I’d still think it appropriate to criticise him after death. Some of Thatcher’s buddies no doubt would cluster around the Mussolini-mark. And in a good-evil scale, say, Ghandi-to-Mussolini, I would hazard that the Iron Lady was closer to Mussolini than to the Mahatma.

But even if you buy into the whole “Thatcher-as-Saviour-of-Britain” line – and many do, despite the evidence to the contrary – who are you, or I, or anyone else, to decide how others should react to her death? No one can honestly deny that there are an extraordinary number of people who feel that Thatcher wronged them. I happen to agree with them: you might not. But this is neither here nor there. Only they can decide what response is appropriate. This coming week, Thatcher will be buried, and I fear that there may be violence. But maybe not. It is not for me to judge.

The press have been using the word “divisive” to describe Thatcher’s premiership. They mean that she was “controversial”. She was indeed that. But she was divisive in the other way too – she seeded division in a way that British society has yet to recover from. She was the classic “divide-and-conquer” leader, and a first class proponent of the Architecture of Resentment. Never one to let facts get in the way of a good story, Thatcher, like Cameron’s government today, was adept at vilifying the poor and those reliant on the State. Today, Thatcher’s legacy is an extreme politics contemptuous of evidence and powered by the open manipulation of people’s emotions. Speaking ill of the living is the stock trade of this government. In the face of this, we have a duty to speak ill of the dead: speaking ill of the dead is the beginning of an honest assessment of where we are and how we got here.

The Gorilla in the Room

March 6, 2013 5 comments

Last week I was reading about an experiment in neuroscience. It involved a video made by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris in which a group of young people passed a basketball back and forth to each other. Midway through the video a person in a gorilla suit walks into frame and waves wildly to the camera and then walks off again. An audience of viewers watching this video were asked to count the number of times that the ball was passed. Typically about half the viewers had no recollection whatsoever of the man in the gorilla suit. The purpose of the experiment was to examine how the human brain focuses on specific things at the expense of context. My own purpose is humbler: it is a useful and amusing example of how easily people can be distracted from the important things that are happening around them.

Distraction is an idea that is very much at the heart of neoliberal politics of the last three decades, and it is playing a very important role right now. These distractions are multiple and mutually reinforcing and they form what I call the architecture of resentment. The architecture of resentment operates by deflecting emotional energy away from the powerful and towards the powerless. It is the collection of institutional frameworks and rhetorical arguments of the right, and makes heavy use of scapegoating, something I touched upon at the end of last year as being a dangerous and slippery slope.



Changes to welfare mechanisms over the last few decades have been instrumental in shaping the context of the architecture of resentment. There have been many changes of which we can only examine a couple. The erosion of welfare provisions and the deregulation of the labour market (so-called “worker flexibility”) create the context for deep insecurity – a killer of clear thought if ever there was one. This is standard capitalistic practice: internalise the benefits (profits) and externalise the costs and risks (by pushing them onto workers). The introduction of means-testing to welfare entitlements adds two things to this. First, it stigmatizes those on the “wrong” side of an artificial dividing line: they are made conspicuous by their relationship to the line and by intrusive and humiliating bureaucratic procedures, bringing about the sense that they have been publicly judged to be failures. Second, a deep sense of resentment is created for those who fall just on the “right” side of the line – those who are most like those on the other side of the line but who are disqualified from help. There are few more effective techniques than to set the weak against the slightly weaker. This is a standard “divide and conquer” tactic, neighbour against neighbour, brother against brother, a certain corroder of solidarity.

The psychological effect of this divisive strategy is clear, and is illustrative of the general strategy employed in the architecture of resentment. The recipients who are eligible for state assistance are sometimes emotively described, by those who are not, as having a “culture of entitlement”, a term leaked into the public consciousness by the architects of the architecture of resentment. What is typically meant by “culture of entitlement” is that those people think that they are entitled to welfare benefits when they shouldn’t be: maybe they should have to earn their entitlement, and so forth. I have heard this said by quite a few otherwise reflective people, and it is obviously a catchy enough tune. What I believe lies at the bottom of this is actually the opposite: the active force here is not outrage that those others receive those benefits but that this person is barred from them even if they were in a situation where they need help or have earned them. This is the ultimate effect of means testing. This division creates a schism, an asymmetry, an alterity. It is of a kind with the current treatment of public sector pensions and wages, where groups of opposition are fabricated solely in order to inspire and maintain resentment.


Rhetorical claims

While the institutional components of the architecture of resentment help to reproduce and expand the basis of distraction, the real meat lies in the rhetoric. The rhetoric is a mixture of catchy slogans (like “the politics of envy”, “culture of dependency”, or, as above, “the culture of entitlement”), as well as more direct claims about groups in society.

Let’s start with the claims. These claims take the form of assertions or stories about groups. At some points in history these claims take the form of racist slogans; at others they deflect attention away from domestic affairs towards outside groups – Muslims, commies, etc. More commonly they refer to vulnerable groups within a society and today the most popular claims are against those receiving welfare support from the state. (Note the mutual reinforcement between these claims and the institutions above: welfare claimants are morally deficient in some way or another and so we must put them through the crucible of shame before granting support).

Sometimes these stories contain elements of truth: the truthful part is rarely interesting or important. Often the claims are more in the mould of urban-myths, wild extrapolations from isolated cases (and usually without a clear understanding of even those cases). What little truth there is in such claims is distorted by the use of emotive and loaded language; marginally truthful data are misrepresented through, again, loaded labelling (the rhetoric of dependency is a common example); a spade is called a parasite, and we cannot understand the nature of a spade if we believe that it is sucking us dry. And sometimes stories are simply fabricated. Reagan famously invented his welfare queen. The UK Conservative party insists on the existence of families that have been on welfare for three generations (a tale they inherited from Blair), although, like the Yeti, not a single bit of evidence has ever been produced nor a single case found. In the last few weeks the UK press have been salivating over a case of supposed “welfare scrounging” involving a woman, her eleven children, and a horse living in apparent profligacy in a supposed mansion. On closer inspection (unsurprisingly not so much covered in the press) it turns out that she was allocated her house (not quite as nice as implied) by a housing group, part of the program of welfare privatisation.

Scapegoating works the better the less that the scapegoated group can respond. So it is unsurprising to find increasing occurrences of hybrid compound vulnerabilities being targeted: the latest in the UK is the notion of “welfare tourism” – our country, apparently, is being remorselessly milked by foreigners moving here in order to receive welfare; a few months ago it was obese welfare recipients; the current obsession with disability benefits is of the same character.

The usual definition of “hate speech” is publications and statements that deliberately lie or misrepresent facts about an ascriptively linked group in order to stimulate ill feeling toward them. By this definition the scapegoating of welfare recipients is clearly hate speech. Welfare scapegoating is the new racism; Barbara Ellen of the Guardian describes “shaming the poor” as the “new bloodsport”. It is hate speech because the claims are very often false. As often as not, the claims are simply the manufactured products of the fertile (and extraordinarily well funded) imaginations of right-wing think tanks, who lack any transparency and represent the views of a tiny, unaccountable, anti-democratic, and invisible elite. Ellen, in her article, refers to a recent report jointly published by a number of British church groups including the Methodists, the United Reformed Church, the Church of Scotland and the Baptist Union. The study, The Lies We Tell Ourselves, is to be welcomed and systematically debunks many of the most popular and corrosive welfare myths in Britain today. It addresses such catchy classic hits as “welfare recipients are lazy”, “welfare recipients have an easy life”, and “welfare recipients caused the deficit”. These myths are simply untrue and we have a duty to make sure that people know this.


The Politics of Envy

So much for the popular rhetorical claims. What about the slogans? There are far too many to choose from. But in order to give it some decent attention I will focus on just one. Last week I attended a debate on the (de)merits of the UK government’s austerity program, with particular attention to the human rights implications of slashing public spending on welfare programs. One of the defenders of austerity, a member the right-wing think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, blamed anti-austerity sentiment on the “politics of envy”. This is an old favourite among conservatives. The general idea is that the poor are envious of the success of those better off than them; envy is neither virtuous nor admirable; ipso facto the poor and those who argue for them are not just wrong but also a little bit wicked.

The argument from envy has a long history in conservative thought. It can be found in just about any right-wing thinker. For illustrative purposes I’ll focus on two. The daddy of neoliberalism, Friedrich von Hayek was an early and enthusiastic contributor to the “politics of envy” rhetoric.  He tells us that:

When we inquire into the justification of these demands [for economic justice] we find that they rest on the discontent that the success of some people often produces in those that are less successful, or, to put it bluntly, on envy. (Hayek, 2006, pp. 81-2)

…and, again:

In a wealthy community the only justification its members can have for insisting on further advantages is that there is much private wealth that the government can confiscate and redistribute and that men who constantly see such wealth being enjoyed by others will have a stronger desire for it than those who know of it only abstractly, if at all. (Hayek, 2006, p. 88)

…and once more with feeling:

[Unconstrained economic liberty is] a condition of freedom so essential that it must not be sacrificed to the gratification of our sense of justice or of our envy. (Hayek, 1984, p. 30)

Robert Nozick, another demagogue of the libertarian right, is even plainer in his appeals. He devotes many pages of his libertarian these, Anarchy, State, and Utopia to the theme of envy, only a sample of which we have space for here. He writes:

Is it so implausible to claim that envy underlies this conception of justice, forming part of its root notion? (Nozick, 2009, p. 229)

…and ten pages later he is still going strong:

The envious person, if he cannot (also) possess a thing (talent, and so on) that someone else has, prefers that the other person not have it either. The envious man prefers neither one having it, to the other’s having it and his not having it. (Nozick, 2009, p. 239)

These are mighty big claims (and, I will add, undemonstrated (probably indemonstrable)). But why should we accept such ideas? Much of the best and most influential egalitarian writing comes from people who are, or were, fairly comfortably situated – surely it is implausible that they are all that envious of the wealthiest? Many of them (those that Nozick, for example, is responding to) are accomplished academics and are surely clever enough to have become rich themselves if they so choose? And how can a person be envious on behalf of someone else anyway? Why do conservatives find it so darned hard to accept that these people may be acting on moral impulses wholly different to envy?

And is it not also plausible that it is the wealthy and powerful who are acting out of envy, at least as much as the poor? I don’t think that Danny Dorling is wrong when he describes “the everyday politics of the envy and fear of those who had come to know a little luxury, who wanted much more as a result and who lived in constant uneasy fear of it being taken away” (Dorling, 2010, p. 138).

And, we should ask, is the envy of the poor, assuming it to exist, wholly their own moral failing? The late, great E. F. Schumacher is clear on this:

Excessive wealth, like power, tends to corrupt. Even if the rich are not ‘idle rich’, even when they work harder than anyone else, they work differently, apply different standards, and are set apart from common humanity. They corrupt themselves by practicing greed, and they corrupt the rest of society by provoking envy. (Schumacher, 1993, p. 236)

In fact, envy plays a critical (and lamentable) role in capitalist society. It is the oil without which the consumerism that keeps the rich rich would have no grip. Throughout neoliberal thought imitation, emulation and covetousness – envy! – act as drivers for market growth and innovation. Envy lies at the very heart of modern consumerism. We are continually reminded that we are inadequate and that the solution is to buy products x, y, and z if we wish to be functioning wholes like everyone else. It would seem that envy is perfectly fine when directing people to act in the interests of the wealthiest – it is only morally objectionable when it works against them.

We can, and should, turn the “politics of envy” rhetoric on its head. “[E]nvy, resentment, and hatred,” Michael Walzer points out, “…are the common consequences of hierarchical domination.”(Walzer, 2004, p. 130). Envy is not wrong because it opposes inequality; inequality – of power, in the form of domination – is wrong because it produces envy along with a multitude of other evils. Envy is a mark of poison in society – a symptom of a greater problem. We should not seek to punish envy but to relieve it. A true “politics of envy” has the admirable goal of removing the reasons for envy, and limiting the mechanisms that utilise it for personal gain.


The Gorilla in the Room

So let’s talk about the gorilla in the room… It has been running around while we have been distracted with the busy work of worrying about non-existent bogeymen: welfare scroungers; welfare dependency; the “politics of envy”; the “culture of entitlement” etc etc etc. What has it been doing while we were busily looking elsewhere? Under the disguise of talk about liberty and state interference, these groups who claim to want to remove “big government” from business have actually done a great deal to get big business into government. We should be clear about what this means. When government intervenes in business – say, in the form of regulation – this is part of, and entirely compatible with, the democratic ideal: as thinkers such as Karl Polanyi have pointed out, government intervention is necessary to legitimate the exercise of the powers of capitalism: it is the safety-valve on private power. On the other hand when business interferes with government – when “money is speech”, when “corporations are people”, both forms of power and both concentrated into the hands of a small and unaccountable minority – then what we have is simply corruption and nothing more. It is ironic that libertarian demagogues have derided government regulation and action by highlighting the risk that some powerful individuals will use the state to garner advantages for themselves; in fact, what has happened is that the efforts to “shrink the state” and reduce government action has simply weakened democracy and brought about that very evil it was supposed to prevent. The state hasn’t been shrunk, it has just been retasked.

A final, somewhat bittersweet, thought for those who have made it this far (attention spans are yet another casualty of the architecture of resentment). All of this places us in a difficult situation. If we address the false claims, the fairytales, the resentment-producing rhetoric, and slogans then we have, in a way, handed a victory to their purveyors. We are necessarily on the back foot and our responses are a rearguard action. It costs them little to produce and spread these narratives. It costs us a great deal to oppose them. The point of the architecture of resentment, as I started with, is to distract us. By investing our time and energy in responding to such nonsense we risk giving them credence while we squander our valuable resources on defensive acts rather than putting them to the better use of formulating solutions to today’s problems. But, nevertheless, I firmly believe that we do have the moral duty of opposing these tactics. We must continue to push back, and we must do so much more firmly than we have done so far: when faced with a cheap slogan or a defamatory “fact” we must demand the evidence in a neutral form, the source of the evidence, and the funders of the sources of evidence. We shouldn’t simply accept the conservative-assigned role of dog-fetching-the-stick: instead we should be beating them with their own sticks. We need to stop letting unaccountable right-wing think tanks control the language of the discussion and we must call out complicity with them wherever we find it. We must stare the gorilla in the room directly in the eyes and point it out to everyone around us.

Works Cited:

Dorling, D. (2010). Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists. The Policy Press.

Hayek, F. A. (1984). Individualism and Economic Order. The University of Chicago Press.

Hayek, F. A. (2006). The Constitution Of Liberty. Routledge Classics.

Nozick, R. (2009). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Blackwell Publishing.

Schumacher, E. F. (1993). Small Is Beautiful. Vintage.

Walzer, M. (2004). Politics and Passion: Toward a More Egalitarian Liberalism. Yale University Press.