Remainers are the ones longing for empire

In his valedictory speech as outgoing European Council President, Donald Tusk described Brexit as a delusion driven by the foolish nostalgia of those Brits still “longing for the empire”. His words prompted the usual harrumphing, but the truth is he has it precisely backwards. It is not Brexiters who are chasing an imperialist high, but those devoted to the European Union.

Since its founding, the EU has self-mythologised as a project of peace, whose principal aim is to prevent a repeat of the two World Wars of 1914 and 1939. The basis for this argument tends to be a notion that the World Wars were caused by an excess of “nationalism”, with the aggressive and expansive German identity promoted by the Nazis held up as the primary exhibit, and that by diluting the power of Europe’s nation states nationalism will also be attenuated.

Lately, despite its convoluted and multivariate origins, the First World War has also been recruited by European leaders as a cautionary tale against nationalism. But the origin of the Second World War can just as reasonably be described as a multi-sided jockeying for power between imperial powers.

And as Yoram Hazony has argued in The Virtue of Nationalism, Hitler was less a nationalist than an imperialist, who sought to expand German-controlled territory and as such was resisted by the rival empires of Britain, the United States and other allies. That is to say, the two World Wars were arguably more driven by the competing interests of imperial players than an excess of national identification as such.

Over the horrific bloodshed that took place between 1914 and 1945, these imperial powers lost or began the irreversible process of losing their empires. The British Empire was at its greatest, not to mention most crisis-ridden, after the end of the First World War, and by the end of the Second was exhausted to the point where it no longer had either the will or the resources to sustain its imperial reach. 

The international world order that replaced the Old World empires from 1945 until relatively recently was, in effect, an empire of American-influenced rules underpinned by American military and economic dominance.  And in this new age of Pax Americana, international conventions established the right of nations to self-determination. It was no longer the done thing to invade countries halfway round the world for the purpose of grabbing resources, extending geopolitical influence and/or “civilising: the natives.

With no one overseas to colonise, what happened to the old ruling bureaucracies of the formerly imperial nations of Europe? What now for those educated with imperial dreams and a global vision, trained from a young age to run international business and political institutions, dreaming of rule across vast territories and hundreds of millions of benighted souls in need of guidance?

The solution they came up with was to colonise one another. To console themselves for the loss of the riches and ready supply of servants in their overseas colonies, the washed-up post-imperial nations of Europe agreed to pool their reach, influence and unwashed natives into a kind of ersatz empire.

It did not greatly matter whether the natives in question liked the idea or not, as the pooling was undertaken largely without public discussion and in practice (to begin with at least) made little difference to their everyday lives. Rather, the extension of ‘reach’ and ‘influence’ was largely a bureaucratic one, harmonising rules on the kind of trade and manufacturing standards which most ordinary people care very little about.

The result provided an imperial buzz for a cadre of civil servants, who got to dictate standards on the minutiae of countless areas of commerce for hundreds of millions of people rather than mere tens (and enjoy the perks of a colossal corporate lobbying industry in the process).

Even better, they could do all this without any of the demonstrable dangers of the kind of overheated jingoism that came with the style of imperialism that ended in bloodshed with the two world wars. A kind of diet imperialism, if you like: all the fun of civilising the heathens, with none of the guilt.

Their diet empire now constituted, the post-imperial civil servants of each EU member state could enjoy something of the lavish transnational lifestylemoney-no-object pageantry and grand entertaining they missed out on by the unfortunate fact of having been born too late for a career enjoying absolute power in the colonies while feathering their own nests. Indeed, the strange disappearance of a 2014 report on corruption within EU institutions suggests the diet imperialism of Europe offers ample opportunities of the nest-feathering variety.

Those in the administrative class who missed out on the opportunities for self-enrichment in the prewar empires can enjoy instead the huge and relatively unaccountable sums of money that flow around the European Union’s various budgets.

Indeed, even when misbehaviour tips over into outright criminal activity it can sometimes go unpunished, as was the case with IMF head Christine Lagarde, who received a criminal conviction in 2016 for negligence over inappropriate payouts while in the French Government but was nonetheless installed this year as head of the European Central Bank.

The administrative empire also delivers a servant class, at a scale appropriate to the post-imperial nostalgia it serves to alleviate. The debate around the Brexit referendum was full of dire warnings about the looming loss of staff to (among other things) wipe bottoms, look after children, pick fruit  and make lattes.

These laments strongly hint at the preoccupations of a colonial class reluctant in the extreme to let go of a rich supply of subaltern masses whose services were rendered affordable by the expansion of the labour market through freedom of movement.

It is not just the servants. The prospect of losing the European extension to their shrunken, empire-less British geopolitical self-image cuts to the heart of our modern governing class. As one would expect, then, those lamenting Britain’s post-Brexit loss of “standing” or evolution into a “laughing stock” (who cares?) are not the supposedly imperialist and thin-skinned Brexiters but those who wish to remain. Because in their view the only available modern source of the suitably elevated pomp, influence and imperial “standing” to which they feel entitled is our membership of the EU.

Paradoxically, in the act of accusing Brexiters of the imperial nostalgia of which they themselves are guilty, the Remain Europhiles have hit on a term which is more accurate than they realise for their Brexiter foes: Little Englanders. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the original Little Englanders were anti-imperialist, and wanted the borders of the United Kingdom to stop at the edges of the British Isles.

The epithet tends to be used against Brexiters to imply jingoistic and probably racist imperial aspirations, but this is the opposite of what it meant when first used. And taken in its original sense, calling Brexiters Little Englanders is entirely accurate: they would like the borders of the nation to which they belong to be at the edge of the British Isles, not along the edge of Turkey or Russia.

Should they get their way, this will present the United Kingdom with the prospect of life as an independent nation of modest size. We can then look forward to a future going about our business much reduced from the giddy, extractive and racist highs of the early twentieth century but hopefully more stable, more content with ourselves and, importantly, perhaps even finally at ease with the loss of British imperial reach.

For the imperialist nostalgists of Remain, though, unable to reconcile themselves to the notion of the United Kingdom as anything but a world power, this possibility is anathema. The argument tends to be that unless we join a large power bloc we will be ground to dust between them. Gideon Rachman argued recently in the FT  that “the EU needs to become a power project”, saying that future geopolitics will be a contest between four or five large blocs including China and the US and the individual nations of Europe cannot hold a candle to these behemoths.

But must this necessarily be so? Rachman’s future is just a projection, and many projections – such as Fukuyama’s famous one about the “end of history” have been proved wrong by subsequent events. Admittedly, a multipolar future seems likely. But any age of competing superpowers has always also contained smaller nations that managed to avoid absorption into a larger empire by one means or another. Why should Little England not be one of them?

The only thing holding us back from a post-Brexit and doubly post-imperial future, at ease with our reduction in stature and ready for a new chapter in our national history, is the imperial nostalgia of the Europhiles.

This post originally published at Unherd

The Somewheres are beginning to organise

Yesterday I attended the SDP’s party conference. The rump of the party that merged with the Liberals to become the Liberal Democrats has enjoyed something of a revival in the last year under William Clouston, who has led the charge to reinvent its social-democratic platform along distinctly post-liberal lines. The party is a minnow compared to the big hitters of conference season, but the conference was important. Here’s why.

With very few exceptions, the party’s leadership do not live in London. Its strongest support base is in Yorkshire, notably around Leeds where the conference was held. Clouston himself lives in a village in the North-East. In his closing remarks, he apologised to delegates for the fact that the next meeting will be in London. Where most of the big parties now talk about the need to take note of the perspective of people outside the capital, within the SDP the reverse is the case.

The party leans centre-right on social issues and centre-left on cultural ones. Broadly speaking, it stands for family, community, nation and a robust welfare state, and bears some similarities to ‘Blue Labour’, Maurice Glasman’s project to bring issues such as family and patriotism back into Labour politics. But whereas Glasman’s project was to a significant degree driven by metropolitan intellectuals, the SDP is not driven by London voices or perspectives. This is also perhaps why the SDP has to date had little cut-through in media terms despite numerous polls that suggest widespread support for a combination of redistributive economic policy with small-c social conservative values.

Movements that articulate concerns or perspectives widespread in the UK population outside major cities have in recent years often been traduced in the media as ‘populist’ or even ‘far right’. But while several speakers at the conference inveighed against identity politics and ‘political correctness’, the SDP is not reactionary. The first motion to carry was one to amend the party policy banning non-stun slaughter to one regulating it, both in the interests of religious tolerance but also to avoid far-right dogwhistles. Clouston himself referred in his speech to a ‘decent populism’ that seeks to return the common concerns of those outside major cities and the liberal consensus to mainstream political discourse.

The watchword was ‘community’ and ‘solidarity’. A key theme emerging from the speakers was: what are the proper limits to individual freedom? Where is it more important to consider the needs of a group? Who pays the price for ‘double liberalism’, and how can we mitigate those costs?

For some considerable time, politics has been something done by Anywheres (Goodhart) and more done to the Somewheres. Efforts to rebalance this have tended to be treated as monstrous aberrations that must be contained, whether with disparaging media coverage or more government funding for some client-state scheme or other.

But looking around on Saturday, my sense is this may change. The Somewheres are beginning to organise.

On halal, kosher, religious tolerance and having it both ways

Yesterday I live tweeted the SDP conference in Leeds. It was a great day with many interesting speakers, but easily the most controversial discussion – and the one that has generated the most reaction in my Twitter mentions since – was the motion to amend SDP policy on non stun slaughter. Previously, policy was to ban these methods of slaughter, but at the conference a motion was decisively carried to amend this to provisions on strict standards, ensuring supply does not outstrip demand (eg non stun slaughter for export) and proper labelling.

I gather that debate around the subject prior to conference was heated. I know at least one person who left the party over the subject. I spoke in favour of the motion despite being personally uncomfortable with such methods of slaughter on the grounds that an explicitly communitarian party needs to be willing to demonstrate a recognition that religious practice is immensely important to some groups, and to create space for such practices even if we find them personally unappealing.

But once you start making explicit provision for communitarian considerations, the tension between faith and other ethical frameworks is immediately apparent.

The subsequent discussion – and its links into ‘preserve our culture’ groups such as For Britain and Britain First – put me in mind of two brouhahas a little while ago where politicians tried to articulate a position weighing private faith against public mainstream morality. In April 2017, then Lib Dem leader Tim Farron refused to deny that his personal faith held homosexuality to be a sin. In September the same year, Jacob Rees-Mogg made statements on abortion and homosexuality, consistent with Catholic social teaching, that saw him excoriated as ‘a bigot’ and ‘wildly out of step with public opinion’.

Commentators at the time lined up to defend Farron and Rees-Mogg. There was the usual hum from offstage (ie Twitter) about the right to express views in keeping with traditional Christianity without facing punishment from an illiberal liberal elite.

So I find it interesting to see that when it comes to a religious practice from Islam and Judaism – slaughtering animals by slitting their throats, without stunning them first – some of the voices raised most loudly in agreement about the iniquity of ‘You can’t say that’ culture as it bears on Christians today should be perfectly content to support policies that actively militate the practice of those other faiths. If we are to defend Rees-Mogg and Farron on grounds of religious tolerance, should we not also consider defending halal and kosher slaughter on the same grounds? After all, the core argument of tolerance is not that one tolerates only things that one likes or feels indifferent to but that it is extended to things one actively dislikes.

It feels to me as though there are two things going on here.

Firstly, the Britain First types who wish to support religious exemptions for Christians but not for Jews or Muslims are not, themselves, Christians for the most part. Rather, they are secular inheritors of the Christian tradition who wish to preserve the structure of that tradition for the benefits it has for some time provided – a fairly stable, prosperous, harmonious society with congenial values – without taking on the obligations of the faith itself. To put it a less fashionable way, they wish to be redeemed but without themselves taking up the cross. For that, in a nutshell, is the argument made by those who argue against ‘illiberal liberalism’ but do so from a perspective that rejects the necessity of faith – any faith, perhaps, or Christianity in particular – in creating the society to which they wish to belong.

We might term it ‘religious utilitarianism’ – a worldview that recognises the utility of faith in delivering certain social goods but takes no position on the veracity or otherwise of the tenets of any faith in particular. Liberal relativism is a kind of equal-opportunities religious utilitarianism, that wishes to make space for any and all faiths to provide those goods in a pluralistic way, while the Britain First / Batten-era UKIP version of the same wishes to privilege Christian religious utilitarianism over the more relativistic liberal sort. That is, Britain First types want to keep only the outward forms of Christianity but do not wish anyone else to replace those forms with a more deeply-felt faith of their own.

But if we are to argue for religious tolerance, and for Christianity to play an active rather than a purely decorative role in our society then – the logic dictates – we must either be explicit about repressing other faiths in support of that goal, or else extend the same courtesy to other faiths. The alternative – hiding our hostility to other faiths behind a selectively-applied appeal for religious tolerance only as it pertains to ‘our’ deviations from the liberal consensus – is simply not good enough.

Weekend long read pick: the real problem at Yale is not free speech

If you’re looking for something long-form this weekend, and are tired of culture war takes on student ‘wokeness’, this lucid piece by Natalia Dashan in Palladium may even give you some measure of compassion for the lost children of America’s super-elite.

A class-inflected personal account of the author’s experience at Yale, the piece argues that the Great Awokening is less a free speech issue than a byproduct of a loss of moral purpose in America’s upper class. Her view is that America’s young elite has so far lost the desire to rule that for the most part it now prefers to give away its power, either via careers that effectively render them middle class, or else throwing themselves into ‘social justice’ activities whose purpose is less social justice than social bonding, or what she calls ‘coordination by ideology’.

Wokeness, she suggests, is really a convoluted and guilt-ridden form of class signalling that serves both to police the boundaries of an elite in-group while also deflecting any genuine responsibility for leadership that membership of a franker and more self-confident elite might entail. As it is not rooted in any clear objectives or shared political interests, the psychodrama of wokeness also relentlessly devours itself, creating a negative elite feedback loop in the process:

It doesn’t matter that the ideology is abusive to its own constituents and allies, or that it doesn’t really even serve its formal beneficiaries. All that matters is this: for everyone who gets purged for a slight infraction, there are dozens who learn from this example never to stand up to the ideology, dozens who learn that they can attack with impunity if they use the ideology to do it, and dozens who are vaguely convinced by its rhetoric to be supportive of the next purge. So, on it goes.

She asks: who benefits? In her view, those who wish to duck responsibility, to obscure their class status, or to build power bases in the chaos it creates. The price of this evasion of leadership is no less than  ‘the standards of reality itself’, alongside a cumulative decay of institutions whose purpose would once have been to channel the idealism and noblesse oblige of a young elite into public service.

And this matters, because what is now well-established at Yale will trickle down not just across America but across the world:

And what’s happening at Yale reflects a crisis in America’s broader governing class. Unable to effectively respond to the challenges facing them, they instead try to bail out of their own class. The result is an ideology which acts as an escape raft, allowing some of the most privileged young people in the country to present themselves as devoid of power. Institutions like Yale, once meant to direct people in how to use their position for the greater good, are systematically undermined—a vicious cycle which ultimately erodes the country as a whole.
Segments of this class engage in risk-averse managerialism, while others take advantage of the glut to disrupt things and expand personal power. The broader population becomes caught up in these conflicts as these actors attempt to build power bases and mobilize against each other. And like Yale, it seems a safe bet that things will continue and even accelerate until some new vision and stable, non-ideological set of coordination mechanisms are able to establish hegemony and become a new ground for real cooperation.

As to what that ‘new vision’ looks like? The author has less to offer here. But the piece is a persuasive first-hand analysis by someone in a position – by virtue of her background – to reflect critically not just on the content but also the social form of the contemporary US campus wars.

This piece was first published at Unherd

Transform the Lords to save us from Faragism

(This article was originally published on Reaction.life.)

Michael Gove famously said during the EU referendum campaign: “People have had enough of experts”. His words, though much-derided, reflect a popular sense that our politics has moved away from democratically-accountable government, driven largely by supranational institutions and treaties, and populated by appointed ‘experts’ to whom we must defer without any means of influencing their decisions.

To this transnational class of epistocrats has been added, at the domestic level, a parallel species of quangocrat touted as ‘independent’ and similarly unresponsive to electoral pressure. Resentment toward this ecosystem of insiders has been growing for years, if not decades. In our country, Farage and his Brexit Party have now made it their mission to burn this whole edifice down.

This may be politically resonant, but is it wise? One persuasive argument for remaining in the EU is that the complexity and interdependence of modern nation states cannot be mastered at speed by elected non-specialists. That the effective management of the modern world needs a grasp of often highly technical matters that takes years to acquire, and some policy areas need serious expertise as well as a degree of insulation from MPs who believe, Boris-like, that any issue can be adequately grasped with a few hours of cramming and a bon mot or two.

Some areas of government are too abstruse to make it into the general political discourse – the scandal of hygiene standards in manufacturing, say, or rules governing the import of consumer goods – while remaining immensely important overall. The failure of UK MPs to get to grips with the detail of pretty much all such areas since the EU referendum has been painfully obvious.

This is the core of the pro-EU view that it is better to agree this stuff together with the rest of the club, then leave the system in the hands of experienced professional civil servants while we get on with our daily lives. It’s an argument that has some merit, especially when compared to the blundering attempts of our MPs to cram technical subjects in a few hours in order to make decisions that will affect the lives of millions.

In this view, public resentment of experts is self-evidently foolish and destructive and should simply be ignored. But this view is only half right. The public as a whole welcomes expertise, serious statesmanship and long-term thinking in public life and is unhappy not with experts but with their lack of accountability. No-one really disputes that if we do ever leave the EU we will need our institutional memory, and our experts, more than ever. A Faragist destruction of our governing institutions would cause a loss of this institutional memory that we can ill afford, given its already etiolated state after decades of outsourcing policy to Brussels. So, given that we need them, how can we make our experts more accountable, and prevent populism from throwing experience, expertise, long-term thinking and other important babies out with the ‘metropolitan elite’ bathwater? My proposal is that this should be the role of the House of Lords.

Whatever its faults, the hereditary House of Lords did supply some long-term thinking in our public life. But since Blair’s reforms it has become both an extension of party politics and a form of reward for good behaviour in the ecology of ‘experts’ that populates public life. Both these developments are to the detriment both of democratic accountability and long-term thinking.

We should abolish the system of appointed hereditary peers that so typifies the ‘insiders’ club’ feeling of modern politics and instead invite experts to run for election to the Lords. This would be on a long electoral cycle (let’s say ten years) with a recall mechanism in extremis and specific responsibility for taking the long view on key policy areas where expertise is needed and party politics a source of harm.

Areas of policy that might benefit from being managed in this way include (in no particular order) healthcare, education, consumer standards and international trade. Education and healthcare in particular suffer from being treated by all sides as a political football. They are subjected to interminable ‘reforms’ by MPs thinking in electoral cycles rather than the long term, and desperate for impact with no regard for the millions whose daily jobs are turned upside down by the latest eye-catching initiative. And international trade and product standards are (as the Brexit negotiations have amply demonstrated) too technical for the brief to be grasped on a short timescale by elected non-experts.

Under this system, rather than having (for example) an education secretary in situ for a year or two, fiddling with policy for the sake of looking busy, we could have subject experts with hands-on experience, such as Katherine Birbalsingh or Amanda Spielman, standing for the Lords on a ten-year education ticket, long enough to see the results of any decisions taken and be held accountable for them. We could see a Lords education candidate for child-centred ‘skills’ education debate a Lords candidate keen on knowledge-and-discipline-first, with the electorate able to make the decision. Alongside this critical function of managing areas of policy for the long term, our elected expert Lords could then continue their role scrutinising legislation, as at present.

This transformation would at a stroke rid us of our increasingly unpopular ‘crony’ Lords, create more space for long-term thinking in key policy areas, and make the experts we need more democratically accountable. It would move some areas of policymaking away from short-term party politics and more toward a blend of long-termism and direct democracy. In doing so it could balance the need for experts in modern government with the equally pressing need to respond to a general public sense of democratic deficit, and thus maybe yet save us all from Faragism.

Social justice? Or class warfare?

An aristocracy is pulling itself away from the masses in America’s supposedly egalitarian society, writes Matthew Stewart in this masterful article for The Atlantic. By carefully hoarding (among other things) property wealth, social capital, educational opportunities and tax breaks, all of which is combining to consolidate a top 10 percent which believes itself to be meritocratic but whose meritocracy is increasingly hereditary. I won’t rehash the article; read it; whether you’re American or not, if you live in an advanced first world economy you will likely hear resonances of the situation in your own nation – not least because the people in that top 10 per cent could in fact be found in your own country as much as in the USA, as they map fairly straightforwardly onto the Anywheres described by David Goodhart in his book The Road To Somewhere.

I want to use the new aristocracy of Stewart’s piece – Goodhart’s Anywheres – as a starting point for considering the practical impact of the social justice catechism. My thesis is that while this catechism purports to promote egalitarianism, in its practical impact it acts as a form of class warfare that serves both to justify and also to retrench the class interests and cultural homogeneity of this aristocracy. It is, after all, the elite colleges of the USA from which the social justice gospel most pungently emanates, and the gilded young people of America’s new aristocracy would not be glomming so enthusiastically to an ideology that served profoundly to undermine their own class interests. Not even upper-class Communists do that, except in theory.

It’s not an original insight to consider New Left politics as a replacement of class politics with affirmative-action programmes for and by the elite. If anyone else has dissected this in more detail please point me in their direction; I spend most of my time wiping a toddler’s arse and cooking meals for the family so don’t have time to research this in the depth it deserves. I’m just going to list a few of the commonly heard tenets of the social justice gospel and then look at the (usually heavily deprecated and often ferociously silenced) critiques of those positions.

  • Open borders are a good thing
  • White privilege and racism are endemic and inescapable
  • Sexual harassment is the gravest issue facing women today
  • Feminism must include and make space for men who say they are women
  • All social justice issues are inextricable from all other social justice issues

I’ll probably look back on this piece in due course and wince, because I can see that some of the thinking needs sharpening yet. But I have limited time to write so I’m just going to plough on and hope for the best. Please consider this a kind of brain dump, feel free to ask difficult questions or point me in the direction of anyone thinking more clearly about it. Anyway, here are some thoughts about the ways in which social justice ideology works particularly well as a form of class-inflected self-interest for the new aristocracy, while presenting itself as the exact opposite.

Open borders are a good thing: Diversity is good. White cultures are crusty, ageing and colonial and benefit from being enriched. We deserve to share our wealth with people from the rest of the world especially as we stole it all from them to begin with. Multiracial societies are intrinsically fairer and better. There’s no such thing as an illegal human. We should dissolve selfish, insular, racist nation states into a global melting pot of free movement and watch justice blossom.

Okay, but what about the working class critique of free movement? Routinely smeared  by our top 10% via the cultural mechanisms over which they have near-total control as simple xenophobia, the working class critique of free movement has little to do with racism and everything to do with bargaining power. Put simply, the more people competing for a low-skill job, the lower the wage the worker can command. This is simple economics. So when the top 10% (which runs the country as well as the media through which that country talks to itself) changes the rules so that country sees a rapid growth in the number of low-skilled workers via immigration, are they doing it in order to enrich the culture, or to depress the cost of hiring plumbers, electricians and nannies while pushing up the scarcity value of the home they bought before the migration boom? Beneath the high-minded talk of diversity sits a hard backbone of supply and demand economics that looks suspiciously, on closer inspection, like a consolidation of class interests.

White privilege and racism are endemic and inescapable

My understanding of the position taken by Candace Owens and others is that by entrenching a victimhood narrative within black communities this worldview serves not to free black people  but to perpetuate their immiseration, by treating it as immanent and inescapable.

If one considers black people, like women, less as an identity and more as an economic (class) group it’s clear that they are vastly more likely to belong to the 90% than to the 10%. (This also goes for single mothers, by the way). So why not come up with a way of feeling aggrieved on behalf of black people, while also encouraging those black people who don’t belong to the aristocracy to believe themselves incapable of changing their circumstances? Those affirmative action programmes created by well-meaning social entrepreneurs to bridge the gap created by this pervasive state of racism and white supremacy can then also be usefully applied to other members of the 10% – that is, to black people who are already wealthy – thus ensuring moral credentials are burnished without compromising the impermeability of the aristocracy.

In other words, by refocusing the anger of the masses away from issues of class to issues of race, you can ensure ‘representation’ by ethnic minorities within the upper caste and call this ‘social justice’, all the while foreclosing the space for discussing whether the increasingly drastic cleavage between the upper caste and the rest of us is truly the way things should be.

Sexual harassment at work is the gravest issue facing women today

Unless you live in a pretty rarefied world this is just self-evidently untrue. Elsewhere in the world women are raped when they sneak away from work in the fields to take a shit, or have their organs of sexual pleasure cut off as precondition of anyone being able to sell them off to an older husband. How is this not a more important issue facing women today? But instead we amplify the noise about how a movie producer once said something a bit iffy over lunch, or a magazine editor may or may not have touched someone’s bottom during a late-evening meeting, while looking sideways and wringing our hands while mumbling about ‘culture’ while girls and young women are taken overseas to have their genitals sliced with an un-sterile razor or to be forced into sexual servitude, destined forever to obey the every command of a cousin whose language they don’t share.

I can only conclude that this is taking place because the people who lead the narratives on what feminism is aren’t generally the same ones at the sharp end of what life looks like when feminism isn’t in the picture. Nimco Ali is an honourable exception, and there are many others, but there’s still an overwhelming sense of nervous recoil by much of mainstream – that is, socially acceptable – feminism from any willingness to tackle any issue that might be complicated by the ever more baroque dance of identity politics.

Perhaps the most egregious of these turnings-aside exists in the determination of Polite Feminism to ignore the absurd demand of males who wish to wear dresses and behave in a feminine manner to be treated as in every way indistinguishable from biological women. I’ve given that a separate heading though, so let me return to sexual harassment at work. In practice, this serves to create a kind of wilful blindness to the innumerable issues that might be tackled by a feminism that emerged from poor women with jobs, rather than wealthy ones with careers. What might those issues be? We don’t know, because no-one ever gets to hear. I suspect it would focus more on how the buggering hell anyone is supposed to care for vulnerable and dependent loved ones while keeping body and soul together – not on whether or not someone once called you ‘darling’ by the watercooler.

Trans women are women: On the surface, this one seems like a social justice no-brainer. People should be radically free to be whatever they wish to be, right? So if a male bodied person identifies as a woman, he should be recognised as such. It’s a simple issue of social justice, the next frontier in the civil rights movement, a fundamental step to ensure a vulnerable group is protected from abuse at the hands of violent and bigoted men.

But in practice, encoding the nostrum ‘Trans women are women’ in law means the effective legal abolition of biological sex. Now, that doesn’t impact all that much on people at the top but makes things disproportionately worse for women further down the food chain: imprisoned women, abused women in shelters. Women on hospital wards. Suddenly the statutory requirement to keep such spaces penis-free vanishes. Along with the abolition of sex goes any meaningful way of describing sex discrimination; if men can also breastfeed, how is discrimination against breastfeeding mothers in the workplace about sexism? And above all it renders invisible once again the labour that is fundamentally women’s – childbirth and childrearing – because it can no longer be named as a property of women. We can continue to shrug our shoulders at the dilemmas of people who want to work part-time and care for children; that’s not a women’s issue. Nor is miscarriage care. Nor is domestic violence.

And don’t be fooled into thinking that just because something is now a ‘people issue’ rather than a ‘women’s issue’ it will rise in status, because ‘after all men get pregnant too’. You only have to look at the way biological-males-who-say-they-are-women get lauded for career achievements, while biological-females-who-say-they-are-male get lauded for having babies, to realise that this brave new world of supposed gender neutrality retains the same physiological, sexually dimorphic fundamentals as the previous one where we knew what ‘men’ and ‘women’ meant, and all the same rules of sexism still apply. Only now we don’t have words for them any more.

This works as an Anywhere power move because as everyone secretly knows, and no-one really wants to acknowledge, if all the little women – you know, the fat ugly ones who work in the care industry and live in shitty little houses somewhere you’d want to drive through as fast as possible – stopped doing what women everywhere have always done the entire social fabric would collapse. Too much consciousness-raising is a bad thing. So instead, keep it contained. Divert attention from anything that might entail looking too seriously and critically at the way the mass of ordinary women are asked to live. Focus on something that sounds inclusive, kind and sort of ‘feministy’, imposes precisely no costs on your social class and in the process conveniently renders un-nameable a number of the lines of enquiry that might otherwise be pursued by feminists concerned with the mass rather than the elite.

All social justice issues are inextricable from all other social justice issues

The credo of ‘intersectionality’ has in effect consumed all the separate identity politics movements, through the simple medium of asserting that the more identities you have, the more oppressed you are – and (in the popular understanding at least) this functions as a simple points scheme.

(It’s worth noting at this point that socioeconomic class is not usually listed as an Oppressed Identity, despite the transparent persistence of class snobbery even in our supposedly enlightened times. I’m not talking about people like Jacob Rees-Mogg either, I’m talking about – for example – those who sneer at poor people for making political choices that militate against Anywhere class interests).

The identities that do count in the points schemes are all ones that are as available to the wealthy as they are to the poor. Race; transgender identification; religious faith (unless it’s Jewish or Christian); all these are popularly considered axes of oppression. Oppression, we are to infer, happens just as much to the very rich as to the very poor, as long as they are black, Muslim, transgender or whatever. (Indeed, one might be forgiven for thinking that the most vocal Oppressed Identities are in fact the ones dealing with issues that no-one but the relatively privileged has time to consider, such as ‘Am I non-binary, demiboy or transmasculine?’.) Further, because all social justice issues are inextricable from each other, and ‘intersectionality’ is a totalising doctrine, to demur on any given point either regarding the points system or any of the maxims it promotes renders one excommunicate from the congregation.

This works both to muffle dissent and also to provide an unassailable vantage point and moral high ground from which to attack anyone who objects, for any reason, to any part of the belief system – which, coincidentally, is likely to include many of the people whose class interests are less well-represented by the belief system than your own. And not only can you mobilise people advocating for the social justice issue against which dissent has been voiced, but because of the doctrine of inextricability the rest of the faithful must join in excommunicating the heretic as well.

So taken in its entirety, the social justice form of identity politics (as distinct from that variety, founded on a presumption of Christian/humanist universals, expressed in – for example – the work of Martin Luther King) operates both to articulate the class interests of the new elite, and also in important ways to create a bulwark against competing articulations of class interest, be they black, working-class or female. ‘

Diversity’ functions as an overarching political system and means of distributing resources and power (as set out with blistering clarity in Ben Cobley’s book The Tribe) and also as a means of exerting downward pressure on the wages of the servant class. At the same time, the elite drive to introduce transience into working-class communities serves to degrade the interpersonal systems of solidarity and mutual assistance, grounded in place and relatively stable social values and population, which have traditionally served the poor in place of the financial resources needed to buy in services such as childcare or help for the elderly.

Meanwhile, feminism focuses on the fine points of sexual behaviour in mixed-sex workplaces with desk jobs, at the expense of thornier issues thrown up by – for example – the introduction to our society, via the promotion of that other social justice credo ‘diversity’, of cultures with traditions radically at odds with feminism. The focus on sexual mores serves as a kind of displacement activity, expelling difficult (and in other countries indisputably feminist) issues not immediately pertinent to the elite from feminism into the realm of the ‘far right’. (Because let’s face it, it’s not elite Muslim migrants who are sending their teenage daughters overseas for a forced marriage, it’s the working class ones). It also helps to obscure or banish matters that might otherwise fall into the domain of feminism but are principally working-class issues, such as the many less well-off women who wish they could spend less time at their job and more time with their children, but cannot afford to do so; or the difficulty of creating those local support networks so essential to surviving life with dependent family members, when the culture as a whole considers the labour force as a mass of entirely mobile individuals with no need or desire for local connections, and actively encourages working-class neighbourhoods to become more, not less transient. And just in case the lot of women who can’t buy in the services displaced by the decline in stable communities is not challenging enough, social justice will assert further that not only are sexual mores more important than any other issue to feminism, but that being a woman has no biological component, and therefore women’s refuges, prisons and swimming pool changing rooms should henceforth be effectively sorted by each individual’s inner sense of gender rather than by biological sex. Further again, the entire domain of difficulties encountered by women as a function of being the sex that gestates, bears and nurses children is no longer a women’s issue, because men also have babies, so stop talking about it. And, finally, any critique of any of these matters from the perspective of non-Anywhere class interests will result in your excommunication. If that isn’t starting to smell a lot like class warfare, I’m not sure what is.

 

Why transactivists will fail, like Remain (but may yet succeed like Remain, too)

Why votes at 16 would be terrible for democracy

I am pleased to see the Conservative Party has used an arcane bit of filibustering to scotch Labour’s latest attempt to extend the franchise to 16-year-olds.

It is not immediately clear why the Labour Party is making so much of extending the franchise below 18, though a cynic might point to the idealism of youth and the overwhelmingly left-wing politics of the educational establishment which young people are now legally obliged to continue encountering until the age of 18. But it should not be permitted to happen.

If you look at the people who advocate for votes at 16, they are invariably well-insulated from the consequences of bad politics. Teenagers typically live with their parents and do not pay tax (or certainly the kind of teenager who gets het up about the franchise is unlikely to be already in work and living independently) and as such have relatively little stake in the hard consequences that result from a general election, except at one remove via their parents.

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The kind of teenager who gets passionately het up about politics and wants to vote

Along with the kind of teenager who gets passionately het up about politics as a kind of abstract and vehicle for high-minded ideals (see illustrative example above), and who has little skin in the game as he or she does not yet pay tax or incur adult responsibilities, the other kind of voice calling to extend the franchise is a certain kind of career politician. Such people are insulated from the consequences of bad politics by an influential network, a good salary and plenty of job opportunities should he or she be voted out. For career politicians advocating the policy, extending the franchise is either a kind of grandstanding (you could call it attempting to cling to the coattails of the Pankhursts perhaps) or (whisper it) perhaps a cynical attempt to recruit an extra 1.5 million voters with little life experience and, it is presumed, in the main quite left-wing ideals.

The problem is that these two groups busy trying to tamper with the franchise, at little personal cost to themselves, are trivialising it in the process. Voting seems trivial to them, because the outcome of general elections don’t change much for them. But regular adult voters, who pay tax or receive benefits, drive on the roads, have to navigate the healthcare etc etc, voting is one of the few real and substantive levers available to make a meaningful impact on the direction of the country. Extending the franchise to children too young to drive, to end their education legally or to live independently without their parents’ permission would confirm the already pervasive suspicion that no serious decision is ever put to the electorate in case they make the wrong choice. (The EU referendum is the single, wonderful, accidental exception to that rule, for which the political class will never forgive David Cameron.)

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote we have a chance to return politics to the people and away from the stifling consensus that has deadened political engagement since the end of the Cold War. As Sam Hooper puts it

for too long Britain has been run by cautious, unambitious identikit drones who nominally belong to Team Red or Team Blue but ultimately hold the same basic worldview and seek to inch us incrementally toward their shared vision of the future, without even thinking to meaningfully consult with the people or explain their actions.

The electorate rejected that consensus, decisively. In Robert Peston’s words, the electorate threw all the cards up in the air because it was our only chance to do so. We have a chance now to return democracy to something in which voters have an impact – an end to consensus politics, a chance to put all the options back on the table, to return to politics red in tooth and claw. But for that to happen, politics has to be the preserve of grownups. I don’t buy this idea that minors should have a say too, because they will live with the consequences longer. If that were the case, my 14-month-old toddler should also have a vote, and hers should count more than the teenager’s since after all she is going to live with the consequences longer. Right?

No. You have to draw a line, and anyone who has spent any time talking to 16-year-olds (the normal sort, not the sort that makes speeches at Labour Party conferences) knows that even 18 is pushing it and 16 is just silly. Unless, that is, you intend for voting to be a kind of decorative ritual on top of a technocratic politics that continues along the path its mandarins consider best regardless of which team is notionally in power. In that case, it makes very little difference whether teenagers vote or not, because it makes very little difference if any of us do. But if we want to preserve voting as something that can obtain a meaningful result, on topics that matter, it should not be the preserve of children.

Why have both left and right abandoned the working class? Simple – they don’t need them any more

In a Quillette article about universal basic income and the risk of tyranny, Shai Shapira makes a highly plausible case that political participation develops in direct proportion to the need a state has for its citizens:

We don’t have to go back to ancient history to see this trend – these days we have many countries in the world whose incomes are based on extracting resources from the ground, requiring little to no participation from the common people. Which countries are functioning democracies, and which are autocracies? The World Bank gives us a list of countries ordered by what percentage of their merchandise exports comes from fuels. At 50% or more we find, in this order: Iraq, Angola, Algeria, Brunei, Kuwait, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Oman, Norway, Colombia, Bolivia and Bahrain. Can we notice a trend? How many of these countries provide a good set of political rights for their citizens?

This should not be surprising. This pattern is not often discussed, as it conflicts the image we like to have of political rights as being the result of enlightenment and struggle, of the heroes of our past who overthrew despotic regimes and created a better world for everyone. But reality, unfortunately, seems more cynical than that. We do not get our rights because we deserve them, or even because we fight for them – we get our rights because the government needs us. It is a common hope that countries that escape poverty will move on to adopt democracy, and this indeed happened in some notable cases, like South Korea or Taiwan. But South Korea and Taiwan became rich from industry, which means their wealth came from the work of their citizens; meanwhile, Qatar or Angola became rich from natural resources, and their political situation became no better. A country that generates its wealth from its citizens has no choice but to keep those citizens happy, at least to some degree; a country that generates its wealth from oil wells, only needs to keep a handful of mercenaries happy as they guard the access to those wells.

The article is well worth a read. But for me it sparked off a connection with the strange phenomenon we live with nowadays, that of a Labour Party that gives voice to pretty much anyone except the labouring classes. Put simply, the working classes no longer have a major party giving them political representation because the state no longer needs them, and arguably has been working for some decades to ensure that continues to be the case.

Applying Shapira’s insights to the development of mass political participation in the UK, the hypothesis remains plausible. Despite some decades of suffragette agitation, it was not until 1918, when women began to be needed as participants in civic life to replace the men being shipped off to die en masse in the trenches of Europe, that the first women were enfranchised. What is less often remembered is that the same Act also enfranchised some 5 million non-property-owning men. The state needed these men and women – hey presto, improved political participation was the sweetener demanded by the masses in exchange.

Throughout the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries, the United Kingdom derived much of its wealth from manufacturing; the workers who staffed the factories were needed. The same period traces a trajectory of ever-growing mass political participation, and is often narrated as a moral development, a steady march towards enlightenment in the form of the universal franchise. But was it as much about the need to acknowledge reciprocity between the working masses and the political class? The extent to which workers were increasingly able to use the leverage their labour in industry collectively gave them, to demand political concessions from a previously patrician governing class, forms the history of the trade union movement and, from 1900 onwards, the Labour Party.

What followed from the end of World War II until the Winter of Discontent and subsequent election of Margaret Thatcher is, arguably, a tale of this leverage developing first into its strength, then beyond strength to complacency, hubris and stagnation. We all know the denouement, as rolling blackouts left swathes of the country reading by candlelight, rubbish lay uncollected in the streets and the Iron Lady declared ‘There is no alternative’ and deployed all the resources at her disposal to smash the unions. In her grim determination to rein in the unfettered power of trade unionism to bring the country to a standstill, she shuttered entire industries and impoverished vast swathes of the United Kingdom, changes still palpable (and, in parts of the country, unforgiven) today.

Thatcher moved deliberately to tilt the UK’s economy away from manufacturing and towards knowledge and services – notably financial services, the behemoth that now sits astride London, sucking in all cultural capital from the surrounding 300 miles as well as much of the world. That is, she restructured the entire British economy so that the state no longer needed the working classes as it had in the 19th and 20th centuries. Who knows whether she did this intentionally to reduce the workers’ leverage over the state, but that was the effect of the changes she wrought.

The consequence, nearly 40 years on from her first election victory, is that as the political classes’ dependence on a mass industrial workforce has waned, political parties on both left and right are increasingly indifferent to their needs.

Indeed, Tony Blair’s decision in 2004 to open the UK borders to Eastern European EU accession countries meant that the working classes were needed even less than before. Where, a century previously, the supply of labour was relatively static and if the state wanted to ask something significant of the working masses then political sweeteners were needed in exchange, now in the days of free movement it didn’t even matter if the indigenous working classes withheld their labour, as employers would just import replacements from the EU!

Thus was the bond of reciprocity broken between the state and the working classes. Commentators on both right and left now agree – as do the statistics and Labour’s own data – that Labour is now firmly a party of the middle class. Indeed, there is a distinct whiff around much of the left these days of disgust at the working class, as Brendan O’Neill never tires of pointing out.

It is no wonder that Labour ceased to see its role as representing the interests of those workers: they had nowhere else to go and would probably continue to vote Labour, so could be taken for granted. The result has been a hollowed-out Labour Party, reduced from a grand coalition of middle-class socialists and working-class firebrands to a kind of well-off clerisy, shy of talking about class but ever so keen to tell you what to think. Ultimately, it has led us to Jeremy Corbyn, a man who speaks entirely to and for the middle classes (free university tuition fees is the sort of outrageous middle-class bung that the Tories would be pilloried for) but does so in a strange, stylised parody of the 1970s, the last days of the trade union Raj.

The only difference between left and right on this front, today, is the consensus on how large the welfare-state bung should be to buy off now politically-irrelevant class. Stereotypically, the Conservatives believe the working masses should be handed free money, buck up, get jobs, pay taxes and become needed by the state so they can participate politically; this view is indifferent to any barriers to doing so. In contrast, Labour believes this class should be treated with patrician generosity, and handed as much free money as necessary to keep them quiescent. In practice, both sides operate the same welfare system, with minor tweaks at the edges blown up by the Westminster bubble into giant ideological differences.

So what is to become of the working masses now? What chance of reclaiming representation? Movements come and go that seek to represent working-class interests: Britain First, the EDL, the Football Lads’ Alliance. Such movements are generally demonised as ‘far-right’ by the chattering classes; and (with the exception of the mass working-class vote to leave the European Union) these movements are largely cultural rather than political, pushing back less against contemporary politics than incursions by foreigners, or political correctness, or other manifestations of the elite’s vision of the good life. If Shapira’s formulation holds good, the masses will have little success in reclaiming political representation until they are actually needed again by the state that governs them. And in a world of increasing robotisation which, instead, proposes to make an ever-greater proportion of the population unnecessary to a state’s prosperity, that seems a prospect both distant and, in its profound implications for the health of our democracy, deeply worrying.