May’s retail offer disappoints on all levels

Theresa May’s big conference announcement for the day was…wait for it…extra dosh for Help to Buy.

Great. Fantastic. Muted applause.

The announcement disappoints, on so many levels.

Level one: it’s a stupid policy that will make the situation it proposes to ameliorate worse. Why is there a crisis in the first place? Housing prices are too high. What happens when you increase demand (give more young people the means to buy) without increasing supply accordingly? Prices go up. It’s barely even a sticking plaster on an endemic problem that will take a degree of political boldness undetectable in this government.

Level two: it’s weak and calculating, and trying not to look that way. The Tories are in a bind, because no-one young votes Tory. To entice more young voters their way, they need to do something to help more young people become the property-owning middle classes that traditionally vote Tory. That means building enough houses to keep prices stable or encourage them to fall. But on the other hand, housebuilding on that scale will annoy the older people who like the countryside as it is, and who see the rising value of their home as a nest egg. These are people who already reliably vote Tory. So, May must choose whether to protect the interests of the Tories’ core vote or risk alienating this core vote in order to appeal to another demographic that may or may not be swayed by her efforts. She has tried to square this circle, with a policy that will enable more young people to get a toe on the housing ladder, while ignoring the need to increase supply; her policy will thus avoid too much desecration of the sacred Green Belt and continue to drive up house prices, hopefully keeping the core Tory vote on board. Everyone wins, right? Except it’s a stupid policy that just defers the fundamental problem, which is either too few houses or too many people. She must know well that this is the case but lacks the clout, the boldness or perhaps the vision to do more than paper over the cracks and try to keep these competing interests onside.

Level three, and fundamentally, this policy disappoints because it’s such a sad capitulation to the bland, vision-less, tinkering-with-the-dials modern politics of ‘me, me, me’. What will the government do for me? What about my interests? Sod the country, I’m voting for whoever has the best deal for me. Forget having a vision and trying to govern in the national interest. Forget trying to carry the people with you when you do so. Ignore the big questions, fiddle with this tax or that incentive, try and triangulate for as many selfish subsets of the demos as you can isolate.

Whatever what your views on Brexit, it is clear that many people voted Leave knowing full well it was likely to result in an economically bumpy ride but believing that leaving was in the national interest regardless. By and large it was a vote that rejected the selfish nest-feathering insularity of retail politics in favour of a bigger vision. In uncertain times, faced with many competing narratives to explain ever more unpredictable outcomes, the Brexit vote spoke of a people – 52% of them, anyway – looking for a politics that is more about vision than retail offers. Arguably the popularity of Corbyn’s unaffordable promises speaks to the same impulse. But has May sensed the national hunger for vision and boldness in politics? Has she fuck. After her disastrous attempt at grasping nettles in the national interest – the so-called ‘dementia tax’, a genuinely bold and progressive effort to stop kicking the pretty troubling can of elderly care down the road – she has retreated from the big picture into the horse-trading politics of buying off this or that demographic.

What the Conservatives need is a leader with the courage and vision to make a clear case for tackling the country’s vested interests and getting the political consent for this by inspiring political solidarity. In the case of housing that means getting the NIMBYs to accept that they have to choose between keeping their pretty view at the expense of a thriving community, or letting development happen so their children can afford to buy in the area. We need someone who can speak to the whole country and draw out a sense of solidarity, of being willing to compromise so that the country overall can thrive.

The Conservatives were once able to find the kind of language to capture that kind of purpose and collective endeavour. Sadly, though, Mrs May has shrunk from the task in hand and I don’t see any likely successor who strike me as more plausible. So instead we get a shit policy that aims to buy off one group while keeping another pacified. A policy, and a party, that utterly fails to meet the mood of the times but instead harks back to the selfish, narcissistic politics of the ‘End of History’ post-Cold War era. A policy and party that resolutely refuses to acknowledge the fact that history has come roaring back, and that our current elected representatives are painfully, woefully not up to the job of dealing with it.

Dear American friends: Don’t mistake Brexit for Anglo-Trumpism

Dear friends and associates across the pond.

I’ve noticed a great interest in Brexit among you in recent days. It’s a momentous event, so of course people who take an interest in current affairs should be interested. But it’s becoming evident to me from the tone of discussion, as well as in the articles that I see repeatedly shared as explanations of what is going on, that the subtext for at least some of your discussion is an attempt to read the tea leaves for your own presidential race, in particular where it concerns Trumpism.

I would like to suggest that Brexit is less useful as an analogy in this respect than might seem superficially the case. There are some commonalities, which I will discuss later, but at the risk of repaying your assumptions with some of my own about an American political context I am less than well-versed in I would like to suggest some of the ways in which the campaign for Britain to leave the EU emerges from and reflects a very different cultural and political context.

Argument

It is popular among the commentariat to characterise the vote for Brexit as an incoherent, logic-free howl of protest by ‘the left-behind’ against the elite. It is simply assumed that the EU is by definition a good thing, and that objections to it must therefore represent a nihilistic, under-educated anti-politics stance oriented more towards backlash than positive political change. It is hence less popular, at least among that substantial section of the media that is in favour of the EU, to explore the possibility that many of those objecting to the EU might actually have a case – let alone to explore what that case actually is.

The campaign for Britain to keep its distance from the European Union is as old as the European Union itself. Though it has often been painted as such by the prevailing consensus, it is not merely a hobby-horse for ideologues and eccentrics but (admittedly along with a share of eccentrics) a serious campaign with coherent arguments and a lengthy, thoughtful tradition, covering economic, cultural and constitutional issues. I will not attempt to sum these arguments up here, except to provide some links to places where the case is stated better than I could myself.

Brexit: The Movie is a 90-minute documentary created to put the case for leaving during the referendum campaign. It was crowdfunded and created outwith the official Vote Leave campaign by a coalition of long-term Brexit campaigners, and documents some of these well-established arguments for leaving the European Union. It makes the case for an open, globally-oriented free-market Britain trading not with the EU’s protectionist customs union but with the world as a whole.

Lexit: The Movie was less well-publicised, because created and released later in the campaign, but does a similar job reviewing and putting forward the left-wing case for leaving the European Union.

Elsewhere, this extended essay from the civil society think tank Civitas does a good job of setting out the history and development of the UK constitution, and the extent to which this settlement has been eroded by the radically different assumptions and priorities of the EU mode of government.

Finally, this campaign is not without proposals for the future. The long-running Brexit campaign has a well-developed proposal for a phased withdrawal from the institutions and acquis of the European Union – with the slightly ungainly name Flexcit –  that sets out a pragmatic, de-risked and market-oriented process that, far from being a grand rupture, would see a staged separation between the UK and the European Union that optimised stability and positive relations on all sides.

While I am here at risk of myself projecting my own assumptions onto a political context with which I am not deeply familiar, it is not my impression that Trumpism has any equivalent long-term campaigning history, core arguments, political objectives or worked strategy for getting there. If I am wrong I would be grateful to learn more from you all about how and in what ways.

History

It scarcely bears repeating, but the islands that make up the British Isles have an ambivalent history with the European continent that stretches back some 2,000 years. From the Roman conquest of England to the Anglo-Saxon invasions that drove the Celts into the hills of Wales and Scotland, to the Anglo-Saxon fight under Alfred against the counter-invasion from Scandinavia, to the Norman conquest that added a Scandinavian/French aristocratic superstructure to a Saxon peasantry. The incursions of the English Crown into France in the Middle Ages, the combative race against other European nations to colonise the world through the early modern period, and the eventual English defeat of Napoleon’s attempt at a unified Europe. And of course the role played by Britain in ending another attempt to create a unified Europe, a century later, in the carnage of World War II – a continent-wide catastrophe that itself forms the backdrop for the creation of the European Union.

This essay is not interested in passing moral judgement on the events and interactions that form this narrative. But it is clear that the history of British relations with the countries of Europe is a complex, sometimes explosive blend of cultural interchange, invasion and counter-invasion, intermarriage, interaction, intervention and immigration. The guilt-ridden post-colonial narrative of this being ‘a mongrel island’ comprising influences from all these pasts chooses to highlight the cultural interchanges that have shaped the British Isles but tends to omit the conflicts that annealed that shape. It is at best perversely ahistorical, if not downright irresponsible, to attempt to understand the British cultural reaction to the steady encroachment of European Union governance onto these islands without reference to this deep history of interchange and ambivalence.

(It should be emphasised of course that the UK is not unique in this deep history, though our position as both culturally interwoven with but geographically distinct from Europe does give our perspective a particular tilt. But the presence of equally complex stories in nations across the continent helps to account both for the elite enthusiasm for the European project, and also the ambivalence of many ordinary Europeans to the same project.)

Returning to our theme of parallels (or their lack) between Trumpism and the Brexit movement, I struggle to see how equivalent issues of deep history and cultural memory might inform Trumpism, though again I would be grateful to be corrected on this front.

What the EU actually is, does, and aims to achieve. (The democratic case.)

It is far from clear to me what impression Americans in general have of the European Union. Indeed it is far from clear to me that many in the United Kingdom have more than the most superficial understanding of its operations, ambitions or relation to individual member states. The popular perception among many who support it seems to me to be of a sort of benign superstructure that guarantees certain rights, in some indefinable way makes foreign holidays cheaper and which generally encourages everyone to travel and be nice to one another. The slightly more detailed view perceives it as a trading bloc, permitting tariff-free commerce and harmonising regulations across a continent in order to ensure prosperity and mutual benefit all round.

But one need only read the European treaties to realise that the EU is none of these things – or at least to describe the EU as any of those things is a little like holding an elephant by the tail and describing it as being somewhat like a pencil. As trenchantly set out by Ben Kelly, the EU is not just a trading bloc and was never intended to be a democracy. Its ambition is to become a single federal state, and the slow accretion of treaties pushes each time inexorably in this direction: extending beyond trade into justice, foreign policy, law enforcement and immigration with the Maastricht Treaty, expanding to new territories with the Treaty of Amsterdam, further geographical expansion with the Treaty of Nice and effectively introducing a state constitution by the back door with the Treaty of Lisbon. The Five Presidents’ Report, the 2015 white paper that sets out the broad objectives for the next EU treaty, proposes in the interests of saving the eurozone from further crises to introduce further integration in areas as diverse as banking, tax, social security, company law and property rights, and replacing individual nations’ representation in key international bodies with a single EU representative.

Each of these changes requires what is described in the EU as ‘pooling sovereignty’. This euphemism in fact means the surrender of key national competencies to the supranational jurisdiction of the EU Institutions.

By analogy, the formation of the European Union is equivalent to inviting the United States to support the creation of a Pan-American Union, with a parliament situated – say – in Mexico City, and a stated ambition of creating a federal Americas bringing together the entire continent. This political construct could then grant freedom of movement for all the peoples from Canada through the United States to the nations of South America, to live and work wherever they liked in the Americas. These nations could then begin the process of harmonising tax, labour, property, social security and criminal justice practices under a single system, and like the other member states the USA would be required to give up the supremacy of its Supreme Court for a Pan-American Court whose job would be to enforce the terms of the Pan-American Treaties and any laws or directives emanating from the government in Mexico City.

Should someone suggest such a project, it is likely that objections would be widespread in the USA. It is also unlikely that those doing the objecting would be solely dispossessed blue-collar Americans. Indeed, should an observer from another continent seek to present the project as wholly benign, and those objecting as the illiberal, under-educated, backward-looking losers of globalisation’s great leap forward, it is likely that the mildest possible response to this interpretation would be that it might be worth considering the situation from a few different perspectives before drawing this conclusion.

Common ground

Having said all of this, it cannot be denied that there is common ground between some aspects of the EU referendum moment and the rise of Trumpism. While the issues I have outlined briefly above represent a political and cultural context with (to my eye at least) no clear parallels across the Atlantic, it is also true that the long-running campaign to detach the UK from the European Union has been amplified by a growing gulf between the political elites that continue to drive European integration, and the populations of the countries they seek to integrate.

This has found its clearest outlet in protests against European freedom of movement, which for a minority has fanned the flames of xenophobia but which for many more represents a proxy issue for the loss of democratic control implied by ‘pooling sovereignty’,  as well as impacting materially on the earning capacity of those at the unskilled end of the labour market. Additionally it has raised questions of identity, belonging and cultural cohesion that the elites who benefit most from freedom of movement, wedded as they are to a decontextualised New Left model of identity, are simply without the conceptual framework to address. In this highly contested field of globalisation, international trade, migration, community and identity there may well be some parallels between the angry proletariat that has mobilised for Brexit, and the angry American proletariat mobilising for Trump.

In summary, then: the case for Brexit is complex, well-established and coherent and – whatever you think of its merits – should not be mistaken for Anglo-Trumpism. However this is not to say that the British Isles is not also experiencing a revolt similar to the one that has propelled Trump so far into the presidential race. That said, I would be cautious about extrapolating this common ground too far, beyond saying that globalisation is (to be trite) a global phenomenon and it is probable that the proletarian pushback against its downsides has only just begun. It is my view that the European Union is one of many ways in which the global political order has been steadily adjusted over the last five decades or so, in the interests of an elite that benefits hugely from globalisation while externalising its many downsides, and that this adjustment has occurred in many ways at the expense of popular sovereignty. Those in countries with a tradition of democracy, but without any recourse to the corridors of power other than their vote, are rapidly waking up to the attenuation of that vote and are beginning to clamour for their franchise back. This is likely to lead to further upsets over the coming years.

 

On the ‘liberal EU dream’ and the ungrateful working class

The working classes of Europe are right to resist the demise of the nation state.

Rafael Behr writes in today’s Guardian that right-wing ‘populism’ is threatening the ‘liberal dream’ of the EU.

Behr’s article is striking in the accuracy of his observations and misguidedness of the conclusions he draws from those observations. One paragraph in particular stood out:

The case for keeping Britain in Europe has always been hampered by its reliance on abstract liberalism and historical romanticism: extolling openness and continental engagement as emblems of a modern, self-confident nation; recalling the founding purpose of the EU as the elimination of nationalism by blurring borders; rejecting Euroscepticism as a form of reactionary cultural protectionism, coloured at the fringes by outright xenophobia. Those were never easy arguments to configure as campaign themes with mass appeal. But what pro-Europeans now confront is something altogether more challenging, not just to the practical pursuit of their cause but to its very premise. There is still a liberal case for integration with the rest of Europe, but it gets progressively harder to make when so many countries in the rest of Europe seem to be turning their backs on liberalism.

So, then, there is nothing wrong with the idea of ‘blurring borders’ in the interests of ‘eliminating nationalism’ – even though he concedes that the average thicko is unlikely to be enthused by the prospect. The only problem, he concludes, is that blurring borders has become rather less appealing now that it means trying to integrate with all those nasty racists – sorry, nationalists – running rampant throughout the EU.

Indeed the entire article radiates the fundamental assumption that nationalism is, ipso facto, a Bad Thing. But this assumption, rooted in Europe’s decades-long post-WWII trauma fugue, has gone unchallenged for too long. Certainly history shows us nationalism can have some ugly consequences; but in large part the revived enthusiasm of Europe’s’little people’ for nationalism is not driven by a desire to find scapegoats, justify pogroms or generally hate on ‘bloody foreigners’. Rather, it is fuelled at base by the instinctive realisation that without some form of nationalism, there can be no nation-state; without the nation-state there can be no democracy; and without democracy, the little people get shafted, again and again.

The liberal dream of destroying nationalism has, in effect, worked to undermine the main bulwark ordinary people have had against the relentless march of globalisation: the sense that, by joining their voices as ‘The People’ to whom a government is accountable, they could ensure their interests remained in consideration. But one of the most significant trends of the twentieth century has seen national sovereignty inexorably nibbled away, whether by international regulatory bodies, trade agreements or the move towards EU federalisation. And with each reduction in the power and manoeuvrability of sovereign democratic states, the people to whom those states are accountable have lost power in turn. And as the power of electorates has ebbed away, so too has the power of each sovereign state to protect its ‘little people’ against the more predatory edges of globalisation.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the disjunction between the views of working-class people to the prospect of mass immigration, and the attitude of the middle and upper classes to the same phenomenon. The former group sees wages stagnate and living standards slump as competition for low-skilled jobs gets hotter and hotter. The latter, meanwhile, enjoys the benefits of price competition in the market for nannies and plumbers, not to mention the pleasant effect of housing scarcity on the value of their homes, all set off by a pleasant frisson of righteousness as they condemn the narrow-mindedness of the lumpenproletariat.

This class division is borne out by the data: a report published  today by europhile think-tank Chatham House shows that lower socioeconomic class and education is a strong predictor of euroscepticism. Now, you could read that as a contemptuous write-off of Brexiteers as ageing, ignorant thickos; or you could begin to ask yourself why the poorer, older and less educated don’t feel the ‘liberal dream’ of EU federalism is working in their interests. Could it be less because they are old, thick or poor and more because of an instinctive recognition that the aims of the EU are against the interests of the working-class populations of nations across the EU?

Rafael Behr may sign wistfully at the high-flown ‘liberal’ ideals that inspired the European project, and look askance at the under-educated, vulgar little xenophobes that challenge its legitimacy and belief system. He may grumble about the waning attractiveness of a federal EU clearly inhabited by groups of proles all of whom are every bit as resistant to mass immigration and the end of nation states as those awful Sun readers in the UK. But in lamenting the return of nationalism he has missed the inextricable connections between patriotism, belonging, democracy and a working class that wields some measure of power in the direction of politics.

The dying of the nation state throws the working class to the wolves of globalisation. Resisting this is not xenophobic, but thanks to the blindness of bien-pensants like Behr it has been left to the xenophobes for too long.

On the Front National, and EU populism

So Marine le Pen’s Front National has won one in three regional elections in the first round. This reflects a trend across Europe. Populist parties on both the right and the left are on the rise and have been for some time. There are a number of contributing factors, but the main impetus is a sort of inarticulate protest by people who feel ‘left behind’ by globalisation, at the ways in which globalisation is negatively impacting their lives. Things like mass migration, outsourcing of blue-collar jobs, weakening of nation states in favour of regulation at the global level, the widening gap between rich and poor in many countries, the tottering state of social democracy as the welfare state Ponzi scheme starts to come unstuck.

For most people, the willingness to see globalised consumer capitalism as a Ponzi scheme is inversely proportional to how much you expect to gain from the system. That is to say, the more you are likely to get out of how things are, the less likely you are to see anything wrong with it. That’s just human nature. The elites trying to merge the EU as a superstate have everything to gain from continuing as they are; the 50% of Spanish youth consigned to long-term joblessness may take a different view.

There’s also a conflict between the elite view of communities, which sees them as random groupings of people within a specific geography, and that of most ordinary people who experience a nation or their own community as bound by ties of culture, tradition, interpersonal relations and shared practices. That leads to a situation where those in power think nothing of importing a million people from elsewhere – because we’re short of workers and the birth rate is low, so why not? – and those on the ground who feel anxious and threatened by the sudden arrival of large numbers of people with whom they have no shared bonds of family relation, cultural practice or often even language. Then the latter view is demonised, again by the elites, as uneducated, ignorant, bigoted, racist when in fact it’s quite rational on its own terms.

The reaction of many is to look nostalgically backwards to a time when everything was peachy (Even if that time never actually existed) and then to try and reverse-engineer the imagined conditions of that time. This doesn’t work: conservatism after the fact is always doomed. But there’s a real problem brewing in the failure of the elites driving (and benefiting from) globalisation to hear the objections coming from the masses. Ultimately refusal by the ruling class to accommodate the concerns of the people results in civil unrest and even revolution. We’re not quite there yet but the widespread nature of public unhappiness with the direction of travel is very worrying.

Globalisation is happening, whether we like it or not. But what we need is an open discussion about the best forms of social organisation to handle that, and to ensure the interests of ordinary people are taken into account given the huge impersonal forces of global change we face today. The elite viewpoint is that nation states are an obstacle to ‘development’, focusing as they do on the interests of a geography rather than transnational changes or agreements. This underlies the current trend toward neutering and even trying to dismantle nation states; popular resistance to it is demonised as ‘populism’ or ‘racism’, a narrow-minded, uneducated fixation on one nation as opposed to global concerns. But to me, from the point of view of the little guy, dismantling nation states is a major problem. Nation states define a community of interest based in a particular geography; without that definition, how can we have a meaningful electorate, voting for any but the vaguest policies? And without an electorate or proper policies, how can we have any kind of meaningful democracy? The utopian vision of world government looks downright creepy and totalitarian to me, and I’d prefer to keep things a bit messier and small-scale.

I will be very surprised if Le Pen gets anywhere near actual government, at least this time round. But the anti-politics, anti-globalisation, populist trend is there across Europe. Pankaj Mishra argues, in a related theme, that the rise of ISIS is part of the same trend. Though I have concerns about the way these issues get dumbed down into ‘bloody foreigners’ or ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ I think they have a voice that needs to be heard, as they point to a debate that is not being had and whose suppression will result in far worse unrest than we’ve seen yet.

Reading today: overproduction of US elites, the ‘global Calais’, scientific motherhood

Peter Turchin, writing in Bloomberg View, blames rich, overeducated elites for the modern fraying of American society.

Pankaj Mishra argues in The Guardian that ISIS is less an ideology competing with Enlightenment values than a byproduct of the thwarted global desire for convergence with the peace and material comfort visible in the West.

Graeme Wood in The Atlantic writes on what ISIS really wants.

Charlotte Faircloth writes in Sociological Research on the scientisation of motherhood and the use of ‘The Science’ as an accountability strategy for mothers.

The refugee crisis looks quite different if you’re not a beneficiary of globalisation

I’m watching with interest the disparity between the way the migrant/refugee crisis is reported in mainstream media, and the way it’s reported online.

TV and papers shows the volumes of people moving, and depending on which paper you read either huge-eyed children and frail old people or else menacing-looking clusters of young men. The narrative is about resources, political debates within the EU about how to handle the crisis, or about which East European nation is the latest to close its borders.

The internet shows videos of rubbish-strewn campgrounds, refugees torching their tents in anger (say the memes) at being denied this or that, riots in German towns and furious meetings of villagers who have just learned that hundreds of strangers are about to be billeted on them.

I’m not linking to articles or posts because my aim here isn’t to join one side or the other, but to think a bit about what the disparity between them means. The elites – and by that I mean the wealthy, well-travelled, well-educated, internationalist net beneficiaries of globalisation – see  the refugee crisis as an issue of resources and, perhaps, of an ethical stance. A huge influx of people from a non-European culture is seen as a matter of resources and, in the long run, as a benefit to a Europe where birthrates are declining. They will work, earn, pay taxes – what’s the issue? There is also, perhaps more tacitly, a feeling among many that this influx will benefit those recalcitrant patches that still cling stubbornly to cultural homogeneity.

But globalisation has losers as well as winners. Ordinary people, getting by in ordinary jobs, some of which have been outsourced or offshored or rendered obsolete by robots, and for whom ‘a long way away’ is four hours’ drive, not four hours’ flight. The people who see their national flag as a source of pride, and whose identity is found in family, cultural traditions, belonging to a place, and not – as with the winners – a smorgasbord of international tastes, traditions, cultures and practices from which one can pick and choose while flicking through the FT in the BA lounge on the way to the next meeting.

I’m being a bit reductive here, but you get the idea. The former thinks globalisation is great, and isn’t that bothered about the refugee crisis except as a humanitarian disaster about which ‘we should do more’. The latter, when it thinks about globalisation at all, thinks it’s all out of their hands and all the money is going to the billionaires so we’ll just keep getting by, won’t we? And when presented with the outcome of the refugee crisis, namely large numbers of people arriving in their neighbourhoods who look and sound very different, the reaction of this second group is less humanitarian than outraged. Because these new arrivals might be the victims of war and privation and months of misery trudging through Eastern Europe, but now they’re in our town they’re competing with us for resources, funding, space and ownership of the local cultural norms. And we were here first! goes the cry.

Globalisation produces winners and losers. To the winners, the refugee crisis is about logistics, about doing the right thing, perhaps about loosening the bonds of cultural homogeneity. To the losers, it’s about being swamped. And neither side is able to see the others’ perspective with any empathy. It’s either ‘those self-righteous wankers who live in white neighbourhoods and don’t see them raping our women’ or else it’s ‘those knuckle-dragging racists who bring shame on my country with their vile hatred and backward xenophobia’. And meanwhile, the cold, hungry, miserable – and unmistakeably very, very foreign – refugees keep pouring into Central Europe.

To quote Creedence Clearwater, I see a bad moon rising.