Saturday, 26 November 2011

broken record

Disagreement up on Mount Olympus. The £1bn found behind the sofa cushions to subsidise employers who recruit young people does kind of put the lie to the position hitherto occupied by the Coalition: that 'the jobs are out there' and the fault's with the unemployed. In fact this means that the government are taking a more nuanced position than the notoriously biased taxpayer-hating BBC, whose recent interventions on the subject of unemployment were enough to make you nostalgic for the days when the issue was a media blind spot.

First there was John Humphrys, given an hour-long programme to explain his Parsonsian theory about the decline of the Decent Working Class. He began by telling us that, in his youth, there had only been one deadbeat dad in Splott, and that he'd been looked down on by the entire neighbourhood (a stark contrast with the modern era, when those on benefits are venerated as national heroes.) In his spirited campaign to revive working-class shame, Humphrys did briefly entertain the radical idea that the unemployment figures there (as high as 24%) might be due to the state of the job market, but such outlandish notions were put to rest by a visit to the local jobcentre, where he found 'friendly staff' and '1,600 jobs'. At this point he went back to collecting anecdotes from curtain-twitchers, while viewers struggled to digest the inferred conclusion that Cardiff (plus the surrounding areas) has a population of just over 6,400. Patient examination here, if you're inclined.

Next, safely ringfenced away on BBC3, a panel discussion-cum-reality show called 'Up For Hire', which put four young jobseekers through a variety of employment-rated challenges while discussing the issues around the subject with guests and a live audience. The show's remit was very limited. It illustrated perfectly how insubstantial the discussion of unemployment becomes when anything political is pre-emptively taken off the agenda. So we talked about things like how young people might need to adopt more creative jobhunting strategies, like walking around town with a sandwich board, without stopping to consider why this was being reported as a quirky That's Life! human interest story rather than a sombre indictment of our entire economic and political system. The show boiled down to the same hilariously point-missing question posed over and over again: 'there are 2.5m unemployed - what are they all doing wrong?'

The programme's studio guests - mostly celebrities and business owners - weren't short of suggestions on this.* Footage of one of the contestants overreacting to some negative feedback in a challenge was spun into a ten-minute collective philippic on how thin-skinned and coddled young people were today, and how they all needed to toughen up, face reality, and so forth. From laziness to scruffy appearance to lack of imagination, everyone wanted to pitch in with their incredible one-shot diagnosis of youth unemployment (based of course solely on their small sack of personal anecdotes - cf Kaplan, 'someone who has actually been there'). One point everyone agreed on is that 'graduates shouldn't expect to walk into a job' - a neat piece of ideological sleight of hand, that, evoking as it does arrogance, entitlement, whereas in fact (for graduates and non-graduates alike) it's surely not so unreasonable to expect to have some decent chance of finding work.

As it happened, the young people (contestants and audience members) all seemed rather bright, articulate and well-adjusted, with no particuar illusions about their prospects. At one point (with the discussion focussing on preciousness, and how young people were unwilling to get their hands dirty in 'real' jobs), the visiting celebrities regaled us with tales of they'd all worked briefly in low pay/service sector jobs before striking it rich, and the panel all reached the consensus that kids should take any job they can and work their way up to something better. A sharp malcontent in the audience leaned forward and asked 'but how long are you supposed to stay in that job if nothing better comes along?' The panel stuttered along the lines of 'well, er, forever' before the host quickly moved the discussion on. A simple realistic counter-factual question was enough to derail the magical voluntarist received wisdom.

If the young people acquitted themselves well, the same couldn't always be said of the guests, whose purported expertise and insight looked distinctly tired and threadbare. Worst of all was Katie from 'The Apprentice', who boomed out unpopular populist talking points ('media studies is a waste of time... if you went to a polytechnic, blow yourself up') like a drunken relative at Christmas dinner, while the audience cringed and shuffled their feet. That particular line of argument - that the problem is airy-fairy education which should be tailored to be more directly relevant to employers - is another one that's gaining traction. We can only dream of a world in where the reverse was true.

What's increasingly clear is that magical voluntarism is the only game in town. The ever-windy CBI's best idea on the economy is to strip away employee protection - or, as the only slightly insane Evening Standard poll had it, 'should it be made easier for firms to sack people to help tackle joblessness?' Of course, if employers want to take on conveniently disposable staff without employment protection, they could just hire agency temps, but never mind. Everyone enjoys a race to the bottom.

The Institute of Economic Affairs, meanwhile, suggest 'suspending' the minimum wage; in fact, between apprenticeships (£2.60ph, impossible for anyone not living with very tolerant parents, with no guarantees at the end), the ever-more-compulsory internships, and the looming encroachment of workfare, everything we do seems to be based on the possibility of getting everyone doing a day's work for considerably less than a day's pay. The Citizens UK Living Wage campaign itself, which seemed to be making some tentative progress into the mainstream, has disappeared into the long grass.

The government staunchly deny the existence of the working poor; confronted with the statistics, they preach that the solution is to 'make work pay', something achieved not (as a foolish man might assume) by increasing wages, but by capping benefits. The vultures are circling around tax credits. Household incomes are falling for most, while managerial and boardroom posts remain untroubled by austerity. The Tories, who are imposing their policies on the basis that we must tackle our deficit, have admitted that they may not be able to reduce the deficit after all.

If you see anyone out on the streets, mind, they're just protesting for protest's sake. Back to you, Dermot.

*A fine example of the species is the role model Philip Green, who decided to share his pearls of wisdom on youth unemployment on the same day that he threw a few hundred young people on the dole. Unfair to blame him personally, perhaps. But it follows that if we praise these men for 'creating' jobs in more favourable times (as if employing someone was ever a selfless act), we can also blame them for 'destroying' those jobs later on.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Beckhamology AND Beckhamonomy

(extract from p177 of The Received Wisdom Book of Modern British History, HarperCollins, 2010.)

Monday, 3 October 2011

tighten your belt and consume

Please tell me more about this opportunity!

Oh thank goodness. There is an alternative after all. The alternative to hunkered-down, ostensibly contrite, faux-prudent survival capitalism is... a return to unfettered speculative consumer capitalism. The alternative to moralising neo-Victorian priggishness is... complete embrace of anything you want, right now, because you're worth it. No need to feel guilty!

Remarkably strident in the circumstances - practically cheering individuals and businesses into taking unsustainable risks that will likely lead to nothing but personal debt and bankruptcies. Because, let's not kid ourselves, even when the money starts moving again, it isn't going to trickle down. When you've jettisoned politics - given up on the possibility of any kind of structural change - this is what you're reduced to. The way to be a hero and save our economy is to BUY STUFF.

It's a neat illustration of the awkwardness of the current neoliberal position. The crash of 2008 required a public display of financial discipline and condemnation of irresponsible consumer borrowing - but the problem with the nostalgic Make Do and Keep Calm for Victory rhetoric is that (real) thrift and prudence are inimical to the interests of capitalism. The Tories in particular were always more comfortable as the party of boom and bust - maybe, based on this, we'll see a movement within the party to return to those good old days?

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Clampdown - postscript

The cargo cult of popular opinion.

Johnny Marbles agreed to take part in a BBC Radio phone-in last week. Almost all of the callers were furiously angry and chided him for bullying a helpless old man and/or interrupting the sacrosanct proceedings of the mother of all parliaments. Lots of callers insisted on treating him as if he'd carried a deadly weapon rather than a foam pie (because it could have been a gun, or bomb - a whole metaphysical maze there). "The security guards should have been armed, and they should have shot you". One caller began "Now, I don't agree with the things Rupert Murdoch did, whatever they were..."

After JM had left the programme, one last caller said that throwing a foam pie into Rupert Murdoch's face was disrespectful to the family of Milly Dowler.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Some top-class 'comment'.

Inverted commas used there to imply chuckling dismissal of the notion that there was ever such a thing as a working class. Surely they were just a myth invented by governesses to frighten children?

As Daniel Barrow observed, "It probably seems fairly obvious to those involved in the riots that they exist in a particular relation to the means of production, e.g. having to sell their labour in an open market (& getting nowhere). The fact that the media don't seem to get that seems pretty symptomatic to me."

But, yeah, correcting the rioters on their social self-construction is absolutely the right move to make right now. Everything'll flow from the use of the correct nomenclature (handed down by approved media outlets, naturally).

Stupid Tyrone, though - if only he was proper working class (respectable, unionised, and employed in a production job), he'd be out of poverty in no time. He's only got himself to blame.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

(working for the) Clampdown

Fearsome stuff from the letters page of Britain's most discarded newspaper.

We're all tired of it, it's not a big story, and it would have been perfectly okay if Milly Dowler and those servicemen's families and the other people had all been paedophiles, wouldn't it, eh? Didn't think of that, did you?

(The Metro would of course be carrying page upon page of in-depth, carefully-researched coverage of the East African famine if only if it didn't have to keep up with ridiculous fripperies like phone hacking.)

Sunday, 5 June 2011


The crab begins to change into a new sort of creature, one that exists to serve the parasite. It can no longer do the things that would get in the way of Sacculina’s growth. It stops moulting and growing, which would funnel energy away from the parasite. Crabs can typically escape from predators by severing a claw and regrowing it later on. Crabs carrying Sacculina can lose a claw, but can’t grow a new one in its place. And while other crabs mate and produce a new generation, parasitised crabs simply go on eating and eating.

Carl Zimmer, 'Parasite Rex'

Inviting a Big Oil executive to determine the future of this country’s higher education produced the unsurprising recommendation of the elimination of public funding and introduction of market-based solutions. The Browne Report itself was a cocktail of smooth-flowing bromides about choice and quality, notably unburdened by specifics, and taking a relaxed approach to accepted academic practice on selection of evidence and other such piffling issues. The Cable-Willetts axis disappointed Browne by not implementing his plan in its totality - they approved the complete removal of the central teaching grant in non-STEM subjects, but opted to introduce a fees cap of £9,000 rather than leave institutions completely free to set their own levels.

As is so often the case, those who celebrate liberalising market reforms show a curious reluctance to push them to their logical conclusions; Browne may have been displeased by the government’s timidity regarding the fee cap, but his own commitment was less than total. If, after all, the market could be relied upon to preserve high-quality education, there would be no need to ringfence STEM subjects; doing so was a tacit admission that the plans would have a detrimental effect on unprotected subject areas. As it had no real fidelity to principle, and wouldn’t even save money (more on which later), it’s hard under the circumstances to conclude that Browne was anything but a blatant and cynical attempt to reshape the British university, and turn it into a ‘new sort of creature‘.

The promise of providing better funding to universities was dubious even at the report stage. The cost of the 80% HEFCE cut would be balanced if universities charged around £6,000 per year; a small increase in income could only be obtained by charging £7,000 or more. Whereabouts would universities set their fees? Cable concluded that the (itself fearsomely high) level of £7,500 per year would be ‘economically rational‘, and suggested that "students will search for value for money and compare the offers of different universities." What actually took place (as Tom O’Shea observed) was an instructive lesson in economics: when market protections were removed, the outcome was not fair competition driving down prices in the consumers’ interests, but a cartel tacitly agreeing to charge as near to the maximum fee as their reputations would allow. Your town’s Russell Group university would charge £9,000 - the local ex-polytechnic would ‘compete’ by charging £8,500.

If Cable and Willetts were surprised, they were the only ones. The removal of HEFCE grants for non-STEM subjects meant that institutions were faced with an enormous funding gap. Vice-Chancellors up and down the country - already accustomed to chopping ‘unproductive’ departments to pay for management consultants and sundry bed-feathering - immediately realised that even balancing the books would now require them to ramp up their money-extraction programmes. Were these men ever going to diffidently demur at an opportunity to put the screws to their students? With Higher Education holed and taking on water, it was no surprise to see the usual collection of superfluities rushing the lifeboats, and never mind the women and children (squint and you can see Billy Zane pushing through the crowd, clutching a bundle of MBA courses - ‘Let me on board! I’m all she has!’).

The fig leaf of social-liberal cover on all of this, much cited by Liberal Democrats, was the two-tiered nature of the cap. There is a ‘soft cap’ at £6k, which universities have to seek permission and meet certain conditions to exceed, before the absolute cap at £9k. The requirement for universities to apply for permission to set top-level fees, for all the oxygen wasted on the subject by Cable, turned out to be a formality. Universities intending to exceed the soft cap have to get a go-ahead from the Office of Fair Access, who evaluate the application based on the institution’s performance on access targets, and make recommendations for changes if necessary.

The central role that OFFA were to play in the fee-setting process evidently came as a surprise to them. Browne was probably surprised too - elsewhere in his report, he’d recommended that OFFA be abolished and its functions absorbed into a new ’streamlined’ body, the Higher Education Council. OFFA, it should be noted at this point, is a micro-department which (at the time the reforms were announced) had a total staff of five, headed by a former vice-chancellor. The universities were so intimidated by this imposing body that most casually flouted the April 1st deadline for returning their applications. Once the size of their task dawned on them, OFFA tried to put a brave face on things, and hurriedly hired two more staff to chip in with the pile of late applications.

The actual sanctions available to OFFA are nebulous. Universities who fail to meet OFFA’s access guidelines are obliged to spend 30% of their over-£6000 fee intake on improving access arrangements. Institutions who are in line with their targets make a smaller contribution. This is all very nice, but you’d hope that someone along the chain of command would have realised that it simply gives failing institutions another incentive to ramp up their fees to offset these ‘losses’. What’s more, the definition of ‘access improvement activity’ used is very broad - advice and information services to schools count, for example. There are no binding requirements for failing institutions to meet any kind of target for actually admitting disadvantaged students. Sending out leaflets and prospectuses - activities most universities would be carrying out in any case - simply gets moved under a different heading in the accounts.

The IFS (that respected and august body of hard-headed thinkers, who peculiarly morph into a bunch of irrelevant academic cloudcuckoolanders when their conclusions no longer mesh with Coalition policy) calculated that, for all the noise made about ’access’, the poorest 30% of students will be worse off under the new HE system. OFFA's own website bashfully admits that, over their history, they have completely failed to improve university access for the poorest 10% of the population*. If that was OFFA’s success rate pre-Browne, what kind of results can we expect when they’re overworked and overloaded too? The closest thing to an idea to bring in more students from low income families was the idea of letting rich candidates buy places at universities, which would allegedly open up more places for poor students to attempt to earn. The ‘concessions’ wrung out by the Liberal Democrats evaporate in strong sunlight; the contemptible bad faith and pathetic self-regard of those Lib Dems who abstained from the parliamentary vote make an excellent precis of that party’s entire character and philosophy in government.

Rolling Nick Clegg in front of the cameras to point out that the system was ‘free at point of use’ was an insult; the same term could equally accurately describe your kneecap-breaking neighbourhood loan shark. Perhaps the Coalition genuinely believe that today’s youth are a generation of temporal orphans with no grasp of the passage of time, or of the concept that there may be consequences of their actions. The fact that young people may be concerned precisely about their futures and the impact of debt on their later lives apparently didn’t occur to anyone; all the more surprising seeing as this is a Government which never misses an opportunity to remind us that we risk burdening our children with debt if the deficit is left unaddressed.

As long as we mention deficits and red ink, would the Browne reforms at least cut Government spending? In short (taking into account a little balance-sheet juggling) : no. From the point of view of immediate expenditure, reforms are counter-productive. The loans are subsidised by the taxpayer ‘at point of use’, so don‘t save money in the short term - the higher the fees go, the more money is spent right now. Browne naturally envisaged the loans paying for themselves in the long term once the repayments start, but of course his team’s calculations were based on institutions charging low average fees. The IFS predicted that if every institution charged the maximum fee, something like three quarters of graduates would fail to repay them before the thirty-year amnesty. At a fleeting glance, a student loan looks like a good investment for the lender - that initial £27k could bring home over £80k if the graduate pays it back slowly over the maximum period of time. If three in four graduates default on their debt, suddenly it looks about as shrewd an investment vehicle as a US subprime mortgage circa August 2006. What’s more, if defaults become widespread, we may see pressure for the kind of federal loan-underwriting legislation that was passed by the Bush administration in the US - next time, it could be organisations dealing in SLABS (Student Loan Asset Backed Securities) that are ‘too big to fail’.

These thoughts - combined with the indications that young people (rational economic agents that they are) will simply opt out of higher education rather than continue to pay through the nose for uncertain rewards - do eventually seem to have permeated at least one of Willetts’s brains. He has conceded that upfront savings brought about by the Browne plan look set to be smaller than he expected. Naturally, he blamed the vice-chancellors for setting their fees so irrationally high, and threatened that he would be forced to make cuts in ‘other areas’ (presumably to the teaching grants in hitherto protected subjects) unless the vice-chancellors agreed among themselves to charge lower rates and thus attract more students. But you can’t expect that kind of enlightened collective action in a market of competing individuals. Not for the first time, you wonder whether we’re being ruled by sinister conspirators or by utterly inept charlatans who don’t stop to consider any of the logical consequences of their actions.

The media, as in 1997, have largely missed the point. Back then, the introduction of tuition fees sparked far more of a furore than the simultaneous abolition of the student maintenance grant, which would have by far the greater impact on the sector and on the lives of students. Last year, the liberal broadsheets wrung their hands at the vast increase in the individual costs of going to university, while directing relatively little attention to the removal of almost all central funding for Higher Education in Britain. Plenty of columnists wanted to agonise about the ‘hard choices’ that faced their sons and daughters as they considered HE; nobody seemed to want to examine exactly what shape HE will have taken by that time. Our crusading liberal media only seem interested in the individual as consumer; Browne himself would applaud.

We’re already getting an impression of the impact the Browne reforms will have in the long term. Like the poor sacculina-infested crabs, schools are shedding limbs with no prospect of ever being able to grow them back. London Met, an institution which has some of the best rates of low-income engagement in the country, might expect to be rewarded for their commitment to ‘access’ - instead, management are cutting 70% of courses off the books, including virtually the entire humanities department. Keele has joined Middlesex in dropping philosophy entirely; Glasgow has made cuts across the board including seemingly ‘productive’ and vocational courses like Nursing and Social Work. Strathclyde is the clearest example yet of the metamorphosis most universities will experience. If you have reached the conclusion that all of this is somehow good for education in this country, perhaps you ought to go back and re-examine your premises - it certainly buries the notion that Browne will give consumer-students more choice. Future employability, and the endlessly-cited competition with China and India, will become the sole factor that determines the future of courses, and of institutions. As always, the changes are justified with reference to some alleged customer demand: UCL’s occupation, expressing solidarity with their threatened teaching staff, made an elegant statement of principle that undercut this at a stroke: ‘we refuse to be divided from our lecturers and treated as disgruntled consumers.’ Education is not a market. Students and staff know this, even if managers and policymakers don't.

Embracing complete liberalisation might distribute rewards effectively in some abstract economic model, where the field is level at the start; otherwise it merely tends to entrench privilege. Without a central teaching grant, and with the majority of prospective students strangely unwilling to mortgage themselves up the eyeballs, the only institutions that will be able to afford to teach the humanities are those where the born-wealthy cluster. The public-school 7% are already hugely over-represented in law, journalism, publishing, the media, and, especially insultingly, politics. Those Delingpoles who will claim that this is due to their intrinsically superior abilities might do well to consider that in the areas of human endeavour that rely more heavily on pure talent - hard science and sport, for instance - there is no such overrepresentation. Browne’s decision to retain STEM funding can be decoded into ‘best keep a few of the snivelling proles around for the difficult jobs; otherwise, they can go fuck themselves.’

Strangely, enough, the seemingly hopeless lack of prospects faced by our youth may lead to more throwing economic self-interest to the wind and studying the subjects they’re interested in. This determination is to be applauded; it’s unfortunate that it will only serve to prop up a rotten structure. I still believe that imaginative organised protest can reverse at least some of what's happening and give us an NHS-style 'pause for thought': in the long run, though, I’m increasingly settled on the belief that the future of comprehensive higher education lies outside the current institutions. I’ll direct readers to the debate on the 'Proletarian University' over at Infinite Thought last winter, to isolated green shoots like the Really Free School, and to the manifesto of the ROU.

UPDATE: Come one, come all, to the NCH. This is what humanities teaching looks like in our brave new world.

Eventually there'll be a post along these lines dealing with Further Education, where many of the same themes will recur.

*At this point you may want to go and watch the old Armando Iannucci sketch about pole vaulters. 'Hello, we're OFFA, and our only job is to widen access to higher education.'

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Ship of Theseus FC

Owen turned out a great chapter on Milton Keynes – its strange car-crash of signals and associations, its uniquely (for Britain) schizophrenic soul caught between ‘its utopian promises and its bland, kitsch Thatcherite reality.’ In New Ruins, he tries to reclaim the 'old new town', the planned, rational metropolis of the future, from its later peculiar adoption as 'city of the eighties', with all the dispiriting implications that might suggest.

One consequence of this trend at the time was that MK always seemed to be mooted as a ‘deserving’ location for a professional football club. At the time, football was at the nadir of its media popularity, struggling with its first period of New Realism. Always-‘inevitable’ mergers (Fulham Park Rangers, Thames Valley Royals) and closures were mooted in all of the old footballing centres, at least when assorted Conservative MPs weren’t angrily suggesting shutting football down altogether. The unpleasantly tinged notion that London in particular had ‘too many football clubs’, and that there was dead wood that deserved to be removed, was a frequently aired notion entirely in synch with the spirit of the times.

I mention all of this (believe it or not) in the context of Saturday’s Conference playoff final game between Luton and AFC Wimbledon. It’s another car-crash of associations. Not least because, among the many brainwaves that realistic businessmen came up with in the Eighties, any club based in a cramped city-centre ground within a fifty-mile radius of Milton Keynes could expect to be associated with a move there. The one that came closest to getting off the ground was… Luton.

(WSC – October 1986)

The difficulty identified by successive owners is that Kenilworth Road is landlocked - wedged awkwardly into the end of a street of redbrick terraces, with no room for expansion. The land is even now, post-recession, being eyed up by assorted local property dealers. It still has old-fashioned skeleton floodlights (so that there’s no need to ask for directions from the train station, despite the shortest route to the ground having been obliterated by a ring road and shopping centre in the Seventies) and from the outside seems to be constructed mainly of plywood and portakabins. It’s a nostalgic world far removed from the pedestrian-hostile new stadiums inhabited by clubs like Reading, imperiously disassociating themselves from the communities that made them.

Ground moves have always been mooted by Luton’s owners: David Kohler dazzled the press with talk of a ‘Kohlerdome’, then walked out of the club (leaving a financial mess) when he couldn’t get planning permission for his project. Luton struggled with an initial points deduction for entering administration, and two years later dropped out of the League after being given a 30-point cumulative penalty for re-entering administration and making improper payments. The unprecedented scale of the second deduction effectively made it a punitive relegation. As it happened, Luton were one of the stronger teams in the division, and some talked optimistically about achieving the 75 or 80 points they would have needed to avoid relegation. It didn’t happen, of course; heads dropped on and off the pitch.

So it’s possible to have a fair amount of sympathy for Luton, expelled from the League as a result of official greed and boardroom gerrymandering rather than events on the field. If only they were playing any other team they’d have my wholehearted support on Saturday. But their opponents are AFC Wimbledon - a team who can tell an even better hard-luck story. Luton may not have a League club nowadays... but Milton Keynes does. For all of the enthusiasm about American sports ideas that possessed this country in the 1980s (I’m just about old enough to remember C4’s deathly serious attempt to launch gridiron as a mainstream sport), the first franchising of an English football club didn’t take place until 2002.

I’m sure you’ve heard all of this before. It bears repeating. Wimbledon FC, deeply unfashionable and homeless for the better part of a decade, were finally relegated from the Premier League in 2000. At this point attendances slumped and the major shareholders began to make noises about the club's unprofitability (with then-chairman Sam Hammam suggesting relocations to ‘deserving’ communities in Dublin, Cardiff, Outer Mongolia, etc, before selling up and leaving with a cool £30 million in pocket). A music business promoter corralled a group of investors and PR men into presenting Milton Keynes as the club’s natural home. New chairman Charles Koppel, eager to be shot of the drain on his investment portfolio, quickly signed up.

The Football League initially rejected the proposal out of hand. Koppel appealed on the grounds that it should at least be given a fair hearing and treated seriously. An arbitration panel upheld this objection, so the Football League Board reversed its earlier decision, appointing a three-man Commission to examine the issues properly and make the judgement. Raj Parker (a lawyer known for representing corporate clients in commercial dispute resolution, previously employed by the FA in the aftermath of Hillsborough), Steve Stride (then a director at Aston Villa), and Alan Turvey (chairman of the Isthmian League, also at the time sitting on the FA Council) reached a majority verdict approving the move.

Time has not been particularly kind to the justifications rolled out in the accompanying Report. Primarily, the Commission were at pains to point out that the circumstances were unique and their decision was not intended to be a far-reaching precedent.

108: We do not wish to see clubs attempting to circumvent the pyramid structure by ditching their communities and metamorphosising in new, more attractive areas. Nor do we wish, more than any football authorities or supporters, for franchise football to arrive on these shores. We believe that giving WFC permission in this exceptional case will have neither of these consequences.

They were proved right, here; there hasn’t been a rush to franchised football in England. I’d like to say that was due to the huge amounts of criticism the MK move attracted, but let’s not overestimate how much attention the powers that be pay to that type of thing. What the lack of a slippery-slope effect proves is not that their pleas of unique exceptionalism were sincere, but that their concerns over the financial circumstances (and the viability of football in Merton) were either wild and hysterical or simply perjurious. Claiming that something is on the brink of collapse unless your particular flavour of reform is immediately steamrollered through is a very old politicians’ trick.

110: Mr Koppel has made it clear to us and publicly that WFC is committed to taking practical steps in relation to transport and maintaining WFC’s identity… it is committed to its name, ‘Wimbledon FC‘, its colours, its traditions. It is committed to retaining its identity.

The Report is cluttered with assurances about the preservation of Wimbledon’s identity and traditions. Koppel and Winkelman both explicitly vowed to keep the association with the Plough Lane club, and the Commission suggested that the FL take a very strong approach to enforcing these promises. Understandable; keeping the name and colours intact was the most obvious defence against accusations of introducing franchised football. Three seasons later, Milton Keynes Dons were playing in white shirts with a different club badge - it’s now probably fair to say that very young MK fans have no idea that their club was once based in South London. Those involved would probably defend themselves on the grounds that the fortuitous rise of AFC absolved them of any responsibility of conservation. Bullshit, of course. The fact that the old identity was dropped with such unseemly haste makes one wonder whether that wasn’t their intention all along, just as soon as they could reasonably get away with it. Attempting to pass the buck to AFC is disingenuous; a more recent squabble over the old club’s museum and trophy cabinet shows that MK do not in practice accept AFC as the true inheritors.

116: There is no doubt that WFC has got to its current league position through sporting merit and achievement, in accordance with the fundamental principles of the pyramid structure. In the event that WFC were to go into liquidation, player registration would revert to the Football League and another club, most probably Brentford FC, would take WFC’s place in Division One for next season, not on its own sporting merit but as a result of WFC’s predicament.

Well - the whole point is that the league and non-league pyramid is a codified expression of sporting merit. Promoting Brentford (the highest placed non-promoted club in the division below) could arguably have been seen as granting them an undeserved boon. On the other hand, Brentford and the long queue of clubs behind them all had far more claim on the grounds of ‘sporting merit’ than any newly formed club (which, as I hope we’ve established, MKD were always intended to be). Brentford moving up to the second tier, Dagenham & Redbridge brought into the League; football has survived bigger shakeups.

127: The interests of the fans are important, But the interests of most WFC fans would not necessarily be served by a decision which results in the liquidation of Wimbledon FC.
128: Furthermore, resurrecting the club from its ashes as, say, ‘Wimbledon Town‘, is, with respect to those supporters who would rather that happened so that they could go back to their position the club started in 113 years ago, not in the wider interests of football.

Except that the decision did result in the termination of Wimbledon FC. And the awarding of their place in the league to another club. How any of this served the interests of Wimbledon’s fans escapes me. At least paragraph 128 acknowledges a truth that the Board and Commission doubtless found unpalatable: that Wimbledon emerged from non-league and climbed the pyramid on merit. The route up through the divisions that was dismissed as ‘tortuous’, that Milton Keynes were so graciously spared, is a route that Wimbledon have now negotiated not once but twice. The fact that anybody involved with this decision can use the phrase ‘sporting merit’ without immediately bursting into flame is an argument that Richard Dawkins may want to consider adopting.

119: The current outlook for many clubs in Divisions 1, 2, and 3 of the Football League is distinctly bleak. They are caught in a player wages spiral that seems to be out of control. As we decide this case football league clubs are going into administration. The collapse of ITV digital and the drying up of the transfer market have contributed to the crisis. In the current financial climate, professional clubs need to encourage investors.
120: We believe that in the current financial climate the football authorities need to apply a flexible and supportive approach to the financial plight of clubs. To facilitate financial success, stability and development it is necessary to take a flexible and progressive view of policy considerations and apply them to the currently bleak financial world the clubs inhabit.

‘Encourage’ here used in the sense of ‘abandon all other concerns and kowtow to’. But seriously, folks. You can begin to approach sympathy for the decision makers when you reflect that their deliberations were made in the aftermath of the ITV digital collapse and ensuing panic. Yet - here we stand, with the Football League in rude 92-club health, even when the outside world has dropped into a major recession. 20:20 hindsight, perhaps, but it does rather make them look like short-sighted carpetbaggers lacking either the desire or the capacity to make reasoned judgements.

Finally, some further extracts of the report that are pure neoliberal realism. Further comment on these is fairly unnecessary.

109: We do not believe, with all due respect, that the Club’s links to the community around the Plough Lane site or in Merton are so profound, or the roots go so deep, that they will not survive a necessary transplant to ensure WFC’s survival.
111: We believe that it can be fairly stated that finding WFC a home in MK will add considerable value to a large community starved of First Division football.
118: Milton Keynes provides a suitable and deserving opportunity in is own right where none exists in South London.

Does the fact that Wimbledon were in a two-year attendance slump (fairly understandably, given their continuing lack of a home ground and the heroically delayed relegation) really mean that they forfeited their right to exist? Who makes the decisions about how ‘suitable’ or ‘deserving’ a particular club or town is? Congratulations: now you’re doing politics. Sport is seldom just sport.

MK Dons have established themselves as a steady third-tier club with a tidy stadium and a respectable (if inch-deep) support. It’s more than many older clubs can say for themselves, but hardly the glorious future that the likes of Winkelman would have conceived in 2001-2. The immodest bid to host World Cup games in 2018 illustrated the gulf between MK’s aspirations and their present quotidian reality. AFC Wimbledon, meanwhile, are one of the current success stories of non-League football, but they’re still travelling to their ’home’ games halfway across South London, as has been the case since 1991.

AFC's presence in the League would be a permanent and salutary reminder that football’s authorities cannot be trusted with major decisions; that their judgement is unreliable and their much-vaunted ‘business acumen’ is wrong far more often than right. The AFC Fans Trust has been able to run a successful club in circumstances that were dismissed as impossible. If don't particularly care about football and have bravely slogged through all of this, there's your payoff.

C’mon you Dons.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

radicals by default

A belated plug for the excellent Non-Stop Inertia. There are so many uncomfortable aspects of modern work and non-work that mainstream criticism and analysis have between them agreed to ignore; the only problem I have with Ivor's book is that someone didn't write it earlier.

Hard to pick a teaser quote, but I went for a section at the end that pulls back from the immediacies of precarious life ('like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube at gunpoint') and fills in some of the context.

Their generation has watched the social infrastructure they painstakingly helped to build being dismantled and sold off, while at the same time having to rescue their offspring who cannot get an economic foothold. Even in our mid to late thirties, my partner and I are always chronically financially insecure, always on the verge of packing up and moving back to our parental homes.

Bringing up a family on a modest income, improvising and making do, work was then a source of pride and stability, a solid base upon which to build. Now, for us, the pressure of precarity demands a new sort of virtuosity and a different outlook. I am aware that by now I have probably already worked in more different jobs (although that word tends to glorify most of these activities) than both my parents put together. Work is no longer a secure base, but rather a source of anxiety and indignity, both a matter of life and death and utterly meaningless, overwhelming and yet so insubstantial it could run through our fingers. It is normal to feel under threat and undervalued, to feel snivellingly grateful for having a job, any job. We must be sure not to take work for granted and yet be willing to be taken for granted ourselves. We endure a similar level of ‘making do’, but without the home or kids, and without the security of regular employment. We can barely live independently now. How will we be able to bring up children, or support them in similar circumstances? The future is no longer something to look forward to, but something to dread.

Again, from my family I inherited no world-shaking political beliefs, just a desire to be part of a community, to do a useful job which was not driven by private profit and to cultivate outside interests rather than be defined by a 24/7 career. Such an attitude, far from being revolutionary, used to be the norm, even a non-attitude. But now the tide has come in, and anyone with such eccentric ideas finds themselves stranded way out to sea on a sandbank with the waves lapping at their feet and the vultures circling above. By maintaining the same moderate position we have become radicals by default.

Radicalised by default, yes: something that's going to happen more and more often as the political and economic goalposts are shifted. The issue that got me back into active actually-doing-things politics was the (prophetic) Save Middlesex Philosophy campaign; abstractly, the principle that non-vocational subjects should be available at non-elite universities. Twenty, even ten, years ago the question would never even have been framed.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

I Specialise in Revenge (II)

Overheard the sounds of horses' hooves, people fighting for their lives... / My brother was still watching me, back in the days of ‘83 / By 1985, I was as cold as cold can be, but no-one’s underground to dig me out and set me free...
- All from ‘Last Day of the Miners’ Strike’

Russell Senior may have been a flying picket, but Jarvis’s main experiences with miners involved them kicking the shit out of him outside nightclubs. Working class solidarity all too often carries with it an instinctive distrust of outsiders - you can sympathise with Jarvis, who was obviously too caught up in smaller, personal struggles, to get involved in a class war (more thoughts on this subject here). His streak of determined individualism was heroic in its way, but as time went on, he seemed to regret not showing more solidarity. Later on Jarvis would speak ruefully about how growing up in the sixties and seventies made him believe in better futures, the gleaming promise of modernism (‘we’d all be living in space‘), and how he had to watch this promise snuffed out, post-78, and replaced with a universal cynicism and deflation. The evidence of later lyrics suggests that he came to feel haunted by his own inaction at the time - how can an individual fight a class war, anyway?

Fast-forward twelve years, and four songs into ’Different Class’, we find surely the greatest class-related song in Pulp’s discography: ‘I-Spy’. This is a song about sexual conquest, to begin with (‘Just another song about single mothers and sex’ as Jarvis would later spit), but using that as a window to a world of more interesting tensions and energies than the mere thrill of sleeping with another man’s wife. It is that, to be sure, but what else?

In today’s world, structures of power are decentralised, and responsibility is diffused (defused) into faceless hierarchies. Managers, politicians, and other ostensible authority figures are all too quick to remind us how their hands are tied, how little real responsibility they have - they’re victims just like the rest of us. What kind of war can be fought by an individual against such systems? Who can Cocker blame for the death of better worlds? Yet the system that goes to great lengths to spread an attitude of corporate irresponsibility (it’s everyone’s fault, it’s no-one’s fault in particular, it‘s no-one‘s fault at all) is the same one that has dumped all of the troubles of human existence (poverty, unemployment, illness) on the shoulders of the individual, as their responsibility and their own fault.

But if no particular individual chose, deliberately, to destroy the lives of (for example) a generation of miners, this doesn’t mean that nobody bears responsibility. Cocker reaches the same conclusion as the terrorist groups of the last century - where the head of the structure is unreachable, fight your war against those individuals who (actively or passively) collude with it. Knowing culpability is not necessary, or even particularly relevant. How can one man fight a system? By inflicting suffering on collaborators - Cocker will channel his resentment and direct his campaign of sexual terrorism at one more or less blameless bourgeois couple. He is as careless and indiscriminate as the forces he has opposed himself to - it’s self-evidently unfair, but like policies of affirmative action, it’s unfairness being deployed to counteract an existing, wider, injustice. The couple don’t even need to be Tory hardliners - in fact, it works better if they’re assumed to be Concerned Liberals.

If you’re reading this, you have presumably heard the song many times - the stirring movie-theme arrangement, Cocker’s entirely believable delivery (even where the language verges on the absurd, as with his poker-faced recital of adolescent triumphs), all chosen to remind us that, like the victim, we should take him very seriously indeed. ‘I will get my satisfaction,’ he vows. ‘I will blow your paradise away.’

Fifteen years later, this phrase has an additional resonance - today, for better or worse, the word ‘paradise’ mostly comes up in the context of Islamic terrorism. Even in 1995, the explicit violence of the threat was jarring. What does it mean to blow someone’s paradise away? We might think of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine - raging on his deathbed at the intangible, unaccountable forces that have struck him down, threatening to ‘march against the powers of heaven / and set black streamers in the firmament / to signify the slaughter of the gods.’

The paradise at stake here is a smaller, meaner one - the paradise of James Dean posters, endowment plans, and figurines, or schools near the top of the league, as disgustedly mapped by Cocker in various songs - all in a world that has long since ‘drowned the heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour… in the icy water of egotistical calculation’. The nausea and anxiety this world seems to inspire in Cocker is well documented, but here the fear is balled up and turned into anger. We are left to reflect on the image of some cluttered estate agent’s dream home, in some super-gentrified exurban Avalon, being obliterated in a firestorm - and this is before it gets really venomous.

The idea that this a tale of straightforward revenge-through-sex is belied by the lyrical content - the female of the couple is mentioned in one verse, and addressed in only a couple of lines. The sexual attraction may be genuine - Ladbroke Grove looks and all that - but his concern for her is limited. He feels moved at one point to show something resembling contrition (‘It’s not a case of woman v man’), and that’s as far as the conversation goes. It’s nothing personal - just business.

Here there’s an echo of the most famous self-created avatar of vengeance in literature - Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo. At one point the Count finds himself begged by his old lover to end his near-demented, decades-planned campaign of retribution, for the sake of his love for her. He is torn - the only time the implacable Count’s mask slips - but anguishedly agrees to end the vendetta. All we can conclude here is that Jarvis is far more dedicated to his purpose, and would never let any personal feelings get in the way of his operation.

Nothing personal… just business…

Jarvis always had a talent for spitting his adversaries’ words back in their faces (best seen in later solo effort ‘Cunts Are Still Running The World’). Early in I-Spy, he whispers ‘I don’t do these things for real; I do these things just so I survive’. Partly a ghost of an apology to the used lover - mostly a mocking echo of the words his target might use to excuse himself of any blame, if he were only given the chance. ‘Look, we’re good people underneath, we don’t really believe in any of this’ - the victims are people who keep the appropriate ironic distance from the implications of their actions. It’s the disavowal required to operate in a rotten system, and Cocker viciously taunts them for it. This, above all, is why the song makes most sense directed at people who are, at least in theory, progressives. If this distaste was still more or less inchoate in 1995, it had crystallised by the time of ‘Cocaine Socialism’ three years later (‘You owe it to yourself/ Don’t think of anybody else’).

At the crucial point in the song, as the music drops away and Jarvis gloats in his half-second of triumph, he uses the same technique again. ‘I can’t help it - I was dragged up…’ he sneers, slipping into cartoonish proleface, a caricature of some mindlessly hostile estate dweller - ‘take your year in Provence, and shove it up your ass!’ But if the intricacy of Cocker’s scheme belies his victim’s casually contemptuous views of the urban poor (‘Your minds are just the same as mine’), the sheer vindictive glee of the delivery reminds us that, as well as being a rhetorical ploy, the bluntly hostile car parks / birds monologue is also true. The views Cocker has arrived at through his long campaign of studying and planning happen to coincide with the unthinking knee-jerk reaction the victim might have expected. Cocker has, by the most circuitous route, reached a concord with his own class.

Toward the end of the song, following his not-quite-apology to his lover, Jarvis solemnly informs her that ‘it’s more a case of haves against haven’ts - and I just happen to have got what you need’. Deliciously, for once in the whole setup, Jarvis is the ‘have’ - he possesses the commodity in demand (in this case, his well-rehearsed ‘second-hand excuse for technique’), and, as any good laissez-faire economic liberal knows, the market must not be interfered with. We can imagine him cackling over his defeated victim - ‘Come on, what’s wrong with you? Up your game! You could be where I am if you only aspired a bit fucking harder!’

How can one individual make a difference? By turning himself into a vengeful revenant, dragging the Last Men back into history one at a time, reminding them that scores remain unsettled, that we’re not all middle class now. If we concede that it’s not going to achieve anything constructive in the long run, surely none of us could begrudge the man his satisfaction.


For more of the same, only better, why not buy Owen Hatherley’s forthcoming book ‘Uncommon’?

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The politics of gloss, post-gloss

If those GDP numbers don't pick up in the next quarter, it's going to be a lot more than a winter of discontent.

For almost fifteen years, growth was New Labour’s great alibi. As long as the economy kept expanding (even if the expansion was largely powered by dubious speculation and borrowing) then all boats would rise, and there would be no need to resort to divisively old-fashioned policies of redistribution. Now that growth has ground to a halt, and looks a dicey prospect for the future in general, light-touch neoliberalism is going to have a difficult time living up to its billing. Its justifications - hollow even in the good times, but I’ll get to that - begin to look as cheap and flakey as its architecture. The Coalition’s scrabble in the bins for a political discourse based on austerity nostalgia and vindictive dogwhistling shows how difficult it is write a persuasive pitch under the circumstances. Does anyone, anywhere still believe that we live under the best (or least bad) of all political systems?

It’s at times like this - when ordinary people can no longer expect to have the occasional sticking-plaster policy like tax credits thrown in their direction - that they begin to question why even the country’s party of organised labour have no plan to reduce the greatest gap between rich and poor since the period between the wars. They start to ask awkward but fundamental questions about where the wealth is, who controls its flow, and what criteria are used to decide these things. All the governing Coalition care to offer in response is to plead national togetherness and stage a lavish Royal wedding (showing, touchingly, that love can cross class boundaries, down as far as those who are mere millionaires).

Robert Peston, currently a BBC business correspondent, wrote a timely book on this general theme called ‘Who Runs Britain?’* Its writing and publication coincided almost exactly with the crash and the bailout. Peston spends the entire introduction to the book talking about his background, presumably to reassure readers that he’s making his arguments as a credible grown-up authority and not some typical loony lefty. ‘My teenage conviction that it is always in the national interest for the gap between rich and poor to be reduced was wrong,’ ‘I gradually came to see that much of what Margaret Thatcher did was necessary,’ and so on. Yet the book is generally critical of lax regulation and the maniacally blinkered short-termist mindset of those making the big decisions in the financial sector.

Peston was on television recently in a spot about China’s economy, mentioning in passing that China was responsible for almost all of the global net reduction in poverty that had occurred over the last twenty years. This doesn’t necessarily say a great deal about social justice in China - eliminating rural serfdom, perhaps, the necessary first steps to building a modern industrial economy - but it’s an arresting statistic all the same. It can hardly be denied that the West’s neoliberal policies, even before the crash, were completely unsuccessful at addressing the interests of those at the bottom of the ladder. The trickle down was marginal and irregular - sometimes enough to distract, never enough to make a real impact on the poverty figures. The story of all benefiting from growth amounted to a vague promise of jam tomorrow. Certainly there was no point at which policymakers and grandees would pause and say ‘Okay, guys, that’s more than enough wealth for us - now let’s find out how we can make it trickle down faster.’

The irrational notion that it’ll all come good, eventually, has survived the crisis. The belief held by most of the Opposition and the critical media is that the problems of the financial crisis were ones of excess, soon fixed by a few legislative tweaks and a tightening of regulation. But the crisis wasn’t an event of an exceptional nature - it was an entirely in keeping with the philosophies and practices of the financial sector, and the economic policies of successive governments. Talking about ratcheting up powers of scrutiny is a mistake on more than one level - a categorical error, obviously, as our problem is qualitative rather than quantitative. It’s also a tactical mistake, because it lets the objects of this scrutiny indulge their Randroid fantasies about their incredible talents being strangled by a cabal of resentful bureaucrats.

If the standard line of opposition is weak and counterproductive, it’s a blood-soaked revolutionary cull compared to the attitude adopted by the Coalition in power. Last week, the news broke that that the level of money coming from the City into CCHQ has doubled during Cameron’s leadership, and now makes up 50% of party funding. So, back in 2008, faced with several unpalatable choices, the last government chose probably the least objectionable - opening huge lines of public credit to reinvigorate the financial sector’s shrivelled self-confidence. The recipients of this aid showed their deep gratitude by taking their newly liquid assets and investing them with a party who might find ways to be even more intensely relaxed toward them.

One night have expected Cameron, PR-savvy as he is, to make at least a show of clamping down on the banks for some cheap political capital. In fact (assuming we can dismiss the one-off, much-downsized £2.5bn levy) they’ve carefully steered in the opposite direction. The campaigns for Tobin or Robin Hood taxes - backed by assorted Serious Figures, not just the great unwashed - have been studiously ignored*. Remuneration and bonuses are back at the pre-2007 levels. Corporation taxes are being lowered, and tax laws amended to enable ‘large financial services companies’ with operations overseas to pay less tax here. The last measure in particular has to be read as a brazen, unapologetic fuck you to the UK Uncut movement and its relatives. It’s pretty clear that the financial sector is exception to the general rule of shared austerity - ostensibly so they can apply their talents and get the economy growing again. It’s more likely they’ll drive it into a big fucking wall a few more times first, but even when the glorious day comes, all involved have been careful to make it clear that we shouldn’t expect the rewards to be shared around.

With the figleaf of collective progress long since blown away, we get to see what kind of society we’ve really built. All that three decades of neoliberal supremacy have achieved is to concentrate more wealth in fewer hands, and rearrange society so that it presents as few obstacles as possible to the lives of those fortunate individuals. Our policies have made us (on one measure, anyway) less socially progressive than a country ranked 136th in the EIU’s Democracy Index. Of all nations, it had to be China, whose much-vaunted economic success shows that there’s no necessary antagonism between a powerful State apparatus and an acceptance of free-market principles. But then it was never the existence of a large state per se that our neoliberals despised. It was just our, particular, Western state edifices, born out of the postwar social democratic compromise, that had to be painted as the enemy and ruthlessly destroyed. They were never aiming for complete deconstruction, some abstract Hayekian ideal of perfect market freedom - certain functions of the state (authoritarian ones, in particular) were not realistically going to be dispensed with.

China has been the spectre haunting industry in the West for some time - it’s in the name of ‘competing internationally’ (ie with emerging economies) that we held back wages, cut corners, decimated workforces, and embraced the just-in-time precarious approach to manufacturing. With countries like India and China now producing a supply of highly-qualified graduates, the same rhetoric of global competition has been deployed to justify the marketisation if higher education. Next, I can only presume we’ll be attempting to compete with these countries by filing away at standards of living and basic democratic rights - what use is democracy, after all, if worrying about ordinary people holds back the economy? From a certain point of view, these things are luxuries, or weaknesses. The priority given economic performance above all else exists already - many writers have observed that the Coalition rhetoric of ‘there is no alternative’ is an attempt to sidestep politics entirely. Certainly, when you’re attempting to force down a dose of IMF-style medicine - whose glorious results can be seen in Latvia, Greece, and Ireland - it helps not to have to worry about a popular mandate. Then you’re free to bend the entire resources of your nation to ensuring that the people at the top of the pyramid scheme get their returns.

To have to drop even the pretence of fidelity to the principles of liberty and democracy wouldn’t be such a terrible chore for our leaders. For some time now, the role of the Home Secretary has been to compete with his Shadow to see who can profess the most hostile stance toward immigrants. Those unrepentant souls who dare to use what’s left of the benefits system can expect to be put to work, even if it’s busywork conducted for the sole purpose of balming the perpetually wounded psyches of passing commuters. You could go on - heavy handed police tactics at demonstrations, ‘human rights’ becoming an expression most commonly followed with an ejection of saliva - but the best illustration is our foreign policy. The international reaction to events in Egypt showed us how surprisingly ambivalent democratically elected leaders can be when it comes to other people expressing the desire to choose their own representatives and take part in the workings of government. There were many reasons to cheer the ‘Glory of Tahrir’ - the infectious energy, the sheer indefatigable lust for liberation that refused to be beaten down or intimidated, was one; the explosion of the usual deflationary faux-wisdom from expert onlookers was another. One to savour above the others - and one that’ll stay with us however this revolution turns out - is that it exposed certain of our leaders (who might in private moments have considered themselves champions of global democracy) as the irrelevant, corrupt hypocrites they are.

When men like Blair and Berlusconi threw extravagant praise at their braid-chested friend Hosni Mubarrak, it was because, more than anything, they envied him. These men never really liked to think of themselves as elected public servants. Instead they were Presidents, Statesmen, reshaping not only their own parties but entire political establishments, societies, in all cases investing more power at the top. All they ever wanted was a chance, like Hosni, to demonstrate their strength, courage, and far-sighted wisdom free of pesky democratic fetters. After all, what right did impudent journalists, child-like voters, or deluded leftist dinosaurs have to question their great works? And if, as a side enterprise to their tireless efforts, they wanted to make themselves as rich as Croesius and as powerful as God, that was no concern of ours. These men never gave the impression of caring a great deal about the desires of their electorate, and Cameron (though a less effective figure) is cut from the same cloth - pushing his agenda forward on all fronts at breakneck speed, despite having failed to persuade even a majority of the public to vote against their own interests and place their trust in him.

There is a certain grim humour in watching the blithely confident Coalition struggle with reality - Gove’s humiliation on school-building, the State Department worrying that Cameron and Osborne are ‘lightweight’, the endless weary rebukes from volunteer leaders. They’re the leaders nobody would choose to handle a crisis - to echo my rhetorical question at the start of this post, does anyone believe that George Osborne is one of the top ten (hundred, thousand, ten thousand) economics brains in the country? These are the last dregs of neoliberal politics, the crew left behind to go down with the ship. The struggle will continue after they’re gone - capitalism will remain, just forced to drop its latest human mask and reveal itself. If the response to crisis across the board is to take certain measures out of the remit of democracy, it’s not so implausible that we could shift gears into some kind of authoritarian, oligarch-friendly hypercapitalism - perhaps conducted under the auspices of democracy, perhaps not. As Peston himself so delicately puts it on his BBC minisite: “Reconciling our political traditions with the imperative of making safe the globalised world will be a challenge, to put it mildly.” If we can’t articulate a more appealing future than that, we might as well pack up the tents.

  1. In fact it feels like Peston tried to redirect the book halfway through, when events caught up with him - from a fairly standard investigative journalist piece about hedge funds and high earners to a blame-throwing Cassandra act. Publishing gold!
  2. Even set at the meek, cheese-paring rate of 0.005%, Tobin would bring in 2-3bn per year, and has the added advantage of removing the incentive for some of the riskier speculative transactions. It is so unrevolutionary that Nicolas Sarkozy is an enthusiastic fan.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Various forms of passion

Most Britons are good, conscientious people - content to live together in peace and the pursuit of happiness. But there are groups living among us who don't share those values. They make no contribution and play no part in wider society. They speak their own languages, live in sealed communities - hothouses for extremist thought - and wall themselves off from contact from outsiders. They declare themselves hostile to the majority of people in this country, and openly call for violence against their enemies. Most shockingly of all, in the name of 'liberalism'(!) , they look for ways to twist the legal system in their favour, and scheme to inflict their warped values on the rest of us. While tolerance is an admirable quality, we must surely accept that it has limits, and that any sensible country would have rooted these people out long ago.

I refer, of course, to think tanks.

Paul Mason's sharp, much-linked piece on the Newsnight website considered one reason for the wave of dissent to be the complete language and values disconnect between ordinary people and the Westminster Village - "I'm finding it common among non-politicos these days that whenever you mention the "Big Society" there's a shrug and a suppressed laugh - yet if you move into the warren of thinktanks around Westminster, it's treated deadly seriously." Disjunctions between politics and wider reality aren't a new phenomenon, but a Government like ours (hardly of-the-people), and its attendant policy shops, seem to revel in the division, positively gleeful that they don't share the same empirical reality as the rest of us.

Tory think tanks - driven by a characteristic combination of cloistered ignorance and batshit ideological fervour - have always been the experts at considering the unspeakable and presenting it as common sense. Here you can find the ever-popular Policy Exchange conduct a rational, calm, and proportionate discussion in which they compare anti-cuts protesters to the IRA, and conclude that the Met Firearms and Headbangers Club have been far too tolerant and need to take a considerably more physical line against street protests.

Assorted Tory figures have taken the same tack - endorsing water cannons because the protesters "need a good wash" (total projection, as Dom Fox observes), cheering the use of CS spray* on people pushing leaflets through doors, and so on. The police have contributed their tuppenceworth too - from Hugh Orde's comments about those pesky trespassers who go into Boots without intending to buy anything, to Paul Stephenson's completely feasible and not-at-all panicked threat back in December to ban protest marches entirely.

Among the recommendations of the PE is that kettling 'be retained at all costs'. Ah, kettling. The Spectre of Hillsborough itself. For anyone watching the government and senior police going into full-blown frothing authoritarian heat, it's a flashback to the football crowd control policies in the 1980s. You've got the casual dehumanisation of those in the crowd. The sense of collective responsibility (one person throws a missile, you can all expect a baton charge). For the BBC's 'tough' attempt to exculpate the authorities of any responsibility for Jody McIntyre's treatment ("were you wheeling yourself toward the police?" - one of the most contemptible and pathetic things I have ever heard on television), read the questions asked of bereaved relatives among the cooling bodies of the dead in Sheffield ("so, your husband... he liked a drink, didn't he?). The CPE's considered reponse to the McIntyre incident was to declare that he should have stayed away from the protest altogether. The message is that if you go to one of these demonstrations, you're fair game, and anything that happens is on your head. And for the proposal to ban protest demonstrations entirely, we have an analogue in the final, draconian scheme to introduce ID cards, which would by implication have criminalised all football supporters, as well as killing off casual attendance at a stroke and smothering football's revival before it had even started.

Football survived - just a few years after Hillsborough, MPs who had seen football as a 'law and order issue' were seen fishing for votes by ostentatiously attending games (in suspiciously pristine-looking scarves). I think that whatever strongarm measures are wheeled out against us, and whichever Tory blowhards denounce us over the airwaves, we have real cause for optimism. Just like football, the anti-cuts movement is profoundly popular (even polls in Tory tabloids reveal that the majority have sympathy), and the harder the authorities crack down on it, the worse they will look in the long run. Does anyone really believe that our movement isn't going to outlast this Coalition? The only question is how many of us are going to be injured or imprisoned before then.


Much as we're all enjoying this new wave of unrest, and looking forward to the start of the kettling season and the chance to quote some Lacan with our fellow hipsters, we must remember that the bread-and-butter work of the left goes on. Uncannily enough, the very morning that the world heard David Cameron loudly denounce the 'failed experiment of multiculturalism', the English Defence League were staging a rally in Luton.

More careful analysis of Cameron's speech can be found elsewhere. The first thing that struck me is that, if moderate Muslims (as suggested) must take responsibility for policing their own communities, it follows that if any terrorist attacks do take place, all Muslims bear some of the blame. For the PM to make a statement along these lines on the day of an anti-Muslim march** (sample chant: 'burn down mosques' - also on Youtube, if you're not squeamish) is astonishing. The League predictably leapt on the publicity, declaring that the government had 'come round to their way of thinking'. This kind of political maneouvring is normally referred to as 'dogwhistling'. Can it still be called that if it's brazenly apparent to everyone's ears? The speech had no other substantive content (as far as I am aware, the previous government offered no special suicide-bomber grants).

Most of the speakers at the Luton UAF counter-demo eschewed peace-and-harmony platitudes for a more militant tone. The union reps in particular took pains to link this blatant attempt to create divisions among ordinary people with the wider programme of cuts - much better to draw attention to the brown people taking your jobs and/or benefits than for anyone to address the real causes of our recession. Gathering in one place to be kettled by a (proportionally) heavier police presence than the League felt as futile as ever, but at least the sentiments were right.

I'm sure Cameron's speech was very carefully vetted by Party apparatchiks - I'm sure it has tactical value and will win a few votes among closet racists and the they've-banned-Christmas crowd. Nowadays, though, even the Government's friends in the media can't offer them unqualified support. Even the Mail condemned the forestry sell-off, and even the likes of the Spectator expressed their 'concern' over the economic contraction (the US economy managed to grow despite much of the country enjoying the worst winter in living memory).

As Armando Iannucci quipped, they're dogmatists disguised as pragmatists
- except the disguise is increasingly frayed, and the dogma is one supported by blind faith alone. Tch, eh?

Meanwhile, here's Michael Gove falling over.

  1. The fact that the officer concerned managed to catch himself in the blast is one of those lovely cosmic twists that give atheists momentary pause. The family of officer CW2440 are presumably very grateful he wasn't in Armed Response.
  2. Originally the League were only opposed to extremist Islam, but that distinction seems to have gotten lost behind the proverbial sofa cushions. Frankly I doubt that the average League member could tell a fundamentalist from a normal Muslim, or even from a Hindu or Sikh, without the aid of a map - and probably wouldn't even want to know.
  3. UPDATE. The highly instructive guide, 'How To Win At Kettling', appears to have been taken down, but can still be found in google's cache.