Like the Judaic idea of God, ‘equality of opportunity’ is something that is only ever spoken of as a perpetual absence. Those who profess to be in favour of it are sometimes able to point to examples of it in the distant past, or imagine it in the future, but it’s difficult to imagine someone pointing at a concrete sociological occurrence and saying – there, that’s equality of opportunity. In fact, when something happens that quickens the pulse of the self-described ‘meritocrats’ and ‘level playing field’ morons, such as Mo Farah winning an athletics gold medal for Britain or Colin Powell rising to become US Secretary of State, the excitement is underscored by a sense that this triumph was radically, statistically unlikely.
Absent the inanity of sporting contest – where the rules of the individual contest are specifically designed to produce the most localised and irrelevant equality of opportunity – and you are left with false memories of the American settlers and of Victorian entrepreneurs. The rest is guff, or ideology as some people prefer to call it. Equality of opportunity simply doesn’t and never has existed.
But I don’t simply mean this in the critical sense, that life or capitalism is intrinsically unfair. I mean it in an ontological, existential sense, that ‘equality of opportunity’ refers to something that has no substance or content; it cannot exist. The notion is entirely formal and abstract, and therefore it is impossible for it to be realised in any set of concrete political or sociological institutions. It is in its nature not to exist.
From a liberal perspective, this is a feature not a bug. In pursuit of something like ‘equality of opportunity’, John Rawls specifically sought to ignore contingent and empirical features of society, and work only with abstract principles, thereby ensuring that his mode of reasoning was consistent with ‘fairness’. Introduce institutions or history, and fairness is lost. But by the same token, it is impossible to then say whether a given economic distribution (as opposed to a legal system) is consistent with Rawls’ definition of justice, precisely because that definition is emptied of any content.
When ‘equality of opportunity’ comes close to actually existing, we cease to call it ‘equality of opportunity’ and it ceases to look like ‘equality of opportunity’. Instead, it looks like the sort of liberal society envisaged by Michael Walzer, in which multiple spheres of inequality exist side by side, separate from one another, with none dominating any other. Hence educational attainment and monetary income have little bearing on each other; the electoral system and the media are mutually resistant to the influence of the other; the judiciary and the executive are genuinely separate. It is the separation of spheres in the present that has bite, and not some abstract set of possibilities for each individual’s future.
To some extent, separation of institutions may have the statistical effect of ‘equality of opportunity’, or what is often referred to as ‘social mobility’. Hence social democratic societies in which state institutions, markets and public debate all have their own legitimate but separate space are likely to have higher levels of social mobility (not to mention higher levels of economic equality). But that is something for the statisticians and wonks. It is not what is actually going on from the pragmatic perspective of individuals and institutions themselves. Nations with high levels of ‘social mobility’ are nations with a distaste for allowing private income to pollute their politics or their education systems. So why not recognise the significance of this distaste?
The liberal left can achieve far more political traction by pursuing a Walzerian separation of rival institutional spheres (primarily putting financial capital back in its box) than in pursuing some abstract or statistical imaginary of a ‘level playing field’. This separation can be pursued as a good, in and of itself, and not merely for the instrumental reason that it impacts upon statistical outcomes. In the process, liberal critique operates in sociologically extant institutional territory, rather than in analytical Rawlsian diagrams or econometric models. There are at least three advantages to this.
Firstly, the critique of excessive institutional integration is also a critique of capitalism, inasmuch as ‘capitalism’ refers to the political rights of capital to dominate people. First and foremost, as Marx argued, capital constantly needs new social spheres into which to expand, and a capitalist society is one in which business and government are constantly seeking to dissolve institutional boundaries, so as to make new spheres available to profit-seeking exploitation. Reinforcing those boundaries, on the basis that boundaries are good in and of themselves, represents a denial of capital’s demand to expand into new territories.
Secondly, this critique is also a critique of neoliberalism, inasmuch as ‘neoliberalism’ refers to the expansion of market-based modes of valuation into more and more non-market economic spheres. As Foucault and some Polanyians have noted, a key distinction between 19th century liberalism and 20th century neoliberalism was that the former was characterised by a logic of separation of state, society and market, whereas the latter is/was characterised by a logic of re-integration, fuelled by economistic measurement (I address this contrast in this paper [pdf]). Examples of this are all over the public sector, in the form of ‘new public management’, or in the third sector in the form of ‘social valuation’. And as Foucault identifies, the metaphor of 'human capital' performs a crucial role in subsuming non-market spheres (school, family, doctor's surgery) within an economising logic. I suspect that 'wellbeing' is now taking a similar logic of integration in a subtly different direction.
The ‘equality of opportunity’ mantra seeks to work with the grain of neoliberalism, by taking the all-encompassing competitive game, and making it fair. Yet, until that game is subdivided into separate games, and until that monolithic culture of economic valuation is replaced by plural (and incommensurable) cultures of valuation, it’s impossible to conceive of what fairness might even look like. Pluralism of measurement systems (for example, restoring some autonomy of judgement and measurement to critics, professions and scholars) is a necessary liberal left response to neoliberalism.
Thirdly, with the focus upon separation of different forms of inequality, and not on equality of opportunity, policy-making no longer runs up against thorny problems of informal conduct. For example, there will always be a variations in how much parents choose to read to their children. This has always been there; it will never go away. Equality of reading-to-children cannot exist. If it transpires that this passes on advantages to children, the only egalitarian response is to ensure that society doesn’t become entirely dominated by a particular type of ability, namely one that depends on being read to as a child. Yes, middle class parents pass on advantages, and yes, many of those advantages are informal and cultural. But if literacy, money, political voice, self-respect and academic achievement do not convert cleanly into one another, this acts as the only possible check on the uses of cultural and informal advantage.
In short, pursuing the separation of rival institutional spheres is also a way of keeping the state out of our domestic and personal lives. Surely it has to be a matter of regret for the Left, if the only way it knows of pursuing equality involves lecturing and interfering in the lives of deprived people. For that reason, other definitions of equality can at least be countenanced.
A liberal re-separation of institutional spheres is a fiercely difficult thing to achieve, in capitalist and neoliberal societies. On the other hand, contemporary crises demonstrate the sense of disgust that results, when excessive integration of power, voice and money comes to light (yes, you, Jeremy Hunt). But then if we also adopt Amartya Sen’s critique of Rawls, and recognise that justice can be pursued incrementally (and not only as an all-or-nothing state of affairs) then perhaps there can be a politics of gradually crow-barring spheres apart. One place to start would be to divert attention away from the interview techniques of Oxbridge, and how to make them ‘inclusive’, start slowly to reduce the freedoms of private schools.
I'm currently reading Andy Beckett's excellent When the Lights Went Out: What really happened to Britain in the seventies, and have just got to the economic woes of Harold Wilson's government. Although the story of stagflation is a familiar one, and neoliberalism is often interpreted as a deliberate strategy to restore profitability at the expense of labour, it is striking quite how differently that crisis was experienced, compared to our present one. In fact, politically, the two are direct inverses of each other, making a class-based analysis almost impossible to resist, even for non-Marxists. Consider the following:
Very significantly for the direction of British politics during the rest of the seventies and beyond, some Britons were affected by the bad times more quickly, and with more sense of shock, than others. Between 1974 and 1976, it was the comfortably off who suffered. High inflation ate their savings. The low pound spoiled their holidays. A property crash - house prices fell 13 per cent in 1974, 16 per cent in 1975 and 8 per cent in 1976 - devalued their homes. The stock-market slump did the same for their shareholdings. Share dividends shrank or were not paid at all. During these years, disposable income fell considerably faster for the richest tenth of British households than for everyone else, and by larger and larger amounts the further you were up the financial scale. Even in severe recession, this was not a familiar situation...
This sense of a world being turned upside down was sharpened by the fact that other categories of Britons, traditionally not as well-off or secure, were, at least at first, less affected by the crisis. Trade unionists' wages were protected from inflation by their readiness to strike and by the political leverage of their leaders. The jobs of public sector workers were protected by the continuing increase in government spending.
Of course we know where this all ended, and it was a Labour government that first experimented with monetarism, and effectively started reversing these trends. But reading this passage, one thing that struck me was that these symptoms of crisis now appear remarkably attractive to us, in a crisis that is having the very opposite effect on class stratification. In fact, many mainstream economists would love to see companies hording less cash or distributing it as dividends, and putting it into employees pockets. The once-monetarist Bank of England has stood by and allowed the pound to fall by an astonishing 30%, while inflation may now be George Osborne's only hope of retaining any macro-economic credibility whatsoever. Many in the political centre-ground are desparately looking for ways of mitigating the extreme effects of financialisation, whereby the rich appear unscathed by this crisis. And if that meant house prices falling to a level where a new generation of 'hard-working families' could afford homes, then that might be a thoroughly democratic outcome. But by and large, if policy-makers decided that the seventies really weren't so bad after all, the strange truth is that there's no plausible way that the course of the current crisis could be diverted towards a more egalitarian path (at least not without some sort of implausibly radical reinvention of regulation, such as imposing capital controls).
Such is the extraordinary power of capitalism to remake both itself and society. In the space of half a lifetime, the experience of capitalist crisis has been entirely stood upside down, from being something that the great unwashed visit upon the wealthy, to vice versa. In our current financialised period of capitalism, we assume that the wealthy will always benefit from upheaval, but how short our memories are. Who is to say that the crisis of the 2030s - or sooner - won't be far more fearsome for elites than for everyone else? Unless one buys into the headier forms of world systems theory, it is entirely impossible to say.
How are you? The question is genuine. I’ve been wondering for a while how you felt you were getting on, and thought I’d write to enquire. Sometimes I wonder if you’re really enjoying yourself, despite the tales of ‘chillaxing’ and your obviously sociable, family-oriented demeanour. Legend has it that you wanted to become Prime Minister because you thought you’d “be good at it”, and for about eighteen months, many thought you might be right. Do you still think you’re good at it? Legend also has it that your wife wants you out of there before too long, and you might give your friend in Number Eleven a go. Quite the reverse of how things were under Tony Blair.
Aah, Tony Blair. The man whose psychotic memoirs were apparently bandied around by the neo-con end of your Cabinet, as a manual for how to run a government. The man who introduced denim to Downing Street. The man who so bewitched the Conservative Party – seeing off opposition leaders like Graeme Smith sees off England cricket captains - that eventually they scrabbled around in search of their own version. If you hadn’t existed, William Hague and Michael Gove would have sought to invent you, in a grizzly Frankensteinian experiment in a basement somewhere under Notting Hill.
You looked the part at your famous 2005 Conference speech, where you spoke informally without notes or teleprompter. It was meant to signal a new style of Tory politics, relaxed and unthreatening. You sought to make a spectacle of your own nervelessness, and it worked. Seven years on, though, one wonders whether this is enough. Tony Blair had that very rare, Clinton-esque ability to put others at ease. You have a somewhat less rare, Eton-esque ability to put yourself at ease. To start with we probably conflated the two, but the difference becomes more apparent as your government stumbles its way to the finish line.
Let me ask you this: do you really believe in what you’re doing? Blair did (that was part of the problem). Do you even believe, for example, that the poor and sick are as feckless as your government is increasingly implying? Blair may have been many things, but he was not a flip-flopper, as Americans like to say. I wonder if you’re even all that rightwing. Your most severe shortcoming, I suggest, is that you lack imagination.
You have said in the past that your support for the NHS was nurtured over the course of the life and death of your disabled son. You saw at first-hand what the NHS did, how valuable it is, and the humanity it offers. What you said was touching and no doubt honest. But is that how your politics works? Do you need to be personally affected by an institution, before you can understand its value? If so, you have entirely misunderstood the nature of public life. This isn’t about being leftwing or rightwing. Thatcher’s hatred for the trade unions was not forged as a result of her rubbish going uncollected or her train being cancelled. It was more visceral, ideological and universal than that. Privilege may not have made you selfish or conservative, but it may have made you myopic.
The early years of your leadership were spent trying to ‘de-toxify’ the brand of the Conservative Party, to break the mental association between ‘Tory’ and images of Peter Lilley and John Redwood clapping through another brutally misanthropic policy. This took a degree of guts on your part, given how toxic the ‘brand’ had become, and how silly William Hague had looked wandering around the Notting Hill Carnival in a baseball cap. You clearly knew that your chutzpah was up to the job, and that your judgement regarding informal mores wouldn’t let you down. Cultural sociology was on your side in this respect: West London Etonians are now comfortable amidst celebrity and narcotic culture, probably more so than they are in the traditional bastions of the establishment (see how Eton now churns out more famous actors than Cabinet Ministers).
But if you can, try and think about this. The Conservative Party is not just a ‘brand’, but a powerful political institution which has often sought to use that power in a vicious and hateful way over decades. The reason (in your parlance) that this sort of ‘brand’ becomes ‘toxic’ is that the collective memory of suffering is more powerful than anything a branding consultant or, for that matter, a policy programme is able to shift. Collective memory of suffering is the last bastion of political resistance, and is never given up for nothing, as Blair and Mandelson understood with respect to Northern Ireland. In 1980-81, two million manufacturing jobs were lost in Britain, in around eighteen months. The personal, local and family consequences of that - quite deliberate - political strategy are difficult for you or I to fathom, but they haven't disappeared. I don’t pretend to be some empathy master, but I’m not the one demanding that people give more of their energies, time and money away to recreate some fictitious Tocquevillian Albion called ‘the Big Society’. The ‘Big Society’ is a laudable thing, but, as I’ve written once or twice before, it is frustratingly supplementary to economic security, and not substitutive.
People remember things that the Conservative Party has done and stood for. They suspect that the Conservative Party still does and stands for them. If they’re wrong, then you have to act differently. But how dare you suggest that people’s memories of the past can be re-shaped through a re-branding exercise. How far back does your political and cultural memory go precisely? Does it not extend any further back than Euro96? Shame on you. A Conservative without a sense of history is just a whining, pleading bully with a victim complex, refusing to travel and refusing to see, demanding that everyone else behave differently except themselves. If you want examples, take a look at the new generation of Tory MPs behind you, each one blissed out on their own private rage, grabbing randomly at Victorian moral agendas as if playing supermarket sweep in a fancy dress store. Their kitsch pomposity makes a mockery of Parliament, reducing representative democracy to a form of live blogging, where everyone competes to complain and cackle the loudest. Their choice of politics as a basis on which to experiment with their own affected identities is entirely arbitrary. On this, at least, you must agree with me.
Maybe history will be kind to you, David, if it recognises quite what an appalling pool of political possibilities your Party offered to you. Maybe this is what you will reflect on in the long decades after you have left power. I hope you use those years to read heavily and, eventually, to write. A sixty-year-old David Cameron will have fascinating things to say about the sad times we now live through, and the sidings that our political classes have gone down. You’ll have better insights into your forty-something self by then, what led you into politics in the first place, and whether you really did have a vision of a better (you’ll have long dropped the ‘bigger’) society after all. I hope so.
Good luck with the last two years.
I am impatient to know how history is going to judge the multiple institutional and moral collapses of the past five years. Specifically, the interesting question is: what exactly is coming to an end? It could, of course, be various things, operating with various historical rhythms, as I suggested here. But here's a brief thought: what if the entire idea of 'Thatcherism' turns out to be a red herring? Or, at any rate, what if we were so distracted by all the conservative rhetoric of markets and entrepreneurship, that we entirely failed to see what was really going on?
The unfolding Barclays scandal forces the left and the right to wake up to the reality of what's been going on. Specifically, when we thought we were placing our trust in 'markets', we were actually placing our trust in highly complex firms and exotic cultures of individual expression, that are largely opaque to the outside world. When the rhetoric was of 'market freedom', it actually meant an abnegation of public responsibility on the part of firms and individuals. The term 'market' did for banks what the term 'God' does for Catholic Priests, in keeping government and public at bay (for a while I've had an idea for a comparative sociological research project, looking at banks and psychoanalysts side by side, to identify common strategies for achieving non-regulation; not that I want to see the entire world regulated, far from it, but it is interesting to consider what rhetorical strategies are used to avoid formal accountability). Understanding what precisely we have been placing our faith in, and accepting it isn't quite what we thought we were placing our faith in (for better or worse), is the first step to removing our faith from it. This is more of a challenge for the Left than the Right, seeing as the former still have their opponents' word 'market' echoing in their ears, whereas the latter have realised their own error.
When did this now-crumbling era begin? We (and I'm as guilty of this as anyone) like to pinpoint the late 1970s as the moment when neoliberalism emerged. It was then that the crisis of Keynesianism was completed, and a new paradigm for economic policy-making began. But this may reveal something of the narcissism of liberal elites, who like to believe that intellectuals and ideas are central to historical and economic periodization. (One might also characterise it as bloody-minded Hegelianism or conservatism, which insists that reason drives history, and not vice versa). A more pragmatist approach would recognise that ideas simply help to stabilise and legitimise forms of behaviour that have already emerged.
If the Barclays scandal proves to be decisive and telling, then we will need to shift our periodisation, such that 1968-71 becomes the key transition point in the formation of neoliberalism (or whatever we might call it instead). Two things took place during these turbulent years.
Firstly, '68 and its aftermath generated a new ethos of anti-moralism, that might have appeared heroically Nietzschean or Freudian in its more explosive and exciting moments, but could only translate into a dull masturbational culture of pleasure-seeking and deceit, as it permeated beyond the intellectual world of Guy Debord et al. Rooseveltian liberals, such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Daniel Bell, spotted this immediately, leading to a form of Left Neo-conservatism (which Britain seems only now to be developing in the form of Blue Labour). By the late 1970s, even younger cultural critics, such as Richard Sennett, had cottoned on to what their generation had done. The 'great refusal', advocated by Marcuse, had its noble elements, but these have eventually be vastly out-numbered by its depressingly adolescent ones.
Secondly, 1971 was when paper money was divorced from reality, following Nixon's decision to disconnect dollars from gold. Admittedly, faster telecommunications and offshore trading had been placing tremendous strains on the dollar since the late 1960s, so no doubt there is some telecoms satellite launched around this time that could claim to be even more decisive. From this point forward, the monetary system became a battle between rival symbolic codes, with the symbolic code of '$$' enforced upon the world through the alliance of Wall Street and Washington DC (see Peter Gowan's The Global Gamble). Disconnected from any tangible or material notion of value, the monetary system became a game of dictating perceptions and propping up linguistic rules.
In the broader sweep of history - as, for example, portrayed in Giovanni Arrighi's 700-year history of capitalism - it is unsurprising that a combination of these two occurences would end in political and economic disaster. The divorce of ethics from normativity ('68) combined with the divorce of money from material reality ('71) creates the conditions for a frictionless financial culture, in which critics conspired by coining the term 'postmodernism', and in which lying about the price of money is an entirely reasonable and legitimate thing to do. Taking a longer sociological view of the Barclays scandal, the question is not 'why did they do it?', but really, 'why wouldn't they do it?' On what basis, really, did any of us expect pleasure-seeking individuals, far from the disciplining reach of any market, trading paper whose value had nothing to do with utility or human need, to do anything other than manipulate perceptions of that paper's value? How else does paper attain any value, without perceptions being manipulated to some extent? And why, honestly, did anyone believe that individuals, high on the legacy of '68, would manipulate that value for the benefit of the public or mortgage-holders, and not for themselves?
Thatcherism was therefore a late-comer, providing post hoc rationalisation for a surge of egoism and monetary game-playing that was probably unstoppable by 1979 anyhow. Thatcherism provided a new paradigm for the state's role in this, to tackle inflation rather than unemployment and build sufficient prisons to make such a policy practicable, but in this it was reacting not proscribing. Perhaps Thatcherism's one stroke of courage was to dress this elite decadence up, quite preposterously, as a return to conservative Victorian England. For some reason, it is only now that Tories such as Peter Oborne and Ferdinand Mount appear to have spotted that this, like Libor, was another audacious fix. Bob Diamond, born 1951 and reaching adulthood as Nixon was sworn in, was less naive, and continues to exhibit his own 'great refusal' to accept any public judgement placed upon him.
A political discourse analyst, such as Frank Fischer or Alan Finlayson, might have interesting things to say about what's happened to the word 'justice' in Britain in recent years. Two things in particular stand out.
Firstly, 'justice' has become partly managerialised, rendering it just another public service. This is manifest in the creation of a Justice Department (oh, sorry, should that just be 'Justice'? The 'D' word has been weirdly erradicated from many Whitehall, err, institutions, such as CLG. For some reason this capitalised, non-departmental 'Justice' brings to mind this piece of Day Today genius). As a form of public service, 'justice' has to 'deliver' to the victim and the public, while also being reasonably efficient for the taxpayer. This needn't be especially sinister, as judges are a bolshy lot who have seen off some far more frightening enemies than McKinseys over the years. As things like the Bloody Sunday enquiry demonstrate, even Blairism was prepared to ignore cost-benefit analysis when the moral symbolism was powerful enough. But the project of containing justice within a particular strand of policy 'delivery' is notable nevertheless.
Secondly, 'justice' has been softened, with the introduction of the enigmatic prefix 'social' (what Hayek termed "that weazel word"). 'Social justice' means something other than 'justice', permeating the economy, welfare system, family and civil society. It is both more than 'justice', as it extends beyond the realms of classical liberalism; and less than 'justice', seeing as it has no aspiration to finality. I am unsure of the genealogy of the term 'social justice', although in Britain its contemporary resonance must surely owe a great deal to John Smith's 1992 Commission on Social Justice. For anyone interested in the genealogy of the 'social', Jacques Donzelot, Alain Desrosieres and Nikolas Rose have all written interesting papers on the emergence of this category or problem from the mid-19th century onwards.
But how about this for a goal: economic justice. Isn't that what most of us are demanding at the moment? Not justice as an output of the economy or an externality to the economy (like 'social justice'), or independent of economy (like legal 'justice') but at the heart of economic institutions. And not economic fairness either, but economic justice. This is what has concerned the ordo-liberals, radical liberals (such as Mill) and Marxists alike. It is what drives the critique of corporate governance structures and what underpins the political and moral case for co-operatives. It is concerned with frameworks and principles, rather than outcomes or utility. It is manifest in the argument for asset-based welfare, that produced the Child Trust Fund. One could argue that John Rawls was one of the most articulate proponents of 'economic justice', but the grand architectonics of his system meant that he would never allow such a notion to be split off from the larger project of Justice (sans prefix).
One test case would be the productive enterprise. 'Social enterprise' has been on the rise for the past fifteen years, not least because it slotted tidily into a utilitarian policy view of the world. What makes an enterprise 'social' is its purpose, goal or output, which is something other than profit maximisation. In the context of the economy, the term 'social' seems to imply a consequentialist ethics: if an entrepreneur, business or market results in sufficient positive externalities, then we introduce the prefix 'social'.
By contrast, part of the moral appeal of employee-owned businesses, for example, is that their telos is an open question. If they are more ethical than other models of business, this is to do with their structure and a priori form, not their output or the moral virtues of their decision-makers. The advantage of talking about 'economic justice' is that it takes us directly into political issues of where power and freedom lie in the economy, quite aside from how they happen to be exercised. By contrast, the term 'social justice' would seem to be something that could be produced as an act of will, no matter how structurally unjust the institutions concerned. 'Economic justice', on the other hand, signifies a limit to pragmatic utilitarianism, seeking out rules, principles and structures that defend people from exploitation. Civic republicans, such as Philip Pettit and Stuart White, and 'real utopians', following Erik Olin Wright, are in this camp. Given that, firstly, economic outputs are so woeful anyway right now, and, secondly, there is growing popular resentment for capitalist corruption, it seems that 'economic justice' may have become a more appropriate goal than 'social justice'.
With the usual half-hearted apologies for recycling my own chat, watching the delightful spectacle of the Murdoch clan and the Tories knocking chunks out of each other reminds me of this piece on the cultural contradictions of conservatism I wrote last summer, when Hackgate first exploded:
The greater significance of ‘hack-gate’ will lie in how it affects the character of British conservatism more generally. Conservatism, as a cultural and political movement, is intrinsically unwieldy and self-destructive, as hack-gate may now be demonstrating once more. From Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution onwards, conservatism has achieved its identity through what it rejects and despises. It projects a pessimistic scepticism towards political deliberation as a basis for authority, insisting that modern societies are too complex, human beings too different, and language too frail, for us to reason our way towards a collective destination...
All modern conservatives have a love-hate relationship with the establishment, which ultimately is their undoing. They can never really make up their mind whether they want more government or less. Complaints about bureaucrats, ‘red tape’ and tax are matched by despair that the state has lost its nerve in various ways, until this ambivalence is eventually overwhelmed by events. Political leaders and parties that appeal to ‘traditional values’ are undermined by revelations of fraud and sexual intrigue; financial markets that are untouchable because ‘self-correcting’ end up costing the taxpayer a figure that is (according to the National Audit Office ↑ ) more than eight times the annual budget of the NHS; military efforts to impose democracy eventually retreat into actual negotiation. That News International profited fabulously from highlighting all of these hypocrisies and U-turns in the past does not mean that the public won’t take some glee in witnessing the latest contradiction of conservatism: Rupert Murdoch’s inner circle being investigated by the Metropolitan Police, cheered on by the families of murdered children, military charities and – no doubt – the vast majority of the ‘great British public’. How loudly the Conservative Prime Minister is prepared to cheer may be crucial to how this conflict plays out.
To paraphrase the old American political adage, we might now say: "watch two pigs mud-wrestling; they both get dirty, but you can enjoy it."
I've published an article at openDemocracy, as part of the Uneconomics debate, in which I attempt to stand back and take a wide-ranging look at the policy dilemmas posed by the banking system. There is, I suggest, a serious problem in that the state has become an under-writer for a wasteful and ineffective risk management system, on which it cannot now easily turn its back. In that respect, the financial system has become like the prison system: a poorly calculated strategy for reducing risk, which may have the exact opposite effect, but which the taxpayer has become entangled with. As I argue:
Nearly five years after the dawning of the financial crisis, we can now identify one of its possible long-term legacies: the implicit association between the modern state and large financial institutions has become an explicit one. It is no longer possible to specify exactly where the state ends and the banking system begins...
We are living with a situation in which billions of pounds of public money is still being effectively siphoned into the pockets of private individuals, via quantitative easing and other forms of support for the banking sector. The on-going hand-wringing over the 'fairness' of bankers' pay tends to ignore the graver public insult, that billions of pounds are being removed from the banking system in the form of bonuses, which the taxpayer will have to provide if the system collapses again. Gordon Brown cites figures ↑ showing that if bankers had reduced their pay by a mere 10 per cent between 2000-2007, the banks would have had £50bn more of capital available to them when the crisis struck, which is the same amount that the government injected into RBS and Lloyds-TSB in October 2008.
There is a structural problem here that has still not been dealt with. If this situation is to change, the government will need to take risks with its modus operandi of risk management. While regulators and policy-makers view the future via traditional risk management techniques, they will effectively endorse traditional risk management institutions of the City of London. Only with an ethos of experimentation can anything genuinely new be anticipated and valued.
You can read the rest of the article here. Comments might be better placed underneath the article itself, rather than on this blog.
The current British policy and media vogue for debating 'capitalism' may well be unprecedented. There have long been rolling public debates about specific institutions and practices, such as banks, markets, debt, financial markets and trade. But to focus on capitalism implies a more political-economic perspective, which is alert to questions of hierachy, ownership, power and institutional evolution. At least it should do. Historically, the question of 'capitalism' has been more often debated by its critics (from Marx onwards), or else by those such as Milton Friedman who have used it to attack socialism. Even then, neoliberals have preferred to refer to 'markets', 'enterprise' and 'entrepreneurship' when providing the gloss to their economic argument.
The new debate is to be welcomed, but it is inevitably throwing up misunderstandings and strange representations. The Financial Times has been running a sophisticated series of op-eds on the crisis of capitalism, which only really hit the intellectual rocks with a piece published yesterday, entitled 'It's a crisis of confidence, not of capitalism' (the stupidity of the article's headline turned out to be well-matched to the identity of its author, the Chancellor of the Exchequer).
The first thing to note, as if it needed saying, is that of course capitalism is in crisis. The denial of this fact seems to go hand in hand with two intellectual errors. Firstly, it misunderstands the meaning of the word 'crisis', which it hears as equivalent to 'end' or 'death'. Nobody has yet plausibly suggested that capitalism is coming to an end. But quite clearly there is a crisis, in the literal sense of a judgement, turning point or critique. Capitalism is in a critical condition, which will determine what sort of future it has. This is what 'crisis' refers to. For evidence that it is in crisis, one need only point to the fact that policies which once alleviated its shortcomings, now appear only to exacerbate them. To his credit, Gordon Brown appears in this piece to grasp the historic importance of the current period that we're living through, and the vast scale of any potentially adequate political response.
Second, the crisis deniers get lost in is/ought distinctions. They seem to believe that announcing a 'crisis of capitalism' means advocating socialism. They then very swiftly fall into making abstract and irrelevant moral-psychological claims about how competition and self-interest are 'still' the only plausible bases for organising the economy. Take this Newsnight debate from last week for example. The inevitability of capitalism, in roughly its current form, is asserted on the back of a philosophical anthropology, which is derived from... well, the think tanks and ideologues whose job it is to defend the freedom of capital. Typically this freedom is also erroneously dressed up as the freedom of markets, with endless mis-readings (and more likely, non-readings) of Adam Smith to buttress it.
Yet the ideologues are partly responding to the way in which the question of 'capitalism' has been posed by politicians and pundits alike, which is in heavily moralistic terms. Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband are competing to find ways to attack the morally noxious bits of capitalism, and not merely the useless bits, though Miliband's notion of 'predatory capitalism' suggested that the two go hand in hand. I've heard it suggested that politicians' sudden obsession with the 'c' word may be a strategy to avoid talking about immoral 'business', which swiftly invites questions of which businesses in particular, the same questions which floored the entire shadow cabinet after Miliband's conference speech.
It seems that the main reason 'capitalism' has been put on the table as a policy problem is that this distinguishes the problem as a moral one of principles, not a utilitarian one of economics. British politics is suddenly experiencing a classically ordo-liberal moment, in the sense that economic 'right' and 'wrong' no longer map cleanly on to 'efficient' and 'inefficient'. This partly explains why the collapse of economic growth is having so little impact on the Conservative Party's poll-ratings: for the time being, debates have shifted on to liberal questions of form and structure, away from utilitarian questions of output. Other bizarrely non-utilitarian behaviours abound, such as governments and firms seeking to pay off debt at a time of negative real interest rates, producing a 'balance sheet recession'.
To this, some nuance could be added, by recognising that all capitalist crises are also moral crises, but in a very particular sense. From the 18th century onwards, liberalism has functioned on the basis of an illusory split (famously criticised by in Polanyi's Great Transformation) between the amoral realm of the 'economic' and the moral realm of the 'social', also represented as a dichotomy between the sphere of value and the sphere of values. This illusion is propped up by an associated split between economics (the study of rational choice) and sociology (the study of association and rules).
Ultimately this split is a useful fabrication or fantasy that serves policy-making, rather than one emanating from institutions or agents themselves. 'Economic' institutions (such as banks) are awash with moral judgements, rituals and norms; 'social' institutions (such as families) are equally awash with rational and monetary calculation. But the split does some work, in preventing us from subjecting everything to constant moral judgement, which would be hugely time-consuming and inefficient. Neoliberalism has frequently committed the opposite error of seeking to subject everything to rationalist audit, which turns out to be equally time-consuming and inefficient, though when the target is lefty professions and academics, that may be its underlying purpose.
Every stable era of capitalist development rests on its own distinctive way of separating economics from moral judgement (or 'efficiency' from 'equity', as welfare economists like to put it). The critique of capitalism involves challenging this split (for example, through arguing that labour markets are unjust regardless of their efficiency, or that GDP measures bad things) but these critics can typically be rebuffed for decades at a time. However, a crisis of capitalism, like the one we're living through, brings about a collapse in the liberal divide, from both sides at once, as it becomes unclear what is worth measuring and valuing in the first place. Once economics and economic institutions cease to work in a utilitarian sense, their supposed insulation from sociology, moral judgement and political economy fails too.
This is why crises are so exciting and frightening at the same time. They involve a fundamental uncertainty as to what is going on, how long it will take and what types of technologies, institutions and policies will bring it to an end. As I argued in this New Statesman piece, one feature of our current predicament is that we don't yet know what we've come to the end of precisely. A new fluidity opens up, between moral problems of values and economic ones of value, and we confront the strange truth that the entire realm of 'the economy' as a separate thing is really a fiction. This uncomfortable realism only be suppressed again once a new settlement is established, in which a new form of socio-economic division is established, which is both economically effective and morally acceptable.
If current questions of 'responsible' and 'popular' capitalism are to be posed seriously, then we need to be clear about how far moral critique can (and must) currently penetrate. During times of stability, businesses and politicians raise moral questions of values, almost as matters of consumer preference.* This is the function of corporate social responsibility, which is a form of self-regulation at best, and green-washing at worst. During times of crisis, things are far more profound. It is no long a question of what moral values are to be added to utilitarian economic structures, but what moral values are to constitute a future definition of economic value.
This is what I was trying to communicate in my recent paper on employee ownership. In arguing that 'wellbeing' and 'patience' must be central business 'values' of any post-crisis capitalism, I was not intending that these are somehow nice things, which we really ought to think about a bit more. More fundamentally, the fact that the previous model had failed to account adequately for human psychology on the one hand, and for long-term outcomes on the other, was actually at the heart of how and why the crisis occurred. It follows that any resolution of the crisis will necessarily rest on a new notion of economic value, which somehow factors in these moral values.
If the new public debates about capitalism are to be more than rhetorical, they will need to move beyond obviously moral issues, such as inequality and who 'deserves' what. The term 'fairness', like 'equity', keeps morality safely confined to certain classically moral issues, from where it is unlikely to interfere in the distribution of political power (as I argued in this openDemocracy piece. I was delighted to discover amongst The Browser's quotations yesterday Scott Adams' "fairness is a concept so dumb people could participate in arguments"). Instead, it needs to take on economic institutions of ownership, governance, democracy, valuation, audit and performance measurement. There are some encouraging signs that this might be beginning to happen.
* I once worked at a research consultancy which was in the process of re-branding itself, and wanted to engage its staff in identifying its core 'values'. This resulted in a hilarious, Python-esque all-staff meeting in which one individual would opine "I think 'trust' should be one of them", which would then be met with a response from elsewhere "'trust' is rubbish! 'Integrity' is far better!", which in turn would be shot down by "nonsense! 'Leadership' is clearly the best". And so on, depressingly confirming Milton Friedman's famous dictum that "over values, men can only fight".
We live in the age of 'transparency' or what I once heard Michael Power describe as 'the age of permanent audit'. This is thanks to the presence, sometimes ubiquity, of technologies which make audit the default option, and inaudit (or privacy) a form of specified opt-out. For celebrities, these include legal and quasi-legal forms of media surveillance; for the powerful, it means the constant threat of leaks, the publication of money-grabbing memoirs and Freedom of Information Requests; for the rest of us, it means facebook and digital cameras.
Under these conditions, words, actions and decisions have a nasty habit of catching up on one. Interestingly, we've largely forgotten about the intrusion of the Big Brother state (for the time being), and discovered that the public sphere can be a far more brutal and effective mechanism for surveillance than the all-seeing, expert panopticon. This is partly thanks to the on-going furore around 'hackgate' in the UK, but also because of a strange new form of political correctness that appears to be emerging, as the public etiquette of the twitter age.
As Chris Dillow argues, a number of recent events suggest that the British have become incredibly over-sensitive recently. Despite having been one of the marchers that Jeremy Clarkson said he would like to shoot (in front of my family) in November, I was depressed by the scale of reaction against a man who (as Stuart Lee points out) is paid specifically to recite predictable rightwing slogans in public. The saga over Luis Suarez's finger - which hilariously now gets reported with the offensive gesture concealed - suggests that we're reviving an Edwardian sensibility. This at a time when no Guardian or Observer op-ed is complete, without an anonymous cabinet minister being quoted that someone or other is "completely fucked" (serving only to demonstrate the intimacy of quoter with quoted).
Levels of rudeness, obscenity and pornography are becoming normalised everywhere, while the stakes surrounding a stray finger or badly-judged joke are also rising rapidly. It's hard not to feel sorry for the BBC and Channel 4, who have to muster unprecedented levels of confidence (that are impossible to defend, if challenged persistently enough by enough people) that Franky Boyle or someone is within his rights to use a certain word or sentence.
Clearly, twitter and chatrooms have changed things in two obvious ways. Firstly, registering disgust has become massively easier, a problem which afflicts various service and hospitality industries, via user feedback websites. Secondly, movements of disgust can gather momentum and experience tipping points, until they dominate the headlines. This means that complaints can far outstrip the number of initial viewers, as 'Sachsgate' demonstrated best of all.
All of which turns public offence and defence into a game, involving strategy, scores, winners and losers. Offence can be measured partly in terms of how many people claim to be offended. But there are also PR-type strategies at work in terms of getting things into and out of the public 'conversation'. If they hang around for long enough, then it becomes apparently insensitive for political leaders to avoid confronting them (as both Ed Miliband and David Cameron seemingly felt in relation to Jeremy Clarkson's joke). Because the threat of over-reaction by the public is now so great, authorities often opt to over-react in the first place. For instance, this mildly irreverant Tim Minchin Christmas song was apparently pulled by ITV, before any offence had been taken. OfCom, which ironically was set up according to the most boldly technocratic principles of any regulator, is now in the unfortunate position of having to adjudicate over many such moral issues. Humour experts cannot be far behind.
What gets forgotten in amongst all of this is a fairly simple question: what does offence consist of in the first place? This NYRB article, reviewing two books on digust, might be a good place to start. I am perfectly willing to call Jeremy Clarkson a 'tosser', or even - if I thought I could get a cheap laugh - suggest that he be chopped into slices and fed to the rest of the Top Gear team. But I would find it difficult to watch the clip of him asking for marchers to be 'shot', and report that I am experiencing 'offence' or 'disgust'. To do so would be to descend to another form of moral failing: it would make me a 'liar'.
So what about the recent scandals surrounding racism by Premier League footballers? Maybe all of this over-sensitivity is a price worth paying, if it helps to out John Terry and Luis Suarez as racists and condemn them accordingly. But the problem is that these cases still feel like they're part of a game. The moral repugnance of racism gets almost overlooked, in favour of empirical questions, such as who said what, how do we know, what does the camera or microphone pick up, whose responsibility is it to act, what does the FA (or police) have to do in order for the issue to go away again, how will this affect his football or the England football team. It's almost as if John Terry's greatest mistake was to be so easily lip-read. Quite how or why a multi-millionaire England football captain thinks like that in the first place (or whether he really does) gets left in the shadows, by debates about what can be seen and confirmed as true.
As a result of all this, the age of transparency is also the age of the choreographed grovelling apology. The most disgusting - yes, I think I really mean that - aspect of the Aiden Burley 'nazi-themed stag party' scandal was the report that:
Aides tried to arrange for him to join a trip organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland. But the Tory leadership moved against Burley after the newspaper reported on Sunday that he was responsible for hiring the Nazi uniform.
So their ruse didn't quite work. But the point is this: in the game of public offence and defence, Aiden Burley's aides sought to instrumentalise a Nazi concentration camp as a strategy to wrong-foot his opponents (perhaps in time for the lunchtime news). Personally, I hope Aiden Burley and his aides suffer serious disappointments in their careers, leading to prolonged regret and self-doubt. In front of their families. I'm not joking, but I am being offensive.
John Terry's PR team pulled off an equivalent coup, with this surreal headline. Is this where we're all heading to? Mobilising children, monuments and history as a means to distract the twittersphere for a few hours? Some bizarre logic of equivalence is underway, that one regrettable photograph or youtube clip can be cancelled out with one carefully planned (and photographed) gesture towards transcendent political ideals or tragedies. I suspect that Princess Diana may have set the stage for the politics of this new era.
The first wave of political correctness was idealistic, with shades of Orwellian mind control, but too technologically naive to tip into totalitarianism. It sought to police how people spoke, but with no means of achieving this, other than traditional education, debate and disapproval. As the inverse of this, the new wave of political correctness is technologically sophisticated, but with no ideals attached. It is purely concerned with catching people out, making them look foolish, putting them through the ringer for a few hours, days or weeks (depending on how much they are considered to deserve it).
But as a result, it has no concern with the unseen, the undetected or the not-yet-detected. It can work in tandem with professional investigative journalism (as with hackgate, MPs expenses and wikileaks), but it only judges what it can see. It reduces crimes and misdemeanours to their visible evidence, which can be cancelled out by the creation of equivalent visible counter-evidence.