Laughter of the Elves

November 30, 2016

brexitPublishing can move fast when the stakes are high. Just a few months after the terse, fractured summer of 2016, a tranche of shiny books appear commemorating the Brexit vote of June 23 – the culmination of what was the nastiest political campaign in my lifetime, probably the worst since the ‘nigger for a neighbour’ days of the 1960s. Now writers and analysts have begun to bang out lengthy titles in which they try to make sense of it all. Ian Dunt’s Brexit book is the only one I have read and I suspect it is the only such book anyone will need.

Dunt begins with a worst case scenario. He sketches out a possible future where Britain has fallen out of the European Union with no reputation, no trade deal, passport deal, single market access, or customs union. Dunt is a knowledgeable, thoughtful fellow, with an aptitude for stats and mechanisms, and Brexit true believers have an easy answer for his kind. Warnings from worried economists can be dismissed as ‘Project Fear’. Press the Brexiters further, and you’ll come away with the impression that trade agreements and all that stuff isn’t worth a piss in the wind.

‘For many Leave voters, money was less important than sovereignty,’ Dunt writes. After all, doesn’t globalisation hurt people, and diminish the intangible goods of life? What about tradition, patriotism, sense of place? ‘I would prefer not to be better off and have a country that didn’t go to 75 million,’ said Nigel Farage in 2015. ‘Some things matter more than money, and I think the shape of our communities and the sense of contentment living in the country matters more.’ It’s almost as if the anti globalist movement Farage leads has evolved beyond mere rational wants and into a higher plane of English spiritualism.

Neoliberalism has racked up plenty of casualties but in Farage’s critique isn’t there a certain complacent perspective: the perspective of a class and a generation that has never really known scarcity, that is a little too used to its own security and to things working as they should? Point is, the need for material things and functioning markets can’t just be wished away. How would we cope in Dunt’s nightmare scenario: lorries bottlenecked at entry ports, meat and fish rotting in warehouses, firms closing down, foodstuffs disappearing from the UK’s supermarkets and medicines from our pharmacies?

Dunt is the best writer on the complexities of the EU. With bold, sure strokes he cuts through the crap and actually explains something. Like so much else, Europe has become hyper politicised: ‘the failure to assess it as a working organisation rather than a demonic fantasy means the ministers in charge of Brexit are struggling to construct a credible negotiating strategy.’ We get a reasonable deal from the EU as it is: ‘a well-meaning but internally contradictory experiment in transnational political organisation.’

Negotiating such a deal after we’ve walked out will be difficult. We’ll be negotiating with the entire EU, and also with the WTO as failsafe. We will need crack negotiators in ‘difficult, very boring areas and the people who specialise in them tend to have done so for their entire career,’ Dunt writes. ‘You can’t just pluck a smart young thing from the civil service and train them in a few weeks. They’ll be eaten alive in negotiations.’ We will be running around like Apprentice candidates trying to sell junk prototypes to antique shops on the Portobello Road.

We could potentially make Brexit work, Dunt says. But on our current course, we will hit a ‘Project Fear’ type Brexit, because people in government have so little grasp on what they want and how to get it. Boris and Liam Fox are obviously ridiculous: Gove dashed his reputation as a serious conservative intellectual on the summer referendum. Far more disturbing is Dunt’s exposure of Theresa May. She’s seen as a safe pair of hands in tough times. Yet rather than keep Eurocrats on the back foot, trying to guess what we were going to do, May announced her Article 50 date ‘seemingly as an afterthought’ – and, with that, blew what little leverage she had. As Dunt says: ‘May’s decision to give away the date and then petition for talks outside Article 50 was equivalent to a gunman throwing down his weapon and demanding the enemy surrender.’

You get the feeling that the main Brexit figures aren’t motivated by rational self interest so much as a giggling nihilism. David Cameron famously said of Michael Gove that ‘he is basically a bit of a Maoist – he believes that the world makes progress through a process of creative destruction’. There’s a little far left revolutionary craziness there, also something like the weaponised attention seeking of the alt right – and it is, again I think, something that comes from long periods of prosperity and safety.

When I last wrote about Vote Leave, I quoted the classic Fitzgerald line, about Tom and Daisy Buchanan: ‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’ But maybe a less glamorous literary allusion fits better. Terry Pratchett’s fantasy novel Lords and Ladies has a conservative rural community invaded by psychotic killer elves. The good witch Nanny Ogg finds that her cottage has been trashed and ruined by the invaders.

‘Why’d they do it?’ her companion asks.

‘Oh, they’d smash the world if they thought it’d make a pretty noise,’ Nanny says offhand.

For such a chilling book, Dunt ends with some positive thoughts. A good Brexit is possible, he says, but only if we revive ‘British values… calm debate, instinctive scepticism, practical judgement and moderation.’ Unfortunately, Dunt doesn’t need to add that these values have been abandoned in the process so far, and there is no sign of common sense returning.

Railways in Hiding

November 28, 2016

undergroundrailroadThrough Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower cycle is threaded a picaresque tale that begins when Father Callahan, failed priest and alcoholic, gets on a Greyhound coach leaving a doomed Maine town called Jerusalem’s Lot. Running from vampires, and also from his own failure, he crosses ‘a great, possibly endless, confluence of worlds. They are all America, but they are all different.’ The variants of America are small – there are different faces on the banknotes, different letterheads on the newspaper, and ‘maybe there’s another version of New Jersey where the town on the other side of the Hudson is Leeman or Leighman or Lee Bluffs or Lee Palisades or Leghorn village.’ And yet the thrill’s in the wandering: ‘There are highways which lead through all of them, and he can see them.’

It seems frivolous to compare Colson Whitehead‘s Underground Railroad with any supernatural novel. But despite the grim intro to his America, the plantation Georgia from the slave’s perspective, reeking with heat, sweat, whippings, rapes and executions, there is a similar sense of adventure, of possibilities and the luminous. Runaway slave Cora escapes from the vicious Randall homestead through what turns out to be a literal underground railroad: steam trains, running through a network of subterranean tunnels from one state to another. This surreal development in no way jars the reader following Whitehead’s terse narrative of indentured horrors: you just don’t see the join. As Alex Preston wrote: ‘And here is the spark that ignites the novel. For Whitehead has taken that historical metaphor – the network of abolitionists who helped ferry slaves out of the south – and made it into a glistening, steampunk reality.’ Whenever Cora asks who built the railroad, a laconic engineer replies: who builds everything in this country?

‘If you want to see what this nation is all about,’ rail agent Lumbly explains, ‘you have to ride the rails.’ Cora rides the rails all over the US, and finds in every state she visits, a new America, differing in gradations. South Carolina’s benign and orderly world, nominally liberal, conceals a frightening Edwardian eugenicism. Tennessee appears to be engulfed in yellow fever and a rampaging forest fire – caused, apparently, by a household spark, some casual carelessness decimating city-sized acreage. In the Indiana free zone, successful escapees debate the future of the race: Booker T Washington’s conservative incrementalism fights the revolutionary fire of du Bois. North Carolina has solved the ‘race problem’ by simply banning all persons of colour from its state, importing European migrants to do the gruntwork. Yet the North Carolinans are still morbidly afraid of black people, staging gallows and passion-plays in acts of propitiation to keep ‘the other’ away. As Lumbly also says, every state is different – but everywhere Cora visits is either a slave state, or vulnerable to slave-catchers and local racists. The contradiction in the founder myth – freedom, but not for you – is inescapable, the warp in the heart of the American dream.

Hot on Cora’s trail is the road agent Ridgeway, a swaggering Simon Legree of a slave-chaser, and perhaps the O’Brien of the antebellum South. He thinks himself a philosopher-king of predators, even employing a secretary (a man of colour) to notarise his thoughts. ‘Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavour – if you can keep it, it is yours,’ Ridgeway believes. ‘Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.’ The story doesn’t let you go for a moment, and you are sorry when the book comes to an end.

One thing we learned this year is that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are fragile things. Underground Railroad has the feel of a nineteenth-century novel, but perhaps that’s not what Whitehead is getting at. Perhaps he is trying to give us a vision of our future.

Endureland

November 9, 2016

Everybody knows why Donald Trump won the US presidential election. Now that it’s happening, everybody knows. You have maybe heard it all night from analysts and talking heads. You will keep on hearing it, from politicians, from think tank people, from newspaper columnists, on your social media. You’d be amazed how many people have the answer.

Let me summarise the root cause argument for you. Trump will assume the Presidency of the free world (I write this as the man himself gives his acceptance speech) Britain voted to leave the EU, and the Tories won the last general election. Big, unexpected defeats for liberals, and down to one thing: a revolt from the white working class that has been screwed over by free markets and free movement.

The argument writes itself. Since 1979, the progressive Atlantic parties (the American Democrats, and the Labour Party in this country) separated themselves from the working class that they originated to represent. Clinton Democrats and New Labour embraced a more aggressive form of capitalism, involving more privatisations, more migrant labour, and a further shift from manufacturing to service based economics. Culturally, and certainly in this country, Labour introduced more identity-based politics, which bemused the working class left that tended to prioritise trade union rights over the rainbow coalition. The white working class, in Britain and in America, grew tired of crap jobs,  social stratification and political correctness and delivered a resounding ‘Fuck you’ to the establishment. Result? Goodbye, Europe: hello, Mr President Trump.

There’s obvious truth in the argument, and I do think that the left and liberals need to acknowledge some responsibility for this complete fucking train wreck that we are waking up to. I’m thinking less of the beard strokers and more of the career activists who demonstrated against ‘neoliberalism’ and foreign intervention. Well, we have a President who’s sent the markets haywire, and who takes care to accommodate murderous foreign powers. To paraphrase Margaret Atwood: we have that kind of culture now. It’s not quite what you wanted, but it’s a start…

And yet: as the policy wonks and beard-strokers deliver the rehearsed argument, is there not a undertone of complacency in their voices? Can it really be so simple? Is there not a sleight-of-hand being played here somewhere? And are you sure that you’re not being fooled again?

Here’s the problem. The political science professors and the Labour grandees and the columnists have a point. We might well be better off outside the EU. We should certainly be able to have sovereignty over our own laws, and unravel the crap parts of EU law from our system. Identity politics is often silly. We should be able to make and sell stuff in our own countries.

Fair enough, all good, but what I don’t get is the zero sum nature of these arguments. It’s not enough for ‘the left behind’ to succeed – others must be hurt. These few months since the referendum have been an obvious example. June 24 was a fantastic opportunity to draft our written constitution, our Bill of Rights, to redress institutional wrongs that have screwed all of us, for centuries.

And what do we get? Nothing, except yet another crackdown on net migration. A British Prime Minister – someone who represents the greatest country in the world – travelling from country to country, and telling people ‘Please don’t visit Great Britain.’ It would be funny, if it wasn’t so fucking tragic.

(Oh, and we’re not getting workers on company boards, nor will we reform unpaid internships – how’s that blue-collar revolution working out for ya?)

This isn’t just rhetoric. People get hurt. The EU nationals who find themselves passed around like so many bags of candy. The victims of racist assaults, in the wake of June 24. Every man, woman and child made to feel less British because they have a different colour skin or imperfect English or an unusual name.

Trump is of course the master of ‘others must suffer’ zero sum politics. Mexicans, Muslims, assertive women, African-Americans – there appears no end to the man’s hatreds. Politicians used to win by careful strategies that appealed to as many voters as possible. Trump pulled his victory from a jukebox of resentments. We have seen the normalisation of outright bigotry, and white supremacism, during this campaign (if you don’t believe me, I can recommend the work of the St Louis journalist Sarah Kendzior, a fearless chronicler of alt-right craziness).

And this takes us into a different world. Put simply, it doesn’t matter that we have Equality Acts and diversity training and identity politics if enough people decide these things don’t matter. The brilliant journalist Chris Deerin said that: ‘civilisation is a more fragile thing than we often care to understand.’ And he’s not wrong.

It’s pointless to make predictions, ultimately pointless in this instance because of the number of catastrophic scenarios that will make talk of political theory laughably irrelevant, but I think the following scenario will play out. There will be a lot of tedious anti-Americanism, and looking-down upon the working class, in Britain and in America. Implications will be made that democracy is hardly worth the candle if it keeps throwing up a Trump or a Brexit. The moral legitimacy of the American idea, and of democracy in general, will be undermined.

Trump might satisfy some of his base (as Tory Brexit will satisfy to some extent the ‘left behind’ in this country) but nothing will ever satisfy the true believers, because while we can do more to stimulate domestic industry and control immigration we cannot reverse time or socially engineer a lost country. There will be more bitterness, more resentment, more backlash, which Trump and Nigel will not be able to blame on the ‘establishment’ because by then they will be the establishment. And civilisation will get that little bit more fragile.

Obviously I don’t have the answers, but I will say this. Zero sum politics doesn’t work. The white working class Trump talks about deserve the best (and I’ve yet to meet a working class person who wouldn’t be insulted by the idea that they would fall for a blatant scam artist like Trump or Farage, or Jeremy Corbyn for that matter). People who feel hard done by because of immigration deserve their say and our support: but what about immigrants themselves, or EU nationals, or those of us who support free movement or merely don’t have a problem with it: aren’t we citizens too? We must accept that times and societies and countries change. Tradition and sense of place isn’t corroded by that change, on the contrary, it’s for the sake of tradition and the texture of our lives that we must stand up for difference, for the cosmopolitan, for what is creative and otherworldly and compassionate in us. This isn’t over.

americaendures

Shoulder your duds dear son, and I will mine, and let us/hasten forth,
Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go.

– Whitman

‘Song of Myself’

The New Nasty Party

October 30, 2016

daverichLet’s try a thought experiment. A series of public controversies highlight racism against BAME people in the Conservative Party. A public inquiry is called, chaired by a well known conservative activist, who begins her investigations by joining the Conservative Party. The terms of reference make clear that the inquiry is not focused wholly on racism against black people, but into racism against black people ‘and other forms of racism’. The report while condemning use of epithets such as ‘nigger’ or ‘paki’ and acknowledging ‘unhappy incidents’ in the past (perhaps the Monday Club went too far… all that ‘Hang Mandela’ stuff… regrettable) maintains that the Conservative Party ‘is not overrun’ with racism against black people. At the launch of this report, a Black British Conservative MP is racially abused while the party leader stands by and does nothing. The activist chairing this inquiry is then awarded a peerage by the party leader, and later appointed Attorney General.

Imagine being a voter of BAME origin – or just someone concerned by racism – and watching all this. Would you feel that the inquiry report was credible and fair? Would you feel comfortable being involved in the Conservative Party: attending its meetings, delivering its leaflets, giving up energy and time to get it reelected? Would the Conservative Party feel like a safe place for you?

Would you vote for them again?

You have likely already guessed that I’m talking about the Chakrabarti report into anti-Semitism. My analogy with anti-BAME racism isn’t an entry into the open barter of victimhood, because of course both forms of racism are poisonous nonsense. Rather it’s to illustrate a point made by trade unionist Dave Prentis – that Labour is now the new nasty party. Some people will deny there’s even a problem, but to list all the ‘unhappy incidents’ is way beyond the scope of a blog post… which is why Dave Rich has written an excellent book on the subject. (I would also recommend the Home Affairs select committee inquiry report into anti-Semitism in the UK, particularly chapter 6, which examines a range of anti-Semitic incidents within the Labour Party, and the failure to address these by either Chakrabarti or the party leadership.)

Smart people saw this coming, years before Jeremy Corbyn became party leader. Journalists like Nick Cohen, Greg Palast and Oliver Kamm, academics like Alan Johnson, and the Harry’s Place and other blog writers, warned of dark undercurrents on the left. They were told that anti-Semitism and other such craziness was a marginal issue, that one shouldn’t focus on tiny political sects, which could never have an impact on mainstream politics. Well, Mr Corbyn is a living, walking rebuttal of that critique. As despairing Eustonite Damian Counsell put it: the straw men are in charge now, and everything’s on fire.

How did we get here exactly? Rich explains that in the 1960s ‘some on the left gave up on the revolutionary potential of the Western working class and looked overseas for radical inspiration. By this way of thinking, the bloc of post-colonial states (and the national liberation movements that were fighting for decolonisation elsewhere) held the promise that the part of the world then known as the Third World might supplant the Western proletariat as the global engine for revolutionary change.’

Put simply? It’s easier, if you’re a first world academic or public sector leftist, to project revolutionary hope onto distant peoples like the Palestinians: insurrection by outsource or proxy, rather than trying to convince the working class and minorities in your own country… who might argue back. It’s a long story (try as he might, Rich can’t help but lose us sometimes in the left’s wilderness of mirrors) but you can trace the current tolerance for Islamism back to the ramblings of tenured postmodernists.

In this ideology, Israel isn’t a lifeboat state and multicultural democracy but an outpost of Western colonialism, Zionist not a national liberation movement but international conspiracy. (The more sinister reading, of course, flips this around so that Britain and America are just imperial outposts of Tel Aviv.) The Jewish people don’t need recognition as oppressed minority or noble victims, because they have protective imperial apparatus on which to draw. Rich has then SWP activist John Rees explain that: ‘There are some religions that are overwhelmingly held by the poor and excluded and there are some religions that back up the establishment, the rich and the powerful.’ Guess which ethnic minority falls on the wrong side of the line here.

Perhaps the saddest and most sordid development here is the weaponisation of the Holocaust against Jewish people. Rich discusses Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children: ‘Whatever the rights and wrongs of the argument over the play’s alleged anti-Semitism, everybody agreed on its main theme: that the psychological trauma of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism was playing out via Israeli violence and oppression towards the Palestinians.’ The Holocaust wasn’t a unique historical atrocity, but a schoolyard morality tale from which the Jews had, regrettably, failed to draw the correct lessons – a crappy piece of poetry, that activists recite in piping voices as they wag their fingers in the faces of Britain’s Jews.

Here’s a conundrum: how is it that professional activists, who have spent their lives campaigning against racism, ended up recycling racist tropes and targeting minorities? Dave Rich understands that ‘It is precisely because people on the left act as anti-fascists and anti-racists that they have such a problem recognising modern anti-Semitism.’ Activist sense of moral superiority defeats hope of self awareness: they are blinded by their own perceived virtue, and the left’s proud tradition of anti racism. The protests become shriller as this tradition recedes into memory, increasingly supplanted by ‘the left’s proud tradition of making life uncomfortable for Jews’. As Grossman writes in Life and Fate: ‘it was the revolutionary cause itself that freed people from morality in the name of morality’.

‘Ever since I was a child, I had been haunted by a passion for the absolute,’ says the SS narrator in Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. ‘And if this radicalism was the radicalism of the abyss, and if the absolute turned out to be absolute evil, one still had to follow them to the end, with eyes wide open – of that at least I was utterly convinced.’ Dave Rich ends his brilliant book with a hope that the British left can rebuild its relationship with British Jews. But I’m not so sure. To repeat a famous line, the abyss tends to stare back at you until you fall right into it.

I, Max Dunbar

October 27, 2016

idanielblake-jpgHere’s a question I’ve been pondering. Can you review a film you’ve never seen? Also: can you review a review of a film you’ve never seen? This is what I’m wondering as I read reviews of I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s film about people on benefits. Liberals tend to like the movie. Or I think they like it. Lynn Enright, for the Pool, writes that, ‘My whole face was wet with crying. I tried to be discreet, but my body was shuddering as sobs clattered through it. I allowed the film to simply do its work on me, reducing me to tears, stoking a great sadness and sense of naïve uselessness.’ Jack Monroe, in the Guardian, had a similar reaction: ‘The woman beside me, a stranger, squeezed my forearm as I choked on guttural, involuntary sobs. I’m sorry, I whispered, sloping out to punch a wall in the corridor and cry into the blinding, unaware streets of west London. I looked mad. I am mad.’

Would I see this film based on this testimony? No. Undergoing such paroxysm of emotion does not appeal to me. I would rather open another bottle of red and watch The Good Wife until around 2020. I also admit to my preconceptions about Ken Loach as a celebrity activist and Jeremy Corbyn supporter and suspect that he’d rather lecture his audience than tell a story. I mean if you want to do a polemical welfare film then great, love it, but why not simply make a documentary, travel the UK talking to claimants, and cut out the fictional middleman? It would probably still win the Palme D’Or, probably still trigger outbursts of expressive emotion in liberal audiences – it would probably be a good piece of work.

As is, Loach’s film is not universally loved. Camilla Long tweeted (her review’s behind Times paywall) ‘Underwhelmed by I, Daniel Blake. Preachy and poorly made. A povvo safari for middle class people.’ Toby Young has a critical piece at the Mail – he’s not as witty as the fabulous Camilla Long so the article drags. Young complains that Ken Loach ‘has an absurdly romantic view of benefit claimants. Daniel is a model citizen. At no point do we see him drinking smoking, gambling, or even watching television.’ The point apparently being made is that Loach portrays claimants as being overly ‘deserving’ – when statistics prove, to Young’s satisfaction, that plenty of them are actually ‘undeserving’: he claims that a million people came off ESA prior to the introduction of work capacity tests and a further million were declared fit for work. Therefore: ‘the vast majority should never have been receiving disability benefit.’ QED!

I could argue this out for the rest of the day. I won’t do because I don’t want to get into the aggressive bitterness that characterises so much of the welfare debate (take a look at Long’s mentions if you don’t believe me) and nor do I want to spend hours going through the intricacies of UK benefits systems (you don’t want to know about applicable amounts and non-dependant charges and mandatory reconsiderations and discretionary housing payments, you really don’t). I also don’t want to repeat the horror stories about possible benefit related deaths (there are examples on the Ekklesia blog, which also challenges some of Young’s statistical claims).

I speak from experience here because for some years I worked in advocacy/public sector style jobs trying to help people out with their housing, benefits and many other issues. I loved this work, I was good at it, I would have done it for life, but unfortunately over the last six months my own mental health problems caught up with me. Eventually I just got tired of the panic attacks, the depressions, the sleeplessness and I walked. The day David Cameron resigned as prime minister, I was on the couch, my head buzzing with an increase of medication, and I felt nothing. It wasn’t a significant moment.

What pushed me over the edge? It certainly wasn’t the fault of my employers, good people who tried their best. I think the bureaucracy got me, that plus all the suffering I’ve seen, most of it completely avoidable. Result – unemployed and back in therapy. I have a birthday coming up. I’ll be 35. I’m not complaining, I’m a natural survivor, I am also lucky to have support from my partner and others, I am sure I will be back out there and earning again soon. However in my darker moments I think about all the people with long term mental health conditions I know, talented and disciplined men and women who ended up totally marginalised for life. Is that going to happen to me? I hope and believe not but who knows?

Welfare in the UK doesn’t work. Claimants aren’t winning – they get messed around with sanctions, crap placements and form filling, all of which takes time and energy away from the jobsearch. Frontline DWP staff aren’t winning – they have no discretion, they have to deal with claimants presenting complex life issues, and they take a lot of shit from claimants. The public is not winning, because more and more public money is wasted on job centres, Work Coaches, civil servants, the crap Universal Jobmatch system, tribunals, appeals, and the wider social costs of a dysfunctional welfare system. Even private contractors aren’t winning, because they incur reputational damage as focus for public dissatisfaction with the DWP. Even the politicians aren’t winning, because the economic crisis Brexit will bring makes political dreams of a pure free market Singapore state or noble workers united in physical labour look laughably naïve.

The Loach critique I enjoyed most was by Mark Littlewood, director of libertarian IEA thinktank. For Littlewood, Loach’s welfare state ‘does not get the money to where it is needed and is policed by people who are obsessed about their own status and what the rules are but not actually concerned about poverty.’ Littlewood praised the film as ‘an interesting analysis of the colossal failures of state bureaucracy and how that dehumanises both the providers of that service and the people on the receiving end.’ Maybe he was being contrarian, but I think Littlewood strikes a chord: UK welfare combines cruel Dickensian capitalism with all the sclerotic incompetence of the socialist command economy.

Benefits have been politicised to such an extent that we forget how simple it all is. In the best of all possible worlds, some people will be out of work. Either we help them out or we don’t. If we do want to help, let’s do it properly. If we can’t give people the training and health treatment they need, if we can’t make workplaces accessible to those with health problems and disabilities, if we can’t give frontline workers the power to make smart decisions, if we can’t give people autonomy and the control over their own lives, if we can’t help people to help themselves – then we might as well dismantle the welfare reform apparatus altogether and replace it with some kind of base income.

This is Vasily Grossman, writing about Chekhov:

Chekhov said, let’s put God – and all these grand progressive ideas – to one side. Let’s begin with man; let’s be kind and attentive to the individual man – whether he’s a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin Islands or a waiter in a restaurant. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual – or we’ll never get anywhere.

He’s thinking about the Soviet Union. But I think we should remember Grossman’s words in free countries as well.

Step Nine

September 30, 2016

My story of this name is now available at Storgy.

Also, over at 3:AM, I reviewed Lauren Elkin’s marvellous Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London.

Deal Orr No Deal

September 11, 2016

Deborah Orr’s column yesterday has got a bit of a slagging. Which is to an extent unfair, because she comes up with an original angle on a complex problem: are zero hours contracts really a universal bad thing?

Orr makes a number of points that normally I’d be sympathetic with. I agree that the economy is changing, and the ‘job for life’ ain’t guaranteed any more. I agree that the left tends to regard pre-Thatcher employment as a lost kingdom, and ignores the difficult, repetitive and hazardous nature of manual careers. I agree that the grind of full time work is not for everyone. And the rebel in me still regards the prospect of decades in the same workplace with a kind of horror.

Orr balances the boring old unionist jobs for life culture, with sunny assertions on the happy go lucky world of the gig economy: ‘it’s also true that many people like being their own boss, and just don’t recognise the binary struggle between bosses and workers as relevant to their lives. They like being both.’ Zero hours contracts ‘are mostly taken up by women, and two thirds of people on zero-hours contracts say they don’t want more hours than they have already.’

Is there a little scripture left out of this sermon? I think there is. Here are what to my mind are the problems with zero hours jobs:

1) They are generally crap jobs. I never heard of, say, a zero hours barrister or a piecework advertising executive. But there are plenty of zero hours cab drivers, care workers and pizza deliverers. High powered professionals can get flexibility within their role at their level but the Deliveroo/Uber guys seem to have to deal with all the petty pressures and sanctions of permanent employment. If you are a zero hours worker then your phone tells you what to do.

Which brings us to:

2) Zero hours jobs are not that modern. Zero hours workers report lack of sick pay, leave entitlements, no insurance for when they get knocked over delivering takeaway food all over the city. For the FT, Sarah O’Connor went out and spoke to zero hours drivers and found them struggling under arbitrary rules and on-call systems. As a Deliveroo courier told her: ‘They are treating you like an employee, so how can they say it’s self-employment?’ Rather than writing about new ways of working, O’Connor ended up writing about Taylorism in the nineteenth century. Zero hours jobs could potentially be great flexible jobs if they were reformed, but as it actually exists at the moment the gig economy is just Taylorism with smartphones.

3) People tend to prefer secure employment. As Chris Dillow has said, most people do not have portfolio careers. Most people prefer a regular job with regular pay, particularly if you are young and have a family. That’s not everyone’s situation, but the workplace is set up that way (and it took a lot of hard work to get there) because families stand to lose the most when capitalism goes wrong.

4) Forget your tax credits. It’s also very difficult to claim in work benefits on zero hours contracts because the benefit system is set up to pay people in permanent jobs with regular pay. In a truly scary recent piece by John Harris he argues that the world of work is fragmenting so fast that more and more of us will have to be reliant on benefits in the future even if we have a working income. This would be a perfect storm and I am not convinced that Universal Credit will resolve it.

5) It tends to be a generational thing. When I started work I started out in temp jobs. You could be dumped back on the employment line at a moment’s notice (and I was). For young people coming up, with little experience, the zero hours job will be the only job available – yet another way in which the latest generation loses out in Britain.

So, as I say, I understand Orr’s point that a life in service to one employer is boring. But job security for most people is a bare minimum requirement in life and we are nowhere near being able to guarantee it.

As Gene used to say at Harry’s Place: for most people the problem with capitalism is that it’s not boring enough.

How To Fix Social Mobility Without Really Trying

August 27, 2016

bloodworthA story in the grown-up news caught my eye recently. Longitudinal research has discovered that the graduate class of 2004 – my year, more or less – failed to prosper a decade on, with 25% of ’04 graduates earning around £20,000. The Guardian quotes Alice Barnard, CEO of a vocational education charity:

Immediately after graduation, many graduates are either in jobs that didn’t require a degree or didn’t require the level of education they had got themselves to. They have invested not only time, energy and effort but also quite a lot of money and potentially come out the other side without the jobs they perhaps expected to get.

In other words, for all our education and qualifications we might as well have left school at sixteen, borrowed some money and started flipping houses on the property game. It appears that – O lost, and by the wind, O grieved! – my generation has achieved less than jackshit.

Michael Young invented the concept of ‘meritocracy’ in 1958. He did not mean it as a good thing. ‘I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy,’ he wrote in 2001. ‘The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain’. While it was ‘good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit’ the meritocracy turned ‘Because I’m Worth It’ into an ideological cudgel. ‘They can be insufferably smug… The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side. So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.’ And the people who don’t make it – for whatever reason – are near-demonised, because under true meritocracy bad circumstances can only be the result of personal failings. ‘No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that,’ said Young. They have been left with the poverty of expectation, which will kill you just as soon as material poverty.

Politicians today always say they are going to ‘break down privilege’ and ‘help people get on’ in meritocratic terms, and contrarywise political writers across the spectrum revive Young’s criticisms. Charles Moore points out, in a critique of the Prime Minister’s social mobility speech, that life chances are impacted by loads of things that have nothing to do with merit: ‘luck, ability, upbringing, health, inheritance, education, marriage, even looks (as in ‘Her face is her fortune’).’

Moore is right that ‘few would tolerate a Conservative government who tried to punish everybody who is rich for these reasons’ (although one might take issue with his claim that ‘It is encouraging that a man whose family first got rich because his ancestor was the fat huntsman (gros veneur) of William the Conqueror has £9 billion today, 950 years later… It gives hope to us all.’) The point is, meritocracy is far too deterministic. People do not just slot into their allotted ‘station in life’ as a result of inborn talent and personal worth. As the man said, life is short and art is long, and success is very far off.

In any case, the UK is still far too shackled by aristocracy of birth to worry about Young’s dystopia just yet. James Bloodworth is a good, muscular writer who rams home his points with a welter of stats and figures. Only a small percentage of UK citizens are privately educated but they dominate the judiciary, journalism, television, politics,  medicine, drama, showbusiness and the music industry. Cliché as this is, it appears that ‘who you know’ is a big thing on our small island. ‘Put more straightforwardly,’ Bloodworth writes, ‘if you live in London and have friends in high-powered jobs, you are far more likely to get an ‘in’ with someone influential in your desired profession than someone who lives a long way from the capital and who lacks the same contacts.’ The interesting and rewarding stuff relies on networks and unpaid internships which are difficult or impossible to get into. ‘Politicians are thus chasing a mirage,’ Bloodworth writes.

When Bloodworth’s book came out some reviewers complained that he offered no potential solutions. It’s understandable as ‘social mobility’ contains a multitude. When does personal drive end and environmental impacts begin? What does and doesn’t impact a life, and what if anything can the state do to mitigate these impacts?

Nevertheless, let me now try to put the world to rights, and offer some potential very simplified solutions to the complex issue.

  • There is no reason for everything to be concentrated in London. The skew towards our capital is destroying it, aggravating the property market and making the city unliveable. Power should be devolved to the regions where possible and media outlets/publishers/TV stations should open offices there. The Northern Powerhouse is a political thing. Let’s make it a real thing.
  • We need more capitalism. Too many areas have only a few public sector bodies or monopoly private employers to apply to. This keeps wages low and prevents bad practice from being challenged. We could set up some kind of commission to break regional monopolies. We should cap business rates for smaller companies and give grants to any small entrepreneur with a reasonable business plan.
  • Make localism pay. We should reform local democracy so that elected reps are paid the national average and that working age people can get involved in their communities. This would also provide a route into politics for bright people outside political networks.
  • Bright people who want to go to college should be allowed in. Whether you want to become a cardiologist or just spend three years reading books, the experience of university breaks down poverty of expectations and makes people realise that other things in life are possibles. And this can only be a good thing.
  • Vocational stuff needs to really be vocational. I’m all for vocational education but too often the state seems to use it to tie up working class people on meaningless NVQ or BTECs because it can’t think what else to do with them. Vocational education is great but it needs to teach skills. And that had better be clear and marketable skills.
  • Bring on welfare reform. Job Centres and the welfare reform industry has function-bloated right out of control. Rather than helping people find work, they act as enforcement arms for the state. If the current system can’t finance vocational training for jobseekers or get them into decent jobs rather than just off benefits then it should be closed down and replaced with some sort of base income.
  • Let’s be nice. Our economy has been troubled for a while and it will get more so, many people are out of work through no fault of their own. Others find it very difficult to work due to physical and mental health problems. Try to be compassionate. Poverty can happen to anyone. It can happen to you.

And if you really do want to get on in life then the last thing you should do is listen to a politician.

You Ain’t No Nice Guy

August 21, 2016

Character matters in politics. The troubled Blair-Brown relationship had a huge impact on the Labour Party and the country. The Dave-Boris Eton rivalry made history in a way neither man expected.

You can play the counterfactual game forever. If Parnell had been more faithful (or at least more discreet) the Ireland Troubles and so many deaths could have been avoided. If Edward VIII hadn’t abdicated for love, Nazis might rule the world. And so on.

Jeremy Corbyn is a nice guy. A real prince. That is, until you ask him a question he doesn’t want to answer, or tell him something he doesn’t want to hear. You can see the change, in tone and demeanour, in his interview with Krishnan Guru-Murphy, and in the Vice documentary (particularly around 23 minutes in when he is questioned about Ken Livingstone’s unfortunate Hitler remarks). A light goes out of his eyes, and there is a sense that the mask has slipped.

Lots of Jeremy Corbyn supporters are nice people. I meet many. It seems that the worse Corbyn does in Westminster, the more people go to his rallies. Political analysts fall over themselves trying to explain Jeremy’s peculiar magnetism. I think Helen Lewis gets it right. People really do want a kinder gentler politics. People are sick of authoritarianism and inequality. There are good, smart, brave, struggling, creative people who are backing him. It’s to them that I’m speaking because I don’t want these people to be lost to politics forever.

Problem is, Jeremy Corbyn is not a nice guy.

I can prove it, and it’s easy to prove, because he’s a public figure, and so much is on record.

Nice guys do not invite Islamist fanatics into Parliament, claim they do this to ‘promote dialogue’ – and then ignore approaches from Israeli socialists.

Nice guys don’t take money from oppressive regimes, nor appear on their propaganda channels.

Nice guys don’t stand by while colleagues are anti-semitically abused, at the launch of an inquiry into anti-Semitic abuse, and particularly then don’t exchange friendly words with the abuser. And a nicer leader would have thought again about offering the inquiry chair a peerage, after the inquiry more or less declared a clean bill of health.

Nice guys don’t take their staff for granted, blank team members who ask hard questions, or leave people to sink or swim. Nice guys don’t appoint, then fire people without knowledge or consent, particularly not if they are being treated for cancer at the time.

Nice guys don’t use the shocking death of a colleague, as rhetorical weapon to inhibit dissent.

Nice guys don’t preside over a culture of threats, bullying and intimidation, and when challenged, simply tell people to ‘ignore it’.

This last point bears expanding.

‘Ignore it’ is good advice if a drunk shouts abuse at you in the street.

If you’re the leader of a political party, that is an increasingly toxic environment, particularly for women and Jewish people, then you shouldn’t ignore it. You should put a stop to it.

For all the talk of entryism, I suspect a lot of the aggro comes from hardcore and longterm CLP members, as much as the ‘£3 supporters’. What is amazing is that people treat this ugly discourse as if it has nothing to do with Jeremy. It’s like the joke Communist, hearing of some new corruption or atrocity, who complains: ‘What a disgrace – if only Comrade Stalin knew about this!’

Check out this piece. The victim blaming, the pettiness, the condescension. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. This is why good, serious people don’t want anything to do with Jeremy or his team.

I have respect and sympathy for women in the Labour Party struggling to change things. Many of them would make fine leaders of the opposition. Right now, they’d have more chance of landing on the moon.

Such problems are not unique to Labour or the left of course. My point is that politics has got appreciably nastier in my lifetime. And I think Jeremy has been one of the people making that happen.

Jeremy will probably win the leadership. He might even win a general election. But he doesn’t deserve to.

Darkness Physical: Dan Vyleta’s ‘Smoke’

August 4, 2016

danvyletaThere’s a moment in classic 1990s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary where Fielding’s heroine, appalled by the state of the segregated smoking carriage on a train journey, vents in her journal: ‘Would not have been in least surprised if carriage had mysteriously been shunted off into siding never to be seen again. Maybe privatised rail firms will start running Smoking Trains and villagers will shake their fists and throw stones at them as they pass, terrifying their children with tales of fire-breathing freaks within.’

Bridget strikes a chord, not just on the identification of smoke with sin (even the harmless electronic cigarette is frowned upon in some public health circles) but the imagery of it – people of ash riding a doomed train. It’s an image that comes to mind on reading Smoke, Dan Vyleta’s fantasy thriller where sin is all too visible. In Vyleta’s England (it’s set in the nineteenth century, although could be later because the authorities in Vyleta’s England suppress new technology and the world beyond its borders) any dark thoughts or impulses cause actual smoke to rise from the person’s skin.

In boarding school, where we begin the story, the environment is carefully regimented so that barely anyone ever emits the sin-smoke at all: later, the boys visit London, a city almost caved in by the weight of its own smoke and soot. Vyleta’s young protagonists get caught between the Tory and Whiggish wings of the authorities, each trying to carve its own path to the Republic of Virtue: there’s also a working class rebel movement that works in underground mines so that the smoke coming off the conspirators is less obvious.

It’s all beautifully written but Vyleta’s concept isn’t as original as he thinks: the idea of someone’s inner life taking physical form is as old as sin itself – think of the dæmons of Northern Lights, or Patrick Ness’s Noise. Still, there’s loads of fascinating angles on poverty, prejudice and class, and reflections on the puzzle of sin in a secular world – why hidden thoughts and motivations still seem more important than actual demonstrable actions. (Politics these days seems near written in the language of faith.) As the sailor says in Vyleta’s absorbing novel: ‘This is Britain, though. Here crookery has had a haircut, and its shirt cuffs are freshly ironed.’