Archive for the ‘Political’ Category

Liberals in Lockdown

May 17, 2020

It’s not made the papers, but there’s been a lot of noise and merriment about the anti lockdown protests happening this weekend. Social media echoed with images of mad old men holding enormous placards and Piers Corbyn being dragged away in handcuffs. The derision is understandable – the London Hyde Park demo drew only dozens, rather than hundreds, of people, which makes it more successful at least than the ‘mass gathering’ planned for Leeds Hyde Park, which attracted no protestors at all. The LS6ers don’t much like conspirazoids. And on a Saturday, they don’t get up before noon.

There have been small periodic protests since beginning of lockdown and they have come to represent the silly and toxic opposition to lockdown – Spiked Online, the increasingly deranged comment pages of the Daily Telegraph, Nigel Farage patrolling Dover beaches looking for immigrants, the idiots who tear down 5G poles, the President telling us to drink bleach and the rowdy yokels of certain American states. The worst people in politics gather in opposition to lockdown.

And yet, part of me’s with the yodellers in pickup trucks.

We’re used to the slow-witted David Icke and his pathetic followers shouting and grifting on the internet – they’ve been doing it for years. These weekend proved they are in the minority. But what of the stalwart supporters of the corona lockdown?

It’s a truism to say that the pandemic has brought out the best in us. Chaos tells you who people are. Hundreds of thousands signed up to the NHS volunteering scheme. Colonel Moore raised millions padding around his garden. Neighbours help each other out with food and medication deliveries. And every Thursday sundown rings with applause and pots and pans.

But there has also been a darkness to this time, and not all of it has come from the conspirazoids.

Toronto philosopher Regina Rini wrote on the ethics of disease control at the beginning of the pandemic when cases were first beginning to appear in her country.

What is so ethically troubling about epidemic disease is that it pushes us toward the objective attitude. We cease thinking about victims as persons, but instead as vectors of disease or ambling contaminated surfaces. Thinking of people as systems to be brought under orderly control helps us tamp down our own fear, even as it erases their humanity. When this disconnected attitude joins itself to underlying social prejudice – against Jews in medieval Europe or gay men with HIV in the 1980s – our response goes beyond the merely crass to the harmful and threatening. In all but the most extreme cases, the disease itself ends up being less dangerous to human wellbeing than the panicked, bigoted attitude.

In her piece Rini accepted the need for social distancing. Brute virology doesn’t care about our feelings. But she also urged ‘moral caution’ – we need still to look at people as people, not just ‘vectors of disease’.

The weekend before Boris declared lockdown, people were outraged at the numbers of city dwellers hanging out in parks and rushing out for a last pint on Friday evening. Walking through East London on March 19, NS editor George Eaton complained that he had ‘seen pubs and restaurants still half full – ‘nudging’ doesn’t appear to be working.’

But it takes time for awareness of threat to filter down. Once it did, we got the message – loud and clear.

In mid April, poet Salena Godden wrote:

I saw Goody Proctor
and John Proctor
walking side-by-side
holding hands
two-abreast
with devils breath

I saw Goody Proctor
clapping for the NHS
she were too very close
to her neighbour
and both
without bra or manners

Godden’s satire of public lockdown attitudes was close but didn’t cover half of it. Under the local kindness and volunteering was a drive of enthusiastic conformism that couldn’t stop hunting heresies. Neighbours shopped neighbours for jogging too much, shopped carers for visited loved ones, shopped people for sitting in their back gardens. Northampton police chief Nick Adderly told the BBC that ‘We are getting calls from people who say ‘I think my neighbour is going out on a second run – I want you to come and arrest them’.’ I’ve heard of forces having to set up new COVID-19 reporting mechanisms to divert the surges of reports that overwhelmed 101 and 999 dispatch centres. That’s a hyperbolic comparison – Britain in lockdown is not Soviet Russia! – but I couldn’t help being reminded of Robert Conquest’s line from The Great Terror: ‘Nevertheless, just as Nazism provided an institutionalised outlet for the sadist, Stalinist totalitarianism on the whole automatically encouraged the mean and malicious. The carriers of personal and office feuds, the poison-pen letter writers, who are a minor nuisance in any society, flourished and increased.’

Like Conquest says – the enthusiastic citizen rule enforcers are a part of any society at any time. It’s a part of human nature to follow The Rules and judge others by how well they can follow the Rules, in what strength of fidelity and detail. What has annoyed me is the atmosphere of enthusiastic conformity among the commentariat. It was not just the strength of their support for national emergency legislation – what David Allen Green called The Clamour – but a refusal to admit or even entertain potential adverse consequences of policy – and in a national emergency that’s any policy. A bemused Marie le Conte remarked that ‘I’ve been feeling so out of step with most of Twitter recently; it should be possible to talk about how tough the lockdown is’.

Not on Gov.UK Twitter, it wasn’t. Liberal Remainers who were up in arms, and rightly so, when Boris suspended Parliament last year, said nothing when it shut itself down for COVID-19. Unprecedented authoritarian legislation? Dead silence from the progressives. The questions of inequality, class and privilege that run through Britain under lockdown like the lettering in a stick of rock did not interest them either. Nothing on the people trapped in substandard housing or abusive relationships, the asylum seekers dispossessed because their informal networks have been shut down. Nothing on the surge in mental illness or the thousands of non-COVID deaths at home. Where there was criticism of the government, it was that emergency measures were not passed soon enough, or did not go far enough. Follow gov.uk guidelines, and listen to the experts (not that gov.UK Twitter’s own lack of expertise in infectious diseases did not prevent it lecturing us at length).

Of course what liberals say on social media is a minor issue and probably doesn’t affect anything but it represents, I think, an embarrassing failure of intellect. It will become more embarrassing for them as other countries begin to open borders and public spaces (dumping on every country that eases restrictions reveals the insecurity of our own intelligentsia’s position on this issue.) Chaos tells you who people are. Most people are wary of the COVID-19 conspiracy theorists – no one wants to be associated with them. But I am also looking around at my fellow liberals. And I’m afraid to say I am a little wary of them, too.

(Image: LeedsLive)

Mental Health in Lockdown

May 8, 2020

There is a tendency in political commentators to support, near uncritically, the government’s COVID-19 lockdown, to hit hard at the lockdown’s few dissenters, and to downplay adverse consequences of the lockdown. Oliver Kamm’s latest article for Cap-X isn’t coming from what I call ‘Gov.Uk Twitter’ but it shades into that sensibility at times. His bold claim is that ‘The critics of the lockdown in Britain typically stress not only the immense costs to the economy of current policies but also the psychological toll of keeping people isolated. That objection is wrong.’

When Kamm talks about mental illness he speaks with authority. He suffered from clinical depression, and was also targeted by political nuts online, who sought to intimidate and psychologically break him. So this para is not throat clearing: I have respect for Kamm but I believe (respectfully) that he is wrong in this case.

Kamm does acknowledge potential harms of the lockdown, and the questions of privilege that run through it: he concedes that ‘low mood is what you’d expect when we can’t visit our friends or loved ones, engage in normal recreation, or even just change the scenery by getting on a train. It will particularly affect those who live in cramped or substandard accommodation, without access to green spaces, and in dysfunctional or abusive domestic relationships.’

Keeping ourselves sane, however, ‘will require challenging two myths that are incompatible but that perversely give sustenance to each other.’ For his myths, Kamm picks two bad takes on mental health and society – the callous cod libertarianism of the dimwitted Spiked Online crew, and the argument of the 2010s left that capitalism fries our brains by keeping us poor, or by making us rich. These are indeed stupid takes that reading about mental health you will encounter.

Once the straw men have been bundled back into the haybarn, however (Kamm quotes a Laurie Penny column going back to 2015) what exactly is Kamm’s advice? It is Gov.UK Twitter advice: ‘Following the advice of PHE to stay in touch with people, to support others, to look after your physical wellbeing and to take time to focus on the present will make our society as well as ourselves more resilient in dark times.’ Of course, Kamm concedes again, ‘while the habits recommended by PHE can make you more resilient against mental illness, resilience itself is not a remedy for those who have depressive disorders.’

For depression, Kamm recommends cognitive behavioural therapy: ‘A stressful event, such as bereavement or the breakup of an important relationship, can stimulate a self-reinforcing chain of negative thoughts and stress. CBT works to correct these disorders of thought. It is cheap for the health service to provide and has a record of success.’ The therapy is particularly useful in lockdown as you will be able to do it online.

But chances are, you know what CBT is – because it’s everywhere. Employers use it, jobcentres use it, it’s a tool that’s been proven useful so naturally organisations see it as the go to and cure all. But CBT is just that – one tool in the box – it’s not necessarily going to work on its own and it’s not going to work for everyone. Individuals are complex. Different tools and methods are needed.

Say you have a recurring, intrusive thought – ‘I am going to die of the coronavirus.’ You lose sleep, have panic attacks, become low and afraid. A CBT practitioner will help you develop counterpoints to that bad thought, such as:

  • I am catastrophising – the worst thing doesn’t always happen
  • I practice social distancing – I am doing everything I should to avoid catching the virus
  • Even if I get the coronavirus – I probably won’t die

The problem is – in many people the more you engage with irrational intrusive thoughts the more these thoughts will dominate your mental landscape. You are wandering deeper into the woods, and looking inward rather than outside at the wider world. That’s a particular danger during the pandemic when we are encouraged to be agoraphobics in the home and OCD outside it.

The mind is amazing but most of the stuff it throws up is not relevant or even interesting. It’s best to take a step back from your own thought processes and treat the mind as a fast-flowing river that carries everything quickly downstream. Being in the present, and the wider world, is the way forward.

Of course – I am no clinician – CBT may work very well in the majority of people. But rolling out CBT barely made a dent in the mental illness epidemic under the austerity years of the 2010s. Most people supported austerity when it came in ten years ago, just as most people support lockdown today. But it is not easy to function under conditions of austerity. Weeks turn into months, and resilience ebbs.

In Life After Dark, social historian Dave Haslam wrote that ‘The bouyant demand for literary and other sorts of festivals and for live music suggest that face-to-face, primary experiences and social occasions have virtues the virtual world lack.’ Primary experience keeps us sane. Restricting it can only do psychological harm.

This is not the place for a critique of the lockdown. It may well be right and necessary. But I would like some acknowledgement that even if it is the best policy it will have adverse consequences. And one of those consequences will be an impact on mental health.

The Almanac

March 25, 2020

I wrote this story, I think, just after the EU referendum. I know people who spent the whole day in bed that Friday. I couldn’t imagine reacting like that, I didn’t feel this big sense of despair and loss, I knew the EU wasn’t all good – its horrendous treatment of non European migrants was, and is, one of the great world scandals of present times. So initially I thought Brexit might be an opportunity as much as a disaster.

Over the next three years my heart hardened. It got too culture war. People got sick of being denounced as ‘the elite’ just because we voted the wrong way in the summer of 2016. The narrative of cosmopolitan Remainers versus working class Leavers took hold and stayed there. We were transactional, materialist, unserious, unworthy of being part of the new community of values, place and belonging. I don’t exaggerate – even the very intellectual and respected Leavers framed the debate in these terms. This is Matthew Goodwin, writing in January:

Our leaving is the result of a collective decision, taken by a majority of its people, about the destiny of their national community — or what most consider to be their home. And this decision, contrary to the liberal view of citizens as autonomous individuals who are mainly driven by self-interest, was never rooted in transactional considerations about money.

Nor was it focused on individuals. Rather, it was anchored in a collective and sincere concern about the wider group, about the nation, and in profound questions about identity, culture and tradition. Who are we? What kind of nation are we? What holds us together? Where do we want to go, together, in the future?

Remainers never grasped the potency of these questions — or how to answer them in terms that the majority would recognise. At times, they presented a vision of Britain that was fundamentally at odds with how most people see it — a random collection of individuals who have little in common aside from the pursuit of economic growth and ‘openness’.

That’s the level of debate we have had. The idea that anyone who voted remain – 48% of us – might have thought about the EU referendum on a political or philosophical level seems to have been beyond Goodwin. Such stereotyping and lack of allowance for human complexity inflamed the culture war. People complained about the People’s Vote movement and their gigantic demonstrations but that movement only reflected Leavers failure to win support and sell their case. But the spectacle also legitimised the tactically useful communitarian idea that we were a country divided into two very distinct tribes.

Here is the problem. Brexit was always analysed as a reaction to rather than a call for, it was sold to us as a cry of pain from an oppressed majority waiting to overthrow their neoliberal overlords. What we were going to do outside the EU, what a post Brexit Britain would look like, barely entered into it. Take away the stuff about free ports and state aid rules, and there wasn’t much there.

Take this piece from Jonathan Rutherford, one of the founders of the communitarian Blue Labour movement, writing (like Goodwin) on the verge of our offical exit from the EU. What is his vision for Britain post Brexit? ‘It will require a national economic development strategy which focuses on improving and modernising the everyday economy of child and elder care, health and wellbeing, education, utilities, and the low wage sectors of hospitality, retail, food processing and supermarkets which sustain daily life.’ This is New Labour without the style.

And who cares about this now anyway? It all seems so very long ago. Now of course we are fighting the coronavirus. A culture war doesn’t matter so much when you’re fighting to stay alive. Even Trump’s attempts to trigger the libs by labelling corona the ‘Chinese virus’ seem tired and perfunctory now.

So all of this is to say that when I wrote ‘The Almanac’ I had no idea how Brexit would turn out. It’s a story that plays on ‘Project Fear’ not as prediction but as concept: what happens when everything that could go wrong does?

It has been published by The Selkie and I should thank the appreciation and guidance of its editors.

And from now on, I swear, I will try to keep this place a Brexit free zone!

Image: Bloomberg. The stamp is from the Austrian post office. As the report says:

Austria had planned a stamp to commemorate Britain’s departure from the European Union, but when the presumed deadline – March 29, 2019 – came and went with no Brexit, the postal service found itself with 140,000 stamps bearing the wrong date.

Fast-forward 10 months, and as Britain finally heads for the exit, Austria is releasing the stamp–with the original date crossed out and Jan. 31, 2020 printed just below.

Captain Trips

March 12, 2020

Everyone wants you to be worried. And indeed there’s a lot to be worried about. I particularly feel for older people and people who have respiratory problems. A public health professional I chatted to on Twitter told me that for people in that situation, the idea of losing a breath is terrifying – of fighting, struggling for breath. I can’t imagine.

My point is only that being anxious is not the same as being careful. Anxiety is not a constructive condition. The redundancy and the harm of anxiety is compounded in this instance by the fact that there is only so much that you as an individual can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – beyond hand hygiene and consideration, which we should be doing anyway. The micromanagement of personal behaviour is finite.

So the question becomes what others should be doing. Government is throwing money at the virus – fair enough, we need more money for NHS response. Employers should let people work from home – sure, but our work culture of presenteeism makes that a hard sell. There are all kinds of tools like Skype to make public obligations like court hearings or occupational health interviews quicker and easier, but they’ve never been used – people are expected to travel halfway across the city for some mandatory training course or trek between counties to visit one of our few remaining public utilities. Maybe corona will help us overcome entrenched compulsory meeting culture, maybe it won’t. And it will also be a hard sell for the state to look after the gig economy workers who don’t get paid if they don’t show up – whatever the reason.

All this is a big ask for UK public sector. There are people who want the state to do yet more things. Dr Jenny Vaughan, law and policy lead for Doctors UK, discovered this when she called in to Love Sport talk radio. The presenters had been complaining about a news report saying that retired doctors would not be happy to come back to work in a crisis. Vaughan made the points that most of these doctors are completely burned out after many years in stressful frontline culture, that many bureaucratic and occupational hoops would need to be jumped through to get back to the frontline, and that as retired people tend to be old, the doctors would be more at risk. No dice. ‘Absolute nonsense!’ said the presenters. ‘Get rid of her.’

Then last night, Piers Morgan complained that ‘1000s of Atletico Madrid fans are in Liverpool – despite their own city being in virtual lockdown, INCLUDING their own matches, because Madrid’s been ravaged by Coronavirus (782 cases, 35 deaths). This is total madness. What the hell is the British Government doing????’ Piers is an easy target of course but he represents something sinister in the national corona worry – not just anxiety but the demand that Something Must Be Done: to be given stuff, or for the state to do stuff to other people.

I apologise for what will seem a flippant tone to this post. Do I come off as the lazy sceptic who assumes that nothing bad will ever happen? I’m not – I love my life and live partly in fear and vigilance that someone or something might try and take it from me. National events do worry me. My point is that it is not clear that China or Italy style lockdowns (or Trump’s travel ban that Piers Morgan is so fond of) has been effective in fighting the virus, or that such measures should be imported to England. I know I’m an uninformed layman, but come on, what happened to the good old British devil-may-care insouciance in the face of disaster?

The philosopher Kenan Malik saw all this coming, back in early February. He argued that state based cures can sometimes be worse than the disease:

In 2009, the H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic caused up to 550,000 deaths and, like the coronavirus, was declared a global health emergency. In Mexico, where the virus was first detected, the government shut schools and businesses, banned public gatherings and imposed quarantines. These moves helped limit new cases of H1N1, but were abandoned after 18 days, partly because of the huge social and economic costs they imposed. Although between 4,000 and 12,000 died from the outbreak in Mexico, the cost of preventing it spreading further was seen as greater than the cost wreaked by the virus itself.

When some West African states imposed cordons sanitaires to seal off large areas during the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic, tens of thousands were left starving, leading to mass violence. Quarantines have their place in the medical toolkit, but demonstrating you’re in control may not be the best way of tackling an epidemic.

The authorities want to transmit other messages, too. There is no medical reason for Australia to quarantine its nationals returning from Wuhan on Christmas Island, 2,000 miles from the mainland. But it is making a point. For years, Canberra has incarcerated undocumented migrants in ‘offshore’ camps. ‘You will not sully Australian soil’ is the message. It’s the same message about those who might be infected with the coronavirus.

For all that we should take care, and be aware of the seriousness of the pandemic, it doesn’t hurt to learn from the history of such things.

Update: Mind have useful guidance on corona and mental health, plus links to NHS advice.

Captive States

August 3, 2019

(Spoilers for everything)

On a corrections bus travelling to begin her double-life sentence, Rachel Kushner’s protagonist Romy Hall reflects on her fate. ‘I was assigned a public defender. We were all hopeful things would go differently. They did not go differently. They went this way.’ Kushner’s novel The Mars Room follows Hall into a Central Valley woman’s correctional where guards and bureaucrats constantly reinforce the fact things went this way: ‘your situation is due one hundred per cent to choices you made and actions you took.’ Later, she considers this: ‘The lie of regret and of life gone off the rails. What rails. The life is the rails. It is its own rails and it goes where it goes.’

The Mars Room is about bleak situations, but it’s not a bleak novel. It’s not a grind.

I watched the final of Orange is the New Black this week. ONTB shares with Kushner’s novel the trick of compelling but not miserabilist drama in reduced circumstances. It’s from Jenji Kohan who created Weeds, a comic drama about a suburban widow who sells dope to support her family – a lighter Breaking Bad, may it do ya. Weeds started off really well but later became too silly and surreal even for me.

ONTB has plenty of Kohan’s trademark quirkiness. There are big musical cues, weird sexual hijinks and absurd set pieces. It was also pretty baggy, with very long episodes that didn’t go anywhere. If you’re on series one or two, stick with it though, because there is plotting, you just don’t see it until much later. Myles McNutt at the AV club complains about the wonky timeline but for me Kohan does a masterful job of conveying six years of gradual change in what’s supposed to be an eighteen-month period.

ONTB is about the minimum security Litchfield federal prison that’s run reasonably well but not perfectly. The authorities sell out to a corporation, which brings in a new head guard: the foul Desi Piscatella. He has been kicked out of the male system for burning an inmate to death and brings his ironfist ethos to Litchfield – notwithstanding that the prisoners there are mostly harmless kooks and drug dealers. Piscatella’s bullying leads to the death of the well liked inmate Poussey Washington, which in turn provokes a riot, after which the prisoners are relocated to the maximum security facility down the road. The old Litchfield is turned into an ICE detention centre.

‘This isn’t Oz,’ a guard tells Piper Chapman on her first day in. And it’s not. There are few murders or violent episodes. Up until end series four, you’re basically watching a gentle comedy set behind bars. (An interesting comparison with Tom Fontana’s show is how they establish what each character’s in for: while the crime flashbacks in Oz last seconds – men who blow their lives away in one impulsive moment – ONTB spreads a single inmate’s memories over whole episodes, illustrating that fate can be one decisive act or more usually a series of slips and bad decisions.)

It is once the inmates transfer to max, that things get serious. Facing far longer sentences for their participation in the riot, the prisoners cave. Nicky sells out her mentor. Daya turns drug baron. Even tough old Frieda Berlin crumbles. There’s a grim scene where senior prison officers and politicians plan their riot response, focused on a whiteboard with boxes labelled ‘LIFE’, ‘LIFE’, ’10 YEARS’ – they already know the punishments, they just need to find individuals to fit them. It is up to inmates to deal themselves out.

The barter of intel and sentence time is the contradiction in Western justice. Commit a crime and you will be punished – unless you have something to sell. UCL professor Alexandra Natapoff‘s exceptional book Snitching details the absurdity of a deal system that lets serious criminals loose to kill, sell drugs and god knows what else, because they have been basically been put on state payroll. She quotes one court: ‘[n]ever has it been more true that it is now that a criminal charged with a serious crime understands that a fast and easy way out of trouble with the law is… to cut a deal at someone else’s expense.’ Note the cheers from the public gallery when Tasha (‘Taystee’) Jefferson pleads not guilty to killing Piscatella, rather than admitting to a crime she didn’t do which would draw a lighter sentence.

There is a dark, hilarious scene in series four where warden Caputo’s girlfriend, corporate exec Linda, takes him to a prison convention called ‘Correcticon’. As Kathryn Van Arendonk wrote in her recap at the time:

It’s hard to resist the urge to just list every little detail of CorrectiCon. It’s shiveringly well-tuned, hitting notes that rest on the delicate edge between humor and outrage. On one side of the aisle, a booth sells menstrual cups for women’s prisons. It’s a product that might be seriously useful for Litchfield, which has such a dramatic tampon shortage that one inmate tries to use a disposable plastic cup meant for dispensing medicine. On the other side of the exhibit hall, a vendor dressed as an inmate distributes ‘prison slop — fully prepared,’ and Caputo is appalled. ‘Ugh, I have enough of that in my life,’ he tells Linda. ‘It’s just for fun, silly!’ she replies. ‘I think it’s ice cream.’

In one scene the nature of the prison industrial complex is exposed. Prisons are big business and also big job creation – jobs for wardens, guards and clerks, and a big economic lift for the communities where the prison industry chooses to build. The boom in migration detention centres and the atrocities along the Amexican border are just an extension of this Keynesian pump-priming. If we do a deal with Trump’s America, the fate of the NHS may be the least of our worries. Communitarianism defines itself by who is excluded or detained, and there is jobs and money in exclusion and detention.

OTNB critiques tend to focus on privilege and intersectionality. That’s part of it of course: in the last episode of season four we learn that the guard who kills Poussey was as a young man let off for the same possession charge that got Poussey six years – and that, during a night out in New York, Poussey encountered her killer in passing. (There is also another subtle, telling scene when Suzanne Warren, deprived of medication, has a psychotic freakout in a guard’s office with a ‘NO STIGMA’ mental health poster on the wall.)

Piper Chapman, by contrast, benefits from white privilege and class privilege. Like Tobias Beecher in Oz, she represents the viewer and her character is a hook for the show to introduce less privileged characters and tell their stories. But while Beecher learned both compassion and self reliance in Oz, Piper takes her sense of entitlement into the prison and leaves with it intact. She is released at the end of series six, while Taystee faces life without in total innocence. But the social justice warrior critique only goes so far. Piper is human, we recognise her mistakes and feel for her when she is released only to be shunned by her family and friends: the virtue-signalling liberals of her peer group see her as a novelty at best and inconvenience at worst.

What the show does more than this is bring home the arbitrary and transitory nature of prison experience. Much loved characters are transferred, ghosted out or disappear for no clear reason. It is the blur of boundaries between free and not, citizen and not, American and not. Blanca and Maritza have every right to citizenship but are ‘unAmericanised’ by the border state. There is a very moving scene in the final series where deportees on a plane literally fade away, one by one – as Pennsatucky does outside the prison gates. The communitarian ideology depends on disappearing people, and that’s put in contrast with the genuine connections made by people on the inmates – broken people who connect, and in connecting manage to make each other a little less broken. That’s something real, and it’s freedom, of a kind.

An Elephant in the Room

July 9, 2019

It’s a national sport in political journalism to tell the Labour Party what to do. And you don’t have to be a Westminster insider to see that the Corbyn project is fracturing. Perhaps an old-school purge of deviationist elements might help? That seems to be the advice of Guardian columnist Dawn Foster.

Let’s start with Tom Watson, ‘the deputy leader of the Labour party and a lifelong professional wrecker, who has made it his official duty to complain weekly to the Sunday papers, without suggesting any concrete proposals for how to bring the party forward.’ Foster writes that if Watson ‘had any guts, he would quit the party and try to prove that his ideas have electoral traction. Yet, as he has probably discovered, it is hard to come up with bold and original ideas that benefit the electorate and prove popular with voters: it is far easier to stay in a party, wrecking it week by week, hoping to terminally undermine the leader and then inherit the ruins.’

I never liked Tom Watson, he always seemed to me a standard machine blowhard of the Labour right, but this attack on him I think says more about Foster herself than Watson. There is a political narrative that is coming together in hard left circles. I’ll try and summarise it here.

1) The Corbyn Labour Party is not perfect. It’s been weak on many issues and we will continue to hold the leadership to account on them.

2) But – in a two party system Corbyn’s Labour offers the only real alternative to Tory neoliberalism. Millions of suffering people all over the country need a Corbyn led Labour government for that reason.

3) There are people on the liberal left who have become obsessed with metropolitan issues like Brexit. By breaking from Corbyn’s Labour, campaigning for People’s Vote, setting up third parties etc they risk splitting the opposition and will guarantee Tory rule for ever.

4) The liberals, remainers etc don’t understand the consequences of austerity in this country because they are all part of the metropolitan elite. By the same token, people in working class communities don’t care about Brexit etc they only want a socialist government. For their sake we need to make that happen.

As Foster writes:

Watson’s wing of the party is convinced there is a huge untapped reserve of voters who share their precise politics, but exactly where these voters live remains to be seen. I travel extensively around the country, and the only time I meet these people are in TV and radio studios. The electoral failure of the Independent Group/Change UK (or whatever the handful of remaining ex-Labour and Tory MPs now call themselves) should be a warning to the Labour right, but their self-confidence is far greater than their analytical ability.

But in Foster’s article, she makes a couple of big assumptions:

Centrist thinking is focused on two false premises. The first is that the 2012 London Olympic ceremony represented an idyllic high-point of culture and unity in the UK, rather than occurring amid the brutal onslaught of austerity, with food bank use growing and the bedroom tax ruining lives. The second is that the UK became divided by Brexit and the 2016 vote, rather than it being a symptom of long-term problems: the decline of industry and the public sector begun by Margaret Thatcher and continued by Tony Blair and David Cameron; vast inequality of opportunity, wealth and health; and the number of people being routinely ignored in a system with a huge democratic and electoral deficit.

No doubt there is a foolish nostalgia on the remain left for the rule of George Osborne. But some of us ‘centrists’ remember the coalition years well, thank you. It is because we have seen poverty, immiseration and totally avoidable suffering that characterised the 2010s, it is because we have these formative experiences and unalterable memories that we voted against and campaigned against Brexit. Some of us aren’t comfortable or stupid enough to believe the lies that everything will be better or fine. I hope it doesn’t turn out that way but at the moment our future post Brexit looks like neoliberalism on rocket fuel.

And Brexit, really, is not the main issue here. Not even close.

Foster complains that Tom Watson ‘was rending his garments at the fact that former Labour members have released confidential material to the media, despite signing legal agreements not to do so: this is the same Watson who campaigned against hacking victims having emails and other data illegally intercepted.’

This is a sly and careful sentence, that’s worth looking at. You can start by clicking the link in Foster’s sentence – it’s a report from the Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow. Sparrow is following up a scoop from the Times, which revealed that Labour is threatening its own former staff with legal action for ‘wanton disregard’ of NDAs. (The law firm involved is that tribune of the left-behind: Carter Ruck.)

Why the harsh response? Could it be that the leadership is concerned about a forthcoming BBC documentary into the party’s culture of antisemitism, which follows the launch of a formal investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Forget the juxtaposition of individual NDA breaches with phone hacking (are we really, here, comparing like with like?) Listen to what you’re not being told. The narrative of Remainer wreckers etc doesn’t have an explanation for the far more significant problem with the party under its current stewardship: and that many of us would oppose and fear a Corbyn led Labour government for that reason. I don’t think a Corbyn led Labour government would be antisemitic in the 20th century totalitarian sense of that word, but I do think there would be a May style ‘hostile environment’ policy – against Jews, and probably against anyone else deemed suspicious.

I know that there are potential Labour voters who have ‘priced in’ the darkness of the leadership. But I think that there are fewer of them with each passing year. I am not sure that Labour’s current brand of toxic racism and half-arsed welfare policies are the electoral draw that Dawn Foster believes. Who knows whether Labour will win power though. It certainly doesn’t deserve to.

Wellness Among the Ruins

June 11, 2019

Looking at the papers in the cafe this morning, my roving satirical eye caught this piece by Dan Button, of the New Economics Foundation, in which he argues that the government should prioritise well being over GDP.

Yet last week, New Zealand broke new ground by eschewing GDP in favour of wellbeing as a guiding indicator when setting budgets and assessing government policy. Bids to the Treasury for money from now on will not only need a cost-benefit analysis, but an assessment of their wellbeing impact. Decisions about spending will be made on the basis of a project’s contribution to the wellbeing of the population, measured through four dimensions: human capital; social capital; natural capital; and financial and physical capital. It follows the Welsh government’s innovative Well-being of Future Generations Act, which places a legal requirement on public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term social, cultural, environmental and economic wellbeing impact of their decisions.

These are radical steps in the right direction that the UK should learn from by adopting a broader range of indicators when deciding how to spend money. Government departments should have a legal duty to routinely assess new policy for its impact on a broader range of criteria, including wellbeing. If improving quality of life is not the point of government policy, then what is?

The concept of wellbeing seems a bit overused and dated at the moment. It brings to mind Gwyneth Paltrow and her alt health company GOOP, which apparently advises women, in the pursuit of wellness and sexual health, to insert jade eggs into an intimate orifice. I am sure this is not what Dan Button means when he says that ‘departments should have a legal duty to routinely assess new policy for its impact on a broader range of criteria, including wellbeing.’ But even in the more prosaic political sphere, we’ve been here before.

In late 2010 prime minister David Cameron wanted to ‘make happiness the new GDP.’ This is how the Guardian reported it at the time:

He is sticking to a policy commitment he made before the economic crash when growth figures were still rosy. He said: ‘It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB – general wellbeing.’

Speaking at the Google Zeitgeist Europe conference, he added: ‘Wellbeing can’t be measured by money or traded in markets. It’s about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships. Improving our society’s sense of wellbeing is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times.’

We know the rest of this story – as Button says, ‘most of the population saw their living standards stagnate or fall, and austerity measures picked up pace.’ But Button goes on to claim that: ‘An economy with wellbeing at its heart would make it much harder to make such claims, and harder to enforce a policy such as austerity again.’

This seems unlikely. A focus on general wellbeing is usually a excuse for failures on real economics. In 2016 the Leave campaign and numerous Brexit commentators told us that leaving the EU would mean exciting new trade deals and money for the NHS. Now, with industry walking away and no signs of austerity letting up, these same commentators tell us to forget about the numbers, the point of the project is about restoring national pride and intangible British values. (Boring old Remainers, banging on about people’s jobs!)

Of course British values are real, and important. My argument is only that in quitting the antibiotics of GDP we could end up having to insert into ourselves the jade eggs of national sovereignty.

What is wellbeing? Button makes many good points but can’t seem to define it, and for a good reason, because wellbeing is subjective. It would be a hell of a thing for the state to decide what constitutes wellbeing and happiness, particularly as we British have become rather judgemental about how others enjoy themselves. We drink too much, smoke too much, watch reality TV. The difficulty is that government isn’t set up to foster subjective human emotions, it can only provide the resources, time and space for people to foster wellbeing in themselves and their communities and pursue their own happiness.

I’m reminded of Rachel Clarke‘s medical memoir Your Life in My Hands. Though I don’t have my copy to hand, one passage stayed with me. Dr Clarke wrote about working impossible shifts in UK hospitals and every now and again being sent internal mail offering yoga sessions and other wellness activities that the doctors could enjoy during lunch breaks.

We work through lunch break, said Clarke. We don’t have time for this.

Meanwhile, workloads soared and clinicians regularly burned out from stress. Next to nothing was done.

For all Dan Button’s good intentions, I suspect that any attempt to incorporate ‘wellness’ into the heart of British government would end in some scaled-up version of the pointless mailshots Dr Clarke describes, while the rest of the country firefights. It’s about time the state quit its emotionalist thinking and concentrated on keeping the lights on. To paraphrase P J O’Rourke: what we need is less wellness, more lunch.

A Devil’s Bargain

May 5, 2019

Today Nick Cohen asks a good question: how does the useless Jeremy Corbyn still manage to maintain loyalty and followers?

What kind of leader produces such unthinking loyalty from his followers and, more pertinently, what damage does he inflict on the souls of followers prepared to give it?

Jeremy Corbyn is not particularly interesting. Labour officials tell me that the key to understanding him is to grasp his intellectual inferiority complex, which resulted in him turning to political dogmatism as others with his disadvantages turn to Scientology. The socialist dogmas of the 1970s gave his limited mind certainty and freedom from responsibility, and a set of enduring precepts.

There had always been a strain on the British far left that opposed European co-operation because ‘capitalist’ Europe threatened to rival the Soviet Union, the 20th-century object of their utopian fantasies. Corbyn had a ready-made anti-European policy right there. Starting with the Stalinist purges of Soviet Jews in the early 1950s, and extending to the wider left after the Israeli-Arab war of 1967, the notion that leftwing antisemitism didn’t exist surrounded him. In this milieu, it was natural to ally with the goosestepping Shia fascists of Hezbollah, and wild-eyed creeps who babbled about how the Jews caused 9/11; natural, too, to use the racist sneers of his class and generation to tell British Jews in his audience they did not understand ‘English irony’. And… well, I could go on, as you surely know.

I think the answer to Nick’s question is a kind of devil’s bargain.

David Hirsh in Contemporary Left Antisemitism argues that there are two traditions to the left. There is the democratic left which gave us the vote, trade unions and the minimum wage. Then there is the totalitarian left – which is as different from the democratic left as darkness from noon. From it, came gulags and show trials and ideology and blood.

It’s been obvious since he won the Labour leadership that Corbyn is from this second totalitarian tradition of the left. People aren’t stupid, they sense the intellectual darkness around Corbynism, they don’t particularly like it but many have been willing to accept it anyway, as ‘part of the package’.

Why? Because Corbyn also talked about the injustices faced by ordinary people struggling against the austerity of the last nine years. If you’re a lone parent of three in a falling-down private rental, or an unemployed 58 year old living on foodbanks and Universal Credit, his message is going to resonate. There are people out there hoping for a socialist Labour government to save them. They are only just hanging on, and they are the people who are going to be let down most of all.

The 2017 election intensified this because Labour surpassed very bad expectations. Since then the narrative has been ‘one last push’. It has been ‘we are so close to power, Jeremy’s enemies are panicking’.

‘Therfor bihoveth him a ful long spoon/That shal ete with a feend,’ said Geoffrey Chaucer. Medieval literature isn’t my field but what I think Chaucer is saying here is: when you deal with the devil, keep your eyes open, because he’s like to fuck you over. And so it is proving.

In What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank explored the attraction that Republicanism had for working class Americans. He looked at the disconnect between what Republican voters wanted and what they were actually getting. ‘Vote to stop abortion: receive a rollback in capital gains taxes… Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meat packing. Vote to strike a blow against elitism, receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes.’

You could tabulate a similar vote/receive for Corbynism, based on what it’s likely to look like in power. Vote for meaningful work and a strong welfare state; receive Brexit on WTO terms and an economy in freefall. Vote to end homelessness and reform the housing market; receive international alliances with authoritarian states. Vote for solidarity with migrants and asylum seekers; receive tolerance of anti-semitism and an end of freedom of movement.

Corbyn’s team have relied upon people not realising that if they are not credible on issues like Brexit and antisemitism they are not likely to be credible on fixing the economy and social justice either.

There are signs, however, that the credibility gap is beginning to close, and that people are catching up.

Labour lost 79 seats in local elections this week. I had very far left people in my timeline, previously loyal to JC but who couldn’t vote Labour this time around because they were so disillusioned with him. Corbyn spent the day of the People’s Vote march campaigning in Morecambe. It went independent.

It has been a long time since 2017.

As I said, I can understand why people living in the hell of poverty might want to overlook Corbyn’s baggage.

But what about the more established supporters of JC – the Guardian and Jacobin columnists, the pundits, journalists and outriders?

What’s their excuse?

If You Liked Neoliberalism, You’ll Love Nativism

April 27, 2019

I have finally got around to having a look at the Hansard Society survey that came out a few weeks ago. The audit caused something of a stir because it concluded that the public were sick of parliamentary democracy and wanted an authoritarian strongman to take over. As the Guardian reported:

The UK public is increasingly disenchanted with MPs and government and ever more willing to welcome the idea of authoritarian leaders who would ignore parliament, a long-running survey of attitudes to politics has shown.

Amid the Brexit chaos, overall public faith in the political system has reached a nadir not previously seen in the 16-year history of the Hansard Society’s audit of political engagement, lower even than at the depths of the crisis over MPs’ expenses.

Almost three-quarters of those asked said the system of governance needed significant improvement, and other attitudes emerged that ‘challenge core tenets of our democracy’, the audit’s authors stated.

The study, compiled annually by the democracy charity, found that when people were asked whether ‘Britain needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules’, 54% agreed and only 23% said no.

The report itself isn’t as striking as the Guardian makes out. There are key phrases that jump out at you – ‘People are pessimistic about the country’s problems and their possible solution, with sizeable numbers willing to entertain radical political changes’, ‘42% think it would be better if the government didn’t have to worry so much about parliamentary votes when tackling the country’s problems’ – but Hansard doesn’t seem to drill down as much as I’d like. I would like to have seen quotes from participants in their own words. What kind of radical changes? How has the country declined compared to say thirty years ago? The report does not say. It’s all a bit vague.

I am reminded of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. Hochschild is a Berkeley sociologist, the epitome of American liberalism. In 1964 she took part in the freedom rides where students travelled to Mississippi to help black southerners register to vote. Her book is about the time she spent with working class voters in rural Louisiana. Many were disillusioned with politics as usual and most planned to vote Trump in the 2016 election. Some of Hochschild’s subjects were enthusiastic, others viewed Trump as a lesser of two evils. The main sentiment in Lake Charles was anti government. Taxes were too high. The state should get off our backs. The Louisianans worked hard and lived in very close communities. If you lost your job or fell ill, it was okay to claim unemployment for a while; otherwise, your family and the local church would help out.

Hochschild asked a small businessman named Mike Schaff: ‘What has the federal government done that you feel grateful for?’

‘Hurricane relief.’ He pauses again.

‘The I-10…’ (a federally funded freeway). Another long pause.

‘Okay, unemployment insurance.’ He had once been briefly on it.

I suggest the Food and Drug Administration inspectors who check the safety of our food.

‘Yeah, that too.’

‘What about the post office that delivered the parts of that Zenith 701 you assembled and flew over Bayou Corn Sinkhole to take a video you put on YouTube?’

‘That came through FedEx.’

Hochschild’s book is a testament to the beautiful state of Louisiana and the warmth and kindness of its people. (It’s a quirk of human nature that small-town conservatives often display more compassion and solidarity than virtue signalling liberals.) Much of the story is animated by the various big corporate pollution scandals in local rivers and bayous. Debates rage over kitchen tables over how to clean the lakes. Strangers in Their Own Land is a masterwork of imaginative empathy, by someone who respects people enough to challenge them, and pick at their contradictions.

But my point really is that this kind of self sufficient libertarianism doesn’t exist in this country. Hansard’s focus groups likely had similar complaints to Mike Schaff, Sharon Galicia, Danny McCorquodale and Hochschild’s other friends in Lake Charles. But the British don’t want ‘government off their backs’. They voted for Brexit because they thought there would be more money for the NHS. Tories learned to win elections again through giveaways like Help to Buy. Britons tend to demand state-based solutions, and that raises the stakes so much higher.

My parents’ generation came of age in the postwar settlement when it was agreed that the state would provide. They had the NHS, a generous welfare system, free college education, a raft of entitlements and privileges. I do not envy them and I’m sure they struggled. My generation has more personal liberty and technological advances. British sociology from then to now has essentially been about people adapting from a welfare state communitarian society to a more neoliberal society with free information and entertainment.

It’s something I first noticed in the early 2010s when austerity hit. People had grown up with the assumption that the state will look after them and they find out the hard way that it doesn’t. The public want more council houses, more mortgage subsidies, more GP appointments, more roadworks, more post offices, more childcare, more benefits, more hospitals, more schools, more border guards, more cops, more jails. After all, the authoritarian strongman, the Trumps, the Putins, the Orbáns, they are nothing without the state apparatus of soldiers, police, spies and lawyers in stretching battalions behind them. And yes, these kind of demands tend to come from Britons of a certain age, too young for the war but old enough for the peace dividend (although again, the Hansard Society is maddeningly vague on this).

But there is a danger in wishing more powers for the state. We don’t really get this in the UK because we never lived under a dictatorship. We never lived in the godforsaken parts of twentieth century Europe where you had to bribe three separate border authorities to get a day pass to leave your village. The idea of losing the right to live and work in 27 countries didn’t impact on the Brexit debate. It didn’t feel like a loss.

That’s why people are casual about the idea of expanding state powers. Another frequent demand I noticed in the austerity years was that the state should crack down on one particular group, or take entitlements from another particular group. We are too casual about letting the state intervene in other people’s lives, and like I say, it raises the stakes. It could be that this is the end of the neoliberal age and my generation are going to find out what authoritarianism is. Housing benefit, predator drones – they come from the same place.

Research pollster Matthew Goodwin says all this is alarmist. He writes: ‘When prominent Remainers compare Eurosceptics to Nazis, or modern-day Britain to the Weimar Republic, they are engaging in something that has defined much of our post-referendum debate: liberal ‘catastrophising’ – a cognitive distortion leading them to expect, and become obsessed by, the worst of all possible outcomes.’ I hope he is right – but it’s no comfort to say that we’re not headed to a contemporary Third Reich. A variant on Erdoğan’s Turkey or Law and Justice Poland would be grim enough. A country doesn’t have to go too far into fascism to shatter lives, or make changes that can’t be taken back.

I think politicians and activists of all kinds should be very careful what they wish for.

2016 And All That

March 5, 2019

A curiosity of political writing is the panoply of small sites that have sprung up outside traditional UK media, offering regular blogs with a particular political slant and names you half recognise. This week we’re looking at ‘Unherd’ which examines current events from an angle of the communitarian left and right.

You might have heard on the grown up news that the Labour Party has (provisionally and reluctantly and at this very late stage) backed a second referendum on Brexit – and that has not gone down very well with the fellows at Unherd. Their always entertaining contributor Paul Embery has written a polemic against any such new referendum. Even among a political movement known for zealotry, Embery’s partisanship stands out.

Embery laments that ‘the post-referendum debate among Westminster politicians and the commentariat has missed the mark spectacularly by focusing almost exclusively on the dry, technical issues of Brexit: the Single Market and Customs Union, the Irish border backstop, and so on’ – you know, the boring, technocratic shit that keeps food on the supermarket shelves, and gunsmoke off the breeze. Embery is more of a Brexit purist, perhaps Brexit aesthete.

In 2015, five in six MPs voted to hold a referendum on membership of the EU. Then, a year later, in the biggest democratic exercise ever witnessed in our nation’s history, more than 33 million people went to the polls and a majority voted for secession. They didn’t vote to leave only with a divorce agreement that the EU was willing to approve. No, the question on the ballot paper was simple: remain or leave.

For Embery, democracy began in 2016. And that’s where it ends, apparently. For the second referendum in Brexit mythos is an establishment ruse to subvert popular sovereignty. Embery warns: ‘For as the gilet jaunes have shown across the Channel, if you chip away enough at people’s faith in the democratic process and their ability to hold their political leaders to account, then from behind that silence a mighty roar will eventually emerge.’ (The stirring Shelleyan rhetoric clashes badly with the example of the gilet jaunes: a couple of weeks ago the brave boys of Paris had to be restrained by police after bullying an elderly Jewish philosopher on one of their demos.)

Here is the problem. It has now been more than three years since the referendum. If Brexit were a government it’d be past the mid terms. It would have faced local and by elections. The action has become boring. (It is an irony of the Brexit vote that what was supposed to lead to one big decisive outcome instead gives us endless process.) Most people don’t have fixed and unchangeable views. Most people have moved on. And was 2016 such a huge moment? I don’t recall the street parties.

And think on the fundamental things that will not change. We are next to Europe. We had a relationship with Europe before the EU, we will always have that even if the EU falls over completely as it periodically threatens to do. If we are going to leave it is best to sort out some kind of trading relationship rather than go out on WTO rules. WTO rules may be survivable. Sure, we might run out of produce, and medical supplies, and god knows what else.

Let’s say no deal is survivable. It may not create the communitarian paradise that Unherd writers dream of. Polly Toynbee, speaking with postwar austerity historian David Kynaston, said that: ‘Even in a supposedly collectivist decade, people were strongly individualist… They welcomed the NHS as ‘good for me’, but reading mass observation archives, [Kynaston] detected no widespread New Jerusalem sentiment.’ Quite so. In times of privation people think to me and mine. As so often, the collective revolution leads to grasping selfish survivalism.

‘These things are important of course,’ Embery says, ‘but no-one in power has yet bothered to initiate a serious discussion about what drove so many of their fellow citizens to vote Leave in the first place – defining issues such as community, identity, democracy and belonging.’ The question here really is, what stopped you? Brexit for good or ill was an opportunity to find out what kind of country we wanted to be. We could have had a written constitution, a First Amendment, an elected senate by the year 2017. Instead it has been a comedy of lowered expectations and an epic of wasted time. And still, Embery and his Brexit purists stay in referendum day, fixed in amber, trapped in the golden moment and lost content.

The People’s Vote is still more of an idea than a reality. Embery is the latest of numerous commentators in political and journalist circles to warn against it. I’m not convinced about a second referendum but this to me seems a reasonable argument for having one.