Monday 29 December 2014

2014 - The Year of Anti-Politics

This year has seen the phenomenal rise of the anti-politics politician across Europe and, as the year is coming to a close, it is perhaps time to reflect on the reasons for this development. 

The first aspect that strikes one when looking at the European political scene is that no country has been spared the ascendance of the populist. Poor or rich country alike, austere or profligate budgets, the political elites have experienced a serious onslaught from those who claim to be standing outside the establishment. In Germany, it is the rise of the Anti-Euro party AfD and PEGIDA (the 'Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of Europe'), in Greece it is Syriza and the neo-facist Golden Dawn, whilst in the UK it is UKIP and populist comedians of various convictions.

Experts in shadow boxing - Russell Brand and Nigel Farage
Photo: JOHN DONEGAN/AAP/Press Association Images/Ben Birchall/PA Wire
Fascinatingly, this is all 'old hats' when looked at from the perspective of the US. There the main challenge to the political establishment happened earlier and has already waned again, the tea party movement. And it is this movement that may tell us something about why things are happening here in Europe and where things are likely to end up. 

 Initially, the tea party had all the signs of an extra-parlimantarian social movement, advocating empowerment of the citizens vis-a-vis the political classes. As such, it encountered all the challenges of social movements in a time of technological change, where allegiance is paid by 'likes' and collective action is frowned upon as 'old school'. This weakened the effectiveness of the movement significantly, and before long, the tea party morphed into an appendage of the Republican Party. Most observers thought this to be its natural home, its political credo echoing the messages of citizen empowerment over government, yet that is a simplification of the complex mesh of anger and frustration of tea party members who often articulated little more than a virulent anti-politics motive. 

The core of this anti-political motivation is a clue as to the kinship between the tea party and their European populist equivalents. For members of the tea party, just like for UKIPers and members of the AfD, it was a keenly felt loss of control that lies at the heart of the problem. Populists differ about what it is over which control is lost, immigration, sovereignty ('I want my country back!') or the national budget (enter Syriza: the German 'occupation'), but they are united in the desire to re-gain control over something that is close to their heart. 

This leads to an analysis of the nature of their populism. A brief survey of political realities reveals that  none of their promises can be fulfilled. In an increasingly interdependent world, the re-instatement of national sovereignty over 'international forces', be they bankers, multi-national conglomerates or 'the Germans' is wishful thinking. None of the issues that they would like to re-gain control over is 'manageable' in the old, nation-centred way. Immigration into the UK is not simply a problem of the European right of mobility, solved easily by leaving the EU as UKIP proclaims, but is a long term trend fuelled by rising wealth in developing countries that provides just enough means to ever more people to escape stagnant economies or corrupt regimes to get to Europe (or the UK). It is a product of a world becoming ever smaller in economic and geographical terms, with consequences for travel, mobility and economic interdependence. 

As for the rest of the populist messages (so-called 'Islamisation' of Europe, or German 'occupation' of Greece) there is little hope for this to change any time soon, simply because they are the results of a wrong take on reality. In essence, populism will fail because it offers the wrong analysis and hence draws the wrong conclusions. 

Having said this, all this does not mean that the anti-political mood is going to vanish any time soon. The traditional political elites in Europe and the US have proved reliably insensitive to infuse populists like Farage, the organisers of PEGIDA and Tsipras with new life at every turn. Only honesty about the impotence of political decision making can change that, but that is a counter-intuitive message for everything politician. The bread and butter of political life is the promise of a new Jerusalem, of a solution to all problems. Yet, the space for sovereign political decisions is shrinking and shrinking fast, something you wont catch a politician admit, of populist hue or not. So the political class is caught in the bandwagon of promises, and the populists are clinging on for the ride.

Thursday 25 December 2014

Udo Juergens

Few musicians have bridged the German divide more than the Austrian-Swiss chanson singer Udo Juergens. To anybody who knows his songs this seems a strange statement since Juergens provided the soundtrack to the 1970s West Germany, a country that had become comfortable with its reduced relevance in the world. His songs at times scratched the surface of this comfort, often revealing fault lines of modernity that made Germany look not quite as settled as it often felt to its inhabitants.

Juergens on his 80th birthday

Yet, Juergens mainly delivered sounds of simple ease and joy, something that was in short supply in a country disconcerted by its past and its growing economic might.

After the re-unification, concerts in the East showed how much Juergens' music was touching the sentiments of all Germans. Although his ballads were sung by many international stars like Shirley Bassey and Sammy Davis Jr., he himself remained the quintessentially German chronicler of modern times.

Only weeks after his last concert, Juergens died on 21 December 2014 at the age of 80.

The new normal in identity politics

One of the main criticisms of mainstream media is the lack of representation of those who think (and sound) differently. As thousands of people take to the streets in Germany under the banner of PEGIDA (something akin to 'Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of Europe') and UKIP steamroll from one by-election victory to another in England, there is much navel gazing amongst the chattering classes about the meaning of all this. Few commentators however note how exclusive their club of gazers had become, and even fewer mention the fact that the media circus has long been populated by the circle of the usual suspects, drawing on the same old interpretative formulas as they tried to make sense of the new.

In common perception, and in the US in particular, this is often called the dominance of the liberal elite, a theme that is supposed to draw gasps of contempt and connote pre-democratic attitudes: people just don't know what is good for them. I myself never thought that the media debate is sterile, although subversive voices are sometimes rare indeed. Yet, what PEGIDA, UKIP and tea party sentiments clearly indicate is that spaces of articulating divergence from the public mean are developing, and developing fast, just not within the usual spectator theatres. At the risk of calling a spade a spade, here is what I think is happening in the field of identity politics.

The common interpretation of (and anxiety about) identity politics is the ascendancy of particularistic identities at the expense of broader collective, unifying ones. As nation-states struggle to come to terms with migration and assertion of group identities, democratic politics becomes fragmented and the common good lost in a cacophony of voices. Yet, this is the interpretative frame of the 1970s and it owes much of its persuasive power to the strength of the social movements springing up around the issues of civil rights in the US. The new identities are less firm, faster to discard and more chameleon like than those formed in the furnace of the civil rights struggle. Plus, they are shaped and re-shaped in the scatter shot arena of new social media, where loyalties are shifting and belonging is defined by 'likes' of strangers. The most fundamental underlying difference to the identity politics of the 1970s is another phenomenon however. It is the refusal of the individual itself to adopt identity as a criterion of membership to a group. In essence, it is the person outgrowing the neat shapes and boxes we have conveniently produced in order to make sense of the world.

Identity is essentially a two way process, comprising of a passive and active strategy of connotation. The first is being described by others ('Fremdbestimmung', as the Germans call it) whilst the second is self-description. The two intersect and fight for dominance in identity politics. Wherever racial coding is particularly strong, strategies of self-description have long tried to mitigate the harm fremdbestimmung does by (partially) adopting and converting the meanings of racial language. The abundant use of the N-word in rap is an example of this. The boundaries of self-description and harmful description by others remain in tact however, as the hapless protestations to the contrary by white sport commentators using the N-word demonstrate. This is the core of the old identity politics where groups can develop collective power, and may collectively defuse the invidious effects of racial language within their own peer group. The main condition for this strategy to work however is a society that is clearly divided along identity lines, reinforced by daily and routinised discriminatory practices.

Who am I? KingBach's piece on J's and swimming skills of black people

The situation is not as clear in Europe or in other parts of the world. Again, social media is a catalyst and a reflection of the new realities at the same time. Vine's six second shots are full of racial coding bordering on the offensive, yet, fascinatingly, the identities of self-description fail to congeal into group politics. On one hand, this is probably due to the irrepressible yet vacuous nature of the internet 'like', a commitment that costs little and means little. Yet, below the surface something else is happening. The authors of vlogging (video blogging) appear to refuse to adopt identities for any significant time in the first place. Their dominant attitude is one of constant re-definition, rather than affirmation. Identity itself is becoming an ongoing project. The consequences are stunning. It is the demise of the old social movements based on group identities, and the emergence and (often contemporaneous) decline of a myriad of constantly shifting identities, including the subversive merging of self-description with fremdbestimmung. The semantic mode of these new shape shifting 'collectives' is playful, and non-commital.

So, what does that have to do with PEGIDA, UKIP and the tea party? As the main strategy of rebuttal to fremdbestimmung morphes from mitigation through appropriation of demeaning language into a void of core identities, interpretative frames built on we-them and same-different dissolve. And so do the chances of creating collectives around strongly felt values informed by group identities. The 'Islamisation of Europe' and the 'Europeanisation' of Britain is the last firm signpost in a landscape perceived to be of shifting sand. It's the associated uncertainty and the fear it evokes in most people that the liberal media is guilty of neglecting.

If this analysis captures something approximating what is going on, then perhaps we should be in a celebratory mood rather than despondent. As strong group identities thrive in cultures of routenised discrimination, their passing can only reflect progress in the fight for equality. Maybe PEGIDA and UKIP articulate problems of luxury, rather than desperate situations. Lest we forget however, they old ways are not gone completely yet. Fergusons still happen and it is the irony of the US as a simultaneous beacon of hope and despair that the old and the new exist side by side, probably for a long time to come.

Thursday 11 December 2014

On writing (and reading) Nazi biographies

In 2008, Peter Longerich published his biography of Heinrich Himmler. The book was well received and even praised by some critics for its comprehensiveness and detail. As I was reading it recently, I became increasingly frustrated by it. The more direct quotes and facts Longerich throws at the reader, the more exhausted one gets. In the end, after more than 750 pages of minutiae, one is left with the impression to know even less about the subject of the biography than before. the person, Himmler, remains a mystery, notwithstanding a plethora of gut wrenching and harrowing details. If Longerich managed to enlighten the reader so little with so much, what went wrong? 

Biography is historical writing at the intersection of two interpretative paradigms. The first understands the subject and actions as a result of external forces. The second favours a strong version of personal agency, the subject acting and reacting to his or her surroundings. Both perspectives are on a sliding scale and neither are mutually exclusive. Yet, championing one over the other determines the way in which personal responsibility is construed. All historical writing is mainly narrative, aligning events along a chronology that structures the past in before and after. Apart from this most basic of morphological parameters however, historical writing possesses a freedom that few other human ‘sciences’ have. 

Within this historiographical universe of relative freedom, the history of Nazism represents a particular challenge. The brutality of the regime calls on historians to establish direct lines of responsibility and largely shun contextualisations of guilt. Moreover, writing biography magnifies this dilemma. Biographers of Nazi functionaries feel the pressure to establish personal guilt for the regime’s actions, yet would also like to explain how an individual came to embrace this murderous ideology. The result is often a dance on a wire, oscillating between re-affirming the possibilities of individual agency whilst at the same time embedding their subjects in the context of the time. 

This balancing act can take various narrative forms. Longerich goes for exhaustive and comprehensive quotations and drowning the reader in facts. At times, it is less a biography but a chronicle of deeds, peppered with evidence chosen from the wealth of written sources that Himmler left behind. What disappears behind this wall of facts is the man himself. 

The main problem is one of misunderstanding on Longerich’s part of what constitutes agency itself. Hardly anyone believes that simply telling a story about somebody reveals why somebody acted the way he or she did. Explaining human agency takes more than just narrating the facts. Yet, Longerich is wary of doing more than lining up the facts themselves, and he has good reasons to be careful. It is well known that Himmler was fully conscious of the enormity of his actions. There are photographs of him visiting concentration camps and plenty of his speeches have survived in which he confessed pathological anti-semitic hatred. 

It is the belief that no human being can be capable of this amount of hatred that poses the biggest dilemma to historians. If Himmler was not mentally ill (and there are no indications that he was), then his actions were within the normal range of human capacity to act. This is an uncomfortable conclusion for any biographer or reader indeed. Few thinkers have confronted this challenge of human depravity within the realm of reason head on. Hannah Arendt has tried to point to the bureaucratisation of mass murder (and the psychological distance it affords) as a contributory factor in enabling the holocaust. Yet, few biographers have dared to take up the baton. 

Writing meaningful biography that leaves human agency intact yet recognises the force of external circumstances is easier done in other historical contexts. Golo Mann has done it for Wallenstein. Mann’s style of writing is sustained by epistemological skepticism about the subject matter whilst maintaining the narrative aspiration to get ever closer to the individual in question. The result is a curious circling of the person, homing in on the object until, suddenly, withdrawing from claiming any potential knowledge in another bout of historiographical pessimism. In other words, Mann’s writing is a true art form, where other historians only recount. 

Instinctively however we shrink from contemplating something similar about any prominent Nazi. It strikes us as tasteless to try to introspect what we can only assume to be an abyss of human depravity. So, we are left with simple narrating of facts and details, which makes for lifeless and unmotivated reading (and writing). Few things can better illustrate the level of courage it takes to write a ‘Wallenstein’ about Himmler. 

Wednesday 10 December 2014

What now for the voluntary sector?

The Carnegie Challenge Debate took place on 24 November 2014 at the Wales Millennium Centre. The event was sponsored by the Carnegie UK Trust and was titled ‘Time for a new social contract?’. The debate was organised by the Welsh Council for Voluntary Action which held their annual conference in Cardiff this year. 

On the panel were Julia Unwin of Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Dr Angela Donkin of UCL Institute of Health Equity, myself representing Gorwel and Martyn Evans of Carnegie UK Trust, who chaired the debate. 

Myself, Julia Unwin, Angela Donkin and Martyn Evans (left to right)
The debate proved to be lively with much discussion about whether the state should allow communities a greater say in decision-making and designing the services that make up their daily lives. The panel was joined by people from all across the voluntary sector. 

To watch the video of the Q+A after the debate click HERE 
GORWEL also published a brief summary of the debate on its website HERE

Saturday 22 November 2014

Ukrainian president abandoning its own people in the East

The crisis in Ukraine defies simple explanations. The country does not suffer a lack of powerful and destructive personalities, pulling it into different directions. On top of that, her affairs with its menacing neighbour Russia are at breaking point which leaves little time to attend to the rampant corruption and nepotism that has plagued Ukraine ever since it has plied herself loose from the former Soviet Union. As the eastern provinces of the country move away further from the government in Kiev, the Ukrainian president has now embarked on a high risk policy of cutting Eastern Provinces off from government aid and support. Proshenko has ended pension and wage payments as well as ordered the central bank to cease money transfers to local banks in the irredentist areas.

This can only lead to more disenchantment there and drive more people into the arms of rebels. Why the president decided to practically withdraw government authority from the rebel areas is difficult to understand. In effect, Poroshenko thus acknowledges that Ukraine is now a divided country with little chance to be reunited in the near future. The logic behind this step is obscure to say the least. It may just be another nail in the coffin of Ukraine.

Obama on collision course with Congress

After years of denying that he would have the authority to introduce immigration reform without Congress, Obama has now changed his mind. He signed an executive order giving about 5 million illegal immigrants in the US the right to work.

His change of mind has raised eyebrows even amongst supporters of the move. Commentators have pointed out that Obama's decision is rash to say the least, given that some Republicans in the Congress have privately indicated to be ready to talk about immigration reform. Whilst Obama's executive order is a gift to the Democrats in the short term, in the long run it may well be Republicans who benefit most from it. Many of them recognised that increasing their vote share amongst Latinos was conditional on getting immigration reform passed. However, the Republican Party was deeply split on the issue. By introducing the reforms bypassing Congress, Obama has moved the issue out of the way.

Yet, deep reservations remain about the way in which Obama has temporarily solved the issue. First, as some commentators noted, executive orders were never supposed to be used to enact laws that affect millions of Americans. Those who point out that Obama has used this vehicle on fewer occasions than his predecessors are missing a point. The magnitude of immigration reform is something that would have stopped any other president from using executive order in this context.

On top of this, there is the temporal character of this reform. Obama might have solved a problem for some immigrants for now, but the executive order can be revoked by his successor and, given how his unilateral action has poisoned the atmosphere between Congress and President, any future compromise is now less likely than ever.

So, in the end, the legacy of Obama's decision is ambiguous. He managed to remove an obstacle to work for some people for about two years, but in all likelihood, equally closed off any avenue for future compromise with Congress. As before, Obama, who wanted to change all, has probably done more than any other president to cement the status quo.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Germany balancing its budget

The German economy has been buffeted by a perfect storm recently. Neighbouring European countries have grown only little or not at all, which depresses Germany's exports. Russia has decided to meddle in a bitter fratricidal war in Ukraine which raises questions about energy security and gas supplies. Plus, the World economy has run out of steam, with China, Brazil and the US doing less well than anticipated. This should spell impending disaster not just for the German economy but also for tax revenues and ultimately, the German budget. However, it was only this week that the German finance minister presented the first balanced budget to parliament in more than 50 years. If things work out as planned, the German government will not go to the financial markets in the next years to borrow money. In fact, it plans to make a start on paying back the enormous sums that have accumulated since the heydays of 1960s profligacy. So how come Germany eliminated its deficit when France and Italy struggle to meet even the (admittedly) lax deficit rules of the Euro zone?

There are two major factors that have contributed to this success story. The first one are rock bottom interest rates for older debt which allows Germany to reduce its liabilities. This is bound to continue with a European Central Bank that is unlikely to raise interest rates as long as other European economies are still struggling to exit the recession. Low interest rates lead to a weak Euro which in turn favours German exports. So, the German balanced budget looks more like the product of a serendipitous confluence of external conditions than self-made. Nothing could be further from the truth however.

The second factor reveals how much of the German balanced budget is down to laborious homework. Germany has escaped the recession of 2008 relatively unscathed. The reason is that it went into the economic crisis with a flexible labour market and a reformed welfare state. Both things that have been pushed through by a Social Democratic Chancellor after 2004. Labour market 'flexibility' however is not tantamount to 'hire and fire'. In Germany it is based on strong negotiating positions of trade unions on the board of companies which gives them a stake in the success of their firm. Unions were thus willing to make deals companies' directors to protect the workforce whilst companies went through the recession. It's this stakeholder model that creates the room for labour market flexibility.

None of this means that everything is honky dory in Germany. Infrastructure is in dire need of further investment and health care costs are still running away, requiring a long term funding solution and significant reforms to increase efficiency. Yet, remarkably, it's been the Social Democrats who pushed for welfare and labour market reforms under their Chancellor Schroeder and who are now in a coalition with the centre-right CDU and approved a balanced budget. It's this long term vision that is so painfully missing from British Labour.

Monday 27 October 2014

Sunday 26 October 2014

Miliband's Stalinist grip on the Labour Party

The story about the resignation of Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont is still fast developing. Today's Observer notes that 'civil war' has broken out in the Labour Party. It also furnishes a piquant detail of Lamont's resignation. Only days ago, the General Secretary of the Scottish Labour Party was apparently asked to come to London 'for a chat'. This 'chat' must have gone badly, since the office of Miliband then called Lamont to say that 'we have just sacked your general secretary, sorry'.

Apart from the brusque disregard for political hierarchy (the Scottish Labour Party is supposed to be independent from London), the episode is also eerily reminiscent of the relationship between Moscow and its satellite Communist Parties in Easter Europe. The preferred way of dealing with wayward children was usually to ask them to come to Moscow for a meeting. Anybody who did so, was then usually 'disappeared' to Siberia or arrested and subsequently shot for various crimes such as having entertained 'bourgeois ideas' or the like.

The kiss of death... Miliband and Lamont - Foto: Andrew Milligan/PA

Although nothing has been heard of the Scottish General Secretary as of now, I think we can safely assume that he is still alive. The Labour Party leadership's manner of dealing with intra-political dissent however would still make Stalin proud.

Miliband's electoral strategy unravelling fast

You could feel sorry for the Labour leader Ed Miliband these days. As his party should be riding high in the polls, the numbers show that barely a simple majority of people would cast their vote for Labour in May. On top of that, pretty much no one, friends and foes alike, thinks that he is prime ministerial material, which begs the question, why vote for the party in the first place. The shadow cabinet appears to have taken leave of absence for the last couple of months, seemingly hoping not to be associated with the car crash at the next general election.

If that was not enough, the Scottish Labour party leader Johann Lamont has just resigned. As a parting shot, she did not neglect to put the knife into Ed Miliband's flagging authority and twist it, for good measure. In her statement she said that the London Labour Party was treating her Scottish Labour Party like a branch office (anybody heard this before? Alun Michael and Wales perhaps?). This is more significant as it may seem at first. Scotland is important to Miliband's chances to form a government next May for several reasons.

Bacon batties are the least of Miliband's problems now

First, his circle has long put all the money on what's called the 35% strategy. In effect, it is the hope that, due to the electoral maths, Labour would get into office without winning over a broad majority of voters. It's of course a strategy borne out of the realisation, that Miliband's appeal to centre ground voters is so vanishingly small, that there is no hope in hell he gets more than 35% in the first place. All other things being equal, this strategy might still work.

This is where Scotland comes in. The second part of the strategy is that Scottish Labour MPs will provide the Westminster majority to heave Miliband into office. Enter devolution and the SNP, the Scottish Nationalists. As part of the deal to win over Scots to vote NO to outright secession, all party leaders offered devolution max to the Scots. Which in effect means that Scottish MSPs (parliamentarians in the Edinburgh parliament) will decide a whole raft of things without interference from London. This however means that Scottish MPs in Westminster should also not vote on English matters (the MPs of the Scottish Nationalist who sit at Westminster have long had a tradition of voluntarily abstaining from votes on English matter). Yet, without Scottish votes in Westminster, Miliband will have no majority to form a government. So, if he grants more autonomy to the Scottish Labour Party, he effectively makes the argument that has been put forward by the Conservative Party for a long time, that is no English government should have a majority solely by virtue of Scottish MPs.

That's where the 35% strategy reveals its fatal flaw. Without the support of Scottish MPs, Miliband wont have a majority, hence no government. So he has to deny Scottish MPs of Labour any independence. Which does not look good for a party that kicked off devolution in the first place.

As this perfect storm is gathering strength, Miliband is doing what his political master, Gordon Brown, used to do: disappear from view. The Labour leader has not been seen or heard since Friday, which may just give an extraordinary insight into his (in)ability to deal with problems once he gets into Number 10. If Miliband does not address this Scottish issue head-on, his electoral chances are fading fast, bacon batty or not.

Saturday 25 October 2014

The Elysian Quartet in Liverpool

Everyone living outside London is not exactly being regaled with top class culture events. Exciting new productions in theatre, classical music or dance tend to gravitate to the capital. That's where the money and the audiences are. 

However, Cardiff is blessed with an opera house and an adjacent concert hall (the Hoddinott Hall) with fantastic acoustics and daring and enterprising guest conductors. So, if you wanted to hear contemporary classical music, chances are you may get lucky at Cardiff's Hoddinott Hall with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen.

Matters are different in my temporary abode, Liverpool. The city has gone from a buzzing metropolis to a third rank city within the last three decades and its cultural life is not much better. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra has temporarily de-camped to no one knows where, as its venue is being re-vamped. And, admittedly, its repertoire under Vasili Petrenko is more of the conventional fare type. 

However, from time to time, something exciting comes along even in Liverpool and that was the case last night at the Victoria Museum. The Elysian Quartet played in the Leggate Theatre (of which later) and bravely performed only contemporary music as part of the Festival of New Music organised by the Liverpool School of Music. 

The Elysian Quartet

They started with Stravinsky's 'Three pieces for string quartet' which is a difficult one and requires a perfect venue. The Leggate Hall is sadly not of that calibre with traffic noise coming in from the street. I think at times I have even heard the beeping of a pedestrian crossing, which must still be the most annoying feature of British public spaces. 

Yet, after the Stravinsky the Elysian Quartet had a real treat in store for the audience: a piece by Pauline Oliveros. Oliveros is known for her concept of 'deep listening' and the quartet delivered something oscillating between elation and profundity. That was followed by a famous piece by Steve Reich, 'Different Trains', which, given the difficulty of playing alongside a taped recording was delivered beautifully and with verve. 

If I have a reservation then it may be that the amplification was sometimes not well suited for the charming, yet acoustically echo-y hall, something that prevents the instruments to shine individually. Still, the evening was a joy to attend and it makes you wonder how stunning this could have been if performed at the Hoddinott Hall. Well, you cant have everything, I guess. 

Sunday 19 October 2014

Income inequality - the spanner in the works of economic recovery

Inequality has long been a bother to anybody concerned with social justice. The economic crisis and the subsequent drive for austerity across Europe framed this issue as one of blame for the economic crash, contrasting decreasing benefits with steadily rising wages for top earners in the public and private sector.   The Labour Party took up this issue and ran with the 'cost of living' theme. So far, it has struggled to make much headway with this debate. One reason may be that 'cost of living' implies low wages and rising prices, a pincer movement from both sides that is squeezing family incomes. Whilst this was true for previous economic crises, one element was missing this time round: mortgages. In fact, since 2008, because of the specific constellation of this crisis as one of lack of financial liquidity, central banks pumped large amounts of money into the economy which ensured that mortgages remained low or even tumbled for many house owners after 2008. Anybody on a variable mortgage rate, such as a 'tracker' which shadows the interest rate of the Bank of England, all of a sudden had more cash available at the end of the month. The economic crisis from 2008 to 2012 was a good crisis indeed for those with steady jobs and property.

So, does this mean that the debate about income inequality was a red herring? The historian Thomas Picketty argued that the long term trend in developed countries is worrying indeed as the income generated by assets tends to be larger than that generated by employment (wages). The rift opening up between the two, so Picketty, allows income inequalities to be cemented into the social and economic fabric of Western societies, reducing the chances for social mobility.

As some have pointed out, Picketty's argument assumes wages lagging consistently behind income generation through assets (such as shares). Something that cannot last forever. In fact, wages are known to lag the economic cycle in any case only for a time, simply by virtue of the fact that investment into production reduces the need for labour and deteriorates employment chances for the work force in the wake of an economic crisis. That does not mean however that wages always fall behind other types of income. On the contrary.

As the economy starts to grow, subsequent shortage of qualified labour often kickstarts aggressive wage negotiations by trade unions. There are some countervailing factors, to be sure. Immigration of skilled workers can temper the drive for higher wages, something Britain has painfully experienced following the accession of Eastern European countries to the EU.

But the concern of eminent economists and political leaders such as Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and the Chief Economist at the Bank of England is that the 'normal' cycle of economic boom, increasing wages and improved confidence and domestic consumption cannot be taken for granted anymore. This is where income inequality becomes a worry beyond the immediate social justice issue. If wages do not rise, consumption will either stay down or will draw on credit, which would set in motion a circle we all wanted to avoid.

The last piece of the jigsaw of impending gloom is the surprise by all economic observers that, contrary to expectations and experiences from previous economic crises, the lack of inflation has prevented a significant reduction of debt, public and private. Which means, as we are starting on the road to a 'normal' economy again, that nothing is normal indeed. If this economic crisis will make it into economic textbooks it will be for its inability to bring about the macro-economic adjustment that was thought to be the main function of economic crises.

Saturday 18 October 2014

The ascent of the fringe parties

How do you win a political argument? Well, establish the terms of reference for any given topic, insist that these are the only legitimate ones and proceed to construct your own position as a genuine reflection of the concerns of the public neatly fitting into the previously established frame.

This is what happened pretty much across the European Union as fringe parties are dominating the public debates. The exact constellations of issues that concern voters may differ between France, Germany or the UK, but the mechanisms of highjacking political discourse are similar everywhere. Identify a concern (no matter how little pressing for voters), frame it in the way that is useful to the progression of your own interest group and then pretend that your own group's interest is identical with that of the country. From Farage to Marie Le Pen or the AfD in Germany, the blueprint for success is strikingly similar.

So, what do they share above and beyond employing the same electoral strategies? And is the rise of the fringe parties an indication of something rotten in Denmark?

One interesting aspect of the ascent of fringe parties is that the concerns differ quite substantially across countries. Whilst Le Pen runs a populist campaign against austerity in France, the German AfD is motivated by an urge to curtail (alleged) profligacy. The point they have in common is that they all have a dislike for anything European, be it European immigration, European bail-outs or alleged European imposition of economic policy (in France). They share a regret about the loss of political sovereignty, the decline of the power of national parliaments and democratic institutions. It can hardly be said that the European elite (if there is such a thing) had not been warned. The issue of the 'democratic deficit' of the European Union has been debated to death in academic circles for decades.

Yet, another element has been stirred more recently into the mix and that is immigration. How dominant the (largely inexact) terms of reference proffered by the fringe parties have become is demonstrated by the use of the word itself. Within the European Union, with the free movement of capital and people, there is technically no 'immigration' but simply migration. Yet, Farage and others have succeeded in shaping the narrative of a 'we' and 'them' which is roughly co-terminous with national borders. It is also fascinating how the prevalence of the immigration issue leaves some of the leftist fringe parties (such as the Greens) out in the cold. They simply have not anything to offer on the topic, which may either be an indication of their genuine lack of policy offers or a recognition on their part of the complexity of the issue.

Once the frames of reference are set by Le Pen, AfD and Farage, the trap snaps shut and imprisons the mainstream politicians. European Union migration cannot be changed or tampered with without unravelling the foundations of the Union itself. Mainstream politicians also become hostage to the deliberately obscure language used by Farage and others which merges issues of extra-European immigration with intra-European migration, quickly adopting racist undertones.

How this bomb can be defused in the public debate is anyone's guess. I have argued before that Farage will have his comeuppance when the electoral system in the UK crashes his hopes for Westminster representation in May next year. The first past the post is a reliable foe of fringe parties. Yet, by then the damage to the public discourse may have been done. And we will all have to live with the undesirable consequences.

Jose Saramago's Portuguese Journey

The Nobel laureate Jose Saramago may not be widely known in the English speaking world, but his prominence on the Iberian peninsula is certainly a given. His works are noted for their almost austere style and his political interventions are celebrated by the left for their insistence on social and political equality.

Saramago was born in Portugal but left his home country to live most of this life in Spain. When I first read his book 'Blindness' I was struck by the sparse language. At times, his writing reminded me of somebody who writes in a language not his own. Some phrasing was awkward or struck you as poor translation and dialogues were artificial and wooden. His prose possesses an element of artifice that goes well beyond the crafted nature of literature in general. His commitment to equality and freedom however shines through every page and so I was curious to see what he had to say about his home country in his travelogue, The Portuguese Journey.

Saramago appears to have undertaken the journey over the course of several years and the book is written from the perspective of a visitor who is simultaneously familiar and alien to Portugal. He uses the third person singular to create an impression of distance, yet the vignettes of Portuguese life are real and clearly resonated with him as a son of this land. The most curious aspect of Saramago's travel writing is however the absence of those things that were clearly close to his heart, and the abundance of those that he (professedly) hated.

The book is in effect a series of visits to churches, cathedrals and castles, with little snapshots of ordinary lives sprinkled into the (at times somewhat tiring) portrayal of elitist cultural artifacts. For somebody with socialist leanings his obsession with churches and religious paintings is confusing at best and renders the narrative stale. Even where real people push into the picture, they are usually only the pastors or cleaners opening the front doors of churches or chapels for Saramago to visit. The absence of anything apart from churches and castles belies a strange understanding of Portuguese history, where Saramago appears to discount anything that has not been made or founded by a small political or social elite. His writing almost appears to reveal an obsession with the works of those parts of society he fought all his life.

More importantly, however, it's his skewed sense of history that is puzzling. Nothing seems to warrant description that is less than several hundred years old. At times, the Renaissance appears to be the last period of worthy cultural production. This is disturbing given that Saramago's political ideals were forged in the great struggles of the 19th century and 20th century. In fact, Portugal's path through the upheavals of (failed) democratisation is probably one of the most fascinating in Europe, as she first established herself as a republic and slid into a authoritarian regime between the wars. Yet, none of this enters Saramago's travel narrative. He concentrates on a, at times painfully tedious, description of altars, paintings of saints in churches and castles. For somebody who professed a singular disrespect for religion, this absence of anything but church life is bordering on negligence and obsession.

Yet, there is something else that confuses the reader. His main narrating impetus appears to be a deeply felt belief in the need for order and preservation. Saramago's main leanings are certainly not iconoclast yet deeply reverent of high brow culture.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

What drives Douglas Carswell?

The Conservative Party is enjoying some good polling results this week and its members left Birmingham with smiles all around. Buoyed by a powerful speech from David Cameron and some tax cutting promises, the faithful departed to their constituencies with a spring in their step.

Things looked quite different only a few weeks ago when the newspapers were full of doom and gloom for the main governing party. The main reason were two high profile defections of Conservative MPs to UKIP, the party that flourishes on the margins of the political spectrum. The case of Mark Reckless, the copy-cat defector, is less controversial, mainly because Reckless's constituency is probably within reach of the Tories to retain. Douglas Carswell's defection however is a painful loss to the Conservatives, not least because Carswell is an articulate politician and a sharp mind, which makes you wonder whether or not he could be the canary in the mine.

However, here are some reasons why Carswell's defection will come to nought. First, UKIP's chances to gain a seat at the next general elections are thought to be approximating zero, if the bookies and election observers are to be believed. Whilst UKIP attracts plenty of disenchanted Tories (and some Labour voters), the electoral system is such that even a 15 percent swing to UKIP wont deliver sufficient votes in any single constituency to sweep them onto the green seats in Westminster. Things would be very different with proportional representation but first past the post will reliably swallow up any widely distributed yet shallow support for the party.

The other reason why Carswell's defection will remain an aberration however lies in his own motives. The BBC recently ran a town hall style debate with all candidates in the Clacton-on-Sea by-election and some voters. The question that hit home most of all came from a young woman. Why, she asked, if Carswell is so fed up with party politics, he would not run as an independent? Carswell's response was surprisingly weak, given that he built the argument for his defection on displeasure with party politics. He replied that Britain needs change and only UKIP can deliver that change. That's a tall order indeed. How a party can deliver change that has next to no chance to get its politicians elected next May  remains unclear.

Carswell's real motive may in fact not have much to do with party politics but with a simple calculation about his own political future as an MP. He could easily have waited until next May and sought a seat to represent UKIP somewhere in the UK at the next general election. However, this way he would very unlikely be selected for Clacton-on-Sea, a seat in which he has a solid 12,000 vote majority. Chances are that he would have to fight in a constituency with minimal chances to be returned to Westminster.

That is not the case of course if he defects and forces a by-election early, as he in fact did. He was automatically selected for the constituency for UKIP, standing as the incumbent MP.

Whilst his chances to be elected as the first UKIP MP are therefore quite good, the long term prospects to be an effective MP for Claton-on-Sea are dire. He is likely to be the only UKIP MP for the foreseeable future, so all bets are on that, sooner or later, he will return into the Tory fold.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Apple's foray into timepieces

The last decade is often seen as a time of gadgets. The doubling of computer memory every decade has led to a proliferation of high tech products in all aspects of modern life, be it in the kitchen or the fitness studio. There is one old style gadget however that so far has benefitted little from technology's march into the future. Wrist watches have been in terminal decline since computers entered our lives.

I cant remember when I last saw a person with one of those ostentatious marks of wealth slung around their wrist, although airport lounges seem to be populated with 'watch hut' shops more than ever. Perhaps, the ubiquity of those shops in airports is an inverse measure of the popularity of the product they offer. Paradoxically, it was the computer and its increased memory capacity that sounded the death knell for the wrist watch. As memory bearing chips became smaller, mobile phones took on all sorts of functions in our lives, and made watches largely redundant. That is, the watch that is simply a watch.

Multifunction watches have proliferated on the high tech consumer market but those watches are rarely for 'knowing the time'. The market stability that came with people's need to know the time on the go disappeared of course as watches changed their role. Whilst there was always a fashion element to wearing watches, now there is little else, except perhaps the occasional heart rate monitoring function. Loading watches with peripheral functions to 'telling the time' is however a fickle thing in consumer markets and tagging a product on something as fast moving as fashion or fitness crazes does not appear to me to be a reliable business strategy.

Apple, however, disagree and have just announced that they will launch a wrist watch that can do all sorts of things, above and beyond displaying the time. The question is whether or not this will capture people's imagination. There is no doubt that the fans of all things Apple (and I profess to be one of them) will constitute a sizeable pool of excited potential buyers for this watch. However, I am not quite certain that this will be enough to convince the wider public to fork out about $399 for something to be worn around their wrist for something that they essentially already carry in their pocket, their mobile phone.

Time to check out the Apple website? Apple's new wrist watch

What's complicating the picture is that Apple seems to think that, to boost its sell-factor, the watch should offer all sorts of functions for people who appear to spend most of their days running, swimming or sweating on a treadmill in a gym. This may well turn out to be a miscalculation. It may make for sexy adverts to have twenty-somethings run around in leafy suburbs in tight lycra but last time I checked, less than 3% of the population spend more than 2 hours per week working out.

But the main test for any gadget, as the BBC technology Rory Cellan-Jones correspondent wrote recently, is whether or not you would turn around if you had forgotten the thing at home. Whilst I just may do that for my mobile phone (bless the days though where I had the strength NOT to), I certainly wouldn't do that for a wrist watch. After all, if really in doubt about the time, if I listen carefully, I can still hear the churches announcing every quarter hour from the clock towers. Can you?

Saturday 6 September 2014

Scotland and the devolution trap

As the No Campaign scrambles to counter the late surge in support for Scottish independence, Westminster politicians appear to throw a last trump: constitutional reform. For anyone who observed the dithering of UK politicians on this issue for the last decade, this late constitutional twist is ironic to say the least.

For a start, there is the consistent inability (or unwillingness) of Westminster to conduct a radical overhaul of the British constitution. Labour embarked on devolution with great fanfare, only to shelve plans for parliamentary and tax distribution reforms (i.e. the infamous Barnett formula). After 2010, the coalition government strafed the issue with ignorance right from the start.

The paradoxical result of this is that Britain, for all intents and purposes, is a federal country without the necessary institutions. It remains suspended in a constitutional limbo, where Westminster keeps operating as if this was a centralised state, whereas devolved governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast are allowed to keep their grudges against 'imposition from London'.

In a way, the Scottish referendum is the child of devolution, and it may just be the reason for devolution's inglorious end. On one hand, devolution allowed parliaments and governments in Edinburgh and Cardiff to be the training ground for potential independence, boosting the confidence and competences of their politicians. On the other hand, however, devolution is still too fresh to even blip on the radar of many Scottish or Welsh voters to recognise that the assemblies in Edinburgh and Cardiff already have powers at their disposal to freely decide on health, education or housing.

Devolution thus is too young and too advanced at the same time. Timely radical constitutional reforms could have strengthened the hand of the opponents of independence, but now, all that's left to them is to clobber together a package that may just sway sufficient votes against an independent Scotland. There can only be one lesson: delaying constitutional reforms leads to freewheeling thinking of headless chickens. Lets hope for the best.

Are you satisfied with your doctor?

On a regular basis I receive a letter from the NHS. It's a survey which asks me to complete several questions about how satisfied I am with my GP. Invariably, the letter goes straight to the bin. And here is why.

The NHS have conducted patient satisfaction surveys for several years now (done by CQC) and they are beloved by politicians of all colour. Whenever the discussion turns to productivity or care outcomes in the NHS,  politicians are quick to point out that patient satisfaction is at an all time high in the NHS (it currently is about 96%). Somehow patient satisfaction rates are meant to counter any criticism of the NHS. I believe this is a spurious argument and one that does not stand up to scrutiny.

There are clearly some things surveys can find out. They fall into the category of 'facts' such as how many times somebody has visited their doctor recently and the like. Although patient surveys are actually not the best way to establish good data on these things, I can see that you may want to ask them in a survey with some justification. I still think responses to these questions should still be treated with caution given that we are all human beings and our memories play tricks on us with even more mundane issues such as remembering whether it was raining yesterday or where we put our car keys.

Be that as it may, the real problems emerge when it comes to the responses these surveys are really after: patient satisfaction. A typical question of this sort runs like this (this is an actual question from the regular GP survey I receive): 'How would you describe your experience of your GP surgery'? 'Very good, fairly good, neither good nor poor, fairly poor or very poor.

Well, let me think about this... First of all, I am not sure what this question refers to. Do they ask me to rate the pictures hung up on the surgery walls? Or are they after my opinion about the doctor's willingness to give me the drugs I want?

Yet, it is not only the fuzziness of the question that makes this survey an exercise in futility. More importantly, how would I know what is a 'fair, good or poor' experience? I tend not to visit my GP and then pop to another one down the road to see if she is any better. The nature of the healthcare experience is that it is rarely comparable. I have not heard of a single person who had a liver transplant at a London hospital and then, for the purpose of gaining comparative expertise, drove to Newcastle to test the local surgeon's skills by asking them to perform a similar operation.

Since the medical experience is most likely to be unique for most people, personal opinions of what constitutes a 'good' or 'poor' service are likely to be indiscriminately hovering in the 'satisfied' range, with only those patients blipping on the radar who have, for one or another reason, been seriously disgruntled about the service they received. Those are most likely to have encountered problems with their care which often end up at tribunals or on the desk of a solicitor. So, no surprise then that NHS surveys regularly indicate a high satisfaction rate of patients. We wouldn't know better! That's why the survey letter from my GP always goes straight to the bin. I happily profess my ignorance!

Monday 1 September 2014

One NHS?

Just published a piece on the NHS and devolution in Political Insight...

Read the full article HERE.

Image © Gary Barker

Monday 18 August 2014

Pessoa's philosophical writings

Good art is often said to contain an element of philosophy, but it is not quite clear that the reverse is true. In a sense, good philosophy is based on strictness of thought, rather than the associative flowering that is so characteristic of art. This has not stopped eminent artists to embark on philosophical journeys, Satre's existentialism is a good example. Goethe also tried his hands at a philosophy of colours, although little of his theoretical ruminations have stood the test of time. The attraction of philosophy to writers, painters and other artists may have more to do with a perceived kinship of themes that inform art as well as philosophy, such as life and death, God and the conditions of human existence.

Measuring the world. An artists impression of science. William Blake: Newton (1795)
Pessoa's philosophical writings show clearly that this resemblance of thematic preoccupations is not sufficient to produce good philosophy. The best that can be said of his philosophical essays is that the reading 'can be rough' (Ribeiro, p.XXVIII; Ferdinand Pessoa: Philosophical Essays. A Critical Edition. New York 2012).

Nuno Ribeiro, the editor of Pessoa's philosophical essays, tries to strike a generous tone when he writes that Pessoa's 'philosophies' should be seen as a form of literary experimentation. He points to the fact that Pessoa uses heteronyms for his (unpublished) essays, meaning that he invents imaginary authors for his writings (with more or less fully fledged biographical sketches), which allows him to negate his own authorship. Pessoa, Ribeiro argues, thus creates a constantly shifting angle which permits him to explore philosophical topics.

To me, this is an extremely magnanimous line of argument, at once underestimating Pessoa's philosophical aspirations and overestimating his conceptual dexterity. Philosophy that explores a topic from different angles is of course not new. Plato's dialogues are of this very quality. Their methodological approach rests on the ability of the interlocutors to adopt different perspectives to test their coherence and validity.

The difference to Pessoa's writings however is that Plato does not simply shift perspectives as the dialogues proceed but also applies criteria to judge the various opinions. The unique nature of Pessoa's philosophical writings lies in his refusal to single out any critical framework which could assist him to reach a judgement or validate one perspective over another. It is not the pluralism of voices that is mildly annoying in Pessoa's writings but his inability to bring these voices to a fugal conclusion.

In fact, Pessoa appears to be afraid to reach conclusions because he does not trust his own vocabulary. His thoughts on rationalism are jumpy and scattershot at best, dipping in and out of problems and issues without ever bringing to bear on them a consistent adjudicating framework.

So why read Pessoa's philosophy at all? Because it is instructive of what makes good philosophy. In essence, good philosophical writing rests on preferences for conceptual frameworks that are being ruthlessly applied to the issue investigated. Only this permits one to make commitments that clear the fog of voices. Since Pessoa does not want to appear as the author in word or deed, his writings remain unfathomable even for himself. In the end, he admits defeat, pointing to the myriad terminological entanglements that he cannot escape. This may make good postmodern literature but philosophy it isn't.

Wednesday 6 August 2014

Thomas Piketty and the discourse of envy

Thomas Piketty's 600+ page book on Capital has caused some jitters in the US and UK. Some right wing commentators have roundly condemned the work as a product of unmitigated socialist ideology (which might just be a badge of honour in Piketty's home country France). Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. The book is in fact adopting a measured and balanced tone throughout and cultivates a sense of intellectual fairness that serves the ongoing discussions about equality well.

It is also well written and easily accessible which makes it, if not exactly bed time reading, a welcome contribution to a wider debate on the effects of capital accumulation in the developed world (Pickety is unashamedly focussing on the 'First World', mainly for reasons of data sources, and consequently there is very little about China, India, or even Central European countries in Piketty's volume).

It is of course easy to find flaws in a monumental piece stretching over more than 600 pages but Pickety insulates himself well to criticism by pursuing a tightly controlled theme and rarely straying from the main path. The data he has marshalled are impressive and the argument flows coherently and plausibly.

Yet, after a detailed exposition of capital in all its manifestations (real estate, financial and industrial assets), Piketty then embarks on a more daring path, entering the territory of economic prediction and tax proposals. His suggestion of a world wide capital tax has been widely debated and criticised so I wont go into detail on this, except, in fairness, point out that he repeatedly reiterates the hypothetical and idealistic character of his own proposal.

A more relevant criticism appears to lie in the way in which he discusses the purposes of taxation in general. At times, he seems to suggest that the reason taxation is levied is to give tax authorities (and researchers) a better data set. To my mind, this is like putting the cart before the horse. Taxation should have a purpose beyond simply generating knowledge for bureaucrats in tax authorities or, incidentally, academics.

Once his political instincts come to the fore, he identifies another additional purpose of taxation: to reduce capital differentials amongst the populations. This, of course, is the expected culmination of his treatise on the history of capital: to reduce inequalities. Yet, Piketty cant quite bring himself to look for a consistent justification why taxation should be the prime mechanism to bring about equality. To do this, he would have to enter the domain of political philosophy yet, he struggles to engage in this debate. It may be because the language of politics is less determined by the grammar of economic development than by political legitimacy, an aspect of political morality that sits oddly in any economic treatise. In an aside, he lets his guard down and writes:

'Even a person of the most refined taste and elegance cannot easily spend 500 million euros in a year.' (p525)

The implication is that if somebody cannot plausibly make use of what she owns, she should not keep it. It is this curious inversion of property rights that puts him on a par with the illiberal sections of radical socialism. Incursions into people's right to life, liberty and property (as Locke referred to them) requires careful justification. Simply stating that somebody couldn't plausibly have any use for their property moves Piketty dangerously close to the illiberal discourse of envy. This does a disservice to an otherwise insightful and impressive historico-economic study.

Saturday 2 August 2014


One of the first movies I remember watching in a cinema was Jaws. It must have been in the 1980s and saying that I watched it may be an exaggeration. The movie was screened in an open air cinema at a camp site in a Polish Baltic sea resort. The audio track was in English (American English to be precise). There were French subtitles whilst the camp site owner simultaneously translated the dialogue through a mic in Polish so the audience could understand what was going on. None of which was any useful to me, an 8 year old German boy. Still, the movie made an impression and I have always had a soft spot for the struggle of Chief Brody with the beast from the deep.

Whilst the first instalment of Jaws is just being released in refreshed colour and sound, my favourite Jaws is its sequel, Jaws 2. Sure, there is something Hemingwayian as Brody, perched in the lookout of the sinking Orca, delivers the final coup de grรขce to the beast. Yet, Jaws 2 seemed to add a human dimension to his man-beast confrontation that still makes for remarkable viewing, even twenty years later.

I think it is Brody's slow but inevitable decline into paranoia that makes fascinating entertainment. As he starts to see sharks everywhere, his social bearings are coming apart. An eye on a shaky photograph becomes evidence of murder in the sea and he eventually cracks up by emptying his revolver's magazine into the open sea.

Confronted by the local mayor and the local aldermen, his madness tips over the edge. Brody's paranoia becomes a problem for social and political management. At that point the movie is a study in local politics and its inability to grasp risks. As the aldermen and mayor witness Brody's behaviour they realise that they have rules for everything from voting to local enterprise yet no rule to deal with paranoia masquerading as concern.

'Nothing personal' or on the edge of insanity?
Chief Brody going for the kill in Jaws 2

The ironic twist of the movie is of course that Brody's paranoia turns out to be grounded in reality. Yet, it's too late then. He has to go it alone, just as in the first movie, one man against the incarnation of evil. In a crucial scene, a vet, disturbed by Brody's rush to judgement looks him in the eye and says: 'Sharks don't take things personal'. Well, this one does, which makes Chief Brody a perfect match. Incidentally, it also makes for bloody good viewing.

In praise of ... Prince Charles

When I was in fourth grade, our arts teacher asked us to paint the city of the future. I took a very broad brush and painted plenty of blocks of flats, square or rectangular, and clearly aligned them along a symmetrical grid. I don't think I bothered with putting windows into the buildings. It would have required some dexterous painting abilities, something certainly beyond my artistic grasp back then (or now). The outcome was as expected: square, ordered and hideously boring to look at, without a thought for the human beings who presumably would have to live in this city of the future very soon.

When I came to Birmingham for the first time in 1991, I was shocked. The city had ruthlessly copied my painting and rebuilt its centre exactly as I had pictured it only a few years earlier! In record time and with the same cavalier neglect for the need of humane habitation. Everywhere there were blocks of flats without windows and concrete subways. I was incensed. There was my picture of a future city that I had envisioned as a fourth grader and I had not received a single pence in royalties!

Not suitable for living - Owen Luder's Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth -
or as Prince Charles called it: a 'mildewed lump of elephant droppings' 

Of course, Birmingham is not the only British city that struggles with the legacy of post-war architecture. There are few urban centres in England or Wales that have been spared the attention of an unimaginative fourth grader with an architecture degree. This is often blamed on the large scale second world war bombing that ruined Coventry and others. But this is not quite the whole picture. Whilst the 1950s saw a significant increase in housebuilding, it was the expansive use of concrete in the 1960s that produced the brutalist city-scape scarring Britain.

The BBC recently ran a feature of several British cities that are coming to terms with this legacy. The preferred way of dealing with Birmingham, Hull or Coventry city centre appears to be dynamite, or rather: controlled destruction.

Should we regret the disappearance of these concrete blobs disfiguring the city landscape? There are those (mainly the architects who were responsible for these aberrations in human habitation) who argue that they represent a significant part of architectural history and should be preserved. I am unconvinced. What they forget to mention is that many of these concrete buildings required the destruction of Victorian or Georgian buildings that were still extant. The architecture of the 1960s did not arise on a blank sheet. Town planners and architects engaged in a near criminal tabula rasa which tried to eliminate the very architectural history that they now want to be part of.

There is of course one person who consistently warned of these architectural follies. The heir to the British throne. Prince Charles is widely ridiculed by some in the press but I think he has always been sharp, witty and sophisticated in his criticism of modern architecture, qualities that were mostly absent from the work of British architects or my own foray into architectural paintings as a fourth grader.

So, here is it: Three cheers for the common sense, and the heir of the throne!

Sunday 27 July 2014

What's wrong with feminism?

Feminism has had a good run since the 1970s at universities and in public debates. Yet, more recently it seems to have lost momentum. There are few female political or cultural commentators that are happy to call themselves feminists and the movement itself appears to be fragmented and riven with theoretical factions.

Let me state at the very outset that I believe that feminism has made an enormous contribution to a better understanding of the female experience of oppression and disadvantage which has been with us (and still is) for times immemorial. Yet, the question remains, why has feminism not made more of an impact? Given that horrific injustices against women are still perpetrated (not least FGM) and appear to be still deeply ingrained in cultural traditions, the question is legitimate: what went wrong?

Feminism started with a laudable agenda. It was to chart the female experience of systemic oppression and injustice. In academia it quickly became mired in theoretical subtleties and undercut by countervailing philosophical movements such as postmodernism. This may have sapped some of the energy of the initial project, but some of the blame, I think, should surely be shouldered by feminist theorists themselves (they include men too).

I recently read Nancy Hirschmann's attempt to outline a feminist account of political obligation (Rethinking Obligation. A Feminist Method for Political Theory, Cornell: Ithaca 1992) and here is what she says about why the feminist experience is different from the masculine one:

'The very process of identification for girls is relational, whereas for boys it tends to deny relationship and emphasize abstraction and fragmentation. ... Just as the boy's identification with an abstraction makes it difficult for him to maintain connection and trust in later life, so does the girl's difficulty in breaking away from her primary identification [her mother - AK] inhibit her sense of separateness.' (p.135)

Hirschmann's problem is that either she wants to make an empirical point, for which Freudian psychoanalysis may not be a suitable vehicle, or she intends to forge a new conceptual framework, which requires justification. Over about 150 pages of psychobabble, it increasingly appears apparent that Hirschmann actually believes that children grow up without a father, which means that boys cannot form relationships and girls cannot reason abstractly. Where the evidence comes from for this strong claim is never quite clear but she refers repeatedly to Freudian psychoanalysis in post-war incarnations as her main witness.

The problem for a feminism built on Freudian foundations is obvious. As an empirical claim, it is certainly wrong that girls cannot reason abstractly and boys cannot form relationships. But the real danger lurks in the essentialism that she advocates. In her theory of personal development, she actually confirms the most egregious gender prejudices that have been advocated for centuries and contributed to the marginalisation of women in public life. So, basing her feminist theory on 'empirically proven' accounts of gender difference in personal development re-arms the prejudices she wants to defeat.

Philosophically, this lands her in hot water as she proceeds to build a political theory of obligation out of gendered difference that she actually wants to eliminate. The choice she has is either to privilege the 'feminine' over the 'masculine' experience, or to simply claim that neither of them should be epistemologically superior. The latter position closely resembles the contortions of linguistic theorists and social constructionists who claimed that all narratives of reality are equally valid.

Whilst this position may sooth some notions of political correctness, it jars with reality on a daily basis. Clearly, Hirschmann's starting point was that injustices perpetrated against women (such as FGM) ought NOT to be seen as morally equal to those practices that are based on women's free choices.

Hirschmann spends about 200 pages to bat away the ghosts that her own inconsistent position calls up yet ultimately arrives at little more than the banal statement that 'a theory of feminist obligation requires us to attend to the political context for obligations, and that context requires participation, communication, and interpersonal relationship as the model of political community' (p296). You don't say!

So why is Hirschmann's attempt so instructive for feminist theory? It appears to throw a light at the heart of any essentialist philosophising. If you think that the way in which we are positioned in our world should be the starting point for theorising, then don't be surprised that the way the world looks from those positions is slightly wonky. Whilst Hirschmann is full of contempt for liberal philosophers who try to abstract in their work from actual situations, she mistakes this for wilful masculinist distortions. In fact, although abstractions may not allow us to see the whole picture (which is often shot through with serious injustices for specific groups in society) they are a useful heuristic device to agree on basic principles that can apply to all, regardless to creed, gender, colour or status. It's is this universalising feature of philosophy which feminism appears unable to accommodate.

Monday 21 July 2014

On Scottish independence

In 1630, at the height of the Thirty Years War in Germany, the French Ambassador to the Holy Roman Empire made a clear and unequivocal demand: reduce your troops and sack Wallenstein (the Imperial General). This placed the Emperor in a difficult situation. The Swedish King had just landed in Northern Germany and the Ambassador's demands were tantamount to leaving German lands defenseless. Still, the Emperor acquiesced. Wallenstein was sacked and most of the troops demobilised.

Listening recently to the debate about Scottish independence I was reminded of this episode in the Thirty Years War. In effect, the French Ambassador's ultimatum was something akin to President Holland asking David Cameron to sack the Chair of the General Staff in London. Our reaction, rightly, would be: 'Who the hell does he think he is?'

Comparisons are of course fraught with problems, especially if they bridge several hundred years of European history, but this historical example is instructive. Sovereignty never was and certainly is not the indivisible prerogative of national governments.

This is where the Scottish independence debate strikes me as curiously lopsided. Let me say at the start that I firmly believe that Scotland, independent or as part of the Union, is and will continue to be a prosperous country, with rich natural resources and a highly educated and skilled workforce.

However, the tenor of the independence campaign has strangely romantic overtones that I struggle to reconcile with any realistic assessment of modern nation states operating in an interdependent world. This cuts both ways, interestingly. How so?

Firstly, it's what I would call the French Ambassador test. Some in the independence campaign appear to suggest that, once Scotland is independent, it can decide its own fate (whatever that means). The experience of the German Emperor should be a lesson to the contrary. The vision of an unencumbered Scottish public will manifesting itself in a sovereign Scottish government free to do all it currently cant do, is hard to sustain in a world like ours. In a sense, those who argue that independence will grant eternal freedom from external strictures (English or otherwise) take a similar view of Scotland as those in UKIP entertain for Britain. If only those evil 'others' would grant us full autonomy, we could decide things for ourselves. There is good reason to believe that this may turn out to be a mirage.

Yet, secondly, this vision of an independent Scotland assumes that there is a consensus about what this future Scotland should look like. The picture put forward tends to be a strange amalgam of socialist egalitarian nirvana with prosperity for all thrown in. This strikes me as an even stranger case of romanticism gone wild. It seems to rely on a caricature of 'the English system' (which is everything bad on the planet) and an eclectic melange of utopian, socialist and proto-communist elements.

There are two arguments that strongly suggest that an independent Scotland will not massively divert from where England is going, socially, culturally and politically. First, the Scottish government already has full powers over pretty much anything that matters in people's lives. Education, health and social services are all fully devolved issues at present. The Scottish Executive has even tax varying powers (which it has not used so far). It is interesting to note that there has been very little divergence from the 'English' path in devolved areas so far. So, why should independence be the start of total transformation?

The second aspect however is that this vision of a radically transformative society post-independence somehow assumes that there is a broad consensus amongst Scots about the direction of travel (to this socialist nirvana). Nothing could be further from the truth. The polling (and previous elections for the Scottish Parliament) indicate that Scots are just as politically diverse (political scientists speak of electoral cleavages) as any other modern society. There are even a solid 15 percent of Scottish voters who vote for the Conservative Party. So, the utopian socialist consensus does not seem to extend much further than the one third of voters who favour independence in the first place.

Which brings me to the reason why I believe this referendum will be lost by the SNP. Right from the start the campaign for independence was strongly premised on a cultural, political and social vision of Scotland that is curiously narrow, something that speaks to the proto-socialist romantic convictions of those who supported independence in the first place. Yet, the campaign was to be won (or lost) with the votes of those who did not share the SNP's electoral manifesto. All polling suggests that the Yes campaign has failed to reach out to the moderate centre. Barring any major political earthquake, Scotland may thus just stay part of the Union it joined about 300 years ago.

Saturday 21 June 2014

Max Weber's casuistic style of writing

As student in Berlin, I always struggled with texts by Max Weber, the German sociologist. I found his style of writing impenetrable at best. It was not so much what he was trying to say, but how he said it that caused me headaches. His train of thought often seemed to meander, sometimes combining several disgressions from the topic at hand within one sentence. It was easy to understand why he employed such a style. Weber was engaged in defining a new science, and the terminological and conceptual uncertainties forced him to describe the new subject matter through analogies rather than through direct naming. This meant however, that one could at best make sense of what he was saying without ever gaining a critical distance to his texts. In other words, to a certain extent, his style made his writings immune to criticism. The best you could do as a reader is to absorb yourself in the impressionistic style.

Whoever reads Weber quickly notices that the key to unlocking Weber's enigmatic writings lies in analysing his style. Yet, it is less clear why anybody should put in extra hours to study linguistics to understand the writings of a 20th century sociologist.

Fortunately, the division of labour in science (and the humanities) relieves you of the need to expand your knowledge into literary theories. Other people do in elaborate detail what you can only grasp in its contours and so I was not too surprised recently to finally stumble over a linguistic study of Weber's writings. Bryan S. Green published his book on Simmel and Weber a while back but I only read it now and it was, without exaggeration, a bit of a revelation (Bryan S. Green, Literary Methods and Sociological Theory. Case Studies of Simmel and Weber, Chicago London 1988).

Green conducts a textual analysis of Weber's style in admirable detail and argues that Weber's writings are discursively based on the legal tradition of casuistic case examination, where lawyers are circling the 'facts' by describing them in ever more accurate detail. Whilst they are moving ever closer to the facts, they peg their progress by creating consensus at every point of the way. The ultimate indisputableness of a 'fact' therefore is supported by a gradual improvement in description that is painstakingly evidenced through step by step consensus.

Green says that 'casuistry is the inner form and intrinsic genre of Weberian sociology' (p.264). As with so many linguistic studies, the form becomes the content of the message and this may be the point where Green (just as other linguists) stretch the analytical method to make it the production facility for meaning. Yet, for all its linguistic aspirations, Green's book reveals how useful it can be to look carefully at the way we say something if we want to understand what we actually say.

Friday 23 May 2014

The impressive Nigel Farage

As the mainstream parties are licking their wounds after bruising local election results in England, the leader of UKIP, the ubiquitous Nigel Farage is enjoying the limelight of the media. And this is even before the results of the European elections are made public on Sunday, a set of results that are bound to make Labour, Conservatives and LibDems look like medium sized parties.

Enjoying the media frenzy - Nigel Farage

So, what is the appeal of Farage? Although disentangling the motivations of voters at elections can be a tricky business, Farage has already offered a clue. It's the language. And I think he is largely correct.

Let's first of all look at his policies (and yes, they are 'his policies' since the party is more or less a one man show). These policies range from the hard right (shut the doors to all immigrants) to the hard left (milk and honey for everyone, whilst cutting public expenditure). The fascinating thing about Farage's policies is however that there are very few indeed. Farage has been immensely talented at selling soundbites as policies.

Take immigration. Well, governments of all colour have tried to reduce immigration with little effect. Even if Farage would be residing in Number 10 tomorrow, he would still need to go through a referendum on exiting Europe, since it is Britain's membership of Europe that produces most of Britain's immigrants. He may or may not win such a referendum. The fact is, he wont be in Number 10 any time soon. So he has no way of delivering this 'policy'.

But there is also light at the end of the tunnel for the established political parties. I have argued before that it is exactly the insignificance of local and European elections that allow voters to vote UKIP without any consequences. Europe and immigration are important themes, yet neither of them are high up on the list of priorities for decision making of voters in national elections, as Michael Howard and William Hague discovered when they ran 'anti-immigration' campaigns in 2005 and 2001 respectively. Immigration and Europe are the sort of topics that make for heated debates, but not for solid votes at general elections.

So, Labour and Conservatives can take comfort from the fact that the local and European elections this week probably marked the high point for UKIP. Farage may be able to translate his newly gained council representation into one or two seats at Westminster, yet the most damage UKIP will do at the general elections in 2015 is to split the small c conservative vote in some areas. And this is provided the newly elected councillors across England are not falling over each other (as the Greens for example did in Brighton). In essence, UKIP is a movement, rather than a political party, so the loyalty of party members to their party is fairly weak.

So, what about language? This is where the real challenge lies for the mainstream parties. Farage is famous for his straight talk and it is nothing less than painful to listen to Miliband, Clegg and others to try to downplay the UKIP challenge. It is exactly this waffle that gets voters angry. So why do Miliband and others do not speak their mind?

The real reason is that there is nothing they can say about many of the topics that UKIP has broached. Mainstream politicians are very wary of discussing something in public for which they potentially have no answers. The hard truth is that there is no answer for European immigration. Geographical mobility is a cornerstone of the edifice of European Union and there is nothing any politician can do about it, short of leaving Europe.

So, instead of acknowledging this fact and talking openly about it, they waffle their way through and hope no one notices. This Thursday, about a quarter of all voters have just called their bluff.