The recent £295million purchase of Topshop, Topman and Miss Selfridge by online fashion retailer ASOS has been seen as another example of software eating the world. This narrative ignores the greed and rapacious mismanagement that characterised Sir Philip and Lady Tina’s rule and undermined the long term viability of these companies through underinvestment and extractive short-sightedness. It also focuses on what is lost without realizing what there is to be won.
The decline of Britain’s high streets has been a subject of hand wringing and wailing since the demise of one-penny-chew and one-pound-tin whistle merchant, Woolworths in 2008. The failure of many legacy retailers to adapt to digitisation and increasingly blended shopping habits, the financial crash and elevated consumer expectations of retail experiences left a number of casualties in its wake. Along with Woolworth’s you can count tea shop Whittards and furniture chain Walmsley, to name just three of the ‘W’s. Many of the famous names that sunk without a trace represent the hollowing out of the mediocre middle; not cheap enough to justify elbowing others out the way to get to the tills to get a bargain that doesn’t exist online – or that you wouldn’t risk without trying on (hence Primark thrives, Gap dies…) or experiential enough to be worth a visit (Cath Kidson collapses one month into Lockdown one, Channel endures…) But I want to analyse the other side of this equation; what is left behind. The pandemic, as it has in so many other areas, has been a catalyst, not the turning point, for the High Street. And the hollowing out that it has sped up, has, like Pandora’s box, left us with empty boxes filled with hope.
What was the High Street
My first assertion; the high street was a bit crap. Even Oxford Street, the sine qua non of UK high streets was crap – in fact it was very crap, on a very grand scale. But we put up with it because good enough had to be good enough. Sure a few retailers did better; the original Nike Town and (ironically) the flagship Topshop at Oxford Circus when it opened, and some of the independents in and around Carnaby and Newport Streets before they got priced out by chains; but retailers were generally lazy in the service and experience they offered shoppers. What was true ‘up town’ was true of small towns up and down the country… and the more prime a store’s position was, the less it tried. I even remember a time when the Piccadilly Waterstones in the old Simpson’s department store was good before it became 4 floors of Dan Brown and the Grufalo, a cafe and a kitsch stationary department. But once the internet dematerialised geography, you can’t use ‘place’ to bully people into buying. In fact they don’t need to buy from the bullies at all.
Secondly, many of the jobs were crap jobs. Let me be clear. I do not mean that retail jobs are crap jobs, I mean that the retail jobs that many of these high street heavyweights provided were crap. Employees were not empowered to take proper decisions on the floor and smart young people who could have elevated what these companies did were disenchanted by cynical managers who pushed them to instead opt for the predictable monotony of the call centre than the capricious whims of whoever was running that day’s shift. Add in zero hours contracts and wages that failed to keep pace with the cost of living and you are unlikely to have the kind of team working the floor that wants to go above and beyond to create the kind of place I’d rather be, instead of buying trainers in my tracksuit from my sofa.
The identikit chain store high streets that devolved during the back end of the 20th century ignored a fundamental truth about shopping and ‘commerce’; it was never just about monetary exchange. They are places for human connection as well as consumption. By ignoring the former, the internet was always going to win on the latter terms, leaving in it’s wake nothing but Poundlands, pay-day loans and Paddy Power. Retail jobs were never just about pay; at their best they were about identity, esteem and belonging. The butcher, the baker and candlestick maker all had their own masteries, autonomies and fluencies; the things that make a job well done worth doing. The hollowing out of the High Street as it was provides an opportunity for this once more. But I am not talking about some kind of retro-futurist communitarian wank fantasy, but a modern revitalisation, that doesn’t seek to turn back the clock, but works with the realities of the third decade of the 21st century and provides what cannot be dematerialised. If you want a powerful indicator of what this might be, step inside your local vape shop when they reopen and see the community created around those businesses.
The dematerialisation of work
The pandemic has accelerated changes that have been a long time coming, thrusting ‘work at home’ on to many white collar workers. Though only the most naive would still claim that we will never return to an office, we have proven that a blended approach is more than possible. The implications for office jobs moving to only a partially office-based norm are huge. City centres can become more mixed as fewer total desks are needed. People who ‘had’ to be in London and other major cities, can now ‘choose’ where they want to live. If you only need to commute twice a week, 2 hours on a train where fewer commuters guarantee a seat doesn’t seem so bad. Less pressure on big cities to cater for these middle class workers means more spaces in between for the artists, students and dreamers that made these cities attractive in the first place. Those who are naturally rural or suburban by temperament can make space for those driven out by economics.
I suspect the great unanticipated beneficiary of this will be the towns where they move to. But this needs to be encouraged to happen more broadly than the usual suspects within the commuter belt. The companies that have found that they do not need to gather their whole workforce in one expensive flagship HQ should go further; they should be incentivised to open smaller offices for different teams and functions in towns and cities across the UK, encouraging the spread of these jobs and the high value service economies that grow around them to disperse. Smaller businesses that work with functions of these larger firms, whether NatWest or Netflix would grow up around different decentralised departments, creating hubs of excellence for marketing or design or coding or CNC machining. There are already clusters like this for automotive manufacturing in places like Coventry biotech around Oxford or a garment trade ripe for radical upskilling in Leicester that can be used as springboards, but what would a Stockport marketing cluster or Truro Financial Services hub look like?
The need for the real
As we have proven with this past year of Zoom quizzes and ‘nice walks’, we are social animals for whom an all-virtual life is a poor replacement. Dispersed workers will still want places to come together, hub offices and workspaces that get people out of their homes and collaborating, or simply co-existing. The idea that remote technology and the comfort of home baked sourdough will somehow make us turn our back on our own hard-wired herd instincts is absurd. Furthermore, those who are starting their career benefit from cross-pollination from peers and learning from seniors need these exchanges to grow professionally, and companies need the social capital those exchanges create to prosper. Anyone joining a new job or a new team in the last 12 months will be able to attest to how much the lack of real time together slows that progress. We have all been mortgaging the social capital we have built in reserve for some time now.
The empty units of high street provide the opportunity for this; as many of the economic functions are lost, as chain stores become cloud-stored IP we should focus on what we gain. If the dispersal of workplaces takes pressure off the cost of living, then the removal of these shops creates places for doing. Deflationary pressure on commercial rents and the simple fact that some revenue is better than none will lead shop fronts to become community spaces, not-for-profit co-working cafes, youth training centres, church halls even. Landlords should be incentivised by councils to see beyond shopping and open up sites to broader uses, things that cannot be virtualized.
Turning vacancy into possibility
The key will be to ensure that this dispersion of work and opportunity creates jobs and injects skills into a community; existing commuter towns transformed from dormitories to vibrant places in their own right. Older high streets transformed into new nexuses for exchange. The opportunity afforded by the great disruption is one where massive shifts in work, consumption and living can be used to create vibrant places with strong identities, regional roles and national links.
The end of Arcadia could offer an opportunity for genuine creative destruction.
We must act quickly to seize the chance it offers.
I am sitting looking over London from the 9th floor of a co-working space on Southbank; floor to ceiling windows framing a view of the eastern fringe of the North Downs around Sevenoaks, where my mother lived when she first came back to Britain from America, a single parent, returning home with a 6 month old Fire Tiger in her arms. It’s the first day of Lunar New Year today, the year of the Ox, and I can’t help thinking how lucky I am to sit here, in the depths of a pandemic looking south to the town where for a while I was briefly raised, while a pandemic blazes on below, foregrounded by the roofs of the Waterloo Station Sheds.
It’s been over five months since I last wrote. Finding the space to gather thoughts, to reap and winnow is difficult. With nothing to do, time isn’t hard to come by, but space, emotionally and physically, is at a premium. I asked a colleague recently what they got up to on the weekend, more by reflex than out of any real interest and he said ‘another fucking lovely walk’. Another fucking lovely walk. I intend to try and make some more space to write and to reflect, because that process of winnowing and milling and proofing thoughts into ideas is important. Just as we are all looking to maintain some kind of physical stimulation during our enforced sedentarism, the mind needs to be stimulated too, and London’s mental gyms, the museums, the galleries, the theatres, the pubs, are all shut.
Here I offer a few thoughts on a year of lockdowns and distancing.
Time is both long and short
I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 where a physicist and a psychologist were talking about time and they managed to describe the current temporal paradox we are all living in beautifully. We perceive time both ‘in the moment’ and retrospectively, and the way that we assess time in the present and in the past are inversely correlated.
In the moment, when very little is happening, it goes by, as The Righteous Brothers told us ‘so slowly’. It’s why bad films and school detentions take an age. Conversely, when we are busy, present perceived time flies, whether you are having fun or just stuck in back to back meetings.
However, we navigate the past using events as markers and waypoints, meaning when we look back, the opposite is true. If nothing much has happened, then we experience a kind of psychological parallax error, leaving us wondering where did the year go.
This goes some way to explaining why it feels like today is March 327th 2020 rather than February 12th 2021. It’s why the last year has been both a slow time and, with hindsight, a short time.
Everything will eat software, not the other way round
I take a historian’s view of technology and am naturally sceptical of the ‘THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING’ narrative touted by technophile naifs. It’s what they said about the wheel, penicillin, nuclear power and ambient cheese in an aerosol can.
And in many respects they are right. These did change things. But the hard truth nestled inside ‘this changes everything’ like the final doll of a matryoshka is that it doesn’t. Technology doesn’t change human nature. Human nature shapes technology – or at least it’s uses and abuses – and that is innovation, which is far more important. People socialised before ‘media’ and bullied before ‘cyber’. And if you are worried about Fake News now, think of the tumult caused in the 16th and 17th century by the printing press and the army of pamphleteers it unleashed.
To skip forward to the present, the last year has seen the widespread adoption by laggards and the late majority of numerous innovation-enabled behaviours that are now no longer technology but just ‘stuff’. Amazon prime for those beyond their Prime, Zoom n Zimmers. In many respects Arthur C. Clark may have got it wrong; Any sufficiently advanced innovation is indistinguishable from the mundane.
It’s an awful time to be young
When you look purely at the economic equation, life for a 20-something grad in a big city is a bad deal; Sky high rents, long commutes, expensive pubs. I think of my own graduate years, religiously cycle commuting 9 miles from Norbury to Farringdon, whatever the weather, so I could spend the travelcard savings on Somerfield own-label claret. With hindsight, I was as pretentious then as I am now.
But being 23 in London or New York or Paris was never about getting rich. If you were lucky, that’s what 33 was for, and of course all of us who have been in our 20s in one of the world’s great cities had half an eye on that. But it was also about all the non-monetary benefits. Drinking, Fucking and Friendship. The chance to be anonymous in a crowd, to invent and reinvent who we are. The shared house in Hackney was both a price to be paid and a rite of passage, part of the broader ritual of the London (or Lahore or Los Angeles) lifestyle.
With that mode snatched away, what are you left with? Remote working back at your parents house, saving for a second bite if you are lucky… but more likely you are one of those spotted through the zone two late Victorian bay window, three to a living-room-as-makeshift-office, ironing board as desk, praying the broadband holds.
Sure, professionals in their 30s are still trying to play ‘oh what a lovely lockdown’ as their endurance wears thin, but spare a thought for younger colleagues. This was not what they signed up for.
And as for university students…
Experts restored, Authority eroded
Whitty, Fauci, Tegnell. Tedros. Over the last year, we’ve not been able to get enough of ‘experts’. During a year when we have been living in an acutely VUCA world, science initially offered us the seemingly simple allure of answers to all the ambiguity and complexity. As the pandemic has charted its course, we have seen that science is a process that asks as many questions as it answers; but we have also watched that process in action, increasing our shared understanding of the importance of expertise in public life.
At the same time, many western governments, refusing to learn the lessons learnt in other parts of the world, have lurched from disaster to disaster. Ignoring the complexity of the science, many leaders, particularly in the UK and Europe have promised simple answers to complex problems. And the issue is that each time they have over-promised and under-delivered, they have further eroded public trust. In a liberal democracy, people will only really comply with laws they would willingly accept, and the shifts in levels of compliance and growing ‘flexible approaches’ to lockdown restrictions indicates a restive population creating their own version of the rules. The growth of ‘interpretive lawbreaking’ among the general population can only create more headaches in the future.
The next time governments and civil servants need to mobilise our collective compliance, it will be harder to come by than it was last March.
We are all in the same storm, but not the same boat
While the commentariat may be having a good lockdown, spare a thought for those who haven’t been sheltered from the storm by a garden office, a case of Wine Society Beaujolais-Villages and a new seventeen minute Bob Dylan single. There is a pandemic experience gap between the young and the old, but also between the comfortable middle class professionals working office jobs at home and those who have either lost their jobs or are still going to work in compromised or risky environments.
While the ‘Blissfully Quarantined’ are considering which preschool to pre-register their almost-one year old Sourdough starter for (“she’s very mature for her age”) the ‘Gotta Works’ are leaving the house daily to enter a threatening outside world. This is not just the clapped-for key workers, but the vast armies of warehouse operatives, delivery drivers, construction workers, cleaners and cooks that make the lives of the Blissfully Quarantined possible.
Braced for the worst impact or already hit by the full force of the economic consequences of the pandemic are the ‘nowhere to gos’; either already let go or furloughed on zombie jobs, these are those in service industry jobs and the lowest paid sectors that have been the worst hit.
These three tribes have not been created by the pandemic, but brought into sharper focus as the virus has exposed the existing ley lines of inequality that have been the reality of our economy for the past decades whose divergence was catalysed by the crisis of 2008.
Cities in the 20s will roar back, and so will towns
I predict the flight to the countryside that estate agents have been talking up to try and froth anaemic rural property markets in unfashionable ridings is a reflex reaction, akin to the brief fashion for matte-black supercars amongst the hyper rich after the Financial Crash. Cities have endured far worse and still thrived. Fire, pestilence and plague have not stopped people seeking friendship, fucking and fun in the worlds great conurbations. There are some things that you can’t easily virtualise. Expect many who run to the hills to return to a more variegated city, where the reduced spacial pressure from ‘9 to 6 x 5’ office hours leaves more room for culture, creativity and serendipity.
Many will stay away, exercising a preference for space, whilst looking for more interaction than an isolated farmhouse can offer. The dematerialisation of geography for professional work means that this need for interaction can increasingly be served by towns rather than cities. There is an opportunity to revitalise towns centres and high streets up and down the country, where the bonfire of the chain stores leaves spaces for micro-offices, council funded business hubs and co-working cafes. Thoughtful and intentional local policy could lead to a new renaissance for towns, propagating healthier and more diverse local economies and helping truly level up the regions
Sociologists will have more to write about than the scientists or politicians
Once the dying is over, there will be a postmortem of how the pandemic has been handled around the world. It’s unlikely that any nation won’t be criticised for some element of it’s handling, perhaps with the possibility of New Zealand who do have the advantage of being a small country located at the very end of the Earth.
I believe though that after the initial recriminations, it will be the sociologists that have the most to write about. Behaviours, particularly in free societies have more to do with culture than politics. Britain’s own late lockdown was based on the, not unreasonable, presumption that ‘freedom loving’ Britons would be unlikely to comply before people had started to die.
Don’t be surprised if the patterns we see in any analyses of whether a country has had a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ pandemic map more closely to Hofstede’s work on Cultural dimensions than government policy or ideology.
I once started an undergraduate essay on the linguistic turn with a pop-cultural epigraph; ‘It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away’. My tutor, a soft-spoken son of the Sixties whose low, melodic cadences were a cross between a late night jazz radio announcer and Dylan, the stoner rabbit from the Magic Roundabout, told me it was “wonderful polemic, but a poor contribution to academe”. I confess that this was probably the highest praise I receive during my time at university, and I am convinced to this day that the low 2.2 which the essay garnered, was, in the main, down to the misattribution of the above quote to Boyzone rather than the brothers Gibb; the folly of youth. But the thought that words, however imperfect they are, are all we have, is an important one; particularly during the time of Covid. The virus is a fact, but how it is communicated, the words we choose to use, frame it and give it meaning.
1. Never having happened or existing in the past
2. Having happened or existed in the past but been studiously ignored
A fatal disease, passed to humans by bats you say?
Stand up Ebola 2014-2016. Luckily for the rich world, West Africans don’t travel as much as we do to China or East Asia does to the rest of the planet. Partly because of the nature of Ebola (tl;dr: it kills too fast to travel easily) and the ease with which we could erect a cordon sanitaire around Guinea, Sierra Leone and the other states at the centre of the outbreak without needing to apply the breaks to the global economy, we have conveniently forgotten about this one. And please don’t quote the official death toll; estimates say up to 70% of cases went unreported…and this is a disease with a 40% kill-ratio.
If this is a little too exotic, then we have the 1889-1890 Flu outbreak; est. 1 million deaths worldwide, The 1918-1920 Spanish (H1N1) Flu’s 17-100million, 1957’s global H2N2 with 1+ million, 1968’s H3N2 picking off between 1-4million, 2001’s swine flu outbreak which was around 500,000. Even the winter 2017-18 US flu season merits a special mention, a particularly bad year with 80,000+ deaths in the States. A current outbreak of measles in the Democratic Republic of Congo is currently estimated to be around 250 thousand cases with 6000 deaths and counting, but y’know Africa, so no big deal? And Aids. 32million dead. And counting. I haven’t even bothered adding SARS. So this is by no means unprecedented (link).
And nor was it unforeseen. The WHO, civil servants and public health experts have been waiting for this for a while, a so-called Disease X that could rip through our interconnected world. According to Bill Clinton’s former Public Health advisor, they had even played out this scenario during this administration in the 90s. Apparently there is a playbook based on their learnings. Maybe someone could tweet it to Donald.
1. An armed fighting between two or more countries or groups
2. A metaphor deployed by politicians to suppress dissent
See also ‘battle’, ‘fight’, and ‘beat’.
Make no mistake, this virus is not out to get you. It is not personal. SARS-Cov-2 did not wake up one day and say ‘Fuck this bat, lets go mess with those fleshy skin bags carrying those weird little mirrors all the time’. This is not a war. But it helps to remember the politics of waging war when leaders decide to clothe a crisis in it’s rhetoric. Wars have time and again been framed as moral enterprises. Battles against good and evil. World War II and the Cold War loom particularly large for a generation of leaders who are old enough to romanticise, but not old enough to remember; particularly for conservatives, the second world war looms just out of reach, a fog of ‘better days’ constantly clutched at that seems to vanish at their touch. For them Covid is a chance to have their own ‘finest hour’ and rally the nation round the status quo. No questions please, when we are battling to fulfil our manifest destiny!
But this is not a War. We cannot ‘beat’ Covid-19. We are staying at home to manage it, or rather to manage our health service and collective resources. Until there is a cure, that is all we can do. Likewise, for the individual, expecting them to ‘fight’ this is absurd. You can’t wish yourself well no more than you can think yourself 5 kilos lighter or dream yourself rich. Emily Maitliss skewers this brilliantly on her recent Newsnight opening which is possibly the best piece of journalism of this pandemic so far; “You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character, whatever the prime minister’s colleagues will tell us”
But, a little rhetorical advice to the politicians out there; if you must use a war metaphor, do so advisidely; it may be your fault there are no guns and steel to fight these germs.
‘Social Distancing’ (n.)
1. The act of maintaining a safe distance from others in order to slow the spread of infectious disease
2. A misdirectionary phrase employed, intentionally or otherwise, to further create division and atomisation in society at large
See also ‘self-isolating’ and the creeping authoritarianism of ‘lockdown’
The strategist in me hates this phrase. Do you say your parents are socially distanced when you move to another town? Are you ‘socially close’ to the person next to you in the Tesco queue under normal circumstances? Have you felt less in love (or lust) with a partner (or lover) who was separated by mountains or oceans? No? Good. In which case we are ‘Physically Distancing’ to manage this disease. It’s an inversion of the nasty little sleight-of-hand that is ‘credit card’ (It’s not as easy to begin that death-spiral of high interest loans that starts with Visa and ends with Wonga or the Pawn shop when you’re charging that widescreen telly to your ‘Debt Card’…)
Please, to go and prove that we are not socially distanced at all, pick up the phone and tell someone that you love them.
‘All in it together’(idiom)
1. A group are drawn to each other to share a burden because of a common cause
2. A way to spread blame thinly so that it cannot be easily apportioned
Wait, I remember this one. Osbourne and Cameron. Tory Conference. 2012. Austerity.
Yes, that was the same ‘all in it together’ that decimated the NHS, cut local authority budgets, disproportionately affected the poor, leaving them more vulnerable to, for example, a pandemic that disproportionately affects the poor. ‘All in it together’ is the velvet glove that is meant to make sure that no-one questions the political decision made to throttle certain parts of society in order to service the national debt. Just to make it very clear. Economic policy is a political decision. The economy serves the polis, not the other way round.
Redeployed a second time in tragedy, it seeks to depoliticise policy and leave us all holding some kind of collective can for the fallout of this disease. It inevitably steamrollers over the differing outcomes that emergency policies precipitate based on where you live, what sector you work in, the life that you were able to build in this society before Covid-19. The kind of society that we shaped; through the ballot box, the press, public sentiment and social media.
There is no question that currently, in the UK and around the world, we need to pull together to ‘Get Covid Done’ but once we have got through the worst of this, we need to ensure that clever rhetoric now doesn’t stop us asking the smart questions later.
‘Key Workers’ (n. pl.)
1. Members of the job force that are vital to a country’s economy and or society
2. Members of the job force that previously no-one realised were vital to a country’s economy and daily life
Maitliss lands this as the second blow of her opening one-two punch on Newsnight. Those who cannot or cannot be allowed to work from home are the ones who keep the jigsaw puzzles arriving from Amazon, the Trebiano from Ocado, the rubbish from blocking the view of the heath or mopping up Great Aunt Ermintrude’s piss. A lot of them are foreign or brown or poor, or all of the above. Until this kicked off, barely a thought was spared for those Dickensian jobs that keep our modern world running. Who still knows the name of their post-person? Anyone, anyone?
Until anyone close to us got ill, even the NHS was more of an abstract concept than a tangible thing, to be celebrated in surreal and nightmarish Danny Boyle set-pieces and Call the Midwife. Now suddenly comes the realisation that it isn’t some abstract performance piece, but a living breathing multi-personed organism that we were slowly killing with neglect while lyricsing its ideal. And it’s also full of diligent, hardworking and often highly skilled, foreign workers who previously felt like they were getting chased out of the country.
So clap if you must. Clap as a moment of unity. Clap so that you don’t feel so alone. Clap because otherwise the neighbours will notice. But remember who you were meant to be so grateful for when you can go back to the pub to complain about immigrants.
Words matter. Especially now.
A smartphone frames a fat grey London pigeon zig-zagging towards its camera. The afternoon sun casts shadows of branches above and the bird below across the paving stones. As the bird beats a path towards the lens, tacking right then left, the brown booted foot of the cameraman kicks out from below the frame. As the bird skitters away, we hear their reproach, laconic, direct, estuarine; ‘Two metres, Cunt.’
Welcome to a Very British Lockdown.
As the nation embraces panic-buying as a dynamic new format for a stolid old sport, a retail T20 set to revitalise traditional Test Match queuing, columnists poeticise the pleasures and sorrows of the ‘stay-at-home boozer’ (larger pours, fewer pulls) whilst weekend supplements cynically push recipes for homemade yogurts and sourdough-starters whilst Hackney is at its most vulnerable. Across the country, Wetherspoons branches are being vandalised as many take the opportunity to exact a long awaited vengeance on Tim Martin’s ‘Ryanair of Pubs’ and The Zoom Arms has become our Moon Under Water. My very own Hangout Tavern hosted its inaugural pub quiz last Friday, with competitors from places as far flung as Hong Kong, New Zealand and Cornwall. The winner – Team Corona Loner – walked away with a pack of Donald Trump toilet paper, delivered courtesy of our sponsors, Amazon Prime. But this is now in danger of turning into a parody of one of those very columns…
The experience so far of ‘Lockdown London’ contrasts sharply with that of Shenzhen, where until a few weeks ago I was based; like comparing Butlins to Belmarsh. In the Southern Chinese megacity, streets were ghostly empty and many friends had not left their homes for weeks. The only vehicles on the street were the ubiquitous Meituan electric delivery scooters, speeding silently across concrete overpasses like lost yellow ghosts in an oversize game of Pac-Man. After fear and repression turned Hubei province into a dumpster fire, the People’s Republic was using their most powerful tools to try and right that wrong; fear and repression. Red-arm-banded apparatchiks positioned at every apartment complex and building were taking the temperatures of anyone who did venture out, and were unsympathetic in removing the symptomatic. The indistinct but persistent threat of China’s social credit system, buzzing overhead like an unseen Reaper drone, ensured that few bothered; Xi’s digital panopticon at work. Ironically the coercion and compliance meant those that were out were relatively free to roam, leaving me starring in their very own post-apocalyptic short in the most future-imperfect of cities. But let me state now that this will not be an exercise in public health top-trumps, before Singapore, the Hitlerjugend Hermione Granger of international relations sticks up their hand to tell us the answer. No-one likes a swot, especially not one in jackboots.
By comparison, Britain has been relaxed. Too relaxed at first it seems. Restrictions have steadily ramped-up in proportion to ‘our defiant spirit’, as many initially saw staying at home as ‘letting the virus win’. The problem with war metaphors is that they assume malice on the part of a lipid-coated strand of replicating RNA. Haters gonna hate, viruses gonna replicate; it’s not personal. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, our era’s own children’s party Churchill (‘we will fight them on the bouncy castle, we shall fight them in the ball pits…’) is finally having his chance to shine by putting a ‘freedom loving people’ under an increasingly restrictive house-arrest, fulfilling two classic Tory wank-fantasies at the same time; a good old fashioned national emergency, and the chance to incarcerate the poorest in inhumane conditions. Calling Covd-19 indiscriminate is disingenuous; it follows the ley lines of our own structural prejudice and past political decisions. Targeting those with poor nutrition, those who are badly housed or those in fuel poverty with laser guided precision. The pre-existing conditions that are key comorbidities are as likely to follow economic predisposition as genetic. The virus may not be animate, but it is alive to our iniquities.
The problem with the idea that we are ‘all in it together’ is that there is no ‘we’. There is a woolly belief amongst some that this crisis will be some kind of catalyst for the healing of the country, a ‘bringing together’ of a fractured nation. There is perhaps some cause to hope. As this ‘war’ places the NHS at the heart rather than the military, it is much more universal. The health service touches almost everyone’s lives at some point and is staffed by individuals from across the geographical, racial and class spectrums. It is in truth, the last common touchpoint that Britain has left in an increasingly dissociated marketplace of culture and ideas. Yet, as this emergency goes on, inequalities are more sharply exposed. It is hard to maintain an idea that we all stand together when we are told to stand two metres apart and every cough brings the suspicion that someone is a carrier. We can stand on our doorsteps and bang pots until we have beaten them into cymbals, but even in that moment, each household stands alone and faced with their own unique uncertainties.
In the first part of his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, George Orwell praises the English as a ‘highly differentiated’ people with a ‘respect for constitutionalism and legality. Orwell’s own description of a country where ‘the liberty of the individual is still believed in…the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen from above’ is echoed in Boris “Poundland Churchill” Johnson’s ‘freedom loving people’ schtick, but the perverse logic of this virus is that we are having those leisures and amusements dictated, as well as our movement restricted. And after initial resistance, many have embraced this new reality. Faced with looming uncertainty, many have been quick to welcome the false security of a world of reduced choices. But just as the virus follows the paths which our own societal choices have laid out, so has our embrace of unfreedom been stratified by class. For every white collar professional showing off their shiny new ‘work-from-home’ set-up, there is a family with two-bedrooms too few and a few bills too many, where school was the most important meal of the day and a trip to the shops meant getting out from under the shadow of home. Even China, where many crimes committed within a marriage are not criminal, reported a three-fold increase in domestic violence during the lockdown in Hubei. And that is just what was reported.
In this light, the situation takes on a particularly nasty edge. The loss of freedom is not a particularly hard cross to bear for those that have enough room to be fine with confinement. Waitrose baskets take on a jolly agro-millenarian air as trolleys stacked with cracked bulgur wheat and pinot gris waft back to the Range Rover. Meanwhile the oh what a lovely war attitude continues for those ‘isolating’ in second homes (weren’t they already though?), and in leafy outer-city suburbs, two-acre gardeners berate walkers flouting the two-metre rule, conveniently overlooking that we’d all be only too glad to stay at home if our homes looked like theirs. “Lockdown shaming” has all the ingredients to be the perfect palette cleanser for middle class authoritarianism, an entree to ‘Totalitarianism-lite’ (Slogan: ‘I can’t believe it’s not constitutional…? Can you…?’). Combining sanctimonious compliance, with armchair epidemiology, and a righteous defence of the NHS, our ‘one true faith’; It might just be the fascism that Middle England has been waiting for.
Across parks and commons, passive-aggressive distancing markers are neatly chalked along pathways. Some boroughs have relegated joggers to ‘off-road’ to make room for the more genteel pastime of dog-walking. Those with cars are freer to move whilst non-essential use of public transport is now seen as hacking great globules of spittle in the face of our ICU nurses – Literally – proving, for those who have forgone the urban luxury of owning a car, that no good deed does ever go truly unpunished. This weekend, whilst out cycling, I came to a car stopped atop a humped zebra crossing, it’s driver deep in conversation with a friend on the opposite side of the road. Whilst passing, I quipped ‘nice parking’ and was met with a string of invective outlining why I should not be out, and ‘how dare I’, clearly peeved at having their catch-up interrupted by the flow of traffic. As I rode that afternoon, I passed a number of ‘socially distanced’ doorstep cups of tea and G and Ts. Nice if you have a front door and a doorstep to call your own. There seems to be a lot of ‘how dare they’ at the moment, especially from those who are best equipped to implement these kinds of work-arounds which highlights the flaws in the ‘all in it together’ rhetoric as sharply as David Geffen’s Instagram. It’s worth noting there is a 6 point difference between ABC1 and C2DE on the matter of whether this crisis has united the nation or pushed us further apart. Expect this to widen.
As tensions increase and high street queues becoming increasingly fractious, and judgements about the actions and reactions of others to these strange times become less and less implicit, I can’t help feeling that there is a certain section of Britain who has been waiting a long time for this; an entitled subset who expect that we will all comply but is happy to take this opportunity to have the builders come and re-tile the roof; who will embrace ID checks at the train stations while driving the dogs many miles to take them on their favourite long walk; people who expect conformity to restrictions which may not be restrictive to them at all, and have little empathy for those who stray while just trying to stay safe or sane. It reminds me of the self-proclaimed ‘Riot Wombles’ after the 2011 London disturbances, the distinctly middle-class groups (#OperationCupOfTea #MugsNotThugs) who took to the streets with brooms to voluntarily help clear up; silently disapproving of the disorder and wilfully ignorant of its underlying causes, let alone the part they played in them. Because they were just ‘getting on with things’, why couldn’t everyone else?
But blanket statements such as these are thrown over the existing topographies of inequality like a rug over a pachyderm. The same terms and conditions result in very different outcomes, leaving those who are most free the most enthusiastic to embrace unfreedom. But if we really are in this together we should be considering how we created this socio-economic landscape in the first place, not gleefully berating those who are stuck in its deepest fissures. We need to reflect on why the NHS need such careful handling to balance such limited capacity. We need to ask ourselves why there are so many precariat ‘freelancers’ who lack even the savings to weather a month without work, or why free school meals are such a vital lifeline for many families.
A crisis is often the pivot around which history turns.
The question is which way we will turn during this one.
I used to think I was an anti-capitalist. From the Rage Against the Machine posters on my bedroom wall, the Che Guevara tattoo I almost bought myself for my 21st birthday, to my continued dislike of speculative finance and its exotic instruments; the notion that our lives should be in service of the market sat uneasily with me. But I also like nice things, and have for a decade and a half have made a career out of playing games with value and culture in the marketing services industry; so I have always wrestled with dissonance.
But it’s this dissonance that is at the heart of what makes us human, and what has made humans so successful. We possess both the urge to compete and to co-opt. Both of them were – are – vital to our success. It’s why despite the obvious bloody brutality and aching banality of warfare, there is still a certain glamour that comes with the whiff of cordite and cold steel. It’s why we still venerate and decorate our war heroes. It’s also why self-sacrifice is as often praised as victory. Its almost certainly why the most lucrative sports; those most watched, most written about, most fervently followed are team sports that combine both belonging and rivalry. Despite respectable audiences, its why there will never be any golf riots or tennis ‘Ultras’. It’s why the Olympics is the one time when individual sports are most likely to spark the collective imagination; when they are in the context of an ‘us’. Cooperation within competition.
In its most elemental form, capitalism is simply ‘the market’. The market is both competition and co-operation. As soon as humanity moved beyond basic subsistence, it was this mechanism of exchange that allowed fair co-operation and fair competition when it came to things; assets, resources, time. This meant division of labour, exchangeable surpluses, efforts that could be re-deployed elsewhere; in language, in literature, in philosophy and religion and the stories that allowed us to progress along our zig-zagging but ultimately upward trajectory.
But markets have never been without rules, because they were always defined by and designed for, specific socio-political goals. There are countless examples. The guilds of the mercantile age aiming to keep limits on certain professions, medieval zoning keeping theatres and brothels out of the City of London, tariffs to tilt the tables for key industries at countless points in the history of trade; consumer protection, regulations and child labour laws; they have all been part of the ongoing negotiation of the ‘moral limits of markets’. And these have always shifted, based on our times. I mean, we used to trade humans – including I would presume some of my forebears – until we decided that was ‘not cool’. The proscribed footprint of the market and its rules of engagement have constantly evolved to meet the needs of societies that they served.
This is why ‘Capitalism’ – with a capital C – is so problematic in the 21st Century. In its purest, Marxist, sense it is incredibly useful to understand the industrial capitalism of the 19th Century; Marx was always a better historian and analyst than theorist; As a framework for understanding a period of time when the mass populace was seen primarily as a labour force it is invaluable, but does it work if we project it backwards into pre-industrial mercantile capitalism of the 16th, or forward into the 20th Century’s consumption-driven society, where we the people were primarily seen as drivers of demand? The Market – capitalism – evolves according to the society which it serves.
The problem I had – have – is with the Neoliberal Capitalism that I grew up under, the only capitalism I have personally know; the one where we are all incentivised to be mini ‘Capitalists’, privileging competition over co-operation, in order to serve the market itself. The reason why the market, why capitalism, has become so unappealing for so many now is because this neoliberal market lacks any idealogical prefix. For better or for worse – and in the big scheme of things it has ultimately been for better – the market had always been a means serving a society’s ends, but now the market is now the ends and our socio-political lives are the means.
Without understanding the fundamental role that the market, in its most elemental sense serves; to mediate between our urge to compete and our need to co-operate, it has been allowed to run amok. Neoliberal Capitalism is placing brick on the accelerator and then jumping out of the car. The market is a tool and we are responsible as a society, as a polity for how it is used. There is no such thing as a ‘Capitalist Society’.
No wonder we are rebelling in all directions. In the face of increasing wealth and decreasing worth, empty economic growth and chasmic inequality we turn wherever we can see an alternative. Nationalism, nativism, economic Luddism. Orban, Corbyn, Bolsanaro. They all diagnose the problem. And more frighteningly, for those of us of the left, all of us who could loosely be termed progressives the Right may be closer to getting it right when it comes to providing a direction and a solution. Illiberal Capitalism at least begins to provide a purpose for the market, a direction. It makes the market once again the means to an ends. It’s just that this ends leads towards the border wall and the purge, the lynching, the internment camp, perhaps war. But it may succeed because is is a vision for shaping the market, not simply the desire to burn it down.
The issue with anti-capitalism in the 21st century is that it is fighting the previous war. The classic Marxist rhetoric is designed for overthrowing industrial capitalist world that no longer exists. The sentiment is admirable, but times have changed.
But there are similarities. Much like industrial capitalism was for the few, neoliberal capitalism has been for even fewer. Current upheavals may well represent its death spasm. It can’t come soon enough. We are in a time of flux, but we must not mistake the gross unfairness of this version of capitalism with a fundamental flaw with the market itself. This is the time to radically reimagine what the purpose of the market itself is. What are the rules of engagement? What are the behaviours we want to incentivise? Changing the world to be as we would wish it is Judo, not boxing; we must work with natural momentum not against it, we must work with the seemingly contradictory angels of our nature. And this does not mean I believe there is not a role for the state. But where we allow competition and where we do not should be decided with an eye firmly fixed on the future. Many experiments in privatisation have not worked because the incentives have been wrong. Railways and utilities should probably be renationalised, so they can be greened and subsidised with road charging nationwide; we subsidise the internal combustion engine by building highways, yet we privatise clean mass transit. A carbon tax on every item bought that reflects its true cost to the planet. Monetary policy that targets the Gini coefficient rather than GDP growth. I am not a policymaker, but these are the places I would start.
The path to this Damascene moment has been a long one for me.
I am not against Capitalism.
I am against this Capitalism.
The Conservative party has a problem. And it isn’t the problem that first comes to mind. Islamophobia, lack of leadership or a ‘nasty party’ reputation do not pose the same existential threat as that which is rotting this institution from the inside out. The Tories’ problem is buried so deeply that it remains unnamed. Which means it remains not only unaddressed but even undenied. Despite this, it remains hidden in plain sight, openly feasting on the fetid carapace of an ideology that I have never liked, but at least always respected. Or at least used to. The root of the problem is a small faction of fundamentalist, highly radicalised zealots who are murdering the party in a blasphemous manipulation of its core values. These are of course the Reactionaries of the ERG/Hard Brexit faction.
The failure of the Tory party to identify early on that these people are not ‘Conservatives’ may well yet lead Britain blindly off a cliff. We may fall to the sunlit uplands of a new Bolder Brighter Britain, or we may cripple many generations with the sins of the father (though I am sure Sextus will be fine) but no-one knows. And the problem is, that is neither conservative not Conservative. Reactionaryism is nothing new. The Luddites – machine-breaking artisans of the British Industrial Revolution, who would smash factory equipment and leave notes signed ‘Ned Ludd’ sought to arrest the progress of mine and mill and reverse the irreversible. The term now is used for a certain type of technophobic fuddy-duddy, but the reality of history anything but quaint. Often the Army was deployed to stop their actions.
Reactionaryism is fundamentally different to Conservatism. Conservatism is ‘the ideology of imperfection’; it seeks to preserve the best of the past while accepting that, history, like shit, happens. Change will occur and it is the job of the conservative, through respect and understanding of the past to shape and temper that incrementally to preserve continuity and the best of what has gone before, in the context of a humble acceptance of its inevitability. As Mark Lila, one of the best thinkers on this subject puts it,
“the conservative is (also) reconciled to the fact that history never stands still and that we are only passing through. Conservatism seeks to instil the humble thought that history moves us forward, not the other way around”
By contrast, the reactionary is the Cher of politics; If only she can turn back time, things will be great again. The frothing, rabid, fundamentalists of Brexit draw their legitimacy from our shared past which allows them to masquerade as Conservatives, whilst tearing apart shared institutions and values, and driving a cleft through the middle of their party and our country. The modern Britain that has developed since World War Two, (with apologies to Billy Joel) the Britain of NHS, Windrush. Vindaloo, butternut squash. TUC, BBC, David Bowie, Maggie T may not to be everyone’s tastes, but it was ours and is now also part of our tradition. They draw instead on older myths of (English) sovereignty and a Britain that never was, to legitimise the complete destruction of the current state of things. Rhetoric about ‘taking back control’ and sovereignty are a smokescreen for their desperation to erase the visible signs in our society of progress.This is a revolutionary ideology of the right, not Conservatism. Whilst claiming to be the guardians of tradition, they rip at the very seams of British society. At least Farage never hid that when he declared the referendum our ‘Independence Day’.
Reactionarism is an idea that is becoming increasingly widespread. From Trump, to Orban to Golden Dawn, there are politicians and parties of the ‘right’ who are borrowing from the playbook of the radical left to fling us backwards into a mythical past, destroying hard-won, incremental progressive victories. One of the great strengths of Conservative ideologies is that, in spite, or perhaps because of their suspicion of change, those that do stick become canonical. A Conservative would be unlikely to abolish the NHS, but a Reactionary would happily tear it down, claiming they were taking us back to a better time of medical independence and giving a ‘Free and True Englishmen’ the hard-won right to die in their own piss. You could argue there is a strain of the same ‘back-to-the-future’ iconoclasm in the Islamic State, the first experiment in reactionary Statehood.
Now I do not suggest that we are likely to see Jacob Rees-Mogg performing a Facebook live beheading – though I have a feeling he would bring back the death penalty – but if I was a true Conservative I would be worried. The once-great party is being hijacked, and it is to the detriment of the whole body politic, not just the right, and the current atmosphere is so febrile that no-one dares call it out. But if any Tories out there read this, and they care at all about their country – the Britain we all live in now, not some fictionalised, whitewashed past – then they must. This has gone on too long and it is a danger for all of us.
(As ever here, un-proofed, unedited, and as is….)
The Daily Mash headline said it all. UK now officially assigned ‘clown country’ status.
The Mash has a habit of being spot on when it comes to the British cultural zeitgeist. For those not wholly familiar, it’s the Onion with more self-loathing (and all the better for it). Other than permanent joke status, Brexit has revealed a few interesting truths and brought some others into sharp focus. I didn’t want to write about it immediately. I have also been reluctant to take on the subject after a rather long hiatus from blogging (thanks damn promotion and extra responsibilities and adult shit). It’s a topic that everyone is currently doing to death (like a snuff film starring ‘Horizontal Breton Stripes’) whilst all the while doing greater justice to it than I will.
So yes, anyway, fear of globalization, the rise of nationalism in a world that is becoming post-national, sharp divides between interconnected cities and alienated hinterlands, the unintended consequences of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and the need for the right to offend and therefore discuss openly – else the publicly enforced taboos of ‘liberal fascism’ drive up pressure that then needs to finds a Haider, Trump or Farrage shaped valve.
So… in no real order and with little to really stitch this together, some thoughts…
We live in an echo chamber
Almost everyone I personally know expressed ‘surprise’. Investment banks were briefing their clients the night before that there was no chance that Britain would leave. Let me spell this out; if you were surprised, then it goes a long way to explaining why it happened. The ever-decreasing levels of social mobility make our peer groups ever less diverse. Universities, where many of those who were ‘surprised’ met their partners are increasingly stratified and less mixed. We spend most of our time with ‘people like us’.
Our information sources, digitally and socially plough and ever-narrower funnel thanks to an ever-fractalised media landscape that allows us to pick from more and more niche voices. I gave up reading the Guardian and follow UKIP-ers on Twitter to try and combat this very danger. Increasing choice means that we increasingly choose ‘people like us’ and voices that we agree with. Which means the grievances of so many, their fears, hopes, aspirations and ambitions are ignored by those who have never met someone like them and who are in positions of political, economic or cultural power.
This is bigger than how many Etonions are in the cabinet; its how many London-raised-lefty liberal are in our professional classes. From Westminster and Whitehall to the figurative ‘Fleet Street’ and ad agencies of Soho. The problem is as much in the middle as it is at the very top.
I’ll repeat the point in clearer terms – if you are angry with those who disagreed with you in this vote- you are an undemocratic, unfeeling, narrow-sighted fool, lacking in empathy and have undoubtedly helped cause this problem.
Am I surprised? No. Disappointed? Terribly
Debate is in the gutter
People, particularly those who align on the ‘lazy left’/’liberal fascist’ end of the spectrum – and I count myself as a rehabilitated past offender – are not willing to engage. Discussion has in the past been about testing and exploring ideas, using the didactic to torture test ideas; there is good Orwell quote in one of his essays about totalitarian ideas never taking root in Britain because of a natural skepticism towards dogmatic beliefs and principles. This is no longer the case. Rather than discuss, people draw lines in the sand. Those who don’t agree with you are idiots. Empathy and exchange has been sucked out of public politics and I have no idea how we get that back. No longer do people disagree with what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it, nor the obligation to constructively debate it.
In all honesty, I find that the left is guiltier of this, with smug assumptive assertions that usually start with “Of course we all know…”
I have had more personally rewarding and intellectually illuminating conversations with those who’s view lie far to the right of my own wooly, social-democratic thinking. Drawing battle lines doesn’t help people to progress or to get to solutions.
Truth is now multiple, not singular
Following on from the death constructive debate – the idea that two (or more) sides engaging with a subject matter, will through that dialectic move towards greater knowledge and human wisdom. Instead there has been a collapse in the hierarchy of information. Which has given us Citizen Journalism and SBTV. Which is awesome. But it has also led to the frightening but correct assertion by Micheal Gove that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Fragmented media landscape, collapsing barriers to ‘broadcasting’ (including in its widest sense, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and other digital soapboxes) and decreasing trust in established sources leads to a vertical suspicion that undermines facts and the idea of a singular truth.
This is post-enlightenment skepticism on steroids, where once the questioning was meant to bring us to a higher truth, but instead now is an ends in itself. Doubt is cast over everything and people believe nothing. Everything is equally (in)valid, negating debate and leaving us with the mudslinging, as above, and meaning that a new definition of a ‘fact’ is ‘something you say to support what you want to believe or hear’. This was put to great effect by the Brexit campaign itself. But they were right, once people stop believing in ‘expertise’ they rapidly get sick of experts, as we are all one now.
(I blame the internet – after all this is me pretending I am an expert whilst I type)
A victory for voting and a defeat for democracy?
An X in a box, particularly for a referendum is not where democracy starts and ends. But hopefully this can provide new impetus to rehabilitate some of the other key bits. Civil Society is as important as casting a vote, and we need to get broader engagement as well as a high caliber of debate. The potential split of the Labour party could be a huge boost for this, as would a move towards PR. However those I have spoken to who from mainstream Labour and the Corbyn side are behaving like toddlers. The talk is possessive – lots of ‘our party’ ‘the people’. It sounds dangerously like the language of totalitarianism on both sides. Its not going to help get over the long-term decline in respect for politicians. Lets not forget if they were really greedy and self-interested, there are easier, less high profile and high-pressure ways to get ones snout in much bigger troughs. Likewise the press needs to raise its game. For all the issues with phone hacking and ethics, the UK press is one of the most vibrant in the world and is a key element of an active functioning democracy. With gutter debate, multiple truth and journalists in their own echo chamber we need Fleet Street to up its game and provide clear voices to provoke constructive debate and honest reporting that can begin to rehabilitate the quaint old notion of a ‘fact’. Never let a good story get in the way of a truth?
Currently resident in Singapore, I have to constantly defend the idea of democracy because we got the ‘wrong answer’. Fundamentally, I don’t believe that there is a ‘wrong answer’ in a popular vote, but I do believe that the rest of our public sphere needs rehabilitation
Remainers will leave
Whether geo-politically in the case of Scotland, rhetorically and culturally in the case of London, or literally in the case of many of those individuals who voted for their own transnational world view; those who see themselves as a citizen of the world as well as a subject of Britain will be making their own Brexits. The last category, the individuals who cause the spike in emigration searches, is in many respects the most worrying. It is those who are most mobile, most globally marketable and potentially most valuable to a Splendid Isolation global trading Britain who will be first out the door.
Conversely the influx that has made Britain so vibrant and has fuelled growth will stop. Whether the laws change or not, the rhetoric, no matter how many times Sadiq might say otherwise is that we are closed, and that is a dangerous position for a country who’s most important export in the 21st century is ideas
Democracy has been having a rough time of it. I should know, I have been having to do an awful lot of defending antiquated liberal ideals since moving East. Unsurprising really within the context of this region, and with the population of this island where I currently stay rightly proud of the achievements of the last 50 years wit a system that values collective advancement over messy individualism (as an aside…people always say ‘stay’, they never ask me how long I have ‘lived’ here… but that is another piece yet to be written about what it feels like to be a guest, and how certain experiences have made me even more determined to welcome migrants of all varieties… I mean, free movement of capital for the rich should also mean free movement of labour for rest? Fair’s fair? Anyway, for another day)
Apologies for students of political theory… and to anyone who is taking these assumptions as read…great, but I have been having to do a lot of arguing from first principles….
The argument that I am perpetually rebutting is primarily the one known as ‘Freedom of Speech won’t feed my children’. There are a number of variants on this including the ‘isn’t America, the land of the free, a joke’ version (thanks to The Don for turning that one up to 11, though the perpetual filibustering and shutdowns haven’t helped) where I have to explain there are other democracies. Or the sub-argument ‘its just plain rude’ so you shouldn’t be allowed’, which means I need to roll out – ‘who decides the moral arbiter?’ But mostly its ‘500 million Chinese Citizens can’t be wrong’ thesis. And it’s a powerful one. But it has its limitations. Massive fucking dangerous limits actually. Yes, moving fast, breaking things and people might be excusable to some when it is lifting millions out of poverty ( and even I am not convinced about that). Democracy and its accouterments – Civil Society as I will call it- are an albatross round the neck of progress and many I speak to call me out for indulging in principles – as if it is some kind of decadent degenerate luxury. And trying to apply it all round the world is simply putting a brake on the progress of the rest of the world that was exploited rather than exploiting…my lofty words lack that most crucial of elements. Pragmatism.
Personally though, i disagree with that…
Strong leadership can divine some general will, bring about progress and benefit everyone. Strong leaders now best and can chart a course. Everyone benefits.
There is a catch 22 here and that is that in an uncivil society, the only opinions aired and voices amplified are those who are on the ‘winning side’. That may be most people initially as a population is moved beyond subsistence level existence, but as the growth shifts the question from ‘how much is there’ to ‘who gets what and when’ (the very bread and butter of politics) then top-down decision making becomes more contentious. Without channels to hold those making these decisions accountable or to hear about, let alone directly from, those who might be losing out in the process, people might get lost or left behind… or worse.
The top-down power structures that allow a vast nation like China’s rapid growth may be effective at increasing GDP by building bridges and dams, but more contentious decisions centrally made and then imposed raise dangerous questions.
If my own desire to enshrine the rights if the individual within the group are seen as detrimental, that means that someone else gets to decide what can or cant be done with someone. Essentially there is an implicit inequality-, an object-subject divide, or better put, an acknowledgment that some animals are more equal than others. Which is fine, if you are a ‘winner’ in this arrangement. Or if all the farm needs right now is more hay. But what happens when needs become wants, and demands more diverse? Conveniently without these individual freedoms of a proper civil society there is little word from those who lost out. So when your home is deemed in the way of a major project, or your opinions deemed to undermine the program, you shouldn’t be surprised if you property or your person disappears. Now I personally have less interest in property rights, but I am still as vigorously inclined to defend them.
Without enshrining the rights of and equality amongst, individuals how do we decide who makes the decisions for the ‘greater good’? For every Lee Kwan Yew, there is a Marcos or a Mugabe lurking. This is not to say that there is any comparison between these figures, but if we do not start building a society through a mutuality of individuals, then we are subject to the whims of whoever is as the top. They might be a visionary who brings prosperity; they may be a demagogue who brings genocide and misery. Most likely, they will be, like the rest of us, fallible, well-meaning and human. Which leaves us at the mercy of their mistakes.
Individual rights aren’t a highfalutin ideal that is a nice to have for overdeveloped, pampered nations. They are not a luxury, they are a necessity; they should be applauded for their pragmatism. Rather than hope or presume that one individual or body of individuals can look out for everyone’s interests in an enlightened, dispassionate, practical and considered way. Now if enshrining them means I get to depict of describe in great detail lurid, imaginary anal sex between political leaders that is an unfortunate side effect. But you may hate what I say, but you should probably defend to your death my right to say it. Not for my sake, but for your own.
Now no doubt, there is an element of justifiable resistance to anyone coming from outside and saying this is how you should run your affairs, particularly when for many rapidly growing states in Asia this advice comes through the distorting filter of the past atrocities of Colonialism. But these ideas need to be seen through the lens of humanity, rather than hemispheres. Rapid growth means that the questions of who gets what are getting more and more significant and strong leadership is likely to increasingly create winners and losers as the importance of absolute poverty decreases and relativity comes to the fore. Telling this world that some opinions are more valid than others will become increasingly difficult. We can see the weak signals of the practical limitations of strong governments in increasingly complex scenarios in the way they deal with (or rather fail to deal with) minority groups.
The rhetoric of lifting millions out of poverty still rings true as there are millions more to lift. In that sense it is not mere rhetoric, but reality. But looking forwards, the importance of this will only decrease and there is a need to anticipate the next challenges- an ever more varied and diffuse set of desires and demands from an ever-more informed and ambitious populace. Suddenly it becomes less and less practical to say ‘I’ or ‘we’ know best. Individual rights may mean messy discussions and longer timeframes to ‘get things done’ but starting from these basic principles is the most practical way to deal with the reality that life is for your population can no longer simply be measured in industrial output.
Someone pass the KY jelly, because Civil Society, in its truest sense, is a necessity we must afford…
Where are you from?” It’s a simple question, one of the first phrases you are taught when we learn a foreign language. It’s one of the first questions we acquire because it lets us create a connection while at the same time helping us to understand difference. However, it is becoming ever-more loaded, and layered with implicits that cast long shadows over the question itself.
I remember being asked it recently, standing on one of those impressive but featureless blocks of Midtown that Manhattan does so well; imposing slabs of concrete made generic by the global duplication of these New York originals. An office worker, in shirtsleeves, outside, smoking a cigarette, approached me as I stood half intimidated by, half bored with the city around me.
“Where are you from?”
“No, where are you from?”
“I’m from London…You know, London. In England”
“But where exactly are you from?”
“Streatham. I don’t know how well you know London, but it’s in the South”
“No, where are you from?”
The emphasis this final time made the unsaid question inescapable, despite my best evasions. The unspoken question here was ‘what are my ethnic origins’? Who was this pale-skinned, afro-haired, British accent loitering by my office fire escape? Not that you can hold this kind of question against the US. A young country, founded on a settler myth that revels in its ‘many’ that they melded into a ‘one’. It is a place where you struggle to find someone who will introduce themselves as ‘American’ rather than ‘-American’. It is a land obsessed with prefixes.
The answer that I didn’t give him puts me in an awkward situation in current political climes. I am a Londoner, born in Florida, to a Mother born in Jamaica and a British-Celtic father, whom I do not know and who’s mix includes, but is not limited to Jamaican Afro-Caribbean, Native Jamaican Tribes, Scottish, Puerto-Rican, Costa Rican and other assorted bits of South-and Central America; currently Living in Singapore and right this minute standing in New York. In all honesty, I don’t know how this answer would have helped him. My own background is a varied, but by no means an unusual or extreme mix. “Londoner,” with all its urban-liberality and cosmopolitan aspirations is a much easier ,and more accurate, handle. Even the answer ‘London in England’ could have been contentious for those who would see ‘English’ as an ethnic identity ( and there are plenty out there) who would argue that I don’t have “The Blood.” One wonders if this ‘Happie Fewe’ can claim this by being 45th generation Roman or 31st Norman or whether they need to trace back to 83rd generation Celt to be a true Brit.
This anecdote echoes of one of the most interesting sub-plots of the Scottish Independence referendum: who got to vote. Who got a say in the referendum raised contentious questions regarding statehood, nationality and identity, questions that are being played out in many different ways and in many different territories around the world.
Scots living south of the border were incensed at votes given to ‘non-Scots’ earning their living and paying their rates within Scotland. ‘Angus’ working for RBS in the City of London would have no say in how the homeland, (which he has not called home since he came down to ‘go up’ to ‘Another College, Oxbridge’) would be configured. This meant many who felt resolutely Scottish would not have any say on the future of Scotland, whilst English, Italians and Poles from Dumfries to Durness would decide. Did who got the franchise signal a proxy for future citizenship? Did that mean ‘Angus’ would never carry a Scottish passport? Would the Junior Doctor educated in the Thames estuary be offered this privilege? And why were they voting anyway if they are due to leave in 2 years time? Should they be made to ‘sign-up’ for Scotland? Who would be granted Scottish Citizenship? As history played out in the summer of 2014, these are specific hypotheticals that do not need an answer, but the broader questions they raise are in want of one. How do we define the composition of, and membership criteria for, out States? Do they need ‘national’ identities, and to what extent do or should) these identities align with ethnic ones?
Nationalism has not been as influential a force in politics since between the World Wars. Since blood was shed in the middle of the 20th century to defend the liberal-enlightenment experiment that started in the late 18th, the liberal-democratic ideal has dominated discourse. But this consensus is crumbling. With forces as varied as Scottish Nationalism and France’s Front Nationale, from UKIP to the Tea Party, we are seeing a new flourishing of anti-liberal politics that is obsessed with preserving its particular, mythical definition of the nation.
The sharp irony of this in our contemporary world should not be lost. There is a strong inverse correlation between the rhetoric and the reality. We are seeing a flourishing of the politics of nationhood at a time when the nation has never been less relevant. Immigration quotas are as a feather on a tiger in the face of multi-lateral trade agreements that let foreign companies sue sovereign countries. Why worry about giving away benefits to ‘foreigners’ when you can’t get the your biggest retailers to pay a penny in tax. The ‘Nation-State’ is an anachronism in danger of becoming a redundancy. Sovereignty is undermined by Supra-, Post- and Transnational entities. The ultimate power for many branches of government lies with these overarching bodies, some elected, some not.
Elements are positive- the Kyoto treaty, the European Parliament and Courts, but others cripple nations- the strings attached to IMF loans, the loaded terms of bi- and multi-lateral trade agreements, political handcuffs on developing world aid. At the same time multinational companies put governments into a Dutch auction on corporate tax, re-domiciling at will to find the most ‘tax-efficient’ regimes, shelling out on shell companies and creative accounting, dividing and conquering along tired out ‘national’ boundaries.
Traditional states are ill equipped to deal with this reality. Rather than adapting, what we are seeing politically is a rearranging of the deckchairs whilst the ship sinks. When you are committed to a free trade agreements that means you can’t stop factories and their jobs from moving around the world, how can it possibly make sense on an international level to stop labour from following? These kind of policies are trying to define and ‘fix’ a porous and pliable thing. Simply put, what the nation-state can do is far less important than what a supranational entity does.
There are some ‘nations’ doing better than others. One such example is Russia, which may be the last true nation-state left. Russia’s actions in the Ukraine embody the persistence of the Ancien Regime, or if not resilience, then at least the last 19th Century National act. Many argue that this move comes from a position of weakness. In some respects, this is true, Russia is weak by 21st Century measures. Reliant on its vast hydrocarbon deposits, maintaining a huge standing army and lacking in any real ‘soft power’, it is an isolated belligerent. But by 19th Century measures it is today the greatest of great powers. Strong, self-sufficient and heavily armed- exactly what a Nation-State was meant to be. This may explain the disconnect between how the world sees Russia and Vladimir Putin and how Russia and Vladimir Putin see themselves. That sanctions are leaving them cut off from the global economy merely serves to underline their splendid isolation, and despite weakness by modern metrics, such as the price of the Ruble, Putin’s strong leader ‘routine’ is real, and this sabre-rattling (and sabre-wielding) is both a bizarre and comical throwback to a previous age and a genuine threat to contemporary Weltpolitiks.
Within this context, China is a unique case-study. On one hand, Capitalism, unhampered by Democracy is driving unfettered and uneven growth, whilst a highly centralised and all-encompassing state remains firmly in control. Yet for all China’s brinkmanship in the South China Sea, it is also tied to the supranational. Reliance on exports, huge foreign currency surplus and the major role of international business in driving their national growth means that they are in a strong negotiating position, but they are still reliant on the same transnational networks and bodies, making them unlikely to ‘do a Putin’.
In sharp contrast, the contemporary Poleis that are currently enjoying the most success are those configured to compete in this 21st Century landscape; global oddities such as Singapore, Dubai or Qatar. In an era when companies and treaties and markets subsume and subdue ‘national’ sovereignty, it is these ‘Corporate States’ that are proving the most competitive.
The past success of the Capitalist-Democratic Enlightenment experiment was contingent on the tension between the Capitalistic and the Democratic playing out primarily intra-state. The state could negotiate that tension between man as citizen and man as producer/consumer, holding it in a kind of dynamic equilibrium through tariffs and taxes, incentives and fiscal policy that could harness business for greater goods. Regulation and incentivisation could be used to trim and tweak and capital was ultimately answerable to the state where the sovereign power lay and its freedom to do business was derived from. In the late 20th century, two things happen to reverse this arrangement, leaving most governments ultimately answerable to the Market and its actors.
Firstly, the vast mountains of government debt that modern states carry need maintaining. These loans are like an open wound meaning that, even as the rate of flow is slowed, you still need to transfuse more blood. For governments, this means increasing the tax take. There are two solutions for that; either an election-losing tax hike, or ever-increasing economic growth to increase the take without changing the rate. Either take a bigger slice of pie, or make the pie bigger. One of the flaws in democracy is that with 5-years terms and a strong self-preservation instinct amongst the ruling class, the latter was really the only option. That means pushing consumerism over citizenship. Liberalisation of debt (lets not call it ‘credit’, lets call it what it is), propping up of property bubbles and low interest rates all encourage spending over saving and help drive this agenda. Secondly, the rapid globalisation of production and trade meant that companies are increasingly untied from their national moorings. Don’t like the Tax in the UK? Lets nominally HQ in Ireland. Run up debts in countries with high tax regimes and funnel your profits through friendly regimes engaged in this race to the bottom to encourage companies to domicile as part of the revenue transfusion they are chasing. The net effect is that Capitalist Democracies are both in hoc and in thrall to groups that are more powerful, more transient and less accountable. They are failing to hold capital to account on behalf of its citizens because it is too dependent on it. And unlike a Nation-State, these transnational actors are neither tied nor answerable to a given territory.
Singapore, Qatar or Dubai ( and arguably to a lesser extent, tax havens like Monaco, the Cayman Islands or Amazon’s favourite, Luxembourg) are not the most successful states by many Enlightenment metrics. Lack of transparency, accountability and, very often, individual rights leave these places with a (rightly) questionable global image in liberal circles. Yet they succeed by competing on equal terms with these supranational actors by functioning like a corporation. Lack of accountability is the shadow cast by taking a 20 year view (often through an absence of any real democracy). It is no coincidence that some of the most ambitious future-facing plans are being carried out in these countries- the transformation of Dubai to a global business & leisure hub pre-empting the brevity of their oil windfall, or Singapore’s ambitious and Orwellian plans to create a fully wired nation, offering “anticipatory government” or Qatar’s museum building binge as part of its play for regional hub status. Rather than thinking of mandate, they think about brand. They are Marketeer-States. They use their airlines and tourist boards, infrastructure and diplomacy to project a very specific image, engaging in global charm offensives to assert their soft power. They proletyze for free labour as much as they do for free trade, though for the unskilled it is often akin to slave labour. They are engaged in battles that are about ideas rather than islands or territory. Most interestingly though, they wrap these 21st Century modes of government in heavily modified modern variants of Nationalism, designed to bind together their citizens as shareholders, employees and shared-custodians of their joint projects. Singapore’s upcoming 50th birthday celebrations, or the sharply defined exclusivity of the Emirati class in the UAE are all variants of this. It is also often accompanied by a healthy dose of paternalism- or perhaps rather ‘dividend’ through charity, social housing, public services and open immigration being counterbalanced with closed ‘citizen-shareholder’ status. In many respects Nationalism is hugely important to these states in order to succeed in a Post-Nation age. It is interesting to note the similarities of approach taken despite a clearly tribal-ethnic dimension in the UAE compared with the explicitly Multi-ethnic, Multi-religious element to Singaporean ‘corporate culture’.
It is not just amongst the corporate-dictator state where new experiments in governance are occurring. The growing primacy of cosmopolitan Alpha cities at the expense of their ‘host’ nation (most notably in my hometown of London vs the rest of the UK) reflects the problematic nature of the 19th Century nation state as a 21st century form of governance. As a unit it is both too big and too small. Too big to have the dynamism of the city, too small to have the power of the supranational. The emerging possibilities of ‘bigger than’ are starting to be demonstrated by the EU’s balls in making a legal challenge against Google. No single country could have managed this, yet the federated European polis might stand a chance.
The most interesting experiment in Post-Nation nationalism is currently happening in the desert of Syria and Iraq. Turbocharged by cheap connectivity and a sadistic talent for publicity, ISIS has rapidly emerged as ‘the strangest flashmob in history’. Rather than being a state in the most formal sense, it is a dynamic, sinister banding together of disgruntled young men from around the world with a loose set of shared values, moving like a heavily armed swarm across the Middle East. Rather than being a state operating without Nationalism, it is a Post-Nation without a state, able to fluidly transpose itself from place to place deriving an identity from a sense of affiliation derived and bastardised from one of the great world religions. It is a wholly 21st century invention; the weirdest corners of the internet made flesh. And it has proved to be a roaring success.
Perhaps this is where the staunchest Nationalists could learn the most and develop their own tactics to take control of a failing territory to shape in their image. Of course the real worry is that these political groups that want to fight the reality of 21st century geo-politics and protect the myth of the self-contained Sovereign Nation-State will succeed. In the face of a lack of arguments for embracing a post-Nation world, we may see the final failure of the great Enlightenment Experiment.
As the passion and polemic of the Scottish referendum fades, after the impassioned cries over the lost chance for an ‘alternative way’ and a ‘more equitable society’, through to the Braveheart tub-thumping across the pond that claimed the Scots squandered (or were, somehow through a direct democratic vote, were robbed of) their freedom, what have we really witnessed last week?
It seems to me that the ‘Scottish Question’ is a very specific, localised symptom of a global affliction, an ailment that draws a line between global terrorism and local government, racist politics and the supranational organisations. There is very little chance I will do this thought justice in a blog post, but, in the spirit of FailToPlan, I will push on with the thought. I would rather fail to express it adequately than not try to express it at all.
From a UK perspective, the Scottish referendum it seems was asking the wrong question. The Scottish desire to be more in control of their own destiny caused by the political and psychological distance from Westminster may be most keenly felt when mixed in with a head dose of intoxicating nationalist sentiment, but across the UK other regions suffer similarly. Policies that are meant to be national are cooked up in Westminster and seem better suited to dealing with the peculiar problems of the capital rather than those of the country as a whole. When government, civil service, media and the most vocal parts of industry sit within the M25, it’s is no wonder that it starts to feel as though one very unrepresentative part is standing in for the whole. Rather than looking at whether we should be hiving off Scotland, the real question is whether the Scottish desire for independence reflects a broader need for a federal or at least regionally devolved Britain, where the Midlands, the South-West, the North-East and the North-West get a stronger say in they way their share of the tax take is spent and the way in which industry and perhaps even education is shaped. A more successful UK needs to give places other than London the tools they need to thrive. People need to feel confident that if that have a great idea or a game changing business they can start it in Manchester or Newcastle, because they could attract the talent and the connections & conditions. These regions and cities should be allowed to (re)build and encourage their economies, legislate for their peculiarities and set out their global brands. A federal Britian would give them the power and the political space to grow.
So there is a bigger question for Britian as a nation that has been raised by this, but the second, more curious, element of the Scottish devolution question I wish to highlight fits into broader shifts in international, rather than specific problems in national, politics. Who got to vote in last week’s referendum raised all kinds of question around Nationhood. A good friend of mine, Croydon-born, a Londoner and European through, voted in Glasgow, having been there a month, yet die-hard ‘Scots’ were denied because their were living in Birmingham, or Baku. But the problem is, in the fluid, international and highly mobile world we live in, what is a Scot? Or British? Or Burmese for that matter? Which becomes particularly thorny when you are un-uniting a multi-ethnic liberally defined ‘Nation;’ How do you define the voters and going forward, if successful scythed in half, the citizenship? This is a question underlying a disparate bag of rapidly-mainstreaming long-tail weirdness globally. Whether it is Kurds in Iraq and Turkey or the EDL, far right parties in Sweden holding the balance of power or the Front Nationale in France, narrow and exclusive definitions of the nation are once again increasing, in the face of a world that operates ever-more transnationally.
On one hand this can be seen as part of a reaction to the (post-) recessionary environment, where even as GDP recovers, people feel poorer still, but at the same time the rallying round the exclusively defined nation comes at a time of unprecedented diminishing of the Nation-State. There seems to be an inverse correlation between the rhetoric and the reality. As the noise increases, the nation-state becomes ever weaker. Its hands tied by the primacy of multinational companies and transnational networks of capital, not to say bilateral trade agreements, supranational bodies like NATO and global justice entities such as the European Court. As the sound and fury of what constitutes your nations increases, the state may be coming to signify nothing. Even the ‘bad guys; can’t be pinned down- we saw the ‘success’ of trying to declare conventional war on the unconventional ‘state’ of Terror…
This of course is where is starts to get weird… whilst many are arguing increasingly vociferously over the 19th century Nation State, we are facing down the first truly 21st Century one, in the form of ISIS. As my good friend Steve Grant put it, currently in swathes of Syria and Northern Iraq we are facing
“…a salafist version of burning man. Seriously –young people from around the world in a conventionally lawless space, running under its own set of newly instantiated social norms, all brought together by the internet. Fewer drugs, more small arms and beheadings, same spirit. really”
Jacques Attali, in ‘A brief History of the Future’ outlines a 21st Century where Corsairs and Corporations battle over land and resources and the conventional nation state fades into the past while impotently defending its claims to relevance. Suddenly it seems like that imagined future is not so far off. Scotland wants to leave Westminster because that State, nationalizing it’s banks to ‘save’ them (a very anti-market and anti-Captial measure in truth!) as well as propping up private enterprise in rail, road, energy and infrastructure is willingly tying its own hands, becoming little more than steward of the market rather than the leader of a ‘nation’ (whatever the hell that means now) putting us all in hock to the unaccountable. At the same time, a violent and bloody experiment in alternative forms of governance is clearing itself a white space in the Middle East and acquiring the mineral wealth to continue financing their bizarre and brutal thought experiment. All of a sudden you have drawn a rhetorical thread from Alex Salmond to the Islamic State, via the Tea Party and the outliers on the loony left.
We are at an inflection point for the state as we have known it, and there is any number of interest groups, of which Citizens are only one, making demands on its future. The next few decades should be interesting. So far it is the (very) lunatic fringes who are experimenting with alternative forms to redefine the great and irrelevant 19th century conception of what ‘The State’ is. It is time that the political mainstream began having these fundamental discussions rather than propping up a potentially untenable status quo, else ISIS and others will take the global conversation (and potentially many more innocent people) hostage. Hopefully the failure in Scotland will begin to mainstream these conversations in the UK, and frankly, looking around us now, these kind of free and frank discussions can’t happen soon enough.