Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The choice before the Brexiteers: open society or Chinese-style capitalism?

This blog first aired itself on the Radix blog site...

It’s a funny thing, but Michael Gove’s defence of Boris Johnson, following his damaging confusion about a British woman detained on holiday in Iran, gave me a real shiver of apprehension.

It wasn’t just the lazy way Gove was apparently prepared to undermine the slim chances Nazanin Ratcliffe has for release – by implying there was some doubt about why she was in Iran (visiting her parents), when there is none. Nor was it simply the way the Brexit establishment shoves aside vulnerable people if it helps their political chances. No, it was also something to do with the philosophy of Karl Popper.

Popper, as I may have mentioned before, seems to me to be the key to any kind of radical centre ground in politics. It was Popper who explained the sheer inefficiency of dictatorship, writing in England as a refugee from the Nazis.

Popper came up with an interim answer to the problem David Hume had set two centuries before. You can’t prove that all swans are white no matter how many white swans you see. But you can disprove it – if you see a black swan.

Popper’s philosophy of science implied that societies, governments, bureaucracies and companies need to make this falsification easier. Because they work best when the beliefs and maxims of those at the top can be challenged and disproved by those below. That’s how we learn. Closed systems discourage learning – openness encourages it. That’s why Popper said that open societies are the one guarantee of good and effective government.

It means that people on the front line will always know better about their own lives or their own work than those at the top. The more open you are to them, the flatter the hierarchy, the more the challenging information is available to move forward.

Popper’s open society idea is simultaneously the only possible justification for Brexit and an explanation for why the highly centralised structure of the UK is not designed for a post-Brexit world. The Brexit government represents the very opposite of the central idea of the Brexiteers, a kind of languid sense of entitlement to absolute power.

So here is why Gove and Johnson’s behaviour matters. Because there are two models of market-orientated trade – the western and the Chinese. For a long time, we assumed that Chinese capitalism would be vulnerable because of the open society factor – they would not learn as fast as we do. For a long time, liberals assumed that democracy and open markets necessarily belonged together.

But now, with Chinese-style authoritarian capitalism – which tends towards enslaving their own people – on the march, we have to ask which way the Brexiteers in government intend to jump. Will they go with Popper’s open society as the basis of a learning market, or will they opt for authoritarian capitalism – which is happy to lazily sacrifice individuals and consumers just so they can prove themselves right?

Will individual rights matter in Brexit Britain – or are we to be sacrificed on the altar of Gove’s and Johnson’s quest for some kind of justification?

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Monday, 6 November 2017

A century on from the Cottingley fairies...

When I wrote my first novel, Leaves the World to Darkness, I had been determined to write a novel for grown-ups about fairies. A serious subject, after all.

The consternation and confusion the whole idea seemed to cause was irritating and finally rather amusing. One fiction editor, interested in publishing the book, asked me if I was prepared to excise the fairies out of the plot – the whole purpose of the story.

I nearly lost one ghostwriting job because the subject (actually the subject’s father-in-law) saw I had written a book about fairies, and they weren’t his cup of tea. I never brought it up when I was working in the Cabinet Office. Perhaps that was just as well.

Fairies play such a central role in English and Celtic culture, so it seems a pity that they have been reserved for children. And the moment this may have happened may have been exactly a century ago this year when two little girls from Cottingley in Yorkshire claimed to have take photographs of them.

What happened next, the furore of the world media and the involvement of Arthur Conan Doyle and the Theosophists, has kept the incident before us for a century. Even then, the recantation by the girls overshadowed the fact that the youngest of the two maintained to her death that one of the photos was genuine. I’m not sure that the serious study of fairy belief has ever recovered.

So the work of Simon Young and the reformed Fairy Investigation Society is extremely worthwhile, and their Facebook page and their surveys about people’s experience of fairies are going very well – and their last newsletter (I can’t find a link to this) was devoted to Cottingley.

In the meantime, there is Hazel Gaynor’s new novel The Cottingley Secret. There is also my own Leaves the World to Darkness, in paperback published by the Real Press or on Kindle as published by Endeavour.

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Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Why The Death of Stalin seems worryingly familiar

This post first appeared on the Radix website.

We had what my youngest son used to call an ‘insect day’ at my eldest son’s school on Monday, so we spent the afternoon watching The Death of Stalin, the new Armando Iannucci film.

It is rather fabulous, with a extraordinary performances by the main cast as Khruschev, Beria, Molotov and the rest of the gang. The film could equally have carried the title ‘The Death of Beria’, who is played magnificently by Simon Russell Beale.

I found myself haunted by the experience, by its black humour and what Hannah Arendt called the ‘banality of evil’, but also perhaps wondering why aspects of it seemed so familiar.

I have come to the conclusion that this was only partly because the same style of tyrannical wrestling with reality was the subject also of Iannucci’s TV series about UK politics, In the Thick of It, with the fearsome Malcolm Tucker in the proto-Beria role.

It was also because of the phenomenon, identified by the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, that – if you fight someone – you get like them. So by fighting the Cold War, by engaging in eyeball to eyeball confrontation with the Soviet Union for so many decades, we began to imbibe some of their thinking.

I mean partly the way we conduct our politics, like great separate Kremlin style soap operas, with Westminster operating with a whiff of the same centralised, struggling incompetence, without talent or trustworthy institutions. Of course, our professions have not been sent to the gulags, but most institutions regarded as threatening the establishment’s right to rule have still been gutted.

Also perhaps the technocratic, not to say Stalin-esque, way we approach the problem of services, requiring people to stay still and passive to make them easier to process and subjecting the professions to detailed thought control.

There are also the extraordinary stories now emerging from the undercover work by Channel 4 on the front lines of universal credit (“I got brownie points for cruelty,” said one Jobcentre advisor).

It is a disturbing but undeniable aspect of human nature that if lazy cruelty is ever allowed, by those put in charge of a class of being, with tacit permission to behave as they want, then they will be tyrannical. From Huntingdon Life Sciences to Universal Credit, via Beria’s secret NKVD, the rule still seems to apply.

But the ghost of Stalin’s Russia is alive and well, perhaps even more so, in the corporate world – with their great marble porticos, their manipulation of reality (Tesco’s auditing, VW’s emissions tests) and their tyrannical treatment of staff (take Amazon for example). Or the sudden disappearances, the airbrushings out of corporate photos. Or the dismissal of Barry Lynn and his team from the New America Foundation for having the temerity to criticise Google, the great monopolists.

There are also parallels with the great lies the establishment tells itself – like the delusion that there are bank managers, individual doctors, youth services, probation officers, supportive job centres, to help and support us through life. There are not, or not any more.

The question is whether these parallels were in Iannucci’s mind when he gave us this vision of the inner circle of the Soviet Union, squabbling and lurching from one great blunder to the next. The stakes were higher of course, for them personally, but perhaps not for the rest of us.

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Monday, 30 October 2017

The energy and experience of small-scale publishing

Regular readers of this blog, should there be any, will know that I also run a small - not to say micro - publishing enterprise called The Real Press. Well, I've learned a little in recent weeks about the sheer energy in small publishing. But first, have a read of this...

Thysse message is o’er long. It doth comprise two main parts, a briefe note from one of mie oarsmenne on the findinge of the Spaniartt’s papers and the translat’d papers themselffes. These are in onlie part sensible order as the oarsman had yet to right them and the manne that translat’d the Spanish writinge simplye retold the tale in the order receiv’d. The originale paperes have disapper’d thysse xi daie of September 1589. They were soak’d butte legible and found bound at the stern of a small craft adrift in the baie call’d Coumenole.
So begins the new novel we have just published, by Craig Newnes. You may notice that at least half the novel is written in a language which has been invented by the author so successfully, and authentically, that we sink into the 1580s as if we had never gone away. Craig is also an eminent psychologist, and the book is as much about human relationships and love, erotic and otherwise, as it is about the Armada. But the language this adds depth to the whole experience.

We wanted to publish Tearagh’t because of this sense of another reality, moving under the surface – and because believing you are in another moment of history is a rare experience. Making it possible is one of those underlying purposes that the Real Press was set up to achieve. Personally, I think Tearagh’t succeeds triumphantly – so let me know what you think…

But the real lesson to me of the experience of publishing Craig’s book was that – perhaps for the first time – I became fully aware of the possibilities and importance of small publishing. The manuscript for Tearagh’t has sat on the desk of a New York literary agent for nearly ten years. It could have been issued by the biggest and most prominent publishers in the world. But somehow they seek out the safe and the formulaic instead, and it falls to the new wave of small publishers like the Real Press to issue it. We are certainly proud to have done so.

By whether I am right or wrong about this, Tearagh’t is a brilliant read and something that lives with you long after you reach the final page. And that makes it a rarity. See what you think!

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Thursday, 26 October 2017

Will Corbyn's Labour go for central control or diversity?

This post was published today on the Radix site...

Maybe a decade and a half ago, I was a member of a committee set up by the Lib Dems to report on the party’s philosophy. It was chaired by Berwick MP Alan Beith and included no less a personage than Ralf Dahrendorf. It’s report was called It’s About Freedom. I seem to remember that the title was my idea.

We all suggested the names of modern thinkers who built the modern foundations of Liberalism. I had rather less confidence than I do now so I did not press my suggestion, which fell by the wayside, of the philosopher Karl Popper and his open society – and the idea that only a society where it is possible to challenge authority from below can learn as it needs to.

Popper’s political ideas emerged from his philosophy of science and were enshrined in his 1945 magnum opus, The Open Society and its Enemies. It is the most important justification of modern Liberalism, and also an explanation of why the totalitarians lost the Second World War and the Cold War. Because of that all-important challenge from below.

And all around me, the possibility of challenge from below is under threat. The Right never liked being challenged by the front line, but it is also under threat from the Left.

There are some obvious examples of both, whether it is the unpleasant implications of gathering the names of academics teaching about Europe, or – also in universities – the banning of some feminists who don’t toe the current line on a range of issues.

But what are we to make of the two examples, both published yesterday, of Labour councils that have signed away the rights to protest by people affected – on the issues of the mass felling of much-loved trees in Sheffield or the massive new Lendlease regeneration programme in Haringey.

In both cases, the programmes are promoted by apparently enlightened council leaders who had been much respected on the issues of inclusive growth. In both cases, also, they find themselves trapped by corporate contracts that lock them into a certain set of actions, for reasons we are not allowed to know. They are unwittingly promoting a kind of capitalism in the style of President Xi, centralised, secretive and thoroughly bad.

They also fly in the face of Popper’s open society. All the defensive leadership of Haringey and Sheffield are likely to learn is not to sign those PFI contracts again – yet they knew what they were signing.

Where is the dividing line between the all corporate Left and the Left that believes in diversity for its own sake – including diversity of opinion. Is it between New Labour and the Corbyn leadership? Or is it, more likely, a line drawn unseen within Momentum, between the old left and the new activists? Between Corbyn himself and his enthusiastic supporters?

And perhaps more urgently, why don’t we hear these issues hammered out inside the Labour Party? Because Chinese capitalism seems to me the very antithesis of Popper’s open society. It is also on the march, not just in China but also here. Tolerance and diversity work; they also need defending.

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Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Monopolies and the dog that didn't bark

This blog post is copied from the Radix blog...

The news yesterday that the doom-laden trade dispute, between the giant American planemaker Boeing and its small Canadian rival Bombardier, may have been resolved only seemed to compound the basic underlying problem.

If the dispute really has been patched up, then it has been by doing a deal with Boeing's European rival giant Airbus to construct the Bombardier planes ordered in the US in a factory in the USA.

Of course, we should welcome anything that resolves this kind of trade spat, but – really – there is something craven about the solution, just as there is about the original problem. Apparently, both modern protectionism and modern free trade are understood in practice as about protecting the giants against their challengers.

I have written elsewhere (in the book I wrote with Joe Zammit-Lucia and published by Radix) about how the free trade idea became so corrupted. It appears to have something to do with a long-running dispute inside the Chicago School of Economics in the 1950s. Milton Friedman emerged as the victor and he said that monopoly was rarely if ever an issue.

This nonsense has led to the current impasse, where free trade has come to mean the very opposite of the original idea - it isn't about supporting challenge from below, it is an apologia for monopoly, a featherbedding of the giants.

While I understand how this reversal came about, I'm not sure why the forces of Liberalism worldwide should have abandoned their most important economic doctrine.

But I do know that concern about monopoly power is rising, not here perhaps, but in the USA - where two pieces of economic research have been published which lift the lid on the economic consequences of monopoly power. After all, the US Department of Justice didn't open any cases against monopolies at all in 2014, and opened just three in 2015. That compares to 22 cases in 1994.

You can read more about the latest research in the Bloomberg report here. Particularly, economists Jan de Loecker and Jan Eeckhout have found that prices re now 67 per cent above costs when they used to be just 18 per cent, and other evidence that consolidation is driving up prices. German Gutierrez and Thomas Philippon have also found that business investment as a share of GDP has been falling - probably because of the increasing market power of companies. Why would anyone lend you money to compete with Amazon, after all?

The situation was summed up in a recent headline in Christian Science Monitor explaining that Catalonia can opt out of Spain (perhaps), but never out of Google. American thinktankers like Barry Lynn and Stacy Mitchell are beginning to make hay with the monopolies issue, but in the UK - well, silence.

In fact, if you were wondering why the political centre ground has become so lost on this side of the Atlantic, their ability to be the dog that didn't bark about monopoly power might be all you need to know.

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Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Homage to Catalonia - and what it means

This article is crossposted from the Radix blog...

Sometimes all you can rely on, to understand some sense of the direction events are taking us in, is a sense of history. As such, it seems pretty clear to me that the way the national authorities behaved over the Catalonia referendum guarantees that Catalonia will eventually secede from Spain.

Perhaps not now, perhaps not for decades, but eventually. What is more, it may also provide enough of a political impetus to other nations-within-nations , like Scotland, to go their own way. When firefighters have to stand between the crowds and the police to protect people, then something will inevitably change.

Nor is this necessarily a bad thing. Centrist politics has tended to be unionist. Liberals have certainly looked askance on every kind of nationalism, except possibly Irish. But something is changing, and I suspect that - among the mix - is a different attitude to economies of scale.

If your whole political system leaned heavily on the justification of economies of scale, then it made sense to subsume the parts in a greater whole. But if you recognise how rapidly economies of scale are overtaken by diseconomies of scale - as most people do now outside government - then the argument for unionism and the old-fashioned concept of nation states begin to unravel, along with all the other prevailing ideas that came along with the age of the assembly line.

I have written before about Freddie Heineken's vision of a Europe of nation states with around eight million people in them, and certainly there are successful nations and city states a good deal smaller than that.

People are frustrated with the sheer ineffectiveness of central governments, so divorced as they are from the real levers of power - which exist at very local and city level, where they exist at all (Sir Keith Joseph used to complain that he had spent his entire career trying to get his hands on these levers, only to find they weren't connected to anything). It maybe that this frustration, combined with the disillusion with the idea of economies of scale, will usher in nationhood - not just for Catalonia, but the Scots, and others. There is a similar referendum in northern Italy shortly.

What is more, if we are radical centrists, there are reasons for suggesting that this maybe a more peaceful, more effective way of governing than the current posturing of nation states and national parliaments. The days of Liberal unionism may be running out. It was after all another expression of the very nationalism it rejected.

But there is one pre-condition for success for this kind of transformation. We must retain the old national umbrellas. Without a continuing role for 'Britain', we risk unleashing the most dangerous kind of intolerant nostalgia. More immediately, we would lose the possibility of rebalancing the separate economies around the old nation, shifting resources from the rich areas in surplus to the poor areas.

If we don't do this, we risk creating a Europe of competing nation states - like G K Chesterton's Napoleon of Notting Hill - with the big poor ones that are left behind battling with the smug small, wealthy ones. It was the lack of this very mechanism across the eureozone which has led, predictably, to the rise of the far right. The European Union could also provide it, but will they? And can they, inside the UK?

That makes revolutionary separatism, of the kind encouraged by the actions of the Spanish government in Catalonia, not just unhelpful, but downright dangerous.

We are nearly due a major shift of the political and economic mainstream - we have one regularly in the UK every 40 years - and it is worth arguing that Brexit and Trump are not the shift. They are more like John the Baptist, bearing witness to the shift. I am wondering whether the real shift, a response to the sheer uselessness and corruption of central governments, may be this radical localism.

I think it will happen, partly thanks to the police in Barcelona. But it needs to be done safely, or will will lead to the kind of bloodshed we saw in Yugoslavia. It has to be done deliberately by enlightened statespeople, slowly, bravely, constitutionally and under the continuing umbrella of the old national identities and their vital economic functions.

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