What happens if SYRIZA wins?

January 4, 2015 Leave a comment

Greece is back centre stage, with a general election on January 25th and the now quite real propect of a SYRIZA government coming to power.  Tim Worstall paints an interesting scenario of what may happen next, something along these lines:

a) Greece defaults;

b) Greece is forced out of the euro;

c) Greece, in going back to the Drachma and thereby devalues and become instantly more competitive;

d) After a “pretty hairy” twelve months, Greece’s economy grows at 50-10% per year for some years;

e) Other weaker Eurozone countries – Italy, France, Belgium see this is a shortcut to prosperity, and leave the eurozone voluntarily;

f) The Eurzone effectively breaks up.

It’s an interesting scenario, but one which almost certainly won’t be played out.  It won’t be played out because, while for Tim euro exit may create a “pretty hairy ” twelve months of change but be a transition well worth going through – for ordinary Greeks it will be utterly savage

This, for example, is what the National Bank of Greece (according to Bloomberg) set out back in 2012 when exit was last considered a possibility.

Per-capita income would drop by at least 55 percent in euro terms as a new currency would depreciate by about 65 percent, according to the report, emailed from the bank today. The recession would deepen by about 22 percent at stable prices, adding to the 14 percent recorded in the 2009 to 2011 period, National said, while unemployment would jump to 34 percent and inflation rise to above 30 percent, pushed up by the higher cost of imported goods.

Nor would the effects of exit simply be short-term pain for long-term gain.  Exit would also massively increase inequalities.  As I said in 2012:

While it’s impossible to say exactly how leaving the Eurozone might pan out, these will be among the consequences*:

  1. Within a day of the creation and flotation of the New Drachma….. its value will crash against ‘hard’ currencies, and the purchasing power of Greeks for anything imported will be slashed.  It’s impossible to know by how much, but a cut of 75% purchasing power is certainly not out of the question [I wrote this two weeks before the National Bank predicted 55%];
  2. In an internationalized economy like Greece, there is no such thing as ‘out of the euro’. Most rich Greeks able to do so will already have stored their wealth elsewhere and the capital flight will continue to happen.  The idea of proper capital controls is frankly fanciful.  As holders of still-valid euros, or other ‘hard’ currencies, they will then be in position to purchase both the assets and labour of the mass majority of increasingly desperate Greeks at rock-bottom rates.
  3. A dual economy will swiftly emerge, as in pretty well all countries without their own hard currencies.  This will further deepen inequalities in daily life, potentially even with usual services and products only available to those with access to hard currency, as will the emergence of black market currency trading, where the New Drachma is even less valuable than at the official exchange rate.

Greeks know this, and so does SYRIZA. That is why, while 74.2% of Greeks surveyed believe that Greece should remain in the euro “at all costs”, they also give a 3.1% poll lead to SYRIZA.   They knowthat, even if Germany were in a position to push Greece out if it defaulted (and that is doubtful), SYRZIA would be committing political suicide by allowing an exit – whether on purpose or through over-bullish endgame negotiation forcing the Troika into a political face save at the expense of economic sense.

Euro exit is simply not an option for SYRIZA (it has never said that it is), and there is no conundrum (whatever Olaf thinks) for Greek voters over whether to vote against austerity and for exit or for austerity and against it; SYRIZA offers a much better chance of getting the best of both worlds than it did in 2012, and that’s why they stand a better chance of winning this time.

Yes, SYRIZA will bargain hard from a position of strong democratic mandate, but they will bargain, as will the Troika, and a compromise will be reached (possibly including direct fiscal transfer via Structural Funds in return for higher debt payments as facesaver for the Troika).

And even if the worst did come to pass, and disastrous negotiation tactics/styles from both sides did lead to an exit, the economic and social carnage on the streets of Greece would soon put Italy off from following the same path.

So while according to Tim’s classical theory the comparative advantages of real devaluation over internal devaluation may make some sense on paper (if you ignore equality issues), don’t expect to see the theory tested any time soon. Macro often doesn’t meet real life.


Strategic Action Fields and the Left

January 3, 2015 Leave a comment

As I’ve only taken up blogging and blog-reading again in the last couple of days, I hope I’ll be forgiven for singling out this article  The Great Moving Left Show: Making it Happen, over at Left Futures as being typical of the online Left’s current hopelessness.

It’s a 500 worder (ish), and makes the following basic argument:

a) People don’t like austerity;

b) Austerity has been imposed because of the the prior imposition of a neoliberal narrative;

c) Labour is useless on austerity;

d) “[T]he political class at Westminster is in disarray and there is potential for a progressive alternative.”

None of this is wrong exactly, though I think Labour is less wrong on austerity than they are actually (deliberately) making it out, but it really doesn’t take us anywhere.  Indeed, if the Trades Description Act 1968 covered blogs, I think there’d be a strong case for the prosecution about a blog sub-titled “making it happen” which devotes just half a sentence about “potential for a progressive alternative” to that matter.

So how do we actually get somewhere?   I’ll be writing a lot about this this year (partly updating and expanding on my very naive attempts from a few years ago now that I’m about 1,000% better read/considered) but here are two suggested starting points for the intellectual work (including that of more serious bloggers) which will be needed to catalyze a genuine shift to the left of the Overton window:

First, we need to get more specific and, dare I say, radical, about what we’re looking for.  Chris, as ever, makes a pretty good start albeit in questioning form:

Any serious revolution would, of course, disempower political and business elites and empower people. Which raises many questions: why is there so little popular demand for worker management or even direct democracy? How do we promote anti-managerialism? Could we achieve worker democracy without weakening incentives to innovate? What institutions do we need to create a healthy deliberative democracy rather than debased populism?

Focusing around this kind of question will be a huge step forward from the now outdated “How do we beat austerity?” question, which pre-supposes that a return to a 2008-style welfare state would be a victory.   Doesn’t anyone remember how managerially corroded that welfare state had become by 2008?

Second, we need to develop a firm grasp of the mechanisms of successful collective social action, and start to consciously apply them, moving beyond the platitudinous certainties of, on the one hand, the part of the Left which continues to argue for one last push/fight/demo, despite the repeat-ad-tedium failure of these same tactics to effect change (on their own), and on the other the “community organisation” tactics of part of the Labour party, which often amount to little more than the political version of Which magazine.

Here, a decent starting point might be the work of Fligstein of McAdam, who call for a drawing together of findings from social movement theory & research and from political science, especially around the central idea of the Strategic Action Field, within which successful actors (and thereby movements) are those that best draw in and share resources with others who have mutually realisable interests, and who develop the skills needed to make the most of opportunities provided by both internal shift and exogenous shocks (they take the success of the civil rights movement in the US as a key case study).

This is not the only necessarily field of study, of course; much could also be learned from Paul Hirst’s and others early (all-too-forgotten) thinker’s and activists’ work around associative democracy, and especially about how new associations might develop into institutions which can claim parallel legitimacy to those of an overbearing state (I think for example, of the Scottish Trade Union Council’s Inquiry as the clinching feature of the 1971-72 Upper Clyde Shipbuilder Work-in).

But I particular favour development work around proper ‘coalition’ building (including Overton window creation, of course) in light of the marked failure of the left on the 2010-2012 period to form any useful form of ‘strategic action field’ comprising, say, the Occupy movement and the mainstream labour movement (indeed the two movements’ expressed interests seemed to move further apart, not closer).

Who should lead on this work?  Well, the trade union think-tank Centre for Labour & Social Studies (CLASS) might be a good place to generate initial resources, if it could get beyond its current narrow and defensive focus and start to look seriously about what can be created through a coherent approach to the seizure of power.

I am also, I hasten to add, available. I’m also quite cheap (though wage-led growth will need to include me too).






Categories: General Politics

Are some Labour votes bad for Labour?

January 2, 2015 Leave a comment

Chris Cook, one of the few centrist media people worth taking seriously – largely because he is open to new ideas and data – tweets surprise at a Neal Lawson column, in which the latter suggests that New Labour’s key failure was its success in getting votes from the rich.

I well remember crunching my way up gravel drives past BMWs in Enfield the day Stephen Twigg ousted Michael Portillo – oh, how we cheered later that morning. But in hindsight the wrong people were voting Labour.  The tent was too big and you spent the next 10 years trying to keep the wrong people in it: the very rich, for example. What meaningful project includes everyone?

And I’m surprised at Chris’s surprise.  Has politics really become a PR exercise to the extent that for even one of the better commentators, the idea of different material interests, served by different political parties, seems ridiculous?

This is not to say that Lawson is entirely correct in his equating Enfield gravel-pathed residence and BMW ownership with a set of interests that only the Conservative party can meet.  Many of those people had very valid reason to vote Labour in 1997, given the manifesto promises made (and quite well fulfilled) around state education, just for example.  For myself, I prefer the Tory/Labour constituency dividing lines drawn up 80-odd years ago by RH Tawney, who argues convincingly for the inclusion of “brain workers” in the development of socialist democracy oriented towards socially useful work, while the capitalist owner of the means of production can only ever be on the other side of the political gain line.

But Lawson is right to say that when a political tent is too big, too inclusive, then political direction can be (and was) lost, not least because it is the very visibility (and openness to metaphoric description) of opposing interests which helps maintain that direction (cf. UKIP’s progress in relation to visible immigration).

Indeed, the principle of material interests in political opposition to each other has to be accepted if the votes of, let  us say, the self-employed and small business owners, are to be properly contested by one the one hand, a Tory party claiming them in the spirit of capitalism (without the capital for the greater part), and a Labour party which can and should argue that in the early 21st century self-employment is often imposed, and that many small business owners actually manage* – sometimes heroically – to operate within a cut-throat supply chain environment while still maintaining a viable moral economy in relation to their employees and clients.

Those votes are worth fighting for and actually, yes, they may be better votes than ones from the very rich.


* There’ll be more on this in coming posts, especially around how legal structure has become more important in policy than the reality of work norms, not least as I count myself as one of these small business owners, although one without too much need for heroics.

The two main challenges for the British Labour movement in 2015

January 1, 2015 Leave a comment

Here begins, after enforced hiatus, the renewed Though Cowards Flinch (TCF) blog.  It’ll be the usual mix of social policy analysis in the fields I know quite a lot about – education, child protection, public health, local government  – and wider political economy, particularly with a focus on government spending in the context of self-imposed narratives of financial constraint.

As previously, the principal rationale for blogging what I blog here is to shine a light from the lefty, however tiny, on what the mainstream media – which has now pretty well suffocated the independent blogosphere in the way many of hoped it wouldn’t, but weren’t pro-active or influential enough to prevent – does not have the capacity or desire to shine a light on.  I like to think of TCF, vaingloriously enough, as a rearguard action in defence of strategically vital political narrative territory, pending the arrival of more organised journalistic forces of the left.

As we go into 2015 and the general election draws near, there are two main areas of intellectual and organisational challenge facing the British labour movement which are widely ignored or misinterpreted by mainstream commentators.  If they continue to be ignored or misinterpreted, the risk is that that territory will be lost for good to the right.

First, there is the question of what follows Coalition austerity*.  It is accepted wisdom on the part of the commentariat that the Labour party is planning a ‘Tory-lite’ approach to public expenditure.  If this assumption is not challenged, there is a risk that it will become self-fulfilling, not least because those most affected will continue, at least in the vital first two years of a new Labour-led government, will continue to be those towards the margins of society who are the most friendless victims.

At this stage, though, the assumption is wrong.  ‘Tory-lite’ implies the same kind of cuts as planned by the Coalition, though a little slower. What in fact is being planned is a programme of social investment, which reduces need for state spend over the longer term, but which does not show up as additional expenditure on the government’s books.  This programme will take 12 months in government to start to enact, and this will be the vital period in which the sensible left needs to get behind it, not uncritically, but in a way which balances those voices in Labour calling for actual continued austerity, either on the basis that they actually think it is warranted, or that it is in their personal or organisational self-interest to look as though what they publicly supported in opposition is being enacted as supposedly promised.

Second, there is the need to re-orientate community organisation in the labour movement.  At the moment, the model promoted most visibly by American guru Arnie Graf is laughably ineffective as a means of building the labour movement for the longer term or – and arguably it amounts to the same thing – counterbalancing the effects of the anti-politics wave being ridden by UKIP.  It is ineffective because it relies almost entirely on encouraging people to self-identity as passionate/engaged/angry consumers who can get a better deal if the come together in some form of temporary solidarity, although in most cases the actual outcome of any such solidarity is less important to Graf’s advocates than is the opportunities created to do a bit of refined voter ID and canvassing.  This is, of course, counter-productive in the longer term.

One of the ironies of Labour’s likely collapse in Scotland in the general election – but also of the possible relative failure of election campaigns in areas where Grafism has held sway but cannot compete against the anti-politics tide – is that it may by necessity open a to door to the development of a more coherent community organising, in which members of ‘communities’ are at last/again recognised by labour movement activists as whole beings, producers or potential producers as well as consumers.

Again, though, such a move towards what I would describe as a 21st Century Trades Unions Council movement, will not take place if the space for it is lost to the right, who will seek to fill that organisational space with a stripped-down version of the Big Society, now become the Mean Society, in which benevolent communitarianism is bestowed on the deserving poor only.

Win or lose, these are the two main intellectual and organisational ‘battles for space’ facing the left in 2015.   Whether the left recognises that is a different matter.  That is, as noted, the reason for renewing this blog.  We will know by the summer whether these spaces have been won or lost.


* For brevity here I assume a Labour-led government from May.  If the Tories form a further government in coalition, the challenges I set out will be of the same type, but will need to be faced in much more difficult circumstances.


Categories: General Politics

HM Drucker on the decline of Labour in Scotland

December 15, 2014 Leave a comment

On Facebook, Dave Osler poses the question about Labour’s plummeting support in Scotland:

Generations of international relations students have studied the ‘who lost China?’ debate that took place in the US under the Truman administration. I think pol sci majors in future will equally argue about ‘who lost Scotland’ for the Labour Party. Does the blame lie with Labour’s Westminster leadership, largely oblivious to social trends beyond north London? Or is it the fault of the management team at the branch office itself?

I don’t currently (though I will presently) have much to add to conventional wisdom here, but I think HM Drucker’s warning from 1979, in his Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party may be instructive:

Since Labour’s ethos emanates from a specific past one may ask what the implications of this task are for the future…….Labour cannot be simpliciter a party of the future.  Such a possibility may be available to a radical social democratic party.  It is not possible for the historic Labour party.  The attempt by Crosland in his The Future of Socialism (happy title) (1956) to condemn Labour’s tendency to cling to the principles of its past is futile.  Any attempt to redefine goals for future action must always be seen to be strictly consonant with the past.

A second implication is that Labour’s support can be eroded by a general change of consciousness.  If the ties of class-consciousness are weakened, then Labour is threatened.  If Labour comes to be seen as an increasingly middle-class organisation, it could lose its support even if its supporters remained class-conscious. ….Class consciousness, as a historical fact, is obviously endangered by changes external to it.    Gaitskell saw prosperity as one such threat. Nationalism is another – one whose power is more real in the 1970s than would have been foreseen in the late 1950s.  As Scottish and Welsh working people have come to identify themselves as Scots or Welshmen first and workers second, Labour loses their support to nationalist parties.  As this happens, one witnesses an exchange of one past for another as the new choice comes to appear more vivid.  If in future elections Labour loses parliamentary seats as a result. it will be paying a high price for the loss of class-identity (p.39, my emphasis).

More to come from me on what this means for Scottish Labour’s response to this now seemingly inevitable loss.


Scotland’s new borrowing powers: a danger for all of us

November 27, 2014 1 comment

Under the proposals set out by the Smith Commission today (pdf), Scotland gets powers to borrow money when it wants either to not do austerity, or invest (or both, these being the same thing):

[T]o reflect the additional economic risks, including volatility of tax revenues, that the Scottish Government will have to manage when further financial responsibilities are devolved, Scotland’s fiscal framework should provide sufficient, additional borrowing powers to ensure budgetary stability and provide safeguards to smooth Scottish public spending in the event of economic
shocks, consistent with a sustainable overall UK fiscal framework. The Scottish Government should also have sufficient borrowing powers to support capital investment consistent with a sustainable overall UK fiscal framework. (para. 95 /5).

Great news for Keynesians.

The only slight drawback is that Scotland won’t actually get to implement any of these new borrowing powers, because they will only be accorded:

subject to fiscal rules agreed by the Scottish and UK Governments based on clear economic principles, supporting evidence and thorough assessment of the relevant economic situation (para. 95 5b).

So Smith accordeth powers with the one handeth, and removeth them with the other, given the chances of Westminster agreeing to additional Scottish borrowing will be close to zero (especially if the Barnett formula remains in place as Smith recommends).

No huge surprise there, but for me the really interesting and worrying this is that, as the legislation is drawn up to set out in law the now agreed-by-all principles of the Commission, it will be necessary to establish some kind of arms-length institution which dictates, from the outset, what these “clear economic principles” around “sustainability” are, since the Commission is also clear that the fiscal framework “should not require frequent ongoing [political] negotiation” (para 95/6).

The danger, then, is that this goes beyond even Ed Balls’ proposals for a supposedly “objective” review of the parties’ fiscal plans, and entrenches constitutionally – both for Scotland and for rUK – a definition of fiscal sustainability.

That is, deficit fetishism could be given at least a semi-permanent constitutional basis, and all because of the panicked rush to be seen to fulfil the panicked Devo Max vow.

Not a great way to run either country.

I’ll be watching what panicked legislation emerges closely, as I hope will at least a few MPs on both sides of the border, given that it makes no sense for the SNP to buy into a cutely struck deal which emasculates any real fiscal power.

Categories: General Politics

Metaphors of immigration: taking Lakoff seriously

November 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Owen Jones notes that facts count for little when it comes to immigration.  Says Owen:

As the political linguist George Lakoff puts it, the right get all this far better than the left. “Conservatives understand that communication has to do with the moral basis,” he argues. Using statistics can be useful within reason, but in his view, only if they comfortably sit with a broader frame of argument.

This is true as far as it goes: framing what the issue is all about, and having it connect up in people’s minds to a moral certainty, more or less guarantees success.  It’s also pretty handy when you have the media power you need to keep on framing it to suit your ends.

So what is Owen’s solution?  The left might start to win the argument, he says, if we tell good stories, and if we ‘reframe’ the debate:

We surely need to talk far more about stories: like our own personal experiences, or those of relatives being cared for by Lithuanian nurses or Nigerian careworkers. But we have to shift the debate, too. Our economy was trashed by a financial elite.

The problem here, it seems to me, is the disconnect between Owen’s Lakoffian analysis of the problem, and the entirely non-Lakoffian solution he promotes.

First and foremost, let’s be clear who Lakoff is. He is not, as Owen suggests, a political linguist (for which maybe read ‘speechwriter’?).  He is a cognitive linguist, in the Jakobson tradition, who analyses political discourse through that lens.  This is an important distinction; as Lakoff himself has said, his work has started to influence speechwriters, but a deeper understanding is needed before the left can really start to the challenge the right on the level of “moral politics”.

First, it requires the knowledge that most thought is unconscious. This finding is just beginning to permeate into the pop science press, but hasn’t made it into the political media. Thus, the fact that all politics is moral and that political framing uses largely unconscious moral framing is not widely recognized.  Second, it requires some knowledge about unconscious metaphorical thought. Though I and other cognitive linguists around the world have made deep discoveries about how metaphorical thought works, it has still barely made it into the pop science press.

The concept of metaphor as the key framing device is at the heart of Lakoff’s work, from his (and Johnson’s) seminal Metaphors We Live By (1980) onwards. Lakoff’s claim is that the whole way in which we relate to the world is by way of metaphor, because language has evolved such that basic physical experience is used to ‘denote’ intellectual experience. So depression is expressed as an orientational metaphor of ‘being down’, for example.

From this relatively simple premise comes Lakoff’s argument that whoever controls the most powerful metaphors is most likely to win out politically. Nowhere is this clearer than with the immigration debate, in which those opposed to immigration use two powerful metaphors – flood/ wave and containment. Of these two metaphors Jonathan Charteris Black writes:

[They] are related through the notion of a bounded area protecting what is within from external danger. The container metaphor is persuasive in political communication because it merges a fourth
dimension of time with spatially based concepts of two or three dimensions. It implies that controlling immigration through maintaining the security of borders (a spatially-based concept) will ensure control over the rate of social change in Britain (a time-based concept). It also heightens emotional fears associated with the penetration of a container.[1]

In the face of such powerful metaphor deployment,  Owen’s proposal for ‘stories’ – about how useful some immigrants are seems –  a noble but inadequate response.  In Lakoff/Jakobson terms are towards the metonymic pole of the rhetorical register.  That is, they demand of the listener  that s/he see the whole reflected in one part of that whole.   But metonym is for the most part only effective as a device when there is already a willingness on the part of that listener to take on board the message [2].  Thus, while stories of Lithuanian nurses do not lead to a wider appreciation of the upside of immigration, stories of immigrants doing a disservice to their ‘host’ nation are easily enough taken as evidence that all immigration is bad for us.

So where does that leave pro-immigrationists?  I think there are three broad choices, though they are not mutually exclusive.

First, we can continue as before, seeking to sell the benefits of immigration in the way proposed here, for example.  This is unlikely to be effective as a sole strategy, and indeed risks making things worse in the way Owen suggests (pro-immigrationist painted as an uncaring, neoliberal elite).

Second, we can – as Owen suggest – seek to deflect the anti-immigration metaphor by building other ‘frames’ around the financial elite and the other capitalist forces who create the material conditions then exploited by UKIP and the like.  Such a strategy fits with what I refer to for as ease as non-linguistic discourse theories of articulation and social antagonism e.g Laclau & Mouffe, but they will still require a coalition building in the ‘strategic action fields’ of choice/design, and they still need the metaphor construction to help build those coalitions. [3]

Third, and most directly in relation to the immigration strategic action field itself, perhaps we need to counter the effective flood and container metaphors with one of our own, even to the extent that we try to engineer a shift away from the term ‘immigrant’ [4], given that this has within it an orientational metaphor linked to the broad containment metaphor.  Perhaps a shift towards an orientational metaphor of (calm) settlement may be the way forward, though this may be open to more negative interpretation (settlement -Lebensraum-invasion) than we might want.  Alernatively, there may be physcally-sourced language around ‘boosting’ and ‘lifting’ which might be adopted by a strategic coalition of business and the education sector, who in terms both labour market need and effect on overall skill and knowledge level, already need little convincing [5] about the benefits of immigration.

None of this is easy, given the material inequalities in the media, and the now deeply entrenched sense for many people that immigration is something to be feared.   A good first step though, is surely to recognise that if we’re going to take Lakoff and cognitive linguistics seriously then, well, we need to take it all seriously, not just the political framing bit.


[1] While Charteris-Black doesn’t draw it out, I would suggest that the flood/wave metaphor is particular effective in Britain because of our island status.  This reflects Lakoff’s findings that the effectiveness of metahpors is always contingent on culture.

[2] Roman Jakobson, a key influence on Lakoff sets out how poetry and literature moved from the metaphoric pole in 19th century Romantisicm towards the use of metonym under the Realists.  Thus as Stenbock-Fermor points out in her history of the writing of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy redrafted the suicide chapter to enhance the ‘role’ of Anna’s red handbag, metonymic symbol of her Westernised elegance, which she must cast aside before she throws herself to her death.  This is metahpor, arguably (the casting away?), but with more than a hint of metonym;  it demands of the reader an active, intellectual connection, where a metaphor of physical movement is more easily embraced.  Perhaps, more generally, this is why realist literature and poetry often feels less immediately accessible than the Romantic genre, because the latter appeals to an ever-present congitive funtion of connecting the physical senses to language by way of metaphor.

[3] Perhaps we might learn here from the relative success in building a strategic coalition against loan sharks, and the importance of the ‘shark’ metaphor.

[4] Here I am reminded of Bourdieu, who argues that the word ‘immigrant’ is a logical nonsense, since anyone who has finished the act of migration can no longer properly be described as someone who is immigrating.

[5] Clearly I’m heartened by the findings of research into the impact of ethnicity on London’s educational success, but I think Simon may be wrong to state that “There is nothing inherently different about the ability of pupils from different ethnic backgrounds”.  In fact, as I set out here and elsewhere, there is at least some evidence to suggest that new immigrants are ‘inherently’ different by virtue of the enhanced cognitive function that biculturalism and bilingualism brings.


Categories: General Politics

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