Archive for August, 2009

Monday politics meme

August 31, 2009 3 comments

Yes, I am a political anorak too so I shall answer AVPS‘ meme for the afflicted. A picture of my anorak is on the right.

First political experience: Um. Playing the computer game Command and Conquer: Red Alert. For those who don’t know, this game is about a world where Einstein invents a time machine and goes back to kill Hitler. The Second World War ensues, but is instead between the Allies – America, Great Britain, France, Germany and an assortment of others – versus Stalin’s Soviet Union. This got me thinking about the differences between the Soviets and the US. So I read a few books starting with Soviet history and culminating in Karl Marx’ Communist Manifesto.

I don’t know if that qualifies as my first political experience – but it was what started me down the path to Marx and Lenin’s writings. More legitimately, perhaps, was my attendance at the Gaeltacht as a young Catholic nationalist aged 13. Suitably disgusted by the cultural authoritarianism demonstrated by those of my chosen political viewpoint, I went looking for a new viewpoint. My chats with my (solidly working class) grandfather and grandmother during long summers of David Dunseath’s Talkback radio programme pushed me towards the Left.

First vote: I turned 18 in 2002; the first elections I voted in were the second Northern Ireland Assembly elections. Faced with an exceedingly crap selection from which to choose, I voted Greens and Women’s Coalition. The WC were a group set up by the Communist Party of Ireland among others, and whose Assembly member, Jane Morris, I chatted to on a couple of occasions as she did her shopping in Tesco, where I worked. I didn’t vote in local or national elections until 2005.

First demo: Belfast anti-war march, February 15th 2003. I had been interviewed on all the local radio stations, since I was elected as the spokesperson for the Socialist Party campaign “Youth Against War”. During the march, I quickly pinched the Socialist Party microphone from Gary Mulcahy and was quickly leading the chants. It was actually quite a good day out – I remember the lovely sunny day we had for it: 20,000 people marched against the war and hugely cheered Eamonn McCann’s firebrand speech against “US and British imperialism”.

Last vote: Voted in the local and European elections this year in Canterbury. Faced with the crumbling of my faith in the Labour Party, I voted No2EU for the European elections and I voted Labour for the county elections – as I know the candidate and she’d have made a great councillor had she won.

Last political activity: If you ask my friends, all day, every day. Debate with friends, blog, give out leaflets, blog, attend meetings and did I mention blog?

I’m not going to take anyone with these meme – but if someone wishes to pick up the gauntlet, by all means, let me know and I’ll tag you.

Categories: Miscellaneous

In praise of Conservative blogs

August 31, 2009 2 comments

Here at Though Cowards Flinch we take the Total Politics blog competition very seriously indeed.

We wait on the Mr Dale’s drip feed of top 10, and top 30 and top 50s and top 100s with baited breath.

It was with a shudder of excitement, therefore, that we clicked on the link to the top 100 Conservative blogs.

We were not disappointed.

In there at No.97 was the brilliant ‘Ed Vaisey’s blog’, this being the creatively titled blog of Ed Vaiser MP, shadowy Minister for Culture and MP for Wantage and Didcot.

What a blog this is, and how wise and discerning the more Conservative-minded Total Politics voters are to ensure it received this much deserved accolade!

So what’s so special about Ed’s blog?

Well, while other blogs witter on for ages about policy and politics and such like, Ed cuts to the chase. Not for him this nonsense of multiple entries about different issues, not for him that dull-as-ditchwater updating of constituents on issues relevant to their lives.

No, Ed just gets the job done – one entry (06 july 2009), beautiful in its minimalism, is all it needs.

 ‘Hello all’, states Ed with the understated chummy simplicity that mark him out as a purveyor of quality rather than quantity, ‘This is my new Blog, the last one had technical problems so i’ve decided to start again with my website. Watch this space for my new entries.’

Job done.  Just superb, and well worthy of a position much higher up the rankings, reflective as it is of the whole ‘do nothing, think nothing, write nothing’ Conservative mindset and psyche.  Why bother to add new entries afer this masterpiece of concision?

No wonder his colleague Jeremy Hunt MP, Shadow Culture Secretary, marks Ed’s blog out on his own blogroll as one of his favourites.  Jeremy, in at No 91 himself with his rollicking good read of six whole posts AND a breaking news item about him going to visit some bus stops, knows a winner when he says one.  Like Ed, he knows when the job is done, and between 02 July and 17 July he gets said what needs to be said. No need for any more posts when you’re that good.

Well done, Ed and Jeremy. You are clearly brilliant bloggers, brilliant politicians, brilliant minds, and you deserve all the praise you get.

Categories: Terrible Tories Tags:

Left-wing bias and the British Broadcasting Corporation

August 29, 2009 11 comments

Sunny highlights an interesting article in the recent New Statesman, by Mehdi Hasan, which argues that far from being biased towards the Left, the BBC is pro-Establishment. What Sunny doesn’t highligh is the ‘twin’ of this article, written by Peter Hitchens, which attempts to refute the contentions of Hassan, asserting instead that of course the BBC is left-wing, though BBC bigwigs are unlikely to notice it, having never questioned their own assumptions in their journey from Oxbridge junior common rooms to White City.

Because the Oxbridge universities are such a bastion of socialism. Beyond such absurdities, however, I think the Hitchens article is much more instructive than its Hasan counterpart. The Hitchens article is mostly waffle, rarely reaching for examples which can be said to encompass the whole of BBC political, social and cultural coverage – whereas the previous allegiances of people like Andrew Neil and Nick Robinson probably do have an effect on coverage – but to dismiss Hitchens is to miss an incisive and important point.

“What troubles the BBC is not a party bias. (…) It is a set of potent cultural, moral, social, sexual and religious assumptions, which touch on all topics from cannabis to the EU, and which affect everything from the plot-lines of The Archers to the use of the metric system on nature programmes.”

A set of potent cultural, moral, social, sexual and religious assumptions. Hitchens is absolutely correct – but then the same is true about every individual and every organisation. It’s not a big deal that Hitchens is correct; it is his choice of words to describe the nature of BBC assumptions. I can feel the hairs on my neck rise as I wonder what he means by ‘sexual assumptions’. I can almost see the accumulated and vengeful anger of social conservatism reaching out from dead years gone by to strangle all the social change feared and resented by white, Anglican, men.

To some extent, I think, here is the key to the “BBC-is-biased” meme. Amongst the wider population and probably even amongst the Conservative Party, social conservatism is in a minority. Not to say even those who describe themselves as social liberals won’t voice respect for the Anglican church and other touchstones of the Establishment – but it is generally accepted that women should be equal to men, that gay relationships deserve parity with ‘straight’ relationships and that Christianity will just have to coexist with Islam, atheism and a majority who aren’t bothered.

Hitchens’ views on gender equality I can’t speak for – though his moralising over how women who are raped while drunk deserve less compensation surely speaks volumes. On the rest though, Hitchens definitely is a dinosaur – so much so that he has openly stated that he thinks most of Cameron’s policies are indistinguishable from New Labour and that a new political party needs to be set up. I recite all of this in the hope of proving incontrovertibly that Hitchens is in a very small minority, and to correct BBC ‘bias’ in his favour would be unacceptable.

If the rest of the population has pretty much come to terms with gay marriage and doesn’t really care about organised religion anymore, beyond a vague belief in god, surely these are the core assumptions which the BBC should reflect? What Hitchens calls the ‘permissive society’, most people call a Saturday night. And that may be deplorable or not, it may be harmful to society or not, but you can’t attack the BBC for being the preserve of one political strand in the hope that it will simply become the mouthpiece for another, even less representative, one.

The small group of social conservatives in the media who regularly whinge from their bully-pulpits that the BBC is left-wing have absolutely zero chance of ever rolling back the calendar. They are screaming nutters – Hitchens on Blair’s ‘slow motion coup d’etat’, Phillips calling Barack Obama a ‘revolutionary Marxist’, Littlejohn on gay people going door to door ‘like Jehovah’s witnesses’ – they aren’t in any way in touch with what passes for truth (or reality) for most of the population and even large swathes of the politicized Right.

Of course the BBC will seem biased to such people. Speaking as a revolutionary Marxist, I think the BBC seems biased towards a parliamentarist approach, or biased towards the government (any government) against trades unions or biased in a plethora of other ways – but at least I can recognize that I’m in a tiny minority of people and don’t expect the BBC to conform to my views of the world as of right. I do wish Radio 4 wouldn’t give Melanie Phillips an airing, because she’s a moron – but then the same goes for most journalists, especially the thousand anodyne CiFers.

All that said, it’s entirely possible that the New Statesman chose Peter Hitchens to write the counterpart to Mehdi Hasan’s piece because they knew his voice would not be representative of the many, many people who seem to have this bugbear about BBC “left-liberal” bias and could easily be attacked. So while I rest my case here, I anticipate expanding on this topic either in the comments section or should there be a glut of comments made at Sunny’s place.

Liberalism and the radical Left: properly engaging with Žižek

August 25, 2009 9 comments

Courtesy of Chris Dillow’s oft-excellent ‘Top Blogging’ selections of material from around the Interwebz, always posted on the right of his own blog, I noticed that Norman Geras has an article up entitled “Liberalism and the radical Left” in which Professor Geras roundly berates Slavoj Žižek for a bunch of different offenses. I often like what Žižek writes: if nothing else the man delivers a new perspective on time-worn dilemmas in an engaging way. I tend to simply ignore the Lacanian baggage that he carries with him – and often he is quite intelligible without it.

On this occasion, however, I think Professor Geras is massively mistaken in some of his attacks – and quite ungentlemanly, it must be said. As I have noticed in the past, this seems to be a regular feature of Žižek’s reviewers: they don’t much like to engage with him on his own terms, preferring instead to read out of context and ridicule without substantive engagement.  Norm focusses on the following paragraph from a Žižek essay (note, the numbering is down to Norm – but it’s handy as his subsequent criticisms are directed by the numbers):

[1] “The difference between liberalism and the radical Left is that, although they refer to the same three elements (liberal center, populist Right, radical Left), they locate them in a radically different topology: for the liberal center, radical Left and Right are the two forms of appearance of the same “totalitarian” excess, while for the Left, the only true alternative is the one between itself and the liberal mainstream, with the populist “radical” Right as nothing but the symptom of… liberalism’s inability to deal with the Leftist threat. [2] When we hear today a politician or an ideologist offering us a choice between liberal freedom and fundamentalist oppression, and triumphantly asking a (purely rhetorical) question “Do you want women to be excluded from public life and deprived of their elementary rights? Do you want every critic or mocking of religion to be punished by death?”, what should make us suspicious is the very self-evidence of the answer – who would have wanted that? The problem is that such a simplistic liberal universalism long ago lost its innocence. [3] This is why, for a true Leftist, the conflict between liberal permissiveness and fundamentalism is ultimately a false conflict – a vicious cycle of two poles generating and presupposing each other. [4] One should accomplish here a Hegelian step back and put in question the very measure from which fundamentalism appears in all its horror. Liberals have long ago lost their right to judge. [5] What Horkheimer had said should also be applied to today’s fundamentalism: those who do not want to talk (critically) about liberal democracy and its noble principles should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.”

I want to respond to Norman Geras’ attacks: as Norm has numbered the paragraph in order to better specify which bit he is attacking, I’ll follow the same formula. Anyone wishing to play the game should read Norm’s article first, then read mine.

[1] What Žižek is saying here is neither new nor remarkable. For liberals, radical Left and Right are two forms of the same totalitarian excess. I have to use Žižek’s words because they are so well chosen. How many times do socialists come up against the argument that Fascist tyranny and Soviet tyranny were the same thing? One doesn’t even have to engage with the Trotskyist idea of deformed and degenerated workers’ states to see that, whether or not their methods were similar (and in his In Defence of Lost Causes, Žižek makes a good case that at the semiotic level, the methods weren’t the same) , the two represented different configurations of social forces.

One was born of stalled workers’ struggle, the other was given birth to crush that struggle – and this is true whatever one thinks of the subsequent behaviour of the new Soviet Russian elite. Similarly, for the Left, the major opponent is liberalism. I give liberalism the lower-case ‘l’ as a means to note that this is not the list of policies held by one political party or another, but the ideology which underpins the whole system of capitalism and the basic prejudices of all three major parties of the British parliamentary system: Right, Centre and Left. I don’t see anything startling here – nor any reason for Professor Geras to dismiss it as idiocy.

When Žižek subsequently says that “the populist “radical” Right [is] nothing but the symptom of…liberalism’s inability to deal with the Leftist threat”, again, he is saying nothing new. The conception of fascism as the reaction to the global eruption of militant class struggle around the world following WWI is not new. On a smaller level, I was saying something similar myself in my previous article: the populist Right latch on to solutions to symptoms of the problem rather than the problem itself (e.g. immigration rather than a free labour market).

Capitalism creates two interests, liberalism only has room for one. Under capitalism, the first interest is that of the worker, who would prefer if cheaper labour could not be used to supplant his own or drive down his wages. The second interest is that of the employer, who has the opposing interest. Liberalism, the defence of the equal rights of the individual, stands with the employer: individuals should be able to move around unrestricted, which is an implicit justification of capitalist practice. To assert otherwise is to constrict the liberty of some.

Thus politicians, caught between pressure from below, which is angry at one of the natural practices of capitalism, and the natural and logical extension of their own liberalism, adopt Right-populist slogans and concepts: the restriction of immigration, British Jobs for British Workers etc. Here it is the rhetoric which is important: the practical effect of such measures  is to produce scapegoats rather than to actually halt immigration; all the draconian immigration laws in the world don’t stop the free flow of labour – as witnessed if we compare the actual practices which caused the Lindsey Oil Refinery Strike versus the number of laws New Labour have passed to tighten up immigration.

Professor Geras contends that by asserting all this, that Žižek elides a bunch of differences between Right-populism and liberalism: I don’t think this is so. I think Žižek simply recognizes the deficiencies of liberalism and the circumstances under which liberalism will be transformed into Right-populism by its inability to reconcile popular disaffection with the results of capitalism and the first principles of liberalism itself. I’m sure all of this is open to challenge – but it’s hardly fitting for Norman Geras to go about calling it ‘political idiocy’.

[2] The next attack launched is that Žižek is trying to eliminate the distinction offered by the notional politician he creates. Said politician asks, “Do you want women to be excluded from public life and deprived of their elementary rights? Do you want every critic or mocking of religion to be punished by death?” Obviously the expected answer is “No”, and the implication is that only liberalism can deliver on that “No”, whilst a whole host of fundamentalisms will happily deliver the organised suppression of women and the censure and execution of free-thinkers.

Agree or disagree with him, Žižek’s point (a more extended version of which can be found in his book Violence) is that actually the distinction is a false one. Liberalism delivers for Western Europe (relatively) empowered women and the right to say what we want – but as a result of our liberal system, our armed forces are off doing the work of totalitarians and fundamentalists in foreign countries. Indeed the same rhetorical cover has been used for such military interventionism since the days of slavery and beyond.

We can want different freedoms etc, but so long as these remain on a liberal basis, they come at the expense of coercing other nations to be just like us. Which sounds fine: a few broken eggs to create a global liberal democratic omelette. But the reality, when the rhetoric is stripped away, is that ‘just like us’ simply means that countries are open to foreign investment, that their State has the same attitude towards opening up public services to private profiteering and so on and so forth. This is what happened in Iraq: it will no doubt happen in Afghanistan.

Bottom line: I don’t think Žižek is minimizing the real differences in quality of living between British people and people living under fundamentalist regimes – and this is what I take from Žižek’s remarks, though I have the advantage of having read quite a portion of other work. What Žižek is attempting to do is show that these freedoms and differences in quality of life aren’t abstract and politicians who counterpose the differences as a means to defend liberalism (muscular or otherwise) ignore the global effects of this ideology, denuded of its innocence.

[3] Again the liberalism-fundamentalism distinction. I agree with Professor Geras that those things he lists – e.g. throwing acid at girls for attending school – are barbaric. But the opposite of ‘barbarism’ is certainly not liberalism. See the above comments on our ‘liberal’ involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq – and they are not the first. The only thing added to the discussion is that Žižek contends that liberalism generates fundamentalism; if Žižek had said ‘capitalism’ in place of liberalism I think he’d have been more accurate – but even still, all is not lost.

Liberalism is the dominant discourse of capitalism; the doctrine of  rights, which are inalienable to the individual. Export of liberalism is part and parcel of capitalism, breaking down moral economies and traditional ties in favour of market exchange. People can react to this by attacking the symptoms, such as the surface discourse of liberalism rather than the practicalities of capitalism, in defence of ‘traditional’ forms of exploitation. The form that capitalism takes, i.e. liberalism, thus begets if not the fact then the form of its enemy: illiberal fundamentalism.

For this reason, Osama bin Laden and his crew attack homosexuality, fornication, intoxication and gambling (all defended by liberalism based on the right of the individual to do as they will, so long as they harm no other) in the same breath as usury – i.e. modern banking, the necessary prerequisite of a free market. Even the attitude of such people to advanced technology, that other symptom of modernity, is one of suspicion – though no doubt hypocritical, since OBL himself is reportedly surviving due to a dialysis machine.

I shall leave [4] and [5]; the former seeming to me a bit of gobbledegook (what the hell is a Hegelian step back and is that any different from the regular English idiom ‘to step back’, i.e. to gain perspective?) and the latter seeming like an excuse for a pissing contest over how far people like Norman Geras do or do not critically analyse liberal democracy (that is, cast the mote) before they attack religious fundamentalism. They hardly require much explanation – and I think my point is already made in any case.

Namely, when Žižek drops the Lacanian silliness, his points are pretty traditional – and agree with them or disagree with them, they are not as immediately nonsensical as Norman Geras would make out.

Polly Toynbee and the missing mega-earner myth

August 25, 2009 27 comments

Polly-ToynbeeLike my BlogComrade Dave, I don’t have a great deal of time for many liberal intelligentsia members of the UK broadsheet press corps. 

Indeed, it’s been interesting to note how, on at least a couple of occasions over the last few months, reporters from the scuzziest of the tabloids have got it much, much righter than the broadsheet wafflers. 

First, there was the Daily Star, calling it right over the East Lindsey strikes, and now in the last few days there’s the News of the World, with a mix of brave undercover reporting and an editorial line smacking of basic decency, sticking it to the BNP better than any well-meaning but essentially middle-class oriented hope not Hate campaign has been able to.

Given the ever lower esteem in which I hold Guardian/Times commentators etc., therefore, it will come as little surprise that I find the latest CommentisFree piece by commentariat queen bee Polly Toynbee a tadge disappointing and, erm, wrong.

In today’s piece, Polly turns her attentions to the Compass-led campaign for a High Pay Commission, presumably having taken a few days looking to see which direction the bandwagon was rolling. 

Fair play to Compass – they’ve got it to roll in the pro-Commission direction, and in so doing they have raised some useful debate about wealth distribution, albeit within the usual limited confines, and so Polly’s gone with it and decided she supports a High Pay Commission too.

Her problem, though, is that there’s been a lot of  broadsheet/blog comment about it already, and she’s a bit stuck for anything original to say.   

Having chewed her pencil for a while, she’s gone for the idea that a Commission would go around ‘challenging the self-serving myths of mega-earners’, and sets out the myth she thinks will be challenged by it.  The Commission, she says, would give us all information about how much high earners really earn, and that would enable voters to make decisions about distribution.

Or at least I think that’s what she says.  To be honest, it’s not very clear precisely what she thinks the existing myth(s) is/are.

The problem with this myth, though, is it’s not a myth.  Anyone you ask anywhere knows perfectly well that rich people earn/have a lot and that there’s a very wide gap between the biggest earners and the lowest earners.  What’s mythy about that?  It’s wrong, but it’s not a myth.

So Polly misses the bandwagon, and that if you like your self-serving myths served up on CommentisFree, is a shame. 

Because there is a very big mega-earner self-serving myth which, whether through rank ignorance or choice, she doesn’t mention.

This myth is best expressed by one of those mega-earners.  Here’s one Andy Jarm commenting in a right huff at Liberal Conspiracy:

‘I am a banker and trust me – this is the tip of the iceberg, thousands of bankers and other professionals are preparing to leave this country (it takes time to up-root and move your wife and kids abroad) – they will soon be doing the same jobs, servicing the same clients but from abroad and paying tax revenues to foreign governments instead of ours. There is only one result – the UK will lose immense tax revenues that are unlikely to come back.’

Now that, Polly, is a myth, and a very self-serving one at that.  Andy reckons if he doesn’t earn loads, he’s off, and thousands like him will join him.  Bollox!

To prove it’s not just Andy saying this, but that the whole thing’s got proper myth status, here’s someone else,  John this time, at Iain Dale’s site, saying the same:

‘Labour’s attitude to high earners is what pisses me off the most.They just openly ignore the fact that the high earners are the one’s running the business’s (sic) that provide their jobs, and that generate the most cash for the economy.

If we don’t look after them, or worse, target them like Labour want to, they’ll just bugger off elsewhere and it’s the people who will suffer the most for it.

After all, it’s the high earners who are the most mobile.’

Equally bollox!

Much as though I’d really love Andy and indeed John  to bugger off elsewhere, and though it may possibly be true in Andy’s particular case, his argument is essentially (as I think I may have noted) bollox, put forward in order to scare us all into thinking they will go, a bit like Paul Daniels or whoever it was who threatened to emigrate if Labour came to power, but never actually quite got round to it.

Let’s just look at the claims they’re making.

Are they really suggesting that a wealthy person earning, say, £200,000 per year will actually decide to remove her/himself from the UK lock stock and barrel because s/he is required to pay 5% extra on the £50,000 earned above the threshold, that being £2,500?

That’s the cost of a weekend skiing trip or some other luxury, and it would cost an awful, awful lot more than than that in terms of the costs ‘sunk’ in living in the UK, plus the new costs associated with a move abroad, to take their bat and ball and skis elsewhere.

And where would they go? I’m not going to bother with detailed research on personal taxation levels in other parts of the world, but have a quick look at wikipedia and see if there are any genuinely attractive options in the countries with lower tax regimes than ours for your average £200,000 earner.   Moldovia and its flat tax rat really that attractive an option? 

There’s a reason rich people choose to live in London.  It’s London.

They might try a London-like tax haven to save their £2,500, the nutty commenters may say. Try checking out how much it costs to buy permanent residency on Jersey, and see if that equation stacks up except for the ridiculously rich (that’s the way the States of Jersey like it).

So why then is the right, and the rightwing press, so fixated with what in reality is this ridiculous idea that ensuring total flexiblity of pay at the high  end, and keeping tax for upper earners low, is what keeps the wealth in the country?

It’s because it’s a convenient fiction, that’s why. It’s because it suits those high earners – who don’t want to pay a bit more tax into the system they depend on to keep their labourers serviced and health and in a position to make them even wealthier – to have us think that they and their fellow high-earners will be off at the drop of a hat or a Commission

Of course they won’t. They’re here either because they’re from here, and for all the usual reasons don’t want to live somewhere else, but also because this is where the vast majority of them skim their surplus value.

What the right says about high taxation and the exodus of personal wealth is essentially bollox, and it’s time to call their bluff, whether through a High Pay Commission or through – my preferred route – collective action.

This is of course just the personal taxation issue. Of much greater economic significance for the economy as a whole is the matter of the tax regime as it affects corporations.

Again, the right would have us believe, because it suits them and their capitalist friends, that if the tax regime is too burdensome, then all those lovely companies that bring us jobs will just up sticks and head off elsewhere where the government is more ‘understanding’ of the needs of big business, and corporation tax is lowered to suit.

This all sounds a bit more plausible than the notion of rich individuals buggering off abroad because they’re asked for a couple of grand as a contribution to the poor.

But it’s still not true. There is simply no empirical evidence to support the claim.

Indeed the reverse is true. As my favorite academic Colin Hay puts it in Why We Hate Politics:

‘Predictions of the hemorrhaging of invested capital from generous welfare states are almost certainly misplaced. A combinations of exit threats and concerns arising from the hyper-globalisation thesis about the likelihood of exit may well have had an independent effect on the trajectory of fiscal and labour market reform…….. Not only have the most generous welfare states consistently proved the most attractive locations for inward investors, but volumes of foreign direct investment (expressed as a share of GDP) are in fact positively correlated with levels of corporate taxation, union density, labour costs, and the degree of regulation of the labour market (2007: 131-132)’

The key words here are the ‘hyper-globalisation theory of exit’.  Hay goes on to argue that empirical findings simply do not back up this thesis, and that, just as with personal taxation, the notion that businesses always go to the lowest taxed economies (and by extension the least well-funded welfare states) is simply a convenient fiction, designed by capitalists to drive down their costs, increase their surplus value, while at the same time freeloading on welfare states for healthy, well-educated labour.

There isn’t space in even this longish blogpost to go into all the empirical findings, but Hay relies particularly on the superb research set out in Duane Swank’s ‘Global Capital. Political Institutions and Policy Change in Developed Welfare States (2002)’, in which the myth of the ‘flight of capital’ is debunked with evidence the right is keen to ignore. Probably the best summary actually comes on the back cover of the book, which, though it’s a little wordy, is worth quoting in full:

‘This book argues that the dramatic post-1970 rise in international capital mobility has not, as many claim, systematically contributed to the retrenchment of developed welfare states. Nor has globalisation directly reduced the revenue-raising capactiies of governments and undercut the polticial institutions that support the welfare state. Rather institutional features of the polity and the welfare state determine the extent to which the economic and political pressures associated with globalisation produce welfare state retrenchment.

In nations characterised by majoritrarian electoral institutions, pluralist interest representation and policy making, decentralistion of policy-making authority, and liberal program structure, the economic and political pressures attendant on globalisation are translated into rollbacks of social protection.

In systems characterised by inclusive electoral institutions, social corporatist interest representation and policy making, centralised political authority and universal and social insurance-based program structures, pro-welfare state interests are generally favoured.

Consequently globalisation has had the least impact on the large welfare states of Northern Europe, and the most effect on the already small welfare states of Anglo nations.’

(See also, amongst other sources, Cooke, W.N.; Noble, D.S. 1998. ‘Industrial relations systems and US foreign direct investment abroad’,in British Journal of Industrial Relations, Vol. 36, No. 4 for research on the more specific positive correlation between foreign direct investment and ‘progressive’ labour relations.)

In short, the right is trying to sell us a lie when it talks about the mobility of capital (and high earners), and the need to keep taxes down. And as the OECD itself neatly summaries in this short book, what we end up with in neoliberal orthodoxy is a ‘race to the bottom’ on tax rates, as exemplified in the rock bottom rates in East European countries (look at the Wikipedia entry on tax rates in Europe again).

The myth that low taxes are needed to make wealth happen – a myth not even believed by Multi-National Corporations when their bluff is called – becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, where labour suffers most.

And that, is what Polly should have said, though I accept it would have needed a bit of editing for CommentisFree.  Then she’d be a proper commentator like me.

Categories: General Politics

Niall Ferguson as ‘poseur’: the case for the prosecution

August 24, 2009 6 comments

niall-ferguson-handIt would be easy to write off the ongoing spat between so-called ‘super-Keynesian’ economist Paul Krugman and liberal economic historian Niall Ferguson, in which Ferguson calls Krugman ‘patronising’  and Krugman calls Ferguson a ‘poseur’, as the stuff of early 1990s TV comedy.

But I think it could be more important than that, because of the different economic policies they support, even embody.

The origins of the dispute, long since overtaken by the personal vitriol, need not detain us to too long.

Briefly, Krugman accused Ferguson of not understanding economics very well at all, and that his fear of pressures on interest rates as a result of fiscal stimulus were unfounded, because, according to Krugman, ‘We have a global savings glut, which is why there is, in fact, no upward pressure on interest rates.’

Ferguson then went on to claim victory in the argument when US Treasury yields rose sharply, providing solid proof – so he claimed – that ‘the running of massive fiscal deficits….and the issuance therefore of vast quantities of freshly-minted bonds’ was indeed ‘likely to push long-term interest rates up, at a time when the Federal Reserve aims at keeping them down.’

The ins and outs of the arguments are well summarised by Daniel Gross, but really boil down to the fact that:

‘the notion that the market is telling us something—anything—ultimately rests on the erroneous assumption that financial markets represent the collective wisdom of rational actors processing information efficiently…… The markets resemble the Star Wars bar scene more than they do the economics faculty lounge at Princeton.’

More important than all of this detail about interest rate rises and the precise (or chaos-based) reasons for it, is the battle for position on fiscal policy between Ferguson and Krugman, and their two policy camps; while Krugman pushes for continued fiscal stimulus to prevent a douple dip, Ferguson uses the interest rate rise argument to push for fiscal restraint, right here, right now.

As Duncan Weldon has said repeatedly, Krugman is right on this one, and Ferguson is wrong.  If the Ferguson camp can make him into the leading public figure economist on both sides of the Atlantic, conservative fiscal policy will win the battle of economic policy, and the future will be grim for millions.  It’s that serious.

It’s worth making the point in that context, therefore, that while Krugman has been consistent in his approach to economic policy, Ferguson is indeed a ‘poseur’, acting up to the crowd in his own interests, and making pretence of expertise he does not have.  And here’s my proof:

In the Los Angeles Times/Daily Telegraph in October 2005, Ferguson stated:

‘Parties out of power usually tell themselves that sooner or later the incumbent will be tripped up by the economy. That was indeed the pattern throughout the 20th century. Yet this is to overlook four things.

First, economic volatility has declined markedly since the 1970s. In all the G7 industrialized countries, annual growth rates vary much less than they used to. So do inflation rates. Recessions are happening less often, and when they do, they are not too steep and not too protracted’ (my emphasis).

But here is what you said in Vanity Fair in January 2009 (yes, Vanity Fair), in an interview to publicise his new book, and in which he refer to a period very shortly after the appearance of Los Angeles Times article:

‘Well, I can say with a degree of self-satisfaction that it wasn’t luck. Two and a half years ago I decided to write this book, because I was sure that this financial crisis was going to happen, and the reason I was sure was because people kept coming up to me—whether it was investment bankers or hedge fund managers—telling me that volatility was dead that there would never be another recession. I just thought, ‘These people have completely disconnected from reality, and financial history is going to come back and bite them in the ass’ (my emphasis).

Like bollox he thought the financial crisis was going to happen! And that’s exactly why the book he refers to, ‘The Ascent of Money’, reads like one book praising to the heights the growth of financial innovation that led us to the mess we’re in, sandwiched between two hurriedly scribbled chapters telling us the story of what we already know, not least from Krugman himself (see also this damning review from November 2008).

For years Krugman has stood up against neo-liberal orthodoxy, and only  founds himself in some favour now that he’s been proven largely right about the and then housing bubbles.

Meanwhile, Ferguson writes and says what he thinks will please his readers and listeners, and what he knows will please most of his readers and listeners is the simplistic but dangerous certainties of fiscal conservatism.

That’s sort of a definition of ‘poseur’, and I rest my case.

Categories: Uncategorized

Equalities and Human Rights Commission vs. the BNP

August 24, 2009 10 comments

Obviously I am not friend of the bunch of racist twats in the BNP. What’s that I hear you say? They’re not racist, they’re just standing up for Britishness? Er, not according to this “Golly trial” that was going on at one of their festivals. Not only that, when they do get people elected those people are joke-candidates: witness Richard Barnbrook’s lies about knife crime resulting in hearings by the London Assembly. Or Simon Darby, who made the funniest comment I have ever read from a professional politician:

“If I went to Uganda and I went to a Ugandan village and said that the people there were genetic mongrels and that they had no right to their Ugandan identity, I would be picking out spears for days.”

Best use of cultural cliché ever. The remarks were made in the context of attacking Archbishop of York John Sentamu for encouraging people not to vote for the BNP. Bearing in mind that this Archbishop frequently goes off on one about the great conspiracy of secularists and the centrality of Christianity to Britain’s culture, you’d think the BNP response would have been moderated to something like “We are disappointed…but actually Dr Sentamu agrees with us on a bunch of things.” It’s true that no ineptitude is more welcome than that of an enemy.

Notwithstanding stupidity, or that their full-timers are embroiled in power struggles when not suffering ‘depressive illness’, the BNP are still a threat. This will not be helped by the announcement that the BNP are to face court over their non-compliance with the 1976 Race Relations Act. Apparently the party dedicated to ‘voluntary repatriation’ and the Sieg Heil salute doesn’t offer enough employment opportunities for black or Asian people. Next Trevor Phillips’ merry band at the EHRC will be telling us they haven’t employed enough Jews.

A great number of people in this country feel alienated from the institutions of power and the ‘respectable’ faces of democracy and civil society. Pitting these ‘respectable’ faces against the BNP will not warn people off the BNP, it will solidify their reputation as anti-establishment. I have no doubt that the EHRC doesn’t see it like this: they have a duty under the law etc etc, it’s not a choice, it’s built into their mandate etc etc. But I suspect that go-to excuse of the BNP is at least partially correct – that the Labour government have a hand in this somewhere. At the very least, it is endorsed by the upper echelons of Labour, as Harriet Harman made clear today.

Moreover, the use of what will be presented as ‘human rights’ legislation against the BNP easily feeds into their narrative about how human rights is designed to work against white people, to the benefit of minorities. Law or not, this could all too easily backfire from the point of view of those who wish to defeat the BNP and fascist sentiments they represent. At the very least, the BNP will point out that this is persecution of minorities like the  “Celtic Scottish folk community” or the “Anglo-Saxon-Norse folk community”.

Worse still, the BNP might actually change its constitution so that it explicitly permits the admission of non-whites: I can’t think of  better (but completely meaningless) symbol which the BNP could use to fuel the “we’re not racist, just British” meme. Whatever the BNP constitution says, black or Asian people are not going to be signing up to the BNP in record numbers – the text of said constitution can’t change the violent, alcohol-driven, jackbooted, Sieg Heiling, lumpenprole, white trash membership and the ‘welcome’ they would give to ethnic minority members.

The use of State mechanisms to suppress a political party is not acceptable: the alternative, an activist response, is a much better idea.

We need to move beyond the ‘beat them in the great debate’ attitude of some more liberal commentators on the issue: as I have pointed out on numerous occasions, democracy is not just a great debate. The BNP take advantage of disaffection with prevailing norms, keeping the working class divided and opposition to capitalism weak, but they operate within the same paradigms as the establishment: on immigration or Europe for example, the BNP may be more ‘radical’ but they present the issue in essentially the same way as Right-Tories and UKIP.

This is why anti-fascists shouldn’t be sharing a platform with UKIP, Tories or Right-Labour speakers: they can denounce fascism all they want, but their presentation of the issue is only different by degrees. The solution to fascist appeal is not the restriction of immigration, or to pass laws forcing the conformity of ethnic minorities to rose-tinted majority archetypes or the denunciation of everything European as “Marxist”. It is the unity of the working class in the face of common exploitation, not one subset blaming that exploitation on the other.

Additionally, such establishment politicians often shy away from awakening the socialist solidarity of many trades union members (however those members vote come election time), preferring instead to rest with high-profile speakers and conventions. Whereas we could have the CWU organising boycotts of fascist leaflets and journalists and publishing workers refusing to print or broadcast BNP advertisements, an activity based on the active political choice of individuals rather than the power of the State, politicians run from this option as they always have.

At root, that is our only choice: either to abdicate our responsibility to organize mass opposition to the fascists, allied to mass organisations like the trades unions, or to leave it to the pontifications of our politicians, many of whom are compromised by their role as the root of much working class alienation, and their use (abuse?) of State power. So, hands up, who thinks the windbaggery of Harriet Harman and her parliamentary colleagues is going to get the job done?


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