End times?

Trump actually winning now seems rather likely, but even if he loses, the very fact that so many support him may be a sign that the checks and balances of the American political system have now been weakened so badly (and some would say deliberately) that it is only a matter of time before they cave in and crumble.

Sooner or later, empires do fall.  When you live in one, its power seems so solid, its essential logic so unassailable, that it easy to imagine that it will go on for ever in the same familar way as it’s done all your life.  But the algorithm is never perfect.  Sooner or later, it either comes up against some external fact which its design didn’t anticipate, or is snarled up from within by its own unintended consequences.

The particular genius of Anglo-Saxon institutions, people sometimes say, is that they are both solid and flexible, allowing them to adjust to changing times without coming tumbling down.  It’s pretty impressive that the US constitution has lasted since 1789, or that the British constitution has evolved more or less peacefully since the Glorious Revolution in 1688, but their survival has always depended on their legitimacy being generally accepted, even by people who, in other respects, disagree profoundly with one another.  When I go out to vote, here in the UK, I’m always struck by the sight of the representatives of the various rival parties chatting amicably to one another outside the polling station, and even helping each other by telling each other the names of voters so they can tick them off on their lists.   There are plenty of countries where members of rival parties are killing each other, torturing each other, locking each other up, countries where the loser in an election will promptly declare a foul, and  begin a civil war.   But those people chatting and joking outside my polling station demonstate to me that, whatever their political differences,  they are still all players of a peaceful and orderly game whose rules they all accept.

But when something approaching half of the population believes that the whole system is rigged, and when serious contenders for office begin to argue not just that their opponents’ views are wrong or harmful, but that their opponents themselves are criminal, evil, illegitimate or traitorous then it seems to me that the game may nearly be up.

Hate-filled ignorant scum

I’ve been struck for some time by the increasing invisibility of working class people in Britain.   Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, I’ve been struck by the increasing invisibility of class as a social division.  The concerns of progressive-minded people have shifted away from class to other divisions -gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability/disability- to a degree that, as Owen Jones points out at the beginning of his important book, Chavs*, the kind of derogatory comment that would be completely unacceptable if applied to, say, an ethnic minority, or to women, or to people with disabilities, can now be quite openly made about people who are working class or poor.  This was particularly evident to me in the wake of the Brexit referendum.  I was very stuck, not only by the way that liberal middle-class Remain voters tended to characterise working-class Leave voters as ignorant, stupid, bigoted and racist, but also by their shock at being defeated.  Many Remain voters, it seemed, only knew folk who voted Remain.  There was a whole bloc of people out there, whose lives and opinions they knew almost nothing about.

When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s working class people were not invisible in the same way.   The city I grew up in, Oxford, was at that time a major car-manufacturing town.  Trade unions were powerful working-class organisations and, though I came from a middle-class and not particularly political background, in my teens I would have been able to name probably nine or ten trade union leaders in the same way that I could name senior government ministers.  Changes since then have not abolished the working class, but fragmented it, disempowered it and rendered it invisible as a class to the point that some middle-class people, who clearly lead very sheltered lives, now speak of a classless society, or a post-class society, or of us ‘all being middle-class’ now.

The changes, described in Owen’s book, include, the dismantling of much of manufacturing industry, the attack, begun by Margaret Thatcher, on trade union power, and the deliberate policy of the Thatcher government, through the selling off of social housing, to encourage as many working class people as possible to begin to think of themselves as middle-class home owners, or at least to drive a wedge between them, and those that remained in social housing.  The Labour Party, a party originally established with the precise purpose of ensuring that working class people were politically represented, was to carry on with this programme.  Under New Labour, as Owen notes, the idea of emancipating the working class people morphed from improving conditions for the class as a whole, to helping individual working class people to become middle-class.  The emphasis shifted from ‘equality’ to ‘equality of opportunity’.  ‘The new Britain is a meritocracy’, Tony Blair said when he came to power, though the term ‘was not originally meant to describe a desirable society…[but] was meant to raise the alarm at what Britain could become’ (Chavs, p 96).

Not all working class people can become middle class.  ‘If everyone became middle class, who would man the supermarket checkouts, empty the bins and answer the phones in call-in centres?’ (Chavs, p 250).   And not everyone has the same aptitudes.  But the shift of emphasis from improving the condition of a whole class, to helping people with the necessary abilities to leave that class and join the middle class, means that those who are left behind can be blamed for their own problems, and the poorest among them can be described in terms which, if applied to ethnic minorities rather than social classes, could have come straight from some 1930s Nazi tract:

‘…that sub (human) class that now exists in the murkiest, darkest corners of this country…good-for-nothing scroungers who have no morals, no compassion, no sense of responsibility and are incapable of feeling love or guilt’ (Carole Malone, News of the World, cited in Chavs, p 22)

One of the interesting points raised by Owen, and one which very much chimes with my own experience, is that denigration of working class people isn’t confined to the right-wing of British politics, but can also be found among liberal and even left-wing people.  I read an article in the Guardian a few years ago, reporting on a poll which found that the middle class was now more ‘left-wing’ than the working class.  And in the comment thread I came across the following, offered, as far as I could tell, without conscious irony:

… [The working class] consistently vote against their own interests. I have always imagined that the reason is that they think they are “middle-class” as was my own family’s delusion. However, I suspect that the real reason is that they are just hate-filled ignorant scum and we middle-class people should just say fuck them.

Hate-filled, ignorant scum.  ‘One of the ways people have made their snobbery socially acceptable…’ says Johann Hari (cited in Chavs, p 116) ‘[is] by acting as though they are defending immigrants from the “ignorant” white working class’.  Indeed some commentators quite specifically contrast hard-working immigrants with lazy good-for-nothing British workers.  Writing in the Times in 1994, Janet Daley (cited in Chavs, p 118-9) characterised British working-class people as a ‘self-loathing, self-destructive tranche of the population’ and contrasted them with the ‘religion, cultural dignity and… sense of family’ brought by people from ethnic minorities, who were only held back by the ‘mindless hatred of the indigenous working classes, who loathe them precisely for their cultural integrity…  I fear long after Britain has become a successful multi-racial society, it will be plagued by this diminishing…detritus of the Industrial Revolution’.

*   *   *

I heard a lot of that kind of talk from Remainers in the aftermath of Brexit.  But it seems to me that describing working class British people as ‘hate-filled ignorant scum’ and contrasting them unfavourably with immigrant workers was never exactly calculated to endear them to the European project.

*References are to the new 2016 edition of this book, published by Verso

Brexit Eeyores

Absolutely awful

As I mentioned before, I voted ‘remain’ in the UK’s recent referendum, but I am growing very tired of what now I think of as the Brexit Eeyores: the weary, ‘I know better’ voices predicting economic calamity, lamenting that a vote was ever held on a matter that ordinary people couldn’t be expected to understand, and dismissing ‘leave’ voters as some combination of ignorant, uneducated, racist, or gullible.  I am sometimes reminded of white Rhodesians  telling each other how they always knew the country would go to the dogs if the Africans were given the vote.

One can argue about the merits or otherwise of referendums, but if we were only allowed to vote on matters of which we possessed expert knowledge, then most of us wouldn’t be permitted to vote at all.  General elections usually hinge on economic policy and the management of public services, after all, both of which are highly complex and technical matters.  The fact is that, in a democracy, those who possess expertise have to persuade the rest of us that they understand what our concerns are, and have a plan that will help to address them.  You can’t just say, ‘we know better than you do what’s good for you, so do as you’re told.’

The key thing here is that, even though all the established political parties, almost all economists, and the great majority of business leaders, supported the ‘remain’ cause, the majority of the electorate decided to ignore them.  That’s quite a consensus to go against!  Why did it happen?  Presumably it is because that wide range of eminent people failed to convince 17,000,000 voters that their concerns were being heard or being addressed.  Dismissing those seventeen million voters as thick, or racist or gullible dupes will not help them with that feeling of not being heard.  And if that feeling isn’t addressed, we really are in for some difficult times.

As I say, I’m not an expert but here is one of the best analyses I’ve read recently of what’s going on behind the Brexit vote here and the rise of the likes of Donald Trump.

Meritocracy

I was interested in this article asking whether meritocracy in the UK is a sham.  I live in Cambridge and for a time I used go and write in the Cambridge University Library (I was eligible for a library card at the time as a member of staff of Cambridge’s other, marginally less famous, university: Anglia Ruskin).  I got into the habit of working in the cafe there  -I find a background hum of voices more conducive to writing than absolute silence- and I can tell you that I could go all day without seeing a single black face, or hearing a single regional accent.  There’d  be some foreigners, but  the British people in there, students and academics, were almost all white and almost all spoke with the  distinctive accent, somehow both languid and gushing, of the English private school system.   (I myself was no exception btw: I too am white, I too went to private school.)  That tells you quite a lot, I think, about the extent to which we live in a meritocracy!

What we do live in, though, is a society which sees being a meritocracy as a desireable goal, a society which, when it talks about equality, talks about equality of opportunity, about removing the obstacles that prevent gifted people from poor backgrounds from achieving their potential.  There’s not a lot of talk about people whose talents are not exceptional, people who are not especially bright, people who are of average or below average ability, even though this group, by definition, includes more than half of the population.

Equality of opportunity is desireable, but it’s not sufficient, a point made in the article by the former Labour leader, Ed Milliband (someone who I never thought I’d look back on with some degree of nostalgia!).   A meritocracy, per se, would not necessarily be good society.  In fact, thinking about it now, I’d go as far as to say that, if I was designing a society in which the power of an elite was to be permenantly entrenched, I’d make it a meritocracy, and give it an excellent universal educational system, designed to ensure that anyone with above average ability, from whatever background, could be identified from an early age and channelled to a position in society commensurate with those abilities.  That way the elite could be constantly strengthened, because it would continously co-opt the most able and continuously deprive therest of the population of those who would otherwise have been their natural leaders.

Or am I being unfair?  I suppose that what would moderate such a society, and make it more humane, would be that the elite would contain many people who had memories of, and family connections with, the rest of society, whereas the more stratified system we have now means that many  people (including some of those I overheard in the University library) may never really have known anyone from outside of their own class.

The Party is Over

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses (Juvenal, c100 CE: Satire 10.77-81)

A public that pays more attention to reality TV than its status as free citizens cannot withstand an unremitting encroachment on its liberties by calculating, unscrupulous and power-hungry leaders (Mike Lofgren, The Party is Over, 2012 CE)

The party is over

I haven’t even finished reading this book yet, and I may well have more to say about it later.  It is packed with sharp, pithily expressed and extremely scary observations about the break-down of the American political system and its corruption by corporate money.  A Republican who worked as a staffer in Congress for nearly 30 years, Lofgren is pretty scathing about the Democrats, but his most bitter attacks (at least so far) are directed against his own party which he describes as becoming less and less like a political party and more like ‘an apocalyptic cult’.

What he really exposes is a kind of doublespeak in which strident claims to be defending something – the constitution, liberty, democracy, the national interest- are used to conceal attacks on that same object.  ‘Let us now dispose,’ Lofgren writes, for instance, ‘ of the quaint notion that the present-day Republican Party is conservative.’   He defines the GOP, as it now exists, as a ‘radical right-wing party’, which doesn’t really conserve and protect anything, for all that it invokes the memory of a romanticised past, but seeks to completely transform society in the interests of the very wealthy* using whatever means possible and with a kind of Leninist ruthlessness.

The American political system works in a very different way from the British one, but there is much here that is familiar to a British reader all the same.  For instance:

The GOP reflexively scorns so-called elites (by which it means educated, critical thinkers) to mask the way it is utterly beholden to the true American elite.

I am particularly struck by Lofgren’s observation that the current Republican Party deliberately seeks to undermine the credibility of government itself:

Should Republicans succeed in preventing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s favorability rating among the American people. In such a scenario the party that presents itself as programmatically against government – i.e., the Republican Party – will come out the relative winner.

Undermining Americans’ belief in their own institutions of self-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy.

A UK parallel is the relentless attack on the quality of public services, which is always ostensibly in the name of making them better, but which in fact reduces the standing of the services themselves.   But we also have a culture of cynicism about politicians and government in general, and I’ve long thought that (for instance) leftish comedians should be more aware of whose interests such routine and unfocused cynicism actually serves.

*Interesting fact: according to Lofgren under Eisenhower’s Republican presidency in the 50s, the top rate of income tax in the US was 91%.  Even the new leadership of the British Labour Party, characterised by many as unelectably left-wing, only proposes a top rate of 50%.

Freedom is slavery

Politics is a rough business everywhere but, from this side of the Atlantic, the tone of political discourse in the US can sometimes look particularly ugly.  One of the worst examples I’ve ever seen, was the suggestion by Senator Rand Paul that a right to free health care is equivalent to a belief in slavery.  The quote in question was the following:

 With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to health care, you have realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery. It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses.

Basically, once you imply a belief in a right to someone’s services — do you have a right to plumbing? Do you have a right to water? Do you have right to food? — you’re basically saying you believe in slavery.

I’m a physician in your community and you say you have a right to health care. You have a right to beat down my door with the police, escort me away and force me to take care of you? That’s ultimately what the right to free health care would be.

(If you think this must be some crude spoof, by the way, here is a clip of him saying it.)

By way of information to US readers, we have a free National Health Service here in the UK, meaning that everyone has a right to healthcare, and my mother and my maternal grandfather both worked for it as doctors.  They were not forced to be doctors, and they were not forced as doctors to work for the state. They were paid well enough to lead prosperous middle class lifestyle.  They were free to resign whenever they wanted.  They could go and work for private healthcare agencies, if they prefered, or for themselves.   There’s absolutely no sense at all in which their condition could be described as slavery, or indeed as different in any fundamental way to the condition of anyone else who works for an organisation of any kind.  When you think what slavery actually means (and the Senator represents the former slave state of Kentucky, so he should know), the very comparison is obscene.

You might say that US politics is not my business.  But actually it is because the US is a global superpower, and what happens in the US matters everywhere, and perhaps especially in the UK, where there is a common cultural heritage, and no language barrier to filter us from its blast. However I freely admit I know very little about the personalities involved, and almost nothing about Senator Paul.  So here are a couple of questions.

Is Senator Paul an extremely stupid man, so lacking in curiosity that he hasn’t bothered to look into the many free health services around the world, and so lacking in imagination that he can’t figure out for himself how such a service might work without breaking down doctors’ doors?

Or is he cynical and mendacious man, who in order to serve his own political ends, tries to besmirch something that, whatever its snags, is basically benign (a community agreeing to club together to provide healthcare for everyone) by equating it with something that is evil and foul?

Echoing in the back of my mind are the slogans of George Orwell’s Oceania: WAR IS PEACE.  FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.  IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.  Not an exact parallel of course, but what Orwell was warning about was the misuse of language to destroy our capacity to think.

A rigged game

monopolyIn my other life (I work part-time as a lecturer), I’ve sometimes used a rigged monopoly game – a game where one person starts off with, say, ten times as much money as the other, as a way of representing the unfairness of life.  I used it in a text book too.   The point I wanted to make was  not only that life is unfair, but that it is so unfair that, if it was a game, most of us would refuse to play.

I only recently found out (thanks to Thure Etzold) that a rigged monopology game has actually been used as the basis of a psychological experiment to explore the effect of wealth on human behaviour.  Paul Piff observed games of monopoly between pairs of players, randomly assigned to advantaged and disadvantated positions.   Even though they knew the game was rigged to make it virtually certain that they would win, advantaged players would start to act in a more arrogant way towards their adversary.  If we are doing better than another person, the experiment seems to suggest, we start to feel superior to them, even if our rational head knows that our success is none of our doing.  Financial success means status, and status means we can push other people around.

This is consistent with other studies by Piff in which he found that, for instance, expensive cars are less likely to stop at pedestrian crossings than cheaper ones, and that better-off people in psychological experiments are more likely than poorer ones to help themselves to sweets that they have been specifically told are there to give to children in another study.   If you haven’t come across this work, there’s a PBS video here, and an article here.

A ridiculous comparison

When Michael Gove, The Education Secretary, states his ambition to make state schools indistinguishable from private ones, he is of course saying that they’re not as good.   Politicians sometimes say some fatuous things, but this pretty much hits the jackpot.

What he’s doing in fact is pointing at the teachers who take on the harder job and unfavourably comparing them with the teachers who have it easy.  It’s as if someone set up a hospital which only ever admitted patients who had an excellent chance of recovery, and its higher recovery rates were then held up as evidence that other hospitals were failing.

I went to private schools.  I got good A levels.  My kids went to state schools.  They got good A levels too.  I dare say my old school gets better overall results than their school , but so it bloody well should, seeing as it has an admission process that allows it to pick and choose which pupils it takes, and, except for a few exceptionally able kids who win scholarships, it can only take pupils anyway from the kinds of family who can pay.

I do worry about young Michael’s thinking skills.