History as a Secular Diety

Owen Jones posed a good rhetorical question last week. ‘How,’ he asked ‘ will history judge a media which obsesses far more over what the leader of the opposition said under his breath than the fact hundreds die on the streets of one of the wealthiest societies on earth?’. The literal answer to this question, surely, is ‘it depends who the historians are.’ And I imagine this is not the one he had in mind. The trope is quite a common one. Whatever we think now, History, or historians, sooner or later, will know better.

This is of course not necessarily so. Aside from the diversity of the profession, which will always include bad historians, even the general trends or attitudes might well turn out to be ones we won’t like. Perhaps the profession will be dominated, as it at times it has been, by arch Conservatives. Perhaps historians will be the kind Nietzsche complained about, who wrote national histories which glorify the existing order. Perhaps the story of our time will be written by the David Starkeys of tomorrow, who probably won’t write the kind of stories we’d hope they would. That will depend a lot on how the profession is funded and what kind of a society we live in, as well as essentially random and unpredictable endogenous developments and trends within academia.

Why, then, is this idea so often invoked? On some level we want to imagine that future historians will validate our current judgements. Perhaps this is similar to the way others have invoked the final judgement of God: whatever happens now, however hopeless things seem God will judge you. The idea of the future historian now fulfils that role. It is a kind of secular diety, which gives hope of an eventual vindication. It goes hand in hand with a lingering belief in absolute truth that people who see themselves as fighting ‘post-truth’ political forces.

Unfortunately, the reality of both our political predicament and the way future generations might see it is far less straight forward. The relationship between truth, propaganda and a political reality which is in part subjectively constructed has an extensive and growing literature, for the time being dominated by those who would cast similar judgements to those Owen Jones hints at. What the future holds, on the other hand, is unclear.

Is a second Brexit referendum democratically legitimate?

If public opinion had shifted as much as many proponents of a second referendum claim, or certainly would like, there would be little question about the legitimacy of a second Brexit referendum. Faced with an overwhelming change of heart, few would claim that a previous vote should be considered forever binding on ourselves and future generations. Unfortunately, we probably do not find ourselves in such a situation. Rather, we find ourselves in one where demographic shifts and subtle but significant changes in particular voting blocks make a second referendum increasingly politically feasible and winnable, albeit likely by a narrow margin. This understandably leaves many remainers feeling uneasy: increasingly tempted by the idea, but still with some residual feeling that a second vote may be undemoractic. This piece aims to allay such fears. It will not claim that a second vote is politically possible (though this does seem increasingly likely); it will, however, claim that such a vote is both legitimate and consistent with the underlying principles of a pluralist liberal democracy.
The first question we might ask is where the legitimacy, validity or usefulness of an election or referendum comes from. Possible answers would be some combination of the following: representation of individual and collective interests, government accountability, legitimate exertion of political power coming through consent and facilitation of popular political participation or empowerment. Let’s leave aside the question of how convincing these ideas are individually, how they combine or should be prioritised. The point is that none of them arise from a single voting process, and all of these can be hindered, rather than served by any particular vote, depending on how the electorate is constituted, the legal and constitutional framework of the vote, and the question or policies on offer.
Why is this? Imagine a vote on explicitly whether to disenfranchise some portion of the electorate, which happens to be in a minority. This is not hard to imagine, as it is has happened historically. Clearly we would see such a vote as (at least potentially) illegitimate, regardless of the size of the majority. It is for this reason that whether or not we believe in an explicit and written constitution, most people have some idea of the legitimate realm of political power and the realm of personal choice and freedom. At the very least we see certain decisions as better taken individually rather than collectively, and certain actions of a majority as oppressive rather than emancipatory. In a less dramatic way, we see this when thinking about the location of political decisions; it seems perfectly reasonable that some decisions are taken by the Scottish government rather than in Westminster, some by local councils rather than a national government, some by trade unions or school boards rather than distant parties who may happen to cast a vote in a putative election and indeed some not taken collectively at all. If we did want a more extreme example of the location and constitution of the electorate mattering, we might imagine the following: what if the government of the People’s Republic of China decided to hold a referendum on the annexation of Taiwan? One would scarcely argue that a billion votes in favour made it a fair or good course of action, even if Taiwan’s 23 million inhabitants were in fact given a vote.
Does this mean that election results can just be disregarded if they are deemed to be illegitimate? No, not at all. It means the meaningful question about what a democracy should look like is a systemic question, not one concerning an individual vote or some mystical notion of a popular will. It means that the real questions (and they are real, and difficult) are about the location of decisions, the constitution of the electorate, the realm of legitimate political action (should, as some left wingers argue, there be a ‘democratisation’ of the economy?).
Crucially, any functioning system will require in all or almost all cases that results are implemented. The point, however, is the reason for this is systemic rather than moral or specific: it is about having a system based upon rules which are respected, predictable and viewed as (at least partially) legitimate. The 2016 referendum had no such systemic status. There was no meaningful legal status of the referendum, what it meant for it to be implemented, or how this was to be done. This has a number of implications.
Firstly, it means that the usual reason to respect the result is simply not there. Not implementing the result would have no obvious systemic implications, would interfere with no future parliamentary elections, would set no legal precedent and would set little political precedent other than the one that legally undefined referenda do not have to be implemented. Unless we want to make the case that referenda are a good idea in general, the negative implications are not clear.
Secondly, it means that the significant democratic implications of the referendum flow from its practical consequences. These are anything but positive. Because of parliamentary arithmetic and the absence of a legally defined implementation process, Brexit has understandably led to an executive power grab, albeit one partially checked through legal challenged such as Gina Miller’s. Moreover, this absence of a clearly defined legal implication of the referendum means that the typical separation of opinion about a result and opinion about legitimacy of a result is not there. Brexiteers are not entirely wrong when they argue that criticism of Brexit may result in it not being implemented, in a way which would not be true of a normal parliamentary election result. It is in light of this that demogogues can envoke “the Will of the People”, and opponents as treasonous saboteurs. This is extraordinarily corrosive and damaging to the countries political culture and ultimately to any form of democratic pluralism.
Finally, we might consider the process itself. This was one where many of the most affected stakeholders were precisely those who were disenfranchised (EU citizens in the UK, UK citizens abroad), and where we might well even question whether their acquired rights could legitimately be up for question anyway. There is of course then the nature of the campaigns, dominated by flagrant lies, demonization of outsider groups, at times reveling in the thought of harm that might be brought to them (albeit with enough assurances to allow for the kind of cognitive dissonance we all face when wanting something somewhat morally transgressive), not to mention outright campaign finance violation etc.
These would not normally be sufficiently convincing arguments to do something which upended a system of repeated elections, but given that here this is not in question, a different question arises. Do we want these strategies to be rewarded politically, not just as effective, but as things we treat with deference? Do we wish that so much as to bind ourselves in future, in a way we would never normally do with a parliamentary election held every few years? Practicalities may well mean that in reality many decisions are irreversible. But this should not mean that we artificially impose additional moral restraints where practicalities imply no such necessity. Whether in reality a second referendum is achievable or desirable is a difficult question. But it should not be regarded as illegitimate; indeed, to fail to have one may well be uniquely corrosive to the political norms which make democracy worthwhile.

No Deal as a threat

Jonathan Portes rightly remarked in response to my last post that he had had similar thoughts on the ECJ ruling now improving the UK government's bargaining position. This is as Theresa May could now threaten to rescind Article 50 in the event she does not gain concessions, and restart the process. Thinking about this a little more, I am no longer sure this is correct.

Firstly, as a number of commentators have pointed out, the withdrawal of Article 50 may not allow for gaming in this way.

Secondly, it it is not clear why the rest of the EU would see this as a threat at all. Wouldn't most EU member states be quite happy for the UK to withdraw Article 50, particularly in this embarrassing way?

Thirdly, and most crucially, it undermines the greatest threat in her arsenal, the so called "No Deal" threat. This is an option so insanely damaging (and so much more so to the UK than the rEU) that no sane government would opt for it. The threat is not so much achieved by saying "we are mad enough to do this" (even the current British government probably couldn't make this believable) but by Theresa May saying or implying that if she does not get what she wants she has insufficient power to prevent such an outcome, precisely because her parliamentary support is extremely shaky. The only plausible mechanism by which it could happen is by default: through parliamentary gridlock where Commons neither passes he deal nor agrees on anything else. That possibility has now become significantly less likely, as in the event that the March deadline approaches, Parliament now has a mechanism to avert no deal without agreeing to any specific deal (though not without any political consequences). MPs could even claim doing so allowed for a 'better Brexit' at some later, likely unspecified point in time. This means that May's bargaining position by threat, whether it ever had any leverage or not in reality, is now significantly less real. We still have political gridlock, but it no longer provides a mechanism necessarily sufficient for No Deal.

In other words, we now have a Doomsday gap:

Initial Thoughts on the Implications of the ECJ Ruling (short)

So it's official. The UK can unilaterally withdraw Article 50. What does this mean?

It somewhat increases the odds of a second referendum with a remain option on the ballot, as this is now a clear legal possibility. However, the political barriers to this are still sufficiently robust that this still seems unlikely. The timeframe of the Article 50 process also may not allow for a referendum to be held in time anyway.

However, it does have other, perhaps more significant implications. Firstly, it means that in the event that May's deal does not pass, and no deal is on the horizon, as the March deadline approaches, there will be significant pressure to simply revoke Article 50. This could plausibly be supported by MPs still advocating Brexit eventually, if they use it to argue that a better deal could be negotiated by a completely new process (the fact that this may be a political non-starter with the rEU won't matter, as few current MPs have ever taken such considerations seriously). It could also, at least hypothetically, increase the UK's bargaining position in the event that it sought to renegotiate with an Article 50 extension. If this were not granted, the government could threaten to rescind Article 50 altogether. It seems unlikely, however, that a May government would want to do this, due to the political damage of admitting its own previous failure, but it is not impossible, and we may of course have a new government rather soon. 

Potentially, and perversely, this could also somewhat increase the chances that May's deal passes. This is as some members of the ERG actively want there to be no deal, and have previously seen this as a likely consequence of May's deal failing. Now that this may no longer be perceived to be the case, they may feel they have to cut their losses and back the form of Brexit which is on the table. That said, game theory, or just thinking through the logic of outcomes has never been their strong point. 

Most importantly, as we are only talking about likelihoods and possibilities, there is a significant chance that in retrospect we will see this decision as having made no difference whatsoever, as the only outcome which could not have happened before anyway is one which may well not happen. But perhaps we will not. 

Socialism in the 21st Century

The meaning of Socialism in modern Britain

What is socialism in the 21st century? A few years ago the question would have seemed an uninteresting one, but now it is the talk about town. Whatever your associations with that word, there seems to be agreement that following decades of decline, on both sides of the Atlantic it is making a comeback. What is odd, this time round, is the meaning of the term is far from clear. 

In the mid 20th Century, the definition was fairly straight forward. Socialism was the commitment to the nationalisation of the means of production and distribution, with the aim of widespread improvements in living standards and conditions in the workplace, as well as a reorientation of economic activity towards the some notion of human needs. There were all sorts of disputes about the details of what this would mean. Would socialism entail a centrally planned economy on a national level, or could there be some measure of decentralisation and local autonomy? What role would trade unions or workers play in administration? Could there be such a thing as ‘market socialism’, where administrators of nationalised industries responded to price mechanisms, rather than targets, essentially operating as in a capitalist economy but with profits nationalised? These debates plagued both socialist parties in the democratic world and the communist parties of the Eastern block in times of relative liberalisation.

But no longer. Almost nobody is seriously proposing any form of wholesale nationalisation of the economy, or any form of bringing the economy into ‘collective ownership’ (e.g syndicalism) for that matter. Questions of the meaning of socialism are not primarily about the question of the broad picture of economic organisation. To the extent they are, in the mass media that is limited to people like Paul Mason or Arron Bastani talking about a future without scarcity due to automation. There is a long history of this idea. Marx talked of a future where we could fish in the morning and write poetry in the evening, Oscar Wilde suggested much the same in The Spirit of Man Under Socialism, and even Keynes made similar remarks in his Economic Prospects for Our Grandchildren. Whether or not something like that will eventually come to pass, the point is that what we are really talking about is not the question of how to organize a society economically, but a (hopefully) possible future in which such organization is more or less superfluous anyway, as we have everything we need without really needing to work (in the 21st Century we imagine this would involve robots and AI; in 19th Century it was mechanical machines).

This is not to say that left wingers aren’t proposing the nationalisation of certain industries. In Britain, renationalisation of the rail network is something of a rallying call of the left; a move which is politically astute as it is quite popular. Rather, unless a very long game is being played, nobody seems to be that interested in the old question of economic organisation. Not that there is anything wrong this. Planned economies probably aren’t a great idea, for reasons fairly well understood and broadly accepted. Tinkering around the edges, through redistributive tax systems, nationalisation of certain natural monopolies or things deemed to be public utilities has a lot going for it. But at least ostensibly, this isn’t all that different to what mainstream social democratic, or even left liberal parties subscribed to for most of the 20th Century. This would represent a major organizational change in the economy if it weren’t for the fact that that is already how the economy works, what is in discussion is largely one of extent and degree. This does matter, of course, but it is not the same kind of debate as the one which was played out the last time round. 

The strange death of Liberal Keynesianism

Why does this now come under the rubric of “socialism”, rather than anything else? Partly it’s about who is leading the charge. In the UK this means former backbench MPs who once upon a time really did stand for socialism as it used to be defined, at least some of the time. Partly it’s a to draw a distinction between themselves and is perceived to have come before, be it neoliberalism , Blairism, the Third Way, or even simply the Labour Party before Corbyn. To some extent, therefore, the term ‘socialist’ in the UK may be seen as an identity marker- it is about who you identify with and which side you come down on in internal disputes within the labour party. That the term also seems like a plausible description of political beliefs owes more than anything else to the strange death of liberal Keynesianism in the UK.

In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, a debate raged on both sides of the atlantic over the proper response of fiscal policy to the recession. This played out not just in the academic field, but in politics as well. On both sides of the Atlantic there was a broad (albeit likely inadequate) move towards fiscal stimulus as the appropriate response, with the Obama stimulus package in United States, VAT cuts in the UK and state funded employment subsidies in Germany. In the British context, this meant that Gordon Brown’s Labour party went into the 2010 election taking the Keynesian line on deficits.

Following Labour’s defeat, it became received wisdom within the Labour party that Keynesianism was an electoral nonstarter. While there was some resistance to this from Ed Balls, ultimately Labour would go into the 2015 general election accepting the basic premises of the Conservative line on government spending (Labour profligacy pre-crash caused the deficits, austerity was necessary and growth neutral to positive). This lead to the rather curious situation. The only people of political clout actually making the mainstream Keynesian arguments about the need for stimulus and folly of austerity were old leftists, many of whom actually had little interest in such arguments previously (John McDonnell had at the time of the crisis welcomed the destruction of the crisis as a means of destroying the existing economic order, a number of other left wingers were initially suspicious of Keynesianism as too much in league with business interests).

This meant that, for better or worse, the argument about austerity became essentially an argument about the size of the state, rather than deficits. Anti-austerity advocates are quite rightly concerned primarily with the effect of austerity on the public sphere, and austerity proponents are essentially interested reducing the size of the state in the economy. In a different world the anti-austerity position might well have found representation by centre-left social democrats, who were concerned both by the erosion of public services and of growth, and saw these as interrelated, but distinct. But that is not the world we live in.

It is in this context that Corbynism offered the appearance of something radical and distinct, without actually having to commit to anything more than bog-standard, textbook social democracy. It could claim what social democracy for its own and call it socialism, largely because the social democrats weren’t offering social democracy anymore. And the historical connotations of the word, to its supporters, offers a kind of gravitas, a sense of association with something bigger and different.

Does this matter? Doesn’t the meaning of words change? This is certainly true, but the old connotations die slowly, and for many, they aren’t positive. This certainly isn’t helped by the fact that part of the appeal of the word socialism is precisely its associations with historical developments that can rightly be criticised. It goes hand in hand with claims of radical critiques of capitalism, with often only a vague notion of what, precisely, is being critiqued (Finance? Private ownership of the means of production? Markets? Neoliberal overreach?) And in the British context, it also goes hand in hand with quite questionable measures to buy off sections of the comparatively affluent middle classes (tuition fees). Perhaps over time the connotations and meanings will change. Or perhaps if Labour does form a government, those in the front bench who have more traditional, 20th Century ideas of socialism, like John McDonnell, will become more dominant. Until then, we will have to wonder.