Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Neo-liberalism or Managerialism?

A f**king clipboard yesterday.
Here's a short and simple question to my fellow lefties.

Have we been sold a hospital-pass with the widespread use of the term 'neo-liberalism' to describe the current economic impasse we're in?

Are we, in fact, in a managerial age instead, where all economic activity is designed to increase the status and value of administrators at the expense of workers and the professions?

And - in doing so, are we missing an opportunity to say the right thing and enjoy all kinds of political benefits that we don't currently enjoy?

If anyone still comments on blogs, I'd be interested to hear what people think on this one.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Against certainty - quotes worth noting

On the subject of 'methodological agnosticism' (my current religion), I saw this a while ago:
"The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts while the stupid ones are full of confidence." - Charles Bukowski
Digging around, I subsequently found that Bukowski was actually paraphrasing Bertrand Russell who said (in his worth-a-read 'Triumph of Stupidity' article - a short response to the rise of the Nazis in Germany)...
"The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."
The quote was superimposed on a photo of Sarah Palin. I shared it on Facebook when I saw it. My mate, Steve, commented with his preferred version - this one from Yeats' 'Second Coming'
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity"
Then there's an older quote I heard on the radio (and blogged about it), from the (then) Archbishop of York, John Hapgood:
"Has it occurred to you that the lust for certainty may be a sin?"
Or this from Darwin:
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” 
This Wikipedia link to the page about The Dunning Kruger Effect may also be of interest. Or this:
"Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them." Laurence J. Peter
And then, moving on, to a not-unrelated topic, there's this:
"..you can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into” (source unknown). …
I used that last quote in a post that I wrote about The Backfire Effect a while ago- the observation that bringing evidence to bear against strongly held views usually results in the views being held even more strongly.

And who can forget…
 “…when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” (J.M. Keynes)
If you haven't done so already, I'd recommend that you go back up this post and read the Bertrand Russell essay, as it makes some interesting points about the lack of purpose that arises from a lack of intellectual confidence.

And finally, this blog seems to exist, these days, largely to quote and endorse Chris Dillow's writing. His chosen strapline is 'An extremist, not a fanatic' - a nice distinction I think? He's written this and this as well.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Inequality in wealth and political representation

There's a good post over on LabourList by Owen ('Chavs') Jones about the need for a new, two-pronged, class politics in Britain - one in which the yawning material gap in incomes isn't disentangled from the crisis of representation.

I say that it's a good post because it raises essentially the right questions, and that these fundamental concerns don't seem to be on the table almost anywhere on the left with as much clarity.

Where I substantially disagree with him is that I think he underestimates the capacity, suitability or willingness of trades unions to act as the agents for the change he's calling for. I think the following points are worth making:

1. The problem of managerialism is roundly ignored by the left
I'd characterise a lot of the problems that Jones identifies very differently. In the 19th Century, Bagehot painted an 'English Constitution' in which the dignified elements of the state enabled the efficient bits to do their work. It's slightly worrying, reading Bagehot, that his view appears to be somewhat rosy today after a century-and-a-half of democratic reform. At least most of the executive power was actually in the hands of the people who were supposed to exercise it when Bagehot was writing.

Today, even our governing Oxbridge caste of career-politicians appear to be more dignified than efficient. The real business is being done by managers, mostly in the private sector. It used to be the case that managers were the servants of private shareholders or ministers, depending upon which sector you were looking at. That fact that there aren't working class voices in Parliament isn't actually the biggest problem.

Today, society is largely ordered to facilitate government by - and for - managers. Public policy is entirely shaped by the consultariat who have replaced the semi-accountable Whitehall mandarins. PLCs are, similarly, no longer shoveling value at shareholders but at their managers.

It is managers who gauge the value of talent, who aim to replace what professions did with their systems, and who set the wages at all levels of society. The need to replace politicians and professionals with managers drove the privatisation-lite of the New Labour years and has continued uninterrupted into the direction of The Coalition.

I've rarely met anyone on the left who isn't persuaded by this explanation for what Chris Dillow calls The End of Politics, once it is put to them. But I've also very rarely met anyone on the left who is even aware of this diagnosis.

2. We need to be clearer on why the link between wealth inequality and unequal representation exists
Crosslandite social democrats were always 'intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich - as long as they pay their taxes.' Peter Mandelson was only putting provocative parentheses around Crossland's view that managed capitalist growth would reduce inequality. And - as far as it goes - this could be a respectable argument if the people making it were not also intensely relaxed about the way that some individuals exercise a great deal more power than others at the ballot box.

If you can buy your way into the political process in order to exempt yourself from the process of redistribution, then all of this intense relaxation becomes toxic. If you can do so to change the direction of redistribution - corporate welfare - then it is even more poisonous. And this is often what happened with new Labour in power, culminating in the banker's bailouts - an unparalleled act of larceny.

3. The democratic problem is more straightforward than most people say it is
There's a touch of the Emperor's New Clothes around discussions of democracy. It's a point so obvious to make that no-one does so for fear of being rude. Let's put this crudely. My vote should be no weaker or greater than anyone else's.

If you fund political parties in a way that doesn't involve safeguards, this ceases to be the case. If you use your media ownership to bully regulators and politicians in a way that serves your material interests, again, this isn't the case.

If the private sector is at all of the top-table seats (and the public interest is largely unrepresented) in a parliamentary process about something as central to our politics as healthcare, then you have an unprecedented crisis in British democracy. (Update: Here's the background to the 'Reform' think-tank - it's funding and it's role in health service policymaking)

If, in a more participative and direct democracy (and we're definitely heading in that direction), you have convening power or the capacity to shape the marketplace of ideas, then our votes are going to become even less equal.

4. Unions should help - but probably won't
Jones is right; Trades Unionism should be the key to addressing the diversity of representation in the way that it did in helping to found the Labour Representation Committee back in the day. Remember, this was really the only uniting principle that brought Labour into being. We weren't socialists, mutualists, syndicalists, feminists, fabianists, rationalists or communists. We were primarily concerned with addressing the crisis of representation - where universal male suffrage had failed to result in working class MPs.

Labour was really just a jump-together club of all of those '-isms' - they all thought that their cause would be strengthened by more working men being in parliament.

I'd suggest that Jones massively underestimates the degree to which Unions need to change to facilitate this though. The smaller unions still promote a lot of the civil society ethos that writers like John Dewey saw as being essential to democracy (the 'holding elections does not a democracy make' argument), but the larger unions only seem to grow by acquisition and have very little by way of democratic legitimacy in the way that they conduct their business any more.

The arguments about managerialism that I outlined earlier in this post are ones that should have a massive appeal to a Trades Union movement that is still thinking. It's an argument that I've never heard raised when the brothers meet.

Owen Jones is right: This crisis of representation should be a much greater cause for alarm than it is. I'd suggest that it also needs to be understood more - and that the obvious agents for change (the Unions) need to travel a good deal further than I think they are prepared to go.

5. Let's not underestimate how important The Labour Party is either
I won't bore on about this last point too much - It's such a regular staple here. But in summary, lefties need to drop the idea that they first need to capture the Labour Party, then win an election and then implement Project Utopia. Right wingers have never made this mistake about the Conservative Party.

Alex Hilton has an understandable whine about Ed Miliband's Labour Party (though I can't see why his complaints didn't equally apply to pervious iterations of the party). Hopi Sen answers him and it looks like two bald men fighting over a comb.

Labour should be a boring party that chases votes around the centre ground. The job of the left is to drag that centre-ground leftwards. The big unions that finance Labour waste so much money paying for office space when they could be running campaigns that no politician can ignore.