Back to Europe

Should we sit back post-Brexit (if indeed it happens), as one-time Remainers, and accept our severance from Europe as permanent? Or do we make it clear that our aim will be to to rejoin – rejoin both EU and Europe. Get ‘back to Europe’.

Robert Peston (late of the BBC, now ITV’s political editor) spoke with his usual passion, lucidity and calm deliberation (a uniquely Pestonian combination) last Friday evening at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

He is very much in the Remain camp, but careful to understand both sides of the argument. But as an economist he is in no doubt about where Britain’s interest lies. Likewise over the role of the EU in guaranteeing long-term peace in Europe.

His one caveat, and a crucial one, relates to the divide in the country that Brexit has revealed and the last two years has exacerbated. How much deeper the divide, how much more bitter the recriminations in the country, if we don’t leave? Where might a hyper-charged political atmosphere lead – what damage to our institutions?

I understand that concern. But there is of course the other side. The anger and blame if we leave. But I’d suggest that maybe too many on the Remain side aren’t quite passionate enough – they’re not of the go to-the-wall mentality. Rather, shrug, and see what happens. Which is curious in a way because Remainers have a majority among the young and better educated, but it may just be that the capacity to be reasonable among the Remainers tones down their opposition. They aren’t quite angry enough.

Nor should we sideline the moral argument, highlighted by Macron’s statement that Brexit advocates were liars. ‘Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be alright, and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home, are liars.’

Let’s say purveyors of half-truths and distortions. Without the fake stories, without the BBC’s equivocation, Leave would never have won. (Which isn’t to argue that elites and arrogance, wealth distribution and immigration weren’t the deeper concerns which drove the Brexit vote. These are the issues of and for our time. But Brexit is simply the wrong way to deal with them.)

Should we sit back, or on the fence, and allow Brexit to happen, without continuing to challenge at every step, before and after 29th March next year?

Saturday morning there was a Guardian story that Conservative MPS are talking to Labour MPs about winning their support for Theresa May-negotiated settlement with the EU. Takes me back to Peston. The outcome of a vote in parliament?  Another referendum on the final terms? He almost said a ‘Peoples’ Vote’ but checked himself. He put it at 40% likely – maybe 50%.

So … if, from next April on, we have a Customs Union, of sorts, and various other stop-gaps and cobbled-together elements. Do we sit back quietly? No, surely, we need a Back to Europe movement, and we need to be the ones arguing, shouting if need be, above the mess and the noise.

Liberal democracy – in crisis?

Forgive the length of this post. But if you’re concerned about the travails of Western democracies, and where they all might lead, do read on.

There have been many books written post-Brexit, post-Trump about the crisis for democracy and specifically liberal democracy. I’ve tried to keep a count, and over recent months I’ve put aside reviews and extracts. (I’m not in the privileged position of an Andrew Rawnsley to whom I imagine all the books, and others I don’t know of, will have been sent in the hope that he will review them.)

What follows are my summaries of and comments on reviews from The Economist, The Financial Times, The Guardian, Prospect, The New York Times and The Atlantic. My aim has been to achieve, for myself and others, a broader perspective on what’s been argued, and where it might take us. How real is the crisis, what are the causes, are they manageable, or are they somehow intrinsic to democracy? How seriously should we take book titles such as ‘How Democracy Ends’, ‘The People vs Democracy’ and ‘Why Liberalism Failed’.

For my part I’m an unashamed advocate of liberal democracy – liberal as the best hope for democracy, and I find it frustrating that so many of the books cannot see a way out of pulling out of the tailspin they dissect in their books. We need articles and books and broadcasters to pick up on the virtues both of democracy and liberal democracy. If the end in view is recognised and respected, then we can focus on how we get there, instead of taking a perverse pleasure in gloomy prognoses, which seems to have become the fallback position in the current debate.

I’ve not referred to The Economist’s long essay on Liberalism in its current, 175th anniversary edition. That’s for another time and place.

Reviews are in no particular order. First publication of all the books was this year, apart from David Goodhart’s book. 

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The Road to Somewhere (David Goodhart)

 Goodhart has won both praise and notoriety for the distinction he makes in ‘The Road To Somewhere’ between ‘Somewheres’ (‘no’ voters) and ’Nowheres’ (‘yes’ voters). For the ‘Somewheres’, the home-lovers, the ordinary men and women caricatured as those who’ve never ventured too far, the issues are as much cultural as economic: the sense that their home town has changed too fast, that the big cities and elites, the big corporations and the globalised world, have left them behind.

It’s a questionable thesis. Distance from power has always been a divide, so too (as Brexit showed) age difference – the young voted but substantial margin to stay, the old to leave the EU. To be an ‘Anywhere’ doesn’t mean that you don’t have strong local loyalties, and as Jonathan Freedland pointed out in the Guardian, we’ve a strong sense that the ‘Somewheres’ have been in control (think prisons, welfare, education) for a little while now. (Who are the real elite?) And what of the role of the press: across great sections of the press ‘the liberal internationalism of (the) ‘Anywheres’ has been drowned out’.

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How We Must Change To Prosper in Europe (Andrew Adonis and Will Hutton)

A country-specific blueprint. We need big changes. What, in their view, we don’t need is Brexit.

Any trading benefits from Brexit are illusory, they argue, and our clout on the world stage will be diminished. More power to Westminster won’t translate into more power for the regions. Remaining is not enough: radical reform is needed – to education, infrastructure and the world of work. ‘In fact the whole British economy needs restructuring to give ordinary people more of a stake.’

There are many books out there just now suggesting a much wider malaise: Adonis and Hutton suggest that there are country-specific answers – but giving ‘ordinary people’ more of a stake is an almost universal refrain in Western democracies.

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The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Francis Fukuyama) and The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (Kwame Anthony Appiah)

I’ve read various reviews of these two books. The Economist gets lost in identifying what these two books on the subject of identity are really about. The Washington Post is better, The New York Times best. It brings in a touch of humour, which with a diffuse subject like identity really helps. I’ll quote:

‘Both books belong to one of today’s most important genres: the Not-About-Trump-But-Also-Sort-Of-About-Trump, or N.A.T.B.A.S.O.A.T., book. There is a hunger to understand this moment, but from a remove. And both books help explain so much more than Trump. #MeToo. White nationalism. Hindu nationalism. Black Lives Matter. Campus debates about privilege and appropriation. Syria. Islamism. The spread of populism and retreat of democracy worldwide. The rise of the far right in Europe. The rise of the far left in the United States. All these phenomena throb with questions of identity, of “Who am I?” and “To what do I belong?” Appiah and Fukuyama seek out answers.

Appiah believes we’re in wars of identity because we keep making the same mistake: exaggerating our differences with others and our similarities with our own kind. We think of ourselves as part of monolithic tribes up against other tribes, whereas we each contain multitudes. Fukuyama, less a cosmopolitan and more a nation-state guy, has greater sympathy for people clinging to differences. He thinks it a natural response to our age — but also seems to believe that if we don’t find a way to subsume narrow identities into national ones, we’re all going to die.’

‘… less a cosmopolitan, more a nation-state guy’ – yes, that’s the divide, and put this way it sounds like a discussion over coffee. Would that it were so!

(Ref.: New York Times, 27th August 2018)

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Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (Adam Tooze)

In contrast to the prognoses and speculations, answers and action plans of other authors, what we have here is contemporary history at its best. Tooze offers a practical and pragmatic explanation of the economic aspects of the current crisis. He also takes his starting-point as 2008, just a year before I started this blog, when despite the financial crisis and the Iraq debacle optimism came a little bit easier than it does now. I can’t fault The Economist’s summary, so I’ll quote it at length:

‘Four big themes emerge … The first was the immediate post-crisis response, in which the banks were rescued and the financial taps were loosened. The second was the Eurozone crisis … The third was a shift in the developed world after 2010 to a more austere fiscal policy. The fourth was the rise in populist politics in Europe and America.’

Tooze takes ‘the view that the immediate financial response to the crisis was necessary, but unfortunate in that executives in the banking industry paid too low a price for their folly; that Europe was slow and narrow-minded in dealing with the peripheral countries; and that the switch to austerity was a mistake. Taken together the backlash against bankers, frustration with EU governments and the impact of austerity led to the rise of populism, the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote.’

A big part of the problem was a failure of leadership in the post-crisis period. But ‘the more dangerous failure… lies in the unwillingness to deal with the problems which lie at the heart of the system and persist today. The finance sector, which caused the crisis, looks remarkably unaltered.’

(Ref.: The Economist, 4th August 2018)

I’ll add here quotations from Yanis Varoufakis’ Guardian review of Tooze’s book. (Much more aggressive, as you’d expect from Varoufakis.) He refers to ..

‘the black magic of financialisation … turning car companies like General Motors into large speculative financial corporations that also made some cars … ultimately replacing the aim of GDP growth with that of “financial resilience”: enduring paper asset inflation for the few and permanent austerity for the many.’

‘…. from the 1990s onwardsthe “real action” was taking place in the balance sheets of the global financiers.’

(Ref.: The Guardian, 12th August 2018)

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The global dimension

I don’t have to hand any recent books on the global dimensions of the crisis, and specifically the antipathy felt by many on the left and right toward the big global corporations, and above all the banks.  (They do exist.) Varoufakis’s review of Adam Tooze’s book must suffice:

‘…  from the 1990s onwards, the “real action” was taking place in the balance sheets of the global financiers. …

What this meant globally is that imbalanced dollar-denominated financial flows, which had initially grown on the back of the US trade deficit, “succeeded” in achieving escape velocity and almost leaving planet Earth behind …  before crashing down violently in 2008. …

In the end, the financialised technostructure was saved by two governments (America and China), while the neoliberal populist myth (that wholesale deregulation will make everyone’s dreams come true under the rule of democracy) is now dead. Is it any wonder that racism and geopolitical tensions are all the rage? …

Varoufakis never pulls punches.

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Why Liberalism Failed (Patrick Deneen)

Deneen’s contribution to the debate lumps the two definitions of liberalism, free-market and left-liberal/rights-focused. Both focus on individual self-expression. ‘Because the liberal spirit mechanically destroys inherited customs and local traditions, sometimes in the name of market efficiency and sometimes in the name of individual rights, it creates more room for the expansion of the state, as market-maker and law-enforcer.’ He refers to Hobbes’ Leviathan, always good starting-point for pessimists. Deneen ‘reminds the reader that before the advent of modern liberalism, philosophy identified liberty with self-mastery rather than self-expression’.  He reminds the reader how wide-ranging is the current mood of disillusion with liberalism.

But, as The Economist points out, liberalism encompasses a wide range of traditions. Deneen over-defines it, to suit his convenience. The Economist also argues strongly for liberalism’s ability to reform itself – current difficulties do not represent some kind of end-state for liberalism.  Deneen and it seems The Economist itself argues that ‘the current record of liberalism is dismal’. (Why blame the creed itself, which indeed ‘has many traditions’? I’d argue liberalism needs to re-focus and re-define. What is doesn’t need is a guilt complex.) Read, as The Economist puts it, ‘Why Liberalism Failed’ not as a funeral oration but as a call to action.

Deneen refers to pre-modern notions of liberty ‘as self-mastery and self-denial’. Shades of Nietzsche here. But I’d put up against that pre-modern notions of the sanctity of the individual, so closely associated with the rise and extension of Christianity, from which first the Enlightenment and then the liberal agendas followed as the old hierarchies broke down. That of course is a much wider and far-reaching story.

(Ref.: The Economist, 27th January 2018)

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How Democracies Die (Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt)

Levitsky and Ziblatt assert that Trump ‘has probably crossed the line from rough-around-the-edges populist to would-be strongman.’ They list ‘four key indicators of authoritarian behaviour’. 1) ‘Rejection or weak commitment to democratic rules.’ 2) Attempts ‘to undermine the legitimacy of election results.’ 3) Attacks on the press, promises to curb ‘fake news’. 4) Readiness to curb the civil liberties of opponents’.

But while Trump has mouthed the words, but he hasn’t (nor has he the power to) locked up opponents or smashed the presses. But he has in his incoherent way (and incoherence, as Bob Woodward makes clear, is a defining characteristic – and autocrats do require some coherence if they are to turn the world upside down) further undermined two defining characteristics of 20th century democracy – mutual tolerance, both parties accepting each other as legitimate, and forbearance, with election winners exercising some restraint, aware always of the next election.

The issue of race is as intractable as ever: America has ‘never tried to maintain democratic norms in a demos as diverse as today’s.’

I’d add that diversity, in increasingly multi-racial societies, is a mighty challenge for European societies as well – maybe the defining challenge. Without the immigration issue the referendum would have been won decisively by the Remainers, and while Hungary and Poland would probably still be limiting the independence of the judiciary the tensions between the other 27 EU countries would be much-reduced.

(Ref.: The Economist, 27th January 2018 )

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The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It (Yascha Mounk)

Mounk suggests that there are two sides to the liberal democracy equation, 1) ‘protecting individuals from the tyranny of the majority through check and balances and enumerating rights’, and 2) ‘handing power to the people’. ‘Liberal elites are willing to exclude the people from important decisions, most notably in the case of immigration in the case of the EU, in the name of “rights”. Meanwhile populists are willing to dispense with constitutional niceties in the name of the “people”’.  Slow economic growth is the prime reason why liberal democracy is splitting into its ‘component parts’. Where liberals blame globalisation, populists see lobbyists and elites rigging the system.  Social media, immigration, notions that different groups should celebrate their differences – these are all further contributory factors.

The Economist gives much of this the nod, but I’m wary of assertions such as ‘liberal elites are willing to exclude people from important decisions’. The ‘people’ in that populist sense were never part of the political debate. Western democracies are based on representation, at a parliamentary and local level. We lose sight of this at our peril.  Immigration has always been a feature of vibrant societies, it’s always engendered bitter hostilities. And as in the case of the immigration explosion in the UK after 2005 – it was never anticipated at the level it actually happened.

(I’m also wary of the term ‘liberal elites’, much used by The Economist. Elites are increasingly illiberal, and there lies part of the problem.)

Mounk argues that ‘the more technocratic elites try to protect important area of decision-making, not least immigration, from the will of the people, the more they will create festering resentment’. Yes, to the sensitivity to immigration, and ensuring it’s accompanied by all the necessary support and restrictions, but not the emotive language. Like Fukuyama, he seems to be advocating, in The Economist’s words, ‘domesticating nationalism rather than attempting to define it as an anachronistic relic’. Let Americans judge how this might apply to the USA, but for Europe nationalisms have a proven capacity to get out of hand, and we should play any such game very very cautiously.

(Ref: The Economist, 17th March 2018)

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In the Shadows of the American Century: the Rise and Decline of American Global Power (Alfred McCoy)

MvCoy’s book is not central to an appraisal of liberalism today but I will include one quote from Diane Robert’s review of his book in Prospect: ‘Like other empires before it, the US refuses to acknowledge that the nature of empires is to fall. Not quickly of course – Rome didn’t collapse as soon as the Visigoths or Vandals raised the city. It took years, and America won’t be any different ….’

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Behold America: A History of America First and the American Dream (Sarah Churchwell)

Diane Roberts also reviewed Sarah Churchwell’s book in Prospect. (I heard Churchwell talk about her book at the Hay book festival last May.) Quoting Roberts’s paraphrase of Churchwell’s argument, ‘The US has always expended a lot of energy denying the past … pretending … that slavery and genocide have simply disappeared from the national psyche like dew into the grass … The sustaining national myth has been that America was once an Arcadia of small-towns … populated by fair-skinned folks who loved their mothers …’ Whether it’s Jews, Reds, Black Panthers, feminists, environmentalists, European socialists, political correctness – to ‘America Firsters’ they are all out to destroy God’s country. Fox News is beating an old (the Chicago Tribune 1923 being an instance Churchwell quotes) anti-immigrant drum. The Trumps, father Fred and son Donald, have a dubious record (Fred Trump, New York 1927, Donald, Charlottesville 2017).

Roberts states that ‘America wants to be first in the international stage without accepting its responsibilities.’ In the post-war world, of course, the USA did take on that responsibility (a chequered record but the role as clear and Europe benefitted hugely) but the curiosity is that Trump’s ‘America First’ America wants to scale back its responsibilities – underlining the point that as it narrows its focus America will become even more ‘first’ only to its own citizens, and ‘exceptional’ likewise.

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Democracy’s Retreat

The Economist back in June 2018 (16th June) ran a feature entitled ‘Democracy’s Retreat’, with the subhead ‘After decides of triumph democracy is losing ground. Why?’

‘The end of history’, as proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama was on a par with the Thousand-Year Reich as a mis-statement – history is a creature of all the mis-steps and follies and mis-readings and simple folly that man is capable of, with the hand of nature also thrown brutally in from time to time. The retreat of democracy isn’t in any sense because democracy has been ‘found out’: but it was, is and will be something we have to fight for at very turn.

So I’m wary of distinctions between democracy (rule by the people) and liberal democracy (a freely-elected government, which respects individual and minority rights, the rule of law and independent institutions). ‘Rule by the people’ leaves open the question who the people are, and who decides who they are. Liberal democracy aims to put in place and preserve institutions which will guarantee democracy for a foreseeable future. So when Yascha Mounk (see above) argues that liberalism and democracy are separable I’m doubtful. How democratic is a government elected on promises to censor speech or curtail minority rights? That of itself diminishes democracy.

Yes, ‘plenty of liberal institutions are undemocratic’. Unelected judges can over-rule elected politicians. Politicians must be subject to the rule of law. But I’d argue that the rule of law is a guarantor of democracy. Of course, we have to ask who in the first place lays down the legal code by which governments are limited? It can be introduced in a constitution, or in the unique case of the UK be enshrined in tradition. The independence of the judiciary is fundamental to the functioning of any liberal democracy.

Globally, The Economist tells us, ‘the support for democracy remains high’ – a median of 78% of people polled in 38 countries agreed that a ‘a system where elected representatives made the laws was a good one’. But 24% thought that military rule would be fine – one of the front runners in the upcoming Brazilian election is himself of that mind.  In Hungary the financial crisis and immigration upset the democratic order. Ethnic hatreds remain a tool of potential autocrats around the world. Independent institutions such as the judiciary in Hungary and Poland, are under threat. Fines can force independent newspapers out of business (witness Russia and now Turkey).  Children can be indoctrinated from a very young age: ‘as young as four in Turkey are taught that their president saved the nation from the Gulenists ‘…. Many crave power …. Some because they want to change the world … Some, for its own sake. Some, because brings adulation, money and sex … Autocracy and graft create a vicious circle.’

Democracy has fought back in a few countries – where the autocrat assumed the electoral process had been sufficiently perverted to allow elections to proceed in safety – only to be proved wrong.  Malaysia and South Africa (within the ANC) being two examples.

‘What is certain, however, is that freely elected governments bound by the rule of law have less power to abuse citizens.’ For my part I will never forget Philippe Sands at the Hay festival back in May engaging in an imaginary conversation with his Turkish journalist friend, Ahmet Altan who has been imprisoned for life by the Turkish president.

That is a telling, a terrible, reminder of why we must be forever vigilant in defence of the rule of law.

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How Democracy Ends (Andrew Rawnsley)

Rawnsley writing in The Observer considers the David Runciman book, How Democracy Ends. ‘…one of the very best of the current crop of books on the subject.’

A first point to note – have we been here before? In Runciman’s view, no. Putin ‘s may be a parody democracy, but he isn’t Hitler. (Compare Yanis Varoufakis: ‘From where I stand, we are at a 1930 point – soon after the crash, and with a fascist moment upon us.’)

‘A widespread contemporary disgust with democratic politics’ – these are Runciman’s words. (Rawnsley concurs.) I’m wary of such easy emotive language. Disgust? With the whole edifice?

Confidence has been sapped ‘by governments that struggle to deliver the underlying contract to spread prosperity sufficiently widely and fairly so that everyone has the sense of a stake in society’. An underlying contract? I’d argue that, if such a thing exists, which is questionable, it sets the bar too high. We too easily forget that liberal society is always a work-in-progress.

Yes, post-war prosperity and liberal agendas radically changed expectations – and it is expectations that aren’t being matched. But it’s less that average real wages in the USA have been stagnant for forty years, more a real and perceived greater inequality in its distribution – an elite garnering both wealth and influence. (What isn’t mentioned by Rawnsley in his review is the extent to which sections of the press have sought to discredit both parliament and the rule of law. What role do they have in that sense of ‘disgust’?)

On other points I’d agree.  The internet has poisoned the well, and opposition sects do promote conspiracy theories, democracy has become more venomous, Silicon Valley is calling the shots and government doesn’t know how to respond (though the EU is trying). There’s bruising free speech in the public forums, mirrored now in virulent divisions with parliament and Congress, and within party.

Is Runciman right that representative government has lost the capacity to re-invigorate itself? Now that the franchise is universal, and the welfare state fully (if too often carelessly) operational. Do we need a clear set of goals in peacetime, or ‘chaos and violence’, as in wartime, to bring the best out of democracy? A clear set of goals? – yes, we do.

‘Stable democracies retain their extraordinary capacity to stave off the worst that can happen without tackling the problems that threatened disaster in the first place.’ (Runciman’s words.) So we shouldn’t feel too good about Greece remaining democratic despite everything, or the survival of the Eurozone against the odds. That’s a point, to Rawnsley’s mind, well made, and in one sense true, but I’d argue that democracy has never been a straight-line affair. ‘Staving off’ is a natural and usually necessary response response. Democracy proceeds by compromises, delays, wrong-turns – and occasional leaps forward.

But despite the title Runciman ‘doesn’t think democracy is over’. (Rawnsley) He looks at alternatives ‘and rightly finds them wanting’ – Chinese authoritarian capitalism, ’the notion of government by experts’, a Platonic ‘rule of the knowers’. ‘Intellectuals are just as prone to making mistakes as the crow.’ No surprise there. Can technology offer ’some kind of liberation’, as Runciman suggests. Like Rawnsley I’m doubtful.

Also, like Rawnsley, I’m not as pessimistic as Runciman. Nor is Runciman quite as pessimistic as he might seem. In Rawnsley’s words: ‘Yes, democracy is often messy, clumsy and ineffectual. Yes, voters sometimes empower ghastly rulers …. But almost despite itself … Runciman seems to be saying there is something special about democracy. One of its great merits is the capacity for self-questioning and self-correction … lacking in other systems of government. Democracy can go wrong, but it has the flexibility to sort itself right.’

A direct quote from Runciman:’ Democratic politics assume there is no settled answer to any question … (this) protects us from getting stuck with any truly bad ideas.’

And another from Runciman (from an interview with Prospect): ‘I suspect that one reason for Brexit and Trump is not that people have lost faith in democracy but that many have the kind of unthinking faith in it that allows them to believe it can survive anything…’

So – I’d argue – we need to take the initiative, rather than hang back on the ropes. Focus on a clear set of goals.

And remember that democracy has ultimately to be about belief – believing we are on the right track. It doesn’t have to be a belief in progress, but just a belief in the integrity and the future of a mightily flawed but remarkable institution, which is in truth a bloody miracle. If we are not positive and assertive and out there about democracy, and liberal democracy, others will steal the field from us.

(Ref.: The Observer, 20th May 2018)

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21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Yuval Noah Harari)

I’ll sign off with Harari’s argument that AI, artificial intelligence, could have within it the possible demise of democracy and liberalism. The old stories are discredited, religion is sidelined, likewise the nation-state in a globalised world…

What follows is based on an article in The Atlantic (‘Why Technology Favors Tyranny’, October 2018 issue) which has been adapted from Harari’s book.

I started with Adonis and Hutton’s very practical approach to one nation’s immediate difficulties. Harari takes us to the other extreme, as these extracts reveal:

Artificial intelligence could erase many practical advantages of democracy, and erode the ideals of liberty and equality. It will further concentrate power among a small elite if we don’t take steps to stop it.  …

There is nothing inevitable about democracy. For all the success that democracies have had over the past century or more, they are blips in history. Monarchies, oligarchies, and other forms of authoritarian rule have been far more common modes of human governance. …

In the second decade of the 21st century, liberalism has begun to lose credibility. Questions about the ability of liberal democracy to provide for the middle class have grown louder; politics have grown more tribal; and in more and more countries, leaders are showing a penchant for demagoguery and autocracy. …

Together, infotech and biotech will create unprecedented upheavals in human society, eroding human agency and, possibly, subverting human desires. Under such conditions, liberal democracy and free-market economics might become obsolete. … … economic growth may not solve social problems that are now being created by technological disruption, because such growth is increasingly predicated on the invention of more and more disruptive technologies. …

As many people lose their economic value, they might also come to lose their political power. The same technologies that might make billions of people economically irrelevant might also make them easier to monitor and control. …

The biggest and most frightening impact of the AI revolution might be on the relative efficiency of democracies and dictatorships. … (tilting in favour of dictatorships)

Even if some societies remain ostensibly democratic, the increasing efficiency of algorithms will still shift more and more authority from individual humans to networked machines. Liberal democracy and free-market capitalism see the individual as an autonomous agent constantly making choices about the world. …

Can parliaments and political parties overcome these challenges and forestall the darker scenarios? At the current moment this does not seem likely. Technological disruption is not even a leading item on the political agenda. …

Harari’s answers don’t take us very far. ‘For starters, we need to place a much higher priority on understanding how the human mind works – particularly how our own wisdom and compassion can be cultivated. … More practically, and more immediately, if we want to prevent the concentration of all wealth and power in the hands of a small elite, we must regulate the ownership of data.’

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Do I have any conclusions? Can we reverse the threats to democracy (and head off Harari’s speculations) and re-assert the values and practice of liberal democracy? For one, I’d go well beyond Harari’s statement about cultivating our wisdom and compassion, and assert the absolute value, integrity and importance of each individual  human being – whatever their country, race or creed. Compassion and wisdom are indeed part of that.

At a more practical level, as a matter of urgency, ensure that all groupings have a stake, and perceive that they have a stake, in their country’s governance, progress and prosperity. And in a wider prosperity beyond their borders. This will always be a rocky and crisis-ridden road, but as long we have a clear sense of direction, then we might just be able to manage the challenges en route – for the forseeable future at least!

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Infrastructure and the Genoa bridge

Infrastructure hasn’t over the years been a topic of too much debate. It simply went on, all around us, yet curiously out of sight. We’d complain, some of us, about HS2 and Hinckley Point, but these are new glamour projects. Not the day to day. The day to day is about detail, hard graft, the invisible – and the maintenance of what we have.

All has been suddenly thrown into a much sharper perspective by last week’s collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa. The human cost is terrible, the economic cost (access to Genoa’s port, north-south communication) serious, the political cost (Italians disillusioned with government now even more so – but to whom do they turn?) likely to be high.  Italy’s interior minister blames the Eurozone’s strict rules on budget deficits – but as the Financial Times points out ‘a bigger constraint is the crushing burden of interest payments on Italy’s public debt’, 132% of annual economic output. (Source: Tony Barber, FT 18/19 August.)

Italy is not alone. Germany has bridge issues of its own. Obama’s transportation secretary described the US as ‘one big pothole’. Much of the road network across Britain, once you leave the motorway system, is in a poor state of repair: not dangerous, but a significant impediment to good communication.

(How many other bridges small as well as large on motorways across the developed world are suspect? The Genoa bridge had passed all its tests. I’m reminded of the long-term roadworks on the M5 just south of the M6 junction. You see few workers on the motorway itself: there are 40 or so (notices tell us) out of sight, working below the road surface. That at least is re-assuring.)

Quoting Tony Barber again: in the UK, ‘governments of all political stripes tend to neglect unglamorous small scale infrastructure projects and repair work in favour of ostentatious schemes with predictably spiralling costs.’

HS2 (high speed rail link) is a case in point. Local infrastructure (taking in the north-west, north-east, south, and south-west of England, and Wales and Scotland – HS2 may in twenty years time, with a following wind, just about reach Manchester and Leeds) and high levels of maintenance of existing infrastructure would be a far wiser way to spend money. In the case of Hinckley B (our very own Chinese-financed nuclear power station), funding requirements have trumped political considerations – and reduced our scope for independence and influence in the world.

One other consideration, which Italy’s situation highlights. Massive infrastructure self-evidently requires massive maintenance and repair costs, and that assumes continuing stellar economic performance. Will we need our skyscrapers in fifty (or a hundred) years’ time? Will our road networks be underused, radically underused, as we develop new modes of transport?

We move too fast, too blindly, and that won’t stop any time soon. The Chinese Belt and Road initiative is one guarantee of that. Development is driven as much by political and strategic as well as economic considerations. (One powerful reason why we need to be part of the EU – only that way will we have serious political heft in the world.)

What we can do is hold to the simple truth that infrastructure requires maintenance, and put aside the money in national budgets across the world to ensure that it is carried out to the highest level. That is the imperative now. (Easy to say, immeasurably harder to ensure it happens.) As for the future, we cannot simply rely on continuing high levels of prosperity as a guarantee of the required levels of funding, via taxation and borrowing or private investment.

If we cannot be confident in the long-term maintenance of our infrastructure, then we shouldn’t be building. One day our leaps into the dark will come to haunt us.

That bloody liberal establishment …

I took in the newspaper headlines in the supermarket yesterday. The TLS (Times Literary Supplement) caught my eye, snugged in near the Daily Mail. I bought a copy and over lunch read up on a recent biography of Descartes and the correspondence of Albert Camus and Maria Casares, celebrated author and the most celebrated French (though born in Spain) actress of her time. I was taken down back alleys which intrigue in themselves, and also have resonances with the here and now. Descartes escaping to the Netherlands to be free to explore his ideas on the primacy of human reason, away from the frivolities and scepticism of the Richelieu-dominated court. Camus and Casares: a correspondence that’s so distinctively French – could there be an English equivalent, and a bestseller to boot?

I’ve not found such byways of the intellect so rewarding recently. They belong to the old certainties, and the old certainties have faced a pretty ruthless challenge.

We had crises in politics ten years ago, indeed the biggest financial crisis for eighty years, but reason and rational debate were still the order of the day. That curious liberal idea of progress, however intermittent, however blighted, still underlay our attitudes, incremental, one step forward, one back – but we had a direction of travel. The House of Commons took a big hit with the expenses scandal, and austerity divided the nation in the years that followed, but debate still followed the traditional course in parliament, the media sniped and panicked, but didn’t dominate. Likewise the Tory right with their psychodramatic skills: they were kept on the periphery.

Post-referendum, the idea of a perverse ‘liberal establishment’ has taken hold, with all the anger toward and alienation from the ‘establishment’ now pinned on a  supposed liberal elite. Thinkers like David Goodhart have not helped, recusing themselves from a ‘liberal establishment’ (overly fond of smart dinner parties) of which they claim to have been a part.

Now we find liberal democracy ‘fighting for its life’. There’s a Times (newspaper) debate at the forthcoming Cheltenham Literary Festival entitled ‘Is Liberal Democracy Dying?’.  The Economist has just launched, as a counter-punch to doubters, a series of articles on great liberal thinkers, beginning with John Stuart Mill.

In much of the media the word ‘liberal’ is pitched against the ‘will of the people’, expertise against an instinct for change regardless of where change might take us. A new establishment, which has pulled strings covertly for many a year, asserts itself, funded by billionaires, pursuing apparently simple solutions to intractable problems, and supporting leaders who they think might enact those solutions.

How does this connect back to the two Frenchmen, Descartes and Camus? Simply that intellectual debate, and the pursuit of intellect byways as well as highways, is the very substance of our humanity. We might hide from it, in front of the TV many an evening, we may affect to scorn intellectuals and highbrow pursuits. The Economist quotes the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, ‘who thought that pushpin, a board game, was  “of equal value … with poetry”’.’

The intellectual life, as well as cultural life, is about sustained thought, sustained engagement, about expertise, about the ability to argue and debate, and change and challenge. It’s all about imagination, but not about dreams or fantasies. (Though they have their place.) Deeper pleasures build on themselves, take us in new directions. Simple pleasures endlessly repeat. There should be no snobbery here, but it’s too easy to paint intellectual life that way.

Taking John Stuart Mill as an exemplar, in The Economist’s words: ‘He renounced shibboleths, orthodoxies and received wisdom: anything that stopped people thinking for themselves.’

I don’t want to see this country ruled by a liberal establishment, or a media establishment. But I do hold to liberal ideas of openness and debate, and to the belief that intellectual life should be part of the warp and weft of everyday life, and not an adjunct hived off to universities.

That’s a tall order of course. But what if we re-define ‘intellectual life’ and take it out of its ivory tower. To quote the Economist on Mill again: ‘[He] wanted [people] to be exposed to as wide a range of opinion as possible, and for no idea or practice to remain unchallenged. That was the path to both true happiness and progress.’

And it allows us to re-define intellectual life, as the life of the mind.

Holding to that definition, we won’t suddenly solve the world’s problems. But we will at least be opening doors, rather than closing them, and that is the first pre-requisite of progress.

Political dream worlds – the case of Daniel Hannan

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams …

WB Yeats was writing about love… but I’m thinking here of shattered political dreams. Dreams of love, yes, they drive our lives, and they are, just occasionally, fulfilled. But they are personal, one to one. And we accept and expect the risk.

But do not transfer the world of dreams to politics. Aspirations, yes. Not dreams.

Why do some people who are trained as historians not act like them? Bring the rigour that history requires to argument? One reason is that they see history as story, they’re story-tellers, conjurers of dream worlds, they fit the realities to the story and they come to believe the story. Another is that they engage in hypotheses, and parade them as fact, without the rigour of peer-review that we get in scientific disciplines. Story and hypotheses can of course inspire each other.

Why would, for example, the arch-Brexiteer and free-trader Daniel Hannan (and Oxford-educated historian) miss the mark by such a margin? Brexit, he wrote on the Conservative Home website back in May, isn’t working out as he thought it would. I remember a piece he wrote in the Daily Telegraph before the referendum vote about how a post-Brexit Britain would look in ten years’ time. He imagined the future – or rather, a future, anticipated it as if truth and certainty were engrained within it, which no trained historian should do. He believed his own imaginings. Hope became a certain future reality.

He fooled himself, and he gave substance to the visions of others.

The past is full of accidents, wrong turnings, expectations which are never realised, impossible to realise, based on dreams and imaginings. We have no choice but to have radical ideas, our world requires it, on the way the world economy functions, disparities of wealth, population growth and movements, the poverty of much of mass-culture, climate change – Christ, yes! – be radical. But pursue change incrementally. Avoid the sudden turnings.

The NHS, which we are busy celebrating, came about and has survived over seventy years, because it was of its time, it was a logical and necessary step. It may seem to us, with our hindsights, like the fulfilment of a dream, but it was anything but.  It came out of the hard necessities of its time.

Fifty shades of folly

I thought I’d touch this morning on the many kinds of folly. Not fifty, I have to admit. But it makes a good title for this post.

Zenpolitics, born in the measured Obama era, in the first months, didn’t allow for folly. That was my big mistake. There’s much to criticise, much to be angry about, in the years 2009 to 2016, but the wheels just about stayed on track. We argued the parameters of austerity, whether they should be wider or narrower, about the boundaries of wealth and enterprise, and the constrictions of poverty and exclusion.

But I didn’t allow for folly. Which isn’t to say the follies I highlight below are in any way new. They are as ancient as the hills, in one form or another. But they now have become by twists of fate the dominant discourse.

Once folly take root, it shows up in many guises.  One of the most common, and damaging, is taking outlying incidents as the norm. Regaling us with incidents (I’m quoting a recent conversation of mine, typical maybe of half the nation, if polls are to be believed) involving Lithuanian criminals, and benefit scroungers, and over-crowded schools, as if these were the norm across the country.

Anecdote and emotion dictate the debate.

Taking sides is another variant of folly – you’re one one side or the other, no shades of grey inbetween, and that multitude who live on the other side of town from you, and claim benefits, they’re all shrinkers and shirkers.

Following the same line of thought, you’re a refugee, or you’re an economic migrant. The former good, the later bad. No shades of grey. And no recognition of the fact that all our forebears  were migrants once upon a time.

In dealing with mass movements of population, maybe the greatest issue of our time, it does no service to either argument or individual to stigmatise.

Brexit might in time, with a clear run, have learnt to speak truth, but with a siege mentality taking hold the old shibboleths are gaining new traction. The same mentality is feeding another kind of folly. Denial. Denial that it could all go wrong – has gone wrong. The comforting belief that Northern Ireland can be shunted forward forever as an issue. That we have a plethora of options other than a customs union with the EU.

Only last week the outgoing president of the CBI said that sections of UK industry faced extinction unless the UK stayed in the customs union.  And yet that is precisely what our prime minister has ruled out.

Denial invites rhetoric. Boris Johnson recently argued to Conservative donors that Britain is at risk of ending up in ‘a sort or anteroom of the EU’. He blamed this on insufficient resolve from the PM, and strong resistance from – the establishment. That old and easy target. (Who are Tory MPs, other than the establishment?) Keep the faith, and all will be well, I believe was the tenor of Johnson’s speech. Churchillian rhetoric may have a time and place. But it sounds foolish now.

That take us neatly on to another kind of folly – the strong leader. Oh, how we need one. Trump ‘would go in bloody hard’, argued Johnson. So we would be pugnacious toward the EU, and go cap-in-hand to a US president we can’t afford to offend… And we’re assuming that Trump will emerge triumphant from all his bombast.

And if he does, and the idea of strong leader triumphs, representative democracy will be the loser. It’s argued that American democracy is strong enough in its institutions to withstand Trump. Would our unwritten constitution stand up so well? It is folly to put it to the test – to attack the judiciary, to bandy words like traitor.

The folly of blame, and panic. Blaming the prime minister who ‘is a Remain voter who has sold out the Brexiteers at every possible opportunity’. (I’ve borrowed the paraphrase from the Economist.) Brexiteers are being stabbed in the back. Much could be said about the resolute incompetence our PM, but I’ll spare her that charge.

But I will level another – the curious pusillanimity of Remain-supporting Tory MPs who have lined up behind Brexit, mealy-mouthing their change of mind and heart, engaging in protracted acts of self-preservation, in the face of possible de-selection.

They may wish to row back from their conversion, but having changed their minds once would they dare do so again? They’re trapped. Maybe a few journalists out there, on the Telegraph, and the Spectator, find they’re in the same place. They’ve spoken out so strongly in the past – dare they turn their coats now?

The likes of Arron Banks have long sought to change the frame within which we see and understand our world – to something less liberal and more confrontational, the loner doing better than the pack, ideas backed by the Koch brothers in the USA, and realised after a fashion in Donald Trump. Folly lies in the failure of so many to realise that the frame has been manipulated, by money, Super-PACs in the USA, media owners in the US and UK, so they think they’re on the same song sheet they always were, but someone’s changed changed the words, and they haven’t noticed.

We haven’t reached that point here, but Trump’s caging of immigrant children, after separating them from their parents, should be simply inconceivable. Yet swathes of the American public went along with it. And Tory politicians here were slow to condemn, fearful of upsetting a government on whom they will depend to an unconscionable degree if a hard Brexit were ever to happen.

The frame becomes a cage. The folly of not reading and remembering your history.

Folly also lies in an increased propensity to lie as your position weakens. Brexit supporters always played fast and lose with the truth – promises come cheap and uncosted. The increase in NHS funding promised this week resurrected the idea of a Brexit dividend for the NHS, famously associated with the Brexit red bus. All serious commentators make it clear that the British economy will sustain significant damage as a result of Brexit. And even if that only applies to the short and medium term, and trade secretary Liam Fox is able to conjure trade deals further down the line that magic our GDP to new levels (an unlikely scenario) – that is the long term. The increases in NHS funding are for the period up to 2023-4. There can be no Brexit dividend over that period.

We have here a simple unvarnished untruth. Folly shades readily into untruth to protect itself. We’re engaged now in the most egregious and protracted act of folly in modern British history. When a pressure group surprised by power flounders. Historians will have a field day. Unless of course folly wins the day, and as in other countries historians come to toe a party line.

Europe or America – too much ‘us against them’

Europe v America

Do you lean more to Europe or to the USA? What does your instinct tell you? I remember the question being posed in a radio debate a few years ago. It caught my attention then. It’s more than ever relevant now, as Brexit disparages and attempts to sideline Europe.

Why for so many is there an instinctive hostility to the EU? Is it just to the institution? Or does it reflect the way we engage with European culture and history? At a bumptious Boris Johnson ‘I can sing Ode to Joy’ level, or at a level more woven into our soul – into our identity?

Are we a European people, one of many, an outlier, but integral nonetheless? Or are we to all intents and purposes, though we wouldn’t admit it, just another state of the USA, just doing things a little differently.

We’re uneasy about the USA, it’s brashness, its noise, its superiority complex – but we go with it – it is, we feel, an exaggeration of our own character, the same substance, lacking the finesse. But they’re our comfort zone – not Europe.

Brexiteers by default lean to America, to trade agreements which will of course be on American terms. They hide this behind ‘global’ aspirations, and a maritime, ‘old Commonwealth’ identity.

I’d argue we are already global – and we are as engaged with the USA we need to be. Trump’s penalties for companies and banks breaking US-imposed sanctions against Iran underline the point.

 

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Europe v the world

So we’ve widened it. It’s no longer Europe v America, it’s elided into Europe v ‘the world’. We’re going global. As if we need to assert one identity at the expense of another. I’m proud to be a citizen of the UK – of Europe – and of the world.

Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, trespasses onto this territory when (I’m quoting from The Economist) he criticises liberal Tories such as [Amber] Rudd ‘for misinterpreting Brexit as a vote for closing the borders rather than embracing a more global future’.

There are countless other such statements. The likes of Nelson have set up and pursued a false dichotomy, pitching a European against ‘a global future’. We were there of course already. The Brexit strategy will indeed involve (the shenanigans of current Cabinet debate on the subject will go down in history as farce) some kind of closure of our border with Europe, against a pie-in-the-sky chance of signing trade deals with further-flung countries that offset the damage that closure will cause.

Countless pages, articles, tomes have been written on both sides of the argument. It’s that deeper and false sense of a divide that concerns me here. The Brexit debate, and Brexit supporters for decades before the 2016 vote, have polarised ‘European’ and ‘global’, pitched one against the other, and we’re digging the divide deeper all the time.

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Don’t for heaven’s sake claim you’re an intellectual

I’m hardly saying anything new but it’s also an anti-intellectual debate. Don’t rely on argument, rely on instinct – it’s become a matter of belief. There’s a new book out about the French intellectual (The End of the French Intellectual): at least France has had such a person as the public intellectual. A species who in this country should expect to get as little appreciation from the likes of the Daily Mail as members of the House of Lords or the judiciary.

Leaping across the pond, we have Scott Pruitt, head of the American Environmental Protection Agency, barring scientists who have received federal grants from the EPA from sitting on boards advising the EPA on the grounds of ‘conflict of interest’. There are no restrictions on scientists who work for the industries the EPA monitors. Again, independence of mind is under threat.

And finally, that Ruth Lea, a long-time public figure, arguing that ‘the economics ‘establishment’, including the Treasury, were utterly wrong-footed by our economic performance after the Brexit vote in June 2016′. The economics ‘establishment’ – ‘commissariat’ is another term I’ve seen used. In other words, the great majority of economists. Maybe Ruth Lea hasn’t noticed how our performance has significantly lagged the rest of Europe – and taken on board the reluctance abroad not to let the UK slide too far – for in whose interests is that? Yes, arguments were too apocalyptic, attempting to match the Brexiteers’ approach of promising the earth.

The way is still down, it’s just taking far more turnings. As long as we inhabit this falsely polarised world that won’t change.