Liberalism

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Poland: Populism Strikes Back

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 23/07/2020 - 6:07am in

image/jpeg iconpolish_elections_2020.jpg

The seventh democratic presidential elections in Poland since 1990 have ended on 12 July 2020. Official statistics show the highest ever turnout, with a record-breaking 68.18% of the entitled electorate choosing to cast a vote in the second round.

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Book Review: Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream by Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 21/07/2020 - 9:04pm in

In Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream, Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter challenge the assumption that democracy is necessarily progressive through introducing the notion of ‘reactionary democracy’, showing how narratives that claim that the resurgence of racism, populism and the far right are the result of popular demands obscure the manipulation of the idea of ‘the people’ for reactionary ends by those in power. This is an indispensable book, writes Rahel Süß, and is a must-read for those seeking to contest prevailing ideas about the relationship between racism and liberal democracy.

Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream. Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter. Verso. 2020.

Reactionary Democracy is destined to be one of the indispensable books of our time, a work drawing upon the enduring debate about the causes of systemic racism. Introducing readers to the entanglement of racism and liberal democracy, this co-authored book seeks to shed new light on how these forms of power interact and the possibilities emerging in the wake of this.

In western societies, authors Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter observe, the liberal narrative celebrates the abolishment of slavery and the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the US as a defeat of racism. The problem with such a framework is that it constructs racism as something of the past, and therefore fails to account for systemic racism today.

Starting from the assumption that democracy is not necessarily progressive, the book introduces the idea of ‘reactionary democracy’. The central claim holds that the resurgence of racism, populism and the far right is not the result of popular demands but instead the consequence of ‘a more or less conscious manipulation of the concept of ‘‘the people’’ to push reactionary ideas in the service of power’ (17). Such an argument emerges out of the authors’ critique, which shows that the rise of the ‘alt-right’ and the far right is not only a reaction to the limitations of liberal democracy and its failure to address them, but also is the product of liberal institutions.

There are several instructive arguments animating the book. In Chapters One and Two, the authors introduce what they call ‘illiberal’ and ‘liberal racism’. The former describes articulations of racism associated with biological racism, genocide, racist violence and segregation, which are claimed to have been defeated by the forces of egalitarian liberal societies (79). Liberal racism instead refers to the ‘denial of the forms of racism which persist and have deep roots in liberalism’ (94). While they admit that the borders between the two are ‘fuzzy’, they insist on the importance of this conceptual distinction to allow for nuanced analyses of how ‘the existence of illiberal racism in opposition to liberal racism is essential to the perpetuation of a system built on discrimination and privilege, ensuring its mainstream acceptability’ (19).

Drawing on case studies from the UK, the US and France, Chapter Three subsequently discloses how the mainstreaming of the far right and the radicalising of the mainstream function as intertwined processes. Holding the view that the mainstreaming process originates not only from popular politics of far-right parties and movements but also from discursive elites (such as the media, politicians and academics), the authors explore this dual dynamic. Finally, the task of Chapter Four is to outline in detail how the processes of legitimising and mainstreaming reactionary understandings of equal rights and liberty operate.

Populism serves as an explanatory example for Mondon and Winter’s argument. By drawing on the common usage of the term, they disclose how the discursive link between ‘the people’ and the far right has been created through the term ‘populist’. For them, it is vital to understand how the term ‘populism’ euphemises ideas around racism by falsely assuming an ‘ideological evolution away from racism’ towards more ‘blurry forms of politics’ (162-63).

For Mondon and Winter, there are at least two problems with this discursive link between ‘the people’ and the far right: firstly, ‘it legitimises the far right and its ideas’; and secondly, ‘it delegitimises the people as central to the democratic process’ (279) because of ‘the almost exclusive association of the term ‘‘populism’’ with the far right’ (280). In their view, the far right has largely benefitted from the skewed interpretation of the rise of the populist right, in particular by a) constructing racist and exclusionary ideas as representing the will of ‘the people’; b) positioning them as an example of popular revolt; and c) discussing its potential as an alternative to the current system (211).

Drawing on the current political discourse about the working class, Mondon and Winter show how the link between the working class and racism was constructed especially in the context of both the UK Brexit referendum and the 2016 US election campaign (325). In disclosing how most of the political commentary assumed that the working class was white, they also highlight how the ‘enemy’ of working-class struggles became ‘defined only by race, ethnicity or foreign nationality, rather than by class’ (332). Their argument, however, is not that the working class should be seen uncritically as a vessel for emancipatory politics. More interested in tracing back the particular narrative which equates the working class with the rise of the far right, Mondon and Winter seek to develop an understanding of the ‘ideological underpinnings of this manoeuvre, which places the blame squarely on the voiceless, […] deflecting attention from those responsible for the current sociopolitical situation’ (333).

Yet there is another important aspect of the relationship between populism and the mainstreaming of the far right. As liberalism has created a new political dichotomy between populists on one side, whether of the left or the right, and anti-populists on the other, Mondon and Winter show that liberalism positions itself as the defender against ‘all forms of authoritarianism and irrational politics’ (283). In doing so, however, liberal institutions not only ignore their ‘share of responsibility for the rise of authoritarian politics’, but also ‘create a diversion away from their own failures’ (283).

Conclusively, the misuse of the category of populism as the only alternative to the establishment has allowed the systemic failures of liberalism to go unremarked within public discourse. It is this absence of antagonism in contemporary politics that marks, according to the authors, a central source for the mainstreaming of the far right. But how does this mainstreaming operate? With the help of powerful actors, Mondon and Winter argue, that legitimise the far right’s ideas as a credible alternative. As carefully described by them, ‘the mainstreaming of the far right is not simply or even predominantly the result of popular demand or the savviness of the far right itself’ (290). It is also the result of sensationalist media coverage as well as the short-term and opportunistic strategies of politicians and academics.

Turning to the question of a more radical democratic imagination at the end of their book, Mondon and Winter convincingly emphasise the importance of understanding racism as power relations that evolve and adapt. Consequently, racism is not exhausted by its illiberal articulations. Liberalism itself has ‘failed to live up to its own supposed ideals’ (392). Ultimately, it is essential to recognise that ‘the far right is not the (only or inevitable) alternative’ (296).

While the overall argument of Reactionary Democracy convincingly illuminates current debates about systemic racism, it fails to fully account for the role white privilege plays. Part of the problem is the absence of a conceptual discussion of the term ‘democracy’. Although Mondon and Winter shift attention from democracy as an institutional process or electoral politics to more ‘discursive forms’ (210), they say little about the underlying assumption. In the absence of such systematisation, the book is unable to fully grasp how contemporary inclusive and participatory politics stabilise what the political theorist Joel Olson refers to as ‘white democracy’. This term is used to describe how attempts of democratic repair fail because they misconstrue racial oppression as a problem of exclusion (for which the solution is inclusion), rather than a problem of white privilege.

Finally, the book offers little guidance on the question of strategy and increasing democracy. Besides a few references to grassroots and social movements, it does not discuss the potential – or danger – of current experiments with new democratic institutions and practices, such as the inclusive politics of civic lotteries or participatory citizens’ assemblies. Because of the absence of such a discussion, Mondon and Winter do not address whether emancipatory or participatory politics can play a role in mainstreaming the far right. More inclined to develop a framework for understanding liberal and illiberal racism, the book focuses instead on how the idea of progress has falsely left a lasting mark on the liberal democratic imagination.

Overall, however, it can be said that Reactionary Democracy is an important contribution to the continuing debate on the causes of systemic racism. With its call for a thorough analysis of the relation between the far right and liberal democracy, the book provokes the right question at the right time. For scholars and students of politics, philosophy and history seeking to challenge prevailing ideas about racism and liberal democracy, this is a must-read.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Triptych image created using photo by James Eades on Unsplash, taken at Black Lives Matter London Protest, 6 June 2020.

 


Book Review: Liberalism at Large: The World According to the Economist by Alexander Zevin

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 14/06/2020 - 7:00pm in

In Liberalism at Large: The World According to the Economist, Alexander Zevin traces the 177-year history of the Economist newspaper, positioning the Economist not only as a lens for understanding reinterpretations of liberalism across different eras, but also as an active participant in influencing policy and public debate. This is a rigorous and meticulously researched … Continued

Book Review: Revisiting Marx’s Critique of Liberalism: Rethinking Justice, Legality and Rights by Igor Shoikhedbrod

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 18/05/2020 - 9:09pm in

In Revisiting Marx’s Critique of Liberalism: Rethinking Justice, Legality and Rights, Igor Shoikhedbrod deepens conventional understandings of Karl Marx as one of the foremost critics of liberalism, showing how Marx’s work does not simply repudiate liberal ideology from the outside, but rather tests its internal limits, setting it against its own presumptions and ideals. Tracing Marx’s intellectual development and his conceptions of justice and rights, this is an excellent and timely book that makes a persuasive case for including Marx in the canon of the great theorists of liberalism and democracy.

Revisiting Marx’s Critique of Liberalism: Rethinking Justice, Legality and Rights. Igor Shoikhedbrod. Palgrave Macmillan. 2019.  

Karl Marx has a reputation for being one of the foremost critics of liberalism and the discourse of rights. In Revisiting Marx’s Critique of Liberalism, political theorist Igor Shoikhedbrod contests this simplistic assumption. His Marx does not hold a dogmatic antipathy to justice and rights. Instead we get a glimpse of Marx as a philosophical pioneer of what is known in critical theory as ‘immanent critique’. This Marx does not simply repudiate liberal ideology from the outside, but rather tests its internal limits, setting it against its own presumptions and ideals, in order to expand our comprehension of it and articulate a wider notion of human emancipation. Shoikhedbrod makes a persuasive case for including Marx in the canon of the great theorists of liberalism and democracy, as a thinker who had something original and profound to say about the dominant political imaginary of modernity.

The book has multiple aims. It is a re-reading of Marx’s theory of law and justice. Shoikhedbrod wants to move from the dominant opinion that Marx dismissed law and justice as such. Through this re-reading, Shoikhedbrod also aims to re-construct a Marxist theory of law that is closer to Marx’s own intellectual development. In other words, he wants to assemble a Marxist theory of law that can address the deficiencies of common interpretations, chief among them being that of the Russian legal theorist Evgeny Pashukanis (1891-1937). Shoikhedbrod also puts forward a radical defence of constitutionalism, the rule of law and democracy, from a Marxist perspective, as a necessary site of social struggles against ‘global financialised neo-liberalism’ and state authoritarianism. In so doing, he demonstrates the relevance of Marx’s immanent critique of liberalism to contemporary debates in political theory. Finally, he defends a notion of post-capitalist, communist legality against critics who imagine that a post-capitalist society will abandon institutional law as such.

The first part of the book is where Shoikhedbrod lays out his re-reading of Marx’s comments on liberalism and law, which are scattered across many different texts. Shoikhedbrod is evidently sensitive to the role of biography in the formation of political philosophy, and therefore he traces Marx’s intellectual development from a young radical democratic/republican in a fierce battle with the Prussian state to an exiled revolutionary. In the first stage of his development, Marx differentiated between rational law and positive law, justice and law, ‘Recht’ and ‘Gesetz’. This allowed him, in his early journalistic writings, to criticise laws from the ideal standpoint of a universalised, substantive concept of equality. In this period, we see a young German radical concerned with the erosion of civil and political liberties, and the legislative battles at the heart of the rise of industrial capitalism. Later, especially as his confrontation with Prussian authoritarianism escalated, Marx realised that it is not enough to simply contrast ideal (rational) against positive (existing) law. He recognised that those ideal standards are themselves an expression of a deficient legal form that conceals social inequalities.

Marx reached his political maturity with his formulation of a materialist theory of law and society. His model sees legal form as a central component and expression of the underlying mode of production. In this stage, bourgeois right, especially private right, is essential to the structure of capitalist society as such. Marx replaced legal-democratic critique with historical analysis, demonstrating that every legal form expresses a certain property relation that defines an epoch. This does not mean that Marx abandoned his earlier view of the importance of political emancipation (such as freedom of the press, freedom of association and universal suffrage). Rather, he sought to radicalise political emancipation beyond its limits towards a more substantive social notion of freedom. Therefore, Shoikhedbrod criticises the tradition of legal scholarship that took Marx as outright dismissing legality and right.

The second part of the book engages with the most important theorists of liberalism and democracy in contemporary political philosophy: namely, John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, Axel Honneth and Nancy Fraser. What those authors share, in Shoikhedbrod’s view, is the assumption that Marxism is a doctrine hostile to rights. In fact, it could be argued that the reconstruction of liberalism led by Rawls and Habermas was driven by the need to save modern political philosophy from Marxist denigration. However, as Shoikhedbrod makes clear, especially in the cases of Rawls, Habermas and Honneth, their attempts to provide liberalism with a renewed normative core end up cutting off the resources for any critique of contemporary financial capitalism. The three theorists reproduce a neo-Kantian understanding of right and law, which cannot explain, let alone directly resist, the social and political deficiencies of contemporary capitalism.

However, sometimes it is unclear in the book where the core of Shoikhedbrod’s disagreements with these theorists lies. Is it their neo-Kantianism, their toothless critique of financial capitalism or is it simply for not being Marxists? Shoikhedbrod may need to develop a deeper intellectual history of those authors and their divergent relations to Marx in order to account for their hesitations. Another problem is a certain confusion regarding the place of the ‘market’ in capitalism and post-capitalism. It is unclear to me why Shoikhedbrod too quickly dismisses the value of Rawls’s and Honneth’s defence of some version of market socialism, while he also argues that Habermas is wrong in identifying the market with capitalism (150-59).

Finally, Shoikhedbrod puts forward a Marxist defence of constitutionalism, the rule of law and political democracy. This may sound odd to those who are used to viewing Marx as a dogmatic enemy of democracy, but Shoikhedbrod presents a different view of the rule of law that is also partially inspired by the historian E. P. Thompson. In this view, the rule of law is a partial and limited protection of weaker classes against the arbitrary abuses of the strong. It is a means or a site through which the oppressed could push back at and set limits to capitalist exploitation. This is clear, for example, in the case of Marx’s celebration of proletarian victory in battles over a shorter working day in Capital. Shoikhedbrod reminds leftists of the centrality of reforms for resisting the ravages of capitalism and for strengthening social struggle, and possibly as a utopian foreshadowing of what communist legality could become.

It is here that the contemporary relevance of the book comes to light, as we witness the terrifying rise of authoritarian movements across the world. However, it would have been useful for Shoikhedbrod to expand and elaborate further on how he conceptualises the nature of ‘social struggles’. How can his account renew and transform older debates around reform versus revolution, and the role of political parties and parliamentary elections in social struggle? This would have clarified the political implications of his philosophical arguments. Another obscurity is the way he posits ‘social struggles’ unproblematically, without indicating whether those struggles merely approach legality from the instrumental point of view of their material interest, or whether they play a more normative role in embodying a radical core of citizenship. There is a tension here between an instrumentalist and ideal-normative view of social struggle, which would have also benefitted from engagement with debates in other corners of political theory. I am thinking here of other critics of Marx like Hannah Arendt, Sheldon Wolin and Claude Lefort.

All in all, this is an excellent and timely book. Especially impressive is Shoikhedbrod’s attention to Marx’s biography and formation as a political actor in his own right. Shoikhedbrod restores a radical-democratic Marx who is passionate about political emancipation, who sees the political value of freedoms of expression and association and who actively embodies this impassioned spirit of resistance to state repression.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Combination of Image by moritz320 from Pixabay and Image by Birgit Böllinger from Pixabay.

 


Who will go back to work?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 12/05/2020 - 11:34pm in

As Britain starts to consider possible paths out of the current lock-down and ‘furlough’ scheme, the class divisions are becoming ever clearer. The new advice from the government this week is that those who are unable to work from home, and can avoid public transport, should return to work. The Prime Minister gave the examples of construction and manufacturing work.

Despite the fact that people are prevented from meeting up with family members and friends indoors, the new advice also encourages domestic cleaners, childcare professionals, builders and craftsmen to return to working in people’s homes, creating the strange situation in which a parent can pay someone to care for their child but not ask their sibling or neighbour as a favour. This new advice has coincided with the publication of new analysis by the office for National Statistics, showing that low-skilled men face the highest risk of dying from Covid-19, of any group in the working age population. The idea of ‘tapering‘ the furlough scheme (now rejected by the Chancellor until the autumn) would heighten the fear that people were being forced back into unsafe working environments.

These divisions have become visceral and public, highlighting forms of stratification that often go unnoticed or unreported. Writing for the Goldsmiths Press blog, Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper and Martijn Konings have observed how the Covid crisis entrenches existing divisions enacted by the asset economy, where differing relations to assets in general and real estate in particular are resulting in different levels of safety and security. As I wrote here, the identification of ‘essential’ workers has positive political potential, if it can be recognised in a future economic model, but it also circumscribes those workers who are expected to put themselves at risk.

There has now been ample reflection on what kind of work can and can’t be done from home, and how caring responsibilities delimit home-working further. The lessons being learnt will no doubt influence the design of offices and even cities for many years to come. But here I want to reflect on a more fundamental division: of whether human beings are treated as ‘capital’ or as ‘labour’, and how the former potentially retain privileges that the latter can’t.

Humans as capital

In his now famous lectures on neoliberalism, Michel Foucault argues that a fundamental problem for the ‘American neoliberals’ (by which he means the Chicago School) was of what to do with the category of ‘labour’. In common with the German neoliberals (or ordoliberals), the liberal fear of treating human beings as ‘labour’ was of a form of proletarianisation and collectivism, which renounced individual responsibility, in both an economic and a moral sense. A pessimistic 1930s vision of ‘mass society’ was carried over into post-War neoliberal thought, which looked to the market to come up with a version of democracy which was constitutionally and psychologically anchored in  property-owning individualism.

The great breakthrough in American neoliberal thought, Foucault argued, was made by Gary Becker who abandoned the category of ‘labour’ altogether, and replaced it with that of ‘human capital’: a type of asset that could be leveraged (debt), invested in (education), managed (self-control) and exploited for profit (employment). Conceived as human capital, every individual has the opportunity to refashion themselves, accrue (or lose) value in the eyes of the market, and live off themselves like an entrepreneur. The linking of higher education to life-long debt is justified on precisely this basis, that tuition is an investment, that will pay a return over decades. This is a vision which brings a disciplining, potentially crippling, norm of individual responsibility with it, which spawns a cottage industry of positive psychology, mindfulness and coaching services to help individuals cope.

The work of Michel Feher builds on this analysis, to consider what are the ethical and political implications for a society made up of human capitals. Feher points out [pdf] that, unlike the relation of liberal subject and labour, there is no alienation involved in the marketing of human capital. As human capital, we must identify wholly with our work, both paid and unpaid. We must demonstrate passion for what we do, as a means of marketing it and achieving income for it. An entrepreneur may have no income, but they are never unemployed.

As Feher explores in Rated Agency, (reviewed by Nils Peters) like all capital, human capital depends on being credit-worthy, both in the conventional financial sense (of being able to repay loans) and in a broader reputational sense of having a credible, optimistic vision of oneself and the future (as with a brand). Perhaps the ultimate manifestation of this logic is the Instagram or Youtube star, who lives their entire life around a logic of human capital appreciation via cultural credibility and authenticity. Just like a stock price, the value of human capital is heavily reputational in nature: it depends partly on a collective leap of faith, that it is deserved, and this confidence can be self-perpetuating over the medium term, until a bubble bursts. (I’ve often thought that the fateful story of the Fyre Festival, told in the extraordinary Netflix documentary, is the perfect morality tale of neoliberalism.)

Therefore, human capital, unlike labour, must be worked on over time to build up its value, either through education, social networking, self-marketing or other forms of cultural signalling. Save for where someone suffers a dramatic loss of reputation, in the form of a scandal, it is also likely to depreciate relatively slowly too. By contrast, the liberal ideal of labour is of a relatively homogeneous commodity that is sold on the market for whatever price the market sets. While various forms of protection prevent this (from trades unions to minimum wages), the abstract ideal of a labour market sees wages as set by forces of supply and demand, and a sudden spike in unemployment is simply dealt with via an equally sudden fall in wages.

 

Back to work?

Within the American neoliberal imaginary described by Foucault, all human beings can be understood as ‘human capital’. A construction worker, a taxi driver or a factory worker could all acquire skills, change their ‘brand’ or seek a new niche, where ‘profits’ can be made. But sociological reality falls short of this. Austrian neoliberals always believed that entrepreneurship was a rare quality, and that most people were unable to endure such a solitary and burdensome existence (the mental health trajectory of neoliberal America suggests they may have had a point). Meanwhile, Feher argues that actually existing neoliberalism tends to rely on all-encompassing surveillance infrastructures with which to ‘rate’ us, as an alternative to relying on personal flexibility and disruption.

The inequalities that have become visible due to Covid-19 suggest a different way of thinking about this. It’s not simply that some work can happen at home, while other forms of work can’t; it’s that some people retain the liberal status of ‘labour’, and others have the neoliberal status of ‘human capital’, even if they are not in risky or entrepreneurial positions. To be a labourer, one gets paid in exchange for units of time (hours, weeks, months). To be human capital, one can continue to draw income by virtue of those who continue to believe in you and wish to sustain a relationship with you. This includes banks (as Lazzarato stresses, the neoliberal subject is an indebted subject), but it is also clients and other partners. The former is a cruder market relation, whereas the latter is a more moral and financial logic, that potentially produces more enduring bonds of obligation and duty.

The furlough scheme disguises the difference, but one of the divisions at work here is between those whose market value is measurable as orthodox productivity (cleaning, driving, cooking etc), and those whose market value is a more complex form of socio-economic reputation, that they can retain even while doing very little. The likely truth is that there are all manner of people in the latter category, who are unfurloughed, ‘working from home’ but doing very little work because of caring responsibilities, anxiety or because there simply isn’t work to do. And yet their employers continue to pay them, because their relation is not one of supply and demand, but of mutual belief between capitals.

The issue of childcare becomes relevant here. As Melinda Cooper and Feher have both argued, neoliberalism dissolves the distinction between market and family life. Responsible personhood is both enterprising and caring, both financially creditable and morally dutiful. Entrepreneurship and parenthood are synthesised into a single ethos of flexibility and optimism. While this is undoubtedly very stressful, it is more practically compatible with the current Covid-created situation, in which a balance must be struck between paid and unpaid work, that is responsive to demands. For the white collar ‘human capital’ parent, it is reasonable to explain that they will be working at less than the usual rate due to childcare, and expect full pay. For the parent who is paid to labour, there is no justification (or no currently dominant justification) for continuing to pay them for more hours than they put in.

It is commonly assumed that neoliberalism equates to ubiquitous flexibility and precarity, but this ignores the privileged sections of society – consultants and managers – which are investees of social and financial credit. While they are not immune to the fluctuations of the market, they locked into flows of money and trust that out-live medium-term upheavals. They may be a partner in a firm that is draining money, but retains the support of its investors and lenders, and therefore has a future.

There is, of course, a more genuinely risk-taking and precarious form of human capital (arguably truer to the original neoliberal vision of heroic disruptors, than the actually existing reality that Feher describes), embodied by artists and innovators, who may live outside a conventional labour market, but without the capacity to leverage their capital either. They relish autonomy and flexibility, but rely on the market being there for them when they need it. This is the figure with which capitalism has long had a love-hate relationship with, eager to suck out the creativity and invention, but then just as eager to routinise and sedate. The Covid crisis does not threaten such individuals’ health in the same way it threatens carers or drivers, but it certainly threatens the viability of this lifestyle, absent inherited wealth.

This, it seems to me, is how the politics is playing out. If a person has the status of an asset, they are embedded in a much longer-term flow of investment and return, that is knitted together via a combination of balance sheets, mutual trust and duty. As Cooper stresses, the neoliberal subject is never simply a calculator, but also the maker and recipient of promises and pledges over the long-term. It’s not simply that such a person ‘works from home’ (it’s possible that they don’t), while others ‘go to work’; it’s that human capital is valued via an element of faith which can endure, and not a simple transaction.

The reason the Prime Minister wants others to be ‘encouraged’ back to work is because they are only valued and valuable while they are working. They don’t exist within a logic of investment and return, but one of exchange. Even if these people could do their work from home (imagine, say, a telesales assistant), they would not enjoy the same ability to integrate their work with childcare; there wouldn’t be the same levels of sympathy and humour when children disrupt their work; they are not being employed as an integrated moral-financial asset with a private life, but for the labour that they can expend in an alienating fashion.

This is not to say that ‘human capital’ is not depreciating right now while sitting idle, either furloughed or not. The ‘bullshit jobs’ thesis is that much of the well-remunerated ‘creative’ and ‘knowledge’ work in our economy is unnecessary and based on hot air. In Feher’s terms, it is the result of a kind of collective cultural bubble, which succeeds in valorising certain types of occupation via a virtuous circle of social esteem and high pay. It is perfectly feasible that, as time elapses and the furlough scheme is eventually unwound, that this bubble will be found to have burst. As the Fyre Festival demonstrated succinctly, the ability to live indefinitely on the basis of social credit is as precarious as the ability to live on the basis of financial credit.

The orthodox liberal labour market had been failing for decades prior to the Covid crisis, inasmuch as millions of people earn less than they need to live, and therefore rely on income supplements from the government and punitive forms of credit such as payday loans. This failure coincided with the rise of the ‘asset condition’ that Adkins, Cooper and Konings write about, which led more people to seek income from property, rather than relying on labour. Should the air of credibility now leak out of both housing assets and human capital, then the labour market will become the concern of everyone, and demand rethinking in ways that integrate the form of moral obligations and care that are currently channelled via a logic of human capital. In the meantime, the original fear of the neoliberals – that proletarianization results in mass movements, manifest in organisation and industrial conflict – could  potentially be realised all over again.

The post Who will go back to work? appeared first on Political Economy Research Centre.

Who will go back to work?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 12/05/2020 - 11:34pm in

As Britain starts to consider possible paths out of the current lock-down and ‘furlough’ scheme, the class divisions are becoming ever clearer. The new advice from the government this week is that those who are unable to work from home, and can avoid public transport, should return to work. The Prime Minister gave the examples of construction and manufacturing work.

Despite the fact that people are prevented from meeting up with family members and friends indoors, the new advice also encourages domestic cleaners, childcare professionals, builders and craftsmen to return to working in people’s homes, creating the strange situation in which a parent can pay someone to care for their child but not ask their sibling or neighbour as a favour. This new advice has coincided with the publication of new analysis by the office for National Statistics, showing that low-skilled men face the highest risk of dying from Covid-19, of any group in the working age population. The idea of ‘tapering‘ the furlough scheme (now rejected by the Chancellor until the autumn) would heighten the fear that people were being forced back into unsafe working environments.

These divisions have become visceral and public, highlighting forms of stratification that often go unnoticed or unreported. Writing for the Goldsmiths Press blog, Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper and Martijn Konings have observed how the Covid crisis entrenches existing divisions enacted by the asset economy, where differing relations to assets in general and real estate in particular are resulting in different levels of safety and security. As I wrote here, the identification of ‘essential’ workers has positive political potential, if it can be recognised in a future economic model, but it also circumscribes those workers who are expected to put themselves at risk.

There has now been ample reflection on what kind of work can and can’t be done from home, and how caring responsibilities delimit home-working further. The lessons being learnt will no doubt influence the design of offices and even cities for many years to come. But here I want to reflect on a more fundamental division: of whether human beings are treated as ‘capital’ or as ‘labour’, and how the former potentially retain privileges that the latter can’t.

Humans as capital

In his now famous lectures on neoliberalism, Michel Foucault argues that a fundamental problem for the ‘American neoliberals’ (by which he means the Chicago School) was of what to do with the category of ‘labour’. In common with the German neoliberals (or ordoliberals), the liberal fear of treating human beings as ‘labour’ was of a form of proletarianisation and collectivism, which renounced individual responsibility, in both an economic and a moral sense. A pessimistic 1930s vision of ‘mass society’ was carried over into post-War neoliberal thought, which looked to the market to come up with a version of democracy which was constitutionally and psychologically anchored in  property-owning individualism.

The great breakthrough in American neoliberal thought, Foucault argued, was made by Gary Becker who abandoned the category of ‘labour’ altogether, and replaced it with that of ‘human capital’: a type of asset that could be leveraged (debt), invested in (education), managed (self-control) and exploited for profit (employment). Conceived as human capital, every individual has the opportunity to refashion themselves, accrue (or lose) value in the eyes of the market, and live off themselves like an entrepreneur. The linking of higher education to life-long debt is justified on precisely this basis, that tuition is an investment, that will pay a return over decades. This is a vision which brings a disciplining, potentially crippling, norm of individual responsibility with it, which spawns a cottage industry of positive psychology, mindfulness and coaching services to help individuals cope.

The work of Michel Feher builds on this analysis, to consider what are the ethical and political implications for a society made up of human capitals. Feher points out [pdf] that, unlike the relation of liberal subject and labour, there is no alienation involved in the marketing of human capital. As human capital, we must identify wholly with our work, both paid and unpaid. We must demonstrate passion for what we do, as a means of marketing it and achieving income for it. An entrepreneur may have no income, but they are never unemployed.

As Feher explores in Rated Agency, (reviewed by Nils Peters) like all capital, human capital depends on being credit-worthy, both in the conventional financial sense (of being able to repay loans) and in a broader reputational sense of having a credible, optimistic vision of oneself and the future (as with a brand). Perhaps the ultimate manifestation of this logic is the Instagram or Youtube star, who lives their entire life around a logic of human capital appreciation via cultural credibility and authenticity. Just like a stock price, the value of human capital is heavily reputational in nature: it depends partly on a collective leap of faith, that it is deserved, and this confidence can be self-perpetuating over the medium term, until a bubble bursts. (I’ve often thought that the fateful story of the Fyre Festival, told in the extraordinary Netflix documentary, is the perfect morality tale of neoliberalism.)

Therefore, human capital, unlike labour, must be worked on over time to build up its value, either through education, social networking, self-marketing or other forms of cultural signalling. Save for where someone suffers a dramatic loss of reputation, in the form of a scandal, it is also likely to depreciate relatively slowly too. By contrast, the liberal ideal of labour is of a relatively homogeneous commodity that is sold on the market for whatever price the market sets. While various forms of protection prevent this (from trades unions to minimum wages), the abstract ideal of a labour market sees wages as set by forces of supply and demand, and a sudden spike in unemployment is simply dealt with via an equally sudden fall in wages.

 

Back to work?

Within the American neoliberal imaginary described by Foucault, all human beings can be understood as ‘human capital’. A construction worker, a taxi driver or a factory worker could all acquire skills, change their ‘brand’ or seek a new niche, where ‘profits’ can be made. But sociological reality falls short of this. Austrian neoliberals always believed that entrepreneurship was a rare quality, and that most people were unable to endure such a solitary and burdensome existence (the mental health trajectory of neoliberal America suggests they may have had a point). Meanwhile, Feher argues that actually existing neoliberalism tends to rely on all-encompassing surveillance infrastructures with which to ‘rate’ us, as an alternative to relying on personal flexibility and disruption.

The inequalities that have become visible due to Covid-19 suggest a different way of thinking about this. It’s not simply that some work can happen at home, while other forms of work can’t; it’s that some people retain the liberal status of ‘labour’, and others have the neoliberal status of ‘human capital’, even if they are not in risky or entrepreneurial positions. To be a labourer, one gets paid in exchange for units of time (hours, weeks, months). To be human capital, one can continue to draw income by virtue of those who continue to believe in you and wish to sustain a relationship with you. This includes banks (as Lazzarato stresses, the neoliberal subject is an indebted subject), but it is also clients and other partners. The former is a cruder market relation, whereas the latter is a more moral and financial logic, that potentially produces more enduring bonds of obligation and duty.

The furlough scheme disguises the difference, but one of the divisions at work here is between those whose market value is measurable as orthodox productivity (cleaning, driving, cooking etc), and those whose market value is a more complex form of socio-economic reputation, that they can retain even while doing very little. The likely truth is that there are all manner of people in the latter category, who are unfurloughed, ‘working from home’ but doing very little work because of caring responsibilities, anxiety or because there simply isn’t work to do. And yet their employers continue to pay them, because their relation is not one of supply and demand, but of mutual belief between capitals.

The issue of childcare becomes relevant here. As Melinda Cooper and Feher have both argued, neoliberalism dissolves the distinction between market and family life. Responsible personhood is both enterprising and caring, both financially creditable and morally dutiful. Entrepreneurship and parenthood are synthesised into a single ethos of flexibility and optimism. While this is undoubtedly very stressful, it is more practically compatible with the current Covid-created situation, in which a balance must be struck between paid and unpaid work, that is responsive to demands. For the white collar ‘human capital’ parent, it is reasonable to explain that they will be working at less than the usual rate due to childcare, and expect full pay. For the parent who is paid to labour, there is no justification (or no currently dominant justification) for continuing to pay them for more hours than they put in.

It is commonly assumed that neoliberalism equates to ubiquitous flexibility and precarity, but this ignores the privileged sections of society – consultants and managers – which are investees of social and financial credit. While they are not immune to the fluctuations of the market, they locked into flows of money and trust that out-live medium-term upheavals. They may be a partner in a firm that is draining money, but retains the support of its investors and lenders, and therefore has a future.

There is, of course, a more genuinely risk-taking and precarious form of human capital (arguably truer to the original neoliberal vision of heroic disruptors, than the actually existing reality that Feher describes), embodied by artists and innovators, who may live outside a conventional labour market, but without the capacity to leverage their capital either. They relish autonomy and flexibility, but rely on the market being there for them when they need it. This is the figure with which capitalism has long had a love-hate relationship with, eager to suck out the creativity and invention, but then just as eager to routinise and sedate. The Covid crisis does not threaten such individuals’ health in the same way it threatens carers or drivers, but it certainly threatens the viability of this lifestyle, absent inherited wealth.

This, it seems to me, is how the politics is playing out. If a person has the status of an asset, they are embedded in a much longer-term flow of investment and return, that is knitted together via a combination of balance sheets, mutual trust and duty. As Cooper stresses, the neoliberal subject is never simply a calculator, but also the maker and recipient of promises and pledges over the long-term. It’s not simply that such a person ‘works from home’ (it’s possible that they don’t), while others ‘go to work’; it’s that human capital is valued via an element of faith which can endure, and not a simple transaction.

The reason the Prime Minister wants others to be ‘encouraged’ back to work is because they are only valued and valuable while they are working. They don’t exist within a logic of investment and return, but one of exchange. Even if these people could do their work from home (imagine, say, a telesales assistant), they would not enjoy the same ability to integrate their work with childcare; there wouldn’t be the same levels of sympathy and humour when children disrupt their work; they are not being employed as an integrated moral-financial asset with a private life, but for the labour that they can expend in an alienating fashion.

This is not to say that ‘human capital’ is not depreciating right now while sitting idle, either furloughed or not. The ‘bullshit jobs’ thesis is that much of the well-remunerated ‘creative’ and ‘knowledge’ work in our economy is unnecessary and based on hot air. In Feher’s terms, it is the result of a kind of collective cultural bubble, which succeeds in valorising certain types of occupation via a virtuous circle of social esteem and high pay. It is perfectly feasible that, as time elapses and the furlough scheme is eventually unwound, that this bubble will be found to have burst. As the Fyre Festival demonstrated succinctly, the ability to live indefinitely on the basis of social credit is as precarious as the ability to live on the basis of financial credit.

The orthodox liberal labour market had been failing for decades prior to the Covid crisis, inasmuch as millions of people earn less than they need to live, and therefore rely on income supplements from the government and punitive forms of credit such as payday loans. This failure coincided with the rise of the ‘asset condition’ that Adkins, Cooper and Konings write about, which led more people to seek income from property, rather than relying on labour. Should the air of credibility now leak out of both housing assets and human capital, then the labour market will become the concern of everyone, and demand rethinking in ways that integrate the form of moral obligations and care that are currently channelled via a logic of human capital. In the meantime, the original fear of the neoliberals – that proletarianization results in mass movements, manifest in organisation and industrial conflict – could  potentially be realised all over again.

The post Who will go back to work? appeared first on Political Economy Research Centre.

Reasserting liberalism: Wera Hobhouse’s agenda to revive Liberal values

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 03/03/2020 - 1:18am in

Wera Hobhouse (picture: Bath Echo)

With the Labour Party leadership election continuing to drag on – longer than Götterdämmerung but likely to bring much the same outcome for that benighted party – little attention has been given to the other British political leadership that will take place later this year – that for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats.

It’s undeniable that the Liberal Democrats had a disappointing election. Buoyed by good European Election results and with Jo Swinson talking about how a Liberal Democrat win would be a mandate to stop Brexit, the outcome was brutal, especially in England; only 12 MPs and the apparent wholesale rejection of Liberal values in favour of an unashamed populist nationalism – English nationalism – of the right.

Assuming that Labour cannot reverse the Corbynist tide, that result provides possibly unique opportunities for the Liberal Democrats – if they can grasp them. Brexit was never simply about the question of whether the United Kingdom should leave the EU; it was one battle in a much larger culture war about the sort of society we want to be. Those battle-lines have become much clearer in the weeks since Johnson’s election win: a government that defines itself by its attacks on the institutions of liberal democracy – the judiciary, the Civil Service, even the BBC – while seeking a hard Brexit that will inflict untold economic and social damage in the name of satisfying nationalist cravings for what will clearly be an illusion of independence. Everything that has happened since the election – including the Labour Party election, characterised by its refusal to understand what really happened in December, and its participants’ apparent determination to anaesthetise its members with comforting, unthreatening narratives rather than dealing with root causes – points to the fact that the dividing line in British politics is no longer about left and right, or class, or identity, but between the politics of post-truth, populist nationalism on the one hand and of the core values of liberal democracy – of empirically-based, evidenced reform on the other.

Into that void comes the first avowed Liberal Democrat leadership candidate – Bath MP Wera Hobhouse. In both an article on the PoliticsHome website and on her own, new, campaigning website, Hobhouse sets out a vision for how the Liberal Democrats should move forward; she makes a persuasive pitch for the case for locating the party firmly on the centre-left.

There are two ideas that appear central to her case, and I think could offer the way forward for Liberal Democrats to seize the political agenda.

The first is essentially ground-clearing. It is essential that the Party acknowledges that coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives was an appalling mistake – however well-intentioned – that seriously traduced the party’s values and damaged its credibility. In my view it is absolutely essential that we repudiate the coalition, publicly and unequivocally. It remains a huge political handicap that we have to deal with.

Second, Hobhouse argues that we should “keep the flame” of rejoining the EU burning. The language here is careful; I note that she does not say that we should campaign to rejoin, and I think she is absolutely right in that. In England in particular such a position would be politically disastrous; we have to accept that, whatever we think of the electoral system, Johnson has within the terms of British constitutional practice a mandate to take forward Brexit, most of all in England where Tories and Brexit Party combined took 49% of the vote. Technical arguments that the remain/people’s vote parties had a small majority of votes cast aren’t going to cut it in the current climate, and risk reinforcing the electoral coalition – many of whom are far from being natural Tory voters – that formed around Johnson’s message of getting Brexit done last December.

I think that the key message is slightly different. We Remainers constructed the largest popular movement seen in recent British politics; we twice got a million people on to the streets of London, got six million people to sign a petition calling for the revocation of Article 50, and how a network of active, grassroots campaign groups sprung up around the UK, often with little support or encouragement from a confused and conflicted anti-Brexit campaign in London. And those people where, whether they knew it explicitly or not, campaigning for liberal values. In many ways, that big Liberal Democrat vote in the European Elections in May 2019 looks like the triumph, not of the Liberal Democrats as such, but of the “for Europe” grassroots groups around the UK, who, while explicitly and rightly cross-party, created the climate in which that vote could happen; and they are the Liberal Democrats’ natural constituency. Their values are our values.

And likewise Liberal Democrats would do well to examine how the “for Europe” groups managed, with little in the way of structure or resources, to organise grassroots campaigns that made an impression and achieved a profile that many local Liberal Democrat groups could only dream of; and often did so with a minimal resources, but with passion and imagination; a lesson, perhaps, that there is a lot more to campaigning and engagement than sticking Focus through letter boxes. If Liberal Democrats want to engage with the grassroots politics that got a million people on to the streets of London – or indeed got a thousand people on to the streets of my own city of Cardiff – they should have the humility to learn lessons from that movement too.

The biggest strength that Liberal Democrats have now is the ability to rewrite the narrative in a time of crisis: to reach out and re-engage with the millions of people who yearn for Liberal values in populist times; the decent people who, outraged by the Liberal Democrats’ role in supporting Cameron’s austerity government, looked elsewhere – most of all to the movement against Brexit – to find expression for those values. And, as Wera Hobhouse writes, in order to do that her party needs to make common cause with the people who share those values and to make a clean break with the last ten years.

We Remainers built a huge mass movement. Where do we go now?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 15/12/2019 - 9:33pm in

Photograph (c) Neil Schofield-Hughes

For those of us in the movement to remain in the EU, this has been a grim few days. It appears inevitable that we will leave the EU on 31st January – and lose our freedom of movement, so many of our rights as citizens, our jobs and services.

But, along the way, we did something extraordinary. We built one of the biggest mass movements Britain has ever seen – and built it, crucially, from the grass roots up. We twice got well over a million people on to the streets of London; many thousands more on to the streets of our cities, towns and communities; got six million signature on a petition to revoke Article 50 in a matter of hours.

And it was, for the most parts, a genuine grass-roots movement. We came from across all political parties, but, most important of all, so many of our brightest stars, best organisers and most indefatigable activists had never been active in politics before. We had energy, passion, belief and wit (look at some of our banners!). It has been a joyous experience, a celebration of shared values.

Photograph (c) Neil Schofield-Hughes

And we always knew that Brexit was about far more than leaving the EU. It was about values and culture; about whether we wanted to be an open, optimistic society taking our place in the world, or a crabbed, fearful one cringing behind our shutters against the world. It was about liberal values, about the preservation of liberal democracy (not least against the shameful, wholly dishonest politics of the EU referendum and the populist sloganising that followed it). The sharing of values ran deep and wide; this was not a campaign, it was a movement.

Speaking personally, it has been the most exciting political movement I have ever been involved in; and I realise that, working in the cross-party and no-party campaigns here in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan, the conversations that I, as an ex-Labour Party member, have had with people from across the party spectrum (including ex-Conservatives) have been more open, more constructive, more adult, more intelligent than any I could have had with, say, the cultists of Cardiff Momentum. And not just about Brexit; the sharing of values goes deep.

Photograph (c) Neil Schofield-Hughes

Of course there have been sneers – Owen Jones’ infamous comment that one of our marches was the world’s longest Waitrose queue. Well, Owen would know. But what I do know is that in the Labour Party, Corbyn loyalists in particular used to talk a lot about solidarity, about mass movements; but all too often it was a case of a handful of sad old Trots living out their fantasies (and all the time characterising mass movements as a cheerless rank-and-file, characterised by obedience and uniformity and led by the directing force of the vanguard party elite; well, if there’s one thing I know after three years of the anti-Brexit movement, it is that real mass movements are glorious in their diversity, their humour, and occasionally their sheer stroppiness).

So, where now?

After last Thursday, defeating Brexit looks like a lost cause (although we should never write anything off). But the things behind Brexit – the lies, the crude populism, the racism, the contempt for democratic process – are still there. A Johnson majority government will see attacks on public institutions – the NHS above all – but also the undermining of the independence of the judiciary, the continued disgusting treatment of EU citizens in the UK, a policy of outright hostility against immigrants. And these are all questions of values – whether we are prepared to accept a Trump-like “post-truth” populism, or reassert liberal, democratic, constitutional values. And with Labour unable to own its own role in its defeat, and with Corbyn still claiming that Labour “won the arguments”, there seems to be little doubt that Labour will move on from its own internal dialogue. Something more is needed.

How about a genuine movement in defence of liberalism? How about harnessing the energy, the imagination, the passion, the sheer sense of fun of the millions of people who have come together to oppose Brexit, to oppose the things that lie behind Brexit – populism, nationalism, authoritarianism – and to promote liberal, progressive democracy based on values of inclusion, diversity and internationalism?

Because that is the real divide in our politics now. These could be grim years. But hope lies in the spirit that pervaded our glorious grass-roots ant-Brexit movement.