Now and then

I had lunch yesterday with an old (and elderly) friend who is in a despairing mood about what is happening to his country (the US) and the UK. Part of our conversation was about the nature of the seismic change that we both sense in those two democracies. (This was a theme of my earlier post below.)

Later in the evening, I sent him an excerpt from a column by my Observer colleague, Andrew Rawnsley, which illustrated one aspect of the change.

When people refer to the British constitution, they are talking about a hotch-potch of such conventions, combined with ancient charters, precedents, international agreements, legislative bolt-ons and unwritten understandings. The fabric of this messy tapestry is held together by a crucial thread. That is an underlying assumption that everyone can be trusted to behave in a proper way. In the absence of a formal constitution, British democracy is heavily reliant on politicians acting with honour and playing fair.

What if they don’t? What happens then? We may be about to find out if Boris Johnson faces a no-confidence vote this autumn, loses, refuses to quit as prime minister and barricades himself in Number 10 for long enough to force through a no-deal Brexit before an election can take place. This is a scenario so grotesque as to be scarcely believable. That doesn’t make it an impossible one.

What Rawnsley’s article illustrates is what we are discovering about the fragility of our democracies. Their survival depends on politicians respecting norms. But they seem to have no recourse to people who don’t respect — indeed flaunt their contempt for — those norms. So Johnson could lose a confidence vote and yet ignore the conventions. And as far as one can see there’s nothing that we could do about it — even if two million people marched in protest in London, he could sit it out.

Ah well, people say, that’s what you get when you don’t have a written constitution and make do with an ad-hoc patchwork quilt of conventions, precedents, jumbo jumbo and laws that passes for one in Britain. But the Americans do have a written constitution and a fat lot of use that seems to be in dealing with Trump. Again, what’s so shocking to liberals is the way the president is contemptuously flouting norms that were once regarded as semi-sacred. For example, it was more or less unthinkable until 2016 that a sitting president would use his office to enrich himself and his family in flamboyant style. (Think of the way the Trump hotel in Washington is now being milked for profits derived from foreign clowns who stay there in the hope that it might gain them some favour in the White House.)

The other topic in yesterday’s gloomy conversation was the awful sense of impotence many citizens (or subjects, in the UK case) feel as they watch this wanton despoliation of democratic norms. In that context, this quotation from a piece by Niamh Cullen in the London Review of Books, puts a nice historical spin on it:

“When I began to research my book on Piero Gobetti”, she writes,

the precocious young anti-fascist journalist and early victim of Mussolini, the world in which he lived seemed very remote to me. I could relate little of the post-1918 anger and desperation – the obsession with borders and national grievance, the struggle to make ends meet in times of unemployment and rising inflation, the angry men convinced they had been dispossessed – to my own circumstances. It was Dublin in the mid-2000s and the city was still feeling pretty boomy, with little hint of the global recession to come. The ideas and institutions of the EU seemed broadly secure and democracy was taken for granted. Now with the rise of populism and nationalism across Europe and the US, as responses both to the global recession and to the migration crisis, the anxiety, anger and fear of the 1920s and 1930s seem a little more real.

And now?

I feel as if I now have a little more insight into how it might feel to see the ideas and institutions of the state collapse around you, and yet still go about your life as if nothing much has changed. In the last several years, with the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, Brexit, the migration crisis and the increasingly palpable effects of climate change, the world has profoundly shifted on its axis. Yet I have done little about it. I imagine these feelings of inertia and dread – the conviction that something should be done to prevent this downward slide combined with the strong sense that I can do nothing – is what it might have been like to live through the normalisation of fascism in Italy in the 1920s. This is not to suggest that Johnson, Trump et al. are similar to Mussolini – they may be, but that is a whole different issue – but rather that the sense of crisis that people lived with in the 1920s has parallels to our own time, as the extreme becomes normal, and it becomes gradually more difficult to imagine how things could be different.

Our recent history, in a nutshell

From John Lanchester, opening a thoughtful and informative LRB essay on the idea of Universal Basic Income. “The broad outline of 21st-century history, its first couple of decades anyway”, he writes,

is starting to become clear. A period of credit-fuelled expansion and runaway financialisation ended with an abrupt crash and an unprecedented bank bailout. The public’s reward for assuming the bankers’ losses was austerity, which crippled the recovery and led to an interminable Great Recession. At the same time, increasing automation and globalisation, and the rise of the internet, kept first-world wages stagnant and led to an increase in precarity. Elites did fine, and in the developing world, especially Asia, economies grew, but the global middle class, mainly located in the developed world, felt increasingly anxious, ignored, resentful and angry. The decades-long decline in union power made these trends worse. The UK had its longest ever peacetime squeeze on earnings.​1 In response to this the political right played one of its historically most effective cards – Blame the Immigrants – and achieved a string of successes from Brexit to Trump to Orbán to Bolsonaro to Salvini and the AfD, succeeding in normalising its new prominence to such an extent that a quasi-fascist party scored 34 per cent in the French presidential elections, which were nonetheless hailed as a triumph for the ‘centrist’ winner.

That’s a pretty good summary, IMHO. Characteristically good piece by a terrific explainer. Worth reading in full.

The technical is political. Now what?

Bruce Schneier has been valiantly going on about this for a while. Once upon a time, digital technology didn’t have many social, political or democratic ramifications. Those days are over. Universities, companies, software engineers and governments need to think about this — and tool up for it. Here’s an excerpt from one of Bruce’s recent posts on the subject:

Technology now permeates society in a way it didn’t just a couple of decades ago, and governments move too slowly to take this into account. That means technologists now are relevant to all sorts of areas that they had no traditional connection to: climate change, food safety, future of work, public health, bioengineering.

More generally, technologists need to understand the policy ramifications of their work. There’s a pervasive myth in Silicon Valley that technology is politically neutral. It’s not, and I hope most people reading this today knows that. We built a world where programmers felt they had an inherent right to code the world as they saw fit. We were allowed to do this because, until recently, it didn’t matter. Now, too many issues are being decided in an unregulated capitalist environment where significant social costs are too often not taken into account.

This is where the core issues of society lie. The defining political question of the 20th century was: “What should be governed by the state, and what should be governed by the market?” This defined the difference between East and West, and the difference between political parties within countries. The defining political question of the first half of the 21st century is: “How much of our lives should be governed by technology, and under what terms?” In the last century, economists drove public policy. In this century, it will be technologists.

The future is coming faster than our current set of policy tools can deal with. The only way to fix this is to develop a new set of policy tools with the help of technologists. We need to be in all aspects of public-interest work, from informing policy to creating tools all building the future. The world needs all of our help.

Yep.

What Trump doesn’t know

From Kara Swisher:

I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell the president, but someone has to: Social media is not the public square, not even a virtual one.

Not Facebook. Not Reddit. Not YouTube. And definitely not Twitter, where a few days after Facebook announced it was barring some extremist voices like Alex Jones, President Trump furiously tapped out: “I am continuing to monitor the censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms. This is the United States of America — and we have what’s known as FREEDOM OF SPEECH! We are monitoring and watching, closely!!”

He can monitor (yes, that’s definitely a creepy word) and watch all he wants, but it will not matter one bit. Because the First Amendment requires only that the government not make laws that restrict freedom of speech for its citizens…

What really matters now

The Financial Times commentator, Martin Wolf, is a must-read columnist (for me, anyway). He’s a deeply serious and wise man. On Mayday, he had a really interesting (and sobering) column — “A politics of hope against a politics of fear” (Financial Times, May 1, 2019).

Starting from the undeniable fact that faith in liberal democracy is declining and that charismatic politicians are enticing people into giving them support, he addresses the question: how should liberal politicians respond? He suggests ten principles that should underpin their response.

  1. Leadership matters. Democratic politics is not about buying votes. Politicians have to persuade people — i.e. get ‘buy-in’.
  2. Competence matters. Most populists are good at campaigning but useless at governing.
  3. Citizenship matters. “A democracy is a community of citizens. The sense of what is owed to — and expected from — citizens is the foundation of successful democracies.
  4. Inclusion matters. In the US the Gini coefficient (which measures inequality of market incomes) is not particularly high, but inequality of disposable incomes is much higher. This is a policy choice, not an accident.
  5. Economic reform matters. As Paul Collier (in The Future of Capitalism) and Colin Mayer (in Prosperity) argue, we need reform of taxation and of the corporation if we are to create a society that is economically successful and more inclusive.
  6. The ‘local’ matters. “devolving decisions, while also giving communities the means to revitalise themselves, must be part of good new politics.”
  7. Public services matter — “even if people dislike paying the taxes needed to support them…. The libertarian idea of a minimal state that leaves all this to a free market is not only unworkable, but incompatible with democracy”.
  8. Managed globalisation and global cooperation also matter. “No country is an island. We depend on ideas, resources, people, goods and services from other countries. National sovereignty does matter. But it is not all that matters.”
  9. Looking ahead matters. “We live in a world of large long-term upheavals — notably climate change, artificial intelligence and the rise of Asia. Good governments must look at these changes and what these things might mean for their peoples. If democracies cannot do this kind of forward thinking, then they will fail.”
  10. Complexity matters. Mencken: “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” Wolf: “A politics that rests on popular anger and despotic whim is bound to fail. The right response has to be a politics that bases hope on realism. That is the only sort of democratic politics worth doing.”

If you like distilled wisdom, this is it.

Xi Jinping’s Little Red App

This morning’s Observer column:

We need to update Marx’s famous aphorism that “history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Version 2.0 reads: history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as an app. Readers with long memories will remember Mao Zedong, the chairman (for life) of the Chinese Communist party who, in 1966, launched his Cultural Revolution to preserve Chinese communism by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society and reimposing his ideas (aka Maoism) as the dominant ideology within the party. One propaganda aid devised for this purpose was a little red book, printed in the hundreds of millions, entitled Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

The “revolution” unleashed chaos in China: millions of citizens were persecuted, suffering outrageous abuses including public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, hard labour, sustained harassment, seizure of property and worse…

Read on

The end of The End of History man?

From a scarifying review by Stephen Holmes of Francis Fukuyama’s new book, Identity: the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment:

Fukuyama is right to reject criticism that his first book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), was an expression of liberal triumphalism. Its gloomy insistence on the spiritual meaninglessness likely to befall late capitalist societies, in which atheist consumers have nothing serious to live for, rules out such breezy optimism. But he did imply, paradoxically, that after the wholly unanticipated collapse of communism there would be no more surprises about “the default form of government for much of the world, at least in aspiration.” What he now sees, but could not have foreseen at the time, was that the high tide of liberal democracy would last a mere fifteen years: “Beginning in the mid-2000s, the momentum toward an increasingly open and liberal world order began to falter, then went into reverse.” Identity politics, he has now concluded, explains why liberal democracy has ceased to impress much of the world as the ideal form of political and social organization.

Fukuyama’s analysis, says Holmes,

is flawed in several ways. Three decades ago, he argued that the human desire for respect and recognition was the driving force behind the universal embrace of liberal democracy. Today, he depicts the human desire for respect and recognition as the driving force behind the repudiation of liberal democracy. The reader’s hope for some account, or even mention, of this extraordinary volte face goes unfulfilled. Nor does Fukuyama squarely address the impossibility of explaining recent ups and downs in the prestige of liberal democracy by invoking an eternal longing of the human soul. What’s more, he fails to consider the possibility that after 1989 the obligation for ex-Communist countries to imitate the West, which was how his End-of-History thesis was put into practice, might itself have been experienced in countries like Hungary and Poland as a source of humiliation and subordination destined to excite antiliberal resentment and an aggressive reassertion of nationalism.

Wow! Great review..

Tyler Cowen on the impossibility of regulating speech on Internet platforms

From his latest Bloomberg column:

I’d like to suggest a simple trilemma. When it comes to private platforms and speech regulation, you can choose two of three: scalability, effectiveness and consistency. You cannot have all three. Furthermore, this trilemma suggests that we — whether as users, citizens or indeed managers of the platforms themselves — won’t ever be happy with how speech is regulated on the internet.

One view, which may appear cynical, is that the platforms are worth having, so they should appease us by at least trying to regulate effectively, even though both of us know they won’t really succeed. Circa 2019, I don’t see a better solution. Another view is that we’d be better off with how things were a few years ago, when platform regulation of speech was not such a big issue. After all, we Americans don’t flip out when we learn that Amazon sells copies of “Mein Kampf.”

The problem is that once you learn about what you can’t have — speech regulation that is scalable, consistent and hostile to bad agents — it is hard to get used to that fact. Going forward, we’re likely to see platform companies trying harder and harder, and their critics getting louder and louder.

I like his ‘trilemma’ idea. It reminds me of Dani Rodrik’s one, which says that democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible: we can combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full.