Our current state

It isn’t just individual politicians but the political class as a whole that become a matter of contention in many parts of Europe. Four years of Eurocrisis have left us with technocracy on the one hand and populism on the other. The two positions seem completely opposed, but in fact they have one attitude in common: the technocrats think there’s only one rational solution to every policy issue, hence there’s no need for debate; the populists believe there is an authentic popular will and that they are the only ones who can discern it, hence there’s no need for debate. Both sides are opposed to the pluralism that comes with party democracy.

Jan-Werner Mueller reviewing Peter Mair’s book, *Ruling the Void:The Hollowing of Western Democracy

Conspiracy theories, the Internet and democracy

My OpEd piece from yesterday’s Observer:

Conspiracy theories have generally had a bad press. They conjure up images of eccentrics in tinfoil hats who believe that aliens have landed and the government is hushing up the news. And maybe it’s statistically true that most conspiracy theories belong on the harmless fringe of the credibility spectrum.

On the other hand, the historical record contains some conspiracy theories that have had profound effects. Take the “stab in the back” myth, widely believed in Germany after 1918, which held that the German army did not lose the First World War on the battlefield but was betrayed by civilians on the home front. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 the theory was incorporated in their revisionist narrative of the 1920s: the Weimar Republic was the creation of the “November criminals” who stabbed the nation in the back to seize power while betraying it. So a conspiracy theory became the inspiration for the political changes that led to a second global conflict.

More recent examples relate to the alleged dangers of the MMR jab and other vaccinations and the various conspiracy theories fuelling denial of climate change.

For the last five years, my academic colleagues – historian Richard Evans and politics professor David Runciman – and I have been leading a team of researchers studying the history, nature and significance of conspiracy theories with a particular emphasis on their implications for democracy…

Read on

Our new bi-polar world

This morning’s Observer column:

What the Chinese have discovered, in other words, is that digital technology – which we once naively believed would be a force for democratisation – is also a perfect tool for social control. It’s the operating system for networked authoritarianism. Last month, James O’Malley, a British journalist, was travelling on the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train when his reverie was interrupted by this announcement: “Dear passengers, people who travel without a ticket, or behave disorderly, or smoke in public areas, will be punished according to regulations and the behaviour will be recorded in individual credit information system. To avoid a negative record of personal credit please follow the relevant regulations and help with the orders on the train and at the station.” Makes you nostalgic for those announcements about “arriving at King’s Cross, where this train terminates”, doesn’t it?

Read on

Piketty: our politics is now about Brahmin vs Merchant elites

Fascinating paper by Thomas Piketty. He constructs a long-run data series from post-election to document a striking long-run evolution in the multi-dimensional structure of political cleavages in the US, UK and France.

The nub of it is this:

In the 1950s-1960s, the vote for “left-wing” (socialist-labour-democratic) parties was associated with lower education and lower income voters. This corresponds to what one might label a “class-based” party system: lower class voters from the different dimensions (lower education voters, lower income voters, etc.) tend to vote for the same party or coalition, while upper and middle class voters from the different dimensions tend to vote for the other party or coalition.

Since the 1970s-1980s, “left-wing” vote has gradually become associated with higher education voters, giving rise to what I propose to label a “multiple-elite” party system in the 2000s-2010s: high- education elites now vote for the “left”, while high-income/high-wealth elites still vote for the “right” (though less and less so) — i.e. the “left” has become the party of the intellectual elite (Brahmin left), while the “right” can be viewed as the party of the business elite (Merchant right).

I show that the same transformation happened in France, the US and Britain, despite the many differences in party systems and political histories between these three countries.

This links to the observations of Daniel Rodgers summarised below.

Global Warning

I’m reading Nick Harkaway’s new novel, Gnomon which, like Dave Eggars’s The Circle, provides a gripping insight into our surveillance-driven future.

Before publication, Harkaway wrote an interesting blog post about why he embarked on the book. Here’s an excerpt from that post:

I remember the days.

I remember the halcyon days of 2014, when I started writing Gnomon and I thought I was going to produce a short book (ha ha ha) in a kind of Umberto Eco-Winterson-Borges mode, maybe with a dash of Bradbury and PKD, and it would be about realities and unreliable narrators and criminal angels in prisons made of time, and bankers and alchemists, and it would also be a warning about the dangers of creeping authoritarianism. (And no, you’re right: creatively speaking I had NO IDEA what I was getting myself into.)

I remember the luxury of saying “we must be precautionary about surveillance laws, about human rights violations, because one day the liberal democracies might start electing monsters and making bad pathways, and we’ll want solid protections from our governments’ over-reach.”

Oops.

I remember the halcyon days of April 2016 when I thought I’d missed the boat and I hadn’t written a warning at all, but a sort of melancholic state of the nation, and I really did think things might get better from there. Then Brexit came – I was half expecting that – and then Trump – which I was really not – and now here we are, with the UK boiling as May’s government and Corbyn’s Labour sit on their hands and clock ticks down and the negotiating table is blank except for a few sheets of crumpled scrap paper, and the only global certainty seems to be that this US administration will try to wreck every decent thing the international community has attempted in my lifetime, with the occasional connivance of our own leaders when they aren’t busy tearing one another to bits.

And now I’m pretty sure I did write a warning after all.

He did.

So what’s the problem with Facebook?

Interesting NYT piece by Kevin Roose in which he points out that the key question about regulating Facebook is not that lawmakers know very little about how it works, but whether they have the political will to regulate it. My hunch is that they don’t, but if they did then the first thing to do would be fix on some clear ideas about what’s wrong with the company.

Here’s the list of possibilities cited by Roose:

  • Is it that Facebook is too cavalier about sharing user data with outside organizations?
  • Is it that Facebook collects too much data about users in the first place?
  • Is it that Facebook is promoting addictive messaging products to children?
  • Is it that Facebook’s news feed is polarizing society, pushing people to ideological fringes?
  • Is it that Facebook is too easy for political operatives to exploit, or that it does not do enough to keep false news and hate speech off users’ feeds?
  • Is it that Facebook is simply too big, or a monopoly that needs to be broken up?

How about: all of the above?

Why populism is thriving

Martin Wolf has a brilliant review of Adam Tooze’s Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World in Saturday’s FT ($). His review touches on two things in particular that have preoccupied me ever since the crash. One is the failure to hold those responsible to account; the other is about the way the losses run up by capitalist irresponsibility were then socialised — by loading them onto ordinary citizens. (If I remember correctly, the bailing out of the banks dumped a debt of Euro 30,000 on every Irish citizen.). The other was the way politicians conned the public into accepting that it was public excess rather than private greed that caused the crisis.

Two excerpts from Wolf’s review elegantly make these points. Here’s the first:

The scale and nature of the required response had significant political consequences. The public was enraged by the size of support for the banks and, even worse, by the payment of the bonuses apparently due to the bankers. This was made even more infuriating by the fact that hundreds of millions of ordinary people suffered by losing their homes and jobs, or by being the victims of post-crisis austerity. Many were also enraged that so few senior individuals were charged. The trust that must exist in any democracy between elites and everybody else collapsed. With trust gone, conspiracy-mongers and political mountebank had their day.

Yep. And here’s the second gem:

Perhaps most startlingly, conservative politicians in the US, the UK and Germany successfully reframed the crisis as the result of out-of-control fiscal policy rather than the produce of an out-of-control financial sector. Thus, George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK’s coalition government, shifted the blame for austerity on to alleged Labour profligacy. German politicians shifted the blame for the Greek mess from their banks onto Greek politicians. Transforming a financial crisis into a fiscal crisis confused cause with effect. Yet this political prestidigitation proved a brilliant coup. It diverted attention from the failure of the free-market finance they believed in to the costs of welfare states they disliked.

Osborne’s hypocritical dishonesty made him, for me, the most loathsome politician in Britain. (Boris Johnson runs him close, of course, but whereas Johnson is loathsome-but-chaotic, Osborne is loathsome-but-coherent: he always believed in shrinking the state and was the brains behind Cameron’s leadership.) The idea of a trust-fund baby delightedly imposing economic hardship on poorer citizens turns the stomach. Just about the only good thing about Theresa May’s ascent to the premiership was the cool, calculated cruelty of the way she sacked Osborne.

All of which suggests that the best explanation for the waves of populism now breaking on our shores is simply that they are the long-delayed explosion of rage at the way people have been screwed by neoliberal capitalism. And the storm has some way to go before its force is spent.

A farewell to China

From an interesting parting shot by an American libertarian academic who has taught in China for some years and is now returning home.

China is a rising power but probably more importantly is a deeply illiberal, expansionist, authoritarian, police state opposed to human rights, democracy, free trade, and rule of law. Just as we need to consider the state, speed, and direction of change in the United States, China has been deeply illiberal authoritarian for many years, is becoming increasingly illiberal, and is accelerating the pace of change towards greater control. It both puzzles and concerns me having lived in China for nearly a decade as a public employee to hear Polyanna statements from China “experts” in the United States who talk about the opening and reform of China or refuse to consider the values being promoted. I was left mouth agape once when someone I would consider a liberal internationalist who values human rights informed me he was focused on business and would leave those other issues aside. The values represented by China cannot be divorced from its rise and influence. The rise of China represents a clear and explicit threat not to the United States but to the entirety of liberal democracy, human rights, and open international markets.

We see the world slowly being divided into China supported authoritarian regimes of various stripes that support its creeping illiberalism across a range of areas. The tragedy of modern American foreign policy is the history of active ignorance and refusal to actively confront the Chinese norm or legal violations. The Trump administration is utterly incapable of defending the values and assembling the coalition that would respond to American leadership as they face even greater threats from China.

The concern is not over Chinese access to technology to facilitate economic development for a liberal open state. The concern is over the use of technology to facilitate human rights violations and further cement closed markets. That is a threat for which neither the United States or any other democracy loving country should apologize for.

Even while making allowances for the author’s ideological position, some of his observations about everyday like in China are fascinating — at least to me. For example:

One of the most interesting thing to me was to see how my thinking evolved over time in China. Prior to coming, I was and still am a libertarian leaning professor. I had not given a lot of thought to human rights either in the United States or in China. While many are aware of a variety of the cases that receive attention, I think what struck me is how this filters down into the culture. There is a complete and utter lack of respect for the individual or person in China. People do not have innate value as people simply because they exist. This leads most directly to a lack of respect for the law/rules/norms.

One thing I began to realize over time is, while not German, how law, rule, and norm abiding Americans are with minimal fear of enforcement. Cutting in line [I think this means barging in] is considered extremely rude because there is a sense of fairness and that people have equal rights. In China, line cutting is considered nearly standard operating procedure. There is a common and accepted respect for others even if just it is as simple as standing in line.

In a way, I sympathize with Chairman Xi’s emphasis on rule of law because in my experience laws/rules/norms are simply ignored. They are ignored quietly so as not to embarrass the enforcer, however, frequently, the enforcer knows rules or laws are being ignored but so long as the breaker is not egregious, both parties continue to exist in a state of blissful ignorance. Honesty without force is not normal but an outlier. Lying is utterly common, but telling the truth revolutionary.

I rationalize the silent contempt for the existing rules and laws within China as people not respecting the method for creating and establishing the rules and laws. Rather than confronting the system, a superior, or try good faith attempts to change something, they choose a type of quiet subversion by just ignoring the rule or law. This quickly spreads to virtually every facet of behavior as everything can be rationalized in a myriad of ways.

Before coming to China, I had this idea that China was rigid which in some ways it is, but in reality it is brutally chaotic because there are no rules it is the pure rule of the jungle with unconstrained might imposing their will and all others ignoring laws to behave as they see fit with no sense of morality or respect for right.

If it’s the case — and I believe it is — that American’s position as a global hegemon is eroding, and that China might be its successor, then it’s worth thinking about what that might mean. While many of us are sceptical about — or critical of — aspects of American dominance, we understand and to some extent share many of the values that the Republic embodies (or aspires to). Coming to grips with Chinese hegemony will be traumatic, unless the West has been softened up by generations of home-grown authoritarian rule. (Now a distinct possibility for some of our democracies, I fear). It will be like living in a parallel universe which has a different kind of gravity.

Censorship 2.0

This morning’s Observer column:

One of the axioms of the early internet was an observation made by John Gilmore, a libertarian geek who was one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The internet,” said Gilmore, “interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” To lay people this was probably unintelligible, but it spoke eloquently to geeks, to whom it meant that the architecture of the network would make it impossible to censor it. A forbidden message would always find a route through to its destination.

Gilmore’s adage became a key part of the techno-utopian creed in the 1980s and early 1990s. It suggested that neither the state nor the corporate world would be able to censor cyberspace. The unmistakable inference was that the internet posed an existential threat to authoritarian regimes, for whom control of information is an essential requirement for holding on to power.

In the analogue world, censorship was relatively straightforward…

Read on

The bad news about false news

The most comprehensive study to date of misinformation on Twitter is out. The Abstract reads:

We investigated the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it. We investigated the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.