Sunday, 27 August 2017


Dick Pountain/PQ: Sapiens review/22 February 2015 13:51

“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari
Harvill Secker Sept 2014
Hardcover: 456 pages

Pop science is a big business nowadays, from the cosmological and genetic blockbusters of Hawkings and Dawkins to the hugely popular internet lectures like TED. While some of these works exist mainly to boost their authors' pension funds, a select few are serious reviews of current scientific research expressed in readable and jargon-free language. Among these latter I'd count Dawkins and Hawking but also Jared Diamond, Vaclav Smil and Daniel Lord Smail whose works I've previously reviewed for this journal, and Yuval Noah Harari's provocative treatise “Sapiens”, which applies evolutionary biology to human history with much (if not complete) success certainly belongs among them.

Harari starts from the premise that the genus Homo – a group of higher primates that evolved in East Africa 2.5 million years ago – experienced a sequence of “revolutions” which turned them into ourselves, Homo sapiens, who now own, rule (and are perhaps destroying) the whole planet and all other species. The first of these revolutions, dubbed the Cognitive, happened around 70,000 years ago when certain mutations in brain function created a new strain of hominids who could manipulate abstract symbols. That's to say they detached those warning sounds that most animals employ from the specific events that triggered them, making of them symbols that could be recombined to refer to events in the past, the future or to things that never existed at all. This ability to tell stories and create myths excused us from the brute biological contest of evolution into our own environment of culture, into what Harari calls "imagined orders".

We're the most social of all animals, yet we lack the genetic constraints and bodily specialisations that enforce sociality upon bees, ants or naked mole rats. Instead our sociality evolves through vast accumulations of imagined relations and institutions: "Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination." Money, empires, states, debts, laws, jobs, ranks, joint stock companies all are necessary fictions that collapse if people stop believing in them. But so long as we do believe in them they permit collaboration at scales beyond the pheromone-bound societies of bee or ant, to even encompass the whole planet.

The second revolution was Agricultural, marked by the domestication of animal and plant species that created food surpluses and supplanted the need to hunt and forage. The wholly kin-based foraging bands that were the first human social units gave way to larger, more settled communities – inhabiting, villages then towns, cities and nations – which changed both our social and individual psychologies in profound ways: "... in the subsistence economy of hunting and gathering, there was an obvious limit to such long-term planning. Paradoxically, it saved foragers a lot of anxieties. There was no sense in worrying about things that they could not influence. The Agricultural Revolution made the future more important than it had ever been before." Organised religions emerged: where foragers had felt obliged to placate myriad separate animal spirits, agriculturalists learned to fear omnipotent gods, along with the kings and nobles who ruled on earth in their name (and the parasitic class of priests who interpreted their wishes). Harari's conjectures on the rise of monotheism, and the differences between occidental and oriental theologies are strong points of the book, as are his accounts of the third and fourth, Scientific and Industrial, revolutions.

He applies his evolutionary biology with a defter touch than many competitors, avoiding crude reductionism thanks to a firm grasp of the appropriate ontology. He clearly distinguishes the material from the imaginary and then grants autonomy and agency to both, hence applying biology at its proper level to define the outer bounds within which cultures evolve freely by their own rules. He squarely confronts the historical succession of hierarchies based on pure force, wealth, race, class and gender, making few concessions to either moralism or libertarian pieties: “Hierarchies serve an important function. They enable complete strangers to know how to treat one another without wasting the time and energy needed to become personally acquainted.”

All such hierarchies are based in myth and belief rather than biology: "Since the biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are, in fact, negligible, biology can’t explain the intricacies of Indian society or American racial dynamics. We can only understand those phenomena by studying the events, circumstances, and power relations that transformed figments of imagination into cruel, and very real, social structures". He continues to further ridicule reductionism with the droll observation that “No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise...”

Harari's argument reaches its strongest point in a chapter analysing the social psychology of nationalism. Recognising the historical connection between markets, nation states and individualism he postulates that "The nation is the imagined community of the state." The nation state usurps the sociological (and much of the psychological) role formerly held by families and tribes, an unfinished process whose bloody workings-out we're still living through today: "Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them." This approach, with its hints of both Weber and Veblen, illuminates the power of the modern state to defuse class politics (thus contradicting deterministic kinds of Marxism) and the persistent triumph of nationalisms over internationalism. It chimes with George Bernard Shaw's barbed view of patriotism as “Your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it".

Class is what eventually leads Harari's argument awry. Class consciousness is just another imagined order, and one in which trust is fading, so Communism was a secular religion and by implication Marx was wrong to attribute any special status to class. But regardless of whether or not class is a material fact (ie. belongs to the "base" rather than "superstructure") Marx was certainly right that relations of production belong with the deepest and most effectual of social constructs, as Harari in effect acknowledged in his early chapters on the agricultural revolution. Underestimating the potency of class leads him toward a Fukuyama-like vision of the human species uniting globally for the first time under the banner of consumer individualism. However those pesky relations of production will continue to beaver away at the foundations of such a shaky union, because it's not just market-individualism and high technology that shrink the world but also the power of labour to wrest a sufficient share of wealth to buy all the new products. Piketty and others have amply demonstrated that labour's power is currently in retreat and that the oligarchic global “1%” seek instead a return to family dynasties based on inherited wealth as their new world order.

As for the final chapter on techno-futurism, it's as unexpected and about as welcome as a turd on a soufflé. Where in earlier chapters he'd been so adept at rooting out religious themes concealed in secular clothing, Harari finally falls headlong into Wired-magazine-style millenarianism, forseeing our species elevated by genetic-engineering, robotics and artificial intelligence into an immortal super-sapiens. Meanwhile, outside Frankenstein's lab the peasants are congregating with pitchforks and burning brands...

Wednesday, 2 March 2016


Dick Pountain//Political Quarterly 18/02/2014

"The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion" by Jonathan Haidt
Penguin Books 2013

The protracted war of attrition between those who would defend and those who would demolish the Welfare State is being fought on the terrain of Economics, a great pity because that offers the aggressors far too many advantages. The state's defenders might be well advised to break out toward the more favourable ground of Social Psychology, because in democracies comprised of atomised, vote-wielding individuals the mind is often capable of overruling the wallet. Debates over the role of the state invariably turn moralistic, for example pitting the virtue of "standing on one's own two feet" against the virtue of "caring for others". Could it be that the opposing sides don't merely have opposing views about "human nature", but that they actually possess different natures?

That's a crude summary of the conclusion of Jonathan Haidt's book "The Righteous Mind", a conclusion that depends upon a relatively new experimental approach to the constituents of human nature. The author researches social and cultural psychology at the University of Virginia, where he's spent a couple of decades studying the mechanism of moral decision-making from an "intuitionist" perspective. That's to say he believes that moral decisions are fundamentally non-rational, that we all possess unconscious, emotionally-based moral heuristics that guide our moral decisions, for which we can only supply rationalisations after we've already made them. This intuitionism draws on a tradition stretching right back to Hume's Treatise, and if true it has profound implications for politics. He believes that people are intrinsically self-righteous and barely amenable to arguments that don't support their existing beliefs.

His experiments depend upon a series of strong moral dilemmas ingeniously devised to preclude all reasoned analysis (often by exploiting major taboos like incest or bestiality). In "The Righteous Mind" he combines these results with others from neuroscience, social psychology, genetics and evolutionary modelling to describe a plausible set of these subconscious moral heuristics which seem innate to human minds of all cultures. Indeed he claims that different cultures, religions and political stances differ precisely in the weight they place on these various heuristics. Clashes between different parties or religions are profound clashes between different unconscious assumptions that distort communication and sometimes render it impossible.

The book begins with this declaration: 
""I could have titled this book The Moral Mind to convey the sense that the human mind is designed to 'do' morality, just as it’s designed to do language, sexuality, music [...] But I chose the title 'The Righteous Mind' to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental." 
The book's three main sections correspond to Haidt's three basic principles of intuitionist moral psychology:

1) Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.
2) Morality is about more than harm and fairness (the main concerns of liberal utilitarians).
3) Morality may both bind a community and set it against other communities.

Haidt studied in Chicago under the anthropologist Richard Shweder from whom he gleaned a suspicion of rationalism and a distinction between "sociocentric" and "individualistic" societies. A sociocentric society puts the needs of groups and institutions first and subordinates the needs of individuals to them: examples range from traditional tribal societies, through theocracies to secular totalitarian regimes. Individualistic societies place the individual first. This is a distinction that runs deep because it nurtures different kinds of self. The industrial West has become increasingly individualistic over the last two centuries, and even our ostensibly collectivist welfare states mainly protect individuals against the vicissitudes of life. Almost all social and political science starts from individualist assumptions, while many of the world's peoples still live sociocentric lives, hence that incomprehension which, for example, dogs our relations with the Islamic world.

Shweder's influence, and some fieldwork carried out in Brazil, encouraged Haidt to create a repertory of sophisticated questionaires for identifying peoples' moral assumptions, which he used to uncover what he calls his six basic "Moral Foundations", atomic components of actually existing moralities. These foundations are he proposes universal, having a biological basis in brain structure. They evolved by a combination of individual and group selection to make us into social animals, but highly competitive ones. Since group selection is still controversial Haidt devotes a whole chapter to reviewing the latest evidence: "Natural selection favored increasing levels of ... “group-mindedness” - the ability to learn and conform to social norms, feel and share group-related emotions, and, ultimately, to create and obey social institutions, including religion."

Some of Haidt's foundations correspond to known functions of the brain's emotional areas (the limbic system) as recently elucidated by affective neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and Jaak Panksepp. He names the foundations using axes of binary opposition: care/harm; fairness/cheating; liberty/oppression; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; and sanctity/degradation. The last of these would reflect the physiological disgust mechanism, present in all higher animals, which evolved to avoid poisoning and infection. We humans extend its scope far beyond the realm of food by labelling objects, behaviours and persons as sacred or forbidden.

Haidt then applied his framework to the analysis of political and religious allegiance, conducting some 132,000 interviews on US voters who self-described as liberal, conservative and libertarian. He found they differ significantly in the degree to which various moral foundations affect them. It seems plausible enough that, for example, sanctity/degradation might underly totems, taboos and dietary prohibitions in ancient and modern sociocentric cultures, but he finds it equally important in differentiating US conservatives from liberals. The unconscious, emotion-based nature of these moral foundations explains the great ferocity of such differences. Liberals appear most influenced by just three of Haidt's foundations, care/harm, fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression, whereas conservatives are almost equally affected by all six. The sheer venom of the Tea Party's opposition to Obama is clearly fuelled by emotion rather than reason: it violates their notion of loyalty (that birth-certificate libel), authority (soft on our enemies) and sanctity (plain old-fashioned racism). Those values mean less to Democratic voters who are more moved by the unfairness of bankers' bonuses and the lack of "care" of private medicine.

Several books I've reviewed for this journal questioned why US workers repeatedly vote against their own best economic interests, but Haidt suggests that perhaps they don't: they simply vote for interests like authority and sanctity that we on the Left don't share. If so, that suggests that a radical shakeup of Left political theory is overdue. Marx, a convinced materialist, placed the economic (that is, material) at the helm of politics, but notoriously died before he could elaborate a fully-fledged materialist theory of ideology. Left intellectuals strove for much of the last century to extract such a theory, recruiting extra tools from Nietszche and Freud. The result is the babel of post-modern critical theories, all contending either that "human nature" doesn't exist at all, or at the very least is wholly socially-constructed and sufficiently malleable that one can inscribe any desired utopian character upon it. The cost of abandoning dogmatic Marxist-Leninist notions of class-consciousness and economic determinism has been retreat to a thinly-disguised version of Romantic vacant liberty (surprisingly close to neo-liberal ideas of freedom). Haidt's work is unlikely to be well received in these circles, where his semi-popular prose style and liking for folksy metaphors will no doubt be regarded as naïve and less than serious.

In fact this book is far from naïve, presenting an intricate and closely-argued case that draws on Plato, Hume, Kant, Mill and Durkheim to interpret his experiments. Neither is his concept of moral foundations necessarily inimical to critical theory: for example his sanctity/disgust axis has clear relevance to themes in both Foucault and Agamben. When taken together with the cognitive studies of Kahneman and Tversky, Haidt's work traces the outline of a new hedonic psychology, a science of desire (or Bentham's "felicific calculus" finally realised). We instinctively recoil because this prospect threatens our cherished notions about free will, but the absence of utopian goals leaves such utilitarianism as the only compass remaining to democratic politicians. Rather than whipping up the masses to insurrection, social democrats need to continually attract their votes.

Deep understanding of the electorate's desires used to be the mark of a great politician, but like so much else in contemporary society this skill crumbles in the face of sheer complexity. The Left needs to absorb this new science of mind if only so that we can counteract its use by the Right. For example, why did the 2008 financial crisis unexpectedly boost the Right rather than the Left? Because the Right understood how to exploit voters' guilt over excessive debt, and to deflect their wrath over unfair bankers' bailouts and bonuses onto welfare recipients. Or again, current furores over paedophilia and FGM demonstrate how popular evaluations of childhood innocence can change radically over 50 years, and across different cultures. Woe betide the politician who fails to understand such changes.

Thursday, 31 December 2015


Dick Pountain/Political Quarterly/Carbon Democracy 07/06/2012

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, by Timothy Mitchell. Verso. 278 pp. £16.99.

The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin. Allen Lane. 804 pp. £30.

Popular imagination intuitively grasps the importance of fossil hydrocarbon fuels in a way that—according to the author of Carbon Democracy—reflects quite accurately their effects on our lives. For example, our image of coal is slow, dirty, loud and dangerous: the grunting steam engine, the row of grinning, black-faced miners, muck and brass bands. By contrast, our picture of oil is fast, easy and fruitful: the sleek motor car, the spouting oil gusher, the instant colossal wealth of a Beverley Hillbilly or an Oil Sheikh. Both fuels became tied to Big Money, but in revealingly different ways that are explored by the two books under review here.

Renowned energy consultant Daniel Yergin’s The Quest and Columbia history professor Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy document the displacement of coal by oil as our primary energy source, and highlight the significance of this for world politics, but they do so at different scales and with different emphases. Yergin’s 800-page tome is a sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning work The Prize, which covered the early years of oil exploration and exploitation. Here he takes up the story at the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, moving through the bitter and dirty struggles to capture that former empire’s oil and gas resources, the Iraq war and its consequences for the politics of the Middle East, before arriving at the future security of oil supplies, the climate change debate and alternative sources of energy. Yergin analyses all these matters from a largely orthodox viewpoint of neo-classical economics and realpolitik. Timothy Mitchell’s far shorter work, on the other hand, concentrates on the history and politics of Middle Eastern oil mainly to enlist them as evidence for his grand and far-from-orthodox thesis about the influence of fuel sources on politics. His thesis is not merely plausible but reveals a significantly new way to approach political economy, and for that reason I will tackle it first, the better to compare later with Yergin’s more detailed chronicle.

Briefly summarised, Mitchell proposes that the political institutions of human societies are profoundly influenced by the types of energy flow they employ, and that in particular the coal-based economy of the industrial revolution permitted and provoked the rise of mass democracies, while its displacement by an oil-based economy is eroding those democracies. This approach implies a level of determination rooted in physics. All the energy consumed by early forms of human society came almost directly from the sun: photosynthesis supported those plants that are eaten by animals, and the wood used for dwellings and for fire. Hunter-gatherers consumed plants and animals directly from the wild while later agrarian communities domesticated and harvested them, but in either case energy consumption happened locally, with no need for extensive networks of energy transport—such rudimentary networks as did exist were more likely constructed of wood and stone.

That all changed with the Industrial Revolution, which was made possible by digging up buried coal deposits that were extremely localised. Iron smelting industries grew up where such deposits were located and spawned the invention of the steam engine, which was then adopted to power other industries elsewhere. That called forth a network of railways to transport coal all over the country, hauled by coal-powered steam locomotives, and this new class of machinery educated a workforce that was more confident and more skilled than the farm labourer. In Mitchell’s words:

Great volumes of energy now flowed along narrow, purpose-built channels. Specialised workers were concentrated at the end-points and main junctions of these conduits, operating the cutting equipment, lifting machinery, switches, locomotives and other devices that allowed stores of energy to move along them. Their position and concentration gave them opportunities, at certain moments, to forge a new kind of political power.

Thus the geographic concentration of skilled workers in cities led to mass trade unions, and the ease with which narrow energy conduits could be disrupted by strikes gave these workers the power to negotiate more egalitarian conditions of life. Thatcher’s defeat of the coal miners’ strike perhaps marked a definitive end to this phase of history.

Oil, unlike coal, almost mines itself, often spouting to the surface under its own pressure. To be sure, advanced technology is required to discover deposits and drill the wells, but the highly skilled workers involved are relatively few and they remain above ground, closer to managerial supervision and hence having far less autonomy than coal miners. Oil is a liquid that can be transported over vast distances by pipeline and tanker, demanding far less human labour than that required to load, unload and drive trains. Deposits are distributed over the entire globe, so at a single phone call, supplies can be diverted to counteract the effects of strike action in one location. In short, the switch from coal to oil greatly reduced the ability of labour to disrupt energy flows and handed this power instead to the oil companies, who thereby acquired the ability to threaten governments and dictate foreign policy. Mitchell proposes that this property of the oil economy was explicitly recognised by American politicians, and that the Marshall Plan for post-Second World War reconstruction was in part designed to switch Europe from coal to oil, hence reducing the political power of Communist-led coal miners and introducing US-style industrial relations. Certainly oil usage tripled from 10 per cent of European energy consumption in 1948 to over 30 per cent by 1960.

The concept of ‘sabotage’ is central to Mitchell’s thinking about energy flows. The everyday meaning of the term is a spanner in the works, a tactic any striking railway worker or miner might use to disrupt production, but Mitchell employs it in the special economic sense introduced by Thorstein Veblen, for whom it meant any ‘conscientious withdrawal of efficiency’, or ‘such restriction of output as will maintain prices at a reasonably profitable level and so guard against business depression’. Seen in this latter sense, sabotage is a tool employed far more often by oil companies than by labour. In direct contradiction of naive free-market dogmas, sabotage is what companies do to sidestep competition and keep prices high—and both Mitchell and Yergin demonstrate that the whole history of the oil industry is a succession of such acts of sabotage by the major companies. For most of the twentieth century there was always a surplus of oil in the world, threatening to drive prices too low for satisfactory profit. In the 1900s heyday of the Great Game rival empires competed for Middle Eastern oil concessions, not to extract the oil but to keep it from their enemies and protect their fields further east. Later they fought vicious battles for control over pipeline routes to Europe: Arab nationalist governments expropriated the oil fields and eventually formed the OPEC cartel, but far from displacing the oil giants, they became willing accomplices in restricting flow to maintain prices.

Mitchell’s arguments are subtler and less deterministic than such a bald summary might suggest. He enlists ideas from Thorstein Veblen, Bruno Latour, Karl Polanyi and many others to explain how energy flows intersect social relations, affecting even the ways in which we see the world:

... our world is an entanglement of technical, natural and human elements...we are not subjecting ‘society’ to some new external influence, nor conversely using social forces to alter an external reality called ‘nature’... We are re-organising socio-technical worlds, in which what we call social, natural and technical processes are present at every point.

Daniel Yergin’s The Quest is, in effect, two separate books. The first, consisting of almost 400 pages, presents histories of oil, natural gas and nuclear power, while the second covers the discovery of climate change and explains the range of non-carbon alternative energy sources and the prospects for a carbon-reduced future. His history of oil, starting as it does at the fall of the Soviet Union, still overlaps with much of Mitchell’s account in important ways. His accounts are far more detailed, highly readable and often quite gripping. Yergin does an admirable job of explaining the ferociously complex machine that is the world oil market: it is so complex that merely to summarise all the crucial players and events would be well beyond the space of this review. The main groups of players are the oil companies, who are global and have only limited national allegiance; the producer nations, most of whom now own their oil and depend heavily upon taxes (of up to 90%) from the oil companies who extract it; and the consumer nations, for whom the price of petrol is a crucial political variable—petrol queues can remove a party from power. Adding an extra layer of complication, America, the world’s most powerful nation, is both producer and consumer, and its political class is deeply penetrated by oil industry figures (think Bush père and fils and Dick Cheney). Under such circumstances, working out who will benefit and who suffer from any particular increase in oil prices is dauntingly hard.

The differences between Yergin and Mitchell’s interpretations of crucial events can be most instructive. In the chapter ‘The Demand Shock’, Yergin expounds on the effect of price deregulation, market speculation and rapidly growing demand from the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) on oil prices in the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis. Higher standards of fuel efficiency for US automobiles set in 1975, during that earlier ‘oil crisis’, stagnated until George W. Bush announced in 2006 that the United States’ ‘addiction to oil’ had become a threat to national security. Yergin comments that ‘[f]uel-efficiency standards were no longer a left-right issue. Now they were a national security and a broad economic issue’. However, where Yergin buys into the US government’s concept of ‘energy security’, Mitchell devotes much space to deconstructing the notion.

Firstly, he observes that the 1973 OPEC embargo was not imposed primarily to raise the price of oil, but rather as a political reaction to the US decision to support Israel in the October War—an attempt to link the oil price to Israel’s progress in relinquishing occupied Palestine territories. Western commentators continue to ignore this, preferring what amounts to a vulgar Marxist interpretation in terms of oil profits. Mitchell suggests that the US’ interest in securing its energy supplies is less transparent than Yergin believes. In fact it revolves around the state of Saudi Arabia, which in its modern form was in effect constructed by the USA as a reliable ally to control (i.e. sabotage) world oil prices.

For Mitchell, the image of democratic, consumerist USA (symbolised by McDonalds) facing militant Islamic jihadists, driven by irrational and anti-modern hatred of the West, is a carefully constructed fiction that masks a duplicitous attitude which he labels with the rather contrived term ‘McJihad’. In 1930 Abd al-Aziz Saud, ruler of what would become Saudi Arabia, began negotiating with American oil companies to sell rights to Arabian oil. He had come to power in alliance with the muwahhidun, a militant movement of puritanical, Wahhabite nomadic tribes who only tolerated his courting of foreign oil companies on the condition that he applied much of the proceeds to spreading the Wahhabi strain of Islam throughout Arabia. The USA was perfectly happy with this arrangement, as the intensely conservative Wahhabism provided an excellent bulwark against Communism: ‘The geophysics of the earth’s oil reserves determined that the rents on the world’s most profitable commodity could be earned only by engaging the energies of a powerful religious movement’.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, with Soviet-friendly parties in power in Egypt, Libya and Iraq and the USA spending ever more to import Middle Eastern oil: the lucrative return trade in modern military equipment to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states killed two birds with one stone. Going further still, Mitchell proposes that the US government and oil companies prefer perpetual low-intensity conflict in the Middle East, both to sustain arms sales and to prevent significant cooperation between the nations that might oppose US interests. This was for him sufficient motive for the 2003 Iraq War (what the RETORT collective has called ‘a neo-liberal putsch’: see their Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War), whereas Yergin prefers to toe the official line of revenge for 9/11, threats of WMD, etc.

And so, finally, on to climate change. Both authors accept the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change caused by burning fossil hydrocarbon fuels. Both agree that doing anything to combat it will require burning far less oil. Neither is very confident that any alternative energy source such as nuclear, wind, geothermal or solar power is capable of wholly filling the gap, particularly for transport applications, and neither can offer concrete proposals about how to achieve such a reduction politically. Mitchell theorises that the transition from coal to oil-based energy systems during the mid-twentieth century induced a separation of ‘the economy’ as an object of study for economists: this creation occupies a strange limbo level between the natural and the social, which economists busily populate with the price of everything. In his own words, ‘Democratic politics developed, thanks to oil, with a peculiar orientation towards the future: the future was a limitless horizon of growth. This horizon was not some natural reflection of a time of plenty. It was the result of a particular way of organising expert knowledge and its objects, in terms of a novel world called the economy’. The ease with which oil spurts from the ground and the seemingly endless uncovering of new fields foster this dangerous illusion and make it the master of politicians, whose purpose becomes to nurture and serve ‘the economy’ rather than the people.

So long as politicians listen to economists suffering from this delusion, and so long as the vast populations of the BRIC countries and the rest aspire to live like the West, there is little chance of enforcing effective carbon curbs. It is more likely that the price of oil will rise steadily as demand outstrips the rate of discovery of new reserves, while the rising food prices as climate change bites amplify the effect, engendering xenophobic nationalism and war. Mitchell ends rather weakly with a warning about the erosion of democracy and a call to recognise the passing of the era of fossil fuels, while Yergin remains resolutely inside ‘the economy’ and its promise of continued growth. He hopes that technical innovations and market forces might come to our rescue, but it’s a very guarded optimism: ‘There is no assurance on timing for the innovations that will make a difference. There is no guarantee that the investment at the scale needed will be made in a timely way, or that government policies will be wisely implemented’. Whatever happens, however, both of these books have offered invaluable contributions to the necessary debates.

[Dick Pountain, London, Aug 2012]

Wednesday, 12 August 2015


Dick Pountain/Political Quarterly/Against Autonomy 07/06/2013

Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism by Sarah Conly
Cambridge University Press, 206 pp., £55.00
ISBN 9781107024847

With the possible exception of "class", the most confused and confusing term in modern political discourse has to be "liberal". Among the various dictionaries on my bookshelf, the Collins' definition best exemplifies this confusion:

ADJECTIVE 1. Relating to or having social and political views that favour progress and reform 2. relating to or having policies or views advocating individual freedom 3. Giving and generous in temperament or behaviour 4. Tolerant of other people

Definitions 1 through 4 all to some extent contradict one another, since many individuals – whose freedom is always to be respected – are against progress and reform, may not be giving (especially when it comes to taxes), generous or tolerant of other people. Definition 1 corresponds to everyday American usage, often employed in a pejorative sense by conservatives, while 2 is closer to usage among academic economists and political scientists. Whenever we try to describe the system of government that prevails in Europe, the USA and those parts of the world we regard as "free", our term of choice is "liberal democracy", but which of those contradictory senses of liberal is that phrase invoking? That is, which concept should such societies value the more highly, freedom of the individual or progress?

A question something like this lies at the heart of Professor Sarah Conly's short but potent book "Against Autonomy". She shows that to provide an adequate answer requires unpacking the notion of freedom of the individual in the light of recent findings in social psychology and behavioural economics. Sense 2 liberalism depends upon individuals being capable of making free decisions about matters important to the conduct of their lives, but what if addiction, advertising or the intrinsic defects of human reasoning that psychologists like Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman have uncovered, so distort their decisions as make them no longer meaningfully free, leading people to behave in ways contrary to their own expressed interests and injurious to their health?

A perfect example is the recent dispute over, and ultimate defeat of, New York Mayor Bloomberg's initiative to ban the sale of sweetened of drinks like Coca Cola in containers larger than 16 ounces from city restaurants and other venues. Note that he wasn't advocating a ban on the drinks themselves – people with big thirsts would remain free to buy two smaller ones – he simply acted on medical advice that such huge buckets of Coke tempt people to buy more than they actually want and contribute to the epidemic of obesity. The measure was defeated by America's hatred of paternalism, that tendency of the state to tell them what's good for them, which they feel infringes their autonomy – their freedom to go to hell any way they choose.

Conly examines many such measures that fall onto a spectrum from total success (compulsory seat belts in cars, crash helmets for motorcyclists), partial success (smoking bans) to outright failures like those buckets of Coke or US gun control. She returns often to a favourite example of buying a house more expensive than your income can support, due to high-pressure sales tactics, over-optimistic assumptions that you'll remain employed and that interest rates will remain low, and impelled by fantasies of grandeur and big parties on the lawn. This is of more than academic interest, relating directly to the sub-prime mortage crisis that almost destroyed the world's financial system in 2007 and remains at the root of our current economic woes.

This a work of technical philosophy, though Conly's style is sufficiently approachable for any interested lay reader willing to afford its swingeing price. She sets out from a close analysis of the classic liberalism of John Stuart Mill, to see where the boundaries of paternalism should be located. Conly believes not only that paternalism is necessary to the state in complex modern societies, but that it may justly be imposed wherever the stakes are sufficiently high (as with smoking) and its costs of imposition, in both money and offended freedom, are sufficiently low. She's concerned to combat both libertarian critics who reject any sort of paternalism at all, and an in-between position called "libertarian paternalism", as advocated by Cass R. Sunstein and Richard H. Thaler in their popular book "Nudge" (some aspects of which David Cameron incorporated into his largely-forgotten Big Society).

Libertarian paternalists share Conly's conviction that people often fail to make correct decisions concerning their own welfare, because as Kahneman's experiments have shown, we're all very poor at estimating probabilities and most of us have an inbuilt tendency to irrational optimism (the bookmaker's meal ticket). However libertarian paternalists depart from Conly's "coercive paternalism" over whether the State has the right to impose solutions on people in their own best interests: they claim it has no such right and may only "nudge" people toward the correct decision by clever structuring of rules and institutions. A typical nudge issue would be opting-in versus opting-out in various kinds of agreement like mobile phone contracts, warranties, mortgages and privacy agreements: people are lazy and will usually go with the default option, so carefully choosing that option can nudge rather than compel them in a desired direction.

The arguments involved become increasingly subtle. Conly only claims that coercion is justified in cases where people are tending to act against their own, recognised interests thanks to poor information or distorting factors, but not when some external authority like the state or medical profession has determined that person's best interest, which is quite often the case in medical matters like cancer and diabetes. She also takes much trouble to distinguish between "perfectionism" – which stipulates what people ought to do on some moral ground – and a paternalism that seeks only to help people achieve what they already want, were they sufficiently informed and equipped. This "paternalism of means" rather than ends separates her from all kinds of theocracy, as well as from authoritarian forms of socialism that impose moral dictates disguised as materialistic truth.

Cass Sunstein has reviewed "Against Autonomy" in the New York Review of Books (Mar 7 2013), where he points out that Conly's means-based paternalism runs the significant risk of being mistaken about what people actually want, and is also vulnerable to "slippery slope" objections – that some initiative which at first does good may lead toward more oppressive varieties (Conly devoted most of a chapter to tackling the latter issue). Nevertheless Conly and Sunstein are agreed that a significant degree of paternalism of one kind or the other is built into the very structure of modern regulatory states – over matters like food and road safety, prescription medicines and contract law – making it hardly possible any longer to value autonomy as an end in itself as strong libertarian critics of modernity like the US Tea Party do.

Strong social democrats might be expected to be fairly happy with both forms of paternalism, since social democracy depends to a high degree on various kinds of coercive state intervention, not only over matters like safety in the workplace but more fundamental economic issues like incomes, where the state opposes downward pressure from employers by imposing a minimum wage, and tax collection where the state may adopt coercive measures, up to and including imprisonment, as a penalty for evasion. (Conly might argue over whether these are paternalist or perfectionist measures though).

I would like to put forward another kind of objection from a social democratic point of view, because this whole discussion takes place within a conception of a well-functioning liberal democratic state and its best governance in the widest possible interests. What however if said liberal democratic state has become dysfunctional, in several different ways, so that: tax evasion by giant corporations has become so pervasive as to deprive the state of sufficient funds to achieve its ends; politicians have become suborned by these same corporations, so that attempts to regulate the corporations' activities are no longer effective; deregulation and privatisation have so increased inequality and decreased the power of labour that state paternalism is no longer an adequate remedy for its worst effects. In that case the structure of the state itself requires adjustment, but even the most coercive paternalism is hardly an adequate means to achieve that end. In other words, can Daddy really spank himself?

Tuesday, 23 September 2014


Dick Pountain/Political Quarterly/03/06/2012

The Cost of Inequality: Three Decades of the Super-Rich and the Economy by Stewart Lansley
(Gibson Square, Oct 2011, 320pp,  £17.99)

Conspicuous economic inequality has supplied the impetus behind radical religious and social reform movements at least since Jesus of Nazareth preached of rich men, camels and needles and kicked over the money-lenders' tables. In the English civil war the Diggers and Levellers fought to construct an egalitarian society, while égalité was one prong of the ideological trident which brought down the French monarchy and the Bastille. In more recent times Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (in "The Spirit Level"), and the late Tony Judt have written powerfully on the deleterious effects of inequality on the fabric of society, included increased crime and mental illness. All these critics of inequality share to greater or lesser degrees a moral condemnation of inequality, as sinful, or harmful to the happiness of the individual and society as a whole.
Economists by and large don't do morality nowadays, but they nevertheless continue to squabble about the causes of inequality and the degree to which it is tolerable or even desirable in a capitalist economy. The present author, Stewart Lansley, is an economist, financial journalist and award-winning television producer, and though his sympathies clearly lean in the direction of less inequality, the central argument of his book is not a moral one: that "Cost" in the title is meant literally, because out-of-control deregulated capitalism has destroyed value in an unprecedented way. He demonstrates very convincingly that excessive and growing inequality was not only the cause of our current economic crisis - the worst since the Great Depression - but that it is lethal to capitalism itself, and if not corrected will lead us into a state of permanent recession. In the process of laying out this argument he constructs a powerful defence of the social democratic consensus that prevailed throughout much of the developed world in the three decades following WWII (precisely that defence which the Labour Party used to make so poorly, and since New Labour has abandoned completely). Lansley does not use the term social democracy himself, but prefers the term "managed capitalism" and opposes it to "market capitalism".
Lansley explains how we arrived at the mess we're in now in a well-paced and readable narrative, employing no more economic jargon than necessary and backing it up with a whopping 440 footnotes that point to rich source materials which represent years of research. Briefly summarised his story is this. Our problems arise because, over the last 30-odd years, the share of global output paid out in wages has been forced down below the level at which the employed population can afford to consume all of the product, while profits have soared to create massive surpluses that slosh around the world economy in a highly destabilising fashion (like water in the hold of a listing ship). It's a fundamentally Keynesian argument, but considerably more sophisticated than the current, ineffective, revival of faux-Keynesianism whereby central governments apply a "stimulus" by printing money to restore liquidity to banks rather than people. It's fairly close to the Marxist analysis made by David Harvey, though Lansley is no Marxist.
To expand this story a little, the post-war consensus broke down around 1973 after the OPEC oil-crisis, the ending of Bretton Woods exchange-rate controls, and a wave of labour militancy that pushed the share of wages too high, engendering high inflation and crippling investment. Right-wing political parties – notably those under Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA – were able to exploit the resulting popular dissatisfaction to enact laws that greatly reduced trade union power and gave management the upper hand again. At the same time they set about permanently reducing the power of labour by policies that favoured the financial and service sectors of the economy over manufacturing. These measures included removing most of the controls on credit and banking activities, for example the City of London's "Big Bang". Over the next decades management was able to push back the wage share of output too far, to 52-54% which is below the 58-60% level required to balance consumption with production. Rather than raise wages they extended cheap credit to workers to enable them to continue consuming. The result was a series of booms, from the Dot Com boom to the Property boom, fuelled by this cheap credit, and massive profits accrued to owners of capital, which they could multiply many times over by deploying innovative financial institutions like hedge funds and private equity, and new kinds of high-risk financial instrument like securitised loan packages and other derivatives. 
I quite often bless my old maths teacher, who gifted to me the ability to read graphs without anxiety, and I did so again when reviewing this book. Lansley makes excellent use of graphs, and figure 2.1 on page 44 raised the hairs on my back of my neck: captioned "The UK's Long Wage Squeeze, 1955 to 2008", this is nothing less than a picture of the British class struggle, distilled down to a steadily-sinking wiggly line :- 

 The UK's Long Wage Squeeze, 1955 to 2008

A big question that Lansley's story raises is, to what extent did the ideologues who initiated this process (who include Chicago-School economists as well as conservative politicians) intend this result? Did they sincerely believe that the spoils of a "dynamised" deregulated economy would "trickle down" to create universal prosperity? Were such basically good intentions then perverted by a locust-swarm of greedy, testosterone-crazed City and Wall Street traders who used this new liberty to loot the economy, destroy the industrial base and create a new super rich class? Or were they always aware that their policies would lead to 1% of the population owning one third of the world's wealth, a concentration not seen since the eve of the Great Depression? In short, were they knaves or fools?
In favour of the fools thesis, one must regrettably look to the record of New Labour. Lansley quotes from Gordon Brown's 2007 Mansion House lecture "I believe it will be said of this age, the first decades of the 21st century, that out of the greatest restructuring of the global economy, perhaps even greater than the industrial revolution, a new world order was created". It was one of those sentences (like Peter Mandelson's "intense relaxation") that can sink a career: six weeks later the wheels fell off his new world order. With the mandate given it in 1997 New Labour could have made a start on turning around the decline of labour, but chose instead to embrace the Conservative's credit-fuelled agenda.
PQ readers' blood may boil the way mine did when reading his chapter 9, "The Cuckoo in the Nest", which examines the alternative, knave thesis. He queasily picks through the activities of investment bankers, hedge funds and private equity both during and after the crash of 2008. Nothing substantial was done to curb their activities which continue to this day, concentrating wealth and despoiling industry, but now using tax-payers' stimulus money. He mentions one David Tepper of Appaloosa Management who pocketed $4billion for eight month's work in 2009 - after the credit crunch and bank bailout - a humourist who seemingly keeps a sculpture of a pair of testicles on his desk.
The remedies Lansley proposes in his final chapter "The Scale of the Task Ahead" are all sound, including fighting tax avoidance; re-regulating offshore activities, takeovers and bankers' fees; a Tobin Tax on financial transfers; higher minimum wage and welfare, but time limited and with stringent job search conditions; protecting collective bargaining; and a restoration of steeply progressive taxation to start whittling away those huge fortunes (he mentions with approval Robert Shiller's ingenious proposal to index the gradient of the tax curve to the current level of inequality). However he is not optimistic that sufficient political will can be found to implement them, since the political classes on both sides of the Atlantic have been thoroughly suborned by the big money lobbies, and without such a will he prophecies a state of permanent recession and mass unemployment. This book is nevertheless required reading for anyone who seeks to influence Ed Millibank in the direction of an effective reordering of Labour's priorities.
My own intuition is that it may not be possible to reverse such decline within the bounds of democracy as presently constituted. The post-war social democratic state was not an end to class-struggle but rather a highly-desirable armistice, and now that one side has broken that armistice and shows no will to return to it, perhaps the sardonic Slavoj Žižek will prove to a necessary supplement to the well-mannered Lansley. Žižek wrote in London Review of Books in January 2012 ("The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie") that "it is a great mistake to think that a reasonably just society which also perceives itself as just will be free of resentment: on the contrary, it is in such societies that those who occupy inferior positions will find an outlet for their hurt pride in violent outbursts of resentment." It's not inconceivable that those testicles on Tepper's desk may end up being his own.

Sunday, 15 December 2013


Dick Pountain/14th Sept 2011 2:45/Political Quarterly/Winner-Take-All Politics Review

TITLE: Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class
AUTHORS: Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks
PUBLISHED:  March 2011, 368pp, £11.50

Back in 1995 two economics professors, Robert Frank and Philip J. Cook, published “The Winner-Take-All Society”, one of the more important works of social criticism of the late 20th century. They analysed the way in which the rewards accruing to the highest echelons of US society – top managers, bankers, film and sports stars and other entertainers – had raced away from the pay of lesser mortals. They explained this phenomenon in terms of a new market structure, under conditions of ubiquitous mass media attention, whereby it becomes only profitable to employ the most popular performers and to divert most of the available wage fund to secure them. This economic explanation was convincing as far as it went, but hardly touched upon politics. Now two political science professors, Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, have filled that gap admirably with a painstakingly researched, illuminating and alarming book (whose rather similar title will no doubt confuse a few Google searchers). They explore the political struggles – and lack thereof – that permitted this enormous disparity of wealth to grow over the intervening 15 years, to the point where it’s now become a threat to the US economy, perhaps to democracy itself. 

"Winner-Take-All Politics” investigates the way that politically shrewd, determined and well-funded factions on the Right of the Republican party have, over more than half a century, managed to change the tax laws (on income, capital gains, companies, property and inheritance) and labour laws in a regressive direction, so as to divert the share of GDP received by labour toward the owners and managers of capital. During the 1950s and 60s this effort was explicitly aimed at undoing the hated gains made by labour under Roosevelt’s New Deal, but in recent decades it has been justified instead by neo-liberal claims about the efficiency of free markets and their wealth-and-job creating power. The US welfare state has not yet been totally dismantled, but effective political manoeuvring on the Right, combined with ineffectual responses from the Left now call its immediate future into question. 

As for the book’s subtitle, bear in mind a shift in the meaning of “middle class” as one crosses the Atlantic. The USA’s founding ideology, starting from the premise that “All men are created equal”, inhibits discussion of economic class in the same terms Europeans employ, and so what Americans call the “middle class” encompasses the larger part of what we would call “working class” – those who work for a wage or salary. That American workers were so much better paid than Europeans during the later 20th century only deepened this confusion (as did Tony Blair’s uncritical adoption of the same terminology). No longer: the devastating economic crisis that began in 2007 with the mis-selling of subprime mortgages has slashed the net worth of the middle fifth of American households by 25%.

The authors start out by explaining the sheer scale of the inequality. Between 1979 and 2006 the average income of Americans grew by around 50%, but the income of the lowest fifth grew by only 10% while that of the upper fifth grew by 55%. However such broad brackets conceal the fact that the top 1% tripled their incomes, while the top 0.01% saw their annual income rocket from $4 million to $24 million, an astounding and unprecedented concentration of wealth. The top fifth of the US population now own 84% of total wealth, while the median American family now earns less, adjusted for inflation, than in 1998. Hacker and Pierson squelch all the popular conservative excuses: everyone got richer through “trickle down” (they didn’t); the US grew faster than Europe during the period (it didn’t); the US is more productive (it isn’t). 

Next they demolish the myth, widely accepted on both Left and Right, that this all began with “Reaganomics” following the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981. Actually the two most damaging assaults on redistributive taxation and union membership happened in the 1970s, after disgraced Republican president Richard Nixon – a right-wing populist with an eye always on the blue-collar vote – and his hasty successor Gerald Ford offered compromises over welfare and health-care reform bills far more liberal than anything Obama has considered. The Democrats refused them, complacently anticipating a Carter victory in 1976, but their tax reform bill went down to defeat in 1977, followed by defeats for consumer protection, health-care reform, an indexed minimum wage and, most pivotally, a progressive labour relations bill filibustered away in 1978. Congress instead passed a halving of capital gains tax and a rise in payroll tax (the most regressive of all taxes). The liberal epoch died three years before Reagan could lay a finger on it.

This wasn’t enacted to meet any shift in popular will: in 1939 35% of Americans believed that “government should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich”; by 1998 that rose to 45%, in 2007 to 56%. Again, in 2005 more than half of non-unionised US workers wanted to join a union, up from 30% in 1980, yet union membership has actually plummeted from 25% in 1970 to 7% today. How precisely employers, abetted by politicians of both parties, could so blatantly flout popular concern forms the core material of this book. 

Demographics and racial politics were part of it. The 1964 Civil Rights Act turned much of the southern white-working class against New Deal politics, leading Southern Democrats in Washington to vote with Republicans on economic issues. Electoral politics are part of it too. Televised elections require both parties to raise colossal sums for advertising, forcing the Democrats (after some short-lived coyness) to woo the super-rich as assiduously as the Republicans. Elections as TV spectator sport also distract and confuse the electorate, rendering them impatient of understanding the boring details of governance. Power lies not in winning elections but in what happens day-by-day between elections in the committee rooms, and Republicans learned to be better at it than Democrats. Persuading “middle class” workers to vote against their own interests isn’t black magic, but Hacker and Pierson show how it demands formidable organisation and persistence, in hundreds of obscure and unglamorous committees.

The Republicans have honed their skills at small-state and anti-tax propaganda, often by borrowing techniques from the radical Left and simply inverting them, but they’ve acquired a truly Machiavellian finesse in manipulating the levers of Congress to achieve those massive tax cuts for the super-rich that Hacker and Pierson identify as the largest contribution to the growing wealth gap. Ronald Reagan’s “Economic Recovery and Tax” Act of 1981 did indeed begin a bi-partisan agenda of tax cuts for business, which could still be portrayed as pro-growth and job creating, but by the presidency of George W. Bush, Republicans were confident enough to funnel cuts directly to the super-rich using truly predatory cunning.

Richard Nixon’s 1969 Tax Reform Act had introduced the “Alternative Minimum Tax” (AMT) – largely to assuage popular outrage over the number of corporations and millionaires paying no tax at all – which made persons earning above a certain threshold pay a higher, flat-rate tax. Because that threshold wasn’t indexed to inflation, by the 1990s AMT began to creep down to affect more and more taxpayers. George W. Bush’s administration had the Congressional votes to repeal AMT, but when planning its massive 2001 tax cut instead widened the scope of AMT to cover most of the upper 20% of taxpayers. The merely wealthy upper-middle classes thereby lost most of the benefit of the tax cut, enraging them and goading them further toward anti-tax (and hence anti-Democrat) attitudes, while the super-rich top 1% already in AMT received the full tax cut and were left smiling. And the extra revenue raised financed future tax cuts – three birds with one stone. A road toward the Tea Party, the Debt-Ceiling Standoff and all the present woes of Obama’s administration was opening up.

It’s perhaps inevitable that the book’s final chapter on “Beating Winner-Take-All” feels underpowered compared to the strength of earlier arguments. The authors quote James Fallows as saying that the American system of governance has “become mismatched to the real circumstances of the nation”, but can see no magic bullet that will set it aright. Legislative changes needed to start shrinking the gap are politically unattainable with the present balance of power – the Democrats have been so out-manoeuvred they can’t raise taxes even to pay for Obama’s modest health-care bill, nor can they effectively reform the financial and banking system. Even the Internet, Obama’s secret weapon in 2008, is now used to equal effect by the Tea Party. If Obama ever had a Machiavellian streak, the time to unleash it would have been 2009 when he controlled both houses, by abolishing the “cloture” rule that encourages filibusters and requires a super-majority to pass substantial reforms, then by seeking campaign finance reform to level the playing field, and only then moving on to health-care.

A European social democrat reading this disturbing book might too easily conclude that American workers vote irrationally for their own nemesis, but in truth they have far less affection for a State which for several generations has done far less for them than our welfare states do. And we in the UK shouldn’t be too complacent because a similar hollowing-out has already begun – that “squeezed middle” which Ed Milliband so hopes to win for Labour could instead turn toward the tax-cutters.