Wednesday, 19 September 2012

COOL CAPITALISM



Dick Pountain/11 May 2010 12:37/Political Quarterly/Cool Capitalism Review

TITLE: Cool Capitalism
AUTHOR: Jim McGuigan
PUBLISHER: Pluto Press
PUBLISHED:  April 2009, pp256, £15.99


CAPITALISM WITH A POKER FACE


The raving right wing of US Republicanism stridently maintains that the decade of the 1960s with its radical "counterculture" permanently undermined America's moral fibre, and they are absolutely correct in this analysis so far as it goes. What they fail to understand however is that far from destroying capitalism, this subversion not merely refreshed it but launched an unprecedented period of prosperity that has only recently begun to unravel. The counterculture's ethic of rebellion against all social convention combined with the pursuit of pleasure turns out to be just what capitalism needed to move on to its next phase, in which consumption becomes more important than production. Where previously they had to colonise far-off countries to provide new markets for their products, the advanced capitalist economies of the West instead "colonise" the daily lives of their own citizens by causing personal identity to depend upon consuming the right products in the right way. 

No matter that different people hold wildly differing opinions about what that "right way" is, because being a rebel and a nonconformist becomes the norm: I'm the only one who knows the score, everyone else just doesn't get it. This in a nutshell is the core concept of "cool", which turns brands into badges of identity. People express their individuality by wearing the right clothes, listening to the right music, driving the right car, eating the right food. The personal identity once provided through work (I'm a tinker/tailor/miner/doctor) is now provided through consumption. In a parallel process, the actual production of goods is outsourced to lower wage economies in the far East.

Jim McGuigan's book is not the first to explore this development, being preceded by Thomas Frank's 1998 The Conquest of Cool and this reviewer's 2000 book Cool Rules (with the late David Robins). However McGuigan, Professor of Cultural Analysis at Loughborough, moves the field forward by situating cool capitalism firmly in the context of classical and Marxist political economy, and by judicious application of some relevant sociology like Boltanski and Chiapello's ideas on justification, Arlie Hochschild's "emotional labour" and Ulrich Beck's 15-step typology of individualisation. He largely steers clear of indigestible post-modern jargon, though given this source material he can't escape entirely from what Ferdinand Mount has cruelly called "polytechnic prose". He begins by discussing the way capitalism justifies itself, showing that this changes over time and has passed through at least three epochs.

The original spirit of capitalism as described by Max Weber was ascetic, entrepreneurial, politically liberal and organised by family dynasties, until this model fell into crisis during the first half of the 20th century under pressure from world war, economic crisis and socialism. It gradually gave way to what Boltanski and Chiapello call "organised capitalism" based on large corporations, strong trade unions and welfare benefits, a complex easily confused with social democracy (and still branded as such in neoliberal rhetoric). Its justificatory theme became security rather than moral probity, and it was this reformed capitalism that the '60s revolt undermined, the earlier laisser faire form surviving more in conservative fantasies than the real economy. 

McGuigan then sketches the history of “The Great Refusal”, those oppositional art movements that rejected bourgeois mores, from the German Romantics through the French Realists, up to 20th-century Modernism, Dada and Surrealism. He traces the rise of the bohemian way of life, clearly distinguishing its romantic alienation from the social alienation described by Marx. Romantic refusal manifested itself in sexual liberty, unconventional personal appearance and a distaste for work, while on the aesthetic plane it created an ever-widening gulf between alienated elite taste and conformist popular taste. The 1960s witnessed the pinnacle of this romantic refusal with the French Marxists Henri Lefebvre and the Situationist International (major influences on the student revolt of May 1968) who called for revolution in everyday life and an end to alienated labour. But the 1960s also witnessed a revitalised advertising industry grasping that such extreme individualism, far from threatening capitalism, could be broken, harnessed and saddled to become its trusty steed – as analysed by Thomas Frank and dramatised in the excellent TV series "Mad Men". In place of political revolution arose a new cultural populism that ushered in the third epoch of "cool capitalism".

Po-faced Modernism and critical theory were every bit as unappealing to countercultural kids as traditional conservatory culture, so cool capitalism set about revolutionising their everyday lives in pastiche, by de-skilling artistic revolt. Starting from Andy Warhol's rejection of painterly skill, it conquered music via the synthesizer with rapping in place of singing; in film The Method substituted attitude for traditional acting skill. Stardom could now be acquired, if not painlessly, then democratically without the lifetime study it once demanded. And thus cool capitalism redistributes self-esteem rather than capital (though the latter is still accumulated by the few in ever-greater quantities).

In his chapter on Consumer Culture McGuigan reaches the crux of his argument, the way that seduction replaces coercion as the process legitimizing capitalist production, referring to interesting work by Jaqueline Botterill, Zygmunt Bauman and others. It needs the geographical separation of production from consumption to render such seduction effective, because swigging Sauvignon Blanc in a New York loft is far more seductive than assembling iPhones in a factory in Guangdong. Affluent populations become integrated into a capitalist way of life to an unprecedented degree, whereby every attempt at revolt gets deftly turned around into a new style of consent.  

It's in the realm of economics that I find McGuigan least convincing because, despite brief excursions into Veblen and Bourdieu, his underlying assumptions remain wedded to an orthodox Marxist labour theory of value. But Robert Frank and Philip Cook, in their seminal 1995 work The Winner-Take-All Society explained how innovations in production and communication technologies now skew reward mechanisms drastically in favour of top performers, of whom everyone is aware thanks to the mass media. It costs no more to press a Madonna CD than your niece's CD, but the former will sell a million times more copies and she receives a large portion of the difference. This effect results in "fat cat" salaries, plus a starvation of talent and shrinking remuneration for lower echelons, and it's the characteristic pricing mechanism of cool capitalism. Irrational brand identification encourages steep price premiums, especially for luxury goods (so-called "Veblen Goods") like cars, fashion garments or wine. Neoliberal rhetoric about free markets is just that, rhetoric, its function to borrow moral probity from an earlier form of capitalism.

McGuigan ends with an account of anti-capitalist movements and the environmental crisis, which is as thorough and convincing as his earlier chapters, but closer attention to winner-take-all economics might have modified his conclusions. When everyone feels they deserve the same goods as celebs, cheap credit becomes a vital necessity, and we've seen where that leads over the last two years. If easy credit never returns, capitalism may turn distinctly uncool. This cavil apart though I heartily recommend McGuigan's book as an important contribution and valuable reference to a phenomenon which the conventional Left still shows little sign of understanding.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

THE PREDATOR STATE

Dick Pountain/28 February 2009 12:37/Political Quarterly

TITLE: "The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too".
AUTHOR: James K. Galbraith
PUBLISHER: Free Press
PUBLISHED: August 2008, hard cover, pp 221, £16.99

RED IN TOOTH AND CLAW

Neoliberalism and neoconservatism are central concepts in left-of-centre explanations of what has happened in history since World War II. The story runs roughly like this: Franklin D Roosevelt and his New Deal saved capitalism from itself and inaugurated a period of social democratic consensus that lasted from 1945 until the early 1970s, when two oil price crises and the resulting inflation destabilised social democratic/liberal governments throughout the Western world. This opened a door for neoconservative parties advocating neoliberal economic policies to achieve power, lead in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan a year later in the USA. They proceeded to dismantle the New Deal institutions, with the result of increasing economic inequality and reducing welfare provision.

James K Galbraith challenges the simplicity of this story, claiming that the forces responsible for increased inequality over the last 30 years are conservative neither in name nor in policy, and that far from dismantling the institutions of the New Deal they have rather hijacked them and turned them into the instruments by which a corrupt elite has "asset stripped" the state and the economy. Galbraith is Professor of Government-Business Relations at the University of Texas, and the son of J.K.Galbraith, famous exponent of Keynesian economics. James Galbraith is perhaps better described as a post-Keynesian populist or a Scandinavian-style social democrat, who adheres to some central Keynesian doctrines like regulation and welfare spending but takes a political position more radical than such a description would suggest. He recommends policies more vigorous than anything New Labour or the US Democratic party has dared to propose - high, state-enforced minimum wages, economic planning, universal trade unionism and a strong welfare state. He appears to be immune to the free market virus.

"The Predator State" is organised into three parts. The six chapters composing Part One, "Another God That Failed", demonstrate that the wing of the US Republican Party that calls itself conservative is nothing of the sort. It preached an end to state intervention while growing the state to wage foreign wars, and paying for it by ever-increasing budget deficits. The intellectual and electoral collapse of US social democracy ("liberalism" in US terms) during the 1970s enabled conservatives to camouflage their real policies behind a smoke-screen of free market rhetoric which brow-beaten liberals are still barely able to contest today, as witnessed by Obama's tussle over his stimulus package. Galbraith persuasively reveals the emptiness of the Right's triple rhetorics of Free Market, Free Trade and Budget Balance: "From the early 1970s onward, one [ie. a nation] did not trade in order to pay one's bills; one espoused the doctrine of free trade in order to draw credits that would make it unnecessary, in the short or medium term, to pay one's bills."

In the four chapters that make up Part Two, "The Simple Economics of Predator and Prey" Galbraith dismantles the trickle-down theory with which "conservatives" opposed income redistribution and justified rising inequality. Inequality is Galbraith's specialist subject (he directs a research group on it at Texas U) and he analyses the example of Denmark to demonstrate the fallacy of Hayekian arguments that egalitarianism automatically leads to impoverishment. He contends that the Democrats under Clinton oversaw the biggest increase in inequality, by stimulating an IT-based bubble that ended with the crash of 2000, and he shows that the USA was never during this period a free-market economy, but an advanced postindustrial economy with a public sector responsible for well over half of economic activity (and with its manufacturing outsourced to China and Korea).

Chapter 10, "The Rise of the Predator State" is the one I found most illuminating. Galbraith's title is not mere hyperbole, and has nothing to do with Hollywood horror movies. Predation is a technical term employed by Thorstein Veblen, the Norwegian/American economist mostly remembered for his 1899 book "The Theory of The Leisure Class". It refers to a great division Veblen saw running through all human cultures, between those who take what they want (hunters, aristocrats, rentiers, robbers, gamblers, financiers) and those who have to work (everyone else). Paradoxically it may be Galbraith's reading of Veblen that makes him more radical than the Repentant Marxists of New Labour, because he's unencumbered by residual dogmas about class struggle and historically inevitable victory of the proletariat. It was Veblen before anyone else who saw that capitalism would adapt itself and defuse labour radicalism through consumption.

Galbraith's father, in "The New Industrial State", described a post-war capitalist world ruled by three big beasts - the big corporation, the big labour union and big government - which fought each other to a fairly peaceful compromise that lasted for 30 years. This interaction he called "countervailing power." Galbraith fils now describes how big labour disappeared (7% of Americans in the private sector belong to a union) and the big corporations were severely weakened by incompetence, international competition and a huge increase in the power of financiers. They became reduced to vehicles for the greed of a top management clique motivated solely by personal enrichment and ego fulfilment. Only big government still exists, but the power of lobbyists makes it no longer a countervailing power: instead it works for the executive clique that runs the surviving corporations (the likes of Dick Cheney). From such a perspective incidents like the Enron scandal, Hurricane Katrina, the subprime fiasco and many others fall into place. The Bush administration appeared incompetent in these affairs because promoting the idea of government incompetence is what it did, part of its camouflaging rhetoric. Not only did it not care to save New Orleans, but it taught the lesson that in future New Orleanses must look out for themselves.

In Galbraith's view: "Predation is the enemy of honest and independent and especially sustainable business, of businesses that simply want to sell to the public and make a decent living over the long run. In a world where the winners are all connected, it is not only the prey (who by and large carry little political weight) who lose out. It is everyone who has not licked the appropriate boots. Predatory regimes are, more or less exactly, like protection rackets: powerful and feared but neither loved nor respected. They cannot reward everyone, and therefore they do not enjoy a broad political base."

To general surprise the Republicans reaped the truth of this in the November 2008 presidential election, but it's too soon to know whether the Obama administration is prepared, or able, to go as far to stop the rot as Galbraith recommends in Part Three, "Dealing with Predators". Mindful of the wage and price controls his father administered during the war, he fearlessly calls for direct state intervention and planning in strategic areas of the economy: "You want higher wages. Raise them. You want more and better jobs. Create them. You want safer food, cleaner air, fewer carbon emissions. Pass laws and establish agencies to achieve this. Enforce the laws, staff the agencies, give them budgets and mandates... Politics may stand in the way, but economics does not. And there is nothing really to lose, except 'free-market' illusions." All to be paid for by extending the same budget deficits that conservatives railed against so stridently while practising behind their backs.

I can hear a chorus of tutting already, but the world economic crisis has deepened alarmingly since this book was written and policies that would have been dismissed as hopelessly discredited by 1970s experience (such is the penetration of Friedmanite dogma) no longer appear so unthinkably anachronistic. In fact they feel closer to current US government policy than at any time since the New Deal.

GLOBAL CATASTROPHES AND TRENDS


Dick Pountain/November 25, 2008/Political Quarterly

TITLE: "Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years"
AUTHOR: Vaclav Smil
PUBLISHER: MIT Press
PUBLISHED: September 2008, hard cover, 320 pp, £19.95

REASONING ABOUT RISK
“What is the likelihood that Islamic terrorism will develop into a massive, determined quest to destroy the West?” “What is the likelihood that a massive wave of global Islamic terrorism will accelerate the Western transition to non-fossil fuel energies?” Two questions, plucked from a late chapter, exemplify both the style and the substance of Vaclav Smil’s impressive and important review of the factors that will shape our global future over the next half century. Firstly there’s that word “likelihood”, which for Smil is a quantitative concept, something we must try to measure to the best of our ability while not kidding ourselves about how good our answers are. Secondly, the questions seek to relate two separate disciplines, politics and energy usage. Smil’s answer to both questions is that we don’t know and that our best guesses provide “at best some constraining guidelines but do not offer any reliable basis for relative comparisons of diverse events or their interrelations”.

Smil is not a proponent of any grand theory about how the world works, but neither is he a passive agnostic wallowing in history-as-a-torrent-of-accidents, nor yet just a smug empiricist. He believes we have a duty to extract all the information we can from past events using the methods of science (particularly statistics intelligently applied), and that even where we can’t know for sure we can often put a figure on the extent of our ignorance. But he’s acutely aware that risk assessments based only on figures fail to capture the psychological dimension: how unsafe we feel is as important politically as how unsafe we actually are. 
Global Catastrophes and Trends is a review and interpretation of nearly 800 recent papers in economics, demographics, environmental and political science, but Smil’s book goes well beyond mere collection or even distillation. Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba and himself an acclaimed expert on the energetics of complex systems (those ~800 papers include 15 of his own), largely succeeds in imposing on this mass of technical material a uniform and rational framework for thinking about risks and challenges. We are currently living through a period of doom and gloom in which we face not only a variety of real threats – economic recession, terrorism, climate change, political instability – but also a constant bombardment of sensationalized predictions from our attention- and sales-seeking mass media that make it very difficult to think straight about such threats. Smil is determined not to join this babble and so eschews forecasts and scenarios: you will find no predictions here that “X will happen by year Y” or that “trend X will peak in year Y”.

Instead Smil starts by drawing a basic distinction between fatal discontinuities, that is low-probability events that could “change everything” like a huge volcanic eruption or collision with an asteroid, and persistent, gradually unfolding trends that might have equally profound effects over the long term, like global warming. He establishes common units for assessing and comparing the probabilities of such threats and for quantifying the damage they would cause. Chapter 2 attempts to compute the probabilities of various fatal discontinuities, concluding that the least unlikely – and the ones we can do something about – remain nuclear war (accidental or deliberate) and virulent influenza pandemic. It is worth spending money on vaccines and antiviral drugs, and also on astronomical surveys of asteroid orbits, but otherwise resources are better spent to avert more gradual threats like global warming. Chapter 3 discusses gradual trends, which covers both the transition to an economy based on non-fossil fuels and the rise and decline of the most prominent nations over the next 50 years. He is skeptical about the prospects for alternative energy sources – on scientific grounds based on energy density which he explains with great clarity – and for carbon sequestration, concluding that our best hope of slowing global warming is to reduce overall energy consumption through more efficient usage and serious lifestyle changes. Smil’s approach to environmental degradation avoids moralizing and ideology, usefully pointing out that the carbon cycle is not the only one with whose operation we are interfering, and that the nitrogen cycle is even harder to mend.

His summary of the prospects of each competitor for global supremacy is equally devastating: Europe and Japan are doomed to runner-up status by ageing populations; Islam is too divided to achieve the New Caliphate despite high fertility; US power is already waning (here Smil preempts and confirms the recent National Intelligence Council’s report Global Trends 2005) thanks to its decline of manufacturing relative to China and colossal trade deficit; China itself has insuperable environmental problems and lacks “soft power” thanks to language and restricted intellectual freedom. He expects a turbulent next 50 years without a single hegemonic power, and with many conflicts over resources and dominance.  

Smil writes prose that is mercifully jargon-free, though unavoidably rich in technical terms: he makes judicious use of well-chosen graphs, but I should warn non-mathematical readers that familiarity with logarithmic scales, in particular log/log graphs, will help in following some of his arguments. He quantifies risk starting from the central fact of human life, general mortality (we all die eventually) which he assigns a value of 10­-6 deaths/person-exposure-hour: in the West, one person in a million dies every hour on average. Other risks are compared to this baseline value on a log/log scale, which chillingly suggests that death in hospital from preventable medical error is a greater danger than smoking, terrorism or car crash, and that young black male citizens of Philadelphia actually reduce their chance of gunshot death by serving in Iraq rather than staying home. For me the book’s most significant omission is that Smil doesn’t quantify the risk of not living in the affluent West…

Any bookie will tell you that we’re pretty poor at estimating risk, but our behavior suggests we have an innate grasp of general mortality because we only accept risks within around one order of magnitude of it in everyday life – say when we travel by car (10­-7 d/peh) rather than safer train or plane (10-8), or smoke cigarettes (2x10-6, about the same as hang gliding). Only a handful of thrill-seeking extreme sport nuts will embrace a 10-2 risk like BASE Jumping for fun. However such figures only tell part of the story: psychological factors like Understanding, Exposure and Dread are equally important. A citizen of Baghdad faces the same statistical risk of death from bomb or kidnap that a New Yorker does from car crash, but risks we understand like car driving are better accepted than inexplicable acts of random violence; the Baghdadi is exposed 24 hours a day while the New Yorker only 1-2 hours; and the idea of being blown to bits is peculiarly horrible. Politicians pay more attention to this psychological dimension than to the underlying physical risks, leading to the paradox (also remarked in David Runciman’s recent book Good Intentions) that the more responsible the politician, the more rather than less likely they are to over-react to crises like terrorist attacks.

I found this book an enormously refreshing, if demanding, read. In place of the untestable scenarios presented by most “futurologists”, Smil offers hard facts where they are available and sensible cautions where they are not. He offers few concrete policy proposals but rather a rational method of assessment that ought to constrain and guide thinking about policy. Smil ends on this note: “There is so much we do not know, and pretending otherwise is not going to make our choices clearer or easier. None of us knows which threats and concerns will soon be forgotten and which will become tragic realities. That is why we repeatedly spend enormous resources in the pursuit of uncertain (even dubious) causes and are repeatedly unprepared for real threats and unexpected events”. I think Smil should probably be set as homework for every member of parliament, and there will be a test later…

ON DEEP HISTORY AND THE BRAIN

Dick Pountain/12 March 2008/12:21/Political Quarterly

TITLE: "On Deep History and the Brain"
AUTHOR: Daniel Lord Smail
PUBLISHER: University of California Press
PUBLISHED: November 2007, hard cover, pp 286, £12.95

The title of Daniel Lord Smail's very readable little book, dangling from those two keywords "History" and "Brain", may not appear immediately relevant to readers of a political journal, and indeed the first two-thirds of the book in which Smail justifies the study of Deep History will be of interest mostly to historians or historically-minded politicians. However it's that remaining third, in which Smail applies some recent findings from neuroscience to the study of society, that may spark the imagination of political scientists. In a nutshell Smail suggests that the manipulation of brain chemistry is one of the crucial factors that determine the shape of human cultures. If that conjures up images of of test-tubes and hypodermics, think again: brain chemistry underlies all of our behaviour, from sex via economics to warfare, and you modify your own individual brain chemistry every time you smile or frown. Mass agents of brain chemistry modification include alcohol, religious ritual, pornography, sugar, tobacco, opium, theatre, political demagoguery and most importantly, terror. Karl Marx was more literally right than he knew when he labelled religion "the opiate of the masses".

So does that make Smail a chemical reductionist who wants to explain every cultural form or historical conflict in terms of brain chemistry? Very far from it. On the contrary he devotes a large part of chapter 4, "The New Neurohistory", to a detailed and nuanced rebuttal of reductionist versions of evolutionary psychology that are currently so fashionable, whereby a gene is sought to explain every aspect of human behaviour. Smail contends, following the philosopher David Buller, that the environment in which human intelligence has evolved is not that of raw nature at all, but mostly of human society: our minds have adapted to compete with other human minds, and among the tools we've learned to use in that competition are agents that modify brain chemistry.

But this is to skip too quickly to the conclusion. In his first three chapters Smail lays out a case for studying Deep History - more or less what used to be called Prehistory - despite the lack of written evidence. He argues that modern history, by making the invention of writing its starting point, must inevitably overlook some of the most formative factors. (Indeed, after that great 19th century opening-out of historical time by Lyell and Darwin, 20th century history has narrowed history's span again to start from the Renaissance). His solution to the absence of written evidence in Deep History is to bring to bear archeological, archeo-botanical and DNA evidence, interpreted in the light of recent breakthroughs in neuroscience given that basic human brain structure has changed little between the Paleolithic and the present.

Very crudely summarised this is the picture that emerges. In many types of animal society, from ants to wolves to bonobos to humans, the twin psychotropic mechanisms that Smail dubs "autotropy" and "teletropy" - the ability to modify the brain chemistry of oneself, and of other people - are important organising factors. Teletropic actions cause the release of hormones and neurotransmitters in their recipients, with the intention of altering their behaviour in ways beyond their voluntary control. For example dancing and other courting rituals stimulate dopamine and oxytocin release, increasing the chance of mating (or "pulling" as we now call it). Some religious services induce trance-like states, via altered serotonin or norepinephrine levels, that may lead to anything from spontaneous preaching to signing up as a suicide bomber. And all the way from baboon and chimpanzee hierarchies, through medieval robber barons, up to the Iraqi car bomber, terror is a proven way to subdue and subjugate its victims, due to the debilitating effect of corticosteroid stress hormones it releases.

 Smail further distinguishes between symbiotic and exploitative forms of psychotropy. Symbiotic modes involve people banding together in mutual interest to modify their collective mood, with or without the assistance of stimulant substances, as in a religious ceremony, a film or theatrical performance, a sporting event, even gossiping in a cafe. In exploitative modes, a gang boss, or a sergeant-major, or a school teacher, might frighten his subordinates to make them more pliant. Nevertheless the same religious service that could be seen by a believer as symbiotic (soothing the anxieties of the congregation) might to a Marxist look exploitative (inculcating false consciousness to mask the realities of economic and political oppression). As Smail puts it "One person's symbiosis, clearly, is another person's exploitation. The psychotropic approach itself is neutral with respect to these sorts of interpretations."

 Put otherwise, this is not a reductionist program but merely one level in a multilayered explanation that offers insights into the mechanisms that aggregate individual behaviour into mass political forces. In advancing it Smail joins a growing band of what I call the "New Materialists" who seek to include a material explanation of mind in their view of politics and economics, rather than attempting to exclude mind entirely as vulgar Marxists, behaviourists and free market economists so disastrously do. Perhaps Keynes was the founder, but later scholars as varied as Steven Jay Gould, Jared Diamond, Frans de Waal and Antonio Damasio have all contributed threads to this new fabric.

 As for its relevance to contemporary politics, just consider the most pressing political concerns of the New Labour years: we've been drafted into the US's War on Terror, but our own Home Secretaries continue to frighten us into obedience using everything from tanks at Heathrow to a ban on explosive face cream and baby bottles on aeroplanes. Social engineers beaver away to deprive us of autotrophic consolations, from alcohol binges to tobacco, cannabis and Ectasy. While all the time the advertising lads are working every bit as hard to addict us to electronic gadgets, fast cars, face-lifts and roll-on deodorants. Everywhere you turn they're trying to mess with your brain amines...

THE POLITICS OF GOOD INTENTIONS

Dick Pountain/15 March 2007/09:39/Political Quarterly

TITLE: The Politics of Good Intentions: History, Fear and Hypocrisy in the New World Order.
AUTHOR: David Runciman
PUBLISHER: Princeton University Press
PUBLISHED: Jan 2006, hard cover, pp 216, £18.95

"Moralising, ruthless, self-serving, pious, visionary, partisan and thoroughly self-aware". Which British Prime Minister is David Runciman talking about? Both Tony Blair and Gladstone actually. In this excellent little book Runciman explores the notion of Blair as ethical politician, at least as concerned with his own rectitude as with the fate of party or country. Moreover he stresses that this is no personal quirk of Blair's but the product of a structural feature of modern politics. There are politicians cast from this same mould wherever you look, from George W Bush to Silvio Berlusconi. Runciman's argument takes off from a famous lecture Max Weber delivered in 1919 in Munich as the German state was collapsing all around him, concerning the role of conscience in politics. Weber set out a distinction between the irresponsible and responsible politician: the former operates solely on personal conviction, believing that only good can come from good and evil from evil; the latter knows that good intentions often produce bad effects but is prepared to take responsibility and suffer in silence when plans go wrong. Runciman, who clearly respects Blair's extraordinary political skills, does not merely lump him into either of these categories, but more subtly claims that he exemplifies both traits at once, and that this is no coincidence but the result of a deep duality within modern politics.

For Runciman the central problem of modern politics has always been how to hold the state together against the centrifugal forces of rising individualism. In earlier times the personality of the Prince provided the glue, but modern politics must be always split between the personal and the impersonal, the charisma of strong leaders and the dull, techno/administrative chores of actually running a complex state machine. Successful democratic politicians need to strike a delicate balance between these modes, neither tipping over into demagoguery nor allowing the voters become totally disengaged from bureaucratic policies. The ten chapters of this book (seven of which are expanded versions of articles originally published in the London Review of Books) trace the winding of this split through areas that include the Iraq War, the War on Terrorism and the role of risk in politics, while later chapters bring to bear the ideas of other thinkers from Hobbes and the Abbe Sieyes to Philip Bobbit and Robert Cooper on this state question.

One of his themes is the importance of risk analysis to contemporary politics. He demonstrates that, faced with the post-9/11 terrorist threat, such analysis is vital and needs to be objective but - as we saw so clearly in the run-up to Iraq - politicians never dare place its raw results before the public without a bit of cosmetic surgery as to do so might make them look either heartlessly calculating or, worse still, not in control of events. Runciman portrays Blair as a supreme master at operating within the confines of this double standard: normally risk averse, but when in serious difficulty preferring to stake everything on a single throw (an unusual, effective, but dangerous combination of character traits).

One of the manifestations of this personal/impersonal split is conflict between executive and legislature in time of crisis: between the initiative of politicians (personal) and rules laid down by judges (impersonal). Runciman's argument in the chapter 'Who Knows Best?' is both original and illuminating, devoting serious attention to James Surowiecki's 'Wisdom of Crowds' hypothesis and toying with the unorthodox 'terrorism futures market' proposed by DARPA, before returning to sober reflections about the details of the balance between executive discretion, public opinion and judicial review. Runciman concludes that our politicians don't cope well with the threat posed by modern terrorism because it forces them to deal with events with low frequencies but severe consequences. This inclines them to do too much, too often - surrounding Heathrow with tanks, confiscating babies' bottles - in order to escape blame when occasionally the bomber does get through. Another, more cynical, inclination is to exploit the atmosphere of public fear to sneak through things you couldn't get away with under normal conditions, like invading Iraq.

Runciman has a deft touch when weighing contemporary events like 9/11 and the Iraq War against earlier crises such as Disraeli's Abyssinian adventure, Suez and the rise of Nazism, never falling for the easy parallels favoured by more polemical critics. His chapter comparing present-day Iraq to the Weimar Republic identifies as many differences as similarities, a most significant one being that under Weimar reactionary nationalists and revolutionary internationalists fought each other, whereas in Iraq they've come together to fight the occupation.

Having dealt with history and fear, Runciman awards hypocrisy a final chapter to itself. The Coalition of the Willing employs shamelessly double standards when evaluating lives and regimes: in his words "The democracies of the West are to be protected against terrorism at all costs; yet no amount of terrorist activity in a country like Iraq can be set against the value of democracy there". This double standard lends an air of unreality to the war on terror that he describes in terms which veer close to Debord's concept of spectacle. The war on terror is to be prosecuted without conventional limits, for an indefinite time and can never be won because there will always be terrorists lurking. And yet at the same time is held out the vision of a world without terrorism, where universal freedom reigns.

An altogether refreshing analysis. Free from the rhetoric and ad hominem attacks most war critics indulge in, deeply serious about politics, clear-headed and cool- (but not cold) blooded, Runciman seeks to preserve politics itself from forces that threaten its ruin. Respecting the difficulties faced by contemporary politicians, he pulls off the tricky feat of chastising them without further undermining politics.

BREAKING THE SPELL: RELIGION AS A NATURAL PHENOMENON

Dick Pountain/24 May 2006/10:55/Political Quarterly

TITLE: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
AUTHOR: Daniel C. Dennett
PUBLISHER: Allen Lane
PUBLISHED: Feb 2006, hard cover, pp 448, £25.00

The current resurgence of fundamentalist and evangelical religiosity in both the Christian and Muslim worlds is a source of great worry and puzzlement to secularists (present reviewer included) who had thought such beliefs on the wane in the face of a triumphant science. What's perhaps most surprising is how ineffective the leading style of Darwinist/Rationalist counter-argument - as for example expounded by Richard Dawkins, Francis Wheen, or the author considered here, Daniel Dennett - is proving against this new strain of belief. So feeble it is that a leading Intelligent Design proponent, William Dempski, recently thanked Dawkins as "one of God's greatest gifts to the intelligent-design movement..." This debate is of more than academic interest, since a fierce ideological war currently rages between secularists and evangelicals for control of the US school curriculum.

That Homo sapiens is not a wholly rational animal has been known for several thousand years, by the pre-Socratics through Shakespeare and Nietzche up to Freud. If we were indeed rational animals then belief in God could only be an error, even an illness, that could be cured by scientific education, and it's hardly surprising that many people find this attitude at best patronising and at worst threatening. The fact is that US evangelicals may reject Darwinism but they still drive cars and use the Internet, while al Quaeda activists reject western secular culture but deploy heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles. Neither has any trouble distinguishing the material from the spiritual worlds, but unfortunately our current cheerleaders for rationalism and secularism appear to have.

In 'Breaking the Spell' Daniel Dennett sets out to naturalise religion - that is, to explain why people feel a need to believe in a supernatural world in terms of evolutionary survival value. His explanations are tentative and complex, and never become so crass as to suggest that there is a simple 'God-gene'. He quotes much solid research and often describes experiments that need to be done, but haven't yet. The mechanisms he proposes operate at a more abstract level than any particular instance of religion. For example there's clear survival value in being fascinated by causes ('why did that rock land on my head') and therefore an impulse to invent causes where they're not yet known. The power of the Placebo Effect is only just now becoming understood by scientific medicine, but for thousands of years it was the only anaesthetic humans had, hence belief in healing shamans and spirits. The tendency to band together and conform to a common code of behaviour has enormous survival value, and far the most effective way to achieve it is to impose some supernatural Big Brother who watches us all. (Indeed, modern secular states still struggle against the nihilism that arises following his banishment).

Eventually we arrived at the stage of reasoned theology, which like science tries to explain the world, but in moral rather than material terms - how it ought to be, rather than how it is. The 20th century witnessed disastrous experiments in secular morality, all of which collapsed into perverted theisms (worshipping Stalin and Hitler, Mao and Kim Il Sung). Following World War II the advance of secular, science-based, social democratic cultures in the Western world looked as if it might finally relegate religious belief to a matter of private conscience, but more recently the moral perspective has been regaining the upper hand. That this turn is occurring alongside a revival of laisser faire capitalism and a global widening of economic inequalities is unlikely to be pure coincidence.  

Dennett broaches this subject through the device of distinguishing 'belief' from 'belief in belief'. The former actually imagines a grey-haired father figure in the sky watching over us, while the latter merely thinks that belief is a good idea because it makes people behave well (presumably agreeing with Pascal when he recommended that you "bend the knee" and faith would follow). However Dennett shrinks from following this line to its conclusion, namely that religion is often politics in disguise. Running through the history of Christianity (and probably Islam too) is a streak of millenarianism, a desire for class revenge, the notion that the rich might enjoy the privileges of this world but they would burn in hell in the next. US evangelicals rebel against the 1960s liberalism of the East and West Coast Media Elites, whose drug-taking, free love and abortion happen to coincide with a monopoly on the best-paid jobs; Islamic fundamentalists, despairing of justice for Palestine, invoke the Wrath of God only because the Wraths of Nasserism and Baathism proved corrupt and impotent. Dennett's patronising brand of rationalism can barely scratch the surface of such passions. 

'Breaking the Spell' is ultimately disappointing on several levels. Its Darwinian themes are too shallow to satisfy, and it's too often timid about upsetting the religious reader when it needs to be tough, but patronising where it ought to be sympathetic. It also suffers from certain infuriating tics: he coins the repulsively complacent term 'brights' to describe secular-minded people like himself (tempting me to convert to Wahabism), and deploys Dawkins metaphor of the 'meme' to explain the spread and evolution of religious ideas. I lack the space here to argue against the meme theory: suffice to say that in my opinion it confuses the mental and material realms in a way that no half-bright country vicar would dream of. Setting out from a view of religion as false consciousness, Dennett fails to capture those needs it fulfills that purely scientific accounts of the world leave unsatisfied. That wisest of naturalist philosophers, George Santayana, once said "Everything is a miracle, until we call it natural": if we secularists are to ever convince the religious, implying they're stupid is not a winning strategy.