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The Do Re Mi

I’m occupied at present preparing a review of Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital and Ideology’, which turns out to be one of the most important books I’ve read in many decades. Piketty makes perfectly plain that none of our current problems are soluble until we get to grips with a drastic economic restructuring. Call it reform, call it revolution, call it whatever, none of the other issues that keep presenting themselves as a way forward - gender, race, identity, even climate - are tractable until the power of big money is vanquished. Piketty acknowledges that both social democracy and state socialism have now failed, and offers suggestions for economic structures that could lead further.
He also analyses aspects of our current situation that made my blood run cold:
“Let me be clear about the meaning of negative public capital such as we find today in the official national accounts of the United States, United Kingdom, and Italy. Negative capital means that even if all marketable public assets…
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Playing The Goat

Steve Bell’s goats cartoon hits home because “herd immunity” was indeed the worst gaffe so far in the coronavirus emergency, a verbal disaster on a par with Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” which may have given us the Trump presidency and all that’s followed from that. Herd immunity is a perfectly respectable technical term in epidemiology: “ a form of indirect protection from infectious disease that occurs when a large percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, whether through previous infections or vaccination, thereby providing a measure of protection for individuals who are not immune.“

There are two huge problems with its use in this crisis. First, it contains the word “herd” which is grossly offensive when applied to human beings in a democracy, though perfectly acceptable when used in the abstract about biological systems. It has no place in any political discourse and deploying it was more or less like throwing a hand grenade into a crowded room.

There Must Be Some Way Out of Here

I've been expecting Boris Johnson to become Prime Minister ever since he was Mayor of London, and was only mildly surprised when Michael Gove's little Brutus-act delayed his progress by a couple of years. I don't possess any supernatural powers of prediction, it just seem blindingly obvious that he's the only politician with sufficient ruthlessness and charisma among the current professionalised political class. What was a bit surprising was just how inadequate they all proved at dealing with his Machiavellian skills during those grim months from October to December last year (when even the speaker of the Commons was trying to egg them on like a rowing cox).

This post is the text of a talk I gave in January to a panel discussion organised in Finsbury Park by Phil Cohen, under the name 'There Must Be Some Way Out Of Here'. The other speakers were Phil himself, Andrew Calcutt, Valerie Walkerdine, Tim (T.J.) Clark, Lynne Segal and Baroness Ruth Lister: 

Dick Pounta…

The Dude Derides

To me, a very interesting aspect of Boris Johnson’s assumption of the premiership yesterday was the fact that both the Daily Telegraph and The Independent picked up instantly on the word ‘dude’ in his acceptance speech. Both papers understood this as a reference to The Dude, hairy anti-hero of the Coen Brothers comic film ‘The Big Lebowski’, played by Jeff Bridges. The Dude has become a cult hero: ex-60s radical, sunk into alcoholism of a rather sumptuous kind (White Russian cocktails), reluctantly forced to be a makeshift private detective. Unflappably cool, partly thanks to his vodka intake, his motto is ‘The Dude Abides’.

In invoking this Bridges character Boris is making a clever appeal to a largeish proportion of the voting population who find him amusing, entertaining and unlike the typical politician. His political allegiances may be fluidly variable but this doesn’t deter this particular audience, who despise most other politicians as humourless charlatans. Boris is a humorous…

The Legacy Of 1968

In my last blog post I mentioned that I was preparing to present at a conference organised by the University of East London called ‘The Legacy of 1968’ (which went ahead with great success). When preparing my contribution I looked around for material and recalled that with my late co-author David Robins I'd once written an article for the journal New Formations (Issue 39, Winter 1999-2000), which compressed the arguments of our about-to-be published book Cool Rules, into eight pages. That book, full title 'Cool Rules: Anatomy of An Attitude' was entirely devoted to analysing the attitudes of the 1968 counterculture.

I dug out that article and was pleasantly surprised by how well it still stands up. In fact there’s nothing in it that I would want to retract 19 years later, though there is one huge thing that I would wish to insert were I writing it now. That is the unexpected economic crash of 2007-8 and its profound effects throughout the world. Our argument in Cool Rules w…

The Three Tribes of Austerity

If the 50 years following 1918 witnessed the slow and erratic ascendance of social democracy (punctuated and accelerated by WWII) then the 50 years since have witnessed its equally slow and erratic dismantling. It was eventually Keynes ‘The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’ rather than Kapital which provided the theoretical understanding of that ascendancy, and in my opinion James K Galbraith’s ‘The Predator State’ is the nearest we have yet to an analysis of its demise.

In his recent article ‘The Three Tribes of Austerity' (on the Project Syndicate website) Yanis Varoufakis has suggested an enhancement of Galbraith’s thesis, one that renders the picture with somewhat higher resolution, by sorting the predators into three different species. Varoufakis of course had enlisted the advice of Galbraith during his doomed spell of trying to defend the Greek economy from EU predation, and a whiff of doom is still detectable in his article.

Can Social Democracy be revived?

While preparing to participate in a conference on the Legacy of 1968, it occurred to me that this year sees another equally momentous anniversary, the end of World War One in November 1918. My deeply-suppressed numerological instinct took over for a second, and made me notice that 1968 is the exact mid-point of the century 1918-2018. Is there any significance in that? What was happening during that century? It then struck me quite forcibly that one thing that was happening during that century was Social Democracy. It arrived slowly, tragically, haltingly to dominate the Western World out of the chaotic aftermath of WWI, which had completely overthrown the 19th century liberal order. It wasn’t always called by that name: it appeared, still does, as Christian Democracy, as the US New Deal, as the Welfare State and even as ‘wet’ Conservatism in Britain. 

One can plausibly argue that 1968 marked the peak of Western social democracy and the birth of its libertarian nemesis: that year saw th…