The politics of depoliticisation

A while ago I had one of those brilliant dinners when you sit next to someone new and strike up a fascinating conversation. The occasion was the dinner celebrating honorary graduands of Bristol University (a boast – I had the honour of being awarded an honorary degree there this year), and Prof Paddy Ireland, my neighbour at the table, recommended in the course of a fab two-hour conversation, Globalists: The end of empire and the birth of neoliberalism by Quinn Slobodian.

It is indeed a deeply interesting book, a history of what Slobodian terms the Geneva neoliberals – those, including Hayek, who were globalists avant la lettre because they looked back with nostalgia to their youth in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I hadn’t known that these folks, many based at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, named themselves neoliberals (at the Walter Lippmann Colloque in Paris in 1938) (although this makes it seem all the more absurd to me that some people now apply the n-term to  *all* economists.)

Slobodian emphasises that this school of neoliberals were by no means against a government role in the economy, seeing it however as a matter of setting the framework for a globalised economy. In particular, private property across borders was to be held sacred. The domain of the global economy had to triumph over the domain of national politics. Geneva neoliberalism was a “project of politics and law”, as the ambition was to create a system of governance that would “encase and protect the space of the world economy”. Individual rights, particular investors’ rights, would gain the protection of the courts against potential expropriation.”The ongoing depoliticization of the economic was a continual legal struggle, one that required continual innovation in the creation of institutions capable of safeguarding the space of competition.”

What I found particularly enlightening about this account is the way this particular strand of thought eventually got embedded in world trade rules in the form of the steady expansion of investment protections and third party arbitration. Economists tend to find, not necessarily the arguments against such aspects of trade agreements, but the emotion they arouse, a little hard to understand. I think the historical context helps us.

Another fascinating section covers Hayek’s interest in cybernetics – not so surprising when you think about his views on the role of markets as information-processing devices. Slobodian writes: “Radical in its own right, the neoliberals’ own dream of a new international economic order was a world economy of signals – a vast space of information transmitted in prices and laws.” It reminded me of Chile’s Project Cybersyn in the Allende years (described by Eden Medina in Cybernetic Revolutionaries), the same systemic vision from the left.

As Globalists makes clear, depoliticization – what I’ve termed in another context the ‘separation protocol’ – is a political project too. Its fortunes, having flourished during the mid-80s to mid-2000s, are clearly waning now. Politics is baaaaack, bigtime.

51kcoHzJqyL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism

And for amusement, me in robes…..EAQsyhCXYAcgXcZ


Not all automation is equal

Democratic Capitalism at the Crossroads: Technological change and the future of politics by Carles Boix is a good complement to the widely reviewed The Technology Trap by Carl Frey. It takes a political science perspective on the same deep trends in technology, and even uses the same geographic shorthand for the succession of technological/economic paradigms: Manchester, Detroit and Silicon Valley.

Coming from a different perspective, Boix provides new-to-me insights, and particularly about similarities between the sucessive technological revolutions. For example, in an 1835 book, The Philosophy of Manufactures, Andrew Ure described the factory as “a vast automaton composed of various mechanical and intellectual organs, acting in uninterrupted concert for the production of a common object, all of them being subordinate to a self-regulated moving force.” Echoes of cybernetic visions – see for example Eden Medina’s fantastically interesting Cybernetic Revolutionaries on Project CyberSyn. Or a 1934 book, The Mechanization of Industry by Harry Jerome, which estimated that almost half the labour productivity gains in the first 30 years of the 20th century resulted from “the mechanization of the handling systems”. Echoes of the role of logistics now, for example set out in the McKinsey’s study into US productivity in the late 1990s – Walmart and wholesaling.

After the historical section, Boix goes on to the implications for politics today, and particularly the increased vote for extremist parties – the highest since the 1930s. Writing this on the day “Boris”Johnson is expected to become the UK’s prime minister, with Donald Trump beginning extra-judicial deportations from the US, and strongmen on the march in other countries, it is hard to be optimistic. However, Boix, like Frey, implicity raises one question without addressing it: what made the production paradigm of the mid-20th century. which also led to massive automation, able to deliver widely shared gains, and why is the direction of the earlier and later technological revolutions so different? I haven’t seen a persuasive answer.



Trains and other illth

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ruskinland: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World by Andrew Hill over the weekend. As the subtitle indicates, it isn’t a biography but rather an exploration of the influence Ruskin has had in a number of domains, from helping establish the National Trust as steward of the countryside – and encouraging the formation of the Sierra Club in the US – to shaping views about art, to influencing views about capitalism and the dignity of labour on the left of the political spectrum.

I’ve never read a biography of Ruskin, and he doesn’t emerge from this book as an obviously likeable character. In fact, pretty weird. The book I have read (bought at Brantwood, Ruskin’s home in the Lake District) is his famous anti-capitalism, anti-industrialism tract, Unto This Last. Ruskinland sent me back to it, and it still seems completely unconvincing and hyperbolic, for all that no sentient being would deny the horrors of the Industrial Revolution, or even modern capitalism.

Count me in on the need to ensure environmental sustainability, decent pay and working conditions, well-crafted homes etc. But it’s vacuous not to recognise the trade-offs involved in machine-enabled growth. Machines, mass production, raised standards of living, increasingly freed women from domestic drudgery. Trains – which Ruskin hated despite using them a lot – enabled people to escape the social constraints of village life and find urban anonimity. Unto This Last seems to me unadulterated romantic conservatism. Sustainability is easier for the rich. As Hill agrees, Ruskin was also an illiberal ultra-Tory. And adds: “Like today’s Twitterati and online opinionistas, he often adopted an extreme stance for effect.” Counterproductively so, in may case.

So Ruskinland hasn’t changed my views, but it’s a great read & the issues it raises are absolutely pertinent today as we survey the ‘illth’ (that handy Ruskinian neologism) being created by modern capitalism.



A hymn to expertise

How often could you say a book about the workings of government departments, even including a Department of Agriculture org chart, is as gripping as a thriller? Michael Lewis is such a teeth-gnashingly good writer that he’s pulled this off with The Fifth Risk. Ostensibly about the chaos the Trump ‘administration’ is bringing to government as it expropriates whatever it can for personal financial benefit, the book is fundamentally a description of and hymn to the vital role of expertise in modern societies.

Expertise, and a strong sense of public service mission. It does so through interviews with a range of experts who have recently left government service – experts on nuclear weapon safety (managed by the Department of Energy), child nutrition (USDA), meteorology (the NOAA in the Commerce Department) and even social science (also in the NOAA, because what was the point of ever more accurate tornado warnings if people didn’t respond to them by evacuating their homes?)

It is, therefore, fundamentally a terrifying book. All these dedicated scientists waited for the new Trump administration to contact them after the election. And waited. And waited some more. Nothing. No interest in governing, in detail, for instance in why a small town storing nuclear waste might poison vast areas of the western United States and the Colorado River if the DoE didn’t spend billions a year on remediating and containing the problem. And of course, the ‘Administration’ gets away with it because so many voters had no interest either. This is where we are.

Anyway, a brilliant book. Do read it.



Once upon a time in the British Economy

Managing the Economy, Managing the People: Narratives of Economic Life in Britain from Beveridge to Brexit by Jim Tomlinson is an interesting economic history of modern Britain. It appealed to me from the first page, where Tomlinson talks about the absence of a fixed meaning for the term ‘the economy’. The book therefore focuses: “[O]n the ways in which successive governments, in seeking to manage the economy, have sought simultaneously to manage popular understanding of economic issues.” In other words, to manage the economy is to tell a persuasive story about it – to have a narrative in other words.

This is not, as many economists’ first instinct will tell them, woolly nonsense. It is because there are many possible self-fulfilling (or self-averting) outcomes, given the role of both expectations about the future and interactions between individuals. In different ways many fine economists are starting to incorporate such insights, from Roger Farmer in macroeconomics to Robert Shiller, George Akerlof and Dennis Snower, Kaushik Basu, and George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton.

Anyway, as Tomlinson points out, talking about the electorate misunderstanding economic reality is therefore missing the point that economic outcomes are to some degree always constructed (and besides, it backfires – people don’t like to be told they’re stupid and should listen to clever folk). The body of the book therefore traces the ebb and flow of these political and policy acts of construction, and the interplay of ideas, ideologies, and events. The first part considers some of the key narratives, broadly chronologically – “You’ve never had it so good,” “rolling back the state,” etc. The second part looks at the period through the lens of key macroeconomic indicators, and why some are more salient at specific times due to the way they feature in public debate.

An interesting conclusion considers two broader narratives’: the rise of neoliberalism; and deindustrialisation. Tomlinson argues that while academics (outside economics) focus on the former, the latter – having had a briefl flurry of scholarly interest in the late 1970s – is more significant in understanding the trajectory of people’s lives in postwar Britain. The book comes to a rather sudden halt, and it is by no means a vanilla economic history of Britain, but it’s a stimulating read.