Now the Party\’s over

Party conferences have always been an acquired taste, but this year\’s (even without the McBride and Farrage sideshows) have seemed particularly remote from reality, alien rituals conducted by an alien species.  But is this just the latest chapter in the slow decline of mass party membership, or is something else at play?

The Guardian\’s John Harris, former chronicler of BritPop and historian of new Labour, has been worrying for some months at how the Conservative Party has lost touch with mainstream conservatism, continuing to promulgate the neoliberal nostrums of open markets and free trade, deaf to a crescendo of grumbling from its once core vote.  Outside the capital, in \’Alarm Clock Britain\’ (or whichever new-minted de haut en bas descriptor the narrative-mongers have come up with), Harris finds that open markets and globalisation are not viewed as paragons of efficiency and creators of wealth, but as destroyers of jobs and harbingers of instability.

Harris\’s argument was echoed in Aditya Chakraborty\’s analysis of falling party membership (and the takeover of the Conservative Party by financiers), and in the Guardian\’s reportage from Aldi in Worcester, the front line of this new class war, where shoppers proclaimed themselves either terminally disillusioned with all politics, or tending towards UKIP.

My reading habits are admittedly partial, but I don\’t think this us just a left argument:  Peter Oborne\’s broadsides at the metropolitan political class are aiming at the same territory. The politicians at their press conferences look increasingly like medieval clerics debating transubstantiation, while the peasants ponder plague and turnips.  The detachment goes beyond silly shibboleths about who knows the price of a pint of milk, a loaf of bread, a litre of superstrength cider, or whatever 21st Century staple politicians have to pretend that they buy.

Once you start to look for it, you can see this rancorous detachment everywhere.  You can see it in the \’below the lines\’ comments in newspapers.  These may invite provocateurs, trolls and other people with nothing better to do with their time, but there is a toxic undercurrent of resentment too.  Sometimes expressed through racism or xenophobia, but sometimes simply presenting as a profound hostility to the political class, and an establishment that is seen as interested only in feathering its own nests.

The sense of alienation is polymorphous, and perhaps hard to analyse clearly, but it\’s harder still to see where it is going.  The crowds are not out on the streets in the UK, and the protests of the Occupy movement never went far beyond St Paul\’s Churchyard, so will disgruntled citizens flock to marginalised parties of the left and right that diverge from the shared internationalist outlook of the mainstream parties, as Seumas Milne has suggested? Will unrest and violence erupt, maybe targeted at immigarnts and other easy targets as it has been in Greece?  Or is a more profound change underway?  It seems almost absurd to pose the question, but is Disgusted of Droitwich a British manifestation of the discontent that erupted in Taksim and Tahrir?

Writing in the latest LRB, David Runciman argues that the oil shocks and decaying industrial capitalism of the 1970s gave birth to what we now call neoliberalism, though it was years if not decades before the baby was named or its moment of birth identified.  Flip forward 35 years, and ask whether the crisis of the past five years is a blip in the narrative of neoliberalism triumphant, or the beginning of something new.  If the latter, pace Yeats (it is National Poetry Day tomorrow, after all), \”what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?\”

Control

My understanding of life as a poor teenager on an inner city housing estate is about as sophisticated as the Downing Street cat\’s take on politics: I can see it, where I live and where I work, but my analysis is superficial at best. Nonetheless, a few days after riots in London, thoughts and analyses race through my head, as the muttering backbeat of commentary – both banal and insightful – grows in volume. So, here\’s what I think today.

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson told the Today Programme, \”Over 20 or 30 years we have got into a situation where young people have a massive sense of entitlement.\” Leaving aside trite scoffs about his own Eton-educated sense of entitlement, he\’s on to something here. A sense of entitlement and benefit dependency are a reality for many poor people today, but the deeper tragedy is when this becomes the only reality.

From where I stand (and my limited perspective may be part of the problem), this world of entitlement and dependency looks pretty bleak – alienated from the sense of self-worth that work can generate, with weak family and social networks (apart from the toxic ties of gang culture), in grim environments illuminated only by the iconography of consumption. Russell Brand, writing in yesterday\’s Guardian, was typically eloquent: \”The only light in their lives comes from these luminous corporate messages. No wonder they have their fucking hoods up.\”

Benefits and precarious rights are the only stake that this class has in society. Should it surprise us that threats to these residual rights are regarded as an assault? Should we wonder that any fleeting opportunities to seize control and to share in consumer culture are embraced? We\’d like to think that education and employment initiatives can create those opportunities. For the lucky few they do, but that path looks increasingly steep, rocky and uncertain.

If you take a left perspective – and it\’s increasingly hard to find any others that make sense – you start to wonder what the role of the benefits system actually is. In the era when the spectre of communism was seen as a real threat to burgeoning capitalism, was social security used, like \’liquid cosh\’ in an old people\’s home, to pacify the masses and prevent them from rising up to seize control of a system that loaded the dice against them?

Perhaps the road to this week\’s riots is a long one, leading back through the last forty years, as working class culture wilted in a post-industrial economy, as the soviet regime faltered and fell, and as capitalism\’s leash was loosened by successive governments. The demented bout of speculation that ensued took the system to the brink of collapse, but the banks were bailed out, like rich kids in magistrates\’ courts, while welfare spending tightened and jobs became fewer and fewer – \’socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor\’. Seen through this lens, it is not the riots that are remarkable, but the fact that peace was not breached far earlier.

In this uncertain state of crisis, the dependency relationship created by benefits may be one of the few ties that continue to bind the poor to the rest of society. The irony of the current situation may be that, by cutting benefits across the board (let alone withdrawing them from those involved in rioting), the Government may be undermining one of the few bulwarks that continue to defend a decadent and discredited capitalism.

In the mouth a desert

As global capitalism staggers back towards the abyss, there is a rich seam of irony in the fact that Dubai is the source of the latest barrowload of bad debt.

Dubai is a statelet with a very old-fashioned view of debt. Dickensian even. Bouncing cheques is a criminal matter there, and anecdotes are legion about newly-unemployed expats who scarper to the airport, and leave their cars with the keys in the ignition, to avoid ending up behind bars as their over-leveraged lifestyles unravel.

Meanwhile, on Nakheel\’s website, you wouldn\’t be able to see anything was wrong. Headlines focus on golf tournaments not debt defaults. The sangfroid of Drake playing bowls as the Spanish Armada approached, or the lunacy of Nero fiddling as Rome collapsed in flames?

World gone wrong

There are all sorts of reasons why I haven\’t typed anything here for a few weeks. One reason is that I try to write with some basic level of insight or understanding, and things are falling apart in the global system at such a dizzying pace that is hard to see what is happening, let alone make any sense of it all.

There\’s something else too. Every time I start typing something about the shrill and intolerant outrage that seems to dominate debate at the moment, I realise I am sounding like a Daily Mail writer, protesting about \’political correctness gone mad\’. And this is not a good sound. If you sleep with a dog you get fleas, true, but sometimes that\’s the only place to sleep.

This week has been particularly rich in its craziness. Jonathon Ross making jokes about sex with old people (and the grand-daughters of old people) was merely a warm-up act to Gollygate. Now, Carol Thatcher does not seem like the sort of person I\’d like as a neighbour. I can only cringe as I imagine her crass and self-righteous air of martyrdom as she refused to \’kowtow to political correctness\’, by apologising for her singularly oafish and offensive remarks. But this can\’t make it right to ban her from the airwaves.

Jeremy Clarkson is another person that I wouldn\’t want to spend much time with (though Top Gear is a guilty pleasure), but it is hard to see how referring to Gordon Brown as a \’one-eyed Scottish idiot\’ is so offensive to all partially-sighted people, let alone an entire nation, unless they are embarassed to be associated with the Prime Minister.

This fractious and factitious culture of complaint (to borrow the title of Robert Hughes\’ prescient book) is reducing a once-great institution to a punch-drunk pulp, incapable of distinguishing morality from manufactured outrage, or helping the hungry from helping Hamas. To mangle another Yeats line, the BBC lacks all conviction; its viewers are full of passionate intensity.

We are all going to hell in a handcart (as I believe is the the traditional closing sentence of such rants).

From goose to snake

Watching Newsnight\’s \’trial\’ to examine who was to blame for the near-collapse of global capitalism last night, I could only wonder at the sheer quantity of bad faith on display.

The programme began with the results of a telephone survey, showing that the vast majority of the public blamed speculation in particular or banks in general for their irresponsibility, with s smaller proportion blaming the government, and five per cent each blaming regulators and the borrowing public.

The various \’accused\’ explained why it was not their fault. Paul Mason, the usually sensible Newsnight Economics Editor, talked in horror-struck tones of bankers being motivated to lend recklessly by the \”personal enrichment\” that could follow (as opposed to the altruism that usually prevails in financial services), and Will Hutton lambasted banks for not unilaterally cutting back their remuneration to a level that could be described as sane (and would no doubt lead to a swift leakage of skilled personnel).

So, the mess we\’re in is all a result of these evil institutions, which apparently operate in an entirely parallel universe from the rest of us? No. The simple truth, however unpalatable, is that – whenever we have rejoiced in cheap mortgages, easy credit card transfers or stockmarket gains – we have added air to the bubble. We may wriggle to avoid blame (and everyone else involved is, so why not?), but most of us were complicit in the system.

But now, less than a year after we were worrying about the terrible implications of asking rich people to pay tax, when all the talk was of killing geese that lay golden eggs, we stand astonished that financial institutions have been playing as fast and loose as they can, in order to maximise their profits.

Perhaps it\’s because I am a child of the Thatcher years, but I can\’t find it in my heart to expect capitalist institutions to be anything other than ruthlessly – and even recklessly – self-interested. You may not like it (and I don\’t much), but it\’s the world in which we live. As Michael Foot recently observed (a footnote to this), there was an alternative, but we chose a different path 25 years ago.

I\’m reminded of Al Wilson\’s Northern Soul classic, The Snake: a kindly woman takes in and looks after a snake that is dying of cold. Recovered, the snake duly bites her. As the venom takes hold, the woman complains of how her hospitality has been repaid, but the snake is having none of it:

\”Oh shut up, silly woman\”, said the reptile with a grin.
\”You knew darn well I was a snake before you took me in!\”

There should be a law against us

Today\’s story, of a teenage boy who badly burnt himself in an un-staffed tanning salon, only merited a few lines in most papers, but one comment offered a sharp insight into the state of modern capitalism.

Asked about the unfortunate incident, salon owner Steve James said that he could not afford to have staff on duty all the time if he was to remain competitive. He said: “I’m really disappointed this has happened. We are not operating illegally. If laws were passed to make all salons staffed all the time it would solve the problem.”

It is worth pausing over this statement. Mr James does not seek to defend his business practices on any grounds apart from their legality and the need to remain competitive. Indeed, in calling for legal changes, he implicitly acknowledges that, without tougher regulation, salons like his will operate in an irresponsible manner. In effect, he is saying: “There should be a law against us.”

You could hardly ask for a more damning indictment of contemporary capitalism. In an era of global and local competition, businesses cannot afford to let any moral considerations to dull their competitive edge. Conscientious entrepreneurs are cornered, and end up actively seeking regulation by the state, as their only defence against a relentless descent to the bottom line.

Consumer pressure, on sweated labour for example, can act as a gentle inhibitor of the worst practices, but shareholders will swiftly punish any working practices that raise costs (without a parallel boost to profits). Codes of conduct and self-regulation offer only uneasy stand-offs, which hold for as long as their least scrupulous member.

There is an irony here. After years of rolling back the state, building bonfires of red tape and so forth, businessmen like Steve James see state regulation as the only thing that can rescue them from the callous consequences of relentless competition.

Larks\’ Tongues

BBC2\’s Rome was back on the television last night, revelling with gory glee in the plottings and the stabbing. The orgies, the feasts of larks\’ tongues and the pearls dissolved in vinegar are just around the corner.

This is history in hindsight: we see the seeds of the Roman Empire\’s collapse being sown in the retreat from the austere and stoic values of the Republic. We can thank historians like Suetonius for this lurid and prurient tale of geopolitical decline following close on the heels of moral decadence. It has proved a compelling narrative for future generations too, from Shakespeare to Gibbon.

Is it a narrative for today? While problems press on us from all sides – environmental collapse, intractable wars, political and social alienation – many of us have never had it so good. We live lives of comfort and plenty, lives that are enriched by foreign travel, new foods, new media.

Is this dissonance a new normality or is our persistent celebration of consumption a sign of our decadence? Are we eating larks\’ tongues? Two things I noticed recently:

The ipod is a totemic piece of technology for our time, offering unparalleled ease of use coupled with elegance of design. I recently picked up a flyer, asking \’Is your ipod still sitting in its box?\’, and offering to fill ipods with music for their owners, to give training sessions, to personalise ipod mixes to make their owners look sophisticated.

At the Young Vic Theatre, performances of \’Vernon God Little\’, a satirical tale of the white working class in the southern USA can be preceded by a special menu in the venue\’s restaurant, where middle-class theatre-goers can eat ironic (but locally sourced and organic) variants on southern white trash food.

I\’m not trying to criticise these quirks of our culture (on the contrary, I can vouch for the Vernon God Little burger as juicy and well-cooked), but I sometimes wonder how our lives would look to a visitor from another planet, or even to a future historian sniffing out the decadent portents of decline.

Any more larks\’ tongues out there?