Jeremy Corbyn and the end of Labour

The election of Jeremy Corbyn has been a massive shock to the UK’s political system. He has clearly managed to engage and inspire many who were seen as having been turned off by the previously existing political choices. Obviously those he inspired were a self selected group of progressives and supporters of the Labour Party.

The big question remains whether he can translate this into a programme of change the wider electorate can get behind. There are plenty confident he cannot. They believe his radicalism will prove too heady for the electorate who will remain with the Conservative Party at the next election as the sensible party of pragmatic common sense.

It may be however that radicalism is about to undergo something of a revival in its fortunes. There are a number of trends in the UK and in the world which are coming together to create the conditions for a perfect storm. Demographics, climate change and information and communications technology (ICT) are just three of the processes, but key ones which have potentially dramatic implications.

Demographics are generating huge demands on stretched social and health services and having major implications for the economy. The radical implications of climate change are well spelt out in Naomi Klien’s latest book “This Changes Everything”. Here I want to focus on IT which may be just as radical.

The BBC is devoting this week to a consideration of Artificial Intelligence (AI). As part of this they are looking at the implications of AI are for employment. A Panorama programme is considering work the done by two Oxford Academics in September 2013 looking at what proportion of jobs in the United States (US) might be vulnerable to automation in the foreseeable future. The paper claims some 47% of US jobs are at high risk of computerisation.

Concern about the impacts of ICT has been growing for some time against a back drop of stagnant income levels, youth unemployment and underemployment, and the growth of poor quality low paid jobs.

In Race Against the Machine, Brynjolfson and McAfee talked about the exponential speed of developments in all areas of computerisation including the development of AI as a result of Moore’s Law. Roughly the doubling of the number of transisters on a chip every 18 months / two years thus doubling the power of computers. That law is now 50 years old. If you had a £1 fifty years ago and applied the same law doubling the amount you had every 2 years you would now have… £16,777,216. Of course that means in 2017 you would have £33,554,432.

The point Brynjolfson and McAfee are making is that with that kind of acceleration it is very difficult to be clear about how rapidly AI might develop. In turn this means it is very difficult to know what jobs are vulnerable to automation and how quickly it might happen.

In their later book, The Second Machine Age, Brynjolfson and McAfee suggested that mankind needs to learn to “…race with machines, instead of against them.” Whilst they maintain an optimitic view of technological development they appreciate that the consequences are likely to be highly disruptibve and very negative for some workers.

A picture of reduced employment and a hollowing out of the good, middle class jobs. Employment becoming something that is either a low paid, low skill occupation in retail or care, or a high complexity, controlling function with very high pay. In response to this they suggest the state is going to have to respond with initiatives like negative income tax, i.e. payments from the state for those on low incomes.

The Rise of the Robots – Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment, (clues in the title!) by Martin Ford takes a rather more radical and less optimistic view. Whilst his analysis of the potential for AI and automation follows much of what is in Brynjolfson and McAfee his conclusions are that the social and economic dislocation that this process creates will be much more uncomfortable.

Ford believes that IT has been having profound effects on the operation of the economy for some time. Since World War Two the link between productivty and compensation in the US marched in step. In 1970, something started to happen to break this connection. Technological innovation no longer led to increases in living standards for the majority. The growth of inequality, the stagnation of median earnings the reduction in labours share of national income were all trends that have accompanied information and communication technological innovation.

Ford sees these trends leading to a point where effective demand in the economy is undermined by the absence of employment for many and the low paid employment of the “precariat” for the many more. Without radical initiatives such as a universal basic income civil unrest is likley to grow and ultimately lead to the need for state repression on a significant scale.

Now, if the scenario set out above is in progress some radical new policies in relation to employment or the lack of it will be needed.  It wil require a transformation in thinking about the means of distribution which will probably have implications for the means of production also. These revolutionary implications do not follow from some 19th Century political theory, rather they emerge from analysis of the challenges we face as we move into the mid 21st Century.

Mr Corbyn does not have to look backwards for his radical inspiration. The end of labour might indeed be nye but, if it is, it does not mean questions about the distribution of wealth will go away. On the contrary it is likely to throw them into sharp relief.



Labour Pains

Two emotions contend with each other when I think about what has been happening with the Labour party over the summer, depression and exasperation.

We live at a time when inequality is spiralling out of control, when technology is providing a challenge to employment way beyond what any self respecting luddite could have dreamt of, when the demographic time bomb has stopped ticking and started exploding and when climate change threatens the existence of the planet. Worse, in 2007/08 we had an object lesson in the frailties of neo-liberal orthodoxy when the financial markets imploded.

Given all this it is astounding the main party of opposition cannot engage the public with an effective narrative of the need for radical change. Why is this? I think there are some deep-seated issues but also some very practical matters. Starting with the latter.

Why was the Tory rewrite of history not contested after the last election? How did the massive increase in public debt become a result of Labour profligacy and not the complete failure of the banks due to a combination of derivative hubris, non-existent governance, inappropriate risk management, avarice and downright law breaking?

The tone and seriousness of the Tory position was set from the moment the Liam Byrne letter was released and used in a carefully crafted and constantly repeated barrage of misinformation. Perhaps an exhausted administration felt opposing the line given by a newly elected government might alienate voters for the future. It was a mistake, as trying to oppose a picture, which has had 5 years to sediment into the popular mind, is very difficult if not impossible.

But what are the more deep-seated issues to be addressed. This is more difficult and no doubt there will be theses written on this in due course however there is clearly a problem with the level of engagement with the core labour vote. One picture of this is that floating voters are scared of “the left” and “socialism” and in order to win and be able to do anything at all it is important to tack away from policies perceived as “extreme”.

Mr Mandelsen and other New Labour adherents talk about the need for “grown up” politics where the focus has to be on the need to win an election. It is difficult to disagree with that. On the other hand if the focus is on winning as an end in itself then it may actually become the biggest handicap to achieving success.

From a distance unfortunately it looks like a London centric cohort of Labour leaders are so busy trying to suppress the radical agenda of yesterday they have failed to notice that there is the need for what might be an even more radical agenda for today.

Much of Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda might be caricatured as old left. It has however excited and engaged many who have been turned off by politics and politicians. It perhaps says something about their appetite for something more than the half digested and regurgitated pap that is the stuff of focus group politics.

The spectre is raised that Labour will never get elected under Mr Corbyn. This may be the case, but what makes people think that Labour can get elected with leaders offering austerity-lite? Austerity–lite is always vulnerable to the charge that it is not austerity at all and if the country is convinced that austerity is the solution why vote Labour when you can have the party that does austerity really well.

There are a series of issues which have been evolving over the past 30 years, inequality, demographics, info/techno-automation, globalisation and perhaps most significant of all climate change. The responses to all these have so far ranged between inadequate and totally inadequate. They all raise profound economic challenges that go to the heart of the current model of capitalism. They are increasingly recognised by a wide range of economists, political theorists and social commentators far beyond the “workers revolutionary” fringe that some might try to imply.

Whether Mr Corbyn gets elected or not his success to date in galvanising a very broad spectrum of people needs to be recognised. The Labour party needs to rethink its policies across the board and consider whether it is addressing the needs of a) the people that have traditionally relied upon it, the poor, the weak, the powerless; b) those whose opportunities are starting to become more and more constrained, the 90%, and c) the population of planet earth.

If this sounds a touch apocalyptic it is meant to. We seem to be heading into the perfect storm at the moment with Mr Magoo at the helm. There is a very radical agenda to be addressed and articulated for the challenges of today. The Labour Party should be doing it. It has failed to do it to date. It needs to gain the courage of its historical convictions and do it now. Not because it is an election winning strategy (although I think it is) but because it is right.

Mr Corbyn, whether he becomes leader or not, may have acted as midwife to a reborn Labour Party. If he does then he has done us all a great service.

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Azar Nafisi taught English literature at the University of Tehran in the period immediately after the overthrow of the Shah. Her passion for literature is palpable throughout the book and her commentaries on Lolita, the Great Gatsby, Jane Austen and Henry James are informative and a genuine aid to appreciation. However, it is the way literature is juxtaposed with the progress of the revolution that is so fascinating and stimulating.Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 18.02.15

Structured around recollections of her teaching and a women’s book club she sets up she describes a range of characters and their different experiences as the Islamic Fundamentalists become ever more powerful.

From the early days of the revolution where diverse political groupings of students argued on campus about the direction the new regime should take to later as the fundamentalists came to dominate and close down any challenge to the new orthodoxy.

It charts the way the veil was transformed from a voluntary expression of religious faith into a compulsory symbol of political oppression. Worse it makes clear this was a very specific form of male dominated political oppression. The accounts of the treatment of women whilst in one sense are not a surprise they still remain shocking. What also comes across is the hypocrisy that accompanied some of the worst excesses of the male guardians of the faith.

To be clear this is not an anti-Muslim book, far from it. What it is against is the totalitarian suppression of the individual and the denial of the right to freedom of expression. Totalitarianism does not grow out of Islam rather it traduces the Muslim faith to rationalise and legitimate its actions.

The way literature is shown in the book to be both the product and symbol of individual freedom and liberty is impressive. As the fundamentalist faction gains prominence and power, the condemnation of western literature as decadent becomes ever more strident. Certain books become more and more difficult to obtain and then banned. It is interesting how powerful literature is perceived by totalitarian regimes of all stripes as they attempt to control and ultimately destroy it.

Throughout the novel Ms Nafisi shows how literature can illuminate areas of life. She draws on Nabakov’s, work “An Invitation to a Beheading”. This Kafkaesque novel is about an individual condemned to death for “gnostical turpitude” which seems to consist of failing to blend in with those around him. Clearly, fundamentalist religion cannot cope with “gnostical turpitude” or, what amounts to the same thing, individuals. What Ms Nafisi brings out is the desire of totalitarian regimes, not just to impose external compliance but secure internal surrender.

Scarves and the veil become compulsory, shaking hands with a male who is not your brother or father is an outrage indeed looking into their eyes is the same. Imprisonment, torture and rape, stoning to death, disappearance and shooting were the very real tools of oppression. Within this incredibly repressive environment, the book club and literature become a way to cling to internal freedom, a way to avoid surrender.

This is a tremendous book which illuminates one of the major events in recent history with the light of individual human experience, with emphasis on the individual.

Published in 2015 By Penguin Classics.


Post script. I have used the term Islamic Fundamentalism in the above. As I wrote it I felt uncomfortable. Putting the two terms together seems to me to demean the former and provide a false veneer of acceptability to the latter. Fundamentalism in all its forms is first and foremost about power and only secondarily about whatever vehicle it uses to legitimise that power. I fear the two terms probably have to remain combined but I think it is important to always be clear that they are actually radically separate