18 July 2009

Trivialised does as trivialised is

Now that the hoo-ha about MPs' expenses seems to have died down, can any useful lessons be said to have been learnt? Perhaps this: trying to restrict the salaries of public figures while being generous (but fuzzy) with expenses rules, for appearances' sake, can backfire since everyone starts to push the rules [1] as far as they will go. Of course, it may have been meant to backfire, for the amusement of others, or for more destructive reasons. There is a parallel here with the position in a mediocracy of the individual in general. Abolish all former clearly-defined rights of territory in exchange for vaguely defined pseudo-rights, initially with seemingly infinite benevolence and largesse ("go on, help yourselves, it's all for your benefit"); then start to tighten the screws and watch them squirm. Thus we get a variant of reality TV: entertainment for the masses, as individuals are manipulated into behaving in ridiculous ways. You chuck some of them out, on a fairly arbitrary basis, and the remainder are in a stronger position than before.

What about the idea that the affair has demonstrated the cupidity of the current crop of politicians? That they form a cosy clique, with the common interest of furthering their financial interests, and that our society would be improved by determined reining back of their materialistic impulses? This has been the popular interpretation among journalists and columnists. The Daily Mail's Peter Oborne in particular — whose book castigating the new political elite came out 14 months after Mediocracy — seems to have made this theme the centrepiece of his career. While Oborne's reminders about the political shenanigans of British mediocracy have been useful, his interpretation of the facts seems less than illuminating. The defects of our political class are said to be that they are "metropolitan and London-based", perceiving life through the eyes of "London's affluent middle classes", "isolated from the aspirations and the problems of provincial, rural and suburban Britain". They are also said to suffer from insufficient experience of practical life outside politics.

The culture of incompetence which has become a special hallmark of modern British government is the direct result of the absence of any meaningful managerial experience among the Political Class. Very serious decisions are made with a lack of elementary preparation or understanding on a scale which would be completely shocking in the private sector.
Mr Oborne's confidence in the efficiency of the private sector seems a little misplaced. Many of the cockups of the New Labour government are attributable to the work of outside consultancies and agencies to whom work has been subcontracted. Think, for instance, of Capita's boobs in the field of data management.

Oborne disapprovingly quotes Boris Johnson, formerly a bored management consultant, as an example of a politician who was incapable of holding down a 'proper job':
"Try as I might, I could not look at an overhead projection of a growth/profit matrix, and stay conscious."
I have every sympathy for Mr Johnson, having often had trouble myself staying awake through tedious seminars on financial or managerial topics, presented in a clunking and pretentious style. I do not know how much experience of the 'real world' Mr Oborne himself has, but I doubt that politics would be improved if it contained more people capable of being fascinated by growth/profit matrices. If anything, contemporary politics has already been overinfected by management theory, and is in danger of becoming as jargonised and pseudo-intellectualised as some other professions already are.

One possible lesson from the expenses story — that politicians are no more 'moral' than anyone else, and that their programmes for supposedly improving the moral quality of society should therefore be regarded cynically and firmly resisted — seems to have been completely missed.
People go into politics because they like power. Voters should let them, because someone has to run the country (hoping that people will do it for altruistic reasons is silly) but they need to remain sceptical about their motives. They should not expect them to be moral or philosophical supermen, and they should certainly not place them — or allow them to place themselves — in positions which imply they are. I.e. positions where they can intervene into the fabric of society, rather than simply get on with managing what they have been given to manage.
After the change of premier two years ago, I was struck by reading the editor of a share tip sheet [2] criticising Dr Brown for his interventionism but prefacing the criticism with "He is probably a decent man but ..." The problem with accepting politicians' implicit claims to be driven by the best of intentions is that it generates inappropriate tolerance of their doings, many of which are nowadays carried out in the name of 'fairness', 'security' or similar. If it were accepted that their actions are, at best, driven by a desire for more power over other people, we might see a bit more like the level of resistance which their proposals for intervention generally deserve. Unfortunately, the expenses saga seems to have had negligible effect in this direction.

Philip Johnston points to the overlegislation of civil life which has taken place under Labour, and claims that this is "why we are so angry about duck islands, bath plugs and second-home flipping". Possibly there is some subconscious connection between resentment at government interference and anger about expenses, but I doubt that the latter is a sign of any significant desire to roll back the state among the public. Not long ago, a poll showed that a majority of British voters want to be nannied. The recent violence against MP Nadine Dorries — smashing up her patio furniture, which turned out not to have been financed by expenses claims at all, and posting a nasty comment about it on her blog — suggests that the whole thing has merely become another excuse for aggressification, without generating anything useful.
As usual, there have been knee-jerk calls for change. Change the constitution, change the electoral system, have fixed-term parliaments, fewer MPs, anything. Rip it all up and start again. In other words, more of the dismantling and rebranding we have already had under Labour. Revealingly, the Tories are spearheading this movement, having taken over the lead in reforming zeal from their rivals.

Politicians are too amateur, too dilettante? Dr Brown, with his dour, punitive and somewhat archaic 'morality', may be a suitable figurehead for New Labour, especially in the current belt-tightening climate. But behind him there is an army of shiny, ruthless professionals. What they are professional at is mostly little more than PR (i.e. management of perceptions, a.k.a. propaganda), but they are very good at that, at least by the going standard [3]. With the infinitely accommodating — but phoney — excuse of doing things for the sake of 'social justice', they have completed over the last twelve years a cultural revolution, the seeds of which were sown as far back as the forties and fifties. The old guard has been shunted out, and will never be allowed back in. The revolution is complete, and there is no going back; the socialists have made sure of that.

The Labour Party, and the House of Commons, are however merely the political symbols of a revolution that goes well beyond Westminster. Every other cultural institution of significance — the BBC, Oxford [4], research funding bodies, the Arts Council — has had a similar revolution, and a similar new guard installed which is now immovably entrenched. All that remains is a generation who remember different values, and who are permitted to become the grumbling old — "grumblies" — complaining, but mostly in the self-deprecating and degraded style of The Oldie magazine. Their principal organ is the Daily Mail — despised and largely impotent, but allowed to exist as a safety valve for resentment, to defuse the risk of grumbly riots. Soon the grumblies will be safely retired or dead, and they and the old bourgeois values will have been finally expunged. No one will know that there was ever a viewpoint different from the mediocratic one.

What critics of the 'political class' seem reluctant to acknowledge is that the behaviour of that class is merely symptomatic of a world in which culture and 'morality' have been captured by a reductionist/collectivist ideology [5]. Bourgeois concepts, such as honour, grandeur or importance, have been 'deconstructed' i.e. dismissed, and the only permissible value of any importance is equality. If every individual is degraded, so are politicians and other public figures, formerly supposed to be exceptional in some way.
If all claims to individual significance are derided, then MPs are not superior in any way to anyone else, so why should they behave better than others? The cultural/ideological revolution, which has changed the image of the individual, is bound to affect the way public figures deport themselves. The only type of entity permitted significance in the new world is the group, the collective, society. (Celebrity culture, which is sometimes claimed to demonstrate the 'individualism' of modern society, is simply another illustration of its anti-individualism. People now become famous not despite, but because, of their triviality; and it is made clear that their celebrity can be readily manufactured, and just as easily torn down again.)

Some aspects of all this are half-heartedly recognised, others are not; but nothing useful happens, except suggestions for tinkering which if implemented would reinforce rather than reverse the prevailing trend. The cultural sources of the degradation of public life are largely ignored. It is characteristic of the moneyed Right to moan about the awfulness of Blairised politics, but not to put their money or their influence where their mouth is by supporting genuinely dissident culture, which by now is more or less only to be found outside the establishment and unlikely to be self-supporting. Tories may talk about mending the 'broken society', but it is doubtful whether this is going to be achieved by cosying up to the cultural representatives of that society, such as Tracey Emin [6].
Whatever can be said for the benefits of mass markets, it is not much good relying on them to generate dissident culture. And by 'dissident culture' I am not referring to think tanks, which have their place but which cannot fill the hole left by dumbed down and ideologised universities. It is worth quoting Professor Kenneth Minogue on this:
So: the academic has collapsed. It survives, no doubt, in the interstices of many universities, and there remain plenty of able and alert dons who do know what it is all about. But all too many now take their cue from the 'academic audit', and write formularised articles for professional journals. In the seventeenth century, the cultivation of inquiry migrated to the world of the independent scholar, and it has been suggested that 'think tanks' might take up the academic role today. They do many admirable things, but they certainly do not sustain academic inquiry. [7]
What the phrase "metropolitan elite ... isolated from the aspirations of people outside their milieu" makes me think of is not politicians, but the class composed of journalists, the BBC and people in television. These people are far more responsible for generating the prevailing ideology than anyone inside the Westminster machine. As for "comfortable clubs", the most obvious clique operative in Britain, after the leftist Masonry of the cultural elite, is the journalistic Right, who are intensely inward-focused. They invite one another to their conferences, interview each other and review each other's books. Their number, in terms of the key players, can be counted on the fingers and toes of one person, but this is quite sufficient to generate a little sub-industry. Whether they can ultimately survive the steamroller of the cultural revolution remains to be seen. Of course, there always remains the option of doing a chameleon act, a move which by now must be thoroughly familiar to the Right. It may seem hard at the moment to imagine, say, The Spectator changing its hue so as to coincide with that of the New Statesman, but if it can happen in politics it is presumably not beyond the realm of possibility for the magazine industry.

We live in the age of politics by YouTube, by beauty parade, by reality TV. Television's current premier ringmaster, Simon Cowell, recently said
The great thing about [The X Factor] is when you start seeing it in places like China and Afghanistan. It's democracy. We've kinda given democracy back to the world.
This was reported as a joke in Private Eye, supposedly reflecting Mr Cowell's luvvie pretensions, but is not a joke at all. The kind of democracy Cowell is talking about, the one exported via The X Factor to China, Afghanistan etc, is more or less the kind of democracy we now have, and the kind we shall continue to have for the foreseeable future.

As for politicians' personal conduct, I doubt it is much worse, relative to other professions, than it has always been, and it is not — or should not be — the main cause for concern. Personally, I would much rather MPs had numerous extramarital affairs, their hands in the till, or lucrative second jobs exploiting inside knowledge, than that they cavalierly abolish yet another civil liberty that took hundreds of years to establish. As far as I am concerned, politicians are welcome to be not only greedy, but also dull, unapproachable, ugly, pompous, clubby, elitist or socially inept, just as long as they do not consider it their job to reform society by making up a few more laws and rushing them through parliament as quickly as possible. Sadly, the people who agree with me appear to be a very small minority.

(1) Refraining from doing so, when everyone else is not, would make the trend-bucker simply look stupid. If you stand up for principles, without any immediate reward in terms of power, status or money, as (e.g.) my colleagues and I do, you are (at best) written off as other-worldly and naive. Particularly if the principles are not leftist principles.
(2) The excellent Quantum Leap Stockmarket Letter.
(3) "Very good by the going standard", given the going standard, means that what they do is often muddled and sometimes farcical. However, this does not matter because their target audience, the average mediocratic citizen, does not care.
(4) During the 1980s, Oxford played a minor role in rolling back authoritarianism in Eastern Europe. Balliol philosopher Bill Newton-Smith, for example, was one of a group of academics who provided support for dissident intellectuals in Czechoslovakia, often at some risk to themselves. It is difficult to imagine something similar happening now, not so much because of Oxford's ideologisation, but because the new dominant breed of don are often mere corporate clones concerned with climbing the greasy pole, and would not dream of rocking any major boats let alone taking real risks. More charitably, modern academia provides little incentive for more expansive impulses, given the current obsession with auditing, cost-controlling and checking every area that is funded by public money — particularly wherever there is a risk that someone might be enjoying some benefit in excess of the bare minimum. (Applying this observation to the case of MPs, it seems doubtful that restricting their pay or benefits will produce better standards of overall behaviour, or generate a return to respect for principles.)
(5) When I refer to 'reductionist', I mean an ideology that is selectively reductionist, i.e. reductionist about the individual while maintaining a belief in the numinousness of social groups. It is also selectively reductionist about the individual, in that certain biologically explicable drives are emphasised while others are strenuously ignored.
(6) As an alleged 'conservative', I have to take care not to be misunderstood about comments such as this. The FT's art critic recently reported respectfully on Emin's latest contribution to culture, a video of a woman masturbating. What is 'wrong' with this kind of work is not that it breaks taboos (yawn), but that it is mindnumbingly vacuous and predictable, and expresses the same politicised and reductionist ideology that has been culturally dominant for at least the last twenty years. Now cosying up to the Stuckists, that would (by now) be more innovative and refreshing, and would send a clear signal that you are distancing yourself from the mediocratic elite, rather than trying to be just as 'with it' as they are.
(7) From 'The collapse of the academic in Britain', in Buckingham at 25, Institute of Economic Affairs 2001

• Dissident culture costs no less than establishment culture. The annual research budget of Oxford University works out at about £170,000 per researcher. At present, my colleagues and I survive by our own efforts, and manage to squeeze out the occasional blog post, and a book every now and then. Those with spare funds, and a desire to see a little more genuine diversity in the West's cultural output, should consider supporting our efforts by means of donations. Free internet content is fine for opinion and commentary, but it is not going to generate original research. We cannot guarantee to provide support for a particular worldview, but we would certainly produce material different from what is currently being generated in universities, and more in keeping with the spirit of pre-Welfare-State academia.