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Chris Bertram

I got into a bit of a twitter fight with the always interesting Branko Milanovic yesterday. It was a second-hand fight, because he’d already been involved in one with Kate Raworth and had blogged about that. What was interesting to me was how Milanovic believed some things to be not only true, but obviously true, which I thought not just false but obviously false.

Milanovic’s claim is that limitless economic growth is both necessary and desirable in today’s societies. In fact, he puts the claim in the negative:

De-emphasizing growth is not desirable, and perhaps more importantly, is utterly unrealizable in societies like our modern societies.

He may be right or wrong about that. If such growth implies increased consumption of resources, then that’s a pretty bleak prospect for anyone who believes in ecological limits, worries about heat death from climate change and the like.

Still, more interesting to me was his reasoning:

the really important counter-argument to Kate is that her proposal fails to acknowledge the nature of today’s capitalist economies. They are built on two “fundaments”: (a) at the individual level, greed and the insatiable desire for more, and (b) on the collective level, competition as a means to achieve more. These are not necessarily most attractive ethical characteristics for either individuals or collectives but they are indispensable for capitalism to function—they provide the engine that pushes it ever further. … This extreme commodification is obviously linked with insatiability of our needs and by our desire to climb up in hierarchical rankings. Since today’s uber-capitalism accepts only one ranking criterion, money (and since all other possible ranking criteria can be, through commodification, converted into the money-metric), the desire for higher societal rank is almost entirely identified with the desire for higher income. And if everybody wants to have higher income, how can we then argue they our society should cease to place a premium on economic growth …. ? [click to continue…]

Jacob Levy on “The Sovereign Myth”

by Chris Bertram on July 12, 2017

Jacob T. Levy has written a really interesting piece for the Niskanen Center, which has at its centre the myth that the postwar era was one of sovereign and national democratic control and the fantasy that’s what we need to restore, a fantasy that fuels both the current wave of right-wing populism but is also present in some of the thinking around Jeremy Corbyn.

The imagined Golden Age in these kinds of stories of the fall from democratic grace is the postwar era; it’s often referred to as les trente glorieuses, the thirty glorious years of high economic growth, broadly distributed, during which most Western market democracies built substantial welfare and regulative states after World War II. The chronology varies from one country to another, but roughly speaking the Golden Age is taken to have ended sometime around 1970-75, opening political space for a very different political-economic model to take hold — with the election of Thatcher and Reagan, and the reconciliation of Mitterrand’s Socialist government in France to the market. … The people [now] want to take back control of their economies and their societies. Thus, to critics of neoliberalism, the populist upsurge is a kind of dark morality play; we’re being punished for Margaret Thatcher’s sins.

In the lens of Levy’s piece, UKIP and Trump, Theresa May, David Goodhart and “Liberal” Brexiteers like Carswell and Hannan are on the same side of a key dividing line together with some left-Rawlsians in political philosophy, and other “relational egalitarians”, with people like David Miller, with Blue Labour, with the Furedites with their enthusiasm for national sovereignty, with Lexiters and national-sovereigntist socialism-in-one-country types like John McDonnell and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. On the other side of that line are cosmopolitans of various stripes and with seriously differing attitudes among themselves to “capitalism”, to property and markets. Sitting uncomfortably in the middle are some of the Labour “mainstream”, the US Democrats, and people like Macron, who want to hang onto the postwar international order but are nevertheless wedded to the nation state and the possibility of control in ways that foster the myth.

Whilst nation states may be unable to produce the level of control for democratic electorates that they falsely promise, they are rather good at classifying, organizing, excluding and generally bullying people, with miserable effects for the people and their families who don’t fit into the neat little containers of nationality and citizenship or who would challenge them. The people in the sovereigntist and middle groups have very different ideas about what they’d do with state power, of course, — some of them benign in aspiration — but they all want to bend state power to the production of their pet outcomes on behalf of democratic electorates within which the interests of the “national”, the ethnically dominant and the sedentary are over-represented compared to all the people who don’t fit. In my view, the renewed fostering of the “we” who want control and to take charge of “our” borders and “our” economy carries serious dangers for those others.

Crowdfunding for Bristol Refugee Rights

by Chris Bertram on June 18, 2017

Crooked Timber community! I write to tell you about a charitable organisation that I’m involved with (I’m Chair of the Board of Trustees) and its current fundraising initiative. The charity is Bristol Refugee Rights, and we provide welfare, advice and education services, as well as a place to hang out and a hot meal for refugees and asylum seekers in the Bristol area. One of our services is our Early Years Project, which provides a creche for the children of refugees, which is particularly useful to enable their parents to attend classes to learn English or access our other services. It also provides a nurturing environment for small children who have had a really rough start in life and whose families are often subsisting at near destitution levels, as the British government only assists them to the tune of £5.32 a week (and some have less or nothing) on top of their housing in, again, very poor conditions. We need money to keep the service running and do things like pay the wages of the staff who run the creche. If you can, please give generously.

Here’s the link to the crowdfunding campaign, which is now going into its last 2 days.

Please give. And please share the campaign on your Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

And here’s a video about the campaign:

Sunday photoblogging: Pézenas, Bike and steps

by Chris Bertram on June 18, 2017

Pézenas, steps and bike

From King’s Cross to Grenfell Tower

by Chris Bertram on June 16, 2017

This is a guest post by Chris Brooke

I spend my life shuttling back and forth on the train between Oxford and Cambridge. That means that twice a week I walk past the plaque at King’s Cross that memorializes the thirty-one dead of the fire of 18 November 1987. And when I walk past that plaque, I’m reminded of a distinctive moment in my younger life—not just King’s Cross, but also the fifty-six dead of the Bradford stadium fire disaster (11 May 1985), the one hundred and ninety-three who died on the Herald of Free Enterprise (6 March 1987), the thirty-five who were killed at Clapham Junction (12 December 1988), the ninety-six who were crushed at Hillsborough (15 April 1989), or the fifty-one who drowned on the Marchioness (20 August 1989). Perhaps it was coincidence that these catastrophes happened cheek by jowl, in a way that they just haven’t since. Or perhaps much of it was something to do with the ascendant political ideology of the time, that starved vital infrastructure of much-needed investment, and that celebrated the quick search for profit. One of the good things about living in England over the last quarter century is that this run of disasters came to an end, and things became quite a bit safer. But of course the predictable consequence of the politicians’ collective choice to embrace the economics of austerity over the last seven years—and even more so when it is conjoined with the Tory fondness for the execrable landlord class, a widespread dislike of safety regulations, the cuts in legal aid, and the politics of the majority on Kensington & Chelsea Council, especially when it comes to housing—is that we would regress in some measure to this second-half-of-the-1980s world, and everything that is coming out now about the Grenfell Tower saga suggests that we have so regressed.

Back in those 1980s days, there was a running joke that Margaret Thatcher would always pop up at the bedside of the victims, doing a somewhat ghoulish Lady of the Lamp act, and Private Eye printed a Thatch Card, on the pattern of the then-popular NHS Donor Cards, that said that in the event of being involved in a major disaster, the holder of the card in no circumstances wanted to be visited by Mrs Thatcher in hospital. Compared to the behaviour of her successor, however, Mrs Thatcher comes across as a paragon of democratic responsibility. Mrs May didn’t have to do much yesterday, but she did have to visit Grenfell Tower, talk to the residents—the survivors—and tell them that from henceforwards things were going to be OK. And she didn’t even do that. In a sense, we shouldn’t be surprised. Her authority was destroyed by the vote of 8 June, and she’s been in shell-shock since, starting to count down the days until she leaves office, insofar as it is practically inconceivable that she will lead the Conservative Party into the next general election and no-one is afraid of her anymore. But a zombie government is still the government, the Spiderman principle applies, and Theresa May is a coward and a disgrace.

Sunday photoblogging: Wiltshire field

by Chris Bertram on June 11, 2017

Wiltshire field near Avebury

Sunday photoblogging: Mount Pleasant Terrace

by Chris Bertram on June 4, 2017

Mount Pleasant Terrace

Sunday photoblogging: Redcliffe flats

by Chris Bertram on May 28, 2017

Redcliffe Flats

Runner bean field in Herefordshire

Jane Jacobs, the tyranny of experts and Brexit

by Chris Bertram on May 16, 2017

Last night I watched Citizen Jane, a recent biopic about Jane Jacobs and her long fight against Robert Moses’s plans for New York. Of course, Jacobs was largely correct: Moses’s grand utopian schemes wrecked the ecologies of street and community and eventually produced neighbourhoods worse than the ones they replaced, whilst failing to solve even the problems, like traffic congestion, they seemed best suited to. But being already familiar with the substance of the dispute, and with Jacobs’s great work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, what struck me most forcefully was the rhetoric. On the one hand, there were the self-proclaimed “experts”, on the other, ordinary people with their lived experience, sceptical about whether the “experts” had their best interests at heart (or if they did, whether they shared the same conception of their interests). A great irony of the Jacobs case is that though she was right about Moses and his plans, the net result of her activism has not been, in the end, to preserve those neighbourhoods for the kinds of people who lived there then, but rather to give them an afterlife to be enjoyed by the people who can now afford to live in them.

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Sunday photoblogging: Pézenas, Place Gambetta

by Chris Bertram on May 14, 2017

Pézenas- Place Gambetta

Sunday photoblogging: chair

by Chris Bertram on April 30, 2017

Pézenas, chair

Macron leads!

by Chris Bertram on April 24, 2017

Macron has won the first round of the French Presidential election, and I for one am very pleased at the outcome. In the first place, I’m pleased because Marine Le Pen and the Front National have not done better despite circumstances, such as the Nice and Bataclan attacks, that might have been expected to give them a further boost. This suggests that, at least in France, right-wing populism has hit a limit, for the time being. Second I’m pleased because I think Macron probably has more about him than the Blair and Clinton comparisons and the childish chanting of the mantras of “neoliberal”, “austerity”, “banker” and “elite” by the Mélenchon claque suggests. He’s someone both committed to the EU and committed to changing it, whereas Mélenchon was all about making demands and walking away, in the vague direction of Lexit, as soon as the other member-states turned him down. Unlike Clinton and Blair he has done what he has done without a massive party machine behind him, he’s exhibited a lot of political courage and his bet has paid off. Now that we face the second-round, we see Mélenchon refusing to back Macron against Le Pen, which to my mind indicates that Mélenchon is an unserious poseur, but then his enthusiasms for Hugo Chavez and his apologetics for Assad ought to have been a clue to that.

Sunday photoblogging: Pézenas, Rue Conti

by Chris Bertram on April 23, 2017

Pézenas, Rue Conti

Asylum-seekers have to eat too

by Chris Bertram on April 10, 2017

The Guardian has a piece today on the asylum-system in the UK, attacking the policy whereby asylum-seekers are dispersed to areas of the country with a lot of empty and cheap housing on the grounds that this is burdensome to poor areas and that Labour-controlled local authorities have to host more people than Tory ones do. The entire drift of the piece is to see asylum-seekers as a cost unfairly imposed on poor communities, and an accompanying article about Rochdale, represented by Simon Danczuc MP (the sort of Labour MP who goes drinking with Nigel Farage), has the predictable white working-class local complaining:

“[Immigrants] get everything given to them, everything for free; I don’t get anything. It just seems to me that the working class, working people, are being hit the hardest by immigration.”

Well, there’s an obvious point to be made, both to him and to the authors of the main article. Asylum-seekers are provided with accommodation that nobody else wants and made to live on £5/day. If they got more then our bitter member of the “white working-class” would complain more about the unfairness, but if you are going to have to live on that kind of money they you had better not be made to live in Kensington and Chelsea. I’d support increasing the allowance (a lot) for asylum seekers, maybe making it variable depending on area of the country, providing more resources to local authorities to help with schooling and permitting asylum-seekers to work (banned by Labour). Apart from giving more money to local authorities, none of these sensible changes is backed by Labour, no doubt worried about being seen to give people “something for nothing”, yet they are essential if you are going to have anything like a different system of geographical dispersal. There is the further issue, of course, that many of the asylum-seekers are in fact refugees who the government hasn’t got round to recognizing as such yet, and keeping refugees in limbo for years is a stain on the UK’s human rights record.