An iPhone photo, earlier today, after visiting the excellent International Slavery Museum.
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At the moment, I’m reading my way through David Miller’s new Strangers in our Midst and also getting very exercised about the UK’s Brexit referendum (to the point where I’m waking at night and worrying about it). My siblings and I have all benefited from the EU’s free movement rights, my children both have non-British EU partners, we think of ourselves as Europeans. So for me, the threat of Brexit is a threat of lost identity, of something that has been there all my adult life just disappearing overnight. And so I’m feeling pretty resentful towards my fellow citizens who might vote to cut that tie and thereby endanger the security and family life of millions of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens elsewhere in the EU.
One of Miller’s arguments is a familiar one about social trust, about how welfare states depend for their stability on such trust and that the increasing diversity that immigration brings tends to undermine support for redistributive programmes. This lack of trust gets expressed in anger about stories that immigrants are ahead in the queue for social housing, that they are a drain on health and education services, that they are getting “something for nothing”, and so forth. Needless to say, most of such stories are false. Nevertheless, there may be elements in the design of the UK’s welfare state and its relatively non-contributory character that fuel such anxieties.
Here’s the thing. Those voting for Brexit out of resentment against immigration are disproportionately the elderly poor whites who don’t pay much in but who benefit from those public services. A predictable consequence of them getting what they want is that the fiscal base for those services will be eroded and that either they will have to be cut or taxes will have to be increased. This is because those EU immigrants are, in fact, paying more in taxes than they are taking in services. (Actually, the UK is free-riding in a big way, as it never paid for the cost of educating and training those workers.)
When I take those political affiliation surveys, I always say I’m willing to pay higher taxes. But now the devil on my shoulder is saying “why should you pay higher taxes to replace the taxes that were paid by EU migrants? Those idiots have brought it on themselves, let them now suffer the consequences”. An ugly thought, but I’m guessing that if I’m having it then I’m not alone. The UK’s EU referendum has eroded social trust more than immigration per se ever did. It poses the question of what citizens owe to one another in pretty stark terms. If people could mitigate the need for higher taxes by accepting immigrants and they choose not to do so, why should their wealthier fellow citizens bear the cost of their choices?
With Euro 2016 about to start, thoughts naturally turn to Euro 96, when England hosted the tournament. 1996 was a great year for me, I awoke from what may, in retrospect, have been a period of undiagnosed depression (certainly hypochondria), and it felt like coming out into the sunlight. My two boys were 8 and 11 respectively, it was the year of Britpop, the phoney battle between Oasis and Blur and the wonder that was Pulp’s Different Class. It was also the the year of Liverpool 4, Newcastle 3 (the greatest game in the history of the Premier League), and the year when I started a journal, Imprints, with a conference at Senate House in London which commenced with a debate between Jerry Cohen and Tony Skillen. As the conference finished, we all crowded around a radio to hear the England-Spain penalty shoot-out (the last time England prevailed in one). Though England didn’t win the tournament, losing to Germany — who else? — in the semis, we got to see the thrashing of the Scots with McAllister’s miss and Gazza’s genius and then then destruction of the Dutch, all to the soundtrack of Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds. We were on the verge of the first Labour government since 1979, and with the Tories looking tired and split the country felt together and optimistic. The St George’s flag, which fluttered everywhere that summer, seemed to stand for this mood, somehow magically recovered from a narrow and exclusive nationalism.
(Much of this was undoubtedly fluff and illusion, and probably massively irritating to the other local nationalities. Still, the optimism was real, the sense that a better future was coming after the night of Thatcherism.)
“Today, alas, that happy crowded floor looks very different.” Thirty year of hurt have turned into fifty, and nobody has any expectations of this England team. But more pertinently, we live in a deeply divided country, squeezed by austerity and xenophobia, where each camp in the Brexit referendum views the other with loathing and contempt (I’m no exception). The Labour government that came to power in ’97 squandered its chances in the sand of Iraq. England is now a dark fractured place: nasty, British and short-tempered, beset by cuts, food banks, benefit sanctions and performance targets. The St George’s flag has become the property of racists, Islamophobes and “white-van man”, a symbol to be deployed against unpatriotic middle-class lefties. I hope we get through this, and stay in Europe, but the wounds will be deep and the resentments strong either way. What a difference twenty years makes.
I was interviewed by Nigel Warburton for Five Books about Rousseau, so here are my thoughts, as edited from audio of our conversation, and so reasonably spontaneous. Of course, the real starting-point should be the man himself.
I’ve felt myself getting almost irrationally angry over the past few days with a certain sort of person. The kind of person who advocates Brexit from a “left-wing”, “classical republican” or “democratic” perspective. It is bad enough when such people live in the UK or Europe, but at least those people will have to live with the consequences. But it is particularly galling to hear these lectures from across the Atlantic, from people whose sole take on the subject is that the EU is undemocratic, a “bosses club”, enforces a neoliberal agenda, and would be an obstacle the plans of some future hypothetical fantasy Jeremy Corbyn government. (I suspect that Corbyn is imagined in this scenario as the analogue of Bernie Sanders.) Nearly all of the things such people say about the EU are actually true. But before drawing the Brexit conclusion, you at least have to demonstrate that leaving would not make things even worse. You have to ask, “where we are now?”, and consider what the real-world possibilities actually are. And make no mistake, If we vote for Brexit the economic consequences will be pretty awful, many people will lose their jobs, living standards will be hit hard, non-British workers will be in fear of being kicked out, many of our rights will be curtailed, and many of the environmental protections we now have will be ditched. Brexit will energise the most reactionary and xenophobic elements in British society at a moment when the left and its institutions are pretty weak. Even now the right-wing part of the “Leave” are licking their lips at the prospect of people being subjected to a Darwinian sink-or-swim future. Perhaps the “left-wing” advocates of Brexit hope that a renewed workers’ movement will be magically conjured into in such an outcome? That’s about as likely as a similar left-wing renaissance under President Trump (who also backs Brexit, by the way). Here’s a pretty good piece by Alan Thornett about why the left should back Remain.
Spurs threw it away, totally lost their heads tonight, so Leicester win the Premier League with two games to spare. It is hard to think of a sporting achievement that compares to Leicester City’s. 5000/1 at the start of the season, widely tipped for relegation, and now this.
Yesterday’s verdicts that the 96 Liverpool fans who died at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough were unlawfully killed is a complete vindication for their families who have campaigned for justice for 27 years. It is also a total condemnation both of South Yorkshire Police and of their friends among the tabloid press, the pundits and the politicians who first blamed the victims and then spent years treating the bereaved with contempt. I’ll not say more about the facts and the history here, since there are plenty of links that people can follow. I just want to say a few general things. First, there is the lesson that sometimes people who campaign against injustice, who stubbornly stick to their task over the decades can win, even against the state and its supporters. Second, we need to notice, again, how injustice comes about and persists where the victims are people who don’t matter in the eyes of the powerful. In 1989, Scousers in general and football fans in particular were people who didn’t count, who didn’t matter, who could be stigmatized and stereotyped as feckless, violent, drunken, workshy and blamed for their own misfortune. Later they were whingers with a “victim mentality”. Third, for all that pundits ridicule “conspiracy theories”, there are sometimes conspiracies by the state and its agents, perpetrated against “people who don’t matter”, and aided by those same journalists and commentators with their contempt for the victims, their lack of interest in the facts, and their deference to the official version. Everywhere, “people who don’t matter”, whose interests are ignored and whose pain is ridiculed, can take heart from what the Hillsborough families have achieved. The next step for justice should be the prosecution of those responsible.
In an op-ed in the Financial Times, the economist Branko Milanovic advocates that in order to fight global poverty, we should introduce explicit systems of differentiated citizenship in wealthy countries under which immigrants (and their children? and their children’s children?) would be entitled only to a reduced package of rights. He argues that we should
redefine citizenship in such a way that migrants are not allowed to lay claim to the entire premium falling to citizens straight away, if at all. Restricting the citizenship rights of migrants in this way would assuage the concerns of the native population, while still ensuring the migrants are better off than they would be had they stayed in their own countries. As happens currently in the Gulf states, migrants could be allowed to work for a limited number of years, or to work only for a given employer, or else be obliged to return to their country of origin every four or five years. They could also be made to pay higher taxes since they are the largest net beneficiaries of migration. Despite such discriminatory treatment, the welfare of migrants and their families would increase, while native populations would not be made to share their entire premium with incomers.
Gastarbeiter with second- or third-class status, perhaps forever. Now, I’ll say one thing for this proposal, which is that it would formalize something that currently exists, since in all wealthy countries there exists a layer of poor people (including many migrants) who enjoy only semi-citizen status (as Elizabeth Cohen has documented ). And this layer, though many individuals pass through it and come out the other side, looks like a permanent feature of our societies. Up to now, however, few people have thought of this, and the consequent denial of rights to individuals and their vulnerability to domination and exploitation, as a good thing. Milanovic wants us explicitly to abandon the liberal and democratic principles of legitimacy that those who are subject to the laws of a society should (in time in the case of migrants) get to have the right to make those laws. In doing so, he goes far beyond similar proposals (for example from Martin Ruhs that have been explicitly temporary in nature and have largely focused on labour-market rights. Milanovic’s lack of commitment to the norms of liberal democracy also comes across in the fact that he holds up illegitimate and tyrannical states, such as the Gulf kleptocracies, as models for his proposed policy. Part of what’s going on here is the economist’s perspective on policy, which just focuses on net improvements in well-being or utility, with income serving as a proxy, and which doesn’t, therefore, see human beings as possessed of basic rights which it is impermissible to violate. Rather, all and any rights can be sacrificed on the altar of income improvement, just in case someone is poor and desperate enough to make a deal (who are we, paternalistically, to stop them?). The road to hell is paved with Pareto improvements.
I’ve been teaching brain-drain related issues this week. Some of the big questions there are empirical ones, and the facts are contested. But some of the normative issues are interesting, and some of them don’t just apply to poor countries. One of these issues is the apparent clash between our duties to compatriots (if we have any) and our rights of exit and expatriation. If I have a duty as a member of an institutional scheme to contribute to the well-being of the least advantaged members of my society, can I just divest myself of that duty (in one bound, as it were) by leaving the country, or, to go one step further, by renouncing my nationality? It was a puzzle that Henry Sigdwick was defeated by back in 1907 [or somewhat earlier in fact, as he died in 1900!]:
`In 1868 it was affirmed, in an Act passed by the Congress of the United States, that ‘the right of expatriation is a natural and inherent right of all people.’ I do not know how far this would be taken to imply that a man has a moral right to leave his country whenever he finds it convenient—provided no claims except those of Patriotism retain him there. But if it was intended to imply this, I think the statement would not be accepted in Europe without important limitations: though I cannot state any generally accepted principle from which such limitations could be clearly deduced.” Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed (1907) [click to continue…]