Tuesday, July 11, 2017

"Jeremy Corbyn and the bourgeois dream"

Bagehot in this week's Economist:
"One interpretation of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise, popular on the left, is that he is satisfying a pent-up desire for “real socialism”. But this ignores the fact that many people voted for the Islington MP despite his policies, not because of them.

Mr Corbyn is a long-standing critic of the European Union who did as much as he could to ensure that Remain would fail while pretending to support it. Another interpretation, popular on the right, is that his supporters are woolly minded virtue-signallers, determined to prove how compassionate they are while ignoring the fact that Corbyn-style policies have invariably led to disaster.

This ignores the fact that millennials have suffered more from the long stagnation that followed the financial crisis than any other generation. They have reason to be angry.

The most intelligent explanation has been provided by John Gray in the New Statesman. Mr Gray argues that Corbynism is “populism for the middle classes, serving the material and psychological needs of the relatively affluent and the well-heeled”. Far from being a repudiation of Tony Blair’s policies, Corbynism represents the completion of the takeover of Labour by middle-class people who put their own interests (such as free university education) above those of the working class.

But Mr Gray’s strictures miss an important point: most young Corbynistas are not so much settled members of the middle class as frustrated would-be members. Ben Judah, a millennial-generation journalist and author of “This is London”, points out that members of his generation are angry that they have done everything they were told, from studying hard at school to going to university to trying to get a respectable job, but are still holding on by their fingertips. ...

It is getting ever harder for young people to get a foot on the property ladder or find somewhere decent to rent. Thirty-year-old millennials are one-third less likely to own their own homes than baby boomers were at the same age, and spend £44,000 ($58,000) more on rent in their 20s than baby boomers did.

The problem then extends to the workplace. The young have been on the sharp end of two economic shocks: the 2008 crisis, which squeezed living standards, and a technological revolution, which is doing for middle-class jobs what mechanisation did for working-class ones.

Automation is hollowing out entry-level positions as companies use machines to do the routine tasks, such as searching through legal precedents or examining company accounts, that used to be done by junior employees. Companies of every type are cutting costs by ditching long-term perks such as defined-benefit pensions.

These problems reinforce each other. People who are subjected to flexible work contracts find it almost impossible to qualify for a mortgage. They are magnified by the London effect. Young people flock to the capital, where the best professional jobs are concentrated, but exorbitant property prices force them to migrate to the farthest corners of the city or to share with strangers. And they are curdled by generational antagonism.

The Resolution Foundation, a think-tank, calculates that people aged 65-74 hold more wealth than those under 45, a group that is almost twice the size. Browse the Facebook pages where young Corbynistas hang out and you do not find hymns of praise to the workers’ control of the means of production, but laments for the indignities of modern metropolitan life and jeremiads against baby boomers who grabbed all the cheap houses and got free university education into the bargain."
This seems quite consistent with Peter Turchin's "Secular Cycles" theory, where I commented:
"The main driver of the agrarian secular cycle is the Malthusian growth of population past the technological carrying capacity of the land. The gathering overpopulation initially facilitates an unsustainable growth in the numbers of militarily-capable elites while simultaneously undermining their finances.

The ensuing collapse is exacerbated by inter-elite warfare over the ever-shrinking spoils, and the final depression period cannot end until the elites themselves have been more than decimated and are thoroughly exhausted with war. Typical time frames are of the order of a century.

The post-agrarian capitalist world, as Turchin and others have frequently observed, exhibits similarities to the agrarian cycle. But differences are also plain, certainly in the advanced capitalist countries.

We have much more technology, we have many occupational niches for women and we have contraception. As a consequence the Malthusian overpopulation bomb doesn't detonate - more the contrary.

What we do have in plenty is elite overproduction (the new graduate 40%) which can never enter the real elite of the 1% bubble, where power and wealth is concentrated. This disaffected and mostly young middle class today inclines to leftism (Sanders, Corbyn and similar European-continental movements) or more generally the cultural marxism of the SJWs.

A traditional Marxist might say that the leftist 'movement' at present consists in taking bourgeois ideology in a rather literal way at its own face value, its self-valuation as inclusive, globalist, tolerant, equal and individualist. The bubble-elite is then denounced for not living up to its own stated values. Naturally, in its egalitarian utopia of the imagination, the status and influence of 'movement' supporters would be considerably more exalted.

Such an old-school Marxist would also characterise this social layer as petit-bourgeois, febrile and subject to abrupt changes in mood."
Since the mass of entitled young graduates are neither going away nor going up, they will continue to stew in resentment at their "betters", who seem to have effortlessly glided to elite positions through a combination of connections and nepotism.

Razib Khan writes ("Our Civilization’s Ottoman Years"):
"... subordinate peoples had their own hierarchies, and these hierarchies interacted with the Ottoman Sultan in an almost feudal fashion. Toleration for the folkways of these subordinate populations was a given, so long as they paid their tax and were sufficiently submissive. The leaders of the subordinate populations had their own power, albeit under the penumbra of the ruling class, which espoused the hegemonic ethos.

How does any of this apply to today? Perhaps this time it’s different, but it seems implausible to me that our multicultural future is going to involve equality between the different peoples. Rather, there will be accommodation and understandings. Much of the population will be subject to immiseration of subsistence but not flourishing. They may have some universal basic income, but they will be lack the dignity of work. Identity, religious and otherwise, will become necessary opiums of the people. The people will have their tribunes, who represent their interests, and give them the illusion or semi-reality of a modicum agency.

The tribunes, who will represent classical ethno-cultural blocs recognizable to us today, will deal with a supra-national global patriciate. Like the Ottoman elite it will not necessarily be ethnically homogeneous. There will be aspects of meritocracy to it, but it will be narrow, delimited, and see itself self-consciously above and beyond local identities and concerns. The patriciate itself may be divided. But their common dynamic will be that they will be supra-national, mobile, and economically liberated as opposed to dependent.

Of course democracy will continue. Augustus claimed he revived the Roman Republic. The tiny city-state of Constantinople in the 15th century claimed it was the Roman Empire. And so on. Outward forms and niceties may be maintained, but death of the nation-state at the hands of identity politics and late stage capitalism will usher in the era of oligarchic multinationalism.

I could be wrong. I hope I am."
A Marxist would say that what characterises the current 'conjuncture' is that the masses have recovered from the defeats of the 1980s and have a new-found confidence and bolshiness. They refused to be cowed by elites espousing policies they see as attacking their own best interests.

Their immediate political responses - what the elites call 'populism of the right and of the left'  (Trump & Sanders in the States; there are analogues in other countries) - in no way provide longer-term viable political-economic alternatives.

Since  postcapitalist socialism via revolution is ruled out (an ill-defined and unworkable target architecture), the period of instability will persist until Razib Khan's oligarchic multinational bourgeoisie restore order and, more importantly, a rate of profit which justifies renewed investment and therefore higher productivity.

The next decade is going to be extremely rough.


You might find "Economics of the populist backlash" by Dani Rodrik well worth reading (h/t Marginal Revolution). Professor Rodrik is an economist who distinguishes between models and reality: I'm currently checking out Kindle samples of his latest two books.

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