The Spectre of Uselessness

In the London Review of Books John Lanchester takes a look at a couple of books on the robotisation of the economy. He concludes by saying that “it says a lot about the current moment that as we stand facing a future which might resemble either a hyper-capitalist dystopia or a socialist paradise, the second option doesn’t get a mention.”

But the second option does get a mention in other places. The Novara Media crew have made the phrase “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” a little bit famous, for example. So it isn’t that the second option doesn’t get a mention. It just doesn’t get a mention in the books that the London Review of Books chooses to review. If this sounds like sour grapes from a disappointed author, that’s because it is.

In The Magic Kingdom I wrote:

Material production needs far fewer of us than it once did. Our current rulers respond by turning the shared world into a casino. Images of personal liberation overlay the lived experience of debt and low pay for the majority and spectacular wealth for a ruthless or lucky few. The production of celebrity incarnates the lie that we too could have had a life worth living, if only we had tried a little harder, had believed in ourselves a little more fervently. By contrast, public status gives us the means to exchange what Richard Sennett has called ‘thespectre of uselessness’ for work in which we secure both personal emancipation and the common good. Such work is only
possible if we reconstitute the state on republican lines.”*

*I didn’t quite write that, because solecism. Whenever I manage write something interesting, I like to put a big fat thumbprint of an error somewhere in the middle of it.


As part of the BBC’s Democracy Day, BBC 4’s The World at One included an interview with Philip Coggan, billed as an Economist columnist and author of The Last Vote. (He’s also the author of Paper Promises, and The Money Machine: How the City Works, two books about finance that hold no terrors for the prevailing orthodoxy.)

Coggan began by saying that “democracies”, by which he meant countries that elect their governments, I think, were suffering by comparison with Singapore and China, which seem more efficient. He went on to suggest that there were “bottom up” and “top down” problems. The public have become disenchanted with politicians, because they haven’t had the prosperity they were promised. Meanwhile national politicians continue to pretend that they can tackle problems like terrorism, climate change and tax evasion that can only be address internationally. As a result, people are turning towards “extreme” parties.

The presenter Martha Kearney raised the question of the media’s role in driving popular “disillusion”:

Martha Kearney: Are there other factors at play here in terms of people’s disillusion with politics, I mean, what about the role of the media?

Philip Coggan: Yes, I think that the media does play a significant role. We’ve seen in the US, for example, people who watch the basic news on the main channels decline and people who watch the politicised news on Fox Nes, MSNBC and so on, go up. We’ve also seen the internet rise, people get a lot of their sources of news from the internet and they tend only to focus on those sources of news that confirm what they already believe. So we’ve had this big rise in conspiracy theories. It took twenty four hours before the first conspiracy theories about the Paris attack occurred. When people believe that thing, when they believe that their electors are frauds and that they are conspiring against them, that only makes them turn to people with very simple solutions on the far right and the far left and that’s very dangerous.

This exchange is odd from a number of angles. For one thing, most British people aren’t slumped in front of Fox or CNBC. The BBC is still by far the most important single player in the UK media system. That’s why more and more people have taken to demonstrating outside its offices, something that hasn’t featured prominently on #bbcdemocracyday.

When it comes to the fundamentals of economic and political organization the BBC works strenuously to keep us all in a state of innocence. Remember, this is the news organization that told us that quantitative easing “is like filling up a petrol tank with imaginary petrol”. It is similarly willing and able to keep itself out of discussions about how the established media have contributed to “public disillusion” (the choice of words is telling).

Instead of a conversation about the role that the BBC plays in the current political order, and how it might be reformed as part of a new constitutional settlement, we are treated to Mr Coggan’s thoughts about American cable news and conspiracy theories on the internet.

The whole performance smacks of a kind of paranoid complacency.

[Update: George Monbiot has written a piece for the Guardian about public service broadcasting. Like Mr Coggan he spends too much time talking about North America, but he is more clear-eyed about the problems in mainstream coverage, it seems to me.]

The Magic Kingdom – Foreword


Today the New Left Project and openDemocracy are publishing the foreword to The Magic Kingdom: Property, Monarchy and the Maximum Republic.

The book draws on recent scholarly work – especially that of Stuart White and Quentin Skinner – and explores what republican freedom in the modern era requires. It goes on to set out a neo-republican programme of constitutional reform for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The bailout of Britain’s banks triggered a crisis that has deepened through a series of ever more extraordinary scandals and revelations. If we are to put an end to this crisis we will have to take into account the institutional, technological and material changes of the last three hundred years and devise a constitution that safeguards true liberty under the law.

Liberal constitutionalism has run its course and now mutters to itself about voting systems and the House of Lords. It is time to register that the systems of communications and credit are matters of deep constitutional significance, and that a sovereign people must insist on its supremacy over those who control property.

Change in Britain is inevitable. The form it takes is up to us.

(During January the Kindle of The Magic Kingdom can be had for 99 pence. You can also order the paperback at your local independent store, which is of course preferable.)


One final thought on political language. It is inconceivable that the Brits would ever open a document like the Americans did with “we hold these truths to be self-evident”, we’re just not a declaratory people. It’s a very prosaic way, even when we are doing something very important, the language is very understated, the language of the parliamentary council.

Peter Hennessy, Radio 4, 18 December, 2014

Here’s a funny thing.

Thomas Jefferson, the man who drafted the Declaration of Independence, was, at the time, a subject of the British crown. The Continental Congress that approved the final version were British subjects. Much as the modern rulers of America and Britain would like to pretend that the revolutionaries sprang from the ground like the army of Cadmus, they were British before they were American.

They were in revolt against the crown and committed to the creation of a new nation in the American colonies. But they were, in simple terms, “Brits”.

The British have been capable of all kinds of things. In the eighteenth century they spoke in ways that Lord Hennessy now finds inconceivable. They could see through the magic show that justifies our gimcrack governing arrangements. They made an America, on the other side of the sea.

I wonder what they are capable of now, here.

One thing is sure, once they take possession of the whole inventory of their wits they will cease to sip at the suave dormitives administered by the good Lord Hennessy.

Paranoid Complacency

Every so often one of the big media outlets publish a piece worrying about how conspiracy theories are gaining traction in the mainstream.

These pieces usually:

1.) ignore actual, recent conspiracies in favour of, er, more speculative examples
2.) fail to acknowledge that mainstream belief in conspiracy theories might have something to do with these actual recent conspiracies
3.) reference a belief that is supposed to be ridiculously paranoid but is obviously true
4.) mention the X-Files.

The Threat We Face Right Now

Adam Ramsay has written a piece for openDemocracy, in which he makes the point that the referendum in Scotland has begin to shine a light on the constitution of the United Kingdom. He is right to say that the English need to start thinking about the kind of constitution we want. The financial crash and its aftermath revealed once and for all that bankocracy is a form of the state, the form we have now.

Change is now inevitable. The nature of the change will be determined by the quality of organization, and by our ability to articulate a vision of English independence that speaks to our times. If we do not secure a free state, and soon, then we might as well set this, from Teresa May, to music and make it the new national anthem:

We are engaged in a struggle that is fought on many fronts and in many forms.

It will go on for many years and the threat we face right now is perhaps greater than it ever has been.

We must have the powers we need to defend ourselves.


Your Brain on Porn

YBOP-v3.2Today my imprint Commonwealth publishes Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction.

Professor Anthony I Jack writes in the foreword:

Addiction to internet pornography is a very real phenomenon with a very real impact on well-being. It is a phenomenon which has grown exponentially in the last decade, even though it has remained largely invisible and undetected by society. Tragically, its risks continue to be ignored or actively denied by all but a few enlightened medical professionals. It is a phenomenon that is not just here to stay, but also likely to increase. It is almost certainly the cause of the widespread sexual dysfunction found in recent studies of late adolescence. It is a problem that is most likely impacting you, or your loved ones, without you even being aware of it.

Surfing the internet and jerking off to porn is never going to have the outlaw glamour associated with, say, bebop and heroin. But if we are going to have a sensible debate about porn we ought to pay attention to what it is, and what it does to many of its users.

In Your Brain on Porn Gary Wilson sets out to give us the means to talk more sensibly about porn. Of course we could just continue to insist that what we happen to think carries the force of cosmic legislation and to hell with the facts. But I know that, in the end, we want the truth more than we want comforting fantasies peddled by paid lobbyists.*

You can buy Your Brain on Porn via the Commonwealth website, or from Amazon.

*I don’t actually know that, but I am kind of committed to the proposition.