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In Brief:  Who would you assassinate, Political economy, The impotence of knowing

Who would you assassinate?

Surprisingly, I couldn’t find a poll of which historical figures people would use a time machine – setting aside all of the time travel paradoxes – to go back and assassinate before they could cause trouble.  Judging from the google results, killing Adolph Hitler would seem to be the most popular choice – although some years ago, New York Times Magazine ran a poll which found that only 42 percent of their readers would do so… perhaps as the last of the holocaust survivors die, so the slaughter fades back into the long pageant of human atrocities down the ages.

In any case, the Hitler thing seems to be Eurocentric.  Native Americans asked the same question often place Christopher Columbus at the top of their list.  Meanwhile, the only list – and clearly it is not representative – that I could find, was a mix of humour and seriousness, including:

“John Wilkes Booth, to see what else Lincoln would do.

“L.Ron.Hubbard, Because fuck Scientology.

“Whoever Murphy’s Law is named after.

“Abraham. Bye bye monotheism.

“JFK. Then at least I would know who really did it.”

One person who I placed high on my own list, was an unknown American railway clerk who, during the Crimean War (1853-56) is believed to be the first person to figure out how to securitise a mortgage.  These days though, another unlikely villain has risen up my list – co-founder of Intel, Gordon E. Moore, for giving us “Moore’s Law.”

It is 58 years since Moore predicted that the number of transistors which could be fitted into an integrated circuit would double every two years.  What’s wrong with that? You might ask.  After all, Moore was broadly correct.  This though, is what I have a problem with.  Because Moore’s Law has been taken by economists and politicians in particular and the public in general to have a much broader application than computer circuits.  And the result is an insane faith in technology which is simply not borne out in our day-to-day experience.

Consider, for example, that despite spending billions in R&D, the F35 aircraft is barely better than the old F15.  In a similar manner, the latest attempts to launch rockets to the moon have hit the same problems which beset NASA when it developed the Saturn V in the 1960s.  Why?  because unlike computer chips – which are also hitting limits – technological development follows an “s” curve:

It is for this reason that public and political faith in technology as our salvation from everything from climate change to world hunger is entirely misplaced.  Most of the technologies we are relying on are no more than the late-stage versions of devices that are more than half a century old.  And that means that the best we can look forward to is not the ever onward and upward exponential curve of Moore’s Law, but only the most minor improvements… and only then at enormous cost.  Indeed, cost will likely soon be the only thing left to us which continues to follow Moore’s Law.

Political economy

It is no accident that once the neoclassical economists had monopolised the official journals and university departments, they chose to change the name to “economics” – a title which gave the subject an air of objectivity which, in truth, it does not deserve.  For decades past, it was referred to as political economy – reflecting the way in which subjective biases undermined the validity of the models and the prescriptions dreamed up by economists.  And this is much more than mere semantics.  Excessive political bias all too easily results in an erroneous understanding of the real world which, in turn, can lead to counter-productive policy prescriptions.

Take the ongoing, seven-year metropolitan liberal autistic screech resulting from the unwelcome discovery that 17.5 million voters didn’t agree with them about the benefits – or not – of EU membership.  Ever since, every example of bad economic news has been framed through the lens of Brexit… even when – as happened with disrupted supply chains in 2021 or energy price spikes in 2022 – the issues were clearly global.

It is understandable that the 15 percent or so – largely concentrated among the media and political elite – who wish to reverse the referendum result – should try to tar Brexit with every bit of economic bad news as they can.  After all, securing – still less winning – a second referendum is no easy feat.  The trouble is that, by making everything about Brexit, they let the current government off the hook for the growing economic hardship that they chose to inflict upon us.  As Matt Goodwin argues:

“Blaming Brexit lets our national leaders off the hook. It distracts us all from looking at how it is they, not Brexit, who have completely failed to tackle Britain’s problems.  It’s not Brexit which created the low-growth, low-wage, London-centric economy we see around us today and which left millions of people lagging behind… it is our national politicians —not Brexit— who are responsible for the glaring and entrenched failures we now see littering the landscape – the result of a political revolution which was fifty years in the making but has completely failed.  These failures were not caused by the decision taken in 2016. No, they reflect very deliberate choices made by politicians on the left and right over the last fifty years.

Has Brexit exacerbated some of these problems? Certainly. Has it been badly managed? Absolutely. Has it imposed short-term financial costs? I’m convinced it has…”

It is precisely wrong-headed neoliberal political economy which laid the ground for compounding mistakes during and after the pandemic – which, remember, arrived just weeks after Britain left the EU.  We now know that Sweden – which didn’t lock down – fared as well in terms of excess deaths than countries like the UK.  We also know that those states which imposed the more authoritarian restrictions are the ones which are now experiencing the greatest economic blowback.  And, because of its highly vulnerable starting state, the UK economy faces a particularly severe set of economic crises; all hitting at the same time.

Nevertheless, we should remember that the current Prime Minister – Rishi Sunak – was in charge of economic policy throughout the pandemic.  It was his failure to assess the likely economic impact of lockdowns which paved the way for more severe restrictions than might otherwise have been imposed.  Worse still, it was his decision to engage in a lockdown helicopter drop of new currency in the form of covid business grants and cheap credit, corporate bailouts, state furlough funding, increased welfare benefits, and who can forget his “eat out and spread the virus about” scheme – all of which provided the additional currency to fuel the post-lockdown spending spree which sent consumer prices spiralling upward in the summer of 2021; thereby worsening the cost-push inflation already resulting from disrupted supply chains and energy shortages.

Sunak and his supporters will no doubt argue that there was no alternative – just as Thatcher and Blair argued that there was no alternative to the self-destructive political economy of neoliberalism.  But there are always alternatives.  And we should judge the politicians by the fact that they always seem to favour those alternatives which benefit the metropolitan salaried class at the expense of the mass of ordinary people.  However, by constantly playing the Brexit Get-out-of-Jail card, we let them off the hook by making it all appear to be inevitable.

The impotence of knowing

In a presentation following the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel Report, Phil Scraton asks whether the tragedy which followed the disaster – when police conspired with the establishment media to blame the victims – could have happened in the age of social media.  In those days, the first generation of “mobile” phones were the size of a brick and needed a battery similar to the one in your car to power them.  A few people had camcorders – also the size and weight of a brick – but it is doubtful anyone would take one to a football match.  And so, the only visual evidence of what happened came from the BBC and footage (kept hidden) from the police control box.

A year later, thousands of people turned up in Kennington, London for the start of a demonstration against the implementation of Thatcher’s Poll Tax.  A couple of hours later, after people had been horse charged in Whitehall and run into by speeding police cars in Trafalgar Square, police and media played a similar game, blaming the ensuing riots on the mob.  They would likely have got away with it but for the fact that people did take camcorders with them on that occasion.  And while individual footage was of little use, documentary makers at Channel Four were able to stitch together time-stamped footage which painted an entirely different picture… one in which the police systematically provoked trouble and then over-reacted when trouble began.

It would be another 17 years before the game really changed though.  In 2007, the launch of the first Apple i-phone corresponded with the arrival of social media.  The former provided anyone who could afford a phone with the means to record TV-quality footage, while the latter offered a path to broadcast the footage without having to go through one or other establishment media outlet.  Among other things, this allowed ordinary people to film the cops when they misbehaved… something which eventually forced the police to wear their own cameras.

One might imagine, then, that modern police spokespeople would avoid saying anything which might be instantly rebutted with footage from a digital camera uploaded to social media.  Not if last week’s Keystone Cops response to rioting in Cardiff is anything to go by.

Trouble began when two teenagers crashed and died while riding a powerful sur-ron e-bike.  Rumours quickly spread that the pair were being chased by police immediately before the crash, triggering an outbreak of rioting – footage of which was streamed on social media, attracting the attention of both citizen and establishment media journalists.

The police response was odd from the beginning, with Alun Michael – the current Police and Crime Commissioner, and former leader of Welsh Labour – being wheeled out in the place of an official police spokesperson.  Possibly this was done because of Mr Michael’s long track record as a politician in using weasel words to cover-up what had happened.  The meaning that journalists took from Mr Michael’s statement the morning after the riot was that police denied that there were police vehicles in the area, and that the boys were not being chased:

“I was assured and I am still assured, that the youths were not being chased by the police at the time of the road traffic accident.”

This is what used to be referred to as a “non-denial denial.”  That is, Michael was not denying anything, but merely stating that someone else (who?  In what capacity?) had assured him that police weren’t involved.  I suspect also that the word “chased” will come in for some scrutiny in the coming weeks and months.  Because within hours of Michael’s statement, CCTV footage emerged showing that a police van had been following the boys in the minutes before their deaths.

In addition to undermining the police version of events – they only referred themselves to the Independent Office for Police Conduct after the CCTV footage went public – Alun Michael’s role has also been called into question, since the whole purpose of the elected Police and Crime Commissioner is to act on behalf of the public in holding police to account.  As the local MP, Kevin Brannan put it:

“I think it’s sensible, you know, for all of us to reflect on how these sorts of events should be handled and how communication around them should be handled.

“Whether the police and crime commissioner is the right person in these circumstances to be, effectively, communicating to the public is a very good question.”

Heledd Fychan, the Plaid Cymru Senedd member for the region was even more blunt:

“Police and crime commissioners are elected by the public to be the voice of the people. In fact, one of Mr Michael’s stated aims is ‘holding the police accountable’.

“Alun Michael has seemingly acted as a spokesperson for South Wales Police rather than the community, and I think he needs to explain why this is, and better demonstrate his role in ensuring that the facts are independently established before further public statements are made.”

But will any of this go anywhere?  Founding the office of police and crime commissioner – unwanted by the public – is yet another in the long list of former Prime Minister Theresa May’s bad decisions.  And the fact that they should end up riding cover for the police is as predictable as it is depressing.  Meanwhile, the police continue to act with all of the arrogance they used to have back in the days when we couldn’t see what they were up to.  After all, nobody seriously believes that the (nominally) independent Office for Police Conduct is going to find police misconduct.  And whatever criticisms they do make will arrive long after the riots have been forgotten.

This, perhaps, is the unhappy answer to Phil Scraton’s pondering.  Sure, Hillsborough would have unfolded differently.  The broad-brushing of all Liverpool fans – including the victims – might not have happened.  But it is no more likely that the authorities of 1989 would have held any senior officials to account.  And while seeing the disaster unfold on social media might have stirred public outrage – as it does with widespread wrongdoing by police, government, and corporations today – our impotence would be all too evident in the fact that nothing ever really changes.

As you made it to the end…

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