My latest spiked article, published on 14 December, argues that it is not only Donald Trump who is grandstanding about Jerusalem.

It was guaranteed to send self-righteous politicos into an uncontrollable rage. The man they hate above all others, Donald Trump, recognising Jerusalem as the capital of the country they loathe most of all: Israel. All their prejudices about the president’s stupidity, orange skin and bad hair were recycled in response to his seemingly avid support for the Jewish state.

Of course, only a small minority took to the streets to protest. This included a ritual demonstration outside the American embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square (reportedly including anti-Semitic jihadist chants). Meanwhile, several prominent artists performed their now traditional role of condemning Israel as a racist state rife with ethnic cleansing. Similar sentiments were expressed in numerous tweets and Facebook posts, as well as no doubt being echoed in countless party conversations.

In some parts of Europe it got even uglier. In the Swedish town of Malmo, a crowd of demonstrators waving Palestinian flags reportedly said in Arabic: ‘We’re going to shoot the Jews.’ Further north in Gothenberg, a synagogue was firebombed. In Amsterdam a man was arrested for smashing the windows of a kosher restaurantwhile shouting about Allah and Palestine. In Berlin there were demonstrations which included the burning of an Israeli flag and chants of ‘death to the Jews’. Naturally, there were also protests in the Middle East and beyond, but that is a story for another day.

Mainstream politicians thankfully condemned acts of violence and rejected overt anti-Semitism, but they were also anxious to distance themselves from Trump’s decision. Theresa May described it as ‘unhelpful’. Jeremy Corbyn, UK Labour leader, said Trump’s announcement was a ‘reckless act’. President Emmanuel Macron said it was a ‘threat to peace’, while the official spokesman for Angela Merkel keenly distanced the German government from Trump’s move.

Those tempted to go along with this criticism of Trump for taking reckless unilateral action would do well to look more closely at his official statement. Trump is more than capable of saying foolish things, but in this case he included an accurate observation that is worth pondering. If its implications are considered carefully, it could throw an entirely different light on Trump’s initiative:

‘In 1995, [US] Congress adopted the Jerusalem Embassy Act, urging the federal government to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem and to recognise that that city – and so importantly – is Israel’s capital. This act passed Congress by an overwhelming bipartisan majority and was reaffirmed by a unanimous vote of the Senate only six months ago.’

In other words, Trump’s announcement was not a new policy but one that was officially adopted 22 years ago but never enacted. US presidents, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, supported the embassy move in principle, even though every six months they signed a waiver to stop it from happening.

Even more remarkable is that after Trump made his statement, he sat down and signed another presidential waiver stopping the transfer of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In other words, despite all the hype, the move will not happen this year and may well be postponed again in the future. Trump seems to have been lured by the publicity associated with making a high-profile announcement without any particular desire to follow it through.

There should be no doubt that the key questions here are symbolic rather than practical. Trump’s claim that the US needs ‘architects, engineers and planners’ to complete a new embassy is nonsense. The US already has a substantial consulate on Jerusalem’s Agron Street that it could easily rename as the embassy.

Several points can be gleaned from this bizarre tale. It is certainly not evidence of unwavering US support for Israel or reckless unilateral action by Trump, as many claim. On the contrary, the US president is indulging in his own form of posturing, which in some ways mirrors that of his critics.

Firstly, the days of solid US bipartisan support for Israel are long gone. Obama’s notorious loathing for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, reflected abroader shift away from Israel by many in the American political establishment. Trump seems to be taking a more pro-Israeli position than his predecessor did, but his stance is far more tentative than is widely understood.

Secondly, anti-Israel posturing has become central to radical political identity in the West. There are many big questions on which they can refrain from taking a position, but Israel is not one of them. Any mention of the Jewish state will elicit knowing comments about ‘ethnic cleansing’ and the occupation.

To be sure, Israel has many faults – but the scale of its critics’ double standards is breathtaking. There are numerous grave problems in the Middle East and beyond, but these are either not mentioned at all or, if they are, they have not become central to defining radical identity. Consider, for example, the war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, with backing from the US and Britain, is complicit in a war that has killed many thousands of people and caused a humanitarian crisis. Or consider the Syrian Civil War, in which the West has also played a central role, where hundreds of thousands have been killed and many millions more have been made homeless. The list could go on, but the central point is this: none of these conflicts has come to play a role in the Western left’s virtue-signalling, while Israel has.

As I have argued previously on spiked, the views of Western radicals on Israel strangely parallel the grandstanding of Arab and Islamic regimes. They are also keen to focus on the failings of Israel as it provides a welcome distraction from their severe domestic problems.

Finally, European leaders are more than willing to go along with this masquerade. They hide behind platitudes about the ‘peace process’ and international law in relation to the Middle East and elsewhere, but they are unwilling or unable to challenge the alarming double standards on Israel.

It is a tragedy for both Israelis and Palestinians that they have become the playthings of Western egos.

The Know It Alls

5 Dec 2017

On Friday 1 December the Financial Times published my review of Noam Cohen’s The Know It Alls. I have pasted it below including some sentences that were cut (in bold).

The Know-It-Alls does not quite accuse the most famous entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley of devouring human flesh but its claims are not that far off.

Noam Cohen, a former New York Times journalist, starts his book with an account of an episode of The Twilight Zone television series entitled “To Serve Man”. The programme features apparently benign aliens, the Kanamits, who claim to have come in peace and to share their superior technology with humanity. After satisfying the world of their good intent they manage to persuade earthlings to board a spaceship for their home planet. Only then does it become apparent that their mission “to serve man” refers to the aliens’ desire to put humans on their dinner plates.

This analogy sets the tone for Cohen’s study of the “powerful, uber-confident men” who helped shape the world-wide web in the 1990s and became fabulously wealthy as a result. They include Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.

The author makes several sweeping attacks on these and other tech billionaires. “These Silicon Valley leaders propose a society in which personal freedoms are near absolute and government regulations wither away, where bold entrepreneurs amass billions of dollars from their innovations and the rest of us struggle in a hypercompetitive market without unions, government regulations, or social welfare programs to protect us.”

He is particularly hostile to those with a strong attachment to free expression. “Freedom of speech apparently trumped all other values as Google, Facebook and Twitter encouraged the public to stew in their own hateful juices and profited handsomely in the process.”

But let us leave aside, for now, the debate about the desirability of a political outlook that places liberty as its key value. There are certainly important debates to be had about where lines should be drawn in relation to freedom but they are too big to resolve here.

The fundamental problem with The Know-It-Alls is that it does not even work as a description of its subject matter. It comes nowhere close to substantiating the overstated charges that it makes. For every accusation it makes it would be possible to add qualifications or several counterexamples.

For instance, Cohen claims that “Silicon Valley values” were responsible for Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 US presidential election. Yet, by Cohen’s own account, Silicon Valley generally supported Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for president.

Moreover, Trump can be accused of many things but it stretches credulity to portray him as a libertarian.The president is so sensitive to criticism that he notoriously tweeted furiously in response to an unflattering Saturday Night Live sketch. That is hardly the behaviour of a staunch free speech advocate.

Cohen’s claim seems to be that Trump’s victory was the unintended consequence of the victory of Silicon Valley’s individualist values. But if that is his case he needs to work a lot harder to substantiate it.

Peter Thiel is perhaps the closest to Cohen’s portrayal of a Silicon Valley libertarian. The co-founder of PayPal is the only figure portrayed by Cohen who publicly endorsed Trump’s election campaign, but even that was with reservations. He has also supported and funded libertarian campaigns.

Yet even Thiel’s support for freedom has been qualified. The tech billionaire gave financial backing to a campaign that in 2016 bankrupted the online publication Gawker after it published a sex tape involving Hulk Hogan, a wrestler, without the subject’s consent. Back in 2007, the publication had outed Thiel as a gay man.

In addition, most Silicon Valley billionaires are a long way from Thiel’s record of backing libertarian courses if they have done so at all. For instance, Cohen describes how Sergey Brin and Larry Page have shifted their stance from the early days of Google. At first, they emphasised it should be a non-commercial enterprise but today the search engine earns huge amounts of adverting revenue. It could be argued plausibly that the Google duo’s more mature selves betrayed their youthful idealism but that hardly makes them ardent libertarians. In fact the firing of James Damore, a Google employee who wrote a 10-page anti-diversify manifesto, suggests the firm’s spirit is a long way from free speech fundamentalism.

If anything, the Silicon Valley’s ethos is better described as technocratic. That is, it is supportive of a privileged role for an elite technical class in running society. It is guided by a pragmatic belief in efficiency and expertise rather than a principled support for freedom.

Indeed, Cohen refers to this technocratic outlook in passing but in his visceral hostility to libertarianism he fails to grasp its importance.

Quoted in Moneyweek

19 Nov 2017

Moneyweek has quoted my Financial Times book review published in March.

I was recently on Newshour Extra on the BBC World Service discussing ‘Do we need economic growth?

A reminder that I will be debating “Silicon Valley: from heroes to zeroes” at the Battle of Ideas in London next weekend. Do come along to the whole event.

My Financial Times review of William Domhoff’s Studying the Power Elite looks at the historical discussion of political power in America.

Should wealthy individuals have a greater say in the running of modern democratic societies than other citizens? The official answer nowadays is, arguably, no. In the early days of the US, however, voting was generally limited to property owners. But this restriction has long since gone with the gradual shift to universal adult suffrage.

In contemporary America, the richest individual and the poorest pauper have, at least on paper, an equal say in the electoral process. Bill Gates may be the world’s wealthiest person but, like everyone else, he only has one vote. In relation to voting, the principle of equality is generally accepted.

However, it is also clear that the rich have much greater means at their disposal to influence politics. They can use their considerable wealth to lobby for whatever sort of society they see fit.

This disconnect between formal equality and material inequality has long been a backdrop to political debates. Often these take the form of disagreements on whether democratic politics can be truly fair or representative in a society with stark social inequalities.

Some 50 years ago, a young member of the psychology faculty at the University of California, Santa Cruz, touched on these questions in the bestselling Who Rules America? The Triumph of the Corporate Rich. The thrust of G William Domhoff’s argument was that the empirical evidence suggested there was indeed a close-knit upper class in the US. An analysis of the data on the social composition of leading institutions showed a distinct elite was dominant. Since then he has extended and refined his thesis in several books on the same theme.

This year, Domhoff and 11 other experts have provided a series of essays giving a useful overview of the debate. Studying the Power Elite: Fifty Years of Who Rules America? is essentially an opportunity to revisit the discussion in circumstances far removed from the 1960s. In particular, economic inequality has become a more pervasive topic of concern than it was back then. As a slim volume covering a voluminous exchange, its arguments are inevitably skimpy, but it does offer a guide to the key schools of thought.

In broad terms, there are two traditional camps at either end of the spectrum in the debate on class power. At one end are self-proclaimed Marxists who see the state as an instrument of class domination. From their perspective, the ownership of the means of production enables a wealthy class of business owners to rule the rest of society. At the other end is the pluralist school. In its view, there are many social mechanisms that ensure power in the US is diffused. These include competing interest groups, voluntary associations and the influence of public opinion.

However, when Domhoff was first writing, new theories of power had recently emerged. C Wright Mills, an influential leftist sociologist, criticised both traditional camps in The Power Elite (1956). In his view the pluralists underestimated the extent to which a combination of elites — corporate, government and military — had come to play a dominant social role. Politics and politicians were, he said, under pressure to do the bidding of these elites. At the same time, he disagreed with the Marxist claim that only the corporate elite was necessarily dominant. Domhoff says his own work is “Millsian” in spirit but is enhanced by empirical studies of claims made by Marxists, pluralists and Millsians.

Another new school of thought emerging at the time was historical institutionalism. Its emphasis was on institutions as sets of social relationships that endure. There is a particular focus on formal rules and regulations, such as constitutions. Such institutions place limits on the scope for private actors, such as corporations, to influence the path of government. This school emphasises how institutions develop in different ways in different countries at different times

Although many writers contribute insights to the discussion about power, the book ultimately frustrates. Too often there is a circularity in the claims made. The thrust of many empirical studies seems to be the banal observation that individuals from elite backgrounds are overrepresented in elite institutions. Often the theorising is arid, too. There seems to be a desperate need to break out of this intellectual logjam.

Here belatedly is the full text of my article published in German in Novo on 2 October. It is in turn a translation of an article from spiked.

Ein neues Buch präsentiert das bedingungslose Grundeinkommen als utopische Vision. In Wahrheit hätte es die Verarmung der Bevölkerung zur Folge.

Das Buch „Utopie für Realisten“ von Rutger Bregman ist eine Übung in Sophisterei. Die dick aufgetragene revolutionäre Rhetorik kann nicht darüber hinwegtäuschen, dass die Anregungen des Autors zu einer Hyper-Austeritätspolitik führen würden, die selbst die dogmatischsten Marktliberalen erröten ließe.

Beginnen wir bei den übertriebenen Ansprüchen dieses Werkes. Rutger Bregman, ein 29-jähriger niederländischer Schriftsteller, betrachtet sein Buch als einen „Versuch, die Zukunft zu erschließen“. Er stellt seine Anregungen auf eine Stufe mit den historischen Kämpfen für Demokratie, für die Abschaffung der Sklaverei und für das Frauenwahlrecht. Fehlenden Ehrgeiz kann man ihm also nicht vorwerfen.

Positiv zu bewerten ist außerdem Bregmans Argument, dass es eine Alternative zu der Welt gibt, in der wir heute leben: „Vieles könnte anders sein. Die Welt, wie sie organisiert ist, ist nicht das Ergebnis einer unumstößlichen Evolution.“

Bregmans wesentlicher Gedanke ist die Einführung eines bedingungslosen Grundeinkommens (BGE) für jedermann – bezahlt durch den Staat. „Freies Geld für alle“ pflegt er diese Idee zu nennen. In dieser Angelegenheit sieht sich der Autor in der Tradition einer eigentümlichen Kombination von Berühmtheiten – von Verfechtern der Demokratie (Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King) bis hin zu marktliberalen Ökonomen (Milton Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek) und in Ungnade gefallene Politiker (US-Präsident Richard Nixon). Nach Bregman würde ein BGE Ungleichheit, Armut und Kriminalität senken und das Wirtschaftswachstum steigern. Um seine Behauptungen zu untermauern, greift er auf empirische Studien zurück, die größtenteils von Ökonomen durchgeführt wurden.

Im zweiten Kapitel führt Bregman eine Studie an, in der dreizehn Obdachlose von einer Wohltätigkeitseinrichtung jeweils eine Summe von 3000 Pfund in bar erhielten, die sie nach eigenen Wünschen ausgeben konnten. Nach Bregmans Darstellung war das Experiment ein voller Erfolg. Eineinhalb Jahre nach dem Beginn des Experiments hatte sich das Leben der Männer erheblich verbessert. Überdies wurden mit dem Projekt große Geldsummen gespart, die für Sozialhilfe und Polizeiarbeit angefallen wären. Dieses Beispiel dient als Grundlage für Bregmans Argument, dass ein BGE herkömmliche Sozialausgaben ersetzen würde. Seiner Meinung nach ist der Sozialstaat zu einem „perversen Ungeheuer der Kontrolle und Demütigung“ geworden. In diesem Argument steckt viel Wahrheit; es untertreibt jedoch das Ausmaß, in dem die Wohlfahrtssysteme vieler Länder individuellen Ehrgeiz und gesellschaftliche Solidarität untergraben.

Das Buch stellt auch die Behauptung auf, dass Arbeitnehmer in der westlichen Welt im Jahr 2030 nur noch 15 Stunden die Woche arbeiten werden. Die Volkswirtschaften in solchen Ländern werden angeblich so reich sein, dass es keiner längeren Arbeitszeit mehr bedarf. Obwohl Bregman diesem Thema ein ganzes Kapitel widmet, stellt er keine klare Verbindung zum BGE her. Vermutlich will der Autor zeigen, dass das BGE den Übergang zu einer müßigeren Gesellschaft vorantreiben würde.

Bregman hat in gewissen Kreisen großen Beifall für seine Argumente erhalten. Die britische Zeitung Guardian hat ihn als „niederländisches Wunderkind“ bezeichnet und zahlreiche bekannte Intellektuelle haben sein Buch empfohlen. Die Idee des BGE findet in vielen Ländern immer mehr Unterstützer. In der Schweiz wurde 2016 eine Volksabstimmung über die Einführung eines BGE durchgeführt. Allerdings stimmten nur 23 Prozent dafür. Auch in Kanada, Finnland, Indien, Kenia und in den Niederlanden wird mit dem BGE experimentiert. Wichtige Unterstützer des Konzepts kommen aus dem Silicon Valley. Der Tesla-Gründer Elon Musk hat sich dafür ausgesprochen, ebenso Sam Altman, Leiter der Gründerwerkstatt Y Combinator und Sponsor eines BGE-Pilotprogramms.

Abgesehen von dem schwülstigen Tonfall scheint auf den ersten Blick wenig gegen Bregman zu sprechen. Die Idee, dass Regierungen Milliardären Geld überweisen sollten, wirkt natürlich auf viele Menschen befremdlich, aber ansonsten scheinen die Argumente für das BGE durchaus einleuchtend. Bei genauerem Hinsehen wird allerdings deutlich, dass ein BGE in Wahrheit eine brutale Herabsetzung unseres Lebensstandards zur Folge hätte. Bregman versucht zwar, diese Konsequenzen kleinzureden. Der aufmerksame Leser erkennt jedoch, dass sie für den Autor gern in Kauf genommen werden, wenn nicht gar der Haupt-Zweck des Vorhabens sind. In dieser Hinsicht gibt es deutliche Parallelen zu den sogenannten „Ökomodernisten“, die zwar eine progressive Sprache verwenden, aber in Wahrheit noch reaktionärer als die Mainstream-Grünen sind.

„Utopie für Realisten“ befürwortet das BGE vor allem deshalb, weil es die Menschen dazu ermutigt, weniger zu arbeiten. Die Verringerung der Arbeitsmotivation ist kein unbeabsichtigter Mangel, sondern die Kernessenz des Vorschlags: „Manche Menschen werden sich dafür entscheiden, weniger zu arbeiten, aber genau das ist der Zweck.“ Bregman will, dass die Leute weniger arbeiten, damit sie weniger verdienen und somit weniger kaufen können: „Weniger zu konsumieren beginnt damit, weniger zu arbeiten.“

„Utopie für Realisten“ strotzt vor altbekannten grünen Dogmen. Nach Bregman leben wir in einer Welt des „Überflusses“ und der „Konsumabhängigkeit“. Die Massen leiden angeblich an einem „falschen Bewusstsein“. Der Autor räumt zwar ein, dass unser Konsum kurzfristig noch etwas ansteigen könnte, behauptet aber, dass dies nicht ohne Folgen wie Umweltverschmutzung und Fettleibigkeit zu haben sei.

Natürlich wäre mehr Freizeit – auf freiwilliger Basis wohlgemerkt – erstrebenswert, solange der hohe Lebensstandard dadurch nicht verloren ginge. Voraussetzung dafür wäre allerdings eine produktivere Volkswirtschaft als die jetzige. Eine dynamische Volkswirtschaft könnte die hohen Lebensstandards bei gleichzeitiger Reduzierung der Arbeitszeit auf eine 15-Stunden-Woche beibehalten. Der Ökonom Phil Mullan bespricht diese Herausforderung in seinem aktuellen Buch „Creative Destruction“.

Allerdings thematisiert „Utopie für Realisten“ die anhaltende ökonomische Lethargie des Westens in keiner Weise. Stattdessen beruft sich Bregman gerne auf kleinere akademische Studien wie die mit den dreizehn Obdachlosen in London. Der Autor vermeidet jede Diskussion über die wirtschaftlichen Probleme des Westens. Im Gegenteil: die eindeutige, aber heruntergespielte Arbeitshypothese ist die, dass die Gesellschaft in ihrem Konsum stark beschränkt werden muss.

„Utopie für Realisten“ spricht sich gegen Austeritätspolitk aus, dabei wird hier ein Programm vorgestellt, das in der Praxis die Vorschläge der sparwütigsten konservativen Politiker übertreffen würde. Damit ist Bregman ist bloß ein weiterer grüner Pessimist, der als optimistischer Zukunftsdenker gefeiert wird.

 

Delighted that Novo magazine has published a German translation of my recent spiked review of Utopia for Realists. I will upload the text in a few days.

Tuesday talk reminder

22 Sep 2017

A reminder that I’ll be talking on “Who really runs the UK?” in Shoreditch this coming Tuesday evening. Hope you can come along.

I will be speaking on Silicon Valley from Heroes to Zeroes on the second day of the weekend Battle of Ideas festival in London on  28-29 October. Come along to the whole event if you can.