Ok – this is a literal ‘notes to self’ post, in that I’m going to use it to record my reading notes on Danny Nicol’s ‘The Constitutional Protection of Capitalism’. Nicol is a professor of public law at the University of Westminster. The book is, if I have the right end of the stick, an argument that the UK’s participation in a range of international treaties and governance institutions has transformed the British constitution in far-reaching ways. Specifically, the relevant international treaties and law have ‘hard wired’ neoliberal policies into the British constitution, in a way that is heavily constraining of parliament’s democratic policy-making powers.

I’m reading the book because it seems to be the most-cited work by advocates of ‘Lexit’ (that is: left-wing Brexit) – and as I said in my last post, I think the Lexit position in general is under-represented in UK policy debates. The main goal of the post is just to make summary notes, but I’ll no doubt opine, as I go – I’ll try to be clear about what’s summary of Nicol and what’s my own opinion. I give myself permission in advance to read huge swathes of text without writing them up, or the book is never going to get finished. Likewise, this isn’t really the reading I ought to be doing, so I give myself permission to go months between updates here. I guess I’ll note updates here:

20/1/2018 (1) – pages 1-5.
20/1/2018 (2) – pages 6-11.
22/1/2018 (1) – pages 12-22.
22/1/2018 (2) – pages 23-31.

Ok, here goes.

Chapter 1 – Transnational Regimes and the Constitution

Nicol starts with the basic thesis:

there has been a constitutional ‘transnationalisation’ that has introduced a far more severe ideological bias into the constitution than has hitherto existed, certainly since the ending of the veto power of the House of Lords in 1911; this in turn has seriously compromised British democracy… In particular, the free choice of economic policies – on such matters as state aid, public procurement, state regulation and, above all, the choice between markets and public sector monopoly – has increasingly been rendered constitutionally impermissible. Only the strength of neoliberal consensus amongst the present generation of politicians has served to conceal this democratic diminution. (1)

Nicol then moves on to defining neoliberalism. Following David Harvey, Nicol suggests that there are two definitions of neoliberalism. First, a utopian theory – “a model of social relations in which government regulation and social welfare guarantees are reduced in order to foster the play of market forces driven by private enterprises pursuing profit maximisation” (3 – he’s quoting Harvey). Second, “a political project designed to restore the power of economic elites” (3).

Again following Harvey, Nicol argues that the second definition is the most important one, and the first definition is typically just ideological cover for the second. Nicol quotes Antinori:

laissez-faire is a myth, and the question is never between government regulation of the economy and no government regulation: the question is always what type of government regulation. (4)

For what it’s worth, I think this is mostly right as far as it goes, but not quite right all up. It is definitely the case that neoliberalism is in significant part a class-driven political project – but that’s true for economic governance systems in basically every class society. It’s also definitely the case that neoliberal ideology serves as ‘cover’ for political-economic actions that conflict with their ideological warrant – but this is also very common, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the ideology is contentless, but rather that it is partial. The fact that neoliberal practice doesn’t match neoliberal principles means that we need a better definition of neoliberalism as a bundle of economic practices than the ideological one offered by many of its advocates. But that definition should (in my view) pick out neoliberalism as a historically distinctive set of beliefs and practices within which and through which class power operates, rather than reduce the elements of neoliberalism that escape its ideological framing to straightforward elite class interests. I’m not really prepared to try to offer an alternative account of neoliberalism that achieves that, so these gripes are basically just vapourware – but let this serve as a marker of mild disagreement.

Having outlined these two conceptions of neoliberalism, Nicol then distinguishes between neoliberals who really believe the ideology (“free market principle neoliberals”) and neoliberals who are really only interested in the class interests of the elite (“class interest neoliberals”). Again, I’d argue that this distinction is a bit simplistic – though I guess you could counter-argue that analytic frames should be as simple as they can be while still serving their analytic function, which this probably does.

Still, the shortcomings of this analytic frame are clear on page 5, where Nicol writes:

Neoliberalism, as defined above, has in fact usually been the dominant governmental doctrine in Britain since the birth of capitalism itself. (5)

This is not true in any useful sense, in my view – it’s just conflating neoliberalism with economic liberalism in general. Probably doesn’t hugely matter for the analysis of the book, but again not quite right in my opinion.

In the next section, Nicol argues that constitutional law – which has traditionally focused on the nation-state as the locus of the constitution – would benefit from understanding international governance institutions as de facto determining elements of the British constitution. He writes a bit about the power of transnational corporations, but his focus is not corporations but transnational institutions – the WTO, the EU, and the ECHR.

perhaps we have reached the point at which, in ever wider fields, the most important element of Britain’s constitution (and indeed, the constitutions of other countries) is no longer Parliamentary sovereignty but rather transnational regulation. (8)

[As an aside, there may be a story to be told here about how British constitutional law has traditionally been able to regard the nation-state as sovereign because Britain was an imperial power that exerted legal force over other nations, rather than the reverse – and as Britain has declined to third-tier power status this has changed.]

Anyway, Nicol argues that the expansion of transnational influence over nation-states’ constitutions has been achieved via two mechanisms: “the scope of transnational regulation has expanded” (5) and “certain international law regimes have become more effective” (6).

Now Nicol asks: “What brought about this constitutional transformation?” (12)

He periodises (I think accurately enough) post-war transnational economic ‘constitutional’ history into two stages: from 1945 through the 1970s there was “an intensification of institutionalisation” (GATT, the EEC), but “these organisations were characterised by the toleration of a variety of capitalisms and had relatively weak enforcement processes”. From the 1980s a neoliberal consensus emerged, with corresponding changes in “transnational constitutionalism” which bound states much more tightly to a neoliberal policy framework. (12)

Nicol locates globalisation at the heart of this process. Following Held et al., he distinguishes three different concepts of globalisation: hyperglobalist, sceptical and transformationist. Hyperglobalists, for Nicol, think that the nation state is basically obsolete; sceptics think that globalisation is basically a myth; transformationism is the ‘goldilocks’ option that argues globalisation is real but unclear in its future direction and potentials. For transformationists:

the powers of the state are not necessarily diminished by globalisation; rather, states are being reconstituted and restructured in response to a more interconnected world. (13)

Nicol adopts this ‘transformationist’ perspective. In Nicol’s narrative, from the 1980s a range of world leaders gained power who adhered to neoliberal ideological tenets; these leaders implemented neoliberal policy not just at the national level, but also at the transnational, binding national states’ democratic decision-making within a neoliberal policy framework. Nicol argues that this is not a conspiratorial perspective:

when neoliberal leaders were called upon to make constitutional choices, they naturally enough opted for constitutional arrangements that benefited the attainment and retention of their own favoured policies. (18)

Nicol draws on Hirschl to argue that three categories of elite were influential in this process: political elites (trying to achieve their policy goals), economic elites (trying to promote their interests), and judicial elites (trying to increase their power relative to democratic decision-making). Nicol argues that political elites are the most influential of the three. These constitutional transformations, Nicol argues, have, moreover, been concealed by political consensus.

the transnational constitution can be perceived as a kind of insurance policy guaranteeing the preservation of a particular variety of capitalism. Its object is to lock in place a system of privatisation and commercial liberty, so that things will not change very much when new governments are elected. Thus the new constitutional law serves to guard against the possibility that future governments might abandon the creed of private enterprise. (19)

Along the same lines:

The real purpose of transnational constitutionalism is to ensure the stability of policy in the event of today’s neoliberals being succeeded by politicians of a different ilk. Was the insurance policy really necessary? It is in the nature of insurance policies to guard against eventualities that are unlikely but nonetheless possible. Perhaps the strength of neoliberal ideological hegemony is such that neoliberalism does not really require constitutional protection. But one never knows.(20)

Now Nicol turns to questions of democracy and legitimacy. Nicol suggests (perhaps not entirely convincingly) that his book is not concerned with the question of whether neoliberal institutions are ‘just’ or ‘unjust’ – rather, its normative import is focussed on the question of their relation to democracy.

Thus the book will question whether the constitutional constraints ushered in by legal globalisation make Britain more or less democratic. (21-2)

Nicol will suggest that:

Britain’s pre-globalisation constitution offered a superior degree of democracy than is available under today’s more globalised arrangements. (22)

Nicol focuses on three attributes of democracy: “contestability, ideological neutrality, and accountability. Assessed on this basis, it can be argued that Britain’s pre-globalisation constitution offered a superior degree of democracy than is available under today’s more globalised arrangements.” (22)
Taking these attributes of democracy in turn:


Contestability means that since people disagree about everything, there can be no universal or self-evident truths that can be enshrined as supreme law. Accordingly, everything that government does needs to be democratically contestable. This should be the case irrespective of the issue involved. Thus, policies and decisions should be contestable regardless of whether they involve basic liberal political rights, the fundamentals of economic policy or social rights. There is no principled basis on which these different aspects of policy can be disentangled from each other… The bottom line is that there can be no entrenchment of favoured policies, since entrenchment would cocoon such policies from the full rigour of contestability… There should therefore be no division between ‘ordinary’ politics and ‘constitutional’ politics. Moreover, the constitution should guarantee the permanence of contestability. All in all, therefore, the democratic constitution should not privilege substantive outcomes but should represent the structure for reaching collective decisions in a democratic way. (22)

Ideological neutrality:

The idea here is that the political sphere is a space where differing ideological perspectives contest for policy influence, and that the goal of a constitution is to mediate that contestation in a neutral manner:

the constitution’s enduring ideological commitment must be to democracy itself, thereby permitting the country to be drawn in whichever political ideology reflects the will of the political community. Such a constitution should be preferred over one with an inbuilt bias in favour of one substantive political creed at the expense of others, since this would detract unacceptably from the power of people to determine their own future.(23)


The need for power-holders to compete for re-election is what makes them responsive to the public. Thus the idea of democratic accountability – that it is possible to replace political office-holders through elections – is one that has great resonance. It is fundamentally important to us that those who rule in our name are in the end answerable to us…. Whilst the language of accountability has expanded in recent years to embrace weaker forms of public dialogue not involving the possibility of sanction, there surely need to be compelling reasons of principle (such as the independence of the judiciary) to justify a weakening of accountability in the case of those who wield very substantial government power. (23)

Nicol divides the British constitution, conceptually, into “internal” and “transnational” aspects, and argues that the internal dimension of the constitution gives expression to these three principles (“however imperfectly”) while “the transnationalisation of the constitution has fatally compromised our constitution’s adherence to these three attributes” (24). In the next three subsections Nicol will therefore look at each of these attributes in relation to the internal and transnational dimensions of the British constitution, as he defines it. Going through these categories again, then:

The British model and contestability:

Nicol argues that because of parliamentary sovereignty, the British constitution has a high degree of contestability.

Dicey famously defined parliamentary sovereignty as meaning that parliament enjoys ‘the right to make or unmake any law whatever; and, further, that no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having the right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament.’ (24)


This traditional view of parliamentary sovereignty whereby Parliament cannot be bound in any way whatsoever is to be contrasted with the so-called ‘new view’ of ‘self-embracing sovereignty’ whereby, although Parliament cannot bind itself as to the substance of future legislation, it can bind itself as to the manner and form by which future legislation is to be enacted.(27)

British participation in transnational governance institutions like the WTO and the EU obviously, in Nicol’s eyes, binds parliament in this way, reducing contestability.

The British model and relative ideological neutrality:

Nicol quotes Jack Straw’s expression of this principle: “the constitution doesn’t belong to any one party and should not be used as a partisan tool.” (31)


As I discussed in my post on ideologies of Brexit, there are a range of different left attitudes to the EU and Brexit. In this very short post I want to focus on just one category of left attitudes to Brexit: euroscepticism in the Labour party.

Basically everyone in Labour understands that trade with the EU is of great economic value. Disagreements come over what other elements of EU membership are desirable, or undesirable. I think you can usefully schematise those disagreements along two dimensions: whether EU constraints on national-level economic intervention are on balance good or bad; and whether free movement of labour within the EEA is on balance good or bad.

Schematised into a good old two-by-two matrix, the basic positions are as follows:

Although this is an extremely simple schema, it is still has one more dimension than a lot of UK public sphere debate about Brexit. A lot of debate over Brexit is stuck in the spectrum of ‘hard’ through ‘soft’ Brexit. Likewise, a lot of liberal analysis is attempting to frame political debates in terms of ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ politics.

In my view debates over Brexit outcomes are better reconceptualised by assuming that we are negotiating over some variant of single market membership (or ‘access’, if one prefers), and getting clear on which if any bits of the current single market rules we most want to negotiate exemptions from. Those exemptions might not be achievable, given the EU’s own negotiating position and the UK’s likely unwillingness to trade off too many other EU benefits, but we would at least be clearer about where we stand.

For Bennites (or Lexiters), the answer to this basic question is clear: EU economic governance rules significantly constrain national, democratically elected governments’ industrial policy and/or interventionist economic decision-making. Corbyn and McDonnell want this to end, to the extent that this is achievable, and this is their major substantive (as opposed to tactical) objective in their Brexit positioning.

For many others in the Parliamentary Labour Party, the answer is equally clear: the public has rejected free movement of labour within the EU – we must listen to these Very Real Concerns and do what we can to reduce immigration. Whether this position is held sincerely or not, a lot of the PLP regard free movement as politically toxic, and don’t want Labour to be associated with it.

Although current Labour Brexit policy is still one of ‘constructive ambiguity’, the eurosceptic messages Labour is sending are currently a synthesis of these two basic positions. The leadership has chosen to triangulate on immigration, in the belief that this will appease both anti-immigration voters and Very Real Concerns factions in the PLP. Against this, a lot of liberals are making the economic case for single market membership – often together with a quieter advocacy for negotiated exemptions from freedom of movement, as in Tony Blair’s recent interventions.

There’s a lot that can be said about all this, but the main point I want to make is that, of the four quadrants of this simple matrix, the bottom left quadrant – ‘open borders Bennism’ – is severely underrepresented in current public sphere debate. There is plenty of advocacy for full ongoing EU membership; for single market membership with negotiated exemptions from freedom of movement; and for ending both freedom of movement and EU government constraints on UK economic interventions, in one way or another. There is much more limited advocacy for preserving – and extending – EU-wide free movement rights, while also undoing constraints on national-level government economic interventions.

Schematised still more simply, the EU and its related institutions offer four freedoms within the EEA internal market: of goods, services, capital, and labour. Almost everyone in the UK Labour Party wants to minimise disruption to trade in goods and services. But there is significant debate over whether to retain or constrain the power of capital, and whether to retain or constrain the rights of labour.

At this (rather unwieldy) level of abstraction, I think a good case can be made that the ‘correct’ left position is to give democratic governments within the EU greater power relative to capital, and at the same time to maximise freedom of movement for citizens within the EU. This position – ‘open borders Bennism’, if you like – may be impossible to achieve in practice, and may be an electoral non-starter regardless, but I wish it had more and more prominent advocates in current left debates.

Some very preliminary, scattered, and basic notes.

One of the dichotomies that structures a lot of work in economics is that between coercion and freely made decisions. There’s a lot to unpack here and the following is very crude, but ‘ideal typically’, a lot of economic theory draws a distinction between state action – which can be coercive, due to the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force within the state’s geographical boundaries – and freely made decisions, such as contract formation, market exchange, or collective action within civil society. Obviously the market, or contracts, are structured by ‘rules of the game’ that are themselves coercively enforced by the state – so the market and the contract are not untarnished, as it were, by coercive force. Moreover, economists are obviously aware that the state is not always and everywhere coercive. Nevertheless, this dichotomy does, in my view, inform a lot of economic analysis, in some sense.

There are at least two things to unpack from this picture. First, the dichotomy between coercive and free economic relationships; and second the way this dichotomy maps onto the distinction between the state, on the one hand, and the market and civil society, on the other. Both of these ideas are, of course, flawed. W/r/t the latter: obviously coercion can operate in market and civil society contexts, and not merely via the actions of the state and its representatives. Moreover, coercion need not be violent: for example, those likely to starve if they lose their jobs are extremely vulnerable to employer demands – these employers wield a high level of power over these employees, regardless of the formal free contracting of the employment relation. These kinds of unfreedom within market and civil society relationships also indicate the flaw in the first dichotomy discussed above: that coercion versus freedom is not, in fact, a dichotomy. On the contrary, the boundary between free interactions and coercive ones is, potentially, fuzzy. Economists are happy, in many contexts, to talk about ‘bargaining power’. It is, however, innate in the concept of bargaining power, that bargaining power is power. If one participant in an interaction has enough power relative to the other, we may reasonably start to doubt the extent to which the interaction’s outcome is a freely agreed bargain, and wonder whether language associated with coercive relationships may begin to become more appropriate.

Perhaps, then, it makes sense to think of freedom not as an on-off switch, but as a spectrum: we can all be more or less free, in different dimensions of our lives, or in different social and economic interactions. This framing avoids, of course, complexities around varied senses of freedom (some of which I’ve discussed in earlier posts on this blog), and questions over the extent to which freedom can usefully be quantified, or at least represented ordinally, on any kind of spectrum. Even this crude ‘linear spectrum’ model of freedom would seem, however, to be an advance on the binary model of freedom and coercion that seems tacit in a lot of economic theory.

In my view economics as a discipline needs to better get to grips with this. Economics is not unused to making normative judgements – around welfare or utility outcomes, etc. But these evaluations often seem naive (or, from a more cynical perspective, apologistic) around questions of freedom and coercion. Bringing such problems into the apparatus of formal economics of course threatens to take economics into a terrain that is traditionally reserved for moral philosophy. I think a good case could be made, however, that a lot of economics is already in fact occupying this terrain – it is simply (too often) doing so naively and unknowingly.

Notes on Ideology Critique

November 26, 2017

Some work-in-progress notes on what I see as best practice in ideology critique, with references to some relevant figures.

1) Symmetry.

The joke about ideology is that it’s an irregular verb: they have ideology, you have beliefs, I have clear knowledge. But as I see it ideology critique ought to be ‘symmetrical’ and ‘reflexive’ in the sense in which those terms are used by David Bloor, in his ‘Knowledge and Social Imagery’. It’s fine to prefer one’s own ideology, but one ought to be able to adopt a perspective that sees one’s own ideological commitments as ideological commitments like any others. Apart from anything else, one will not be able to fully understand another ideology, if one cannot see one’s own ideological perspective through another’s eyes. [This doesn’t, as I’ve argued elsewhere at some length, commit one to a relativisation of perspectives – but it does mean that one should be able to shift perspectives, even if one retains rational warrant for adopting one’s own.]

2) Ideologies involve ‘social ontologies’, not just value-claims.

Although one can in principle distinguish between factual matters and ideological commitments, in practice ideological commitments typically involve lots of contested claims about factual matters. Adherents of different ideologies take themselves to be inhabiting different worlds, and these debates over matters of fact are major sites of ideological contestation.

3) ‘Irrational’ commitments are often rational.

A great deal of what is typically attributed to ideological bias, motivated reasoning, delusion, etc., is better understood as rational commitments given different priors – understand the priors and you understand the commitments. It’s a good rule of thumb to assume, as a first pass, that someone’s ideological commitments make sense, and that if they seem not to make sense, it’s because you don’t understand the relevant background commitments. An ‘inferentialist’ approach to ideology critique is useful here – mapping an ideology by understanding the inferential connections that bind and form the beliefs that, in their interconnection, constitute an ideological system. [I’ve spelled out my understanding of inferentialism in a longer series of posts on Robert Brandom, previously on this blog.] At the same time:

4) Some ‘irrational’ commitments really are ‘irrational’.

Some ideological commitments are better understood using psychoanalytic resources – broadly understood – than using the resources traditionally associated with rational belief network mapping. Ideologies can be driven by desire, and the expression of desire – including its symptomatic expression. Although there are lots of problems with the Freudian apparatus, many of its core concepts – repression, sublimation, cathection, etc. – are useful for understanding why people act and think in the ways they do.

5) De dicto versus de re ideology analysis.

The ‘rational’ inferentialist and ‘irrational’ Freudian dimensions of ideology analysis and critique are not as conflictual as they appear, however – a good deal of the apparent tension between them can be resolved by adopting the Brandomian distinction between de dicto and de re commitment tracking. The commitments that ideology-holders take to be their own may not be the commitments that we attribute to them. That disjunction may exist, of course, because we are wrong about someone’s commitments – but it may also exist because an ideology does not adequately know itself. Tracking the *actual* commitments that inform and shape an ideology, beyond the nominal commitments that form an ideology’s own self-understanding, is one of the ways in which ideology critique functions as *critique*.

6) Ideologies often have more than one set of apparently conflictual commitments.

However, we also should be cautious about ‘seeing through’ ‘nominal’ ideological commitments to supposedly ‘underlying’ real ones. Many ideologies have different, apparently conflictual, sets of commitments operating simultaneously, and understanding the ideology requires understanding the contexts in which one set of commitments is operative, rather than another. One simple, important example of this is the ideological logic of liberalism described by Charles Mills in ‘The Racial Contract’. For Mills, the social contract of traditional, ‘mainstream’ liberalism operates within a specific, privileged social sphere. Outside that sphere, another – violent and coercive – set of ideological commitments is operative. The boundary between these spheres is determined by a ‘racial contract’ – a racial hierarchisation in which political and ethical principles are differentially applied. This is one example of a common ‘layering’ of ideologies, in which an ideology can best be understood as composed of multiple different ideologies, together with a set of principles for moving between them.

These are some first pass articulations of elements of ideology critique. More as and when.

A ‘no deal’ Brexit?

October 12, 2017

It seems like an increasing number of UK political commentators are adopting a ‘no deal’ outcome as their baseline projection for Brexit negotiations. I’m not close to informed enough to warrant anyone giving my views on this question any weight – but I feel quite a bit more bullish than those commentators on the prospect of some kind of Brexit deal. With all due allowances for severe lack of expertise, I wanted to briefly spell out the baseline ‘priors’ behind that attitude.

As a first pass, I think there are maybe five and a half categories of political force operative in my crude qualitative ‘model’ of the UK side of the Brexit negotiations. (Obviously Brexit negotiations are not carried out by the UK government alone; nevertheless, like most UK political commentary, this post is, perhaps excessively, focused on the UK end of things.)

1) Declining US hegemony is leading to deglobalisation, as the international ‘rules based’ liberal order, which has been grounded in US military and economic dominance since WWII, loses influence. States are increasingly, and rationally, shifting to competition outside rather than within the ‘rules based’ liberal order; there are ideological shifts associated with that changing geopolitical reality; and Brexit is in part an expression of those shifts. We therefore shouldn’t assume that the traditional internationalist and, latterly, neoliberal arguments for economic and political cooperation still carry the weight they used to.

2) The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. Of course the bourgeoisie (understood here as business interests, not the middle class) is not unified behind a single ‘class consciousness’ or unitary set of class interests. Nevertheless, the dominant bourgeois interest is in a Brexit deal, and avoiding the ‘cliff edge’ of a shift to WTO rules or similar.

3) A significant minority of lawmakers in the ruling Conservative party have strong ideological commitments pushing against any kind of ‘soft’ Brexit deal. Because the Conservatives lack a majority in parliament, these commitments have a very substantial influence on government policy.

4a) The UK government regards itself as bound by the democratic mandate of the EU Referendum (either in principle or as a matter of electoral strategy); that vote is widely regarded as mandating both the end of freedom of movement and the extraction of the UK from EU legal institutions, and it seems reasonable to believe that those goals, if fully pursued, are incompatible with anything other than a ‘hard’ Brexit.

4b) Against that, the government of course has its eye on re-election, and it also seems reasonable to believe that the likely negative economic consequences of a ‘hard’ Brexit are sufficient that an electorally self-interested party will do what it can to avoid that outcome.

5) The government is not functioning as a unitary or rational decision-making entity, but is behaving closer to a ‘public choice’ model of state actors’ behaviour, in the sense that individual politicians are primarily pursuing extremely narrow individually self-interested political goals, and therefore the government as a whole is conflicted and incompetent in a way that may be incompatible with reaching an agreement in negotiations.

Ok – that’s five and a half arguments about the forces at work on the UK government’s Brexit strategy (I’ve grouped the two ‘arguments from democracy’ together as (4a) and (4b)). More of those arguments than not, can be taken to suggest we’re headed for a ‘hard’ Brexit – or even a ‘no deal’ Brexit. What matters, though, is how we weight the different arguments.

My feeling is that many of the ‘no deal’-forecasting commentators give particular weight to arguments (3) and (5). That is to say, they think that there is a strong ideological commitment to hard Brexit among a significant minority of Conservative Party MPs, that many important Conservative politicians are pursuing internal party advantage rather than the national interest (no matter what you take that interest to be), and that the combination of these two factors is pushing us towards a ‘no deal’ outcome.

By contrast, although I agree that all these factors are in play, I give greatest weight to argument (2): the role of the executive as committee managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. I think there’s quite a high likelihood that, when we get to the pointy end of negotiations, the dominant interests of UK-based capital will knock heads together, twist arms, have quiet words, and persuade the UK government that a softer Brexit than Eurosceptic Conservatives think they want, is actually not so bad after all.

I would never say that this is a foregone conclusion, that other countervailing political forces are unimportant, or that a ‘no deal’ outcome is impossible. The future is uncertain, and, additionally, what do I know? Just as, in nuclear deterrence theory, the logic of mutually assured destruction is powerful, but can quite quickly be undone by somebody going ahead and launching a bomb, so, in Brexit negotiations, it would be foolhardy to assume that ‘centrifugal’ forces are clearly stronger than ‘centripetal’ ones. Still, it seems to me that at the very least, some of the ‘no deal’-projecting commentators are much too confident in their ‘no deal’ forecasts. More strongly: were I were a gambler, I would certainly be gambling on a deal.

Ideologies of Brexit

July 2, 2017

The standard shorthands for talking about Brexit (Leave vs. Remain; hard Brexit, soft Brexit, no Brexit) can be unhelpfully oversimplifying.  Mostly that’s because they oversimplify the negotiating minefield of possible policy outcomes and their consequences.  But it’s also because they oversimplify the attitudes to Brexit within UK politics.

The following is its own massive oversimplification, of course, but I want to schematise very quickly ideological orientations to Brexit within the UK parliament.  I think getting clear on these kind of broad-brush positions will often be a precondition for useful debates about Brexit. Not that lots of people aren’t already clear about this kind of thing – but more people could afford to be.

So – on the broadly anti-EU side we have:

    1. Singapore-on-Thames libertarianism – the core objection to the EU here is the purported regulatory burden it imposes on UK business, with the idea that post-Brexit a reduction of red tape can prompt a surge in UK economic growth.
    2. Anti-immigration racism – the core objection to the EU here is that the free movement of labour within the EEA prevents the UK from controlling its borders, leading to cultural pollution, etc. etc.
    3. Economic protectionism – this comes in a range of flavours, the main one being labour protectionism, that is, the objection to EEA freedom of movement on the grounds that EU migrant workers are undercutting UK wages.  (One might be suspicious about overlap between this category and the previous one, but I think it merits its own box.
    4. Socialism in one country leftism – the core objection to the EU here is that the EU’s governance prevents the implementation of socialist economic policies at a nation-state level, via restrictions of state aid to industry, etc.
    5. Greater Britain sovereignty – the core objection here is again to EU constraints on UK governance, but apparently motivated by a (to me at least) vague sense of lost British (Imperial?) Greatness, to be addressed somehow by repatriating powers.

Clearly there is room for improvement in these categories and their summaries, but this will serve as a first pass.

On the broadly pro-EU side we have:

    1. Defence of the EU as a road to prosperity.  Here the argument is the basic liberal economic one of gains from trade: that comparative advantage and the international division of labour increase everybody’s wealth over time.
    2. Defence of freedom of movement as a human good in itself.  Here the argument is that migrants’ lives can be greatly improved by migration, and/or that freedom of movement should be a human right.  Either this position is (for whatever reason) restricted to the boundaries of the EEA, or European freedom of movement is taken as a first step towards global open borders.
    3. Defence of freedom of movement on economic grounds.  The argument here is that the UK economy is heavily dependent on EU migrants, who are critical to the staffing of UK hospitals / universities / low-wage agricultural jobs.  Really this is a sub-category of ‘road to prosperity’, but given how frequently movement of labour is treated separately from the other EEA freedoms I think it merits its own category.
    4. Defence of the European political project.  Here the argument is that the European project of economic integration as a route to political integration is valuable in its own right, for example as a mechanism for reducing the chance of European war, or as a means of establishing a major European geopolitical power.
    5. Defence of a ‘European identity’.  The argument (or, perhaps better, affective structure) here is that, more or less independent of policy outcomes, partaking of a European cosmopolitan cultural identity is a valuable possession, which Brexit destroys or undermines.
    6. Anti-racism.  The argument here is that, again in addition to policy outcomes, the political fight over Brexit is a proxy war in a fight over race and racism in the UK, and that contesting Brexit is necessary anti-racist praxis.

Ok – those are some of the core Brexit ideological commitments, as I see them.

Now, some of these ideological orientations are clearly incompatible – e.g. ‘Singapore-on-Thames libertarianism’ and ‘socialism in one country’ do not go together; nor do ‘anti-immigration racism’ and ‘anti-racism’.  But plenty of these orientations are compatible with each other – and you can therefore mix and match them to produce quite different ideological bundles, with different ‘weights’ granted to different components of the bundle.  You can also probably clarify matters, politically, by attaching ‘sincere belief’ and ‘electoral strategy’ to each component of any given politician’s bundle.

I don’t really want to get into the question of the content of specific politicians’ ideological bundles here – clearly reasonable people disagree on this.  Largely for illustrative purposes, however, I’d suggest that the current parliamentary Labour Party can broadly be divided up into a group whose highest priority is ending immigration (on protectionist or racist grounds, sincerely or strategically); a group whose highest priority is retaining single market gains from trade; and a group whose highest priority is socialism in one country.  These core commitments can then be supplemented by a wide range of different subsidiary commitments, giving a much wider variety of specific ideological bundles.

However we choose to ‘map’ political actors’ or groups’ ideological commitments, however, I think it’s worth doing so in a more fine-grained way than is common in a lot of the discussion of Brexit.  Too much Brexit analysis, to my mind, schematises political actors into Leavers and Remainers, Eurosceptics versus EU defenders, advocates of hard and soft Brexit, of ‘open versus closed politics’, etc.  All of these framings may be fine as shorthand – but they collapse many different ideological commitments within these overarching categories.  Given the importance of understanding the priorities and likely compromises of different political actors, a more nuanced approach to describing their commitments would, I think, often be a good idea.

Expanding here briefly on some things I said on twitter, in light of Labour’s very impressive showing in the 2017 UK general election.

There are a number of different ways in which a political analyst – an academic, pollster or pundit – can be wrong.

    • You can make a wrong prediction. This is incredibly easy to do – we all make wrong predictions all the time. Social reality is enormously complex, and it’s basically impossible to make strongly reliable predictions about it.
    • You can be wrong about the probability distribution of possible outcomes. It’s obviously difficult to check whether somebody is wrong in this sense – unlikely outcomes often happen, and likely outcomes often don’t happen. Still, it’s another way of being wrong.
    • You can be wrong about the range of possible outcomes. That is, you can incorrectly suggest that some events are outside – or inside – the space of the feasible. (This is a special case of the previous probability distribution point.) This can, sometimes, be checked – if you say an outcome isn’t possible, and it happens, you were clearly wrong.
    • You can have a poor ‘model’ of social reality, generating your sense of the space of probabilities. This can be a model in a formal sense, as in some polling models. Or it can be a model in an informal sense, meaning one’s view of the important forces and dynamics of the relevant social reality.

In relation to Corbyn’s Labour’s impressive electoral performance, most (though by no means all) of us were wrong in one sense or another. I didn’t venture a prediction, because I thought the uncertainty was too high for a prediction to be made with any useful confidence. But if I had been obliged to make a prediction – professionally, say – I would certainly have predicted a much poorer electoral showing than Labour in fact achieved.

It is, of course, impossible to know whether one’s probability distribution is accurate (and, arguably, what that even means, epistemologically), so I’ll put that aside. In relation to the special case of possible outcomes, however, my range of possible outcomes certainly did include the electoral gains that actually occurred – so I was not wrong in that respect.

Finally, in relation to one’s ‘model’ of social reality: I wrote up my view of the electoral feasibility of Corbyn’s project shortly after he won the leadership, in September 2015 – you can read it here. Reasonable people can of course differ on these issues – a ‘model’ can never be definitively proven or refuted – but to my mind, the analysis in that post has stood up well, in light of subsequent events.

Now, the professional UK pundit class has also been wrong about Corbyn. But I would argue that most of them have been wrong in a different, stronger sense. Not only did many pundits wrongly predict electoral disaster for Corbyn’s Labour, they also often suggested that a strong electoral showing from Labour was somewhere in the probability range between extremely unlikely and actively impossible.

Most prominently, Matthew Goodwin, the political scientist, has now literally eaten his most recent book (‘Brexit: why Britain voted to leave the European Union’) on live television, after tweeting that he would do so if Corbyn’s Labour polled 38% or higher (in fact Labour polled 40%). This demonstrates good grace – but the existence of the tweet in the first place implies not just that Goodwin called the election wrong, but that he also called the space of the feasible wrong. And Goodwin is far from alone in this. The professional pundit class, as a whole, regarded the prospect of Corbyn’s Labour polling at ~40% not just as unlikely, but, for the most part, as absurd.

This in turn speaks to the ‘model’ of social and political reality that informs pundits’ analysis. I think there are a range of different pundit models out there, and surveying them would take a much longer post than this one. But it seems clear enough to me that the overwhelming majority of UK political pundits have badly flawed models of the political and social reality they are paid to analyse and interpret. This – rather than pundits’ bad predictions – is the big analytic problem with recent UK political commentary.

Finally, there are problems with the UK pundit sphere beyond the simply analytic. Most obviously from a ‘pro-Corbyn’ perspective, many pundits were not just badly wrong, but (to be blunt) were arseholes about it. Without wanting to get into an unproductive slanging match on this issue – and recognising that there are pundits to whom this critique does not apply – one of the negative consequences of many pundits’ belligerence towards ‘pro-Corbyn’ voices was epistemic. Pundits’ willingness to treat pro-Corbyn advocacy and analysis with contempt restricted the range of positions and perspectives that pundits treated as worthy of attention – and this in turn prevented pundits from appropriately updating their opinions in light of relevant arguments and evidence. This is one of the major reasons, I think, for the dramatic failure of the pundit class to see Corbyn’s Labour’s electoral success coming.

Now, there is an unfair imbalance in my criticism of the UK pundit sphere. I am not professionally obliged to produce analysis every week (or day!) – if I were, then over the last few years I would have been wrong about countless things. Nevertheless, as a consumer of UK punditry, I can still evaluate and criticise it. Moreover, in evaluating punditry, I’ve argued, whether pundits are wrong matters less than how they are wrong. For the most part, the UK commentariat were not just wrong about Corbyn – they were wrong in the wrong way. That is a bad problem for the UK public sphere.