In his 1954 lecture ‘What does the economist economise?’, Dennis Robertson writes:

There exists in every human breast an inevitable state of tension between the aggressive and acquisitive instincts and the instincts of benevolence and self-sacrifice. It is for the preacher, lay or clerical, to inculcate the ultimate duty of subordinating the former to the latter. It is the humbler, and often the invidious, role of the economist to help, so far as he can, in reducing the preacher’s task to manageable dimensions. It is his function to emit a warning bark if he sees courses of action being advocated or pursued which will increase unnecessarily the inevitable tension between self-interest and public duty; and to wag his tail in approval of courses of action which will tend to keep the tension low and tolerable.

This passage is approvingly quoted in Part One of Buchanan and Tullock’s ‘The calculus of consent’. And this basic idea informs much of public choice theory – a branch of economics and political science that uses tools often associated with microeconomics to analyse political decision-making. Slightly more specifically, public choice theory often focuses on the ways in which political decision-makers’ individual interests and incentive structures influence their policy-making, frequently to the detriment of ‘the public good’. In Buchanan’s words, in his 1986 Nobel lecture:

Economists should cease proffering policy advice as if they were employed by a benevolent despot, and they should look to the structure within which political decisions are made.

As Robertson says, the idea here is not that altruistic acts are in some way incompatible with human nature; it is, rather, that an institutional structure that heavily relies on altruistic acts for its ongoing stability is likely to be more fragile, all else equal, than an institution that accommodates less noble motives as a major component of its day-to-day functioning. Acts of heroism, kindness, self-sacrifice, selflessness – these are, contrary to more pessimistic views of ‘human nature’, extremely widespread. But a political-economic institution that relies upon these facets of human nature for its day-to-day reproduction, and that will quickly fall apart in their absence – such an institution is at constant risk of either collapse, or transformation into an institution that does accommodate less noble elements of human behaviour, perhaps to the detriment of its intended or apparent goals.

This ‘pessimistic’ public choice vision of political-economic institutions has often not found favour on the left. Leftist critics of public choice theory – or of the broader liberal tradition of which it is apart – tend to object both to its methodological individualism, and to the kind of ‘human nature’ that is tacitly or overtly ascribed to the individuals it considers. For many leftists, furthermore, the public choice approach to political economy is less an analysis of the pitfalls of collective action, than it is an attempt to undermine or attack successful collective action, in the service of right-wing, anti-statist interests and policies. From this left perspective, public choice theorists attempt to emphasise the ways in which institutions of collective action are liable to fail, because public choice theorists want such institutions to fail: by arguing that the successful collective provision of social goods is difficult or impossible, and that apparently successful collective action is really a mask for individual self-interest, public choice theorists serve the interests of those opposed to emancipatory collective action.

There is much to be said for this left critique of public choice theory. Public choice theory has, indeed, typically emerged from and aligned itself with the right of the political spectrum, and sought to provide intellectual resources and arguments for those who wish to greatly reduce the size of the state and the scope of democratic or collective social decision-making. It is, primarily, a conservative school of thought, and much of the public choice tradition cannot usefully be interpreted unless its analysis is seen as informed and shaped by conservative political commitments.

But should the tools of public choice theory be exclusively the property of the right? Does it benefit the left for this to be the case? In my view, the answer to these questions is ‘no’, and a ‘public choice theory of the left’ is a worthwhile project, no matter our views on ‘actually existing public choice theory’.

Why is this so? First of all, analytically speaking, there is a lot of potential common ground between public choice theory and traditional left critical analysis: the capture of powerful institutions by special interest groups and the use of power to advance the interests of those with power, as against the broader public good… they are not themes that are entirely alien to left analysis. Public choice approaches should be capable of use for left critique.

Secondly, though, the normative public choice critique of would-be emancipatory collective action also carries weight: the left ought to reckon with this category of critique of its own projects and institutions. Public choice theory is suspicious that institutions – paradigmatically state institutions – that are intended to serve the common good have a tendency to serve instead the interests of those who wield power within those institutions. If left politics aspires to create institutions that are not disastrously vulnerable to this phenomenon, it needs to reckon with this risk and this critique. Moreover, it needs (I would argue) to reckon with this critique in a way that does not appeal to unrealistically utopian claims about long-term selfless action on the part of key social actors.

Perhaps the paradigmatic case here is Soviet communism. For many critics of the USSR, the Bolshevik project was intrinsically flawed because the institutions it proposed and implemented in the name of emancipation were always likely to result instead in state power serving the interests of a governing elite rather than the broader citizenry. Of course, there are many on the left who reject this analysis. But there are also many on the left – including me – who agree that Soviet-style communism was in practice a novel form of domination and oppression rather than a fundamentally emancipatory project. And this judgement raises the question of how to evaluate leftist transformative proposals, to ensure that would-be emancipatory institutions are likely to genuinely be emancipatory.

In my post on Erik Olin Wright’s ‘Envisioning Real Utopias’, I discussed one leftist response to this problem: Wright’s centring of ‘social power’ (as against state power) as the ‘true north’ that should guide ‘the socialist compass’. I argued, against Wright, that there is in fact no reason to believe that ‘social power’ is intrinsically more emancipatory than ‘state power’ or indeed ‘market power’ – that we need more fine-grained criteria for evaluating political-economic institutional proposals, to assess whether these proposals are likely to move us in a more or less emancipatory dimension.

The insight from Robertson with which I started this post, I believe, offers one such useful criterion (of course at a very high level of abstraction). As Robertson writes, we can distinguish between on the one hand institutions that, for their emancipatory functioning, require members of the institutions to persistently navigate a high tension between their own personal interests and those of the ‘public good’, and, on the other hand, institutions that reduce the tension between self-interest and public duty to a “low and tolerable” level. Institutions of the latter sort are, all else equal, more likely to be sustainable. The task for leftists is to construct institutions that are emancipatory in their outcomes and processes, while also exhibiting this feature.

In the jargon of game theory, this kind of institution design challenge is known as “incentive-compatible institution design”. That is to say: when we are constructing political-economic institutions, we want to construct those institutions in such a way that the incentives of individuals within the institutions are aligned with the tasks we would want those individuals to fulfill. In the maxim of many introductory economics courses: “incentives matter”.

This is a lesson that should be applicable across a broad range of categories of institutions. It should not be restricted to the political projects of the right, or to the critique of the left. And the left, I think, needs to get better at thinking about institutions in these terms. Paying closer attention to public choice theory is perhaps one route via which that could be accomplished.

I’ve talked on this blog before about three different concepts of liberty: negative liberty, in the sense of action unconstrained by others’ coercion; capabilities liberty, in the sense of possessing the material and social resources and capacities required to make use of one’s negative liberty; and positive liberty, in the sense of active participation in self-governance.

When I was taught political philosophy at an undergraduate level, I remember a lot of focus on liberty versus equality, with the idea that there was some trade-off between the two. Obviously one can value equality for itself – but I tend now to think that equality, at least in the sense of material equality, is mostly a derivative political virtue. The main reason we should value material equality, and the kinds of redistributive politics associated with it, is because of those policies’ impact on capabilities and positive liberty. Material redistribution increases capabilities liberty by directly increasing people’s material and social capabilities – destitution is a form of unfreedom, and redistributive policy therefore increases liberty in at least this sense. Moreover, at the other end of the material wealth spectrum, extremely high levels of wealth can be transformed into political power and influence, so reducing wealth inequality also reduces the inequality in forms of political voice and influence associated with wealth – which is in turn likely to increase the positive liberty of the non-wealthy. So: the major virtues of this kind of egalitarian policy can be derived from principles of liberty – and I think this is often a better way to think about the normative or political or ethical warrant for such policies than to simply value equality itself.

Similarly, I remember a lot of attention in my introductory political philosophy classes focusing on principles of political legitimacy, which were more often than not as I recall understood in democratic terms: a governance system only has legitimacy if it enjoys the endorsement of the governed, in some sense. Here, again, the principle of ‘positive liberty’ seems very similar indeed – so it seems like a lot of issues in normative political theory can ‘drop out’ of these basic ideas of liberty.

OK. So – if we are thinking about principles of institution-design in these terms, we are thinking in terms of trade-offs. We need to think of trade-offs between individuals: is it worth reducing my negative liberty to engage in some action, if that action also constrains the negative liberty of others? We also need to think of trade-offs between categories of liberty: is it worth risking a loss of negative liberty to make a gain in capabilities liberty, or vice versa? These two forms of trade-off seem to capture a lot – obviously by no means all, but a lot – of the normative problems we confront when thinking about political and political-economic institution design.

A few thoughts on the project of political-economic institution design.

I guess you can think of a spectrum of ‘large-scale’ political transformations – those that make changes within an existing institutional framework (say, increasing the budget for a specific program, or reducing it for another); and those that transform the institutional framework itself. It’s a spectrum because it’s sort of unclear at what point tweaks within an institutional framework turn into transformations of the relevant institutions – one person’s transformation is another person’s tweak. But still – one of the things that people do, in politics, is propose changes to institutions, large and small. And one of the things political actors do – or try to do – is actually change those institutions.

I guess you can say that a lot of ‘policy’ literature exists on the ‘tweak’ half of the institutional change spectrum (whether tweaks large or small): ‘reformist’ proposals that aspire to modify existing institutions in a way that will better achieve whatever goals. Then there is another tradition – a more ‘revolutionary’ or ‘utopian’ tradition – that aspires to much more dramatic institutional transformation, changing the very category of institutions that structure our political, economic and social worlds.

Both of these approaches have lots of critics, from different bits of the political spectrum. So, for example, there is a prominent critique of ‘planning’, coming primarily from the right, but also from some bits of left, which comes in different shades. One such shade is a cluster of critiques of Soviet-style central planning, which argue that central planning: has a tendency towards authoritarianism; is inefficient; tends to serve the interests of an elite of planners rather than the broader population they purportedly serve; tends to make bad planning decisions due to the myopia associated with elite class fractions; tends to make bad planning decisions due to the intrinsic difficulty or impossibility of any, even an idealised, planner mastering the complexities of a complex society; etc. etc.

This category of critique often involves critique of a specific form of planning – centralised command and control economic planning – and many such critiques only really apply to planning in this sense. However, the broad critique of ‘planning’ can also extend to a critique of much weaker forms of planning than Soviet-style command and control economies. These categories of argument are often levelled against even fairly moderate social-democratic or left-liberal policies, for example. Moreover, various critiques of ‘planning’ can in principle apply to any effort to design political-economic institutions that will better the lives shaped by those institutions. From the perspective of this quite capacious critique of planning, institution-design as such is hubristic in its conviction that the institution designers know enough to design institutions that will improve people’s lives.

Perhaps it helps here to separate out different forms of liberal, conservative, and radical critiques of ‘planning’. One critique, for example – call it the Hayekian critique – emphasises that individuals know better than planners what their own needs and desires are, and that the goal of political-economic institution design should therefore be to facilitate the expression and realisation of those needs and desires, rather than to paternalistically or coercively take such decisions out of individuals’ hands. This argument is often made by advocates of market choice, for example, who argue that the market is an institution well-suited to communicating preferences that would otherwise be unobservable or impossible to adequately respond to, within a more centralised system. From this perspective, the goal of the institution-designer is to establish institutions – such as markets – that facilitate this aggregate social communication and responsiveness to human needs or desires. The planner has a role, but it is a ‘meta’ role, in designing, realising, and safeguarding the institutions that can in turn do the heavy lifting of actual resource allocation, etc.

From a more conservative point of view, this form of institution design itself involves excessive planning. Some conservatives argue that such attempts to design institutional frameworks – however decentralised – are hubristically confident that such institutional planning (including the planning involved in the creation and maintenance of markets) results in institutions superior to those that have either evolved slowly over the centuries and millennia, are the underlying essence or core of an immutable human nature, or have been gifted to humanity by a supernatural order. From these perspectives, our goal should be to interfere as little as we can in ‘natural’ institutions, whether that nature is identified with historical stability, transhistorical essence, or divine order. This tension between different forms of conservative (liberal, traditionalist, religious) orientation to institutions has much to do with the tensions in conservative political coalitions.

At the same time, there are a range of critiques of planning that often come from a more leftist, or radical, ideological tradition. There is a class critique of planners as managerialists. There is a broader anarchist tradition that sees planning in general – even in weak forms – as a recipe for domination. There are traditions that aspire to ‘drop out’ of large-scale political-economic institutions altogether, establishing alternative communities where problems of institution-design must be considered at the local level if at all. And there are ‘voluntarist’ traditions that see the desire for planning as an effort to pre-empt the decisions and insights that will be generated in practice, as a component of political struggle or as wisdom forged in the heat of revolution.

One of the phrases that is sometimes cited by (some of) these more radical traditions comes from Marx’s Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital I. There, responding to critics of the first edition of Capital I, Marx mocks the idea that Capital – an analysis of the dynamics of the capitalist system and of associated ideological perspectives – should also have included a set of blueprints for an alternative future society:

the Paris Revue Positiviste reproaches me in that, on the one hand, I treat economics metaphysically, and on the other hand — imagine! — confine myself to the mere critical analysis of actual facts, instead of writing recipes (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future.

Marx’s narrow point here is that expecting Capital to provide a blueprint of a future society is to mistake the purpose of the book – but this phrase is often also used (whether in line with Marx’s broader views or not) to express a critique of the idea of preparing ‘recipes’ for the creation of future societies at all.

How seriously should we take such critiques of the project of institution-design – critiques that reproach not a specific institution, but the goal of designing institutions at all? My view is: not seriously enough to actually abandon the project of institution design, but seriously enough to offer a serious set of responses.

Here again I think it’s worth distinguishing different elements of the critique of institution design. The narrow Hayekian critique of planning is, as I said above, not really a critique of institution-design as such, but rather of a particular category of institution: the centrally planned command and control economy. This critique is worth taking very seriously indeed, in my view. The radical or communist left had much of the world’s population across much of the twentieth century as its experimental site, and the project failed, very badly. Of course, this assessment of the 20th century communist project is itself contentious – but it’s my assessment. I think the 21st century left has a responsibility to demonstrate that it has learned the lessons of the 20th century left’s failures and crimes, and has incorporated those lessons into an alternative or at least heavily revised radical project that can be trusted, with good reason, not to make the same mistakes again.

There is also a broader critique of ‘utopian’ leftism, which argues that any effort to radically remake the world is doomed to failure, whether because human nature is intractably flawed, or because unintended consequences inevitably follow from large-scale schemes to change the world. Again, I think these critiques are worth taking seriously. If we want to persuade people that the world can be remade in dramatic ways – and if we then want to actually achieve that remaking of the world – I think we have a responsibility to demonstrate that we’ve thought through the ways in which such transformative projects are likely to fail. Projects that are grounded, for example, in the idea that transformations in society will also transform human interpersonal relations in such a way that kindness and solidarity will prevail where previously all was strife, need to reckon with the charnel house of history, and that fact that utopian project after utopian project has run into the ground of human propensities to cruelty, pettiness, self-interest, etc. etc. Similarly, projects that have grand transformative goals with vague, handwavy mechanisms for achieving those goals can perfectly reasonably be approached with some scepticism, in my view. Plenty of ambitious plans for a better world turn to ashes or worse when confronted with the practical problems of putting ideals into practice. But this is an argument for institution-design, rather than against it. One of the ways we can try to evaluate the credibility of a political project is by evaluating the institutions that are proposed to achieve its goals. Just as ‘reformist’ policy wonks aim to assess the likely impact of tax measures or changes to the healthcare system, using the tools of political-economic and policy analysis, so more radical thinkers should make similar cases to similar ends, in my view.

What about some of the other radical arguments against institution-design – the arguments that to prepare “recipes for the cook-shops of the future” is to betray the radical nature of the radical project – that radical political outcomes should be chosen by the people, and informed by the revolutionary struggle, rather than devised in advance by sub-academic leftist intellectuals?

Here again I think we should take seriously – but not too seriously – this critique of institution design. It is certainly true that history is contingent, the future unpredictable, and that any effort to remake the world that dogmatically adheres to a single solution is likely to be undone by that solution’s poor fit for the exigencies of the historical moment in which it is attempted. Political actors must be responsive to circumstance, and this in itself rules out the rigidity associated with any ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to institution design. Similarly, we should be appropriately modest about the knowledge and wisdom we possess, relative to the knowledge and wisdom possessed by the actors who will ultimately be responsible for attempting to realise our political goals. Political struggle gives insight and experience that may well call forth better judgements than those we can form now. Relatedly, our preferences may change – we should not assume that we know what future political actors will value, even if we are those future political actors, and we should therefore consider the possibility that institutions designed to realise our preferences, will confound the preferences of those who have to inhabit them. All this is worth bearing in mind – and it all gives some weight to the idea that institutions are better forged ‘in practice’ than derived from pre-planned ‘designs’.

And yet these insights can only take us so far, in my view. In particular, these insights point, I think, not to the rejection of the project of institution design, but rather to a degree of humility in its pursuit. We should be aware that one size does not fit all. We should be aware that the political actors responsible for attempting to realise our dreams may know more, and better, than we do. But we should also bear in mind that one of the ways in which those political actors may be better equipped than we are, is that they have the benefit of our ideas, including our institution-design proposals.

In this respect, I think the “recipes for the cook-shops of the future” metaphor works well. Those in the future cook-shops may choose to follow any given recipe or not – but they will be better equipped if they have a broad set of debates and proposals ready to hand. One of the tasks of radicals is to work through political ideas in debate and analysis now, such that those debates and their conclusions are available as a resource for others. This understanding of the project of institution design does not grant excessive wisdom or power to the institution designer – but it also means that political actors are not stranded without intellectual resources at the moment when fateful decisions must be made. Keynes’s famous remark – that

Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

– applies not just to heads of state but also to revolutionaries (and reformists). Better that the intellectual resources on which political actors draw are the result of careful thought and pluralist debate now, than are derived from “voices in the air” distilled from who knows what unacknowledged sources. People making decisions about the shape of our political-economic world are typically doing so under conditions of enormous stress – bad decisions are likely, and everything we can do to make those decisions better – and better informed – is desirable.

There is of course a huge amount more to be said about the project of institution design – what it should consist in; how it should be pursued – but the goal of this post is not to get into those debates, but rather to respond to some common objections to the project as a whole. Enough for now.

Notes on free speech

November 1, 2018

The debate on free speech at the moment seems pretty unproductive, with industrial quantities of right wing outrage directed at phenomena as varied as blasphemy laws, student no platforming of campus speakers, social media terms of use, identity politics, political correctness, internet trolls and abuse, left wing editorial decisions, and people being rude about things they dislike on twitter, all criticised under the banner of ‘defence of free speech’.  The left tends, in general, to be unimpressed with this ‘defence of free speech’ discourse, in part because of the understandable suspicion that it is a discursive tool that will in practice be used to promote right wing political opinion and the speech of the privileged, while attacking left wing political opinion and the speech of the more marginalised.  Nevertheless, I’m increasingly strongly of the opinion that left reluctance to defend free speech in general is an error both of principle and of tactics: in my view a credible case can be made that the left generally benefits from broad free speech protections; that even if it didn’t such protections would be good in themselves; and moreover that it’s just a bad tactical idea to allow the right to own this issue.

I don’t really feel competent to wade into the trenches on these debates – but as is my habit, I do at least want to have a go at producing a preliminary and under-informed typology, plus some general remarks.  So, here are some broad categories of constraints on free speech, with some unorganised remarks attached.

  • Legal restrictions on speech. These come in a lot of forms: restrictions of political speech; on incitement to violence; on threats; on hate speech; on offensive speech; on blasphemy; on libel; and others.  I think almost everyone agrees that it’s appropriate for various forms of incitement to violence to be illegal; there’s a fairly widespread view that libel is a legitimate legal category, even if there are a lot of disagreements about how broad libel laws should be; but there’s a lot of disagreement about what other forms of speech should be legally restricted.  I don’t feel I have any very nailed down opinions here – but I do think that the left is being altogether too sanguine about state powers to restrict speech.  In general the left is rightly suspicious of police powers, and doesn’t take very seriously reassurances that those powers will be used wisely and well.  I don’t really understand why this scepticism is not more broadly applied when it comes to the policing of speech.
  • Platform restrictions on speech.  Sometimes you’ll see people argue that the only real issue with respect to free speech constraints is legal constraints (see this well known XKCD comic strip, for example), but I don’t think this is right.  If major platforms refuse to host specific forms of speech, then this is a meaningful and substantial constraint on people’s ability to engage in that category of speech.  Here, again, I think the left is being altogether too sanguine about the idea that vast private corporations should exercise much greater censorship over the forms of speech that they host.  Why should we trust Facebook, or Twitter, or WordPress, or whatever company, to decide which categories of speech it is acceptable to publish?  It’s not at all clear to me that we should.
  • Employer sanctioning of speech.  One of the various ways in which the exercise of free speech has real world consequences is people getting fired for speech.  Sometimes this is appropriate – if a person is employed as a prominent public representative of a company, say, it may be one of the conditions of employment that they comport themselves in a certain way in the public sphere.  Similarly, in their internal interactions within the company they may be held by their employer to certain standards of professionalism; etc.  Nevertheless, in general I think it’s an important workplace right that employers are not entitled to fire employees on the basis of not liking what employees do in their lives outside their professional role, and there should be significant workplace protections on what employers are entitled to ask employees to do, or not do, within their role as well.  Again, I think the left is often being too sanguine about defending workplace rights in this area – and in general I think a significant portion of the ‘free speech’ debate could usefully be reconceptualised as a workplace rights debate.  (This applies to many of the debates over ‘academic freedom’, for example, a category which sometimes seems to imply that academics are uniquely entitled not to be fired for expressing political opinions in the public sphere, which doesn’t seem like an idea the left should be supporting.)
  • Editorial decisions.  A surprising amount of the free speech debate orbits around editorial decisions by publications.  It seems like a safe principle that editors do not have an obligation to publish any given content on free speech grounds – an editorial line is an editorial line, and publications have the right to adopt whatever editorial line they want (again with constraints around incitement to violence, etc.)  Nevertheless, there is a point here, in the sense that publications are a platform, and if certain categories of speech systematically cannot find a platform that has implications for the shape of our public sphere.  This issue may not always be best discussed under the heading of ‘free speech’, but it is an important issue that merits serious discussion.
  • Social sanctioning of speech.  Finally, quite a bit of the debate around free speech revolves around the issue of informal social sanctions.  It’s common to see the argument that if people in the public sphere express strong disapproval of an opinion, publication, or individual this may lead to a ‘chilling effect’ on speech.  This argument is often greatly overstated – expressing strong disapproval of opinions and individuals is, typically, part of the free speech defenders of free speech should aim to defend, rather than a threat to it.  Nevertheless, there is again a point here: informal social sanctioning does sanction – that’s why we do it.  The more intense and widespread the sanctions, the more they disincentivise the speech they aim to sanction.  So social sanctions do have an impact on the shape of our public sphere, and it’s not silly to want to debate or assess that impact.

Ok – those are some categories of constraint on speech, and some thoughts connected to them.  Now for a few more general remarks.

First up, I think it’s worth seeing constraints on freedom as a spectrum, where the sanction for an action varies in degree.  If you’re going to be arrested and imprisoned for something, that is a very substantial constraint or disincentive, and it seems clearly and entirely legitimate to call that a constraint on freedom.  If you’re going to be politely criticised for something, that is a social sanction and therefore a disincentive, but it doesn’t seem a disincentive substantial enough to call a meaningful constraint on freedom.  But there is a spectrum here, and the point at which responses to speech shift from “disincentives within a space of freedom” to “actual constraints on freedom” is muddy.  (This point obviously applies to all kinds of actions, not just to speech.)

Second, free speech is a formal value, but like all formal values the interpretation of its content necessarily and constantly draws on non-formal but rather substantive judgement.  This is one of the reasons the debate over free speech (and formal liberal values in general) is so controversial – different people impute very different substantive content to the same formal principles.  It seems like a general issue of liberalism that formal liberal values can be ‘filled in’ in a huge number of different ways by different people – and that those substantive commitments fall along lines of ideology and interest.  This is one of the reasons I’m so keen on Charles Mills’ analysis of different kinds of liberalism – the idea that liberalism ‘as such’ is not the problem, but rather liberalism the substantive categories of which are in large part determined by racism, sexism, class domination, etc., allows us to more easily see how liberal principles are compatible with radical politics (as I believe they are).

So I think we need a double commitment in these debates over liberal principles like free speech: on the one hand, we need to understand that formal principles aren’t `innocent’, but are to a very substantial extent determined in their application by the substantive commitments of those doing the implementing.  On the other hand, we need to also understand that this fact does not evacuate formal principles of their value or meaning as formal principles.  It’s not the case (contra some on the left) that liberal principles are nothing more than a mask for the substantive commitments – of ideology or interest – that shape them.

My worry with the free speech debate, then, is that it’s one of a range of areas in which the left is overweighting the ‘substantive’ dimension of the debate, and underweighting the ‘formal’ one.  Yes, many of the most prominent current arguments in defence of free speech are transparently bad faith efforts to push a particular political line or defend a specific set of interests, and shouldn’t be taken seriously – but we also shouldn’t generalise from that to the idea that ‘free speech’ in general is nothing more than an ideological mask for political interests.  The left gains from broad commitments to free speech too.  I think we’re in danger of the left endorsing – or indeed pushing for – the broad legitimation of substantial free speech constraints, in part as a response to bad faith right wing ‘weaponisation’ of free speech discourse, in a way that will near-inevitably rebound on the left itself, as left wing speech – and the speech of the marginalised – bears the brunt of new, more substantial censorship regimes.

The debate over antisemitism within Labour and the broader UK left has often been pretty unedifying, but I thought this twitter thread by Edmund Griffiths was valuable. I’ll quote it in full, then make some remarks of my own:

One point I don’t think gets made often enough in the antisemitism conversation is that the things antisemites say aren’t true. The Rothschilds don’t run the central banks; British & US foreign policy isn’t made by a Jewish lobby; Jews don’t control the media; the Holocaust did happen. Maybe it seems too self-evident to bother saying. But if you’re newly politicized, & you’re angry with the way things are, & you’re looking—especially online—for answers, then it’s pretty easy to come across those untrue claims & perhaps it is not going to be self-evident to you that they’re wrong. You’ll see antisemitic arguments made on explicitly far-right sites, but you may well see them being put forward in left spaces too; & you won’t always see them being robustly countered by the left. And, on top of that, leftists sometimes choose to express themselves in ambiguous language (“global elites”) that can be understood in antisemitic terms even if that isn’t the intention. And, to the extent that antisemitic propaganda gains any traction, it does great harm: it encourages people to direct their anger against a minority who are not really to blame, and it lets the capitalist class & its institutions off the hook. As a movement, we need to do much much better at producing propaganda & educational materials—especially online—to expose antisemitic scapegoating as lies & misdirection. We need to ensure that anybody who is looking for political answers encounters clear, convincing rebuttals of antisemitic ideas. Obviously convinced antisemites are unlikely to be persuaded, & need to be fought; but the people who are exposed to their propaganda do need to be persuaded. And I think the form of our rebuttals should be less “You mustn’t say that because it’s antisemitic” than “That is untrue, & it scapegoats a minority, & it shields the actual ruling class from criticism, & therefore it is profoundly anti-socialist”. The Labour Party & Momentum both have the resources to do this on a large scale, & I hope they will; but there’s nothing stopping other organizations & even individuals doing it to, & I mean to do it more energetically myself. The main objective isn’t to prevent antisemitism generating bad headlines for the Labour Party—it’s to reduce the actual prevalence of antisemitic ideas, in society as a whole but particularly in spaces where the left can get a hearing.

I think this is right, and although I don’t myself feel very comfortable producing propaganda and educational materials (in general, who am I to propagandise and educate?) I do feel comfortable writing about ideas.

Left, political antisemitism functions not just as a prejudice but also as an explanatory system.  Stigmatising antisemitism as prejudice is unlikely to be persuasively effective if its explanatory components still seem compelling – and so the rebuttal of left antisemitism requires not just the exclusion of antisemites from the left (if that’s even possible), or the emphasis on the political undesirability of prejudice (of course prejudice is bad, but people who hold prejudiced attitudes often don’t regard them as prejudiced – they regard them as true), but also the explanation of why antisemitism is (as Griffiths says) wrong – and not just factually wrong, but also explanatorily wrong: wrong as a way to understand the world.

One of the obstacles to doing this, I think, is an inadequate ‘map’ of left antisemitism as a system of ideas.  In particular, a lot of the analysis I’ve read of left antisemitism writes as if it is a single thing, rather than a set of quite distinct commitments which can be bundled in all kinds of different ways.  Moreover it is common, I think, to write as if antisemitism is intrinsically associated with political commitments with which it is in fact only contingently – and yet non-accidentally – associated.

Thus for example two recent pieces in the New Statesman suggest that left antisemitism is in some sense an intrinsic feature of Corbynism’s current political project.  Writing in March, Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts argued that:

the anti-semitic tropes which pervade the Corbyn-supporting “alt-media” and activist base, as well as Corbyn’s own dubious brand of “anti-Zionism” and “anti-imperialism”, are not mere contingencies, but the logical outcome of the movement’s morally-charged, personalised critique of capitalism as conspiracy.

More recently, in July, David Bennum argued that, for the anti-imperalist left:

the West is always bad, no matter what its civic virtues; anybody opposed to it, no matter how awful, is better, or certainly no worse. Capitalism becomes part of a grand, overarching, unified conspiracy, to which Jews invariably prove to be integral. Anti-Semitism is thus not some random blight that affects all sectors of society and opinion roughly evenly. It is utterly enmeshed in far-left thought, just as it is in that of the equally conspiratorially-minded far-right.

In my own opinion both of these pieces significantly overstate the extent to which antisemitism is a core or necessary feature of the kind of political project pursued by Corbyn and ‘Corbynism’.  At the same time, though, these pieces are correct that left antisemitism can’t or shouldn’t be understood simply in terms of prejudice, but also as part of a broader ideological perspective or political explanatory system.

Carefully differentiating the non-antisemitic dimensions of radical left political positions and projects from their antisemitic variants is therefore I think important for two reasons.  First, it makes it harder for (for example) anti-imperialist politics in general to be written off as antisemitic – which is important if you (like me) regard anti-imperialist politics as valuable.  Second, and probably more importantly, it means that people who are interested in (say) anti-imperialist politics are less likely to be persuaded by antisemitic variants of these political positions.

One of the things I’d like to do, then, over the coming… however long, is write a bit about the common left explanatory frameworks associated with left antisemitism, and why they’re not good as explanatory frameworks. For reasons articulated by Griffiths’ twitter thread, the primary argument here is not that they’re not good because they’re antisemitic, but rather that they’re not good because they fail as explanatory frameworks.  This failure of the explanatory framework then carries through to the inadequacy of any political antisemitism grounded in it, in addition to the fact that such perspectives are also bigoted.

I think there’s a pretty high chance that this will be one of my many projects that never goes beyond its preliminary remarks, but in the spirit of hope I’ll make a few comments here and sketch what I might want to write about next.

First – obviously in this approach I won’t be dealing with left antisemitism as a whole, but rather with its explanatory dimensions. There are some thorny metatheoretical issues that I don’t want to get into in this preliminary post, and which render the remarks in this post a little over-simplistic – but I intend to largely ignore the issue of whether any given explanation is itself antisemitic, and just focus on the issue of whether it’s any good as explanation. This usefully lets me sidestep issues of intention and affect, which are always a nightmare regardless.

Second – I’ll attempt here a preliminary broad schematisation of left antisemitisms. I think you can broadly speaking see antisemitic variants of the following positions, on the left:

– Conspiracism (that is, conspiratorial explanations for political-economic events);
– Anti-imperialism;
– Anti-capitalism;
– Critiques of Israel.

None of these categories of political stance are intrinsically antisemitic, I would argue, but all of them have antisemitic variants that are sufficiently common that some care needs to be taken when discussing these issues.

I myself don’t feel qualified to discuss the politics of Israel and Palestine, so I expect to mostly leave that aside altogether in this (possible) series of posts (which is unfortunate, because this is the most central issue in current debates within and about the UK left – but I see no point in moving far outside my areas of competence.) Still, I think I have something to say on poor explanatory approaches to anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and the discussion of conspiracies, and it’s these that I’ll focus on.

My plan, for what it’s worth, is to start with anti-imperialism – and specifically to start with two texts that express rather different explanatory frameworks that give disproportionate explanatory weight to Jewish actions: Mearsheimer and Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, and Hobson’s Imperialism. Then (if I ever get that done) maybe I’ll move on to anti-capitalism and conspiracism. My ultimate goal is to assemble a collection of quite short posts that together form a potentially useful ‘ideological map’ of the different explanatory frameworks often associated with contemporary left antisemitism.

As I say, I don’t rate particularly highly my chances of getting far with this project – but one can’t get anywhere at all if one doesn’t make a start, so, here’s a start.

There’s been a lot of debate recently about what Labour’s Brexit policy actually is – that is to say, what are the generative principles underlying the Labour leadership’s Brexit policy announcements and parliamentary tactics. One popular narrative is that Labour’s Brexit policy amounts to de facto support of ‘hard Brexit’, and that the Labour leadership’s strategy is to pursue a ‘hard Brexit’ while pulling the wool over the eyes of its core Remain support. Another narrative is that Labour’s strategy is to gradually shift its position towards a strongly pro-EU stance, while trying to minimise the electoral support it loses among Leave voters in doing so. A third narrative is that Labour doesn’t really have a Brexit position at all – that it is simply trying to hold its electoral coalition together by any means necessary. And there are of course a large number of more complicated and nuanced alternative narratives out there too.

In this post I’ll aim to lay out my own interpretation of the ‘generative principles’ underlying Labour’s Brexit policy. Obviously my goal here is explanatory, rather than normative. My own preferences (“open borders Bennism”) are briefly outlined towards the end of the post, fwiw – but the main goal here is just to sketch the political terrain.

Ok then. To understand Labour’s Brexit policy, one needs in my opinion to understand that the Parliamentary Labour Party has four major interests or constituencies in relation to Brexit.

  • Don’t blow up the economy. This position enjoys more or less complete consensus in the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Moreover, there is considerable consensus as to what this means in practice: don’t damage UK-EU trade too much. Unlike the Tory party, which has a significant number of MPs who believe that reduced trade with the EU can be more than compensated for with a bonfire of regulations and a series of alternative international trade deals, Labour MPs are in general of the opinion that the final Brexit deal should disrupt UK-EU trade as little as possible. This position is captured by the 2017 manifesto commitment to “prioritise jobs and living standards”.

In addition to this broad consensus position there are then three distinct factions:

  • ‘Continuity Remain’ – this position advocates for as close ongoing participation in EU institutions as possible. Ideally this would take the form of a second referendum that would enable parliament to reverse Brexit, but in terms of Brexit negotiations it means ongoing full participation in the single market. This wing of the party is most vocally represented by liberal or Blairite MPs like Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie.
  • Bennites. This is the old socialist Euroscepticism, which sees the EU as a capitalist club enforcing constraints on economic policymaking at the national level, to the benefit of capital. There are three major areas of contemporary Bennite objection to EU rules: constraints on state aid policy, public procurement policy, and nationalisation – Bennites want to break European Court of Justice jurisdiction over these areas of economic policymaking. There aren’t all that many Bennites in the party, but the position occupies the leader’s office (Corbyn) and shadow Treasury (McDonnell), and is therefore very influential.
  • ‘Very Real Concerns’ border control advocates. These MPs see the Brexit vote as driven in significant part by ‘concerns about immigration’, and believe those concerns need to be addressed in the Brexit negotiations – or be seen as being addressed – by a Brexit outcome that reduces – or is seen as reducing – immigration. Yvette Cooper and John Mann are (quite different) representative figures for this tendency within the PLP.

Clearly these categories are not as sharply drawn in real life as this schematisation suggests. There are different strengths of feeling and variant positions within each group; moreover there is considerable overlap between some of the positions. There are plenty of liberal pro-EU advocates who nevertheless believe that greater border controls can and should be a feature of the final Brexit outcome – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are both representatives of this opinion, as is Stephen Kinnock. At the same time, there are liberals who advocate a ‘full liberalism’ ideological package which sees freedom of movement as one of the major benefits of the EU. There is also plenty of overlap between Bennite and ‘border controls’ Euroscepticism, grounded both in an economic argument that free movement of labour undercuts the rights of domestic labour, and in a ‘Blue Corbynism’ effort to tie Bennite economic policymaking to a nationalist or communitarian ideological package. At the same time, there are socialists for whom open borders (for some value of ‘open borders’) is a core component of their socialism (Diane Abbott is the most influential advocate of this position within Labour). In addition to these ideological overlaps, there are also factional alliances of convenience, on which more in a moment.

In parliamentary tactical terms, the Labour leadership has two goals: to inflict damage on the government, and to maintain a Brexit line that will be satisfactory enough to enough of the parliamentary party to minimise major rebellions. In electoral terms, the leadership has a single goal: to adopt a Brexit policy that can sustain its electoral coalition, which is majority Remain but includes a large minority of Leave voters, including in a large number of electorally fragile current Labour seats. Finally, in substantive terms, the goals of the leadership are to balance “don’t blow up the economy” with Bennite Euroscepticism, with different bits of the party obviously contributing additional, different substantive goals, as enumerated above.

How do these different goals play out in practice in the determination of Labour’s Brexit policy? The overriding goal of the leadership has been to sustain its parliamentary and electoral coalitions. That has meant, in the first instance, a policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’, which has been able to sustain the possibility of an outcome compatible with as many different Brexit goals as feasible. Under pressure of a series of parliamentary votes, however, this strategic ambiguity has slowly been clarified – and the nature of this clarification is informed by the substantive balance of forces within the party.

As I wrote above, the leadership’s major substantive goal is in my view to balance “don’t blow up the economy” with Bennite Euroscepticism. Bennite Euroscepticism does not enjoy much support within the parliamentary party – if this were the only form of Euroscepticism in the party, the leadership would be in a very weak position indeed. Fortunately for the leadership (and, one could argue, unfortunately for the broader public discourse), there is a much larger block within the PLP of ‘Very Real Concerners’. The Bennite leadership has therefore made an alliance of convenience with the ‘Very Real Concern’ border controllers, to form a (moderately) Eurosceptic block within the parliamentary party. (Moderate because both factions still believe in the underlying “don’t blow up the economy” position, and take this to require keeping disruption to UK-EU trade as low as is feasible given their other policy goals).

This moderately Eurosceptic block is then opposed by the liberal/Blairite wing of the party, who want a stronger commitment to ongoing participation in EU institutions. This conflict (between the Bennite and Real Concerner alliance on the one hand, and liberals on the other) can plausibly be presented by the liberal wing as a disagreement about ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ politics (free movement of goods and people on the one hand; closed borders, nationalism and a tendency towards autarky on the other). It can equally plausibly be presented by the Bennite wing as a disagreement about socialist versus neoliberal approaches to economic governance (state intervention in the economy on the one hand versus neoliberal regulatory constraints on state action, on the other). One of the complexities of the ideological terrain around left and liberal Brexit debate is that, because of the way the various factions and institutions align, both of these ‘framings’ are true.

To make this factional conflict still more weighted, it has also become a major site of the proxy war within Labour between Corbynite and Corbynsceptic members and MPs. After the 2017 general election result made Corbyn (temporarily) unchallengeable within the party, many Corbynsceptics shifted their activities from overt criticism of Corbyn’s leadership, to specific policy and ideological battles. These proxy battles typically serve, from many Corbynsceptics’ perspective, a double function – aiming both to advance policies that Corbynsceptics support, and to weaken Corbyn within the party. Corbynsceptic pro-Europeans thus aim both to shift Labour’s Brexit policy in a more pro-EU direction and to expose Corbyn’s Euroscepticism, thereby reducing Corbyn’s popularity with the majority-Remain Labour membership. These goals stand in some tension – pro-European liberals within Labour have made a series of pro-EU parliamentary amendments to Brexit bills that have been extremely ineffective in gathering parliamentary support, in part because one of their tacit goals (I would argue) has specifically been to expose the party leadership’s unwillingness to endorse these stances.

Nevertheless, these parliamentary tactics – alongside the more central need for Labour to challenge the government in parliament – have slowly required the Labour leadership to reduce the ambiguity of its ‘strategic ambiguity’ approach. The position that Labour has shifted towards is, as I say, determined by the balance of parliamentary and electoral forces. On the one hand, the leadership wants to retain as strong EU ties are as feasible given its other policy commitments. On the other hand, it has two sets of exemptions from EU governance rules that it wants, in principle, to achieve. First: the Bennite leadership wants an institutional arrangement that enables exemptions from state aid, public procurement and nationalisation policies. Second: the Very Real Concerners on whom the Bennite leadership is reliant want exemptions from single market free movement rules.

The current Labour Brexit preferred initial negotiating position has therefore resolved to something like this: a customs union with the EU, and significant participation in the single market, via the establishment of an alternative EFTA-style institutional framework which gives the UK the ability to negotiate exemptions from some elements of single market rules, while still being bound by the great majority of those rules, in a manner that maximises single market participation.

This is a moderate Eurosceptic position (and as it happens corresponds to the most popular outcome in the electorate as a whole, per recent Opinium polling). However, it remains ‘strategically ambiguous’ in two key respects.

On the one hand, Labour’s position is deliberately ambiguous as to which single market rules the UK intends to prioritise gaining exemptions from, in a hypothetical situation in which Labour is negotiating with the EU. This strategic ambiguity is necessary in order to maintain the opportunistic big tent alliance between Bennites and Very Real Concerners within the PLP. In a situation in which Labour is actually negotiating Brexit, this ambiguity will have to be clarified, and considerable tensions within the PLP will come to the fore.

At the same time, Labour’s current position remains compatible with much fuller participation in EU institutions than either of the two Eurosceptic positions would wish. This is one of the key reasons why Labour’s ‘clarifications’ of its Brexit position can be interpreted as motivated by either ‘pro-Leave’ or ‘pro-Remain’ impulses. What is this latter ‘strategic ambiguity’ about?

In my view, this second category of ongoing strategic ambiguity serves three distinct functions.

First, lack of clarity about how much overlap with existing EU institutions Labour aspires to achieve serves the traditional goal of strategic ambiguity: keeping both Leavers and Remainers within the electoral and parliamentary big tent.

Second, lack of clarity about the exact institutional outcomes Labour aspires to achieve enables Labour the freedom to oppose Tory negotiating tactics on the basis of Starmer’s six tests, on the premise that Labour’s approach would achieve better outcomes than the Tories’, more or less irrespective of what the Tories actually do.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Labour’s Brexit policy is, if Labour were to find itself in government, the first volley in a negotiation with the EU. It is unclear what outcome Labour would actually be able to achieve in that negotiation. It seems extremely likely, however, that the EU27 would be unwilling to grant many of the exemptions from EU governance principles that Labour aspires to negotiate. It is therefore extremely prudent for Labour to give itself the ability to back down from its best-case Brexit outcome, to a series of second-, third-, fourth- etc. best case outcomes. The ambiguity over the extent to which the Labour negotiating position overlaps with the liberal ‘full EU alignment’ position strongly suggests to me that Labour intends this liberal / Blairite position to be its negotiating fallback, if the leadership’s preferred outcomes cannot be achieved.  More strongly, here is some reason to speculate that something in the space of this liberal fallback position is the preferred outcome of Keir Starmer, the Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, whose six tests, vague as they are, certainly seem to imply a very ‘soft’ Brexit.  One does not need to attribute any specific individual strategy to Starmer, however, to conclude that Labour is preparing the ground for something like this EU-aligned outcome, should it find itself leading negotiations in office.

This preparation for a liberal ‘fallback’ Brexit is in my view the most important way in which Labour’s negotiating position differs from the Conservatives’. The Conservative position on Brexit began with a series of red lines (on ECJ jurisdiction, the customs union, etc.). Labour’s negotiating position began from Starmer’s six tests, which articulate the benchmark of “the exact same benefits” as current EU membership. It is therefore extremely easy for Labour to fall back, in negotiations, on a high degree of alignment with EU institutions, whereas it is very difficult for the Conservatives to do so (though of course they may well end up doing so in practice). It is this latter point that seems to me to give rational warrant to Remainers’ confidence that Labour’s negotiating position is on a Remainward trajectory.

To sum up – I started with three simple rival ‘narratives’ of Labour’s underlying position on Brexit. I’ve articulated my own interpretation of Labour’s position, which implies that all of these narratives have something to them. In my view, Labour’s preferred Brexit outcome involves significant breaks with existing EU governance rules. The leadership wants those breaks to be in the area of neoliberal constraints on socialist policy-making; much of the PLP wants those breaks to be in the area of freedom of movement. In a scenario where Labour is in government without the Brexit deal having been concluded, those two categories of negotiating priority will be in tension. Nevertheless, the tension between those two categories of negotiating priority is (I would argue) not as fundamental as the tension between some of the Conservatives’ commitments. Moreover, unlike the Conservatives, Labour have been quite careful not to articulate any commitments that cannot be backed down from towards greater compatibility with existing EU rules. Thus in a scenario in which Labour were negotiating with the EU, I would expect Labour to make an effort to achieve a set of concessions around EU rules, and if those concessions could not be achieved, to capitulate in the direction of a more liberal existing-EU-institutions-aligned position.

In other words, Labour’s Brexit policy is – contra many pundits – coherent and in my view quite strategically sound.

Is it a good policy? That obviously depends on your own political preferences. My own political preference, as I outlined in this earlier post, is a position that I would characterise as something close to “open borders socialism”. I think the Bennites are right that EU rules are egregiously constraining on democratic socialist policymaking, and I think an optimal Brexit outcome would break with these dimensions of the EU as an institution, while also maintaining sufficiently close regulatory alignment with the EU to reduce the negative political-economic impacts of Brexit on the UK economy. (This post follows the traditional mainstream UK pundit approach of just ignoring Northern Ireland, but obviously a high degree of ongoing UK-EU integration is desirable w/r/t the border.) At the same time, increasing free movement of people is a political good, and the ‘Very Real Concerners’ desire to reduce free movement – as well as the Labour leadership’s opportunistic alliance with this position – should in my view be opposed from the left. If this post is right about the logic of the party’s Brexit position, in a scenario in which Labour actually gets a go at negotiating Brexit, the balance of negotiating priorities between Bennites and Real Concerners will be a crucial factional and ideological conflict within the party. As I see it, this element of Labour’s negotiating strategy remains somewhat open (though it also seems to be that the groundwork has been laid for the rebranding of existing freedom of movement rules as a departure from the status quo).

If one were negotiating Brexit ‘from the left’, then, clearly one ideally wouldn’t start from here. Still, there’s room for left pressure to have impact even within the existing parameters of Labour Party politics, I think.  Not, of course, that we need to operate within that framework of Labour Party factional politics in our political advocacy.  Nevertheless, it helps to understand what’s going on with Labour’s Brexit policy in order to understand what’s going on with Brexit in general. There’s a lot more than can be said than I have here, and I’m sure there’s stuff I’ve got wrong, but this post is more or less my current take, fwiw.

Ok, this is a very brief, schematic post, based as so often on far too little reading. Still, for what it’s worth, recent debates on the UK left (broadly understood) about Syria have made me think about old and ongoing fights about anti-imperialism. “Anti-imperialism” here, throughout, to be clear, denotes a politics adopted by leftists in the UK and other core states, rather than the politics of those in the actual periphery or semi-periphery of the world system.

So – Stephen Bush, the best political journalist on the Blairite wing of the UK Labour party, in my view, suggested somewhere (perhaps the New Statesman podcast) that there are three tests to be met for ‘humanitarian intervention’: 1) is something awful happening? 2) can intervention stop it from happening? and 3) can this be achieved with sufficiently low domestic cost as to be politically feasible?

This doesn’t strike me as the worst way in to the problem of ‘humanitarian intervention’. As you’d expect from a Blairite, it is a framework that will often favour intervention – it clearly assumes that humanitarian crises can warrant use of military force, it clearly doesn’t regard states as intrinsically bound by international institutions, and it is concerned simply with delimiting the situations in which the use of (potentially unilateral) force is wise. It’s a controversial position, but it obviously isn’t an incoherent one.

Off the top of my head, I can think of four broad alternative frameworks that would push back against this approach. First, straight-up isolationism – the idea that the political and ethical concerns of the state do not extend outside the boundaries of the state at all. Second, old school ‘realpolitik’ realism – the idea that states’ foreign policies should purely and coldly serve the national interest, and should not attend to humanitarian matters. Third, rule-bound liberal internationalism – the idea that military force should only be used in accordance with the processes of the relevant international institutions, which here means the UN. Fourth, anti-imperialism. It’s this last that I’m interested in, in this post.

In the recent debates over Syria, Jeremy Corbyn – the Labour party leader – has been widely criticised for his opposition to the UK’s participation in the latest round of US bombing. Corbyn’s opposition is articulated in liberal international proceduralist terms – he argues that military intervention is only warranted when it complies with the principles laid out in the UN Charter. This position has been criticised both on its own terms (because the UN, it is argued, is an institution incapable of fulfilling its necessary role in cases like these, where a permanent member of the Security Council is willing to exercise its veto power), and because many critics see Corbyn’s liberal position as in large part a ‘respectable’ way to reach a conclusion that Corbyn himself has reached on other grounds.

For myself, I think that Corbyn is probably more of a liberal internationalist than he’s often taken to be – but the pundits are also in my view right that this liberal position is at the very least strongly informed by an additional set of anti-imperialist ideological commitments. What are those commitments?

There’s a lot of variety, and a lot of debate, within the anti-imperialist tradition (as of course there is in the other traditions mentioned here). Still, as a first pass let me sketch three categories of commitment that pick out a foreign policy position as anti-imperialist in the relevant sense (recognising that there’s a great deal omitted here).

First, the idea that the international system is structured by core/periphery relations that are both economic and military, with the US by far the most powerful actor in the world system, and with other imperial core states largely aligned with and benefiting from US imperial power.

Second, the idea that ‘Western’ foreign policy – that is, the foreign policy of the states that comprise the imperial core of the global geopolitical system – serves the interests of this imperial core in exploiting the other members of the international system, as well as being informed by imperialist and/or capitalist ideology. That is, that the US and other imperial powers are basically malign actors on the world stage.

Therefore, Third, the idea that opposition to the malign international actions of the imperial core states is a crucial (probably the most important) geopolitical or foreign policy task, a prerequisite for any politics that is emancipatory at a global level.

This bundle of commitments is what critics of anti-imperialism characterise as knee-jerk anti-americanism, or hostility to ‘the West’. How do these commitments stack up, relative to their rivals in international politics? (Obviously I mean – how do they stack up in my own opinion). I will very quickly give my take on these commitments (not in order).

W/r/t the second of these commitments, then – for me, the idea that the US and other core imperial states are mostly malign actors in their military actions is clearly true. Obviously this is a controversial normative judgement and there can be no proof in matters of norms. Similarly, there is no claim about social reality – particularly not one as bald and generalising as this – where it is wrong to say that “things are more complicated than that”. But still, if you have to pick a commitment off the shelf about the military actions of imperial core states, the idea that those actions are driven by the states’ own interests and ideology, which do not align with the interests of those in whose lives the states are intervening, seems extremely solid to me.

This fact on its own (if we take it to be a fact) as I see it badly undermines Stephen Bush’s criteria for intervention, with which I began. Where the humanitarian interventionist sees the actions of the US or UK militaries as in this context first and foremost tools for achieving humanitarian outcomes, the anti-imperialist sees these actions as first and foremost serving imperial interests and ideology. This perception greatly raises the bar for intervention. The interventionist asks: can we (that is, ‘the West’) make a humanitarian difference? The anti-imperialist perspective reframes this question as: can imperial states pursuing their own – admittedly often misperceived – geopolitical and economic interests while caring little or nothing for the lives of those in the countries they bomb and invade make a humanitarian difference? These different framings of the same basic question typically yield different answers.

W/r/t the third of the commitments – the obligation to oppose the military actions of imperial states – things get a bit more complicated, in my view, even at a crude first pass. In what does this opposition consist? Lobbying our governments not to intervene – but what else? Should we also support (or stand in solidarity with, whatever that means, if anything) those ‘on the ground’ opposing imperialism? If so, who? At base, who are ‘the good guys’?

Very roughly speaking, there are two answers to this last question, corresponding to the two main attitudes of ‘Western’ radical leftism to the Soviet Union. On the one hand, the ‘tankie’ attitude is that we must stand in solidarity with those powerful actors opposing imperialism – a solidarity that frequently extends to endorsing an anti-imperialist state’s own oppressive violence and coercions. On the other hand, the ‘trot’ attitude that we should support “neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism” – a support that often apparently in practice means deciding which micro-group in a civil war is the most socialist.

In my view, the ‘tankie’ perspective is pretty straightforwardly horrific. If we want a more emancipated world, we need our ideals to be opposed to tyranny, torture, etc., not to align with them where the tyrants and torturers occupy the role of an oppressive elite within a state attacked by empire. Obviously there are political scenarios where one needs to make a hard choice and endorse the lesser of two evils – but analysing conflicts and picking sides in debates within the UK media or social media public sphere isn’t even close to being in this category, to my mind. This seems to me relatively straightforward position to reach. The position I’m calling the ‘trot’ one is better. In general, though, I think it’s important to recognise that there may not be a group or political actor available to endorse – that our opposition to imperialism does not in itself require a specific identification with an alternative actor. Social reality is complex, all groups are internally diverse, and the potentials of any given social movement or social moment are always multiple and conflictual. It is not an intrinsically materialist or leftist obligation to collapse those potentials into the endorsement of any ‘actually existing’ political entity or movement – even though this is a very common expectation in radical debates.

This point is also relevant to the first of the commitments I’m discussing – the idea that the global system is structured in terms of core/periphery relations. Here I think things are also more complex than ‘crude anti-imperialism’ would suggest. As I discussed in my post on Wallerstein, the basic world-systems perspective, while grounded in the analysis of core-periphery relations, sees those relations in quasi-cyclical terms. For world-systems theory, there are four stages in the ‘cycle of hegemony’ – the hegemonic stage in which a single imperial power dominates the world-system; the stage of imperial decline, in which other states begin to increase their power relative to the declining hegemon; the stage of multi-polar great power rivalry, in which multiple states jockey for geopolitical position; and the period of world war, in which these great powers militarily compete in a major great powers war, resulting ultimately in a single new global hegemon.

‘Classical’ anti-imperialist theory was established during the later two stages of this cycle – Hobson’s ‘Imperialism’ was written in 1902; Lenin’s ‘Imperialism’ in 1917. This early anti-imperialist perspective therefore typically analysed imperialism in terms of competing imperial powers. Post-war anti-imperialism, as I mentioned above, analysed imperial relations in terms of the rival powers of the US and the USSR – with the latter often seen as the hard power bulwark against US global imperial dominance. Post-1989 anti-imperialism has typically analysed the international order in unitary terms: there is a single dominant global power – the US, with its allies – and a range of different lesser powers and movements resisting its global dominance. There are then also a series of debates about whether other, lesser great powers can also be usefully analysed as imperialist.

However, again as I see things, we’re now entering a period of increasing rival great power competition. In this context, an anti-imperialism that sees the global order as shaped by a single dominant power or group of allied powers is poorly suited to accurate geopolitical analysis. I’m not saying that all contemporary anti-imperialism has this problem, but quite a lot of it does, I think.

To sum up: I’m very crudely arguing that there are three elements of anti-imperialism: 1) a core-periphery analysis of the global geopolitical system; 2) a belief that the core actors within that system act in their own imperial interests; and 3) a belief that these core powers’ imperial actions should be opposed, politically. I’m saying that, for me, (2) is pretty solid as a first approximation to the geopolitical reality, and that (1) and (3) are both true for some value of ‘true’, but that the ways in which they are cashed out within contemporary anti-imperialism are often ‘problematic’. Specifically, it’s important that a critique of imperial power within the global system doesn’t naively (or indeed cynically) align itself with politically oppressive rival powers. This is particularly important because we are now entering a period of increasing rival great power politics, and ‘anti-imperialist’ powers that anti-imperialists might choose to align with are therefore increasingly likely to themselves be, or be aligned with, potential rival imperial powers. At the same time, it’s obviously important to make these points without engaging in apologism for actually-existing present or past US or other core states’ imperialist actions.

This is all a long-winded (yet much too brief) way of making some pretty crass points – and self-evidently there’s a lot more that can be said about all of these issues – but this kind of first pass discussion is what blogging is for, so that will do for now.

Some very quick points about the claim that Corbyn’s Labour’s policies are ‘regressive’. This has become a common centrist critique of Corbyn’s Labour (occupying the discursive space vacated by “Corbyn’s leadership will condemn Labour to electoral oblivion”). But the basic point covers a range of different arguments. I want to typologise those arguments, very quickly and crudely, into three categories.

First – the argument that means testing of government provision is intrinsically better than universalism. This argument is bad and wrong – it grounds public provision of welfare and services in a social ontology which divides the deserving from the undeserving, and which can easily be repurposed for reactionary social policy (the deserving versus the undeserving poor); it leaves redistributive policy more vulnerable to rollback by failing to achieve upper and middle class ‘buy in’; and it bakes the oversight and disciplining apparatus of the administrative state into policy implementation.

Second – the argument that a policy which is not targeted at the poorest is intrinsically bad because of its regressive redistributive outcomes. I can’t do better on this argument than the excellent Policy Sketchbook blog, which addresses this category of argument in some detail in this post (as well as in earlier ones). Tl;dr: policies come in bundles, and it doesn’t make sense to call a policy ‘regressive’ unless you know what else is changing in the overall policy package to achieve it. A universalist policy (or indeed a middle-class-targeted policy) funded by highly progressive taxation is not regressive in any useful sense.

Third – the argument that given its budgetary constraints, Labour’s spending priorities are poor – that the money Labour plans to spend on university tuition fees abolition (to take the highest-expense new budget item as the example), would be better spent on other policy goals (for example, fully reversing Conservative and Coalition welfare cuts, or the NHS, or both.)

I think this last argument has a great deal of merit. Labour has imposed quite significant fiscal constraints on itself – McDonnell’s fiscal rule prohibits borrowing for day-to-day spending which is not balanced out by increases in taxation, and Labour’s 2017 manifesto proposed quite modest (in the grand scheme of things) tax increases, while actively ruling out a range of other possible tax increases. Moreover, any Labour government will almost certainly be inheriting a state with welfare spending significantly impacted by years of austerity budgets, an underfunded NHS, etc. etc. In this context, Labour’s spending priorities, in its 2017 manifesto, do seem strange. Labour’s university fees abolition policy is not – contra the centrists – regressive in any meaningful sense. However, the opportunity cost of this policy is extremely high, absent a budget with much larger overall spending increases than those currently proposed.

This problem could of course be fixed by increasing overall tax and spend. At present, however, Labour’s commitments are what they are. Unless and until those commitments change, I think the left should be quite seriously concerned about the policy implications of Labour’s platform.

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.
22/1/2018 (3) – pages 32-37.
23/1/2018 – pages 38-46
28/1/2018 – pages 47-81.
10/3/2018 – finished the book and wrote up a summary (at the end of the post below), but still lots of note-taking to do for the later substantive chapters.

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)

Nicol makes the same basic argument here as in earlier sections:

the internal constitution operates in a way that shows a reasonable, if imperfect, degree of ideological neutrality. By contrast, the transnational constitution – with its rigid ethos of ‘capitalism first, democracy second’ – limits us to one particular ideology, so that even if it were to become discredited, we would be stuck with it. (32)

Nicol contrasts this element of the British constitution with the US constitution, whose framers “had a definite substantive ideological agenda.” (32-3):

The transnational constitution resembles the American more than the British model, insofar as it is widely perceived as being tied to a particular substantive ideology based on its own particular vision of the good life, namely market liberalism. (34)

The British model and accountability

This is quite a load-bearing section. Nicol argues that transnational constitutional institutions reduce democratic accountability in two ways (I’m reversing Nicol’s order of presentation here):

First, they transfer power from democratically-elected elites to non-democratically elected elites:

On this reading, there is less difference than might be supposed between, say, the European Court of Human Rights, the panels of the WTO, the European Commission and the European Central Bank. All are unaccountable bodies to which government power has been transferred. (36)

Second, they disperse democratic accountability mechanisms across different processes, which can potentially conflict, resulting (in Nicol’s view) in a de facto reduction in accountability:

It is tempting to assume that more institutions and more elections mean more accountability, but this is not the case. A surfeit of institutional checks and balances can be inimical to accountability. In a piece entitled ‘A Plethora of Parliaments?’ Harlowe has drawn attention to the way in which a superfluity of accountability mechanisms tends to reduce the centrality of any one of those mechanisms, with the consequence that a democratic deficit is brought about by a ‘democratic surplus’ or fragmentation of power. (35)

[As an aside, I have substantial disagreements with the arguments Nicol makes in these sections, but I’ll postpone discussion of those until I’ve at least finished the chapter.]

In the next section, Nicol argues that current transnational economic institutions can usefully be seen as efforts to realise the vision of constitutional government outline by Hayek in his ‘The Constitution of Liberty’. My main takeaway from this section is that I badly need to finally get around to reading ‘The Constitution of Liberty’. In my version of Nicol’s summary, though, Hayek is in favour of strict constitutional limits on government action, in a way that constrains (what is in Hayek’s eyes) coercive state power. Since for Hayek the state is the major threat to political freedom, constitutional restrictions on state power preserve freedom, while granting states sufficient ability to enforce the rule of law, etc. Specifically, on Nicol’s account:

Hayek therefore canvassed a supranational form of government that would prevent states from regaining unfettered sovereignty in the economic sphere by being able to veto their economic policy measures. (39).

For Nicol, transnational institutions like the WTO and the EU can reasonably be seen as partial realisations of this Hayekian ambition.

Now Nicol moves on to more recent neoliberal international relations theorists, some of whom I have read. He summarises Keohane, Macedo and Moravcsik’s ‘Democracy-Enhancing Multilateralism’. These theorists are making the case that transnational institutions do not diminish democracy but rather enhance it. First they offer three ‘conventional’ arguments, then some new ones.

The three ‘conventional’ arguments are that:

– Transnational institutions are directly accountable to their member states and thus indirectly to the publics who elect the representatives of those states.

– Powers democratically delegated to transnational institutions could also be democratically rescinded.

– Even if democracy is reduced by delegation of powers to transnational entities, the ends justify the means.

Keohane, Macedo and Moravcsik add to these arguments the claim that transnational institutions “actually improve the functioning of domestic democracy” (40). The argument here is that:

whilst popular elections are essential to democracy, democratic systems above all required constitutional rules and institutions to constrain the power of governments and temporary majorities…. Competing public institutions and a system of checks and balances, including politically independent courts and agencies with specialised expertise, can help ensure that policy choices are defended against robust criticism and that errors are identified and corrected…. They insist that transnational decision-making helps to achieve this sort of democracy in three ways: by combatting special interests, by protecting rights and by fostering robust public deliberation. (40-1)

As Nicol says, this approach – “a Madisonian conception of ‘deliberative democracy’ based on the American model of constitutionalism” (42) – is clearly incompatible with Nicol’s characterisation of the democratic principles informing British constitutionalism.

Nicol goes through each of Keohane et al.’s three Madisonian sub-arguments in turn, and presents counter-arguments. I may return to these in a later post, but I think the basic lines of the debate are clear enough already here for summary purposes. Finally in this subsection, Nicol briefly summarises Habermas’s ‘The Postnational Constellation’, and rather curtly dismisses it:

Habermas openly favours reducing the importance accorded to votes and accountability and increasing the weight given to ‘the procedural demands of communicative and decision-making processes’. But he admits that the transnational edifice he is seeking to construct would depend on whether a cosmopolitan consciousness would arise on the part of national electorates. It will be readily apparent that Habermas’ hopes for democratic revival depend not only on the materialisation of this elusive consciousness but, much more importantly, on redefining democracy out of all definition. (43)

In my own view this is unfair to Habermas, for whom I have a lot of time, whatever his shortcomings – but again this is not the place for working through these complicated issues.

Next up, Nicol discusses the argument that market mechanisms are themselves a sort of democratic decision-making, if you squint a bit – the argument (in my own rephrasing, using Hirschman’s terms) that market exit is a superior substitute for democratic voice. Nicol doesn’t have much time for this position, and neither do I, so I’ll move on. He then discusses France a bit, to say that different countries under the same transnational institutions must be analysed differently, but that this is not a comparative work. Then he sums up, and we’re done with Chapter One.

In terms of own thoughts – I’ve made some comments as I went, above, but I also have some quite large disagreements that I don’t want to get into here in any depth. I’ll probably write up a separate blog post on some of these issues, once I’m done with the read-through. To summarise very briefly: although, like Nicol, I have a range of criticisms of Hayek, I am at base much more sympathetic to liberal constitutionalism than Nicol is in this book. I think Nicol is being much too blasé here about the risks associated with reducing institutional checks and balances on a democratically-mandated executive. It’s clear from the framing of Nicol’s book that his core objection to the transnational institutions he’s discussing is the way they bake neoliberal economic policy into legal constitutions. I think that is an appropriate thing to object to. But the actually argument Nicol makes, in this chapter, is much stronger than this position: Nicol objects to any politically substantive constitutional constraint on a democratically elected political decision-making body. In my view, this position provides no legitimate method to constrain a democratically-mandated state from riding roughshod over the rights of at the very least a large minority of its citizens. The liberal principle that there are human rights which cannot legitimately be disregarded by state power, even if that power has received a democratic mandate at the ballot box, is a good one that we should fight both to preserve and to more fully realise, in my view. Nicol’s constitutional theory does not give us any mechanism to do either.

I want to quickly note a couple of specific ‘tension points’, then move on. On page 23, Nicol suggests that an independent judiciary is sufficiently important as to warrant a weakening of the general principle of accountability. I agree with this point – but it’s unclear why this logic could not in principle apply to other independent elements of the state apparatus (such as some substantive elements of the constitution). Nicol’s position is therefore a bit more ad hoc than it might appear at first pass, in my view.

Finally, on page 43, Nicol criticises Habermas for his (as Nicol sees it) unrealistic idea that European citizens’ sensibilities can be transformed in a more cosmopolitan direction. Nicol might be right in his suggestion that this is an unrealistically utopian hope, on Habermas’s part – but if Nicol is right about this – if, that is, we should in fact be more pessimistic about the possibilities for shifts in public sensibilities – then this could, against Nicol, be seen as an argument for caution around constitutionally unconstrained power for any given democratically elected government.

Put differently: the thing about Habermas, which I think is insufficiently appreciated, at least by many of his critics, is that his core project – the bedrock motive for the entire apparatus – is anti-fascism. Habermas is, for fathomable historical reasons, intensely interested in establishing a governance system and broader polity in which fascism cannot succeed. When Habermas wants constitutional constraints on an executive such that state power cannot be wielded without limit, and such that those constraints on state power themselves cannot easily be undone, the perspective informing these goals is that of somebody who grew up in Nazi Germany. These liberal political principles can of course also be used for other ends – such as the constitutional enforcement of a neoliberal economic framework – but Habermas’s basic rationale for the value of institutions of this kind should in my view be taken very seriously.

From my point of view, then, Nicol errs in making a general argument against substantive constitutional constraints on any and all political action, when his true target is – or should be – substantive constitutional enforcement of neoliberal economic policy. I’ll probably blog more about all this in another post – but this concludes my notes on chapter one.

Chapter 2 – The World Trade Organisation and the sanctity of private enterprise

Ok. Chapter one dealt with the theoretical and normative perspective of the book – the next three chapters deal with the substance. From the table of contents I gather that chapter two is focussed on the WTO, chapter three on the EU, and chapter four on the ECHR. Start with the WTO then. I’m going to try to take notes much more sparingly on this chapter than the last.

In Nicol’s words, chapter two is about:

the question of whether the World Trade Organisation (WTO) gives constitutional protection to the private sector. (47)

Nicol starts with a brief history of the establishment of GATT, post-WWII, and the development of the WTO out of GATT. The most important innovation of GATT, Nicol argues, was the ‘most favoured nation’ (MFN) rule:

The MFN rule requires states to extend to every GATT country the most favourable trade treatment accorded to any country, the most favoured nation.(56)

GATT also “permits a customs union to be treated as if it were a single contracting party” (57). For this reason, European nations could, in 1957, establish a common European customs union, and thereby maintain differential treatment of European and non-European trading partners.

When Britain joined the Community in 1973, therefore, there was a transfer of authority for trade relations from Whitehall and Westminster to the EEC Commission and Council. Thus trade policy to a considerable extent ceased to be a matter of British politics. (57)

The primary goal of the WTO, on Nicol’s account, was to have more effective enforcement machinery than GATT. The WTO Disputes Settlement Understanding (DSU) was more legalistic and binding than the previous GATT process. Moreover, because the WTO was founded at a point when neoliberalism was in the ascendent, its ‘constitutional’ role gave more weight to private enterprise. In Nicol’s words:

The fundamental difference between the DSU procedure and its predecessor lies in the inability of states to veto the judicial process at its various stages. Previously, crucial decisions – to establish a panel, to adopt its report, to authorise the remedy of suspension of concessions – had to be taken by consensus, which meant that losing states could in effect veto unfavourable decisions. Under the WTO regime, by contrast, the procedure progresses through these stages automatically unless there is a consensus against doing so. In practice this makes the adoption of all three stages automatic.(62)

Moreover, the private sector plays a major role in WTO decision-making:

Both the European Commission and the US Trade Representative rely on industry initially to kickstart litigation by drawing attention to obstacles to free trade, and then to sustain that litigation, by providing convincing factual information and legal argument (64)

In Nicol’s view:

Private companies have thereby been accorded a privileged institutionalised position from which to challenge the legislation and policies of states. (64)

So, Nicole argues that the WTO gives private companies a central role in de facto constitution-formation, and moreover has stronger enforcement mechanisms than GATT. In addition to these innovations, the WTO also expanded its remit, relative to GATT, bringing not just trade in goods but also services within the ambit of transnational constitutional constraints:

If the great institutional achievement of the WTO is dispute settlement, then its great substantive breakthrough is the General Agreement on Trade is Services (GATS). (70)

The institution design of the WTO, Nicol argues, has a ‘ratchet effect’, whereby members can commit themselves to greater liberalisation but cannot easily undo those commitments:

As in the case of GATT, the cardinal principle is that a WTO Member is never able to reduce its general level of liberalisation. (72)

This applies, Nicole argues, to public procurement…

The GPA… obliges government entities to provide, on request from any unsuccessful tenderer, relevant information as to why its tender was not selected, as well as the identity of the successful tenderer. The challenge procedure represents a profound development in terms of effectiveness of remedies for breaches of an international agreement. (77)

… and subsidies:

The WTO Agreements include a Subsidies and Countervailing Measures (SCM Agreement) … Under the SCM Agreement, only two types of subsidies are prohibited per se – export subsidies and import substitution subsidies. The vast majority of subsidies, by contrast, are ‘actionable’: they can be challenged if they cause adverse effects to the interests of another WTO Member. Such adverse effects may consist of injury to the Member’s domestic industry; nullification of GATT benefits; or serious prejudice to the interests of another Member.(78)

In sum:

Negotiating the schedules to the various agreements essentially involves a series of one-way-only, once-and-for-all decisions: states can elect to ‘ratchet up’ their commitment to market access and therefore privatisation, but there is no scope for negotiating in the opposite direction, in favour of extending public sector provision. The WTO can thus be seen as a ‘commitment device’ in which states hold themselves to their initial preferences by tying the hands of government for the future. It has created a rule-oriented landscape, fashioned to reduce ‘risk premium’ for private enterprise. (80)

These notes are brief and don’t adequately summarise the relevant WTO rules and enforcement mechanisms – but I’ll leave things here for now, and move on to chapter three.


Ok, I’ve finished reading his but am badly behind on my note-taking. Just to quickly summarise my ‘take’:

1) The book makes an strong case that transnational institutions (particularly the WTO and the EU) are significantly constraining on British democratic decision-making in economic policy, in a way that effectively writes elements of ‘neoliberal’ policy into the UK ‘constitution’ (in the sense of placing these elements of economic policy beyond the reach of parliament).

2) It makes in my opinion a less strong case that this is also true of the European Court of Human Rights (Nicol’s argument about the ECHR is largely – though not exclusively – that it is vulnerable to being pushing in this direction in the future).

3) Nicol argues that this is an unacceptable ‘democratic deficit’ – that parliament should be sovereign, or at least much more sovereign than it is now.

4) For my political tastes, Nicol makes this latter case too strongly. Nicol is broadly sceptical of constitutionalism, because he sees constitutionalism as undemocratic. He is of course right about this, in the sense that constitutionalism places areas of policy outside the (easy) reach of democratic decision-making, but I think he is wrong to suggest that this is always bad. Obviously these matters can be debated, but I myself have very little problem with core human rights being protected by a judicial apparatus that is difficult for democratic processes to override.

5) The strength of Nicol’s position, in my view, is in his argument that too much substantive economic policy has been shifted into this sphere of transnational legal decision-making. Nicol’s book seems to me to make this case very well indeed – if I get round to writing up the later chapters in more detail I’ll summarise some of the examples Nicol gives.

6) As with a lot of ‘Lexit’ arguments, Nicol seems to underestimate the extent to which transnational constraints on local economic sovereignty have been a feature of the capitalist world-system for much of its history. The reason they haven’t been a feature of British law for much of that history is that Britain was the dominant capitalist power for a long period, and has only recently again been on the receiving end of transnational constraints on sovereignty rather than the imposer of them.

7) Related to this last point, the book doesn’t really have an adequate sense of the difference between different forms of capitalist ‘laissez faire’, identifying (wrongly, imo) neoliberalism (a specific form of recent economic governance) with laissez-faire in general. This isn’t a huge issue, it’s just another example of the book’s perhaps too narrow historical perspective.

8) Again for my political tastes, the book is also excessively sceptical of forms of economic governance beyond national democratic processes. Nicol’s argument in the conclusion is that national (and, secondarily, sub-national) sovereignty is the only realistic form of democratic governance – there’s a case to be made for that, but it’s in my view a somewhat pessimistic case. The book’s political-normative standpoint is intrinsically a non-internationalist one.

9) Nevetheless, with all these hedges and criticisms, the core case of the book is made very strongly indeed, in my view. I don’t have the knowledge to independently assess Nicol’s discussion of ECJ legal decisions, and so on, but it’s hard to think, having read the whole thing, that he doesn’t have a point about transnational constraints on left wing democratic policy-making. I think defenders of the EU really need to accept the merit of this basic position, and defend these institutions on the grounds that their benefits outweigh their costs, rather than deny the existence of the costs altogether (as seems to be the current favoured stance among EU advocates in the UK).

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.