On surviving postmodernism, with Benjamin Boyce

Had the most wonderful epic chat with the delightful Benjamin Boyce, where we roamed across such terrain as the psychotic side-effects of postmodernism, why nihilism isn’t the answer, why I don’t believe in progress and what’s left out of the internet’s parody of the social. It’s on YouTube:

The Herne Hill Hunt

The airhorn blows. A cry goes up. The field, scattered across streets from Brixton Water Lane to Poets’ Corner, converges toward the sound. The hounds are in full cry. A triumphant ululating from the lead riders, thin tracksuits flapping as they pedal toward Mayall Road. The quarry has been sighted. On bikes, skateboards, scooters or just on foot, the field streams after the leaders.

Overhead on grey terraced rooftops, a scatter of parkour scouts scampers across the sloping tiles, whooping and gesturing. Below them, the quarry flashes in and out of the cover of back-garden bike storage, patio furniture and shrubbery. A few scouts are down from the rooftops now, vaulting fences between gardens. Close pursuit. A delivery van honks. Residents peer out of windows as the hunt streams up the Saturday morning street. 

Moments later it’s flushed out: a glimpse of red-brown, the hunt stampeding after it down the tarmac. Then it’s cornered in a newsagent doorway, the hounds swarming. The inevitable end. A Brixton schoolboy, eyes shining with the joy of exertion and bloodshed, is gifted the brush. He holds it aloft in one blood-smeared hand, russet against Herne Hill’s leaden sky.

When the ban was repealed, there were demonstrations throughout the English countryside. It was grossly unjust, the Telegraph howled, yet another sign of government bias toward the cities, that foxhunting was now legal in urban areas but not the countryside. The Johnson government replied serenely that foxes were a predominantly urban pest in 21st-century Britain. Also, as county lines operations had spread city-style drug-dealing throughout rural England, it was only fair in return to encourage outdoor rural pursuits to flourish in the city.

Horrified Guardian editorials inveighed against the education in brutality that would now be coming to London’s already violent youth. But the columnists fell silent when the season started, and knife crime abruptly dropped. United against the mangy pests that raided bins, terrorised domestic cats and occasionally mauled a baby, a critical mass of Londoners embraced the hunt. 

Hunts formed along postcode lines, and initially when a hunt crossed multiple postcodes there were stabbings. But the gangs’ youthful energy, physical fitness and fondness for casual violence catapulted them to the heart of London’s great pest control project. Finding themselves suddenly lionised instead of stopped-and-searched, a newfound sense of civic participation put a spring and swagger in their step, and inter-gang rivalry waned.

There was a minor furore shortly after the Repeal Bill passed when, having voted against the Bill, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan MP (Labour) was photographed at the Boxing Day Tooting meet. Polly Toynbee accused her of ‘cheap populism’, while one snarky Spectator columnist noted how clean her Nikes remained even after a gruelling back-garden chase. 

The issue split the Labour Party down the middle. On one side stood those who saw the benefits in terms of public health, pest control, crime reduction, race relations, and young males having a healthy outlet for their aggression. On the other stood those appalled by the cruelty meted out to the fox. Innocent animals should not be hunted for fun, they protested. The repeal was emblematic of a culture that had turned its back on progress and was disintegrating into barbarism. 

Their opponents replied that the riotous pursuit and bloody death of the odd manky fox was a small price to pay for a reduction in youth knife crime, and that objectors were white middle-class snobs who want to keep London’s multicultural youth in a state of dependence and misery. Would they rather see machete-wielding gangs pursuing foxes or teenagers? The statistics showed it was a straight swap.

The antis retorted that this revolting weaponisation of tragic deaths among troubled urban youth was the first move in a base and bloodthirsty effort to take modern Britain back to the Dark Ages. The next step in the Tories’ grim plan would be tagging further vulnerable groups for torture and sacrifice. Ken Livingstone popped up from somewhere to remind us who else murdered vulnerable groups in order to create a sense of belonging forged in bloodshed. 

Jolyon Maugham became, unexpectedly, an anti-hunt sensation, when after months of silence he prioritised his Lib Dem sympathies over past association with urban pest control and wrote a heartfelt op-ed for The New European, explaining why he should have called the RSPCA on that hungover New Year’s Day. Floral kimonos became, briefly and surreally, a symbol for militant veganism.

But with Labour now a rump party of urban liberals, and city hunting wildly popular, the electoral calculus was inexorable. Pollsters nodded sagely when Allin-Khan’s popularity rocketed. The #KillerKhan tweetstorm never got off the starting blocks. 

As the wind picks up on Dulwich Road, hunt followers are still milling, elated. The crowd passes hip flasks, relives highlights. Young people mix across culture, ethnicity and caste. Paleo-and-Crossfit machos swap hunt stories with Asian wideboys. Shaven-headed teenagers in tracksuits laugh uproariously with a knot of tweed-wearing neo-trads, the men extravagantly moustachio’d. Locals sidle uncertainly past the panting hounds. 

The parkour crew are all here now. The hunt’s athletic elite. Stripped to the waist, defined even in dull autumn daylight, they draw admiring glances but talk mainly to each other. A chill rain begins to spatter. It’s still early; the fitness hardcore moves on toward Parkrun. Knots of people disperse in pursuit of brunch, showers or the visceral pleasures of a post-hunt shag. 

In an apartment window above the vintage furniture shop, someone spots a sign hand-stencilled on a sheet. FOR FOX SAKE BAN THE HUNT. Scattered jeers. No one performs compassion for status points these days: that generation is sliding into middle-aged irrelevance. Vandalising monuments is so last year. All of bleeding-edge young London is here, at its most energised and diverse, to thumb their noses at public displays of empathy. 

Veganism is tired. Bloodsport is a human instinct. Better to hunt foxes than each other. 

Originally published by The Fence

Our humanity depends on the things we don’t sell

Earlier this year, mining company Rio Tinto dynamited a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal sacred site in the Pilbara region of Australia, in pursuit of the iron ore deposits that lay beneath the sacred caves. The decision triggered outrage from Aboriginal communities and the wider world alike. Pressure from investors concerned about the resulting PR disaster eventually forced the CEO to resign.

But that’s not much of a victory for those to whom the now-destroyed site was sacred. As a place of pilgrimage, continuously inhabited since before the last Ice Age, its religious significance had accumulated over millennia of repeated visits, inhabitation and ritual. The holiness of Juukan Gorge lay in the unimaginably long-term accretion of memories, social patterns, and shared cultural maps by countless generations of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples.

Strip mining, the method of resource extraction used to reach much of Pilbara’s iron ore, was the subject of a blistering 1962 Atlantic essay by Harry Caudill. Titled ‘Rape of the Appalachians,’ it describes a process as violent as the analogy suggests, in which entire mountaintops are removed in search of coal deposits. But when you consider the role played by commerce, it’s more accurate to describe the process as prostitution. 

It’s not unusual for those looking to destigmatize prostitution to argue that selling sexual access to one’s own body should be morally acceptable, precisely because it’s no worse than coal mining. So here we have two sides of a disagreement, both of whom see commonalities between prostitution and mining, even as they disagree over whether the action itself is good or bad.

How would we characterize what prostitution and mining have in common? Resource extraction, perhaps. Dynamiting Appalachian mountaintops has obvious tradeoffs, but on the upside you get to extract coal from the exposed rock, which you can then use to generate electricity. We accept the environmental destruction, deterioration in air quality, and changed landscape contours (or at least mostly choose to overlook them), because the alternative—no electricity—appears worse. 

Selling access to female bodies is also a form of resource extraction. The product may be subtler—orgasm, the illusion of intimacy, darker types of wish-fulfilment or, in the case of commercial surrogacy, a human baby—and the tradeoffs less visibly destructive than a landscape reshaped. But the dynamic is similar. In each case, a woman rents access to something that we consider to belong to each individual alone—her body—and earns money in return. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has supported the decriminalization of prostitution since 1975, recently argued for de-stigmatizing “those who choose to make a living based by self-governing their own bodies.” Earning money independently is good. Self-government over our own resources is good. So on what basis can we criticize people who choose to sell access to their own bodies? 

In his 1954 lecture ‘The Question Concerning Technology,’ Martin Heidegger argued that when we organize life under the rubric of technology, the world ceases to have a presence in its own right and is ordered instead as ‘standing-reserve’—that is, as resources to be instrumentalized. Coal and iron ore, the products of technology themselves, and even human sexual desire then come to be seen as part of the standing-reserve. It becomes increasingly difficult to see reasons why there should exist any limits on extracting such resources.

Today, it feels as though we’ve always been engaged in this inexorable onward march. From a more mainstream perspective, what Heidegger is describing is simply the process we now call economic development. It is the transition from pre-industrial societies—characterized by primitive and localised forms of exchange, low workforce mobility, and in many cases by extreme poverty—to longer and more complex supply chains, technological innovation, more trade, more stuff, more wealth, and more personal freedom. 

But as Austro-Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi argued in The Great Transformationfor much of human history trade occupied a much less central place in human relations than it does today: “man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships.” Polanyi showed how in Britain, economic development and the emergent market society was driven by the Enclosure Acts between 1750 and 1860. Prior to enclosure, much of Britain comprised subsistence-farming peasants living on land held and worked in common. 

Enclosures, justified by a need for greater farming efficiency, stripped the peasantry of any right to common land in favor of a private property model. Pre-enclosure, the necessities of life might have been bare, but many of those necessities existed outside the realm of ownership and trade. A peasant might spend his or her whole life in a tied cottage, with a right to common land, working to produce food but with very little need to buy or sell anything. Enclosure reordered whole swathes of human life from the shared, social realm to that of standing-reserve: that is, the realm of private property and transactional exchange.

Post-enclosures, what had previously been held in common—whether land or labor—was now privatized as standing-reserve for exploitation by free individuals. In the process, millions of human lives were arguably made much freer. The working poor were liberated from the feudal ties often implied by subsistence farming, free to move if they pleased, and free to sell their own labor for money. 

But this development was never simply the voluntary spread of a new, enlightened way of making everyone better-off. Like mining, it came with tradeoffs: peasant resistance to the Enclosure Acts suggests that for those people, at least, something was lost. And if enclosure opened up domestic markets in goods such as housing and food, it did not rely on the consent of those British peasants forcibly displaced from subsistence lifestyles into waged factory work.

The violence involved in opening up colonial markets likewise rejected the benign invisible hand. In February 1897, for example, not long after the completion of the enclosures in Britain itself, British imperial officials responded to the Oba of Benin’s refusal to open up trade in palm oil and rubber from his thriving city-state on the Niger Delta. Their answer was the Punitive Expedition, in which 5,000 British troops armed with machine guns razed Benin, massacring its inhabitants, flattening its temples, and looting the bronzes that inscribed its most treasured cultural memories. A month after the Punitive Expedition, a golf course had been laid over the city’s site, with the ninth hole where the most sacred tree had stood.

Most histories of the present characterize the story of economic development as an upward one of human progress, that has liberated millions from indentured labour into greater agency as free individuals in market society. And there’s something in this story of freedom; I wouldn’t swap my life today for that of a medieval subsistence peasant. But, like the extraction of Appalachian coal, nothing comes without tradeoffs. And while it’s easy enough to describe historical events in our transition from a largely relational society to a largely transactional one, the cost of moving to a market society is more difficult to count. 

It’s perhaps easier to find a way into this blind spot via a more recent large-scale displacement of humans from a relational to a market existence. The migration of women from the domestic sphere to the workplace began in earnest in the 20th century, and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that it gathered pace around the time the economic gains available via overseas colonial expansion began to falter. I’ve never been a subsistence peasant or Aboriginal nomad, but for a few years I did step a small distance outside the market society as a full-time mother. And what I learned there about how, and why, this form of work is invisible today helps to illuminate the tradeoffs demanded by the market society. It also offers clues as to how we might yet stand for things crucial to humans but indefensible within a transactional worldview, such as ecosystems, sacred places, or even a view of dating that isn’t a sexual marketplace.

For something to be treated as standing-reserve, it must be possible to own it. Our social norms demand that we claim ownership of a resource before exploiting it. Selling my labor in the marketplace presumes that I can dispose of my time as I see fit, that no one else has a claim on my time or my body—in short, that I’m a free individual.

But to be a mother is quintessentially to experience not entirely belonging to yourself. It begins in pregnancy, with the realization that what you eat or drink affects your unborn child; it continues with breastfeeding, as you make the food that nourishes your child with your own body; it goes on far beyond infancy, in the need your children have to be physically close to you. When you see how powerfully your small child craves your presence, it’s very difficult to sustain the illusion of belonging only to yourself.

To the extent that something belongs to others as well as to ourselves—such as common land in 18th century Britain—it will resist being privatized for use as standing-reserve. So caring for my child can’t easily be viewed as a transaction, because it’s a relationship in which we aren’t exactly individuals. That is, we don’t belong only to ourselves, but to each other as well. And when you don’t belong solely to yourself, work can be understood not as a transaction—my labor exchanged for your money—but as relational. In other words, it is less oriented toward resource extraction and exchange than sustaining interdependent patterns of life. 

This in turn helps explain why the politics of our market society has such a blind spot where motherhood is concerned: the market society’s notion of liberation into the standing-reserve is deeply at odds with the work of caring. Sustaining interdependency isn’t about fleeting transactional logic. It’s about maintaining a valuable relationship. I don’t care for my child or my partner because I have a utilitarian goal in mind, but because we belong to each other and that makes caring for them a necessity for my existence too. 

Despite being in a sense repetitive and goal-less, caring is also pregnant with meaning. As the pioneering biosemioticist Wendy Wheeler puts it in Information and Meaning, repetition and pattern are central to communication throughout the organic and even the inorganic world. Organisms and natural systems don’t just respond to one-off signals, but rather exist in emergent, interdependent dialogue with the signals sent by other organisms and environmental factors around them—what Jakob von Uexküll calls an organism’s Umwelt. Thus, information in the natural world does not exist in some abstract sense, but only in the context of how it’s received within larger feedback loops. From the smallest microbiota to complex human civilisations, meanings are fundamentally relational, contextual, and pattern-based. 

Seen this way, it’s easier to understand why non-transactional, relational spheres of life and particularly family, remain Americans’ most potent sources of meaning. For individuals, meaning is to be found less in peak experiences, one-offs, the exceptional or abstractit hides in the repetitive, the everyday, and the relational. At a collective level, meaning coils through those pattern-languages transmitted via tradition, whether in vernacular architecture, folk music or oral histories. It lies thick in sacred places: humans have long used pattern, repetition, and the expected as the core of ritual religious and spiritual practices. 

The philosopher Adam Robbert connects meaning-making with askēsis, a Greek term that refers to the act of practice and discipline as itself a form of extended cognition, that enables the expansion of meaning-making beyond the rational sphere via the bringing-together of attention and repetition. We can understand motherhood as a kind of relational askēsis, whose core is the attentive, attuned pattern-work of sustaining a child’s Umwelt while they are too young to do it themselves. This is a central reason why many women are willing to sacrifice social status and earning power to work part-time or stay at home with young children: it’s as satisfyingly rich in meaning-as-pattern as it is starved of social status and pecuniary reward.

But the central concern of mothering with pattern, sameness, and contextual meaning as opposed to information devalues it in the order of standing-reserve, even as it delivers untold riches on its own terms. Information theory, a core science underpinning much of our technology, explicitly excludes the realm of pattern and sameness as ‘redundancy,’ preferring to focus on the unexpected. Our contemporary culture is quintessentially one of information theory: we celebrate the new, the innovative, the individual who doesn’t follow the rules. I can’t think of many movies where the hero defies calls to go his own way and instead saves the world by embracing convention.

And yet meaning, as Wheeler emphasizes, “is made up of pattern, repetition, the expected.” Information theory is thus blind to it, as she further points out: “What information engineers count as redundancy, living organisms in their systems count as meaning.” In this worldview, the tradeoff between motherhood and the workplace is a brutal one. No matter how meaningful life with a baby seems in its relational context, we have no vocabulary for understanding that, save as redundancy. It’s no surprise to discover that market society frames caring for children as a punishment: “the motherhood penalty.” 

The transactional world has little facility for repetition, pattern, or the expected; this is ‘redundancy’ to be dismissed in pursuit of the special, the distinct, the signal. This blindness to meaning-as-pattern, visible in the devaluation of motherhood and trust relationships, is similarly evident in contemporary architecture’s indifference to those vernacular pattern-languages in local built environments, that encode ways of life specific to different places. You can see it again in the treatment of folk music as second-class and unoriginal, the dismissal of religious practice as dogma, or the indifference to accumulated sacredness that allowed the destruction of Juukan Gorge. 

Within the worldview that reads motherhood as a punishment, ecologies of meaning accumulated via everyday pattern, human relationship, or religious ritual are at best yet-to-be-monetized resources. If they resist this transformation, they are obstacles to be ignored or dynamited. Bringing these pieces together, it’s now easier to see what’s lost under the rubric of information theory and standing-reserve. To see the world in terms of standing-reserve means seeing it as transactions rather than relationships, and information rather than meaning: as Heidegger puts it, “shattered,” and confined to a “circuit of orderability.” 

This shattered world is the same one the market society mindset calls ‘open’: openness to new forms, after all, means weak adherence to existing ones. To borrow Oscar Wilde’s famous phrase, then, seeing the price of everything by definition means seeing the value of nothing. Reframing the world in transactional terms, as ‘open’ resources that can be instrumentalized, necessitates the destruction of its meanings. Strip-mining self-evidently degrades the environment being mined. After demutualization, it took less than two decades for Britain’s building societies to go from embedded, localized community micro-lenders to casino-banking basket cases. And people who sell sexual access to their own bodies find it difficult to form and maintain intimate partner relationships

Likewise, treating human gestation as a service in commercial surrogacy interrupts the biologically-based symbiosis between mother and child that makes such relationships resistant to marketization. Instead, surrogacy contracts treat the baby as separate from its mother, a product that can be commissioned. Humans are thus shattered and reordered as objects, as in this case of a disabled child rejected both by her commissioning ‘parents’ and also by her Ukrainian gestational mother, as though she were a faulty smartphone.

Here we begin to see more clearly who pays when we replace meaning with information and relationship with transaction: anyone in need of care, and anyone leading an ordinary life. The winners in the information world are those whose lives are oriented toward peak experiences, agency, variety, surprise, and control. To the extent that you find fulfilment in pattern, repetition, and the quotidian, a technological and economic order blind to meaning-as-pattern and hyperfocused on the unexpected will be, by definition, unable to see you. 

But we’re running out of relational resources to convert and consume. Much as on current trends many key natural resources will be exhausted within a few decades, there are signs that in our civilization, the relational commons that underpins ordinary human life is approaching a point so shattered that the capacity of society to function is increasingly compromised. Certainly where I live in Britain, the weak institutional response to COVID-19 has revealed a nation in which social solidarity may be present on a local level, but is increasingly, acrimoniously, absent at scale. 

Pursuing resilience in this context means seeking out the relational, and looking to strengthen it: that means standing up for the interests of women, babies, the everyday, the natural world—and the value of norms, custom, and religious faith. From this, it follows that defending women and the environment means not embracing but resisting the logic of transaction. In that case, communities with some religious basis for sustaining relational resources as a sacred domain will prove more resilient than the ‘liberatory’ vision of market society and standing-reserve—precisely because they reject the appetitive logic of transaction. 

From a transactional point of view, this is at best a romanticization of some imaginary lost Eden, and likely a manifesto for ending innovation and demand to return to pre-industrial society. But a defense of ordinary-ness, pattern and repetition does not imply turning back the clock, or levelling all humans to identical cellular automata. Nor is it a case against extraordinary people: the natural world, after all, has megafauna as well as microbiota. 

Making the case for meaning as well as information is not to claim that we should revert to Tudor times, all be the same, or all spend our lives raising children. But it’s to defend pattern, repetition, and ordinariness as valuable in their own right, whether as the medium for future rituals and sacred places to emerge, as the domain of social life, or simply as bulwarks against the voracity of a transactional worldview that would commodify even our deepest social instincts. It’s to argue for our radical interdependence with our Umwelt. And it’s to affirm that in order for a society to thrive, sacred things must not just be defended as exempt from standing-reserve, or moved to a museum like the looted Benin bronzes, but continually and actively re-consecrated. 

Originally published at Palladium

John Clare, poet of the Somewheres

Can someone be so much of a Somewhere — so rooted in a place — that the loss of that home could drive them mad? The tragic story of the poet John Clare (1793-1864) would suggest so. A contemporary of the Romantics, Clare was neither an aristocrat like Byron nor a grammar school boy like Wordsworth and Keats, but a farm labourer. And when the Enclosure Acts transformed his birthplace, he was so devastated by the loss of his familiar landscape and way of life that he fell gradually into depression, panic attacks, alcohol abuse and finally psychosis.

Born in 1793 in Helpston, a rural hamlet north of Peterborough, to a barely literate farm labourer father and an illiterate mother, Clare spent most of his working life as a labourer, despite at one point during his lifetime outselling John Keats. Only haphazardly educated, he fell wildly in love with the written word after encountering James Thomson’s The Seasons. He began writing his own verse — at first mainly about the natural world — on whatever scraps of paper he could find, or on his hat when he had no paper.

Clare first sought a publisher in the hope of raising money to stop his parents being evicted from their tenement. When a lucky contact brought him to Taylor & Hessey, his first collection, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, was published in 1820 to wild acclaim.

Clare stands out among the poets of the Romantic era for his understanding of and communion with the natural world he describes. Contemporaries treated the natural world more as emotional stimulus: in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbeyfor example, landscape is observed, but with little knowledge. Wordsworth’s “plots of cottage-grounds” are “clad in one green hue”, and this is chiefly an anchor for moral reflection, a means of “hearing oftentimes/The still sad music of humanity”.

Clare, on the other hand, was critical of this mix of ignorance and sentimentality, saying of Keats that “his descriptions of scenery are often very fine but as it is the case with other inhabitants of great cities he often described nature as she appeared to his fancies, and not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he described”.

Landscape, to Clare, was not a source of high emotion but home, livelihood, work, family and the richness of plant and animal life. His vistas brim with too much knowledge to seem painterly, or to be turned easily into moral metaphor. Colour is shorthand for a natural and farmed landscape intimately known, as these fields in “A Sunday With Shepherds and Herdboys”:

Square plats of clover red and white
Scented wi’ summer’s warm delight
And sinkfoil of a fresher stain
And different greens of varied grain

In Keats’s famous “Ode to a Nightingale” the bird herself is not even described, serving instead as the focus for reflections on death, history and emotional rapture by a poet “half in love with easeful death”; Clare’s hushed, intimate “The Nightingale’s Nest” is both more prosaic and, in a sense, more faithful to the bird. For Keats, she is a “light-winged Dryad of the trees”. In contrast, Clare describes the materials used to build her nest and, with hushed empathy, the terrified bird:

How subtle is the bird she started out
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh
Ere we were past the brambles and now near
Her nest she sudden stops — as choaking fear
That might betray her home

There is no need for a moral. For Clare it is enough to observe, then tiptoe away leaving the bird to find her voice again:

We’ll leave it as we found it — safety’s guard
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still
See there she’s sitting on the old oak bough
Mute in her fears – our presence doth retard
Her joys and doubt turns every rapture chill
Sing on sweet bird may no worse hap befall
Thy visions then the fear that now deceives
We will not plunder music of its dower
Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall
For melody seems hid in every flower
That blossoms near thy home

Yet Clare’s lack of moralising does not strip his work of emotion. He is as unflinching in his descriptions of the brutality of his world as of its beauty. “The Badger” begins with a description of the animal’s habitat “A great hugh burrow in the ferns and brakes” and ends with its death at the hands of a village crowd:

He turns agen and drives the noisey crowd
And beats the many dogs in noises loud
He drives away and beats them every one
And then they loose them all and set them on
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and cackles groans and dies

His ever-present empathy is with the birds and beasts besieged by humanity, as in “Summer Evening” when he curses the boys who creep into lofts to catch and kill sparrows. He calls on the birds to nest in his house where they will be safe:

My heart yearns for fates like thine
A sparrow’s life’s as sweet as mine

If Clare rises to moralise from his observation of the natural world, it is done without ornament. The last two verses of “To The Snipe” give a reflection at once uplifting and humble:

Isee the sky
Smile on the meanest spot
Giving to all that creep or walk or flye
A calm and cordial lot

Thine teaches me
Right feeling to employ
That in the dreariest places peace will be
A dweller and a joy

Clare’s modesty was out-of-step with the mood of the times: Keats wrote of Clare’s poetry that “Images from Nature are too much introduced without being called for by a particular Sentiment”. Romantic poetry often seems as indifferent to the minutiae of the natural world as it is enthralled by the poet’s ability to overlay it with “Sentiment”. This aesthetic was well suited to the political and technological shifts of that age. Whether in poetry or landscape, the movement was away from coexistence with the natural world toward subordinating it to human desires.

In the Middle Ages, much of the arable land in central England was “commons”, which was farmed on a communal basis for a subsistence livelihood. This was the landscape of John Clare’s childhood. But between the 13th and 19th centuries, and accelerating from the Georgian era onward, the land was ‘“enclosed” — that is, turned from common to private property — either by buying the land rights or else forcing enclosure through an Act of Parliament.

Between 1809 and 1820 Enclosure Acts transformed the landscape around John Clare’s birthplace, draining ditches, felling ancient trees and displacing subsistence farmers from once common land. Clare’s 1830s poem “The Lament of Swordy Well” expresses his horror at the process, in the voice of the land itself:

The silver springs grown naked dykes
Scarce own a bunch of rushes
When grain got high the tasteless tykes
Grubbed up trees, banks, and bushes
And me, they turned me inside out
For sand and grit and stones
And turned my old green hills about
And pickt my very bones.

The natural world, that seemed so numinous and eternal in Clare’s early work, is depicted homeless and starving as a consequence of this exploitation:

The bees flye round in feeble rings
And find no blossom bye
Then thrum their almost weary wings
Upon the moss and die
Rabbits that find my hills turned o’er
Forsake my poor abode
They dread a workhouse like the poor
And nibble on the road

By the age of 30, Clare had six children to feed and his brief fame had dissipated. Displaced from his way of life by enclosures and disturbed by the changing landscape, Clare fell into depression and alcohol abuse. Friends and admirers clubbed together to buy him a cottage three miles from Helpston, with a smallholding, but even this slight move from his birthplace only increased his distress. The Flitting captures his desolation. Even the sun, he says, seems lost:

Alone and in a stranger scene
Far far from spots my heart esteems
The closen with their ancient green
Heaths woods and pastures’ sunny streams
The awthorns here were hung with may
But still they seem in deader green
The sun e’en seems to loose its way
Nor knows the quarter it is in

Not long after moving he began to experience hallucinations and was sent to an asylum near London. So desperate was he to return home that four years later he escaped and walked the 70 miles back to his cottage. But he found no solace there, and shortly afterwards he was sent to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he lived the last 24 years of his life. He died aged 71 in 1864.

John Clare speaks to us from the other side of an unimaginable gulf. He was so profoundly Somewhere that even David Goodhart’s Somewheres would, to him, seem like Anywheres. His voice, almost modern-sounding, nonetheless hails from an ancient England where the normal livelihood was subsistence farming on land held in common, culture and history were mainly oral and the natural world held a richness of allusion Wordsworth and Keats found in classical mythology.

Yet his politics feel fresh and increasingly urgent, while his empathy for the living world making him a compelling advocate for change in how we relate to the land that nourishes us — whether via conservationsustainable farming or land reform.

Clare is both protester and casualty of the Enclosure Acts, as well as a meticulous recorder of what was lost in that founding act of modernity. Enclosure spurred the phenomenal productivity gains of the agricultural revolutioncreated a labour force for industry — and devastated a whole way of life. His grief and anger at the costs of enclosure, an event largely seen from the perspective of its beneficiaries, reminds us that the growing power of individual property rights in the modern era displaced premodern subsistence lifestyles in the United Kingdom as well as in the colonies founded by English explorers overseas.

Clare’s descent into depression and alcoholism is echoed in the shockingly high prevalence of mental health issues and substance abuse in indigenous populations across the world who have been dislocated from their ways of living by modern property-owning relations to the landscape.

UK land ownership today is ever more carefully obfuscated and ever more critical to social and — perhaps — ecological renewal. The industrial capitalist economic model that took root in Clare’s lifetime is now cracking in earnest, along with the ecologies “grubbed up” (like Swordy Well) for “gain”. The “peasant poet” of Northamptonshire has lessons for us today.

This piece was originally published at Unherd

Who gains from the great university scam?

Higher education is big business. Over half of UK young people now attend university, meaning the target first set by Tony Blair 20 years ago has finally been reached. And according to a 2017 report for Universities UK, once you count the (mostly borrowed) money students spend on subsistence, tertiary education generates some £95 billion for the British economy, more than the entire legal sector, the advertising and marketing sector and air and spacecraft manufacturing combined. 

This is true across the country, but its impact is especially noticeable in post-industrial regions. According to a 2017 report, the University of Liverpool alone contributed £652m in gross value added to the Liverpool city region in 2015/16, and supported one in 57 jobs in the region.

Some 11,000 jobs are either directly funded or supported by spending associated with the university — and the University of Liverpool is only one of 5 or more institutions (depending how much of the area you count) offering graduate and post-graduate courses in the Liverpool area, meaning the total sum is even greater.

As well as generating jobs and supporting whole industries catering to student life — from nightclubs and cafes to housing rentals – higher education is shaping the very landscape of the cities in which it thrives. As this 2015 report from UCL’s Urban Laboratory shows, universities are increasingly actors in urban development:

“Driven by competition (for reputation, staff and students) in an international marketplace, and released from financial constraints by the lifting of the cap on student fees, [universities] produce locally embedded variants of global higher education models. These assume physical and spatial form within the parameters of distinct, but increasingly similar, city planning and urban regeneration contexts defined by an ‘assemblage of expertise and resources from elsewhere’.”BY THE SAME AUTHOR

Some of the money that flows into and through universities and out into local economies of course comes from overseas students, endowments and the like. But to a great extent, these dependent industries, revamped urban landscapes, former factories converted to student accommodation, ancillary services and so on are funded either directly — via government subsidies to higher education — or indirectly, via government-backed student loans.

Though academic research is still heavily subsidised by government via the UK Research and Innovation body, the proportion of direct funding to students has shrunk even as that taken on by students as loans has grown. A January 2019 research briefing from the House of Commons Library stated that the cash value of higher education loans is estimated to be around £20bn by 2023-24. The report also acknowledged that only about half of the money borrowed will ever be repaid, estimating that “The ultimate cost to the public sector is currently thought to be around 47% of the face value of these loans”.

The total cost to the public sector, the report continues, is roughly the same as it was before the funding model changed to scrap maintenance grants and increase tuition fees. That is to say, as the proportion of direct government funding to higher education has been reduced, there has been a corresponding rise in the amount of student debt that will never be repaid and which the government will eventually have to cover.

This money is in all but name a form of government subsidy, funded by government borrowing. But it is counted differently. The briefing notes in passing that “This subsidy element of loans is not currently included in the Government’s main measure of public spending on services and hence does not count towards the fiscal deficit.”

That is to say, billions of pounds are being borrowed by government for disbursement in the higher education sector, and the government already knows much of this will never be paid back. But the money is no longer counted toward the fiscal deficit, as it has been nominally privatised in the form of loans to individual young people.

One might argue that this is unimportant provided the higher education sector is delivering value to those who are nominally its customers — the students. But in 2018, the ONS reported that only 57% of young graduates were in high-skilled employment, a decline over the decade since the 2008 crash of 4.3 percentage points.  The ONS speculates that this could reflect “the limited number of high-skilled employment opportunities available to younger individuals and the potential difficulties they face matching into relevant jobs early in their careers”.

Nay-sayers pointed out, when Blair first introduced the tuition fees and the 50% graduate target, that the law of supply and demand suggests employers’ willingness to pay a “graduate premium” in wages as graduates become more plentiful. In 1950 only 17,500 youung people graduated from university; but when 1.4 million of them do so, as reported by the House of Commons this year, can they really hope for the same graduate premium?

Results so far suggest that many of them cannot. In a hard-hitting article last August in the New Statesman, Harry Lambert spelled out further the way in which the marketisation of higher education under the Blair rubric has also incentivised grade inflation.

Cui bono, then? Arguably less the students, graduating in ever greater numbers with ever less valuable degrees, than the cities in which they live for three or four years to study, and which have in many cases experienced a renaissance due in large part to the post-Blair expansion of higher education.

In 1981, after the Toxteth riots, Lord Howe advised Margaret Thatcher to abandon the entire city to “managed decline”. In a letter only made available to the National Archives in 2011, following the 30-year rule, Howe wrote:

“We do not want to find ourselves concentrating all the limited cash that may have to be made available into Liverpool and having nothing left for possibly more promising areas such as the West Midlands or, even, the North East. […] I cannot help feeling that the option of managed decline is one which we should not forget altogether.”

Today, Howe’s words remain only as a bitter memory: the regenerated Liverpool city centre hums with tourists, students and shoppers. The Albert Dock area, reimagined from shipping and warehouses to office buildings, shops and leisure, is beautiful, vibrant and popular.

Much of this regeneration has come via the higher education boom. In Liverpool and elsewhere, successive governments have used the higher education sector more or less explicitly as an instrument of regeneration. In effect, government-backed student loans have become part of this: an off the books subsidy for depressed post-industrial areas, that have thus been partially rescued from the threat of Thatcherite “managed decline” and reinvented as hubs of the “knowledge economy”, all funded by government debt.

But a conflict of interest lurks beneath this picture. If we work on the assumption that the main beneficiaries of the higher education industry are supposed to be students, then it follows that institutions delivering shoddy teaching and useless degrees should be allowed to fail, as word spreads and students go elsewhere. But what if the main beneficiaries of this industry are in fact the cities regenerated with the borrowed money those students spend there?

In that case, from a policy perspective, the quality of the courses delivered will be less important than that the students continuing to arrive in their thousands, bringing their borrowed money to the region and spending it on accommodation, lattes, printer paper, fancy dress hire and all the other essentials of student life.

If the aim were indeed less the introduction of market forces than the use of students as a covert form of subsidy, we would surely see market distortions. In order to head off the threat of young people abandoning poor quality higher education, and entice them into shouldering their allotted portion of off-the-books government borrowing, the “graduate premium” would have to be maintained.

And indeed, since Blair’s student attendance target was first introduced, we can see that instead of using market forces to drive up quality the government has conspired with employers to cartelise the world of work. A growing number of roles that were once accessible via on-the-job training have — by government fiat if necessary — been rendered degree-only. Nursing is the classic example, but in 2016 this was even expanded to include the police,  a move so unwelcome in the force that this year Lincolnshire Police Force launched a judicial review against the policy. 

The victims in this situation are the students, who have come of age at a time when to have any hope of snagging a job they are more or less forced to leave their families and shoulder an enormous debt burden — over £50,000 each on average according to the IFS.  They must do so to acquire a degree whose value for money is declining, but which they cannot do without in a cartelised employment climate in which higher education is obligatory even as the grades it confers count for ever less. 

Not only is the government paying for today’s elderly care (and banker bailouts) with borrowing that will fall on tomorrow’s taxpayers, but young people are also being forced to take on huge personal loans to fund degrees; degrees that are less useful as preparations for adult life than as a conduit for indirect subsidies for regional regeneration.

To make matters worse, the government knows that much of this borrowing will never be repaid, which will leave tomorrow’s taxpayer on the hook for yet more billions. It is an accounting fiddle on a gigantic scale, which penalises young people by first saddling them with loans, then devaluing their education, and finally by hiding government borrowing that future taxpayers will somehow have to meet.

Young people already live with the suspicion that overall public sector borrowing is running up a tab today that will be their burden tomorrow. The situation is far worse than they think.

This article originally published at Unherd

Why liberal feminists don’t care

A society that venerates health, youth and individual autonomy will not much enjoy thinking about birth or death. We are born helpless and need years of care until we reach the happy state of health and autonomy. At the other end of life, the same often applies: the Alzheimer’s Society tells us there are some 850,000 dementia patients in the UK and that this will rise to over a million by 2025 as life expectancy continues to rise.

If we are reluctant to dwell on the reality of human vulnerability at either end of life, we are unwilling to give much thought to its corollary: that (somewhere safely hidden from the more exciting business of being healthy, youthful and autonomous) there must be people caring for those who are unable to do it themselves. Someone is wiping those bottoms.

Traditionally, this job of caring for the very old and the very young has been “women’s work”. To a great extent, it still is: the OECD reports that, worldwide, women do between two and ten times as much caring work as men.

In the UK, this tends in statistics to be framed as “unpaid work”, a sort of poor relation of the economically productive type that happens in workplaces and contributes to GDP.

Carers UK suggests there are around 9 million people caring for others in the UK part or full-time, of whom up to 2.4 million are caring for both adults and their own children. Women carry out the lion’s share of this work: 60% according to the ONS. Full-time students do the least and, unsurprisingly, mothers with babies do the most. Older working women carry the heaviest load of people in employment, with those in the 50-60 bracket being twice as likely as their male counterparts to be carers whether of a vulnerable adult, a partner or a child or grandchild.

Second-wave feminism pushed hard against the pressure women experience to take on this work of caring. Within this variant of liberalism, caring work is routinely framed as a burden that imposes an economic “penalty” while harming the economy by keeping skilled women away from the workplace. The OECD report cited above states: “The gender gap in unpaid care work has significant implications for women’s ability to actively take part in the labour market and the type/quality of employment opportunities available to them.”

The implication is that, once freed of this obligation, women can then pursue more fulfilling activities in the workplace.

So what does this liberation look like in practice? According to a 2017 report by the Social Market Foundation, women in managerial and professional occupations are the least likely to provide care, as are people with degree qualifications. The number working in routine occupations who also donate more than 20 hours a week of care in their own homes is far higher than those in intermediate or professional occupation.

In other words, higher-earning women are to a far greater extent able to outsource the wiping of bottoms to less well-off people, who are themselves typically women: 90% of nurses and care workers are female.

These women are then too busy to wipe the bottoms of their own old and young, who are sent into institutional care. Such institutions are typically staffed by women, often on zero hours contracts, paid minimum wage to care for others all day before going home to do so for their own babies and elderly. The liberation of women from caring is in effect a kind of Ponzi scheme.

This is a problem for our liberal society, for two interlocking reasons. Firstly, the replacement of informal family-based care with a paid, institutional variety renders caring impersonal, in a way that invites cruelty. Indeed, cases of care home abuse are well documented – see herehere or here – and the number is rising: the CQC received more than 67,500 in 2018, an increase of 82 per cent over the already too high 2014 figure of 37,060.

It is difficult to see how this could be otherwise. Caring for those who are physically or mentally incapacitated is emotionally testing even when we love those we care for. An exhausted worker on a zero-hours contract, paid the minimum wage to perform more home visits than she can manage in the allotted day, is unlikely to have a great store of patience to begin with, let alone when faced with a refractory “client”. The entire system militates against kindness.

Secondly, and relatedly, it turns out that the informal, traditionally female networks in which caring for the young and old once took place were actually quite important. Those networks also ran church groups, village fetes, children’s play mornings – all the voluntary institutions that form the foundation of civil society.

When caring is treated as “unpaid work” and we are encouraged to outsource it in favour of employment, no one of adult working age has time for voluntary civil society activities any more. If the number of people caring informally for relatives is waning, replaced by institutional care, so is voluntarism: between 2005 and 2015 alone there was a 15% drop in the number of hours donated (ONS).

The result is loneliness. Almost 2.5m people aged between 45 and 64 now live alone in the UK, almost a million more than two decades ago. Around 2.2 million people over 75 live alone, some 430,000 more than in 1996. In 2017, the Cox Commission on loneliness described it as “a giant evil of our time”, stating that a profound weakening of social connections across society has triggered an “epidemic” of loneliness that is having a direct impact on our health.

Several generations into our great experiment in reframing caring as a burden, we are beginning to count the cost of replacing mutual societal obligations with individual self-fulfilment: an epidemic of loneliness, abuse of the elderly and disabled in care homes, substandard childcare. A society liberated from caring obligations is, with hindsight, a society liberated from much that was critically under-valued.

What is the alternative? Some would prefer a more communitarian approach to caring for the old and the young. Giles Fraser recently wrote on this site that caring for the elderly should be the responsibility of their offspring:

“Children have a responsibility to look after their parents. Even better, care should be embedded within the context of the wider family and community. […] Ideally, then, people should live close to their parents and also have some time availability to care for them. But instead, many have cast off their care to the state or to carers who may have themselves left their own families in another country to come and care for those that we won’t.”

These are strong words and there is much to agree with, but the barest glance at the statistics shows that in practice what that means is “women have a responsibility to look after their parents”.

If we are to count the costs of liberating society from mutual caring obligations, we must also count the benefits, as well as who enjoyed them. Society once encouraged men to seek worldly success, underpinned by the imposition of an often-suffocating domestic servitude on women.

Liberalism blew this out of the water by declaring that in fact both sexes were entitled to seek some form of worldly activity and fulfilment. It is not enough to point to negative side effects of this change and say: “Someone needs to be resuming these mutual caring obligations or society will disintegrate.”

To women well-accustomed to the widespread tacit assumption that it is they who will pick up those underpants, wash up that saucepan, pack that schoolbag and so on, this sounds a lot like a stalking-horse for reversal of societal changes that, on balance, most of us greatly appreciate. In truth no one, whether liberal or post-liberal, wants to confront the enormous elephant that liberal feminism left in society’s sitting room: the question of who cares. Who, now that we are all self-actualising, is going to wipe those bottoms? There are no easy answers.

This article first published in Unherd

The Somewheres are beginning to organise

Yesterday I attended the SDP’s party conference. The rump of the party that merged with the Liberals to become the Liberal Democrats has enjoyed something of a revival in the last year under William Clouston, who has led the charge to reinvent its social-democratic platform along distinctly post-liberal lines. The party is a minnow compared to the big hitters of conference season, but the conference was important. Here’s why.

With very few exceptions, the party’s leadership do not live in London. Its strongest support base is in Yorkshire, notably around Leeds where the conference was held. Clouston himself lives in a village in the North-East. In his closing remarks, he apologised to delegates for the fact that the next meeting will be in London. Where most of the big parties now talk about the need to take note of the perspective of people outside the capital, within the SDP the reverse is the case.

The party leans centre-right on social issues and centre-left on cultural ones. Broadly speaking, it stands for family, community, nation and a robust welfare state, and bears some similarities to ‘Blue Labour’, Maurice Glasman’s project to bring issues such as family and patriotism back into Labour politics. But whereas Glasman’s project was to a significant degree driven by metropolitan intellectuals, the SDP is not driven by London voices or perspectives. This is also perhaps why the SDP has to date had little cut-through in media terms despite numerous polls that suggest widespread support for a combination of redistributive economic policy with small-c social conservative values.

Movements that articulate concerns or perspectives widespread in the UK population outside major cities have in recent years often been traduced in the media as ‘populist’ or even ‘far right’. But while several speakers at the conference inveighed against identity politics and ‘political correctness’, the SDP is not reactionary. The first motion to carry was one to amend the party policy banning non-stun slaughter to one regulating it, both in the interests of religious tolerance but also to avoid far-right dogwhistles. Clouston himself referred in his speech to a ‘decent populism’ that seeks to return the common concerns of those outside major cities and the liberal consensus to mainstream political discourse.

The watchword was ‘community’ and ‘solidarity’. A key theme emerging from the speakers was: what are the proper limits to individual freedom? Where is it more important to consider the needs of a group? Who pays the price for ‘double liberalism’, and how can we mitigate those costs?

For some considerable time, politics has been something done by Anywheres (Goodhart) and more done to the Somewheres. Efforts to rebalance this have tended to be treated as monstrous aberrations that must be contained, whether with disparaging media coverage or more government funding for some client-state scheme or other.

But looking around on Saturday, my sense is this may change. The Somewheres are beginning to organise.

House price fetishism: the Tory paradox in a nutshell

Ever since Thatcher introduced Right to Buy, and then Blair super-heated the housing market with a combination of cheap loans and mass immigration, home ownership has become ever more of a sticky wicket for the Tories. On the one hand, Tory voting has historically been associated with home ownership: people with something to lose are typically more conservative. On the other hand though, in order to sustain the pleasantly rising house prices that keep the core Tory base contented (and the cheap money flowing, as people remortgage to pay for extensions, kids’ university fees or whatever) it becomes ever harder for younger generations to join the home-owning ranks of the putatively Tory.

Mulling this over, it struck me that there’s a second, more profound way that the late twentieth-century transformation of homes into part loan collateral, part asset class, part status symbol has left conservatism with a dilemma. A couple of years ago I wrote a piece about the way Brexit was functioning as a proxy war within the Tory Party over which the party valued more: free market dogma or social conservatism. I think my analysis still holds, and indeed that the only thing that has changed is that social conservatives are now losing, and leaving the Tory Party in droves. The housing issue, it seems to me, encapsulates the nature of this conflict in a nutshell.

Here’s why: if you see your house purchase primarily as an asset class, you’re not buying with the intent to settle and make a home there. You’ll do the place up, sell it on and move. No need to get to know the neighbours, form networks, get involved in community activities. Probably best if your kids don’t put down too many local roots or it’ll be a wrench for them to leave their friends. Homes-as-asset-class is the quintessential Anywhere (Goodhart) mindset, that treats a place as a set of resources to be consumed, developed, improved, but which are ultimately that: resources. Not networks, not reciprocal obligations, not really a home. Conversely, if you buy somewhere as a Somewhere, with the intent to put down roots and make a home there – to be there for the rest of your life or at least the foreseeable future – you can’t really treat your home as an asset class because it’s about the least liquid asset imaginable. OK, if house prices rise you’ll benefit a bit in theory, because maybe you can take out a loan against the imagined gain in value of your house but again, that’s only really meaningful if you’re planning to sell.

Now, I’m   being a bit reductive but returning to the Conservatives, your Anywheres are all for free market liberalism – and your Somewheres are all for social conservatism. For many years, the two managed to coexist well enough within the same party, united – perhaps – by a broad consensus (for different reasons) that taxation and public spending should be restrained. But if the issue of European Union membership has been the most visible evidence of that truce collapsing, the breakdown both predates and is more profound than ‘banging on about Europe’ would suggest.

We’ve reached a point now where the demands of the free market are becoming ever more inimical to the needs of the kind of settled community that nurtures and values social conservatism. The kind of worldview that values the free market understands a house as primarily an investment, and invests him or herself in the local community in proportion to that understanding – ie lightly if at all. This is profoundly at odds with the kind of worldview that places value on continuity, community, a sense of place and tradition. Thus while both these groups may place a value on home ownership, it is for radically different reasons: and these two strands of conservatism are increasingly at odds.

Fundamentally, the Conservative Party has acted for some decades as though free market ideology were compatible with a belief in patriotism, conservative social values and a healthy civic society. It is becoming increasingly apparent that this is no longer the case. The profound sociocultural conflict and difference in outlook – and hence spending behaviour, political assumptions and fundamental approach to life – emblematic in the difference between a Somewhere who wishes to buy a house as a home, to live in and care for within the context of a rooted and socially-engaged local existence, and an Anywhere who wishes to buy a house as an investment, with the aim of moving on once it is financially viable, encapsulates this irreducible fracture. It is increasingly apparent that the Conservative Party cannot serve both. It is also increasingly apparent that, if one group has to go, it will not be the Anywheres. So the question is: who will speak for lower middle class Somewheres, when – as is now inevitable – they begin to flex their political muscles somewhere other than the Tory Party?