Jobs in the ‘gig economy’ are more in need of respect than sympathy

Often unseen among those itching to serve a cause is the social hierarchy created by one. Claiming yourself a champion claims another a villain, and a third your charge. There’s only one guaranteed winner, here. Trendy graduates on Fleet Street celebrating the emerging challenges faced by Silicon Valley’s ‘servant economy’ are pitying entire tribes of workers into class relegation; it’s much less clear whether they’re improving lives any more than the jobs that offend them.

Like all groups, those staffing on-demand driving services are a more diverse bunch than even the best-intentioned stereotypes account for. I’ve been Uber-ed around by the privately educated son of a Mayfair art dealer, a full-stack software developer, a Nigerian revolutionary, and an ex-fighter pilot. Another, nearing the end of both his shift and his career, was looking forward to retiring back in Sierra Leone, leaving behind his younger daughter as an accident and emergency registrar at St Thomas’ Hospital, and his elder daughter a fully qualified anaesthetist.

Becoming party to such insights should have been unlikely in the context of the reportedly nameless and faceless servility of these roles. Except such upstairs-downstairs parallels (👉 Sarah O’Connor, Financial Times) are reported suspiciously more often by those that seem to think they’re upstairs. The now-defunct but widely cited Doteveryone think-tank, for all its laudable stated intentions, did less to certify the dehumanising properties of the job than to inadvertently advance bigoted notions about its inability to convey status.

None of which is to say we shouldn’t pay attention to creeping societal changes to work. If we’re to see more of tech startups that demand a looser covenant between business and workers, it’s right to discuss what it means for the social contract — seriously, I mean, rather than with voguish outrage. Given that Uber, together with several on-demand delivery brands, now employs its UK staff — unlike most of its traditional analogue antecedents — one presumes focus will turn to more nuanced grievances. But in the meantime, incautious remarks about an Uber shift turning a human into some other primate denigrate the driver more than their role, and are guilty of a greater injustice than that they’re intending to speak to.

A little humility might better equip one to realise that those who’ve survived civil war, piloted a MiG-21, navigated the UK asylum system, or had both children enrolled with the Royal Society of Medicine, probably aren’t pawns in anyone’s game. And deserve, from anyone given to either, less sympathy than they do respect.

Abolishing what’s left of the monarchy would surrender republican gains

I’ve been reminded, thanks to my wife’s attainment of British citizenship this week, that nationhood is a fragile story. It’s fitting, then, that naturalisation should be subject to the truly defining properties of the British narrative: a refusal to take anything too seriously, and to never miss an opportunity for self-parody.

I can’t say the ceremony agenda is intimidating, but it certainly has the appearance of formality, with its declaration of allegiance, national anthem lyrics, and list of ceremonially titled officials in attendance. And The Old Marylebone Town Hall makes quite an impression, with its Graeco-Roman facade, Corinthian capitals, colonnaded tower, and toilets that wouldn’t be out of place in a 5-star hotel. Like the fabled English gentleman, though, beneath the surface is a reassuringly familiar farce.

‘We’re joined today by citizens who’ve come from all over the world,’ announced the theatrically camp Superintendent Registrar. ‘Canada, Greece, South Korea… Barbados? Hang on, why are you here?!’ Prefacing the arrival of the Lord Mayor of Westminster — a young Muslim lad, who’d soon read a scripted welcome with all the austerity of a first-year undergraduate student — the Registrar asked of the attendees, ‘Be gentle with him: he’s new, and we want this one to stay; he’s probably more nervous than you are.’

Those wondering what to expect of the final step in becoming British can look forward to a goody bag and a reasonable best man’s speech. Which, as the Registrar reminded everyone, ‘Is the least you could expect for the amount you’ve paid.’

Anyone suspecting some kind of anomaly here would benefit from reading David Zolkwer’s remarks on organising the Platinum Jubilee pageant, who took to reassuring journalists at The Times that the event wouldn’t ‘take itself quite so seriously’. Well, we’ve had bobbies bundling off vegan protesters, a prince pulling faces on the palace balcony, the family’s most embarrassing member pulling a conspicuously convenient Covid sickie, and the nation’s oldest celebrity vigorously applauded for smiling politely before quietly disappearing — to mark seven decades of smiling politely before quietly disappearing. It’s all going swimmingly.

You’ve only got to witness two people that actually like each other trying to decide what colour to paint a wall to realise how improbable it is that 68 million people, that mostly haven’t met, might agree on even the basics. Humanity’s proclivity to employ autocracy in the pursuit of some consensus, against such odds, accounts for the back story of every place the species has ever gathered. One would be hard-pressed to deny that autocracy’s seemingly more natural than any alternative to it; or that whilst the reality of it can be eliminated, the idea can’t: There will never be a shortage of egoists who consider it their destiny to rule by decree, or of others mysteriously willing to usher them towards their aspirations.

Thus did the execution of Charles I give us Oliver Cromwell — initially interred in Westminster Abbey among others honest enough to call themselves kings. The execution of Louis XVI, and the Reign of Terror, gave the French Napoleon. The execution of the Romanovs left the Russians with Stalin. Abdication of the German emperor soon left the people with Hitler. The extirpation of monarchy has quite the form on ‘same shit, different assholes’.

I believe it’s widely lost on republicans exactly what British parliamentarians did with our monarchy. With a bloodline leading all the way back to Alfred the Great, and the record of over a millennium of nation building, there remains no more compelling claim than the Royal Family’s to rally British autocratic fervour; and here it is, in permanent stasis, enslaved in an elaborate constitutional prison. Like Julius Caesar’s treatment of the captured King of Gaul, our elected representatives wheel out the family’s pre-eminent members for special events, for crowds to get their fix of national pride, catharsis for their desire to see nationhood personified — when the personification instead is of the subjugation of autocracy, in perpetuity.

By reign without rule, all is decreed in the name of autocracy, and in the absence of its will. Constitution ended the monarchy not with the bang of revolution, but with an everlasting ceremonial whimper. A zombie institution in a gilded cage, the strongest claimant to the nation’s historic dictatorship is a fossilised cog, on life support inside a 21st Century democratic machine: a living relic too alive to be resuscitated, but too dead to exist outside a museum.

Whatever the cost to us, I disbelieve it to be greater than the cost to them. Some will draw my attention to the family’s purported assets, but they look more fragile to me in royal hands than in any private citizen’s. Some of the nation’s wealthier Russian guests found their London assets to be theirs but for the grace of Liz Truss; the royals’ own are never more than an executive order away from transfer to… whatever might replace the Crown.

The smart republicans among us will be toasting their gains throughout this weekend’s festivities. The autocratic story of yesteryear is the slave of the democratic narrative of our age. Only the ideologues will be bemoaning the work yet to be done; but their agenda — of self-promotion in the language of someone else’s values — is a different brand of perpetual endeavour, and one much less in the public interest.

MMT’s politics warrant greater controversy than its premise

Taxes may serve other purposes — the redistribution of income and wealth, the discouragement of “sinful” behaviour — but, in the world of MMT, they serve no useful macroeconomic role.

Stephen King, Senior Economic Advisor to HSBC, October 2020

In his eponymous Financial Times op-ed, Stephen King, Senior Economic Advisor to HSBC, stated The case against Modern Monetary Theory, the radical economic theory beloved of the left, and loathed by the right — usually by reference to the Magic Money Tree with which the theory amusingly shares an acronym.

Joining the swelling ranks of economists eager to debunk a theory cited by Bernie Sanders and AOC as a basis for expanding deficit spending, Mr King — by stating that ‘in the world of MMT [taxes] serve no useful macroeconomic role’ — emulates the mistakes of the paradigm’s Democratic allies: passing off an opinion about MMT’s political utility as a test of its veracity.

Under MMT, government spending creates money, and taxes destroy money. The world in which taxes serve no useful macroeconomic role is a straw one, more likely intended to economically undermine the theory than to undermine the theory economically.

That MMT has been politicised by its founding fathers is lamentable, but shouldn’t foreclose consideration of its core claims — which are really only an extrapolation of central bankers’ own accounts for the way that money is created in a modern economy.

We know that most of the money in a modern economy is ‘bank money’: money created by commercial banks, that has its origin in the act of the bank issuing a loan. When a commercial bank issues a loan, it simply credits the borrower’s deposit account with the value of the loan, writing the value of the deposit in the liabilities column of its ledger, and the value of the loan in the assets column.

The stock of bank money in the economy is expanded by the value of the deposit; repayment of the loan unwinds this action, and destroys the newly created bank money. At the end of the banking day, commercial banks aggregate the net transaction values due to one-another as a result of their customers’ payment activities, initiating a net transfer between themselves in a different type of money: central bank money — reserves.

The central bank undertakes to always ensure that there are enough reserves in the system to underpin all interbank transactions, whatever the quantity of bank money in circulation.

Although deviating from the description of money creation popular in economics textbooks, this account is uncontroversial among the central banks responsible for framing the monetary system — and is consistent with the account put forward under MMT.

MMT further claims that, upon very close inspection, governments in modern economies — even when appearing to bank with commercial sector banking institutions — actually initiate payments via the direct creation of reserves, and that a payment from government to a private sector contractor implies, in abstract terms, (a) the creation of an IOU between government and the central bank, (b) a commensurate IOU, denominated in reserves, between the central bank and the commercial bank representing the private contractor, and (c) an IOU, denominated in bank money, between the commercial bank and the private contractor — representing the sales receipts settled by government.

This, the theory claims, represents an expansion of the aggregate money in circulation within the economy. The private contractor’s later settlement of taxes unwinds the chain of IOUs, ending in the tearing-up of the government’s IOU to the central bank, and a contraction in the stock of money.

That government spending might precede taxation is no more eccentric than the accepted account that loans precede deposits. And what follows — that the supply of money is regulated by the confluence of fiscal and monetary policy — has implications that better warrant exploratory debate than blunt dismissal.

MMT seems primarily to be a paradigm in which one relentlessly observes real financial operations through the principles of double-entry bookkeeping, is substantially consistent with the central banking consensus on monetary theory, and illuminates a range of related debates — bringing equal focus upon the role of government debt in the economy not only as a liability for the public sector, but as the most trusted asset for the private sector. One wonders what a pension company’s balance sheet would look like were the public debt repaid, and government bonds ceased to exist.

Questioning, as MMT does, whether the merits of central bank independence are illusory additionally seems increasingly fair game after more than a decade of QE-related asset purchase activities, in which government debt auctioned ostensibly through open-market operations is bought by institutional buyers that know the central bank is waiting in the wings to monetise the debt.

If fiscal and monetary policy are, in the end, both merely tools in the inflation management toolbox, then the debate over government debt, deficit, and spending, does need to be reoriented. Questions might then more profitably be posed not over whether we’re mortgaging our grandchildren’s future, but over the size of the state’s role within the economy. The proponents of MMT would do greater justice to the paradigm by sitting out that debate, rather than adulterating the theory with a certain brand of politics.

Get Brexit Done, or Save our NHS?

I’ll be equally curious tonight to know which three-word slogan better appeals to the nation’s viscera as I will to know the outcome of the election.

The race to ape US democracy’s campaigning by the shortest message has left an inhospitable landscape for those that see no simple answers to complex questions, and who take no comfort from tribal allegiance. Campaigns run by the PR industry are premised upon an informational scorched earth policy that leaves a trail of political homelessness in its wake.

Corralling me into the great tribal divide is, however, my belief that EU membership is the biggest single issue in UK politics, and our exit the greatest long-term misstep, in respects that are material to all: economy; security; global relevance.

Contributing little more than 1% to global carbon emissions, a net-zero UK wouldn’t save the planet. What might, however, would be successful influence over the global agenda. Such leverage, on climate change, conflict resolution, and on societal values, exists for the UK only via its membership of the bloc. A sober view of the UK’s power to set the agenda, with its comparatively high global ranking on nominal GDP, is informed by the influence Japan exerts on global affairs, with a GDP almost twice that of the UK. That is, an influence barely worth one headline a year.

Only the EU is an equal in the US and China’s otherwise bipolar world, and mere decades will see leading European nations fall in relevance and influence, first behind India, and later nations from Brazil and Mexico through to Indonesia and Nigeria — countries where values are often largely unrecognisable to modern Europeans. International charters drafted in the image of European social aspirations are set to decay absent the economic might that permitted their expression.

Competing for the UK’s reins to face this dilemma are two major parties that are not what they’re perceived to be by their most ardent supporters. We’ve a Conservative Party that’s a closet Remain party, whose greatest strategic victory is its consummate outmanoeuvring of the Brexit Party. The party of the establishment can’t endure at odds with the establishment, amongst whom only an eccentric fringe relish Brexit’s dismantling of the entire state architecture for no obvious benefit. But the party’s descent into factional conflict, and led by the most cynical of political opportunists, makes it impossible for it to express its true political nature except dysfunctionally.

The Labour Party, by a contrast worthy of satire, is a closet Brexit party, that’s attempted to make unlikely bedfellows of Brexit heartlanders — ex-mining communities from South Wales, ex-dock workers from the north east — and younger pro-Remain university graduates, with metropolitan values. Attracted by Labour‘s inclusive messaging and checklist of spending pledges, younger supporters are less aware of Corbyn and McDonnell as the political palingenesis of Tony Benn, who would turn in his grave if Labour derailed Britain’s exit from the EU. Today’s Bennite Labour leadership are dyed in the wool Eurosceptics.

There’s undoubtedly less cause for panic about the affordability of Labour’s 2019 manifesto than its critics suggest, and support is widespread for greater spending on public services. But there’s more moral hazard than virtue in the relentless message that someone else will pay. McDonnell’s candid about the need to have a saleable entry point. The aspiration is for a far bigger state. Bigger than France, one presumes, where government spending accounts for a staggering 56% of the nation’s economy.

Big state is a very abstract concept to many voters, and I see a risk that younger cohorts — who have banked the way of life in a mid-Atlantic style free-market economy — would find a government-dominated society a little colourless.

A useful metaphor is a brown envelope from the government instructing the recipient to redistribute their Instagram followers to users claiming low self-esteem. I know many that’d be happy to share, if it cheered someone up. But socialism’s not about the sharing. It’s about the brown envelope.

Ever on the fringe, circling the major parties in the hope of a draw, is a Liberal Democrat Party that’s replaced one of the most credible voices in UK politics in favour of the least statesmanlike major party leader since 🤔 Tim Farron.

Campaigning on a promise to cancel Article 50 seems neither good strategy, nor good politics. But… it’s a policy that, functioning unequivocally in the nation’s best interests on the defining question of our time, is perhaps only accidentally ideological. And, finally, it’s a policy that’s logical and principled.

Residing in a constituency that only ever returns a Conservative MP, being logical and principled is the only contribution I can make at the ballot box.

Liberal Democrats: ✔️

Obsessive Disclaiming Disorder in email communication

If I don’t know what you’re thinking, I know what you should be thinking: This is 1999, and you’re reading an article mistakenly dated twenty years hence. But unfortunately, despite our developmental blindness to them — together with their invisibility within the legal system — the pestilence of email disclaimers really does continue to menace perfectly sufficient signatures. Indeed, the contagion looks set to outlive polio.

A recent post in my LinkedIn feed referenced an email from HMRC with a 17-word message, and a 493-word disclaimer. Admittedly, HMRC’s a soft target for purported battiness, but it’s far from alone in practising a rite that might have excused itself from the digital party, in quiet embarrassment, two decades ago.

The eccentricity is now into postgraduate age and, despite a generation of public abuse and humiliation — without chalking up a single precedent of legal efficacy — looks set to endure. It’s a small mercy that these textual tumours remain an email-centric phenomenon, but the same fact serves to heighten their absurdity.

The disclaimer still has something of a spring in its step; it certainly outpaces contemporary human evolution in its generational diversity. Like a Heston Blumenthal chip, there’s always room for improvement; there’s always a legal chef willing to bear the challenge of pursuing it, and always a quavering executive, or government mandarin, with an appetite for garrulous legalese in lieu of actual risk assessment. 

Western visitors to Korea are often baffled and amused by lingering anxieties over the risks posed by… electric fans. Not, you might think, the risk of a child squeezing a tiny finger through the mesh and losing it to a high-speed rotational blade. But the risk that, if inadvisedly left on overnight in a closed room, it might be the end of you. 

Some say its fatal mechanism is hypothermia; others say hyperthermia; others, still, suggest an increase in carbon dioxide concentration. Scientists, I mean. Yes, it’s a subject that’s still a worthy topic for research funding. Government warnings are intended to reduce the risk, particularly during the summer months. In the meantime, newspaper reports dovetail with parochial rumours: ‘Man, 88, mysteriously found dead at home. Coroner’s report inconclusive. A neighbour discovered the body. A fan was reportedly left on in the room.’ Or something to that effect.

Bible readers shouldn’t underestimate the entertainment value of the speck in your brother’s eye. But, getting back to the beam in our own: Through no greater lens than the email has the employer looked upon its employees so inexplicably askance. Why doesn’t HMRC consider it similarly judicious to post a 493-word letter after closing a phone call? Why are businesses so insouciant about leaves of blank headed paper lying around the office, yet clamour for legal counsel in trembling voices when an employee hits New Message in Outlook? Why don’t they legally vaccinate their text messages?

Unparalleled in its ability to stir atavistic fears of institutional misrepresentation, only email must be chastened by these mystical incantations. While organisations continue to rabidly communicate unguarded through platforms old and new — from telephone calls, meetings, and text messages, through to Google Hangouts, Slack, and Facebook Workplace — many continue to cower in foreboding at the thought of transmitting an email without a prayer of protection.

The Enlightenment was supposed to present an existential threat to superstition, not merely to trade its mechanism from the spirit world to industry. The scourge of email disclaimers is, after all, only a marginally more benign indictment upon human rationality than trial by ordeal. What other flavours of callow groupthink, and contemptibly blind imitation, haunt the meeting rooms of our nation’s commercial and governmental institutions?

China is a cultural equal, not a student for moral instruction

The title of Gideon Rachman’s Financial Times op-ed, Xi Jinping faces his moment of truth in Hong Kong, is undoubtedly as much aspiration as observation, such is the English-language media’s ideological commitment to denouncing the Chinese system of government.

Colonisation by force to support an illicit drugs trade contributed confoundingly to Hong Kong’s wealth and standing today; but the willingness to forgive and forget our own inscrutable lack of political probity is seldom extended to our competitors in global affairs. Raising millions out of poverty is ‘whataboutery’ if you’re an unloved regime, whilst moral ambiguity in our own policy record seldom prohibits the end from justifying the means.

GDP per capita in mainland China has seen startling growth over the past decade, but remains modest; and there are 1.5bn citizens to provide with security, healthcare, social services, and retirement income — all of which will be more important to them than the media circus of a western election. Perhaps the political innovations of the self-styled free world have something to contribute to that project; perhaps they don’t. Ultimately, it’s for China, and its citizens, to decide.

Foreign observers should chasten their assumptions regarding the extent to which Hong Kong activists’ democratic principles align them against the politics of the motherland. Popular support for one country, two systems, isn’t a strategic compromise for near-independence; citizens of Hong Kong don’t share with their international supporters such a unifying consensus that Xi-ism is fatally flawed.

To the extent that western democratic principles are encoded in the Basic Law, as part of the handover, or remain a broader source of inspiration, there is a soft power in play. That will have to suffice. Supporting activists as a vehicle to frame media narratives around Xi, in terms marked with interminable calumny, suggests a goal other than analysis — and one that risks needlessly extending to the western grassroots the antipathy currently felt by the most hawkish among their leaders towards a credible competitor.

Self-congratulatory narratives in the west help people forget that all governments rule ultimately by consent; and, indeed, varying degrees of authoritarianism are afforded acts in every nation’s founding story — very often the most celebrated ones. It’s right to advocate for suppressed minorities in China, but American observers, by example, might have the humility to recall that the same year the nation was listening to the Beach Boys’ Surfing’ U.S.A., the Governor of Alabama was blocking three African American students from enrolling in a white school. If we’re to embrace that history as part of a process, why the absence of a process that’s permitted to other nations without the cost of moral invalidation?

The columnists and readers maligning the Chinese system of government in putative solidarity with its oppressed subjects in Xinjiang, or on the streets of Hong Kong, may find themselves on the right side of the moral divide more by an accident of their rhetoric, than by its true purpose; better known abroad than our political freedoms is our proclivity to use the language of social justice as a Trojan horse for proclaiming ideological superiority. The avoidance of truly civilisational conflict with a resurgent China will rest, in this nascent phase, on the willingness of European civilisations to cut the didactic bullshit, and treat the emerging superpower as a genuine cultural equal.

Has liberalism outlived its purpose?

Vladimir Putin’s right, in his illuminating interview with the Financial Times last month, to present Donald Trump as more symptom than cause in changes to the political tide. But, whilst there’s a clarity and candour to Putin’s suggestion that the benefits of globalisation in the US have accrued exclusively to the population’s moneyed margins, it’s inadequate alone as a truly generalised account for the growth of populism elsewhere.

Despite broadly favourable outcomes in recent European elections, nativist discourse is in unquestionable ascent beyond the US. From advanced Anglo-Saxon economies with growing inequity in wealth distribution, through impoverished states in South Asia facing food and water insecurity, and on to the social democratic utopias of Northern Europe, with their advanced education systems and cradle-to-grave welfare states, various brands of nationalism are powering through the electoral gears.

The 21st Century strongmen bear limited resemblance to their 20th Century postwar forebears: rather than the top-down imposition of autocracy on a suffering population — through homegrown coup d’état, or one engineered by cynical Nixon Doctrine alliance — the new generation of aspiring dictators is being ushered in from the bottom-up by a global constituency of nativist tribes, increasingly fervent to delineate themselves from one other, and doing so in comically similar language.

The insidious polarisation of grassroots populations threatens a truly global liberal order more than the actions of the cartoon villains they elect. The issues by which people choose to identify themselves are cleaving the body politic in two; while working class nativists and middle class metropolitans compete over attendance numbers at street protests, the allied polemicists of each gather on both sides of the debate and do little to advance it. The internationalists are trapped in a fruitless cycle of exposing populist non sequiturs, blind to the fact that the movement’s adherents had started with the conclusion and worked their way back to the reason.

Hope rests on the return of real politics: informing voters, and persuading them. Eisenhower’s valedictory address referenced the threat of the incipient and cynical alliance between business, the military, and government; the new threat is the subsumption of politics into the public relations and marketing industry of the digital era.

Electioneering now involves merely canvassing public opinion, and then navigating it. The old guard of mainstream corporate media points to the threat of Russian interference, over-reading a minor subplot in a greater odyssey: Politics by the fissile materials of audience segmentation, and the related innovations in marketing intelligence of the digital age, reveal and reinforce the ideological fault lines in the population; the socially radioactive effluence of populism is the true cost of the method.

North Korea is not the only unpredictable partner in the world’s most contentious rapprochement

What will the US promise in return for disarmament? How far can the US be trusted to deliver on those promises? How resilient would any US concession be to a change in administration?

Observers wishing to take their cynicism seriously — over the world’s most contentious rapprochement — will have to read beyond the headlines, which instead focus exclusively on North Korea’s history of duplicity and lapsed promises.

It’s unlikely to be lost on the North Korean team that US foreign policy orthodoxy holds the status quo on the Korean Peninsula to best serve its interests. Behind Trump’s entertainingly vainglorious diplomatic grandstanding is a foreign policy establishment manoeuvring to relieve North Korea of its nuclear armaments — without permitting its allies to consider the pariah state no longer a threat.

Peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula being in the western alliance’s best interests is the logical conclusion of the propaganda, not the politics. In addition to exposing the Pacific Rim to the greatest of evils for economic planning — political change — a unified peninsula liquidates a key asset in the US’s regional investments: its diplomatic pretext for regional military deployments that are more likely apropos of China. US ambitions of continued power projection in the Pacific risk being frustrated by significant changes in Korean politics; indeed, there’s a material possibility of a unified Korea falling entirely outside of the US sphere of influence, given that China is already the principal trading partner both North and South of the 38th parallel.

Trump’s perception of the North Korean nuclear problem, as one that might be solved by a deal, is exposed to being overturned by a future administration that’s more compliant with established foreign policy wisdom. How readily I can imagine nuclear disarmament being later described as only one phase of the reforms required to normalise relations and maintain sanctions relief: that free and fair elections must follow, or military exercises will resume. And, all the while, Kim’s efforts to cry double standards over tolerance of, say, Saudi Arabian autocracy, will be lost in a cacophony of throat-clearing and sententious platitudes by the inexplicably compliant media over here in the free world.

North Korea might play with its promises. But the degree to which it does so may derive from the degree to which we, the western alliance, play with ours.

If our government promotes the rules-based order, it must be governed by it

In an effort to attenuate some of the mystery surrounding the fabled Oxford interview, the university last year moved to further belie perceptions of priggishness by publishing a student guide to the ritual. The article gets its shirt off in the title:

Should it be illegal to run a red light in the middle of the night on an empty road?

Makes sense to explore the way the aspiring student thinks, rather than to test her memory of the national curriculum. But that’s by the bye: I’m more distracted by the new guide’s inaugural question.

Before being asked, intuition had me venting at the punctilious car in front, stopped, 3am, at the red light of a pelican crossing armed by an absent barfly. But, the question being so convincingly articulated — not in a slurred world-to-rights contest, but by the Director of Admissions of the nation’s Crown Jewels of undergraduate learning — I was suddenly unsettled.

A lay curiosity of post-structuralism that emerged during my own undergraduate years left me suspicious of a binary world. The only certainty about anything seemed to be its uncertainty. Day and night, man and woman, child and adult, government and subject — there was suddenly nothing black and white that couldn’t be better described in shades of grey.

And nothing more so than morality — surely the protagonist in the creation myth of our legal system. In the china shop of human ethics, binary attitudes to right and wrong are the proverbial bull.

But law isn’t morality, however interwoven the pair’s respective origin and nature. They belong to different ontological worlds. Morality exists in some metaphysical world, where nothing is binary; law exists in a more physical world, where everything has to be. Law is the cleaver humanity takes to moral continuum, when morality is transmuted from human psyche into human behaviour.

We’re being psychologically devious with ourselves when we then evaluate the rationality of the 3am traffic-light offence in moral terms. Binary artefacts of law are, by both their nature and design, impervious to arguments premised on the spectral nature of morality. So it is that the law, and the legal process, can deviate from our visceral sense of justice — a sense predicated in metaphysical continua — and seem irrational, obtuse, and inhuman.

And this compromise is the very foundation of the global rules-based order, whose proponents in the Anglo-Saxon world have been licking their wounds since 2016, with Britain’s vote against EU membership, and America’s election of Donald Trump, together with the wider west’s growing trend towards populism: the politics of common sense over complex systems. For those who support the rules-based order — and the primacy of law, and international compact, over corrupt whims of charity and favour — the inexpedience of due process is the cost, for which stability, predictability, and equity, are the dividends.

It is Russia’s dissent from the rules-based system, from the putative extrajudicial assassination attempt in Salisbury, that goes to the heart of political disapprobation across the western alliance: Vladimir Putin, they allege, acting arbitrarily, violently, and dangerously, in flagrant disregard of due process at home and abroad, for personal political profit. The essence of totalitarianism.

Within ten days of Sergei and Yulia Skripal’s discovery unconscious on a park bench, a joint statement was issued by France, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom, to say that ‘it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack’ and that ‘there is no plausible alternative explanation’. Trump told reporters that it ‘certainly looks like Russia were behind it’.

Looks like? Highly likely?

I’ve no idea whether Jeremy Corbyn’s much maligned requests in parliament for actual evidence of Russian involvement were ideologically motivated — a lingering sympathy of the old communist homeland, for which he’s occasionally accused — but it’s frankly irrelevant. When did it become de rigueur for the proponents of the global rules-based order to deride a request for evidence?

Our leaders must decide whether they’re for rules, inexpedient as they may be, or for caprices. They cannot challenge Russia on its abuse of the former, whilst leveraging the expedience of the latter. If the self-proclaimed leaders of the free world diminish the onus probandi in the judgement of an interstate felony to ‘looks like’, then the global rules-based order risks standing, above all else, for what leftist states across the globe have always claimed it stands for: Bigotry.

Gender & the Holy Spirit

The gender identity debate today strikes me as reminiscent of the 11th Century ecumenical debate over the Filioque. East and West Christianity were irreconcilable over the question of whether the divine identity of the Holy Spirit was that of the Father, rather than the Son, or something in between.

In their rush to excommunicate one another, church leaders lost sight of some key facts about the Holy Spirit. First, that we made it up. And, second, that we also made up the Father, the Son, and the entire concept of divinity.

The prevailing public debate, that we see both in the liberal mainstream press and trending in social media, doesn’t strike me as the last gender identity debate in advanced societies. Having shot its load establishing a more nuanced understanding of rigid gender stereotypes, dominant LGBTQ discourse tends to embrace the resultant spectrum. Sympathetic column inches have been dedicated to the mainstream’s treatment of those minority groups that choose to occupy previously unchartered areas of the spectrum. The focus has centred upon where we are on the spectrum, rather than on the true nature of the spectrum itself.

Future societies might focus instead upon some deeper truths about gender: crucially, that we made it up. Not only ‘gender identity’, but ‘assigned gender’, too, the relative frequency of ambiguous genitalia exposing biological sex as an uncertain dichotomy. That is to say, the biological assumption underpinning the distinction between cisgender and transgender is also unstable — sufficiently so to prohibit biology’s effort to fully withhold its charge from the clutches of the social constructionists.

The gender debate has continued to diversify, from challenging disparities in social power into expanding our understanding of its essence; it is undergoing a transformation from binary opposition to continuum. The elephant in the room remains the question of whether it might one day simply cease to exist.

The medieval European churches served an organisational function for the societies they emerged from. Questions over the true nature of the Holy Spirit had implications for the integrity of the doctrine. Gender has similarly served an organisational function for humanity, but remains an article of faith about our true nature. As successive generations inherited a gendered world, so did they refine the social lens through which we see the world — in ways that exaggerate the gender distinctions established by our forebears.

A surprising number of British men affirm with a nod, safely reassured, when reminded that the men’s 100m world record is 0.91 seconds faster than the women’s. That 0.91 seconds means that ‘men run faster than women’ (love). But any of those guys that couldn’t run more than 50m at full sprint might struggle to explain exactly what relevance the statistical reference has to their own identity. They might also struggle to explain why the supposed beneficial implications of that split-second advantage don’t seem to accrue equally to those of West African descent — who did almost all of the legwork in breaking the 10-second barrier — as they do to ‘men’ more generally.

The nature of these questions has a long heritage in the feminist literary canon, but I wonder how many arbitrary metrics of gender difference derive from innovations founded not merely to establish male precedence, but to establish gender itself.

That growing numbers of people are choosing to wrest control of their gender identity is closer to a Lutheran protest than to atheism. In the brouhaha over how we present ourselves, many on both the liberal and conservative sides of the debate choose not to question whether the gender emperor is actually wearing any clothes. The male and female cultural mainstream has become accustomed to questions of gender identity centring around how they see a gender-fluid minority; in a later reckoning, they may face the greater challenge of tackling the way they see themselves.