Why I miss the pub

This past year of lockdowns has imposed a strange hierarchy on the world of consumerism – or at least the old fashioned, bricks-and-mortar one – by deeming some businesses “essential” and others not. This has led to some interesting decisions (I was happy the UK government thought garden centres were essential retail), but one thing that never seemed in doubt was that bars and restaurants wouldn’t qualify. Since what these establishments do is the exact opposite of social distancing, there was never really a discussion to be had about keeping them open.

Nonetheless, this ordeal has made me appreciate just how essential communal eating and drinking is to the life of cities. The experience of lockdown has confirmed my worst suspicions about how asocial and impersonal a modern society can become while still, just about, functioning. Technology has allowed remote working, remote shopping, remote learning, remote yoga classes and remote puppy training (yes, this is a thing), so that the soul-crushing loneliness of home confinement can be borne with an ironic smile. Human beings have once again proved depressingly adaptable. Against this backdrop, it’s notable that the shuttering of bars and restaurants has cast a perceptible sadness over urban life. 

In London it feels like entire neighbourhoods have had their heart ripped out, especially at night time. Areas that used to be filled with light and laughter now have a cold, desolate atmosphere of utter abandonment.

Maybe this all sounds obvious to you, but I fell out of love with London’s hospitality sector some time ago. I don’t really go to restaurants or even the pub all that often, but I did spend years working in such places, an experience which made me depressed with the effects of gentrification in the city. When I arrived here a decade ago, there were many more pubs, cafés and restaurants that served an older kind of communal function – where locals of different generations met with each other almost every day. But with rising rents and changing class demographics, these settings have continued to give way to trendy venues offering that characteristically middle-class recipe of snobbish sophistication thinly veiled by novelty or faux-authenticity.  

Of course mourning the decline of the working-class boozer can easily slip into patronising nostalgia, but I have seen first hand how the informal networks which exist around such traditional meeting places can help people find work, resolve family issues and so on. Besides, the artisanal consumerism which has replaced them is simply odious. The elevation of eating and drinking into a sacred dimension of personal lifestyle, with its elements of health obsession, neurosis about doing things “ethically,” and fetishism of diversity and variety, smacks of a culture in search of genuine rituals.  

In principle I still stand by this gripe, but the experience of this past year has made me see things a little differently. Hospitality may reflect the ongoing privatisation of life in cities, but it also seems to show that there are limits to how far this trend can go. Deliveroo just doesn’t do the trick: people want to be out among others in public, experiencing the atmosphere of human warmth that only a busy pub or restaurant can offer. These settings still belong among those institutions which have allowed cosmopolitan cities to endure since long before the arrival of empires and nations. 

All of which is to say, I’m really looking forward to going for a drink.  

Europe’s empty moral gestures

The story of the Opium Wars in mid-19th century China has been told in many ways, but the account which has always stayed with me is the short one given by W.G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn. In just a few pages, and with his novelist’s eye for arresting detail, Sebald portrays the European incursion into the Celestial Empire as a tragic meeting of two hubristic and uncomprehending civilisations. 

The Opium Wars unfolded amid efforts to keep China open to European commercial interests, after the Chinese had tried to limit the British opium trade through Canton. In the Second Opium War of the 1850s, the British, soon to be joined by the French, sent an expeditionary force to make the ailing Qing Emperor Hsien-feng come to terms. The Europeans, Sebald notes, saw themselves as the righteous bearers of those necessary conditions for progress, “Christian evangelism and free trade.” Having marched inland from Canton, however, they were baffled when the Emperor’s delegates demanded they pay homage, in order to fulfil “the immemorial obligations toward the Son of Heaven of envoys from satellite powers.” 

If the Europeans felt any sense of superiority, they were disabused of it when they came across the glorious Yuan Ming Yuan gardens near Peking; Sebald speculates that the horrific looting and destruction they carried out there may have been driven by shame at the achievements of the Chinese. But a steeper fall from grace awaited the decaying Qing court, where although “the ritualisation of imperial power was at its most elaborate: at the same time, that power itself was by now almost completely hollowed out.” Sebald portrays the decline of the Qing as an increasingly empty and deluded going-through-the-motions of imperial splendour – a fate illustrated by the magnificent yet miserable funeral cortege of Hsien-feng, which bore the Emperor’s body on foot for three weeks through a rugged, rain-lashed autumn countryside. 

I often think of these scenes when there are debates over the European stance towards China, as in December when the EU concluded its investment deal, and again this week with the publication of the UK’s new foreign policy review (which also acknowledged the importance of economic relations with China). The question, we like to think, is whether we ought to be trading with an authoritarian state which has just crushed democracy in Hong Kong, and is carrying out a vast and brutal persecution of its Muslim Uighur minority. Sadly though, the real question is not whether we ought to, but given the increasing dominance of China in the global economy, whether we have any choice. 

I don’t have a clear-cut answer, but the predicament itself reveals how radical the shift in global power towards the east really is. Western nations may no longer see themselves as agents of Christian evangelism, but their sense of their role in the world is defined by a post-1945 liberalism which has much the same effect. As Europeans, we conceive of morality in universal terms, such that atrocities taking place in other nations cannot simply be ignored. Only, we no longer have either the means or the desire to launch crusades. Likewise with free trade: whereas this apparent boon to humanity long justified westerners, and especially the British and Americans, in their global supremacy, now Chinese investment and access to Chinese markets is desperately sought as a means of reviving stagnant economies. 

“Jesus Christ is Free Trade, and Free Trade is Jesus Christ” – so said Dr John Bowring, British Governor of Hong Kong at the time of the Second Opium War. Some 150 years later, the same supposed inseparability of economic liberalism and moral salvation was used by the United States in support of China’s entry to the World Trade Organisation, the argument being that Chinese political liberalisation would inevitably follow. That the imperatives of trade and moral conscience can no longer be rhetorically aligned in the east testifies to the world historical shift we are living through.

Meanwhile, the events described by Sebald were the beginning of what is known among Chinese elites as “the century of national humiliation” – a century that ended, of course, with Mao Zedong’s establishment of a Communist regime in 1949. References to that century of humiliation are apparently much in use to legitimise the current regime of Xi Jinping, since they offer a salutary contrast to his assertive use of China’s superpower status on the world stage.

Thanks to changes in technology and statecraft, it is unlikely that depredations like those of the Opium Wars will be visited on Europe by China. Perhaps there will be lesser humiliations: perhaps European states will be brought to heel by crippling Chinese economic sanctions or cyber attacks; perhaps the Elgin Marbles, having finally been returned from London to Greece, will in due course be sent on to Beijing as security against loans. 

But it does look as though, in its various declarations and debates on human rights abuses in China, Europe will increasingly resemble the late Qing court described by Sebald, with its ritualised fulfillments of an increasingly empty power. Imposing sanctions on individuals and companies profiting from the nightmare in Xinjiang, as the EU’s foreign ministers did this week, is certainly morally justifiable, but seems somewhat perfunctory given the investment deal so eagerly concluded just a few months ago. The euphemisms, equivocations and parliamentary protests about human rights which accompanied that deal – like the sheepish use of the term “values” in UK’s foreign policy review – point to a future in which western nations’ concern for universal justice is increasingly ceremonial and toothless. 

Of course, as Sebald’s account of the Opium Wars suggests, the west’s universal moral mission was always inconsistent and self-serving – something Chinese officials remind us of when they cynically justify the atrocities in Xinjiang as promoting the emancipation of women. But now Europeans will be increasingly guilty of a different kind of hypocrisy: directing moral criticism at other states safe in the knowledge that no one expects them to do anything about it.

The age of mass timber: why we should build in wood

This article was published by The Critic on March 10th 2021.

There are few more evocative images of modernity than the glittering skyscrapers of Tokyo. It’s easy to forget that Japan’s cities used to consist largely of timber structures up until the mid-twentieth century. It was only after the nightmarish final months of the Second World War, when American B-29 bombers reduced these wooden metropolises to smouldering ash, that Japan embraced concrete, glass and steel.

But luckily Japanese timber expertise did not vanish entirely, for it now appears wood is the future again. Late last year Sumitomo Forestry, a 300-year-old company, announced it was partnering with Kyoto University to design a surprising product: wooden satellites. This innovation aims to stop the dangerous build-up of space junk orbiting the Earth. The ultimate goal of the research, however, is back on terra firma, where Sumitomo hopes to design “ultra-strong, weather resistant wooden buildings”. It has already announced its ambitions to build a skyscraper more than 1,000 feet tall, constructed from 90 per cent wood, by 2041.

Could timber really be a major building material in the dense, vertical cities of the future? In fact, this possibility is well on the way to being realised. In recent years, architects and planners around the world have hailed the coming age of “mass timber”. This term refers to prefabricated wooden building components, such as cross-laminated timber, which can replace concrete and steel in large-scale construction.

Continue reading here.

“Euro-English”: A thought experiment

There was an interesting story in Politico last weekend about “Euro-English,” and a Swedish academic who wants to make it an official language. Marko Modiano, a professor at the University of Gävle, says the European Union should stop using British English for its documents and communications, and replace it with the bastardised English which is actually spoken in Brussels and on the continent more generally.

Politico offers this example of how Euro-English might sound, as spoken by someone at the European Commission: “Hello, I am coming from the EU. Since 3 years I have competences for language policy and today I will eventually assist at a trilogue on comitology.”

Although the EU likes to maintain the pretence of linguistic equality, English is in practice the lingua franca of its bureaucrats, the language in which most laws are drafted, and increasingly default language of translation for foreign missions. It is also the most common second language across the continent. But according to Modiano, this isn’t the same English used by native speakers, and it’s silly that the EU’s style guides try to make it conform to the latter. (Spare a thought for Ireland and Malta, who under Modiano’s plans would presumably have to conduct EU business in a slightly different form of English).

It’s a wonderful provocation, but could it also be a veiled political strategy? A distinctively continental English might be a way for the EU to cultivate a stronger pan-European identity, thus increasing its authority both in absolute terms and relative to national governments. The way Modiano presents his proposal certainly makes it sound like that: “Someone is going to have to step forward and say, ‘OK, let’s break our ties with the tyranny of British English and the tyranny of American English.’ And instead say… ‘This is our language.’” (My emphasis).

The EU has forever been struggling with the question of whether it can transcend the appeal of nation states and achieve a truly European consciousness. Adopting Euro-English as an official lingua franca might be a good start. After all, a similar process of linguistic standardisation was essential to the creation of the modern nation state itself.   

As Eric Hobsbawm writes in his classic survey of the late-19th and early-20th century, The Age of Empire, the invention of national languages was a deliberate ideological project, part of the effort to forge national identities out of culturally heterogeneous regions. Hobsbawm explains:

Linguistic nationalism was the creation of people who wrote and read, not of people who spoke. And the ‘national languages’ in which they discovered the essential character of their nations were, more often than not, artefacts, since they had to be compiled, standardized, homogenized and modernized for contemporary and literary use, out of the jigsaw puzzle of local or regional dialects which constituted non-literary languages as actually spoken. 

Perhaps the most remarkable example was the Zionist movement’s promotion of Hebrew, “a language which no Jews had used for ordinary purposes since the days of the Babylonian captivity, if then.”

Where this linguistic engineering succeeded, it was thanks to the expansion of state education and the white-collar professions. A codified national language, used in schools, the civil service and public communications like street signs, was an ideal tool for governments to instil a measure of unity and loyalty in their diverse and fragmented populations. This in turn created incentives for the emerging middle class to prefer an official language to their own vernaculars, since it gave access to careers and social status. 

Could the EU not pursue a similar strategy with Euro-English? There could a special department in Brussels tracking the way English is used by EU citizens on social media, and each year issuing an updated compendium on Euro-English. This emergent language, growing ever more distinctly European, could be mandated in schools, promoted through culture and in the media, and of course used for official EU business. Eventually the language would be different enough to be rebranded simply as “European.”

You’ll notice I’m being facetious now; obviously this would never work. Privileging one language over others would instantly galvanise the patriotism of EU member states, and give politicians a new terrain on which to defend national identity against Brussels. This is pretty much how things played out in multinational 19th century states such as Austria-Hungary, where linguistic hierarchies enflamed the nationalism of minority cultures. One can already see something like this in the longstanding French resentment against the informal dominance of English on the continent.

Conversely, Euro-English wouldn’t work because for Europe’s middle-classes and elites, the English language is a gateway not to Europe, but to the world. English is the language of global business and of American cultural output, and so is a prerequisite for membership of any affluent cosmopolitan milieu. 

And this, I think, is the valuable insight to be gained from thought experiments like the one suggested by Modiano. Whenever we try to imagine what the path to a truly European demos might look like, we always encounter these two quite different, almost contradictory obstacles. On the one hand, the structure of the EU seems to have frozen in place the role of the nation state as the rightful locus of imagined community and symbolic attachment. At the same time, among those who identify most strongly with the European project, many are ultimately universalist in their outlook, and unlikely to warm to anything that implies a distinctively European identity. 

What space architecture says about us

With the recent expedition of Nasa’s Perseverence rover to Mars, I’ve taken an interest in space architecture; more specifically, habitats for people on the moon or the Red Planet. The subject first grabbed my attention earlier this year, when I saw that a centuries-old forestry company in Japan is developing wooden structures for future space colonies. Space architecture is not as other-worldly as you might think. In various ways, it holds a revealing mirror to life here on Earth. 

Designing human habitats for Mars is more than just a technical challenge (though protecting against intense radiation and minus 100C temperatures is, of course, a technical challenge). It’s also an exercise in anthropology. To ask what a group of scientists or pioneers will need from their Martian habitats is to ask what human beings need to be healthy, happy and productive. And we aren’t just talking about the material basics here. 

As Jonathan Morrison reported in the Times last weekend, Nasa is taking inspiration from the latest polar research bases. According to architects like Hugh Broughton, researchers working in these extreme environments need creature comforts. The fundamental problem, says Broughton, is “how architecture can respond to the human condition.” The extreme architect has to consider “how you deal with isolation, how you create a sense of community… how you support people in the darkness.”

I found these words disturbingly relatable; not just in light of the pandemic, which has forced us all into a kind of polar isolation, but in light of the wider problem of anomie in modern societies. Broughton’s questions are the same ones we tend to ask as we observe stubbornly high rates of depression, loneliness, self-medication, and so on. Are we all now living in an extreme environment?

Many architects in the modernist period dreamed that they could tackle such issues through the design of the built environment. But the problem of what people need in order to flourish confronted them in a much harder form. Given the complexity of modern societies, trying to facilitate a vision of human flourishing through architecture started to look a lot like forcing society into a particular mould.

The “master households” designed by Walter Gropius in the 1920s and 30s illustrates the dilemma. Gropius insisted his blueprints, which reduced private family space in favour of communal living, reflected the emerging socialist character of modern individuals. At the same time, he implied that this transformation in lifestyle needed the architect as its midwife. 

Today architecture has largely abandoned the dream of a society engineered by experts and visionaries. But heterotopias like research stations and space colonies still offer something of a paradise for the philosophical architect. By contrast to the messy complexity of society at large, these small communities have a very specific shared purpose. They offer clearly defined parameters for architects to address the problem of what human beings need. 

Sometimes the solutions to this profound question, however, are almost comically mundane. Morrison’s Times report mentions some features of recent polar bases:

At the Scott Base, due to be completed in 2027, up to 100 residents might while away the hours in a cafeteria and even a Kiwi-themed pub, while Halley VI… boasts a gym, library, large canteen, bar and mini cinema.

If this turns out to be the model, then a future Mars colony will be a lot like a cruise ship. This doesn’t reflect a lack of imagination on the architects’ part though. It points to the fact that people don’t just want sociability, stimulation and exercise as such – they want familiar forms of these things. So a big part of designing habitats for space pioneers will involve replicating institutions from their original, earthbound cultures. In this sense, Martian colonies won’t be a fresh start for humanity any more than the colonisation of the Americas was. 

Finally, it’s worth saying something about the politics of space habitats. It seems inevitable that whichever regime sends people to other planets will use the project as a means of legitimation: the government(s) and corporations involved will want us to be awed by their achievement. And this will be done by turning the project into a media spectacle. 

The recent Perseverance expedition has already shown this potential: social media users were thrilled to hear audio of Martian winds, and to see a Martian horizon with Earth sparkling in the distance (the image, alas, turned out to be a fake). The first researchers or colonists on Mars will likely be reality TV stars, their everyday lives an on-going source of fascination for viewers back home. 

The lunar base in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

This means space habitats won’t just be designed for the pioneers living in them, but also for remote visual consumption on Earth. The aesthetics of these structures will not, therefore, be particularly novel. Thanks to Hollywood, we already have established ideas of what space exploration should look like, and space architecture will try to satisfy these expectations. Beyond that, it will simply try to project a more futuristic version of the good life as we know it through pop culture: comfort, luxury and elegance. 

We already see this, I think, in the Mars habitat designed by Xavier De Kestelier of Hassel Studio, which features sweeping open-plan spaces with timber flooring, glass walls and minimalist furniture. It resembles a luxury spa more than a rugged outpost of civilisation. But this was already anticipated, with characteristic flair, by Stanley Kubrick in his 1968 sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Kubrick’s imagined lunar base, there is a Hilton hotel hosting the stylish denizens of corporate America. The task of space architects will be to design this kind of enchanting fantasy, no less than to meet the needs of our first Martian settlers.  

How much is a high-status meme worth?

This article was published by Unherd on February 25th 2021.

Today one of the most prestigious institutions in the art world, the 250-year-old auction house Christie’s, is selling a collection of Instagram posts. Or in its own more reserved language, Christie’s is now “the first major auction house to offer a purely digital work.”

The work in question is “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” by the South Carolina-based animation artist Beeple (real name Mike Winkelmann), an assemblage of images he has posted online over the last thirteen-odd years. Whoever acquires “Everydays” won’t get a unique product — the image is a digital file which can be copied like any other. They’ll just be paying for a proof of ownership secured through the blockchain.

But more significant than the work’s format is its artistic content. Beeple is opening the way for the traditional art world to embrace internet memes. 

Continue reading here.

The double nightmare of the cat-lawyer

Analysing internet memes tends to be self-defeating: mostly their magic comes from a fleeting, blasé irony which makes you look like a fool if you try to pin it down. But sometimes a gem comes along that’s too good to let pass. Besides, the internet’s endless stream of found objects, jokes and observations are ultimately a kind of glorious collective artwork, somewhere between Dada collage and an epic poem composed by a lunatic. And like all artworks, this one has themes and motifs worth exploring.

Which brings me to cat-lawyer. The clip of the Texas attorney who, thanks to a visual filter, manages to take the form of a fluffy kitten in a Zoom court hearing, has gone superviral. The hapless attorney, Rod Ponton, claims he’s been contacted by news outlets around the world. “I always wanted to be famous for being a great lawyer,” he reflected, “now I’m famous for appearing in court as a cat.”

The video clearly recalls the similarly sensational case of Robert Kelly, the Korea expert whose study was invaded by his two young children during a live interview with the BBC. What makes both clips so funny is the pretence of public formality – already under strain in the video-call format, since people are really just smartly dressed in their homes – being punctured by the frivolity of childhood. Ridiculously, the victims try to maintain a sense of decorum. The punctilious Kelly ignores his rampaging infants and mumbles an apology; the beleaguered Ponton, his saucer-like kitten’s eyes shifting nervously, insists he’s happy to continue the hearing (“I’m not a cat” he reassures the judge, a strong note of desperation in his voice).

These incidents don’t become so famous just because they’re funny, though. Like a lot of comedy, they offer a light-hearted, morally acceptable outlet for impulses that often appear in much darker forms. We are essentially relishing the humiliation of Ponton and Kelly, much as the roaming mobs of “cancel culture” relish the humiliation of their targets, but we expect the victims to recognise their own embarrassment as a public good. The thin line between such jovial mockery and the more malign search for scapegoats is suggested by the fact that people have actually tried to discredit both men. Kelly was criticised for how he handled his daughter during his ordeal, while journalists have dredged up old harassment allegations against Ponton.

But there are other reasons why, in the great collective fiction of internet life, cat-lawyer is an interesting character. As I’ve previously written at greater length, online culture carries a strong strain of the grotesque. The strange act of projecting the self into digital space, both liberating and anxiety-inducing, has spurred forms of expression that blur the boundaries of the human and of social identity. In this way, internet culture joins a long artistic tradition where surreal, monstrous or bizarre beings give voice to repressed aspects of the human imagination. Human/animal transformations like the cat-lawyer have always been a part of this motif.

Of course it’s probably safe to assume that Ponton’s children, and not Ponton himself, normally use the kitten filter. But childhood and adolescence are where we see the implications of the grotesque most clearly. Bodily transformation and animal characters are a staple of adolescent fiction, because teenagers tend to interpret them in light of their growing awareness of social boundaries, and of their own subjectivity. Incidentally, I remember having this response to a particularly cheesy series of pulp novels for teens called Animorphs. But the same ideas are being explored, whether playfully or disturbingly, in gothic classics like Frankenstein and the tales of E.T.A Hoffman, in the films of David Lynch, or indeed in the way people use filters and face-changing apps on social media. 

The cat-lawyer pushes these buttons too: his wonderful, mesmerising weirdness is a familiar expression of the grotesque. And this gels perfectly with the comedy of interrupted formality and humiliation. The guilty expression on his face makes it feels like he has, by appearing as a cat, accidentally exposed some embarrassing private fetish in the workplace. 

Perhaps the precedent this echoes most clearly is Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” where the longsuffering salesman Gregor Samsa finds he has turned into an insect. Recall that Samsa’a family resents his transformation not just because he is ghastly, but because his ghastliness makes him useless in a world which demands respectability and professionalism. It is darkly absurd, but unsettling too: it awakens anxieties about the aspects of ourselves that we conceal from public view. 

The cat-lawyer’s ordeal is a similar kind of double nightmare: a surreal incident of transformation, an anxiety dream about being publicly exposed. Part of its appeal is that it lets us appreciate these strange resonances by cloaking them in humour. 

Gamestop: A Classic Robin Hood Tale

This article was first published by Unherd on 27th January 2021

During the past year, the chaotic forces of the digital revolution have broken into the world of finance, in the form of trading apps that allow ordinary punters free access to the stock market. These tools have given rise to social media communities where amateur traders exchange advice and, it now seems, organise to stick a finger in the eye of Wall Street.

The case of GameStop is the latest — and most stunning — example of this trend. Late last year, a confrontation developed between small traders and major Wall Street investors like Melvin Capital Management. As the former rushed in to buy what they viewed as undervalued GameStop shares, the latter saw it as a chance to adopt a short position, which means betting that GameStop’s share price would crash. But shorting is a risky strategy, since if the share price were in fact to keep rising, those betting against it would have to pay the difference.

And so the small investors, led by firebrands on the subreddit WallStreetBets, smelled blood. They continued driving up the price of GameStop shares in the hope of bankrupting the institutional investors. At the time of writing, the shares were hovering around the $300 mark — an increase of 1,400 per cent since January 12th. This week they have near-doubled on a daily basis.

According to Bloomberg, one in five stock trades are now made by such “retail investors,” as opposed to institutional investors such as hedge funds and insurance companies. As this army of new investors has gathered en masse in online chatrooms, notably Reddit and Stocktwits, it has produced strange effects in the markets. It’s no longer unusual to see the market value of small, obscure companies suddenly going through the roof thanks to co-ordinated speculation by amateur traders.

The WallStreetBets subreddit has become the centre of an intoxicating underdog narrative, a classic American romance of the little guy standing up to the corrupt and complacent system. “Hedge fund managers live in the past, and continue to look down upon the retail investors,” writes one influential user, “We can think and make decisions for ourselves, which scares the FUCK out of old school institutions and hedge funds.” Another posted a now-viral message to CNN, complaining that the news network was in cahoots with the institutional investors.

Of course, this is clearly a bubble of some kind, but it is also an a Hollywoodesque tale of plucky outsiders taking on the establishment — indeed, the guerrilla investors turned their attention to GameStop after learning that Michael Bury, the maverick trader immortalised in The Big Short, had invested in the company.

Whatever the outcome though, this episode has provided another striking illustration of how social media empowers the anti-establishment strain in American culture, and turns defiance of the powers-that-be into a source of shared purpose.

America has entered a new era in which narratives generated on social media have become a profoundly destabilising force, as we witnessed when Donald Trump’s elaborately outfitted supporters stormed the Washington Capitol at the start of this year. The GameStop saga isn’t an exact parallel, but is also a force for disruption.

A deep-seated suspicion of authority combined with technology that empowers self-proclaimed rebels against the system is proving to be a potent cocktail.

Gambling on technocrats

The likely appointment of Mario Draghi as Italy’s prime minister has been widely, if nervously, greeted as a necessary step. Draghi, an esteemed economist and central banker, will be the fourth unelected technocrat to fill the post in Italy in the last 30 years. As the Guardian concedes by way of welcoming Draghi’s appointment, a ready embrace of unelected leaders is “not a good look for any self-respecting democracy.” 

Italy’s resort to temporary “technical governments” reflects the fact that its fractious political system, with its multitude of parties and short-lived coalitions, is vulnerable to paralysis at moments of crisis. Such has been the price for a constitution designed to prevent the rise of another Mussolini. Ironically though, the convention of installing technocrats recalls the constitutional role of Dictator in the ancient Roman Republic: a trusted leader who, by consensus among the political class, takes charge for a limited term during emergencies.

During the 1990s, it was the crisis of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, the vast Mani pulite corruption scandal, and Silvio Berlusconi’s first chaotic administration which formed the backdrop for the technocratic governments of Carlo Ciampi and Lamberto Dini. Now in the midst of a pandemic and a gathering economic storm, the immediate pretext comes from the collapse of a government led by Giuseppe Conte of the Five Star Movement, amid machinations by Conte’s rivals and accusations of EU emergency funds being deployed for political patronage

Yet despite its distinctively Italian flavour, this tradition of the technocratic dictator has a much wider European resonance. It reflects the economic and political strains of European integration. And ultimately, the Italian case merely offers a pronounced example of the precarious interplay between depoliticised technocratic governance and democracy which haunts the European Union at large.

The agendas of the Ciampi and Dini cabinets included politically sensitive reforms to state benefits and the public sector, with the purpose of rendering Italy fit for a European economy where Germany set the tune. This pattern was repeated much more emphatically when the next technocratic prime minister, the economist Mario Monti, served from 2011-13. Monti’s mission on behalf of Berlin and Brussels was to temper Italy’s sovereign debt crisis by overseeing harsh austerity measures. 

The legacy of that strategy was the rise of the Italian populism in the form of the Five Star Movement and, on the right, Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord. Which brings us to another crucial piece of background for Draghi’s appointment this week. With Italian Euroscepticism making further advances during the disastrous first phase of the pandemic, it seems likely that were an election called now a rightwing coalition led by Salvini would take power.

For Italy’s financial and administrative class, that prospect is especially scary given how much the country’s stability now depends on support from the EU. It can be hoped that Draghi will calm the nerves of Italy’s northern creditors, and Germany especially, to pave the way for a much needed second instalment of the coronavirus relief fund. But while all the talk now is of spending and investment, Italy has a public debt worth 160% of GDP and rising, which is only sustainable thanks to the European Central Bank (ECB) continuing to buy its government bonds. It is surely a matter of time before further “structural reforms” are demanded of Italy. 

In other words, when the political parties aren’t up to it, technical governments do the dirty work of squeezing the Italy into the ever-tightening corset of the EU’s economic model. So this is not simply a pathology of Italian politics, but nor can it be characterised as an imposition. Figures like Monti and Draghi have long been invested in this arrangement: they cut their teeth during the 1990s hammering Italian finances into shape for entry to the Euro, and subsequently held important posts in EU institutions. 

Indeed, the basic logic at work here, whereby tasks considered too difficult for democratic politics are handed over to the realm of technocratic expertise, has become a deeply European one. We see it most clearly in the EU’s increasing reliance on the monetary instruments of the ECB as the only acceptable tool with which to respond to economic crises. This goes back to the original political failure of not achieving fiscal integration in the Eurozone, which would have allowed wealth transfers to ailing economies no longer able to negotiate debt reductions or devalue their currencies. But during the Eurozone crisis and its aftermath, politicians avoided confronting their electorates with the need to provide funds for the stricken Club Med states. In stead they relied on the ECB to keep national governments solvent through sovereign bond purchases.

And lest we forget, it was these same bond purchases that made the name of Italy’s incoming prime minister, Mario Draghi. In 2012, when Draghi was ECB president, he appeared to almost magically calm the debt markets by announcing he would do “whatever it takes” to keep the Eurozone afloat. This statement, revealing that Draghi had been empowered to step outside the bounds of rule and precedent, is again suggestive of a kind of constitutionally-mandated technocratic dictator, but at a Europe-wide level. 

Of course to focus on monetary policy is also to highlight that these tensions between technocracy and democracy go far beyond the EU. It is certainly not just in Europe that central bankers have accrued vast power through their ability to provide back-door stimulus and keep huge debt burdens sustainable. The growing importance of central banks points back to an earlier moment of depoliticisation at the dawn of neoliberalism in the early 1980s, when control of interest rates was removed from the realm of democratic politics. More fundamentally, it points to the limitations imposed on democracy by the power of financial markets. 

Still, it is no accident that this tension has appeared in such acute form in the EU. As with Italy’s ready supply of emergency prime ministers, the EU’s dense canopy of technocratic institutions provides an irresistible way for politicians to pass the buck on issues they would otherwise have to subject to democratic conflict. This is all well and good if the technocrats succeed, but as we have seen recently with the EU’s vaccine program, it also raises the stakes of failure. Handing difficult and sensitive matters over to unaccountable administrators means that blame and resentment will be directed against the system as whole. 

Why accusations of vaccine nationalism miss the mark

This article was first published by The Critic magazine on 2nd February 2021.

n the wake of Friday’s decision by the European Union to introduce controls on vaccine exports, there has once again been much alarm about “vaccine nationalism.”  This term is meant to pour scorn on governments that prioritise their own citizens’ access to vaccines over that of other countries. It points to the danger that richer parts of the world will squabble for first dibs on limited vaccine supplies – “fighting over the cake,” as a World Health Organisation official aptly described it – while leaving poorer countries trailing far behind in their vaccination efforts.

Certainly, there’s a real danger that the EU’s export controls will end up hampering overall vaccine production by sparking a trade war over raw materials. This is somewhat ironic, given that few have been as outspoken about countries “unduly restricting access to vaccines” as the EU itself. As for global inequalities in vaccine access, make no mistake – they are shaping up to be very ugly indeed. It looks likely that poorer countries, having already faced an economic, social, and public health catastrophe, will struggle to vaccinate their most vulnerable citizens even as richer states give jabs to the majority of their populations.

Wealthy nations undoubtedly have a moral obligation to minimize the impact of these disparities. Nonetheless, wielding vaccine nationalism as a pejorative term is an unhelpful way to diagnose or even to address this problem. Given how the world is structured politically, the best way to ensure that vaccines reach poorer countries is for richer ones to vaccinate a critical mass of their own citizens as quickly as possible.

To condemn vaccine nationalism is to imply that, in the early summer of 2020 when governments began bidding for Advance Purchase Agreements with pharmaceutical companies, a more cooperative global approach would have been feasible. In reality, the political, bureaucratic and logistical structures to meet such a challenge did not exist. Some are still pointing to Covax, the consortium of institutions trying to facilitate global vaccine equality, as a path not taken. But Covax’s proposed strategy was neither realistic nor effective.

The bottom line here is that for governments around the world, whether democratic or not, legitimacy and political stability depends on protecting the welfare of their citizens – a basic principle that even critics of vaccine nationalism struggle to deny. Only slightly less important are the social unrest and geopolitical setbacks that states anticipate if they fall behind in the race to get economies back up and running.

In light of these pressures, Covax never stood a chance. Its task of forging agreement between an array of national, international and commercial players was bound to be difficult, and no state which had the industrial capacity or market access to secure its own vaccines could have afforded to wait and see if it would work. To meet Covax’s aim of vaccinating 20 per cent of the population in every country at the same speed, nations with the infrastructure to deliver vaccines would have had to wait for those that lacked it. They would have surrendered responsibility for the sensitive task of selecting and securing the best vaccines from among the multitude of candidates. (As late as November last year Covax had just nine vaccines in its putative global portfolio; it did not reach a deal with the first successful candidate, Pfizer-BioNTech, until mid-January).

But even if a more equitable approach to global vaccine distribution had been plausible, it wouldn’t necessarily have been more desirable. Seeing some states race ahead in the vaccine race is unsettling, but at least countries with the capacity to roll out vaccines are using it, and just as important, we are getting crucial information about how to organise vaccination campaigns from a range of different models. The peculiarity of the vaccine challenge means that, in the long run, having a few nations to serve as laboratories will probably prove more useful to everyone than a more monolithic approach that prioritises equality above all.

The EU’s experience is instructive here. Given its fraught internal politics, it really had no choice but to adopt a collective approach for its 27 member states. To do otherwise would have left less fortunate member states open to offers from Russia and China. Still, the many obstacles and delays it has faced – ultimately driving it to impose its export controls – are illustrative of the costs imposed by coordination. Nor should we overlook the fact that its newfound urgency has come from the example of more successful strategies in Israel, the United States and United Kingdom.

Obviously, richer states should be helping Covax build up its financial and logistical resources as well as ensuring their own populations are vaccinated. Many are doing so already. What is still lacking are the vaccines themselves. Since wealthy states acting alone have been able to order in advance from multiple sources, they have gained access to an estimated 800 million surplus vaccine doses, or more than two billion when options are taken into account.

There’s no denying that if such hoarding continues in the medium-term, it will constitute an enormous moral failing. But rather than condemning governments for having favoured their own citizens in this way, we should focus on how that surplus can reach poorer parts of the world as quickly as possible.

This means, first, scaling up manufacturing to ease the supply bottlenecks which are making governments unsure of their vaccine supply. Most importantly though, it means concentrating on how nations that do have access to vaccines can most efficiently get them into people’s arms. The sooner they can see an end to the pandemic in sight, the sooner they can begin seriously diverting vaccines elsewhere. Obviously this will also require resolving the disputes sparked by the EU’s export controls, if necessary by other nations donating vaccines to the EU.

But we also need to have an urgent discussion about when exactly nations should stop prioritising their citizens. Governments should be pressured to state under what conditions they will deem their vaccine supply sufficient to focus on global redistribution. Personally, not being in a high-risk category, I would like to see a vaccine reach vulnerable people in other countries before it reaches me. Admittedly the parameters of this decision are not yet fully in view, with new strains emerging and the nature of herd immunity still unclear. But it would be a more productive problem to focus our attention on than the issue of vaccine nationalism as such.