The British Government has today announced the launch of the long-awaited review of the 2005 Gambling Act. I have written an article for the Guardian on what this review might entail – and the importance of getting the politics right as well as the policy. You can read the article here.
I have just come across this old video – of a talk I gave on the politics of iconoclasm back in 2015 at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. It brings back memories of an inspiring two days with two extraordinary people (I have lost touch with both of them, to my regret). My talk begins at 1:41:45, although it is well worth watching the presentation by Riccardo Giacconi beforehand.
It is 85 years since Franklin D. Roosevelt made this speech before the 1936 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on the "royalists of the economic order": that "throughout the Nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly... the field open for free business was more and more restricted. Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise", until "for too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality."
The speech might as well have been made yesterday. 85 years – yet we have moved hardly one step forward in this respect.
Senator Robinson, Members of the Democratic Convention, my friends:
Here, and in every community throughout the land, we are met at a time of great moment to the future of the Nation. It is an occasion to be dedicated to the simple and sincere expression of an attitude toward problems, the determination of which will profoundly affect America.
I come not only as a leader of a party, not only as a candidate for high office, but as one upon whom many critical hours have imposed and still impose a grave responsibility.
For the sympathy, help and confidence with which Americans have sustained me in my task I am grateful. For their loyalty I salute the members of our great party, in and out of political life in every part of the Union. I salute those of other parties, especially those in the Congress of the United States who on so many occasions have put partisanship aside. I thank the Governors of the several States, their Legislatures, their State and local officials who participated unselfishly and regardless of party in our efforts to achieve recovery and destroy abuses. Above all I thank the millions of Americans who have borne disaster bravely and have dared to smile through the storm.
America will not forget these recent years, will not forget that the rescue was not a mere party task. It was the concern of all of us. In our strength we rose together, rallied our energies together, applied the old rules of common sense, and together survived.
In those days we feared fear. That was why we fought fear. And today, my friends, we have won against the most dangerous of our foes. We have conquered fear.
But I cannot, with candor, tell you that all is well with the world. Clouds of suspicion, tides of ill-will and intolerance gather darkly in many places. In our own land we enjoy indeed a fullness of life greater than that of most Nations. But the rush of modern civilization itself has raised for us new difficulties, new problems which must be solved if we are to preserve to the United States the political and economic freedom for which Washington and Jefferson planned and fought.
Philadelphia is a good city in which to write American history. This is fitting ground on which to reaffirm the faith of our fathers; to pledge ourselves to restore to the people a wider freedom; to give to 1936 as the founders gave to 1776 – an American way of life.
That very word freedom, in itself and of necessity, suggests freedom from some restraining power. In 1776 we sought freedom from the tyranny of a political autocracy – from the eighteenth century royalists who held special privileges from the crown. It was to perpetuate their privilege that they governed without the consent of the governed; that they denied the right of free assembly and free speech; that they restricted the worship of God; that they put the average man’s property and the average man’s life in pawn to the mercenaries of dynastic power; that they regimented the people.
And so it was to win freedom from the tyranny of political autocracy that the American Revolution was fought. That victory gave the business of governing into the hands of the average man, who won the right with his neighbors to make and order his own destiny through his own Government. Political tyranny was wiped out at Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.
Since that struggle, however, man’s inventive genius released new forces in our land which reordered the lives of our people. The age of machinery, of railroads; of steam and electricity; the telegraph and the radio; mass production, mass distribution – all of these combined to bring forward a new civilization and with it a new problem for those who sought to remain free.
For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital – all undreamed of by the fathers – the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service.
There was no place among this royalty for our many thousands of small business men and merchants who sought to make a worthy use of the American system of initiative and profit. They were no more free than the worker or the farmer. Even honest and progressive-minded men of wealth, aware of their obligation to their generation, could never know just where they fitted into this dynastic scheme of things.
It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man.
The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor – these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship. The savings of the average family, the capital of the small business man, the investments set aside for old age – other people’s money – these were tools which the new economic royalty used to dig itself in.
Those who tilled the soil no longer reaped the rewards which were their right. The small measure of their gains was decreed by men in distant cities.
Throughout the Nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly. Individual initiative was crushed in the cogs of a great machine. The field open for free business was more and more restricted. Private enterprise, indeed, became too private. It became privileged enterprise, not free enterprise.
An old English judge once said: “Necessitous men are not free men.” Liberty requires opportunity to make a living–a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.
For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.
Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of Government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people’s mandate to end it. Under that mandate it is being ended.
The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the Government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody’s business. They granted that the Government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the Government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live.
Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place. These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the Flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.
The brave and clear platform adopted by this Convention, to which I heartily subscribe, sets forth that Government in a modern civilization has certain inescapable obligations to its citizens, among which are protection of the family and the home, the establishment of a democracy of opportunity, and aid to those overtaken by disaster.
But the resolute enemy within our gates is ever ready to beat down our words unless in greater courage we will fight for them.
For more than three years we have fought for them. This Convention, in every word and deed, has pledged that that fight will go on.
The defeats and victories of these years have given to us as a people a new understanding of our Government and of ourselves. Never since the early days of the New England town meeting have the affairs of Government been so widely discussed and so clearly appreciated. It has been brought home to us that the only effective guide for the safety of this most worldly of worlds, the greatest guide of all, is moral principle.
We do not see faith, hope and charity as unattainable ideals, but we use them as stout supports of a Nation fighting the fight for freedom in a modern civilization.
Faith – in the soundness of democracy in the midst of dictatorships.
Hope – renewed because we know so well the progress we have made.
Charity – in the true spirit of that grand old word. For charity literally translated from the original means love, the love that understands, that does not merely share the wealth of the giver, but in true sympathy and wisdom helps men to help themselves.
We seek not merely to make Government a mechanical implement, but to give it the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.
We are poor indeed if this Nation cannot afford to lift from every recess of American life the dread fear of the unemployed that they are not needed in the world. We cannot afford to accumulate a deficit in the books of human fortitude.
In the place of the palace of privilege we seek to build a temple out of faith and hope and charity.
It is a sobering thing, my friends, to be a servant of this great cause. We try in our daily work to remember that the cause belongs not to us, but to the people. The standard is not in the hands of you and me alone. It is carried by America. We seek daily to profit from experience, to learn to do better as our task proceeds.
Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales.
Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.
There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.
In this world of ours in other lands, there are some people, who, in times past, have lived and fought for freedom, and seem to have grown too weary to carry on the fight. They have sold their heritage of freedom for the illusion of a living. They have yielded their democracy.
I believe in my heart that only our success can stir their ancient hope. They begin to know that here in America we are waging a great and successful war. It is not alone a war against want and destitution and economic demoralization. It is more than that; it is a war for the survival of democracy. We are fighting to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world.
I accept the commission you have tendered me. I join with you. I am enlisted for the duration of the war.
A few months ago, I picked up this copy of Monocle magazine in the Eurostar lounge and decided that yes, 2020 would be the year that I pushed back against the digital flotsam and jetsam in my life. I'd already been thinking about this for a long time. I didn't like the influence that the little black pebble of my iPhone was having over me, I didn't like the anxiety I saw it induce in others, the constant nagging and tapping and clicking and pinging, the rows of bowed heads I'd see on the Underground, nobody looking up at each other, everyone distracted, everyone absorbed – I did not like the fact that I had begun to carry this black pebble around with me like a rosary.
The Covid crisis was the thing which finally pushed me to make the change. I deleted most of the apps on my phone, resolved to walk more, read more, write more, like I always used to do, I made a list of books to get from Daunt Books in Marylebone once the crisis was over, and maybe join the London Library again, I quit Twitter (which has felt like a great release), set up this diary, and I bought myself a treat: an old camera from the 1970s.
The camera is an Olympus OM-1. It is fully manual (apart from the light meter) and is heavy in the hand. When I bought it I knew nothing about shutter speed, F-Stop, field of view, aperture or film speed, and spent a weekend learning about these things from blogs like this and asking basic questions of a couple of my old friends and one of my brothers who also use manual cameras. Then I loaded a film and went out to take photos.
These three photographs were taken with the camera. They are not very good: I still have a lot to learn about judging the right distance, shutter speed and light. But I love the camera so much and take it everywhere with me now (maybe it has become another replacement rosary) and I am finding that the experience of taking a photograph is giving me as much pleasure as the developed result. The camera has helped me look at the world again. I've also gone back to my old paperback of Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida. I had forgotten how beautifully that book is crafted. Inside the book I found an old photo I had taken in Vienna over twenty years ago and a scribble on the inside cover – "J. Noyes 1999".
The photographs stretch out over several months. They start in the Spring and they end in August. Many of the shots I took ended up blurred or too dark. Some of them turned out exactly as I had hoped, with the grainy quality of an image taken by a machine from the 1970s, like stepping back in time. When I took the film to Maxime at L'Imaginarium du Photographe in Clermont Ferrand, he told me that he couldn't do anything with one of the six films I handed over. Maxime has his own darkroom. He is young and has set up his own shop, which you can visit on a mediaeval side street not far from the cathedral in Clermont, if you ever find yourself in that city.
Rollright Stones (The King's Men), Oxfordshire
Chaînes des Puys, taken near Aigueperse
After a five-month hard slog putting together the Social Market Foundation's gambling report, it's time to unplug for a couple of weeks. Coverage of the report can be found in the Financial Times, the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Mail.
I was interested to see that much of this coverage (no doubt because of the SMF's press release) and the subsequent controversy focused on what I had imagined would be a rather benign proposal for a 'soft cap' affordability check on spending. There are certainly, in my view, more radical recommendations in the report. So I was amused – and a little disappointed – to see that the reaction from some quarters to this rather benign proposal was a rolling-out of the usual rusty old argument about liberty and the nanny state.
It is amusing because it is entirely predictable. I even made reference to it in the introduction of the report, knowing that it would at some point head my way, when I described "the unnecessary and entirely artificial crusade by those who lay claim to gambling as a libertarian cause of economic agency against the spectre of a nanny state." I had hoped that the usual quarters who are critical of reform might have come up with something a little more creative in their rebuttal of my report. Unfortunately, I was to be disappointed. One industry lobbyist even got in touch with me to complain, "I don't want the state overseeing what I drink, what I eat, how much I spend on clothes and holidays."
I suppose that one should try and remain patient and sympathetic, in that most of the corporate PR guys who use labels like 'nanny state' as a cloak to wrap around their commercial activity do so with little understanding of the philosophical and political significance of the language they use. To these guys, such labels are like white bread: easy to package, cut up and consume. They sprinkle on a few quotes from Hayek or Friedman and they think that they're good to go. They probably have no idea that there is an established philosophical and political context to their words. They probably don't appreciate how complex and contested the labels are – or how complex and contested they were even in Chicago back in the 1940s. I guess that it's not their fault. These guys are built to defend profit, not read books. I just wish that they were a little more careful in the language they use. Anyone who has met me, and who has socialised with me, will know that I'm about as far from the cardboard cutout caricature of a nanny statist as you're going to meet. I just refuse to accept that complex questions can be reduced to a sort of sixth-form debating society level of discourse.
Another interesting thing that has come out of the past three days is this: those industry lobbyists who today are accusing me of being a nanny statist were the same ones who for two years insisted to me that the focus of my thinking had to be on affordability, not stake limits. I have lost count of how many conversations I have had about the need for affordability checks and the need to standardise these checks across all operators. I took all those conversations in good faith, and made sure that the various sensibilities were reflected in my report. Needless to say, I have now taken note that multi-operator affordability checks are actually not what the industry wants, even when packaged with the careful caveats of net deposits and soft caps, and that what I was told was needed over the past two years is now different from what is needed today. So where does that leave us? If the concept of affordability is dismissed as too interventionist and 'arbitrary', then we are left with only one alternative: fixed limits to stakes. I shall be making this clear in any conversations that I have going forward.
The coverage of the 'soft cap' proposal slightly overshadowed what is, in my opinion, the biggest issue going forward: that of offshoring and tax avoidance. There seems to be something of a culture of omertà around this issue, and I've experienced quite a lot of pressure over the past 12 months to not talk about it. Tom Witherow at the Mail is to be congratulated for having had the bravery and the foresight to understand the importance of this issue and to write about it.
I predict that the offshore tax question is going to grow in importance over the course of the next three years. This should be expected in a current political climate in which the established direction of travel is now firmly pointed towards fiscal frameworks like the Digital Services Tax in the UK and the GAFA tax in France, and where protectionist actions like President Trump's new executive orders against Tik Tok overlap with concerns over online harms, data harvesting, 'surveillance capitalism' and the so-called 'Balkanisation of the internet'. Remote gambling operators might like to imagine that they are not connected to these questions, but the fact is this: in many ways, the online gambling industry is the apotheosis of Big Tech, in terms of its algorithms, its flow of capital, its rootlessness, its addictiveness, its marketing techniques, its ability to permeate into the essential elements of our economic, social and cultural lives. And just like Big Tech, online gambling is getting bigger and bigger, through processes of merger, acquisition and consolidation, to a point where some of the super-major operators risk becoming too big to regulate.
This is the absurdity of talking about the 'nanny state', as though we are back in the cosy world of Milton Friedman talking about automobile sales and safety, instead of a world in which the cash reserves of some companies are now equal to the forex reserves of many major developed economies, where capital is left to roam freely around the world, untethered from any semblance of territory, of productivity, of accountability, of reciprocity, of value – if online gambling is not at the heart of the daunting world that we all now face, then what is? Finding the right balance in regulating this world will prove to be one of the great challenges of our age. It needs serious and unflinching minds. I am afraid that lazy talk of the 'nanny state' no longer passes muster.
In September I shall begin a new paper, this time focused on ideas rather than technical details, in which I shall explore some of these questions about economy, society and human agency. I plan to spend my holiday reading books and writing: I have still not read Matt Stoller's Goliath, I would like to go back to Michael Lind and Shoshana Zuboff, I confess that I have not got round to reading Piketty's Capital and Ideology. In other words, I shall be reading a lot of American authors, but I'll also make sure to pack a novel or two in my travel bag (I have recently begun Henri Bosco's Malicroix). Any ideas for other books, please do send me an email. I also aim to write more posts on this blog, now that I have a little more time.
Other than that, I hope to find myself – Covid-19 permitting – in a dusty town square somewhere in the South of France or in Italy, sitting at little table, drinking coffee, writing to the sound of the departing swifts and the kids hitting the horns of their mopeds and the low bass of the lone church bell, and remembering what it means to be a person in the world.
A field of sunflowers near Artonne in the Auvergne today, just by the rue Neuve – and a panoramic view of three mountain ranges: the Chaîne des Puys (with its string of volcanoes), the Plateau de Gergovie (where the Gaul chieftain Vercingetorix defeated Julius Caesar in 52BC) and the long blue line of the Monts du Forez.
These are some words that I wrote three months ago, right at the brutal beginning of the pandemic. They feel like a very different world from the sunflowers today – one full of sadness and anxiety about the future, although of course I hope that they are now just a document of the past:
IT IS THE 7th APRIL 2020. I have not left this town for a whole month. I have barely even left the house except to perform the few essential functions permitted us by the government, which in my case involves the same routine of walking through the fields to the old farm and back, looking at the lambs, and making an occasional trip to the shop for groceries. I have not seen my wife or our son for all that time. We have been cut off from each other by Edouard Philippe's travel ban: me in England, them in France.
Two days ago, the Prime Minister was taken to St Thomas’ Hospital in Lambeth with complications from the disease. Last night, he was taken into intensive care. His officials say that this is just a precaution, but of course no-one really has much confidence in what they are told any more.
Everywhere the streets are empty. There is so little traffic here on the High Street, last night I heard a tawny owl calling under the full moon and inky starry sky. In the morning I am woken early by the sound of wood pigeons and starlings. My friend was shocked last week to see a flock of geese passing over the centre of Paris. I have read that in Poland there are towns where forest deer now wander along main roads which were, until recently, heavy with traffic.
Where humans retreat, animals move quickly forward. Those deer and geese and tawny owls are the early pioneers. Others will follow. By this summer, the great animal dominion will have established itself, until we humans grow strong again and beat it back into submission. This is the endless cycle of encroachment and retreat: curiosity, growth, violence, control, cleansing.
What separates us from the animals is the way in which we translate the cycle into milestones of history. And what a milestone we are living through right now! People on the radio compare it to 9/11 and maybe for some Americans that might be true – the same sense of trauma, the same change of direction, the feeling that things will never be the same again. A generation defined, sent to fight in the alleyways of Afghanistan and Iraq. A new word and way to define the world: security. But while the rest of us got caught up in that fight, and suffered in our own way, it always ultimately felt like Uncle Sam's milestone, not ours.
This is different. This virus belongs to all of us, a sickness given to the whole world. And we all suffer in equal measure. Makeshift mass burial pits in New York. Field hospitals in London exhibition halls. Empty streets in Manhattan, in Manila, in Milan. Over half of the world’s population in lockdown or quarantine. And moving through us all, from air into lungs, hand to mouth, without sight or smell or sound, this disease has taken hold of our shared lives.
The Wuhan Coronavirus. Covid-19. At first, it felt like an abstract story from a world far away. We were already familiar with some of that world, of course, about the animals kept captive and cut up in markets in megacities deep in the dystopia of the world’s second most-powerful country. We knew about the suffering of those animals, in an abstract way, and about the myths of medicine that drives the trade in their body parts – we have seen the photographs of bats laid out in rows on tables, the terrified dogs packed into cages, the boxes of live eels and pangolin parts, the farmed rabbits held up by their ears before being skinned alive, their eyes fixed with fear at the sharpened knife. And we knew already about the corruption in those places, the lies of local officials and the control imposed by the regime.
But this is abstract no more. The virus has become part of nature, and it too is now taking hold of our bodies and our lives.
I think that all this first became an immediate reality to me about two months ago. I was travelling from Clermont Ferrand to London and changed flights at Charles de Gaulle airport. As I waited and wandered around the terminal, looking at shop windows of things I couldn’t afford, I saw a group of Japan Airlines air hostesses walk through security and each one of them was wearing a facemask. They stood in quiet order. It was enough to make me take notice and look around. That is when I saw other people, travellers, with the same: a man sitting over here, a young couple standing over there, each wearing a mask.
This was February 3rd. I took the flight to London and it began to sink in that those abstract stories from far away were becoming signs of anxiety closer to home. We landed in Heathrow and then there was nothing except for a single sign near passport control asking anyone arriving from China to check that they didn’t have a temperature. Apart from that, London seemed to be ticking along as normal. But after the flight I knew that something wasn’t right.
Of course, hindsight means very little now that the virus has coursed through the lungs and the veins of the world. The only thing that matters is staying alive – and making sure that those around us stay alive too.
This is the Spring when everything has been brought to new light. All the structures we have built around us, the mantras we have used to blind us, the baubles we have hung around our necks – all these have been taken from us, and now lie scattered around our feet. I talked about this with [******] on the telephone. Our regret over the time that we have wasted in the black hole of the internet, wasted on rolling news and pay-per-view and WhatsApp groups and Twitter threads, a world of bullshit now exposed for what it is by the cruel, unrelenting light of Covid-19. The years that I have wasted in that world. The idle clicking, the rat runs of videos and links and notifications and sites that have led me nowhere and taught me nothing but have left me empty, exhausted, distracted.
The former Google strategist James Williams calls it the “distraction by design” at the heart of today’s “attention economy”. In one disturbing passage of his book Stand Out Of Our Light, he draws on Neil Postman’s account of a dystopia shared between Orwell and Huxley, and applies it to our new reality of information technology:
Huxley’s foresight, Postman writes, lay in his prediction that freedom’s nastiest adversaries in the years to come would emerge not from the things we fear, but from the things that give us pleasure: it’s not the prospect of a "boot stamping on a human face – forever" that should keep us up at night, but rather the spectre of a situation in which "people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think." A thumb scrolling through an infinite feed, forever.
Once upon a time I used to read, I used to write. Now I talk about both while never really doing either. And it is not just adulthood and a lack of time which has pulled me away from the books I used to love. Yes, when I was a student I could dedicate my days to a world of texts and ideas. But the truth is, I could find the time now. I always carry a book with me, but too often it stays unread while I thumb through my iPhone for gossip from Westminster and Washington.
The sad fact is this: over the years distraction has become a habit, and I fear that it might have turned into a sort of cognitive barrier that is now so automatic, so fixed, that none of us will ever again be able to read a book from beginning to end in the way that we once did. I still watch films and listen to music, of course, and I would like to think that I still think – but who knows? Maybe if things carry on like this, one day I’ll be too distracted even to do that.
The tide moves in and out, it encroaches, it retreats, it leaves a high line of waste on the beach and drags the rest back out to sea. This is where I am today. Standing with everyone else on the empty sands, looking out at the long line of water and then down at the flotsam at our feet.
This is the wreckage that we have been left with: Covid politics, a Covid economy, the Covid remnants of our beautiful, broken world.
The wind was up today, the grass was high, and the lambs — now almost as big as their mothers — huddled together in the shade of the rowan trees.
We found a secret lake, surrounded by willow and ash. One ash has grown around this old fence — and over time, the wood and iron have become enmeshed in each other.
Looking up, its leaves reach into the blue June sky.
The local landowner has built a folly by the walled garden: red brick, gothic windows, a slightly Mughal look. It is splendid. Dad sits by the lake. Everything is still.
The grass full of moths, stag beetles, bumblebees — and me.