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Can’t take a joke? Too right, says Laurie Penny

Racist, sexist or homophobic banter draws its lazy humour from exclusion.

Racist, sexist or homophobic banter draws its lazy humour from exclusion.

Boys are funny, aren't they? I mean funny as in curious, not funny as in ha-ha. One minute they're all bogeys and pokemon and perilous attempts to set fire to their own farts, and the next they're making hilarious jokes about gang-rape. First, there was 'unilad,' the student magazine for undergraduates looking to affirm their own masculinity with a bit of joshing about how rape is just surprise sex. Then there were the 'G4'- four rich city boys whose cringeworthy email about a planned rugby bender in Dubai was leaked to the press, including 'rules' about 'laddish' behaviour like high- fiving each other during notional gang-bangs in which they would degrade the women involved. They also swore not to phone the girlfriends they had somehow managed to acquire, although this seems unlikely to remain an obstacle for long.

'Lad banter' is nothing new- but the leakiness of data online means that a large number of women can now see the way that we have always suspected some men talk about us behind our backs. Before they were chased from the internet by fire-breathing feminist hellwraiths, the jolly boys at Unilad apologised for 'going too far' and for causing offence. This is an Olympian feat of point- missage: the problem is not the offence caused but the fact that some men still think that this is an acceptable way to talk about women in or out of our earshot.

Some jokes are designed to make people feel powerful by dehumanising others. Racist, sexist or homophobic banter draws its lazy humour from exclusion, and in general, the worse a joke is, the smaller the circle of people likely to 'get' it. When people accuse women of inability to 'take a joke' when men humiliate, objectify or degrade us, they are absolutely right. The 'joke' wouldn't work if it were designed for us to appreciate, because that sort of humour is based on cruelty, on making men feel big and stiff at women's expense. Some jokes we are simply expected to 'take' rather like one might take a punch.

That this sort of misogynist table-thumping has more than a little of the playground to it is not accidental. It is learned in the playground. I remember ten years ago, in year eleven, the way the loud, overweight boy in who might have been bullied if it were not for his particular penchant for filthy banter used to speculate, as soon as the teacher left the room, as to how the genitals of the prettiest girl in English class might taste - like bacon? Like beef? Was she shaved?

I remember how she just sat there with her eyes lowered, waiting for it to stop. With hindsight I can understand the vulnerability of these spotty little underage virgins, the anxiety to prove themselves men, which meant adopting the postures of a circle of angry power that excluded all of the girls as well as not a small number of the boys. It excluded the shy, the nerdy, the obviously gay, and the one or two who had somehow learned years or decades ahead of their peers that women and girls were real human beings with dreams and desires and personal agency.

I wonder if hindsight works the same way for the rest of those boys, wherever they are now. I wonder if some of them look back and see the harm that their lairy bullying and baseless sexual boasting caused. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they just grew up into wealthy, powerful douchebags like the self-styled 'G4', entertaining heady fantasies of gang-rape as part of a language of violent sexist posturing kept entirely private from the women in their lives. That would be funny. But not funny ha-ha.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?

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The industrial strategy acknowledges a fundamental truth about growth

It's time for the government to recognise that private businesses need help to thrive. 

When Theresa May created a new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy after taking office last summer, plenty of eyebrows were raised. Industrial strategy, it was widely remarked, was something attempted by the Labour governments of the 1960s and 70s – and it had dismally failed. British Leyland, Concorde and Delorean were the dead proof that governments were useless at "picking winners" and shouldn’t attempt to. What was the new Prime Minister thinking? 

A few commentators did observe that the concept of industrial strategy had in fact been revived at the end of the Labour government and in the early years of the Coalition. Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson had successfully revived the motor industry in 2009-10 and initiated a new offshore wind manufacturing sector; Vince Cable and David Willetts had identified key manufacturing growth sectors and established new support systems for innovation. But they also pointed out that this had been largely abandoned by the next Business Minister, Sajid Javid, and was never embraced by David Cameron or George Osborne. 

So what did May mean? We are about to find out, when the government publishes its green paper on industrial strategy today. 

Among economic and business commentators, it has been widely assumed that this will again largely be about government support to manufacturing industry, particularly in the field of research and development. This is after all where the orthodox theory of "market failure" acknowledges that government intervention may be warranted. 

But this expectation is wrong. Under Business secretary Greg Clark, the government is taking a much wider approach. In fact the green paper will start from two far-reaching observations about the British economy.

First, take the UK’s low rate of productivity. This is not primarily a problem of the major firms in our remaining manufacturing industries. It is instead rooted in the small and medium-sized businesses in the service sectors, which employ 84 per cent of the British workforce. These are characterised by systematic under-investment in new technologies. 

Second, this is compounded by the huge disparity in productivity across the UK’s nations and regions. While London has the highest output per head of any region in Western Europe, more than a quarter of the UK’s regions rank among the lowest. Only if productivity is raised everywhere can it be raised in the UK as a whole. And only if productivity is raised, can wages be increased. So this is crucial to any attempt to help those "left behind" or "just about managing". 

The green paper will therefore make it clear, as IPPR has argued, that industrial strategy is not just about galvanising R&D and brand new innovation – though this is certainly important. It is about stimulating the much more widespread adoption of new technologies in all businesses - the service sector too. And it is not just about high-tech companies in the UK’s golden triangle between London, Cambridge and Oxford. It must happen in every region and nation of the country

In other words, the government looks likely to accept a vital truth - that industrial strategy is not a single strand of policy, but an approach to economic policy in general. It involves a fundamental recognition that firms and markets left to their own devices do not necessarily generate the optimum results for society as a whole.

Firms under-invest; they do not always adopt the most efficient technologies; they cannot on their own achieve the benefits of clustering together in regional centres; their investors’ horizons may be too short termist; they need infrastructure, skills, planning and other public policies to be aligned; they need to be encouraged to locate outside the existing growth centres. 

In other words, industrial strategy acknowledges that wealth is co-produced by the private and public sectors working together, and successful economies need both.

The chief theoretician of this understanding in recent years has been the economist Mariana Mazzucato, who has argued that the best way of driving investment in innovation is for government to set "missions" to address major social challenges. Just as the US moonshot programme generated innovation in a wide range of sectors, so modern missions such as decarbonisation, meeting the health and social care needs of an ageing population and the housing shortage can galvanise a new wave today. The government can use both "demand-side" policies (such as energy policy and procurement) and "supply-side" policies (such as in infrastructure and skills) to promote private sector investment.

In Britain industrial strategy has always been thought to be a left of centre economic idea, because it requires an active role for government. The Telegraph and Mail will no doubt tell Mrs May this week that it is all very misguided. But this is not how the rest of the world sees it. The most successful economies – Germany, Japan, South Korea, the Scandinavians – all work on the basis of public-private partnership to maximise productivity and achieve better distributed growth. All of them have higher productivity, and lower regional disparities, than the UK.

Yet there remain real question marks hanging over the government’s approach. Will the Chancellor cough up? A strategy with no money will be stillborn at birth. In particular, will sufficient resources and powers be given to regional institutions to support long-term economic growth outside London? Shifting the geographic pattern of investment will ultimately be the key test of the strategy’s success. 

The Business secretary is known to favour "deals" with industry to deliver the strategy, in the manner of the "devolution deals" with local government he developed in his previous Cabinet role. But will these be properly transparent, as the agreement which kept Nissan in Britain in the autumn was not? Will they simply favour the best business lobbyists, or can they represent a real compact of mutual obligations between public and private sectors?

The government has already acknowledged that it needs to recruit overseas negotiators to do new trade deals. It could usefully employ some outside experts to help with industrial strategy too. A good test of its commitment to strengthening public sector capacity is whether the government continue with its crazy sell-off of the Green Investment Bank

Ultimately, the key question may be whether the strategy will outlast Clark, who is probably the only Heseltinian member of the Cabinet beyond Mrs May who really believes in it. Labour’s Shadow Minister Clive Lewis, who has been talking intelligently about industrial strategy and has recently launched his own consultation, is no doubt already sharpening his critique. 

For the Prime Minister, the rationale for industrial strategy is clear. As it goes through the trauma of Brexit, the British economy will need to be seriously strengthened. We are about to see whether she can deliver it. 

Michael Jacobs is the Director of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice and co-editor of Rethinking Capitalism: Economics and Policy for Sustainable and Inclusive Growth (Wiley Blackwell 2016).