Show Hide image

Politics of proton smashing

The UK taxpayer has contributed around £500 million to the development of the Large Hadron Collider.

In a world of unlimited budgets, funding for the lavishly expensive Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN would be easy to justify. This justification is harder to sustain in our world of competing priorities. But honest debate about the politics and economics of CERN is not helped by a complaisant, nonsense-talking media, and nor is it helped by the wilful obfuscations of some of CERN’s defenders.

It would be churlish to deny that there is something intensely, if geekily, exciting about the activities of the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN). The idea of accelerating sub-atomic particles to almost the speed of light, and smashing them into each other deep under the French and Swiss countryside, has a Bond-villain grandeur that has manifestly caught the public imagination. If this leads to more genuine interest in science, and inspires more children to study physics at school, then this can surely only be a good thing.

But the money being poured into CERN is almost as mind-boggling as the velocities being achieved inside its new super-collider. The entire CERN budget is some $1bn per year, with the UK picking up over a sixth of the total. The UK taxpayer has contributed something of the order of £500 million to the development of the Large Hadron Collider. So, the question is, do we get the right kind of bang for our bucks?

The answer to this question is rather mixed. On the one hand, elementary particle physics has long been at an impasse, as increasingly sophisticated theoretical elaborations of the ‘standard model’ of the four basic physical forces flounder through lack of the right kind of experimental data. Only by building the LHC could particle physics be pushed forward, and recent theoretical work be given its long-needed experimental test.

Without the LHC, fundamental particle physics would have hit the buffers, with increasingly abstruse theoretical work floating free of the possibility of empirical confirmation. An important part of physics would have been in deep, existential trouble without the LHC.

So, if we want to satisfy the basic human curiosity about how the world works then, sooner or later, the LHC – or something like it – would have to be built. The question, though, is whether this really was the time to do it, and whether its very generous funding could have been better deployed elsewhere. The answer to this question is also important for how we should think about future funding of projects like this one.

A very basic line of argument would suggest that CERN’s budget could be better spent on the more basic functions of liberal democratic states – health, education, environmental policy, and the like. At the extreme, one could take the view that this kind of pure scientific research is simply not the role of government. But the case for diverting the LHC budget elsewhere does not have to be made in Philistine terms, or by questioning the value of scientific research. To be anti-LHC need not mean being ‘anti-science’. Instead, we may just think that we should be concentrating on alternative scientific priorities.

Sir David King, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, has recently argued that scientific research priorities should be redirected more pressing problems like climate change. The discovery of the Higgs boson won’t be much good to anyone if the planet has become too hot for human habitation; and it is especially difficult to justify the prioritisation of particle physics to the global poor who will bear the brunt of global warming.

Moreover, it is clear that there are much better returns, in terms of discoveries per unit of expenditure, to research in other areas of science, as opposed to CERN-type particle physics which, by its very nature – involving enormously complex machinery and massive energy outlays – is very expensive. Fields like genomics and bioinformatics are accelerating at a breakneck pace right now, in sharp distinction to the near-exhaustion of particle physics. And so it is hard to deny that there are other areas of science where research is both closer to practical human concerns, and where the scientific returns to investment are greater.

Even within the scope of physics itself, it is not clear that putting so much emphasis on funding the LHC makes good scientific sense. As disproportionate amounts of UK Physics funding are poured into CERN, more fertile areas of the subject such as condensed matter physics, biophysics and nanotechnology are being sidelined.

It is a significant fact that, as the UK has diverted physics funding increasingly towards particle physics, other parts of the subject have suffered. Despite comparatively high levels of funding, no UK-based physicist has won a Nobel Prize in Physics since Nevill Mott in 1977. (Anthony Leggett won in 2003, but he has worked at the University of Illinois for the past 25 years.) This compares very unfavourably with UK successes in Medicine, with more than a dozen UK Nobel laureates over the same period. As UK Physics funding pours into particle physics, more fertile and fast-moving areas of the subject have come to be dominated by the US and Germany.

So, putting the LHC first may not even be good for physics, let alone for scientific research in general. But one would not have the first inkling of this from the supine, hyperbolic and excitable coverage that the LHC’s launch has received from the British media.

There was an enormous amount of brouhaha in the British media on the 10 September “launch date” of the LHC, even though all that had happened was that a beam of protons had been sent in one direction around the LHC. Nothing had been collided, and so no collisions could yet have been detected. Yet the media coverage suggested that some kind of breakthrough had already taken place.

The media has nonsensically christened the LHC “the Big Bang machine” and the Higgs boson is bizarrely called “the God particle”. Neither term really means anything at all. We are told that the LHC will “discover the origins of the Universe” when all it can aim to do is to recreate conditions from the very early Universe, which is a completely different idea. We are told that the physicists “have no idea what they might find” when, in fact, they are looking for very specific results given a well-worked out background theory that stands in need of empirical confirmation.

Strangest of all, the LHC is heralded as having spin-off effects from finding cures to cancer to solving global warming, as if these – rather than raw scientific curiosity – were its real justification. But if we’re really interested in these sorts of applications of scientific research, there are likely to be more efficient ways of getting to them than hunting the Higgs boson.

Something very odd seems to have happened. The media would rather talk excited gibberish about the LHC than ask hard questions about support for science in a democratic society, or the proper priorities for research in physics. The CERN scientists are happy to meet the media’s demand for hyperbole, as it obscures the most important questions about funding for CERN.

This should not sound too negative. The LHC is a magnificent human achievement, a great feat of collaboration and logistics, and it will surely bring fascinating scientific advances. But, in a sane democratic society, the media and the scientists themselves need to do a better job about talking sensibly about its purpose, goals and justification.

Most importantly, given the competing demands for our tax pounds – from other areas of science as well as from broader social goals – we need to think long and hard about our priorities. My tentative suggestion is that, at least for the time being, and given the plethora of real problems humanity is facing, the LHC should be as far as we go for a generation or two in funding particle physics.

Human ingenuity will get us to the deepest foundations of particle physics eventually, but we may collectively have other more important things to do before we get there.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
Show Hide image

Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

0800 7318496