Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Slow Return of Scottish Labour

Our Kez's departure to the jungle occasions Scottish Labour's tentative return from the wilderness. Coincidence? You couldn't plan it better. Richard Leonard's victory is another welcome step forward in the transformation of the party. Not only does the Corbyn majority on the NEC increase by one (another case of Labour right machinations coming back to bite them), but we now have a leftwing leader in what has historically been the bastion of everything rotten in the party. For example, remember this story? Yup, Scottish Labour.

While the victory for the left is getting hailed as decisive, there is still much to do - as the voting figures attest. In the trade union section, Richard won by a huge margin - some 77% vs 23% for Anas Sarwar, former Blairist darling and, until yesterday, one of the few hopes the Labour right had left. The membership is slightly trickier: 52% vs 48%. A majority but hardly a sweeping one, and a result that might not have happened had Unite not recruited from among its own membership. Nevertheless, if Richard is planning to clean house - and if there's an organisation that does need swilling down, it's Scottish Labour - the task will be a tough one, though having the unions largely on side certainly helps matters.

What then did Scottish Labour end up voting for? Richard's pitch is recognisably left wing, albeit well within the envelope of Labourism. There's the pledge to prioritise tackling poverty, promoting equality, a pledge to coordinate health strategy across departments and working with the NHS to drive down health inequalities, a move toward rent controls and a house building promise, the decentralisation of power and strengthening of local government, investment in renewables, recovering the universal as opposed to the residual welfare state, and an industrial strategy that would include a programme of nationalisations and the right to worker buy outs. It's a good start that (obviously) requires more work, but is certainly consistent with Corbynist politics everywhere else and offers a decent left alternative to the SNP. As the Scottish government have amply demonstrated, it's one thing to talk left but quite another to follow through. However, quite conspicuous in this list was the complete absence of Brexit and the national question. I suppose this can be justified in terms of driving the political contest around core Labour values, where Anas was weak thanks to his political baggage and questions over his family's firm, but as the SNP have clear positions on these issues Labour needs a firm line too. Should Scotland try for its own special Brexit deal in defiance of the UK government? What relationship should Scotland have with the rest of the UK? On these crucial issues there is nothing, thus far. But still, this is a much stronger position from which to take back Scottish support and Scottish seats, especially when you consider how awful matters were previously.

One of the biggest challenges facing Scottish Labour is overcoming unionism. I don't mean the idea Scotland is best served by continuing its voluntary union with the UK, but unionism as a set of political dispositions, as a semi-passive movement and body of opinion among (mostly older) layers of Scottish society. Why? The 2017 general election tells us why. Labour managed to return seven MPs to Westminster, which is a better result than anyone dared hope for. But the method of doing so spells future doom for the party, unless it changes track. Incredibly, unbelievably after the debacle of the Better Together campaign at the 2014 referendum and the 2015 obliteration someone, somewhere in the Scottish party thought the key to success was another de facto alliance with the Tories, thereby doubling down on the very strategies that pitched Scottish Labour into the quagmire. Labour, along with the Ruth Davidson party and the Liberal Democrats formed a pro-unionist, anti-nationalist front to beat back the SNP. It certainly worked with all three parties gaining seats most thought were lost for a generation. But all told, what did it amount to for Labour? A mere 10,000 extra votes.

The composition of unionism is much the same as vectors of pro-establishment and right wing opinion down south. It's mostly old, mostly retired, mostly clustered in declining occupational categories, is riddled with angst and insecurity and mostly receptive to political doom saying. Small wonder it disproportionately fell in behind the Tories in June. Meanwhile, the base of 2014's Yes movement and of the SNP generally is entirely different. It's more than former Labour voters annoyed at our party's hapless record since Holyrood was founded. No, what is powering them are the very same networked/socialised workers making their presence felt via the Labour Party south of the border. Except in Scotland, thanks to Scottish Labour simultaneously being a) a chief prop of the UK establishment, and b) a rotten husk a million miles away from the people who it was set up to represent. The alliance with the Tories in the Better Together campaign revealed the party to be venal, compromised, and a vehicle for interests that would do over the constituentcies who are supposed to be its people. And so the opportunity for something different to the dreary, exhausting status quo of cuts and dog-eat-dog presented itself and, unsurprisingly, many would-be Labour supporters voted Yes and switched to the SNP. It's not rocket science.

The polarisation of politics we're seeing now, of two solid immovable blocks cohering behind Labour and the Tories applies in Scotland also. Except there it finds itself expressed in nationalism vs unionism. Labour under Our Kez, with much urging from the dysfunctional party establishment and its anti-Corbyn friends in the south, had adopted a strategy that steered it away from the constituency that pushed Labour to a better-than-expected election result. By forging tactical alliances with, to be frank, our class enemies it alienated this support and firmed it up behind the SNP. This effectively boxes Labour in to a three-way fight with the Tories and LibDems over an ageing, declining coalition of voters. Sticking to them exclusively, which is the Labour unionist establishment's preferred option, is tantamount to slow suicide.

For Scottish Labour to overcome its legacy of decrepitude and cretinism it needs to speak to the interests that has made Corbynism a contender for government. It does not need to start embracing Scottish nationalism, which would look opportunistic and desperate anyway, but must understand what is happening to Scottish society, understand that a great deal of the SNP's support is soft and not essentially nationalistic, and begin making political overtures to win them over. Pleasingly, Richard's association with Corbynism and his platform is a beginning in this regard, but it's only a beginning.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Basic Income and the Cult of Work

If you have the kind of job like, say Chuka Umunna, you might not want to see the end of work. You get a hefty salary, you are the boss of your own office, you're respected by your peers and considered to be someone who matters, and nice long breaks help punctuate life at Westminster. If, on the other hand, your experience of work is a life of drudge, humiliation and insecurity there's a very good chance your views might differ. The majority of people who work might like the routine and structure a work day gives them. It might confer a sense of purpose and provide a social life, but at the end of it most people wouldn't do what they do if they didn't have to. Millions of people work simply because they have no choice.

We live in a society that makes a fetish out of work. One's trajectory through the education system is (supposedly) guided by getting a decent job at the end of it. People's engagement with social security is supposed to be a temporary thing with the object of throwing them back into the workplace at the earliest opportunity. And if people aren't working, they're feckless and bone idle and made to feel that way - never mind how unemployment always exceeds the number of vacancies. And you know what? It's all so bloody unnecessary. While there are people without jobs, plenty of those with them are overworked. Work time too often bleeds into home time as work loads are impossible to manage as task piles upon task. Or at any time the phone threatens to go with a "request" to come in, shattering your free time and reminding you your time is their largesse. Too many workplaces are permanently short staffed, and the experience of work is a dizzying affair of plate spinning and routine. Life isn't for enjoyment, it's a treadmill for countless millions who realise when they reach retirement that they're too knackered or too ill to do the things they always wished to. Life is far too short to be spent and bent in involuntary servitude, especially when work can be planned and shared out equitably.

I wasn't surprised to find Chuka's much trailed opposition to the basic income couched as a defence of the cult of work. Nor that his argument is virtually identical to criticisms previously ventured by Yvette Cooper. That doesn't mean it isn't irritating, or won't be taken seriously in some quarters. But seriously, just look at the state of it. Nonsense about basic income meaning people living off the state, living vacuous, purposeless lives, of "giving up" on creating new jobs, it's a miserable exercise in how impoverished the political imagination can become. For instance, in the coming wave of automation,

Work could become more fulfilling. In the new economy our most valuable asset will be human beings. We have emotional intelligence and perception, and the capacity to create, empathise, persuade and reason in abstract ways. We can make imaginative leaps, and we have intuition. In the new economy what will have added value is what is devalued today – the emotional labour of caring, communicating, creating and connecting.

As if all this is dependent on the archaic compulsion of exchanging our capacity to labour for wages or a salary. Technology should not be deployed to create more bullshit jobs so more people can spend their best years doing meaningless, socially useless tasks. It should be deployed to reduce the working week, to spread the wealth we create, and to make us free from the necessity of waged labour. The future has to be something better than a human being chained to a desk, forever. And it totally can be.

What the basic income offers is a guaranteed, no-strings income to all. If money means freedom and choice, this is exactly what it confers. It allows people the choice to spend their time engaged in socially productive voluntary work or to sit at home and play video games. People have the freedom to indulge their passions. They can engage in entrepreneurial activity without the risk of ruin, as individuals, small partnerships or cooperative ventures. They are free to dip in and out of the education system, and do so without having studying time eaten up by work. And likewise, people can retire early from work, raise a family, attend to full-time caring without worry and insecurity. We know a basic income can do this, because trials prove it.

Yes, there are basic incomes and basic incomes. It has its fans on the right as well as the left. For the former, informed as it is by Californian tech-bro libertarianism, establishing a basic income allows for the abolition of social security and a whole bunch of liabilities companies shell out for. The basic income is a way of socialising risk, and helping support a population while Silicon Valley capital parasites off its data. Others favour pitching the basic income at a very low level so it doesn't intrude on work incentives. i.e. The necessity of working. Left approaches to basic income should reject both and pitch it at a level that allows for a comfortable life that reproduces human beings in all their material, social and cultural complexity.

Would this present a capitalist economy severe difficulties of adaptation? Absolutely, but then we're supposed to be in the business of moving beyond markets and artificial scarcity. If capital wants to survive, it would have to transform the nature of work entirely. Without compulsion, suddenly the (potential) worker has the upper hand in the capital/labour relationship. Capital would have no choice but to innovate and automate as much as it possibly can, because to attract employees, wages, which would truly become compensation for people's time, would have to be much higher than they are presently. The conditions of work would have to be better. Work would have to become more rewarding and enriching. And, who knows, because work would be done by people who want to be there perhaps it might be a more pleasant experience all round. Meanwhile the rest of society would move away from the commercial imperative, experiment with new ways of organising things, and as everyone has a guaranteed good standard of living may decide to consign money itself to the museums.

It's this, ultimately, which underpins the hostility Chuka and his friends have toward the basic income. Theirs is not a pragmatic acceptance of studies that prove work is good for you but a deep seated fear that the principle of a basic income, once established and practiced, is something that works against the very logics of compulsion and class struggle capitalism is dependent on. And that is reason enough to support it.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The Economics of Polarisation

There are other things I want to say about the polarisation of British politics, and as this builds on arguments made in an earlier post I recommend reading it first. Okay, so we know the situation. We have a car crash of a government that makes the Major years at their worst look like a model of good governance. All kinds of awful has happened since the botched election in June, not least of which is permanent chaos. The vile episode that saw Johnson and Gove ignorantly impugn the innocence of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, risking her an extra five years in prison being the lowest depths to which they and this government have crawled. And yet the Tories persistently knock about the polls in the 38-41% range. How to explain this situation?

As we saw previously, the Tories assembled an otherwise formidable electoral coalition by polling day in June. They are in along-term decline, being as they are comprised of declining constituencies of mainly older voters, but they're sticking with the Tories. There's no breaking away or leakage beyond an almost imperceptible trickle. What would do the business? Given the electoral collapse of UKIP during the campaign with about two thirds of its vote flowing to the Tories, it's probably fair to say a Brexit betrayal would excite them all again and see them spin back to kippery. Hence why the silly games playing with the exact date and time of Brexit, and Gove and Johnson issuing transitional deal ultimatums. Yet there is another, more powerful force helping keep the base of the coalition solid: the economics.

This only makes sense if you dispense with the received technical definition of economics. They are numbers on a spreadsheet, but these are representations of so much more. Economics are social relationships, whether face-to-face or at a distance, fleeting or sustained. They are the dispensing and hoarding of property, the exchanges of equivalences, the maskings of exploitation, the confluence, conflict and antagonism of interests, and much else. Historically it is an expansive understanding of economics the Tories have proved masters at selling to coalitions of voters and what made them the most successful party of all the established liberal democracies. They did so by combining the selfish with the selfless, or what is known as egotropic and sociotropic voting. As you might guess from the terms, the former refers to self-interest and the latter the wider interest - usually filtered in terms of how well the British economy is doing as measured by GDP, employment, inflation and so on. The Tories strike a balance by combining this with promises and dire warnings.

Take Thatcherism, as Stuart Hall noted in his masterful The Hard Road to Renewal collection, the ground for what happened in the 1980s was prepared by networks of authoritarian and reactionary movements, an ideological softening up by the press and their narrative of national decline, and as ever, a scapegoating of immigrants and minorities. Plus ca change. Thatcher was able to cloak her programme of class war in the red, white and blue of national renaissance. Closing state-run industries was a matter of shutting lame ducks, shrinking the public sector and allowing more scope for tax cuts. That the rich primarily benefited was hidden by made-up absurdities like the Laffer Curve and trickle down, that giving them more cash would see them spread the wealth through entrepreneurial activity. Privatisation wasn't sold as the looting of the public realm for the well-heeled, but introducing millions of small investors to the joys of share ownership. Selling off the council houses to tenants was all about creating a bedrock of owner occupiers who'd gratefully turn out for Maggie. All the time, this programme was positioned as the natural expression of individuality, and it solidified a coalition that saw three consecutively successful Tory defences of their Parliamentary majority. Forward to 2010 and 2015, Dave brazenly went for the carrot and stick approach, promising a land of milk and honey if he was allowed an axe to swing at public spending (which would, miraculously, repair the damage left by the 2008 crash) - the trick was to not let Labour wreck it with their coalition of chaos with the SNP and sundries. Dave's programme was relentlessly negative, but understood that insulating older voters from austerity, at least where their income was concerned, was key. This was a lesson lost on May, but her talk of one-nationism very briefly opened up the possibility of new hegemonic project that recuperated austerity weariness, allied to economic competence with Ed Milibandish characteristics. Each of these phases of modern Toryism were first and foremost about protecting the interests they've always protected, but also speaking to and acting as responsible custodians of the economy in the eyes of the Tory-inclined.

What does economic competence look like right now? The keeping down of prices, the freezing of taxes, the protection of pensions, the stoking of an over-heated housing market on the egotropic side. For the "selfless" side it has to be economic growth, growing employment (never mind these are quarter or half jobs arrived at by carving up full-time roles), and a sense everything is chugging along. It means an absence of danger. This is exactly what a Jez government represents. Labour would undo everything, not least the Tory consensus on taxes and property, and sell out mighty Britannia to the Bolshevist bureaucrats across the Channel. This demonstrates the clever move of Toryism: their politics simultaneously sells security and insecurity. Their carrot is a better future for you and your family, a life of work and self-reliance rewarded with rising living standards. But all this can be taken away by personal failure or by Labour governments. In this context, the Tory approach to employment and how it systematically produces and reproduces economic insecurity makes a lot of sense. Bootstraps self-reliance in austere circumstances are recipes for atomisation and, if they think they have something to lose, anxiety. As always, it's worth noting it's not the poor who feel this most acutely. The Tories, despite being the authors of policies that exacerbate economic ill-feeling are able to rally some of it as support for certainties, like flags, the nation, and authoritarian leaders. Theresa May single-mindedly went with strong and stable for a reason.

Here's the clever thing. This constitution of Tory support as an economic bloc of (perceived) shared interests isn't just about the defining and aligning of shared frames, it is done so in a series of active oppositions, of locating their interests against others, of creating a constituency and perfoming as if in opposition to other constituencies and coalitions of voters. For example, the property-owning voters created by Thatcher have a direct stake in rising property values, and this depends on restricting supply. For the landlord strata, depressing the number of first-time buyers ensures a large pool of renters exist, as well as a supply of housing they get first dabs on. Conversely insecure working makes getting on the housing ladder impossible and thereby feeds into the rental market. Austerity, then as now, makes cuts and passes any savings on in terms of tax cuts. For all the trumpeting around taking the low paid out of tax, every rise of the threshold benefits middling and wealthy tax payers too - though this is sold as punishing the feckless and undeserving poor. Their sustained engagement with public services depends on industrial peace, and so the organisations of working people - unions - are justifiably kept on a leash. The health of pension pots and small investments demands governments keep their hands off corporate profits. And they are actively positioned as a constituency by repeat right wing editorialising against the generation coming up. You know the nonsense about Generation Snowflake, their obsession with celebrity (cynically cultivated by the self-same media interests), their queering approach to gender and sexuality, their free easiness with a diverse and changing Britain, their addiction to phones, their lack of patriotism and entitlement; these serve to invite comparisons with themselves, the gritty post-war generation who came up through the school of hard knocks, and are deployed to rationalise the young's much less secure existence as tough love. Crap work, low pay, poor housing, few prospects, this is the just desserts for a spoilt cohort of kids who don't even know they've been born. It's class conflict sublimated through generational conflict, of setting up a gerontocracy of haves whose privilege depends on keeping the young as have-nots. And, as always, the very wealthiest benefit primarily because it's another line of divide and conquer, albeit one in which a wider layer of people who are more likely to vote have an interest in maintaining.

What can crack this deadlock? Obviously, it would be a very public stripping of the Conservatives' economic competence, which would directly affect the real and perceived interests of the Tory-supporting strata. Stock market crashes, banking scandals, an extension of austerity to pension incomes, the application of the bedroom tax to the elderly in social housing, all would have deleterious consequences for their coalition. Provided none of this happens, even if Brexit is a calamitous mess, as long as the Tories continue insulating this (declining) mass support from the consequences of their policies, the economics of polarisation will tend toward the present situation.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Hubris and Nemesis

A Sunday in late 2017 wouldn't be a Sunday in late 2017 if the politics wasn't dominated by more Tory infighting and backbiting. Characteristically the Prime Minister is nowhere to be seen (has anyone spotted her of late?), instead the Tory travails now turn upon the return of the Boris Johnson/Michael Gove double act. Yes, they're back. The lust for power now trumps even public betrayal and humiliation. I'm left wondering who's going to knife who first, but I digress. Since May brought Gove back into the cabinet in what can only be described as an act of desperation, the two have renewed their vows of fealty and now comprise a "formidable" power couple over Brexit and other issues.

Take the "secret letter" they've sent to May, no doubt leaked by "sources close to Boris Johnson" as these things always are. In this missive, Philip Hammond is lambasted for allowing the EU to force Britain over a barrel. Funny, I thought their Brexit comrade-in-arms David Davis was in charge of negotiations. They also tell May she needs to show more confidence and lead from the front. Again, to be fair to the Prime Minister, it's a tricky task to do when the government is packed full of jackals and is undermined by its members, the nominal Foreign Secretary among them. They also demand ministers who haven't "internalised" Brexit be gagged about it, which is weird as, on this at least, the Tory front bench have maintained consistency despite everything. And have issued an ultimatum about transitional deal: that it must last two years and not a day longer.

Again, we see here the pattern of behaviour common to all leading Tories of the last few years. Dave was happy to gamble the collective interests of British capitalism to keep UKIP from coming close in a tiny handful of Tory seats, and lost. Then Theresa May, full of pomp and arrogance signed up for a hard Brexit because it suited the narrow interests of the Tories to do so. After all, the only time she looked strong and stable during the election campaign was right at the beginning when she disingenuously attacked the EU for "interference". What trifles are British jobs against opportunities for cheap jingoism and added approval rating points? And now the Gove/Johnson double act, determined to foist an arbitrary deadline on post-Brexit arrangements for a few good editorials and the votes of the thinning membership of their diminishing party. What a shower.

While there are plenty of Tory MPs arrayed against them, not least the the former chief whip, they must sense the prize of Number 10 is nearing again. 40 MPs are reportedly prepared to no-confidence the Prime Minister, just eight short of the required threshold to trigger the whole process. However, typical of Tory arrogance just as things are going their way they decide to hole themselves below the waterline. Johnson was fortunate that the Priti Patel furore helped crowd out his comments on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British holidaymaker banged up by the Iranian regime, last week. Readers will recall she maintains her innocence and was just visiting family, and that is the position of the Foreign Office. Johnson, because he's a lazy oaf and can't be arsed to read his briefings, may have potentially condemned her to further charges by saying he believed she was in Tehran training journalists. There followed the typical politician's apology ("I'm sorry for any anxiety I've caused ...") but he looks like he got away with it.

Or rather, looked. Going out to bat for the partnership on Andrew Marr this morning, Gove stridently, some might say brazenly, defended Johnson's stupidity by heaping all the blame on the Iranian government itself. While true, yes, Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe is imprisoned by a kangaroo court and whose case is a pawn in internal factional struggle, it's not a good idea to suggest a UK prisoner of the regime was engaged in activity that state likens to espionage. But if that wasn't bad enough, Gove compounded the reckless idiocy by saying he "didn't know" why she was in the country. Again, implying there is something improper going on. All grist to the mill of the Iranian prosecutor: two cabinet members "letting slip" their prisoner was in the country to foment subversion. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. If they're quite prepared to sacrifice their country's interest for their undistinguished careers, what is the freedom of one innocent woman? One hopes their callous disregard dogs them for the remainder of the time they inflict themselves on public life.

Unfortunately, such gross turpitude and negligence, which should provide ample grounds for their immediate sacking, is not enough. The finely balanced factional hell of the inner party guarantees Gove and Johnson career safety. If May dumped them, and like many others it would be a delight to see them do the walk of shame outside Downing Street after a defrocking, they would have no compunction in starting the leadership process. Never mind that Brexit should be focusing minds, never mind they might as well gift wrap the next election and deliver it to Jeremy Corbyn's house, all that matters to the pair of them is position, their own self-glorification. They increasingly do not care what they have to do in pursuance of these selfish aims, and this makes them stupid, toxic and latterly dangerous to us.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Diablo III for the PlayStation 3

Sometimes you just want to switch off. The social media is put away, the phone is powered down and anything remotely smelling of news is avoided. At such times other entertainments may present themselves, and these include mindless video games. Feeling this need for a brain detox, I was minded to give Diablo III a try - not least because Halloween was (then) approaching and a comment on it would have made ideal blogging fodder. And it also suits my gaming style. I'm very much a pick-up-and-play person and just don't have the time to spend hours and hours learning complicated mechanics any more.

That's the first thing about Diablo III. The core game is very simple: wander around an isometric world dealing out death to all comers, which are usually a mix of undead, cultists and demons. And when a particular objective has been reached you move on to the next before encountering the level's big bad. Some things never change. I began my game with the most brutal-looking of characters, a giant man-tank barbarian with thighs that could crack breeze blocks, and jumped in. Immediately you find yourself pitted against some restless dead on the road to Tristram, a town under siege by the ghoulish hordes. You carve them up with your blades or whatever, depending on the character and the weapons you possess, and you pick up what is left behind. This falls into two broad categories: money and loot. The first allows you to buy equipment from the merchants you find dotted around the game, whereas the latter are items. They may be bits of weaponry and armour to be used to upgrade the fighting power of your character, or bits and bobs you can craft with.

As an action role-playing game, Diablo III is foremost a button masher. Particularly when you are getting swamped by enemies (it is very satisfying when you're told seven or more monsters have been dispatched by a single blow). And that suits me down to the ground. But as this is a modern game the simple mechanics are boosted in a number of ways. Naturally, would an RPG be a RPG without an experience/levelling system? Of course not. Every enemy in receipt of the slicing and dicing treatment bequeaths experience points, and as per all RPGs these are automatically traded in for extra abilities. Here, however, it unlocks abilities, moves, and skills that are mapped to the controller's buttons. There are loads of these which can be swapped out at any moment for another skill or ability, and allows for a huge array of combinations and therefore styles of play. The fun continues in crafting. Loot picked up from the battlefield can be dropped again, sold off in the shops, or melted down by artisans and fused with other weapons and/or gems to create more powerful items. With dozens, if not hundreds of different bits of kit dropped in-game, combining them all together and trying them out is going to take endless hours of dedication. But the option is there for those inclined toward such things.

The plot is fairly superfluous to the action. It intervenes with some very nice looking cut scenes, but it's not much you need pay attention to. There's the usual hokey affair of ancient evils threatening to consume the world (seriously, what would evil do if it ever won?), but it supplies a steady stream of nasties to kill. What does annoy is the travelling companion you pick up. Controlled by the AI, they are occasionally handy in a fight but tend to repeat the same lines of dialogue over and over. If you happen to have Eirena the Enchantress accompany your male character, expect some cringey and unconvincing dialogue.

Despite this, Diablo III is an enjoyable romp. The graphics are always outstanding and the action can get frenetic. It manages to recapture the fast paced relentlessness of the likes of Smash TV with the slashing action of Gauntlet and Golden Axe, with the action RPG veneer on top for padding and community building via the multiplayer features. The game has also received DLC and is still regularly supported by Blizzard - the latest patch coming out last month.

What can you say? This is old-style gaming extensively tweaked and remodelled for now. The seemingly endless choices of weapons and customisation, the three followers who can tag along with you, the character classes, the multiple difficulty levels and the huge maps, it's almost as if Blizzard are trying to capture a cadre of gamers and keep them imprisoned in the game. Well, there is an element of truth to this. Just as social media platforms attempt to create an enclosed universe to accumulate data, software firms are following suit. Drawing gamers into multiplayer activities introduces new competitive dynamics around the acquisition and unlocking of achievements, but also in terms of loot. In earlier iterations of Diablo III there were in-game auction houses where found weapons and crafted items could be bought and sold for real money. It was eventually patched out, but that offered up an additional revenue stream. Yet that's small beer. Signing in via Xbox Live, PSN or Blizzard's own servers if on PC leaves data footprints. Just as Facebook lets loose its algorithms on all content posted, similar, albeit less sophisticated systems, are at work here picking up on gaming habits, the amount of time is sunk into games, communication between players and whatnot, and these in turn can be used to market services and/or advertising based on avatars constructed out of the data.

It's interesting. We've noted before how accumulation is the absolute heart of RPGs, whether they follow a grindy, tactical, or action-oriented format. Diablo III like all others depends on acquiring experience and loot to enhance the gaming experience, whether single player or no. But once you start moving into the realms of multiplayer it's you, your friends, your acquaintances, everyone you play with and compete with via the networks that become the loot. It's the logical culmination of the RPG. The game play structures how one interacts with the game, reinforces certain habits of mind and latterly, unbeknownst to most, their data embeds them in other strategies of accumulation.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

After Priti Patel

The scene at Downing Street is increasingly resembling a First World War battlefield, but thankfully the only pulverising going on concerns ministerial careers. Yesterday, as even my non-sapient feline knows, was Priti Patel's turn. From the days of will she/won't she be sacked to the farce of following Patel's flight path home (simultaneously a shit iteration of NORAD's annual Santa stunt and a middle class version of Raoul Moat), the whole episode has damaged the Tories even more. And by allowing her to resign with dignity, as if there was anything honourable about Patel's obsequious deal cutting with leading Israeli politicians, Theresa May passed up a valuable opportunity to recapture some of that strong and stable magic from the world that passed with the general election.

Naturally, Patel had to go. British governments of all hues have had very chummy relationships with Israel. By conducting her own private foreign policy in preparation for her own run at the PM's office, Patel was nevertheless working within the parameters of Conservative Friends of Israel (an organisation she formerly chaired). Indeed, there will be many Tories who think she hasn't done anything wrong. For instance, offering international development funds to the Israeli army would only cultivate support among the back benches, demonstrates as it does her contempt for her (former) department's raison d'etre. The problem is she got found out, and when rumbled she carried on lying about it. Being seen to publicly lie to the face of the Prime Minister, even one as compromised as Theresa May, is a no-no.

And so Patel is no more, at least for the time being. With an eye to the future her resignation note sets her up as one of the self-appointed guardians of Brexit, so with any luck we won't hear from her again for at least the rest of this year. In the mean time, her "colourful" replacement, Penny Mordaunt, hardly inspires confidence but probably won't be so egregiously stupid about her overseas dilly-dallies. But she did back Andrea Leadsom in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it 2016 leadership contest and participated in the famed stroll around Westminster so you never know. Still, time and again we see how witless mediocrity is no barrier to high office.

Yet the Patel affair accomplished two things. It helped insulate Boris Johnson from a world of pain. Johnson has always been as callous as he is lazy, and that he remains in position after potentially condemning the charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to a further five years in an Iranian prison is nothing short of astonishing. Readers will know she is presently serving a five year term after an unspecified conviction related to subversive activity. Copping severe criticism for not being arsed to read his briefs properly, this foppish poltroon compounded his indifference by issuing a non-apology. At any other time he'd be out on his ear, but there is no embarrassment too damaging that will see him defenestrated. A departure would see him banished and free to factionalise and cause trouble, if not collapse the government. And yet, perversely, his staying on doesn't serve his ambitions and helps his would be opponents thank you very much. This episode demonstrates to all but the most ardent Johnson fan his utter incompetence, and his willingness to throw the freedom of an innocent woman under a bus simply because he cannot apologise in good faith. It has wounded him in the eyes of Tory party members, and puts him into the same toxicity territory with your Goves and your IDSs as far as the wider public are concerned. The more people see him in action, the more the myth of Johnson deflates and his person withers. The longer he sticks out the foreign office the further out of reach Number 10 gets.

That suits Theresa May as well. She can take the 'being weak and ineffectual' hit for not sacking Johnson as that's already baked into the present coalition of Tory voters. As far as they're concerned she's being held hostage and cannot get on with the job. They might not like her for it (no one forced her to bring Jeremy Corbyn to the brink of government) but in lieu of anyone else, and because she's keeping the red menace at bay, she will have to do. Keeping Johnson in the cabinet helps balance everything out and allows the May delusion a few more squirts of fuel. The Patel/Johnson farrago has also helped the Prime Minister in other ways. The drip drip of harassment scandals have taken the back seat, which includes the complicity of leading Tories in keeping a lid on things in the recent past. Gavin Williamson, ostensibly appointed by May to the defence brief after "Handbags" Fallon fell on his sword, has serious questions to answer for sitting on complaints which include alleged criminality for disciplinary purposes, knowledge May was regularly briefed about. That should be a bigger story than it is, and perhaps it will be in time. Likewise, this week's events have temporarily taken the heat off claims made about Damian Green, without whom May cannot function in post.

After yet another edition of the worst week ever, questions naturally arise about the government's viability. The vultures are circling and ultimatums have been issued. There is little May can do to turn things around, so she desperately needs a good budget statement the week after next and a breakthrough in the Brexit talks. Yet if they don't happen and the government is convulsed by yet more scandal, the situation remains the same. It's in everyone's interests for May to go so it's in everyone's interests for May to stay. The Tory party are not about to unite behind someone else, and the wider political polarisation isn't likely to shift. This is politics as torture, and there's a long way to go yet.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Hailing and Heeding Red October

Karl Marx enjoyed historical ironies, but I doubt he'd have been cheered by this one. The greatest event in human history is simultaneously its most tragic event, a people who reached for the heavens laid low by the harsh, hellish realities of war, starvation, repression and dictatorship. The Russian Revolution, Red October, has met its centennial. An occasion to celebrate or commemorate depends very much on your political persuasion, but what it is, what the whole Soviet experience should be is something too many on the left have resisted: an occasion for learning.

If the 1871 Paris Commune was the first breach in the international order of capital, the October Revolution posed it an existential threat. Not only did it expropriate the aristocracy and emergent bourgeoisie, it lit the touch paper of a revolutionary blaze that fanned outwards into Europe, into the colonies, into India and China and won it a global army of adherents. After the collapse of Imperial Germany the continent came close, very close, to turning red. Alas the revolutionary wave ebbed and socialism's outrider became its sole bastion. Nevertheless the establishments of Europe knew what the revolution represented. It was a warning, an unwelcome intrusion of the masses into history bearing one simple message: that capitalism was on notice. The propaganda aimed against the Soviet Republic, the soldiers and material the colonial powers shipped to Russia to strangle the experiment in its cradle, this was done not to restore democracy or prevent dictatorship. Its simple aim was to drown the revolution in blood. The Russian civil war that raged from 1918-1921 consumed the lives of 10 million people, but even that couldn't break it. Nevertheless the utter devastation - think 1990s Afghanistan on a much larger canvas - saw to its pacification in terms of the international game. Socialism in one country, Stalin's original sin as far as the Trotskyists were concerned, was a break with received Marxist understandings of the global character of revolution, but also a doctrinal adaptation to material circumstances and the rebadging of the old Tsarist bureaucracy as so many people's commissariats.

And here lies the first problem with coming to grips with the revolution. Marxist understandings of the revolution performed in its name are too often bogged down by factional debates and their attendant mythologies. For the Social Democrats it was a case of instant dismissal. They preached against the violence of putschism, fetishised constitutionalism and attacked the Bolsheviks for not respecting the political gradualism they were wedded to. Yet this condemnation was strangely absent when it was a matter of turning guns on colonised peoples or the revolutionary masses of Europe, as was the case in Germany after the Great War. The anarchists were simultaneously hostile for the revolution not being revolutionary enough and located Soviet authoritarianism in a red thread stretching back to Marx's expulsion of Bakunin from the First International for ... wanting to place the organisation under the control of a secret conspiratorial outfit with him as the head. Hmmm. For the Trotskyists everything was fine and dandy until the 1921 party congress banned factions and it was the slippery slope after then, and for your Stalinists (depending on the flavour) things were a-okay until Khrushchev's secret speech in 1956, or right up until the Berlin Wall fell.

Of course, this account leaves out much detail, but the point remains. There is little consensus about what the lessons of the Russian Revolution are, and therefore conclusions, be they scholarly or political, are footballs to be kicked about in the ebb and flow of interests. For much of the Cold War period, despite the prevalence of us-vs-themism, there were contesting interpretations. After the end and the temporary triumph of neoliberal capitalism and governance, the USSR and the revolution that spawned it were an aberration, something to be reviled if it was ever to be talked about at all. As politics opens up again and socialism and communism are once more at large, ambiguity is more the order of the day - of which this post is one of many left wing examples.

The crucial problem, the issue returned to time and again is the erroneous suggestion the Bolsheviks started out as a dictatorial outfit. After all, it's there in Lenin's What is to be Done?, an otherwise obscure pamphlet of boring polemics old Lenners aimed at his rivals and fellow exiles in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Indeed, Trotsky earned his spurs if not his notoriety in these self-same circles for attacking Lenin's "authoritarianism". He was more right than he could have ever supposed when he argued "... these methods lead, as we shall see below, to the Party organisation “substituting” itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organisation, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee". And yet contrary to the standard interpretation of Lenin and the bureaucratic sects and cults who farcically claim to be repositories of the Bolshevik tradition, "these methods" were not Lenin's argument at all. As the sterling scholarship of Lars T Lih on the life and works of Lenin show, the model he favoured and worked to base the revolutionary party on was actually German Social Democracy, albeit adapted to conditions of Russian illegality. That was a tradition of relating democratically to workers and peasants, it meant a disciplined approach to political activity married to a noisy and dynamic culture of criticism and open debate. The RSDLP, which incubated the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions was never a monolith, and following the final split between the two and the transformation of both into parties, they inherited the characteristics of its defunct parent. The party that led the insurrection was also a party with a democratic culture and with open factions who published their own material. It was formally and substantively more democratic than the Labour Party. There was clearly a qualitative break between the Bolshevik Party of Lenin prior to the revolution and the mockery of workers' power it later became.

How did we arrive at the gulag from this? For Trotskyist accounts of the revolution, the young Soviet Republic was hampered by its narrow social base. Only small numbers clustered in the urban areas and attending the (then) limited transport network could be considered proletarian - the rest were the peasantry. In short, the revolution had to rely on winning over a much more numerous class whose immediate interests were in tension with socialist aims. Complicating this was the revolution coming under siege by internal reaction and the armies of the Allied Powers, who poured in once Germany and Austro-Hungary were put in their boxes. As the civil war persisted the Soviets, the constitutional bedrock of the new order, got sidelined and, to make matters worse, the most conscious and dedicated revolutionaries were killed in the slaughter or absorbed by the bureaucracy in directional roles. This, goes the story, provided the material base for the strangling of the revolution by the apparatus and the subsequent rise of Stalin as its champion and overlord. The Trotskyist account is right as far as it goes, but as anarchist criticisms make clear, the disruption and destruction of democratic functioning was a pronounced tendency from the very start. In her memoirs Alexandra Kollontai recalls weeping as she called in the heavies to disperse protesters at her commissariat, and this was before the civil war got properly underway.

Bolshevist authoritarianism came not from the party but the process of revolution itself. As Engels himself noted in a polemic with "anti-authoritarian" socialists,

... the anti-authoritarians demand that the political state be abolished at one stroke, even before the social conditions that gave birth to it have been destroyed. They demand that the first act of the social revolution shall be the abolition of authority. Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists.

A revolution leaves very little room for democratic niceties, as every single one from the English Civil War to the 1979 overthrow of the Shah in Iran demonstrates. For all the fantasies of the cleansing violence of revolutionary action, revolutions have the tendency to consume everything, not least the people who made it, as the French and Russian examples attest. And that, ultimately, has to be the enduring lesson of what happened a century ago this evening. A peaceful putsch - more people were injured during the staged and filmed storming of the Winter Palace than the actual event - was a prelude to a war so bloody that only the Nazi invasion of Russia surpassed it. For Marx, socialism and communism was the immense majority moving in the interests of the immense majority, a position now opening up again by the confluence of rising culture, rising networks, and sharpening politics. Going beyond capitalism doesn't, at least in the advanced West, require an insurrection and civil war precisely because the character of class struggle is changing. There are no blueprints for what comes next, only pointers provided by the directions new struggles takes and what new constituent processes are tending towards. Therefore one should mark the October Revolution, even raise a toast to the comrades who made it, but never forget it's a warning as well.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Why British Politics is Polarising

What's going on? Take our mate Jolyon Maugham QC, for instance. Commenting on the latest Ipsos MORI putting Labour on 40% and the Tories on 38%, he argues Labour needs a new strategy and leadership because it can't "make headway". We can forgive him because he knows not what he does. But this is a common refrain. The Tories are stuck down t'pit, but Labour are hardly pirouetting top side. Indeed, it's the basis for stubborn Corbyn scepticism and hostility, the idea our lead should be measured in light years, not single digits and that were the party headed by some centrist/liberal hero we'd gallop away with the next election. Why isn't it happening?

Because polarisation. Consider the difference between now and early period New Labour before the 1997 general election. Then, as now, a strong, confident Labour Party faced a chaotic and exhausted Conservative government. The difference was on the core fundamentals ranging from approach to public spending to the role of markets, the hegemony of business, the sidelining of unions and so on the Tories and New Labour had an unspoken policy compact. Today, the Tories offer a programme, if it can be called that, self-evidently geared around the protection of class privilege while Labour offers something that can renew British capitalism and open the path to something beyond it. The 1990s were a time of class peace, albeit one of capital's terms thanks to the defeats of the 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now is a time of sharpening class conflict.

If the frisson of Marxist verbiage is too much for your delicate constitution, consider it like this. Prices are rising faster than wages. Low wage insecure work is the norm, particularly for younger people. Thatcherite policies aimed at creating a property owning democracy has merely fostered a speculative caste of landlords blocking people, again mainly the young, from accessing the housing market. Public services are defunded and social security is a system of victimisation rather than support. Meanwhile, profits are doing alright and our home grown oligarchy, the beneficiaries of the flood of wealth from the poor and the modest to the super rich, has interred its cash offshore. Social mobility has seized up and only the availability of credit and cheap imports have prevented a crash in living standards. If your life is buffeted by a professional salary or better, you might not notice this shape of the world. But millions of people have and are getting stirred by it.

Something else is going on as well. The way the economy works is changing, a quiet, subtle revolution that has unfolded over the course of the last four decades: the replacement of material by immaterial labour, or to be more accurate, the increasing importance of intangible commodities - information, knowledge, services, relationships - to the business of profit making. There is much variety among this emergent layer of people working here, but a great many commonalities too. They are in some ways less dependent on the employer. Their skills, knowledge, personalities, resources are employed by business in the process of immaterial production. The customer service assistant has to affect a friendly and helpful countenance, as well as a feigned passion for whatever they're selling. The manager flitting from company to company brings with them organisational killer apps and people know-how (at least that's what they tell prospective employers). In both cases their social being is where their use lies, and what businesses transform into value via employment.

This social being simultaneously is and isn't an individual property. Social knowledge is arrived at cooperatively. Take a microscope to someone's personality and ultimately it's a sedimented history of social interaction all the way down. As human beings all of us are engaged in acts of social production. The seemingly solitary act of writing this blog post on a Sunday evening is mobilising the knowledge and exposition skills acquired through dynamic relationships with others, and is battered out on a keyboard manufactured in China and transported here by ship container. Those are the inputs. The outputs are, immediately, more content for Google to data mine and, I hope, a post that will be shared and read by many thousands of brains for as long as the internet exists. It becomes part of the general store of human intellect, a piece of the common almost everyone in the advanced countries is connected to via the internet. What is more, while tacit collaboration has always provided the social and cultural infrastructure for capitalism the significance of the internet, and especially so since the spread of social media, is the rapid multiplication of networks, of the expansion and increasing mediation by screens of a broadening perimeter of relationships. Leisurely acts of social production, like hanging out on your phone or playing video games often draw upon and contribute to the seething pulse of endless chatter and learning across digital networks. We freely use this store of knowledge and competency at play, and we do so at work.

Work then is not only immaterial, it's is simultaneously networked, cooperative, and social. The cultural consequences? Despite the hype for latter day fascism, people are generally becoming more tolerant, more peaceful, more sceptical and irreverent toward existing institutions and powers and, crucially, aware of shared interests. The new common is transforming social relationships and the fabric of our societies, and politics is just now catching up.

If this thesis is correct, what is the relationship between it and what's happening to British politics? In the first place the number of immaterial workers have been growing for some time. It was among the post-war generation they started emerging in anything approaching mass numbers, especially with regard to the expansion of the professions and the public sector. Then for my generation, so-called Generation X (we're cooler than we sound), industrial jobs gave way to retail and, latterly, call centres while more of business moved into knowledge production and lifestyle services, and started delivering social provision hived off by the state. And for the Millenials they can look forward to disproportionate numbers of jobs without much security, with few prospects and, in a lot of cases, not even guaranteed hours. Theirs is a generation raised on dreams of bourgeois success and brought low by crushing proletarian realities. Yet in each successive wave the scope and spread of immaterial workers have grown. The younger you are, the more likely these are your conditions of life.

The flipside is the older you are, the more likely these aren't your conditions of life. There is a tendency for older people to not be as integrated into the flows and constitutive power of the common. As such and with the world looking more uncertain and alien, nostalgia is the perfect fix. Reliving the old certainties is not just comforting and familiar, it's the school of hard knocks that made them into what they are. And if it was good for them, surely that way is the best way for everyone? Hence their embrace of the masochistic in politics, of seizing the irrational and handing it down to rising generations to deal with.

These conditions of existence help explain the electoral coalitions lined up behind the two big parties. The Conservatives prey on nostalgia, even to the point of borrowing stratagems and scaremongering from decades past (the Winter of Discontent still has potency for some). They offer a certain certainty, of using the flag as a rallying point and selling the idea of a thinly-disguised homage to imperial Britain as a means of sheltering one from the anxieties and insecurities of the modern world. As such the Tory coalition doesn't just take older people in disproportionate numbers, it does well among strata in terminal decline. Meanwhile Corbynism appeals to the young not because they're young, but because they are the most numerous expression of immaterial/socialised/networked labour so far. The policies Labour offered at the 2017 election were an antidote to the hate mongering and beggar-thy-neighbour stuff of the (former) mainstream and offered fare that resonated. Stuff on work, on housing, on the environment, on education, on promising a (nebulous) better Britain than an endless iteration of more of the same. There are then effectively two mainstreams in British politics, one on the centre right concerned with immigration, national identity, preserving property and what have you, and another on the centre left that - rightly - doesn't want a life of dog-eat-dog and would like to see the economy work well for everyone, opportunities available, and decent rather than decrepit public services. All that Brexit did was catalyse the camps and give them some coherence, it is a dependent variable and not the catalyst for a new, all-consuming division.

It also means that politics is paralysed for the time being. Tory efforts at capturing the youth vote are doomed to fail because, even now, they aren't capable of affecting a proper concern for them. Likewise, while it is right for Labour to try and reach out to older voters this is not terribly fertile ground because, in the imagined community of this coalition, Jezza himself is anti-British and wants to remove the very things that keep Britain secure and safe. What we can look forward to then is no sudden movements in the polls for the foreseeable. Assuming the Tories limp on to 2022, even with the sex and harassment scandals, the Brexit shambles, and the fall out of the Paradise Papers, but assuming they don't do anything egregiously stupid on top, like the dementia tax, they will slowly diminish as Labour slowly rises. And this is because the social conditions producing this state of affairs aren't going anywhere. The abnormal is the new normal, so you'd better get used to it: polarisation is here to stay.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

The Problem with Gavin Williamson

And so revelations of sexual harassment and wrongdoing have claimed their first Westminster scalp. In his interview with Laura Kuennsberg, "Handbags" Fallon said he decided to resign because his conduct was unbecoming for someone occupying his lofty office. And so now the former defence secretary ceases being Theresa May's useful idiot, and merely becomes a plain old idiot. Meanwhile in an unsubtle prep for a leadership run, Gavin Williamson has waltzed in and, according to seasoned Westminster watchers, appointed himself the new boss of the MOD. And this has hit the Tory gullet like the proverbial cup of cold sick. "Unbelievable. Ludicrous. Astonishing." is one of the politest reactions his appointment has elicited. "He's out of the shitstorm. Knifed Fallon and pinched his job. It's way above his ability." remarked another. Looks like Theresa May is on to a winner, then. But wait, as the gossip circuit is alive with speculation about who's going back to the back benches Williamson could be Deputy PM by the end of the week.

The only good war is a Tory war. As blue rises against blue and does battle for the stinking corpse of a declining party, it's difficult to not be moved by the spectacle as it unfolds. Moved to smiles, glee, schadenfreude. Their selfish, decadent politics have laid them low, the vanity and opportunism of its leading lights fracturing and dispersing all senses of loyalty and discipline. It doesn't matter what the soundtrack is. Brexit, self-evidently stupid policies, affairs, harassment, the musical chairs of high office will always attract a plethora of arses. And not a few backsides.

Put aside the gripes and the whingeing that he hasn't got experience. The problem with Gavin Williamson is so utterly obvious that you'd have to be Gavin Williamson to not notice it. Dirt on old Handbags have variously circulated around Westminster for years, so it would be shocking if he wasn't on the spreadsheet leaked early this week. But when you look at the list, it's a strange mix. You have details of who's shagging who and MPs coming on to other MPs interspersed with claims of impropriety and harassment, which could theoretically lead to police action. While qualitatively different acts as far as most normal people would be concerned, for the whip's office they're all the same. In the game of Westminster, they are problems to be managed and leverage to be used.

And here lies Williamson's difficulty. He was Dave's bag carrier for three years and did the Francis Urquhart cosplay thing for 18 months, where he had much fun screwing over Boris Johnson (to be fair, who wouldn't?). In his time he sat on some serious shit. He was at the heart of a regime that received reports of "handsy" MPs and did nothing about them. This means there are serious culpability issues here. Williamson's inaction has maintained a culture where the harassment of staff and the attendant abuses of office were not taken seriously, except as grist to the factional mill. Never mind the contempt in which he his held by the rest of the Parliamentary party, Williamson's complicity in the eruption of scandals makes his position utterly untenable.