Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Robinson/May

For liberal defenders of its vaunted impartiality and balance, sometimes the BBC makes their job hard. Take Nick Robinson's interview with Theresa May for Panorama on Monday night, for example. Between Sunday morning and the final news bulletin prior to broadcast, it was the lead item on the news, and what got highlighted were the softest of soft questions. One has Robinson and May reclining on the back seat of the PM-mobile. Cheerfully, he observes "people remember the bloody difficult woman, but are now asking where is she?". Yes Nick. On the train to and from work the topic of conversation is seldom anything else.

For anyone who watched the interview and the puff footage surrounding it, Frost/Nixon it wasn't. The questions barely challenged Theresa May, and there was little in the way of a follow up. For example, her response to the Irish border plan put forward by the Moggy European Research Group, which sees checks on goods taking place away from the border were simply dismissed with a reiteration of the Chequers position of regulatory alignment. If Robinson was interested in earning his exorbitant salary as opposed to merely drawing it, he should have pressed her. Especially as their "solution" is technically feasible but politically, given its origin in the most backward section of the Tory party, unlikely to fly with the Commons coalition May is going to have to cobble together to see her deal through.

Apart from chummy chats with Robinson, we see May in action behind the scenes chairing a meeting of the cabinet, picking up the phone to Jean-Claude Juncker, and relaxing at Chequers watching the telly with government papers on her knee because, of course, even down time has to be work time. But the action shots were, well, boring. Unlike Dave who used such occasions to demonstrate how skilful he was at looking the part, May reminded me of someone kicked upwards to prevent her from messing up the real work done down below. How hollow strong and stable rings now. This was less an interview and more a concerted effort at a portrait, and quite an affectionate one at that - not withstanding snippets of interjections from Rees-Mogg, David Davis and Keir Starmer.

The ultimate criterion, however, is politics and in this instance whether we've learned anything new about May's approach to Brexit. And the answer is no ... and yes. In the no column May is pretending Chequers is the only game in town. The red lines - no to European Court of Justice jurisdiction, no to free movement between the UK and EU, no to big subs to Brussels for ever more - are there in principle and no doubt both sides will pay lip service to these positions after the deal is done, though I suspect all will continue in some way while the government insists up is down, day is night, and the Daily Telegraph prints the truth. It is also more evidence that May has hitched her fortunes to the Chequers Deal which, you will remember, is an outcome of the Tory party negotiating with itself as opposed to anything the EU might want. Whatever the eventual deal is she will be very sure to make it appear as close to her unrefined version of Chequers as possible, even if it does mean making significant concessions to get Blairite backbenchers on board "in the national interest".

It also demonstrates that May is no longer concerned with the Brexit headbangers on her hard right. She appeased them the once and has had nothing but grief in return. She's finally appreciated that the delicate balance in the Tory party that sees all her opponents balance each other out because her weak position is, perversely, a strong position. And, at the moment, Chequers plus more Norway-style concessions seem the best way to get Brexit through the Commons and salvage something of her career.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Burnout Paradise for the Xbox 360

Burnout Paradise, which has just seen remastered versions hit the PS4, Xbox One and PC is an important game. Less for the innovations it inaugurates but rather the end of a trend in gaming it exemplifies. Burnout Paradise presents as an utterly brainless race 'em up that has no plot and precious little narrative except for the commentary from the in-game DJ dropping hints and tips. Then again, while out-of-step with the overall trend, story modes in racing game are rare beasts. Do you really need a fictional backdrop to explain why you're driving at speed from A to B? No, so Burnout Paradise dispenses with such nonsense. All you need to know is that the game presents you with an open world rural-urban racing environment and a number of different tasks you have to undertake to upgrade your licence and progress through the game.

Burnout Paradise is not only the culmination of its own series of games that began on the original Xbox, but is the heir to arcade racing in general. It takes everything about the 'tude-tastic 90s racing and cranks it up to utter absurdity. Contemporaneous with Sony's first Motorstorm title and its own emphasis on destruction and mayhem, it takes the mechanics of the earlier games in its franchise and encourages you to be as destructive as possible. There is something pleasing and, at least for me, never frustrating about flying along Paradise City's highways and smacking head on into a pylon or oncoming traffic. Seeing what mess your car can become is part of the fun. Also, there are no human bodies flying about as per Grand Theft Auto. Even if you're playing on bike mode (available via DLC) your rider immediately disappears if you end up coming a cropper.

There's also something in Burnout Paradise for nearly every kind of racer. Events are activated by turning up at the lights at every highlighted junction on the mini-map. You can race conventionally, which typically means racing from where you are to one of a handful of landmarks dotted about the city. And thanks to the open world nature of the game, you are free to take any route. You can do time trials with cars dedicated to particular challenges. There is - my personal favourite - the take down challenge that requires you to smash a number of infinitely spawning opponents off the road. There's a survival mode where a pack of three powerful cars chase and try and wreck you before reaching goal, and there is stunt running. This last one is the trickiest to master as maximising points and meeting the threshold for success means knowing the map well. If you know where the bill boards and big jumps are, you can rack up the multipliers for a mega score and another win on your licence. And after completing a number of challenges the game releases a new car or two into the city. Your job is to run it off the road and then it's available for use.

In addition to the main game there are a number of small challenges you're encouraged to meet. Finding all the drive-thru joints (which come as auto repair, paint shops, gas stations and junk yards), smashing all the barriers to short cuts, locating every super jump, and crashing through every Burnout board all add to the longevity of the game and demand thorough exploration. Indeed, and this is where it proves to be rather less brainless than it immediately supposes. For instance, driving around you'll see bill boards everywhere. To smash them you have to think about how to reach them, and this oftten involves quite tricky jumps or finding routes onto the top of buildings. Some of them are quite fiendish. And there are also a handful of secret areas - a quarry, a dirt track, an island, and an aerodrome that are not visible on the mini-map. Can you find them?

Burnout Paradise was an early outing on the 360 and PS3. Its graphical presentation was never going to be up there with Gran Turismo, but they get the job done with eye popping colours and little in the way of screen tear. The sound track is also brilliant. All old licensed stuff, ranging from Alice in Chains to Bach to bespoke, forgettable club-friendly filler, whatever the preference there are tunes to suit.

There are a couple of issues with the game. The repetitive character of the tasks is an issue. There's only so many times high-tailing it to the observatory is fun, even with a roster of 75 cars to choose from. More concerning is what Burnout Paradise poses the genre from whence it came. With everything in there, the racing, the violence, the stunts, where can arcade racing now go? It's instructive that Paradise is the last proper Burnout game, and all the recent remaster has done is include the DLC and given it a lick of paint. Criterion have since gone on to make Need for Speed games for Electronic Arts, and while these have an arcadey feel and combine the usual racing with high speed chases, they don't really add anything new. Where then does the genre go, what can it do now? Burnout Paradise is an excellent game most would enjoy, but for all its brilliance what it will perhaps get remembered for is being a glitzy and supremely playable showcase of a genre's end.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Smearing Michael Foot

Michael Foot was a paid Soviet informant! so reports The Times this morning. Any impartial observer of the political scene might have thought the Russian money regularly deposited in Tory party coffers right now would be more newsworthy, but okay. According to their front page splash (to promote interest in Ben MacIntyre's The Spy and the Traitor), the former Labour leader received cash and, apparently, had a 400 page file on him back in Moscow. What's new - Foot successfully sued The Times in 1995 over these allegations - is that the spooks at MI6 concluded he was a security risk and were prepared to warn the Queen that he was a suspected KGB agent in the event of his becoming Prime Minister.

What to make of this? As Andrew Neil was a load of crock. And a clear-headed reading of the article shows there's little of substance to the story, and that certainly no new evidence implicating Foot as an agent of Moscow's has come to light.

The substance of the claim is famed Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky fed British intelligence a number of lines about Michael Foot - the publication of which was the subject of the successful libel action - and that MI6 wrote it up, saying he wasn't a "conscious agent" but had disseminated disinformation on the KGB's behalf in return for money. What does this even mean? That Foot was hoodwinked into putting out pro-Moscow propaganda, and still got £34k from his Soviet handlers for his trouble? Come on. If he was an unwitting dupe of murky doings, I'm sure Sergei from Odessa insisting on making substantial payments to him might have raised his suspicions.

In truth, it sounds like a right load of rubbish. Because it is. This might come as a shock to some readers, but the intelligence services are not a politically neutral arm of the state. Their job is to defend that state as is, with all its inequalities and privileges, and therefore selects for personnel for whom 'queen and country' is understood in narrow, conservative and often deeply reactionary terms. They also have an interest in talking up threats to justify their existence. In the case of Foot, for instance, obviously this was a man whose politics were far beyond the pale as far as most MI6 personnel were concerned (remember, even Harold Wilson was dangerously communistic for these fools). No doubt they thought he was a bad 'un because he was on the left, but designating him a dupe or useful idiot for the USSR had the happy consequence of generating a file and creating work for an agent or two to keep tabs on him. And they are always alive to make-work opportunities - I know a few anti-fascists who were approached by Special Branch with the offer of "protection" lest their activism against the BNP and EDL made them a target. In other words, Gordievsky's allegations were blown up by the work culture of MI6.

And then there is a wider political point as well. All throughout this summer and, well, consistently over the last three years The Times, like the rest of the right wing press, have had Jeremy Corbyn in their sights. Raising a discredited and irrelevant story about a politician who's not been dead for almost a decade keeps certain associations alive in the minds of their readerships. Suggestions like when Corbyn was smeared as an agent for Czechoslovak intelligence, and that there is something anti-British and traitorous about Labour and left wing politics generally. Their game is to delegitimise and damage our movement through the relay of rumour and innuendo to a mass audience. Unfortunately for them, it appeals to the already convinced while reminding the millions politicised by Corbynism that there are no tricks too dirty as far as the establishment is concerned.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

The ERG's a Busted Flush

What to make of last night's meeting of the European Research Group, that gathering of the most backward and broken of the parliamentary Conservative Party? "It was truly mind blowing" said one of the participants, adding "You felt the ground opening up under your feet. The most amazing thing was that no one even bothered to mime a pretence of regret”. What was "amazing" and liberating was for their muttered tearoom conversations to come out in the open, to cast aside the subterfuge and two-facedness and do something exceedingly rare in full view of one other. They were honest.

Unfortunately for Theresa May, the ecstatic reviews were for their plot to remove her as Prime Minister. All 50 of these most Brexity of Brexiteers wanted her political career on a platter, and were no longer afraid of letting the world know about it. Okay, well done chaps. You've had your fun and unburdened your consciences, so what now? Alas, there was no what next from our Mogglodyte friends, no strategy or even unity around what needed to be done and when. It's a bit like our silly Labour right wingers who tell the world what they want Jeremy Corbyn gone, but cannot come to agreement about how to do it.

Still, that is a bit unfair to the ERG because they have at least taken the trouble of offering a political alternative to their leader, unlike others I could care to mention. Nevertheless their press push today on the Irish border issue was unlikely to put the sweats on the Prime Minister. I mean, if they wanted to pressure May they needed to have a DUP politician in their line up, not David Trimble who, you might recall, was dumped out of the Commons by the Paisleyites some 13 years ago. Still, what was most interesting about their line up - featuring David Davis, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Theresa Villiers, and Owen Paterson - was the tone of the thing. This was less a conference called by hardliners confident in their ideas, but a motley bunch pleading for a hearing. As Mogg said, anyone with an open mind can see this was a serious contribution to the debate. And looking at it, there is more substance to it than the ERG's usual ravings. It could be a go-er, if the will was there. But the issue is settled as far as May is concerned, and that is for the UK to remain in a customs arrangement with the EU but, sshhhh, we're not allowed to call it that.

As we've seen more times than I care to mention, the factional balance in the Tories is on a knife's edge. May's got the job and she's menaced by many a faction and PM wannabe, but no one, no one (least of all an idler like Boris Johnson) wants the keys to Number 10 while Brexit is dumping toxicity all over British politics. Getting shot of May would only catapult someone else into exactly the same unenviable position, so better wait it out and hope things improve. The problem the ERG have, and they know this well, is that none of them could muster enough MPs for the necessary leadership challenge or get one of their number in the final run off with the membership. Their hope is to throw their lot in with Johnson, but he's neither dependable nor guaranteed to get through to the final two. Or, they could threaten to derail the final Brexit vote. It's looking likely that May will come back with an even more watered down version of her Chequers position, and one that rebellion-minded Labour MPs might be moved to nod through. If not this, then stopping her Brexit deal means the government falls and Jeremy Corbyn becomes the favourite to form the next government.

Between leaving the EU and allowing in a party they think is about to expropriate the expropriators, don't be too surprised if the majority of our ERG Brexit rebels turn tail and support May. Their tough talk hides their impotence, and eventual surrender. The only question is how long are they going to keep this pantomime going.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Engels for Our Times

Writing in another time about disputes between official communism vs its mercurial Maoist dissenters, the Italian Marxist philosopher and philologist Sebastiano Timpanaro wrote "Materialism ... means respect for the truth, refusal to substitute moralistic pseudo-explanations of disagreements and political conflicts for political and social explanations" (On Materialism 1975, p.26). Timpanaro would surely have found the dominant explanations for Brexit, for Corbynism, and for what's happening to establishment politics across the Western world typical of the moralism he condemned. Timpanaro is also something of an obscure figure in Marxism these days. And that is a bit of a shame, but it probably has something to do with the direction the Marxist tradition has travelled. You see, Engels and a defence of Engels figures prominently in his work. Unfortunately, Marxism in the academy and in wider left culture have a tendency to regard Engels as a bit of a bad 'un, as someone who ended up forcing the material world into a stultifying philosophy of nature. The sins of mechanism, of a clunky, vulgar materialism was the negative legacy he bequeathed the political and theoretical tradition he co-founded. So the story goes.

Nevertheless, all Marxists would agree that only by being resolutely materialist can we understand the social world. We are in the change business and so we have to have an idea about the wheres, whats and whys. Unfortunately, the disuse into which Engels has fallen is a symptom of a flight from a properly materialist approach and partly explains why Marxism bec8ame old hat in the 1990s. When you're having a hard time getting to grips with things, and the pomo new kids appeared to make a better fist of it, you can understand why. Writing in the aftermath of the French May events and the surge of struggle in Italy at the end of the 1960s, Timpanaro argued that too much of Marxism, like bourgeois thought, had become caught up in epistemology as opposed to ontology. Or, to render it in plainer English, it was now more concerned with how we know things vs being/existence in the world (see Althusser and his theory of theoretical practice, for instance). In his essay 'Considerations on Materialism', Timpanaro argues that philosophical struggle within bourgeois culture is between two families of idealism (idealism, ultimately, being the assumption the world is driven and determined by thought or figures of thought - religion, conspiracy theory, Hegel's philosophy of history are all examples). The first, which Timpanaro refers to as 'empirio-criticist', or the reduction of knowledge to pure experience, is better known to us as pragmatism and is the dominant form of bourgeois thought. We can see it today in the fetishisation of "what works", of so-called evidence-based policy making in which politics is reduced to a managerial exercise, of the beneficiaries of neoliberalism disputing the existence of neoliberalism with a straight face are all examples. Subordinate to and sometimes opposed to it is historicist and humanist idealism. This emphasises the otherworldly or the transcendent capacities of human beings to overcome their surroundings, and we find it in the celebration of entrepreneurs, the great men of history, the nauseating ideologies of meritocracy, and much else besides.

Despite the uses to which idealism is put, it appears to have a positive, creative quality: both varieties emphasise agency, of the preternatural powers of the subject, of the thinking mind, to do things. I can choose to be a rippling Adonis if I put my mind to it. I can affect the course of history by debating and convincing people of the rightness of my arguments, I can make the right choices and work hard to become the sort of capitalist politicians kowtow to, and so on. In different ways that are fundamentally the same, the pragmatic and the spiritual maintain the view that qualities of thought are independent of and can transcend the social and the natural world. "I think therefore I am" as Descartes put it; the subject defines what is possible, we float freely and unencumbered, our identities are an intrinsic property of ourselves, and we confront the world as an object external to our subjectivity, but in a relation in which we are primary. Hence why questions of epistemology are central to idealist thinking. Epistemology can be read as an extension of Cartesian concerns (if not conceits).

By way of contrast, materialism turns this on its head. As Timpanaro puts it:
Cognitively ... the materialist maintains that experience cannot be reduced either to a production of reality by a subject ... or a reciprocal implication of subject and object. We cannot, in other words, deny or evade the element of passivity in experience: the external situation which we do not create but which impresses itself on us. Nor can we in any way absorb the external datum by making it a more more negative moment in the activity of the subject, or by making both the subject and the object mere moments, distinguishable only in abstraction, of a single affective reality constituted by experience (p.34)
Therefore the relation of materialism to idealism is hostile and necessarily polemical. Because idealism reduces philosophy and theory to matters of epistemology, it acts as an obstacle to truly knowing the world because it denies passivity. This "passivity", for Timpanaro, refers to the irreducible character of the material. Humans, for example, emerged at a certain point in time thanks to evolutionary processes independent of us and that we have only recently become conscious of. Human societies for the majority of our history have waxed and waned with the rhythms of climate, natural abundance and scarcity, and occasionally disasters. In each of these, societies were ultimately passive. The rains don't come, you are forced to move on. The rains do come and enough food is produced to remain for a decent length of time. The earth shakes, volcanoes erupt, and the seas swamp the land, sweeping whole societies into the archaeological record. The world, its movements and events simply present themselves, and the people and cultures affected either adapted, migrated elsewhere, or died. The refusal to acknowledge passivity then is to deny the manifold ways in which nature impinges on, conditions and configures the social. It is to set up a dualism, an opposition and ontological separation of the natural world from the human world when in fact both exist in the same material world. For Timpanaro this is why Engels is important because he understood Marxist materialism to be fundamentally monist.

However, the denial of materialism has seen Engels cast as some kind of mechanical materialist because of his insistence of that social and natural phenomena cohabit the same ontological plain. Because Engels was interested in nature, as evinced by his later Dialectics of Nature, and on its primacy there is a tendency to interpret passivity literally, and understand conditioning and determination in very strict, cause/effect terms. As far as Timpanaro was concerned, because the natural world was Darwinist did not mean the social world was the same - though Engels and Marx both understood how the realities of class struggle in capitalist societies might appear that way. Nevertheless, over the years commentators have tried to drive a wedge where no division existed between the two. Marx understood that despite the primacy of the material, our relationship was always mediated by labour. Our experience of living and reproducing ourselves as biological beings is always conditioned by what we have to do to do just that, whether we are a hunter/gatherer band in an area rich in vegetation and game, have to work to earn a wage to pay our way, or poke around the irradiated ruins for unopened crisp packets in post-apocalyptic Sheffield. Somehow, despite writing an unfinished fragment entitled 'The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man', in which Engels hypothesised that the growth of our brains, our evolution as a species was a consequence of our labouring to meet and overcome the challenges thrown at us by the natural environment, and in Anti-Duhring defining freedom in terms of the consciousness of necessity (passivity), these positions are supposed to be at odds with Marx. Instead, as Timpanaro rightly observes, what they demonstrate is a consistency of approach between the two.

Philosophical debates are all very well, but why is this important? Why should we care? Timpanaro argues passivity is politically crucial. Approaches fetishising epistemology and therefore privileging activity and agency denigrates the material world and pretends anything is possible all of the time. Marxist materialism is fundamentally opposed to this. Activists informed by Marxism try and merge theory with practice, of analysing and understanding the material world to inform our activity in that self-same world in order to overcome it. How do we get from here to there without understanding the shape and dynamics of our societies, of who has a stake in pushing capitalism to its limits and beyond and those whose interests are anchored in the status quo? In short, we don't. Indeed, reasserting monist, Marxist materialism has acquired some political urgency. Capitalism is in crisis, the legitimacy of its ruling class is eroding, politics is polarising, and the character of struggle changing. It's not that nobody is tracking these developments and putting Marxism to work: plenty are. The difficulty is this remains the property of a small minority. Political education, or more properly the inculcation of politicised critical thinking has to compete with conspiracy theory, Fabianism, old labourism, new labourism, liberalism, dogmatism and all the rest. This isn't to substitute Engelsian monism for pessimistic moan-ism, but acknowledging the passivity of our own position so we can think about and work toward overcoming it.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Support Novara Media

I've become appreciative of the good works Novara Media are doing. But they do need an injection of cash to not just keep the operation going, but to expand it. A left wing media shouldn't be happy just reporting things, but strive to explain what's happening and seek to drive the political agenda itself. This is the ambition Novara are trying to live up to, and they're asking would-be subscribers to give up an hour's wage or salary per month to help fund them. Whatever you can give will be gratefully received.

Here's their appeal video. Please visit the donation page and give them a hand.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Our Decadent Tory Elite

As claims making goes, accusing Theresa May of "wrapping a suicide vest around the British constitution and handing the detonator to Michel Barnier" is strong stuff. Then again, in a political economy of, um, politics in which there is a lot happening, you have to do something really attention seeking to command the spotlight for more than five minutes. Even if you're a favoured Westminster personality accustomed to bathing in the media glow. Well, putting his criticism of May's Brexit plan in such crass terms ensured Boris Johnson got the headlines he wanted. What is more interesting is the reaction, which we haven't hitherto seen when he's indulged similar stunts in the past. Tom Tugendhat responded with a description of the scene of an actual suicide bombing while he was on tour in Afghanistan, saying "some need to grow up". More vituperative were Alan Duncan's words: "For Boris to say that the PM’s view is like that of a suicide bomber is too much. This marks one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics. I’m sorry, but this is the political end of Boris Johnson. If it isn’t now, I will make sure it is later. #neverfittogovern". The Tories have received frequent criticisms here for putting their short-term interests before all else, including the class interests their party articulates and enforces. Is this a case of Johnson jeopardising his medium and long-term leadership prospects for a few talking points on Andrew Marr?

It is worth remembering the Tories are a thoroughly decadent outfit. This isn't a moral condemnation, though immorality clings to them like a reeking miasma. It's an observation. As Marx wrote in the Manifesto, the state is a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. This is because as a class, business is internally fractured by their competition with one another for markets. Yet they retain interests in common, such as the maintenance of the wage relation, ensuring the value of labour doesn't get too high, an educated, healthy and subservient workforce, and so on. The state's business is ultimately the management of populations so the social arrangements of which it is part do not face an existential challenge and this does, typically, involve compromises with rising strata to try and incorporate and accommodate as many of their interests and aspirations as possible. The Conservative Party for its part, despite its reputation as the natural party of business actually isn't, if you take business and interpret it in neutral, technical terms of economic development and employment. This is secondary to the role proper of the Tories: the prosecution of class struggle on behalf of the class interests it champions. Now, because business is internally divided there is never a straight correspondence between the collective interests of the class as a whole and the policies of their party. Not least become some bourgeois interests have, historically, also found a home in the other parties. Yes, including Labour. This means Tory positions constantly shift and change as alignments and alliances are made and unmade in the drawing rooms, the secret members' clubs, the boardrooms, the garden parties and dinner gatherings, the association meetings and industry-wide lobbies, and the hundreds of other places where they talk and plot. This means at times one or two sections of capital get the upper hand and we see the party push interests that are sectional instead of serving the general good.

Thatcherism is just one example of sectional triumphalism we can take from the party's history, but one that is pertinent to the situation the Tories find themselves in today. Elected as the old post-war consensus collapsed into crisis, in her view the preservation and future prosperity of Britain depended on attacking the organised working class, and imposing labour discipline on a group of upstarts asking for a good hiding. Her chosen method was to privatise or close down as much state owned industry as possible to disorganise and weaken the wider labour movement, while preparing for a set piece confrontation with the miners. In addition to the hardship and misery this caused, it would also - and did - mean letting whole sections of industry go the wall. That is thousands of businesses and a whole section of capital, which is indeed what happened. Manufacturing collapsed, and they found their traditional party turned a tin ear to their concerns. What enabled this to happen was the removal of patrician, 'one nation' Tories from key positions and, as the Thatcher years wore on, their total side-lining and replacement by pugnacious, self-identifying 'self-made' Tories. These were petit bourgeois Tories made good, a nouveau rich unencumbered by ties with the big manufacturing concerns of the post-war years. The old bourgeois types couldn't carry the sort of reaction from above the Thatcher governments presented because they were compromised by formal and informal webs of allegiances, chumminess and business interests. In effect, small, "enterprising" capital did what big capital was unable and unwilling to do. An instance of Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution with petit bourgeois characteristics, you might say. The result? A successful campaign against the labour movement, but an elite coalition lop sided toward other sections of capital - finance (the city), landlords, and (immaterial) labour intensive sectors like hospitality, retail etc. The only manufacturing capital the Tories remained totally on board with was aerospace and arms. This imbalance wasn't so bad as long as the Tories had a mass base feeding into the party, but its decline became sharp under Thatcher and has dwindled ever since. This was crucial because it provided ballast vis a vis the pull of imbalanced elites at the top.

Then came 1997. Nothing could have won that election for the Tories, not even a Labour leader gracing the Cenotaph wearing a donkey jacket. Yet while New Labour proved that Thatcherism was hegemonic when it came to it shared first preference for markets, for regulating labour markets, and privileging finance over making stuff, Blair did render the cause of socialism a valuable service. Yes, you read that right. In as far as he theorised the New Labour project, Blair lamented the splitting of the forces of radicalism, i.e. Labour and the old Liberal Party, at the beginning of the 20th century. New Labour was the inheritor of this, in his view, and he desired it to become the favoured party of government - hence the continual placating of capital and disdain for labour all throughout his (and Gordon Brown's) tenure. Bad news then for labour movement recovery, but bad for the Tories too because it deepened the fracturing of British capital. That is while in their weakened state some capital - the most backward and socially useless sections as it happened - stuck with them, the bulk threw their lot in with Blairism. That is until the crash came along. Gordon Brown saved their system, and they demonstrated their gratitude by abandoning him for Dave's shiny, socially liberal Toryism. Nevertheless the damage was done, Blair had driven a wedge into the organic relationship between that party and its class. The relationship of the latter to the former became more mercenary, conditional, detached and disengaged. And with disastrous consequences.

During the Dave years the shrivelling of the Tories at the top and the bottom started catching up with it. For all Osborne's talk of the long-term economic plan, Dave's liberal Toryism amounted to a doubling down on the Thatcherite settlement in the hope that somehow the hidden hand would become a magic hand and allow the country to bounce back from its 2008 cardiac arrest. In practice we saw more privatisation, a naked assault on the poorest, more tax cuts for the rich, mushrooming foodbank use, more homelessness, a deeply dysfunctional property market and an inauguration of a permanent, highly casualised, low paid, and precarious work force as a significant constituency of workers. Truly a shameful record, even by Tory standards. This was the outcome of the Tories ties to finance as well as the most backward sections of British capital - Osborne's budgets ensured there were plenty of opportunities for profiteering, plenty of opportunities to employ cheap, disorganised labour. This imbalance at the top was matched by imbalance below - the bleeding of the associations left them largely in the hands of the right, which wasn't interrupted by the loss of thousands of activists to UKIP in the wake of the same-sex marriage controversy. In effect, the party input, the elite input and, of course, the press input steered Dave well away from where most of his people were, manifesting in incredibly short-termist policies and, notoriously, the concession of the European Union referendum. It was the diminution of a whole class approach that led Dave down the alley of privileging short-term party interests, the partial disarticulation of the Tories meant the country became a gambling chip in a series of increasingly reckless bets.

As Theresa May was fond of saying in the 2017 general election, nothing has changed. Despite her (initial) one nation rhetoric she has proved as equally decadent and useless. Brexit has exacerbated the Tories' difficulties, but even the correspondence Dave retained with finance and labour intensive business has deserted May. While some sections of capital look on with alienated horror at the madness engulfing their party, others are desperately trying to reverse or water down Brexit. Some are concerned with saving their own skins and looking at moving operations oversea. Some are even accommodating themselves to a Corbyn government. In the Tories proper, continuity remain has a very tenuous grasp through the meagre numbers remain MPs can muster. Finance and their backward bedfellows are now aligned with the hard right European Research Group - the prospect of a low waged, anti-union tax haven off the shore of the world's largest economy appeals to them. Yet even these whose interests so recently mastered the Tories correspond to a rump of about 50 or 60 MPs. The alienation of UK capital-in-general, the dying membership, the shock loss of their majority, and the splintering of the parliamentary party around the petty ambitions of this or that cabinet minister and backbencher, this compounds the dealignment of the Tories from their ruling class roots. Instead, with May we see a weird form of Bonapartism in her party. Rather than contending factions cancelling each other out and the administration in the middle rising to power from a position of strength, May's authority - such as it is - derives from the fact none of the competing factions want her job. Not even Boris Johnson. Well, right now at least. This means each are more or less free floating, buffeted by inner party intrigues and the occasional blast from the Tory party editorial offices in the media. It also condemns the Brexit negotiations to their being driven by the perceived needs of party management.

Boris Johnson, like May, like Dave, is an embodiment of Tory crisis. But, from his point of view, his strategy of saying outrageous things and being racist does have the virtue of realigning the party's class compass. To win he needs to gobble up the ERG vote, who are disproportionately represented in but are by no means a majority of members, re-absorb the UKIP vote that, in his view, May's Chequers compromise gave away. His Brexit is one in which the sectional interests Dave championed are hegemonic. Unfortunately for Johnson, what's left of the membership are not behind him - only 35% according to the recent Conservative Home members' poll. His emerging strategy also has a real snag. Just as Blair reasoned that Labour could move to the right because its traditional voters have nowhere to go, Johnson is assuming that once his feet are under the Downing Street table some point after Brexit is done that his voter coalition will stick together. There is a possibility, albeit an outside one that centre leaning Tories could decamp to form their own party, and with them could go the layer of occasional, liberal-leaning Tory voters who find his faux bonhomie and racism less than congenial. Especially if the LibDems get their act together and start to realise there's greater profits to be had from targeting the Tories. In other words, by adopting a deliberately reactionary politics because it suits his ambitions he's ceding ground all over the place, gifting space to the other parties to try and tie capital into episodic alliances of convenience. And this is assuming Johnson would be able to get on the leadership ballot paper in the first place.

It's difficult to see how the Tories can extricate themselves from this mess, as it's a crisis like no other it has faced in its long history. To survive and thrive as a going concern, it needs to re-establish its relationship with capital as a whole, draw deep from that one nation well and give significant numbers of voters a stake in the wealth of the nation, and become a more inclusive, moderate and socially liberal outfit. This requires much more than a lick of paint and requires demands work and, yes, struggle. The odd purge wouldn't go amiss either. When you look around the Tory benches, can you see anyone who's up to this task?

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Can Blairism Win Back the Labour Party?

The world is a complicated place, so pity those who do not possess the tools to understand it. That Tony Blair for instance is one of many from the politics of yesteryear having a hard time adjusting to our polarised times. As you've probably heard, in conversation with Nick Robinson he cast doubt on whether moderates (sic) could ever win back the Labour Party from the left. With politics dominated by Jeremy Corbyn's Labour and (he assumes) a Boris Johnson Tory party, he said "I just don't believe people will find that, in the country as a whole, an acceptable choice. Something will fill that vacuum." This is because most people are "socially liberal" and believe in a "a strong private enterprise sector alongside a state that is capable of helping people". If Tony paid a bit more attention to politics, he might discover Labour has scooped up the lion share of the socially liberals while those who are wedded to his wonky rendering of pro-business, share-holding and home-owning constituencies, they are gathered about the Tories. Silly Tony.

Nevertheless, he does ask an interesting question. Can the Labour right make a comeback? To answer that question we need to briefly look upon Labour Party history. It's true enough that Corbynism represents a break with the past because never in the party's history has the left been so dominant. In the intervals when pacifist leftism and Keynesian revanchism led the party, the right still held the whip hand in the trade union movement and the party apparat. By way of contrast, the left now has the leadership, the membership, the unions, and is slowly working its way through the machinery of party administration. Blairism at its imperial height had the PLP and council groups, the bureaucracy, and had a very unsure grip on the unions (who tended to accept Blair because he looked like an election winner) and the membership (ditto).

They don't like to admit it, but a set of contingent circumstances allowed Blairism to arise. The most germane of which were the factional battles of the 1980s that saw the right win and the Labour left reduced to a rump, the decline of the labour movement as a weighty force in wider society, and the overturning of the post-war settlement. All three compounded, resonated with and drew into alignment certain milieux, certain union general secretaries, and certain occupational groupings. The long and short of it was the severe weakening of the left and the labour movement under the impact of Thatcher's attacks, particularly the defeat of the miners and later on the Wapping dispute, which profoundly disoriented and stunned militant trade unionists, driving many out of politics altogether. Yet the defeat wasn't just felt by the left, it accelerated the decline of the labour movement - a consequence we've yet to recover from. This meant as unions of the right, left and centre merged, diminished and faded so their influence in the Labour party fell. The pathways from the the shop floor and union office closed down, and as lay officials and MPs weren't coming forward in as greater number the sorts of links with union bureaucracies that were once crucial to the running of the party were not getting incorporated into the apparatus of rule underpinning the party leadership. Likewise, as the unions declined so Kinnock and later Blair went out of their way to recruit nice, shiny middle class people. This was about putting distance between Labour and its horny handed son of toil image as much as recruiting a new base for their so-called modernisation project. Sure, the middle class had been part of the party from the beginning but the decline of the labour movement allowed it to become even more dominant. One of the most obvious consequences was the party's moving from a canter to a gallop to the right in the 1990s. Without a political base in the communities heavily hit by Thatcherism, politics for this coterie - Blair included - was less about articulating the interests of wage earners and more about adapting to the political landscape divined by the front pages of the mass market tabloids. Therefore "what works", a mantra beloved of the Labour right, is never a pragmatic consideration: it is always an abrogation, a fetishisation of their inability or unwillingness to provide political leadership. They accommodated Thatcherism and once in office they deepened the reach of the market and capital further, because it was the easy thing to do.

Blairism then would not have been possible without the defeats of the 1980s. However, the same alignment of forces of which it is a product cannot come around again. As we have seen, the current wave of radicalism is largely confined to the party. Sure, there are lots of things going on below the radar and public debate has shifted so feminism, alternative economics, socialism and, gasp, even communism have re-entered the mainstream. Then again, so has racism, misogyny, xenophobia and fascism. But the unions have not enjoyed an up tick of rank-and-file activity nor a flood of new recruits. Indeed, contrary to how the Labour left thought its path to winning was the long, hard slog of gradual movement building on a constituency-by-constituency basis, the 2015 leadership victory was as sudden as it was unexpected. It appeared to bypass developments in the unions, though trade unionists were an important component of the Corbyn voter coalition. This was demonstrated in the failed Corbyn coup, which collapsed because the parliamentary party only organised among themselves and didn't bother to even try and get union leaders on side. To have stood a chance of succeeding, they needed to be in the plotters' pockets.

That said, drawing them into Blairist PLP intrigues wasn't possible either. Weakened as they were, under Blair's governments unions in general began taking a turn to the left. This was a response to the arrogant and high-handed manner with with New Labour approached unions, more or less openly regarding them as embarrassing relatives, and because of repeated attacks on workers' living standards, particularly around privatisation and cuts to public services. So when the mood of workers who actively engaged in their unions shifted, so did the political colouration of their leaderships. Therefore not only were they ill-disposed toward MPs who wouldn't give them time of day otherwise, it would have been career suicide for any union general secretary to back them.

The unions then are not a route back for the Labour right. Neither is running to the press, which is only weakening the right further while strengthening and emboldening the left. Four CLPs have no confidenced their sitting MPs, how many more? It seems then there are three plausible scenarios in which the Labour right can make a comeback. The first would be a sudden move away from polarised politics. No, the formation of a new "centrist" party won't break up the left coalition, but what would would be an egregious betrayal of one of Labour's key lines. Imagine Jeremy Corbyn coming out for NHS charging, the increasing of tuition fees, or getting chummy with Benjamin Netanyahu. Not going to happen precisely because getting Labour to attack its class base means disposing the meat and gravy of what Corbynism as a movement is. It's like expecting the Tories to champion the cause of the workers against business. Therefore any strategy dependent on a deus ex machina demobilising the membership and causing hundreds of thousands of them to flee the party isn't going to happen - despite the best efforts at scorched earth by some Labour parliamentarians.

The second is if anything happens to Jeremy Corbyn at this stage of the movement's development. If he was to retire or fall under a bus (I mean, the PLP have thrown him under one enough times), Tom Watson takes over in his constitutional capacity as party deputy. His power certainly wasn't what it used to be, particularly in the old WestMids region, but there is no doubt he would use his position to try and dial back Corbynism. If you think you've seen infighting these last three years, it could easily get much uglier. The hope for the Labour right would be Watson using the position to undertake mass purges, slinging out left Labour MPs, and sacking dozens of party staff. But he would not have the unions nor the membership nor the NEC in his corner, making a bloody task next to impossible, unless somehow fortune smiles on him.

The third avenue for the right is the one the left were saddled with for 30-odd years: patient political struggle. This means less shenanigans and more debating, more recruiting. Unfortunately for the right, they have no arguments. Blair doesn't offer a critique of Corbyn's Labour, more sound bites about it. Neither do our Chuka Umunnas, Mike Gapess, Ian Austins, and Jess Phillipss. They say Labour is this, that, and the other without making a case nor seeking to persuade their opponents. Fine, they don't know how to and are too busy being very important people, but their wing of the party continues to be all at sea. How many of them, how many would-be careerists can honestly look down the barrel of a possible 30 years of struggle without any guarantee it would come good for them in the end? What ideas and principles can they cling to in the coming years of sparsely attended fringe meetings and a studied disinterest in what they have to say by the membership and, indeed, anyone else? To use the management language of Blairism, what is their "offer" to a left-moving Labour Party, their strategy for taking back the country, and their solutions to address long-running. complex environmental, economic and social problems?

Predicting politics is a fraught activity, but one that isn't entirely impossible or fruitless. The old certainties are gone, for sure, but it's very difficult to see how a rebooted Blairism or a New New Labour politics can make a comeback any time soon.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Here Come the Cranks

One of the very first things I learned about radical politics (thank you Class War!) is that your enemy's enemy isn't necessarily your friend. This always comes to mind when Russia is in the news because, in a pathetic echo of the Cold War official CPGB apologias of the old Soviet Union, we find people happy to go to great lengths to prettify or explain away the activities of the Russian state. The naming of two Russian suspects for the poisoning of the Skripals is one of those occasions.

Cast your minds back to March-April time. As Sergei and Yulia Skripal lay ill in hospital, this was seized on with alacrity by a Tory government getting blown from pillar to post by its own internal difficulties. They declared to the world that the Russians were responsible when this could not have existed beyond conjecture. How do we know when we're not privy to the intelligence? Well, we've seen how the scanning of the CCTV and tracking the movements of the alleged perpetrators, and their identification has taken months to assemble. Were such information at the security services' fingertips to begin with, it would have got released pretty sharpish to make themselves - and the government - look good. However, May began with the assumption that it had to be Russia (you don't need to be a Cluedo champion to surmise the victim, motive and method point at the FSB), and they went all out on it for political reasons. Not least because it provided an opportunity to show Jeremy Corbyn up as weak on security issues. Sadly for them, because of the stance he took - and much to the grumbling of Labour's backbenches - the story quickly became entangled with the innumerable and complex ties between Russian money, the City, and the coffers of the Conservative Party. Always beware the law of unintended consequences.

Nevertheless, being distrustful of the Tories, the security services, and the convenience of alleged Russian terror doesn't mean the Russian government is blameless. The left should not simply put a plus wherever the Tories and the spooks put a minus. In all probability, this wasn't a hit ordered by Vladimir Putin. All authoritarian regimes are, paradoxically, chaotic. Even the two most extreme examples from the last century, Stalin's USSR and Hitler's Germany were marred by fractious and sometimes murderous conflicts within the ruling parties. In such chaos, a lot of organisational movement was possible because individuals and groups of people 'work toward the leader'. That is undertaking activities, often on their own initiative, designed to curry favour with the higher ups. The commissar who, at gun point, requisitioned more grain than the quota demanded. The SS corporal who set about murdering villagers and burning their homes to catch a superior's eye, it is more than possible the Skripal hit was cooked up in the bowels of the FSB to earn someone a promotion and a salary bump. Nevertheless, as Putin came up through the KGB and this is his system, whether he issued the order or not he ultimately is responsible - if this likely scenario turns out to be the truth.

Sadly there are sections of the left, and I use that term advisedly, who aren't interested in analysis, weighing up evidence or considering probabilities. Consider ex-diplomat Craig Murray, for example. He has acquired undue prominence in left wing circles for peddling conspiracy theories, which in itself is an indictment of the level of sophistication and political confidence of out movement. In this case, Murray has declared shenanigans for two reasons. One are the photos of the two suspects apparently standing in the same place at the same time, at least according to the CCTV time stamp. As Brian Whitaker points out, this can easily be explain by ... both men passing through two separate gates simultaneously. And, being the helpful sort, Brian provides photos of these short passages. Still, not being interested in fact Moscow is now parroting the same line too. Prior to this, Murray had claimed there was something fishy about the photos of the two suspects when it turned out to be a diminution of quality thanks to the Graun's own scans. Mountains and molehills, etc. And then there is his obsession with where the Skripals are located and why they're not appearing in public - it would appear he's not familiar with the idea of witness protection. These alone should demonstrate why no one on the left should give him credence and why he should be regarded as a crank.

Just because the British state is duplicitous and rotten doesn't make Putin and his works automatically virtuous. Russia is a state like any other, and one that uses its not inconsiderable lobby in Britain to deepen the distrust millions of people have in the security services following Iraq and other debacles. By accident, idiocy, or intent Murray has placed himself in that lobby, along with George Galloway, Alex Salmond and now Tommy Sheridan. I don't know about you, but the world is a messy, complex place and one which the left should try and maintain a critical distance from to try and understand it to, you know, change it. The likes of Murray do worse than hinder, they make our work more difficult. In short, these are friends the left could do without.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018