Thursday, 24 April 2014

Three Varieties of Post-Marxism

1. There's what you might call 'political' Post-Marxism. Anyone who's been around the academic lefty bloc and/or were privy to the strategic 'New Times' debates of the 1980s will have an idea what this is about. Basically, in a nut shell, the class politics Marxism depended on had clearly collapsed by the end of that decade. Rather than increasing numbers of workers, capitalism had bequeathed an expanding middle class, a tendency to smaller workplaces, a consumer culture that eroded traditional senses of solidarity, and a new politics organised around identity and oppression - not class interest. In short, Marx's approach to politics was clapped out and no longer relevant.

Perhaps the most (in)famous example of political Post-Marxism was Laclau and Mouffe's Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. While they argued class politics was outdated, they went further and suggested it was never really a runner in the first place. Starting with a mechanistic interpretation of Marx's notorious base/superstructure metaphor in the 1859 Preface, they argue that capitalism - for Marxism - calls into being the working class and clusters them in ever greater concentrations. With every crisis of capitalism the numbers thrown into wage labour grow exponentially, but so does the workers' capacity to organise themselves into labour movements, cooperatives, and parties. The official Marxism of the 2nd International (1889-1914), according to Laclau and Mouffe, believed revolution and socialism was inevitable - the capitalist cogs would grind out socialist product eventually. As we know, the outbreak of war shattered that perspective.

Laclau and Mouffe track how Marxism subsequently came to cope with this confounding of perspectives through Luxemburg, Lenin and Gramsci. Their basic argument is that Marx's "economism" guaranteed the political primacy of the working class, and forecast that it would behave in a set of theoretically prescribed ways. When it did not as per the 2nd International's schema, Lenin went back to the drawing board. His insight that in Russia the working class needed its own revolutionary party to negotiate the fractured strata of a decaying autocracy and lead an alliance of workers and peasants required no mechanical schema. Revolution was a question of politics, of winning revolutionary socialist hegemony. Hence there is a contingency - Lenin has the sense to realise socialism was not inevitable and was something that had to be prosecuted through class struggle. And its instrument, of course, was the party. The view was telescoped out and generalised to the advanced west in the wake of the October Revolution. Socialism was not inevitable, it was a matter of skilled leadership to tip politics into revolutionary crisis. Where Laclau and Mouffe were concerned, whereas Lenin's view represented an immeasurable advance on what went before it was still mired in economism. They argue that Lenin treats the workers as a simple given whose existence is underwritten by capitalism. This is an effect of what they call "suturing", of preserving the coherent narrative of Marxist thinking. In this particular case, whereas an alliance should, theoretically, be a democratic clash of ideas they argue Lenin's suture, resting on an essentialist notion of class, closes down its democratic potential and subordinates it to the (autocratic) party.

Their analysis of Gramsci runs more or less along the same lines. They suggest he developed Lenin's conception of hegemony by extending class struggle to all facets of social life, and talked up the democratic potential of the 'historic bloc' - the alliance of classes needed to knock down capitalism's door. They suggest that this approach recognises the political complexity of the revolutionary movement, that everywhere and at all times socialism has to make sense to its varied participants, speak to their interests, and explain the opportunities and challenges as they present themselves. Hegemony doesn't just happen, it is constantly and continuously negotiated. However, in their view Gramsci's adherence to Marxism hobbles its democratic potential in much the same way as Lenin's does. Rather than just letting different interests democratically interplay, Gramsci yokes them to the revolutionary party that is, yet again, underwritten by the privileged position occupied by the working class. Contingency and complexity is effectively rode roughshod over - messy reality is squeezed into an ideological schema. Laclau and Mouffe take the negotiated character of hegemony and run with it. If it has to be negotiated, a historic bloc isn't fixed by "class interests" from the outset. This emerges over time as an outcome of the movements within it. Following this true, if a bloc's identity is accomplished after the fact then what use is there of fixed class categories from Marxism? For Laclau and Mouffe, there isn't any - they're purely ideological: stitches of the suture Gramsci performed.

If hegemony is ensured by a negotiation between the different subject positions contained within it (as it is in Gramsci) this suggests identity with a historic bloc is not fixed apriori by class. It is therefore only a short leap to the position that the principle of identity is unfixity; that it is established as social processes play out.

The consequences here are two fold. In the first place there is no necessary correspondence between the working class and socialism, meaning that no position can be privileged above another. Secondly, socialism must be articulated by negotiating between the different positions emerging from and shaped by multiple struggles. This in turn must lead to a rethinking of the symbolic unity that secures an historic bloc, but without the closure provided by class. In other words, for Laclau and Mouffe, the starting point is the idea of socialism and the job of intellectuals is to rally support around it.

There are other varieties of political Post-Marxism, but fundamentally they deny the applicability of class politics and argue that Marx has to be transcended because his notion of class interest is inseparable from the struggle for wages and conditions at work. As we know, life is richer, fuller and more complex than that.

2. Then we have what you might call 'sociological' Post-Marxism. There is a close correspondence between this and political Post-Marxism - if the former's the practice, then this is the theory. This is the assumption - and it is often an assumption born of ignorance - that social development has some how gone past Marxism, that the concepts and the method Marx elaborated no longer have any purchase. Forget your use values, your circuits of capital, wage labour, and so on and embrace the new.

There are almost as many strands of Post-Marxist theory as there are Trotskyist internationals. But most are relatively well known. Take Jean Baudrillard. He made his journey from a mix of Marxism, semiology and psychoanalysis to a distinctive Post-Marxism in which reality, as such, can no longer be spoken of. His key work of transition was his 1972 collection of essays, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. He argued that Marx's analytical split of a commodity into use and exchange values needed supplementing by an additional concept - sign value. He argued that commodities in societies increasingly dominated by a consumer culture, the 'use' of a good became less important than what it signified. For example, at work a number of students and staff prefer to queue up at Costa than the equally good, cheaper but unbranded Union-owned coffee bar. Why? Such questions Baudrillard hoped to answer with this concept. Hoped until, that is, he abandoned this project entirely for the one he became known for. Beginning with his critique of Marxism in The Mirror of Production, he argued that society has become so heavily mediated that our sociality is bounded by self-referential recursive systems, or simulations. Each of these attempt to create or 'simulate' a bounded universe in which the governing set of rules have the answers. Thus Marxism, neoliberalism, Scientology, postmodernism, all make claims to the truth but their appeals to reality mask the production of a simulation, which cannot have a relationship with the "real". Baudrillard's argument is a bit more nuanced than that - I toy with it a little bit in this analysis of Peaches Geldof - but this is the jumping off point.

Good old Michel Foucault is sometimes considered a Post-Marxist, though he never used the term himself. He acquires this label not because he abandons "class analysis" (his work on power operates at the level of individual subject formation), but because he eschews the old Marxist warhorse of ideology. The emphasis of the 'second phase' of his work - his Nietzschean-inspired genealogies of power/knowledge. His accounts of the convict-as-subject and the formation of sexuality in the 19th century power argued that institutions charged with the management of populations - prisons, hospitals - developed specialist knowledges that more or less constituted the subjects of that knowledge. As Foucault put it:
There are manifold relations of power which permeate, characterise, and constitute the social body and these relations of power cannot themselves be established, consolidated or implemented without the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse. There can be no exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth which operates through and on the basis of this association. We are subjected to the production of truth through power and we cannot exercise power except through the production of truth. (Power/Knowledge 1980, p.93)
These historically have given rise to disciplinary techniques the focus on positioning and conditioning human bodies by constituting those bodies as certain subjects. When you join the army, training breaks you down and rebuilds you as a particular kind of subject. When you're in prison, the regimen of locking up, work, recreation, etc. is about trying to create a certain kind of subject. In the workplace, established procedures for doing things, work hours, rules, all work together to inculcate a subject. In all these cases the techniques that position and manipulate human bodies are backed up by the power of surveillance, the idea that "being seen" conditions soldiers, convicts and workers to abide by the rules, follow the conventions, and act like the subjects they are supposed to be. What room here for ideology, for the ideas that sit in our head and command our activities in accordance with ruling class imperatives? There isn't any. The politics of ideology have given way to the politics of truth, wrote Michele Barrett in her savaging of the Marxist approach to ideology.

In different theoretical camps, I suppose you could say Pierre Bourdieu is a Post-Marxist of sorts. He applied Marx's understanding of how economies worked to what he describes as 'social fields', but went beyond Marx by emphasising symbolic struggles and the process of subject inculcation that came to fruition as "players" in these fields pursued non-economic forms of capital. The "heir" to the Frankfurt School, Jurgen Habermas also sits firmly in the camp. His social theory emphasises communicative action and the contradiction between colonising (technocratic, impersonal) systems vs the social "lifeworld" - both of which are 'beyond Marxism'. And a quick word about Zygmunt Bauman, whose 'liquid modernity' apparently speaks of a slippery dynamism to modernity absent in Marx's writings about the subject. Hmmm.

3. The third kind of Post-Marxism might surprise you. You could call it Marxist Post-Marxism, Post-Post-Marxism, Marxism after Marxism, or just plain old Marxism. It is basically the observation that all the Post-Marxist "refutations" of Marxism are nothing of the sort. Where they do not lapse into outright irrationalism, one can find stray whiskers from Marx's beard in their critiques of essentialism, their unconscious dialectics and historical materialism. True, some of the material they cover Marx did not and could not have written about. But Marxism, among other things, is an open-ended research project. His entire work acts as an invitation to social analysis not because absolutely everything is in Capital, but because it's unfinished. In my opinion, as Lukacs put it, Marxism first and foremost is a question of method.

What sense should this be considered a variety of Post-Marxism then? Sadly, it's not a matter of just saying to our Post-Marxist chums that their readings of Marx are wrong and stumping up the textual proof to confound them. Even though, in large measure, they are badly mistaken and do fundamentally misunderstand Marx's contributions (whether wilfully of honestly). But there is a reason for this. Althusser's former student, Etienne Balibar puts it in The Philosophy of Marx that the fragmentary character of Marx's work, the multiple revisions his work underwent, the sketching out of concepts in the early part of his career and later abandonment or transformation into something else and tendency to use expressions at cross purposes to his method is the fountainhead of muddle and confusion. If you want to portray Marx as the sensitive, nuanced analyst and critic of capitalism - a non-essentialist and deeply historical thinker and activist who is not only deeply relevant but, in many ways, remains the most modern interpreter of our age; you'll find him. But the other Marx is there too. The one with the clunky mechanical materialism, of the impersonal forces driving capitalism to its inevitable collapse - he's still about. The Marx who wrote unpleasant things about certain nationalities and condemned whole people's as 'non-historic', he's knocking about in the Collected Works. The Marx waxed lyrical about alienation from some kind of essential species-being, that youthful fellow is still read and passed off as the finished product. And the Marx whose remarks about ideology have led generations of radical thinkers to treat human beings as if they're the brainwashed prisoners of the ideas in their heads, sadly, he's taken as the real deal too.

Balibar argues that ultimately, Althusser's reading of Marx was about liberating all that was valuable from all that was not. Althusser didn't manage it because he over-egged the pudding in certain respects, elaborated a non-essentialist but equally creaky and "theoreticist" reinterpretation of Marx, and got completely weighed down in philosophical proofs of Marxism's scientific credentials which were, ultimately, unnecessary. But for Balibar, Althusser's argument about an epistemological break between a 'young' and 'mature' Marx was largely correct: after the 1844 Manuscripts which dealt with alienation came the unpublished German Ideology in which Marx and Engels elaborated their distinctive post-philosophical social theory for the first time. From then on, concepts like alienation were incorporated into the abstract processes that enable capitalism as a system to yield a surplus from the exploitation of labour power. Likewise ideology, which - as Barrett pointed out - was treated as incorrect, mystifying ideas that benefited the powers that be in the German Ideology assumed less importance in Marx's overall analysis. Ideology became something after the fact, as Žižek noted.

For Balibar, as Marxism is compromised not just by the contradictory complexity of its founder but also the various offshoots, including the brutal bastard children of Stalinism and state "socialist" modernisation, "Marxists" should not fix on the label and feel free to abandon it. In this sense, Balibar's understanding is Post-Marxist but not Post-Marx. His project and that of a great many thinkers and activists not affiliated to and sometimes opposing Althusser's reconstruction of Marxism rescue, run with and elaborate Marx's concepts; they use the materialist method he developed with Engels to make sense of the world. A Marxist analysis of how Marxism became something far removed from all that is dynamic and wonderfully scandalous about a tool for interpreting and changing the world needs to be done, but until then the work that stands on Marx's shoulders should get on with its business without worrying about labels and let its veracity speak for itself.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Road Rash for the Sony PlayStation

While we're on a nostalgic tip, let's do a proper post about an ancient video game. And this time it's the turn of the classic racer-cum-beat-'em-up Road Rash, which hit the original PlayStation in 1995. Identical versions were also available for the 3DO and Sega Saturn. And, if truth be told, it's a game I've been wanting to write about since, well, forever.

Road Rash began life on Sega's MegaDrive in 1991 and spawned a series of conversions and sequels, of which this was the last decent iteration. Of what came later - Road Rash 3D, Road Rash Jailbreak, and Road Rash 64 - well, they were tosh. It's a shame, but nevertheless they haven't addled the warm memory that attends the franchise.

If you weren't around back then and have not been playing it to death lately (like me), Road Rash is a simply brilliant concept. In all the iterations you are a rookie player who participates in an illegal race. Along the way you have to avoid roadside obstacles, cops, and cars in pursuit of a qualifying position. As you earn cash from racing you can buy newer, faster bikes that give you an edge on lower levels, and enable you to keep up with the pack on the higher. Sounds like a million other racing games with career modes. But this comes with a twist. You can beat up fellow riders. You can knock them off as you're hurtling down the freeway at 200kph, give a good clout with a nightstick or smack 'em square in the face with a chain. Sounds like the stuff moral panics are made of? You betchya.

These core game-playing mechanics were left untouched in the PlayStation version. Befitting a new system's launch title, it looked much better and far more technically advanced than its MegaDrive predecessor. It also added very little to what went before - why change a winning formula? The visuals and sounds kicked ass, the sense of speed was unlike anything else, but it was virtually the same game - definitely no bad thing. The main difference was that the computer players had a bit more nous about them. They clobbered has hard as you hit, and were adept at smacking you into what the town planners like to call the "street furniture". This is truly the stuff vendettas are made of. But like the originals, the AI competitors are not motorcycle legends - they are as prone as you to screw ups and believe me, it's very, very satisfying to see a character you hate spread themselves across an oncoming windscreen.

PlayStation Road Rash adds a few extras. Because all games had to have full motion video as and where they could, there's plenty of naff cut scenes of the programming crew pretending to be bikers and lots of shots of bikes. A big selling point at the time was the proper soundtrack the game had, featuring such rock luminaries as Soundgarden and Swervedriver - though bizarrely not as in-game music. There's also a garish, charmless art style of distorted latex-looking characters to pick from. In between races you can "schmooze" in the menu/bar area and have some of them trash talk you. It can be diverting, I guess. Especially if you kicked them off their bikes in a previous run. In all though the presentation is horribly dated. Attitude was the in-thing in the 90s, and the game reeks with forced irreverence.

Road Rash is an excellent game and still plays extremely well. If ever a modern version came out, I'd get a new console for the game especially. But this is very much an American game. It and its predecessors mine a rich vein of cultural lawlessness, of the highway as being some kind of space for free spirits to flip authority the bird and go all out. Think Smokey and the Bandit, The Blues Brothers, Dukes of Hazzard. The American frontier has gone, paved over and crisscrossed by endless miles of road, but it can still be the place where freedom lets rip. The whole game is about thumbing a nose at convention - you can beat down on the cops as much as you like, but they do fight back. As such it's another instantiation of the outlaw aspect of American individuality. It plays up to it with its cartoon violence (the pre-game 'don't fight on bikes kids, it's bad' disclaimer notwithstanding), reinforces it, but amply demonstrates its faux, simulated character.

Billy the Kid killed men and stole stuff. Bonnie and Clyde shot up banks and rural stores. Don Corleone extorted cash and commanded "respect". These figures, real and fictional are thoroughly American in spite of their crimes. Their methods were lawless but their ends remarkably ... normal. They wanted in on America's prosperity, they demanded their slice of the cake. Ruthless killers one and all, but they're folk heroes because they affirm the individual route to success, and were willing to transgress to achieve it. A similar cultural logic is at play in Road Rash: you compete in illegal races to win cash to buy better bikes. And that's it. You break the law all for the sake of a new set of wheels.

Road Rash - and you can say the same for subsequent outlaw-themed games, including Grand Theft Auto offers safe, escapist fantasy that transgresses the everyday but without once putting it into question. It reinforces the acquisitive impulse - after all, if even crims want what everyone wants, that itself speaks volumes for its legitimacy.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Nostalgia: Not What It Used To Be

I doubt retro video game commentators Pat the NES Punk and Luna Ian are household names among readers, but their recent podcast on what defines a retro game raises some interesting questions about nostalgia. So before you switch off, this is going to be more than a video game post.

What does and doesn't constitute a retro game is not something you can pin down with scientific precision, but it doesn't stop Pat and Ian having a go. They suggest the latest retro system was Sega's Dreamcast, that debuted in 1999 and bowed out less than two short years later. Anything before that is retro, everything after that isn't - despite being on the third generational wave of games consoles since. Their argument is a sense of "feel" that attached itself to the Dreamcast and preceding machines, and that it was the last console to have a library partially made up by arcade conversions. While they recognise that for younger gamers growing up on the PlayStation 2 some will want to rediscover the games of their youth when they reach a certain age, but because of the vast size of its library (over 10,000 titles) collecting for the PS2 will not be the same as getting the complete NES game collection.

Allow me a geeky quibble before moving on to the wider point. While their argument may well be the case for the PS2 which, after all, sold over 150 million units, the other main (obsolete) systems from Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have much more modest-sized libraries. Last generation's Wii has over 1,200, the PlayStation 3 795, and the Xbox 360 over 1,100. Future completionists won't find tracking those titles down for a complete set a superhuman endeavour. The second point Pat and Ian overlook is that Wii U aside, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are not backwards compatible with any preceding console. Hence those systems and game libraries, when replaced, will be bundled into the loft or flogged off on the cheap creating the potential for rediscovery after a decade or so, just how generations of gamers have always done when the next big thing has hit the streets.

Nevertheless, while you can fault the reasoning their essential point is right: nostalgia can never be the same again. Because of the way our culture has rendered impermanence permanent, nostalgia for what once was is ever present. In a life suffused with uncertainty and change, nostalgia offers the illusion of a point of fixity, as an anchor hooked in a seabed of old toys, old tunes, old clothes, old trends, and (good) old times. It tends to be bound up with our socialisation. It's not youth worship as such, it's less about lost beauty and more the irresponsibility, of learning and grasping how the social world works without being bound by its conventions. Throughout childhood and young adulthood the experiences we have are literally character forming, and the objects bound up with them remind us constantly of a more certain, if not safer, time. And, of course, culture factories are adept at repackaging and selling nostalgia back - think musically, think how Britpop was a conscious retread of 60s guitar rock. Think how that, 20 years on, has been used to flog retrospectives and media lifestyle copy. On and on it goes, nostalgia is as much subject to fashion as anything else.

It's difficult to see how this could ever be otherwise. But this experience has mutated with the coming of the internet and the explosion of social media. At the risk of sounding nostalgic for a disappeared mode of nostalgia, it used to be the case that you would hear a song, watch a programme, partake in some schoolyard craze, dress in a particular way, or whatever and then you would grow out of it. All that remained, apart from perhaps a few holdovers from childhood, was memory. You'd seldom if ever hear that great half-remembered soundtrack to your first holiday again, see the cartoons that structured your TV dinners, or play the very first video games you ever saw. But you could talk about them. How many nostalgic conversations have you had about kids' telly, old films, and so on? Too many to count, I'd wager. They were - and remain - topics of conversation. I am sure the student who lives right now in the halls of residence cell I occupied 18 years ago has exactly the same kind of wistful chats as I did back then, as have the other 16 occupants that stretch in between us. Yet what was different about pre-social media nostalgia was an unavoidable sense of loss. The fashions disappear, the programmes never get repeated, you move on from the scene of your youthful triumphs, people buy different music, and so on. You could not readily access the cultural products and experiences of a particular point in time without being there - and we can never go back.

Now, however, social media has given us something approaching an eternal present. This isn't to say things aren't changing, they always do. But like never before the cultural artefacts that are the stuff of nostalgia are instantly obtainable. In 2014, if I want to live in the 80s I can endlessly watch the cartoons I liked back then, play the games, listen to the music, and binge on the more obscure films of the period. In the mid 90s, to do that would require crate loads tapes and vinyl. Personal, subjective forays into nostalgia then were more or less a trip down memory lane. Now it is but a mouse click away. For people growing up in the age of social media (and whatever comes next) the nostalgic past is compressed and folded up in the present. A song, a show, a machine can remember it for you wholesale. Experiences can be live tweeted, instagrammed, filmed on smart phones, and stored as MP4s forever. The huge apparatus of voluntary self-surveillance can turn your experiences into personal artefacts that can be accessed tomorrow or 50 years from now. They are still facsimiles, the eternal present ceaselessly recedes as well, but the powers of digital recall are instantaneous. It provides an experience that bears a greater semblance to what once was, and it can be relived without end.

Nostalgia. Not what it used to be.

Monday, 21 April 2014

UKIP's Turn to the Workers

I don't love UKIP. I don't love to hate UKIP. I simply loathe them, despise them. UKIP is the Daily Mail in party form, a chamber pot spilling over with effluvia and poison. From climate change denialism to sexism, from 'are-you-thinking-what-we're-thinking' wink-wink racism to stupid-minded selfishness, it is the new home for everything that is vile, everything that is anti-human about our politics. Small wonder they inspire so much disgust. At the moment volunteers are handing out food parcels to the needy on a scale not seen since the 1930s, UKIP appear hell bent on re-staging the foulest politics of the period. Like the demagogues that have come before Farage, be they populist or fascist, theirs is a politics of dividing and ruling, of hatred and fear. The solution to the problems facing Britain is not banding together to face them collectively, but to point fingers, to blame anyone who comes to this country in search of a better life for its ills.

This said, UKIP aren't a fascist party. Nor are they symptomatic of a creeping fascism. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, UKIP are part of an ongoing process of decomposition. Mainstream politics has been through the blender. Throw in the solids (some might say stolids) of the two-party system, switch it on and the end result is something more viscous. That is basically what's happened to politics since the late 1970s, though the social blender works slowly and on a longer timescale. The old solidarities that held up two party dominance have melted. On the one hand the labour movement remains a substantial body of considerable potential social power, but the vast majority of those who pay into it do not, unfortunately, participate beyond their monthly dues. But on the other, the Conservative movement - the web of grass roots organisations, Tory clubs, and back scratching societies - have fared much worse. Under the reign of the blessed Margaret, Tory party membership halved from just over a million to around 500,000. That decline has continued to the point where the party can barely muster 100,000 members - and there's very little chance the direction of travel will change. Voters are also increasingly likely to support third parties at the ballot box. 65% supported the two main parties in 2010. In 1979 it was 81%. The trend is more pronounced in second order elections - look at last quarter's local by-election results, for example. The only thing propping up two party dominance of national politics is the antiquated first-past-the-post system, which discriminates against smaller parties.

UKIP have certainly been helped by a great deal of favourable media coverage, just as the BNP were last decade. Yet the media is the catalyst - UKIP would have come to nought if British politics wasn't in a crisis of decomposition. So UKIP is more than just an obsession about the EU, it speaks to the diffuse anti-establishment, anti-politics sentiment of the right. This feeds off anxiety about immigrants, about modern life, about Britain's place in the world. UKIP is the libertarian party that opposes same sex couples marrying and opposes foreign workers from getting jobs by virtue of their birthplace. They mainly speak and find an echo among white men of a certain age, and promise a splendidly isolated Britain that whistles with arcadian ignorance of the rest of the world. UKIP knows it cannot stop the world, but will try its damnedest to get off.

Here too, the fraying of the Conservative party rends UKIP too. The ingredients for long-term decline are all there. A ragtag and bobtail party organisation stuffed with misfits and misanthropes, a backward-looking set of ideas out of kilter with modern life, and a core constituency that is literally dying. A greater proportion of its support now will not see the general election than any of the other parties. Their rise is a flame that flares brightly just before it eats the remainder of the wick. But nothing in politics is inevitable. A party is not a passive victim of social forces. It can ride them, and UKIP has proven adept at that; and it can change them. A party can affect social relations so it stands to be nourished from them - the Tories have tried doing this on many occasions. And Labour should consciously and actively pursue this too.

It's in this context we should understand UKIP's new poster campaign that recalls the British Jobs for British Workers populism of Gordon Brown and the BNP. Two of the three posters firmly and squarely blame immigration for unemployment, and represent a deliberate attempt to whip up anxiety and hate. But as it's European Union free movement in UKIP's sights, it's definitely not racist. Oh no. For those interested, Channel 4 have checked their claims, which range from wanting to what you call in politics "factually accurate". Yet in the game of Brussels thrones, this is more than standard vote-catching.

UKIP needs to stabilise its base. As the 2009 European elections, the 2010 general election and dozens of local authority elections showed, there is a small but significant level of support in core Labour areas - particularly mainly white and mainly working class inner city areas and suburbs - who are prepared to vote for an outright fascist party in protest. Some of that number have returned to Labour, though I doubt with much enthusiasm, while others still want to send a message to an uncaring, remote establishment. Understandably given the similar rhetoric and imagery, UKIP are keen to swallow up those former BNP voters. This, however, is not the limit of UKIP's ambition. There is a long tradition among certain layers of the working class to vote Conservative. I know, this is the milieu I grew up in. The Tories, notwithstanding their ridiculous (and already forgotten) push to promote themselves the "workers' party" have long-abandoned any pretence of being anything other than a party for the very rich. This is UKIP's chance to grab as large a chunk of Tory workers as possible. And as any psephologist will tell you, the more often you can get someone to vote for you in elections that "don't matter", the greater the chance they will later on in the ones that do.

More interestingly is the second, more cunning aspect of this turn to the workers. Farage will not say it, but you don't need to be gifted with special insight to know he would prefer a Tory general election win in 2015. This is more than political preference, however. UKIP are targeting the Labour heartlands with their message. Despite Labour voters proving more resilient than former Tory supporters, Farage is appearing to throw a bone to the panicking Tory right pressing for some sort of accommodation with UKIP. Their reasoning is if only UKIP focus on Labour the damage UKIP support will do the Tories in 2015 might be mitigated. And from his point of view his anti-Labour posturing will curry favour with some backbenchers whose feet are getting rather itchy. Pity the fools that don't realise he's making a play for the right of centre non Labour-voting working class. Yet in matters of strategy, quite apart from preferences a Tory win in 2015 suits UKIP's interest better. If Dave carries on "betraying" traditional Toryism UKIP will continue to gorge on their cast offs. The general election, in which Farage very well knows is likely to yield few if any seats, need not be the moment marking UKIP's declining purchase.

These posters were designed and conceived to hoover up votes. However, in the grand scheme of political things they represent a direction of travel in UKIP's march to effectively lock down a constituency. Their racist workerism is more than a pose, they want ex-BNP, anti-politics types, and ex-Tory voting members of the working class on their side. It's not about challenging Labour but supplanting the Conservatives. And with the latter effectively abandoning the field to them, UKIP may well have taken its first significant step in doing so.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

All That Is Solid ...

Names matter. Take A Very Public Sociologist, for instance. What does it say? Well, it suggests the author is a self-defined sociology fan. That's pretty unambiguous. What then is a public sociologist? If you're not party to the discipline's debates, chances are you wouldn't know public sociology is a movement that, surprise surprise, seeks engagement with the public. Why is it that criminologists, economists, journalists and even psychologists get a look-in when it comes to opinion pieces and talking-headery. Where's our slice of the action? But there's more to it than courting the dubious celebrity of punditry. Sociology is the study of society, of social organisms from basic one-on-one interactions (sometimes involving humans, sometimes humans and their machines) to our increasingly global civilisation. It is the one discipline capable of assimilating the insights of the aforementioned, and much else besides. Sociology, if it's doing the job properly, should be able to speak to everyone. We're all members of a society, so research and theory about how that society works should avoid being a stranger to the people who populate them.

Okay, so we have public and we have sociologist. But A Very? It's a bit nonsensical, really. It bends grammar and underscores with thick eyeliner the public part of its coupling with sociology. For those who care about such things, it suggests yours truly is desperately trying to make a statement. Of explicitly and unambiguously aligning oneself with a camp. But worst of all, A Very Public Sociologist's biggest crime is not the crude positioning, nor even the faint whiff of pretentiousness. No, what it is is bloody ugly. True enough, if it sits uneasy in the mouth, if you have to repeat the name whenever someone asks what your blog is called then it probably isn't right. And if I'm truthful, after nearly eight years of filing digital copy off and on I'm sick to death and bored with the name. It's time for a change. The moment is here for a re-skin.

And this is it. All That is Solid ... is lifted straight from the Communist Manifesto, but in this context owes more to the late Marshall Berman's classic All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. This work, which I will never forgive my undergrad and postgrad lecturers for not recommending I read it, crams into its 384 pages what it's like to be a 'modern'. It takes you through Marx, Goethe, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky and the streets of Paris, St Petersburg and New York. The book tracks and pins down a shifting, wriggling, contradictory, transforming experience that resist the tacks Berman pushes into it. But what he brilliantly conveys is the dynamism and dialectics of the modern world. Who needs postmodernism and its fripperies when it is Marx - that most despised, maligned and wilfully misunderstood magister of 19th century social thought - who sketched out the processes that blindly throw human development at breakneck speed into the future.

Now I've had time to read substantial pieces again, I've been rediscovering that most modern (and modernist) side of Marx. His was an unfinished work, but it is fundamentally open-ended - just like the fates of human societies themselves. Marx praised capitalist modernisation for the wonders it had accomplished, but condemned it for the potential it systematically throttled. Fundamentally, the task now remains the same as when his famous document was penned. That is to look unflinchingly at the world, to understand it, and to change it. This impulse motivates many hundreds of millions now, even if they don't use the same language to express it. And this is the tradition I remain attached to. Hence why this blog has taken a new name that is an equally explicit and clumsy act of position-taking. But let's not stay lofty and principled - the truth is All That Is Solid ... sounds much better than the old one. And that's despite now sharing a name with a Glaswegian coffee shop's defunct blog.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The fare will continue the political and social commentary. The forays into theory. The sectariana. The Labour hackery. The dance music. There definitely won't be any poetry. The blog's eclecticism, one man's experience of and projection onto a digital canvass of transient whimsies will keep on keeping on in its own merry, dizzy way. The URL remains the same, no need to play with links or - for me - to lose the tiny ledge this blog has hacked out of Google's edifice.

Funnily enough, I didn't time the blog's makeover and rebirth with Easter. But doing so doesn't make it redolent of the holiday's religious significance. Rather think more of your average Easter egg. Crack them open, hold it, let it melt over your fingers before it turns to chocolatey mush in your mouth. It is fleeting - their shells are gone in the blink of an eye, its memory a trace for however long its garish over-packaging lies around. The Easter egg condenses much more than sugar and cocoa. The velvety textures that glide over the taste buds explode with the flavours of modern civilisation itself. They, like every other commodity, are a cell packed with the social DNA that can be decoded and read. Unravel that and you can read how our society works, how it makes things, arranges things, and wastes things. The Easter egg exemplifies the temporary, fleeting character of modern experience. It therefore is appropriate that this blog, which is primarily dedicated to make sense of such things, rebrands itself today.

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Eurovision 2014 Preview

Nation after nation are lining up to do battle. Natural allies and surprising new ones will come together along a schism that will divide Europe. No, we're not talking about the new Cold War with Russia some silly people appear to be wishing for. We're talking about something more important than that - the Eurovision Song Contest 2014. Saturday 10th May is the grand final from Copenhagen so, as per tradition, here are my picks for this year.

Let's begin with some Latvian hippies:



Readers know I usually have a guitar allergy, so something completely acoustic - ugh. BUT Aarzemnieki's Cake to Bake pulls off the Eurovision trick of being twee and nice. If it gets through the semi-finals I can see it picking up low points from nearly everyone. But a winner? Nah.

Okay, enough of the nice. Let's get nasty.



Yes, she really is wearing a hat with a naughty word. In Eurovisionland presentation is as important as the music, and Italy's Emma Marrone has got it - whatever 'it' is these days. But she has energy and 'tude, which might help explain why her YouTube viewer count is so high. By rights she should blow the average and decidedly dull off the stage (I also can't help thinking all young women who live in London look like her).

And now time for my pick:



Austria's bearded drag queen will surely upset the bigots. The song is, well, Eurovision ballad fare - nothing special. But Conchita Wurst certainly cuts an arresting figure - something the canny Austrian jury no doubt spotted.

But who will win? I got it badly wrong last year with my tip getting nowhere. But this year it's between Conchita and this crew from Armenia:



I defy you to remember Aram MP3's Not Alone 10 minutes from now.

Okay, what about our Molly? I don't like her song, I'm afraid. But the power to the people line is trite enough to intersect with a populist zeitgeist I guess. What's more, the YouTube vid has piled up 416k views - putting her in the top five. Could the UK get a respectable spot this year, despite the dreary ditty?

And, sadly, that's the problem with this year's contest. 2013's was packed with great tunes and outrageous performers. In 2014, Austria and Italy notwithstanding, it's really, really dull. On the night it won't matter - Eurovision watchers will be fired by camp jingoism, but let's hope 2015 will bring us a collection of tunes worth the year's wait.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Sexism in the UK

There are a few of quick notes about the UN's Rashida Manjoo's claim that the UK is endemically sexist and that is is worse here than "other places".

Firstly, it's a bit of a shock, if I'm honest. I've written a fair few things about gender and sexism, and of course I'm aware of and appreciate the work feminist comrades have done tackling 'everyday' sexism. That said, while much still needs to be done I didn't for one moment think that the UK's sexism problem was worse than other developed nations. Okay, leaving out Nordic countries, is the UK worse than Italy, France, and the USA? If it is then things are grimmer than I thought.

Secondly, You can see the hordes of - mainly men - loudly proclaiming that the UK hasn't got a problem and that this feminazi can bugger off. As we know, satirising political discourse is a tough job. But there might be others, from the liberal centre and centre right of the spectrum, who might be a bit more moderate in their tone but just as adamant with their scepticism. Of course, they have every right to be. But curiously there is a tendency for these kinds of people to normally fete the word of the UN as if it's gospel. UN says x country has human rights abuses? They'll go with that. UN says y regime has committed war crime? No problemo. And yet when a UN envoy reports on this country, all of a sudden its special status slips and its findings disputed. 'UN says sexism in the UK is a problem' is something they don't want to hear. Well, they can't have it both ways. Either they have a problem they refuse to acknowledge, or that the UN is fallible and might be wrong when it provides fig leaves to Western military adventures overseas.

Thirdly, that the government have blocked Manjoo from accessing Yarlswood Detention Centre to investigate the conditions refugees are being held in is nothing short of a national scandal. The Home Office know they can because treatment of asylum seekers is unlikely to make political waves, unfortunately. But in the words of every apologist for the surveillance state, if you haven't got anything to hide then there is nothing to worry about.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Ukraine: A Thought Experiment

1. You run an authoritarian regime in a vast country beset with economic problems, corruption, and ethnically-based insurgencies.

2. The nation on your doorstep - which formerly used to be an integral part of the multinational state ran from your capital for 70 years - has been intriguing with your long-term opponents in the international arena. Former client states and allies are now under the umbrella of their transnational military alliance and supra-national political project. There is ample evidence they were materially supporting opposition social movements in said neighbouring state.

3. After a mass insurgency, the friendly government of that country conclude an agreement with opposition forces. The very next day the administration is overthrown and replaced by a coalition ranging from the centre right to the fascistic. At least one of these organisations claims historic links to nationalist movements who rose up against your predecessor as it fought for its very right to exist. Furthermore, foreign dignitaries and emissaries flood into the revolutionary capital, get pictured meeting new ministers and touring the barricades.

4. This is a massive foreign policy disaster. But large numbers of your citizens are also resident in the country, particularly in the south and east, closest to your borders. This is part a legacy of forced population transfers in an earlier period, and part internal migration within the departed multinational state.

5. One province, heavily dominated by your citizens and who, in turn, fear that the new regime - particularly the blood-curdling rhetoric of its fascist wing - might bring misfortune down onto their heads unofficially secede and petition for protection from your country. Coincidentally large numbers of troops were in the area and they march in, sparking off an international crisis.

6. Over the next fortnight a great deal of hypocritical cant is spoken at UN meetings. In the international press, your opponents' destabilisation of your neighbour is lauded as democratic, and striking a blow for freedom. There is little to no memory of their pushing their sphere of influence eastward, of threatening to set up missile defence systems all along your borders. You meanwhile have acted out of compassion. You had no choice but to move to protect your people and prevent bloodshed before it began.

7. The population of the break away province vote to join your country. It matters not that the plebiscite had irregularities - the sentiments of all the people appearing in your broadcaster's reports are real enough. Formal annexation takes place.

8. The revolution in the west of the country has stirred up concerns in other provinces where your nationality has an outright majority. Simply stepping with "protection" here would be a step too far.

9. Groupings pledging allegiance to your country take to the streets in a number of eastern towns and cities. Some of these do involve agents provocateurs, but in most cases it's like casting a match into tinder. Mostly the protests have been ineffectual, amateurish and easily put down by the usurpers in the west. But over this weekend a series of loyal militias have taken over key local government buildings in several cities, one proclaiming itself an independent people's republic. The coup government, with their backers, say they're going to mobilise the military and put these uprisings down. While there is little sign of that army yet, events on the ground might force you to send the 40,000 strong protection force you've massed on the borders in to calm the situation down. Your enemies are forcing your hand, so what do you do?

I don't have special insight into the minds of Russia's strategic thinkers, but from Western and Russian media reports this narrative - a mixture of realpolitik and ideological rendering of one's own geopolitical interests - is a model that fits what has been happening on Putin's part so far. I'm sure in the huddled map rooms of NATO, Whitehall and the State Department this sort of thought-building is commonplace. Unfortunately, the media and political coverage falls far short - there's no appreciation of nuance, let alone thought given to how our governments' actions are interpreted.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Desireless - Voyage Voyage

Constituency meeting this evening rules out substantive blogging. So wrap your ears around this, an excellent ditty only connoisseurs of French 80s pop are likely to have encountered.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

A Defence of the SWP

Another day, another SWP table gets turned over by self-described autonomist avengers. As the SWP are slowly starting to learn, actions have consequences. You can't expect your activists to behave in the most disgusting way possible towards survivors of alleged sexual abuse and shrug it off.

Believe me, I was tempted to frame these actions in terms of the 'SWP had it coming'. As much as anyone else, I followed the SWP's implosion with a mixture of amazement and revulsion. But there are limits, and our trot-troubling "comrades" have trampled over them. Let's time to be blunt. The spate of violent acts by self-appointed vigilantes toward the SWP are ridiculous, stupid and narcissistic.

First things first, violence inside the labour movement is not on. You can dispute whether the SWP are a part of the movement or not, but I think it's quite clear they are. They organise in the trade unions, contribute to a variety of causes, and propagandise their idea of socialism. They are annoying, destructive and fast-becoming even more irrelevant, but part of our movement they remain. The labour movement isn't a sect with a set of principles one must sign up to upon joining - it's a movement of working people who collectively come together to prosecute their shared interests. As it reflects working people in general, it has all kinds in its ranks - including some who are far worse than the SWP. Yes, the SWP have repeatedly crossed a red line, and quite rightly are getting shunned by student organisations and other trade union activists.

So what exactly does attacking the SWP achieve? Are they going to get the message? Or, as is more likely, will it reinforce their siege mentality, compressing the bonds between SWP members even tighter, helping ensure that future abuse allegations are repressed in the name of party unity? And how is this "direct action" perceived by the wider world? How do you think SWP stalls getting set upon at labour movement events will be viewed by "outsiders"? Might it elicit some sympathy?

Ultimately, quite apart from this violence within the labour movement is a no because it depends on collectivism, of pulling together despite our differences. The actions of our vigilante mobs care nothing for this, of the fact that sometimes "normal" trade unionists have to collaborate with SWP activists in workplace activity, branch organisation and collective action. It's a self-indulgent attitude.

One shouldn't be surprised. I've talked about revolutionary identity politics and narcissism before. Because all variants of anarchism fetishise the individual (hence why their organisations break apart when but buffeted by a political breeze), they are especially susceptible to cults of indulgent hyper-activism, radical verbiage, show-boaty risk-taking, and putting performance before efficacy. Just like the SWP at its most ultra-left, in fact. Of course, not all anarchists so sin, but our Liverpudlian class warriors and their Sussex comrades certainly fell out of that mold.

They claim to be kicking against rape apologism, and object to the "trigger" potential the SWP's presence has on their campuses. Two quick things. Firstly, in the real world very few people have heard of the SWP nor their disgraceful behaviour. Secondly, balancing all probabilities out, witnessing violent confrontation is more likely to be a trigger than a few Trots shaking a can. Just stop and think. For someone who's survived abuse of some kind, are a succession of violent assaults on SWP stalls going to make them feel safer on campus? No, of course they bloody won't.

It's that sheer lack of thought that exposes our vigilantes as idiots full of their own indulgence. Yet what does this matter when you set it against the exhilaration of being mildly transgressive, of a simulacrum of the anarchist violence they've read about in Class War's Decade of Disorder. They display their trophies of a successful action on Facebook pages and blogs knowing there will never be any comeback, that the SWP will never call the police on them. It is radical identity work at play, a contrived and limited action in which there are no costs incurred for revolution points gained.

Our anarchist chums might be sincerely motivated by a vision of an alternative society, but attacking the SWP is a substitute for the hard graft of fighting for one.