Saturday, 17 March 2018

Jax Jones ft Ina Wroldsen - Breathe

Unfortunately, just as one of this year's big ructions convulses Westminster I find my writing powers have gone on holiday. As readers will have noted 2018 isn't proving to be as prolific as recent years, so bear with us. I'm not dead and neither is this place, though infrequent forays are likely to reign here for the next few weeks.

That may mean a break from writing, but not from my music taste. Which is the real reason why you come here. Far be it of me to disappoint, here's a ditty that has gone down a storm with the yoof.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Corbyn in Government

Guest post from Dave Renton

On Saturday, I was at an anti-fascist conference in London. The comrades there were young, excited, with a range of views from Labour loyalists to anarchists. I heard a discussion begin which I've not heard anywhere else. If Labour comes in, I suggested, expect the far-right to organise; Corbyn is their hate figure. Yes, a comrade from Greece accepted, they hate him. But if the left is in government, we can't stand down our forces.

She's right. After two and a half years of Corbynism, we can start to predict with some certainty what a Labour government will be like:

+ To a greater extent than any previous Labour government it will be open to policies suggested by the social movements. From blacklisting to autism, Labour figures have pledged to take on board our campaigns.

But being "open to", is not the same as actually using the state. It can mean a range of things, from in the best cases introducing legislation, to in a middling case providing public, spoken support (in the style of those Labour cabinet ministers of the 1970s who would stood on innumerable picket lines, but declined every opportunity to actually legislate for beleaguered workers), to signalling goodwill but not doing anything more than signalling.

Politics will not stop at the moment Labour is elected. In office, Labour will have a limited amount of parliamentary time, a limited amount of goodwill and it will have to choose - while also being subject to lobbying against action from the unions, the Labour right, the press and increasingly (as the government goes on) from capital.

+ Repeatedly, a Corbyn Labour government will give opportunities for people to put pressure on it. Corbyn will welcome that dynamic. But, it also likely, that he will require the pressure to come through the Labour Party (the recent campaign against the HDV in Haringey may turn out to be a good example; it was a mass movement, but the "mass" aspect was mediated through the Labour Party. The old Labour councillors lost control when hundreds of people streamed along to Labour selection meetings and voted against them). Expect under Labour repeated polls of the membership, and conference votes which put demands on the leadership. Corbyn and McDonnell, to their credit, want to be subject to demands and know that reforms will only be introduced under pressure.

+ When Labour starts to choose which parts of its programme to introduce, the key force in the Labour Party will be the trade unions, or more precisely UNITE, which already has the casting votes on the NEC, controls Corbyn's office, and will soon control the key position of General Secretary in the Labour Party. UNITE's politics are Milibandish: the union swung to supporting Corbyn late in 2015. In practice, therefore, there is already a veto of Labour policy on nuclear weapons, nuclear power and immigration. Indeed, this is part of a general problem under which Corbyn, in order to build up a team, has been compelled to draw on the existing Left and has acquired our weaknesses (e.g. over Syria). He takes up our best and our worst and he is shaped by them both. UNITE is by far the most important part of this. If you think Corbyn's government will be unilateralist, you aren't listening closely enough to him. Before he was leader of the Labour party, Corbyn was the closest figure we had in parliament to a supporter of free movement. As leader, he has given multiple speeches insisting that free movement will end and blaming (in line with the policy of the UNITE leadership) migrants for lowering wages. A Corbyn government will reluctantly, agonisingly and with as much kindness as the leadership can supply go along with the positions he has argued for ever since he became Labour - i.e. a slow reduction in migration to the UK. His position in the Labour Party, and his dependence on UNITE, will prevent Corbyn as PM from doing anything better.

+ We all have an idea of how Labour governs from the left: i.e. the party adopts policies, *persuades* voters of their need, and then relies on popular approval to act as a counterweight to the pressure from the right. This will not happen under Labour - policies will not be communicated in advance. The public will not be prepared for left-wing government. In the last two years there have only been two periods where the leadership articulated coherent policies - during the initial phase of his 2015 leadership campaign - and again, after the negotiation of the manifesto, during the election campaign. What is Labour's policy on student loans? What is Labour's policy on the EU? Is it still Labour policy, as Corbyn argued in 2015, that there should be right to buy for private tenants? It's impossible to know because on each of these policies, Labour figures have made a flurry of proposals. The priority has been positioning, not policy. Ideas have been raised, dropped, exchanged for others. I am not being critical - Labour has been under enormous pressure, Corbyn has been vastly better than any under Labour leader would be. All I am saying is that no-one will know in advance of a Labour government what Labour's priorities really are; Labour will not have a programme for the first 100 days. Now, positioning is not trivial - it may enable Labour to introduce radical policies quickly in response to emergency situations - but in the absence of prepared policies the likelihood is that for most of its period in office Labour will feel significantly more like "politics as usual" than most of my friends expect.

+ Finally, Labour will face a new and unfamiliar form of political pressure - hostility not merely from the press, the Labour right, within Parliament, but also (and for the first time) from the international markets. I expect that Labour will enjoy a longer honeymoon than any government since 1945 (being seen to have been sensible on Brexit will buy Labour an opportunity space, and many kinds of capital would do very well under a McDonnellite expansion of our national infrastructure). But at some time, and with increasing force as Labour gets in - expect opposition to potential policies such as confiscation of unused land to build council houses. The longer Labour is in and the more Corbyn tried to do, the harder government will be.

None of these are arguments against Corbynism, rather they are ways of saying that even if Corbyn doesn't feel much like the Syriza government of which the comrade warned us: it will still be a project of reform, i.e. negotiated change, and there will be more defeats than victories.

If there are victories, they will come about because the movements have needs which last longer than any Labour government. And because people (whether in Labour or outside) see beyond the leadership and continue to press and put demands on it. Even the best of Labour leaderships will need people outside, putting demands on them.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Kim & Donald: A Love Story

Can the worst of enemies become the best of friends? We might find out, given the news Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump are set to have a face-to-face meeting. "I may leave fast or we may sit down and make the greatest deal for the world", declares Trump. Yet, bizarrely, reading past the tragicomic threats routinely made by the North Korean monarchy and the incomprehension establishment commentators approach the Kimist regime and the chaoscracy headed by Trump, the chances of a deal might be good.

On Kim's side, as argued here repeatedly, North Korea is not "mad". Kim is caricatured as some kind of Bond villain with the sinister global designs and weapons to match, but these lazy takes cover for the failure to analyse the North Korean regime, make sense of its internal dynamics, tendencies and power struggles, as well as the preoccupations of its leaders, its position in the international system, and the drivers of the regime's militarism. It is eminently knowable and can be understood in such terms. There are two main concerns Kim has: the keeping of power and its preservation in the long-term. These objectives were shared by pops and grandpapa, and is the main filter through which the regime's actions should be perceived.

Take the nuclear programme and missile programme. An attempt to conquer the world? Or the means of deterring an attack from a cabal of the most advanced and powerful nations in possession of a record of attacking and invading countries without access to such weaponry? For decades, the North has maintained their own cold war frontier against bigger and more sophisticated militaries not by mutually assured destruction, but making certain any war would be prohibitively expensive. Whether it's artillery pieces pointing at Seoul and threatening to obliterate it before American and South Korean air power can take them out, to the extensively booby-trapped border, to over a million personnel on active service at any given time, to nuclear weapons and the means of delivering them, a war would be catastrophic with a huge price due the victors payable in blood. Since Soviet aid was withdrawn in the 1970s, being forced to rely on itself to maintain the stand off has led to a lop sided development of the economy and a huge diversion of resources into unproductive assets. Infrastructure and consumption has suffered - to the point of not irregular food shortages and famine - and only intense repression maintained by an overblown police state has kept a lid on tensions. Yet Kim isn't stupid. China provides a model of a dynamic state-led capitalism, massive growth figures and breakneck development alongside the retention of the party and, now Xi has got his way, one-man leadership for life. This is what the regime aspires to, and going down this road means freeing up scarce resources currently pouring into the army. Nukes and rockets, while initially expensive, over the long-term render obsolete the need for a huge military. Just as Deng Xiaoping struck deals with the People's Liberation Army that allowed them to become a privileged economic actor, so Kim the younger has tried taking a similar approach.

Following this, the overriding objective of North Korean foreign policy is neutralising the militarised frontier. Not that Kim wants to relive the early days of the Korean war, but because taking them out of the equation removes the requirement for the weapons' programme. Therefore it is seeking an accommodation with the US and would like to draw it into a non-aggression treaty. In this it is entirely unremarkable. Much of Trotsky's output in the 1930s was his persistent criticisms of the Soviet Union and its willingness to sell workers' struggles down the river on condition Stalin's regime be left alone with its special shops for the favoured and the gulags for the unpeople. As the broken machinery of state planning in North Korea can't keep the regime afloat indefinitely, especially as new sanctions start biting, including China's capping of petrol exports, it's clear something has to give before the hairline cracks in the regime's foundations become something more serious.

How about Trump, what does he and the US gain from brushing aside the Bush and Obama-era approach and coming to a deal with Kim? There is personal vanity, of course. Defusing the tensions on the Korean peninsula would be a masterstroke of diplomacy and assure Trump goes into the history books as something other than a joke. It wrong foots the Washington foreign policy establishment and enhances his credibility over whatever Beltway insider the Democrats decide to run against him in 2020. Also, because a deal is possible. Trump may be profoundly unintelligent and ignorant, but he knows deal making. He has the sort of low cunning to be able to read the position of opponents vis a vis his and act accordingly. What he sees in Kim is someone not too dissimilar to himself, but is playing a poor hand well. And he knows how desperate they are to come to some kind of arrangement - the threats the regime is famed for compute as cries for help to Trump, but he's savvy enough to realise they're playing the same sort of unconventional game that brought him to the White House. Additionally, the issue just isn't that intractable. As complexity goes it's nothing like Syria, Israel and Palestine, or Northern Ireland before the Good Friday Agreement. A little bit of give, perhaps the phased removal of troops and easing up of sanctions, costs America very little assuming the North reciprocates and they agree to means for each side to monitor the other. Second, there is a real will in the South for better relations. The President, Moon Jae-in, is a popular centre left leader associated with a new "sunshine policy" with regard to the North, and one of his objectives is a formal peace treaty that brings the official state of war to an end. He has certainly drawn criticisms from the right but, as elsewhere, the Democratic Party's key voters tend to be younger and are less amenable to the anti-Kim buttons frequently pushed by conservative opponents. Conservative voters are never going to vote for him regardless, and as his right wing predecessor got sent down for 30 years and another former president is in the dock on serious corruption charges, Moon can afford to sideline the right as so much bleating. Therefore Trump has a willing partner with connections and a good relationship with the regime.

Lastly, there are realpolitik aspects to consider. Detente with the North opens a possible front against China. Relations between China and North Korea grew more strained over the course of 2017, even to the point of the regime declaring Russia its BFF. Cooperating with UN sanctions helps China's reputation as a responsible actor on the international stage, but ultimately they are a weapon to try and bring the North to heel. Beijing prefers having the North as a buffer against the US-dominated South, and is trying to use economic pressure to render them a quiescent if occasionally noisy client. For Trump a US-North Korea deal weakens Kim's dependence on its big neighbour, and could drive a wedge between them in much the same way Nixon used clever diplomacy to widen the rift following the Sino-Soviet split. With a firm if unstable ally suddenly became less reliable, then China might not prove to be as assertive elsewhere - such as prosecuting its claims in the South China Sea. It also gives Washington a lever for inflicting economic damage in the event of Trump's trailed trade war. North Korea might not amount to much with regard to the Chinese economy as a whole, but shrinking trade with them will impact negatively on a region not quite as dynamic as other parts of the country.

Whatever the case and whatever the motives, the prospect of a permanent settlement is suddenly possible. One that serves the interests of an appalling regime, the designs of the world's biggest superpower, and the vanity of the White House's most awful occupant certainly. But there is also a chance of burying permanently the prospect of an ugly, mass casualty conflict with worrying geopolitical implications. An imperial peace is still a peace, and can only open a new period with new tensions and contradictions, not to mention new opportunities for political change.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Žižek on This Week

The worst programme on television meets Europe's leading radical intellectual. What could go wrong? Not a great deal, as it happens. Having Slavoj Žižek on the This Week sofa facing Michael Portillo, Caroline Flint and Brillo certainly helped "raise the level", as we used to say in Socialist Party meetings. The subject? The miserable malaise or, to be more accurate, the abject collapse of European social democracy and rise of the populist/far right. Žižek's argument was that the left hadn't risen to the challenge, and what we're seeing advancing across the world instead is a recrudescence of authoritarian capitalism. America, Russia, Turkey and China were name checked, but he could easily have included the likes of Poland, Hungary, Austria and, yes, Venezuela too.

Used to spouting garrulous verbiage at spellbound interviewers, needless to say Brillo had an easy time with Žižek. The first, and entirely reasonable question was why the crisis of capitalism has taken down the left rather than the right. After all, the former are/were rooted in its critique and amelioration while the right are vehicles for the defence of bourgeois class interests. Surely the right should be a bloodied, quivering mess dirtying up the carpet instead of the left. He might be able to turn around wadges of books on Hegel and Lacan at the frequency of tweets, but on this occasion our Slovenian champion of lost causes couldn't provide a coherent answer.

Let me offer a suggestion. Social democracy is in crisis not because it neglected its base; it actively hammered it. Greece, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Germany, even here in the UK the centre left has undergone partial or complete collapse because the core constituencies of these parties have found themselves made to pay for the crisis, bear the brunt of cuts, get thrown out of work, and had tin ears turned to them. If the left are not articulating the grievances people have and, worse, are playing a role stoking them in the first place, millions of people will look elsewhere. On this point, even Caroline Flint showed glimmers of awareness by pinning it down to globalisation. Though, true to form, social democracy should get on the immigration-bashing bandwagon as well to turn things round.

Brillo did have a bit of fun at her expense while noting the one centre left party standing above the carnage is our very own Labour Party. Unfortunately, the discussion didn't progress onto whether a similar approach could reverse the fortunes of the left elsewhere. In my view it can, but it cannot simply be declared or imposed from the outside. Remember, less than a few weeks before Jeremy Corbyn got onto the ballot paper the fragments of the far left here did as poorly at the 2015 general election as they did at any other, despite standing on platforms trying to articulate the interests that gave Corbynism life. Similarly in Germany, the SPD are polling worse now than when Hitler let his thugs loose in the compromised 1933 election, and yet Die Linke are not storming ahead. Success has to be bottom up, self-activating, and able to pour through an opportunity afforded by a gap in an existing institution. Only then can its transformation into something else respond to and articulate the inchoate collective will coursing through it. If Labour is any model or a vision of the European left's future, this means rejuvenating its relationship to wider movements and simultaneously present as a serious contender for government. It's not an easy process, and each country has to find their own way to it. But if there is a universal lesson, it is to stop hammering your own.

Žižek was sharp enough to acknowledge that it's possible the left won't get its act together, and the new populist authoritarianism (authoritarian populism?) could sweep to power as it has done in the US. This, obviously, should be a focal point for left resistance and might, for some, be a way of touching off the radicalisation and rejuvenation we need to see. We should also avoid the stupidity of supposing that once a Trump screws things up the left will automatically benefit.

Žižek then didn't have any prescriptions, suggestions or much in the way of advice, but Corbynism at least represents one of the best kind of answers: those that emerge from the process of struggle, and expression of the collective wisdom of politicised crowds.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The Tories and Betrayal

I regret to report the Tories are at it again. Ben Bradley having been forced to apologise for claiming Jeremy Corbyn was an agent of a Warsaw Pact signatory, the Tory rhetoric has moved on to the language of terrorism and betrayal. Not that they're accusing Corbyn of anything specific, mind. It's betrayal in the abstract. We have "respected" Tory cadre Tim Montgomerie going hard on non-existent terrorist sympathies supposedly harboured by the Labour leader. A case of physician, heal thyself if I ever saw one. Then yesterday, "Kaiser" Bill Cash asked Theresa May if she thought Labour "betrays the country", to which she replied yes. And I got it first hand from Stoke's own idiot squad, who were apparently out knocking on doors about Labour "betraying" Brexit.

Terrorism, betrayal. Betrayal, terrorism. None of this is new. Indeed, back in the dog days of the Michael Howard Tory party when policies like subsidising private health care costs were failing to catch the electorate, the then not disgraced, but already reprehensible vacuity Liam Fox went about suggesting New Labour was "un-British" and Tony Blair the most "un-British" Prime Minister ever. Then, as now, the Tory party were fast running out of options about what to do, and without a record worth defending or anything positive to offer they plump for the name-calling and the lies. On this occasion we have the PM, the defence secretary, and myriad others carping on about betrayal. There's no use pretending this is a few bad apples mouthing off; it is instead a cold blooded, deliberate strategy.

The Tories aren't interested in winning over new votes. The polarisation we saw at the election and faithfully replicated in every poll since is pointing toward the next election being a turn out game. Whoever can get the most supporters to the polling station wins. There's no room here for fudging or middle ground shallying, this is the game the Tories are playing. Why then do they keep banging on about Corbyn and Venezuela, or communism, or Hezbollah, or practically everything to the exclusion of addressing Britain's pressing problems? Why play necromancy with political phantoms and not deal with real people? Because they know talking constantly about betrayal, regardless of what is being "betrayed", dredges up all that's been said about Jeremy these last three years. By inserting a particle of doubt into the minds of mainly old, mainly retired Labour-leaning voters about his patriotism and loyalty to the country, whatever these may mean, they hope it will suppress Labour's vote and perhaps turn some of them toward the Tories. We're not talking big numbers, but as the last election showed this was enough of a factor to ensure ex-Labour kipper voters disproportionately transferred to the Tories than go back to their old party, and that cost Labour places like Stoke South and Mansfield. Whether this would repeat again, especially after the chaos the Tories have wreaked on the NHS, remains to be seen. But regardless, they're running with it.

What can Labour do? Carry on campaigning, carry on talking about the issues, carry on trying to win over new people, and carry on mocking the Tories for these desperate tactics. There is, after all, an apposite Thatcher quote for such occasions.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Toward a Sociology of Conservative Crisis

Talking about research projects, one of my colleagues pointed out to me the Conservatives and Conservatism group of the Political Studies Association are having a two-day workshop this summer, and have issued a call for papers. And so I've submitted this abstract to help focus the mind and encourage me to get a wriggle on.

Toward a Sociology of Conservative Crisis

Despite winning the largest number of seats and 42% of the popular vote at the 2017 general election, the Conservative Party is in crisis. Rather than relying on explanations emphasising a catalogue of missteps by the party leadership to the exclusion of all else, this paper argues the election result and divisions over Brexit negotiations has brought to a head a number of long running tensions symptomatic of the party’s long-term decline. These are expressed in diminishing party organisation, the reliance on a declining voter base and media support, and its retreat from a party of business-in-general to an increasingly sectional party. The opposite but complementary process to the growth and recomposition of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, this working paper draws on the cognitive capitalism approach of Hardt and Negri (2000, 2004, 2009) and others to explain the trajectory of the Conservatives, how it lost “natural” seats but gained "traditional" Labour seats at last year's election, the delicate balance of power at the top of the party, and the low chances of it being able to reinvent itself sufficiently to overcome these structural difficulties in the short to medium term.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Porsche Challenge for the PlayStation

There are games in my collection that have knocked about for 20-odd years. Since returning to gaming, there are some that have got picked up again for a blast of nostalgia. There are others we fed into our latter day consoles as warnings that no amount of fond memories can make a game good with the passage of time. And there are yet others who've sat in their stack glowering at me, daring to be played again. Porsche Challenge is such a title.

We got our PlayStation as an engagement present. Along with it came Tekken II, Worms, Crash Bandicoot, Adidas Power Soccer, Rayman, the obligatory demo disc, and our aforementioned sports racing title. Each of these save the footy got a good play, but it was Porsche Challenge that became the bane of my existence. No matter the number of tries, for whatever reason I just couldn't get it. Even the simplest of corners in the game proved too much for me, and so I was relegated to look on in a sulk as my significant other mastered the game and completed it with seeming ease. When the PlayStation 3 came along and the PS1 collection was disinterred, Porsche Challenge sat there mocking me. Everyone has a snapping point and mine was finally reached last week. It was time to meet it head on, to resume where we left off two decades ago.

Porsche Challenge is pretty standard PS1 racing fare. There are four tracks to race around, and these are modified slightly as you progress through the game. Five opponents take to the track against you and the simple task is to win each race. Along the way there's a timed checkpoint system to encourage sharp and efficient driving. And unlike other racers of the time, there is but one car, the Porsche Boxster. But is it any good?

Well, yes, if you like PS1 racing games. It was overtaken by the steam roller that was Gran Turismo, and for plenty-of-frills arcade action is easily surpassed by Ridger Racer Type Four, leaving it trailing in the wistfully-remembered stakes. Holding it back is its lack of variety. As it was based on a manufacturer's license and, apparently, close cooperation between the studio and Porsche itself this was something of a novelty, though it was preceded by Core's Jaguar XJ220, Gremlin's Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge, and Sega's licensing of the Ferrari F40 for OutRun. Still, this was enough of a selling point then to give it a little bit more market clout and gaming press interest. The Boxster was marketed as an aspirational but relatively affordable luxury car, and just like OutRun before it the game was used to sell a lifestyle. You get to choose between six different drivers - a model, a mechanic, a journo, a hacker, kick boxer, and a DJ. There are supposed to be differences and rivalries between them, but I couldn't spot them. Anyway, your cadre of glamorous drivers have accompanying them some contemporary-ish tunes, redolent of the faux 70s instrumentals we later find in Driver, and for night time racing in Japan we get some light techno a la the Wipeout series. I suppose the package does a good job of selling the Boxster, but it limits the game's longevity. Yes, racing around Porsche's own Stuttgart test track is a nice touch, but doing it three times and three times in reverse is a bit wearing. Confusingly, when you do clear the game you get some grainy FMV footage of past Porsche models, which begs the question: why weren't these included as optional or unlockable motors?

Apart from lastability, the game also suffers from quite annoying rubber banding. Each racer has a rival who starts at the back of the pack with you, and as you work your way to the front they stick with you, meaning if you make a mistake just in front of the finish line they can sneak up and cost you a try. This is especially annoying on the snowy Alpine track, as a hillock immediately prior to the end can send you spinning out of control. The one saving grace is your AI nemesis can also similarly lose it, though more often than not they don't. Nevertheless, when the tracks become dynamic (i.e. bits of it open and close at random), sometimes you can waylay your opponent by nipping down a shortcut they missed - something I'm not entirely sure the game is supposed to allow.

The main question is how did we do this time round? Well, it turns out that I'm a better gamer these days. Though neither a simulator nor properly arcadey, you can't jam down the accelerator and tear around the game as you might in Ridge Racer. Brakes have to be applied sharply, and frequently. And once mastered the shame of 20 years fell away and, at long last, the ghost of its challenge was laid to rest. Is it worthwhile having a go? Yes, if you like racing games, but don't expect anything too different or better than any other PS1 driving experience.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Theresa May's Waffle and Fudge

Just as she reached the podium earlier today to give her long-awaited Brexit speech, Theresa May paused to look at her watch and spent the next hour declaring fudge o'clock. While a convoluted word salad arranged to look appealing to the increasingly demented and unrepresentative Brexit hard right and editorial leader writers, the content proved to be just as light weight and, in some instances, contradictory.

Ireland, for example. Before Christmas, May signed the UK up to remaining in some kind of customs union with the EU to avoid a hard border between the north and the republic. Regulatory alignment was one of the phrases bandied about. Since then she and her cabinet of misfits have done everything they can to suggest they didn't mean it, all the while acting as if Brussels can't read English and doesn't keep tabs on the British press. Things got so bad that earlier this week, Boris Johnson (who else?) had written May a private letter intimating that dumping a frictionless border was a price worth paying for Brexit. Small wonder her speech made the claim "I have put upholding the Belfast Agreement at the heart of my approach." Why use a small lie when a whopper will do? She then went on to reiterate the dilemma the December meeting was supposed to put to rest, that having a separate agreement for Northern Ireland violates the UK's integrity. Which is true, and which is why, again, she agreed to regulatory alignment in the first place. There were some hints this would continue, albeit with the UK exercising its sovereignty by reserving the right to diverge. In other words, nothing has changed, nothing has changed, to coin a phrase. And she spent a chunk of her time waffling about it.

The second egregious aspect of her ramble through her negotiating position was the welcome but belated recognition that, yes, there is going to have to be some compromise. It may have taken 18 months and we're just over a year away from handing in EU membership, but reality has at last impinged on the Tory high command and their "have cake and eat it" strategy has fallen apart. While signalling that she wishes Britain to remain party to some EU agencies (with the requisite subs conferred), May is still holding out for some sort of deal with the EU that doesn't disrupt "40 years of economic integration", but simultaneously allows for Britain to strike advantageous arrangements with emerging economies - the blasted unholy grail of the Brexit ultras. She then went on to muddy the waters by talking about how the present single market is only a partial entity that reflects the interests of its members, implying the UK isn't as plugged in as we are led to believe and that in some way it disadvantages the UK. With a government this willfully deluded, you can understand why business is warming to Corbynism and that even Michael Heseltine is contemplating voting Labour.

Stated with enough bombast to crater North London during the referendum campaign was the claim the EU needs us more than we need them, thanks to the trade deficit between the UK and the continent and, well, because Britain. May stated it again with a little more humility by suggesting if we have to make "tough choices", so do the EU. Specifically, what she is getting at here is the character of the deal between the two following Brexit. In principle, she is right. Yes, I know, broken clocks, etc. The best Brexit deal for both parties is a bespoke one. If single market subscription is off the table, then something like Labour's customs union plus is the best starting point. However, May's problem is the EU27 prefer an off-the-shelf solution based on existing arrangements with countries outside the EU, and the weight sits with them - especially as Donald Trump has shown his (small) hand by whacking up tariffs on steel and made blood curdling comments on trading deficits with other countries and his embrace of the concept of trade war. The US hasn't got the UK's back. True, Labour might have been in a similar position were they negotiating Brexit, but then again Labour wouldn't have gone out of its way to antagonise Brussels and made light of agreements already entered into.

In short then, there was very little of substance here. Billed as a grand gesture it restated existing fudges, highlighted some small compromises on peripheral issues, and arranged a set of aspirations that would have been difficult to achieve had the government not pissed the UK's soft power up the wall. This was a long, windy speech that, for all intents and purposes, didn't move things on at all.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Research in Political Sociology

Slowly recovering from the horrors of snowmageddon and saving myself up for what will be a daft and disingenuous speech on Brexit from Theresa May, I'm just throwing down a few words on what I'm working on and towards at the moment.

In between writing lectures, supervising dissertations and doing all the myriad admin things that come with the job, I am slowly but surely putting together two papers on mine and yours favourite politics programme, Question Time. The papers focus on the demographic splits and affiliations of programme panellists between the 1979 and 2017 seasons. Some of the findings are what you might expect, such as an overall tendency of rising women's, black and minority ethnicity, and LGBT representation over time. Others are ... less so. If you want to get a taster of what to expect, here's the not-at-all-scientific post that started me thinking about this.

The second and third are somewhat intertwined. These are at the planning stage and I've only really began reading and studying them seriously since the beginning of the year. The first is something about political theory and politics as is. I'm not entirely sure what, yet, but having commented and written extensively about politics from a sociological perspective, its slow unwinding, and now fast unravelling has exposed the clubbiness, the naivete, the conceits and the uselessness of not just nearly all the commentariat, but not a few base assumptions held by political science academics as well. Take Tim Bale's otherwise detailed recent history of the Tory party as an example. He has unparalleled access to key players, and his method pays lip service to the three Is: ideology, interests, and institutions, but a sociological account it is not. There is no sense of movement, of tension, of the Tory party as an alliance, or indeed of its trajectory. In sum, so far (I'm not that far into the book) it lends itself to the 'tribalist' tradition of looking at politics, of treating parties as more or less free floating entities that happen to attract people with certain views. In my view, it's time this utterly false, misleading and distorted view of politics was put down for good.

I'm getting ahead of myself. This study requires going back to Nietzsche, and working my way through some secondary literature on Deleuze and Guattari before tackling the beasts that are Anti-Oedipus, A Thousand Plateaus, and What is Philosophy?, and from there it's onto Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway and then a revisit of jolly old Hardt and Negri. I'm particularly interested in reiterating the banal but unspoken taboo that politics, ultimately, is an arena of class conflict. Simple, eh? Well, no. But why the Deleuze stuff? Isn't Marx good enough? Simply put, I find them fascinating. And useful. Althusser was right that philosophy is the class struggle in theory, but in Deleuze's case the war chest of concepts he developed in partnership with Felix Guattari offers alternative ways of thinking about movement, tendency and conflict from a materialist but anti-Hegelian, anti-dialectical standpoint. As Hegel tried in his Science of Logic to capture the process of cognition in the abstract, and Marx the movement (circuits) of capital, so Deleuze and Guattari attempt the same with social processes in general, and through their concept of the assemblage we have another nuanced way of thinking about abstraction. i.e. Levels of analysis. Useful if you're trying to think about the sociology of politics.

The cat's been let out of the bag regarding the parallel project, which is something about the Tory party. As much as I'd love to take a scalpel to them, the only dissection taking place is strictly analytical. There are a number of things I'm concerned with putting on a firm footing: the rebooted Strange Death of Tory England-style argument I've consistently made these last six years, the relationship between decline, the decadence of the Tories, and their retreat into a sectional party of capital, the diminishing character of the Tory vote and evaporation of the party organisation, polarisation, and its descent into political senility to the point where even Jeremy Corbyn (Jeremy Corbyn!) is starting to look the safer bet as far as business is concerned, and a myriad other things that escape me at the moment.

Obviously, you can't look at the Tory party in isolation from wider politics. Its decomposition is the complementary but opposing process to Labour's recomposition. Eagle-eyed readers may have spotted my contribution to Mark Perryman's edited collection, The Corbyn Effect, which came out last Autumn. In my piece I set out the relationship between Corbynism and the shifts in the nature of class, as outlined here and in many posts since. This summer, Mark Carrigan and I are putting together an event on the sociology of Corbynism, with the view to a proper conference towards Christmas. I'll be looking at building on the earlier chapter as well as thinking about the limits of Corbynism, particularly with regard to older voters (specifically, retirees) and layers of workers not part of, or are excluded from immaterial labour and the networked/socialised properties that come with it. The New Socialist has a special coming out on Corbynism soon that is well worth keeping an eye on (as is the site generally).

As you can see there's a busy year ahead, but blogging will carry on carrying on.