Thursday, 31 December 2009

Ten Predictions for 2010

Time to hop a ride on the prediction bandwagon. I've locked the science of perspectives under the stairs and gone with my gut. Here we go:

1) As unlikely as it seems now, Labour will scrape back in. The return to more traditional social democratic politics pays, much to the consternation of Blairites and
Tom Harris MP.

2) The Greens will get Caroline Lucas elected in Brighton. Nigel Farage for UKIP eats into John Bercow's majority, but the speaker is safely re-elected. As for the BNP, the strong anti-fascist campaign sees Griffin's challenge to Margaret Hodge off by a comfortable margin.

3) It's a bitter sweet election for Respect. Salma Yaqoob is elected but George Galloway is not. As for the rest of the left, apart from a respectable showing for Dave Nellist in Coventry and one or two fair (by the far left's standards) results the son-of-No2EU barely registers on the electoral radar. Once again, lack of name recognition and campaigning profile makes its traditional negative contribution, though everyone will prefer to blame the squeeze the Labour vote puts on it.

4) The economy returns to weak growth, though from the perspective of the two and a half million unemployed it feels no different.

5) As companies and the public sector cut back, more workers are forced into industrial action to defend their jobs and/or existing working conditions. There will be no mass radicalisation resulting from this, but strike figures and trade union membership will be up by year's end.

6) The United Kingdom will still be united. A referendum on Scottish independence will not take place - with opinion tilting against independence this will be a (quiet) relief to many in the SNP.

7) The Afghan war will rumble on, though by year's end there will be more talk about talks. Neither will there be an attack on Iran by the US and UK, and despite more Israeli sabre rattling no threatened air strikes will be forthcoming - the perceived opposition of such moves by a global anti-war movement figures heavily in the decision-making.

8) All kinds of irrationalism and mumbo-jumbo will - depressingly - make more headway in 2010. Climate change denialism becomes more of an anti-establishment badge of honour among hard of thinking circles. This in turns provokes a more strident rationalism in liberal-left circles.

9) The Sheridan case finally comes to court. Whatever happens it will rub added venom into the festering sore that is the Scottish left.

10) In July, the
Posadas position on UFOs is spectacularly confirmed as emissaries from the Galactic Soviet land in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang. They immediately offer the crumbling Juche regime unconditional but critical support against US imperialism and its South Korean running dogs.

Nostradamus I ain't.

What do you think will happen in 2010?

Top 100 Dance Songs of the 00s


Everyone in dance music knows there's only really one list that matters, and that is the coveted AVPS top 100 songs of the 00s. I make no apologies for the lack of pap and guitar-based music (they're so 20th, man). This is a top 100 of this decade's *electronic* music - be it dance, trance, chill out, house or whatever. And here they are, in reverse order.

Edit: In time, I've got round to doing top 100 dance tunes of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s too!

100) Crying at the Discoteque by Alcazar (2001)
99)
Girls by The Prodigy (2004)
98)
Believe by Chemical Brothers (2005)
97)
Close Cover by Minimalistix (2002)
96)
Time to Burn by Storm (2000)
95)
The Time Is Now by Moloko (2000)
94)
Flashback by Calvin Harris (2009)
93)
Sunglasses at Night by TIGA and Zyntherius (2000)
92)
Sexual Sportswear by Sebastien Tellier (2008)
91)
One More Time by Daft Punk (2000)
90)
Everything Goes by Ferry Corsten (2004)
89)
Chase the Sun by Planet Funk (2000)
88)
You Are Alive by Fragma (2001)
87)
Love Comes Again by Tiesto feat. BT (2004)
86)
On the Run by Tillman Uhrmacher (2002)
85)
Tell Me Why by Supermode (2006)
84)
The Creeps by Fedde Le Grand feat. Camille Jones (2007)
83)
Surrender by Lasgo (2004)
82)
Over and Over by Hot Chip (2006)
81)
Rain Down Love by Freemasons (2007)
80)
Star Guitar by Chemical Brothers (2002)
79)
Seventeen by Ladytron (2002)
78)
Feel the Beat by Darude (2000)
77)
Flawless by The Ones (2001)
76)
Waiting by Dash Berlin feat. Emma Hewitt (2009)
75) Hayling by FC Kahuna (2002)

74)
You See the Trouble With Me by Black Legend (2002)
73) Lady (Hear Me Tonight) by Modjo (2000)
72)
Every Word by Ercola feat. Daniella (2009)
71)
4 O'Clock in the Morning by Lazard (2002)
70)
As the Rush Comes by Motorcycle (2003)
69)
Fire by Ferry Corsten (2006)
68)
Crimewave by Crystal Castles (2008)
67)
Omen by The Prodigy (2009)
66)
Stoned in Love by Chicane and Tom Jones (2006)
65)
At Night by Shakedown (2002)
64)
Drifting Away by Lange (2002)
63) Catch by Kosheen (2000)
62) Girls by Calvin Harris (2007)
61)
Black and Gold by Sam Sparro (2008)
60)
Destiny by Zero 7 (2001)
59)
Hustler by Simian Mobile Disco (2006)
58)
Rapture by iiO (2002)
57)
Need to Feel Loved by Reflekt feat. Delline Bass (2005)
56)
Castles in the Sky by Ian Van Dahl (2001)
55)
Warrior's Dance by The Prodigy (2009)
54) Winter by DT8 Project feat. Andrea Britton (2004)
53)
Heart of Asia by Watergate (2000)
52) Trust by George Acosta feat. Truth (2008)
51)
L'amour Toujours by Gigi D'Agostino (2000)
50)
Resurrection by PPK (2001)
49)
Burned With Desire by Armin van Buuren feat. Justine Suissa (2003)
48)
Body Crash by Buy Now (2008)
47)
Played A Live by Safri Duo (2001)
46) Urban Train by Tiesto (2001)
45) Angels Theme by Angels and Wippenberg (2007)
44)
After All by Delerium feat. Jael (2003)
43) Damaged by Plummet (2001)
42)
Pjanoo by Eric Prydz (2008)
41)
True Love Never Dies by Flip and Fill (2001)
40)
Touch Me by Rui da Silva (2000)
39)
Lovely Head by Goldfrapp (2000)
38)
Discopolis by Lifelike and Kris Menace (2005)
37)
Audacity of Huge by Simian Mobile Disco (2009)
36)
Doctor Pressure by Mylo vs Miami Sound Machine (2005)
35)
Ode to '99 by Georgia (2008)
34)
M (Above and Beyond Cybertrance Remix) by Ayumi Hamasaki (2002)
33)
Can't Keep Me Silent by Angelic (2001)
32)
It's Time by Ferry Corsten (2005)
31)
Beautiful by Matt Darey feat. Marcella Woods (2001)
30)
Y68 by Alex M.O.R.P.H. feat. Woody van Eyden (2008)
29)
Air for Life by Above and Beyond feat. Andy Moor (2004)
28)
I Lust U by Neon Neon (2008)
27)
Close My Eyes by Sander van Doorn vs Robbie Williams (2009)
26)
Made of Love by Ferry Corsten feat. Betsie Larkin (2009)
25)
Ecstasy by ATB (2004)
24)
Adagio for Strings by Tiesto (2005)
23)
Another Chance by Roger Sanchez (2000)
22) Man on the Run by Dash Berlin feat. Cerf, Mitiska and Jaren (2009)
21)
I Remember by deadmau5 feat. Kaskade (2009)
20)
Slave of My Mind by Kiko (2008)
19)
Crush by Paul van Dyk (2004)
18)
Break My World by Dark Globe (2004)
17)
Sirens of the Sea by Oceanlab (2008)
16)
Loneliness by Tomcraft (2003)
15)
Blind by Hercules and Love Affair (2008)
14)
Say Hello by Deep Dish (2005)
13)
Lie to Me by Slam (2004)
12) Arms of Loren (Ferry Corsten Remix) by E'voke (2002)
11)
Satellite by Oceanlab (2004)
10)
Lost by Roger Sanchez (2006)
9)
Dove by Moony (2002)
8) The Orange Theme (Rank 1 Remix) by Cygnus X (2000)
7)
The Girl and The Robot by Röyksopp feat. Robyn (2009)
6)
Southern Sun by Paul Oakenfold (2002)
5)
Angel by Ralph Fridge (2000)
4)
In and Out of Love by Armin van Buuren feat. Sharon den Adel (2008)
3)
Just Be by Tiesto feat. Kirsty Hawkshaw (2004)
2)
Ligaya by Gouryella (2002)

And number 1 is ... this:




Don't ever let anyone tell you the 00s was a shit decade for music.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The Far Left in the 2010s

Over the last three years I've written retrospectives of the British far left's fortunes over a given year (here's 2006, 2007, and 2008) and without exception they make grim reading. 2009 has at least been a little better, though the cynics among us may ask how things could have got any worse.

It seems to me the far left has entered a new period of flux these last couple of years, which is an episode in a wider shift in the distribution of allegiances on the left outside of Labour since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. With the passing of the USSR and a firm decline in the depth and influence of the labour movement in Britain (which counted the old 'official' CPGB among its casualties), you had two parallel tendencies at work in the political evolution of the far left.


There was the retreat of traditional labourist politics (compounded by the Tory victory in the 1992 general election) before the unashamed neoliberalism of New Labour. This alienated small but significant layers of trade unionists and socialists and opened a political space to Labour's left and introduced a new regroupment dynamic that wasn't present prior to Blair. We all know what happened next - first came the Socialist Labour Party, then the parallel developments of the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales, and the Scottish Socialist Party north of the border. And later the SA was wound up in favour of Respect. While all these have either failed or undergone serious setbacks, the regroupment dynamic has persisted throughout the 00s.

The second tendency was the decline of Militant/Socialist Party and the growth of the SWP, which (with the exception of Scotland) made them the hegemonic centre of the British far left. To underline this, whatever their shortcomings as
de facto leaders of the SA, the alliance never had the potential of developing into something else without the input of the SWP's resources or numbers of activists. The same was true of Respect in the initial phase of its development. Plus the SWP can justly take a large dollop of credit for getting the Stop the War Coalition off the ground and helping build sentiment against the Iraq war into the largest mass movement Britain has seen since the Poll Tax.

For a number of reasons this situation has changed. The hegemony enjoyed by the SWP has been challenged on a number of fronts because of its own ill-judged actions, and the growing influence of rival socialists. First of all is the notorious row in Respect, which placed the SWP on one side and the bulk of non-SWP members on the other. According to the SWP they were victims of a witch-hunt and were being driven out of Respect. The position of their opponents, led by George Galloway and Salma Yaqoob was that the SWP had too much power concentrated in its hands, and there was a fear Respect came second to the SWP’s strategic priorities. This led to an unseemly public split, culminating in the two factions standing against each other at the 2008 London Assembly elections. One major consequence for the SWP was severe damage inflicted on its reputation in labour movement circles while Respect came away looking like the injured party.

Then there was the Lindsey Oil Refinery wildcat strike and related disputes in January-February this year. The dispute involved the employment of Portuguese workers at the expense of locals and was in contravention of existing collective agreements between Total and Unite. The slogan ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ was prominent on the picket line and was heavily rotated by the media. The SP, having a member on the strike committee, intervened and was able to steer the strike toward internationalist demands. In so doing it accumulated much political capital on the far left and the labour movement. However the SWP’s stance focused on the ‘BJ4BW’ slogan and was very critical of the strike, refusing to offer it even conditional support. The victory of the wildcat action helped cement the SP's reputation as a resurgent and serious alternative to the SWP, particularly in industrial politics.

Lindsey directly led to a major realignment in far left electoral politics later in the year. In March the No2EU platform, comprising the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, the Communist Party and the SP announced its intention to stand candidates in June’s European elections. Senior RMT officials in alliance with the CP initiated this body – the SP was later invited to participate after the name and much of the platform had been decided. What was significant was the sponsors' refusal to approach the SWP, which in the previous period would have been unthinkable. The stated reason for not doing so was their position on Lindsey strikes. Overall, No2EU performed poorly in the elections (153,236 votes – 1.01 per cent) but it did prove a national campaign could be mounted by the far left independently of the SWP. And so far the SWP have remained outside the 'son-of-No2EU' talks to field allied left candidates in the 2010 general election.

And so the hegemony the SWP enjoyed on the far left for around 15 years is being eclipsed industrially, in terms of regroupment and (relatedly) when it comes to election contests. The far left enters the next decade very much as it entered the 00s - fragmented, but engaged in a number of (painfully slow) unity projects. The main difference being that the balance of forces between the key actors are more leveled out, which means no one can dictate the terms of rapprochement (if it will ever happen) to the others.

There are still reasons to be optimistic despite the setbacks and failures of the last decade. The economic crisis and the recession have changed the terms of political reference have entirely. Keynesianism and nationalisation have re-entered mainstream political discourse and finance is no longer held up as the hegemonic model of capital accumulation in the Anglophone world. A tentative revival of interest in Marx is also evident in the commentariat and leftwing academia, and the 's' word - socialism - has re-entered everyday political language. None of this has led to an appreciable increase in the influence of British Trotskyism, but the shifting centre of political gravity could yet prove fruitful for socialist politics - especially as it continues to force groups of workers into action in defence of their jobs and working conditions. The actions of the entire far left from the second Lindsey dispute onwards have been exemplary in delivering solidarity and mobilising support, and are well placed to intervene in future.

But a major obstacle is the possible exhaustion of the tendency toward regroupment. On the one hand there is the wider process of political fragmentation in mainstream politics. This has primarily benefited the "main" minor parties so far - UKIP, Greens and the BNP (as well as the nationalists in Wales and Scotland) - and shows no sign of being reversed any time soon. However, if the far left want to be part of this mix the window of opportunity could be fast closing. The apparent rediscovery of weak social democratic policies by Labour (what rightwing bloggers and the press have illiterately dubbed "class war" politics) and likely electoral defeat create problems for the project to build a new left alternative - especially as the prospect of opposition will firm up trade union support for "their" party. Should Labour lose and tack to the left, where's the space for a far left narrative premised on Labour's abandonment of its core support?

So it's a bit of a mixed bag as we enter the new decade. The main forces of the far left are more finely balanced. There are several ongoing unity projects of varying size and scope. And, as a whole, the main players (particularly the SP and SWP) are very well placed to intervene in whatever industrial disputes are thrown up. But the uncertainty over the political space to the left of Labour places a question mark on the future viability of a sustained and united leftwing challenge at the ballot box, and with it the dynamic towards regroupment. Though it's difficult to tell at this stage, it is very possible the 2010s could see the far left retreat to 'ourselves alone'-style party building - partly because of "objective" circumstances, but equally due to our inability to put the poison of sectarianism behind us.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Top 100 Tweeting Bloggers

Ever wondered who the top 100 political blogging tweeters are in these fair isles? Ponder no more:

1)
Alastair Campbell (12,270 followers)
2)
John Prescott (10,717 followers)
3)
Iain Dale (6,993 followers)
4)
Tom Watson MP (6,977 followers)
5)
Guido Fawkes (6,300 followers)
6)
The Wardman Wire (5,698 followers)
7)
Kerry McCarthy (4,451 followers)
8)
UK Progressive (4,399 followers)
9)
James Cleverly (3,600 followers)
10)
Enemies of Reason (3,412 followers)
11)
Cllr Phil Briscoe (3,342 followers)
12)
Green Girls Global (3,101 followers)
13)
Labour List (2,991 followers)
14)
Paul Waugh (2,972 followers)
15)
Tim Montgomerie (2,968 followers)
16)
Tom Harris MP (2,637 followers)
17)
Stuart Bruce (2,628 followers)
18) Kevin Maguire (2,421 followers)
19) Cath Eliott (2,356 followers)
20)
Gideon Rachman (2,240 followers)
21)
Obnoxio the Clown (2,147 followers)
22)
Lynne Featherstone MP (2,058 followers)
23)
A View From the Public Gallery (1,955 followers)
24)
Tory Bear (1,884 followers)
25)
The Stilettoed Socialist (1,810 followers)
26)
Pickled Politics (1,795 followers)
27)
Think Politics (1,758 followers)
28)
Benedict Brogan (1,655 followers)
29)
Jess McCabe (1,540 followers)
30)
Cllr Tim Blog (1,497 followers)
31)
Bloggerheads (1,478 followers)
32)
Mark Pack (1,467 followers)
33)
LibDem Voice (1,449 followers)
34)
Jon Worth's Euroblog (1,429 followers)
35)
Next Left (1,368 followers)
36)
Nadine Dorries MP (1,354 followers)
37)
Plenty to Say (1,321 followers)
38)
Daniel Hannan MEP (1,319 followers)
39)
Cllr Lisa Northover (1,265 followers)
40)
Kirklees Unity (1,193 followers)
41)
Andy Reed MP (1,183 followers)
42)
Shane Greer (1,180 followers)
43)
Adam Smith Institute Blog (1,173 followers)
44)
Liberal Conspiracy (1,172 followers)
45)
FT Westminster Blog (1,169 followers)
46)
Ed Vaizy MP (1,164 followers)
47)
House of Twits (1,162 followers)
48)
Douglas Carswell MP (1,137 followers)
49) Eric Joyce MP (1,114 followers)
50)
Greener Leith (1,111 followers)
51)
Oberon Houston (1,100 followers)
52)
Byrne Baby Byrne (1,092 followers)
53)
The Baillieu Blog (1,081 followers)
54)
Dizzy Thinks (1,078 followers)
55)
The Tory Troll (1,067 followers)
56)
No Geek Is An Island (1,054 followers)
57)
Bray's Duckhouse (1,018 followers)
58) Tory Politico (1,008 followers)
59)
Politics Cymru (988 followers)
60)
spEak You're bRanes (971 followers)
61)
Andy Reeves' Running Blog (966 followers)
62)
Political Scrapbook (957 followers)
63)
Will Straw (947 followers)
64)
A Very Public Sociologist (936 followers)
65)
Boris Watch (936 followers)
66)
Left Foot Forward (932 followers)
67)
Labour Matters (927 followers)
68)
Frank Field MP (909 followers)
69)
James O'Malley (904 followers)
70)
Mark Reckons (890 followers)
71)
Dan Wilson (873 followers)
72)
Philippa Latimer for St Ives (873 followers)
73)
The Daily Quail (871 followers)
74)
Grace Fletcher-Hackwood (867 followers)
75) Martin Bright (867 followers)
76)
Stephen Allison (863 followers)
77)
Local Democracy Blog (861 followers)
78) Stephen's Linlithgow Journal (848 followers)
79)
Byrne Tofferings (837 followers)
80)
Martin Tod (798 followers)
81)
Labour of Love (788 followers)
82)
Liberal Burblings (785 followers)
83)
Bethan Jenkins AC/AM (770 followers)
84)
Chicken Yoghurt (769 followers)
85)
Rob Fenwick (764 followers)
86)
Caron's Musings (761 followers)
87)
Tory Teenager (744 followers)
88)
Cardiff Blogger (740 followers)
89)
Angry Mob (737 followers)
90)
Penny Red (735 followers)
91)
Quaequam Blog! (735 followers)
92)
Nick Pickles (733 followers)
93)
Mayor Watch (713 followers)
94)
Charlotte Gore (696 followers)
95)
Luke Bozier (689 followers)
96)
David Ottewell (685 followers)
97)
Devil's Kitchen (673 followers)
98)
Boris Watchers (671 followers)
99)
Shot Across the Bow (662 followers)
100)
Cynical Dragon (641 followers)


Time for a couple of notes. The basis for this list has been the
Total Politics blog directory, with some of the gaps filled in by my own knowledge. Not perfect by any means but the TP listing is probably the largest catalogue of UK-based political blogging in existence. So there is a chance one or two blogs have been missed. All the blogs on this list should be political in some way - if not then put it down to oversight (it took quite a while to rake through the directory!) Also, all the blogs should be active. I've applied my 45 day rule - I don't care if you spend every moment of the day tweeting about your tea and tiffin to thousands of followers: if you haven't blogged in the last month and a half, you're not included.

Then there is the ordering. I've used the simplest measurement - number of followers. Of course this is problematic in itself as the numbers can be easily gamed, which explains why a number of bloggers without much of a profile can appear so high in this list. Nevertheless, if you're following 6,000 people on Twitter and have 5,000 followers, your tweets are still reaching a wider audience than someone who only follows 100 but has 1,000 followers. The ratio of followers to the listed figure is a good indication of the depth of twitterly influence.

And there we have it. Did you make the list? Any surprises?

Thursday edit: The list has been modified to include Tory Politico and Martin Bright.

12th January edit: A few more additions to the list in the shape of Eric Joyce, Cath Elliott and Kevin Maguire. This will be the last time I update the list until I do another next December, so if anyone's missing let me know and I'll keep a note of them for when the new one is compiled.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Decoding Dan Brown

By way of prefacing his latest book, The Lost Symbol, under the heading 'Fact' Dan Brown writes "In 1991, a document was locked in the safe of the director of the CIA. The document is still there today. Its cryptic text includes references to an ancient portal and an unknown location underground. The document also contains the phrase "It's buried out there somewhere." All organizations in this novel exist, including the Freemasons, the Invisible College, the Office of Security, the SMCC, and the Institute of Noetic Sciences. All rituals, science, artwork, and monuments in this novel are real."

The Lost Symbol follows the Dan Brown formula to a tee. Robert Langdon, his cryptographic protagonist of Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code has to unlock a series of codes on a masonic pyramid to find the location of secret, buried knowledge while avoiding the CIA and the attentions of a baddie determined to use that knowledge for nefarious purposes. But is Dan Brown seriously suggesting the protagonists, rituals, paranormal phenomena, conspiracies and magicks that weave the fabric of his novel together into an undemanding page turner actually exist? Or is he merely fibbing for dramatic effect? Either way, thanks goodness people like Tony Robinson are selflessly prepared to make documentaries exploring the book's main themes and setting us on the straight and narrow.

Well, actually, Tony Robinson (who my late Granddad always referred to as "that little shit") has made a complete pig's ear of the job.
Decoded: Dan Brown's Lost Symbol sets itself three tasks: to learn whether the Freemasons do harbour secret ancient knowledge; if the USA is a grand masonic experiment (and by extension, does the architecture and layout of Washington DC embody masonic themes?); and lastly if so-called 'noetic science' (the study of the paranormal) is a goer.

To say the documentary is pretty thin gruel is to convey it a substance it didn't have. He asks Nigel Brown, the general secretary of the
United Grand Lodge of England if they are the keepers of ancient wisdom. Of course, the answer is no but we do learn masons do roll up a trouser leg as part of one of their initiation rituals. Seemingly satisfied, it's then over to the states to meet with Akram Elias, a mason of the 33rd degree, to see if the American lodge possesses any secrets. If there is, Elias is keeping mum. Instead he prefers to go on (and on) about the masonic influence on the USA's founding fathers, such as the relationship between key phrases in the Declaration of Independence and masonry (apparently "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" has something to do with the emulation of nature, which goes down a storm at your local lodge).

Following Dan Brown's suggestion that Washington DC has masonic symbolism concealed in its layout, that little shit gets all excited when he identifies exploding stars and pentagrams in Pierre L'Enfant's
street plan. Unfortunately it all proves rather short lived when it is pointed out similar shapes can be read into any street map. Ah, but what about the masonic symbols, such as the pyramid and capstone containing the all-seeing eye on the nation's currency? How about the recurrence of the number 13, and how mason is spelled out on the dollar bill?. All of which can be explained without referring to conspiracies - for instance the masonic iconography draws from a common well of symbolism current in the intellectual circles of the 18th century, and 13 is nothing more mystical than a reference to the founding states of the USA.

The final part of Robinson's journey is a look at noetic "science". In the book, Katherine Solomon (the female protagonist) has been beavering away in a secluded corner of the Smithsonian Institute to prove that ESP, telekinesis, life after death, etc. are real - and the story line makes clear she has solid scientific evidence supporting the existence of each. Rather than poo-pooing this completely, Robinson meets a self-described parapsychologist and has a go at trying to influence a random number generator with the power of thought. Predictably he gets nowhere. But rather than pouring scorn on noetics he umms and aahs about the science, saying we're only in the foothills of serious investigation into the paranormal. So much for rationalism.


By the end of the programme, Tony Robinson is almost incredulous that Dan Brown could have "enhanced" the conspiratorial creds of the masons, has been a mite economical with the imprint of masonry on Washington DC, and has exaggerated the extent to which science has proven the existence of the human soul. This is all very silly, after all did Robinson not read the back of the title page? "This is a work of fiction ... relationship to persons living and dead ..." etc.

Surrendering to the hype surrounding Brown's evocation of conspiranoid anxieties completely misses the point of
The Lost Symbol. Leaving aside the actual existence of masonry as a mutual back-scratching club for aspiring middle class types and the rich and powerful, first and foremost Brown's concern is producing another semi-supernatural thriller that will bankroll the Brown brand for another couple of hundred million. But ultimately, like its predecessor, Symbol is a work of theology. Time and again we are forced to reflect on the religious mysteries Brown attributes to the masons - the idea that God is not apart from the human race but resides in each of us, that we were created equal to God, that apotheosis - the transformation of human to God - is a potential lying dormant in each of us. These are the secrets masonry wants to keep to itself (because the masses are "not ready") and it's this apotheosis the baddie seeks - if only he can find and inscribe the eponymous lost symbol onto his body. This is an 'enlightened' theology which puts cultivation of the self (in terms of intellectual pursuits) at its heart. By worshipping the self, one also worships God.

Of course there's nothing innovative or new about this - you can find similar in a million and one books about the healing powers of crystals, the divinities of sex, how to commune with the dead, and other forms of spiritual self-improvement. It might annoy the proponents of organised religion of all varieties, but ultimately it is the kind of spiritual belief most in tune with our highly individuated times. Where Dan Brown excels is making this theology appear fresh, radical and exciting when in fact it's old hat and utterly banal.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Another Look at Antonio Gramsci

The culture of the far left in Britain sometimes makes it difficult to talk about the kinds of strategies socialists should pursue in advanced capitalist societies (see this thread over at Socialist Unity for instance). To argue that the far left should take elections more seriously invites charges of electoral cretinism. To suggest we should skillfully exploit progressive virtues in popular national identities is branded a capitulation to nationalism. Thinking about how the police and army can be turned from antagonists into potential allies of the labour movement supposedly discards what Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution. And on and on it goes. Creative thinking about strategy tends to be substituted by a quasi-mystical belief that some day the mass of the working class will become more combative and usher in a revolutionary situation, which is when (insert the name of the revolutionary party of your choice) will fight to place itself at the head of the process and make the revolution.

Unfortunately, socialist politics are not so simple. Building a small organisation of a few thousand members is one thing. Breaking out beyond this and contesting capital for the political loyalties of masses of working class people is quite another. And as for managing the transition from a capitalist to a socialist society ...

Clearly, the tasks socialists set ourselves are enormous. We may be scattered across the labour movement, the Labour party, the 57 varieties of Trotskyism and elsewhere, and as far from a sniff of power as we have ever been. But nevertheless we have to think about bringing socialism from the fringe to the mainstream, otherwise what's the point? There are plenty of lessons that can be drawn from the existing practice of British Trotskyism - for example, the experiences of the SSP, Socialist Alliance and Respect on the relationships between Leninist and non-Leninist organisations and activists, the SP's intervention in the Lindsey dispute, the SWP's role in Stop the War and Militant's leadership of Liverpool City Council - all deserve serious study rather than being causes for condemnation or uncritical celebration.

But experience is not enough. A theoretical framework for thinking through strategic options is required too. Traditionally (and unsurprisingly), British Trotskyism has taken its cue from Trotsky's transitional method, of putting forward slogans theoretically achievable under capitalism but, if implemented, runs up against its logics and demonstrates in practice how the system is fundamentally incapable of meeting the needs of the many. While I do think there is a place for this, it implies a mechanical view of consciousness (who's to say socialist conclusions are the inevitable consequence of millions "realising" capitalism isn't run in their interests?) It is also premised too much on a metaphysics of leadership - that workers would follow the transitional demands put forward by the party if it wasn't for the betrayals of union bureaucrats, Stalinists, reformists, sectarians, or opportunists. This kind of thinking is unhelpful for identifying political opportunities and likely points of rupture in societies as complex as ours.

One alternative is the work of celebrated Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who is often the first stop for thinking about socialist strategy in Western Europe (he first received the AVPS treatment a couple of years ago
here). His work has proven extremely influential, though very often for the wrong reasons. Over the course of a series of posts I'll be looking at Gramsci's best known work in English, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, which will be listed below. The format will be very similar to the previous extended discussions of Georg Lukacs and JS Mill, looking in depth at arguments and evaluating them in light of subsequent debates and developments.

Gramsci, Intellectuals and Class
Gramsci on Education
Class Formation and Class Politics

The Modern Prince
Machiavelli and Marxist Politics
Internal Class Divisions and the Party
Gramsci and Economism

Theory and Activism in Marxism
Notes on Organisation and Consciousness


Thursday, 24 December 2009

SWP Online

As an angry young ultra-left variously associated with the cpgb, I spent a chucklesome couple of years cranking out Weekly Worker columns reviewing the websites of various left wing organisations, campaign groups, and anything that took my fancy (some reflections on this here). So when I noticed the Socialist Workers' Party have a new website, I couldn't resist giving it the 'Around the Web' treatment*. Shall we?

Well, for starters it's much, much better than the website of old. It's fairly well set out with top stories catching the eye and the party's three regular publications featured underneath (each comes with a selection of contents). Scrolling further down you have prominent links to the main campaigns the SWP is involved in (Reesites will be chuffed to see
Stop the War gets top billing). And over on the side you have a mixture of campaign and book/pamphlet plugs, a campaigns diary and a video of Alex Callinicos debating the future of capitalism.

Turning to the top bar, it's pretty straight forward really. But I was a little surprised when I clicked
about. Instead of getting your friendly neighbourhood 'where we stand', we have a much more watered down piece extolling the virtues of unity in action, building "the movement", acting as a pole of attraction within it, etc. If this manages to inspire you to join and you hit the link at the bottom, you're met with this. Not good. But aesthetics wise, it's okay. It's probably a bit too much 'movementy' for my liking, but some will be happy with the new look. But there is a design clash between it and the circa 1999 look of the Socialist Worker website.

One definite improvement when it comes to content is the inclusion of
Party Notes, the regular internal SWP news bulletin. Sadly its going public probably means the days of disparaging remarks directed toward the SWP's opponents on the far left and the over-exaggeration of political opportunities are over. Or maybe not - we'll have to see.

It's worth comparing the site to that of its resurgent opponent on the far left, the
Socialist Party. I know I'm biased, but comparing their respective aesthetic I much prefer the SP's. The main stories are front and centre, you're immediately confronted with a video of the recent Youth Fight for Jobs march in London, and there's plenty of photos of folk demonstrating. You come away with an impression that the SP is an active organisation, whereas the SWP's site doesn't suggest that at all (which of course is an unfair representation of the SWP - it, along with the SP, are probably the most active and dynamic political parties in Britain). However, where the SWP's site wins points is its layout. Less is more in my humble opinion, so the two screen depth of SWP Online compares very well to the SP's busy website that goes on and on for approximately 10 and a half screens.

It's also disappointing to see Web 2.0 and the growing importance of social media pass SWP Online's designers by. Yes, video is good, but the comrades should trust their members a bit more and link to the
cornucopia of SWP-friendly blogs, Facebook groups, and Twitter feeds (the same criticism can be made of the SP - and most of the revolutionary left for that matter. For instance, how many comrades know the SP is also on Twitter?)

However, the SWP's website has one even bigger flaw. After linking us to here, there and everywhere, if I was a punter entirely new to politics I still wouldn't know for sure what the initials 'SWP' stand for. Ok, you can surmise it after pottering around the website for a while but surely finding out this sort of basic information shouldn't be like an episode of
Treasure Hunt?

*For collectors of useless revolutionary trivia, the very first Around the Web article was also on the SWP.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Building a Blog Audience

In response to my recent post on the lifespan of political blogs, Andy Newman ponders "why some blogs manage to build an audience, and why some do not." Good question. How is it this blog, for example, manages to attract 300 or so uniques a day while others, including some blogs of long standing, do not? I've pondered on this for a bit and come up with four reasons why I think AVPS has built up a respectable audience - and it has nothing to do with my seductive personality or excellent taste in music.

1) A pre-existing "interested" public: A great deal of Britain-based far left (and some not-so-left) bloggers are alumni of the good old yahoo group,
UK Left Network, which sees its 10th anniversary in April next year. For all its faults (and they are legion) it did establish networks of familiarity between a pretty disparate group of comrades from all kinds of backgrounds. So when anyone from the forum set off to write a blog, there was a small audience who were guaranteed to drop in to see what was being written and perhaps leave a comment.

To demonstrate how small this audience was, here's the stats for the first month of this blog's life (running from 12th-31st December, 2006):













Of course these numbers aren't massive by any means, but without that pre-existing relationship to the internet-traveling left chances are the initial audience would have been much lower. Knowing there was an audience was enough to convince me I wasn't simply crowing into the void, which is a powerful impetus for any new blogger. So, who you are can matter.

2) Self-promotion: It may have worked for Kevin Costner, but blogging is never a case of 'build it and they will come'. Again drawing on my patience as UKLN mod and (once upon a time)
Weekly Worker spammer of promoting both on a wide variety of forums, I spent a long time identifying and adding other left blogs to my blogroll. Whenever I'd rattled off a post I would systematically go through comrades' blogs and leave one or two comments, which in turn would drive some traffic my way. And if I was hanging about a particularly benevolent comrade's blog, they would stick me on their blogroll.

While we're talking about blogrolls, being added to them can have a self-sustaining dynamic. New entrants to the field invariably look to established writers to see who's worth adding to their own rolls, so if you're included on enough chances are you'll be linked to by new comrades. Ubiquity pays.

3) Regular posting: This cannot be emphasised enough. I've come across plenty of bloggers who bemoan the lack of audience or comments for a particularly well-crafted post, but when you look at their archives they rarely post from one month to the next. One reason why
Socialist Unity, Liberal Conspiracy, Iain Dale and the awful Tory Bear get decent audiences is because there's nearly always something new every time you visit. Of course, most bloggers don't have the time to post two or three times a day but regularity is what will keep an audience. For example, after an initial flurry of posts I got bored with blogging in 2007 and wrote very little most of that year. Here's the figures from January to mid-September to illustrate:













When posting was, in some cases, down to once a month it's unsurprising so few swung by the blog to see what was happening. For all intents and purposes by the time I started blogging regularly again in late October it was like starting out again from scratch. Therefore, if you want to hang on to an audience you've got to keep them supplied with product.

4) Originality: I don't claim to be a creative genius, but I write the bulk of material posted on here and I do occasionally offer original think pieces or slightly different takes on things. The
recent post on porn falls into this category, as do old posts such as Marxism and Chicken Sheds, The Perfect Vagina, and Marxism and Michael Jackson's Death. Also, as unofficial Socialist Party internet correspondent for Stoke I like to think the blog offers a glimpse of the SP (and Stoke!) others cannot. And the extended blog commentaries on Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness and JS Mill's On Liberty help bring in the numbers, especially around the time undergrads have to start handing their essays in. Pure coincidence, of course.

It's worth bearing in mind originality can catch the eye of bigger bloggers, who might then give your post a plug and drive audiences your way.

In sum, a pre-existing internet "clique", plenty of self-promotion, regularity of posts and a bit of a dose of originality explain, to me at least, why I've managed to build an audience. But there is more than one way to skin a cat, and I'd be interested to hear readers' thoughts on how you've built and retained viewers and where (if anywhere) you think you've gone wrong.