Monday, 16 October 2017

Altermodernity and the Common















While we're discussing the future and seeing as Michael Hardt is in the big smoke discussing his latest collaboration with Toni Negri, I want to come back to the Empire trilogy for a look at what they have to say about it. After all, their perspective is fundamentally hopeful as it notes the emergence of immaterial labour as the strategic source of surplus value makes transparent the exploitative foundation of profit and, objectively speaking, tilts the balance of power away from capital and to the growing mass of socialised/networked workers. There are countervailing tendencies, of course, and it's tough to maintain an optimistic cast of mind in a gloomy age such as ours, but there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. The translation of Corbynism into a mass force is one of them, the cut through of Bernie Sanders in the citadel of global capitalism another.

Like Marx before them, Hardt and Negri's theory of communism is rooted in class struggle, albeit one that assumes newer, different forms. While developing Marx's concept what they also share is an appreciation of how the new society is rooted in the realities of the present. The whole 'socialism/communism is fine in theory but rubbish in practice' objection is ignorant of Marx and Engels's own arguments against grand blueprints. In Marxism, the promise of a world after capitalism is latent not just because we have the technical wherewithal to produce enough for everyone, everywhere, but because its reproduction depends increasingly on planning - both in terms of meeting market signals and clearing up after the mess for-profit production tends to make - and because the increasing socialisation of labour and the dense webs of interdependency characterising it renders capital ever more superfluous. Marx knew well capital's tendency to become a fetter on the productive forces it unleashed, and nothing sums that up better than Theresa May's Britain with its appallingly low productivity and its cutting up and dividing low waged, low skilled labour intensive jobs and calling it job creation.

For Hardt and Negri, the new terrain of class struggle is the common. The move to immaterial labour makes the languages we use, the knowledge we create, the ideas we think up, the information we generate, the symbols we craft, the relations we forge and the identities we become the key vector for wealth generation and therefore capture by capital. This is the very stuff of social life: the social production of people, networks, and communities. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the front line of the class struggle is the battle for the human soul. That means so-called identity politics are as important to the struggle against capital as the more traditional forms of class struggle. The social and the economic are entirely fused, which means capital is everywhere but also so are its points of vulnerability. Class struggle now assumes a swarm-like aspect of autonomous struggles, all rooted in the common, all fighting commercial invasion and capture/appropriation of their wealth, our commonwealth. As Hardt and Negri put it, the "Multitude is thus a concept of applied parallelism, able to group together the specificity of altermodern struggles, which are characterised by relations of autonomy, equality and interdependencies among vast multiplicities of singularities" (Commonwealth 2009, p.111).

A politics based on the common, a society becoming conscious of itself as an interconnected substance obviously breaks with capitalism. It has laid the ground work for a global commons, and now the job is done. Humanity is increasingly able to take its own destiny in hand without the anarchic tyrannies of the market. What is slow emerging is what Hardt and Negri call the altermodern, or altermodernity, a position that explicitly identifies with "the now" but promises an alternative to it. Effectively, it is a simultaneous a break with and a preservation of modern civilisation, or modernity, and therefore opposed to the various anti-modernities, postmodernisms, and reflexive/unfinished modernities of mainstream social theory. It is also at odds with, gasp, socialism.

While Marx and Engels, and arguably Lenin did not identify socialism with state ownership, Labourism certainly has. In the received tradition of the party, the route to the good life is not through collective and democratic organisation of the people that make our movement, but through representation. Our job is to elect people to Parliament who'll pilot progressive legislation through the House. Socialism here is taking industry out of private ownership and centralising it through economies of scale under the leadership of a cadre of managers. From this point of view there was little qualitative difference between state property in a liberal democracy and state property in a Stalinist dictatorship; it was merely a question of degree. It also meant Labour were disarmed by Thatcher's populist attack on bloated nationalised industry and its inefficiencies, but that's for another time. For Hardt and Negri, statist ownership is at odds with common ownership. Whether you were part of the social factory of post-war Britain or the (authoritarian) state factory of the post-war USSR, workers were kept down and held back, their aspirations frustrated and sublimated, their bodies and brains exploited for the benefit of others. Further, they gone on to argue one of the contributing factors to the USSR's collapse was its inability to foster the dynamism of the common, which was present but largely smothered and heavily policed by its overweening party/state. One reason for China's success is that a less hands on authoritarianism has allowed for the emergence of a policed and surveilled common, but one in permanent antagonistic tension with the fused dictatorship of capital and the party. The common, even under dictatorships, is always producing new relations and becoming the basis of something else. It cannot but resist and work around the brutal rigidity of authoritarianism.

If we understand modernity as class rule in advanced societies, then the modernities theorised by Beck, Giddens and Habermas properly belong to the same intellectual tradition. For Beck, by way of a quick precis, his work was based around the suggestion that class as the main antagonism had been usurped by a proliferation of risk. This ranged from the likelihood of nuclear war and environmental disasters to the small-scale risks invading everyday life. Politics was increasingly a matter of managing risk, and our mode of being oriented to identifying, preparing and mitigating them. Anthony Giddens largely agreed and gave it his own spin in his sketching out of the 'Third Way'. Based on his earlier arguments around reflexive modernisation, the advanced societies had developed tools, media and institutions of such sophistication that, theoretically, these can be turned on ourselves and to monitor the collective behaviour of societies and intervene to address risks and persistent social problems. For Jurgen Habermas, the modern is indissociable from the intellectual and artistic flowering attending the Enlightenment. The blows struck then for science and reason remain as latent potentials in the modern and are yet to be realised, hence his regarding modernity as an "unfinished project". Despite Giddens' forays into 'life politics' (i.e. postmodernised identity politics, albeit without the overtone of atomistic conflict), Beck's concern with individualism and Habermas and his theory of communicative action, these are effectively social democratic theories, statist theories overly concerned with institutional responses to new challenges. The agent of liberation is not the multitude but the dour lander bureaucrat, and the coiffured Labour politician with a photogenic grin. They do not challenge the logics of the times but swims with them.

The altermodern then is composed of three lines of struggle - the realisation of the constitutive power of the common against the sovereign power (even in its representative forms), what Hardt and Negri call 'absolute democracy'. Then there is the legacy bequeathed by the workers' movement and its elaboration by Marxism, warts and all. And lastly, not really touched on here but theorised across the Empire trilogy, the struggles against colonialism and racialised rule. All these have and continue to feed into the melting pot of a common growing aware of its collective intellect and the shared basis of its interests. Parallelism is more than an ethic of resistance, but the condition for the flows of solidarity and interdependency between the singularities (i.e. identity locations) of the multitude.

As we have seen previously, the hegemonic position occupied by the socialised worker means there are no longer any hegemonic positions. Everyone is networked, and there is no one sector of social production in which capital is uniquely strategically vulnerable. Opportunities open and close, and depend on the state of the opposing class, the organisation and understanding of the workers. The end of hegemony in this sense means a new place for the intellectual in the coming complex of the altermodern. Their role is not as a cadre of activist priests who keep the revealed truths to themselves, a la sundry vanguards of old but perform the standard role of critique, of following the example of Marx and Engels and translating the experiences of movements into concepts that demystify the social world, that work with others to realise new norms and develop the institutions of our collective, constituent power. This is an intellectual who is not above or separate from the common but are part of it, are completely inside of it and sees their contributions merge with others in building the altermodernity to come.

Corbynism is our tear in the fabric of capital, a moment through which millions have poured and are becoming something much more exciting and dangerous than "socialism fans". The end of capitalism is talked about, socialism is talked about, and communism in its new fully automated luxury/space guise is abroad. It's possible because class struggle has picked up, and occasioning it is a huge outpouring of creativity and thinking. And the most exciting thing? We're only at the beginning of this time of awakening.

Image source

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Corbynism and the White Heat of Technology



















What do the Tories offer? Putting aside the squabbling and the Brexit meltdown, there isn't a great deal. At the beginning of her blighted reign Theresa May promised a rosy picture of a one nation Britain in which everyone had their place and everyone got on. This was 50s Toryism respun, a kindlier, industrious society (except for immigrants and recipients of social security) where racism became a bad memory and the proceeds of wealth were shared more fairly. Accused of channelling her inner Ed Miliband, this was thin gruel. But coming after six years of Dave who, in many ways, appeared to be the continuity of Blair/Brown and who, in their turn, left the Thatcherite settlement untouched, May's Toryism seemed fresh. Her initial success and thumping poll leads weren't just down to making a hard Brexit her own. Believe it or not, she represented change and got the plaudits for it.

18 months is an eternity in politics, especially when instability hits and events accelerate. Now it is Jeremy Corbyn who is the change candidate and Labour the vehicle for rethinking politics and trying something new. Therefore his speech at the Co-op Party's conference presented an opportunity to consolidate this position, and he did not disappoint. Our Jez grabbed the headlines by conceding Philip Hammond's charge that Labour was a threat to his economic model. Too right, but the populist flourish wasn't the main point. What was is the vision of the future as a better place in which people are not just better off because of sound policies, but the application of technology to enhance our lives.

It being the Co-operative conference, it was entirely right to float ideas from Labour's Alternative Models of Ownership report. Singling out the new wave of parasites enabling then feeding off the so-called gig economy, he raises the prospects of using digital architectures to facilitate cooperative businesses that can displace and out-compete the Ubers and the Deliveroos. As we have seen, because their business models can only operate by cornering markets there is a very clear public interest such monopolies are broken up or cooperatised. Indeed, he is broadly in favour of extending cooperative business - not least because the standard share holder model of ownership leads to wealth concentration and, in Britain's case, the present investment strike and the consequent tumbling productivity figures.

More importantly, in moving on to robotics and automation Jez suggested their use cannot be inseparable from increasing workers' control. Indeed, when we consider the dire warnings of an employment apocalypse thanks to the possible obsolescence of thousands of job roles, the surest way of avoiding that is ensuring workers have input and control over the design and implementation of new technologies. You can bet if the next wave of automation happens under the Tories, people are just going to be left to rot. Even more exciting, Jeremy also raises the prospect of using more technology to reduce the working week, the first time a leader of a mainstream political party has broken with the ruling orthodoxy that work should be the be-all and end-all. A taboo subject, nevertheless this dream has deep roots in the Labour Party and labour movement. While the party of labour, it has a proud history of reducing the amount of time we have to spend renting our bodies and brains to make a living. I'm sure it was accidentally on purpose this understanding of what our movement should be about was buried during peak market fundamentalism.

Obviously, this is just a speech, but it is a statement of intent. It shows how Corbynism is about fusing the old promise of high technology with a more just, democratic way of doing things; of taking the cutting edge of innovation out of the hands of the wealth takers and putting it at the disposal of the wealth makers, to paraphrase one of Jeremy's asides. Slowly the shape of a Labourist future for the 21st century is emerging, the trick is to make sure this speaks to the interests of those already won over to Labour and those, for a number of reasons, who cling to the Tories. Here we do have an historic opportunity to redefine politics around these objectives as the Tories are weak, are out of ideas, and their material advantages are eroding. There is much to be done but for once, and for perhaps the first time during my life time, socialism can go on the offensive.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Harvey Weinstein and "Sex Addiction"



















As one sexual predator shuffles off to earn the disdain of history, so another fills his space in the celebrity firmament. The explosion of allegations around heavyweight film producer Harvey Weinstein are simultaneously not shocking and shocking. Popular culture is well used to the legend of the casting couch, but the excruciating details of the harassment and attacks - some exposed by The New Yorker - are appalling. Here we have the not-at-all surprising story of a powerful man using his wealth and film industry influence to abuse women, enforce a pall of silence about his disgusting behaviour and, where necessary, pay off survivors. The weight of testimony puts the truth of the allegations beyond all reasonable doubt, as does Weinstein's behaviour since the story broke. He denies his decades of abuse and yet bleats about deserving a second chance and how he needs help. In short, his incoherence damns him.

To try and salvage something of his ruined reputation, Weinstein is engaging in that classic of abuser behaviour: denial. He has reportedly flown to an exclusive but discreet rehabilitation centre for sufferers of sex addiction. This is the rationale getting peddled to the press by the few lackeys he has left and, of course, it's complete bollocks. Whether the condition exists or not is a matter for debate. I lean toward the sceptical, but we know addictive behaviours are commonplace and physical and psychological dependencies are capable of being formed around all sorts of things. Yet to treat Weinstein's claims his abuse results from a pathologically uncontrollable libido is like granting "affluenza" and Drapetomania (treating slaves' desires to be free as a mental illness) the legitimacy of medical conditions. Weinstein is in no sense a sufferer and a victim, he is the perpetrator of a long-running series of sexual assaults. He used power to trap and attack the bodies of others.

Understanding gender is impossible without appreciating how sexuality and power is fused together. Masculinity in its hegemonic forms are coded by the positioning of women, which ranges across a spectrum of inferiority from barely human objects to second class citizens. Being a man, performing as a man, having self-worth as a man is inseparable from a heterosexual imaginary shot through with normative assumptions and expectations about the relations between genders. As the dominant gender (still), so it is men's outlooks that are naturalised and unquestioned. It's their desires that are sacrosanct, their power to define and characterise women that is accepted as the truth of gender, and, as a consequence, their violence and abuse that is covered for, explained away and, in some cases, flattered and encouraged.

The poisonous, traditional hegemonic masculinities are probably in long-term decline, but they live on in every dick pic, every fist raised against a woman, every sexual assault. Every denial of sexist and sexual violence. Weinstein isn't ill, he is entirely typical of another spectrum, this time a continuum of behaviour of men who take standard masculinity to heart, and one that takes in the full variety of misogyny. He is entirely responsible for the crimes he's accused of and deserves everything coming to him, which is hardly fair restitution for the women who bear the psychological scars of his attacks. His sex addiction self-diagnosis is designed to blur and bury his abuse of power, a ruse to try and naturalise his appalling conduct. The problem then is more than the individual. The ultimate culprit is faceless and disparate to the point where it always has a face and is therefore known to every woman. The enemy is the web of patriarchal relations responsible for the gendered disparity of power, its perpetuation, and the stunted, entitled men it turns out. Struggling to drive out poisonous masculinities would certainly make a difference, but the only way to root out patriarchy and make sure future Weinsteins are headed off before they develop demands something more than a kinder, gentler masculinity. We need to work toward the abolition of gender as a meaningful social location.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Can the Tories Detoxify?





















The first step to dealing with a problem is admitting you have one. Amidst the divisions and despair of Tory party conference, and after that speech, precious few Tories are willing to concede they do have a problem. I mean, how else are we to take their plans to freeze tuition fees and bung mega cash into Help To Buy other than signs of structural denial? Yet there are a small number of MPs who've grasped the gravity of the situation, and one of them is "blue collar Tory" and self-styled friend of the trade unions, Robert Halfon.

He starts his assessment where, funnily enough, Theresa May began hers way back in 2002 with a recognition the party is tarnished and out of touch with the majority of people. He says, "I am always amazed when I hear of those talking abstractly about the merits of capitalism, totally removed from the lives of most of our fellow countrymen and women ... Going on about Venezuelan socialism may delight Conservatives in the Westminster village but it means little to most ordinary voters ... Every time the Conservatives engage in old-fashioned opposition attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, all we do is advance their cause." Ouch. There is also a groping toward an understanding of why people have flooded into Labour, though this is stuck on the level of ideas (romantic and noble identification with the underdog) than an appreciation of the role interests have played in the rejuvenation of the party. And on the young, well, their abysmal support here is "nothing short of a calamity".

These are words that should focus the minds of smart Tories, the sprinkling for whom decadence hasn't yet meant blindness beyond the next opinion poll and Daily Mail editorial. But there is precious little evidence of movement for internal Tory party reform and political repositioning. When you look over the non-entities squabbling over Number 10 there isn't a single one of them that can sort the party out. At the most perhaps a wee jump in the polls is likely by virtue of not being Theresa May, but swapping one leader out for another cannot solve their problems.

Here Halfon is on the right tracks for where the Tories need to go if they are to stand a chance of dominating the 21st century as surely they did the preceding hundred years. Instead of getting misty-eyed over St Margaret, they need to go back even further to the Tory governments of 1951-1964. Here, unfortunately, their party showed its chameleon-like ability to adapt to the times. Labour forged a new post-war settlement and laid the groundwork for a more stable and equitable capitalism than the ruin of the 1930s, but we forget now what became the post-war consensus was consolidated under Tory rule. Yes, there were plenty of horrible things about them then but nevertheless there was enough of an appreciation of speaking to and being seen to serve workers' interests. Instead of frustrating aspirations from below, which is pretty much the story of the Dave and May governments, the Tories worked hard to co-opt them and subsequently shape them. A lesson, it seems, not lost on Halfon and a handful of other Tories like Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston, and Ruth Davidson.

The problem the Tories have is this route is closed to them. A quick chop and change cannot undo the sectional inertia driving the party. The election underlined their dependence on ageing voters and declining occupational sectors, and as their record has persistently antagonised pretty much all constituencies outside of this grouping, it would take something pretty drastic for the rising class of networked/socialised workers to break for the Tories in their millions. That 'something drastic' would have to be a substantive reboot as a technocratic and relatively innocuous centre right party on the model of Angela Merkel's CDU (minus the export of economic violence a la Germany's relationship with Greece). Tearing out the fangs and ripping out the claws that have made life miserable for millions of people is the only way they can detoxify and get younger, antipathetic voters to give them another look. Doing so, however, would require Tory bloodletting on a scale that would dwarf its current difficulties and those John Major had with his "bastards". Yet they either do this, or they surrender to a future playing second fiddle in Britain's electoral politics. What's it going to be?

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Journalistic Privilege and Bias





















Writing toward the end of the 1980s, the late Zygmunt Bauman tried to capture the essence of the economic, social and cultural changes grouped under the heading 'postmodernism'. For Bauman, part of the growing concern with these issues was thanks to a shift in the role of intellectuals. In the post war interregnum between the dog-eat-dog of the 1930s and its comeback at the heels of Thatcher and Reagan, their role had shifted from legislators who captained industry and steered society through the input of expertise to interpreters, a stratum who use their knowledge and skills to offer analyses and advice but whose leadership function was variously displaced by dogmatic governments, the authoritarianism of markets, and irreverence (and incredulity) on the part of the many.

Fast forward to our post-postmodern times with its rude return of class and the polarisation of politics, part of the story is a repositioning of the interpreter role. Or, to be more accurate, its erosion. The populist attack on elites coupled with the stress on the individual as the ultimate arbiter of authority has dragged the expert down further. Never mind the knowledge and experience they might possess, they're running dogs of elite interests that work against the people and can be dismissed and traduced with impunity.

We should bear this context in mind as we discuss the recent round of panicked debate about journalism and the legitimacy thereof. For example, Roy Greenslade - former number two at The Sun - lays fake news and the wide distrust of the media partially at the media's own door. He argues the press's habit of mixing comment with reportage became the model for journalism in the age of the internet and the gradual crowding out of fact by opinion. In the pages of the same paper, John Harris attacks this tendency by demarcating a line between reporter and activist. Blurring the two is dangerous for the same reasons outlined by Greenslade. Advocacy and ideology trump reporting, comment and polemic neglects holding the powerful to account. The ethic of impartiality, balance, and journalism-from-a-distance is something well worth holding on to, which cannot be managed if partisanship is explicit from the outset. And our friends Breitbart and The Canary are singled out as villains of the piece.

It's very easy to take apart these positions, particularly those offered by John, and betrays an unreflective appreciation of the exalted role occupied by journalism. Yes, really. While academics, particularly social science academics, retreated from the public sphere the journalist by and large became the de facto public intellectual. Leading politicians lived in terror of the unfavourable editorial and hacks of various stripes were promoted on political programming as favoured interpreters of current affairs. Despite the coming of fake news and the associated panics, this remains the case. Journalists by far are the most commonly featured occupational category on Question Time after politicians, they are the go to for complex issues on Newsnight, and it's books by journalists that get the heaviest promotion when it comes to state-of-the-nation diagnoses. As privileged interpreters of the scene, their slot is threatened foremost by the decoupling of political commentary from dedicated political commentators and the consequent rise of new challengers from outside. Particularly, the rise of hyper partisan sites condense their anxieties. Poorly written and semi-conspiranoid they may occasionally be, The Canary and friends nevertheless have an intuitive understanding of events and movements which, time after time, established journalists do not, cannot, and prove uninterested in understanding. They haunt many a commentator with the spectre of their future irrelevance, particularly those whose politics cluster around the dead centre while the cutting edge of social thought lies elsewhere.

None of this invalidates the points our venerable journos make in and of themselves, though the separation between analysis and partisanship is ridiculous and unsustainable. Especially when plenty of writerly outlets manage to combine both - just like this place, for example. Yet it does behoove our leading commentators to spend some time reflecting on their position, the interests they have in the preservation of a particular kind of journalism, and how this gives them a privileged and partial view of the world.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Conservative Party's Stable Instability






















The more things change the more they stay the same. As per the last few weekends the Sunday press is full of speculation about the Prime Minister's future. Briefing lies cheek by jowl with counter-briefing, reports of back bench disgruntlement is met by professions of contrived (some might say fulsome) loyalty. In this week after the worst speech ever, the factional temperature shot up to feverish levels. Grant Shapps claimed to have the names of 30 Tory MPs who wanted Theresa May to step aside, and then there was that WhatsApp group whose contents were conveniently leaked. Among the "loyalists" revealed was one Boris Johnson, though it's difficult to see anyone taking his fealty in good faith.

In latest developments, we've had John Major plunging in on his white charger. According to the Mail on Sunday, the Tories need to keep it together lest "poisonous Marxists" take control. May's critics are "entirely self-absorbed" he said, singling no one out in particular (but we all know who he means). Speaking of which, Johnson said anyone up for a leadership contest now are "nutters". You've got to give it to the foreign secretary, he certainly has a facility for language. But, oh dear, here comes Andrea Leadsom again.

As a founder of Labour for Leadsom, I cannot hide my delight to learn she's on manoeuvres. According to The Mirror, The Dread is proving a stealthy chancer and her moves have yet to be picked up by the Whip's Office. Apparently, turning up at Grenfell Tower in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy and making clear on more than one occasion that she wants it, one might suggest their radar could do with an overhaul. But the truth of the matter is the chaos in the party is such that rank outsiders, as well as the downright rank, all fancy their chances. Yet, despite everything, nothing at all has changed.

Here's the rub. Everyone knows the snap general election was a massive blunder, and at any other time such a poor result would have meant Theresa May was for the chopping block. Yet these are not ordinary times. We have a polarising electorate that isn't likely to shift much this side of Brexit. Many millions of voters are clinging to the Tories, regardless of shenanigans. Partly because Brexit is a repository of their fantasies, perceived interests and insecurities, and because the rising Labour Party and all it represents stands in for their terror of the new, only something that can obviously be spun as a betrayal of Brexit is going to shift them. The problem is the tighter the Tory grip on this bedrock of support, the greater the toxicity accumulating about their party vis a vis other constituencies. Furthermore, the Tory coalition is in long-term decline both in terms of age and the occupational categories they dip into. There is little chance of an infusion of new blood to reinvigorate the decrepit party.

Meanwhile, sitting atop this slow slope downwards are the interests the Tories represent. One of the successes of New Labour was, for a time, its breaking of a large section of British capital from the Conservatives. For their part the Tories under Dave and Osborne were only able to remake themselves as a sectional party of capital, one attuned to the finance capital that flowed through the City, as well as the most backward, least competitive and labour intensive sectors. After the referendum and the assumption of office by Theresa May, for a brief interregnum it looked like these sections were no longer dominant as her one nation programme held out the promise of a more rounded and thought-out approach to the collective interests of capital, a la Labour's 2015 manifesto. While she was strong she could manage the misgivings and point at the alternative. She could indulge the temptation to gamble high stakes on little wins, just like her predecessor. The no deal is better than a bad deal idiocies for upticks in the polls, and the snap election itself were such. Yet as soon as her authority was shattered, so the coalition of capital in her train also fragmented with Brexit at the epicentre of growing tensions. It's no accident the political question our cast of pretenders only really differ on is the future relationship with the European Union.

Unfortunately for the Tories, there is not one dominant force or set of interests among them. The sorts of interests Dave courted and championed perceived themselves to be largely independent from the EU. As we're seeing, some are getting a rude awakening. Ditto for the factions of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. Therefore we have the absurd situation of the weakest Prime Minister of my life time is being allowed to go on because the succession would be bloody, and no one really wants Number 10 right now. Except perhaps the present Leader of the Commons, and Jeremy Corbyn. Therefore the situation is unchanged. For all the gnashing of teeth and awful headlines, the alignments in the Chamber and in the country gives May space to carry on limping on, as per early this summer.

What we are seeing is the new normal for the Tories. If May stays, nothing changes. If May goes, nothing changes. The fractiousness is locked in. The instability is, ironically, the stable condition, and there isn't going to be a resolution until Britain steps out of the EU. And it's not entirely impossible the political storm that follows might blow the Tory party apart.

Friday, 6 October 2017

System F - Cry

I don't mean to plug Ferry Corsten's stuff so often. It just sort of happens.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The End of Progress, Revisited






















I see Progress have avoided the knacker's yard for at least three years. We're told "over 50 per cent of existing members have increased their contribution" and "many have joined". You can bet it's substantially less than the 20-odd thousand in Momentum, and I doubt they even touch 2,000 - otherwise Progress would be crowing its phoenix-like return from the roof tops. But still, as oblivion came knocking at the start of the summer, a sense of relief must pervade Progress towers. Even if it does mean future fringe meetings see the prosecco traded in for the lambrini.

Okay, the money is sorted for the time being. But that doesn't answer the big question: what is the point? Yes, there's the usual talk about fighting "the hard left" (i.e. frustrating the democratic aspirations of the membership) and "renewing the centre left", but here we are four months on from an election forecast to be a disaster for Labour and over two years since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader, and still they haven't hit upon an explanation of what has happened. Progress's raison d'etre, at least officially, is to keep Labour in the middle because it can only advance on the basis of appealing to the centre. And that centre meant kicking immigrants and social security recipients in the face, celebrating markets, and standing up for "aspiration" - typically defined as an extra car in the drive way. The 2017 General Election proved this was not the case and Progress, as well as the Tories, find themselves out of sorts.

It's not difficult to understand what's happening, but it does mean abandoning a view of politics as an interplay of personalities and semi-static tribes competing for attention in a market place of consumer-voters. We need to grasp politics as social relations that articulate and express a range of collective interests. Labour and the Conservatives do not exist as entities because they're populated by people with different ideas, parties are simultaneously effects and authors of class struggle representative of at times tense, at time openly antagonistic interests. Trying to make sense of politics without understanding its conditioning by these conflicts can lead to the most ridiculous muddles and hopeless confusionism. This is the zone Progress and sundry liberals inhabit. And so when economic crisis is exacerbated by politically-inspired cuts, where wealth accrues to the top, wages remain stagnant and young people are denied opportunities, sooner or later politics is going to polarise. Guess what's happening right now? A confluence of age and class is cleaving society into two broad camps. This explains why the Tory vote is holding up and why Labour is ahead, but not by a country mile.

Yet none are so blind as those who refuse to see. Despite the activation of young people in large numbers, of scooping up the sorts of seats Blairism has always coveted, and building a truly impressive coalition ranging from the zero hours worker to the secure and comfortable professional, Progress clings to a template that has zero sociological correspondence to political realities. So much for The Master's guff about the future being the "comfort zone" of "the modernisers". The middle ground as Progress understands it just doesn't exist, yet they're insulated to a degree from polarised politics by the committee room culture of Westminster, its close relationship with friendly MPs and media people, and the fact they are a small organisation with little presence on the ground. The group is little more than a clique appended to a faction of senior Labour figures, and is therefore entirely unrepresentative.

Long-time readers know I spent a while knocking around the far left. Therefore Progress reminds me a great deal of these outfits it often affects to despise. Insulated from the real world and a sense of being under siege, here we have a small number of true believers venerating some revealed truth of politics. Progress has become a sect, a group swamped by the muck of history and rapidly fossilised by it. Like Blairism, liberalism, all varieties of so-called centrism and, increasingly, Conservatism, it has set itself against a new politics of a rising class of workers and finds itself thrust aside. That doesn't mean it's about to die, but does suggest the bliss of permanent irrelevance is standing by, with Progress eagerly reaching out for the embrace. It would be a kindness to end it now.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

After the Worst Speech Ever



















The worst speech by a serving party leader in British political history? A fitting end then to the most downbeat and dreadful Tory Party conference in recent memory. Worse, I would wager, than even 1997. Then, reeling from a deserved drubbing, crumbs of comfort could be found in knowing New Labour did not offer a programme qualitatively different from theirs. Business was safe, the trade unions were cowed and Blair appeared to have won the election partly because he had stolen Tory policies. This year's gathering differed because they know in their bones the tide of history is going out for them. Socialism and, horror of horrors, communism are back and they do not understand why (clue: it's not rocket science), let alone have the means of taking them on.

Theresa May's dreadful conference speech was a perfect summation of her party. But in between the sputters and the cracking of her voice, was anything of substance said? Not really. While Brexit dominates all, rightly cursing the party and turning them all mad, May knows her Corbyn-shaped vulnerabilities are thanks to her weak domestic agenda which, as we saw last year, was considered her strongest suit. Indeed, at the height of her pomp part of her appeal derived from offering something that differed from the usual Tory dog-eat-dog. How times change. She needs to desperately get back on to this ground if she's to stop Labour's tanks from rolling in, and so her big announcements were the energy price freeze (Marxism gets everywhere these days), an extra £2bn for "affordable homes" and build more council houses. There was guff too about "the British dream", May's attempt at grabbing some of the hope gloss for her punch drunk premiership. And that was it. Never has a Prime Minister been exposed to this an excruciating humiliation in service of so little.

The question then is now what? As much as May wants to be remembered for something other than throwing away an election and buggering up Brexit, her domestic efforts are going to get overshadowed by enemies within and without. Even trying to get the talks back on track finds herself overshadowed by the latest round of Boris Johnson's treachery. As his window of opportunity closes further with every passing day, he's almost daring the Prime Minister to sack him.

Quite apart from the wider political and structural problems the Tories face, surely something has to give before long. A government this incompetent and this disloyal ordinarily would not be able to hold together. Alas, these are not ordinary times. They will cling on because the Tories fear Labour more than any government led by one of our unedifying wannabes, regardless of the damage done to themselves and the country. We can then expect this farce to drag on and on and on.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Neoliberalism and the Battle of Ideas


















If you want to see the problems of the Tory party encapsulated, watch Boris Johnson's conference speech. For the first and perhaps the only time, the faithful turned out in large numbers to listen to the man who would be king expend a great deal of words saying nothing in particular. But there is one thing our fatuous foreign secretary did touch on, which marked "Call me" Philip Hammond's speech yesterday, has cast a shadow over the depleted fringes and will haunt Theresa May's tomorrow, and that is the idea of loss. It's not just the election, it's the yawning realisation that insurgent Corbynism has not only brought left Labourism back to the fore, but there lurking in the background is the spectre of communism. What is worse, its rude return in the Russian Revolution's centennial year eschews tankie patina for the promise of a better future. It's a communism entirely in tune with the zeitgeist. Fully automated luxury communism is more than a semi-jokey meme, it's where the cutting edge of leftist thought is at and its elaboration is drawing in many thousands of radicalised brains.

Small wonder the Tories are nervous. As Hammond observed, debates they thought were settled in the 1980s are coming back. At an opening address away from the conference hall, the PM said it was necessary to make the case for free market capitalism all over again. Johnson went there too, and sundry commentators, including our intellectually-challenged friends at CapX, are panicking and turning out (what they think are) hit pieces demonstrating the superiority of neoliberal capitalism to its statist/social democratic variants and, naturally, North Korea. I'm certainly all for a clash of ideas, and if the thin gruel doled out by Tory politicians and ideologues seen thus far is the best they can do then they stand no hope of stymieing the intellectual advance of leftist ideas.

There is another thing hampering them as well. The Tories didn't win the battle of ideas in the 1980s by the force of argument, they secured their temporary victory on the basis of, well, force. Social democratic and socialist ideas weren't debated into a deep sleep, they were bludgeoned into a coma by mounted police at Orgreave and batons at Wapping. The defeat of the two pivotal labour movement struggles of that decade sapped the militancy and belief of hundreds of thousands of workers, some of which carried the pall of defeat with them as they ascended the trade union ranks. This helps explain the "new unionism" of the 1990s and after with its emphasis on service provision and partnership with the bosses. The trauma of loss demobilised masses of people and, unsurprisingly, the Labour Party reflected this with a collapse in confidence of the left and the rise of New Labour. Internationally, the demise of the Soviet Union and its client regimes cemented the triumph of bourgeois ideas. When Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history in, well, The End of History, as the contest between neoliberal capitalism and its adversaries went it didn't present as an entirely ludicrous argument.

The battle of ideas wasn't just about force. Thatcher, Reagan and co. exorcised the bourgeois imagination of its phantoms because, at least, enough people were doing well. While the miners suffered and were starved back to the pit heads, plenty of folks got along quite nicely. With the NUM broken, Thatcher could get on with privatising the utilities and letting council tenants buy their homes on the cheap. The result was the creation of a layer of working class people with a modest property holding and perhaps a few British Gas shares which, the Tories hoped, would be enough to nudge them towards voting Conservative. At the same time, credit exploded as real wages modestly rose and modestly fell, which lowered the bar of entry into the rapidly diversifying consumer markets. Meanwhile, the introduction of markets into public services and the fiddling with education policy started positioning service users as self-activating consumers and pupils and students as young Thatcherites who would, and could only get on by their own individual efforts. This was the marrying up of individualism with the entrepreneurial self, of the inculcation of neoliberal subjectivity against the backdrop of rising affluence powered by privatisation and debt.

As many people have observed of late, the problem with Thatcherism is you eventually run out of things to privatise. Free market ideas became the ruling orthodoxy because it appeared to work. If your argument is that capitalism minus regulation, a decent sized public sector and powerful trade unions leads to generalised prosperity, then it had better deliver otherwise people are going to get sceptical of such claims. And this is where we are now. Corbynism is popular and opening the gate to a certain pair of German gentlemen because capitalism isn't delivering for enough. As Chris has recently noted, the right are going out of their way to prove the Marxist contention that capitalism cannot be fundamentally reformed. Even tweaking capitalism so young people can look forward, as David Willets puts it, "to own a place of their own, to have a decent funded pension and to have a reasonably secure job that's well paid" is entirely off the agenda. Instead all the government can offer is a £10bn boost to help to buy, which does nothing to address housing supply and does everything to force prices upwards, and freeze tuition fees after whacking them up to £9,250.

The problem the Tories now have is they are having to fight the ideas wars again without cops, without baubles and bribes, and against the backdrop of an obviously broken system seemingly incapable of offering a better future. It's a fight taking place on a more or less equal footing, and that is why they're terrified.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Who was Stephen Paddock?



















The worst mass shooting in US history, breaking a grisly record set just over a year ago. With depressing regularity some murderous arsehole turns his guns - and it is almost always men - on defenceless people and makes a pathetic name for themselves. Today Stephen Paddock, an otherwise unprepossessing Nevada native from a retirement village outside of Las Vegas has that infamy, though typical of all mass murdering gunmen he took his life before the police reached him.

We don't know a great deal about Paddock or his motivations. We don't know why he chose to kit out a hotel room at the Mandalay Bay with heavy duty weaponry, or the twisted narrative he concocted to justify these murders to himself. Sadly, because these things are far from uncommon, we almost do not have to. There is some suggestion of psychological problems, "weird behaviour" and large gambling transactions, but none of these in themselves are remarkable. Perhaps the gambling got out of control and Paddock snapped, but nothing about the crime suggests anything other than cool-headed premeditation. Assembling an arsenal with the appropriate range and selecting the right room overseeing the concert required methodical planning.

As we have seen in previous shootings of this character, an abiding motif is the gunman imposing themselves on the world. Where a situation has got out of control, a murder spree is the most extreme way of stamping individual authority, of forcing everyone not only to sit up and take notice but respond to a situation of their making. Typically if certain people or groups of people are held responsible for the situation the gunman finds themselves in, they are usually targeted. If it's impersonal forces then the victims are usually people unfortunate enough to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Yet there is something slightly unusual about Paddock's crime. Typically mass murderers, whether non-political or of the white supremacist/IS kind, are there among their victims, as if the proximity to murder inflames them further and gives them the last minute rush of supremacy before either the police close in or they assert final control by turning the gun on themselves. Paddock, however, kept at a distance, as if his mind could only cope when his victims were reduced to small stick people in the street light. The screams, the terror, the blood, all this was at a remove, almost a concession to recognising the enormity of what he was doing. He wanted to do it but, unlike other mass killers, didn't want to be part of it. Yet this distance enabled him to inflict more suffering and take more lives. As military thinkers know well, separation makes killing easier.

Sad to say, we know this is not going to be the last time. Everyone knows this is going to happen again, that there are many more Stephen Paddocks. Yes, the stupid gun laws leave a lot to be desired and do nothing to stop an inadequate with a grudge from going out in an inglorious blaze of murder should they choose. But there are wider questions here of dog-eat-dog individuality, alienation, toxic masculinity, and a culture that glorifies redemptive violence. This is what Paddock was, a repository and an embodiment of all this shit. And as the roots of American mass killing lie close to inner city gun crime, military worship and the imagined hatreds, it's going to take more then pious sermonising and gun control to prevent similar tragedies from happening again, and again, and again.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

What I've Been Reading Recently

















Moar books from the last quarter.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The Bell by Iris Murdoch
Multitude by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
Woman's World by Graham Rawle
Commonwealth by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake
Blindsight by Peter Watts
Marx and Foucault by Antonio Negri
Echopraxia by Peter Watts
Liquid Fear by Zygmunt Bauman
Across the River and into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway
After the Quake by Haruki Murakami
Retrotopia by Zygmunt Bauman
Odyssey by Jack McDevitt
Cauldron by Jack McDevitt
Feeding Frenzy by Will Self
Toward a Feminist Theory of the State by Catharine A MacKinnon
Anti-Porn by Julia Long
Zone One by Coulson Whitehead
Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

I started the summer with a monster and finished it in good time, by golly. How many people can say that? In truth, War and Peace is one of the finest novels ever written. Try and forget the size of the bloody thing and just enjoy it. The other stand outs from these three months, apart from Hardt and Negri as per loads of posts, were the MacKinnon and Long books. They offered a more nuance and sophisticated argument for radical feminism than I was expecting, proving yet again you should read what people say themselves instead of relying on second and third hand accounts. I also enjoyed the Will Self, and even had a bad try at imitating his style. Disappointing was Bauman's Retrotopia for stating the obvious in a convoluted and pretty slippery style, and weirdly the famous Gender Trouble, probably because I found it much thinner than expected.

That's the lot until after Christmas. What have you been reading recently?

Five Most Popular Posts in September

























The five most read posts this last month were ...

1. Happy Birthday Marx's Capital
2. No More Heroes
3. Jeremy Corbyn and the New Mainstream
4. Theresa May's Delusions
5. Labour's Bankrupt Brexit Rebels

Good old Marx cleaned up this last month on the blog, so that makes a nice change from the usual Labour Party fare. Unfortunately, what has been less welcoming was a collapse in the readership. Towards the end of last month page views suddenly and without warning dropped off a cliff, and have stayed there. From grazing the 200,000 mark in August to just over 87,000 in September - my lowest figure since last November - something must have happened. And it did. Three things entirely out of my hands are responsible.

There are the changes to Google search that have affected a number of leftist websites. Alternet, for example, reported a 40% loss of its audience between June and today. The World Socialist Website reports the same. Quite why this blog dodged the bullet until late September isn't known to me, but it has hit now. Google referrals are massively down.

We also have to talk about Facebook again. In July, Facebook changed the way auto sharing is done - Mike over at Vox Political has more. Again, for whatever reason it was late September that referrals from Facebook dramatically fell. It could partly be down to the changes to auto sharing, but I've also noticed the groups my Facebook account are subscribed to show much less frequently in my timeline than was the case previously. The result is nothing good for all leftist sites that use the networks enabled by Facebook to disseminate their content.

And speaking of sharing, serving up the pièce de résistance has been a couple of bans on my account from sharing things with Facebook groups. In what looks like an unannounced anti-spam campaign, yet again Facebook are clamping down on the networks that their business depends on.

Google and Facebook are panicked by the accusations of fake news spread via their platforms and know the law is increasingly minded to penalise them for carrying objectionable content. By developing new algorithms and instructing human operators to privilege "trusted" news sources, they are capitulating to the authoritarian impulse to clamp down on fakery (which always includes news and ideas not congenial to the powers that be) and, in the long run, undermining their business models. To use a little supply and demand theory, Google and Facebook's throwing up of obstacles mean, in time, people will simply go around them and find new ways to access the material they want to read.

Therefore next month I would not be surprised if viewing figures dip even lower, and though it is disheartening, especially taking the rip-roaring numbers over the summer, the blog is staying put.