Sunday, 14 October 2018

David Davis's Brexit Fantasy

Sad times for Theresa May. At the height of her powers in the summer of two years ago, she must have known that Brexit was going to be tricky. But with Labour nowhere in the polls and would-be leadership rivals in total disarray, she must have thought this was all that she had to worry about and there was a chance for building a legacy that went beyond leaving the European Union. The one nation stuff, for instance. That's not how the Conservative cookie has crumbled. This weekend there's a possibility of defeat over fixed-odds betting terminals, growing calls to do something about the poverty causing horror show of Universal Credit, more rumours of ministerial resignations over May's current Brexit positioning, indications May's DUP partners preparing for a no deal Brexit, and David Davis calling for the cabinet to move into open revolt.

The self-styled "bastard" doubles down on his criticisms of May's Chequers deal, arguing that May's indefinite backstop plan to keep the UK in the customs union with the EU until the Irish border issue is sorted is unacceptable. To be fair to Davis and his ERG comrades, the issue isn't insurmountable. As they argued at their recent press conference, you don't need a hard border or an invisible barrier in the Irish Sea. It would however mean extending existing arrangements where goods not currently subject to EU-wide rules are logged and dealt with by, effectively, a custom border in the cloud. However, where the sensible shades into the completely batshit is an assumption this can be put into place overnight. As well as the small matter of cross border traffic. It has escaped Davis's notice that there are people who commute into the Republic for work from the North, and into the North from the Republic, as well as cross border travelling of friends and relatives visits, shopping trips and nights out, and other leisure activities. Hence, for once, Theresa May is being sensible in ensuring something approaching the status quo is preserved for as long as it takes to settle the issue of the Irish border.

Why, as far as Davis is concerned, is May's position "unacceptable"? Part of Davis's beef is the backstop deal that was negotiated between the EU and UK late last year, which ensured Ireland would become what Davis and the bampot Brexiteers dub a stumbling block. I don't know, I'd have thought getting arrangements right at the one land border the UK shares with an EU state and where economic and social integration between it and Northern Ireland is much closer than any other mainland region should be a priority. And, also, I know a week is a long time in politics let alone 10 months but who, pray tell, was the Brexit minister at the time this settlement was negotiated? Why, it just so happened to be one David Davis.

Davis argues that May's preference for an indefinite holding position is bad for two reasons. It prevents Britain from signing free trade deals outside the EU, and could lead us staying in the EU's orbit by hook and by crook for ever. Well Mr Davis, I hate to break it to you but the fact the UK is an integral part of the economy of north western Europe - itself the horse power of the EU engine - and that the bulk of the country's trade is done with the huge economy right on Britain's doorstep, the idea we can pull away from the EU as if it doesn't exist is fanciful bobbins. No matter what you say, decisions made in Brussels will have consequences for UK trade from this point on without the UK having any input into them. You can pretend deals to import chlorinated chicken from the United States, or signing the UK up to the Trans Pacific Partnership is going to compensate for this, but it won't. A look at the map of the world will tell you why. Second, trade deals aren't a magic bullet. If, say, the UK outside of the EU strikes a trade deal with China, that doesn't put it at a competitive advantage when already it lags far behind German exports there, despite them doing so from within the EU. Though it might mean the Tories get to hand over more crucial infrastructure (and taxpayers' cash) to Beijing. Further, despite the flattering self-image of Britain as a great trading nation its productivity is poor, and has long imported more than what it sells to the world. That is not the fault of the European Union but of successive governments, Tory and Labour, refusing to address the country's long-term structural problems. This was beginning to dawn on Gordon Brown's beleaguered administration when the credit crunch hit, and it forever damns the Tories that they have exacerbated these weaknesses further. And that's before even mentioning Brexit. A trade deal with South Korea, for example, is not going to alter this in any way - not least because the first tranche of deals will merely replicate the kind of market access the UK already enjoys through its EU membership with third coutnries.

We're going to hear a lot more of this during the course of this month. It says everything about Davis, the Moggites, Boris Johnson, the wavering ministers and the DUP that they can make announcements on Brexit and make Theresa May look like the sensible, level headed one. More proof of the terminal sickness afflicting the Tory party, but one whose symptoms could easily drag the rest of us down with it.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

A Defence of BBC Question Time

The BBC is biased toward establishment politics. As Tom Mills points out in his excellent BBC Myth of a Public Service, it has always protected establishment interests and is now a thoroughly neoliberal institution to boot. That doesn't mean, however, the political leanings and assumptions underpinning the culture of BBC journalism are on show at all times. Part of the corporation's professional ethos is a standard of impartiality and balance, and while it often falls short I've met enough BBC journalists to know this is taken seriously by thousands of its employees. For those of us interested in reforming and remaking the BBC along more democratic lines, critique of the BBC has to be tempered by efforts at winning over those who work there as well as the millions who think public service broadcasting is, in principle, something worth defending.

Therefore something like the table above is unhelpful as well as being a load of rubbish. As someone who has more of a familiarity with Question Time than most (scholarly papers on the demographics and political balance of the show coming soon), as an attempt to portray bias on the programme this is almost as crude as over enthusiastic Labour people moaning about the odd Tory councillor who turns up in the audience as evidence of plants. For folks' information, Tories on social media act in exactly the same way when they turn up a Labour activist in the assembled. It's pretty clear what the author of this chart and those who have shared it are trying to do something similar: that because all MEP guests since 2013 have been anti-EU, Question Time is obviously biased.

Um, no. There are definitely biases in the composition of the show's guests. The progressive and almost total erasure of trade unionists while business's representation is undiminished is a particular bugbear of mine. Women continue to be underrepresented (with only one season, 1995-96 if memory serves, in which they provide more than 50% of total appearances), and not all regions are catered for equally as the show travels around the UK. However, Mentorn - the show's producers - do at least make an effort. The two main parties are more or less equally served when it comes to representation going back to the 1979-80 season, and the LibDems and its forerunners also got an appearance quota roughly consistent with seats/polling. Since their collapse at the 2015 general election and the SNP becoming the third party of British politics, their appearances have increased roughly in line with their parliamentary prominence. In earlier times, other parties like the Greens, Respect, the BNP, and way, way back the old official Communist Party have all contributed guests. Some of them were MEPs, others councillors, and not a few had no elected position at all. The Green Party's Natalie Bennett was no stranger to the panel, for instance, despite her not holding elected office.

And this brings me to UKIP. You might argue they were overexposed, though the producers would counter they have received coverage proportional to the size of their support. And that appears true enough. Yes, that even includes the 29 times Nigel Farage has appeared since his debut 18 years ago. However, what is clear is all those UKIP MEPs featured on the show were there as party representatives, there status as MEPs were not the primary criteria. And we know this because Douglas Carswell also went on as UKIP's rep after he became their (then single) MP. Neil Hamilton has gone on as a member of the Welsh Assembly. Cllr Lisa Duffy represented the party during their leadership contest in October 2016, and last but not least we had the lamentable Henry Bolton. Again, whatever the rights and wrongs of their being given a platform, Question Time applied the same proportional(ish) formula to them as a small party on the rise as they have done with other minor parties.

Of course, what makes the claim of anti-EU bias even more foolish is the no shortage of pro-EU voices. Despite being backbenchers, Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry are regulars, as are other MPs who advocated a remain vote, as well as other guests - like Alastair Campbell - who are not reconciled to the Brexit vote.

As a measure of bias, this table is junk. It's a piss poor attempt to kick up a stink where none exists. Perhaps the guest range should be broadened to include more politicians from outside of Westminster, including those in local government who do not have a national profile as per Andy Burnham, but this is not the point our meme mongers are trying to make. Question Time accepts whoever the parties put up to represent them. It hasn't and doesn't care whether they're MPs, MEPs, councillors or whatever, it's the label that matters - as the show's records attest.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Ten Points about Brazilian Politics

Some quick thoughts about what's happening in Brazil.

1. Polling 46% is extremely rare for a hard right populist outfit, and tends to be the exception rather than the rule. Not even the Nazis managed this feat in their crooked March 1933 election. The question then is whether support for this kind of politics is about to enter a new dangerous phase, or is something proper to Brazil that doesn't travel beyond its borders.

2. The Brazilian economy has had a trying time. Like most major countries Brazil took a hit over the course of the crash but it bounded back very strongly. GDP was in negative territory only for the last three quarters of 2009 and by the second quarter of 2010 it already managed to climb above its pre-crisis peak. However, in 2014 economic activity collapsed and unemployment doubled from just under seven per cent to just shy of 13% by 2017. While the recession was sharp, growth - albeit more anaemic - has resumed and unemployment is falling more slowly.

3. The Brazilian economy's rapid expansion in the 00s was not of the same order as India and China's, despite often being bracketed with them. At an average GDP growth rate of 3.3%, it compares favourably with the decades immediately before and after, but is feeble vis Brazil's own post-war boom that saw average growth rates in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s of 7%, 6% and 9% respectively. Nevertheless, there was a real erosion of poverty with the incomes of the poorest increasing at a rate faster than the rest of the population.

4. This latter period of growth was overseen by the Workers' Party, which grew up in opposition to Brazil's military dictatorship. Unfortunately, like social democratic and official socialist parties elsewhere its economic programme was thoroughly neoliberal. Free capital flows, operational independence of the central bank, and prudent public expenditure. Where have we heard this story before? Accompanying the first term in office was public sector pension reform and putting up indirect taxes, hitting modest incomes the hardest. However, like Britain deepening the neoliberal infrastructure went along with some investment in public services and social security. In the PT's second period office we saw a lurch to a more hands-on industrial strategy with funds put into state-led programmes of housing, road and rail building, port expansion and electrification while, again, leaving markets supreme. This, if you like, was Brazil's 'Milibandist' phase. Then, latterly, with the third term and as recession started biting there was a retrenchment of neoliberalism - profit taking brought deindustrialisation, and state-led development was curtailed.

5. The 2014 crisis destroyed the PT's reputation for economic competence. But it was more than just the fact of crisis itself. Like all the other recent disastrous experiences social democratic and labour parties have had in presiding over the neoliberalisation of their economies, such as France's Socialists and The Netherlands, the pursuit of market fundamentalist policies always results in the same: the political immiseration of the constituent base of workers' parties. In the PT's case, what was a movement of opposition became part of the apparatus of governance. The anti-establishment became the new establishment, and the PT actively worked to demobilise its support as financialisation and privatisation did the rest. Unfortunately, like the old establishment too many sections of the PT became inured to the perks of position, which in Brazil means egregious corruption. A case of looking from pig to man, and from man to pig ...

6. Never let a good crisis go to waste, and since the PT's Dilma Rousseff was turned out of office in the 'constitutional' coup in 2016, the presidency was taken up by Michel Temer of the Brazilian Democratic Movement. Policy-wise it was the same old same old - cut public spending, curb workers' rights, attack pensions, and go on a privatisation spree of the infrastructure built up during the PT government.

7. According to our old muckers Deleuze and Guattari, capitalism is characterised by smooth and striated spaces. What this means is, in the first instance, social flows are unfixed, rapid, disembedded, decoded. In the second social relationships are pinned down, structured, manipulated, repressed. To simplify them, corresponding to the former are the dynamic movements of the economy, the latter the stabilisation of class relationships by the state. The move from neoliberalism to developmental neoliberalism and back again are simultaneously shifts in the politics of class management. Economic growth followed by an industrial strategy sucked in more labour, subjecting them to the striated space of the work place. But downturn and "freeing" the economy evacuated millions of people from employment and subjected them to the smooth space of dislocation: the radical uncertainty of joblessness and a collapse in incomes.

8. The relative absence of the solidarities the PT grew up out of, the association of the PT with corruption and economic incompetence, and their consequent implosion in the first round of the presidential elections leaves the scene convulsed by crisis but without a credible pro-worker alternative capable of filling the void.

9. Any political conjuncture marked by uncertainty begets a yearning for fixity, a striated space of ontological security and knowing one's place. And all too often it assumes authoritarian forms - as we've seen enough in Europe. Jair Bolsonaro is little different from the demagogues that have rode to popular attention elsewhere. His programme - reasserting fragile masculinity in face of the growing political strength of women, attacking gay people and non-straight sexualities, attacking ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, singing the praises of the old junta, threatening bloody violence - appeal to petit bourgeois people, the millions lumpenised by recession, the posh constituencies who found the PT's "inclusivity" too much to bear, the land owners worried the PT could always come for their property, and significant sections of the bourgeoisie whose interests are bound up with seeing neoliberalism through. Here we have a toxic coalition of the usual material who comprise fascist formations, exacerbated by social dislocation and significant numbers of bourgeois party voters (centrist and conservative) falling in behind Bolsonaro as an anyone-but-the-PT candidate and a promise to "restore order". Even if that order means curtailments of democracy and a return of state-sanctioned torture.

10. Brazil is the eye of a perfect storm for a far right breakthrough. The sorts of difficulties contributing to Bolsonaro's rise are not unique to Brazil, but how they have fallen together are. We've seen centre left collapses in Europe but these have mostly been well after the crisis point of the economic crash. In Brazil, growth might be back but unemployment is still incredibly large - a particularly fortuitous moment for an ambitious rabble rouser like Bolsonaro. But what Brazil has that we haven't seen elsewhere, except in the US and Hungary, is a collapsing of traditional bourgeois politics into the far right train. Despite serving their interests faithfully in 13 years of government, significant sections of business - an alliance of mostly landed interests and those tied up with finance and the internationalisation of capital - would rather see a violent and threatening authoritarian in power than the mildest of social democratic governments. That underlines the political bankruptcy of the Brazilian ruing class, but comes as a warning to the rest of us. If they can, the rich and powerful elites of Western nations could more than live with such a political settlement.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Support Politics Theory Other

New left media consistently offers a higher standard of analysis and better arguments than you can expect from the mainstream. But it is expensive. Good comment costs good money. My favourite podcast is Politics Theory Other by Alex Doherty. Not only does his Twitter feed require a quick bump to push him over a thousand followers, his work needs financial support.

Since setting up shop in April Alex has explored hot button topics with a number of left activists and thinkers. These include Adam Tooze on the economic crash, Sophie Lewis on TERFism, Jeremy Gilbert on Lazarrato and immaterial labour, and Wendy Liu on Silicon Valley. He's even had some Phil BC bloke on talking about the Tories. Politics Theory Other has proven to be essential listening because of the way complex issues are discussed and broken down. It certainly contributes toward clearing the theory gap we have on the left.

However, to carry on Politics Theory Other needs putting on sounder financial footing. At the moment it's all done in Alex's spare time. With a liveable income from the podcast more can be done and his valuable work will continue into the future. The patron total isn't far off goal, so please become one here for as little as a quid a month on Patreon, as well as support Politics Theory Other via the usual social media.

Giving Politics Theory Other your money is certainly a better bet than dabbling in what you can find described below.

New Left Blogs August/October 2018

Here's a rare occasion. Less than two months since the previous round-up and enough new left blogs have appeared on the horizon. As this is the first Sunday of the month let's do this.

1. Double Down News (Unaligned) (Twitter)

2. Philosophy of Education (Unaligned) (Twitter)

3. Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right (Unaligned/anti-fascist) (Twitter)

4. Reknr (Unaligned) (Twitter)

5. Socialist View (Socialist View)

6. The Left Bible (Unaligned) (Twitter)

If you know of any new(ish) blogs that haven't featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email, Facebook, or Twitter. Please note I'm looking for blogs that have started within the last 12 months or thereabouts. The new blog round up appears when I have enough new blogs to justify a post!

Theresa May's Pitch to Labour MPs

Theresa May thinks Labour voters should instead vote for the Tories. In our time of recurrent political shockers, can you recall a more unexpected revelation? Writing for The Observer, of which more shortly, May channels her maiden speech and riffs off those one nation Tory chords almost as if she hadn't presided over soaring homelessness, food bank use, and the deporting of British people who've lived here for decades.

Continuing one of the themes of her conference speech, she wanted to drive a wedge between what she has started dubbing the 'Jeremy Corbyn party' and 'decent' Labour supporters whose politics are firmly aligned with the mainstream. Leaving aside the obvious point that political convergence between the Tories and Labour were key contributors to the rise of UKIP and Corbynism in the first place, May asserts that hers is a patriotic and moderate party that offers proper, reasonable answers to the questions Corbynism raises. And what are these? A good Brexit deal, more NHS cash, driving up school standards and an economy that "works for everyone". May repeats this nonsense with such regularity that she clearly doesn't bother reading her briefing papers properly.

But ... there is a but. She recognises that her economy for everyone doesn't, um, work for everyone. To make sure it does we're seeing an energy price cap, a policy the Tories previously attacked as "Marxism" and up there with the storming of the Winter Palace. The Tories are going to build more houses, and allowing councils room to borrow to build council homes too. There are also whispers this morning of introducing a help-to-buy scheme which would incentivise private landlords to sell off houses to their (long-term) tenants. I wonder how many Tory MPs are going to avail themselves of what will be a taxpayer subsidy for flogging off their property portfolio? On the cost of living there's her fuel duty freeze and, um, redubbing the minimum wage the 'national living wage'. She also promises more money for public services after Brexit (news to Hammond). And last of all she has an industrial strategy, it's "stepping up to its proper strategic role in the economy". That's all very well, but what is this plan? Where is it?

I don't think May's article is about to win over many Labour voters. Not only that, it's not about winning over Labour voters. The audience for this piece are the people sitting behind Jeremy Corbyn on the opposition benches - the Corbyn-sceptic Labour MPs. As reported in the Graun on Friday, the Tories are on a charm offensive. To get their Brexit deal through the Commons, and it's looking like it will probably be a softer version of May's Chequers compromise, the government needs to win over a clutch of Labour MPs. She has clearly realised, at long last, that by annexing some disgruntleds on the benches opposite she can afford to thumb her nose at the hard Brexiteers. Therefore the purpose of embellishing her one nation creds, indeed her whole conference speech was framed with this objective in mind.

And lastly, a point on The Observer itself. Some people have expressed surprise that they, effectively the liberal-left paper of record, have afforded the PM space. You wouldn't expect The Mail or The Telegraph to allow a pitch for similar from the Labour leader or John McDonnell. Given the Graun's own survey of its readership, the majority of whom are supporters of Labour under Jeremy, this seems like commercial suicide at a time when hard copy readers are sliding and t'internet page views yield negligible income. The truth of the matter is as the liberal wing of the establishment, its editorial office (and not a few senior journalists) is hostile to Corbynism and, by hook and by crook, what to stay in the EU. For them, securing May's tack to a soft Brexit and the continued decline of the Observer/Graun are the lesser evil to a politics that challenge threatens establishment interests, whether liberal or conservative.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Three Conservative Futures

In his fun safari of the exotic and befuddled fauna at Conservative Party conference, Owen Jones argued this was a gathering devoid of ideas and lacking all purpose. Yet among the despondency, he warned against Labour complacency. As the most successful liberal democratic party in the Western world, it would be high folly to simply write them off. And he's right. But also, a proven track record of reinvention doesn't automatically mean the Tories can do it again. Just as there is nothing inevitable about the ends of socialism, there is no mechanism cranking out Tory wins. Every Conservative government is a struggle for them, an accomplishment for them. Their ability to win elections and drive through their programmes requires effort, but effort that in some way chimes with the balance of forces in wider society. Conservative victory does not grow on trees.

The problem the Tories have now is they're completely clapped out after 40 years of Thatcherism. The cohesiveness of their class has broken down and parts of the Tory party have become disarticulated from business interests, both in general and in particular. The programmes beloved of their leading figures, including Theresa May, are slave to the short-termism of the Daily Mail or Telegraph editorial, and the mass base of active Toryism in the country is a memory. This lack of social ballast, its dispersal is the ultimate dynamic behind their continuing division and factionalising. When would-be leadership contenders are too numerous to count you've got to wonder how it could ever possibly cohere as a disciplined force ever again. The situation is bad, and is certainly the most severe crisis for their party in our life times.

Yet on the surface their electoral coalition isn't looking too bad. Polling regularly gives them around 40%, 2017 saw their highest vote numbers since the 1980s glory days, and May still does better than Jeremy Corbyn as 'best PM' in most polls. But examine things a bit closer and there are severe difficulties. The voter coalition the Tories have got are mostly older, and where they are in work they tend to be clustered in occupations in decline. Plus ca change you might say. Such voters may have a greater propensity of becoming permanent non-voters than younger cohorts, but they're being replaced by other generations as they die. The problem here is the conservatising effects of age are breaking down. Tories past have depended on the acquisition of property and capital, or at the very least the feeling people are getting better off as they make their way through life. Not any more. The housing shortage and ridiculous prices. Stagnant living standards. No ability to save for a home, let alone for a pension. And, even worse, the Tories have gone out of their way to put the screws on working people and be seen doing it.

The Tories then are in deep trouble, and no lick of Dave-tinted socially liberal pain will save them this time. True, they could still win the next election. Their coalition currently constituted is big enough to win a numbers/turnout game, but winning just enough can only get harder as the years go by. And after Brexit, how many of their current voters are going to stick around? We have to ask the question then: whither the Conservative Party? What possible futures are they facing, whether they remain in or crash out of government? For my money, there are three.

1. Splits and self-destruction. Wouldn't it be a beautiful thing to see the Tory party splinter? You know, a small party of pro-EU luvvies and Cameroons over there with a dozen or so MPs, and a thin layer of youngish liberal centre right activists. Then there are the Moggites with their Haribo mix of europhobes, Colonel Blimps, and drawing room reactionaries - bolstered by a rag tag of former UKIP foot soldiers. One might spot a Boris Johnson party, as well as a myriad number of petty fiefdoms organised around the non-personality of a former cabinet member, and a rump continuity Tory party. Yes, it's a thing of dreams, and one not entirely implausible given the centrifugal forces tearing at them and the recent proven record of UKIP as a relatively viable alternative to the Tories' right.

2. Stagnation. That is the malaise afflicting them now continues indefinitely. Their electoral coalition does not rejuvenate itself, the forces it does still represent continue to block the adoption of policies that can intersect with the rising generation of voters, and its leading figures remain locked into the mental horizon nudge-nudge racist populism and of market fundamentalism. The splits, the infighting, the lack of cohesion is held together only by the party label which, most (rightly) reason, is the only reason why they get elected. But no matter what they say and regardless of how they try and gerrymander constituency boundaries, dwindling voters means dwindling numbers of MPs. An ignoble decline into angry and frustrated impotence, it couldn't happen to a nicer party.

3. Rejuvenation. They've done it before, can they do it again? The task the Tories have is to stop austerity, sort out housing, dump the dog whistle racism and be thoroughly socially liberal, and offer an economic plan that breaks decisively with the last 40 years. Rather than red in tooth and claw they have to tack toward the centre to reverse their long-term decline. Instead of the openly classist combat party of the rich, a sustainable long-term future of success would mean taking a leaf from Angela Merkel's book - a party that appears moderate, sensible, one nation-y and anything but reckless. They have potential figureheads who could fill these boots - Ruth Davidson is obvious. Heidi Allen, Tom Tugenhadt, Sarah Wollaston and, at a push, Rory Stewart - but these are peripheral to the main factionalising action at present. The problem of a centrist rejuvenation, however, isn't just a matter of dumping old policy and going for something new. It's structural. Within the Tory party itself, a real centrist makeover means taking on your Johnsons, your Goves, your Rees-Moggs, the Association chairs, significant sections of the dwindling membership, the press, and so on. Dave's sop to liberal Toryism was characteristically superficial, but that caused him enough ructions and contributed to the rise of UKIP. Presently there isn't a wide enough base in the Tory party to see this degenerate and decadent gang off. The second difficulty is taking up these issues cuts against vested interests who've stuck with the Tories. Build more houses? House prices fall. More rights for tenants? Landlord won't like that. Greater certainty in the workplace? Bosses scream blue murder. More economic planning and infrastructure investment? Fewer gambling opportunities for the money men. And so on. In other words, to succeed the Tories need to change but there are significant and, at present, insurmountable difficulties in the party and in its voter coalition preventing them from doing this.

Reading the runes, as neither fragmentation nor rejuvenation is on the cards stagnation is where the smart money's going to be. Fittingly, the Conservatives of conserving their own crisis and are left to hope something will come along. But as the balance of forces tilts against them with every passing day, waiting is going to exacerbate their weakness and making the necessary course correction that much harder to execute. Long may the dithering continue.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Jai Wolf feat. Mr Gabriel - Starlight

Unexpectedly no time for writing tonight, but I can make some for choons.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Juxtaposed with Blue

Funky philosophers of social complexity, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari wrote a great deal on the schizoid character of contemporary(ish) capitalism. By this they meant the brazen and stark manifestation of jarring juxtapositions. Consider the declining salience of sexism and racism developing alongside the recrudescence of toxic masculinities and the growing number of hate incidents, for example. Or the US Christian fundamentalist right finding their saviour in a womanising, crooked perma-tanned Antichrist. I can go on. These fusions of opposites circulate and slosh around, conveying their neurosis, absurdity, and violence to every corner of the body politic. The figure Theresa May cut on stage today, or dare I say grooved, is a case in point.

Readers might recall the glory days of her tenure in Number 10. The triumphalism, if not Maynia with which her rise to the top were greeted by the bourgeois press. Out went Flashman and, instead, we had a woman of substance. Enter stage right juxtaposition number one. Her vaunted seriousness positioned her Gordon Brown to Dave's Tony Blair. In the three phases of May's premiership - the pomp phase, the election catastrophe, and the bother with Brexit - has,contrary to expectation, shown her thinness. Her blighted career at the top a matter of the rapidity with which May took to vapidity. Today's speech, widely previewed as the most important of her career, was more of the same. Substance? There was none. There were the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, the appeal to the "decent people" who sat behind his front bench, and - gasp - the recognition he is addressing real concerns. To which May re-announced the traditional freeze on fuel duty, some more resources for cancer treatment, lifting borrowing caps on councils to build more houses and a vague promise to end austerity at some point. Someone tell the chancellor. Watery gruel indeed.

Juxtaposition two. Immediately after spending an hour saying nothing, the press pack were right in there in among the assembled faithful. And all they could find were enthusiastic things effusive with their praise, even if some had to read out their spontaneous reaction. Yet this happy clappy picture for the cameras sharply contrasted with events outside the conference centre. Events like James Duddridge (who?) putting his no-confidence letter into the 1922 Committee an hour before the big speech, or the Daily Telegraph running with demands for May's resignation date from members of her cabinet. On top of yesterday's shit show with Boris Johnson, and the generalised and wearisome permanent instability, just who are they trying to kid?

Juxtaposition three, truth and lies. Brave was the woman to attack Labour for its pockets of anti-semitism when the Daily Mirror led with a ugly manifestation of Tory anti-semitism this morning. We heard again how opposed she was to any kind of customs separation running down the middle of the Irish Sea, and staying in any customs unions while her minions are busying themselves pushing the very positions May is formally against.

Juxtaposition four, and by far the weirdest is no matter how inept she is, almost 18 months after the unnecessary election that destroyed her authority she still manages to out perform Jeremy Corbyn on best Prime Minister polling. And of all the leading Tories she's practically the only one, data suggests, who can see him off. Yes, that also includes Johnson. How to explain this? There is an element of looking the part, and May's no-frills image certainly helps here. But also in the mind of softer Tory voters and a layer of floating centrist types (not excluding some on the Labour benches), there is some respect for her impossible position. Yes, really. They see someone who might not be the best, but is doing her best. She has to juggle the complex detail of the withdrawal negotiations with the hot mess of Tory party intrigue. Every day she reaches round to scratch a new itch to find another knife sticking in, but May gainfully carries on. Bereft and lying about the Brexit negotiating strategy, this most unsympathetic of figures, a reckless and arrogant author of her own political misfortunes, is an object of sympathy. If not pity.

Juxtaposition five. Facing crunch time this month on Brexit, never has the gap between the competence of the politicians in charge of the negotiations and the demands of the situation been so vast, so in deficit. For all the talk of strong and stable leadership - remember that? - bourgeois politics as per the Tories, the Labour right, and the miserable LibDem/remainiac crowd, there is a real crisis in establishment leadership following its decadent bungling into the worst political crisis Britain has suffered since 1956. Saving their system, ironically, is in the programme of the one party attacked, rounded on, and smeared as a bunch of Trots by these self-same poltroons. The ruling class of old are incapable of ruling in the old way, yet their behaviour hammers home every single day that their ultimate salvation lies along the road paved by Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party. Now that's what I call a juxtaposition.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Tory Leadership Jockeying

Death is in the air argues Richard Seymour in his write up of Tory party conference. Even before Theresa May takes to the podium for what could be the last time, malaise hangs heavy and cluelessness, if not defeat, is the tone. For the hard Brexiteers, who've hardly distinguished themselves these last few days with energetic interventions from the fringes, despair arrests them as it increasingly dawns that their flush is well and truly busted.

Meanwhile, no one knows what Brexit is going to look like even though May pretends, as per, nothing has changed. Indeed, if you want a so-called clean Brexit no deal is the only way you're going to get it. We learn May has tried bouncing the DUP into accepting some sort of Irish sea border, despite repeatedly saying no UK Prime Minister could possibly accept such an arrangement. And we're due an indefinite stay in the customs union too. Things are starting to look very tricky.

But it's May's turn tomorrow. Using the term advisedly, let's look at some of the highlights so far. Noted was the unexpected pitch Esther McVey made for the Tory leadership. She told the world of being in foster care for the first two years of her life, before going on to praise the Disability Discrimination Act and attacking the appalling suffering Tory cuts to social security have caused as "fake news". In further red meat for the thinning party faithful, she attacked Labour and singled out Momentum in particular, arguing there are "three M's in Momentum - Militant, Militant, Militant." There's an attack strategy sure to work.

Sobriety won out over inanity in Philip Hammond's address. Suggesting Labour offered the wrong solutions, they were nevertheless recognising the right problems to which the Tories must respond. If only Hammond with his hands on the levers of Britain's economic policy was in a position to do something, eh? Well, we know what he intends to do: more of the same. To Labour's plans to rebuild public services, restructure the economy, and introduce the beginnings of industrial democracy he pledges more cuts, more austerity, more of the same old crap that are destroying his own party. Never interrupt an enemy while they're making a mistake, so carrying on running that knife against the throat of Tory electoral chances, Phil.

Jeremy Hunt, fresh from his undistinguished spell at Health delivered his speech as Britain's number one diplomat. And what did he have to say? Taking a cue from the sort of stupidity normally the preserve of Gavin Williamson, Hunt pulled out more ropey-looking flesh at flung it at his hungry audience. "I was a remainer!" he cried "but now I'm not because the EU are bastards!". Or words to that effect. To underline the confected contempt he has with the folks he's presumably trying to charm into an advantageous post-Brexit arrangement, he went a step further and compared the EU to the late and unlamented Soviet Union. Hmmm. I remember writing an article years and years ago that took the piss out of UKIP for selling a book called EUSSR or something like that in its e-shop. From the unhinged fringe to the mainstream heart of the Tory party, it's enough to tell you all you ever need to know.

We can't forget Bozza Johnson, the man, the legend, the titan of Tory fever dreams. Well, he gave a speech too and reportedly made the Prime Minister "feel cross". Not surprising as he implied she was a traitor to the country (*innocent face*). Yes, the conference goers loved it (they're easily impressed) as he reiterated every boring article he's written since dropping the foreign office. Brexit means opportunity, he purred. "We can export bus stops to Peru!" about summed up his inspiring vision of a global Britain. He also said Labour were rubbish, said Tories are the only ones who can deliver more homes (where are they then?), and defended his record as Mayor of London. One supposes because he has no achievements as foreign secretary to boast of. In all, it was classic Johnson. Bumbling and disassembling masquerading as spontaneity and fluidity, it was as choreographed to dance around a void. Johnson knows how to appeal to the members, but to do what?

It wasn't just the conference hall, the fringes were equally vacant. This on how the Tories can win the under 40s is completely bereft. Another meeting addressed by Owen Jones acknowledged Corbynism had all the ideas and the Tories had none. And this on the London mayoral campaign has to be read to be believed.

What a disaster. No new initiatives, and nothing on show except for neurosis. Say what you like about Dave, when he took over the Tories and formed the coalition government, he had a plan of sorts. It might have been warmed over Thatcherism with a LibDem meat shield, but the direction of travel was there. Even Theresa May in her imperial honeymoon affected some sort of one nationist trajectory, albeit with a dollop of hard Brexit. And since the election and the shattering of Tory discipline, they're all over the place. But it's not different politics that are driving the wings of the party apart, it's personal ambition with only an episodic relationship to ideas, let alone principles. This is the long-term decay of the Tories manifesting in full effect. And as we enter the most crucial period of the Brexit negotiations, the possibility of a terminal crisis cannot be ruled out.

Monday, 1 October 2018

The PlayStation Classic: A Critique

Imitation is the highest form of flattery. It’s also a sure fire way of making money, especially if you’re in the business of video games. Watching how Nintendo were basically able to print money with the releases of their NES and SNES classic consoles, for Sony to not follow suit an original PlayStation plug-in would be an opportunity missed. After all, their console sold much better than either of Nintendo’s machines and had more classic titles to boast about than its N64 and Sega Saturn rivals.

There is an obvious attraction in repackaging old games for new audiences. One of them is the next to zero production cost. We live in an age where information is commodified yet infinitely reproducible. If someone sends me a naughty PDF of a book, saving it and emailing it to as many people I want barely takes any effort, but also then the publisher is unable to realise their investment. Sad. On games, it's always been quite easy for copies to be made by those determined to do so. Like that time I may have pirated a copy of a copy of Commando on the Spectrum using Granddad's hi-fi. And back in the day, it was very easy to get your PlayStation chipped so you could circumvent copy protection and play dodgy duplicates. Now the PlayStation is a dead system, ROMs of old and discarded games litter the internet like a sea of plastic. Trying to scrape more money from old digital rope can be done, but will Sony be as successful as Nintendo?

The five games announced so far are good, solid titles. Jumping Flash got plenty of attention back in the day as one of the very first 3D platformers. Final Fantasy VII doesn't require much in the way of an introduction - I remember the ridiculous hype train from back in the day well, despite not being that into games at the time. Tekken 3 is a top notch beater, Wild Arms is a jolly enough and decently respected RPG, and Ridge Racer Type Four is one of the best and most stylish games to have landed on the PS1. With 15 more to be unveiled, the internet chatter is on what's likely to come next. Metal Gear Solid? Silent Hill? Resident Evil? Crash Bandicoot? As Sony have put out an asking price of $100 you would expect some top tier games licensed from the console's best developers to make an appearance. And you might say the success of the system rests on their inclusion - imagine Nintendo flogging one of their retrospective plug-and-plays minus Zelda or Metroid. Unthinkable.

From the stand point of video game critique, there are a couple of reasons this interests me. In theory, Sony's classic console should be a pass to pretty profit. Except things are probably going to be tougher than they think. In the first place, there are many other easily available ways to play these games. For discerning modern gamers with a PlayStation 4, buying 20 PS1 games via the PlayStation Network will come in some way south of the plug 'n' play's asking price. PSN games tend to be around the four quid mark, though some have a weird mark up on them - despite being virtually costless to Sony apart from a license fee for third party games. If you really want a few of the games, just download them instead. The second issue is most of the audience who find the Classic tugging nostalgically at their hearts are going to have a PlayStation 2 or a PS3 lying about. Instead of buying a new product, all they have to do is hook up the old one and away they go. Though we still have our old PlayStation from the twilight days of my undergrad career, for convenience's sake I play its games on the PS3. Furthermore, PS1 games are inexpensive and plentiful, at least compared to NES and SNES cartridges, as well as MegaDrive titles. Well there are stupid expensive games, but its most sought titles come in relatively cheap. Something like Metal Gear Solid will cost you £20 tops, but most are far below this figure.

The second problem, and there's no finer way of putting this, loads of original PlayStation games look like ass. Consider the Tomb Raider series, something quintessentially PlayStation (and coincidentally born in Derby, like yours truly). These are tough, unforgiving, and incredibly frustrating games, and in ways most latter day gamers are not habituated to. Not least thanks to dodgy camera angles (as well as an inability to move it effectively) and cheap deaths. And as for the graphics themselves, while they were appreciated at the time for their technical prowess they look awful then, and look even worse now. If Sony want to hook in the casual(ish) retro gamer who doesn't have another means of playing old games, they're hardly going to include stuff that make your eyeballs scream. It's worth noting the five chosen games don't fall into the ugly-as-sin categories. So don't be disappointed if neither Lara Croft nor Resident Evil make the cut, and expect visually pleasing stuff like Wipeout and perhaps the original Rayman does.

The question is as Sony moves in to recommodify stuff that has effectively languished in the public domain for almost 20 years, are we're going to see a declaration of war on online repositories that have done the hard graft of preserving abandoned games and stumping up the hosting cash for them, a la Nintendo? Whatever they decide to do, whether Sony acts like a beneficent or a jealous God, runaway success is likely to elude the PlayStation Classic.

Five Most Popular Posts in September

30 days. 22 posts. Which proved to be the most popular among the internet-travelling public who alighted upon this place?

1. Can Blairism Win Back the Labour Party?
2. The Lady With the Red Hair
3. Smearing Michael Foot
4. Our Decadent Tory Elite
5. No Second Referendum

Blairism. Our scurrilous media. Secret service shenanigans. Imploding Tories. Remainiac fantasies. Yup, another very political month full of awfulness, crisis and conflict. And as the Brexit shit starts hitting the fan this October, you can bet it's only going to get worse. At least one hopes it will be the Tories feeling the pain instead of more blue-on-blue action from red-on-red.

Generosity is a good quality to have, and so in that spirit two posts are hanging out in the second chance saloon. They are our adventure with Engels and last night's offering looking at the political ontology of Corbynism and the unions. Why not check them out?

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Corbynism and the Trade Unions

While the divided Tories meet in Birmingham to argue over who's going to take over from Theresa May and the Brexit morass of their own making, it's worth spending a little time considering some of the divisions that surfaced during Labour conference inside the Corbyn project. In particular, I'm talking about the tension between Corbynism and the trade unions - a relationship that has hitherto been productive and, effectively, saved Jeremy Corbyn's leadership when the Labour right made their move. However, friction between the two are inevitable and has recently been in evidence. Part of this stems from a generalised tension between the Labour Party and its union affiliates - the party has to construct a broad electoral alliance to appeal to as many voters as possible, and the audience of unions are ultimately their own members, which are of a much narrower range. On top of that, Corbynism as a movement and trade unions as institutions are different animals. Their political ontology are not the same. This then is the overall context in which we should understand moves to insert more trade union influence into how the party elects its leader, and why the reformed trigger ballot system won out at conference and open selections were defeated.

Consider basic definitions. What is a trade union? It is an organisation of workers whose remit is to defend their interests, sometimes individual, sometimes collective, against one or many employers. For example, in the main the Communication Workers' Union sits across the table from Royal Mail (postal) and BT (telecoms). Unite on the other hand represents a larger number of workers in a huge variety of workplaces. Occasionally, when the balance is right, unions can go on the offensive and use their collective strength to exert pressure on employers to release more of the wealth they produced in the form of wages, less work time, and/or better conditions. As a general rule, unions are bureaucratic organisations too. They come with an administrative apparatus in which key positions are elected according to timetables, and on the basis of representative democracy. i.e. Few if any unions reserve recall rights, though getting by with a hostile executive or a no-confidence at conference would be practically impossible. As office holders the elected see the day-to-day operations of the union, taking on responsibilities of strategic priorities, resource allocation, staffing, etc. For elected officials and those employed by unions tend to be cushioned from the kinds of realities their members face. As a rule, they are generally better paid, enjoy better work conditions and perks, and tend toward the acquisition of bureaucratic, if not conservative habits of thought.

These are pressures that bear down on people in these positions, and naturally these changes are conditioned by the state of class struggle at any given moment. In lean times for working class politics, like the 30 years between the end of the miners' strike and Jeremy Corbyn's election as Labour leader, this insulation can preserve the memory and experience of working class militancy. One characteristic of this period was the disproportionately large number of leftists, including the far left, who became elected officials and full-time union officers. Now politics is mixing it up again the relationship becomes more complex. As bureaucracies, the mass take over of the Labour Party gives them new opportunities to extend union influence - but poses a threat also.

Unions tend to approach their influence in the party in the same pragmatic way. They look to maximise their influence via numbers on the NEC, motions to conference, sponsored MPs, sponsored party events, nominations of union personnel to job vacancies in the party, and relationships to party factions. See how Community and USDAW, for instance, chum up with Progress. How the T&G and then Unite in the West Midlands were the backbone of Labour First, and the CWU's affiliation to Momentum. This maximisation of organisational/general secretary influence is also an outgrowth of unions as sectional bodies. In the final analysis, workers have common interests. But their unions often don't. The immediate interests of one group of workers may come into conflict with others as employers try and play off one section of the workforce against another. For instance, different unions might organise different parts of the same employer. When I was a supermarket worker, the employer recognised the T&G (with whom I was a shop steward) and USDAW, which frustrated wage negotiations as one was used to undermine another. Likewise another place had three unions, one for each different section of workers, which made coordination among organised employees extremely difficult - not least because each group had bespoke negotiating arrangements. Also, unions can and do compete among themselves for recruits, up to and including scabby behaviour. At the end of it, a union is an organisation that wants to survive and thrive and these organisational interests have the tendency to win out over wider considerations.

As organisations embroiled in the day-to-day guerrilla warfare of wage bargaining and preserving/improving working conditions, unions have to be pragmatic. Levering its collective strength and using soft power against an employer requires a continuous appreciation of tactics and strategy - at least if a union is doing its job properly. Therefore unions are habituated to piecemeal change, small victories (and reverses) and incremental improvement. This habit lends itself well to the to-ings and fro-ings of parliamentary democracy, and why so many trade unionists past too the passage from the shop floor to the floor of the Commons. This is also the material root of Labour's historic anti-intellectualism, and the short shrift revolutionary politics have received in this country.

And then the old certainties dissolve and a new relationship with the party comes into play. Corbynism from the beginning had one foot in the unions, but the movement did not move through them. In its first phase of taking over the party, the people responding to Jeremy Corbyn's candidacy was composed of the politically atomised but socially networked. Minorities were old hands at the activism game, or people called back into politics, but the bulk were entirely new and had never been members of a political party before. They joined up as masses of individuals embedded in proliferating digital networks, which in turn recruited even more. These connections were vehicles of contact, affinity and affectivity. Corbynism in the unions initially assumed a similar character between existing leftists and a fed up officialdom. It proved string enough to bounce several general secretaries into endorsing Corbyn's candidacy, which in turn was helpful for winning over Corbyn-sceptical party members who take union support of candidacies seriously. Nevertheless, as a self-activating network, a spontaneous swarm that swamped the party and initially identified more with the ideas Corbyn represents than the rest of the labour movement apparatus, it was therefore different from the established, incremental and bureaucratic politics of the unions in and out of Labour.

From this arises an important set of differences. The more methodical practice of the unions contrasts with the impatience of Corbynism. Their habituation to committee room compromises with other forces differs from the experience of Corbynism which, before party conference, is used to the direction of travel being its way thanks to the weight of the expanded membership. Hence the emphasis in Corbynism on members' rights and the role they should have in steering the party. This is where tension came out into the open in Liverpool. Unions wish to preserve their influence over the apparat and PLP, but having a truly sovereign membership with the subordination of the MPs and unions to it not only threatens years of painstaking influence-building, but offers a vision of what could happen in several unions if Corbynism spreads and its radicalisation deepens. While all unions might like to recruit hand over fist, they might be less keen if this was accompanied by demands for member-led democracy and curbs on the power of officialdom. In short, this tension is the inescapable result an encounter between two sets of progressive forces with different political ontologies, or modes of being. It's the bureaucratic hierarchy and representative democracy of the unions vs the multitudinous mass of Corbynism whose trajectory points toward more direct democracy. This is why the struggle for open selection and more party democracy is not about to go away.

Can the tension be soothed? If things stand still, no. Therefore we have to ensure things do not stand still. Corbynism reached 13 million voters because it addressed and articulated a previously dispersed and unorganised set of grievances. On this, Corbynism and the unions are in fundamental agreement. They require more politicisation, and taking up to become bones of contention, of points that can be productive of even more struggle. But while there are plenty of such issues, the lynchpin is and will always be the workplace. This is the hinge of bourgeois power. Calling on unions to recruit more and organise more is to patronise the efforts of existing trade unionists who spend their time doing just that. However, here Corbynism has a role to play. In addition to legislation that makes effective trade unionism more difficult is the small, cultural matter of organised industrial action at work getting purged from the collective memory. Workers are inculcated by so many institutions as neoliberal subjects without social ties, which is reinforced by the nature of work, ranging from the precarious, temporary and the part-time to the individuating character of immaterial labour. A Corbynism of the unions is important and necessary because a dose of deepened member sovereignty will enable unions to respond better to where most workers currently are and, hopefully, start drawing them in to the wider labour movement.

Corbynism is important from the standpoint of world politics because it is the holy grail of many a abstruse debate about the death of class: it appeals to and forges together an array of positions which, if one is wedded to a liberal conception of identity politics, should not be possible. It reconciles seemingly exclusive constituencies by appealing to their common interests, doing so in alliance with "traditional" class politics and a hopeful vision of the future that encourages political imagination, if not experimentation. It has transformed the Labour Party, and has gone from there to reach out to a truly massive audience. For a movement just over three years old it is at the threshold of forming a government should the Tories fall, and it has transformed the traditional party of the working class utterly into something approaching where class politics now is. Unions as sectional organisations and oriented to mass workplaces will have a harder time achieving a similar take off, but it is possible. Democratising unions, making would-be members feel a living, relevant relationship to it, of offering themselves as networks of support and training as well as organs of resistance is the pathway to rejuvenation and overcoming tensions with the party and Corbynism in particular.

Like it or not, Corbynism is the future, more direct democracy is the future, becoming more swarm-like is the future. Politics is changing, the character of class is changing. We have to make sure our way of organising collectively changes too so we can use our strength most effectively. And win.

Quarter Three Local By-Election Results

Overall, 85,190 votes were cast over 57 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. For comparison you can view Quarter Two's results here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Q3 2017

* There was one by-election on Scotland
** There were four by-elections in Wales
*** There were five independent clashes this month
**** Others this quarter consisted of Active for Plymouth (123), BNP (25), Democrats and Veterans (338), English Democrats (72), For Britain (63), Our West Lancashire (567), Yorkshire Party (47), Scottish Libertarian (13), Women's Equality Party (47 and 39), Nonsuch Residents (539), and Elvis Bus Pass (46).

A boring but disappointing quarter for Labour,and also annoying to see the Independents surging again. If anything, you could argue this set of results almost returns to politics as usual. It makes no difference to the national polls, but at local election level at least perhaps polarisation is coming unstuck or never applied too much in the first place. Again, despite falling to bits the Tories out-organise everyone else, while the kippers continue to do poorly.

No predictions for next quarter, though it past behaviour is any indicator of future behaviour the vote distributions will continue to be much the same.