Monday, 18 June 2018

The NHS and the Brexit "Dividend"

There we were, innocently discussing Tory lies, and then the Prime Minister goes and drops a whopper. On Andrew Marr yesterday morning, she announced in her pre-recorded interview (naturally) that the NHS is going to receive £20bn in extra funding. That sounds a lot to a casual observer, but the monies amount to a 3.4% increase in the annual budget, putting it below the 3.7% average yearly rise since its foundation and well behind the cash pumped into the NHS over the Blair/Brown years. And how is this going to be funded? May puffed out her chest and without a shred of shame said it would be part financed by the Brexit dividend. Yes, you heard correctly, the Brexit dividend.

It is utter piffle. There is no such thing as a "Brexit dividend". Which is why Jeremy Corbyn would be wise not to talk it up either. This "dividend", according to May, comes from Britain not having to pay membership subs to Brussels. Okay, considering Britain must pay a divorce bill one imagines that's going to be sent in installments. And then we have to think about the customs arrangement or whatever relationship we have to the EU following Brexit. What is very likely once the transition period expires is a continuance of some kind of payment to keep "frictionless trade", or whatever it's called this week, going. There will also be costs arising from policing the border because, you know, taking back control. The duplication of EU agencies to ensure the UK remains "in alignment" with the single market demands resources, the "no change" pledge to farmers and the regions with respect to subsidies and infrastructure investment has to be in place. If it all goes belly up, there's the shady deal the government cut with Nissan whereby billions would be frittered away compensating UK-based big business for tariffs imposed by the EU. And if it doesn't, the UK can look forward to a permanent hit to the economy in terms of falling investment, the movement of business into the EU proper, rising unemployment and all the rest. In other words, there cannot be a dividend, no matter how you cook the numbers. We, as in Labour, have to be entirely honest. Brexit isn't about "opportunities", it's about finding the least worst, least damaging way of leaving the EU, doing the best we can to protect our people and struggling to ensure the elites, chiefly business and the rich, pay the costs for their elite project.

In an uncharacteristic moment of clarity, Jeremy Hunt said the NHS's "birthday present" couldn't be funded from this quarter alone, and would require tax rises, with economic growth picking up the rest of the slack. Huh. If leading Tories get their way, the only thing growing in Britain in the aftermath of Brexit will be the dole queue. Again, this is more never, never. Were Labour to announce their spending plans in such a cavalier, uncosted way its pledges wouldn't be met with indifference on the part of our press. See, for example, the case of the unfunded Tory pledges prior to the 2015 general election. Proof, as if it were needed, that the Conservatives play politics in easy mode.

Yes, this is an entirely cynical exercise. But it lays down a few teasers about how the next Tory manifesto is going to look and who May is targeting. In sum the election, whether it be this Autumn, next year, or 2022, will be fought on the grounds very similar to 2017's. May, or her successor, are going to stake out a Miliband-lite one nationist platform. The NHS focus is a risk, considering the last eight years of cuts, lengthening waiting times, rationing of treatment and downright failure but the hope is the big sum and the boosterist language surrounding it (helpfully, and uncritically amplified by the BBC as ever) will convey an impression of a caring Tory and paternalist government doing something about it. Using the language of a Brexit dividend is dishonest but not entirely stupid, politically speaking. Had Leave not managed to make the link between EU subscriptions and NHS funding during the referendum, then they wouldn't have won. What May is trying to do is short cut the hard graft of winning over new people and trying to ride this elision in the popular, Brexit-supporting imagination. It is an attempt to hold together the declining coalition of Tory voters. And by cloaking it in the divisive idiocies of Leave, it shows scant interest in appealing to younger people for whom the NHS is an issue but, as a general rule, are immune to Tory Brexit posturing.

This isn't to say there aren't problems with the NHS and it doesn't need a significant cash injection. The Tories like to talk about how people are living longer and increasingly it has to be equipped to deal with the diseases and ailments of old age. While true, an entirely unnecessary diversion of resources are soaked up by the administration of the markets in health care. Competition between providers are less the enemies of bureaucrats and more their best friends. And there is the small matter of private providers taking money directly out of the service to fill their piggy banks, tax compliant or not. More money is always welcome, but the inefficiencies built into the system are a Tory innovation, and it's these that are driving down quality and restricting provision. Ultimately, it doesn't matter how much cash is thrown at the NHS. Unless it is reorganised and market mechanisms are removed as the central means of delivering health care, the crisis will not end and bit by bit, more and more of the NHS will slide into private hands. Don't be fooled, more NHS money does not mean the Tories have abandoned their programme of privatisation-by-stealth.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

More on Lies and Lying Liars

We know the Conservative Party is a fundamentally dishonest outfit. Not because it's composed of unprincipled place-seekers and shysters, of whom it possesses more than its fair share, but because of what the party does. It is a collective of elites, an organised network of actors mobilising, working and moving in a certain direction. And that destination is always, always the preservation of a minority class interest as if it was the majority interest. When we start thinking about the awful politics and shenanigans of Tory lies, it's more than a matter of rotten apples. It's structural.

This in mind, Dominic Grieve's complaints about his treatment caused the crack a wry smile. This week's Brexit shenanigans, including unprecedented scenes of the government negotiating with its remain-inclined backbenchers on the floor of the Commons were bewildering even for seasoned Westminster watchers. The substance of the showdown that never was between the rebels that never were and Theresa May regarded the assertion of Parliamentary sovereignty over Brexit. Grieve and his merry band of liberal heroes wanted the government to be advised by Parliament if, by January next year, they had screwed things up and no deal was looking likely. Grieve and friends want the next steps to be suggested by MPs and Lords. Not unreasonably, you might suggest this is what 'taking back control' looks like. To head him off, the government more or less accepted his argument, even though it had previously maintained this would undermine Britain's negotiating position. Yes, blackmailing the EU with a no-deal Brexit and the catastrophe that would bring down on British people is part and parcel of their strategy. It's like expecting your Barniers and your Junckers to care more about UK citizens than the UK government.

With this week's session in the bag and the rebels defused, the government then announced they would let their "progress" return to the Commons in January, there would be a vote, but one noting the government's position. Nothing else. So. After agreeing to a deal with Grieve they did the dirty and reverted back to the default position. Small wonder the Tory remainers are spitting feathers. Their heavily trailed rebellion came to nought, excepting Ken Clarke and Woke Soubz, and they were made to look like fools.

For Tory watchers, May's deception is interesting, and it says something about how fraught things have got. Lying (and stupidity) go hand in hand as structural characteristics, but rarely do we see both surface so baldly. The government's bill returns to the Commons next week after another round of debates in the Lords and, yes, May will be depending on the rebels to line up behind her again. In other words, they pulled a fast one in the full knowledge that getting one reading through was purchased at the price of later failure. There are two things the government whips have got to be hoping for. One, linking defeat with the fear of a collapse of the government and the prospects of a general election might corral the rebels. Though anyone with half a political brain knows total implosion is unlikely because the Tories are determined to cling on come what may. Second, Tory rebels will be cancelled out by Labour rebels and/or a walk out from the SNP. Risky.

This is not the work of a master strategist, but the doings of panic and cluelessness. Tory short-termism is ramped up to its maximum, so have a bit of fun watching the fireworks as political capital and goodwill are burned up on a vote-by-vote basis. May has to get her ridiculous, decadent Brexit strategy through or, she fears, the bastards will come for her, and that is a recipe for greater lashings of mayhem and splits.

Will Grieve and the rest vote along with the government next week. You know, actually live up to their billing and, well, rebel? Now ego is in the mix, I'm not 100% in writing them off.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Arash ft. Helena - Dooset Daram (Filatov & Karas Remix)

Haven't died, but I did do this for somewhere else. In it, yours truly argues that a renewal of democratic politics necessarily has to break with anything that confines democracy to liberal democracy. Check it out.

In lieu of anything else here, I've dug out this lovely track. I do love the spin Filatov and Karas give to the tunes they remix, and this one has definitely caught my ear. Deep house meets Eurovision just about captures the vibe, and as these are among my very favourite things ...

Monday, 11 June 2018

The Left after the 2017 General Election

It was just over a year ago that we experienced the greatest election upset since the war. From 20 points behind, an impregnable Prime Minister with the organs of opinion behind her and, seemingly, the voting public was humbled in the most electrifying and exciting campaign of my life time. In defiance of political gravity, at least according to the learned Newtonians of the press and the Parliamentary party, Labour polled its highest vote in 20 years, won back constituencies in Scotland thought lost for a generation, and made significant gains in precisely the seats the latter day disciples of Tony Blair seriously coveted. All this on a campaign that wasn't supposed to work. Labour aimed at mobilising people put off from establishment politics. It went to the country with the most left wing manifesto for a quarter of a century, and did so with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm - a man and a leader who was supposedly electoral bromide. The Tories lost their majority and the leading echelons splintered, May's authority crumbled and the crisis of establishment politics entered a more acute phase. It was a wonderful time.

A modest pinch of nostalgia is alright. Who doesn't enjoy kicking around the memories of yesteryear? But it is paralysing when it comes to politics. Others might treat it as a game, as they recall such-and-such a speech or get all gooey over BBC replays of past election . Indeed, for some it is a game populated by the tribal affiliations of blues, reds, yellows and greens. Politics, however, is deadly serious. It's a constant battle, the ceaseless ebb and flow of power and resistance. Behind the theatrics (and the hysterics), the arcane rules and bad faith, the skulduggery and stupid grandstanding are the processes, the relationships, the coming together and becoming conscious of collectives of people. It is the terrain interests clash and crash upon, a politics of management vs a politics of the unmanageable, the forces stretching every sinew to keep things fundamentally as they are, against the inchoate, at times silent and restrained, at times cacophonous and vital forces pressing, pushing, breaking through the limits imposed on them. It has always been thus, and will always be thus until capitalism is superseded by something better, or we find ourselves superseded by the quietude of the grave. Casting an eye backwards must always be with a view to learning, to understand the present, to advance.

And so when approaching the 2017 general election, apart from the feels, the new MPs, and wrecking what was bound to be another ruinous and decadent Tory government, what did it achieve? As Alex Williams and Tom Gann suggest, not a lot. At least where leftist politics outside of the Labour Party is concerned. Is this the case? Unfortunately, the answer has to be yes. The number of trade unionists and labour disputes reached a new nadir last year. The tragedy of Grenfell Tower elicited widespread sympathy rather than anger, and street mobilisations are no more frequent nor larger than at any time in recent years. The UCU pensions' dispute and McStrike offered glimpses into what might be possible, and will surely help ensure this year's strike figures will not be as low as the last, but the former ended in compromise and left a severe schism between the members and the apparat, and the latter is as yet unresolved. Sadly, hate crime stats are up, and the far right are taking to the streets yet again with only smaller numbers of anti-fascists out to oppose them. How?

Regular readers know my argument concerning the constituency powering Corbynism and the transformation of the Labour Party. If not, here it is again. The even shorter version is Corbynism and the Labour Party successfully appealed (and appeals) to the growing section of waged and salaried workers - those engaged in immaterial labour. The object of their work is not the making of tangible things, but of so-called intangibles. Stuff like knowledge, data, care, service, relationships, and subjectivities. For example, except for a spell in a factory every job I've done - shop assistant, "security" (yes, it's true), supermarket dogsbody, sessional lecturer, editorial assistant, bag carrier, and now lecturer/bureaucrat - all of these are examples of immaterial work. Additionally, these jobs chiefly involve mobilising our social competencies and knowledges that are mostly acquired (and enriched) outside the employer/employee relationship. Therefore, immaterial work is not only immediately cooperative, just like it always was in the capitalist work place, but is not possible minus the social infrastructure of socially productive, socially cooperative relationships all of us are embedded in. We are simultaneously socialised workers, and thanks to the way computers and telecommunications technologies have sunk into and enable our social vistas, we are networked workers too. In the initial formulation of this idea in relation to the Labour Party, I argued the only possible way it could win is by doubling down on this constituency, appealing to its concerns, and using the power of its connectivity and mobilising on this basis. Forget triangulation and going a little bit racist to catch older UKIP voters. This is exactly what the party did, despite the best efforts of some MPs and candidates convinced Corbyn was an albatross rather than an asset, and lo the Tories were robbed of their majority.

To answer why this hasn't led to a wider political advance means understanding the characteristics of the socialised worker as they actually exist. In the full throes of Corbyn scepticism in the run up to the first leadership contest, I argued there was something formless, rootless about the support he was attracting to the party. This was true, but what we were seeing was the composition of a social movement, albeit consolidating in the most unlikely bosom of the Labour Party. Here, the figure of Corbyn was a lightning rod, an attractor for the anger and frustration that had circulated in wider society but had not found a political expression for itself. As per the networks of the socialised workers, his candidacy snowballed and drew in incredible numbers of new people, just as the failed independence referendum in Scotland mobilised tens of thousands to join the SNP. We know what happened next and what is still unfolding inside Labour. This mobilisation and politicisation, however, was on a very narrow basis. Corbynism as an organised movement has hardly spilled over into trade unions, street campaigns and other causes. The transformation of establishment politics has left its fundamental characteristics untouched - it's still a representative affair in which one group of party elites (the leader's office and allies) do battle with another group of elites within the party, and the Tory elite on the government benches. The problem isn't people wanting to create and believe in a cult of the personality around Corbyn, it's that far too many see their activism fundamentally as a support role. It's liberal democratic politics replicated, albeit with new actors.

This radicalisation of the narrow range is entirely understandable. As socialised and as networked our rising constituency is, as capable, educated and skilled it is, as it retains every potential of becoming conscious of itself as a collective, politically speaking, and seemingly contradictorily, it is atomised. Surely networks plus atomisation equals a nonsensical combination, an incoherent assemblage of opposites? No. There are two intertwined reasons for this. The first is the absence of political collectivity in popular social life beyond the parties. The taming of the labour movement under Thatcher and the subsequent diminution of street-based collective politics, the failure of extra-parliamentary mobilisations since the Poll Tax to put serious pressure on governments, the disappearance of collectivity as an acceptable category in mainstream politics, the atomisation of communities thanks to housing policy and privatised forms of entertainment have all had their part to play. And winding around, reinforcing these and feeding off them is our old friend Neoliberalism. Not as a policy orientation re: economics, but as a mode of governance. Or, a way of addressing and responding to people, the acceptable and accepted way of being, well, a human being. With an absence of popular collective traditions and identifications (apart from the nation and the royals), is it surprising Jeremy Corbyn attracted hundreds of thousands of people who responded to his politics as individuals? That they bypassed the existing labour movement, activist and community groupings, poured into the party and, well, stayed there instead of fanning outwards to alternative avenues of political activity? That while left wing and socialist ideas have won new adherents and audiences, this is marginal to the dominance of spectator politics? And that the politicisation that has occurred has fuelled polarisation, but not given the hundreds of thousands in the Labour Party and the millions more who voted for it a sense of collective confidence and power?

Hence why, outside of Labour, the left have appeared to have stalled. And it's not just a Labour thing. Where a similar process occurred in Scotland, it too is stuck in the bind of representative/spectator politics, albeit with an independent nation acting as a catch-all attractor. The fault for this state of affairs does not lie with the leader's office. Sorry Trots, it's going to take more than the "correct leadership". The process of constituting our class as an active participant in politics cannot be short circuited, but it can be helped along. This is why the democratisation of the party is so vital. Not because of the possibility of getting rid of PLP no marks, but because enabling mass participation and bottom up democracy can catalyse a deeper round of politicisation. It's a means of our class learning to organise itself around its own interests, and from there the potential to revitalise itself as a collective by building new institutions and transforming old ones. The narrow, almost passive radicalisation we've seen so far is not the end point but the beginning of a journey, and one that can transform everything for the better.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Sociology and Politics Reading List

They don't come harder than this. You can't tell a book by its cover, but seeing this gaggle of bastards edge on shows they mean business. Newly minted and almost pristine, their homes on the book shelf are getting prepped. But tomes, especially these are not ornaments. Inside are some of the most explosive ideas, mind boggling arguments and, if you want Roger Scruton's opinion, unreadable nonsense. As time commitments, the question haunting these purchases is "when?". When will they get read? You see, I'm not joking when I say I have a to-read list. It's this evening's blog filler. Every time something new lands in the library or catches the eye, or I'm reminded of an old one I never got round to reading, it goes on the list. Thing is, this an incomplete list. As books read drop off new ones are added. No matter how long I live, it will never be seen through in its entirety. Unless boredom breaks books for me and reading is traded in for chess, embroidery, or motivational speaking. And, it's incomplete now. Missing is the wee pile of books on my desk, the Massumi and Bradotti knocking around my house, and the three volumes of Capital that stare at me every time I glance over at the shelf. MIA also are the academic papers on the Conservative Party I'll shortly begin working through.

Do you keep a reading list?

Michael Bloch, Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians (Abacus 2016)
Rosi Braidotti, Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics (Polity 2006)
Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Polity 2013)
Rosi Braidotti, Posthuman Feminism (Polity 2017)
Claudio Celis, The Attention Economy: Labour, Time and Power in Cognitive Capitalism 
       (Rowman & Littlefield International 2016)
Nick Cohen, What's Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way (Harper Perennial 2007)
David Cole, Engines of Liberty: How Citizen Movements Succeed (Basic Books 2017)
Aeron Davis, Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the End of the Establishment (Manchester 
       University Press 2018)
Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon (Verso Books 2012)
Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party (Verso Books 2016)
Dhruv Jai (ed), Deleuze and Marx (Edinburgh University Press 2010)
Peter Dorey, British Conservatism: The Politics and Philosophy of Inequality (I.B. Tauris 
Kareem Estefan, Carin Kuoni and Laura Raicovich (eds), Assuming Boycott: Resistance, 
       Agency and Cultural Production (OR Books 2017)
Mike Featherstone et al, The Body (Sage 1991)
Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Revolt on the Right (Routledge 2014)
Anthony Giddens, The Nation State and Violence (Polity 1985)
Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies (Indiana Uni Press 1994)
Donna J Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulhucene (Duke 
       University Press 2016)
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Assembly (Harvard 2017)
Bob Jessop, State Power (Polity 2007)
Lois McNay, The Misguided Search for the Political (Polity 2014)
Tom Mills, The BBC: Myth of a Public Service (Verso Books 2016)
Johanna Montgomerie (ed), Critical Methods in Political and Cultural Economy (Routledge 
Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies (Zero Books 2017)
Kieron O'Hara, After Blair: David Cameron and the Conservative Tradition (Icon Books 
Camille Paglia, Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism (Canongate Canons 2018)
R A W Rhodes and Paul T Hart (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Political Leadership (OUP 
Tim Ross and Tom McTague, Betting the House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election  
      (Biteback 2017)
Mike Savage, Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican 2015)
Roger Scruton, Thinkers of the New Left (Longman 1985)
Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (Bloomsbury Academic 2016)
Max Tegmark, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence (Allen Lane 2017)
Mariano Zukerfeld, Knowledge in the Age of Digital Capitalism: An Introduction to Cognitive
        Materialism (University of Westminster Press 2017)

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Is it Okay to Like Morrissey?

Not long ago, Morrissey said he couldn't listen to Smiths songs any more. Following his endorsement of Anne Marie Waters, For Britain, and defence of Tommy Robinson, a lot of fans will be thinking the same. And this is not the first time Morrissey has expressed racist sentiments either.

Never a massive fan, but as a 90s indie kid I paid my respects. The Smiths put out great songs in their day and after they split up, Morrissey went through a purple patch (especially Every Day Is Like Sunday) which, in my opinion, he didn't reach again until 2004's You Are The Quarry. His material is as tuneful as it is well studied, coruscating, and appealing. How then can someone sensitive to nuance, someone who is an astute observer of the human condition regurgitate the kind of bobbins indistinguishable from a Daily Mail editorial? That one is easy. Different disciplines have different areas of competence. Match AC Grayling's noted oeuvre on moral philosophy with the cretinism of his Brexit pronouncements. JK Rowling and her Harry Potter preaching of tolerance versus her dreary transphobia. Accomplishments in one sphere don't automatically cross over into another, even if it is nearby. You'd think people like Grayling, Rowling and Morrissey would be better when it comes to politics because, after all, we are talking about human beings and relationships. Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. Does it then follow that the behaviour of an artist or a scholar can sully and invalidate their work?

The answer can never be clear cut. Consider a recent case. In the realm of green political theory and radical citizenship you will come across the valuable contributions of Andrew Dobson, ex of Keele University. But because of the nature of his crime, he is understandably persona non grata. Similarly, Simon Jarvis and his contributions to 21st century poetry were trainwrecked by a child sex abuse imagery conviction. Both men were noted and important, and have inspired and encouraged the work of many others. Then again, you could equally say the same for Gary Glitter.

Art and theory runs away from its author. Just look at the monstrous uses to which Marx and Nietzsche have been put. Art and theory offer ways of looking, listening, learning, and have lives of their own. As social actors, we know how what we say and do can be misconstrued, and will in turn reflect on us well and poorly independent of our intentions and subsequent actions. We are less authors and more co-authors of our reputations. But as a rule, throughout our lives this tends to not have much of an impact beyond a small number of social circles local to is. When you produce something - a book, a piece of music, clothing - there is a possibility of it circulating beyond your immediate social environs. Already through the creative process it is imbued with a multiplicity of influences, and out there in the wider world, as it is (if it is) caught by other minds there is a possibility of it becoming all kinds of things: a diagnosis, an inspiration, an influence, a pleasure, a pastime. It is what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as 'becoming other' as it is conjoined with other ideas, other perceptions. Everything tossed into the social commons escapes intentionality. It can make creators notable people, but in these instances become monstrous and turn against their creators. The logic of the ideas Marx and Engels developed condemns the common or garden sexism and racism of their letters. The life affirming philosophy of Nietzsche rebels against his unashamed elitism and scorn for the herd. The boy wizard critiques his creator, and Morrissey's lyricism cast him the sort of miserable and pathetic character he might otherwise have sung about.

Art and theory can make new connections away from their parent, combine, recombine, and become something else entirely. On one level, their work remains all the things they were before their foibles, mistakes, utterances, and crimes also assumed life, were amplified and chased down past productions with their contemporary taint. Except, we know they don't. They are transformed. Carrying on as a Morrissey fan, or citing Jarvis favourably invariably signals something about you, a being okay with or indifferent to crude racism because the tunes are good, or finding the concepts and verse dandy and the sex abuse stuff irrelevant. Work can escape, but it never entirely escapes, and its taint can become your taint, something reflective of your character. Such are the ways of moral economies. It is recognising the social cost of stubbornness in the face of the unacceptable.

Should work be allowed to escape the author? There is and can be no one answer, though the passage of time tends to rehabilitate artists and thinkers, despite what they became. Does anyone boycott Ezra Pound because he was fash? Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt because they were literal Nazis? Is Louis Althusser off-limits thanks to murdering Hélène Rytmann, his wife? You'd be hard-pressed to find them ignored thanks to moral opprobrium, though there are plenty of other reasons some pass over their works. In the case of Morrissey, it's really up to those who like his stuff. If you want to listen but without conferring him royalties, remember, this is the 21st century and we're in the age of infinite reproducibility. And if you want to carry on as if his behaviour doesn't matter, well, just be prepared to - rightfully - get tarred with the same brush.

Monday, 4 June 2018

A Very English Cover Up

A Very English Scandal is a triumph for the BBC. Russell T Davies's dramatisation of the murderous conspiracy with former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe at its heart was one of the most gripping dramas I've seen in years. And that was despite the story and its (seeming) conclusion being well known. It's natural such a heavily trailed piece would also spark further interest in the Thorpe affair, including the first showing of Tom Mangold's Panorama canned in 1979 after Thorpe and co. were found not guilty. And it has also transpired that Andrew Newton, the putative hit man hired to kill Norman Scott, Thorpe's ex, is alive, contrary to the conclusions drawn by Gwent Police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

I'm not going to review the drama or provide another summary of the case. They're ten-a-penny. What I am interested in are what both reveal about the social dynamics of a conspiracy. Not conspiracy in general, which is total guff, but how they actual conspiracies work. Because as the drama and the documentary make clear, it's not just that Thorpe and his friend/sidekick, Peter Bessell, schemed and conspired to murder Scott, but the establishment - official politics, the law, the police and security services - all played a part in covering it up, thereby giving it life. What the dramatisation demonstrated is how not only conspiracies are directed by a few people who get together to, um, conspire, they can have a self-sustaining dynamic beyond the actions of its originators. Or to put it another way, everything done to protect Thorpe and prevent the truth from coming out wasn't because Thorpe directed all from behind the scenes, like some Blofeldian octopus. Key aspects were spontaneous.

What was intended? We saw the shambolic process by which Thorpe's demand for Scott's murder meandered down a line of middle men to elements of the criminal underworld, until the hitjob ended up with and was botched by Newton. This was supposed to put distance between the conspirators and the commission of the crime, but as we know things didn't work out like that. Were they another group of criminals their incompetence would surely have seen them banged up for attempted murder, except institutional privilege had Thorpe's back. Consider how Scott was treated by the police before the attempt on his life. As a vulnerable young gay man with a history of mental health problems, his presenting himself at a station with a story about a powerful and popular member of the political establishment would, in the eyes of the police (and especially in the 1960s and 70s), immediately render him an unreliable witness. Before he even made a statement he was immediately cast as a discredited person. As most points of authority deal with serial complainants, Scott would have easily been regarded as such. Not that it prevented Devonshire plod taking down his details and storing copies of intimate letters, with copies making their way to the security services.

Institutionalised indifference is one. The second is institutionalised deference. In the opening scene of the final episode, we see Scott questioned in a police interview. Asked about the possible motive for the crime, he says Thorpe was responsible. Told to repeat his claim he gives the same answer and gets a clout round his ear. It's doubtful said copper was under orders to rough Scott up, but was lashing out from a place of spontaneous deference. As we have seen recently, the establishment is capable of eliciting spontaneous mass support. In more deferential times, politicians were capable of doing this as well. Thorpe and his aristocratic Tory background would have been enough to inspire plebeian deference for some, especially so in the West Country where the Conservatives were the party that was a lynchpin of community life across a girdle of small towns and villages well into the 1960s. It was from the late 1950s when the Liberals began making inroads here, eventually turning it into something of a stronghold until the Tories wiped them out in 2015. I digress. Simply put, it was no difficulty for fealty of this sort to transfer from one aristocratic politician to another. Extend this deference and reverence wider, and you can find plenty of reasons why large numbers of accusations against establishment figures, like politicians and celebrities, led to nothing without it having to be all directed from the top.

How about institutionalised solidarity? At various points we saw Thorpe and Bessell meet up with other powerful figures to ask for favours. They could do that because they were participants in the Parliamentary game, and so wielded a certain amount of social, cultural, and political capital recognised by others in possession of roughly equal amounts. This recognition, which transcended party loyalties, was the stuff of state elite group loyalty. It guaranteed them a sympathetic hearing and, usually, an undertaking to do the favour asked. They were all in it together and looked out for one another, one of the many unspoken agreements protecting their gentlemen's club. This brings us to the extraordinary remarks of Sir Joseph Cantley, the High Court judge who presided over the trial. In his closing remarks he drew the jurors' attentions to Thorpe's character as an unblemished and selfless public servant, and described Bessell (as prosecution witness) as a humbug, Newton a perjurer, and Scott "a fraud, a sponger, a whiner, a parasite". Cantley did all he could to ensure a not guilty verdict was returned by the jury without explicitly directing them. Why? Institutionalised solidarity. As part of the old boys' network, he used his position as judge to look out for one of his own, and protected Thorpe's exalted status from getting brought low from the flotsam and jetsam of Britain's underbelly.

Lastly we have the Gwent Police inquiry. As we saw, the re-opened investigation was closed down in 2015 because, apparently, Newton, as the last surviving party to the conspiracy, was apparently dead. All it took was the publicity from A Very English Scandal and a couple of Mail on Sunday hacks getting handy with Google to find Newton is still alive and living under an assumed name. Incredible. Evidence dark forces are still at work, even though the truth about Thorpe has long been public knowledge? It's more likely we're seeing the consequences of yet more institutional indifference. Tasked with investigating a legacy case, a lack of resources, a truth revealed and, obviously, an absence of interest on the part of Gwent Police meant, in all likelihood, they couldn't be arsed. It's an indifference that has now caused them a great deal of embarrassment, but ultimately and connected with everything that has gone before, the conspiracy that began in Thorpe's Parliamentary offices four decades ago still has life after its principal actor is dead.

Conspiracies can be explained and charted in terms of their social dynamics just like any other set of relationships. They do not require the all-seeing, all-knowing actions of a panoptic elite to direct every episode and moment of the affair. No, the most sinister and worrying aspect is once conspiracies are set in motion they can and do acquire a momentum all of their own, independent of its authors and its participants, and without deference to the damage they wreak.

Savage Garden - Fly You to the Moon and Back

Today is National Cheese Day! At least in the United States, and seeing as this is the internet and the servers hosting this blog are sat somewhere in California, it's apt to mark it as well. I'm also want of a place holder until I've written a blog for posting later. Therefore to let the world know my appreciation for all things cheese, here's a ditty the old earworm has long appreciated.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Populous for the Sega MegaDrive/Genesis

Raise land, lower land is basically all you need to get a handle on. Yes, that's Populous. Think back to a time before the internet, when the likes of Sega and Nintendo were but rumours in the ears of British gamers and the 16-bit roost was ruled by the Atari ST and Commodore's Amiga. Into this scene burst a little-known studio and their beguiling front man, one Peter Molyneux. And they had a product, no, a genre to sell. I can remember it well. Being round my mate's house, opening his C&VG and seeing the review of Populous for the very first time. I read the article and was seduced. A game where you can literally play God, a whole people at your command and, best of all, the followers of an opposing deity to subjugate. A teenage megalomaniac's dream ... and then the despair knowing this would never touch down on the humble Spectrum.

A couple of years later I had scraped enough cash together for Sega's MegaDrive and, well, I think you can guess what an early purchase was. If you're not in the know or too hopelessly young to have even heard of Populous, it is widely recognised as the game that kicked off the God genre. In the base game (expansions were available in short order for the Amiga and ST) you were tasked with 500 worlds to conquer. Your little computer people wander around the isometric map until they find a flat piece of land and build a settlement. You can then raise and lower surrounding land to provide for their farming, which allows the town to become more sophisticated and its inhabitants stronger. Flatten out enough land and it turns into a castle which, eventually, produces harder followers with better weapons. They go and find more land and it begins again. In practice, you're sorting out land and finding dozens of your faithful flock new places to live. Everything is in real time so as you're expanding and flattening your land mass, the AI-controlled opposition is doing exactly the same. As you advance up the levels, they get quicker about it too.

You can command settlers to seek new land, follow your leader (who you can direct with the Ankh, an icon you can play anywhere on the map and instruct the leader (and therefore the people) to go to it. Handy for invasions ...), associate with others before settling to make followers merge and become stronger, and seek out enemies to fight. Battles are always automatic and the outcome relies on a mix of how strong the individual settler is and the weapon they're using. Beware if you've got a strong fella but the enemy are equipped with much better weaponry. They will have your guts for garters.

If this was it, being God would be pretty boring. But you have powers. The more followers you grow, the more people worship your majesty. This converts into manna, which allows the arrow on your power meter to edge along. You need manna to raise and lower land and move the Ankh about, but beyond that come the fun bits. Next are earthquakes which, when unleashed on your enemy, randomly lowers land and fills their carefully cultivated landscape full of holes. There are knights, which turns your leader into a genocidal terminator that seeks out the enemy, kills them and leaves ruins and poisoned land in their wake. Swamps can swallow enemy settlers whole, and so are super handy if your enemy has a really powerful leader or has the habit of sending strong knights your way, volcanoes suddenly produce an inconvenient mountain decked out in indestructible rocks, making the area a pain to return to its previous glory, floods, em, flood the entire globe (build high!), and Armageddon forces all the settlers on the map to migrate to its centre for the final battle for the control of the world. Only press when you're appreciably much stronger than they.

Each world differs according to what powers are available to you and your opponent. On the first, Genesis, you can do everything and your opponent nothing beyond raising and lowering land and moving their evil icon about. If Armageddon isn't available as an option, be prepared for a very long war of attrition. There are also different terrain types to consider. Grasslands are nice and benign and your followers can stroll about like a flâneuse through a Parisian shopping arcade. The other types are somewhat less forgiving. There are desert worlds, ice worlds, and, um, lava worlds. If at the start of these your folks don't find somewhere to settle they will die and leave you in something of a pickle. You can toughen up settlers by extending their farm land in the normal way, but anyone, no matter how tough, will weaken if they're left dawdling about. The same applies to the enemy deity, but as they tend to be faster they will soon start sending disasters in your folks direction, severely inconveniencing their day.

And that is Populous. A brilliantly original concept at the time, even if - understandably - the AI was quite limited. Don't expect any shrewd moves, it will just go all out to kill you by any and all means. For instance, if the opponent has more manna than you, it will spam disasters on you. If it can flood the world, it will - even if you have built your empire several levels above the sea and the majority of their people are in low lying areas. But hey, it was the 1980s. Because the AI was limited, it does mean games can get quite samey and long-winded. If you have drawn one of the attrition worlds, it can take about four hours to slay every single one of their people and win. Where some skill is involved are the handful of worlds where you cannot raise or lower land. If you are in close proximity with the enemy you have to use your Ankh placing and battle choosing very carefully. A shame there's so few of them in the base game.

Populous was designed for computers and mouse pads, but it did end up getting ported to nearly every console going at the time. Only the NES and Game Gear missed out. Yes, even the Game Boy got its version. On the MegaDrive it was published among Electronic Arts' initial wave of titles and  it cost me 40 quid in 1991 money. Was it worth it? You bet. My cartridge was certainly well used. I didn't even mind how using the pad was a bit of a pain. In particularly fast-paced games, your cursor (symbolised by a hand) was like being dragged through treacle and so I had to actually pause (frequently) to move it from one end of the screen to the other. The game also slowed down more the larger you and your enemy became. The poor old MegaDrive wasn't designed to keep track of dozens of little folks at any one time and display their location on a mini map. That Bullfrog managed this on what was limited hardware was quite a feat. Also, MegaDrive Populous had rush release written all over it. The expansion packs were not incorporated, when they were present for the SNES version and even the Master System iteration. A shame.

As the ground zero of God gaming, all the observations you can make about similar games apply here. The instrumentalist view of your charges, their disposability, the indifference greeting the demise of one settler here, one settler there, the ease with which they can be directed by the four behaviour commandments and, well, the coherence you lend them by being their divine manipulator and commander, it replicates the logics of managerialism, nationalism and religious animosity, albeit reworked in a harmless and safe digital environment. Nevertheless because Populous does reinforce certain habits of mind, which have long since been taken up by turn-based and real time strategy and God games since, Populous is responsible for repackaging and, effectively, training millions of gamers in how to think managerially. It's not alone in doing so, but Populous was a pioneer, and its legacy leaks far beyond the genre it helped usher in.

Does the EU Have a Death Wish?

Consider the Italian crisis that blew up this last week. As the right populist Northern League and the Five Star Movement, perhaps the most pristine example of petit bourgeois radicalism seen anywhere, were negotiating the arrangements for coalition government, Matteo Salvini of Lega Nord couldn't resist the theatre of political grandstanding. He goaded the establishment by nominating Paolo Savana (a well known euro rejectionist) for finance minister, and was duly rejected by Italian president, Sergio Mattarella. Mattarella, it is worth noting, is as establishment as they come. Starting off with a social democratic-leaning section of the Christian Democrats, he has served as a trusted fixer and politician for a kaleidoscope of centrist and centre left coalitions ever since. And so he was always going to reject such a provocative move, political consequences be damned. Champagne corks must have popped in Salvini's HQ when Mattarella published the defence of his position, arguing Italy was integral to the Eurozone and that any such move would upset the markets.

And, as if on cue, assorted EU figures piled in. Leading bean counter, Guenther Oettinger was forced to apologise after suggesting the bond markets would discipline Italian voters for supporting populist parties. Oops. Centrist pin up Guy Verhofstadt argued the economic difficulties Italy has experienced are because of a lack of reform. "Reform" here means - what else? - attacks on living standards, labour laws, and cuts to the public sector. It's almost as if Guy hasn't paid much attention to the way Italian politics have gone these last few years. And the Grand Poobah himself, Jean Claude Juncker suggested Italy depends too much on the EU to sort out its problems. "Italians have to take care of the poor regions of Italy. That means more work; less corruption; seriousness ..." as he helpfully put it. Good job support for staying in the Eurozone among Italians remains very strong, albeit tapering off disastrously among the young. Still, this is incredibly reckless behaviour.

Is it a Eurocrat thing or a centrist thing? During the EU referendum campaign it was very easy for Leave to take the high road, because there is a significant democratic deficit at the heart of the EU. The European Parliament, the EU's sole democratic body, is not sovereign within the EU, and it is probably the most insulated elected body in Europe. Consider how UKIP MEPs have used the Brussels-Strasbourg roundabout to enrich themselves without having to do a day's work and got away with it just goes to show how distance and, well, lack of interest buffets the inhabitants of this most august of chambers from the vicissitudes of the popular will. Except twice a decade when elections roll around. Though without much in the way of power, the parliament is a clearing house for cross-continental debate and, as such, affords MEPs (well, at least those who engage) a certain perspective, a bubble of their own not unlike those inflated by Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff and sundry council chambers. Except this bubble is largely divorced from national context, and barely followed or commented upon unless a big issue is brewing up. This isolation from national polities force MEPs into close approximation with employees of the EU, the commissioners and civil servants, who are also insulated from democratic pressures. Though there are sometimes significant political differences, there is fundamental agreement around the deepening of the European project from above, because they know best, and the acceptance of the four freedoms - unimpeded movement of goods, services, capital and people. Though, of course, none of these are as frictionless as their advocates say. The EU's predecessor organisations were conceived and set up as elite projects, and elite projects they remain. Small wonder we see a certain arrogance on the part of what passes for its best known figures.

Though it's not that the EU is uniquely paternalist in its outlook. Contrary to the nonsense peddled by the Brexit right and those who would emulate them in Italy, the EU is run from the centre right. The core body is the Commission, which is comprised of appointees of each member state. It has the power to bring forward legislation, and is responsible for the EU's day-to-day running. Some powers are shared with the Council, which is comprised of ministers from each member state and is, therefore, only very indirectly elected. As right and centre right parties currently comprise a majority of EU governments, so Juncker is, unsurprisingly, from the centre right European People's Party (grouping of mainstream Conservative and Christian Democrat parties in the parliament) and Council president Donald Tusk, drawn from Poland's centre right Civic Platform. Why is this relevant? You just have to look at how the Commission has dealt with EU members in some difficulty. Greece is is the obvious example, but the same demented and enforced austerity foisted on the SYRIZA government has been imposed, albeit less harshly, on Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Cyprus and, of course, Italy. Ostensibly done to appease electorates in the more industrious and prudent countries - namely Germany - in reality it underlines not just the commitment of the right to market fundamentalism of the shortest-termist kind, but their political bankruptcy. They still have no answers to the crisis that has rumbled around the world these last 10 years. Like our very own Tories, their defence of class power and class privilege undermines the relationships that confer them authority and control.

Those of us on the left who supported a remain vote in 2016 did so in the full knowledge of what the EU is. As an unaccountable elite project and international agent of austerity, nevertheless the emergence and deepening integration of European economics, culture and, well, society in general was and is an advance on strong nation states and closed borders. The left vote for remain was not because of the EU, but in spite of it. Brexit was always going to be a playground for right wing nationalism and the most backward sections of British capital, for whom the rising tide of xenophobia and further weakening of Britain's economy and position in the world stage is a price worth paying. But what is interesting is how the arrogance we see from the Commission and its minions finds itself replicated here among the so-called hard remainers.

The utter idiocy of AC Grayling, marking his transition from court philosopher to court fool one case in point. The attachment of so many self-identified centrists is more than a matter of pragmatism. It even goes beyond a Hegel-style identification of the EU as a Love, Love, Peace, Peace repository of reason. It is a deep recognition, a kinship between how they and the Commission approach politics. The EU is a living reminder, an ever-present nostalgia fest of when centrism (defined very broadly as Blairism-Cameroonism) ran the shop. With May in charge and socially liberal Toryism on the backfoot, and Corbynism holding sway with a few centrist holdouts in the PLP and regional party structures, the EU figures as the time before establishment politics changed, when centrism's leading figures were feted, not scorned, by their party faithful and their words and opinions carried weight. As we have seen time and again they cannot and refuse to orientate themselves to the new situation, and so they cling to what's left of their past. It meant they were allies in the referendum, but are not and could never been any use for reforming and democratising the EU.

Will the EU come out the other side of whatever else the crisis in Italy throws up? More than likely. But that's because of the deep roots of support the EU has sank in core sections of the European electorate. For as long as the commissioners and MEPs strut around, dispensing arrogant advice, for as long as the EU is seen and makes itself seen as the architect of austerity and economic stagnation, its legitimacy problems will keep bubbling up and there will be those on the right willing to exploit them for political capital.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Five Most Popular Posts in May

What were the month's most popular posts according to audience figures? Well ...

1. Labour Friends of Israel
2. Enemies to the Left
3. Understanding the Local Election Logjam
4. Jon Cruddas and 'Blue Marxism'
5. Marx and the Fragment on Machines

Understandably, my blog addressing Labour Friends of Israel's apology for murder attracted most of the attention. And how helpful of them to have gone ahead with an organised jolly for a bunch of Labour MPs. Only an outfit with a moral deficit as deep as Nentanyahu's well for liquid cynicism could have thought it fine and dandy to have gone ahead with the trip. And ditto for the MPs involved, including the "lovely" Andrew Gwynne. Nothing, not even the massacre of unarmed protesters can be allowed to come between a MP and their junket.

In other news there was my piece about the SP's sectarian stance regarding affiliation to the Labour Party. Well boys, and they're nearly all boys, I hope you're proud of yourselves. You managed to help prevent the RMT from rejoining Labour and despite the warm words about "aligning" with the party and so on, the Pythonesque TUSC gets to carry on for at least another year. Also scooting up the ladder was the local elections analysis and, true to form, the commentariat and mainstream politics excelled in demonstrating how bewildered and clueless they are. And last of all were the pair of pieces defending the new left against Jon Cruddas's recent discovery that Marxism exists and he, apparently, is one.

Plans for next month? No clue. I'd like to write more but we'll see. Before signing off then, here's the post getting the second chance treatment. Let's look again at what Ireland's abortion vote means for loyalist politics in the north.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Hardt and Negri on Social Production

Today, production is increasingly social in a double sense: on one hand, people produce ever more socially, in networks of cooperation and interaction; and, on the other, the result of production is not just commodities but social relations and ultimately society itself. This double terrain of social production is where the talents and capacities of people to organise and rule themselves are nurtured and revealed, but it is also where the most important challenges and the most severe forms of domination facing the multitude are in play, including the ruling mechanisms of finance, money, and neoliberal administration.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Assembly p.xv

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

The Unionist Politics of Abortion

Theresa May could never make a likely feminist, as we see with her attitude to abortion in Northern Ireland. In response to pressure from the welcome result of last week's referendum, and facing Labour's calls to extend the law on the mainland to the province, all she can do is mumble that it's a devolved matter. This is nothing more than an excuse for inaction; the North doesn't have a government, power sharing has collapsed and direct rule from Westminster is the order of the day. No, May's "feminism" runs only so far as her DUP friends will let it for they remain implacably opposed to liberalising abortion. And we all know why the Prime Minister wants to keep Arlene Foster and friends sweet.

This, of course, isn't the first time in recent memory the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland was subordinate to the argy bargy of Parliamentary arithmetic. In 2008 a move to extend UK provisions to the north was blocked by ... Harriet Harman. Apparently, women's rights were so much a shibboleth when New Labour wanted to lock suspects up for 42 days without charge, and they needed the DUP's support to get it through the House. Ho hum.

What is more important and interesting is why the DUP cling to the near-ban on abortion. Consider the disposition of the people of Northern Ireland, which is somewhat complex. Drawing on research conducted in 2016, the ESRC-funded ARK project found that 63% of respondents accepted it was a woman's right to choose to have an abortion or not. There are large majorities to allow abortion in cases of foetal abnormality or threat of life to the would-be mother. Notably the agree totals for both were higher among DUP voters than either Sinn Fein or SDLP supporters. However, the same research outlined seven scenarios in which a woman may seek an abortion, ranging from the possibilities above, a pregnancy in the event of rape or incest, (non-lethal) threats to physical and mental health, to just not wanting to have children. ARK found pluralities in favour of abortion in six of the seven cases. The one they didn't was the last with 43% agreeing it should definitely be illegal vs just 17% saying it should definitely be legal. Confusing matters even further, 55% to 33% said women taking abortion pills for not wanting a child should not face criminal charges. 63% also said doctors should not face charges if they performed an abortion, and 70% thought abortion should be a matter of medical regulation not criminal law. What a confusing picture!

Why then do the DUP remain signed up to the ban? Well, the obvious answer is party members agree. It's hardly a stretch to believe that Foster and friends honestly, as much as such a thing exists in unionist circles, subscribes to backward views. And it's just as well, because abortion is inseparable from the DUP's raison d'etre. Originally the insurgent and now the establishment party of unionism, it touts itself as the representative of a "faith community". The party offers a cross-class appeal to a loyalist population defined in, well, loyalist and religious terms by Westminster, the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and the terms of power sharing (and the statelet's political history since its formation), and has a clear commitment to maintaining the basis of the sectarian division of Northern Ireland. Shock horror, that is what unionism has always defended. Unionism, however, has always depended on a certain othering of the Catholic minority and the rest of Ireland to keep the meagre privileges it enjoys. As the weekend's win for abortion reform marks the latest episode in the long secularisation of the Republic, clinging to the abortion ban reinscribes the difference between north and south in different terms. Once, the other was papism, now it's permissiveness and immorality.

Secondly, bringing the north in line with the UK adds an unwelcome secular element to the mix. Unwelcome because as loyalism vs republicanism has so often been framed as an intractable religious conflict between Protestant and Catholic (which is the view of plenty of establishment ignoramuses), lifting the abortion ban and extending reproductive freedom undermines the religious case for the separation of the communities. Take religion completely out of the question and the divide in Northern Ireland appears as what it always has been: a political one. Thus exposed, what's the point of carrying on? The justification for dividing the population up evaporates and, suddenly, the DUP are left defending the indefensible.

Unionism is in trouble anyway. The balls up the Tories are making of Brexit has seen support for it collapse further and the desire for a united Ireland within the EU skyrocket. Culturally, unionism and the sectarian divide is decreasing in relevance for younger people as the social liberalism from within and elsewhere is doing a welcome job of worrying it away. Just as the Tories are out of ideas, the DUP have no clue how to revive support for crumbling unionism except for setting their face against change. And for as long as they keep voting with the government, Theresa May is very happy to let this continue.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Can the Tories Appeal to Young People?

Imagine a hole. Imagine a very deep and very wide hole, a hole so, so wide you can't see the sides. A crater so vast that its inhabitants can convince themselves they don't actually live in a hole. After all, they can see the sky and the horizon is clear. Said hole is the current abode of the Conservative Party. Among the matters to have located them there are internal disunity and their making a complete pig's ear of Brexit. If our electorate wasn't polarised the polls would register the hurt they're doling out. But because we do have a polarised country, there's no hiding from the fact Tory support is drawn disproportionately from declining sections of the population. Some Tories have been brave enough to scout out from their camp and, to their horror, discovered the sides of the hole cutting them off from the rest of the world. And realisation is dawning that it's going to take an awful lot to climb out.

This is the context the Centre for Policy Studies released their latest publication, New Blue: Ideas for a New Generation. This booklet has the brightest among the new intake offering policies they think (hope) will enable the party to connect with the rising generation of voters. As Robert Colville points out in his opening chapter, while 44% of 18-24s say they're certain to not vote Conservative, their attitudes aren't hostile to what he regards as Tory values. They are more likely than older age groups to believe in equal opportunities trump equality as a virtue, a plurality think government tax and spend too much, support the principle of paying for university, support zero hours contracts, and the freedom to of companies to make profits and pay their CEOs high salaries. Leaving aside any criticism we may have of the questioning underpinning the research, on the face of it the Tories are not facing millions of dyed-in-the-wool Corbynists - a point Labour people should also heed. The Tories might have a chance to win enough of them over to keep going.

What are the ideas on show? If you were expecting bold announcements and breaks with current practice, forget it. Don't take my word for it. On housing, for instance, the perennial Tory vote killer among the young (and, increasingly, the not-so young), Bim Afolami weighs in with a land value tax to be paid by landowners whose land has been earmarked for housing development. The monies raised would go to the local community, who would determine how it's spent. A bribe for NIMBYs, if you will. Lee Rowley, seemingly aware of the growing importance immaterial labour calls for "soft skills", collaborative working and critical thinking to be embedded in the curriculum. Helen Whately and Alys Denby note the rising incidences of mental illness among university students and calls for universities to take it more seriously with appropriate support staff, clear signposting of mental health services, and so on. Paul Masterson argues for the introduction of means testing for pensioners, and increasing the floor contribution working people make to pensions to 12% of salary. Nick Denys wants to see a new employment act that clearly defines employer, contractor, self-employed, etc. and wants to link worker representation on company boards to the "depoliticisation" of trade unions. Simon Clarke argues for more community ownership of renewable energy sources (wind, solar) and wants to scrap the effective ban on new on-shore wind turbines. Dolly Theis wants to see a more paternalistic approach to public health, Alan Mak (remember him?) wants to incentivise the move to a paperless NHS, Isabella Gornall wants Clean Air Zones in our cities, Luke Graham revives the idea of regional stock exchanges to facilitate access to capital, Emma Barr wants more mentoring for women to encourage them into politics and, um, on-the-spot digital fines for bad behaviour on social media. And my personal favourite, from Andrew Bowie, is the setting up of digital trails to rebalance the tourist economy away from London. Though, disappointingly, the Potteries do not feature in the plans he provides.

A right mixed bag of ideas, then. Taken in themselves, some of them aren't bad. Yes, you heard me right. Regional stock exchanges isn't, in and of itself, a mad suggestion. Especially alongside regional investment and development banks proposed by Labour. I'm all for deepening immaterial labour, and so yes, teaching soft skills is a very good thing. The state taking a more active interest in public health, encouraging alternative ownership of renewables, addressing the mental health crisis among students, measures to clean up polluted cities, even the trail idea all have something to commend them and are worth nicking where Labour doesn't already offer something better. That said, there are three problems with this collection overall.

The first is the presentation. Look at the contents page and what do you see? A list of authors (mostly new MPs) and the page numbers. To find out what they've written about requires you to go and see. This could just simply be an odd design choice, but it does lend itself to an impression that these essays are profile-raising exercises more than actual contributions to policy debate. The second problem is, well, how safe all the suggestions are. Take mental health and students, for instance. What it doesn't tell you is that all universities, whether they have a comprehensive wellbeing set up or not, find their mental health services massively oversubscribed. Asking institutions to provide more support staff and training is all very well, but in a cutthroat market in which there are plenty of providers but not enough takers - partly thanks to the Tory government's idiot approach to overseas' students - where are the resources coming from? This question can be asked of every single contribution aimed at improving something. IT in the NHS, joined-up public health strategies, bedding down relationship-centred education, you can't do this with a little bit of an incentive here and a target there unless government steps in with cash. And because these are ambitious, young MPs, they're hardly likely to use their introduction to the Westminster policy community by setting their face against the Treasury.

And the last thing, which will surely disappoint Tories concerned about the fate of their party, is the absence of any ideas appropriate to a strategy to reverse the long-term decline. Suppose all these things get in the next manifesto, suppose the Tories are able to limp back into government after the next general election (regrettably, not impossible), none of these policies will appreciably effect their fortunes. These essays do an excellent job of avoiding the predicament they're in and what the Tories need to do to offset oblivion. And that is a policy agenda that is not a race to the bottom, does not expect young people to be cheap and expendable wage slaves, actively builds its way out of the housing crisis, invests in public infrastructure. And, for the Tory party itself, a thorough detoxification that unambiguously embraces social liberalism and casts its hard right into the darkness. Effectively, for the Tories to save themselves in the medium to long-term, they have to stop being Tories. The chances of the party turning their cheek against the Brexit hard right and EU obsessives, the union bashers, the anti-immigration chunterers and assorted other pinheads are next to zero, but that's the direction political necessity is tending. What's it going to be? Is this a reinvention too far?

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Marx and the Fragment on Machines

This, I suppose, is a fragment on fragments. Those bits and pieces of jottings, letters, notes to self, first drafts and other ephemera that accumulate as the debris of writing. When someone, a novelist, thinker, leader, is canonised careers can be made arranging and debating the detritus deposited in a personal (and oft disorganised) archive. Indeed, the very process of establishing somebody as a somebody often draws on this backstage of their careers, giving them weight and significance, dressing them up resplendently, before thrusting the spotlight upon these private thoughts. Few have suffered this more than Marx, of which a veritable industry (now a growth one again) has grown out of his work. As our Blue Marxist friends put it in their Fabians essay, "Marx’s work is unfinished, fragmentary, largely posthumous and received in translation, and accordingly is both rife with misinterpretation and open to radically divergent readings and applications." An opinion all Marxists would, at some level, share.

The extent of Marx's work is vast. From journalism to philosophical polemic, from popular manifestos and resolutions to the unsurpassed achievement of materialist social theory, what was published in Marx's life time was the tip of a vast ice berg. Since his death, almost everything he wrote has been published. The second and third volumes of Capital edited by Engels, the supplementary Theories of Surplus Value, the important Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology, the Theses on Feuerbach, The Grundrisse, and the voluminous correspondence between Marx and Engels, their comrades, contemporaries, and enemies. This has been combed through by amateur and professional quote mongers, and was crudely pilfered by the Stalinists to justify their dictatorships and grotesqueries. As texts were released and became available in translation, so new audiences discovered them with their own theoretical concerns in mind. In Marx, they found pre-emptings of their position and confirmation they were on the right track, or brought Marx's thought to bear on problems he did not consider in depth, and/or could not consider. Plenty wrote books emphasising some aspect of his corpus over others. Humanists and Hegel fans found his youthful drafts of 1844 congenial. Louis Althusser and friends, on the other hand, excommunicated these and all Marx's writing prior to the German Ideology as part of scientific socialism's "pre-history", and that historical materialism, understood as the material analysis of the movement of concrete social dynamics, dated from 1845-6. This was the period in which Marx, well, became a Marxist.

Why this matters to us is because the new left has dipped into Marx's back catalogue itself. In his 1979 book, Marx Beyond Marx, Antonio Negri makes the case for The Grundrisse as his most revolutionary work. It is certainly a pivotal moment in Marx's career because here, in rough form, we find drafts and notes for what were envisaged to be Capital's six volumes, including what would be books on the political economy of the proletariat, the world market and the state. There is some debate about whether he stuck by, junked, or incorporated some or all of this into the volumes that did appear, but that's one for the real Marx geeks. What Negri does, among other things, is introduce the concept of the socialised worker (awkwardly translated as 'social worker') and ties it to the now famous fragment on machines (a fair summary here). To do his argument a little bit of violence, as mechanisation pushes up the rate of exploitation fewer workers are needed, but these workers cannot simply be left to rot without work. Employment in actual factories subsides and the social factory and its reproductive labour picks up the slack. Waged and salaried labour, regardless of its employment by companies, the public sector and, increasingly, the third sector, becomes concerned with the production of information and social relationships.

Marx's Fragment suggests that the machinery of production appears to take on a character all of its own, that machines become involved in automated relationships with one another in which humans are reduced to waiting on their needs, a state of affairs whose origins can be traced to Marx's earlier theory of alienation. As more machines are introduced to increase the rate of exploitation and more workers are squeezed out of production, the amount of labour time it takes for a particular good to be made is driven down. And this is a problem because the average amount of what Marx calls socially necessary labour by humans that goes into a commodity is the basis of its value: it is the key lynchpin of how capitalism works. Therefore capital's drive to raise the rate of exploitation, to increase its share of surplus value is, over the long-term, driving value down. If production becomes entirely automated then no labour time is necessary, and value itself collapses. The problem is as automation gathers pace, so immaterial labour and its production of intangible commodities involves an acceleration of this decline of value. As Paul Mason points out, the information and intellectual properties that are hitherto growth areas for investment and profits see necessary labour time rapidly fall to zero. It might take Ed Sheeran a year to throw out an album. It takes you little time and no labour to download it and send copies to all your friends. Imagine what happens once 3D printing technology matures: the fall to nil labour time can only spread to material goods. Value, therefore, is in deep trouble. Not because technology has reduced labour time to zero across strategic sectors of the economy, but because capital's drive for profits have, even though it's undermining its fundamental, foundational relationships.

You can read this in two ways: that capitalism is doomed and it will collapse under the weight of its contradictions. Or it won't. I'm in the latter camp. It does probably mean that the most dynamic period of capitalism lies in the past, at least where the advanced, metropolitan West and Japan are concerned, and a future of low growth and stagnation is something we can look forward to. The tendency to zero labour time can be offset and struggled against through the elaborate development of intellectual property and licensing laws, as well as emergent forms of value capture, but to go beyond capitalism, to build a society after capitalism requires conscious organisation. In other words, politics.

This brings me back to the curious objection Jon and Frederick make in their Blue Marxism piece. For them, because the Fragment was unpublished, what counts for more is what Marx did publish, which chiefly means Capital. While anyone who aligns with Marx's project would agree that these volumes offer the basis for "any wider politics capable of confronting the issues around value, money and commodification", it has to be said Jon's career as a Labour MP is not noted for taking these issues on. Corbynism on the other hand has smashed the accursed Overton window and allowed for them to be considered by a mass public, introducing large numbers of people to what Marx had to say. Secondly, you can't simply discard rough work without a convincing argument. The Grundrisse after all translates as 'outlines', and what is it outlining? Arguments that made it into Capital and plans and insights that didn't. As Gilles Deleuze put it, "You have to take the work as a whole. to try and follow rather than judge it, see where it branches out in different directions, where it gets bogged down, moves forward, makes a breakthrough: you have to accept it, welcome it, as a whole." (Negotiations, p.85). To continue with the theme and give Marx's overall oeuvre a Deleuzian twist, they are an assemblage of published and unpublished texts that stand in tension, connect at times well, at times awkwardly with one another, but as a system of differences they are pregnant with lines of flight that overspill the intentions of the author, and anyone who tried turning Marxism into a straitjacket. There's a very good reason why, in the USSR at the height of Stalin's reign, reading Capital alone was disallowed.

Ultimately though, Jon can call on Frederick's Marxological services as much as he wants. The position of The Fragment in Marx's work is, if you'd pardon an on-topic pun, immaterial. Had The Grundrisse never made it to the Moscow archives and thence Progress Publishers, or The Fragment ended up as kindling to light the hard-up Marx family's fire, it doesn't matter. Using Marxist analysis to work out what has happened to capitalism over the post-war period, the growing dominance of immaterial labour and the production of intangibles, the tendency for necessary labour time to trend toward zero because of the intensification of exploitation and with it a decline in the law of value, this would have been discerned sooner or later by Marxists and in Marxian terms. After all, non-Marxist and bourgeois writers and economists have cottoned on to these trends too and made sense of them within their own schemas. Ultimately, fixating on the provenance of The Fragment and whether it is or isn't properly Marxist is for the birds. What matters is the situation Marx foresaw is now with us and the job of the new left is to do what the new left is doing: analysing it, critiquing it, creating new concepts to deal with it, and assembling a new left politics that can confront it. The new left is using Marx as a guide and an inspiration, not an excuse to sit paralysed, nostalgically pining for a class politics and a pure Marxism that never existed.