Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Labour and a Second Referendum

John McDonnell's remarks aren't official Labour Party policy, but let's run with them. We know Theresa May's Brexit deal won't pass muster in the Commons, regardless of TV debates and threatening backbenchers with imminent doom. What happens next?

We are seeing a convergence between the reality wing of the Tories and leading Labour lights around a Plan B. This deal is a proper soft Brexit, an arrangement based loosely around Norway's relationship with the EU, and was previously an option available earlier in negotiations (but dismissed by May in her monomaniacal obsession with immigration). Given the cavalier way with which the PM had approached negotiations, this is looking like the only sane alternative that can be pulled together in short order - EU declarations of May's deal being the final deal notwithstanding. But how to handle the politics?

I think now it's time for Labour's constructive ambiguity to end. The party's call for a general election is fine, but we need to be clear about why. As we stare down the barrel of an entirely unnecessary national emergency, Labour should set out its stall. The party should be agitating for an Article 50 extension. This might upset the Brexiteers, but they're less than satisfied with May's position anyway and are inclined to accept that more time is needed to come up with a better deal. Though, of course, Norway with added extras is hardly the stuff of which nationalist delusions of an "independent Britain" are made, but it might be acceptable to the bulk of Labour leavers. Secondly, we need to be open that Norway plus is the only flavour of Brexit that meets Keir Stamer's six tests. This is politically acceptable to most remainers, moderate leavers, and has the virtue of uniting most of Labour, bringing on board the SNP and LibDems, exacerbates the internal splits in the Tories, and puts the Irish border issue to bed permanently. It allows for the possibility of Labour to hegemonise Brexit away from the little Englander fantasies of the right. And finally, Labour should say that it is prepared to put its negotiated deal to the public vote. No messing about or nonsense, it would be a simple take it or leave it - Labour's Brexit or no Brexit.

Yes, a general election isn't likely, but a map of what happens next can start winning people over to a clear way out of the mess. However, as John notes in his remarks, what happens if there isn't a general election? "Our policy is if we can’t get a general election, then the other option which we’ve kept on the table is a people’s vote", he said. As noted before, getting one through the Commons would be difficult but stands more of a chance than May's deal has. And provided it's an either or proposition, May's deal vs no Brexit, it avoids issues with ambiguity and legitimacy a three option referendum would have - and one ludicrously argued for by people who should know better.

Again, this doesn't happen in a vacuum. This is politics, not technics. As argued previously, Labour coming out against Brexit and being seen to thwart the "people's will" would have gifted the Tories a great opportunity to firm up their vote and provide them an in with Labour leavers. "You don't like us", might go the call, "but we're the ones delivering your referendum vote". With many leavers openly broadcasting their dislike for May's deal, and going so far as to say staying in the EU is better than this, they are articulating a sense of getting cheated and, crucially, prising at the cracks in the leaver bloc. That pain, that responsibility is uniquely the Tories precisely because Labour steered clear of opposing Brexit. And so Labour's room for manoeuvre has widened. If a second vote comes before the Commons, Labour's support for it will not cost anywhere near as much damage as it would have done six months, two months, even a month ago.

The second issue is what happens to the leave voters. Yes, some of them will be extremely angry and the possibility of resuscitating UKIP or something worse can't be ruled out. Labour's business, among other things, is not to make life more difficult for itself. Yet here too, I think May's deal has taken the sting out of possible opposition. This constituency, particularly the older, right-leaning Brexiteers, are tending toward Brexit fatigue and are just as likely - if not more so - to register their disappointment with Brexit's outcome by staying at home and not giving any party time of day than sign up with a rebooted BNP. Again, the hard right balloon has been allowed to deflate because the Tories were afforded space to wrexit Brexit on their own terms.

Neither path to a second referendum is without risk, though the rewards are greater if Labour is seen to take leadership on Brexit than where the party is merely responding to events. Nevertheless, in either case the situation Labour had to manage has changed. If you like, the zone of Brexit non-punishment has expanded. The constructive ambiguity it maintained, often in the face of terrific pressure, is approaching the end of its useful life. We need not be hemmed in by it any more, and the second vote can be a live, viable option.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Theresa May's TV Debate Stunt

What was Theresa May's game? Running scared of head-to-head TV debates during the general election, and coming off second in the debates-by-proxy that did happen, why issue a live debate challenge to Jeremy Corbyn? Well, it turns out this isn't happening because Number 10 has reeled the kite in and sent out a blanket denial. Oh well.

From the standpoint of the Tories, however, such a debate isn't as kamikaze as it initially appears. There are two good reasons that present themselves. The first, which gained traction in media comment throughout the day is the belief May could and would win such a debate. On the points of detail of all 585 pages of her dreadful deal, there are few beyond the civil servants who negotiated it and the wonks who've pored over it who know the details as well as her. Dominic Raab was the Brexit secretary, but we know he wasn't really the Brexit secretary. May is in a strong position to highlight paragraph 18 of Annex E to make it appear as if the Labour leader hasn't done his homework. Another punch the PM might have hurled Jez's way is Brexit fatigue, as noted yesterday. Millions are fed up with Brexit and May is going to spend the next few weeks presenting herself as the Prime Minister who wants to shut it down, and JCorbz as the politician wanting to prolong it for party political reasons.

Naturally, Labour responded enthusiastically to May's offer. Unlike Prime Minister's Questions where May has a degree of control over its simulacrum of debate, any host worth their salt would have steered the discussion as they see fit. Some of it will be on May's terms. Some of it on Corbyn's, and Labour was banking that would be an opening to talk about wider political issues. Austerity, obviously, and what this means for hospitals, education, policing, etc. Brave is a PM who wants to go toe-to-toe with Labour on the cusp of another winter beds' crisis. Which is probably one contributing factor behind the challenge's hasty withdrawal.

Nevertheless, while this is an opportunity lost May's cold feet could mean Labour dodged a particularly nasty bullet. She's got nothing to lose. Thanks to her weakness and the awfulness of Brexit, her leadership position is as unassailable as it is untenable, and so it trundles on. However, if May was clever - and one should never underestimate a Tory's capacity for low cunning - getting Corbyn on a public platform in front of a live TV audience to agree with May and unambiguously rule out a second referendum might put a dent into Labour's support. This is the Scottish strategy - the Tories were toxic in Scotland and so during the referendum campaign they hugged Scottish Labour so close that the stench rubbed off and, well, we know what happened next. By sharing Brexit, by shifting some of the responsibility for the farcical negotiations and its ridiculous outcome onto the shoulders of Labour, May would have had the chance to spread the pain and hobble Corbyn in the same way the Tories are hobbled.

Chances of a TV debate now happening are about the same as May's deal has of getting through the Commons, yet the Tories may come to regret abandoning their gambit. Going one-on-one is a tricky business, but not just for May and co. It presents a considerable risk to Labour too.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Is the Conservative Party about to Die?

Call me perverse, call me morbid. For years I've looked forward to attending a funeral. This isn't to mark the death of some hated acquaintance or public figure. No, the dream is the demise of an institution, the entirely welcome expiration of the Conservative Party. I want to be there when it is lowered into the ground, to make sure the earth is heaped upon its blasted coffin and check, check, and check again that this is final. A happy time to be sure, and something to anticipate with relish. But given recent events, could it be that Brexit has hastened the glorious day? Are the Tories on a brink of a collapse they might never recover from?

Well, this last week hasn't done much for the continued good health of the party. Theresa May's deal has had the nod from the EU27, and in a further boost to her position there is no appetite to reopen negotiations should May's deal fall in the Commons. Words she obviously wanted to hear, as the whips' office think such claims will help get it through. The problem is as the week has progressed, the number of Tory MPs indicating they will vote against has totted upwards every day. And no succour is coming from the Labour benches either. Lisa Nandy, one of the soft left MPs most prone to voting for whatever nonsense May returned with, ruled out doing so on Sophy Ridge this morning. Only the foolhardy or the suicidal would march through the aye lobby with May and her loyalists.

Theresa May's open letter "to the British people" has to be seen in this context. With MPs reluctant and sure to vote it down, she hopes an appeal over their heads is enough to mobilise a groundswell of pressure that will force the honourable members to think again. It did, after all, work with big business. This letter, however, is pitched more in a leave direction than the supposed plea for national unity it affects to be. We're promised "an end to the free movement of people once and for all" and a points system for immigration. The NHS is going to be (no, is) funded to the tune of an extra £394m a week. Control over "our waters" is on the cards, and rights of ex-pats are protected, and then we have some waffle about coming together as a people to tackle other big issues.

A triumph of political communication it is not, but it's sufficiently woolly and vacuous to get the likes of the Express and Mail on board. What May is banking on is less an argument but more Brexit fatigue. There are millions of people for whom the last few years was "too much politics", and they are fed up of having Brexit ramming the headlines and crowding out almost everything else. These tend to be the same folks as those who think leaving the EU is a simple business and can't fathom why negotiations have taken so long, nor why the UK is even bothering with them in the first place. After all, we were alright before we joined the Common Market and we'd no doubt be alright if we weren't in it. May is trying to appeal to this constituency by promising an end to Brexit by delivering it, though she neglects to mention the fine print: the putative trade deal is going to eat up government business and ensure Brexit weighs like a nightmare on popular consciousness for years to come.

Though we're dealing with hypotheticals here, because even with the weight of the "business community", the EU27, and attempts to appeal directly to the country May's deal isn't going to pass. We're entering into paralysis territory. Or not, if the Sunday Telegraph is to be believed. Just as we have seen a cabinet-within-the-cabinet of the Brexiteers - Mordaunt, Gove, Fox, Grayling, Leadsom - there is an anti-group, a diametrically opposed Gang of Five. Grouped behind the chancellor, they have a Plan B in the drawer which would see the UK assume a Norway-style relationship with the EU. i.e. Single market rule taker with specific opt-outs (in Norway's case, the Common Fisheries Policy). It is suggested that if May looks like she'd going down the road of a no deal Brexit, Hammond and friends will blow up the government by quitting en bloc.

This is where the death of the Tory party currently constituted comes into play. May has made the sorts of concessions on Northern Ireland and Gibraltar that would have the tabloid press screaming traitor if a Labour government had done it. And yet it has sent a ripple of consternation through the party ranks and, with any luck, among its support as well. When the deal falls, which it will, an attempt by the Brexiteers to make a second attempt spikier isn't going to work, but is sure to alienate the remainers. And if May goes along with Hammond's plan, which is by far the most sensible "solution" from the standpoint of the UK's economic stability, then the leavers are left feeling pig sick. Both eventualities point toward a damaging split and a wrecking of the Tory party as we know it presently. The route to avoiding catastrophic damage, ironically, goes through the very deal leave and remain Tories find appalling and unacceptable. At least that has the virtue of deferring their preferred Brexit destinations for another day.

History has taught us to be wary about betting against the Conservative Party. Its unparalleled record of electoral success, its uncanny ability to move just enough with the times, and the impressive record it has convincing millions of ordinary people that the party of the shrinking minority interest is best at looking out for them has to command grudging admiration. But every time it has faced a crisis, the roots of its revival are present. Presently, the Tories are toxic to approximately half the population and throughout the Brexit negotiations has worked to prise apart the ideological glue of its own voter coalition. Going full-on populist under a new leader is unlikely to exceed the numbers May won in 2017, and tacking left to capture the rising class of voters means abandoning the right and allowing the core to implode further. It's very difficult to see how the Tories can escape when the path back to stability is permanently closed. No deal brings chaos. May's deal brings chaos. No Brexit brings chaos. These last few weeks have accelerated the crisis in the party, and, happily, the destruction of the Tories cannot be ruled out.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Armin van Buuren - Communication

Juggling between a piece on Stoke's richest woman and so-called "cultural Marxism", and with other deadlines creeping up I've abandoned the blogging field tonight to let the music do the talking. Back to the vintage year off 1999 (where else?) comes this, one of the greatest trance records ever made. Crank it up.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Brexit in Crisis

Brexit is in crisis. Arguably, it has been since 52% of the voting public returned a Leave verdict in June 2016. Yet what we have had up until, well, a couple of weeks ago is something of a phony war. Now, the politics has played out so every position - no deal/hard, May's deal, and soft/remain sit poised upon a mountain of gunpowder. At any moment, a spark could fall that blows up one position. Or, perhaps, all three.

One welcoming consequence of the chaos is the temporary neutering of the Brexit hard right. That's perhaps being generous, Theresa May has routed them and rubbed their nose in a very public humiliation. If only she'd done this 12 months ago the negotiations might not have turned out to be such a mess. Consider their behaviour this last year. The hard right, the team of Mogg and co, have repeatedly approached Number 10 with veiled threats, and an exaggerated puffing of their influence. Look how many people we have on our WhatsApp group, say more leaks than I care to remember. How many attended x secret briefing, according to anonymous sources, and what a great organiser Steve Baker is for having the capacity to text several dozen ERG-supporting MPs simultaneously, coos every Tory journalist to have ever talked up his political skills. For a while, sure, the hard Brexit scam worked and May was spooked. But at some point she realised the weakness of her position was actually a strength. The ERG didn't have the numbers to win a no-confidence, and hilariously, after much grand standing they can't even muster the 48 MPs to touch off a vote against May in the first place. Piss up, brewery, etc.

On the remain/soft Brexit side, a second vote looks far away. May's deal looks like it can't get through the Commons, but if a general election is even more of a stretch then another referendum is out there on the out edges of possibility, regardless of marches and what have you. And the way some hard remainers have latched on to May's sudden invocation of abandoning the whole thing is indicative of a sort of restless desperation. Since May started talking about the choice in terms of there being no deal, her deal, or no Brexit at all, this is less a triumph of the pressure the campaign has exerted but more a gambit aimed at her own side, the DUP, and the Labour leavers on the benches opposite. It is simply her way of saying to them that you either back her deal, or we pack the whole thing in and stay in the EU. She's using the exact same manoeuvre in discussing no deal in the same breath in order to win over Tory and Labour remainers - a stratagem that has bagged at least one Liberal Democrat so far.

And there is May's position. Universally panned and mauled at today's Prime Minister's Questions, it nevertheless has business backing (another win for "any deal ...") and, she hopes, the signatures of the heads of the EU27 at the Brussels summit this Sunday. Forget the machinations of Leadsom, Mordaunt, Gove et al within the cabinet, they're not going to change the text now EU leaders are actively considering it - Angela Merkel has declared it needs to be sorted within 48 hours, and she's the boss. Assuming the sign off happens, which looks likely, that slightly increases the odds of the deal's passage being a successful one. Rightly, May has calculated the weight of business will sway some recalcitrant MPs on all sides of the House. Likewise, getting the official imprimatur from the EU could move some of the Europhiles into the aye column. Centrist Tories, liberals, and Labour people might look at the deal rather differently if that nice Mr Verhofstadt is urging MPs back it,

It's still looking dicey, though. The odds are stacked against May winning out. Therefore, a seizing up of the parliamentary machinery is very possible. Neither can we rule out the possibility of "oppositionists" not just flaking, but abstaining altogether, or May losing one vote, letting chaos reign for a fortnight or so, and then returning with the same deal which, she'd hope, a chastened Commons would then vote through. With so much at stake for May's career, her place in history, the future of the Tory party, and the UK's relationship with its biggest trading partner, it is incredible that at this very late stage no one really knows which way it's going to go.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Business and Brexit

Any deal is better than a bad deal. That about summed up the mood at the Confederation of British Industry annual conference earlier today. Theresa May will have accepted that as an endorsement of her plan, after the worst week a sitting Prime Minister Westminster has seen for about 60 years. She will take the sideswipe at Jeremy Corbyn by chief exec Carolyn Fairburn as a jolly consolation. But as the voice of British business, what does their own statement have to say about Brexit, and British big capital's view of ongoing political instability?

Contrary to the puff pieces you find in the press, business does not like uncertainty at all. In general it is risk averse, conservative, and craves stability. Given the historic reputation of the Conservative Party, they should fit one another like a hand slips into a glove. And yet, right now, they don't. Irony is having its fun with history again, for the Conservatives are an acute vector of instability and it's only Labour that has a credible plan for business. And so the CBI's bar for an insurance against no deal is pretty low. They know, come what may, the Tories would much rather clobber working people and the poor than allowing any of their money to be harmed by the Brexit process, so they could pretty much accept whatever boiled tripe Theresa May would serve up. And so a deal that avoids a cliff edge, check, and a foundation for negotiating a trade deal, also check.

The key is the transitional period. They write, "this transition is extendable by the UK, we can choose when to move to a new trade arrangement and ensure firms, citizens and government are ready when we do." That means, assuming the deal is piloted through the Commons with more care than May has shown throughout the negotiation period - a very big ask - then on 30th March next year the planes won't be grounded and everything carries on as before. One suspects their hope is the transition will become semi-permanent as trade talks inevitably grind on, and on, and on, and by the end of it we'll end up back in the EU anyway. And when a trade deal does arrive, the arrangement "businesses want to be based on frictionless borders, services access and a say for the UK over future rules." Have cake and eat it is alive and well at the CBI.

As the CBI notes, May's deal is imperfect. Though they may want to reflect on the state aid implications. Economic turbulence hasn't gone away and it's not just Marxist economists who are talking about the seeds of a new system shock. There may come a time when the CBI's biggest members make like the banks and go cap in hand to the state. Though, of course, this only applies if the transition expires without extension and no shiny new trade deal is in place. It is unlikely the provisions of the backstop will come into play as a comprehensive arrangement is in the interests of the UK and EU. Though, remember, we're dealing with a political process here and not a technocratic exercise. The EU are much likely to stick to their guns around state aid provisions if they end up negotiating with a Corbyn-led Labour government than a Tory government led by anyone.

The sticking point for the CBI, however, is May's obsession with immigration. In "Shippers" account of the year in politics following the EU referendum, he argues the Prime Minister's approach to the less well off "simmered with the determined rage of one disgusted by injustice" (Fall Out, p.xxvii). Except if you arrived here in 1950s or 60s, earn below £30k and hail from overseas, or are down for a salary of less than £18k and cannot bring over your non-EU partner, you are undeserving of May's sympathy. The author of the "hostile environment", the scourge of international students, and now characteriser of EU citizens as "queue jumpers" is as inflexible on immigration as the latest tin pot BNP fuhrer or whoever's leading UKIP this week. The obvious problem for many businesses, particularly low wage labour intensive enterprises, is tough curbs on migration means their business model collapses. Paying out higher wages for that meet the floor price of domestic labour markets, or automation, costs money, and is something they'd rather not do. The low wage, low skill economy suits them well thank you very much. Their fear is more controls reduces labour supply, leading to shortages and full employment, and therefore a rise in costs. It doesn't work like that - for as long as trade union organisation is weak the price of labour will be comparatively low - but enough business people are schooled in the dismal distortions of bourgeois economics to believe it to be true, and therefore something to be avoided.

And so for the CBI, as a remain outfit, May's deal offers a way through to preserving the status quo as much as possible. Indeed, their backing will be wielded by the Tory whips to bludgeon and cajole their MPs in the same way the threat of a Corbyn government is used as the most frightful bogey. Unfortunately, as some Labour MPs listen more to the CBI than the TUC, they too will be amenable to arguments of this stripe. But the chances of getting her deal through are incredibly low, so what then for the CBI? It's either no deal territory, or a general election with, in all likelihood, a Labour government ready to clean up the Tory mess. The Labour Party saved their system during the financial crisis. It could well end up rescuing their bacon again, all because the Tories are too fractured and decadent to arrive at a deal - any deal - with the EU.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Was New Labour Neoliberal?

There's a weird sort of revisionism going on. We're three years into Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party, and during that time all the received wisdom that governed the Coalition Government years and before - mine included - has gone into the wheelie bin and carted off to land fill. The new politics, characterised by polarisation, the return of big ideas, and the rude intrusion of masses of people into politics, isn't to everyone's taste. The big losers on the Labour side have been the small l liberals and the big N Neoliberals, variously grouped together under the heading of centrism. They still don't know how to explain what has happened to politics, they are certainly stumped when it comes to understanding the appeal and drivers of Corbynism. They are trapped on a treadmill, fooling themselves into thinking that they're moving forward when they remain rooted to the spot.

Unless one is committed to remaining ignorant of understanding what's going on, our present situation has to be located in what went before. Understanding Corbynism means grasping what happened to the Labour party in the preceding decades, its relationship to the constituencies the party articulates, and always the shape and character of political struggle. The means, as always, is class analysis. But by shining a light onto the past to grasp the continuities and ruptures with the present, histories are unearthed and claims are made that make current protagonists in our political dramas feel uneasy. And one of these is Tony Blair, New Labour, and its relationship to neoliberalism. This invites a number of responses. Some deny the very existence of neoliberalism, as per the learned and decorated Professor Colin Talbot who reckons it's a barrier to clear thinking and analysis (ahem). Then there is another school typified by John McTernan and a motley crew of Labour First-types and Blair loyalists: neoliberalism may exist, but whatever it is New Labour wasn't.

Glen O'Hara's latest pamphlet, for the Tony Blair Institue for Global Change, is of the latter school. Concentrating on New Labour's domestic front, he argues that its dismissal as a neoliberal outfit leads to a simplistic view of Labour's past, diminishes the achievements it accomplished in office, and runs the risk of defining the party against a phantom of what it used to be vs the real Tory monster squatting on the government benches. However, by emphasising what it isn't Glen's chosen method misses the important continuities with what went before.

We all need a definition of neoliberalism, and so after sifting through the different emphases different thinkers place on different aspects, Glen settles on that produced by Will Davies. It is
an attempt to replace political judgement with economic evaluation, including, but not exclusively, the evaluations offered by markets ... The central defining characteristic of all neoliberal critique is its hostility to the ambiguity of political discourse, and a commitment to the explicitness and transparency of quantitative, economic indicators, of which the market price system is the model. (The Limits of Neoliberalism, 2017: pp 4-5)
Unfortunately, in assessing whether New Labour was neoliberal or not Glen applies this too narrowly. He evaluates the record in government in terms of whether policy was defined by the drive to quantification, and favouring market competition over other forms of collective provision. The beginning of New Labour's record then begins with the dispersal of the state, or what Glen refers to as 'de-centring outwards'. This, as we have seen involves the hiving off of state functions to alternative providers. This can lead to competition, tensions, and rivalries among the various aspects of the dispersed state but the centre - government - exercises command over them via commissioning and regulating agencies, backed up by central authority. This set up started under Thatcher and Major, and carried on under Blair. Here the system as finessed and sharpened, with the introduction of clear targets into the public services. New Labour also kept on the Tory Private Finance Initiative and used these schemes, which kept borrowing off the public accounts' sheets but cost the taxpayer significantly more in the long run, to rebuild public infrastructure. Acknowledging the draw backs of audit culture, the contracting out of managing public services to private firms, and PFI, once the culture was bedded in we saw a rapid implementation of investment, new construction and, crucially, improvement in services. In effect, these were not simply taken over from the Tories but repurposed to socially progressive and more egalitarian ends.

The rest of the pamphlet carries on in a similar vein. Over the period of government, Labour increased public spending. Funds going to the NHS jumped from 6.1% to 7.9% of GDP, for instance. Education went from 4.5% to 5.6%, and there were real terms increases in funding of policing to the tune of 3.8%/year - slightly below the Tories own funding of 4% between 1979 and 1997. When it came to the other public services though, New Labour significantly outspent their predecessors. This for Glen was matched by a "new contract between consumers and providers". The era of centralised targets moved toward localised commissioning in which, ideally, the public funds would follow the consumer as they accessed services. This underpinned the choice agenda in the NHS, for instance. As Glen puts it,
There was little sense here of a neoliberal emphasis on self-adjusting economic mechanisms that could govern the relationship between citizen and state as they did between retailer and customer. It was more that the state had to improve its performance to meet a moral—not a financial—contract with communities and families.
And following these agendas, crime fell and public services improved. Also crucial here was a commitment to equality, of using mechanisms like education action zones and health zones to target spending and intervention to overcome legacies of deprivation. This coincides with academisation, particularly in poorer areas, and Glen is agnostic as to whether their "freedom" from local education authorities or the injection of cash and making it an area of high policy priority helped turn the situation around in many deprived communities. Also introducing Sure Start centres, and introducing longer maternity leave and paternity leave helped address some of these issues: educational inequalities started narrowing and infant mortality rates dropped. Furthermore, working tax credits, pension credits, more universal benefits, and poverty among the elderly and the young fell.

Nevertheless, Glen accepts that New Labour speak with its talk of targets, prudence, incentivisation, markets and the rest, with the heavy emphasis on employability certainly gives a neoliberal impression. But then again its achievements in spending, public sector renewal, and opening up opportunities to hitherto excluded minorities suggest something a bit more complex. In summing up New Labour's achievements, Glen notes it took a bit of everything from everywhere and given its track record, referring to it as a neoliberal administration is absurd.

Glen's recounting of New Labour's record is broadly correct and largely balanced. For folks new to politics and unfamiliar with the ins and outs, the low down is worth a read. However, what is missing from the account is its authoritarianism. It was not as crass as the pseudo-Victorian nonsense of the Thatcher years, nor was it socially conservative. But, to use a Blair euphemism, it practised "compassion with a hard edge". What this meant in practice is if the unemployed or other social security recipients did not match up to arbitrary "employability" criteria, they met with sanctions. This was not an epiphenomenon of the New Labour years, it took over the vocationalism introduced into education and social security by the Tories and made it their own. The emphasis on choice, be it school, university, or which hospital to go to were entirely consistent with this approach to individualism. We might live in communities and we might not be atomised, but support is only forthcoming to those who help themselves. This authoritarianism was, at times, stridently moral. Caroline Flint, for example, floated the idea of linking council tenancy to work readyness. Though not adopted, this was well within the grain of New Labour thinking. You'll remember the desire to introduce ID cards, extension of stop and search, detention without charge laws, the use and abuse of anti-terror legislation, snooping councils, the heavy-handed surveillance and antagonism of Muslim communities, and happily going along with anti-immigration rhetoric to try and outflank the Tories and the then stirring far right.

Well, if New Labour were authoritarian then surely it couldn't be neoliberal, what with its emphasis on the freedom of the individual? Wrong. Neoliberalism was pioneered in Chile under Pinochet before coming to the rest of the West. Neoliberal economics sits easily with tyrants as various as Vladimir Putin, the Saudi monarchy and, to a lesser extent, the Beijing bureaucrats. Jair Bolsonaro wants to shoot people and build a government in the image of past Brazilian military juntas, but he's totally down with letting the market rip through Brazil's institutions and, tragically, the Amazon rain forest.

All this becomes bewildering unless your analysis of neoliberalism is grounded in an appreciation of how class struggle develops and moves. that is, once neoliberalism is understood as less one kind of economic policy among others, but a managerial strategy: one dedicated to the reproduction and strengthening of prevailing class relations. In this respect, New Labour, despite its achievements in reducing poverty and renovating public services is entirely consistent with this. There are two aspects to neoliberalism. The first is the economic programme, an ideal type of curtailing public spending, privatisation, and using the state to create new markets. At various intervals of New Labour's time in office, it did all of these things and, you will recall, was extremely reluctant to nationalise Northern Rock at the outset of the crisis and promised "cuts worse than Thatcher's" days before the 2010 general election. More significant, however, was the inculcation of neoliberal subjectivity, of forcing institutions to treat us as if we were human beings of a particular type. That is, effectively, mini-capitalists who are acquisitive, make rational choices to maximise individual gain, and follow a path through life that is consistent with accumulation logic. Employability and work readiness, choice, setting up a false dichotomy between producer interests and the consumer.

This is pretty obvious when approaching trade unions, which don't get a mention in Glen's piece. As a Labour government you would expect some enhancement of the institutions that gave birth to the party, right? No. Not only did New Labour rhetoric suggest there was something unseemly about the role of unions in public life, never mind high politics, Blair and co. wanted as much distance from them as possible. It was more than an impression. Unions were identified with the "producer interest" and were therefore barriers to what the government was trying to achieve, especially in the public services. Never mind that what unions were asking for, as per the reneged upon Warwick Agreements, were material improvements to the lot of their members which, in turn, would benefit working people as a whole. No, while keeping contact to unions to a minimum, the kinds of workplace reforms New Labour handed down enhanced individual, not collective interests. More time off for a new born or hospital appointments, great. But significant and far reaching reform that would allow the union movement freedom to organise effectively in the workplace? No. And what is more, there were industrial disputes - holding down the wages of firefighters, attacking civil service pensions, and taking on the posties to soften up Royal Mail for privatisation - immediately spring to mind. There was even the disgusting spectacle of a Labour government farming out miners' injury compensation schemes to the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. New Labour in power inculcated neoliberal individualism, used the power of the state to promote it wherever it could, and ignored its base. The economy grew and public services got better, but it politically immiserated the movement of which it is part, with dire consequences for the Blairist ruling faction later.

I'm not going to berate Glen for failing to write a Marxist account of New Labour's record, but at the very least it required some sociological context and More consideration of not what was going on in New Labour policy brains, but rather what kind of minds the New Labour project was concerned to encourage. "Economics are the method. The object is to change the soul", as Thatcher once noted. The question is was the neoliberal soul made possible by her batons, her police charges, her council house sell offs and utility privatisations left intact and pushed further during the the New Labour years? The obvious answer is yes.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Big Charity as Big Capital

1. Big charities discharge a number of functions. Their raison d'etre is the provision of some sort of service and/or support for certain groups of recipients. It may be a cold, grey, loveless thing as Clem Atlee put it, but unfortunately their works are often important and necessary. Especially when, for whatever reason, the state refuses to step in and charity makes up the short fall. Simultaneously, the cause is a charity's call sign. It exists because a need exists, and the worthier the need is perceived the more feted the charity becomes. It comes to epitomise a certain selflessness, almost a saintliness, and this serves, by accident or design, the shield big charity from criticism and critical analysis - something serial abusers are well aware of.

2. Fundraising is the infrastructure on which the superstructure of service discharge depends, and this is big business. Here, charities share a number of features with capital in general. For all intents and purposes, they look like capital, behave like capital, and competes like capital. It has to accumulate or go under. It must compete in the charity market place for funds. It is compelled to rationalise its organisation to maximise commercial performance. And it has to have commodities to sell, which would be the bric-a-brac of goods millions of people have donated to charities in the course of a year.

3. The separation of service and fundraising varies from charity to charity. Obviously, cause has to be central to the commercial operation. Donations are not given on the basis of preferring one charity brand over another, but because of what a charity does. The cause markets the charity.

4. A contract of employment is the legal right for an employer to make use of your labour power as they see fit in return for a wage. Your body and your mind are directed to ends that are not your own and wouldn't necessarily follow on your own volition. In this respect, a charity is an employer like any other. There is hierarchy. There is authority. And there is power. If you don't like this, the door isn't bolted. You can leave any time.

5. Charities don't employ people out of, well, charity. On the fundraising arm, employees campaign, fundraise, and manage commercial enterprises. These activities generate value over and above the value of their wages and salaries, and have to consistently to keep the show on the road. The specific details may differ from conventional employment, but what the wage relation obscures (or doesn't), how accumulation is embedded in surplus value, is very much present.

6. As employers, charities are no slouches when it comes to managerial reward. Because of the "marketplace", so the argument goes, even charities have to offer big salaries to capture top calibre professionals, and offer star fundraisers inducements to raise even more.

7. Meanwhile, the bulk of employed charity workers are low waged. Here, the ideology of cause is a useful technology for keeping the price of labour down. Asking for a wage rise means that's money not going to the hospice, or whatever. Replicating the hypocritical logics of labour markets generally, it's only those at the top who respond to and deserve material incentives. Those further down are expected to get on for the love of it.

8. Charities have and continue to be enthusiastic champions of agency work, zero hours contracts, and precarious work. In the name of accumulate to alleviate, charities can and do avail themselves of the most exploitative employment practices to hold costs down. And they get away with it knowing that, as a rule, they are more likely to attract applicants for vacancies who are drawn to them for the same reason why people donate money and goods.

9. Voluntary labour for charities is a boon, at least on paper. The problem is because this labour is freely given it is unstable. The absence of a wage does not tie the voluntary worker to managerial command because the means of their subsistence lies outside this particular "employer"/"employee" relationship. For every golden, solid, punctual volunteer there are others who are not dependable, refuse to take direction at work, and/or prove very difficult to manage. Their 100% surplus labour is mitigated by the episodic, chancey character of their exploitation and by soaking up time in supervision from the employed members of staff.

10. In the 1990s various commentators used to talk about the rise of the campaigning charity. It would have been more accurate to have described that time as the coming of the neoliberal charity. However, neoliberalism has developed into a sort of Keynesianism for charities. As the state has withdrawn and created markets in a number of areas of service provision, charities have bid for and won such contracts. These public contracts gradually become a more important and secure means of securing funds. This begets dependence, it begets submission to the state's regulatory mechanisms, and before you know it they are operationally independent but de facto part of the state. Like other sections of big capital, big charity becomes fused with it.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

How Theresa May Could Survive

The moment of decision is with us and the Tories are in a state of collapse. Two cabinet ministers and four juniors have gone. Theresa May's presentation of her deal to the Commons received next to no support, and speculation abounds that enough no-confidence letters have gone to the 1922 Committee. "Scribble, scribble, Mr Gibbon" replied Jacob Rees-Mogg to Channel Four's political correspondent when asked if he was one of the Tory MPs to have submitted a letter. And so, for the fourth time in four years - the eve of the Scottish independence referendum, the immediate fall out of the Brexit vote, the 2017 general election, and now May's Brexit deal - establishment politics has lost its collective head.

There are two questions in front of us now. Will May survive, and can her deal get through parliament? To answer both requires a recapitulation of her political position. The unexpected loss of her majority shattered her authority and blew apart the sham unity of her party. One moment she was the ruler of all that she surveyed, and in the next her claims to leadership were utterly shot. This remains the case. She has her allies, but May is certainly not popular on the government benches and among the fast contracting party base. And yet, perversely, the weakness of her position is a strength. The factional splintering of the parliamentary organisation meant no one faction possessed (and possesses) sufficient strength to command the allegiance of others. The Cameroons are too liberal and too remainy. Boris Johnson's figure is a turn on for some, but a bromide for many. The European Research Group are too unhinged to win potential converts outside their ideological cult, and the tiny followings assembled around minor actors in the unfolding drama offer nothing except another suit to front up a disintegrating outfit. They not only balance and, therefore, cancel each other out, not one of them would grasp the nettle of Number 10 while difficulties lie ahead. I mean, can you imagine a wastrel like Johnson staying up late for negotiations, managing recalcitrant honourable members, and absorbing testy, belligerent, and wounding criticism from his own side? No, me neither.

The situation we have then is one of inverted Bonapartism. This concept of Marx's is usually applied to understand political situations where the central, state authority is strong. The growth, autonomy and dominance of an overweening state is thanks to the mutual weakness and exhaustion of contending classes. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany are species of this kind. In the curious case of Theresa May, it's her weakness vis a vis the strength of her rivals, and their inability and unwillingness to call time on her premiership that affords her a semblance of authority and, therefore, command. Belatedly, May has come to appreciate this position and the room for manoeuvre it affords her. Witness how she went from appeasing the hard Brexiteers to dumping all over them, for instance.

To channel a choice comment from the last general election, nothing has changed. The departures of McVey and Raab, which were read as nails in the coffin of her career this morning, does not alter the basic reality. The permanent instability remains persistently torrid. The immediate obstacle May's survival faces is the 1922 Committee. We still do not know for sure if enough letters have been received by chair Graham Brady to trigger a no-confidence vote. If not, or if Brady "loses" some down the back of his sofa, she's safe between now, the upcoming EU summit, and her deal coming to the Commons. If they have and we do see a poll, May would win a vote. The clincher, however, is the margin by which victory comes. Seeing the challenge off handily sees the business carry on, but if a large minority votes for the heave-ho, even she will be forced to concede there isn't a way of getting the deal through the house. That's the best chance for her resignation.

This brings us onto the odds of getting the deal through. Even if May survives, the deal is dead in the water anyway, right? A reading of today's events suggests this, but people should take pause. Today is not the same day as the Commons vote. Between now and then, May, the whip's office, her remaining allies in the party and the editorial offices, and the wider Westminster club will go all-out to pressure the naysayers. Interestingly, Nicky Morgan from the Cameroon wing and Tim Montgomerie from hard Brexit land have converged in their support for the deal as the best possible outcome. There is, of course, the propensity for Tory rebels to do one thing and do another. "When it comes to taking principled stands, the tory party’s got more flakes than a Kellogg’s factory", observes Cat. And with the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government looking good, choosing between this and May's Brexit deal it's difficult to suppose Tory MPs voting against in the kinds of numbers who were mouthing off earlier. Yes, May loses the DUP too, but adds "pragmatic" Labour MPs, and we have a chance, an outside one to be sure, that could see May get her way.

Living from one crisis to the next, May is certainly the great survivor of Tory politics. The problem she has got is her deal is just the beginning. Once in place there is still a trade deal to negotiate, which gives the Tory rebels something to rail against while, simultaneously, chafing against the provisions set to come into force after March. In holding a referendum, David Cameron hoped to lance the boil of Europe once and for all. When May came to office, she wanted to settle the Brexit question definitely in a hard, semi-detached direction. Both of them failed. By their actions, they are not only responsible for the biggest establishment failure in over 60 years, they have reopened and made the UK's relationship with the EU a permanent point of bad-tempered schism in the Tory party. One that, hopefully, will hasten their demise.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Theresa May's Dreadful Settlement

Imagine shooting someone for a packet of cheese and onion crisps in the blasted ruins of Sheffield. With the announcement of Theresa May's withdrawal deal, it appears, for now, that a Threads Brexit is off the table. But what smörgåsbord of culinary goodies can we look forward to instead? The 600 pages of the withdrawal agreement looks like a meaty affair, but almost two-and-a-half years on from the fateful day, is thin gruel the only fare on offer?

Looking at the BBC's write up, for the lonely, defective few who've paid Brexit more mind than is advisable one is struck by how, well, how we've seen it all before. I like nostalgia as much as anyone, and I was taken back to the halcyon days of ... December 2017. You remember the time. Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker shared a stage and announced the UK and the European Union had agreed arrangements to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the reciprocal recognition of rights for EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, and a ballpark figure for the UK's divorce bill. Indeed, reports of tonight's agreement could easily read like reports of last year's agreement.

I wouldn't want to give the impression that the last year has been spent needlessly and fruitlessly going round the houses on what was supposed to be signed and sealed already, because there are some interesting and arresting additions. The most politically significant of which is the knife the Prime Minister has thrust into the ribs of unionism in Northern Ireland. "No Prime Minister would stand for a border in the Irish Sea", Theresa May has said on more than one occasion. And what do we have? As Jacob Rees-Mogg puts it, "The proposed agreement would treat Northern Ireland differently than the rest of the UK". Indeed, so while the UK as a whole remains within a common UK-EU "customs territory" - something May had previously ruled out - there would be an extra layer of compliance not applicable on the mainland to allow the two Irelands to carry on as normal. A red line she has steamrollered across and no mistaking. Irony of ironies, it is a Conservative and Unionist government with a confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party that is preparing the grounds of a united Ireland. If these were the only considerations, I'd be tempted to support their Brexit deal.

Just as the right didn't like it in 2017, they like it even less now. In addition to Irish matters, Mogg has moaned about handing over the £39bn as if this is the first time he's heard about it. Though had he got his own way and a hard Brexiting Britain repudiated such a debt, you can forget about signing those shiny trade deals the ERG have fever dreams about. Countries prefer to stick to partners who pay their debts and respect the rules of international trade. And on that very topic, the dream of shuttle diplomacy, of Tories jetting off to exotic locations to sign bilateral deals is a dead one: the UK economy remains fully in the orbit of the EU mother planet.

Still, there is one thing here that would gladden Tory hearts. As the IPPR's Tom Kibasi observes, there are tough rules on state aid, but this is counter-balanced by ruling out the offshore tax haven fantasies of the more decadent honourable members of the government benches. However, because a comprehensive free trade agreement hasn't been arrived at - you'll remember the Tories champing at the bit for negotiations to enter this phase - Tom adds that the customs territory means no say over the rules the UK will be subject to, and that a final Brexit deal, one that establishes our relationship and its future terms is kicked even further down the road. In other words, if you're fed up if hearing about Brexit then have we got news for you ... Think of tonight's "result" then as less a fudge and more a treacle; a thick, clinging morass that is impossible to extricate oneself from.

So, the deal is rubbish. You might take the view that May was bound to concoct a dreadful settlement, but what about the politics? Unfortunately, I cannot shake the view that contrary to arguments made a few days ago, this deal will somehow get through the Commons. May has lost the DUP, a chunk of the ERG, and some hard remainers like Heidi Allen and Woke Soubz - assuming they keep to their word which, admittedly, hasn't meant much in the recent past. But Brexity rebellions on the Tory benches are surely going to be more muted than advertised. Likewise, sufficient empty heads on the Labour benches are sure to nod along with this nonsense. They can fool themselves into thinking it's a soft Brexit because ooooh, customs union! and, ooooh, close alignment with EU rules!, and pat themselves on the back for their pragmatism and putting country before party. You can see the sorts of twisted logics at work as people who've attacked Jeremy Corbyn for not opposing Theresa May hard enough on Brexit do a 180 and now attack him for refusing to back May's Brexit deal. Remember the missing Tory 'have cake and eat it' strategy? I think we've found it.

The Tories know the stakes here. The reason why their rebellions will be much smaller than trailed is because they don't want a general election. They know there's a very good chance they would lose, and they fear the Corbynist hordes coming over the hill to collectivise their heated stables and duck houses. Remembering the Tory record in power, the hundred thousand or so premature deaths their cuts have overseen, the misery inflicted on millions, rising mental health crisis, housing shortages, and homeless people paving the streets, no Labour MP will be forgiven for keeping this shower in "because Brexit". The Tories are more than just opponents to lampoon and shout out across the Commons chamber, they are a threat, a clear and present threat to our people. A shambles of a Brexit is bad for our class, but keeping the Tories in power with all that they entail is much, much worse.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Thoughts on the Tory Crisis

It's crunch time for Theresa May's government - and for the Conservative Party. As we await the full details of what the "technical agreement" on the Brexit deal looks like, let's pause for a moment. Not to reflect on the process - we've done that recently - but on the Tory party itself. As it faces a new round of intensive crisis, and one that could prove terminal with any luck, this is on top of slow burning, chronic difficulties. Take Survation's recent mega poll, for example. The headline figure of a single point lead for Labour is hardly earth-shattering. It's well within the toing and froing of all the polls out there. A slight lead here for the reds, an edging forward there for the blues. Yet under the surface, things are bad for our Conservative friends. Very bad indeed. Big Labour leads for the under 55s - the majority of working people - are common, but according to Survation it has moved upwards, to 75. For those older Labour is a fringe party, but for the under 75s the party has a nine-point lead.

As it happens, the crisis of the Conservative Party was my topic for the regular research seminars we do at work. There's no need to go over the thesis in depth because, well, there's an archive. What I concentrated on was the decrepitude of party organisation, the ageing character of their voter coalition, and the generational crisis the Tories barely knows exists. The break down of the conservatising effects of age on younger cohorts of voters has two aspects. The first is the values question. As innumerable polls show, socially liberal attitudes are more prevalent the further down the age profiles you go. This is because of the immaterial, relationship-based work younger cohorts are socialised into and do, and proliferation of one's networks thanks to social media - to put it crudely (more here). This straight away puts them at cross purposes to the Tory party, who thinks nothing of using divide and rule, racism, xenophobia, and all the rancid rest. The second drag on replacing the Conservative vote is economics. The Tories presided over policies that have shafted workers, be they the relatively privileged or the not at all. Not only have they been seen to do this, to relish it, their policies are preventing the acquisition of property, chiefly houses, therefore destroying what would be their future base. Compounding the problem is that fixing it, like building more homes, capping rents, making work more secure, raising wages, etc., goes against key interests of their present coalition. Rejuvenating themselves to appeal to the rising generation means undergoing a thoroughgoing detoxification, which the party may not survive, or staying as they are, also meaning they might not survive.

The presentation wasn't exhaustive, but its aim is to set out some of the basic arguments of a book on the Conservative Party I want to start writing in the new year. As such the questions received afterwards were about the gaps that weren't touched on on the spot. The first of these related to the variables impinging on Tory crisis. For example, while the party organisation has declined what has the pattern of donations been like, and where they have been declared (i.e. not going through one of the infamous dining clubs), which sections of capital are coughing up? Also, to what extent is Conservative decline coterminous with the wider declining salience of parties more generally, particularly with regards to labour movement organisation. For instance, while the Labour Party is on the up the number of trade unionists are still falling. This was a good point, but in my reply I suggested Labour under Corbyn is undergoing a process of recomposition, albeit one that isn't evenly spread (also, I tentatively suggested the Liberal Democrats are too, albeit from a very low base). The Tories undergoing this in the future can't definitively be ruled out, but presently they're in the grip of decomposition and haven't figured a way out beyond keeping their current coalition together and hoping it'll be enough to push them across the line at the next election.

Another questioner asked about context. I.e. what role does the conjuncture play in the Tory travails? The factional splintering of the parliamentary party, in my view, is suggestive of a certain decoupling of party elites from business elites. This is partly thanks to the recent breaking of automatic affiliation to the Tories of the majority of British capital by Tony Blair's New Labour, compounded by the extreme short-termism and class fractional approach of the Dave governments, and the fracturing of international capital itself, as covered by Aeron Davis's work. There's a wider decadent culture too, of a smug complacency that has got bred into the ruling class after the apparent death of socialism at home and abroad at the end of the 1980s. If you like the angry petit bourgeois Tories of the Thatcher years did the hard yards so their descendents didn't have to. And now, faced with class struggle of a different kind, don't know where to begin.

Related to this, another asked about the relationship of the Tory party to the state, and, of course, the party's role as part of the state. I haven't thought a great deal about this, at least until fairly recently. By way of an outline, and what the character of this relationship is yet and how it has fed into Tory crisis, there is the dual movement in the state of it becoming more authoritarian and simultaneously more dispersed. The UK state has a very centralised political system and, thanks to how Westminster governments are formed, if it has a majority a party can ride roughshod over the rest of civil society - within the checks and balances provided by law. Yet simultaneously, there is distance between government, different departments of the civil service, the military, police, and emergency services, NHS, local government and devolved administrations, quangos, and bits of the third sector and business who are pulled in to run services. These are in tension with one another, tend to be regulated/disciplined by markets and target cultures, and frequently come into conflict with government itself. The government is command, it remains sovereign in this bewildering mess of authority, but is constrained, pressured and beset by the cacophony it presides over. And this, of course, is in an international context in which the state is not only the agency of neoliberal global capital, the UK state has ceded sovereignty to the EU and other international institutions (Brexit doesn't change this), and the international order itself has no centre as such - as described in Hardt and Negri's Empire. The Tories can and do play on the national sovereignty/identity anxieties that partially stem from this certain diminishing of the state, but what are its wider effects on British capital's preferred party of government?

Lastly, another questioner recalled the Thatcher years. He said at the outset the left thought this was the last gasp of the Tories and that they were doomed. Instead they saw rejuvenation under an ideological and authoritarian leader - can this not happen again? My reply was that this was doubtful, because Theresa May had already tried it and failed. She had put together a very impressive coalition and got the largest vote received by the Tories since 1992, but the opposition was mostly unified behind Labour and was enough to weaken her position. The problem is an authoritarian populism mk II appeals to declining cross sections of the voting population - older people, older workers in declining occupations, the usual petit bourgeois mix of landlords, small business people, and pleased-with-themselves upwardly mobile middle class people. Being able to win younger people over to this project, which Thatcher was able to do in sufficient numbers in the 1980s, is a big ask now and cannot be achieved over night - even though a number of "soft" Thatcherite values are accepted by young people as their common sense. One should never say never, but on the balance of probabilities it isn't looking very likely.

Plenty then to chew on over the next couple of months before opening that new Word document with whatever the working title is going to be. If I'm feeling naughty I might chuck in a chapter or two on centrism, liberalism and the Labour right as species of conservatism too. The only thing that concerns me is the rate things are going, there might not even be a Tory party left as we now know it when the writing begins. Still, if Brexit has hastened their demise it will have all been worth it.

Image credit @guffers.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Why the Great War Was Not Stopped

One hundred years since the guns fell silent on the Western front. The horrors and death that were visited upon the trenches were, at that point, unprecedented in human history. "Never again!" the establishment said, while Britain backed the whites in the vicious Russian civil war and bloodily repressed revolt in its misbegotten colonies. And just a couple of decades later the Great War was surpassed by an even more ferocious and destructive conflict. To mark 100 years since the Armistice, I'm reposting this from the occasion of the centenary of the Great War's outbreak.

A century on and the establishment are still soft-soaping it. Britain didn't declare war against Germany for the sake of poor little Belgium, the rights of small nations or for the defence of neutrality. The peoples then groaning under the weight of our empire might have had a thing or two to say about those matters after all. These were the good reasons. The real reasons, which did not make war an inevitability, was acting to prevent French and Belgian channel ports from becoming German naval bases, and putting the Wilhelmine upstart back into its box. Cold, hard interests carried the day in the lead up to the declaration. Humanitarian concern was so much flim-flammery.

The question is why was this senseless and utterly unnecessary slaughter allowed to happen? Recall the extraordinary Basel Congress of the Second International in 1912. It passed a manifesto declaring the following:
If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation.

In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.
Fine words. Stirring words. This was not the rhetoric of some cranky sect gathered in Switzerland's version of Conway Hall either. The Second International was a mass movement. Its sections ranged from important working class parties to organisations numbering millions of members, affiliates and supporters. The German Social Democrats were the jewel in the crown, and its formal commitment to Marxism provided the International its shared intellectual reference point. Yet with the outbreak of war, Lenin reportedly fell off his chair and condemned his copy of Vorwärts (the SPD's paper) as a forgery for reporting that the party's deputies had unanimously voted for war credits in the Reichstag. How did the mighty movement committed to turning imperialist war into class war fall apart? Why did sections of the Second International, with a few exceptions - most notably the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) - rally to their national colours?

The contemporary revolutionary opposition lay responsibility for international socialism's betrayal at the feet of its leaders, and the argument has changed little in the intervening century. Rather than doing the right, revolutionary thing, the official Marxists of Germany, Austria and France, the Labourists of Britain, and working class parties in the smaller combatants took the opportunist road, of treading the path of least resistance. Yet this was not a failure of nerve, a failing that can be reduced to a crisis of leadership. Long before 1914 Rosa Luxemburg was regularly polemicising against the revisionism and opportunism of the SPD's politics. Her argument was that the position of elites in the international as party and union bureaucrats invested them in the politics of the small gain here, the compromise there. They had become mediators of the relation between capital and labour and, therefore, because they owed their prominence to such a position they possessed an interest in its maintenance. When push came to shove they jumped into the nationalist camp of war to maintain their niche, and were happy to deliver the factory and battlefield fodder to imperial interests. Lenin had made a not too dissimilar analysis of trade unionism and the class struggle in his maligned and misunderstood What is to be Done?. Lenin's view was substantially the same as Luxemburg's basic position and via his analysis of imperialism argued that the collapse of the International was thanks to a 'labour aristocracy' encompassing party and union bureaucracies, but taking in all kinds of layers of relatively privileged workers. While also dependent on selling their labour power for a wage, their higher living standards were brought by the "super profits" extracted from the colonies. As beneficiaries from colonialism, they had an immediate interest in maintaining empires and therefore acted as bourgeois contaminants in the workers' movement. As they had extended their sway through those movements, so social democratic and labour parties succumbed to reformism and, latterly, chauvinism and war fever.

This tale, with little modification, still passes for an explanation in Trotskyist and Stalinist circles. It is, however, obviously false. Not only was no evidence forthcoming proving the transfer of "super profits" into the wage packets of privileged workers, it also neglected to mention that Germany's "empire" was economically negligible, Austro-Hungary had no colonies at all, and the "labour aristocracy" in countries like Serbia, Italy, Bulgaria, Russia, and Ottoman Turkey were thin to non-existant. Where combatants were leading imperial powers their wealth stemmed not from plunder but developed markets in economic competition with the other great powers. The second problem is an implied elitism, of assuming that where the leaders go the masses shall meekly follow. Had your Eberts, your Scheidemanns, your Hendersons, et al rallied workers to the class war banner then the July crisis would have grown over into a crisis of capitalism, which is an obviously false prospectus.

While the argument is a non-starter, it does avoid having to ask awkward questions about the political capacity of Europe's working class at that time. In Britain in the first six months of 1914, there were over 40 million strike days - only the strikes of 1921 and 1926 saw greater numbers taking industrial action. That July, St Petersburg was paralysed by 135,000 workers taking strike action and calling for the monarchy's abolition. Workers were conscious of their interests and were quite prepared to stand up for them. How to explain the about face, of militancy evaporating and millions flocking to sign up? To answer the question is to put a huge question mark over the viability of revolutionary socialist politics, classically understood. While Luxemburg and Lenin were right that the upper echelons of the labour movement had become integrated into their respective national capitalisms, so had the majority of workers themselves. Far from plain sailing, nevertheless Britain was a representative democracy of sorts and had improved the lot of working people through piecemeal grind here, strike action there. Ditto for imperial Germany and republican France. The parties and organisations of workers had wrested significant concessions from bosses and governments. Allied to rising living standards, pragmatism appeared to work. This was the early phase of the attempted institutionalisation of class conflict, and it seemed to be working. The majority of workers had a stake in the bourgeois state, in their nation. Conversely, despite double-digit economic growth, Tsarism in Russia and its struggle to maintain the autocracy actively stymied the rise of its growing working class. By denying it a stake in their system, Russian proletarians were more combative, more open to revolutionary ideas, more likely to resist the call to war - and even then they were not totally immune.

As organised labour movements found their feet and successfully prosecuted their interests it's small wonder the increasing sense of advance, of security, of solidarity contributed to nationalism's mass appeal. Hence when declarations of war were met with outbreaks of class peace, it was the case the leaders were following the workers, not the other way round. The Socialist International was not able to prevent the war because the working class enthusiastically went along with it. It wasn't just the lamps that went out across Europe one hundred years ago. The hope European capitalism could be brought down by revolutionary socialism was snuffed out too.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Super Castlevania IV for the Super Nintendo

Vampires are a smug bunch, aren't they? Alone among the undead they're feted and admired. They make death sexy, and thanks to reams of not unsympathetic cultural product they get a much better press than your brain munching zombies, ghosties, and assorted others from beyond the grave. Thankfully, Super Castlevania IV, one of the canonical titles of the 16-bit era, dispenses with such nonsense. Yes, generally speaking vampires are Very Bad Things but here, at least early on in the Castlevania series, we're dealing with no frills evil.

Fans of the games know the plot by now. Every so often Dracula rises from his grave to rule over Transylvania. Naturally, some of the local peasants don't take kindly to have the prince of darkness on their backs and from among them one of the Belmont clan comes forward to take him on. Okay, it's not much of a premise and one hardly standing out from the afterthoughts that were often the plots for eight and 16-bit games. Then again, it doesn't need to be. And what we have in Super Castlevania IV is one of the greatest arcade platformers ever programmed.

Gameplay is easy to pick up. Just move your Belmont ass (Simon in this case) to the exit offing enemies along the way. In the beginning you're up against standard skeletons and the occasional, um, flying Medusa head (it's a thing), and as you might expect they grow in toughness as the game wears on. Skeletons that come back, skelly-bones armed with swords and javelins, axe throwing suits of armour, bats (the bats!), and occasional beasties that pop out of the scenery to give you a clout. Thankfully, Simon Belmont is no slouch. He is armed with a whip that is powered up very quickly. This can be flung in eight different directions and, when the game requires it, can be used to swing across long jumps Indiana Jones-stylee. There's also something very satisfying about lashing your enemies to death (granted, many are already dead but here we are), especially when you crack open a wall to find a treasure trove of goodies inside.

Additionally, destroying wall-mounted candles reveals love hearts, which - weirdly - are not energy boosts but ammunition for the secondary weapon. These are picked up along the way and vary between daggers, holy water, axes, and crosses. Don't worry, the latter doesn't look like crucifixes - this is Nintendo remember, and we can't upset the religiously minded parents of early 90s America. There are the customary boss fights to face at the end of each stage and, with a couple of significant exceptions, these are nowhere near as taxing as the tithes Dracula's goons enforce on his peasant charges down in the valleys. Frankenstein's monster, a teleporting mummy, a ghostly waltzing couple, the odd demon, the patterns aren't too difficult to get down.

Words deserve expending on the look of the game. Konami were never slouches when it came to squeezing the best out of the SNES, and as an early title they really made it sing. Super Castlevania IV is a colourful game which, considering the horror theme, doesn't detract from the atmos at all. They also had to get the hardware tricks in there but they weren't gratuitous nor distractions from the gameplay. Swinging chandeliers, rooms that rotate, a stomach-churning spinning background, all worked to show this game was more advanced than and a cut above not totally different offerings on rival systems. And the music - just a note. The Castlevania series is often praised for its soundtracks, and this instance was no different. Call me a philistine, I just wasn't feeling it. The offerings here were quite atmospheric, but not up to the standard later set by Super Metroid, nor were they that memorable. A case of not being bad, but the mystery of why they get such praise is beyond me.

Nevertheless, Super Castlevania IV is a superlative game. The controls are spot on, the game is exceptionally well designed, and there is nothing unnecessary. The only gripes are the infamous knock backs when struck by an enemy, the bizarre decision to let Simon fall through stairs linking platforms (and not jumping while on them), and the artificial inflation of difficulty. Yes, this is a tough game but is made unnecessarily so by locating the respawns miles away from your demise. And this becomes especially annoying when you've battled your way through a challenging level to meet a boss whose patterns you've got to learn the hard way. Then again, who said battling the undead was easy?

Anyway, vampires. On top of their affected urbanity, they inhabit mountaintop castles, and they oppress peasants. Vampires aren't just annoying, they are the class enemy. But a very particular kind of class enemy. Super Castlevania IV is set in 1691, a time in which capitalism was in the first flush of its youth. The first works of political economy were appearing, and production for profit was not only the economic law of the land in England, it was spreading. Where capitalism intersected and touched pre-existing feudal relationships they tended toward their reinforcement - particularly in Eastern Europe - while stimulating the merchant classes and transforming them, at the margins initially, from middle men to nascent bearers of capital: a proto-bourgeoisie, a capitalist class in formation. This game can be read as a digital reflection of the class struggles of that time.

The vampire is persistent because it is the monster that condenses the fallen spirit of ruling classes down the ages. The aristocracy, Dracula's real life inspiration, lived off the backs of the peasants they taxed or had work their fields. An existence of effortless grace and refinement was possible only because of the miserable lot endured by their vassals. This was an elevated condition purchased by sucking the best, most active years out of the labouring class. It's not for nothing that Marx's Capital evokes the vampire more than once when describing the process of surplus extraction in capitalist societies. Yet Simon Belmont and his clan are not of the people, nor really for the people. If Dracula is the aristocracy, the Belmonts are the rising bourgeoisie. Consider the in-game evidence. As the player character, Simon has to shepherd - some might say accumulate - his resources as he makes his way through his antagonist's domain. Success is only possible if you collect every heart to build up your store of secondary weaponry for use against the enemy. Likewise, one has to be entrepreneurial and take risks to master the obstacles and the opponents while Dracula's undead minions are stuck in the same groove, a clear contrast of the individual dynamism of the coming bourgeois epoch vs the torpor and stagnation characteristic of declining feudalism. And then there is the level near atop Dracula's castle. We enter his treasury and there is gold, gold everywhere. But this is hoarded wealth, money sat idle, presumably extorted from the subaltern classes and doing nothing. After Simon makes his way through the piles of coin and jewels, the money finally comes to life in the form of a glittering giant bat. Here the elemental powers of wealth rise up against him, but by command of his own abilities he is able to get the patterns down and master the money monster. 

And last of all, seeing off Dracula is a family responsibility, a task to be handed down generation after generation like property. But this isn't a blood bond as per aristocratic lineage, but a repetition of activity, of performing class struggle through the accumulation of capital to see off a recrudescence of undead serfdom and preserve the freedoms the Belmonts won by the sweat of their brows.At the end of the game when Dracula's castle turns to dust, the land is rid not just of a tyrant but the door is open to an unseen force of domination. One more subtle and discreet than the neck chomping of the dear old Count. Capital arrives promising our peasants a better, freer life. Little do they know that what's in store for them and their descendants is to be on the receiving end of a different kind of vampirism.