Tuesday, 15 January 2019

After the Biggest Defeat Ever

"The risk of a disorderly Brexit has increased" mused Jean-Claude Juncker. A fair assessment after Theresa May suffered the biggest Commons defeat by a government in, well, ever. Certainly something to keep the constitution nerds and Trivial Pursuit fans happy for centuries, and useful fodder for Labour's next general election campaign. Of course, there is zero sympathy for the Prime Minister round these parts. She has consistently misread the politics, has subordinated the needs of what bourgeois politicians call the 'national interest' to those of managing the Conservative Party, and from the outset brushed aside the concerns of others. Well, until some provided a fig leaf.

May's thumping 432/202 defeat is nothing less than catastrophic for her premiership and the capacity of the Tory party to govern. She might muddle through the vote of no confidence, in fact it is quite likely, but the margin of failure was much greater than any backbench Tory feared, or Labour bencher dared. Its consequences are scouring deep scars in the Conservative psyche and for some sections of the so-called natural party of government, there is little but numb shock. It couldn't happen to a nicer bunch ... Nevertheless, while May is batting away the resignation demands it's difficult to see how she can go on. As we've noted plenty of times, May has been in a historically unique situation in which her weakness affords her a strange sort of strength vis a vis the other factions and petty leadership contenders in her party. As they cancel each other out, she had autonomy and wriggle room. But tonight her opponents came together and collectively thwarted the raison d'etre of her premiership. Largely because she forgot that getting the deal through parliament meant getting it through parliament, not just her backbenchers.

Now what? In her brief speech following the defeat, May said the government would reach out and was now "listening". An approach, wiser heads suggested, that she should have adopted since she gave away the Tory majority. This, it seems, is the only sensible approach left assuming there isn't a general election. It would mean turning a tin ear to the hard Brexiteers of Jacob Rees-Mogg's ERG and your Boris Johnsons, and staking out where the majority of the Commons is at. And that would be in the direction more congenial to Labour's position, with its six tests, including the maintenance of a customs union, or the Norway-style option getting traction on the Tory benches. However, it's difficult to see how May could possibly facilitate such a process considering her obsession with immigration and her maniacal interpretation of Brexit in its light. The second difficulty concerns the electoral interests of the Tory party more generally. If we interpret the national interest in terms of getting a deal, how can this party be trusted to deliver a Brexit at odds with the membership, and its coalition of voters? In short, it can't.

Want more problems, because Brexit's got them! Assuming somehow the Tory party is able to overcome these insurmountable difficulties and act as a clearing house of ideas and amendments, these have to be packaged up and negotiated with Brussels. True, more reasoned heads than May and her awful coterie are surely going to be in the driving seat but the EU can say no, or maybe, or whatever. And then there's getting it all through in time for exit day, which is looking shakier by the hour. Revoking Article 50 is the sensible option with a view to starting the clock again, but that is not without consequences. And so, the mess reigns, but May's defeat has opened up new possibilities for something else, which was absolutely closed before her historic loss.

Monday, 14 January 2019

The Far Right and Thwarting Brexit

I thought the morning had a darker aspect about it than usual, and lo it turned out Theresa May was in town. No walkabout down Stoke's pearly avenues, it was Wades Ceramics that was the entirety of her itinerary. And her purpose was to push her Brexit deal in what has variously been dubbed the capital of Brexit, and she laboured her point. Either her vote passes tomorrow evening, or we face a no deal Brexit or no Brexit at all. Well, if the UK's membership of the European Union was a technical matter I'd be a-okay with that. But it isn't. Brexit cannot be wished away, and the clock cannot be dialled back to 23rd June, 2016. Still, the idea that Brexit might not happen or, to be more precise, the consequences of it not happening is interesting, because it has the potential of becoming a very serious political crisis.

It suits Theresa May and her lackeys, like the doomed incompetent Chris Grayling, to talk up no Brexit in blood curdling terms because, well, scaremongering is the Tory thing to do. And they don't have any politics left beyond trite soundbites to defend their position anyway. Still, one shouldn't too readily dismiss some of the concerns they raise simply because they raised them. To be sure, casting aside a democratic decision is a serious, if not foolhardy business, even if the argument for doing so is couched in the sophism of more democracy, in the form of another referendum.

Let's set Grayling's observation that thwarting Brexit could prove a spur for the far right in more credible terms. The foundation of our febrile politics is a malaise, and this used to get the establishment hand wringing a decade ago. Long-time readers will remember the moral panic every time the BNP got themselves a councillor, and the applause a succession of New Labour politicians would bask in from sundry editorials as they stated "unthinkable" thoughts about refugees, and talked up the tough treatment of immigrants. Yet no matter how far right leading politicians were prepared to go, they only sanctified and legitimated the BNP's xenophobic bile. A bit of liberal do-gooding here and there about how nasty the BNP were was more than drowned out by the racist sentiments articulated by the press and mainstream Labour. What we now call and is openly described as a 'hostile environment' was the fertile soil that nourished the BNP and, to a similar extent, UKIP, and this culminated in the BNP returning two Members of the European Parliament in 2009.

Success ultimately did for the BNP, they couldn't keep it together. And political fortunes turned against them shortly after Nick Griffin's infamous Question Time appearance. The Tories were looking dead certs to win the 2010 general election, and as Labour collapsed into Brownite decline and recrimination the populist sheen rubbed off the BNP. In Stoke, once described as the jewel in the BNP's crown by Griffin, at the 2010 local elections half of their councillors were lost and come 2011 they were wiped from the council chamber completely. Entirely welcome, but the same deep alienation from official politics didn't go anywhere. With the BNP a busted flush across the country, the anti-politics slack was picked up by UKIP, especially after 2013. Nigel Farage himself spoke about how the party was doing politics a favour by picking up former BNP voters and effectively domesticating them. Yes, but it was enough to put the frighteners on the Tories. In 2014 UKIP won the largest plurality of votes in the European elections and sent to Brussels the largest contingent of MEPs, and in 2015 they polled well over four million votes. At every step of the way, like his predecessors in government, Dave did not take on the xenophobic right: he cleaved to them. And we all live with the consequences of this now.

The problem is there is a mass base for reactionary politics as cultivated by previous generations of politicians and nurtured by a press at the peak of its influence. Cowards and liars have rode it to prominence, and others have tried compromising with it - seldom has it been challenged. The question then for anyone interested in progressive politics is to directly confront and win over its more amenable fringes, while demobilising and politically dispersing the rest. Well over a decade of appeasement has caused the present damage, given us Brexit, caused a surge in hate crime, and seen regular but small mobilisations of the far right. By accepting Brexit but marrying it to a popular programme of the new class politics, Labour was largely able to see off the reactionary bloc in its heartland seats in 2017 while a lot of that vote transferred to the Tories as custodians of Brexit. If then the Tories are seen to be responsible for thwarting it, that poses a big problem for their voter coalition - and an opportunity for the far right.

Unfortunately, many of the people who poured scorn on Grayling's warning at the weekend are the sorts who've spent the last two-and-a-half years telling everyone who'll listen that Leave voters were thick and racist, that the referendum should be rerun/pulled because it was "advisory", and they were manipulated by Russians. In other words, exactly the sorts of people least capable of understanding how reactionary politics can have mass appeal, and therefore the most clueless when it comes to taking it on. It might only be social media knockabout, but remainy/centrist rhetoric aligns with everything the far right have previously said about the liberal establishment, and could prove a boon to mobilising reactionary support in the context of a second referendum or Brexit's cancellation.

There are a couple of other things worth thinking about. Building reactionary support might not trouble the electoral calculus of the main parties. It's hard to see how even UKIP can make a comeback without its best known figures attached to the project. But the price would be paid in even more hate crime, more far right mobilisations, more Tommy Robinson, and other awful political pathologies. Other forms of political violence can't be ruled out either. We saw how Brexit's toxic rhetoric culminated in a fascist murdering Jo Cox, and it could quite easily happen again. Now, none of this is about giving an imaginary far right a veto on how we go about politics now, as some of the self-same clueless centrists put it over the weekend, but it is about recognising that political actions have political consequences. If you are seen to trample on a democratic decision you don't like, don't act all surprised if you end up stirring anti-democratic political forces. If you strike an elitist pose, don't be shocked if right-wing populism finds itself a big audience again. Because in Stoke-on-Trent and many other places like it, the BNP and UKIP may have been and gone but the slab of reaction is there, latent, abiding, and ready to mobilise if it is antagonised and enabled.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

John Mann's Red Wash

"Desperate Theresa May caves in on workers' rights to save Brexit deal". Well done The Mirror for getting the scoop, but what does it mean? Since losing her majority, May's approach to Brexit has proceeded more with an eye to Tory party management than actually getting her deal through the Commons. Then, during last Autumn's party conference season the penny belatedly dropped and the PM realised that intransigent opposition from the government benches meant she needed Labour MPs onside. Since then, nothing. And now at the 11th hour, we learn she's been having chats with John Mann, Caroline Flint and others about accepting an amendment on the protection of workers' rights.

The amendment seeks to fix existing EU workers' protections in British law, and would also give MPs a future vote should the EU decide to enhance employee rights in the future. Justifying his amendment, Mann argues that it makes May's deal more attractive to Labour MPs by improving on the vague sentiments expressed in the original deal text. Flint went on to say that she hoped the amendment would be backed by the front bench. Unfortunately for the "20 MPs" who are prepared to back the Mann/Flint amendment the likelihood of that support forthcoming is up there with a Simon Danczuk comeback.

John McDonnell and Angela Rayner have piled in, branding its acceptance by the Prime Minister as a cynical act of self-interest, adding that the Tories can't be trusted on workers' rights. This is more than the usual argy-bargy of parliamentary rhetoric. We should not forget that May has proven more underhanded and happy to lie than even her predecessor, her ruling out of a general election before calling one and pulling the meaningful vote on her deal the day before it was originally due to take place should set the alarm bells screaming "she's not to be trusted!". Likewise as Tim Roache of the GMB observes, if she really cared about workers' rights then there were ample opportunities to get trade unions around the table. Also, it's pretty meaningless. EU workers' protections have meant little as the Tories and, disgracefully, New Labour took Britain to the bottom of the league for employee rights in Western Europe. Workers in Germany and France still enjoy greater rights at work, despite us all (for the moment) being part of the EU. And for her part, while May is hardly the workers' friend she has not pledged to scrap protections or anything like that - this being a hobby horse of the hard right of her party - so accepting the Mann/Flint amendment comes at zero political cost to her.

What John Mann and co. are doing then is providing red wash for May's deal. Assuming she loses the vote next week, when she returns to the Commons with her Plan B it will, in all likelihood, be in the form of a cross-party appeal for further amendments. Clearly this is what both Mann and Flint expect as both have framed their intervention around workers' rights as the beginning of a process that incorporates more of Labour's red lines. And from May's point of view, the more new amendments are bolted to her deal, the more the clock ticks down to exit day, the more likely sundry Labour MPs are going to back it to prevent the disaster of no deal.

No Labour MP should have anything to do with getting May's deal through. While all Brexit options aren't good, some are less harmful than others. Contrary to efforts aimed at muddying the waters, Labour's position is clear and straightforward: a deal based on a customs union with single market access. This softest of soft Brexits guarantees continuity for EU residents as well as established trading relationships, and delivers on the 2017 manifesto. A position, you'll remember, that was able to bridge the gap between Labour remain and Labour leave constituencies when everyone else was predicting electoral catastrophe. By going along with May's deal, Mann and friends are advocating a harder Brexit than what could be achieved. They have forgotten, whether purposely or not, that the biggest danger to our people - their constituents - is the continuation of the Tories in power, and are on a course that would keep May and the rest of them in government. Such a position for a Labour MP is unforgivable, and makes their future as Labour MPs untenable.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste

Actual fascists and Nazis calling Anna Soubry a fascist and a Nazi. You've got to admire the chutzpah of some people, even when they're the bottom feeders of British political life. Of course, letting fascists hang around the gates of Parliament intimidating all and sundry is unacceptable. Other noted targets have been Owen Jones and Dawn Foster. I don't know, it's almost as if these self-appointed knuckle-dragging guardians of Brexit have a problem with women and gay men in public life. And lest we forget, these goons do have deadly form. As was heavily trailed in the media earlier, John Bercow has written to the Met commissioner to ask that policing outside Westminster be a bit more robust and, for their part, the fuzz are looking into the footage to see if any charges can be brought.

Nevertheless, the discussion on this lunch time's Politics Live was revealing as far as mainstream responses were concerned. The ever-execrable Isabel Oakeshott likened the activity of fascists outside Parliament as the same as the protests that occasionally greeted Nigel Farage at his public appearances. Jo Coburn went on to quote John McDonnell when, years ago, he called for direct action against coalition ministers wherever they went. Forgive me Jo, but there is a world of difference between protesting cuts with placards and the like and screaming in the face of women, all the while recorded for narcissistic posterity.

And we know who's to blame for this, right? It's that there social media, of course! The place where criticisms of politicians and journalist are always 'attacks' and 'abuse'. It never has anything to do with the kinds of rhetoric these self-same standards of probity indulge. Think about the last 20 years. Who has done more to incubate racist tensions and scrounger discourse than politicians and journalists? The divide-and-rule politics both sets of elite actors cultivated did more than win elections or boost circulation, it poisoned the well. All the division and spite Brexit unleashed did not drop from the sky, it has built up over years. Emboldened fascists are just one toxic shock of our contemporary malaise.

We know what the end goal is. Legislation aimed at social media in some way, for instance the banning of anonymous accounts and/or the attachment of a real identity to each so complaints can be made and users face "accountability". And our fascist friends are useful idiots for the desire, of some, to curb protest. After all it would be a shame to let a crisis, even a small one like this, go to waste.

Weak Bonapartism

It's worthwhile thinking about the concepts that emerge from the analysis of politics, particularly when it is fraught and strained as per, well, now. And, after all, if commentators are doing their job properly they should be thinking about how to describe and explain what's going on. First up is weak Bonapartism, which is something used here loads of times to describe the situation in the Tory party and the position of Theresa May. It describes how her weakness vis the rest of the party paradoxically gives her room for manoeuvre and strength.

Bonapartism as a concept has a lengthy history among the grey beards. Coined by Marx himself in the articles collected in The Class Struggles in France, Bonapartism refers to the politics in France between the failed revolution of 1848 and 1850, when universal suffrage was abolished. This culminated in 1852 with the founding of the ill-fated Second Empire. Without getting bogged down into the historical detail, Louis Bonaparte (later Napoleon III), the nephew of the original Napoleon, was elected President in 1848. Having been shook by a failed plebeian revolt and thanks to fractiousness between the remnants of the aristocracy and different sections of the rising bourgeoisie, Marx argued the struggle of classes and class fractions had balanced out. The popular masses were no longer willing to be ruled in the old way, but were not capable of exercising power themselves, and likewise the ruling class were disorganised. Into the vacuum the state stepped and assumed political independence from landed interests and industrial capital. It became less a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie, as per The Manifesto, and more an organised power for stamping the authority of a single man. The state was strong, the contending classes were weak, and so state authority prevailed. Nevertheless, as Trotsky later observed it was still a bourgeois state because it preserved prevailing class relations and, later on, used government to drive economic development and participate in the European scramble for global markets and colonies.

There have been various adaptations of Marx's concept since. Most controversially in Marxist circles, Trotsky used it in his analysis of Stalinism. In a series of articles written in the 1930s, and most famously in his semi-holy screed (for some), The Revolution Betrayed, he argued what the Soviet Union had become following the October Revolution and its subsequent international isolation an example of 'proletarian Bonapartism'. Again, sparing the details, Trotsky argued that following the revolution and civil war the Russian working class were devastated, the country lay in ruins, and the party had effectively fused with the state as the only organised power in the land. Because the workers and peasants were ruined so were the chances of socialist democracy. And so the organs of direct democracy withered, followed by internal democratic norms in the party itself and the bureaucracy assumed power. However, because capitalism wasn't restored and, indeed, the power of the apparatus flowed from its command over a post-capitalist economy, this dictatorship over the proletariat nevertheless protected the nationalised property bequeathed by the revolution. Hence Stalin's Bonapartism was progressive and marked a gain over what existed previously.

Trotsky also employed Bonapartism in his analysis of fascism in Germany as overlapping categories. Here, fascism started as a mass movement of petit bourgeois reaction against a rising workers' movement, which propelled it to power. Once there, the Nazis turned the organs of the state against their political enemies without and, eventually, within their own movement. And once it was tamed/absorbed into the state it more or less settled into something akin to Bonapartism. Whether he'd have changed this assessment had he lived beyond the early years of the Second World War is a matter of speculation.

In the post-war period there were a number of permutations of Bonapartism. The expansion of Stalinism to Eastern Europe and South East Asia proved/disproved Trotsky's concept, depending on your view of the Soviet Union. For some Trotskyists, the coming to power of De Gaulle in 1958 and the founding of the Fifth Republic was a moment pregnant with Bonapartist dangers. With decolonisation often the only organised body in newly independent states was the military, and often found themselves in situations analogous to, but not as fortuitous as that of Napoleon III, and more recently the army played a Bonapartist role in Egypt's Arab Spring.

Bonapartism then has a pedigree of unpicking the relationship between classes and the state in rapidly moving historic movements and processes. What use could it have for understanding the predicament of Theresa May?

In what you might call the long June since May lost her majority at the 2017 general election, the Tory party has been in a state of stable instability, or permanent disarray. The membership are drifting away or dying, and at the top of the party May's shattered authority is beset by rival factions and ambitious individuals. I guess we've become habituated to it, but we should remember that the spectacle of cabinet members thinking aloud about Brexit is unprecedented and a symptom of May's weakness. Yet thanks to the disunity of the Tories, the awful mess May has on her plate, and leadership contenders balancing one another out, paradoxically the Prime Minister is safe from challenge. After all, if you were an ambitious MP and fancied a bite at Number 10, would you make your move now when Brexit is up in the air and there is still the drawn out process of a trade deal to come? Likewise, would you want it while the party is in the midst of tumult and you're unable to exercise your authority over it? No, and so May abides.

This is where the perverse character of weak Bonapartism is brought out. The central authority is weak, but none of May's would-be rivals have the strength to see her off and replace her. This gives May considerable strength and autonomy, something she only really cottoned on to over the summer. When the details of her Chequers Deal was made public, the likes of David Davis and Boris Johnson could have made a move. But they didn't, preferring to resign and grandstand from the back benches. May also realised that there was no need to appease the hard Brexiteers either, and that if they were able to force a no confidence vote in her leadership she would see them off - a calculation that proved correct. However, weak Bonapartism is an anomalous situation and one that, for May, can't less forever. Should her deal fall at next week's vote, what then? Will she soldier on, knowing no one's about to usurp her (indeed, under party rules this cannot happen until next December), apply for an Article 50 extension, which is the talk coming out of Brussels today, or throw in the towel - assuming she survives Labour's no-confidence vote?

And of weak Bonapartism itself, if May goes in short order her successor will be prey to the same pressures. But weak Bonapartism is so out of the ordinary that I can't think of any other examples or situations where it applies. Any suggestions?

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Aaron Bastani vs Smug Centrism

Full solidarity to Novara Media's Aaron Bastani. In the last fortnight he was piled on by the last people you'd want to turn your back to. Jolyon QC did some digging into Novara's funding, because the concept of a small media operation funded by donations and powered by volunteers is alien to him. Others, whose concern with anti-semitism coincided with it becoming something to attack the left with, tried smearing Aaron as a racist because of a jokey tweet sent years ago. Most egregiously Jeremy Duns (who?) wrote a clueless and tedious blog post questioning the validity of Aaron's PhD. Apparently, it was a "farce" that his thesis - on the dynamics of political communication in social movements - brings academia into disrepute because Aaron was a participant in the movement studied and, um, he didn't cite a New Statesman article from 2011 by Laurie Penny. Affecting authority on a topic one doesn't know about is chancy because the incontinent spraying of your opinions across the internet can make you look like an idiot. Except if you're plugged into the feeds of liberal Twitter, who will make you feel important and wrap you in the embrace of a centrist smug-in.

There is so much going on here I don't know where to begin. The attitude of these pitiful people and - I use this term generously - their political praxis cannot be separated out from the morbidity of liberalism. And this is not just a British thing. Here, centrism in its liberal and managerial/technocratic variants were rejected by mainstream voters of the left and right in 2017. In the United States Hillary Clinton was handily seen off by the tangerine Antichrist, and in France the God King of centrist politics is beset by a coalition of suburban citizens, just to give two examples. But let's not forget what liberalism is. It's much more than ideas in a short book, or a smattering of politicians and journalists. It is a movement.

We've talked about this before. Liberalism is a bourgeois social movement, a semi-coherent body of big business actors, the aforementioned politicians and journalists, bits and pieces of the UK state, and a mass base comprised mainly of the 'educated' middle class and small business people. It has a political party, our friends the Liberal Democrats, but the movement also has among its ranks MPs, Lords, representatives on devolved bodies, and councillors and members across the two main parties, plus odds and sods in the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Philosophically, it believes ideas drive action, and this action is the prerogative of our elected representatives. Collective action is possible, but through lobbying, petitioning and, as a less resort, peaceful demonstration. Liberal democracy is both the best and only system for reconciling the different competing pressures of any given society and, of course, the primary political unit is the individual. There should be no unfair or undue institutional or attitudinal impairments to the free exercise of their will, their desires, and their right to political participation. From our point of view, liberalism is fundamentally bourgeois because of its stress on the individual and suspicion of collectives, its privileging of representative democracy and the push-me-pull-you of parliamentary politicking, defence of the market and fundamental blindness to structural inequality and social conflict coincides with and apologises for the operation of capital.

Liberalism/centrism as a ruling class movement is in crisis. In Britain and the US, for the first time in a long time it is completely excluded from government. Trump surrounds himself with hard right ideologues and sycophants, and despite the permanent display of Tory weakness Theresa May is bulldozing ahead with her Brexit plan. Its crisis, however, cannot be reduced to this alone as there have been plenty of occasions previously where liberalism was locked out of government. What's different is a collapse in its mass purchase. In the US, it fought the Sanders insurgency in the Democrats with dirty tricks, and then moved on to Trump by, basically, ceding him political ground by fighting an almost entirely negative, narcissistic and technocratic campaign. Liberalism/centrism tried doing the same in the Labour Party against the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, and has continued on this basis in its opposition to the left ever since. But few, if any, are biting. Out of sorts in the Tories and Labour, and with the LibDems a pathetic shadow of what it once was they can feel an ill wind, and it's blowing in the direction of marginalisation and irrelevance.

This is the necessary context for understanding its political bankruptcy. Every significant political event of the last few years confounds their world view. Why the likes of Trump or Bolsonaro were victorious, or why Brexit was affirmed in a referendum the liberal establishment lined up against could not possibly have anything to do with them and their record. No, it had to be the Russians, or illegal spending, or the groupthink effects of social media. After all, their ideas are the most modern, most obvious. And this certitude has only got stronger the more reality flies in the face of their expectations. It used to be that liberals defined themselves on a left-right spectrum equidistant from each. Now it's a triangle - left and right are the slopes and the centre is the pinnacle from which they look down on both. In fact, the reverse is the case. The slopes are upwards and they're stuck in a hole. Their put downs to a resurgent left are really attempts to climb out of their pit by dragging the left down, and the more they flail helplessly the more vicious and shrill their attacks become.

And so back to the attempted monstering of Aaron Bastani. He and the comrades variously associated with Novara - Ash Sarkar, James Butler, Michael Walker, Eleanor Penny - and other outriders for Corbynism, like Grace Blakeley and Alex Nunns, not only frequently get into the media but are proven adept and articulate performers. For established liberals, it's more than a matter of simply disagreeing with them, they are competitors. Writing essays and appearing on Novara's own shows is one thing, but taking up seats on Politics Live, This Week, Newsnight and Question Time as advocates for the new left means fewer gigs for them and their like-minded mates. How to put them back in the box? Challenging their politics only gives them legitimacy as commentators, as equals with wrong ideas. But in the world of the attention economy, where commentator bankability depends on media appearances, Corbynism presents as much as an existential threat to them as it does their liberal allies and friends in the Labour Party. And so the skulduggery, the insinuation and snarking, the smears and slanders, and the borderline doxxing is about refusing legitimacy, of an attempt to discredit by exposing Aaron as someone completely beyond the pale. And if they're successful, what is the consequence? They have acted as gatekeeper, determining what is and isn't acceptable to be broadcast and discussed in mainstream outlets and made the media world that little bit more secure for themselves.

Friday, 4 January 2019

JX - Restless

No time for blogging tonight, but in case you missed it here's a little something about Fat Cat Friday I wrote for elsewhere. Check it out! Also worth a recommendation is this installment of Suite 212 on Oli Mould's intriguing-sounding book, Against Creativity.

Anyway, we know 2019's going to be something of a year so here's an apposite track to finish off this first week.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Trash Talking the Tories

Back in September, yours truly was privileged enough to speak at the Derby Transformed event. This is the audio of the rally at the end featuring Chris Williamson, Derby City Labour Group leader Lisa Eldret, Lauren Mitchell, a Labour councillor in Hucknall in Ashfield, Paul Mason and, um, me. Please find below the recording - I start sounding off at 44.50. Also, keep an eye out for further recordings from the day on Derby Social Club's Soundcloud page.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Bolsonaro and Authoritarian Populism

The New Year came and went, and now sat in the Presidential Palace in Brasilia we find Jair Bolsonaro. Misogynist, racist and, some might say, fascist. His convincing victory in Autumn's presidential election is a disaster for Brazil and for the whole world. Bolsonaro is sure to inspire others of his ilk (and not a few "mainstream" politicians willing to do anything for power's sake), while his disavowal of climate change and desire to let the loggers loose in the Amazon is going to have consequences for the rest of us, regardless of where we live. Known then for incendiary rhetoric, was there anything in his inaugural presidential address that suggested anything new?

No. As the Graun reports, Bolsonaro declared his election a "liberation from socialism, inverted values, the bloated state and political correctness", advocating a pushing of Judeo-Christian values and an education system that turns out work ready people, not "political militants". As they noted at CBS, he doubled down on the anti-socialist rhetoric, stating "Our flag will never be red ... Our flag will only be red if blood is needed to keep it green and yellow." A statement of intent or racy rhetoric to fire up his supporters?

There were conciliatory words in sharp relief to the usual fire and brimstone. “We have a unique opportunity before us to reconstruct our country and rescue the hope of our compatriots,” "We're going to unite the people", and "My vow is to strengthen Brazil's democracy." Promises of national unity and purpose, of extending a filial hand to all the people and bringing them together, it's something even you-know-who wasn't averse to. But in terms of substantive policy, what Bolsonaro is defining as his priorities are interesting - and worrying. The first is the creation of a "culture of impunity", allowing the police to effectively operate without legal checks as they become accountable to a body outside of the judicial process. He knows what this means, but doesn't particularly care. What value do the lives of criminals have, regardless of how they're defined, if you're fighting crime? Bolsonaro has already calculated that this isn't likely to cost him his support - unfortunately the wretched example of Rodrigo Duterte's government-sponsored murders has shown little electoral blowback nor much in the way of international opprobrium or consequences for the Philippines. Though, perversely, Bolsonaro is planning to bring the law into line with what happens already. In various parts of Brazil the police have carte blanche to do as they please already, and some are existing players in the drug trade. All-out war won't stamp crime out, but will allow corrupt units and stations to eliminate and take over the competition. Once the blood letting is done we have a managed and, theoretically, more peaceful "illegal" market.

Bolsonaro is going to need the police on side. As we saw previously, Bolsonaro was successful because the mainstream liberal and centre right parties threw their lot in with his candidacy. Never forget that they did so not under threat of socialist revolution or an upsurge in workers' struggle, but because they preferred a ranting, would-be dictator to a mainstream social democratic president. Nevertheless key to cementing bourgeois interests to Bolsonaro's coalition was adapting himself to the neoliberal priorities of the ruling class. This means cutting back on regulations, privatising state-owned assets and the "reform" (i.e. cuts to) the pensions system. It is the case the workers' movement was, to a degree, demobilised when the Workers' Party was in office, but if the old military governments ended up bringing a militant opposition into existence the possibility of Bolsonaro doing the same can't be discounted. Especially as there already exists a de facto coalition of resistance encompassing indigenous groups, feminist movements, LGBTQ groups, leftists and trade unionists. If your programme for government consists of throwing masses of people out of work so your new friends can loot state property, and hobbling pensions to lower their obligations to employees, you're going to need the police for the confrontations to come. I would expect who is and isn't classified as a criminal starts getting fuzzier as these battles are touched off.

Unfortunately for Bolsonaro, and like Trump (who, incidentally, sent him congratulations in the usual way) he does not have arbitrary power and the Brazilian constitution provides for a number of checks on the executive. The president can issue executive orders, which he has already done on the management of indigenous reserves. However, while it does come into force immediately, under the Brazilian constitution such orders can be amended or rescinded by either House of Congress - they are provisional for 60 or 120 days when they require approval. While thought of as emergency measures constitutionally speaking, all presidents of Brazil have routinely used them since the new constitution was enacted in 1988. This means there is plenty of potential for Bolsonaro to get bogged down in disputes with Congress, just like someone else we know. This is compounded by his Social Liberal Party having only 52 Deputies in the lower house (out of 513) and four senators out of 81 in the upper house. Bolsonaro has already declared that he won't be forming a formal coalition between the PSL and others, but rather approach matters on an issue-by-issue basis - certainly a recipe for protracted wrangling and horse trading. However, again there is the weight of tradition to factor in - self-described liberal and centre parties have tended to back the incumbent in a House of Deputies whose normal state is fractured and split between many parties. No US-style "Resistance" here. As leading figures in these outfits sold their professed love for democracy down the Amazon, the position of Bolsonaro's programme sadly looks better in real life than it does on paper.

Yet, despite the brutality and stupidity we're sure to see over the coming years, what we're seeing - albeit at a very early stage - is something less than fascism. It's authoritarian populism with violent, Brazilian characteristics, and our guide is Margaret Thatcher not Hitler or Mussolini. Bolsonaro is embarking on a class project to subsume the whole of Brazilian society under the law of value by widening the purview of the market into, well, whatever he can get away with. The impunity law shows he is prepared to use repression, up to and including the extension of extra-judicial killings the Brazilian cops are notorious for. Meanwhile, his ranting about "gender ideology" and talking up religious inspiration (coincidentally, Bolsonaro's middle name translates as "messiah"), we have a latter day equivalent of Thatcher's preoccupation with Victorian values. Like everywhere when authoritarian populism takes root, its leader articulates an establishment-friendly anti-establishment poise, an identification of enemies - usually minorities, social movements, and their institutions - and a broken programme of obsolete values. The intended results are uniform, even if the means differ from country to country: freedom of capital for the few, and cowed, chastened discipline for the many. Bolsonaro is in a strong position, but the seeing off of a military dictatorship by mass struggle resides well within living memory. He might just find that things don't go all his way.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Regarding the Rat Race

This Christmas was a tale of two parties. Once the politicians broke up from Westminster and the immediate pressure of Brexit was off, the absence of hard news had assorted dullards fill the content-hungry maw of broadcast and print media with their favourite pastime: attacking Jeremy Corbyn. Yet on the other side of the Commons the story was somewhat different. Considering the turmoil, Rees-Mogg came out to declare there was nothing to see and, well, Tory turbulence made way for an eerie calm. That isn't to say phone calls haven't taken place and MPs weren't plotting, but rather nearly all of it taking place away from prying eyes. And as the Prime Minister spent a couple of weeks out of the spotlight (another walking holiday?), we've had some jockeying by the B-list epigoni in the cabinet.

The always-appalling Sajid Javid found his leadership positioning aided by the main news outlets. With a mild media panic generated by the usual suspects about refugees sailing/paddling across the Channel, Javid let it be known that he was cancelling his South African holiday to come back to deal with the "crisis". And he did so without challenge, as typified by this Sky News piece. There is a sinister subtext to all this. The Tories are past masters at divide-and-rule, and while immigration has slipped down the popular causes for concern since Leave won the EU referendum that doesn't mean it isn't a potent weapon. Filling TV screens with coast guards plucking refugees from dinghies with outboard motors could, if spun by unscrupulous papers and right wingers, be elided with the horrifying refugee disaster in the Mediterranean. Being seen to be all over his brief and sticking it to powerless others plays to the core vote, the editorial desks, and the dwindling party membership. Nevertheless, while a panic about refugees is just the tonic for making a case for May's tough-on-immigration Brexit deal, neither Downing Street or Javid's rivals happy to let him grandstand. Hence a pretty lame attempt to embarrass him.

Sadly, a consideration of Tory manoeuvring means pondering our mate Gavin Williamson is unavoidable. Nicknamed Private Pike by parliamentary colleagues, unlike his Dad's Army namesake Williamson gets off strutting about as if he's some military hard man. Less Lord Kitchener and more Fisher-Price Kitchen, he was on hand to greet HMS Echo arrived in Odessa before Christmas to deter the Russians - a spectacle sure to make Vladimir Putin "go away" and "shut up". More objectionable is his floating of the idiotic Empire 2.0 delusion, the view the UK can bestride the world not just as an independent economic power, but as a military one as well. In his Telegraph interview, he announced an intention to open two new military bases. One on the outskirts of the South China Sea, presumably with the view of making China think twice about its own ambitions in the region, and one in the Caribbean for, well, reasons. He also said "nations right across Africa look to us to provide the moral leadership, the military leadership and the global leadership". Yeah, but to do what? Totally absurd. There are, however, questions outstanding. Is this government policy? How's it going to be paid for? Or is it just a dismal effort to endear the Tory faithful with its imperial fever dreams to the camp of the stupid boy? Hazard a guess.

Jeremy Hunt isn't a name that - thankfully - gets uttered much round these parts, but he too has been playing at leadership footsy. See, he's gone down the road of the "vision thing". And what would his Britain look like after Brexit? Why, he's gone and half-inched the politics of the European Research Group and holds up Singapore as his model. Sadly, their extensive state subsidised housing isn't what he has in mind. Hunt doesn't expand much on what this means but he knows something about Singapore and low taxes, and is sold on the ERG idea that becoming the global hub of tax dodging (as if it isn't already) suits the interests of him and the hedge funds and disaster capitalists that have pushed Brexit very nicely. This not only tallies with some of the interests the Tory party articulates, it can be sold to the members both as a means of cutting taxes more generally (implying moar austerity red meat) and presenting the EU with a permanent Up Yours Delors moment. Never underestimate the enthusiasm of the Conservative Party for a morally bankrupt and dismal prospectus.

Nor should one underestimate their capacity for low cunning. As weird, ineffectual and incompetent these three men are, they demonstrated a certain adroitness in their positioning. Within Tory terms, each has staked out political territory that MPs, members and, sadly, a section of the electorate, finds compelling. Borders and immigration, military and empire, tax and hard Brexit. There is nothing here with mass, cross-party appeal - unless you're a backbench Labour hawk, I suppose - but at this point there doesn't have to be. All three have shown off their wares, and should it come to facing any of them down in a general election then in all likelihood Labour will be up against a traditional Tory campaign of lies, scaremongering and scapegoating. For this party of yesterday's men and women, the Tories' past is always their future.

Five Most Popular Posts in December

The five most read over Yule were ...

1. The "Surrender" of Jacob Rees-Mogg
2. A General Election is a Necessity
3. The Illusions of David Miliband
4. Fall Out by Tim Shipman
Corbynism in 2018

We almost made it, we almost got through a whole month without writing about Labour factionalism. But as soon as the MPs broke up for their holidays a winterval of silly season shenanigans came rolling in, with more dishonest rubbish about Brexit dominating social and broadcast media for a few days. And, seemingly bored over the Christmas break, a Twitter charge led by the ever comical Jolyon QC tried framing Novara Media's Aaron Bastani as an anti-semite, violent bully, and academic fraud. It's almost as if they're incapable of arguing about the politics any more. Summing it all up we have a consideration of how Corbynism fared in 2018.

Anyway, this sort of stuff made two and three in the month's tally. Much more pleasing it is to see the Tories get more attention though. All being well, 2019 is a time when I'll be spending more time than s healthy thinking and writing about the Tory party's decline and hopeful fall. So getting a consideration of Rees-Mogg's position on top, followed by further meditations on "Shippers" book on politics in 2017.

Who have we got hanging around the second chance saloon? I reckon my piece on Brexit and mental illness could do with more eyeballs gazing upon it, though it is not quite as comprehensive as I like (some of the comments it attracted are spot on). And we might as well throw in Hurrah for the Yellow Shirts?, a look at the Gilets Jaunes movement in France.

Okay, the festivities are done and it's 2019. Once more into the breach, comrades!