Monday, 10 August 2020

Bernard Stiegler and the Attention Economy

I was sorry to hear about the death of Bernard Stiegler last week. The range of his work takes in the gamut of French philosophy and German critical theory, while delving into political economy and having a few choice things to say about the attention economy. This makes his summation in a short blog post partial and difficult, and so for those looking for something more comprehensive and technical should check this paper out.

Stiegler's particular concern was technology, or what he refers to as 'technics'. Working in a space adjacent to Latour's actor network theory and Deleuze and Guattari's work on assemblages, for Stiegler technology was inorganic matter that had been reorganised by human hands with purpose. As our tools are used we change or "humanise" the natural environment, and we transform and reconstitute ourselves (a la Marx). Technology is always socially bounded and conditioned and therefore can be thought of as a physical form of memory, both in terms of how we use relate to it but what these tools say about the society that made them. The second key point for Stiegler is technology is imbued with memory through use, and as we become familiar with sets of tools these technologies structure our perceptions and how we experience time.

That time is complex, historical, and multiple (i.e. runs at different rhythms depending on the ensemble of social relationships) is readily accepted, but reaches a new level of intensity in the age of what Stiegler terms 'cinematic memory'. Here, what we might crudely characterise as the distinction between everyday experience and memory congealed in technology collapses as we assume a more intimate, symbiotic relationship with our tools. This means a blurring and a merging of the rhythms of time. The perceptions of time or, to be more precise, the immediate future becomes one always already ordered (anticipated) by the structuring of life by the technical imperatives of our technologies. As Stiegler put it, living time is conditioned by dead memory. At its most simple, the modes of perception encouraged by social media participation condition the cognitive processes of its users. An opinion is formatted as a hot take, a thought is structured like a tweet, an approach to an event is framed by instagramming imperatives. With our "technical disposition" structuring our consciousness, the spread of technology engenders a certain uniformity. The rise of the attention economy is a product of and a qualitative leap forward in the universalisation of particular perceptions of time. And with it comes a diminution of individuation - something encouraged by earlier phases of capitalism, but now shut down as attention encourages a process of de-differentiation.

Our current period then is characterised by 'hyper' attention. 'Deep' attention belonged to the age of the printed word, now our technologies enable the circulation and consumption of 'technical temporal objects'. These are fleeting things providing an immediate hit before the next one comes along, and then the next, all jostling to be seen and consumed and crowding perception to the edge of the horizon. The levelling of consciousness accomplished by cinematic memory and hyper attention marks its proletarianisation: minds are not brainwashed but are sculpted and moulded to fit into the homogenised circuitry of the social. This threatens diversity and difference, prescribes a limited range of individuation, and introduces new forms of dependency and alienation. Living in this time is frequently overwhelming because the demands of attention heighten the sense of everything happening everywhere simultaneously. Unsurprisingly, anxiety is the generalised pathology of the age.

In his small book, For a New Critique of Political Economy (2009), the proletarianisation of consciousness, unsurprisingly, entailed a functional recasting of desire (the libido) to churn out the consumers appropriate to the attention economy. This was a historical and, at times, a conscious accomplishment - a process of desublimation on which the social order depends. Indeed, following Marcuse's arguments that almost presented 50s and (early) 60s America as a smooth, enclosed system of domination, the proletarianisation of consumption was the precondition for mass consumer markets and, therefore, an increasingly important counter to capital's tendency to crisis (that 2008 was a crisis beginning in mass home ownership, and how 2020's biopolitical crisis occasioned the present slump demonstrates capitalism's heat sink can, in turn, precipitate crises of its own).

What Marcuse didn't see at the time of One-Dimensional Man is visible in the mature attention economy. The flattening of diversity and the erosion of difference ultimately undermines novelty and innovation on which attention depends. The extreme short-termism and the ubiquity of hyper attention is ruining mental health and making people into, from its perspective, less efficient consumers. And the new age of technology is enabling capital to destroy the means of life itself at an ever greater pace. These contradictions rule out the possibility of a smooth, coherent system of domination. For all its simultaneity and levelling down, the attention economy can generate metrics and matrices for the (quantitative) appreciation of others, but cannot finally accomplish the full reduction of human beings to tools. As the gaps widen and the contradictions build, the possibility of its other becomes visible. This other is an economy of contribution, an altermodernity little different in conception from what can be found in Hardt and Negri: an imminent, familiar communism haunting the attention economy with its possibility as attention grows, spreads, dominates.

Stiegler's project was simultaneously a thinking through of power, domination, and economy in the 21st century, but it was also an enterprise of recuperation. The history of technics was, he argued, something Western philosophy had at times forgot, and at others actively repressed. And it's easy to see why. For Stiegler technology is irreducibly social and socialising. Technology is never innocent or neutral, it can be deployed to build things, including class relations. The traditional philosophical emphasis on contemplation and cognition in isolation from the real conditions of thinking and doing meant it apprehended a distortion of the social, and entered into crisis in the 1960s when the early attention economy and the relationship of consciousness and technics became increasingly evident. They could no longer be ignored, and so the tradition as we understood it collapsed leaving the materialist philosophies and philosophies of difference and complexity the field. Stiegler's work then is a matter of correcting the record and cataloguing the conceptual repressions and narrative ruses philosophy has spent centuries administering to deny the basic social facts of what it is to be human.

Louis Althusser once described philosophy as the class struggle in Theory. Stiegler can be counted as one of the militants who fought the good fight from our side. It's down to us to carry on where he left off.

Image Credit.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

On Conservative Despair

These things make me happy: shelves spilling over with books waiting to be read, trance music, and Tories in despair. You might think this species of conservative is thin on the ground. An effective majority of 80 (Julian Lewis ain't about to oppose the government, despite his expulsion) and super favourable opinion polling suggest they (should) have plenty to be cheerful, if not arrogant, about. And yet Tory gloom about their future exists, and occasionally finds itself articulated in Ed West's pessimistic forays on the topic. Having written a book on the decline of the right (which, you'll be glad to hear, gets a fuller treatment in my coming book on the Tories), Conservative Home gave him welcome space to dampen Tory spirits.

Ed's thesis is conservatism is doomed because social liberalism is on the march everywhere. Despite the grip the Tories have on British politics, the Black Lives Matter protests and the speed at which companies and the media have folded to the movement's demands represents yet another advance. And there is nothing Tories like him can do about it. The woke wave is less a tide and more a tsunami. All is swept up as it surges inland and when it ebbs, the ground is left utterly transformed. The chance of this provoking a conservative backlash is next to nil, especially when the people now entering middle age aren't moving right in anywhere near the same numbers as previous generations - and what push back there is champions the ridiculous, alienating rising generations all the more from conservatism and conservative parties.

What can the discerning social conservative do? Very little, it seems, apart from picking up a few crumbs where Ed finds some comfort. So we see the idea small countries have coped better with Covid-19 as a sort of endorsement of small statism. The crisis has encouraged a communitarian sensibility, reasserted the importance of expert knowledge and the notion and that, yes, sometimes people need to be told what to do. An enforced slowness of life induced by the lockdown has encouraged a move away from instantaneous and disposable culture, with the late Thursday night clapping ritual, a rediscovery of common events that bind us together. Superficial enough observations yes, but not ones you can build a conservative political programme out of. Don't tell Ed but, even worse, curbing atomised, narcissistic individualism and playing up social connectivity foregrounds something guaranteed not to be to conservative tastes.

Does Ed's argument sound familiar? Of course it does. We saw its more academic iteration wheeled out by Matthew Goodwin more recently, and is propagated on a spectrum ranging from Blue Labourism, mainstream Toryism (Ed West, sundry MPs and newspapers), and all the way to the nudge, nudge, wink, wink racism of "Cultural Marxism". They all share the same premise: conservative social values are losing ground because institutions are under the sway of sinister progressivists/unaccountable elites who, in turn, are brainwashing successive generations of people. That ever increasing numbers of people might be socially liberal thanks to the materiality of generationally conditioned everyday experiences, or successive right wing governments having a first class record of dumping on younger people, eludes them completely. Funny how stubborn, persistent, and immediately obvious realities of the 21st century is invisible to those who benefit from them. The likes of Ed then are philosophically paralysed, and can only find comfort in hard right authoritarians like Poland's Andrzej Duda and anti-semites like Hungary's Viktor Orban. 

If you want to take seriously its philosophical underpinnings, conservative thought is about managing change, of being cautious when it comes to reform and preserving what is good and wise over fads or, even worse, radical change. Translated into the brute reality of capitalist societies it's a creed for buttressing power and privilege, of maintaining prevailing class relationships. Therefore, scepticism about and the management of change is always an anxiety over and about the balance of power, ruling class power. Ed's pessimism is an acknowledgement that in the long run, his party and the class he identifies with have a serious political crisis coming.

And yet Conservatism, as a bourgeois political movement, is not paralysed. Far from it. Because it is rooted in ruling class politics, for as long as capitalism persists it too persists, along with subordinate establishment perspectives and traditions like liberalism and Fabianism. The Conservative project, if it can be so described, is a permanent rear guard action for stymieing what's coming and works to recast politics on grounds favourable for its continued dominance. In our present Tory government, we see this fight against the future assume three broad forms. There is being seen to be a crusading, activist, reforming government motivated by the best of intentions. This was and is Boris Johnson's approach to Brexit, and ditto for Coronavirus. For example, Rishi Sunak's stimulus measures, as pathetic as they are, materially benefit key sections of existing Tory support while showing the others in their coalition (i.e. pensioners, largely sheltered from the economic consequences of Covid-19) they are "doing things" to get matters working again. Few among this layer are about to bother looking too closely. The second is tried and tested scapegoating, the familiar spectacle of pinning the blame on or sign posting particular groups as the condensation of all that is wrong with the country. Classic divide and rule; today it's refugees risking their necks in the English Channel, yesterday it was immigrants generally, and tomorrow some other powerless and marginalised people will get their turn. Lastly, a conservative favourite is displacement activity, of generating projects and causes that, to all intents and purposes, are distractions from long-running problems, like Britain's economic decline or climate change. Brexit is the exemplar of such, even if it does reflect a real division among the ruling class. And it has, temporarily, consolidated the Tory stranglehold on politics. It also promises more political opportunities in the future as Johnson and friends jet around the world striking new trade deals to replace what is being lost through leaving the EU - an ultimately pointless piece of theatre sacrificing economic capital for political capital, as Old Bourdieu might have understood it.

Conservatives have to win and keep on winning for their system and their class power to persist. With all their advantages it's still a massive slog, they are by no means are they guaranteed to win, and ultimately stumping for the persistence of inequality and injustice is demeaning and disfiguring. Just look at the calibre of contemporary conservative intellectuals - bank accounts stuffed with money to compensate for the poverty of their minds. For those able to take a longer view, like Ed West has, a reckoning lies on the horizon threatening a most dreadful finality: the end of conservatism's popular base and, if it all goes terribly wrong, the permanent eclipse of the class it serves. As the old socialists used to say, they need to win all the time. We only need to win the once.

Image Credit

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Labour Party Treasurer - Vote Reg Cotterill

Among the internal Labour Party elections shortly due to take place, Reg Cotterill has put his name forward for members' consideration. I've known Reg for many years through blogging and social media stuff, and can confirm he is real as we've met on a couple of occasions. Principled, serious, thoughtful, and non-factional, I hope comrades consider nominating him for the job via their CLPs and support him when the ballots drop.

I am grateful to long-standing blogging comrade Phil for the opportunity to put forward my case for election as treasurer to the party. I will set out my ‘vision’ for the way in which the party should manage its finances, in the context of the work Labour needs to do during the great economic downturn we now face, alongside the existing climate emergency, and then summarize my relevant experience.

My starting premise is quite simple. There should be a presumption within the party that all finance coming into the party, from whatever source, should be distributed on a fair basis to Constituency Labour Parties, unless a solid business case, linked to the party’s strategy in UK parliamentary opposition, is accepted by those CLPs through an appropriate decision-making framework.

This constitutes an entire reversal of financial flows in the party. It is radical, but it also realistic about the amount of funding that local parties need to make a real difference in their area, and is so doing improve the electoral fortunes of Labour in that area.

I submitted proposals on these lines back in 2013 to the Collins Review, and I invite readers to review the detailed document. I would add the following as an attempt to make those proposals contemporary:

• Such a reversal of flows would not mean that CLPs would have to cope with much larger cash amounts than they currently handle. There would be a ‘virtual chequebook’ system, with actual transactions administered centrally or regionally, but under the control of CLPs (as happens with schools operating under local authority control);

• A welcome consequence of the reversal of financial flows would be to allow CLPs/groups of CLPs to appoint their own staff, with a concomitant decrease in staffing in Labour HQ and regional offices. This would not be immediate, but over time it would help the party move on from the kind of toxic culture that develops in powerful top down bureaucracies, even those peopled by talented, committed individuals (see here for my exploration);

• Such a change of flow, with more resources under CLP control, would need to be accompanied by a curtailing of the excess that is annual conference. While many of those who attend are fully committed to their role, there is no doubt that in some CLPs a significant amount of money goes on conference expenses which might be better used on work in those constituencies; what Covid has taught us is that virtual meetings can in fact be more inclusive than annual celebrity-focused jamborees, and we should make the shift now to embrace that new potential for member inclusion;

• Most important of all, money is needed at constituency level more than ever before. The massive hardship coming to our country in the wake of the government’s corrupted and incompetent handling of the pandemic, and its decade-long stripping of the social security safety net, mean that – like the early 1980s but much more so – local parties and movements will need to be ‘out there’, providing for the most vulnerable and engaging in effective local economic regeneration/sustainability In ways which also create models of action on the climate emergency. CLP funds will need to be used strategically as ‘pump-primers’, drawing in other resources both public and private, and inclusive of revised municipal investments and pension fund portfolios. There will be many ways of doing this, and no one size will fit all, though I would ask that my proposals on the development of Labour party-driven Community Benefit Societies tapping into the potential for withdrawable share under Society law, and the development of ‘holding companies’ for distressed local businesses in line with the plans being drawn up by the non-Tory devolved governments.

Irrespective of whether I become party treasurer, I hope these proposals might create interest and critical engagement from the Labour Grassroots movement, such that anti-treasurer elected has cause to bring them before the NEC and the leadership. Nevertheless, I am standing for the position of treasurer because I feel I have the skills to add this kind of value to the role myself.

I am currently treasurer to two national non-profit organisations focused on radical social change. I served as a councillor for eight years, and won my seat from the Tories to become the first ever Labour councillor for that ward. I know how to win elections. I served as leader for the opposition at borough level for two years before care responsibilities meant I had to take a break. I have served in governance roles in primary, secondary and higher education, and as Non-Executive Director in the NHS. I trained as a nurse, and was a union branch secretary and chair, before moving to Asia and Africa in aid work. When the pandemic began, I became a care worker in our hard-pressed care sector, and am now moving back to work in the NHS as the second wave approaches.

I think I have the skills, and credibility within the labour movement, to make my grassroots approach properly heard within Labour hierarchy. I am experienced enough to develop and adhere to the correct and rigorous assurance framework, in liaison with member auditors, to ensure that Labour members know what money is being spent where, and to what socialist cause, while also working strategically with Labour staff to develop a healthy financial future for the party in which our politics are free from the pressure of the vested interests of capital.

My wider analysis of where the Labour party is, and what it can become, can be found here (the draft of the first half of a book to be published in 2021).

If you feel able to nominate me at your CLP for the position of treasurer, I would of course be very grateful. I am available for question on @bickerrecord when I’m not at work, asleep, out with the dogs, or grappling with Kierkegaard.

Friday, 7 August 2020

100% feat. Jennifer John - Just Can't Wait (Saturday)

Lazy summer evenings demands the air be filled by quality house tunes, and here's a great slab of dance music from the Year of our Lord 2004. Apologies for the awful music video. It is very much a creature of its time.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

The USA, China, and the New Cold War

Politics Theory Other deals in all the cheery topics, and in the latest episode Alex speaks to Tobita Chow and Jake Werner about US antipathy to China and how politicians across the party divide are stoking anti-Chinese racism.

There are plenty more where this came from, so check out the PTO archive here, and help build new left media by giving the show some cash!

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Opposition as Colourless Managerialism

Consider a clutch of recent polls. Here is the latest from Survation - Tories up three on 44%, Labour down to 35%. A similar story is told by YouGov, with Labour again on 35% to the Tories' 43%. Boris Johnson also leads Keir Starmer by two points in the best Prime Minister stakes (33% to 31% - don't knows also on 33%). And then there is this further YouGov number asking punters who would be to blame for a mass of second wave Coronavirus infections. 52% said the public, and 31% said the government. These results - the party preferences, and who's responsible for a Covid repeat performance - aren't divorced from one another.

The reasons for the persistent Tory lead aren't difficult to fathom. 60,000+ dead is not enough to shift the Tories from their we're-managing-a-national-crisis bonus, the promise to do Brexit come what may, and being seen to be doing stuff while the bulk of the Tory coalition of voters, thanks to their age and retirement status, don't have to live with the consequences of Rishi Sunak's "largesse." But this support also persists because Keir Starmer's approach to opposition is to challenge Johnson and the Tories on detail and not on the substance of what they're doing.

This is a fully conscious strategy. Introduce yourself to the public as a serious, statesmanly figure, one who's a safe pair of hands that won't bring the Home Counties out in a cold sweat nor frighten the city boys. Keep the criticism of the government measured so you're not looking like a point scorer or an opportunist, and hope your constructive approach to public health strategy will lead to a popular perception of you (and Labour) as better crisis managers. This orientation has certainly helped improve the party's standing in the polls as well as Keir's figures, but this can only go so far.

Some lessons from recent Labour Party history. In 2010, the summer's long leadership contest conceded Dave, Osborne, and their new friends in the Liberal Democrats time to shape the post-election politics and start moving on their programme of cuts and privatisations without vigorous opposition. Once Ed Miliband was elected, he was forever playing catch-up as the moment for contesting their framing of the crisis had passed. Then in 2016 after the EU referendum, Labour was consumed by a pointless - and again, lengthy - effort to oust Jeremy Corbyn while Theresa May got on with the business of defining Brexit in hard terms, and setting us on the road to where we are today. Perhaps had Labour MPs accepted the result from 2015 and set about opposing the Tories with the same energy they deployed against their leader, May's Brexit strategy might have withered under more scrutiny, more contestation, and the crisis that was later to consume her premiership could have come sooner. And then, at the beginning of this year, Labour's NEC ridiculously mandated another months' long contest as Johnson and Cummings warmed their feet under the table and prepped politics for their cracked schemes. They were not able to take advantage of Labour's three-month virtual absence from the field thanks to the arrival of Covid-19. Instead, we now see Keir now giving them the space to breathe they lost at the beginning of the year. How very sporting.

By focusing on process, Keir is defining himself as a man without ideas. By deliberately eschewing a root and branch critique and taking the Tories to ask for their litany of fatal failures, when he and Labour does venture them after the fact in 18 months to two years' time, it will be a dredging up of an unfortunate past people would rather forget. It runs the risk of an accusation of a lack of serious intent - after all, if Labour were bothered about excess deaths why didn't Keir hang, draw, and quarter the Prime Minister at the despatch box at the time? This failure has other repercussions too. On what the world should be like after the pandemic, how things should change, how public services need redesigning around people's priorities, and the reconfiguring of lives based around work in an age of economic depression, not one shred of hope, not a single glimmer of a better future has shown itself amid the grey plod of Keir's colourless managerialism. This stuff matters, because offering a critique, providing an alternative, and showing how it is better than what is is the very basics to any kind of oppositional politics. You cannot hope to win without it.

We're not seeing any of this so far, and the longer Keir redefines 'opposition' in the most timid and technocratic of terms, the more the government will get away with depoliticising the crisis and foist blame for their catastrophe onto people who don't wear their masks properly, or are careless with the social distancing rules. There is comfort to be found in the tiny number - just six per cent - of Labour supporters dissatisfied with bis performance so far, but as they say only one poll matters. Unless he and Labour politicise this crisis and pin it on Tory carelessness and psychopathy, we might as well begin planning our 2024 leadership contest - following the loss of yet another election.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

The Liberal Distaste for Steve Bannon

Trump's former right hand man has bothered the pages of The Observer again. In comments published last weekend, he praises Dominic Cummings as a skilled practitioner of the dark arts, endorses his coming assault on the civil service, and predicts Boris Johnson will go down the road of economic nationalism. In other words, what we're seeing in the UK is Bannonism without the grand poobah himself. But this post isn't really about Bannon, it's about why he is a bogeyman for the liberal and centrist sections of the establishment.

Naturally, there are degrees of opposition and antipathy. Given a choice between Bannonism with British characteristics and left Labourism, we know from recent experience how they always prefer the former to the latter. The politics of Johnson and Cummings, as empty as they are, is a familiar politics. A politics of the establishment and the elites, regardless of the populist spin it's given. Corbynism, for all its limitations, could have opened the door to a more popular politics by destabilising the received balance of class relationships. Yet despite this, they're still far from keen on Bannon. Why?

He's a crude racist and an unapologetic white supremacist. And, shudder, he's Catholic. The very antithesis of a particular brand of ruling class identity politics with its bourgeois internationalism, transatlanticism, EU cretinism, and affectations of progressive social values (ust don't expect them to act on them). Bannon with his straight forward racism holds a mirror up to their collective conscious and reminds them how their posture is built on hypocrisies. Their anti-racism was absent in the 00s when US and UK governments demonised and victimised Muslims, their solidarity was absent from anti-deportation and refugee support campaigns, and they cared for nothing as Theresa May sent her racist vans prowling around inner city London. They wrung their hands over the Windrush scandal and the Black Lives Matter protests, but can't bring themselves to offer a word of support for black MPs on the receiving end of racist abuse. On a basic level they know nothing essentially separates them from Bannon, who really believes his racism, and their own anti-racism which is deployed selectively.

And Bannon is also open about what politics is. It's a clash of interests, of power and privilege working on retaining their power and privilege against those who don't have it. Bannon identifies himself with the strong and favours so-called strong men and authoritarian governments as the natural and correct projection of strength, and is a-okay with scurrilous means if manipulation gets or is seen to get the desired result. He is the ultimate cynic in the most cynical game of all, and is unabashed about it. In their heart of hearts, liberal elites know this is true too. They are quite happy to crank up the smear machine and lie if they think their position is directly threatened, but the rest of the time they pretend fealty to honest debate, freedom of expression, polite discourse and reify them as values under threat from the unwashed to their left and right. Bannon is a reminder of their cant, an unwelcome interrupter to their great game who cares nothing for their liberal reticence and, again, shows them up for hypocrites. They hate him because he's rude and won't play up to their confected decency. This is why Bannon boils their piss.

Image Credit

Monday, 3 August 2020

The Zoomers and Class Politics

Generational differences matter and can enhance our understanding of class relations as a moveable feast. Age cohorts, their common cultural properties and experiences and, crucially, their shared politics reveals something about how classes develop and undergo cycles of composition, decomposition, and recomposition. Matthew Goodwin's recent essay on the so-called Zoomers (folks born between 1995 (or 1997) and 2010 (or 2012), depending on preference) is helpful for reminding those stuck to hidebound, static markers of class - such as mainstream political science and its favoured marketing schema of ABC1s and C2DEs - that class is actually liquid, dynamic, and shaped by conjunctural events as well as long-term stable structures. Such as the capital/wage relation, for example.

Goodwin has placed the Zoomers under the microscope because they are the most liberal generation in history. Obviously a matter of some interest to any right-wing thinker. The Zoomers are also more chill when it comes to state intervention and are more radical on matters economic than preceding generations. Okay, but why? The 2008 crash cast a long shadow and in some countries, and particularly so in southern Europe where unemployment among young people was its very own pandemic before the pandemic. This badly affected the millennials, who were just coming of age when the stock markets broke. For the Zoomers, the coronavirus crisis and its subsequent depression are likely to have similar effects when it comes to value systems and politics. True, true, but the trend to social liberalism and economic radicalism was pronounced among Zoomers before Covid-19, and this was the case among Millennials before Lehman Brothers vanished in a blizzard of shredded documents. Events can catalyse more or less latent tendencies, but from whence do they issue in the first place?

The fact larger number of young people have degree-holding parents is certainly true, as there is a strong-correlation between being a graduate and the propensity to be liberal-minded (and why the right are hostile to universities), but for Goodwin we can list the backlash against Trump, the take up of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the cultural clashes of the campus wars as proximate causes. These result in a "hyper-liberalism" in which radical ideas flow freely - feminism and critical race theory merit a mention. Yet this still doesn't provide anything like a satisfying answer. Most Zoomers don't have parents with degrees, most Zoomers of age don't go to university and among those who do, most are not party to the Red Guard-style militancy imagined by plodding and ignorant newspaper columnists. And Trump, as foul as he is, isn't a shadow demon responsible for driving politicisation among young people across different societies with different politics. Indeed, the loathing most of them have toward Trump is a symptom of their politics, not its cause.

Here and there, Goodwin alludes to the significance of class but only in the most superficial, economistic terms. Indeed, we know he's in thrall to mechanistic abstractions when he says our generation of hyper-liberals are "far more heavily on identity than economics, and less interested in traditional drivers like social class." This opposition of class to identity is common enough, there are plenty of people who fancy themselves Marxist who do the same. Indeed, there is a Stalinist sect on the margins of British politics that explicitly markets itself as "anti-woke". However, to understand how class operates in the really existing real world, this guff simply will not do.

The dominant form of labour in the advanced economies, and an increasingly important vector of accumulation in Eastern economies like China and India is immaterial production. This covers a vast range of occupations, but more or less boil down to what mainstream economists call intangibles. Immaterial labour produces information, knowledge, care, and services. The brain or, rather, our social being is mobilised in the process and what our outputs are are less the bushels of wheats and the coats of Marx's Capital, but social relationships themselves. Indeed, as social animals the production of social relationships, in turn, produces human beings. The stuff of immaterial labour is the generation of subjectivities, the manufacture of people of of particular types. And these workers grow more numerous by the day.

The Italian autonomists, particularly Antonio Negri and Maurizio Lazzarato argued that as the welfare state expanded in the post-war period to fill the gaps in the social left by market failure, it effectively meant more workers were drawn into the process of patching the system up. Instead of producing surplus value, they were producing the conditions for the production of surplus value. During the 1980s, some of these activities were parcelled up in institutions and sold off to the private sector, while others were to become sustainable businesses by acting as brokers and surrogates for connectivity and information. The contracting industrial sector in the advanced countries enabled by advanced manufacturing and cheap labour, above all in China, saw the proliferation of ever more niche and specialised forms of service provision. This was accompanied by the reinvention of many a traditional job by embedding them in a digital architecture. This has had a number of consequences, such as more parasitic but visible forms of exploitation, and, because intangible production produces subjectivities and identities, new forms of alienation that fetishise identities emerge as persistent social pathologies.

Why does this matter? Because it conditions successive generations' experience of class, of what it means to sell your labour power. More people from Generation X, my generation, were so employed than the Boomers. More Millennials have experienced immaterial work than the X'ers, and the Zoomers were on track - and still will be when the crisis is over - to spend their entire careers generating intangibles than their predecessors. Therefore the phenomenon of successive generations becoming more liberal and tolerant is rooted in the social capacities demanded of immaterial labour, capacities themselves that have not arisen according to an ineluctable immaterial logic but have become incorporated into them thanks to the efforts of the women's, LGBT, black liberation, and anti-racist movements. Tolerance is a basic property of sociality, which in turn is entirely fundamental to an economics based on intangibles produced by cooperative, social activity. It follows then the nonsense Tories and their dull retainers fulminate against is not a left wing plot, but is an education process appropriate to the demands of capital accumulation.

This presents new vectors of class struggle as it multiplies across the circuits of identity production, but does not in and of itself lend itself to capitalism's spontaneous overthrow. However, what might hasten its demise is the dull compulsion of economic necessity. Zoomers and Millennials tend to be more left wing than Gen X and the Boomers because they're locked out the system. There are not enough jobs to go round, and far too many of them are intrinsically unrewarding, low paid, insecure, and do not lead on to better things. Property acquisition is disproportionately an activity and characteristic of the old, and the double whammy of 2008 and 2020 - with the pandemic, the costs of Brexit, and climate change making itself felt - these are very clear and present reasons for Zoomers not to be cheerful. Corbynism appealed to and represented their interests in conventional politics, and with it gone the greater the likelihood these frustrations will strongly manifest in anti-system protest and action. Dumping statues into the drink is but a foretaste.

Understanding the Zoomers as a generational cohort, their values, their politics,and their understanding of their own position requires much more than reckoning with conjunctural difficulties, counting people with degrees, and pretending the social world is anything like a handful of university campuses. Their strengths lie in the class relations and the struggles that birthed them. And their anger, entirely right, entirely righteous, is bound up with how in stymies them, exploits them, and is content to currently let them rot. No wonder the Tories and right wingers are obsessed with the outward "woke" trappings of this angry, socially liberal generation: they recognise a growing existential threat when they see one.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

The Ends of Scottish Labour

What is Scottish Labour for? It persistently languishes third in opinion polling and calls for the leader, Richard Leonard, to step down are almost as routine as those who accompanyied Jeremy Corbyn every day of his leadership. With the disappearance of his Tory counterpart, Jackson Carlaw, into the night these demands are only going to mount. And yet, if Leonard does decide to step down how will that fix things? His personal ratings aren't great, but if he's replaced by his deputy - ancien regime veteran Jackie Baillie is in the frame - what plan does she have, or anyone have for that matter, to reverse the party's dreadful fortunes?

The biggest problem Scottish Labour has is its refusal to come to terms with what happened in 2015. Joke deputy leader candidate Ian Murray fancies himself an expert on the rout, what with his being the only MP to survive that year's massacre and pull through again last December. Apart from restating the need to "win elections" (stunning insight), in February he said Labour had to "learn the lessons" from the fall of the tartan wall without saying what they are beyond the need for "better comms". Pathetic. None are so blind as those who do not wish to see, so let's set it out in simple terms. A chunk of Labour's base up and left the party because, effectively, the party had left them. Political science ain't rocket science. If you spend decade after decade ignoring the aspirations of your support, allow your party machine to become an apolitical corrupt vehicle of place seekers and careerists, and then are seen to line up with your alleged enemies to tell your voters you will screw them over if Scotland goes for independence, a reckoning will come. And boy, did it come.

Effectively, what Labour clung onto in the last three elections was its legacy vote. The hang over of a decaying labour movement that once provided Scottish unionism its political backbone still responds, in ever diminishing numbers, to the trappings of labour-inflected British patriotism. Sadly, the increasingly numerous and dominant sections of the new working class, which Labour elsewhere attracted now look to the SNP for protection from the Tories, despite the Scottish government's own poor record. This very basic fact of political life is lost on some, among whom you can find the bulk of the Scottish Labour establishment.

Richard Leonard won the leadership in 2017 by a huge majority because he appeared to understand this problem. However, understanding something doesn't necessarily mean you can or will do anything about it. Recovering Labour's position did, and still does, lie in becoming the sort of movement it tried to be and still needs to be in England and Wales, a reality even recognised by the soft left Labour Together report. Some comrades, most notably those in the Campaign for Socialism have tried but it has not had full backing from the top nor have they prioritised a community-minded strategy for rebuilding the party and its influence. Instead, Leonard and the leadership are bogged down in neverendum positioning. This is fair enough to a degree. It would be stupid to ignore the big issue in Scottish politics, and substituting it for economistic campaigning around good causes won't, in and of itself, make the problem go away. Do then the Labour right have an alternative?

They think they do. Ian Murray wanted "clarity" on a second referendum, and Scottish Labour has it: the party has reaffirmed its opposition to a second referendum. But so what, everyone knows Labour is a unionist party. People haven't stopped voting for the party because they don't know where it stands on the union, they've stopped because the party isn't speaking to the people it needs to win over. i.e. People who turned SNP in 2015 and haven't come back. There is, however, a kernel of insight coming from the Labour right when it comes to playing the Holyrood game. It's their natural habitat, after all.

Readers will recall the the rise of Ruth Davidson. Personable and approachable, some might even describe her as charismatic. She was a different kind of Tory who spoke plainly, but without none of the populist bullshit and anti-immigration drum beating typical of right wing politicians. As such, the Scottish Tories rebranded their toxic party around her personality. The Conservatives became "Ruth's Team", and their leaflets asked punters not to vote Tory but to vote "for Ruth." And to seal the deal with the sceptical, they offered a wee gateway drug. They were honest with the punters and said they weren't about to win the 2016 Holyrood elections, but the SNP demanded a decent opposition and Labour (then led by Our Kez) just weren't providing it. Vote Tory not to support the Tories, but to keep Nicola Sturgeon honest. And, to a point, the strategy paid off. The Tories displaced Labour as the official opposition, laid the groundwork for the 2017 Tory resurgence, and gifted Theresa May the model for her own ill-fated election campaign. Might this work for the Scottish party, as the Labour right hopes?

It could. Jackie Baillie is an experienced figure, having served as a MSP since the parliament opened and worked with his holiness, Donald Dewar. She's probably better known than the Tories' heir apparent, Douglas Ross, but not exactly on the tips of pundits' tongues, let alone a name oft mentioned around the kitchen table. She has a good record of piecemeal achievement in Holyrood as well, winning cross party support on protections for disabled parking spaces and having overseen and participated in complex inquiries. This could be leveraged along with Keir Starmer's image as A Very Serious Man - a politician that can draw on decades of experience to hold the SNP's feet to the fire over education, the NHS, and its awful Covid figures. Have the Labour right hit upon their woman and the right strategy?

The old Labourist proverb goes that Labour needs both wings to fly. If Leonard is deposed and Baillie moves in quickly a, for want of a better phrase, "Ruthist" reorientation could eat into Tory support and win over some soft SNP/Labour floaters. That would be a good start, but knowing the Labour right anything that isn't an election is a waste of time - presumably the history of the party is one of working people automatically voting for Labour as soon as it appeared on the ballot paper. The project of weaning people off the Liberal Party, winning over layers of Tory voting workers, because of the collapse in Scotland this work has to all be done again. Different opponents, same grind. And so the prospectus Leonard's election opened up must be carried to completion, with him or not. A savvier parliamentary game to detoxify the party and knock the Tories back, and a ground game organising communities, workplaces and, this cannot be emphasised enough, avoids the impression of preferring the Conservative Party to the Scottish National Party might, over the medium term, start winning people back. If Scottish Labour wants to win, it must first act like a proper opposition on all fronts. If it doesn't, the party will remain a husk. It will die.

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New Left Media August 2020

Some new projects and initiatives for you to check out this month. Enjoy!

1. JS Titus (Twitter)

2. LabourList Podcast

3. Lives on the Left

4. The Left Wing Society (Twitter)

5. Thurrock Labour Left

6. Unite Member

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

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Are the Scottish Tories Doomed?

These days party discipline is something talked about in the breach rather than the observance, but hats off to the SNP. Their National Executive Committee who met Thursday evening to consider new rules on MPs wishing to switch to Holyrood and the outcome didn't leak. Impressive. Still, there wasn't any doubt. Nicola Sturgeon's steady-as-she-goes faction control the SNP machinery, and so the NEC were always going to make it harder for Joanna Cherry to butt heads with Angus Robertson in the selection for Edinburgh Central, and smooth the path for another take over of the party by Alex Salmond. Well, Cherry's down and out for now, and the small matter of blocking Salmond's path back to prominence presents itself. For those who watched the Scottish Socialist Party break apart a decade-and-a-half ago, you ain't seen nothing yet.

While the SNP pursues its split trajectory between realo and fundi nationalism, another nationalist force - British, this time - has developed a headache of its own. On Thursday, the Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw unexpectedly resigned. Without much hint of ulterior dissatisfaction, he said "In the last few weeks, I have reached a simple if painful conclusion – that I am not, in the present circumstances, the person best placed to lead that [ Unionist] case over these next vital months in Scottish politics prior to the Holyrood elections." Deary me. In the interim, Ruth Davidson is expected to stand in at First Minister's Questions while her peerage is in the post. There is, however, an element of Carlaw jumping before getting pushed. His performance since Davidson announced her departure has been less-than-stellar. He was all over the place on Dominic Cummings's celebrated trip to Barnard Castle, was universally mocked for poorly performing at FMQs, got brickbats from Tory MSPs for going unilateral on a no deal Brexit, and losing seven seats at the general election. Rubbish polling sealed his fate. So dud, meet open window.

How do we know this was engineered and not Jackson acting on a self-conscious whim? Enter stage right Douglas Ross. Who he? Ross is the honourable member for Moray and, in 2017, won back the seat from the SNP for the first time since 1983, and disposing of Angus Robertson too. He retained it last year with a much reduced majority. He has emerged from semi-obscurity to the attention of Scottish politics thanks to having a, to coin a phrase, oven-ready leadership campaign ready to go. Fancy that. Despite upsetting the London-based In Defence of Our Dom faction by resigning from the Scottish Office over Cummings's behaviour, Johnson appears reconciled to his taking over. Apparently, Ross is fancied as having something about him - some of what you might call the Davidson magic. Or, to translate into plain English, is pliable as far as Number 10 are concerned.

What else does Ross have to offer, assuming the Scottish party accepts London's writ without question? Well, also in line with the otherwise empty Tory manifesto Ross has a thing for scapegoating travellers. Indeed, in 2017 he said cracking down on "Gypsy Travellers" would be his top priority if he was Prime Minister for a day. What a charmer. Apart from this, he's voted as directed by the whips' office - speaking out against Cummings was a rare moment of independent thought, albeit one likely powered by grumbles and disgruntlement across the wider party. Prior to his elevation to the Commons, Ross enjoyed a somewhat elastic relationship to the Tories, as Angus Robertson deliciously recounts. Another interesting feature of Ross's pitch is his decision not to resign from Westminster when he's selected and elected to Holyrood. This brings up the politically toxic issue of double-jobbing - claiming twice the salary for doing half a job for each isn't going to endear him to anyone, and just shows how much contempt the Tories have for their voters if they think they'd just swallow this. A hay-making opportunity for the SNP, and perhaps even the comatose Scottish Labour might find it in themselves to make a populist splash on this too.

Whether Ross prevails or not, he's come to prominence under the steerage of others. And I suppose this is just as well, because as Scottish Tory leader he won't be the master of his own destiny either - boxed in as he will be by SNP hegemony and despatches from Dom's office. And there is the ever-present underlying problem: the unionist vote is in an advanced state of decrepitude and long-term decline. With the SNP having locked down rising layers of workers by speaking to their interests and offering a vague enough vision of an independent Scotland allowing the projection onto it or all things fine and fair, the only place the Tories can go is to feast on Labour's vote. It could work yet having one declining force feed off another is, at best, a recipe for the shortest of short-term gains. How the Tories might take votes off the SNP is looking more difficult with every passing day Johnson sits in Downing Street and shafts Scotland. The Tory position then is bad. Their recent rejuvenation is time limited, and the expiration date is fast approaching. Hope for Scottish Conservatism lies in the developing split in Scottish nationalism, and that is entirely out of their hands.

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Five Most Popular Posts In July

Are the months of the Coronavirus crisis whizzing by or dragging themselves out? Whatever the case, a whole month has passed since we last did one of these. Which posts made the popular cut in July?

1. The Weakness of Starmerism
2. Obligation and Class Consciousness
3. On Jeremy Corbyn's Defence Fund
4. Why are the Tories Invulnerable?
5. The Biopolitics of Herd Immunity

Critical Keir studies does the job yet again with the vacancy at the heart of the Labour leader's politics on the receiving end of the analytical scalpel. Coming second was a brief meditation on the breakdown of family bonds as a transmitter of voting behaviour as older, Labour loyal generations pass away and their now middle-aged to elderly children disproportionately punt for the Tories. The post on Jeremy Corbyn's legal fund does exactly what it says on the tin, while the next piece considers the polling quandary stumping politics at the moment: how high does the body count have to go, how many people have to suffer for the Tory figures to diminish significantly? And bringing up the rear is a look at the biopolitics of encouraging people to go back shopping and, to use Rishi Sunak's suspect phrase, eat out to help out. And what do you know, in an eventuality not at all foreseen the infection rate is climbing again as I write. Well done the Tories.

Walking into the second chance saloon, who might you find propping up the bar this month? I'm going to select three posts you might have missed. Here is the class politics of points-based immigration. i.e. Why are the Tories so intent on this scheme? Conditional and transactional politics considers the nature of contemporary politics and something the left needs to grasp if it's going to get anywhere. And lastly, you should read this piece on the SNP, because a sequel post is highly likely over the next few days.

Any guesses for next month? Well, I'm not entirely sure what my pour out from my fingertips yet! But chances are more Keir Starmer, more Tories, more Coronavirus. Make sure you tune in to find out.