Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Worse than Conservative

Chris Leslie has a new pamphlet out on 'the centrism', you say? It has the snappy title Centre Ground does it? Sounds like a must read. Except, you and I both know it isn't. The centre ground in politics is dead. Or, to put it another way, there are two centre grounds. The common sense of one, more or less, ranges from scepticism to hostility to immigration, wants Brexit delivered, takes pride in the police and armed forces, accepts nukes, would like pensioners (often themselves) protected, and is happy to see the poor demonised as benefit scroungers deserving of the bitterest medicine. The other centre ground barely registers in the mainstream. There is a consensus around the housing crisis, precarity and wages, on social liberalism and inclusive identity forms, an annoyance Brexit will hit them the heaviest, a scepticism toward a social security system that finds excuses not to assist them, and little time for the militarism and flag waving of the others. There are two centres of British politics because it is polarised. Corresponding to each, more or less, is support for the Tories and Labour respectively, with the Liberal Democrats and UKIP severely squeezed.

Serious politics has to have an inkling about this situation, and have proposals for responding to it. Labour has and, within their own terms, the Tories do too. Centrism? Well, almost three years on from Jeremy Corbyn's election and a year after the general election confounded Blairist forecasts we still await an explanation of how we got here and why they got it so badly wrong. Does this pamphlet fill the void? Does it 'eck as like. There's a little bit of foregrounding, of populist forces surging because "The global financial crisis fuelled cynicism about government and politicians" but that's as far as it goes. The situation we have now is no one's fault, and certainly, definitely nothing to do with how the centre left performed in power of late.

We then come to a section that is potentially interesting: Chris Leslie's definition of centrism. He can't get its recent history right, but can he at least grasp the contours of the movement, such as it is, he identifies with? Noting most people place themselves in the centre of the left-right axis of politics (a consistent, long-term finding almost entirely devoid of meaning), he has a stab at defining it around balance. It's worth quoting this word salad in full:

Balance: mixed, regulated economy; equal opportunities supporting personal responsibility; aligning personal interests with best interests for community and country; evidence-based policy making recognising social patterns and data; international humanitarianism and willingness to act judging each case on merits; collective service provision but safeguarding taxpayer and service user interests. (p.12)

Arrayed around this are diametrically opposed spokes highlighting concepts one would normally associate with leftist and rightist politics, at least as far as the centrist imagination is concerned. Among these are self-interest, pacifism, high tax-and-spend, producer interests, stateism [sic], and so on. For Chris, centrism sits inside these extremes, has some affinity to them, and pragmatically relates to problems and policy challenges. I suppose this definition has the virtue of staking out what centrism is for as opposed to what it is against, though whether these banalities demand "to be championed with the same fervour of any radical Marxist or free-marketeer" because "it is grounded in the real world" and "has the added advantage of being right" is something I'll leave readers to determine.

The pamphlet then moves into the terrain, some might say comfort zone, of the centrists - free-floating policy making. Anchored to six values, of which more shortly, Chris proposes a number of policies which, in and of themselves, are utterly unobjectionable. A legal right to time off from work to attend hospital appointments, for instance, isn't a bad idea. I mean, set against widening inequality, precarity, flat-lining wages, a dearth of opportunities beyond drudge work, a housing crisis, and all the rest it's welcome but hardly going to address deep-rooted problems. Indeed, thinking about the key issues that not only underpin public debate but are driving the polarisation of politics merits nary a mention. Though later in the pamphlet there is room enough for bad faith criticisms of nationalisation, as if simply letting the state take over key utilities and infrastructure is the actual game in town. And a broadside is loosened against activists taking over local parties and forcing honourable members to choose between constituency parties and constituents. Given the careful, Delphic language employed here I am at a total loss as to whom Chris is critiquing.

Looking at Chris's "values", his centrism is based around six formulae. 'Fair play, not playing the system' comprise wafflesome words against corporate abuses and tax avoidance, while advocating the 'contributory principle' and 'respect', which includes mandatory advice services for those at the sharp end of "multiple disadvantages". 'Responsibility' talks up reciprocity, responsible public finances, and "neighbourliness" at home and abroad. Hilariously, 'Evidence not ideology' cautions against "outside dogmatism" and demands "an evidence-based rather than ideologically-driven approach to the world. You mean like this? 'Representative democracy' toys with the idea of forcing voters to the polls, while revisiting the same old Parliamentary cretinism. 'Opportunities not pre-determinism' emphasises equality of opportunity, self-reliance, and trots out again a cross-party approach to health and social care. As if Labour's stance of rolling back the market in the NHS and the Tories' determination to deepen it can ever be reconciled. And I was tickled that Chris calls his final set of values 'Focusing on 21st century challenges – not 20th century nostalgia' when his entire project is a retread of the Third Way, minus the thin layer of substance lent by Anthony Giddens's social theory. Definitely not a case of 'forward, not back' as His Blairness would have it.

Why backwards? What we see here is a recapitulation of the neoliberal settlement presided over by New Labour. Thatcher, if you like, brusquely cleared the ground and hastily threw up some jerry rigged constructs. Blair took the blueprints and perfected them, until the 2008 shocks revealed the fault lines their efforts were erected on. While Corbynism is suggesting we build afresh on the solid foundations of a rising class, Chris would have us back on the shaky terrain, this time facing the chill winds of globalisation and prone to the rising waters of the populist right, which he'd choose to appease rather than face down. Not only do we frequently see the boring and facile repetition of 'what works', which was and remains code for more markets and more privatisation, running through Chris's argument is the dogmatic attachment to the virtue of atomised individuals, or neoliberal subjects at the moment its obsolescence is setting in. Moving forward and building a better society requires the junking of this old crap. It is antithetical to the new leftism and its stress on the social commons.

The other problem of Chris's centrism is who is it for? Who does it appeal to? Blair-era centrism had the fortuity of taking over a Labour Party reeling from four election defeats and the shock death of a recognisably Labourist leader. In power Blairism did what similar programmes have since done to the centre left in Europe: it eviscerated itself, a thorough self-pwning centrism to this day is yet to acknowledge, let alone reckon with. Unlike the Tories who at least have a base, as a movement out there in real society Chris's centrism barely registers outside of think tanks, op-eds, and the Parliamentary Labour Party. His coterie are leaders without a led, and they know this otherwise they'd have decamped and formed their own centre party ages ago.

In their latest book, Assembly, our old muckers Michael Hardt and Toni Negri argue that contemporary right wing movements are less conservative and more reactionary, because they hark back to an old imagined order and given the chance would (and do) cause a great deal of misery and suffering in their quest to mould the social after this fashion. By this reckoning, Chris's centrism isn't conservative either. His programme would do nothing to address pressing social problems, and politically it would destroy the Labour Party as a going concern. No, Centre Ground isn't conservative. It's worse than that.

Monday, 18 June 2018

The NHS and the Brexit "Dividend"

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 16 June 2018

More on Lies and Lying Liars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 15 June 2018

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

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

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

Monday, 11 June 2018

The Left after the 2017 General Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 8 June 2018

Sociology and Politics Reading List

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

Do you keep a reading list?

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

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Is it Okay to Like Morrissey?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 4 June 2018

A Very English Cover Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Savage Garden - Fly You to the Moon and Back

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

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Populous for the Sega MegaDrive/Genesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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