Saturday, 16 January 2021

Questioning Green Non-Violence

Why did Black Lives Matter rapidly spread over the course of 2020? Because the protests against the extra-judicial killing of George Floyd immediately took a violent turn, and bust open the horizon of the possible. In his interview with Alex, Andreas Malm, author of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, argues the green and environmental movement have to learn from BLM and ditch its dogmatic adherence to non-violence. Such a strategic shift is not just about the severity of the climate crisis coming, but also the easy availability of targets for a militant green vandalism. Andreas suggests the infrastructure of fossil fuels is all around us, and as it is the rich who are driving climate change with their conspicuous consumption their property should be fair game. Ecology is class politics too.

Certainly an interesting and thought-provoking piece. Could the green movement here ever turn to the property destruction of The Monkey Wrench Gang?

As always, please check out the Politics Theory Other archive and help build new left media by putting pennies in Alex's piggy bank.

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Friday, 15 January 2021

Super Mario Bros 2 for the Nintendo Entertainment System

In a year already fraught with controversy, it's aposite to dredge up something of a wedge issue: Super Mario Brothers 2 for the trusty Nintendo Entertainment System. Writing about this game in the 21st century comes with two closely adjacent pitfalls. The first is casting keystrokes over a video game franchise which is the best known, best-selling and, best long-running(?) in all recorded history. Not only is there an aura blazing around it, fizzing with the props for single-handedly reversing the fortunes of video gaming in the United States, its much beloved status, its synonymity with Nintendo, and the respect afforded it by game critics means there is little to be witten and said that hasn't already been written and said. From whence does an original insight into these games spring? Especially when considering any of the original trilogy published on the NES? The second, as folks who know their game history, um, know, are the "controversies" around SMB II. I.e. How this was not the same Super Mario Bros 2 released in Japan and was in fact a reskin of Doki Doki Panic, a Nintendo-produced licensed platformer using Fuji TV characters. Why was this controversial? Because it departed significantly from the core game mechanics the series became known for, earning the game notoriety and, for some, black sheep status among the Mario run of games. A Loki to SMB I's Baldr, or something.

Not having a NES in the olden days meant it was about nine years ago when I first played SMB II, and this was after bagging my long-coveted SNES and acquiring Super Mario All-Stars. Playing each of the games, it was the first and the third installments that attracted my attention. If I'm honest, I found the second game a bit on the bewildering side. And so time passed, got an NES eventually and then a trusty RetroN5 and latterly, a good condition boxed copy of the game. With work in festive abeyance and having had it stare at me from the shelf for too long, it was high time to take a butchers.

Having not played any Mario game for a while certainly helped, which meant SMB II could be apppreciated on its own terms. The main gripe most have, which "un-Mariofies" it, is the abandonment of the familiar jump-on-baddies-heads move to dispatch them to jump-on-enemies-to-pick-them-up. Say what? In SMB II your player character, of which more in a moment, scoops up the enemy and you can carry them around indefinitely. Or, if you like, throw them at another baddy to off them. Picking stuff up and mastering its timing and use is as crucial to the gameplay as bouncing from platform to platform. Each stage has vegetables sprouting from the ground, which the player can pull up and use as objects to throw at bad 'uns besetting you. There are also potions to be found which, if dropped, summon a secret door leading the player to "sub-space", a mirror universe that might (depending on where you drop the door) yield a power up mushroom extending the life bar from two to three hits, and the possibility of redeeming vegetables pulled here in return for coins, which are used on a slot machine bonus stage inbetween levels. Apart from this, it's A-to-B platforming. Make a way through the levels, see off the small end-of-stage baddies where you're greeted by Birdo, who was to become something of a staple in the Mario pantheon, and then move on to the next stage.

Apart from the bonce-bouncing, there are three further significant departures from Mario's initial Super outing. The first of these is the comparative lack of secrets. I suppose some might get their exploration jollies from dropping the secret door potion in different places, but hidden places are fewer in number despite levels, ostensibly, being less linear than its predecessor. The second is far more variety when it comes to boss fights. Instead of variations on Bowser, one faces the henchmen and women of the evil Wart. These, inevitably, involve picking stuff up and lobbing them at the enemy while evading their attacks. Learning the patterns here aren't difficult, though the challenge is uneven from boss to boss, and they only take a few hits - or explosions if you're throwing bombs back at them. The third departure is the choice of character. One can choose Mario, Luigi, Princess Toadstool, and Toad. No rescue-the-princess rubbish this time characteristic of nearly all Mario games. Each of these have their own features - Luigi can jump the highest, Princess can hover a short while after jumping, and Toad can pick stuff up quicker and run super fast if carry an enemy or vegetable. However, as this is 1980s Nintendo we can't well have a female character defy stereotypes and so she's the only one who carries a penalty - she can't pick stuff up quickly because upper body strength is unwomanly. However, interestingly, it's Mario who's the worst character because he has no special abilities at all. So much for the super ... There's also a couple of gameplay changes, which gives it a bit more variety. There's more verticality, i.e. levels mving from down to up rather than left to right, and one can revisit areas in a stage until it's completed. The second is retrieving the key necessary for the end of the level. Braving baddies and picking it up attracts the attention of Phanto, an evil mask who'll chase after you until you put the key in the exit door. It certainly makes for a hurried and different pace to the considered platforming the game otherwise encourages.

All told, SMB II was well received by critics at the time, and they were right in their assessment. It is an excellent platformer featuring well-designed levels, a decent learning curve, the introduction of environments that were to become genre staples (leafy areas, desert areas, arctic areas), and superbly paced gameplay. Few are the blind jumps, and while there are occasions where the player has to pause to think about their next move, it's never frustrating. Indeed, as excellent as SMB I is, the sequel never had me almost throwing the joypad against the wall. On this score, from a gameplay perspective it holds up well as a retro rarity still worth playing, helped by some of the nicest graphics the NES were capable of and an arrangement of classic chip tunes that, for me at least, I never found irritating.

And the controversy? This is almost entirely a feature of the internet age when gamers starting getting on Usenet, bulletin boards, and latterly YouTube. At the time SMB II fitted in because the Mario formula was still in its infancy. Therefore the game did not stand out like a sore thumb as one might suppose, especially when considered alongside Nintendo's other flagship franchise, The Legend of Zelda, and the difference between the first and second games in that series. And when the Super Mario Bros 3 juggernaut rolled out, it combined the best elements of it predecessors - the plentiful secrets, proper power ups, and head boffing action, with the ability to pick (some) stuff up, light puzzling, decent end bosses, and ambitious, properly thought-out and non-repeating level design. That's right, SMB III is the logical progression from both games. Besides, if the main gripe people have with a classic game like SMB II is almost entirely retrospective and there's no real beef with the game itself beyond taste, then at the time Nintendo made the right decision to push this one out the door. It is worth playing again, and again, and again, and this will forever be the case.

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Thursday, 14 January 2021

The Problems with Scottish Labour

"Looks like those who have led a three year campaign of briefings to journalists, leaks of private conversations and the constant feeding of stories to the media to bring down a decent and honest man have succeeded. These flinching cowards and sneering traitors make me sick." So said Neil Findlay after news broke of Richard Leonard's immediate resignation as Scottish Labour leader. As the LabourList piece notes, this appeared the final act of a politician wishing to preserve some dignity as the internal balance of forces tilted against him, the unwelcome aftershock coming on the heels of Summer's attempted putsch. As far as Keir Starmer is concerned, as per the grapevine, he won't be sorry to see Richard journey to the backbenches. His card already marked for his prior association with the ancien regime, instructing Labour MSPs to vote alongside the SNP, Liberal Democrats, and the Greens against Brexit was in defiance of the new party line accepting the deal. However, as The Times reports it sounds like Richard was offered a deal by head office he couldn't refuse. It is suggested a number of would-be Labour donors were never going to open their wallets had he remained in position. Murky.

No one should soft soap the position Scottish Labour are in. The vote's in freefall and are likely to come third at this year's Holyrood elections, again. Could this predicament have been avoided? After all, Richard was elected leader with the winds of enthusiasm gusting about his sails. Following the 2017 general election, the idea Scotland was irredeemably lost to the unionist parties appeared, for the moment, something of a premature declaration as the Tories surged forward and Labour and the LibDems posted a modest recovery. There was hope the leftism of the Corbynist prospectus might cut across the politics of independence and preface an insurgency. Alas, alas. In the end, while Richard tried his hand at Corbynism with Scottish characteristics he was hemmed in by two realities of much-reduced Labourism. The over-preponderance of councillors, officials, and MSPs who are so far gone that they treat the SNP as a greater enemy than the Tories. And the second is the base of Scottish Labour itself. The scab wing of the party can get away partnering with Tories because the bulk of the base is wedded to a unionist politics whose material wellspring has long vanished.

Historically, Labourism in Scotland, as it did elsewhere, grew out of industry. To cut a very long story short, from the Second World War onwards the relationship between industrial strength and the union was obvious: the commitment to full employment was delivered by nationalised industry and state intervention in the economy. In the various permutations of the very British form of Keynesianism following the war (ad hoc, constantly changing, (naturally) erring to employers over employees), labour had a clear stake in the maintenance of the union. Where the radical left had influence, above all in the old Communist Party, this was based on an economistic conceptualisation of class politics, an economism fed by the everyday industrial life of Scottish proletarians. Before the 1990s, it's therefore unsurprising Scottish nationalism was an ideological hodge podge swinging from the far right to the left, the electoral nourishment of the SNP provided by the self-important heft of the petit bourgeois.

When Thatcher came to power, she began her assault on the labour movement by shuttering nationalised industry and forcing others to the wall by imposing strict market-led criteria on them. This stoked mass unemployment which provided favourable ground for the open warfare her government was to declare on the miners. Scotland naturally suffered too as joblessness bit. With the miners dispensed with and having foisted the government's authority over the civil service, teachers, and the public sector, she came for local government. Keen to apply the whip of market discipline and consumer satisfaction to local authorities, the Poll Tax - raising more funds through local taxation - was imposed as a steep flat tax. Scotland was the pilot a full year ahead of England and Wales and sparked off a mass movement of resistance and non-payment. In a two-step move in the space of a decade, the Tories had destroyed the economic basis for working class unionism in Scotland and compounded their difficulties by stirring up resentment against them and the UK state. The clock was ticking, unless it could be replaced by something else. It wasn't. New Labour introduced the Scottish Parliament and created new opportunities for a layer of careerist Labour politicians, but also opened the door for the SNP too. As Tony Blair and Gordon Brown refurbished the public sector with their PFI scams and public/private partnerships, this delivery of shiny new buildings and services from above was not matched by the kinds of interventions necessary for rebuilding Scotland's economic base. This paternalism was, itself, a consequence of the labour movement's decline and growing estrangement from the party by working people, which primarily benefited the SNP. And so when the Tories returned to office with the LibDems and, again, struck at the supports of the union with their austerity programme and confected rows with Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, Labour accelerated its demise by throwing their lot in with the Tories against Scottish independence. They even tailed all their arguments in favour of the union, including threatening to take Scotland to the cleaners in post-independence negotiations. As night followed day, Scottish Labour were eviscerated at the subsequent general election. Funnily enough, over six years later this disaster authored and owned by the Labour right has dropped right down the memory hole.

Where does this leave Scottish Labour now? With an ageing support base who are not getting replaced, like for like. And meanwhile the new base built by Labour in England and Wales, and who should power Labour to future victories provided they're not frittered away, are not available in Scotland because the rising class of workers, our natural support, thoroughly back the SNP. The Corbynist moment of mass movement activation we saw in England between 2015 and 2017 came a year early during the independence referendum in Scotland, and it was the SNP who benefited. Scottish Labour then has two choices. Staying as it is, which ultimately was the strategy Richard also ended up pursuing, means we're locked in a death grip with a Tory party fighting over the same fast diminishing Tory base. There is, however, something else. It could think more strategically about the voter coalition of the party, the kinds of people it needs to win over if Scottish Labour is to be renewed, and the strategy that goes with it. There was a beginning under Richard Leonard because, like Jeremy Corbyn, he recognised the importance of community organising to winning back trust and building new support. However, trying to contest the SNP for their core vote is outside of Labour's comfort zone. For one, it means thinking about issues around hegemony rather than just offering a dish of nice policies - something Labour is congenitally ill-equipped to do thanks to the dead hand of the Fabian tradition. It means consistent anti-Toryism, which Scottish Labour are completely hopeless on and, painfully, it means bidding farewell to a section of the unionist base. In other words, the course that can re-establish the party in the long-term is going to be awful in the short. Things have to get worse before they can start getting better.

Unfortunately for the branch office, recent pronouncements by Keir Starmer about matters Scottish doesn't fill one with confidence, especially with his strategy, such as it is, driven by the perceived electoral calculus south of the border than helping the party stage a come back. Therefore, for comrades in Scotland, and watchers of Scottish Labour generally, the candidates who come forward for the leader's post have to show they understand the hole the party is in before offering a way out. If they don't, if we're going to get promises of "taking the fight to the SNP", banging on about the NHS and education, the status quo on the referendum question, and a load of bilge about the "priorities of the Scottish people", then in several years there'll be another resignation and another downshift in expectations. The new contest presents an opportunity for fresh thinking, and it says everything about Scottish Labour that even before would-be leaders declare their intentions, having this moment squandered because they cannot even recognise the task is the most likely outcome.

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Telegraphing Compliance

The post below should be a lesson to everyone. Read things properly. Keir Starmer will not be having a regular column in The Telegraph

In a throwaway line in The Indie, we learn Keir Starmer will shortly avail himself of a weekly article in The Telegraph. This might seem an odd decision for several reasons. As the house journal of the most unhinged sections of the Conservative Party, there aren't too many Labour-leaning voters to be found turning its pages. Indeed, according to 2017 data the Telegraph is the most Tory of the papers, with 79% of its readers voting for Theresa May versus 12% who went for Labour. What's the game then?

Five weeks after he became Labour leader, Keir Starmer was allowed to have a soft focus article in The Telegraph about VE Day. Back then, this caused a scratching of heads and a deal of criticism, and this very blog noted how it signalled (some might say, telegraphed) his compliance with the establishment-determined rules of the political game. And few would dispute Keir started as he meaned to carry on with his reluctance to rock the boat and even back campaigning unions when they had the full weight of public opinion behind them.

How then should we assess the fruits of this strategy so far and, in particular, his (by now) multiple dalliances with the Telegraph? As of the moment, the paper's coverage of the Labour leader is much more balanced. Sticking 'Keir Starmer Telegraph' into Google this morning gives the following top three entries. Top is the laughable 'The vaccine miracle would never have happened under Prime Minister Starmer', then 'Keir Starmer's family agenda is a threat to the Tories', and thirdly 'Sir Keir Starmer rules out major changes to Brexit deal'. The media watchers in LOTO would be quite happy with two out of three. And yet, again, what is the point? Few would-be Labour voters are going to see the missives, and especially so as they are filed behind the paper's paywall, where presumably Keir's future contributions will be lodged.

Almost a year on the essentials of the compliance argument holds, but what relationship Keir is trying to strike isn't entirely a relationship of subservience, of demonstrating how safe one's pair of hands are to the interests the Tory press hold dear. There is a pro-active element to this strategy. The first, as we saw back in May, is a means of rendering Keir familiar to right wing readers. If he spends the next several years of ghost written columns labouring on Blue Labour themes, like praising the army of waxing lyrical about Christianity, the idea is uncontroversial pronouncements on core Tory concerns will endear Keir and make it more difficult for the press to demonise him as per his predecessor (and, for that matter, predecessors). Besides, surely it would be bad form for the Telegraph to lead a full-throated denuniciation of their new star columnist?

The second is disruption. In the game of Westminster thrones, having a column in Boris Johnson's former paper might irk him a little, but the presence of Keir in the most Tory of Tory papers disarms the inevitable attacks and scrambles their coherence. If he's so appalling and dangerous, why has this pillar of the Conservative establishment given him a platform? How can the things nasty Tory journalists are saying about him be true if, in the pages of the Telegraph, he's saying something different entirely and Tory-minded readers can see what he has to say in his own words? And if he's planning on stealing our Brexit, dozens of filings say otherwise - occasionally back up by Telegraph editorial comment on his musings.

This is what you might call clever-clever politics, or playing chess five moves ahead. Keir Starmer and his helpers know that to win the red wall back and make advances elsewhere, Labour has to pierce the blue wall: the near monopoly the Tories have on popular political coverage in this country. Getting a Telegraph column fits well within this strategy, even if its audience is nowhere near as broad as The Mail and The Sun. Could it work? Possibly. But if the price is moving to the right, not challenging the basis of Tory power and eschewing the interests of Labour's existing voter coalition, such prostration will be for nought.

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Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Not Expecting Foie Gras

The exposure of the food parcel scam across social media and the rapid about-turn by the government reminds us, despite having a seemingly unassailable majority, how the Tories can be pushed into reverse. That said, lost among yesterday's furore were the voices of people who've got by using these packages or have survived thanks to a local food bank. In this guest post, comrade G offers her two penneth informed by her experiences.

I was dismayed waking up this morning to see there were plans just to make the food parcels larger. The government's u-turn will help, but this wasn’t the point. The big issue is many struggling families have been made to feel like second class citizens begging for food, because they can’t be trusted to spend a £30 voucher wisely for their children. Looking at social media, I’m glad I was not the only one feeling such anger at this.

The feeling you get when you go to a food bank or have to pick up food parcels from school is horrible. I've long gone beyond caring what others think, but it’s still uncomfortable knowing people either pity you or look down on you. And who knows how a lot of the other parents feel when their self-esteem may be even lower.

Then there's having to interrupt the school and work routines to collect the food parcels (because many supported by these schemes are in work – shock!) but still having to fit in another food shop as this does not obviously cover food for the whole family for a week. I managed over the first lock down to organise our meal planning to only have to go to the supermarket once every 2 weeks (skimmed UHT is actually okay at a push – we were not expecting foie gras). The fewer the trips to the supermarket, the lower the chance of catching Covid. It's cheaper doing it this way too for a variety of reasons, not just fuel costs. The half hour getting to and from secondary school could have been spent earning that fiver to then be able to choose your own food. And no one thinks about the dispensing end of these food package schemes. The teachers have this weird extra job on top of everything else expected of them. Even with masks they're the ones handling the bags. It's all adding to the risk of exposure to covid.

Then there's the food itself. Yes, there are some nice things and I am always grateful. But, likewise, with the food bank, because it is stuff you have not planned, you then have to be inventive and plan around a flipping bag full of stuff. I cook things in bulk which saves time and money, and that allows for more expensive things like nuts, seeds, dried fruit, fresh fruit! So then you get this bag, and you're like fuck - okay, that's a soup I'm going to have to cook, and what the hell am I going to have to buy to go with random items I don’t usually use. Sounds really pathetic, but you're really having choice taken away, and adding to your workload. To survive on a low income, you have to organise so much and this is a job in itself. It’s all these little details of hassle which add up to huge stresses. And ffs, it's not more food in the parcels that's needed, it's the cash. To spend on my drugs obviously!

It's all these little things which is the life on low income/benefits that some people don't understand otherwise they'd be fighting for it. Or they choose not to understand it because they simply don’t care.

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Tuesday, 12 January 2021

The Pandemic Did Not Cause the Capitol Riot

Over-long, bloated, incoherent. If you're interested in a patchwork quilt of an essay peddling a tenendtious thesis and littered with wrong observations, the latest from overrated right wing historian Niall Ferguson might just be up your street. Belabouring the point Trumpism should be seen as a virus, Ferguson suggests the body politic's four-year bout of The Donald and all his works might have conferred herd immunity against this sort of politics and, just possibly, normality is about to resume. Which, given the election of uber centrist Joe Biden, seems obvious for the most naive and impressionistic among us. Okay, we'll put that to one side for the moment and concentrate on the one-half of his argument given away in the title: "Pandemics have always bred political lunacy."

Skimming through the facile comparisons with plagues past (he's a historian, don't you know), we arrive at the meat of his argument. He writes, "Pandemics, remember, are associated with religious and political extremism. The fear of illness, mutual suspicion, quack theories, hypochondria, hyper-skepticism and general mental dislocation caused by social distancing, lockdowns and unemployment — taken together, these things tend to generate outlandish behavior." A peculiar contention applied to our Coronavirus-cratered times, because we can look right across the Western world and particularly several European nations blasted by the Covid blight and yet ... nothing. Even jolly old Britain, home too of political polarisation has not seen anything like the political violence that boiled over in the Capitol last week. Therefore Ferguson's thesis, that the pandemic is somehow responsible for an aborted, ham-fisted, and inchoate coup that was a few months in the making is on shaky ground. Even weaker is his claim violence associated with Black Lives Matter protests had the same root. Nothing to do with the extra judicial killing of George Floyd and the subsequent cop rampage across dozens of American towns and cities.

This is not accidental. Conservatism is a fundamentally dishonest enterprise. Its attempt, everywhere and always, is to pretend the minority interest of capital and the class it feeds is the universal interest. They preside over a system founded on antagonism but cannot acknowledge it openly. Instead, their pursuit of class war is at times consciously, at times unconsciously swathed in moralising against the poor, the (ostensibly) technocratic management of crisis, or in backward looking national projects. It's a collective act of sublimation, and it's the task of their intellectuals, like Ferguson, to wrap these ideas up in hocus pocus profundities. His plague thesis is partly about providing reassurance for a conservative-minded audience. Don't worry, these outbursts are the consequence of an external entity putting our society under pressure. Everything is otherwise tickety boo. Hence, like all conservatism, it's part distortion, misrecognition, and distraction. Addressing why BLM is a thing, why even Trumpism is a thing raises very worrying questions for the conservative mindset. Naturally, as a good rightwinger with a grift to protect, Ferguson skirts over them.

It's this "externality" thesis that allows his leap to the next proposition: the return of centrism. Assimilating the spread of political ideas to viral metaphors is boring and unoriginal, but it allows Ferguson to pad his essay out with a precis of when this has been accomplished in the past, and boosts his idea about how America is shaking off Trumpism and developing a strengthening immunity to future infection. If a keystroke could make it so. While recognising the possibility of a resurgent Trumpist movement, he believes the strength of the political centre stands restored. Evidence? The election of Biden, obviously. And movements within the Republican Party against Trumpism and, possibly, those who abetted its rise. Plus the narrow Democrat majority in the Senate should ensure sensible centrism holds. Deary me. Ferguson has provided a demonstration of why impressionism is best left to 19th century artists.

The grievances powering the Trump movement, its gaggle of bourgeois and petit bourgeois, the self-employed, the middle class and the lumpenised criminal elements, the social stuff of right wing populism and fascism haven't gone away. The world seems as mysterious and as threatening to them as always, with a state moving against its opponents and reinforcing its coup against the rightful winner of the presidential election. Worse, they imagine the pressure of immigration, and fear the dissolution of their privileges and senses of entitlement as socially liberal values advance and they're forced to acknowledge the existence of people who are black, hispanic, asian, queer and, yuck, proletarian. This resentment isn't going anywhere. Likewise, for the rising left who are at the sharp end of Trump's mismanagement of the pandemic and who, before, knew precarity, crap wages, frustrated aspirations, police violence, faced an at best indifferent, at worse hostile mainstream politics, and feel a fundamental unease with a system stacked against them as our people do here, are not disappearing either. Ferguson might think Biden "defeated" the left, but both the presidential election itself and the Senate run-offs in Georgia showed the absolute dependence of the Democrats on leftist mobilisation. There's little point pushing saccharine appeals for winning over Trumpists and loyal GOP voters when they can be outflanked each and every time by mobilising the considerably larger progressive base.

And so, Ferguson's nonsense reminds us of the only use for conservative intellectuals: for taking the temperature of what's swirling around their imaginary, and how they're trying to think their way through the moment. In this case, Ferguson is articulating bourgeois hopes that the movements of the extra parliamentary right and left are knackered. This means, despite everything, they're still ill-equipped to deal with American revanchism even as they make their moves to impeach Trump and prevent him from running again in 2024. Yet this ignorance, this blindness also shows they're unaware of the growing strength, the increasing confidence, and crucially the greater opportunities opening up for the left. Ferguson might think he's found reasons to hope, but his own ignorant musings show the left we have reasons to be optimistic too.

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Monday, 11 January 2021

The Tory Food Parcel Scam

It says everything about the awfulness of 21st century Britain when hungry children are never far from the spotlight. The contents of food packages the government are providing poor families were revealed on social media this afternoon. The link above is supposed to show five days worth of food. Here is an itemised list. Instead of £30 worth of food, this banquet taps out at £5.22. Thin gruel for the families on the receiving end, overgenerous portions for the parcel provider, a company with form in this regard.

Some people have asked why/how this can happen, and the answer to that is a very simple: because the Tories are in power. There are a couple of things going on here. Readers will recall late last year how the Marcus Rashford-led school meals campaign forced the government's hand. At first, they set their face against the public mood, and it provoked a torrent of vintage Tory divide-and-rule. We heard about how the state shouldn't nationalise children, how feckless parents would trade food vouchers for drugs, and the usual rubbish about self-responsibility. Caught in the headlights, the Tories backpedalled faster than a seven-mile Prime Ministerial bike ride. Not only were the Tories going to make sure no child went hungry during the Christmas holidays, money was found to support these families for the next year. Overnight, the demon poor emerged into worthy objects of charity with Tories falling over themselves about how compassionate they were. Well, here are the fruits of their largesse: two bruised bananas and trio of sorry-looking apples.

This is not by accident; it is entirely a matter of design. Consistent with all governments going back to the blessed Thatcher, the default preference for state action is handing it over to the private sector to do it. Supposedly business is more efficient because they have to make a profit. For Thatcher, this was her common sense, and all of her successors have ran with it. Each and every Prime Minister, including the two Labour politicians to have occupied Downing Street in the last 40 years, have prostrated themselves before this shibboleth and, entirely not coincidentally, the sorts of interests they've tried cultivating have taken full advantage of the cash waterfall gushing forth from the Treasury. Hence stripping down a £30 food shop to a fiver's worth of grub isn't an aberration. In a system set up to shovel public money into private pockets, it's working perfectly. Just like Test and Trace. Just like PPE procurement. Just like the government's schools' laptops scheme. The service is the after thought, the bottom line is the top line.

And then we have the cynicism of the company concerned. Chartwell's is the kind of parasitic excresence that has flourished since Tony Blair went out his way to extend the outsourcing of public provision. Some head of strategic solutions has sat on a Teams meeting thinking through how much pure profit they could get away with by slashing the contents of each parcel. And because they think the recipients are unworthy and undeserving, are powerless so can't kick up a fuss, and believe the public are as unsympathetic as they, literally snatching the food out of the hands of our most vulnerable children is a fine and dandy way of securing their managerial bonuses.

As with everything about the mismanagement of the pandemic, including our current lockdown, the Tories are prioritising their class, the relationships sustaining them, and the material interests of their base above all else. This is part of a consistent and predictable pattern of behaviour, albeit the most blatantly sickening so far.

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Sunday, 10 January 2021

Covid is Killing Britons Faster than WWII

Covid-19 is killing Britons at a faster rate than the Second World War did.

Using government statistics, as of this morning there were 80,868 deaths from just over three million registered infections. A fatality figure that has already passed the civilian death toll from the Blitz. During the Second World War itself, there were 454,000 combined military and civilian deaths - a rounded figure provided by parliamentary sources. Different publications quibble over a few thousand either way, but for the purposes of this exercise it will suffice.

The first UK Covid death was recorded on 6th March, which gives us 309 days between then and 9th January when deaths passed 80,000. Averaging out fatalities yields a figure of 261.7 deaths per day. Between the UK's declaration of war on Nazi Germany on 3rd September, 1939 to the surrender of Japan on 15th August 1945, there were 2,173 days. Averaging out the war dead gives us a figure of 208.9 deaths per day. Pound for pound, the Coronavirus pandemic is killing Britons at a faster rate than the deadliest conflict in human history did.

How about the First World War? This saw Britain sustain 904,867 armed personnel and civilian deaths as the result of military action. Between 4th August 1914 when the UK declared war on the German Empire to Armistice Day on 11th November, 1918, there were 1,561 days. This gives us a daily average of 579.7 deaths. We are still a long way from those figures.

Remember, the existence of the new strain and the spiralling infections we're seeing are not merely unfortunate or a matter of chance, they are because of government inaction. At every stage of the pandemic, Boris Johnson has put the perceived needs of his party and the interests they represent above public health. This is where the blame lies. The responsibility for this catastrophe belongs to him and the Conservative Party.

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Saturday, 9 January 2021

A Lockdown in Name Only

Waking up early on Wednesday morning, the traffic passing by on the main road sounded as busy as normal times. Certainly not what one might expect from a third national lockdown. Because Boris Johnson had belatedly, again, decided to close schools for all but the children of essential workers and those at risk, it was reasonable to expect we might see something like March - June instead of the brief farce of a lockdown we had in November. And yet schools are reporting a large increase in the number of children who are turning up. Traffic flows in Covid-blasted London are about two-thirds of normal, and too many workplaces and businesses - self-designating as "essential" - are open.

Contrast the shambles with the messaging the government are concentrating on. At the end of last week we had Priti Patel touring the studios promising "tough crackdowns" on people "flouting" Covid restrictions. Apparently they are worried about "compliance". Some want to see the two-metre social distancing measure reintroduced and a re-emphasis on stay-at-home messaging, as per the new Chris Whitty-fronted TV campaign. To back this up, our friends in Derbyshire plod are getting twitchy again and have absurdly fined two women who drove five miles for a walk in the country. Meanwhile, infections are soaring out of control, hospitals are swamped and, reportedly, the police are now ferrying emergency cases to hospital thanks to the inundation of the Ambulance Service.

This is a lockdown in name only, and it stands to reason the number of cases and the numbers of deaths are not acts of God. They are the victims of social murder caused by the Tories privileging the health of class relations above the health of the public, and this simply is not acceptable. If the government were serious they would be taking homeless people off the streets, like they did last Spring. They would properly pay businesses bar the most essential to close, and this would include nearly all food outlets and construction, the latter of which was allowed to continue last time (nothing to do with property interests at all).

This isn't just about paying people to stay home. The government should be straightforward with the instructions it issues. First, if this was a coherent and joined-up strategy guided by driving down infections in the first instance, it wouldn't call the rules "guidance", they would be called rules. Second, there would be no wriggle room for interpretation. What is and isn't essential should be clearly specified. The rules should also be blunt about who can and can't be seen. Truth of the matter is, the bubble system is a complete joke. A couple of elderly people might be in a bubble with their daughter or son, but same daughter or son is still at work with dozens of others, similarly in "bubbles" with aged loved ones. And last of all, if the government doesn't want people travelling far for a daily constitutional they need to say so instead of letting overzealous coppers free rein to interpret the rules, thereby making the lockdown measures a laughing stock.

If the lockdown is to work, these holes in the system need filling. And if they're not, more people will die out of toxic mix of Tory incompetence and malfeasance. The measures we have to see are authoritarian, but there is nothing more authoritarian than having one's life cut short.

Therefore, it is good to see the left and the unions making the case for what needs to be done, but it can't end there. The other axis of the government's response, the prattling on about the "tough measures" aren't really about policing the lockdown, they are all about apportioning blame. The Tories have proven quite adept at convincing people to blame other people for rising Covid cases. Yes, it might be stupid to have a house party and thoughtless to walk around with a nose poking from a mask. Then again, the government spent the Summer and early Autumn encouraging people back to work, to go out, offered middle class people a bung to patronise their favourite eateries, and kept schools, colleges, universities, and most workplaces open up until Christmas, the blame doesn't lie with the public making the wrong choices. It rests with an appalling government whose idiocy has gifted us the new, infectious Covid variant - and would repeat all the same mistakes unless they are pressured and held to account. In other words, there's no use shying away from the politics as has been the approach of the Labour leadership so far. It is really a matter of life and death.

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Friday, 8 January 2021

Ten Points on Trump's Attempted Coup

1. A number of people have compared the the storming of Congress to the shambles of the Munich Beer Hall putsch led by Adolf Hitler. This, sadly, is a valid comparison, with the exception that the Trumpist movement, in all its incoherence, is better funded, better organised, and enjoys significant legitimacy despite what happened on Wednesday.

2. As this piece notes, the Republican party's turn to barely-disguised ethno-nationalism is the result of and has further assisted the radicalisation of millions of white Americans. 51% of Republicans questioned agreed with the statement, "The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it" and 41% with "A time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands." This data was from a year ago, but attitudes have barely shifted. A snap poll by YouGov found 45% of Republicans supported the invasion of the Capitol. There is a mass basis for this politics, and it has been cultivated for a long time.

3. The Congress debacle was not a coup, but it was an episode in and the culmination of an attempted coup by Trump and his allies. From the moment it became clear Trump had lost he, as is well known, refused to accept the election result, made unfounded and completely false allegations of election fraud, attempted to prevent the counting of votes, filed over 60 suits to overturn counts, and repeatedly tried strongarming state officials - most recently in Georgia - to declare for him. For their own venal reasons, a clutch of Republican congressman have gone along with this confidence trick by challenging the electoral college votes and, last of all, Trump publicly pressured Mike Pence to veto the result. Even though he had no power to do so. These constitute deliberate attempts to subvert the democratic functioning of the state.

4. Trump and his fash-adjacent running dogs now know they're in deep trouble. To have Ilhan Omar drawing up the articles of impeachment is one thing, but to have the Democrat leader of the Senate Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demanding Article 25 be invoked is something else. This probably explains Trump's about turn, his comdemnation of the violence, and calls for a peaceful transition of power, a transition hitherto he's done everything to disrupt and prevent. Likewise, as news came through about a Capitol Hill copper who succumbed to injuries sustained on Wednesday, Ted Cruz has done his bit to bodyswerve what should be coming for him.

5. As a longtime congressman, Joe Biden has a reputation as a centrist who works across the House. And, before Wednesday, it looked like all the calls to pursue Trump, his family, and his associates for criminal activities in office were going to fall by the wayside in the name of conciliation and bringing America together. Even his speech condemning the Trumpists was soggy and couched in the same tones. The temptation for magnamnity, to "make nice" with the mob and their supporters must be resisted. Yes, going hard on Trump, the senators, and the representatives who backed his long and incompetent coup is going to harden some of his supporters, but better when they're on the backfoot and their people in the institutions are on the retreat than in the moment of their insurgence.

6. In fact, prosecuting the Trump clique and its backers in the GOP offers the Democrats a historic opportunity. In her unhinged commentary on the riot, which apparently was the result of Antifa infiltrators, on Fox News Sarah Palin argued for a new conservative party returning to core Republican values. By pursuing action against congressman who've gone along with Trump's attempted coup, a wedge can be driven between the Trumpists and "moderate" Republicans which could affect a split in the party which, in the context of the two-party system, would severely disadvantage the right for decades to come.

7. There are also divisions within Trumpism itself, which can be seen in the incoherent response to their mob violence. We have fools like Palin claiming it was a false flag operation, which is contradicted by Trump telling his supporters to march on the Capitol and several leading fash, alt-right, and QAnon activists spearheading the storming of the building, and hundreds of Trumpists recording their activities and boasting about them on social media. And there are the disappointments some will feel about Trump going on the record and disowning the action they undertook at his behest, and confusion over how, according to Trump, the election is a put up job and a fraud but is still acquiescing to the transfer of power. Striking while the Trumpists are in disarray and likely to split further is the wisest cause of action.

8. With Trumpism shaking to pieces, unfortunately there are going to be more outrages and terror attacks, like the suicide bombing of downtown Nashville by a conspiracy theorist. A movement without anywhere to go (for the moment) will drive some of its despairing adherents to extremes.

9. And the conditions for Trumpism have not gone away. Polarisation exists. Cultural anxieties exist. And the material base for fascism and the further evolution of rightwing populism persist. If only something could be done about it. Well, it can. Following the run-offs in Georgia, the Democrats now control the White House, the House of Representatives and, thanks to Kamala Harris's casting vote, the Senate. There are no excuses for not implementing the promises Biden made on the campaign trail, nor for the absence of a levelling up agenda and action on health care. Going on the offensive against Trumpism and its afters means rebuilding infrastructure, fuelling job growth through state-led investment in green industry, and offering the possibility of security versus precarity. This more than anything can begin the process of dissolving the mass basis for the American far right.

10. The American far right overreached on Wednesday, and the conditions are present to inflict a further strategic defeat. It is worth remembering there is nothing inevitable about the rise of the right. The authoritarians and would-be dictators don't have to win, and the forces of the left, even the forces of liberalism, are stronger on paper than what Trumpism and the alt-right can muster. There is the means and the opportunity to roll them over. Make it so.