Thursday 30 May 2013

Louise Mensch and Conservative Feminism

When I was an undergraduate I probably spent more time dosing up on heavy duty social theory than drinking until blindness set in. One module I took was on feminist social theory because, at that time, I was deeply concerned with questions around revolutionary subjectivity and the place socialism had in a fragmenting and media saturated society. Now, I wasn't a complete stranger when it came to feminism. At A-Level I learned about your liberal, Marxist and radical feminism (thanks Haralambos!), and read a bit around The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism/Dual Systems Theory. So I thought I knew a thing or two. No. It turned out that good old Haralambos hadn't told half the story. He, in fact, had completely skipped over the emergence of postmodern feminisms and feminist standpoint.

This approach, forcefully argued by bell hooks in her coruscating Aint I a Woman, for example, put it that feminism, as much as any other social theory, is socially situated. It followed that the feminism of the 1970s, she argued, was primarily the feminism of relatively privileged middle class white women. Their idea of the feminist subject that unconsciously undergirded their work was foregrounded on their situated and specific experience of gendered oppression. As this was universalised as the subject on which feminism rested, little mind was paid to the experience, struggles, and views of working class women and women of colour, for example. hook seminal and important intervention was one of many that (alongside the tidal wave of postmodernism and poststructuralism in the wider social sciences) worked to undo any notion of a politics or philosophy founded a priori upon coherent subjectivity. Now, while many a paper was published unpicking the metaphysical residues of dear Descartes, feminism was left in something of a quandary. If the subject of feminism, 'woman', is contested, disaggregated; then what is 'woman'? And without 'woman', what was distinctly feminist about feminism?

Well, Iris Young argued that feminism should begin with the commitment to social justice. However, others were - as Elvis might say - "caught in a trap". There was a tendency among some (by no means all) feminists to treat the dispersal of the subject as a theoretical, not a political problem. They attempted to rescue feminism by trying to ground a new feminist subject on experiences common to all women, or on facets of womanhood all women could relate to. Of course, immediately, you try to make claims universal to all women you will get yourself shot down. But some tried. One attempt was so-called 'mothering theory'. It suggested that all women are socialised into actual and potential motherhood from the moment of birth, and that women have a deep, personality-forming relationship with caring and nurturing, as well as an orientation toward children that is qualitatively different from men and their experience/expectations of fatherhood. From this one can extrapolate a set of ethics and positions from which to critique society and agitate for social change. But also a number of values that are suppressed and denigrated by society - hence child birth, care, understanding, mothering should all be valorised.

Naturally, such a position makes a great many assumptions about the nature of motherhood across cultures and the socialisation of women generally. However, most problematic of all was the fact that this form of feminism pretty much mirrored the position women had traditionally occupied in Western societies. In fact, you could go as far to say it's not dissimilar from the 'different but equal' spin evangelical Christians put on their commitment to patriarchal gender relations. So truly, if 'conservative feminism' could be said to exist, mothering theory with its rendering of gender as an impermeable barrier is probably it.

This lengthy diversion brings me to Louise Mensch's stab at "reality based-feminism", or rather conservative feminism. Now, I don't want to particularly address the first part of her piece, which makes very cheap and unoriginal points about intersectionality and "privilege checking" (especially as a post should be appearing about that over the weekend). I'm more interested in the content of her feminism itself. She writes:
American feminism gets organised. It sees where power lies, and it mobilises to achieve it. It gets its candidates elected. Feminism here is about running for office, founding a company, becoming COO of Facebook or Yahoo. It is power feminism that realises that actual empowerment for women means getting more money, since money and liberty often equate, and being able to legislate or influence. Hillary Clinton shifted from First Lady to Senator. Before that she was a powerful lawyer. Before that she went to Yale. Today’s keyboard valkyries would be sneering at the graduates of Yale and asking them to take a long hard look at their privilege before offering an opinion to somebody not as high-achieving as they are.
Far be it for me to give Louise a lesson in the feminism of her adopted home, but where does she think "privilege-checking" originated in the first place?

The second point is, come on, really? Feminism is about climbing the greasy pole?

This is basically liberal feminism on Red Bull, but with a key difference. While the liberal feminism I imbibed during my A-Levels suggested the barriers facing women were attitudinal and legislative as opposed to how capitalist societies are structured and stratified, Louise's conservative feminism bigs up the women who make it despite the relative lack of opportunities. To make it in a man's world like Mensch, Hillary Clinton, Stella Creasy and Margaret Thatcher have/did, they must have something about them, a tenaciousness and commitment to hard work. At the top of their game they in turn inspire other driven women to get involved, work, and succeed. Hmmm, by that logic should Paris Hilton be feted as a feminist icon?

That's all fine and dandy. But what's 'feminist' about it? Like all the permutations of the conservative ideology of individual success, problems arising from deprivation, disadvantage and, yes, privilege, don't exist. It's a matter of will and determination to overcome. Masters of the Universe-types have been saying this about themselves to justify their power, position and prestige since year dot. All Louise has managed to do is half-inch this view and stick a feminist label on it, while not-so-subtly suggesting that women who don't make it like her are rubbish feminists. And so feminism passes from a political commitment to equality to an ideology that whitewashes and justifies the status quo.

As far as I'm concerned, this is far more regressive than mothering theory. While adopting positions out of sorts with feminism generally, mothering theory at least offers an explanation of why women are held back and leaves open the possibility of collective action based on its diagnosis of the situation. Its understanding of gender mirrors conservative views, but it is part of the feminist family for all that. Louise's conservative feminism apologia, however, is a contradiction in terms. It is oxymoronic, if not plain moronic.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Rod Liddle and the Economics of the Commentariat

Apologies for the gratuitous Liddle shot. His latest piece in The Spectator is mercifully brief, although its short paragraphs condense the "iconoclastic" racism and anti-Islam bile we've come to expect. It's pointless trying to take down the piece through reasoned argument because Rod is now well and truly hitched himself to the bandwagon of professional controversialists. So let's take a scalpel - a figurative one, sadly - to Liddle and the company of metropolitan misanthropes he keeps.

Rod, alongside his contemporaries Dan Hodges, Mel Phillips, and Brendan O'Neill all hail from some fuzzy left background and have assiduously carved niches for themselves in the paid-for commentariat. Mel, who is probably the most honest of the lot because she really believes the bile spilling from the end of her pen, is the hard right's equivalent of the Socialist Worker reading, dangly-earringed brown cardigan brigade. But with fewer social skills and a severe reason deficiency.

Brendan is a hack of the very worst sort. No opinion is too extreme, no position is too absurd. It would be controversy for controversy's sake if cash and media exposure didn't follow. Unfortunately for "Brother" O'Neill, as a "cadre" of the Organisation-Formerly-Known-as-the-Revolutionary-Communist-Party the cynical game he's playing can be seen a mile off.  Even the dogs in the street know that he's not to be taken seriously, and it would be better for all concerned if he was ignored for the political pipsqueak he is.

And lastly, there is Danny Boy, the self-styled Blairite scion of the Labour establishment. A man so blinkered by his animus to Ed Miliband that he can barely disguise the mancrush he has on David Cameron nor his not-so-secret desire for a Tory victory in 2015. If I was a jaded sort, I might think his writing "about Labour with tribal loyalty" is so much Telegraph spin to boost the "authenticity" of his voice.

While a pretty poisonous clutch of miserablists all told, I wouldn't consider them racist. Dan and Brendan, definitely not. Mel, well, she has written plenty of things that could certainly be construed that way but as awful as they are, but she just about stays on the right side of the line. But Rodders is a different kettle of fish. There are only so many situations available for former liberals and lefties as they migrate to the lucrative uphills of remunerated bigotry. And though Rod has been on his journey for a while, he's taken his own sweet time. I blame his penchant for footy forums. But the market for anti-Islam rants is a crowded one, so how to stand out among the swivel-eyed and hard-of-thinking? Well, why not dance pack and forth across the line. And so, of last week's appalling murder in Woolwich, he writes "two black savages hacked a man to death while shouting Allahu Akbar; that’s really all you need to know, isn’t it?"

"Black savages". What a classy fella. He has, of course, "apologised". But forgive me if I don't think it's all that sincere.

Rodders is not a stupid man. He knows exactly what he's doing because he's getting paid for it. Unfortunately, while a period of silence on his part would be very welcome it isn't going to happen. The political economy of the opinion-forming industry creates and revolves around figures that generate interest and outrage. It is this that drives traffic, sales and advertising revenue. Rod is a "somebody" in this world. He has profile, and it more than pays the bills. But because the rewards are much greater than the effort put in, should a deeply-buried nugget of decency turn Rod from the dark side Darth Vader-stylee; someone else would readily step into his rotten, stinking shoes.

It's not so much a problem of Rod's dinner party racism, but with the whole economy of media commentary.

Monday 27 May 2013

Olwen Hamer for Europe

Right now, bemused Labour Party members across the country are getting bombarded with emails. That can only mean one thing: there's a selection on. This time it's the turn of the hopefuls who will be standing for Labour in next year's elections to the European Parliament. Now, readers will know the voting system for this set of elections is not entirely straight forward. Luckily, this 2009 video produced by the Greens in the North West explains the D'Hondt system very clearly.

Party members will shortly receive ballot papers and be invited to rank order the shortlisted candidates in order of preference. The D'Hondt system means the higher the rank on the party list presented to the electorate, the more likely they are of getting elected. Now, with that out the way it's time to talk about how party members in the West Midlands should use their preferences.

Without a doubt, top of your list of preferences should be Olwen Hamer (pictured). I've known Olwen for about six years and she is a great friend and comrade. But that's not why I'm asking WestMids Labour folk to support her. To put it simply, we need more like Olwen people elected.

Olwen is a principled trade unionist, socialist and anti-fascist. In her life before Stoke she was a Unison branch secretary, worked for the union and was active against the BNP in Lincoln. When I met Olwen on a street stall I was running for, ahem, another organisation; as a new arrival to Stoke the first question she asked me was who the local anti-fascist organisation were, and how she could get in touch with them. Olwen then went on to become one of NorSCARF's core activists and through her work contributed to the critical weakening of the BNP in the city.

Since then Olwen has been a councillor for the Sandford Hill ward in the south of Stoke. She also served on the City Council's cabinet respectively with responsibility for Adult Social Care and HR and Transformation, before stepping down last month. As a regular when it comes to Labour campaigning in Stoke, Olwen is one of the city's councillors you can always be depended on to turn out for leafleting, street stalls and door knocking wherever it is organised. In short, Olwen is someone I regard as a proper party person.

But I'm not asking for party members in the WestMids to first preference Olwen just because she's a good egg. It's politics and values that are important. That is why she is standing on what she likes to call the 'three R's'.

* Rights: As a trade unionist, Olwen is determined to protect the employment rights working people have fought hard to win. This means standing up to the government who, according to their convoluted, blinkered and entirely false reasoning, think fairness at work is holding back economic development.

* Respect: As an anti-fascist and a feminist, Olwen will stand up for victims of domestic violence, racism, sexism and homophobia. Even now, too often, these issues are not given due weight across the EU. Olwen will draw on her experience here to work with her Labour colleagues to campaign against these wherever and whenever they rear their head.

* Regeneration: The West Midlands should be at the crucible of the Coalition's attempts to rebalance the British economy away from finance and services and back toward manufacturing. Unfortunately, though there are some success stories the problems Stoke faces are no different to the wider issues the region faces. The West Midlands remains locked in decline as the government continues to suck demand out of the economy, and gives big business tax breaks while small and medium-sized businesses remain hobbled by business rates. Using her experience at the City Council in bidding for and successfully attracting EU money, Olwen will fight hard to win more cash from the EU and direct it toward our region's developmental priorities.

There are two further reasons why WestMids Labour people should vote for Olwen. Of the seven candidates on the party list, as far as I know Olwen is the only one not tied to the West Midlands/Birmingham metropolitan area. Not wishing to cast aspersions on the other candidates, nearly all of whom hail from and are based in that sprawling conurbation, our list should embody a geographical spread as far as possible. Olwen's campaigning experience in Stoke and across North Staffordshire make her particularly suited to represent the areas outside of the urban core. While I'm sure the other candidates on the list don't believe this is the case, I know for certain that for Olwen the 'West Midlands' does not mean 'Birmingham and its environs'.

And the last reason is the election itself. Next year's European elections will be difficult for our party. The Tory war of words over Europe and the rise of UKIP will be amplified in the lead up to polling day. In short, it will be little more than a carnival of reaction. To fight and win in that politically toxic environment we need a strong lead campaigner who has experience taking on the politics of the far right, and defeating them. We need a lead candidate who can put the Labour case for Europe, and stand up for the people our party was set up to represent.

Olwen Hamer is that candidate. Give her your first preference.

You can view, contact or become part of Olwen's campaign team here.

Sunday 26 May 2013

We Need to Talk About Porn

You can't move for it. Porn, that is. So ubiquitous has it become that the Graun even has its own dedicated porn page. We are, apparently, living in something called 'pornified culture'. Diane Abbot has very recently partly blamed this for a crisis of masculinity. Christians lament the damage pornified culture has on relationships, and feminists have consistently critiqued the adult industry for its depiction of women. It's everywhere. There's even soon-to-be an academic journal dedicated to the study of porn. Though I for one am not sure analysing how "the compression of editing reshape the relationship between director and audience" in Hairy Babes Compilations 1, 2, and 4 adds something to the sum total of human knowledge.

This week porn has been in the spotlight again. The Children's Commissioner's report (Graun summary) makes the customary points about the perils of violent pornography and their impacts on children. It found "pornography could influence children's sexual attitudes, foster a negative attitude towards relationships and lead them to engage in risky behaviours such as unprotected anal sex, sex at a younger age and the use of alcohol and drugs during sex."

Porn is more than just one, two, many people engaging in sexual activity on our screens. It has an aesthetic that is reconfiguring and conditioning the way our culture thinks and talks about sex. And you don't have to start prying into people's bedrooms to reasonably assume many a romp lives out porn-inspired fantasies. I previously argued that it makes sense to think about porn as if it was a diffuse and decentered ideology. Borrowing my old friend Louis Althusser, he rightly noted that as well as ideologies being a set of ideas that offer a partial and typically obfuscatory view of the world, there is a wider sense in that ideology is the lived relation by which ideas, values, cultural codes, and language mediate the constituting/constitutive relationship each of us has with the social world (Bourdieu's understanding of habitus elaborated on this, but that's for some other time).

Porn as ideology is a dispersed jumble. But in as far as the adult industry dominant of heterosexual porn goes, it is a mess of body aesthetics, sexual prowess, display, genital-centered reductionism, and gendered power play. In and of itself there is no coherence, but its ready availability allows particulates of porn to flow widely around popular culture. Porn therefore cannot but condition popular outlooks and expectations of sex, which makes Althusser's approach to ideology particularly useful in the first (and not the last) instance.

Diane Abbott and reports such as the Children Commissioner's are right to be thinking about and drawing attention to pornified culture. Because porn as an aggregation of all the things I've talked about is deeply embedded in the collective experience, whether particular individuals view it or not, society as a whole has to start thinking about how to make sense of this experience. Clearly, Diane's discussion of masculine crisis points to the social pathologies that may be associated with it. But for others, for all of its reductionism, might porn prove to be revelatory and liberating? I have no particular insights to offer, except we absolutely *do* need to talk about it. Getting all Victorian and trying to sweep it under the carpet, like Claire Perry has been wishing to do will only store up trouble for the future.

Saturday 25 May 2013

Charles Taylor on Explaining Society

Whether you like to think sociology is a science or not, it does provide competing theories and tools for understanding societies and explaining human action. As I'm feeling a bit lazy, here's the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor expounding at length on reductionist approaches to human behaviour and the possibility of social explanation.

Friday 24 May 2013

Sally Bercow at the High Court

Was I alone not surprised by today's verdict at the high court? No. Britain's libel laws are notoriously wide and all-encompassing. You could be forgiven for thinking that elasticity is not entirely accidental, seeing as our courts are places where tremendous sums can be won or lost. Then there's the small matter of libel law firms making a killing from the wealthy people who engage their services too. But of course, it wouldn't be the done thing to suggest that there may be a link between the two *innocent face*.

Anyway, there's a couple of quick points I want to make about this.

First, libel in general. Undoubtedly libel laws as they currently stand do have a chilling effect on free speech. The Defamation Bill is a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough. But at the same time, and strangely for a socialist, I do not reject the redress available through libel action completely. Gross defamation of character in my opinion should be actionable. Slinging around vile slurs is not acceptable, and penalties enforceable through civil action ensures the right to free speech is balanced by taking responsibility for what one has to say.

Second, and despite that qualification, something about Lord McAlpine's action against Sally Bercow does not sit right with me. As a Twitter celebrity, posting that tweet at the height of last Autumn's paedophile panic was a stupid thing to do. Whatever one thinks of the law, it wouldn't take 30 seconds for someone as internet-savvy as Sally to find out that suggestion by implication is as defamatory as explicitly libelling someone. And I have no doubt that Lord McAlpine was grossly offended and fearful for his reputation.

But I cannot help thinking that had it been someone other than Sally Bercow, the woman who in many conservatives' eyes has denigrated the quiet dignity of being the Speaker's helpmeet, then this libel action would not have happened.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Woolwich Murder: Spectacle and Message

Barbarism. That is the only word fit to describe the events that unfolded on a Woolwich street this afternoon. According to eye witnesses a young man wearing a Hope for Heroes shirt was run over and then hacked to death by two men of "Muslim appearance" [sic]. The perpetrators then explained their motives to passers by and into camera (now hosted by ITV News) and apparently shouted "Allahu Akbar" at irregular intervals. When the police showed up, they allegedly charged them and were promptly shot by armed officers, then taken to hospital.

Let's just be clear about a couple of things. While the man in ITV's video said this crime was a taste of what goes on "in our lands", that hardly justifies cold blooded murder. This gut-wrenching, frenzied attack is no more representative of Islam and Muslims than the grotesque outrage perpetrated by Anders Breivik was of the Christian Europe he claimed to be "defending". That's it, full stop. There is no "legitimate grievance" here. Nor does it have anything to do with Britain's 2.7m Muslims, or the supposed "failures" of multiculturalism. This is an awful killing motivated by a perverse, convoluted revenge fantasy dreamed up by two pathetic murderers. And that's where it should end.

But it won't. These two men were obviously media savvy. They knew a brutal unprovoked attack on a man likely to be a squaddie outside a barracks would attract furious headlines and dominate the news cycle. They knew the almost casual nonchalance and interaction with witnesses after the murder guaranteed acres of print. And they knew their apparent attempts to film the attack themselves, and subsequent statements to camera would be watched by many hundreds of thousands of people. This was a very visible murder: an act they wanted on every front page, every TV screen, every Twitter feed.

Acts of terror have always relied on the spectacle. Indeed, you don't need to be well-versed in postmodern waffle to accept Jean Baudrillard's argument that the September 11th attacks were about semiotics as much as anything else. It was an attack at the very heart of American power, designed to be "high impact" as well as mass casualty. But for all that it, the Bali and Madrid bombings, the London 7th July attacks were presented as episodes in a global war, a clash of civilisations between the American Empire and Jihadi insurgency. And, of course, as appalling as these awful crimes were it was a narrative that suited neocon hawks and extreme Islamists in equal measure.

But going by what the media has reported so far, the Woolwich murder is different. An awful, barbaric spectacle, yes. But not an "action" in a global war. It appears to be an act of vengeance - at least to the murderers themselves. But more than that at the same time. It reminds one of the "propaganda of the deed", the terror attacks favoured by some 19th century anarchists. Just as they believed blows struck at the high and mighty would rouse the toiling masses from their slumbers, the explanation of motive given to camera by one of today's murderers is designed to draw attention to the awful things that are happening in the Middle East.

But their casual brutality guarantees this will be the last thing that gets talked about.

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Nintendo: A Lament

I am sat here watching the live feed of Microsoft's unveiling of their new games console, the imaginatively named Xbox One. 'Xbox' because you cannot possibly change the name of a system these days, and 'One' because it concentrates a whole range of multimedia functions into an anonymous-looking case. It sounds impressive, and with upgraded SmartGlass and Kinect it will prove a very tough act to follow when the beast launches toward Christmas time. But this doesn't really interest me. I'm a luddite when it comes to modern video game systems. For instance, I am only just now contemplating purchasing a Sega Saturn and a Nintendo 64 almost two decades after their release. No, what has raised my eyebrow are the current fortunes of one of those businesses.

In most places outside of Europe, between the mid-80s and mid-90s Nintendo were synonymous with video games. In Japan and North America - two of the key video game markets - Nintendo's Famicom/NES commanded the hearts, minds and wallets of the game playing public. The release of their Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System over the course of 1991 and 1992 saw them hang on to their leading market position in the home console market, but were run very close by Sega's Genesis/Mega Drive.

When the Super Nintendo launched on these shores in April/May 1992, I could be found spending large chunks of my time and pocket money on my beloved Mega Drive (which I've still got, still works, and still use). It was a solid enough games machine with some excellent titles. But every month as I took home my copy of Mean Machines and the occasional CVG, I found myself longingly gazing at reviews of import Super Famicom games. The 32,000 available colours certainly made my Mega Drive's weedy palate of 512 look pretty monochrome. The size and detail on the in-game sprites surpassed anything my humble black box could muster. And Mode 7 was a massive deal - you never saw anything like this outside the arcades. It was AMAZING. But most importantly, it seemed every new game released raised the bar of excellence. Titles like Super Mario World, Contra III, UN Squadron, F-Zero, Super R-Type and even Nintendo's iteration of SimCity stirred up an acquisitive desire I've seldom felt since. I can remember the first time I played the (then exclusive) port of Street Fighter II down Derby Boots. It felt the nearest to video game perfection I had ever encountered.

My cravings for a Super Nintendo subsided shortly after leaving school. At college life became terribly earnest in that way it can be for teenagers. Apart from an occasional blast on my library of Mega Drive titles, and a little dabble with the original PlayStation toward the end of my undergraduate days I more or less lost all interest in video games. This was rekindled shortly after I stopped blogging a couple of years back, and it was like I picked up more or less where my 16 year old self left off. As soon as my Mega Drive was dusted off the raw longing returned. But this time I fulfilled my teenage dream and acquired a SNES (a NES followed in short order too). And we've been very happy together ever since.

You could say that the impression the SNES made in terms of a technical leap, the brilliant games and the hype explained why it was such a success for Nintendo (and how it kicked around in the back of my brain for 20 years). Unfortunately, it also marked the end of the golden age for the company. Its successor machine, the Nintendo 64 was a jolly enough console. It became home to some of the best loved and canonically important video games ever - Super Mario 64, Super Mario Kart 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and GoldenEye. It was a more powerful machine than either Sega's ill-fated Saturn, and Sony's PlayStation. But ultimately Nintendo lost a significant amount of market share to Sony because it came to market way too late, and Nintendo's stubborn insistence to stick with cartridges as opposed to CDs put off large numbers of third party developers (previously Nintendo made a lot of money by manufacturing proprietary cartridges and forcing its licensees to purchase them direct for their games). Things went from bad to worse with 2001's GameCube. Further ground was lost as, per tradition, Nintendo concentrated primarily on the shrinking family-friendly market. This meant the popular, adult-oriented game franchises of the day stuck to the competition.

Nintendo's Wii, released in 2006, has proven to be the clear winner of the last 'generation' of games consoles. Approximately 100m were sold worldwide, compared with the Xbox 360's 77m and the PlayStation 3's 70m. Though much, much less powerful than the competition its famous focus on motion controls gave it a killer app that piqued interest way beyond gaming's core audience. But while it has proven to be Nintendo's best selling home system ever, the success contained the seeds of future problems. Too much of the Wii's 1,200 strong library of games are gimmicky shovel ware. Invariably when one thinks of the system's stand out titles, they tend to be from Nintendo themselves. Furthermore there is a wide perception in the industry that while the Wii briefly captured the attention of a wider audience not really into video games, apart from the company's hardened following the so-called 'core gamer' audience hung out on Sony and Microsoft's platforms. It is this group that consistently buy new games. It's for this reason that the best-selling and most profitable franchises for this console generation are not exclusive to the best-selling console. And if that wasn't problem enough, the "new" audience have tended to leave their Wiis to gather dust and game casually on their phones and tablet devices.

Their latest machine, the Wii U launched late last autumn. Nintendo explicitly went out of its way to target the core gaming audience, and with it released a tablet device-cum-controller, which can interact with the main action on the TV screen or be used in lieu of the telly. The controls pioneered by its predecessor come as standard too. But apart from that, well. Back in the day of the 16-Bit console wars, Nintendo won partly because the SNES was more advanced than the opposition, but more importantly thanks to the awesome line up of games. But upon the Wii U's launch, there was no such must-have games. New Super Mario Bros U was basically a High Definition direct sequel of the Wii game of the same name. The other 'big' Nintendo launch title, Nintendo Land is more or less a compendium of casual games threaded together in a virtual carnival setting. And that's about it. UbiSoft's Zombi U is a typical zombie horror that makes use of the touchscreen controller. But aside from that, all there is is a smattering of games available on other systems. It appears Nintendo have forgotten that the first rule of launching a games console is making available titles that people will actually want to play.

Unfortunately for Nintendo, the rot goes much deeper. The marketing has been next to nowhere, there are significant question marks over whether the Wii U is even as powerful as the preceding generation's 360 and PS3 and, unsurprisingly, sales are stalling. In March, the Wii U sold 64,000 units in the US. During the same period the 360 - a system very near to the end of its lifespan - sold 300,000. If that isn't a sign of trouble ...

The problem is the former leading brand is out of sorts with the market it shaped in the 1980s. As Marx noted, firms have to constantly revolutionaise the means of production - innovate - to stay ahead of the competition. But Nintendo does not seem prepared for the challenge of mobile casual gaming platforms (which has also seen its handheld 3DS take a battering), or the idea a games console has to be more than a games console. Sure, the Wii U allows you to stream films and such like, but so does the seven-year-old PS3. As Microsoft's Xbox One press conference demonstrated, it has to be much more - in their case they are combining gaming and streaming with interactive television and social media. In short, the Xbox One represents a convergence of media technologies. Nintendo meanwhile appear determined to refight the battles of the last decade.

Like any hardware or software firm, Nintendo is, ultimately, an amoral profit-making entity much like any other. But few companies have helped shape an entire industry like it did in its heyday. The machines it produced and the games it has made are cultural artefacts that will prove as important to the digital age - however long that lasts - as the works of Austen and Dickens have to modern literature. If it turns out their mishandling of the Wii U is Nintendo's swan song and they are forced to become a software-only company or, worse, disappear from the scene altogether, that would be a real crying shame.

Monday 20 May 2013

For a Real Jobs Guarantee

Unemployment is caused by a lack of jobs. Obvious one would think, but yet this is a contested and controversial for many of our honourable members down in Westminsterland. Received mainstream political wisdom has it that if you're unfortunate enough to be out of work, it's down to some quirk of your character. You're too lazy, too indisciplined, too enamoured with a life on social security. Or, for those who subscribe to a more bleeding heart view of unemployment, combinations of circumstance, lack of education or training, and poor/absent role models means one just isn't cut out for the jobs market. Whichever way the bones fall on to the ground, you have different interpretations of the same message. Unemployment is an individual problem, an individual failing.

Labour's jobs guarantee for the long-term unemployed is a partial break from the orthodoxy. It is a break in that by placing the government as the employment guarantor of last resort it implicitly recognises that the hidden hand of the market is structurally incapable of providing jobs for all. But it is only partial because the nature of the jobs offered are, well, not really jobs.

Take this piece on the Prospect blog by Spencer Thompson of IPPR, for example. Spencer makes the very sensible point that the government's current 'wage incentive' scheme (whereby the wages of new hires are part-subsidised by the tax payer to encourage job creation) is hardly making inroads to the long-term young unemployed as the most "employable" - i.e. the best educated - are far more likely to be taken on than your veteran NEET. In fact, as this layer are the least likely to spend prolonged periods on the dole it is smoothing the passage back to work for those who were already best placed.

we should adopt a job guarantee for young people, with an offer of work experience to all those out of work and on jobseeker’s allowance for a year or more. It should be paid at the minimum wage in order to allay the justified concern with earlier “workfare” schemes. But it should also be combined with sanctions, with an obligation on the young person to take up the offer or find an alternative. This would have an immediate impact on youth unemployment in the UK, as well as providing much-needed labour market experience for many of the hardest to reach unemployed.
When is a jobs guarantee not a jobs guarantee? When all that is on offer is work experience. The implicit assumption underlining Spencer's argument is that long term unemployment stems from job market unsuitability. Therefore what is required is to get the NEETS and others into minimum wage schemes under pain of sanction that can train them up to the kinds of worker employers might want to employ. Hence it is envisaged very much as a temporary patch. Nowhere is there any realisation that jobs are in very short supply, and that training up loads of unemployed young people will not in and of itself ameliorate that situation (apart from the multiplier effects of hundreds of thousands on such schemes having more cash in their pockets).

Why do I suspect this or something very similar will not be a million miles away from Labour's scheme? Because Ed Balls in his announcement said "Our Jobs Guarantee for adults will build on the model of the Future Jobs Fund with government working with the private and voluntary sectors to ensure there is a job paying the minimum wage for every long-term unemployed person." Tax-payer subsidised profits for Tesco? No thanks. An army of economic conscripts that will undermine the wages and conditions of current workers? Not a great idea. I'm sorry, but this is not good enough. While there is much flesh to be put on the bone, the preview offered is tepid and will compound the insecurity many workers at the low wage end of the labour market already feel. Tried and tested is the jolly old public works programmes - what's wrong with that? Or why not be more ambitious and organise 'jobs guarantee' workers into state/local authority-owned businesses or cooperatives to address identified developmental needs? Or something else the weird and wonkyful could dream up? Perhaps, just perhaps, the jobs guarantee might like to draw on the experience of trade unions to advise, lead and deliver such schemes. After all, they're only the democratic representatives of working people.

The principle of a jobs guarantee is a good thing. It is a marker of the increasing differences between Labour and its opponents, and signals a further step away from neoliberalism's policy straitjacket. But it has to be worthwhile. It has to train people, give them something useful to do, restore a sense of self-respect and *not* undermine the existing workforce. It requires a real leap of political imagination as well as a not inconsiderable amount of courage. Is the labour movement up to it?

Sunday 19 May 2013

The Death Agony of British Toryism

Whether Andrew Feldman really called Tory party activists "mad, swivel-eyed loons" matters not. For the repugnant and reactionary in the increasingly depleted Tory associations, it sums up the contempt they feel Dithering Dave and his increasingly dysfunctional leadership has for the troops. The hard right hyperbole around Dave's supposed social democratic agenda is politically illiterate, but condenses a frustration that the PM just isn't interested in what the dying grass roots have to say about Europe and equal marriage.

I think it was Engels who said political parties more or less express the interests of classes and fractions of classes. This remains the case today, though in the British context it has meant Conservatives, Labour and the LibDems (and in Scotland and Wales, the SNP and Plaid Cymru respectively) are coalitions of interests disciplined by the first-past-the-post electoral system's high threshold of representation. In the more proportional systems that exist on the continent, where the bar for entry is set much lower, the tendency to fragmentation is more pronounced. But the seismic demographic shifts ushered in under the post-war boom and accelerated by 30-odd years of the neoliberal settlement has fundamentally changed the way political parties are constituted and nourished by the constituencies they represent.

Plenty has been written on the crisis of the labour movement, how political defeat and the restructuring of the British economy dispersed "traditional" working class communities conditioned the subsequent decline of our movement is a well-worn one. Even the view that New Labour was the consequence of this diminution of power and influence is largely uncontroversial. But despite the economic tumult and 13 years of government, the labour movement and the Labour Party remain intact. The alliance between organised labour and the progressive middle class (as represented by constellations of think tanks, socialist societies, pressure groups) is still there. Both still act as transmission belts and articulators of interests between the base and the Parliamentary Labour Party and apparat. It is by no means smooth or without conflict, but has otherwise ever been the case?

The situation with the Tories has proven rather different. Though consistently possessing a larger formal membership than its Labour opponents until quite recently, their decline has been much sharper and shows no sign of slowing. The social change neoliberalism has wrought on the British body politic has affected them just as profoundly, if not more so. 

Many Tories do look back to the 1980s and Thatcher as their golden age but it was under her that party membership declined approximately by half - from a million to circa 500,000. Part of this was due to her pugnaciousness - as many Tories were alarmed at her confrontational style as those today despairing over Dave's embrace of equal marriage. But also as her government attacked public industries and, by extension, the business dependent on them in the manufacturing supply change a section of capital was alienated from the natural party of business - a situation compounded by the privileged relationship cultivated by Thatcher between the party and finance. Similarly, the break up and dispersal of traditional communities affected the Tory associations in the same way. It's hard to believe now that Tory trade unionism was a key input into the agglomeration of interests the party represented. Wedded to monetarist dogma, Thatcherism had little problem with the growth of big business - even though they were oblivious to the impacts the market was having on its membership backbone in small and medium enterprise. Matters didn't improve under John Major. In fact, the eruption of civil war over Europe (a distinctly second order political issue) coincided with this comprehensive gutting of the Conservative social base. And as New Labour positioned itself as the natural party of business from Blair to the onset of the economic crisis and the Tories were consumed by another round of bloodletting, so the decline was compounded until the situation was temporarily stabilised under Dave's leadership in 2005.

The big problem for the Tories is that while their party was stripped to the bone, unlike Labour there were no means to bring it back to health. The SME constituency remains small-c conservative in outlook, but has not come back in anywhere near approaching sufficient numbers. The properly centre right MacMillan Tories of old, the so-called "wets" didn't either. Nor was there a revival of collapsed Tory associations in the towns and cities. Even that milieu of young graduate careerists avoided the Tories, preferring in the main to go to Labour. Dave's greenwashing, embrace of the gay community, and NHS love-in helped sway some swing voters appalled at the mounting incompetencies of Brown's government but did not and could not arrest the shrinkage of the party. And once in power, well, we know the rest.

I really cannot see how the Tories can extricate themselves from the death spiral. The stupid empiricism of your Peter Bones, Nadine Dorrieses, Jacob Rees-Moggs and, yes, Nigel Farages has fooled a section of the Tory right into thinking that banging on about Europe is the recipe for electoral success. But it really isn't. For all their media-fuelled success, UKIP as an organisation has only around 25,000 members - far, far short of the vast quantities of party volunteers lost by the Tories these last 10 years alone. Also, the more the Tories try to out-UKIP UKIP, the greater their disconnect from the British public at large, the more the party apparatus withers and the more slovenly the electoral performance. A Canadian-style recomposition is probably the only way out, and as Andrew Rawnsley notes a formal split in the Tories is starting to become a likely prospect. But with the party dipping below 130,000 members and falling, AND an utterly toxic brand synonymous with incompetence, disloyalty and outright nastiness; which bald men would want to fight over this rusty comb?

Thursday 16 May 2013

UKIP and Masculinity

This morning, Diane Abbott gave a heavily trailed speech on the crisis of masculinity. Simplifying her argument somewhat, cultural change and the restructuring of the jobs market has thrown young men into a state of anomie. In one direction they're being flattered as gendered consumers into clothes, gadgets, cars, booze and footy. From another comes the pressure of 'pornified culture' to shag around as much as possible. And there is the ever-present expectation that a man should have a job that can provide for himself and any family that comes along. The problem of course is this hegemonic ideal is not only out of reach for growing numbers of young men, it is also persistently challenged by different kinds of masculinities. And that's well before you start talking about the distinct blurring of gendered identities and sexualities. So yes, Diane is right to draw attention to this issue. It's not so much a harking back to the male breadwinner of old but recognising that for some younger men, gendered anxiety and what it means to be a man can contribute to crime, misogynistic attitudes, violence and a host of other social problems.

But I'm not going to talk about young men. I want to write about older men, and one oft-overlooked facet of UKIP's rise - that its activist base and support is fuelled mainly by men of a certain age. It's been noted here and elsewhere UKIP are not only an anti-politics party, but that it is very uncomfortable with the pace of social change. It's less 'small c' conservative and more 'stop the world, we want to get off'. But because its core support are men in the middle-aged-to-elderly support range, I think its message has an hitherto unremarked gendered dimension. They too are affected by masculine crisis.

When our UKIP male core were much younger, the widespread availability of primary industry and manufacturing jobs played a particular role in the constitution of gendered relations and identities. In North Staffordshire, being a miner or a steel worker required a certain toughness, resilience and strength. As jobs they were unpleasant and occasionally dangerous but were sites where working class masculine identities emerged, where the nature of the work, the all-male workplace camaraderie and the breadwinning wage ticked all the manly boxes. A miner was strong. A miner provided for his family. But shut the pits or close the foundry, this gendered anchor comes unstuck. The source of (masculine) pride melts into the air. In villages, towns and cities across the land the steady loss of these jobs were not replaced like for like. Hundreds of thousands of 'traditional' working class men undertook work in service sector occupations previously coded as 'women's jobs'. The 'nurturing' nature of service work, the compulsory uniforms, the subjection to micromanagement and the emasculation of trade unionism were a world away from the 'men's work' they knew previously.

Not all of the UKIP core experienced this, of course. But before primary industry and manufacturing went into a tailspin, you knew exactly where you stood. The rich man was in his castle. The poor man at his (factory) gate. Tearing this world away was tantamount to emasculation for a generation of men, and now feeds into a wider alienation from British culture. The vast majority of jobs available to the sons of these men lack obvious markers of masculinity. Office work, retail, call centres, caring - the economic dominance of service industries are simultaneously read as symptoms of the feminisation of working life and national decline. And with this has come the butchering of the armed forces, 'elf and safety' culture, political correctness, women doing "men's jobs" and, horror of horrors, gay marriage.

In many ways UKIP is the perceived antidote to a perceived problem. Set against the colourless effetes of David CaMoron and DEd MiliBLand, Nigel Farage is unquestionably a man's man. He might be one of those public boy city trader sorts, but you can go for a pint and a fag with him. He will tell it to you straight. Getting shot of Europe makes us masters of our destiny again. Slinging out the diversity consultants and equality advisors will allow right-thinking Englishmen to speak their mind. And banning gay marriage will knock on the head any 'Adam and Steve' nonsense. In fact, UKIP's whole populist platform is sharp cornered and macho. It concedes nothing and demands everything. Lily-livered compromise is out and plain speaking is in. Don't like it? Offended? Tough. Man up and fight or shut up and bugger off.

It's all nonsense of course, but as any observer of the last 30 years will note, nonsense has the annoying habit of gaining traction and assuming a life of its own. Again, fundamentally, the root of UKIP's manliness is the same as UKIP's populism: insecurity. Until the Labour Party gets to grip with this most basic of yearnings and pursues policies that can properly address it, so-called masculine crisis and anti-political populism will continue to inflict their damage.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

"Scroungers" and Class

I'm sure many readers were depressed to learn that Labour voters have swung to the right over their attitudes toward people who subsist on social security. According to Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who commissioned the research:
* Two-thirds (66%) of the public identify an explanation for child poverty that relates to the characteristics and behaviour of parents, compared to the 28% who say it is down to broader social issues.
* Fifteen per cent of the public in 1994 thought people lived in need because of laziness or lack of willpower, compared to 23% in 2010. Support for the view that people live in poverty because of injustice in society fell from 29% to 21% over the same time period.
* These changes are most marked among Labour supporters: just 27% of supporters cite social injustice as the main cause, down from 41% in 1986; while those identifying laziness and willpower rose from 13% to 22%.
* Labour supporters also increasingly hold the view that welfare recipients are undeserving (from 21% in 1987 to 31% in 2011) and that the welfare state encourages dependency – 46% say if benefits were not as generous, people would learn to stand on their own feet, up from 16% in 1987.
It's one of those moments that anyone with a socialist bone in their body would shake their heads. Throughout the New Labour years not only did its MPs and apparat adapt to the press-orchestrated poison around social security, they actively connived and encouraged it. Workfare and the Work Capability Assessment are New Labour's distinctive contributions to the dehumanisation of unemployment and disability support recipients. Makes you proud, doesn't it?

In a way, Labour people's growing hostility to the less fortunate proves how successful divisive, dog-eat-dog policies and rhetoric can be. It also demonstrates the continued salience of class, albeit in a negative way. As appallingly crass it is, rubbish around the "squeezed middle", "hard-working families/taxpayers", and "strivers" does speak to large swathes of people. The public at large are being explicitly addressed as people who work while on Britain's council estates, bajillions of others are idly living off their taxes. You have to work every hour you can send, while those on JSA or ESA get an income handed to them on a silver dish. It's one class politics of envy card the Tories are never afraid to play because they know it resonates.

What can be done? Labour should never play this game because, ultimately, not only is it repugnant - it damages the party's self-interests. Therefore, positive policies are the answer. Unfortunately, like Gus, I cannot understand why Labour aren't making more of its jobs guarantee policy. Cultures of worklessness are a shaggy dog story - unemployment, after all, is everywhere and always the result of lack of jobs. But a guarantee guillotines the very possibility of scrounger myth-making as well as offering the long-term unemployed a route back into work.

Policy is a means at the labour movement's disposal. But much harder is the tough work of turning the culture around. And, unfortunately, you cannot undo 30 years of relentless rhetoric and lies over night.

Monday 13 May 2013

The Final Meltdown

We're leaving together/But still it's farewell/And maybe we'll come back/To earth, who can tell?

With UKIP doing well in the polls and benefiting from the most benign coverage a party has attracted since Blair's halcyon days, Tory MPs working furiously to no-confidence the Queen's Speech, AND senior cabinet members and grandees alike throwing grist in t'mill, the enigmatic lyrics to Europe's 1986 poodle mega smash fit the 2013 Tory party's trajectory quite nicely. But whereas everyone's favourite rock anthem had a touch of mystery, there is no such air about the fate awaiting the Conservatives. Time and again, history shows hopelessly split parties are punished at the ballot box. And there's no reason to believe the next general election will see this most right wing and incompetent of governments buck the trend.

The Tory malaise says a great deal about the crisis inflicting the conservative movement, if it can be described as such. The party's base is literally dying. There is a fundamental disconnect between the leadership and the associations, and for their part the associations and the world at large. And despite Dave's hug-a-husky opportunism, they grow more out of step with British culture every passing year. Top to bottom Toryism is broken, dysfunctional and fraying. The obsession with Europe, which has relentlessly dogged their politics for over 20 years now is not so much the cause of division (though of course it does have some efficacy of its own), but is symptomatic of the non-correspondence between what passes for mainstream centre right politics and the public. And it's their Europe obsession that leads Tories to misunderstand the significance of UKIP.

There has been growing clamour in the Tory ranks for some sort of deal to be struck with the hard right upstarts. Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg are typical of an argument you can only call 'stupid empiricism'. It goes like this. UKIP, as a right wing party that has proven adept in the art of vote-catching suggests that all the Tories need to do to reverse their fortunes is adopt red-in-tooth-and-claw Conservatism and problem solved: the Tories would romp home in 2015. Likewise, NF himself endorses this view, suggesting his party (because it is his party) would happily endorse europhobic Tory MPs at the next election, even going so far as having joint candidacies.

The Tories and NF just don't get it. Europe is a second order issue and only has traction with the electorate at large during a second order election. Pitifully few, and I mean pitifully few, will be deciding who to put their cross against in 2015 on the basis of Europe. It is ultimately a rarefied Westminster/media preoccupation that everyone has an opinion on, but then so does X-Factor. But unlike ITV's ratings monster, Europe matters much less.

The second point is related to the first. Ultimately, UKIP's rise isn't about Europe. I'll say it again. UKIP's rise isn't about Europe. UKIP is a right wing variant of us-vs-themism, of populism. Its appeal lies in being a middle finger to an alienating and out-of-touch politics, one seemingly decoupled and remote from the outlook and aspirations of everyday folk. In response, populism offers simple solutions to complex problems. Frightened the family unit is under siege? Ban gay marriage. Uncomfortable hearing a medley of languages around town? Ban immigrants. Worried the country is in interminable decline? Ban the EU. Or something. Marx would have recognised that populism's appeal lies in a secularisation of religion's greatest hook, it is akin to "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions." Though in populism's case, "weary" is probably a better substitute for oppressed.

UKIP speaks to discontent and insecurity. And it offers simple solutions that would, supposedly, dispel it.

Here lies the Tories' and NF's misreading. While it has a track record of dragging votes from the Tories, UKIP's bedrock, if you like, is the core anti-politics constituency. Many Tories would delight in a pact with UKIP (and, I'd wager, an equal number would be appalled at the prospect). And so would the hard right media, NF, and a few 'kippers who fancy a piece of the parliamentary pie. But for the angry brigade who feel let down, pissed off and otherwise aggrieved at mainstream politics - UKIP's very bread and butter - well, that wouldn't do at all. It's a political volatile held together primarily by NF's "charisma" and momentum. If UKIP clamber under the mouldy old bedclothes with the Tories, a good chunk of the party - and its vote - would blanche at the prospect, just as the Tories would bid adieu to centre right swing voters and what's left of "sensible", "moderate" conservatism. The passage from perceived anti-establishment outsiders to the very bosom of mainstream politics would do for UKIP what the Coalition Agreement has done for the LibDems, albeit without a party machine and centuries of localised but real support to fall back on.

Dorries concludes her Sun article looking ahead. "Without doubt, the next two years in politics will be the most exciting we have seen since the last war" she dribbles. It's possible. But not because her fevered delusions are about to come to pass. But rather the British Conservative Party, the oldest, most successful political party the world has seen, could well end up eating itself and handing the Labour Party the next several sets of Westminster elections on a platter.

Sunday 12 May 2013

Eurovision 2013 Preview

I am virtually certain the 2013 Eurovision crown will be lifted by an British woman. But it won't be Bonnie Tyler.

It's the same old story almost every year. The UK's warbling ambassadors take to the stage and, invariably, come home with next to no points. In the first part of the last decade our sub-par performance was blamed on the fall out from the Iraq War. And as the decade wore on, the UK progressively fell foul of Gazprom-orchestrated block voting. Hmmm. Lack of success is laid at the feet of others who refuse to play fair - a typically British response you might say.

But it's poppycock. The 'new' Eurovision countries of Eastern Europe tend to enter their biggest acts who are regionally popular, and that's why the vote is scooped up. Sure, there are styles of music and linguistic/cultural ties that underline cross border appeal, but this is not the early 80s. There is no monolith to the East lying behind pillboxes and tank traps. In fact, voting pattens are more fluid than the popular narrative suggests. Between 2003-12 the Balkan Peninsula has won twice, and Scandinavia and Eastern Europe three times apiece.

The sad fact is the UK doesn't win because our entries are crap. After years of packing off fresh-faced youngsters with bland tunes, the powers that be have woken up to the fact star power does make a difference. But they still don't get it. Blue, Engelbert and Bonnie Tyler have sold records on the continent but they weren't current and, if we're honest, very few care about whatever new material they're churning out. You can't win Eurovision by entering has beens whose songs turn on a two minute fifteen key change. And you definitely won't win if you don't make the most of your act. For instance, Bonnie Tyler has a fine pair of lungs. So what fool gave her this bland, insipid ballad?

Contrast our awful record of awful records with this year's Eurovision roster. There's plenty of forgettable bubble gum, but some stand outs. Here's Slovenia's Hannah with Straight Into Love.

Oh my life, a dubstep opening on Eurovision? Yup. But have a listen. The building chimes, the lovey-dovey vocals. Have you seen (or heard) what they did there, Team UK? Slovenia have entered a song that sounds like a modern dance record.

My personal favourite is the slightly quirky but rather brilliant entry from Ukraine. This is Zlata Ognevich with Gravity.

Something original. Why not take a risk, UK? The 1.3m YouTube views for Ms Ognevich suggests it will do well in the popular vote.

Speaking of risks, Cezar's dance opera, It's My Life is simply wonderful.

Oh look, another Eurovision song with not a not-terribly-appropriate dubstep interlude. In fact, there are five songs so afflicted in this year's contest. A shame Johnny Foreigner are experimenting with it rather then the UK. After all, it only came from South London.

Or perhaps the UK could look to the British woman who is all set to win this year.

I doubt many readers have heard of Natalie Horler, but chances are her vocals for the eurodance group, Cascada, have been picked up by your ears as you've sallied forth through clothes shops and supermarkets. Now, I've never liked their twee (but up to date) EDM sound but it's undeniable they're a success. 5 million albums sold, 15 million digital downloads says it all really. And they're representing Germany.

You don't need to be Wernher von Braun to realise that combining a poppy, catchy contemporary-sounding track with a chart-topping group is a recipe for German success this year.

So what's it going to be? Will the UK make like a boring Trotskyist group and blame circumstances beyond their control for the inevitable dismal result, or might it learn from the opposition in time for 2014?

Comments Change

Louis Vuitton handbags. Bread. Credit cards. "Male enhancement" pills. The American College of Angiology. These are a sliver of examples of the ridiculous quantities of comments spam this blog receives. Comments have long been under moderation to keep the spam from filling up the boxes, but as the audience has grown to a steady 1,600-2,000 page views a day the amount circumventing the filters and getting into the approvals box has skyrocketed. As I don't have the time to spend clearing it out, I've re-engaged the incredibly annoying 'guess the word' game. So many apologies. And remember, always copy your comment before posting - these things can be temperamental.

Friday 10 May 2013

What Has Happened to Germaine Greer?

From the dawning of the popular press through to social media, the opportunities for the great and the good to out themselves as toe-curling cretins has progressively multiplied over time. And when the occasion availed itself to Germaine Greer on last night's Question Time, she not only made herself look like an idiot, she went some way to burying her reputation as some kind of feminist.

Picture the scene. A question on whether those accused of rape should have the right to anonymity until after a conviction has been made is responded to by ex-Tory MP Jerry Hayes. He argued "yes" because the bulk of rape allegations are notoriously malicious and false, which is why they are under-prosecuted and conviction rates are so low. Objectionable and obviously untrue, as even the Telegraph acknowledges. Now, Greer is probably the nearest feminism in Britain has to a household name, so you might reasonably expect her to shred Hayes' argument in a spectacularly bloody fashion.

But no.

Responding, Greer said we should keep to the convention of naming alleged perpetrators. But that accusers should also be mandatorily identified.

Yes, I did a double take too. Survivors of rape and serious sexual assault should not have the right to anonymity.

The justification is impeccable. Greer argued that survivors should not be ashamed and - implicitly - mollycoddled by the right to anonymity. Instead they should stand up and face their abusers. Easy for someone like Greer to say. Not so simple for the vast bulk of (mainly) women and girls who find themselves in that position.

She could have stopped there, but Greer goes on. Rape, apparently, is an utterly archaic term. Similar to those outraged by the label 'bedroom tax' more than the punitive reduction in the low paids' income, Greer was concerned about our continued use of 'rape' to describe non-consensual sexual violence to the exclusion of everything else. In its etymological root stretching back to the 13th century, rape, she argues, was about a man stealing another man's (female) "property". So it's nonsensical to liken this to "the taking of sexual liberties" (yes, that's how she defined rape). I refuse to believe Greer is so ignorant of basic linguistics to sincerely think rape has not accumulated different sets of meanings and associations in the last 800 or so years.

Now, you can see what Greer has tried to do. There is an argument over personal autonomy and women's strength undergirding these points. You could even argue that her denigration of rape as a concept is a strategy aimed at undoing its reification, of stripping it of its power as a big nasty that can terrify and subjugate. By rendering it mundane, like any other act of violence, it loses its ability to shame and silence. In short, she perhaps means well.

But while rape is tied up in complexes of culture and gendered identities, it is also a despicable crime that causes the most appalling suffering. Perhaps Greer would do better to remember that when inelegantly parading her dinner party feminism on national television.

Thursday 9 May 2013

Ed Miliband: Personality and Politics

"He mysteriously appeared out of nowhere, a bit like an action hero ... He kept asking if I was ok, if I was hurt," she said. “He was there for a good few minutes. What added to all the confusion was that he was actually attractive and not geeky at all. Even the way he appeared was suave. He was dressed casually but he had style." Who could Ella Phillips, the victim of a cycling accident in Camden, be talking about? Believe it or not, the good samaritan, the "action hero" of the piece was none other than leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband. Good stuff.

Unfortunately, that's about the only good press the Dear Leader attracted all week. After last Thursday's county elections, the miserablist tendency have been decrying the party's performance. I happen to be of the school that 'winning' the election in contests that, eight times out of 10, were in Tory-held constituencies AND against the backdrop of the media's hyping up of UKIP isn't bad at all. It hasn't stopped the Blairite ultras from having a whinge - though I will note they proved somewhat reticent to comment on the whopping 0.2% contact rate their Prince Across the Water bequeathed his successor.

But this is about Ed, not David. Personalities are important in politics, so the profile of a party leader has to be just right. And on this score, as the internets, Tories and sore David fans keep telling me, Ed is somewhat lacking. He doesn't appear to be one of us because he's led a rarefied life. From Oxbridge he went into bag-carrying, spaddery, and parliament - in many ways the archetypal career path for the Westminster insider. He talks funny too. His stilted speeches comprise of short statements and assertions, boiled down into a kind of newspeak in which ambiguity - but passion and colour also - have got bleached out. He insists on repeating insincere-sounding political catchphrases, like "it's hurting, but it's not working", "cutting too far, too fast" and dropping 'One Nation' into every other utterance. And speaking as an out-of-sorts oaf myself, he occasionally comes across as physically awkward. As my wife might say, there is something of the Creature Comforts about him.

Taken together it means Ed lacks that undefinable something that constitutes the 'Prime Ministerial'. Or, so I'm told. But this understates and overlooks Ed's strengths. He certainly hasn't been right on everything, but he has taken significant political risks. From not stepping aside for his brother and challenging Murdoch, to sticking up for people on social security he is not as insipid - and is much more ruthless - than his opponents suggest. And take him from behind a lectern and put him in a Q&A, or better, a street, the man from Planet Wonk becomes an engaging and sympathetic human being. Unlike Nigel Farage's "common sense" jolly of photo opps and and pub lounge rallies, and Dave 'n' Nick's complete invisibility, Ed's street election campaign played to his strengths. His events were not stage-managed, he took all questions and tackled the hecklers. Some might snort, but it was John Major's willingness to do the same that helped the Tories to victory in 1992. In an age when politicians appear more remote than ever, being seen out and about properly engaging with people can go some way to eroding accumulated anti-political prejudices.

Personalities are important and assume overweening preeminence when there is little or no policy difference between the main parties. But there are significant differences between Labour and the Conservatives. For example, compared to wafer thin announcements in the Coalition's Queen's Speech, Labour offered this alternative. And counterposed to the Hayekian hellhole the Tories will offer in 2015, the policies so far outlined by Labour are very different:
- Repeal the Health and Social Care Act (otherwise known as the NHS     privatisation Act)
- Build 125,000+ homes
- Regulate private rents
- Promote a Living Wage for public sector workers and shame the      private sector into following that lead
- Offer a minimum 33-40 per cent cut in tuition fees
- Limit rail fare increases to one per cent
- Reimpose the 50p rate of income tax for the super-rich
- Impose a mansion tax on the rich
- Repeat the bankers’ bonus tax
- Reverse the bedroom tax
- Scrap Workfare and replace it with a ‘compulsory’ Jobs Guarantee
- Offer a VAT cut or a ‘temporary’ VAT holiday
- Implement the High Pay Commission report in its entirety
- Scrap Ofgem and bring in proper energy price regulation
- Break up the banks and set up a National Investment Bank
- Support mining communities and clean coal technology.
It's just a shame this had to be mined by Michael Meacher rather than sung from the rooftops. They're not storming the Winter Palace stuff by any means, but are a definite break with the Tory way of doing things, if not the cadaverous neoliberalism Dave and Gidders cling to.

Therefore, policy matters. What parties and politicians will do, matters. Whether Ed trips over an interview in The World At One doesn't. What Labour need to do between now and 2015 is to continue offering an alternative, but be bolder in doing so. Ed needs to play to his strengths and avoid baseball-cap-and-log-flume "populism". And crucially, he must pay no heed to the siren voices of the Blairite outriders. Their grey managerialism will only dash Labour on the rocks of more cynicism, more alienation, and more anti-politics.