Tuesday 28 November 2017

Gynoug for the Sega MegaDrive/Genesis

Sometimes you come across games that are hard to write about. Such is the lot of video game writing. Take 1991's Gynoug for instance (or Wings of Wor as it was rebadged stateside). There really isn't a lot to go on. The games starts, the screen scrolls right to left, you shoot things using an array of power ups and special weapons, and then you're done. Which usually happens fairly quickly for newcomers because it is one of the more challenging MegaDrive titles to have been released. Apart from being a good game, surely it's like every other horizontally scrolling shooter. i.e. Put the brain away and get blasting. Nevertheless, Gynoug was well received upon its release as a solid shooter, and while something of a canon title it's pretty much forgotten now.

And that's a shame, because Gynoug is something special. Not because of the blasting action, which on the whole stands up with the best 16-bit shooters, but because of the art style. As the MegaDrive was the go-to console for edgy youth, Gynoug underlined its 'not for kiddies' aura. The graphics are some of the most detailed, yet disgusting, grotesque and questionable to have appeared on the system. Yup, Gynoug is all about ugly ass. Enemies begging to be blasted are brains hopping around on what's left of spinal column, ghoulies who jump out of coffins, and biomechanical bosses with pulsating bits, like the charmer above. The fifth level take us on a journey through the guts of some otherwise unseen monster. It undulates, it wobbles and shimmers, and worst of all it's pink. All enough to have you clutching your own stomach, if it wasn't for the hordes of baddies trying to make short work of you. But that's nothing. The gentleman you see displayed down below is the chappy awaiting you at the end. And yes, that is what you think it is.

Apart from the art style, Gynoug doesn't bring much to the table. The power ups are straight forward and no frills, and I suppose it does have a unique special weapon feature, albeit one too boring to expend words on here. Game play is hardly innovative, though it is polished and the overall presentation, including the excellent soundtrack, help elevate it a cut above.

Yet there is something else of interest here, and those are the changes made during the localisation. As the box art and in-game presentation makes plain, you are some sort of angelic fella charged with dispatching a load of demons. Expelling hell from heaven is a common enough theme nowadays, but for some reason Sega, following the Disneyfying approach to gaming that still marks off Nintendo's key titles, thought North Americans and West Europeans would not be cool with these sub-religious themes. Well, the US perhaps, but Europe? And so the plot is changed. Never mind you're a winged man who possesses a couple of special power ups that call angels to battle by your side, that you can find crucifixes and Stars of David among the enemy host, and that three of the levels are obviously redolent of afterlife themes (the underworld, marble halls, cloud tops). No, apparently we are to believe some evil virus is loose and transformed your peaceful planet into a playground for some of the ugliest critters in the history of video gaming. Sega mandated a similar move with the Tengen port of Devil's Crash when it came to the West, but for whatever reason couldn't be bothered to censor out the bits and bobs that connoted religion. Bizarre. Especially when it left a giant demon dick in the game.

Monday 27 November 2017

Thatcherism's Lessons for Labour

Centrist commentator in 'doesn't understand Corbynism' shocker. Smite me with a feather. I thought Mark Pack's latest, 'How Margaret Thatcher really won in 1979 – and why it isn’t a role model for a Corbyn-led Labour Party' was going to be an interesting piece. After all, it's long been recognised by the left that Thatcher won and kept on winning because she was able to build a broad coalition of voters around a self-defined patriotic project. Helped, of course, by the divisions among her opponents and her capacity to isolate them and take them out: the miners and the NUM being the paradigmatic example. Perhaps we were going to see Mark take up the cudgels against Corbynism's own attempt to form a counter-hegemonic consensus based on ending austerity, greater democracy, joined up economic planning with targeted investment, and a move away from the beggar-thy-neighbour capitalism Mark's party helped bed down during the coalition years.

Unfortunately, what might have been a very interesting contribution is ducked for banal strawmanning. Mark suggests that Corbynism's view of how Thatcher won elections is entirely wrong. Having done well earlier this year and variously held poll leads since, he suggests the left believes we can win and win again by eschewing the soggy centre and go full bore on a socialist programme. After all, Thatcher did the same from the right, didn't she? "Aha!", says Mark in his best Alan Partridge voice, "that is not what happened at all!" In the first place the Tories then made much hay out of Labour incompetence, and tacked toward the centre with dovish 'all in it together' language. As Mark rightly notes, "appealing to voters on the grounds where they are, rather than striking off in a completely different direction, are what won it for Margaret Thatcher in 1979."

I think Mark's spent too much time with Progress editorials. There's a bit of 'one more heave' knockabout on Twitter, but no one really thinks winning an election is going to be as easy as that. What Thatcher's Tories did was advance a programme from the right toward the centre, which won her the election. This was a trick Theresa May was also supposed to pull off, but utterly failed to do so. Meanwhile, far from eschewing the Thatcherite play book the Corbyn-led Labour Party reached toward the centre from the left. It did not say nationalise things because communism. Instead, the party broke with received orthodoxy and set about forging a new consensus based on a common sense branding of its policies Labour itself defined. Thatcher talked about the nation coming together to, um, make Britain great again. Likewise Corbyn staked the party's programme around 'the many' and not 'the few'. Both pointed to the shambles their opponents were in and were able to exploit them. The key difference between the 1979 and 2017 elections is 1979 marked and end to the post-war political duopoly, 2017 looks like the beginnings of its resumption.

What Labour needs to do next is, well, build on its recent consensus-building accomplishments, not what Mark thinks it's been doing. As Stuart Hall argued in his masterful commentaries on Thatcherism, the groundwork for a political shift to the right was performed sometimes in concert, sometimes independently by movements and organisations that pushed a bit of conservative common sense here, or framed a political issue there. The National Front, for instance, played its role demonising immigrants and pushing this issue to the right, which Thatcher then appropriated. The Festival of Light at the beginning of the 1970s and its armies of evangelising moral crusaders helped cultivate a mass current against the permissive society, which the Tories tapped into. The easy populism of monetarism vis a vis a Labour Party beset by crisis management helped shift the common sense view of economics away from full employment toward so-called sound money, and so on. Our counterweight to the Tories now is not as advanced or refined, but already Labour's programme speaks to the life experiences of millions of people. As each day passes more Labour voters are added to the electoral rolls. This must be and is being deepened as the mass of the Labour Party provides real social weight. For millions of people, Labour's emerging common sense has a face, a name, a personal connection attached to a policy agenda. To counter the Tory advantage in the media, its people power is harnessing social networks to draw people in and give them a sense of belonging. And with the broken policy consensus, through its own spokespeople Corbynist ideas are charging into the media, getting mulled over, pulling masses of people into political conversation. All the while, while Labour and socialist ideas are being reborn via political recomposition, the Tories are dropping to bits. They're decomposing and their politics haunted by phantoms. The material base for a Tory Thatcherite strategy just isn't there. They're knackered.

The question for Mark and the LibDems is not to look on with bemusement, but to figure out how they can stay afloat during the political squeeze. Rebranding as Remainia Central hasn't got much to show for it, so what to do?

Sunday 26 November 2017

Supporting Momentum's Pledges

There's a great way of spotting nincompoops in the Labour Party, and that's by dropping a story about Momentum in the press. News that Momentum is backing candidates for internal selections have moved some into incandescent rage. "No way am I signing up to outsource my thinking to a third party organisation", wibbled Wes Streeting. Our friend Mike Gapes predictably joined in with "I did not sign up to a Trotskyist party or a Stalinist cult.". Such fury, much anger. If only this pair tweeted as passionately about what the Tories are doing to their least fortunate constituents.

This is the latest standard tussle with the decaying remnants of the Labour right. They can't go for the leader, so they show their gratitude for the extra votes won back in June (9K and 10k more in the case of Streeting and Gapes) by attacking proxies instead - shadow cabinet members, staff in the leader's office, Momentum itself, we've seen it before and we'll see it again. Regardless of how stupid it makes them and those who cling to their coat tails look.

And they do look stupid. As we're in selection season, Momentum is expecting people who want its backing to sign up to a series of straight forward and non-controversial pledges, which include implementing Labour's manifesto should we form the next government. This is hardly too much to ask for. After all, when Richard Angell rings up Progress candidates before they head into their selection meeting, odds are he's confident they're not going to be tabling the nationalisation of the top 100 monopolies any time soon. If candidates don't want Momentum's assistance to help out their selection, that's their decision. In other words, it's another non-story kicked up by those who still have yet to develop a political critique of Corbynism, let alone a narrative explaining why they're kicking around their dog days - with further marginalisation to come.

Among the dross was this bobbins from Mike Creighton. Any piece whose summing up begins with "The revolutionary vanguard must step back from dictating who may or may not be a Labour Party candidate ..." is not politically serious, but the earnestness with which it was treated by sundry Progress-y types, former apparatchiks (like Mike himself), and others who think the democratic remaking of the Labour Party by its mass membership is a Jolly Bad Thing means we have to take a look. Their inability to argue the politics is worked up here into an ulcerous bulge of whingeing. Mike's piece is entitled 'Not in accord with the rules', but fails to make the argument that Momentum's plan to support candidates is, um, not in accord with the rules. He starts with the cessation of direct individual sponsorship of MPs by trade unions in the mid-90s, before going off on one about revolutionary vanguards. Okay, this sponsorship ceased in name but continued in practice as unions or, as was much more common in the era Mike presumably pines for, companies could and did subsidise parliamentary operations with donations to it and/or the secondment of staff. Readers might recall Tom Watson's office getting a huge wedge from Max Mosley, for instance. That said, this isn't even what Momentum is offering. If you sign up and Momentum agrees to back you (which isn't a foregone process, it won't accept any old), it will support your selection by, perhaps, helping out with selection literature and mobilise its not inconsiderable database in your support.

Still, Mike should get a slap on his back for moving from nudge, nudge, wink, wink bad faith to explicit honesty. The reason he says, and by extension his PLP co-thinkers, are scared is because the Momentum juggernaut threatens to roll them over. Come selection time MPs who've made a name for themselves entirely out of their opposition to Labour's leadership, and therefore its membership face a very difficult time. They're not going to get the Momentum nomination, and so their berths are under threat. And so everything must be done now to stop them, which in Mike's case involves a few lines begging Momentum to not mobilise its people to select people whose views are more aligned to the massed legions of Labour people.

It's quite simple, really. Majorities have the right to be majorities. For the Labour Party to succeed it must carry on down the road it has travelled since Jeremy's election. It has to and is going back to its roots and consolidate and cohere the class interests that are powering our movement for that is the only way to power. It means we need candidates and Parliamentarians prepared to stand up for them. If there are Labour MPs not prepared to, then they should make room for those who are. Momentum are therefore entirely right to introduce a pledge.

Theorising Feminist Transphobia

Transphobia is obviously bigotry. The only difference between it and sexism, racism, homophobia et al are the numbers it effects; trans women and and trans men are only a tiny proportion of people. Albeit one that attracts a hugely disproportionate amount of interest, anxiety and hate. That a section of the feminist movement prefers to go along with rather than challenge it is a sad state of affairs, but prejudice is never unknowable. It makes sense to people who articulate and act on it, and therefore it behooves all progressive people to try and understand those positions all the better to oppose them. In the case of feminism, why then does transphobia have a not insubstantial following?

1. The primary cause of transphobia and its lethal enforcers are men. Trans women, like cis women, are the victims of men's violence. These men are in the grip of the fragility of angsty, insecure, hysterical masculinities. Trans women are on the spectrum of women who refuse and resist the sex/gender systems underpinning (decomposing) patriarchal social relations and disproportionately suffer the abuse and murder meted out for deviation. Exposing, harrying, opposing any and all expressions of misogyny has to be a central plank of any socialist movement, and comrades who are men have a special responsibility in ensuring this happens. Similarly, solidarity with victims and survivors of patriarchal violence should be extended without question or condition.

2. The emergence of transphobia with a feminist twist is not a new thing, nor is it something that stems entirely from having wrong ideas. Feminism as a body of theory is the abstract rendering of women's history, experience and struggle, and shifts in its development is less a result of theoretical innovations and more the shifting being of women that makes new directions in feminism possible. All of its schools of thought, the celebrated/maligned trinity of liberal, socialist/Marxist and radical feminism and what has come since captures minds because theory itself has captured experience. It follows that problems and difficulties emerging within feminism are less a matter of epistemological nicety, and are more rooted in the practice of the women's movement of being at the sharp end of patriarchal power, men's violence, and gendered inequalities. Feminist transphobia, like its patriarchal bigger brother, has material roots.

3. According to Janice Raymond's The Transsexual Empire, trans women represent patriarchal agents within the women's movement. In plainer language, she argues they are men who have surgically altered their bodies to become simulacra of woman's bodies, but that does not make them women. The socialisation of being brought up male, along with its myriad entitlements, privileges, expectations, and complicity in the reproduction of patriarchal social relationships remains. Therefore the acceptance of trans women runs the risk of constituting an alien presence within the women's movement. Women only spaces, which played a central role in the elaboration of second wave feminist theory and practice, were a successful means of condensing women's experience because of shared oppression. Latterly, while most feminists who subscribing to views similar to Raymond would recognise that trans women also face violence and oppression, their particular concerns and the modalities of that oppression coupled with retained masculine behaviours should disrupt women's only spaces. Trans women's concerns are not cis women's concerns, and their inclusion would jeopardise the articulation of cis women's experience, the strengthening of cis women's solidarity, and the elaboration of feminism by an (inevitable) privileging of the former over the latter. Similarly, trans men are following individual routes out of being on the receiving end of patriarchy by adopting the physical form of the dominant gender and seeking to participate in the privileges this confers.

4. Feminism, at least its radical and revolutionary variants, aims toward the abolition of patriarchy, which itself is inseparable from the conscious surpassing of gender. That is there will still be human beings we understand now as in possession of female and male bodies, but this has no bearing on the kinds of people they are or the human subjects that might populate the (post-scarcity) society of the future. The bodies of trans men and trans women, from this perspective, are opposed to the problematisation, destabilisation and eventual transcendence of gendered subjectivities. The common personal narrative of being one gender trapped in the body of the other not only, paradoxically, reinforces essentialist assumptions about gender but reconfirms the gender binary in the transition process. This is further reinforced by the medical regulation of transitioning, of making surgery publicly available only if a number of gendered hoops are jumped through, chief of which is living as your chosen gender for a year. How is that determined? The most common (medical) expectation is a persistent fealty to norms for one's chosen gender. Hence why patriarchy suffers anxiety around trans women in particular, because for many men it muddies the homosexual taboo by their becoming desirable objects vis a vis the straight male gaze. Nevertheless, feminist transphobia could easily tell it to chill its beans: the binarism underpinning its self-definition and articulation of power is reinforced the very moment it is traversed.

5. Since feminism's re-emergence in the 1960s, it has mounted a powerful critique of the marketing of femininity. It is therefore unsurprising, given its record of attacking and criticising the rise and prevalence of the cosmetic industry that some extend this to the "gender industry". For instance, the current preoccupation with children who identify as trans are taken as examples of a branch of medicine taking hold of infant gender confusion, and medicalising them as dysphoric and in need of treatment, which may involve elective surgery later in life. Before this takes place there's the battery of counselling services (for child and parents), non-invasive interventions like puberty blockers, regular progress appointments and so on. In effect, they're manufacturing patients for the clinical and non-clinical services they dispense. It serves to uphold gender binarism and turn a profit, in the same way markets geared around the feminine offer solutions to inessential problems like wonky noses and hairy bodies. The gender industry offers medical salvation, and an individual one at that, when the political response to gender non-conformism is to push for looser markers of gender, of new ways of being women and men, up to the abolition of gender itself.

6. All movements of resistance have some form of identity location, or singularity which is simultaneously a site of oppression and location for resistance. In feminism, that has been the location/subject 'woman'. This was and remains a key site of theoretical elaboration by feminist scholars and activists, and the discussion and debates over the last 30 years about feminism's subject/agency is some of the most sophisticated and important work ever accomplished by radical social theory. In the broad sweep of theoretical movement, woman-as-subject has gone from a singular to a multi-vocal, complex subject. i.e. While the second wave of feminism laid claim to women's experience, the movement began fragmenting just as the new right/neoliberalism rose to prominence during the late 70s/early 80s. These schisms were spearheaded by feminists for whom the second wave, they felt, did not adequately interrogate its assumptions. Was the woman of feminism black? Working class? A lesbian? A mother? For proponents of these positions, they felt their experiences and therefore contributions to feminism were sidelined and marginalised. Fast forward to the present and we have a generational split between the second wave and what is largely grouped under the third wave label, which dates from the early-mid 1990s. The latter is explicitly concerned with all women's experiences and seeks to articulate them, which includes trans women, and is characterised by inclusion and an interest in the individual. Those who don't criticise the third wave for incoherence and (whisper it) depoliticisation, and implicitly hold to a more politically restricted version of 'woman' that the third wave rejects.

7. Feminist transphobia is a marketable commodity in the comment marketplace. I have little doubt advocates genuinely hold their views, but neither can the economics be denied. Magazines and websites need unique selling point for expanding social media reach and growing clickthroughs. Attacking trans people, condemning them as dopes of a gender industry, it's all grist to the mill grinding out kerching. That so many transphobic commentators are liberal feminists is no accident. It is the identity work of the relatively privileged that sees to the exclusion of trans women along with other "undesirable" women that, not entirely coincidentally, buttresses their own status. This is the feminism excited by Jeremy Corbyn's appointments, but is indifferent to the disproportionate impacts on (working class) women of the cuts to social security its proponents have previously advocated.

8. Feminist transphobia also has roots in anxiety. The internet is littered with examples and complaints of "cotton ceiling", that is the posing of trans women as cis lesbians to seduce cis lesbians. There are allegations and rumours of lesbians being guilt-tripped into sex with trans women, testimony of social media attacks and harassment of feminists who criticise this behaviour. There are also the moves to no-platform prominent feminists who, at best, are trans critical, the deploying of TERF as an insult and a means of dehumanising opponents, and, on rare occasions, physical attacks. In the context of feminist critiques of masculinity, these behaviours are no different, qualitatively speaking, than cis men and their sexual targeting, bullying, and intimidation of women. Anxiety also helps explain why feminist transphobia can assume the most bigoted and spiteful forms, such as dead naming trans women, routinely referring to trans women as 'he', dog whistling the dangers trans women supposedly pose cis women. The result is a shoring up of a particular kind of identity/agency location increasingly out of step with the world, and therefore useless (and damaging) from the point of view of progressive social change.

These hopefully help the getting to grips with feminist transphobia, and presented here are some points that may aid its critique. There is no reason why, for instance, the existence of trans men and trans women should reinforce the gender binary, especially when the performance and resistance of gendered practices vary as much among trans as they do among cis people. Indeed, by arguing that treatment/surgery should not take place isn't one upholding the binarism by forcing people to inhabit the gendered bodies they received? Additionally, the existence of a gender industry no more delegitimises trans people than the gay men's health care "industry" (or the so-called pink pound) does gay men. Yes, both try and produce subjects of particular kinds, but all institutions and constellations of institutions do so, sometimes for profit. So what? Furthermore, some elements of second wave feminism are exclusionary of women, and there remains perspectives that criticise BDSM lesbians, butch lesbians, indulge bi-erasure and critique bisexuality, and of course, there is the small fringe of lesbian separatism. The difficulties some feminists have with trans women are inseparable from identity border wars, but simultaneously newer generations of feminists view these feuds as old hat and irrelevant to the main job of critiquing and opposing patriarchy and capitalism.

Image Credit

Friday 24 November 2017

A Flock of Seagulls - I Ran

No blogging this evening, but there's always time for top tunes.

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Hammond's Excruciating Budget

Philip Hammond has a reputation for being a bit boring, and true to form his budget was a snorefest. It was almost as if he intentionally tried sending the chamber to sleep before forced to break the grim news: growth forecasts down, productivity down, borrowing up, and sticking with the cuts to government departments already programmed in. The dismal jokes reflected the dismal budget well. Though, as Westminster watchers should know by now, the measures outlined today had very little to do with the needs of the economy and addressing its problems. But we'll come on to that in a moment.

This was certainly no omnishambles budget, a feat Hammond's predecessor achieved on two occasions, but it was an embarrassment nonetheless. Arriving on the BBC News website this afternoon, visitors witnessed the chancellor's big splash: the abolition of stamp duty for first time buyers for houses under £300,000 and some sort of relief for the first £300k for purchases over that amount. It quickly disappeared. On the surface this is a nice little bung for layers who've scraped together enough for a deposit to join Britain's property owning democracy, but the whole thing was shredded within moments. According to the Office of Budget Responsibility, the quango Tory chancellors are normally happy to hail, the abolition of stamp duty is likely to stimulate demand over supply, leading to an increase in house prices (there is, after all, nothing here to incentivise house builders to get building more) and therefore benefiting existing home owners. That these disproportionately vote Tory is, I'm sure, a coincidence. However, Hammond can relax. His proposed measure won't overheat the housing market because the OBR estimates only an extra 3,500 purchases because of it. What a farce, a "surprise" flagship policy falling flat at the first step. Still, these are the people who brought us the dementia tax.

Apart from the eyecatching headline, this was a no change budget. A bit more cash for the NHS (not enough, of course), money put aside for Brexit, some tinkering with council tax, more dosh thrown at the Tories' peculiar maths obsession, but nothing substantial. No huge new cuts were announced, but then again they didn't need to be. They'll be going on under the radar as the Tories carry on gutting the institutional and social infrastructure of the country. And they wonder why the productivity figures are so rubbish.

None of this should surprise anyone. Any expectations Hammond was to row back on austerity or indulge the perversions of Thatcherite fetishists were naive in extremis. This is because the budget was a politically determined budget. The only feature of any permanence in the government presently is instability, of a balance between all the factions that want to see Theresa May gone versus their not wanting their opponents to take the prize, and so paralysis and timidity is the practice, chaos and fractiousness the display. The problem is May's foolish reappointment of Michael Gove to the cabinet has proven to be a destabilising force. Not only have he and Johnson "unexpectedly" sunk their differences, they're throwing their weight about. As the cloud continues hanging over Damian Green, the press were helpfully tipped off that May was considering bringing back William Hague to replace him. Within 24 hours and reflecting the new balance, Gove's name was now in the frame. Therefore Hammond, one of the ministers Gove and Johnson no doubt had in mind when accusing unnamed others of not enthusiastically embracing their Brexit idiocy, needed something more or less acceptable to all sides of the Tory party. That meant tinkering with no bold moves, no retreats on public sector pay or social security (changing the Universal Credit waiting time from six to five weeks for new applicants is hardly a climb down), and nothing that could paint it a Brexiting or Remainia budget. By playing safe and not pleasing anybody Hammond managed to please everybody. There was no pretext for any faction to make a move, and this unpopular chancellor gets to keep his job for a while longer - and so does his nominal boss.

This is nothing new. From austerity to the Scottish independence referendum. Through Brexit to the general election earlier this year, the actual requirements of economy and society have come a poor second to the immediate interests of this gang of dysfunctional poltroons. Whether bestriding the political stage or cowering before a hostile audience, the Tories are prepared to inflict incredible damage for their position and their profits. After all, they don't have to pay for it. Unfortunately, the political torture they're suffering is scant comfort for those on the sharp end of their vindictive, penny pinching policies. History will come to condemn them, but posterity won't ease the misery they dispense.

Tuesday 21 November 2017

On Stoke-on-Trent's Homeless Tax

Last week I was asked why nothing had appeared on this blog lately about Stoke-on-Trent. And you know what, it's because not a great many interesting things have gone on. Yes, Stoke South was one of the few Labour places that fell to the Tories at the general election, and in Stoke North and Central there were contractions in the majorities. All of which are, in my view, the expression of the geographic distribution of the polarisation we're seeing that's characterising the shape of British politics at the moment. But politics-wise, things were quite settled. The Tory-led coalition on the council hadn't made any egregious missteps, certainly nothing to get the local paper and broadcast media in a flap, and things are looking better round and about. More of those brown field sites are getting filled in, more businesses are opening up up Hanley (i.e. the city centre for non-Stokies), and all in all the memory of being at the centre of the universe earlier this year has faded.

What of note has happened before these last couple of days? Our two remaining city Labour MPs, Gareth Snell and Ruth Smeeth, have loudly banged the drum for Stoke and took a lead in persuading the government to move Channel 4 to the Potteries. An excellent idea that proper caught the local Tories on the hop, with Jack Brereton, the temporary tenant in Stoke South forced belatedly to get in on the action - though I understand Deputy Council Leader Abi Brown has let it be known she thought of it first and wrote to the Department of Media, Culture and Sport over the summer. Of course she did.

And there is the City of Culture bid, something the council is taking seriously and has splashed out quite a bit of cash pushing it. As we've noted before, thanks to the cuts foisted on local authorities many make perverse spending decisions. Cutting services while blowing cash on champagne receptions and glossy flyers is something all councils do as they play the regeneration game. As the local government grant continues to shrink and council tax rises capped, lost revenues must be made up somehow, and the Tories' preferred option (since Dave) is for local authority areas to compete for inward investment and generate monies via business rates. This is with a view to scrapping the block grant in its entirety, and with the consequence of deepening free market fundamentalism and a boot straps approach in town and county halls. What happens to those areas that can't compete? Hard lines and hard times, of course. In the absence of a mass movement contesting and harrying austerity, like most other councils Stoke has no choice but to transfer wealth from what is left of localised social security into the pockets of marketing people and regen consultants. After all, Hull looks like it has come out well from their experience.

On the surface it seems to be going well, but look underneath you see the legs frantically working away, but in opposite directions. Consider this. In the recent past the City Council was regularly criticised for adopting an authoritarian approach to things, a criticism the Tories and City Independents were happy to weaponise when it suited. And now? Basically, the City of Culture bid is held in a tight grip by senior officers and the leading lights of the Conservative group. They're not interested in having Labour MPs, Labour councillors or, for that matter, even City Indies, their own allies on the council anywhere near the bid. Fair enough you might say, politics is politics, but they extend this attitude to other "stakeholder" organisations they're supposed to be partnering with. Everything is super centralised via Abi Brown and chief executive David Sidaway. They're not interested in receiving help from others except on their own terms, and are totally uninterested in allowing them to show a bit of initiative. This came to a farcical head early in the Autumn. Jack Brereton, who remains a city councillor, used his Parliamentary offices to set up a reception at Westminster to push the Stoke bid. Between him and the council leadership they organised a soirée for the great and the good and, well, no one thought it might be an idea to invite anyone other than the people already involved in the bid. And so the council, its officers, MPs, reps from Stoke organisations enjoyed a reception talking and networking entirely among themselves. Time and money well spent, I'm sure you'd agree. Meanwhile, when Coventry MPs hosted their rival shindig they made good care to invite and bring along a wide range of MPs and metro media luvvie types. And so the Tories' vainglory, the obsession of Abi Brown and friends to leave something other than a legacy of miserable cuts behind sees them recklessly steering the bid into the ground.

If that wasn't idiot enough for you, it turns out our coalition council has plenty in reserve. It's the time of year again for councils to start letting the public know about their upcoming budget proposals. Again, while the government blows hot and cold over austerity there's no reprieve for councils like Stoke. On the list this time is scrapping HIV care and support, cuts to adult social care (despite applying the one per cent addition to council tax for ... funding adult social care), and a reduction of support to homeless services. As Mohammed Pervez, Labour group leader rightly points out, reducing the provision of service leads to greater service demand in the long run. Cuts to social care only displaces people from council-run services to NHS services. Bed blocking, anyone? Not to worry, in response to possible concerns Cllr Dan Jellyman, the council chamber's resident speak-your-Daily-Mail-headline-machine and nominal holder of the regen portfolio said "Important to note £1 after 3pm on council car parks is not changing under these proposals." With a wave of calamity and personal crisis about to crash over the city's already-stretched services, it's good to see Dan allaying fears on the issues that matter.

What's this got to do with the City of Culture bid? Among the proposals is the Tory/CIndie/UKIP desire to socially cleanse Hanley. There's nothing wrong with wanting to see the back end of homelessness, but quite another applying that attitude to homeless people. Their wheeze? A homeless tax. The council wants to draw up a protection order to make it an offence to erect and occupy a tent in the city centre and adjoining districts. Non-compliance makes one liable for a £100 fine. In other words, if someone camps down for the night in the exclusion zone, it has to be in a sleeping bag or some other arrangement. A little bit of extra protection from the elements a tent might afford is bang out of order. In its defence, the council bizarrely argues it's "not targeting" rough sleepers. As Hanley is not a noted centre for rowdy recreational urban camping, I declare bullshit.

In its own terms, it's bound to fail. How many homeless folks around Hanley have £100 to stump up for this punitive Tory tax? And when they don't pay, subsequent fines can escalate to £500, £1,000 and a court appearance. All it does is manufactures debt to be written off at the end of the financial year (some three million is routinely classed as unrecoverable by the council), and certainly won't do anything to help homeless people out. But then these aren't the kind of people we can have seen shuffling down our repaved streets and reflected in the windows of the trendy new eateries up Piccadilly, nor are the Tories and CIndies interested in the less fortunate beyond point scoring.

Here's the problem for the Tories and their clueless, hapless allies. Not only is their homeless tax stupid and petty minded. Not only will it help make homeless people's lives more of a misery, it's not a good look either. By initiating this tax they run the risk of making Stoke-on-Trent look a mean-spirited and vindictive place that thinks its most vulnerable citizens are fair game for social policies straight out of a Dickens novel. Stoke is in the process of shedding its reputation as a backward, racist place thanks to past associations with the BNP and UKIP only for the Tories to rebrand the Potteries a compassion-free void, an amoral blot on the North Staffordshire landscape. When all is said and done is a council, is a city prepared to victimise homeless people this way a fit and proper host for the City of Culture? I doubt it very much, and I'm pretty sure the judging panel would agree.

Sunday 19 November 2017

The Slow Return of Scottish Labour

Our Kez's departure to the jungle occasions Scottish Labour's tentative return from the wilderness. Coincidence? You couldn't plan it better. Richard Leonard's victory is another welcome step forward in the transformation of the party. Not only does the Corbyn majority on the NEC increase by one (another case of Labour right machinations coming back to bite them), but we now have a leftwing leader in what has historically been the bastion of everything rotten in the party. For example, remember this story? Yup, Scottish Labour.

While the victory for the left is getting hailed as decisive, there is still much to do - as the voting figures attest. In the trade union section, Richard won by a huge margin - some 77% vs 23% for Anas Sarwar, former Blairist darling and, until yesterday, one of the few hopes the Labour right had left. The membership is slightly trickier: 52% vs 48%. A majority but hardly a sweeping one, and a result that might not have happened had Unite not recruited from among its own membership. Nevertheless, if Richard is planning to clean house - and if there's an organisation that does need swilling down, it's Scottish Labour - the task will be a tough one, though having the unions largely on side certainly helps matters.

What then did Scottish Labour end up voting for? Richard's pitch is recognisably left wing, albeit well within the envelope of Labourism. There's the pledge to prioritise tackling poverty, promoting equality, a pledge to coordinate health strategy across departments and working with the NHS to drive down health inequalities, a move toward rent controls and a house building promise, the decentralisation of power and strengthening of local government, investment in renewables, recovering the universal as opposed to the residual welfare state, and an industrial strategy that would include a programme of nationalisations and the right to worker buy outs. It's a good start that (obviously) requires more work, but is certainly consistent with Corbynist politics everywhere else and offers a decent left alternative to the SNP. As the Scottish government have amply demonstrated, it's one thing to talk left but quite another to follow through. However, quite conspicuous in this list was the complete absence of Brexit and the national question. I suppose this can be justified in terms of driving the political contest around core Labour values, where Anas was weak thanks to his political baggage and questions over his family's firm, but as the SNP have clear positions on these issues Labour needs a firm line too. Should Scotland try for its own special Brexit deal in defiance of the UK government? What relationship should Scotland have with the rest of the UK? On these crucial issues there is nothing, thus far. But still, this is a much stronger position from which to take back Scottish support and Scottish seats, especially when you consider how awful matters were previously.

One of the biggest challenges facing Scottish Labour is overcoming unionism. I don't mean the idea Scotland is best served by continuing its voluntary union with the UK, but unionism as a set of political dispositions, as a semi-passive movement and body of opinion among (mostly older) layers of Scottish society. Why? The 2017 general election tells us why. Labour managed to return seven MPs to Westminster, which is a better result than anyone dared hope for. But the method of doing so spells future doom for the party, unless it changes track. Incredibly, unbelievably after the debacle of the Better Together campaign at the 2014 referendum and the 2015 obliteration someone, somewhere in the Scottish party thought the key to success was another de facto alliance with the Tories, thereby doubling down on the very strategies that pitched Scottish Labour into the quagmire. Labour, along with the Ruth Davidson party and the Liberal Democrats formed a pro-unionist, anti-nationalist front to beat back the SNP. It certainly worked with all three parties gaining seats most thought were lost for a generation. But all told, what did it amount to for Labour? A mere 10,000 extra votes.

The composition of unionism is much the same as vectors of pro-establishment and right wing opinion down south. It's mostly old, mostly retired, mostly clustered in declining occupational categories, is riddled with angst and insecurity and mostly receptive to political doom saying. Small wonder it disproportionately fell in behind the Tories in June. Meanwhile, the base of 2014's Yes movement and of the SNP generally is entirely different. It's more than former Labour voters annoyed at our party's hapless record since Holyrood was founded. No, what is powering them are the very same networked/socialised workers making their presence felt via the Labour Party south of the border. Except in Scotland, thanks to Scottish Labour simultaneously being a) a chief prop of the UK establishment, and b) a rotten husk a million miles away from the people who it was set up to represent. The alliance with the Tories in the Better Together campaign revealed the party to be venal, compromised, and a vehicle for interests that would do over the constituentcies who are supposed to be its people. And so the opportunity for something different to the dreary, exhausting status quo of cuts and dog-eat-dog presented itself and, unsurprisingly, many would-be Labour supporters voted Yes and switched to the SNP. It's not rocket science.

The polarisation of politics we're seeing now, of two solid immovable blocks cohering behind Labour and the Tories applies in Scotland also. Except there it finds itself expressed in nationalism vs unionism. Labour under Our Kez, with much urging from the dysfunctional party establishment and its anti-Corbyn friends in the south, had adopted a strategy that steered it away from the constituency that pushed Labour to a better-than-expected election result. By forging tactical alliances with, to be frank, our class enemies it alienated this support and firmed it up behind the SNP. This effectively boxes Labour in to a three-way fight with the Tories and LibDems over an ageing, declining coalition of voters. Sticking to them exclusively, which is the Labour unionist establishment's preferred option, is tantamount to slow suicide.

For Scottish Labour to overcome its legacy of decrepitude and cretinism it needs to speak to the interests that has made Corbynism a contender for government. It does not need to start embracing Scottish nationalism, which would look opportunistic and desperate anyway, but must understand what is happening to Scottish society, understand that a great deal of the SNP's support is soft and not essentially nationalistic, and begin making political overtures to win them over. Pleasingly, Richard's association with Corbynism and his platform is a beginning in this regard, but it's only a beginning.

Friday 17 November 2017

Wednesday 15 November 2017

The Basic Income and the Cult of Work

If you have the kind of job like, say Chuka Umunna, you might not want to see the end of work. You get a hefty salary, you are the boss of your own office, you're respected by your peers and considered to be someone who matters, and nice long breaks help punctuate life at Westminster. If, on the other hand, your experience of work is a life of drudge, humiliation and insecurity there's a very good chance your views might differ. The majority of people who work might like the routine and structure a work day gives them. It might confer a sense of purpose and provide a social life, but at the end of it most people wouldn't do what they do if they didn't have to. Millions of people work simply because they have no choice.

We live in a society that makes a fetish out of work. One's trajectory through the education system is (supposedly) guided by getting a decent job at the end of it. People's engagement with social security is supposed to be a temporary thing with the object of throwing them back into the workplace at the earliest opportunity. And if people aren't working, they're feckless and bone idle and made to feel that way - never mind how unemployment always exceeds the number of vacancies. And you know what? It's all so bloody unnecessary. While there are people without jobs, plenty of those with them are overworked. Work time too often bleeds into home time as work loads are impossible to manage as task piles upon task. Or at any time the phone threatens to go with a "request" to come in, shattering your free time and reminding you your time is their largesse. Too many workplaces are permanently short staffed, and the experience of work is a dizzying affair of plate spinning and routine. Life isn't for enjoyment, it's a treadmill for countless millions who realise when they reach retirement that they're too knackered or too ill to do the things they always wished to. Life is far too short to be spent and bent in involuntary servitude, especially when work can be planned and shared out equitably.

I wasn't surprised to find Chuka's much trailed opposition to the basic income couched as a defence of the cult of work. Nor that his argument is virtually identical to criticisms previously ventured by Yvette Cooper. That doesn't mean it isn't irritating, or won't be taken seriously in some quarters. But seriously, just look at the state of it. Nonsense about basic income meaning people living off the state, living vacuous, purposeless lives, of "giving up" on creating new jobs, it's a miserable exercise in how impoverished the political imagination can become. For instance, in the coming wave of automation,

Work could become more fulfilling. In the new economy our most valuable asset will be human beings. We have emotional intelligence and perception, and the capacity to create, empathise, persuade and reason in abstract ways. We can make imaginative leaps, and we have intuition. In the new economy what will have added value is what is devalued today – the emotional labour of caring, communicating, creating and connecting.

As if all this is dependent on the archaic compulsion of exchanging our capacity to labour for wages or a salary. Technology should not be deployed to create more bullshit jobs so more people can spend their best years doing meaningless, socially useless tasks. It should be deployed to reduce the working week, to spread the wealth we create, and to make us free from the necessity of waged labour. The future has to be something better than a human being chained to a desk, forever. And it totally can be.

What the basic income offers is a guaranteed, no-strings income to all. If money means freedom and choice, this is exactly what it confers. It allows people the choice to spend their time engaged in socially productive voluntary work or to sit at home and play video games. People have the freedom to indulge their passions. They can engage in entrepreneurial activity without the risk of ruin, as individuals, small partnerships or cooperative ventures. They are free to dip in and out of the education system, and do so without having studying time eaten up by work. And likewise, people can retire early from work, raise a family, attend to full-time caring without worry and insecurity. We know a basic income can do this, because trials prove it.

Yes, there are basic incomes and basic incomes. It has its fans on the right as well as the left. For the former, informed as it is by Californian tech-bro libertarianism, establishing a basic income allows for the abolition of social security and a whole bunch of liabilities companies shell out for. The basic income is a way of socialising risk, and helping support a population while Silicon Valley capital parasites off its data. Others favour pitching the basic income at a very low level so it doesn't intrude on work incentives. i.e. The necessity of working. Left approaches to basic income should reject both and pitch it at a level that allows for a comfortable life that reproduces human beings in all their material, social and cultural complexity.

Would this present a capitalist economy severe difficulties of adaptation? Absolutely, but then we're supposed to be in the business of moving beyond markets and artificial scarcity. If capital wants to survive, it would have to transform the nature of work entirely. Without compulsion, suddenly the (potential) worker has the upper hand in the capital/labour relationship. Capital would have no choice but to innovate and automate as much as it possibly can, because to attract employees, wages, which would truly become compensation for people's time, would have to be much higher than they are presently. The conditions of work would have to be better. Work would have to become more rewarding and enriching. And, who knows, because work would be done by people who want to be there perhaps it might be a more pleasant experience all round. Meanwhile the rest of society would move away from the commercial imperative, experiment with new ways of organising things, and as everyone has a guaranteed good standard of living may decide to consign money itself to the museums.

It's this, ultimately, which underpins the hostility Chuka and his friends have toward the basic income. Theirs is not a pragmatic acceptance of studies that prove work is good for you but a deep seated fear that the principle of a basic income, once established and practiced, is something that works against the very logics of compulsion and class struggle capitalism is dependent on. And that is reason enough to support it.

Tuesday 14 November 2017

The Economics of Polarisation

There are other things I want to say about the polarisation of British politics, and as this builds on arguments made in an earlier post I recommend reading it first. Okay, so we know the situation. We have a car crash of a government that makes the Major years at their worst look like a model of good governance. All kinds of awful has happened since the botched election in June, not least of which is permanent chaos. The vile episode that saw Johnson and Gove ignorantly impugn the innocence of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, risking her an extra five years in prison being the lowest depths to which they and this government have crawled. And yet the Tories persistently knock about the polls in the 38-41% range. How to explain this situation?

As we saw previously, the Tories assembled an otherwise formidable electoral coalition by polling day in June. They are in along-term decline, being as they are comprised of declining constituencies of mainly older voters, but they're sticking with the Tories. There's no breaking away or leakage beyond an almost imperceptible trickle. What would do the business? Given the electoral collapse of UKIP during the campaign with about two thirds of its vote flowing to the Tories, it's probably fair to say a Brexit betrayal would excite them all again and see them spin back to kippery. Hence why the silly games playing with the exact date and time of Brexit, and Gove and Johnson issuing transitional deal ultimatums. Yet there is another, more powerful force helping keep the base of the coalition solid: the economics.

This only makes sense if you dispense with the received technical definition of economics. They are numbers on a spreadsheet, but these are representations of so much more. Economics are social relationships, whether face-to-face or at a distance, fleeting or sustained. They are the dispensing and hoarding of property, the exchanges of equivalences, the maskings of exploitation, the confluence, conflict and antagonism of interests, and much else. Historically it is an expansive understanding of economics the Tories have proved masters at selling to coalitions of voters and what made them the most successful party of all the established liberal democracies. They did so by combining the selfish with the selfless, or what is known as egotropic and sociotropic voting. As you might guess from the terms, the former refers to self-interest and the latter the wider interest - usually filtered in terms of how well the British economy is doing as measured by GDP, employment, inflation and so on. The Tories strike a balance by combining this with promises and dire warnings.

Take Thatcherism, as Stuart Hall noted in his masterful The Hard Road to Renewal collection, the ground for what happened in the 1980s was prepared by networks of authoritarian and reactionary movements, an ideological softening up by the press and their narrative of national decline, and as ever, a scapegoating of immigrants and minorities. Plus ca change. Thatcher was able to cloak her programme of class war in the red, white and blue of national renaissance. Closing state-run industries was a matter of shutting lame ducks, shrinking the public sector and allowing more scope for tax cuts. That the rich primarily benefited was hidden by made-up absurdities like the Laffer Curve and trickle down, that giving them more cash would see them spread the wealth through entrepreneurial activity. Privatisation wasn't sold as the looting of the public realm for the well-heeled, but introducing millions of small investors to the joys of share ownership. Selling off the council houses to tenants was all about creating a bedrock of owner occupiers who'd gratefully turn out for Maggie. All the time, this programme was positioned as the natural expression of individuality, and it solidified a coalition that saw three consecutively successful Tory defences of their Parliamentary majority. Forward to 2010 and 2015, Dave brazenly went for the carrot and stick approach, promising a land of milk and honey if he was allowed an axe to swing at public spending (which would, miraculously, repair the damage left by the 2008 crash) - the trick was to not let Labour wreck it with their coalition of chaos with the SNP and sundries. Dave's programme was relentlessly negative, but understood that insulating older voters from austerity, at least where their income was concerned, was key. This was a lesson lost on May, but her talk of one-nationism very briefly opened up the possibility of new hegemonic project that recuperated austerity weariness, allied to economic competence with Ed Milibandish characteristics. Each of these phases of modern Toryism were first and foremost about protecting the interests they've always protected, but also speaking to and acting as responsible custodians of the economy in the eyes of the Tory-inclined.

What does economic competence look like right now? The keeping down of prices, the freezing of taxes, the protection of pensions, the stoking of an over-heated housing market on the egotropic side. For the "selfless" side it has to be economic growth, growing employment (never mind these are quarter or half jobs arrived at by carving up full-time roles), and a sense everything is chugging along. It means an absence of danger. This is exactly what a Jez government represents. Labour would undo everything, not least the Tory consensus on taxes and property, and sell out mighty Britannia to the Bolshevist bureaucrats across the Channel. This demonstrates the clever move of Toryism: their politics simultaneously sells security and insecurity. Their carrot is a better future for you and your family, a life of work and self-reliance rewarded with rising living standards. But all this can be taken away by personal failure or by Labour governments. In this context, the Tory approach to employment and how it systematically produces and reproduces economic insecurity makes a lot of sense. Bootstraps self-reliance in austere circumstances are recipes for atomisation and, if they think they have something to lose, anxiety. As always, it's worth noting it's not the poor who feel this most acutely. The Tories, despite being the authors of policies that exacerbate economic ill-feeling are able to rally some of it as support for certainties, like flags, the nation, and authoritarian leaders. Theresa May single-mindedly went with strong and stable for a reason.

Here's the clever thing. This constitution of Tory support as an economic bloc of (perceived) shared interests isn't just about the defining and aligning of shared frames, it is done so in a series of active oppositions, of locating their interests against others, of creating a constituency and perfoming as if in opposition to other constituencies and coalitions of voters. For example, the property-owning voters created by Thatcher have a direct stake in rising property values, and this depends on restricting supply. For the landlord strata, depressing the number of first-time buyers ensures a large pool of renters exist, as well as a supply of housing they get first dabs on. Conversely insecure working makes getting on the housing ladder impossible and thereby feeds into the rental market. Austerity, then as now, makes cuts and passes any savings on in terms of tax cuts. For all the trumpeting around taking the low paid out of tax, every rise of the threshold benefits middling and wealthy tax payers too - though this is sold as punishing the feckless and undeserving poor. Their sustained engagement with public services depends on industrial peace, and so the organisations of working people - unions - are justifiably kept on a leash. The health of pension pots and small investments demands governments keep their hands off corporate profits. And they are actively positioned as a constituency by repeat right wing editorialising against the generation coming up. You know the nonsense about Generation Snowflake, their obsession with celebrity (cynically cultivated by the self-same media interests), their queering approach to gender and sexuality, their free easiness with a diverse and changing Britain, their addiction to phones, their lack of patriotism and entitlement; these serve to invite comparisons with themselves, the gritty post-war generation who came up through the school of hard knocks, and are deployed to rationalise the young's much less secure existence as tough love. Crap work, low pay, poor housing, few prospects, this is the just desserts for a spoilt cohort of kids who don't even know they've been born. It's class conflict sublimated through generational conflict, of setting up a gerontocracy of haves whose privilege depends on keeping the young as have-nots. And, as always, the very wealthiest benefit primarily because it's another line of divide and conquer, albeit one in which a wider layer of people who are more likely to vote have an interest in maintaining.

What can crack this deadlock? Obviously, it would be a very public stripping of the Conservatives' economic competence, which would directly affect the real and perceived interests of the Tory-supporting strata. Stock market crashes, banking scandals, an extension of austerity to pension incomes, the application of the bedroom tax to the elderly in social housing, all would have deleterious consequences for their coalition. Provided none of this happens, even if Brexit is a calamitous mess, as long as the Tories continue insulating this (declining) mass support from the consequences of their policies, the economics of polarisation will tend toward the present situation.

Sunday 12 November 2017

Hubris and Nemesis

A Sunday in late 2017 wouldn't be a Sunday in late 2017 if the politics wasn't dominated by more Tory infighting and backbiting. Characteristically the Prime Minister is nowhere to be seen (has anyone spotted her of late?), instead the Tory travails now turn upon the return of the Boris Johnson/Michael Gove double act. Yes, they're back. The lust for power now trumps even public betrayal and humiliation. I'm left wondering who's going to knife who first, but I digress. Since May brought Gove back into the cabinet in what can only be described as an act of desperation, the two have renewed their vows of fealty and now comprise a "formidable" power couple over Brexit and other issues.

Take the "secret letter" they've sent to May, no doubt leaked by "sources close to Boris Johnson" as these things always are. In this missive, Philip Hammond is lambasted for allowing the EU to force Britain over a barrel. Funny, I thought their Brexit comrade-in-arms David Davis was in charge of negotiations. They also tell May she needs to show more confidence and lead from the front. Again, to be fair to the Prime Minister, it's a tricky task to do when the government is packed full of jackals and is undermined by its members, the nominal Foreign Secretary among them. They also demand ministers who haven't "internalised" Brexit be gagged about it, which is weird as, on this at least, the Tory front bench have maintained consistency despite everything. And have issued an ultimatum about transitional deal: that it must last two years and not a day longer.

Again, we see here the pattern of behaviour common to all leading Tories of the last few years. Dave was happy to gamble the collective interests of British capitalism to keep UKIP from coming close in a tiny handful of Tory seats, and lost. Then Theresa May, full of pomp and arrogance signed up for a hard Brexit because it suited the narrow interests of the Tories to do so. After all, the only time she looked strong and stable during the election campaign was right at the beginning when she disingenuously attacked the EU for "interference". What trifles are British jobs against opportunities for cheap jingoism and added approval rating points? And now the Gove/Johnson double act, determined to foist an arbitrary deadline on post-Brexit arrangements for a few good editorials and the votes of the thinning membership of their diminishing party. What a shower.

While there are plenty of Tory MPs arrayed against them, not least the the former chief whip, they must sense the prize of Number 10 is nearing again. 40 MPs are reportedly prepared to no-confidence the Prime Minister, just eight short of the required threshold to trigger the whole process. However, typical of Tory arrogance just as things are going their way they decide to hole themselves below the waterline. Johnson was fortunate that the Priti Patel furore helped crowd out his comments on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British holidaymaker banged up by the Iranian regime, last week. Readers will recall she maintains her innocence and was just visiting family, and that is the position of the Foreign Office. Johnson, because he's a lazy oaf and can't be arsed to read his briefings, may have potentially condemned her to further charges by saying he believed she was in Tehran training journalists. There followed the typical politician's apology ("I'm sorry for any anxiety I've caused ...") but he looks like he got away with it.

Or rather, looked. Going out to bat for the partnership on Andrew Marr this morning, Gove stridently, some might say brazenly, defended Johnson's stupidity by heaping all the blame on the Iranian government itself. While true, yes, Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe is imprisoned by a kangaroo court and whose case is a pawn in internal factional struggle, it's not a good idea to suggest a UK prisoner of the regime was engaged in activity that state likens to espionage. But if that wasn't bad enough, Gove compounded the reckless idiocy by saying he "didn't know" why she was in the country. Again, implying there is something improper going on. All grist to the mill of the Iranian prosecutor: two cabinet members "letting slip" their prisoner was in the country to foment subversion. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. If they're quite prepared to sacrifice their country's interest for their undistinguished careers, what is the freedom of one innocent woman? One hopes their callous disregard dogs them for the remainder of the time they inflict themselves on public life.

Unfortunately, such gross turpitude and negligence, which should provide ample grounds for their immediate sacking, is not enough. The finely balanced factional hell of the inner party guarantees Gove and Johnson career safety. If May dumped them, and like many others it would be a delight to see them do the walk of shame outside Downing Street after a defrocking, they would have no compunction in starting the leadership process. Never mind that Brexit should be focusing minds, never mind they might as well gift wrap the next election and deliver it to Jeremy Corbyn's house, all that matters to the pair of them is position, their own self-glorification. They increasingly do not care what they have to do in pursuance of these selfish aims, and this makes them stupid, toxic and latterly dangerous to us.

Saturday 11 November 2017

Diablo III for the PlayStation 3

Sometimes you just want to switch off. The social media is put away, the phone is powered down and anything remotely smelling of news is avoided. At such times other entertainments may present themselves, and these include mindless video games. Feeling this need for a brain detox, I was minded to give Diablo III a try - not least because Halloween was (then) approaching and a comment on it would have made ideal blogging fodder. And it also suits my gaming style. I'm very much a pick-up-and-play person and just don't have the time to spend hours and hours learning complicated mechanics any more.

That's the first thing about Diablo III. The core game is very simple: wander around an isometric world dealing out death to all comers, which are usually a mix of undead, cultists and demons. And when a particular objective has been reached you move on to the next before encountering the level's big bad. Some things never change. I began my game with the most brutal-looking of characters, a giant man-tank barbarian with thighs that could crack breeze blocks, and jumped in. Immediately you find yourself pitted against some restless dead on the road to Tristram, a town under siege by the ghoulish hordes. You carve them up with your blades or whatever, depending on the character and the weapons you possess, and you pick up what is left behind. This falls into two broad categories: money and loot. The first allows you to buy equipment from the merchants you find dotted around the game, whereas the latter are items. They may be bits of weaponry and armour to be used to upgrade the fighting power of your character, or bits and bobs you can craft with.

As an action role-playing game, Diablo III is foremost a button masher. Particularly when you are getting swamped by enemies (it is very satisfying when you're told seven or more monsters have been dispatched by a single blow). And that suits me down to the ground. But as this is a modern game the simple mechanics are boosted in a number of ways. Naturally, would an RPG be a RPG without an experience/levelling system? Of course not. Every enemy in receipt of the slicing and dicing treatment bequeaths experience points, and as per all RPGs these are automatically traded in for extra abilities. Here, however, it unlocks abilities, moves, and skills that are mapped to the controller's buttons. There are loads of these which can be swapped out at any moment for another skill or ability, and allows for a huge array of combinations and therefore styles of play. The fun continues in crafting. Loot picked up from the battlefield can be dropped again, sold off in the shops, or melted down by artisans and fused with other weapons and/or gems to create more powerful items. With dozens, if not hundreds of different bits of kit dropped in-game, combining them all together and trying them out is going to take endless hours of dedication. But the option is there for those inclined toward such things.

The plot is fairly superfluous to the action. It intervenes with some very nice looking cut scenes, but it's not much you need pay attention to. There's the usual hokey affair of ancient evils threatening to consume the world (seriously, what would evil do if it ever won?), but it supplies a steady stream of nasties to kill. What does annoy is the travelling companion you pick up. Controlled by the AI, they are occasionally handy in a fight but tend to repeat the same lines of dialogue over and over. If you happen to have Eirena the Enchantress accompany your male character, expect some cringey and unconvincing dialogue.

Despite this, Diablo III is an enjoyable romp. The graphics are always outstanding and the action can get frenetic. It manages to recapture the fast paced relentlessness of the likes of Smash TV with the slashing action of Gauntlet and Golden Axe, with the action RPG veneer on top for padding and community building via the multiplayer features. The game has also received DLC and is still regularly supported by Blizzard - the latest patch coming out last month.

What can you say? This is old-style gaming extensively tweaked and remodelled for now. The seemingly endless choices of weapons and customisation, the three followers who can tag along with you, the character classes, the multiple difficulty levels and the huge maps, it's almost as if Blizzard are trying to capture a cadre of gamers and keep them imprisoned in the game. Well, there is an element of truth to this. Just as social media platforms attempt to create an enclosed universe to accumulate data, software firms are following suit. Drawing gamers into multiplayer activities introduces new competitive dynamics around the acquisition and unlocking of achievements, but also in terms of loot. In earlier iterations of Diablo III there were in-game auction houses where found weapons and crafted items could be bought and sold for real money. It was eventually patched out, but that offered up an additional revenue stream. Yet that's small beer. Signing in via Xbox Live, PSN or Blizzard's own servers if on PC leaves data footprints. Just as Facebook lets loose its algorithms on all content posted, similar, albeit less sophisticated systems, are at work here picking up on gaming habits, the amount of time is sunk into games, communication between players and whatnot, and these in turn can be used to market services and/or advertising based on avatars constructed out of the data.

It's interesting. We've noted before how accumulation is the absolute heart of RPGs, whether they follow a grindy, tactical, or action-oriented format. Diablo III like all others depends on acquiring experience and loot to enhance the gaming experience, whether single player or no. But once you start moving into the realms of multiplayer it's you, your friends, your acquaintances, everyone you play with and compete with via the networks that become the loot. It's the logical culmination of the RPG. The game play structures how one interacts with the game, reinforces certain habits of mind and latterly, unbeknownst to most, their data embeds them in other strategies of accumulation.

Thursday 9 November 2017

After Priti Patel

The scene at Downing Street is increasingly resembling a First World War battlefield, but thankfully the only pulverising going on concerns ministerial careers. Yesterday, as even my non-sapient feline knows, was Priti Patel's turn. From the days of will she/won't she be sacked to the farce of following Patel's flight path home (simultaneously a shit iteration of NORAD's annual Santa stunt and a middle class version of Raoul Moat), the whole episode has damaged the Tories even more. And by allowing her to resign with dignity, as if there was anything honourable about Patel's obsequious deal cutting with leading Israeli politicians, Theresa May passed up a valuable opportunity to recapture some of that strong and stable magic from the world that passed with the general election.

Naturally, Patel had to go. British governments of all hues have had very chummy relationships with Israel. By conducting her own private foreign policy in preparation for her own run at the PM's office, Patel was nevertheless working within the parameters of Conservative Friends of Israel (an organisation she formerly chaired). Indeed, there will be many Tories who think she hasn't done anything wrong. For instance, offering international development funds to the Israeli army would only cultivate support among the back benches, demonstrates as it does her contempt for her (former) department's raison d'etre. The problem is she got found out, and when rumbled she carried on lying about it. Being seen to publicly lie to the face of the Prime Minister, even one as compromised as Theresa May, is a no-no.

And so Patel is no more, at least for the time being. With an eye to the future her resignation note sets her up as one of the self-appointed guardians of Brexit, so with any luck we won't hear from her again for at least the rest of this year. In the mean time, her "colourful" replacement, Penny Mordaunt, hardly inspires confidence but probably won't be so egregiously stupid about her overseas dilly-dallies. But she did back Andrea Leadsom in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it 2016 leadership contest and participated in the famed stroll around Westminster so you never know. Still, time and again we see how witless mediocrity is no barrier to high office.

Yet the Patel affair accomplished two things. It helped insulate Boris Johnson from a world of pain. Johnson has always been as callous as he is lazy, and that he remains in position after potentially condemning the charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to a further five years in an Iranian prison is nothing short of astonishing. Readers will know she is presently serving a five year term after an unspecified conviction related to subversive activity. Copping severe criticism for not being arsed to read his briefs properly, this foppish poltroon compounded his indifference by issuing a non-apology. At any other time he'd be out on his ear, but there is no embarrassment too damaging that will see him defenestrated. A departure would see him banished and free to factionalise and cause trouble, if not collapse the government. And yet, perversely, his staying on doesn't serve his ambitions and helps his would be opponents thank you very much. This episode demonstrates to all but the most ardent Johnson fan his utter incompetence, and his willingness to throw the freedom of an innocent woman under a bus simply because he cannot apologise in good faith. It has wounded him in the eyes of Tory party members, and puts him into the same toxicity territory with your Goves and your IDSs as far as the wider public are concerned. The more people see him in action, the more the myth of Johnson deflates and his person withers. The longer he sticks out the foreign office the further out of reach Number 10 gets.

That suits Theresa May as well. She can take the 'being weak and ineffectual' hit for not sacking Johnson as that's already baked into the present coalition of Tory voters. As far as they're concerned she's being held hostage and cannot get on with the job. They might not like her for it (no one forced her to bring Jeremy Corbyn to the brink of government) but in lieu of anyone else, and because she's keeping the red menace at bay, she will have to do. Keeping Johnson in the cabinet helps balance everything out and allows the May delusion a few more squirts of fuel. The Patel/Johnson farrago has also helped the Prime Minister in other ways. The drip drip of harassment scandals have taken the back seat, which includes the complicity of leading Tories in keeping a lid on things in the recent past. Gavin Williamson, ostensibly appointed by May to the defence brief after "Handbags" Fallon fell on his sword, has serious questions to answer for sitting on complaints which include alleged criminality for disciplinary purposes, knowledge May was regularly briefed about. That should be a bigger story than it is, and perhaps it will be in time. Likewise, this week's events have temporarily taken the heat off claims made about Damian Green, without whom May cannot function in post.

After yet another edition of the worst week ever, questions naturally arise about the government's viability. The vultures are circling and ultimatums have been issued. There is little May can do to turn things around, so she desperately needs a good budget statement the week after next and a breakthrough in the Brexit talks. Yet if they don't happen and the government is convulsed by yet more scandal, the situation remains the same. It's in everyone's interests for May to go so it's in everyone's interests for May to stay. The Tory party are not about to unite behind someone else, and the wider political polarisation isn't likely to shift. This is politics as torture, and there's a long way to go yet.