Thursday 30 April 2020

The SWP's Split on Tyneside

A pandemic has circled the globe several times and we see liberal democratic states assume unprecedented powers to stop the spread of contagion. We live in an emergency, and yet the wheels of the mundane continue to turn. People make new connections and fall out with each other. Shopping happens. And murky practices come to light. Unfortunately, we've had our share of that in the labour movement. Mid-month we saw those leaks about senior Labour Party staff, and April's end was graced by the general secretary of a major union resigning amid serious allegations. But unless you were adjacent to the rarefied doings of Britain's far left, you might have missed another tale of miserable woe.

The Socialist Workers Party these days is, deservedly, a shadow of its former self. Having exposed yourself as a disgusting rape cult and failing to capitalise on the fresh interest in socialism off the back of Jeremy Corbyn might do that to a self-identified vanguard of working class politics. Yet despite their reduced circumstances, the SWP have persisted through its usual round of paper sales and front groups, such as Unite Against Fascism and its own(!) front outfit, Stand Up to Racism. They are still a presence on the left, and their hope is now less focus on matters parliamentary means new pools of young activists (students) for whom Sir Keir Starmer doesn't have quite the same sheen. With new opportunities around the corner and their decade of moral collapse behind them, the return of more bullying allegations is, well, about as welcome as reality intruding in a National Committee meeting.

A small group of activists have resigned from the SWP on Tyneside over serious concerns about the branch's internal culture. These include a "bullying, misogynistic and sexist culture", and the whitewashing of complaints made by the former members against the "harassment, slander and institutional racism" they experienced. Read the statement for yourself. It's pretty much what you'd expect. Favoured acolytes of the London apparatus are supported, and critics are steamrollered. On this occasion Amy Leather herself, the SWP's de facto leader, went to Newcastle to sort the complainants out. She didn't give a monkey's about the unhealthy culture inside her organisation, she wanted the dissenters silenced - the only conclusion you can reasonably make looking at the bundles of evidence provided. Now, as seven years ago, the leadership are concerned solely with keeping the show on the road. Bad behaviour and the mistreatment of comrades, that means nothing as long as the papers get sold and the leading cadres have monies enough to indulge their little Lenin complexes.

It is, however, a sign of the times that the SWP feel the need to respond to such a small scale split. And in true SWP style, they choose not to address the substance of the complaint and go for a character assassination of someone who, until recently, was regarded as a loyal pair of hands. The classic guilt-by-association move, in other words. Because Yanus Bakhsh, a well known long-time SWP'er was suspended from the "party" for defending someone with a questionable record (to say the least), just so happens to be among the group of Tyneside dissenters, nothing else matters, there's nothing to see. Quite rightly, the comrades concerned are angry to find their concerns brushed aside and reduced to apolitical sour grapes.

Readers can look at what's happened in Newcastle and judge whether the SWP "is strongly committed to women’s liberation and seeks to combat sexism both within our own ranks and in the broader society." Again, just like what's happened in the Labour Party and what's coming to light in the GMB, on an order of magnitude of less importance, the SWP's lies about bullying on Tyneside goes to show democracy in working class organisations, whether it's a mass party, a trade union, or a two-bit outfit with revolutionary pretensions is not an optional extra. Democracy and accountability for those who run the organisations are the crucial tools by which we organise ourselves as a class with political interests distinct from and at odds with the new consensus Boris Johnson is building. When democracy fails, our organisations and institutions don't just become ineffective, they actively turn against the aspirations that founded them in the first place. Far from vehicles of liberation, they can become factories for maiming activists, vehicles for vices of the abusive kind, and instruments for keeping our people down. In mass organisations, the fight for democracy is continuous because their mass character guarantees it as a latent possibility. But in micro-sects like the SWP, organisations some 30 years out of time if ever their brand of revolutionary politics were ever appropriate, there really isn't any point. Any SWP comrades reading this should follow the Newcastle comrades out of the "party". There is a wider world out there, and it's ours to win.

Wednesday 29 April 2020

On Tim Roache's Resignation

The surprise resignation of Tim Roache, General Secretary of the GMB caught everyone off guard. In a poorly worded press release, the union said his departure was thanks to long term "ill health" which was preventing him from discharging his responsibilities. A Soviet-flavoured excuse if there ever was one. Because prior to the announcement, news crept out that Roache had been confronted by union President Barbara Plant with a complaint making a number of allegations. Adding extra intrigue, the Sunday Times's Gabriel Pogrund suggested senior Labour MPs are "implicated" in the "controversy". When you consider the nature of the allegations, which are very serious and can be found by digging around Twitter, one hopes the only implications involved are their urging the President to take action.

Another crisis for Keir Starmer following hot on the heels of the Labour leaks scandal? Not terribly so. The allegations Roache faces are not factional, but speak to the wider cultural problems within the trade union movement. As for the politics, I don't think it makes much of a difference to the balance of power in the party. In his New Statesman email, Stephen Bush suggested it's potentially problematic because Keir could count on the GMB's support on Labour's NEC. As he rightly argues, a strongly positioned leader should have multiple ways of building majorities on an issue-by-issue basis, whereas Jeremy Corbyn was dependent on Unite to get his way. The implosion of Roache puts one of those avenues of coalition forming into doubt.

This is probably not the case. Roache certainly won his re-election handsomely back in November, beating Kathleen Walker Shaw by 30,656 votes to 19,576 on a miserable 8.5% turnout (actually a big improvement on the 4.2% that saw Roache elected in 2015). However, the vote itself was not without controversy. Kathleen, who is the union's European officer, was initially excluded from the ballot by shenanigans. Under GMB rules anyone running for the highest office requires 50 nominations from branches, a time consuming process that always favours officials with the contacts and time to build up support. Despite meeting the threshold with 57 nominations, the Finance and General Purposes committee tried excluding her on grounds she would not be able to fulfil the duties of the top job, even though she had worked for the union for 26 years. A grotesque stitch up of the old school in other words, and one happily overturned on appeal. Yet this wasn't a political challenge and more a bureaucratic turf war in which one full-timer simply tried her hand against an incumbent wanting to entrench his privilege. Though according to persistent whispers in and around the GMB, Kathleen was something of a stalking horse on behalf of the Kenny clan. Long time readers will recall Paul Kenny receiving a knighthood just prior to vacating the GenSec role. Warren Kenny, a chip off the old block and presently London region's secretary is known to fancy Dad's old gig - it would be surprising if he doesn't throw his hat into the ring and run to replace Roache.

Given the incumbency factor crowding out grassroots challenges, being a union not known for its left wing full-timers, and having endorsed Lisa Nandy in the leadership election, chances are good that the personnel may change but the politics will stay the same on Labour's NEC. In fact, not only that but some of Labour's right will be pleased to see the back of Tim Roache too. Not because he was a comrade or showed any tendency in that direction, though many of the positives of Kenny Sr's reign on the organising front were built on (despite the introduction of some sharp practices). He was, from a party factional point of view, unreliable. Not a Corbyn supporter by any stretch, during the 2016 coup Roache refused to go along with the aborted putsch. At the time he said "This is about democracy and respecting the Labour Party’s democratic process. Jeremy has a strong mandate, and it’s hugely disappointing that this is not being respected." Though come the summer he was backing Owen Smith, after a membership referendum with a slightly skewed question ("Who do you think is best placed to lead the Labour party to a general election victory and serve as prime minister?”) endorsed him over and above the Labour leader. Eyebrows were also raised with the formation of Change UK, Gawd rest its soul. Roache did not go along with the line that the splitters were "forced out" and instead condemned them for attacking the policies and aspirations if trade unionists. Nor was he impressed by Tom Watson's hard remain antics, calling them "wholly unwelcome". Episodic alignment with their schemes in a union they've come to regard as "theirs" certainly rankled, and they hope - though don't have the muscle themselves to ensure - the next one in the top job will be fully onside.

Trade unions are essential organisations and everyone should join their workplace union. But they are not passive organisations, their efficacy and democracy depends on how active the membership are. If they are quiescent, all kinds of skulduggery and bad behaviour gets a free pass. Not to mention backroom deals and politics that ultimately shaft our movement as a whole. When the full details of the Tim Roache case come out, serious questions will be asked about how this was allowed to continue and an unwelcome light will be shone by our enemies on the murkier practices of our movement. The best way, the only way to cleanse ourselves of this muck is by getting stuck in and applying the huge broom of democracy to the lot. Because if we don't, the Tories will.

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Tuesday 28 April 2020

Guido Fawkes and Right-Wing Cynicism

Panorama on Monday night was damning. Despite recommendations to the government that it should stockpile personal protective equipment, we learned that calls to do so fell on deaf ears last summer. Gowns, body bags, visors, swabs, what should be there simply isn't. It also turns out respirators are some 20 million short than the figure in the ledger. This is more evidence, as if it needs parading, how light-minded the government were about public health before this crisis and were so slow to act, a complacency that put the Prime Minister in hospital. Considered in the round with their miserable failure to pay heed to the massive exercise undertaken in 2016 that wargamed the very scenario we're now living through, and their extreme tardiness to introduce appropriate quarantine measures, there needs to be more than a toothless public inquiry when this is all said and done. There should be trials. The worst death rate in Europe and second only to the United States, the Tories were less asleep at the wheel and more criminally negligent.

Enter stage right Guido Fawkes, the self-styled enfant terrible of political commentary. For someone who likens his tawdry website to the man who tried blowing up a good chunk of the ruling class, the establishment would be hard-pressed to find a firmer friend. For Paul Staines and his merry-go-round of here today, gone tomorrow Guidlets, their immediate response was not to do actual public interest journalism that, you know, could shame the government into preparing properly in the future and perhaps save some lives but go after the NHS workers who appeared on said Panorama. Because one GP was a Labour activist, a nurse a Unison shop steward who is on record for having a few choice words about Matt Hancock, and others who had variously criticised the government, their concerns are therefore completely invalid. If someone is "pro-Corbyn", the implication is their complaints are made up. There is no shortage, medical staff and carers aren't at risk, and shortages if they exist are blown out of all proportion for party political point scoring. All completely wretched, but the truth doesn't matter when you have vested interests to defend.

Guido's charlatanry is nevertheless lapped up by hardened Tories because it confirms so many of their prejudices. The default assumption among many Conservative activists and politicians is their opponents are as cynical and crooked as they are. For them, politics is a game, something not to be taken too seriously. The idea one can be passionate about a cause in Tory circles is an eccentricity because, so often, they are. Remember when Europe was a fringe issue beloved of extremists and freaks? The idea others might identify with the Labour Party, or genuinely care for and feel solidarity with others, or are fired by their experiences of inequality, poverty, and discrimination, or inspired by a vision of how life could be better for everyone is incomprehensible. It's either a derangement, and should be treated as potentially dangerous, or, like themselves, it's not meant at all: it's an effect of an affect.

The rote-learned right wing accusation of virtue signalling is, like so much else about conservative frames, a case of projection. A bastardised form of rational choice thought, the assumption is no one goes in for selfless activity, whether in politics or everyday life. Their abysmal view of human nature allows only for self-interested action, for personal profit. Therefore altruistic action is nothing of the sort, it's the cultivation of narcissistic satisfaction that can be telegraphed to others as examples of personal purity and moral superiority, and from this a certain status is derived. Jeremy Corbyn then and his record as an activist wasn't really driven by outrage at injustice, but so he could revel in a radical saintliness. By their logic then, the NHS workers and care workers on shift risking their health and lives aren't motivated by the desire to help (I mean, would you spoonfeed Alzheimer's sufferers for minimum wage?) but so they can throw their superiority in other's faces.

In such a mindset pickled in cynicism, it's impossible to conceive how NHS workers could speak out against Tory failings if they weren't politically motivated. That someone might become political because of their experience working in a marketised health service starved of necessary resources simply cannot happen. And so it is true of every other grievance. Young people stay away from the Tories not because they get a bum deal, but because of lefty lecturers are brainwashing them. Opposition to government policy is always down to "militants". Popular protests and movements are the work of closely-knit troublemakers of the communist or anarchist type. Their is an impoverished mode of living, of a type of thinking that absolutely resists and denies empathy and ultimately tends in the direction of dehumanising the targets of their ire. And, as we have seen throughout this crisis, as Boris Johnson tries forging a new consensus that will ultimately benefit him and his party, senior Tories have blamed members of the public for disease transmission, and medical staff for using PPE irresponsibly. Guido's cynical attacks are part of this overall thrust at discrediting criticisms of very serious government shortcomings.

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Monday 27 April 2020

The Next Tory Attack on Universities

It's no secret the Tories hate higher education. And yet, you'd think they'd love it. The university sector is responsible for £14.4bn worth of the UK's export earnings and, according to the latest report, this has been increasing at a healthy rate since the Tories came to power in 2010. This has happened on their watch and should be a success worth trumpeting, surely? Instead we get crap like the attempted appointment of Toby Young to the Office for Students, public fretting about the censorious safe space/no platform culture supposedly dominating campus politics, the introduction and enforcement of complex and ludicrous metrics that serve to deepen the bureaucracy and sclerosis of the sector, and, as of last week, the refusal to provide bailout loans to universities hit by shrivelling revenue streams and a projected collapse in student numbers.

What is the Tories' game? In the age of the magic money tree, the idea of tax payer value-for-money is complete fiction. From the standpoint of the rational management of British capitalism, there's no rhyme nor reason for not printing the money and handing over the cash to keep universities going. They are anchor employers in many locations - particularly away from the big cities. Instead, according to The Times the government is mulling over a raft of conditionalities. These include mergers, a curtailment of research, and the downgrading of some institutions (in all but name) to the delivery of vocational programmes and apprenticeships. Gavin Williamson favours the tackling of "low quality courses" where "low quality" has nothing to do with teaching or course content and everything to do with so-called marketable skills and a capacity for graduates to make their future employers money.

In other words, these poltroons, some of whom have spent their political careers bigging up the wisdom of the market have decided they don't like the HE landscape the invisible hand has shaped for them. It's too lefty and too critical, despite being the most market driven and neoliberalised arm of the state. Therefore the Coronavirus crisis is an opportunity too good to pass up for bringing the sector to heel, and their thinking has nothing to do with affordability or value metrics and everything to do with the interests of the Conservative Party.

As noted here plenty of times, the Tories have a pronounced young people problem that exists across all occupational groupings, and is especially negative among young women. This isn't much of an issue for them as long as older people keep turning out in greater numbers and, as the old pass away, are reproduced by new cohorts of the elderly. However, whether one grows more conservative with age or not there's no essential reason why that should affect voting preferences. One does not retire and simply put a cross next to the Tory candidate, it is mediated by structural location and property acquisition. And this is breaking down. Millions of working people cannot buy a house or save for one thanks to exorbitant prices and the monies renting swallows up. This isn't just the lot of young people, millions in their 40s and 50s are in this position too. Add to that the immaterial labour and precarity younger people have to live with, and the replacement of their coalition of older voters is placed in jeopardy. In 20 years there will be more pensioners without property, and a memory of how Tory governments of the early 21st century made life tough for them.

The Tories know something is wrong, but most of them are groping in the dark for answers - especially when values survey after values survey shows young people to be suspicious of social security, intensely relaxed about the filthy rich (as long as they pay their taxes), and A-okay with what you might loosely describe as entrepreneurial values. Rather than putting two and two together and coming to the conclusion the party of Thatcher is the biggest block on the aspirational values she affected to champion, they cast around for alternative explanations that exonerate the Tories of all responsibility. Therefore the reason why the young are anti-Tory and why university towns pile up huge votes for Labour is because ... they're brain washed. Universities as bastions of liberal values are in the vanguard of the great crusade against social conservatism. The whip of marketisation and the introduction of the Office for Students as sector regulator-cum-watchdog has done nothing to curtail it, so why not use the hammer of debt to change them more. Limiting numbers, forcing universities to become factories for worker drones (a pill most universities have happily chomped down already, not that the Tories have noticed), limiting the provision of humanities and the social sciences and going hard on STEM, Law, and Business are, they hope, the means for depoliticising universities, their faculties and the student body.

Naturally, it's doomed to fail because the Tories misrecognise the wellspring of discontent. But the inevitable failure has the happy by-product of denuding society of critical resources, forcing students into what the Tories regard as ideologically safe programmes, and throwing out of work tens of thousands of academics knowing it will play well with a unhinged base happy to see the "liberal elite" taken down a peg or two. Never mind the economic damage and the social cost of gutting universities this way. Owning the libs is an upside most considerable.

In the age of Coronavirus, one cannot be seen to play politics. Oppositions have to tread carefully. Still, how else can you explain the dog's breakfast the Tories are cooking up for the HE sector? This is their chance to hobble an assembly of institutions they perceive as hostile to their interests, and perhaps curb the influence of the left among young people. For them, this disaster, this emergency is precisely the time to settle scores and consolidate higher education provision more congenial to their prejudices.

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Defining the Politics of Covid-19

At the weekend, Andrew Rawnsley drew much mockery for asking whether Boris Johnson's spell with Covid-19 will make him more honest. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with Tory custom and practice knows the answer to that one. And yet when Johnson did appear before the cameras this morning since his recovery, there was something of a change. Not a turn to honesty, but rather an embrace of consensus.

Johnson said Coronavirus was the country's biggest challenge since the war. And it was a war in which the UK was making progress. There were fewer hospital admissions, fewer in intensive care, and stabilising infections and fatalities were all signs of "passing through the peak." He thanked the nation's community spirit and collective resolve, and this had brought the country to the brink of meeting first objective: the NHS not being overwhelmed as seen elsewhere. Likening the virus to a mugger, Johnson said we've begun to wrestle it to the floor following the initial surprise. This then is a moment of opportunity and of maximum risk.

Talking up his government's woeful record, he said some might look at our "apparent success" and wonder whether now is the time to start going easy on the quarantine. He understood the impatience and anxiety of businesses and those worried about their jobs. Johnson said he knew about the long-term effects of the emergency, but is also fully aware of the risk of a second infection spike. Therefore we must beware of relaxing things too early as this risks reversing the gains so far made. Our efforts have shielded the NHS, without which it would have been much worse.

Therefore the government's five tests for lifting the lockdown still have to be met. These are falling deaths, the NHS protected, a steep decline in the rate of infection, meeting the perennial supply challenges, and avoiding a second peak. Once these have been achieved we can move over into the second period of managing the country while it lives with the disease. This process then means difficult decisions, and nothing can be spelled out about time scales and when choices will be made. But teasing consensus, Johnson said his government and the evidence behind its decision-making would be "transparent" and he's looking to build broad agreement across industry and party lines.

In all, it was a very good speech from Johnson. For punters fed up of the too much politics of the recent past, seeing parties and politicians collaborate around shared goals has a certain appeal. And from the standpoint of the Tories, going hard on cooperation helps erase the recollection of their initial complacency. Considering the press pack have the memories of goldfish when it comes to the misdeeds of mainstream, and particularly Tory politicians, this gives Johnson leeway to define the parameters of permissible politics over the coming period. By appearing gracious, open, and inviting the opposition in, criticism that does reference their multiple failings and the dilapidated inheritance bequeathed Johnson by Dave and Theresa May is ruled out of bounds. That's for the inquiry afterwards, and those banging on about it now are cranks, weirdos, and extremists. Indeed, since day one Keir Starmer has anticipated and signed up to these parameters, reinforced over the weekend by polling.

Johnson then is looking to define the political consensus and therefore the politics of Coronavirus, and will do so to reap maximum advantage. Hence why his speech was a mission accomplished moment in more ways than one. This means Labour has a difficult environment to work in, and I'm not sure capitulating entirely to Johnson's terms is the best way of being any kind of opposition, whether "constructive" or not.

Sunday 26 April 2020

Twin Peaks: The Return

The original two series of Twin Peaks were good fun. Yes, at the start of the 1990s a series about a dead woman who'd experienced child abuse, rape, forced prostitution and was finally murdered was the stuff of light hearted entertainment. And I suppose this was one of the many layers of commentary on Americana David Lynch wanted to get out there. Subsequently having acquired a formidable, critically acclaimed reputation and widely known for being completely weird, the two seasons of Twin Peaks - broadcast in 1990 and 1991 - every trope of American film, television, literature, and Forteana can be found. The police procedural. Homecoming queens. Leather studded, um, studs. Corrupt business on the make. The diner. Jazz. Civil war re-enactment. Aliens. Social outcasts and jocks. Sawmills. Superpowers. Therapy. The great outdoors. Coffee and cherry pie. Damsels in distress, military secrets, organised crime. You watch Twin Peaks and all of America is there. Or, to be more accurate, all of white middle America.

Then, following the prequel film, 1992's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me it went away for 25 years. After all, upon entering the infamous Black Lodge, Agent Dale Cooper was told by the deceased Laura Palmer that he wouldn't see her for another quarter of a century. By fortuitous happenstance, 2017 was when the long-awaited season three finally appeared, giving the impression this was a plan long in gestation. Reflective of the darker tone taken in culture and politics since, Twin Peaks: The Return is violent, coarse, and disturbing. It thinks nothing of blowing people's heads off, running over a six-year-old child, crushing skulls, and littering the place with mutilated bodies. Swearing is in, sex scenes are in, psychological torture is in. Yet while moving with the times by accepting what is accepted in contemporaneous "serious" television, like its predecessor series Lynch employs tropes and devices that increase the weird quotient, making the whole thing more absurd, contrived, and compulsorily watchable. Its weird is a weird entirely appropriate to the interregnum between the economic crash and the global pandemic.

I'm not particularly interested in providing a plot overview. There are plenty available if a summary is what you require. Instead, I want to tease out a few themes (easily, The Return has enough goodies to fill several learned tomes). The first is its most jarring aspect: the male centeredness of the narrative. In a decade where virtually all the acclaimed TV serials have prominently featured female characters, as brilliant as this is it seems somewhat out of place. Agent Cooper (Coop), his doppelgänger (evil Coop),and secondary characters Gordon, Hawk, Sheriff Truman, Andy, Bobby, even the Fireman (AKA The Giant) and MIKE (stuck in the Black Lodge) are the ones who force the pace, make things happen, move on the plot. Women are so often accessories, showing no more agency than Mandie, Sandie, and Candie, the cocktail waitress attendants to the Mitchum brothers. Audrey Horne is foil for her husband's gaslighting, Tammy is on hand to accompany Gordon and Albert on their investigation, Nadine listens to Dr Jacoby's conspiranoid rantings and is convinced to let Ed pursue his much-frustrated relationship with Norma, and even Judy - the big negative responsible for BOB, evil Coop, and everything bad in the show, seldom features. Her host, Sarah Palmer, spends her life smoking, drinking, watching old TV, and having meltdowns. The only two points of decision she makes is killing a random in a bar seemingly determined to assault Sarah following a diatribe of misogynistic abuse, and spiriting Laura Palmer away when Coop travels back in time (yes) to save her from her murder. This is only partially contradicted by side characters. Janey-E has to care for a semi-comatose Coop/Dougie (of which more shortly), and is able to buy off a bunch of thugs looking to kill him over gambling debts. Lucy shoots evil Coop as he pulls a gun on Sheriff Truman. Even the addition of Diane as a supposedly heavy-weight (and canon-critical) character doesn't break the pattern. Going from the recipient of Coop's daily recordings in the first two seasons, we learn she was raped by evil Coop, turns out to be a Black Lodge construct designed to assassinate Gordon, and when the real Diane is retrieved her identity is erased by her and Coop's passage into the alternate reality (Linda to his Richard), and then altogether from the story as she flees his hotel room following the series' most unsettling sex scene. Only her absence makes Coop's mission to find this reality's Laura Palmer possible.

Since the breakthrough of Blue Velvet, Lynch has been hailed as the archetypal postmodern film-maker. Pastiche, unreliable narrative, the subverting of cinematic convention, over-the-top auteurship, The Return amps up the pomo long after becoming passé itself and yet deploys it so it becomes something postmodernism should never really be: fresh. Albeit a freshness that simultaneously, and paradoxically, invokes nostalgia for the original series and its multiple disruptions. With Twin Peaks you know you're getting a helping of American weird, but here we also get a lot of the mundane. Awkward pauses and silences are in. Sequences where very little happens without any dialogue. Eating, making breakfast, swatting a fly. And scenes that are deliberately uncomfortable and don't go anywhere. Audrey's arguments with her husband are overlong to the point of cruelty, as if to mark off the naive, lively teenaged Audrey of 25 years previously from a fatal outcome of middle-aged disappointment and neurosis. While incidental to the story, Lynch does place Audrey in the Road House to reprise her famous dance. Other stories that don't go anywhere are a persistent feature of most episodes too. The bar is usually the scene for conversations between characters who appear just for a chat, and then are never seen again. Their concerns and gossip are left hanging - a glimpse then into the lives of extras? However, this is Twin Peaks and the background, the unthought and tacit doxa of the everyday is as much part of the characters as it is for the fleshiness and sociality of real life. For example, whereas Shelly was plot critical in the original series here she's still working at Norma's diner and is regularly fleeced by her daughter to support her and her husband's drug habit. As we explore their troubled relationship, which apparently ends after he seemingly shoots himself under a tree, there is nothing outside of it. Their rows and implied domestic abuse is a foil for nothing. It simply is. The same can be said for the benign and hokey back and forth between Lucy and Andy, Nadine's appreciation of Dr Jacoby, and Ben's relationship with his new Great Northern's secretary, Beverley.

Small, unfinished stories hang from the Twin Peaks tree, but Lynch is no stranger to indulging a love for artifice either. Characters come and go whose existence is very obviously just to move the plot along. Freddie fits this device to a tee, and revels in his mysterious destiny. A new face, he's introduced in episode 14 as a security guard at the Great Northern Hotel. He also happens to wear a rubber glove. According to the story he relates to James, he was instructed (by the Fireman) to go to a store and purchase an opened pack and buy the sole glove therein. He does so, puts it on but finds he cannot take it off. It's also conferred him super strength, which he later uses to put two guys in intensive care and bust open his cell door. Freddie is also on hand after Lucy shoots evil Coop and the spirit of BOB emerges. They get into a fight and the glove lets Freddie smash him to pieces. Presumably, Frost and Lynch were wondering how they could kill off the town's nemesis. Why not via a very simple and very obviously grafted-on character?

Perhaps Lynch's most audacious move is what he does with Cooper. Having resided in the Black Lodge for 25 years, Coop falls back to earth and replaces another doppelgänger - the washed up Dougie Jones, an insurance agent in Las Vegas who was created for the express purpose of providing a place holder for Coop's return. The problem is Coop not only loses his memory in the process, as Dougie he is little more than an automaton. The irony, agent Cooper loses all agency. One of the key aspects of poststructuralist thinking is the decentering of the subject, of a stress on how personhood and individuality is an effect of the structures and discourses that flow in certain directions, discipline bodies, contain and channel potentialities and impose an arbitrary order as if it was the order of things. What then happens if you lay bare these minute determinations and put conceptual personae on screen as dramatis personae? The life of Coop for the majority of the season. Made incapable of most things save for repeating people's words and random scribbles, through a series of prat falls and slapstick Coop, now as Dougie, is able to be a better husband to Janey-E and a better father to Sonny Jim. By following prompts from MIKE he wins over $400,000 in the Mitchum Brothers' casino, mindless scrawls on his case files uncovers an embezzlement sting by a colleague and inadvertently ends up reversing a decision on a $30m policy originally denied to the Mitchums, which then see these mobsters shower gifts on Dougie and his family. At every turn, Dougie/Coop has to be prodded and pushed into doing something which, by pure happenstance, leads to positive outcomes but nevertheless sees him reap the credit despite his being a pure vehicle of other people's actions.

The real agent, of course, is Lynch himself who shared the writing credits with Mark Frost but directed every episode. He was also responsible for the sound design and penning several of the songs to have featured. Additionally, Lynch plays Deputy Director Gordon Cole, an affable and somewhat avuncular comic relief character in the first two series and Fire Walk With Me. In the return his character's stature grows as a leading light in the secret Blue Rose task force, formed after encountering a Black Lodge doppelgänger. Hard of hearing and having his aid cranked up to maximum, he frequently misses what people say and misinterprets. Lynch is also excellent in affecting a permanent bewilderment. In Gordon we have a character hot on the trail of the story and dependent on how events unfold, which belies Lynch's role as actual director and master of ceremonies. This little nod literally explodes in episode eight. For many the standout of this season, this was described as "mind-melting" by the Graun, "one of the greatest hours of television ever made" according to Vulture, and for the New York Times, "There’s nothing to point to in the history of television that helps describe exactly what this episode attempts." These are fair summaries. Most of the episode is a montage of abstract images and crashing, electrical screeching. It begins with the detonation of the first atom bomb, and the camera zooms into the mushroom cloud and subjects us to everything within. Eventually, it resolves to a faceless figure who vomits out a stream of globules, including one with the grinning face of BOB. In a lengthy sequence a convenience store is pictured with blackened woodsmen milling about it in a series of staccato cuts. These events are watched by the Fireman and a 1920s-styled Senorita Dido in their fortress. In a no less abstract sequence the Fireman reposes and levitates, sprouting an orb with Laura Palmer's face which is sent to Earth. Then we shift forward in time to 1956. A woodsman invades a local radio station and kills its inhabitants. Reciting and repeating a short incantation at length, townspeople listening to the show fall unconscious. One of whom is a young woman, whose mouth falls open and a creature - a moth with frog's legs, which we saw hatch and crawl across the New Mexico desert - crawls in.

Asked about this episode, Mike Frost said this was the nearest to an origin story for Twin Peaks we could expect. The furies unleashed by nuclear explosions is a well enough visited literary location, and the suggestion here is this is what birthed the forces of evil. Indeed, it's not spelled out but the young woman was likely Sarah, implying she is responsible for carrying the corruption leading to the abuse and murder of her daughter. The episode is also a signature mark of the Lynchian, having far more in common with experimental cinema and art house than anything mainstream. The black and white presentation heightens the comparison with the surrealist film makers of the 1920s and 30s. But it's also a statement of an artist at the height of their powers. As Bourdieu notes in his conceptual construction of the artistic and literary fields, there are sections of the field adjacent with and closely bound to the structurally dominant fields of the economy and of power. Works produced in this zone of proximity are concerned less with the artistic practice and more commercial reward. The blockbuster film, like Top Gun and its coming sequel, for example. Or the trashy novel, soap operas and sitcoms, the overwhelming bulk of popular music. The further one strays from the proximity of power the more one is concerned with the autonomous stakes of the field, of the cultural capital specific to it. Therefore, the further the trajectory is from the economic the more the disposition (habitus) pursues the profits unique to the art world and subscribes to the illusio of art's for art's sake. The modernist novel and symbolist poetry is emblematic of this: objects produced for niche audiences with culturally specific capital by authors (auteurs) whose works are explicit interventions in the politics and fashions of the field. What Lynch accomplishes with part eight is an act of disembedding. Twin Peaks's reputation is founded on its limited materialisation of postmodern themes: here the limited is freed from its bonds and the indeterminacy of the unsignified and unsignifiable is allowed full reign. Lynch confronts a mass audience with the dark creativity wreaked by atomic blasts, and the commercially repressed creativity of art and image usually the preserve of self-selecting audiences of distinction. And he can do this precisely because his considerable artistic capital is buttressed by a successful career. He uses the rare instance of the confluence of artistic and economic capital to produce something utterly at odds with every TV show convention.

Ultimately, for a many layered and complex show like Twin Peaks it is an episode, a front in the interminable battle between the unambiguously good and the outright evil. This battle, so characteristic of American cinema, kids shows, and its news coverage is the only simple thing about this series. The inevitable elemental conflict ensures there is no closure to the third season, and why a fourth might be in prospect. Even if a sequel is not forthcoming, it doesn't matter. The Return is a fundamentally open work with its many story lines left unresolved and turns inviting speculation and argument. There are any number of rabbit holes for the curious to bolt into. Why not join Twin Peaks fans down one?

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Wednesday 22 April 2020

The Spectre of Austerity

There's a ghastly spectre haunting politics. The spectre of austerity! Seemingly exorcised from the mainstream by Jeremy Corbyn's efforts, and confirmed in its crypt by Boris Johnson's nothing manifesto, Rishi Sunak's first budget and Keir Starmer's victorious policy platform, the emergency measures taken to ward off Covid-19 has allowed it to slip between the veil separating the dead from the living. The first to talk up the possibility of post-crisis austerity was the (apparently) centre left think tank the Social Market Foundation. They want to see the next round of austerity shared equally between the generations. A weird position for an outfit priding itself on its Keynesian heritage to be in, but such is the weirdness of politics. A more unwelcome necromancer party to the austerity incantation is one George Osborne. Speaking at a City event online (for how much?), he said a period of retrenchment was inevitable after the crisis. "When this is over there is going to be a very large amount of debt and it’s not going to be bonanza time." Great news.

Austerity, however, is neither necessary nor inevitable. There are two things worth considering: the arguments for a post-Coronavirus austerity, and the likelihood the Tories will push for it.

Just like Dave's original case for austerity, cutting back on spending looks commonsensical. The state is borrowing huge sums to tide us through the present crisis, which means a rapidly growing debt mountain and a yawning public spending deficit. The gap between what is spent and tax revenues is widening thanks to the catastrophic slow down. As there is no magic money tree, post-crisis the government of whatever hue must cut spending to drive down those debt repayments quickly and send a message to the money markets, of which the trade in UK govt bonds is not insignificant volume, that the state honours its debts. This gives the market confidence that further investments in gilts (i.e. UK bonds) are a safe proposition, meaning the government should have no trouble borrowing if it needs to in the future. It assumes the state is like a bank account, or as Margaret Thatcher argued, a household budget. You can't spend money you don't have.

The position is logically consistent and has the virtue of chiming with everyday experience. Almost everyone knows what it's like not to have enough money. It's potent, and it proved to be a powerful political battering ram for meeting Tory policy objectives and catering the the class interests their party stands for. It's also complete bollocks. At any one time, government debt is a fiction in whole or in part. About a quarter of UK debt at any time is held by the Bank of England which, in turn, is owned by the government. The rest is owned by a mix of private institutions, individuals, and foreign investors. However, unlike an ordinary debtor the state can structure its debt. Gilts are issued with redemption dates on them - the government can choose, if it wishes, to replace them by issuing new gilts. It can also instruct the Bank of England to buy up these gilts or, effectively, print the money to pay off the debt. This doesn't lead to galloping inflation Weimar Germany or Zimbabwe style because, presently, the world economy is in a deflationary spiral. Furthermore, in recent years low interest rates and uncertainty in the wake of the 2008-9 economic crisis has meant reduced, low risk investment opportunities - the bonds markets being practically the only safe port in the storm. If there was a time to borrow, it was in the aftermath of that crisis.

Things now have changed. The Coronavirus crisis is unique from capital's standpoint because economic activity has never come to such a sudden stop. It's unique because rather than being a matter of underconsumption or overproduction, it's a direct biological threat to labour. It's not so much that consumers aren't consuming, it's that workers are not producing. To all intents and purposes British capitalism in the Covid-19 interval is ephemeral to a core infrastructure funded and run by the state. However, because this is a biopolitical crisis in which surplus value generation is largely suspended, capital is either being hoarded or has fled to the safest of safe ports: US bonds. In other words, because the bond markets aren't even functioning in a truncated condition there is only one avenue left for funding: the Bank of England. It is now financing the Treasury directly, which means unlimited funds are available for the NHS, to extend the furloughing scheme, to even experiment with radical social security policies - if the political will is there. And what is more, this debt can literally be placed on the never never. The state can determine the length of repayment, the interest rate payable, or even direct the Bank to write it off. In other words, once Coronavirus has passed through there is no debt crisis on the other side.

This begs the question why the likes of Osborne and no doubt a few Tories are looking forward to a repeat of the lost decade. Some are genuinely economically illiterate and cannot compute the system they defend. This isn't surprising: an ideological commitment to capitalism is hardly likely to produce clear sighted depictions of it. For others a spell of austerity allows for an indulging of one's ideological hobby horses or the creation of new markets. During the Coalition government we saw all kinds of these experiments, not least what they did to the NHS. More austerity means more creative ways in which public spending can end up in private pockets. However, the most compelling reason has nothing to do with economic growth figures. It's our old friend biopolitics, of disciplining the work force.

Consider the problem for the Tories. After a decade of saying money cannot be magicked out of thin air, all the state bail outs are indeed so conjured. Money can't be found to house the homeless, give nurses a decent pay rise, fund local government properly etcetera and so on, but all of a sudden the money is there. If it can be found in an emergency, then why do public services have to go without the rest of the time. Austerity then, in the context of the class relations of capital, is a strategy for dampening expectations. Talk up the debt, talk up the sacrifices we have to make to pay it off, peddle more homilies about how we're all in it together, and the economy of artificial scarcity that characterises capitalism is much easier to swallow. And if government is tightening its belt, so must workers too. In fact, following the crisis anyone who has a job ought to feel grateful they're still drawing a wage - millions aren't. And if we go from recent memory, it largely worked for the first five years of the last decade. Who's to say it wouldn't work again?

Therefore, you can see why the case for austerity is compelling from a Tory point of view. Get it accepted as the political common sense, position yourselves as the most competent administers of the programme, protect the elderly base, and the next election is yours. But how probable will the Tories go down this route? I think a full-throated programme on the Dave/Osborne model isn't on the cards. For one, the crisis has demonstrated how public services are not an optional extra and everyone knows it was exacerbated by a decade of purposeful underfunding and incompetence - even if the polls don't reflect that, yet. Second, the crisis stands a good chance of accelerating certain tendencies in global capitalism. The immaterial labour this blog has the tendency to bore on about has shown itself to be entirely essential - above all care and service work. Its enhanced status makes it difficult for the Tories to attack directly, even if, as a cohort of voters, they are not what you'd describe as comprising a core constituency of Conservative support. As it's Lenin's birthday, it's worth bearing in mind one of his key insights, that politics is concentrated economics. This shift toward care and service in the economy will manifest sooner or later in mainstream politics - Corbynism in England and Wales, and the SNP surge in Scotland are its initial radical outriders, and in the future? A new empathic politics in the Jacinder Ardern mode?

In other words, the political preconditions for an austerity retread aren't there and cut against the grain. It doesn't mean this is impossible, but it's down to our efforts to ensure the environment remains hostile to retrenchment. Hence why it's crucial to maintain the left's profile in Labour so the party doesn't backslide to a Milibandish compromise with austerity or a capitulation to Tory arguments. If we can do this, we can shatter the Tory dream and spare our people another nightmare.

Keir Starmer at Prime Minister's Questions

It's an unspoken tradition round these parts to cover the first PMQs of a new opposition leader, and I see no reason to stop. Not that I'm a fan of parliamentary cretinism, but more so because the weekly Q&A matters. Yes, it's frequently farcical. Yes, the Prime Minister of the day rarely answers (as true under Labour as the Tories), but of all the interminable debates in the Commons it's this session that gets snipped and repeated on the evening news. The punters get to see it. PMQs is also important for activist and members' morale, and piques the attention of the more politically engaged.

How then did Keir Starmer manage at his first session? Given the physical distancing practised in the Commons, only 50 MPs were allowed to turn up while others dialled in to ask questions. This afforded the occasion a sombre atmos which suited the super serious, softly-softly "responsible" oppositional course he's trying to steer. And up against Dominic Raab, standing in for a Prime Minister who, for once, has a proper excuse for not attending, Keir put in an assured, confident performance.

He opened by asking Raab about the capacity for testing, who responded by saying we advanced to the point of being able to administer 40,000/day. Immediately he jumped in with "then why was only 18,000 taken yesterday?" Ouch. Raab fumbled and mumbled some answer about demand, which he said was not there. An opening for Keir to talk about the issues concerning roll out for medical and care workers, and having often to travel long distances to avail themselves of them. He then asked about the death rates of NHS and care home staff. Raab supplied a figure much lower than those bandied around the press for NHS staff, and had no numbers for care workers. Keir replied he was putting him on notice about asking the same question next week (Matt Hancock supplied the answer in his subsequent statement - 15). Lastly, Keir asked about PPE supply and all Raab could do was wibble about a billion pieces of kit. Superficially impressive, but opportunities were missed for acquiring more when the seriousness of the pandemic was obvious.

As you might imagine, centrist Twitter are wetting themselves with excitement. Keir's performance was competent and if matching numbers to promises is 'forensic', it was that too. Though, given Keir's commitment to not rocking the boat too much, the jugular wasn't so missed as not gone for. Nothing about previous failures and complacency. That said, I think Keir and his support will be pleased with that, as the present conjuncture in the Commons allows for measured but detailed critique. The question however is will Keir be able to ramp up to the semi-theatrical when politics approaches normality again?

Monday 20 April 2020

Should Billionaires Get Bail Outs?

Should we bail out billionaires? Obviously not. But should billionaire-owned businesses qualify for help? This is an issue raised by your friend and mine, Richard Branson and his long blog ostensibly written to Virgin employees, but very much a publicity counteroffensive rebutting the charges laid at his Caribbean door. I mean, to have effectively laid off your staff and then going cap in hand to the government with a four billion pound fortune to your name was sure to raise an eyebrow or two.

I didn't know this, but thanks to his letter to staff I've learned how Virgin is a philanthropic concern whose activities are entirely benign. All profits made by Virgin Care, for instance, are reinvested back into the NHS - or to be more precise, the services the company provides. According to the big cheese himself he's vowed never to draw a dividend from the business. And so the time Virgin sued the NHS in Surrey over its tendering process, the settlement went back into services and not anyone's pockets. Also, contrary to popular belief didn't you know Branson isn't actually a tax exile? Necker Island, his private tropical paradise/resort (yours from $5,000/night for a minimum three day stay) is his place of residence because, well, he likes it there. Fair enough, but domicile status and tax jurisdictions don't care about your affections. A 14-year tax-free holiday from the UK while gorging on the profits produced here, benefiting from the country's infrastructure and enjoying influence with top politicians - perhaps keeping mum on taxes missed might have proven better for brand Branson. Then we have the issue at stake: the position of Virgin Atlantic.

As I'm sure readers know, the company attracted negative publicity for foisting eight weeks unpaid leave onto its staff, which was accepted by the unions. This was prior to the announcement of the furlough scheme, so it is peculiar how Virgin is pressing ahead with it. Perhaps VA isn't as philanthropic as advertised. And also we learn Branson has stumped up £200m of his own readies to keep things afloat. His detractors point out this is only a small faction of his paper wealth, but his hoard won't be sat appreciating in the bank (or sitting idly in a discreet account in the Caymans). A lot will be tied up in property and assets, investments, financial products with fixed maturation dates, and so on. We don't know if Branson can get his hands on more money at a drop of a hat and, indeed, not just opening the books but laying bare his portfolio should feature in union plans for company rescue. Secondly, Branson says he's not seeking a bail out for the airline but a commercial loan from the government, for which he's willing to stump up his island as collateral.

It goes without saying Branson isn't a firm favourite around these parts for his union-busting antics, those stories, and having parasited off the wealth generated by others for 50 years. But here we have to separate the socially useless - the coupon clipping, profit snorting role Branson plays in his businesses - from the useful: the jobs and infrastructure those businesses support. Apparently, one of the reasons why the government have so far turned down Branson's plea for a loan is because they're not satisfied all avenues of fundraising have been explored. Margaret Hodge put the position more bluntly: sell your island. Yes, though when we're talking about bail outs we should act as if the government has a limited pot of money. As announced a couple of weeks ago, the Bank of England is printing money to fund government spending. The debt this creates not only benefits from ultra low rates of interests, but also doesn't really ever have to be paid back - the government can determine the length of repayment and have it written off. Therefore helping out whatever company doesn't cost the taxpayer a penny, and is also why post-Coronavirus public sector cuts are completely unnecessary from a balance sheet perspective.

Nevertheless, because the British state can create money and billionaires can't, as lender of last resort the state has leverage over them. Therefore businesses owned by non-domiciled tax dodgers shouldn't be ruled out of bounds when it comes to support, as per Denmark's tough policy, but this should come with strings attached. Naturally, as the Tory priority is saving capital the conditions so far seen are pathetic, like having furloughing businesses promising to keep jobs open for their staff when normal times return or, as in Virgin's case, making sure all available resources are mustered for their preservation. They will be under pressure not to simply hand cash over when it's asked for, and so have to make a show of conditionality. This is where the opposition might make itself felt when it's not mumbling "now is not the time." Among the strings Labour should call for are significant wage rises to compensate for the present unpaid period, if not outright nationalisation a controlling stake in the business, a suspension of dividend payments, contributions to a climate fund and/or clean air alternatives to aviation fuel, full trade union rights, workers reps on the board and scrutiny of decision-making, and the locking in of bailed out firms to a planned transport strategy - all entirely within the ambit of the platform Keir Starmer stood on during the leadership election. Branson can then bugger off and devote himself entirely to the philanthropic conscience his ilk cultivate after acquiring more cash than they can ever spend.

Bail outs for billionaires then? No. But bail outs for their businesses? Certainly. Not just to get us through this system shaking crisis, but to lay the foundations for the better world to come.

Sunday 19 April 2020

Friday 17 April 2020

Rastan for the Sega Master System

Rastan was a beguiling game when I was a nipper, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps I'd bumped into in the arcade at the American Adventure and liked the cut of its hacking and slashing jib, or just fancied trying out life as a barbarian in a loincloth. Whatever the case I snatched it for my jolly old Spectrum as soon as I could and, well, it was a bit pants. Fast forward in time to supposed adulthood I fancied something uncomplicated and fun to pad out the old Master System collection, and happened across Rastan going for cheap. Remembering it got decent reviews at the time I knew there would still be some distance between it and its arcade parent, but it had to improve on the Speccy iteration. Right?

Well yes, of course it bloody does. Rastan was a Taito coin-op released in 1987. Heavily "inspired" by Conan the Barbarian, you are cast as the titular hero (or anti-hero, as it turns out) on a quest to slay a dragon and steal its fortune. Quite what our friend of Smaug has done to you in unclear, but it serves as an excuse to make your way through several overworld and underground levels of light platforming, and slicing and dicing of enemy lizard men, chimeras, harpies, and other undesirables and imponderables. Along the way time-limited power ups are available that lessen damage taken from enemies, as well as some nice weapons too. Your sword can be traded up for a mace, a battleaxe, a fireball-shooting chopper, and various potions are dotted about to restore bits of your health or, gasp, take it away. In addition to baddies there are pits to leap over, lava and water to dodge, and traps to avoid. And can you tell what lies at the end of every level? Why, a scrap with a boss of some description.

The Master System version for its part does a good job of mimicking the arcade. Its layout differs from the coin-op, presumably to press the value-for-money button, but the core gameplay is exactly the same. Graphically its fine and puts its 8-bit competition on the home micros to shame. Sound-wise, the Master System wasn't blessed with the beefiest of chips but Taito's programmers did an excellent job of turning out atmospheric tunes, which was no mean feat. But the specificity of games lie in their gaminess. Does Rastan play well? Here's where what passed muster in yesteryear wouldn't necessarily do so today. That's one way of saying there are some issues.

Issue number one is the stiffness of it all. Making a jump, which is a necessary part of the game, is like working against the grain of some invisible substance. As such, accurate leaping is unnecessarily tricky. This can become a real bind when you get stuck in a small lava/water pit between pillars of rock. You see, wee Rastan is blessed with two sorts of jumps - one a short hop which is pretty useless, and a biggie activated by pressing the jump button and the D-pad up. Here, when you try leaping out of your doom you tend to sail straight over the platform to land down another pit. Not great. Also the momentum to jumping is very limited - it's like you get to a certain point in your leaping arc ... and then you plummet like a stone. Thankfully, being a muscle-bound hard arse there's no damage from big drops - unlike some video game characters.

The second is a bane of many an 8-bit game: collision detection. Offing your foes requires they be at the right length from you to fall (or rather explode) at the bite of your blade. Too close and, well, you can't kill 'em. This is particularly annoying later on in the game when you attract the ministrations of giant hornets. It can literally be hovering above Rastan's bonce and you can be thrusting your sword up at it as you please, but our insectile nemesis refuses to die. This gets ridiculous when you get to the boss fights. The enemies have fairly simple and straightforward attack patterns, but just try developing a pattern of your own to get them gone. Half the time it's a matter of luck whether your sword hits them. This is with the exception of the final boss who is fairly easy to dispatch once the routine is learned and deployed. If only all the others were the same.

Rastan today is fairly well-remembered, but its home conversions aren't what you'd describe as canonical games. In Master System land there are plenty of slash 'em ups with platform elements, and Rastan is one of the better ones. Nevertheless, its ending does have a nice touch. With the dragon dead and its minions dispersed to the four winds, the local king is effusive with praise and offers you his realm if you take his daughter's hand - who just so happens to love you. Snore. Riffing off Conan again, Rastan declares himself nothing but a thief and slips into the night for further questing. As he didn't take the treasure, it makes you wonder how seriously he takes his thieving, as well as what the point of the game was. Likewise, what's the point of sinking time into this 1988 release some 30-odd years later? From a curiosity point of view, it does demonstrate the Master System could handle decent conversions in the hands of competent programmers, and it holds up very well against competing but similar titles on Nintendo's machine, But culturally, it is a desert. Absent are innovations that have left a trace in the game mechanics meta, apart from - for a while - being the only decent hack 'n' slash platforming experience in the arcades. Very soon after the release, shooting things became the standard for action platformers and swords migrated over to beat 'em ups - above all Sega's Golden Axe, with its own Rastan/Conan inspired player character. And later to one-on-one fighters.

All this said, Rastan wasn't bad for the standards of its day. Gamers unused to old stuff would find it hard going, but for the wrinklies it will reactivate the gaming habitus of old and perhaps see their like treat it with a little more patience. If you have something for retro curios, you'll do much better with the Master System than any other home version of the game.

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Thursday 16 April 2020

The Basic Income as an Attack on Workers

When the government acted, after much prompting, to follow other European countries and effectively underwrite businesses and wages, it did so to make sure the relations of production were preserved. Capitalist states are going to protect capitalism, after all. While the basic income idea is once again abroad and has moved into the mainstream, Rishi Sunak's three mini-budgets following the main event maintained workers' dependence on their employers for income, and if their job had gone down the tubes the pathetic and punitive social security system was left to take up the slack. So keeping the wage relation alive was prioritised over keeping actual people alive. And yet, despite the jump in unemployment figures the government's furlough scheme has got some establishment notables hot under the collar.

You will recall that the Tories' employers' subsidy sees the government pony up 80% of wages to a maximum of £2,500/month. While there are all sorts of holes in this scheme, effectively workers who are furloughed are on paid leave. Whether the employer decides to shell out the remaining 20% is up to them (for info, the public sector and others in receipt of public funds, like universities, are expected to keep staff on full salary if they apply for the scheme). This, apparently is terrible. At least according to Robert Peston's latest. However, instead of dialling it in he makes a number of interesting points.

Before the government scheme was announced, all sorts of businesses of Peston's acquaintance were wracking their brains about innovating their way through the lockdown. But cometh the Sunak, cometh the slack. He suggests many simply gave up because their incomes were guaranteed, which is bad for economic performance and entrepreneurship, right? Well, it all depends. For example, one of the local businesses here in Stoke "innovated" by sacking their 40 staff and operating as a take away - securing the positions of the co-owners but consigning everyone else to the mercies of the DWP. An extreme example perhaps, but innovation can equally be the author of job losses - just ask the history of manufacturing.

Interestingly though Peston's alternative is ... a temporary basic income. In all fairness, this has much to recommend it. Assuming it is a reasonable level (Stephen Bush pegs this at £960/month), it would be a vast improvement on the meagre amounts comprising the dole and those workers who don't qualify for any support at all, like working students. But this isn't the reason Peston supports it: a basic income is a better preservative of capitalist relations than the furloughing scheme because, counter intuitively, it does not remove the incentive for work. Whereas there are good, progressive arguments for such an initiative (and, nine times out of ten, I'm in favour of a generous basic income), in Peston's hands it is entirely backward. His recommendation is an invitation for employers to throw many more millions out of work. He has the gall to talk about the atrophying of businesses and the collapse of tax revenue under the present scheme, but what does he expect would happen to income tax receipts if furloughing ends and a £960/month (or less, knowing the Tories) is enacted. Yes, work incentives are preserved alright by a massive crash in living standards.

This poses some tough questions for the left when the three month furloughing period expires. Agitating for a basic income in these circumstances will make things much better for workers forced to subsist on social security, but because the labour movement is weak and the state, for the moment, is the employer of last resort, using it to replace the furlough scheme is a means of divesting employers of their responsibilities and foisting hardship onto millions of workers. It's a recipe for playing off one section of workers against another, which probably helps explain why Peston was instinctively attracted to it. Nevertheless, a tricky situation has its opportunities too. Uprating social security to the sums discussed here and the abolition of conditionality are worthy aims the labour movement should support, but likewise unions should be agitating for the retention of the furlough scheme under present circumstances as well, up to and including extending the state guarantee of wages to 100%. This is so employers can't cry costs while taking advantage of the crisis to lay off staff, change terms and conditions in the fallow period, or surreptitiously victimise awkward trade unionists and others whose faces don't fit.

The Coronavirus crisis is of no one's making, but a decade of cuts to public services and the looting of the infrastructure, wedded to incompetent government has meant, disproportionately, our class are paying a terrible price in lives lost and livelihoods ruined. Peston's advice is about opposing the basic income to furloughing to heighten competition among employees and weaken our hand, our response on the contrary should be how the two schemes can fit together to build the collective strength of workers. Our people have already paid more than our fair share of the Covid-19 costs. No more.

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Wednesday 15 April 2020

Could Labour Have Won the 2017 Election?

You've seen that report. You've read the coverage and the fall out. And seen what Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner are going to do about it, and probably have strong opinions about that too. Clearly, obviously, having a party within a party or, as David Osland put it, an HQ within an HQ made for poisonous relationships, a toxic atmos, and studied purposeful incompetence. But all that taken into consideration, what consequences did scabby activity have on Labour's electoral performance in 2017? Were it not for their efforts aiding everyone but the party they worked for, could Labour have won? Might the result have been closer than it already was?

Despite his anti-Corbyn axe-grinding, Nick Tyrone's dissection of one of the left's persistent political myths deserves a view - not least because myths are no good for understanding the world and sober assessments of our actions. He argues the idea Labour were two thousand-odd votes from forming a government (which has, over the last couple of years morphed into two thousand votes from victory) is absurd. And it is. Distributed across Tory/Labour marginals that stayed with the blue party, if they all had fallen to Labour we'd still have fewer seats than our opponents. Would that then have made an anti-Tory coalition likely? Not in the slightest, says Nick. He suggests Corbyn would have been hostage to the PLP, and there's no reason to believe the SNP and LibDems would have gone along with it. Indeed, it's certain the yellow party would not have given up their identification of anti-Corbyn campaigning as their route back to the big time (that worked out well). Therefore whatever the shenanigans at HQ, whether money diverted and wasted on super safe seats would have ended up in key marginals the effect was likely to have been slight. While our disgraced officer corps did and didn't do things, and almost certainly cost the party a few seats here and there, they aren't responsible for a defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Because it was never on the cards.

This is true enough, but you have to take wider party divisions into account to address this question credibly. The big fallings out in the party, like the failed coup against Corbyn certainly didn't help, but it was the incessant drip, drip of undermining, secret briefing, amplified anti-semitism, contrived rows, leaks, referendum manoeuvring and all the rest thanks to the parliamentary party, their media helpers and useful idiots in the ranks who did the real damage. And the evidence is quite clear about this. The consensus among the pol profs is divided parties tend not to win elections, and the data from the US and the UK stacks up. You can add 2019 to that list, certainly. Consider: the Tories were haplessly divided prior to the election, but Boris Johnson demonstrated serious intent to Brexit voters how he was prepared to do anything, including trashing his own party, to get it done. As a result the Tories went into the election united. Labour, on the other hand, did not. And from the punters' point of view, if you can't hold together your own party how are you competent enough to run the country?

Did this apply in 2017? Yes, but not to the same degree. Corbyn was an issue on the doors then and, yes, we'd hear quoted back at us not just the lines from the press but also the angles of attack helpfully provided by supposed Labour comrades in the two years previous. However, because Brexit was neutralised as an issue in places that later turned against Labour a lot of Labour voters gave the party the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, the divisive work done helped sap party support in Mansfield, Middlesbrough, Stoke (South), and Walsall (North) by accelerating the long accumulating tendencies that exploded across previously safe seats in 2019. Additionally, the party attracted many new voters who are now, to all intents and purposes, the new party base.

In this context, while internal shenanigans didn't put off new Labour voters in 2017 it certainly helped demobilise older, more traditional sections of our voter coalition: division doesn't alienate all voters equally. Modest losses in seat terms in 2017 nevertheless saw majorities decline elsewhere, setting the party up for its big fall. While this cannot be directly attributed to scabbing at headquarters, they were part of the problem. They enabled the drip drip damage, they provided assistance to core group hostile MPs, they ensured the leaks took place and party machinery clogged up at factionally opportune times. They share responsibility with Tom Watson, Ian Austin, John Mann, and all the other scabs for dragging the party through the mud and damaging its electoral chances. Nevertheless, even when the crimson mist descends one should remain clear sighted. They cost the party seats but not a chance at government, and their collective behaviour definitely ensured our 2019 defeat was worse than it might have been. Yet in our unlikely 2017 counterfactual of their uniting behind Jeremy Corbyn, the media would have run with the same attacks eventually because the stuff used against Corbyn was out there, ready to be spun. It's also worth noting as well that if it wasn't for the appalling polling 18 months of division had bequeathed us that fateful April three years ago Theresa May would never had called an election in the first place.

Hindsight and probabilities are all we have to consider opportunities missed and chances thwarted, but one thing's for sure. Whether you think we could have won in 2017 or not, the exposure of the rotten heart of the professional party has shown how unaccountable and powerful the central apparat are and why the project of democratising Labour remains as relevant now as it ever was.

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